The Really Awful Secret

I have a really awful secret.

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time with my great-grandmother. If I didn’t have theatre rehearsal, or track practice, I’d walk to her house and wait for a ride home (I lived pretty far from town where the high school is located). The ruse was that my grandparents needed help doing various chores around the house. I did the dishes, but mostly I sat and painted my great-grandmothers nails while she told me stories. Most of which were maybe true. Maybe.

Looking back now, I think I got some of that dramatic story telling flare from her. She was quiet and unassuming. Mostly she was a good listener—But if I asked her to talk about her childhood or tell me about some item in their house, she’d weave a good tale.

One of the things I liked about my visits there were that she was always very positive. She had a heart condition and she’d outlived the doctor’s predictions of her lifespan by twenty years or more. She’d always tell me how talented I was. She loved my drawings, she loved my cooking, and she loved how I massaged her hands before I’d paint them. She told me I could be anything I wanted and I believed her.

I wasn’t sure about going to college. I’d heard a lot of conflicting advice. One counselor had lamented it might be a waste of money, that I was the sort of student that would realize too late I didn’t have the capacity to understand the higher level thinking college would demand. I went to my grandma’s house right after that and cried. My grandma said, “Well, that settles it. You have to go,” along with a few other choice words for where the counselor could put his opinion—all very polite, of course. She was a lady after all. Her encouragement along with many others was much needed at that time in my life.

I came home for the summer after my first year and worked at a grocery store. Every day I’d go to my grandma’s for lunch. I’d talked about a program to go to London to study. My grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from England when she was three. She was ecstatic about the idea.

“It’s cold there,” she said. I have no idea how she could have any memories of that time, but she said she did. She remembered someone, a relative, dying on the boat. I wish I’d written that story down.

Then the planning started. Whenever I’d come home to visit she’d update me on family names she remembered. Places she wanted me to see and take pictures to bring back to her. Before I left she was so concerned about the cold she gave me a blanket. It was her mother’s. “This blanket is my great-great-grandmother’s,” I’d think to myself with awe. I stroked its rough wool texture and thought of all the people this blanket had kept warm.

“Just promise me if I give you this that you will use it. It doesn’t belong in a chest collecting dust. Things were meant to be used, not hidden away.”

She was always big on that. Don’t hide things away. Use them. If you have pictures hang them. If candles are on the table, light them. If you have heirlooms, pull them out and show them to people. If you have a dream, chase it.

The fall semester before I left for London was crazy. I called my grandmother usually every so many days to update her on how I was doing. Sometimes I wrote her. She insisted we write, although I hated it, but she said she liked getting letters and I secretly liked getting them too, so to get I had to give. I remember writing to tell her about not coming up for the weekend like I’d planned and about all the exams I had.

She called me to tell me that I’d made the right choice, that she wished me luck on my exams and papers and that she loved me. I wasn’t there to take the call, so I had a nice message on my machine when I got home from work. I guess I should have been suspicious then. Why didn’t she write? We did call each other every so often. I brushed it off.

She died a few days later–two months before I moved to England to study abroad, probably while I was writing a paper, a few days after the weekend I was supposed to be home.

Before I knew she had died, I listened to her message over and over before each exam for luck. After I was told she was gone, I listened to the message over and over for clues. Did she know she was going to die? Did she call from the hospital? Why didn’t my family tell me?

I kept that message for years. When I got a new answering machine, I carefully preserved the machine, wrapped the cord around it and placed it in a closet at my parent’s house. Sometimes when I’d go home, I’d listen to the message.

That is my awful secret. The blanket stayed folded up in my hope chest, but the message got played over and over. People say you forget things about people after they die. I was horrified when I tried to picture her and couldn’t quite remember her features. I relished the fact that I’d cheated death of this one thing. I’d never have to forget the sound of her voice.

My pen name, Gower, is her maiden name. I didn’t bring the blanket to England like she’d hoped I would. I was too afraid it would get lost or ruined. I know she’d understand that, she wouldn’t have been angry—she never expected to die before I left—after all I was supposed to write her of all the places I saw. I was supposed to “go away and have adventures.” And I did.

