Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I know there's a balance, I see it when I swing past

It's funny, because I picked out this entry's title and then peeked at my first 2009 entry to ground myself in where I was a year or so ago before I attempted to write this entry. And lo and behold...
"The key word for 2009, I think, will be "balance." I will continue to hold a good balance between time for family and time for writing and time for just me. In my writing, I will continue to seek that elusive balance between doing the smart things I need to do to pursue a career, and doing what I want to do because I love it."
Overall, I think I mostly succeeded at that goal of balance. Oh, I had my off days (weeks, months...), but looking back, I feel mostly good about the last 12 months. Some highlights:

Zero stories sold. BUT. I started three new short stories (two of which were flash pieces), three novels, and a novella. I finished one of each, got a nibble and subsequent rejection on the novel, and got the short and the novella out into submission-land. The novel has been trunked because it was written specifically for a single market, but I learned a LOT from its writing, so I call it a success nonetheless. And I still have the three stories I finished in 2008 out there, too, although I have one back in my court and a second that probably is even though I never got a formal rejection from its most recent submission. Possibly I should take a few days at the start of 2010 and re-evaluate both of those.

I also pitched and landed a gig teaching a fiction writing elective at the boys' middle school. And then spent a part-time job's worth of hours putting together lesson plans in addition to the 45 minutes a week actually teaching the class. My students all seem to really enjoy the class, we've had some great discussions, and most of them have turned in some reasonably workable bits of writing. Sometime in the next couple of months, I suppose I should give some attention to determining if I'll offer to teach the course next year, as well as whether I might offer some classes outside school hours. I need to do some thinking about the time I'd need to put in vs. the time I'll have available, since Joe starts high school next year (!) and our schedule will be changing to accommodate treks to two different schools each day.

In the non-writing, work-related arena, I have spent the first semester of this school year putting in 24 hours/week with the school's extended care program, primarily working with the kindergarten-age students. It has been a mixture of joy and agony that only children can provoke. I have one more week with them in January, then they go full-day kindergarten and I go to a 2 day per week schedule working with the preschoolers instead. I will miss my kindergarten kids. And I cannot wait to be done working with them every day. Given the previously mentioned schedule change next year and the low rate of pay associated with the job, I think it's fair to say I will not be working there on a regular basis next school year. But honestly? I think I've held my ground far better than I feared I might--I may have mentioned a time or two that I do not thrive in people-intensive situations, and working at the school has most definitely been people-intensive.

This been a growing year for me. (For my boys, too, but I will save that for another entry, I think.)

I can't put numbers to this claim; there's no word count or chart of stories started or completed or timecard of hours worked to support this claim. There were short stories jotted down in first draft form and never looked at again. There were novels half-started and then put away to make way for other projects. There were months of spinning my wheels on figuring out what to do with a novel I thought I had a first draft of but came to realize that I hadn't really even begun. There were weeks I blew on leisure activities that had nothing whatsoever to do with writing. (OK, yes. Gaming. I said it.)

But I honestly, sincerely feel like I have a better grip on what I'm doing than I did 12 months ago. I came across the phrase "exploratory draft" in a fellow writer's forum signature today that shines a crystal clear light on what that first draft of Crowmaker really was. I finished my first play-through of Dragon Age: Origins and had a series of mini-epiphanies about plot structure and character motivation, seen from a fresh angle. I did some experimental, "not-for-real" writing just for me that helped me break through walls and bring a new confidence to my "real" writing. I got a rejection letter that informed me in one fell swoop that my writing style was beautiful, but the story itself just moved too slowly, which chimed a note of recognition somewhere deep inside me and brought to my conscious mind what my subconscious had evidently been trying to tell me for some time--that all my effort on style was great and starting to pay off, but now I need to pay more mind to story structure. And a hundred, thousand other tiny moments of learning that I may have missed if I haven't spent the last couple of years struggling to listen to my instincts.

Looking forward to 2010, then:

I will not fool myself. There will be rough patches. There always are. But there will be periods of energy and productivity, too. There always are. I will continue to try finding my personal work rhythm and developing my writing process. I will continue to look and listen for the tiny moments of learning and attempt to apply them to my writing. I will cross my fingers on the stories currently out in the submission void, I will (possibly) work on getting out there again if/when they come back, and I will charge ahead with the novel that is beginning to feel like the great but challenging love of my life. Last year at this time, I was afraid of Crowmaker; it feels much more doable now, although still frightening. We'll see where it goes in 2010, I suppose.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

We are all pursuing magic

What we did this afternoon:

First, the flashy little promo.