Then when I came home I unwrapped the cord from the answering machine and would listen to her voice again. I kept doing it so many years later. The blanket that was supposed to be (and promised to be used) stayed safely tucked away.

I feel like I do this sometimes with my stories. I wrap them up and put them away after they’ve been published. I wrote something someone bought and enjoyed enough to pay for. But after they’re not in print anymore I wrap them up like the blanket and place them away in a hope chest. Someday, I’ll pull it out and use it again. Maybe tomorrow.

The answering machine is one of the things burned in my parent’s fire. I know I’ve talked a lot about the things they’ve lost, because they’re not the type to harp on it and try to remain positive. But all those scraps of memories that they’ve kept over the years to remind us of the people we loved–the fire is like having that loss happen all over again. I don’t mind being the sad sap I guess.

I already have forgotten the sound of my grandmother’s voice. When I realized this I tried again, closing my eyes and concentrating on the rasp of her vocal cords, the lilt in her inflections. It wasn’t right. I’ll never get it back, but I do still have the blanket. Safe and tucked away in a hope chest in my son’s room, I dug it out a few weeks ago.

My daughter said she was cold and I wrapped her up in it while we talked. I told her it was her great-great-great grandmother’s blanket.

She sniffed it. “Does it smell like her?”

“No.” I held back a laugh.

“Okay, because it’s dusty. If it smelled like her then she should have taken a bath.” A few minutes later. “Can I take it off? It itches.”

It wasn’t exactly the profound moment I’d imagined.

My daughter then asked me about my stories and if I would read them. I read her a little section of one of my stories. She asked if other people read them. I said I hoped so.

And then it hit me. I’d been wanting to put my backlog of published stories up for free for some time, but I’d been holding on to them, waiting for a “good time to share them.” Also I’ve been hoping to sell them as re-prints, but really that market is pretty competitive and what I want most is for them to be enjoyed. I wrote them so they’d get read. I didn’t ever mean for them to sit on my computer after the rights reverted back to me. I didn’t ever mean for them to be folded up like that blanket in the hope chest. Things should always be in use. Even stories.

One day I hope to package several stories up into a self-published package and offer them for cheap. For now I’m going to put them on Wattpad one by one. Starting with a recent story that was originally published in Galaxy’s Edge May 2014 issue. “Pocket Full of Mumbles” is about a woman who captures unheard phrases and last words and weaves them into blankets. I thought it was a good one to start with.

The secret to getting better covers is to do really terrible mock ups and show them proudly to your computer savvy husband, who then takes pity on you and throws together a better cover than you could ever do in Powerpoint. My version had lots of filters, and every font trick (bevel, glow, drop shadow). It was pretty much the jazz hands of all covers.

The secret to getting better covers is to do really terrible mock ups and show them proudly to your computer savvy husband, who then takes pity on you and throws together a better cover than you could ever do in Powerpoint. My version had lots of filters, and every font trick (bevel, glow, drop shadow). It was pretty much the jazz hands of all covers.

Link to read Pocket Full of Mumbles on Wattpad

Enjoy.

I love comments! Everyone who leaves a comment will help someone reclaim something that has been hidden away.

The (Not) Natural

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My brother excels at many things. He’s  not just good, but great at almost anything he tries. Skills seemed to come to him in a flash.  He wanted to learn about computers in the 80’s so he pulled one apart and rebuilt it.  He could do the Rubik’s cube in less than three minutes.  He picked up a guitar. Within a few weeks, he had a band and was composing music.

Composing. Music.

He learned to drive and never had a major accident of any kind. In school, he never studied that I recall. I don’t think he ever brought home a school book after he hit high school, yet still managed very good grades.

There are many words attached to someone like this: genius, talented, wunderkind, but I categorize him as a natural.

I am not.

I read and re-read the instructional book that came with my DOS operated computer until I finally figured out how to make a simple program.  I never mastered the Rubik cube.  I spent the entirety of junior high learning to play flute by practicing every day and finally in high school took lessons. By my senior year, I was first chair. I was a horrible driver, until I had driven for years. And although I was third in my high school class and got a full ride scholarship, I spent most of my teen years buried in a math or history book, repeating by rote, doing worksheets, taking notes, highlighting, studying.

Writing is the same. The desire to put pen to paper comes with a small dollop of talent but it’s not easy. I am not a natural.

I watch other writing naturals and hear their stories. I got a Kindle in 2011 and decided I wanted to write a book. Three months later it was a ‘boom’ bestseller. I quit my day job.

The tales make my insides turn to molten lava and my head explode.  I’ve been writing for enjoyment my entire life.  I am a horrible speller, not great a grammar, and struggle with a myriad of other writing devices.  I take classes, go to seminars, read books, dedicate half of my time to writing and editing new material every damn day and after more than ten years on a publication path I still am trudging forward. No request. No agent. No publishing deal.

But all those years of watching my brother and fighting my not-naturalness has taught me something.

If I work hard enough. If I am dedicated enough.  If I endure for long enough.  I will succeed.  Natural or not.

Disclaimer: My brother may dispute the above. It is only my observation of the past and it is subjective.

SuperStars Writing Seminars: A Week of Unlearning

I didn’t figure out I was at SuperStars–not to learn, but to unlearn–until the morning of the second day. Sawing through an English muffin that I expected to have the consistency of a pumice stone, and eyeing the leathery ham under my eggs—I did not expect my eggs Benedict to meet the expectations James A. Owen had stoked. There were also potatoes that looked like usual hotel potatoes. I expected them to be as exciting as stale French fries—because that’s usually how hotel potatoes taste—like potatoes that could have been average, except they’ve sat under a heat lamp all morning and now they’ve become a thing to avoid, or face the wrath of reeking potato breath.

But I wanted to like it. For the first time someone had set me up to want to like something I was pretty sure I wouldn’t. See, James told us the story about the best eggs Benedict he’d ever eaten. How the waiter had sold him the meal by telling him it was the house specialty. How the chef baked a batch of English muffins every fifteen minutes, just so the bread would be fresh. How he raised the chickens and gathered the eggs just that morning. How the chef named the pig. How the chef used a family recipe that had been passed down for generations…yada, yada, yada. Passed down recipes? He had me. I’m in.

I tried the potatoes first. They were not stale, in fact, they were delicious—and I’m picky about potatoes. I ate two more and eyed the eggs Benedict, still unsure.

Eventually I hacked at the muffin again once the sauce had loosened the pumice-like bread. I released my earlier hunch that I’d be let down and lowered the barriers to allow for the possibility of a good experience.

Damn. I liked it. It was the best eggs Benedict I’d ever had. Pay no attention to the fact that this was the first eggs Benedict I’d ever had. Pay attention to the fact I hate ham, but was happily eating it as part of my meal anyway. I’m not crazy about poached eggs, but I’m pretty sure I chased around every last bite and swabbed my potatoes around the plate to be sure I got all the yoke. Yeah, it wasn’t the same eggs James had talked about in his story, but my brain didn’t care.

Thankfully I snapped a picture of my life changing Eggs Benedict. Actually, honestly, my first thought was boobs. After spending the week before with Meghan, that's all I could think about. Or, seriously, it does kinda look like a plate of boobs.

Thankfully I snapped a picture of my life-changing eggs Benedict. Actually, honestly, my first thought was boobs. After spending the week before with Meghan, that’s all I could think about. Or, seriously, it does kinda look like a plate of boobs. Delicious, tasty boobs.

James pointed out that he didn’t tell me he hoped we’d like it, or that he’d tried to instruct the staff to recreate it, but was limited to the resources at hand. Or that it wasn’t his best and he wished he had something better for us—any writers find these excuses familiar?

He’d set my expectations high even though it was possible I’d have reservations. He didn’t ask me if I had a ham aversion. He did pull my plate away because it didn’t have paprika like he’d promised it would. The hotel staff remade the eggs for us because they wanted them to be perfect after they’d heard the talk (we found out later we were the only group who had their entire meal re-made—so this was not a gimmick).

This was a lesson in positive psychology that I’d forgotten I knew. Instead I’d allowed myself to fall into the trap to expect less and be pleasantly surprised when I was given something more. I’d even done it with the breakfast. When I found out what eggs Benedict actually were, I thought, “crap, I’m going to hate it.” Then I was subjected to a talk about how I was going to love them. He set me up by making me want to love it, just by telling me the lengths the chef in his story had gone to make it great for me. And it changed the way I viewed it. Instead of focusing on the negative of the meal, eventually with each bite I only saw the positive.