Then, a better idea of how the show actually felt.

This was Joey's suggestion. The kid does a pretty good job of picking out entertainment.

Fond holiday wishes to all of you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Every single day what you say makes no sense to me

Because I have several pages of handwritten notes which need to be compiled and organized into my novel outline, I will now present my version of the 2009 monthly first blog lines meme. Except I think I will also include the titles of the entries.

Gravity and momentum
A brief review of 2008, wherein I look back to see how far I've come in order to inspire myself to continue plodding forward: The boys finished their first year of "regular" school, after having been homeschooled for three years.

Little pieces of the nothing that fall
Last Friday was the middle school's annual "Punk 'n' Rock," which is a lip sync show in which the 7th and 8th graders get to dress up in goofy costumes and ham it up as they present a little skit based on the song.

Head on without a care
The first part of last week was great. I accomplished a great deal of plot-untangling for Crowmaker and managed to work out all the big kinks leading up to the ending.*

No news is good news
We are spring breaking this week.

With a little perseverance you can get things done
"With an estimated turnaround time of 3 months on queries to Steeple Hill, I should have plenty of time to finish the rewrite this week and then let the ms cool a week or two before a final polishing read-through."

I met my word count goal for last week, although I had to work on Saturday.

So a day when you've lost yourself completely
There's a meme going around wherein working writers list the first lines of all the projects on their in-progress list. Because I have at least a half dozen other things I should be doing instead, I figured I'd play along.**

Until then I'll have to find a way
Just in time to join forces with the emotional downswing mentioned in my previous blog entry, I received a rejection letter from Steeple Hill on my submission there.

Just to laugh and say hello and say goodbye
I have not been keeping my blog religiously the last few days.

She's a butterfly
It's been over a month since my last blog entry.***

The first and last breath don't matter, it's all the ones that are in between
The job is still the job.

Take whatever you can, girl
Thanksgiving was both a bust and a blessing.

*I have to laugh, since I am currently in the middle of untangling the BEGINNING of that same damn story.

**Hmm. Sound kinda familiar?

***Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been over a month since my last... Oh wait.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Here's another round for you

Not a lot of tangible productivity has happened on the writing front this week, in part because of the whole last-week-before-Christmas-break flurry of school-related activities, in part because I've had a head cold that, while not debilitating, has still managed to affect my energy level and ability to think clearly. And maybe because I'd reached a point where I needed to just let the current story stew a little. I have certainly been thinking about it a lot. And done some light research-variety reading for it. So I think once I've shaken the head cold and gotten through the day tomorrow, I may be able to get my feet under me and move forward again.

Youtube link for the title of the day.

For any fellow Foos geeks hanging around out there: Apparently they did a concert from their studio back in October, via Facebook. It's nearly three hours long. It is pretty awesome.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Drownin' my sorrows, avoiding tomorrows

The fake science is falling into place, finally, as are some final pieces of behind-the-scenes choreography and logistics for the story. I am now at a place where I have (most of) the information about the events that happen, both during the story and in the years leading up to it. I just need to figure out how best to let the story unfold for the reader.

The thing that I think has thrown me all along on this story is that it is actually two stories--one that took place several years before, and the one taking place in the current time of the story. For a while, I even considered trying to tell them as two separate stories. But I found that when I tried to extricate them from each other, the two individual stories felt... thinner. Less substantial. They lean on each other, and each makes the other more meaningful when they are revealed together. Which is not a new story structure, obviously. Other writers have done it. I've even done it. Just, you know, not with this particular story.

My approach to figuring out how to structure the story has been to spend this morning mostly on cat vacuuming activities. I know it flies in the face of the BIC philosophy of writing, but I have this feeling of impending revelation building in my head. (Which is like a cross between that ready-to-pop feeling you get shortly before the baby is due--except in the head--and the headache you get after too many days of sleep deprivation in a row.) And I have been thinking about the story while I fiddle with other distractions. I'm even thinking about it right now, at the just-below-the-conscious level of my brain. I can almost hear the characters' voices as they chat; I just can't quite make out the words. So yeah. Going with the gut instinct on this one, I think, and giving the muse a day or so to give me her insight before I get out my colored paper and markers and try to lure her out of hiding.