As writers we’re taught to never say we love our work out loud. That we’re to remain humble and let others do the praising. Otherwise it looks like we’re boasting or too confident. Plus, if we set up expectations that a story is going to be awesome and it doesn’t meet that expectation we’ll be left looking foolish. Also not to confuse boasting with comparing or telling someone “my work is better than ____’s work” that’s called being a jerk and not the same thing. I think writers confuse the advice and somewhere along the way it became more common to downplay, even tear apart other’s or our own talent publicly.

I’m naturally a positive person. I don’t like to focus on the negative for too long or I think I’ll shrivel up and spiral into depression. Writing is a difficult profession to avoid negativity. Daily rejections? Critiques? Reviews? Other jealous writers? The field is seeded with land mines of negativity. I’m full of positivity and when I realized the status quo is humility, I quickly shut up about my accomplishments and funneled all that energy into my friends’ work. When I come across writers I love who write stories I love, I become the biggest cheerleader for them. But never for myself. And when I hear them retelling the awesome way I got here, I do my part to downplay, to be humble, to shift focus. Because I don’t want to be a jerk, or set expectations too high.

While I ate my eggs Benedict and made “do not cry” “do not cry” my mantra for the rest of the weekend, I realized I was not there to learn or to continually mess up my mascara with the influx of overwhelming emotion. I’d heard every one of those lectures before. I’d probably heard most of them twice. I was at SuperStars to unlearn in the best way possible. I already feel like the stronger writer I was meant to be all along.

I’m a huge fan of unlearning. After I was diagnosed with dyslexia, I had to unlearn what I’d been taught and re-learn in a way that fit how my brain would process information more accurately. After I suffered extensive nerve damage and was paralyzed, I had to unlearn the way my muscles were taught to move and re-learn how to walk. And when my son was diagnosed with a medical condition, I had to unlearn that I’d done something to cause it, or that I could find some “natural” way to make him better, but accept and relearn to trust the medical professionals to fix the problem and prevent excessive hospital visits.

Every time I was not told I could do it, or that it was even possible. I had to grasp at my own belief that it could be done. If you think something isn’t possible then it isn’t. If you believe you’ve reached the top then you’ll never go any further. There is always, always an opportunity for improvement, even a very small one. Maybe not in the way you think, but some other way. Raise the bar.

This was exactly the best message to receive right now. For me, it was perfect. Actually, I guess I can tell the real story now. I didn’t ever sign up for the eggs Benedict. Around December I got a message from Nancy Greene (one of the SuperStars coordinators) telling me I’d gotten in. It was already booked up and people were waiting at the gate for an open seat. I checked with her several times to be sure there wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t sign up for it. I was sure. Because at the time I signed up I didn’t want to spend too much money, so I didn’t sign up for any of the “extras.” Nope, she said, no mistake. Before I would have given the spot to someone else (actually I was still considering doing that all up until that morning), but lately, since my parents house burned down and last week I’d just come back from a week of taking care of Meghan after her mastectomy—I’d learned to not ignore the universe telling me I needed to pay attention to something.

Should writers bother to go to SuperStars? What if the writer all ready knows it all? What if the workshop is a waste of money? Sure, that’s fair to ask. Since everyone always wants to know what’s at this workshop for them I’ll give a run down of options and reasons writers should go.

If you’re new to the business side of writing, go to SuperStars to learn about the basics: secrets of the writing world (copyediting mistakes to avoid, how to not be a jerk), how to be successful at a Con, what editors are looking for, common traps to avoid.

If you’ve been around for a while and been actively involved by sending stories out consistently, or shopping for an agent then go for the intermediate information: negotiating contracts, IP/trademark/copyright law, how to read a contract, what to ask for in a movie option or how to make money in Hollywood, what to look for in an agent or editor; do you even need one? How about an entire weekend of helping you weigh the options of traditional publishing vs. self or indie publishing? They’ll have that, too.