All things considered, it's been a fairly productive week on the creative front. The number of kids in the kindergarten crew has been near 20 every day this week, since they've had practice for their Christmas program every afternoon. Add to that the inability to take them outside at all and the shortage of rooms within the school which a) have room for all of them and b) are available at the times we need them, and uh... Yeah. One week to Christmas break!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's the moment of truth and the moment to lie

All through school, science was my biggest challenge. Language arts? Rock. Math? Accounting? Bring on the puzzles and rules and let me at it. History? Hey, look. I get to read stories! But science, for reasons I have never fathomed, would just never stick. I could memorize facts long enough to get through tests and classes, but nothing ever really made sense to me in the same way that other information did. (OK. Probably I'm this way with math, too. I was just able to memorize the rules enough that I can fake a good understanding of it. I think.) I have vivid memories of my college buddy Dan helping me get through college biology by making up stories about cells and school buses and other bizarre and amusing things. (He also cut up the pig and let me just take the notes. And drove me home through a near-blizzard one weekend. And uh, there may have been some nerf gun fights at some point, too. He was a pretty cool friend.)

Anyhow. Here I am in the middle of re-outlining and doing additional research and fleshing out of "facts" for my historical fantasy fictional world. And suddenly I am up to my eyeballs in science. And not just science, but fake science that I somehow need to make believable. So if you are reading this, and you are a science-minded person, and I know about it... Be ready. The "what if" emails will be coming soon.

In other news, it looks like a rather blustery day. (Youtube alert!)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Reachin' out with both hands

I'm back, I think. I've been using my scheduled blocks of writing time mostly for writing. I have refused to beat myself up if I miss time because of doctor appointments or other assorted household duties. That's the whole "flexible" part of a flexible schedule, after all. At the same time, I am managing to not give in to my more manic urges to spend every single free second on my current project. (Yes. THAT one. I refuse to say it out loud for fear of jinxing myself.) So I am working, but trying to not burn out. I'm sure at some point I'll suffer at least a minor burnout anyhow, since that's just how I do things. For now, though, I'll take the upswing and run with it.

In the course of putting together a new, longer soundtrack for THAT project, I rediscovered John Mellencamp's early stuff, from back when he was still just John Cougar. He's gone on record a time or two saying he doesn't think very highly of some of those earlier songs, but I still like them.

(Find the playlist here. Warning! Pop-up and possible music at the link!)

This week, my writing students turned in the rough drafts of their stories so I could offer feedback--and to give them a breather and me a chance to offer some individualized encouragement along with comments. (I have lots of opinions about encouragement being as valuable as criticism to the writer, and at some points even more valuable. Heck, it applies to more than just writers. I won't haul out that soapbox today, though.) I decided to let them go through the first draft process with some basic instructions on what should go in the beginning, the middle, and the end, but with no warning labels about common writer hang-ups in each part. The idea was to let them have their own unbiased experience with the process and then compare notes, because they seem to be a bunch that learns more from doing than from just listening.

In class, after collecting first drafts, I passed out cookies to celebrate the milestone and then read them "The Ransom of Red Chief," both as a good short story example and because it's fun. Next class, we'll dive back into the work. In the meantime, I am impressed with the general quality of their first drafts. We're not talking Pulitzer-level work, obviously, but most of them really grasped the basics I tried to teach them, and a couple showed a good grasp of some more advanced topics we haven't even talked about. I'm most impressed, I think, by their willingness to dive in and attempt the work and get their hands dirty as they try things. Good for them. I'm really enjoying the chance to work with them. I'm willing to bet I'm learning a few things along with them, too.

Michael's sinus infection worked itself into bronchitis, for which he has another round of antibiotics and some serious cough medication. The headaches seem to have resolved, though. I'd noticed over the last month or so that he was going through one of his phases where he was really struggling to remember things and get homework done without spending hours staring off into space instead of actually working on homework. My error in handling it was to merely remind him that he needed to focus, which has become my shorthand for "Remember all the tricks I taught you in years past to help in getting school work done? Do that now." He's grown and matured so much over the last couple of years that I'd started thinking he no longer needed extra help from me. I eventually realized I was wrong, and he and I sat down to talk things over. Once I gave him my full attention and acceptance, he gave me honest answers instead of defensive ones to my questions, and we were able to figure out some things we could do together in an attempt to make homework less torturous for him.

We've set up a regular schedule of focus exercises (which we used to do every day but had stopped), we tracked his actual hours spent on different activities for the week so he could objectively see that it just FEELS like homework takes up all his free time, and I help him organize his homework and work space before he gets started. I also tracked how much homework time he spent on actually doing homework and how much he spent being distracted--which gave him a goal, to bring down the amount of distracted time over the week. By today, he was down to zero minutes spent staring into space. Funny, how just giving him that simple goal gives his mind something to fixate on and snaps his attention back into place. The real key, though, was getting me to stop showing irritation with him, which in turn convinced him to be honest instead of defensive and also irritated in return. Once we actually, you know, started talking TO each other, it went so much more smoothly. Lesson to remember for me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Take whatever you can, girl

Thanksgiving was both a bust and a blessing. I spent the weekend home with the stomach flu and the dog, while Steve and the boys headed to Tennessee to spend a couple of days at Steve's brother's house. It was a quieter than normal celebration there, too, because the other brother didn't make it and the sister was also home with stomach flu. (But with three kids instead of a dog. I think I got the better deal.) By Thursday evening, however, I was able to do some writing. Actually, I was given no choice by my muse, who finally shared with me exactly how the Heimdal story ends. It was one of those very exciting moments when you feel like you've been struck by a bulldozer of inspiration.

Friday I went back to work on a short short story I've been working on for an anthology call for submissions. The anthology's theme is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and I had this old rough draft sitting around that seemed well-suited for it, so I've been fiddling with making it a final draft. In the course of rewriting, I switched the story to first person, present tense in the interest of making it more immediate, so I could connect better to the story's protagonist. I hadn't looked at it for the better part of two weeks when I sat down with it Friday. The very first thing I did upon trying to read it was say (to the dog, who likes to help me read), "Ugh!" Which, translated, turned out to mean that the viewpoint and tense of the story were so utterly jarring and artificial-seeming that I couldn't even begin to read it. So I offered up a silent apology to the friend I'd already sent a draft of the story to and then went back to my computer and changed the story back to third person past tense before even attempting any other revisions.

By Friday night, I had a finished draft and cover letter for "On A Black Horse" and eventually managed to convince myself to push the Send button already. I then switched back to working on the Heimdal story and found, upon doing a read-through to make notes for further rewriting and revision, that the story was... Way better than I thought it would be. I found things that needed work, yes, but they were much smaller and lower level changes than the big gaping holes I'd expected to see. It was like watching a bunch of scattered kaleidoscope pieces suddenly fall into a pattern that looked like something real. So I waded in, revised and reread and revised some more, put together the cover letter and did some final polishing and formatting, and managed to convince myself to hit the Send button on Monday evening.

So. Two more stories out into the wild blue. I have no idea how either will fare, so I'm aiming for cautiously hopeful and attempting to move on. The anthology deadline isn't until Dec. 31, so I won't hear back on that story until mid-January, and the Heimdal market has a 3-4 month turnaround time. That's way too long to sit around waiting to hear back, so the plan is to not wait around.

In other news, Joe-Bear got the results from his high school placement tests. (Placement tests as opposed to entrance tests. They're just intended to help determine which classes and level of classes he should register for when registration rolls around.) He scored above average or high on all the categories, in the 99th local percentile (scored better than 99% of the kids who took the test the same day) in the reading category, and in the 96th percentile overall. Along with the scores, he received invitations to enroll in two honors courses his freshman year. He has been talking about high school since last year, and last night when I asked if he was interested in the honors biology class, he knocked me over with "Well, yeah. I'm thinking about chemical or electrical engineering in college." Which isn't as entirely out of the blue as you might think, since he has a cousin in each major, and his father spends a lot of time telling him how lucrative the engineering field is. But it was the first time he'd shown actual interest in it, beyond just rolling his eyes at his dad and muttering something about drums and rock bands and computer programming.

I think I'm mostly just blown away by how much thought he has put into planning for high school and college. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find out he's a planner.