But if you feel jaded and/or depressed–maybe you’ve done it all and have nowhere to go except to continue to sell and convince people you’re here in the business to stay either until you die or they take out a restraining order on you–then go for the unlearning past negative thinking. Go for the positive energy. Go for the unexplainable feeling that you finally feel like you’ve found home carved from a rock in the middle of a desert, where there is an amazing supply of fresh water and food.

Feed your writing soul. Go to SuperStars. Seriously, just go. If not for the best eggs Benedict you’ll ever have, or the endless inside jokes on purple unicorn, then go because they’ve got people waiting to initiate you into the tribe. If you’ve been looking for a place to feel you belong, then stop. I found it for you.

I love comments! For every comment you leave a writer will think a positive thought, unlearn negative ones, and find their tribe.

As a side note, someone in the SuperStars Writing Seminar Facebook group posted this great video on positive psychology and how people can use it to start being happier and healthier. It reminded me a lot of how I felt after the 100 Days of Good Karma project Meghan and I did (which was really a 100 plus days of posting the positive messages we’d learned each day). I think since then I’ve viewed the world in a more positive light.

Big, Fat, Hairy Goals

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Big, fat, hairy goals. BFHG for short.

I love list. Grocery list. To do list. Future plans lists. Project lists. If there is information I need to review or remember, my best friend is a bullet pointed Word doc. (Yeah, I’m weird. Also don’t get me started on office supplies or book stores.)

My favorite kind of list is a goals list. A list of resolutions for the new week, new month, new year, even the new day. My addition to list making is both a blessing and a bane. Because no matter how focused I am, no matter how early I start, I always, ALWAYS, put more on the list than I can humanly accomplish.

I say to myself on a daily basis. Don’t put more on the list than you can possibly do, because the pursuit will end in disappointment and eventually the important task planned at the bottom will fall off the list and be forgotten, because huge goals aren’t attainable anyway. Too much to do, not enough me.

When this happens I get discouraged and lose faith in my ability. The big, fat, hairy goals like- research Indie publishing , or submit to thirty agents, becomes more of a dream than a potential reality and my list drops into the mundane of emptying dishes and shoveling the driveway. Things that are safe. Things that I know I can complete in a satisfying manner. Things that don’t contribute to my life vision. But I have to admit that buzzy feeling of completion is somewhat addictive.

My biggest problem is the size of my goals. I logically can not work, care for a household, do my daily writing and editing, AND listen to half a dozen podcast, contact multiple freelance editors, pick through a hundred photos for cover, etc. (continues on to over fifty action items.)

I have found the answer is to have the big, fat hairy goals, but to rein in my excitement, and to adjust my expectations. Margie Lawson, one of my writing gurus, has a great article online about goal  setting and a whole packet about Defeating Self Defeating Behavior which I highly recommend. She suggest having two list. One a Winner list and even if you have dozen of things that need to be done, put two of your most important dream based goals on this list. These two must be done by the end of the day. She also encourages a Superstar list for when you have extra time to reach a bit higher and claw closer to those BFHGs.

I know these things, I just need to remember to implement slicing of goals on a daily basis and prioritizing. Keeping the ultimate vision of my life forefront and make enough progress to please my inner taskmaster.

Excuse me while I add, set realistic, bite sized goals to my list. Daily.

So what do you guys think about goals and achievement? Pro, con, too much structure? Please let me know in the comments.

 

A Twelve-Step program for Getting Out of Writer’s Limbo

It’s 2015 and I’ve entered writer’s limbo. Limbo is (as you may or may not know) a level of hell. The very tip and not really all that bad, but still. Hell. Modern people might even call it purgatory (the great waiting room in-between heaven and hell). It doesn’t really matter what it is, just that I know I’m in it. When I can admit it, then I can get out of it: the very pinnacle of every twelve-step program.

Step 1: Admit you are in limbo.

I’m a writer, but I still whisper it when people ask me what I do. I put words on paper and people pay me money for them. It’s happened a number of times now, so I can pretty much verify that all adds up to a possible job title. To me, do it once it’s an accident. Twice, it’s a favor. Three times, “Hey! Maybe I could do this for a living?” Beyond that it’s now a job title. It’s magic. Sort of like how peanut butter and chocolate become twenty times more awesome when put together, not just a standard double awesome like people would expect.

But in the writing world, you’re not anybody until you have a novel. It can be through a traditional (large or small) publisher or it can be self-published. It doesn’t matter, really, just having something to point to on the shelf that has your name on it and all the pages in between were written by you. So, yes, I still whisper “writer” when people ask, “What do you do?” I say writer and most of the time people perk up. (Or their eyebrows smash together and huge concern that I might be delusional. Or maybe I’ve misread them; maybe they just had a bad turkey sandwich.

It’s like I’ve uttered the magic word and people’s ears perk up, but I want them to perk back down, because then I have to explain that I don’t have a novel. I have a lot of books they can find in a bookstore or a library, but I don’t have one that’s mine all mine. I don’t have a precious.

I have an agent. I have books out with editors. Those editors could be right now staining page 50 of my manuscript with their American-roast-part-skim-milk-touch-of-vanilla coffee.

And that is limbo. Also not having a book sold means I have to continue like I don’t have one or won’t have one. So I’m working on other books that have nothing to do with the current books I have out in the wild. Also there’s the unease of what projects I should be working on. Do I self-publish a short story series? Do I write a ton of short stories to send out to magazines, hoping I land in a good one? Do I beg my way into anthologies and other opportunities? What direction is the smartest?

And that is limbo.

I hate limbo.

Step 2: HATE limbo. It will suck you down in its never-ending abyss.

After wallowing in step two, it’s time to narrow down which project is the smartest direction to go. I’d do all the things, but time is not on my side. Remember how I mentioned those children things in past posts? They need me to pick them up from school and interact with them. I am their designated bringer of love and food and help with homework.

I’m sort of taking this approach to figuring out what projects should get my time:

Warning!! Foul language ahead. I’m sorry, but this is the only other language I speak other than English. And now that I’ve spent my good impression piggy bank money on telling you I’m a writer, I now have no other ways to impress you. So turn away now if these foul language waters will give you seasickness.

Turn away.

I mean it. I don’t want nasty letters from people telling me I shouldn’t cuss.

Grandma. Mom. I’m looking at you.

All right. So I assign every project a number of fucks given. If I have a burning need to write a certain story–then I give a fuck for that. Will it take a ton of effort or a little? Give fucks appropriately. When each project has its scorecard of fucks I give, I start to pick at those reasons.

I imagine this step to be me with an empty bottle of tequila in one fist and a carton of S’mores Ben and Jerry’s in the other. I have mascara down my ugly-cry face, bad hair, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs “What did you ever do for me short story?” If I bully it into giving up it’s fucks-I-give points then eventually I’ll have no more fucks to give it and I can safely eliminate it from my pile of things I feel overwhelmed to do.

Some of the projects are like “But we can be good together if you give us a chance!” and they say even nicer things like “Remember last summer, when you were free and careless? You were at the top of your game when you were with me.” And they get to keep floating around in my mind as possibilities.

Step 3: Give as many fucks away as possible. You don’t need the baggage in limbo. It just gets heavier.

Step 4: Don’t let the past make you afraid of the future.

Last year I thought I made a mistake. I had too many possibilities for projects. All paying. I had to say no to at least one. I was getting two novels ready with my agent to send off for consideration, so it gave me less time to work on short story projects. I had an opportunity to write a tie-in for a game company and I so badly wanted to, but I knew even though it would be a lot of money, it would be a lot of time taken away from writing my own original work that I’d hold the rights to. I also didn’t have the skill to do it right (so it would be even more time taken away to gain the skill). So I had to let it go. Instead I said yes to an anthology project that was right up my alley, but it ended up falling flat. And I spent that time writing a story I never got paid for. So I was out two projects in one fell swoop. At the time I thought I misjudged the risk, but I think there might have been another reason.

I have to trust my gut. And I can’t spend time looking back and worrying that I’m making the wrong choices. Stay the path and take the opportunities that make sense. Not all of them will have huge rewards at the end. So for now I’m working on a novel. A short story that is a finish-up to a project (a guaranteed sale—although I’m weary of those now.). And a secret project.

On to next steps!

Steps 5 – 11: ?

Step 12: Enjoy being out of limbo.

And there you have it. My plan to get out of limbo!

I love comments! For every comment you will buy a writer’s way out of limbo. Sort of like the collection box at a church.