Wednesday, June 3, 2020

IWSG: Shhh! It's a Secret

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

June 3 question - Writers have secrets! What are one or two of yours, something readers would never know from your work? 

The awesome co-hosts for the June 3 posting of the IWSG are Pat Garcia, J.Q. Rose, and Natalie Aguirre! Be sure to check out their posts after you read mine. 

I can tell you, right? This is a safe space? 

Okay. Here's goes: 

The truth is: I don't know what I'm doing. 

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I really thought I would by now. 

I'm almost 50 years old. I've read a lot of books about writing and biographies of writers. 

I've been working as a (part time) professional writer for five years, and I've been writing in one way or another since I could hold a pen. 

I've had three novels, two novellas, and a dozen or so short stories accepted for publication. 

One year, I made enough money on my writing that it impacted my taxes. 

That's a measure of success I dreamed about all my life. 

But still, every time I sit down to the page, every time I consider a marketing strategy, every time I take part in an event, there's this little moment of panic when I realize that I'm making this up, that there isn't a clear and correct path to follow because there are thousands of ways to do this and all of them are good and bad. 

Choosing a path, within a career or even within a story used to give me serious analysis paralysis. I wanted to choose the *right* way. So I would research, consider, and dither for years on end. It's why I was forty-two before I committed to regular, disciplined writing and actually finished something substantial. 

It took me that long to realize that the only way forward is to choose a path and commit to it. You can backtrack if turns out to be a dead end (I certainly have!), and try another fork in the road (that too!), but if you don't try something, you'll just stand there all your life and never get any nearer to your goals. 

So, yeah, five years into making this a career, I still don't know what I'm doing, but that doesn't scare me anymore. In fact, it's kind of exciting, realizing how much there is still to learn, how much further I can grow. 

That's my secret cap, I'm always learning. 

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

May Reads

Reading has always been my escape, well, as long as I can remember anyway. But like a lot of readers I've talked to recently, falling into a story has been harder than usual for me during quarantine. 

That got worse here at the end of May with police violence leading to protests that became riots. My low-level restless anxiety and imagination full of what-ifs whipped into something larger and harder to ignore. I know a lot of creatives are struggling similarly, with creation as well as consumption of art. I'm managing slow forward progress on my writing still, and am hopeful I can pick up my pace again when the school year ends here in a couple of weeks. 

Despite my struggles, I still read eight books in May, and I really liked six of them. 

I read three books written by friends and colleagues: Gidion's Hunt by Bill Blume, Chasing the Dragon: A Sherlock Holmes Romantic Mystery by Alexandra Christian, and The Reckoning by DM Taylor. 

I've read other books by Alexandra, and I know from being there for some of her readings that her work is clever, sexy, and spiked with humor. Chasing the Dragon: A Sherlock Holmes Romantic Mystery was no exception. Her imagined love story for Sherlock Holmes plays beautifully in the known world of those stories while bringing Alexandra's strengths into play. I hope she writes more in this universe! 

Bill and I have been on panels together at conventions for a few years now, but I hadn't yet read any of his work. Gidion's Hunt  was sweet in a wholesome sort of way, especially considering that it's a story about a teenaged vampire hunter. I loved the family relationships and it looks like Bill has a great foundation for future books in the series in this first volume. 

DM Taylor is a writer I know from Instagram. The Reckoning is a time travel thriller with elements of women's fiction. I enjoyed it quite a bit! It took me a little longer to read this one because I read it as a Kindle edition, and I'm suffering from screen-time overload right now, which is making me prefer paper and audiobook reading to ebooks. 

I also read three graphic novels this month. Graphic novels can be read quickly, often in a single sitting, and the combination of art with narrative really works to suck me in when my attention is scattered. The Sixth Gun, Volume 3: Bound really pleased me. I read the first two in this series last month and loved the way this volume took the focus to Gord and deepened his backstory. I'm looking forward to reading more in this series!

Newprints and Endgames by Ru Xu were passed my way by my thirteen-year-old daughter who loved them. She's a huge fan of Blue, the main character, and I can see why--she's so forthright, scrappy, and determined. Unfortunately, the storytelling disappointed me in that the narration pulled back from hard emotional moments, avoiding conflict that the story really needed. 

The second volume in particular felt rushed, like two books worth of story had been crammed into only one. Still, it evokes a Little Orphan Annie feel in a wonderful steampunk setting and there's a lot to recommend them, especially to younger readers. 

My last two reads were disappointments. I'd been looking forward to reading The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I loved the cover and the premise of a secret society surrounding story and books intrigued me. I had positive memories of The Night Circus, so thought I might enjoy another book by the same author, but it really just didn't grab me at all. All atmosphere (gorgeous, beautifully rendered atmosphere) and no substance. Too light on plot and characterization to keep me, especially under current circumstances. 

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse was my First Monday Classics Book Club choice for the month and it was a slog for me. I kind of had a feeling it was going to be, just remembering the kinds of people who touted its praises back in my undergrad years--almost exclusively entitled young men I didn't like all that much. But, still, I tried to go in without bias and give it a go. 

I found some beauty and insight in the text, but was left with the overall yucky feeling that I get from reading literary representations of male academics having midlife crises which they overcome by having affairs with far younger women. 

There's nothing for me in a story like that. I can't sympathize with the main character, and often can't sympathize with the young woman either because she's a manic pixie dream girl or a complete cypher. Maybe this one was the first novel of this type? I don't know. But it didn't feel innovative or interesting. I've seen this story many times and it's irritated me every time. 

Luckily I'm finishing May in the middle of two good books I'll tell you about in June: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey and The Haunting of the Tenth Avenue Theater by Alex Matsuo. 

What did you read in May? What's next on your list? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Art is Essential: Shakespeare in Quarantine

Critical Read put out a call recently for short nonfiction posts about art that is seeing you through the pandemic. They rejected my submission, but were kind about it and invited me to submit something else, with a focus on an American artist. I probably will. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the posts on their site (and, of course, mine below).

Shakespeare in Quarantine

I often turn to poetry when my soul is troubled, especially older, metered poetry. The rhythm soothes me while the language pulls me out of my here and now and transports me to another time and place. This time, it’s Shakespeare seeing me through the quarantine.

Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, is also the day that my husband and I had our first date, on which we watched a movie production of one of the Bard’s plays, 10 Things I Hate About You. We’ve made a tradition of celebrating our anniversary with a Shakespearean performance every year since as near to the day as we can manage, live when possible, recorded when not.

So, it seems apropos that it is Shakespeare in a thoroughly modern context that is pulling me through right now. Each day, I wait for Patrick Stewart to upload his daily sonnet video to social media and I find a quiet space to sit and listen alone, just me and Sir Patrick and the day’s verse. As I write this, he’s been recording a sonnet a day for nearly two months.

He began with Sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” which of course, I already loved. I fell in love with it when I first read it as an undergrad, and again when Kate Winslet’s Marianne of Sense and Sensibility quoted it breathlessly, and yet again when Sir Patrick Stewart read it to his wife who held a phone to record the moment for us.

Words written more than four hundred years ago are performed for me by a spaceship captain in the privacy of my own home. What a gift!


What art is seeing you through quarantine? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Publishing in Quarantine: My New Releases

Publishing is always weird. There are so many moving parts in this business, and whether you have a traditional publisher who navigates some of it with and for you or you do it all independently STUFF HAPPENS!

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Luckily, improvisation and creativity go together, so we find new ways to move forward.

When conventions had to cancel for quarantine, content was moved online.

When book launch celebrations and events couldn't be held in person, social media and digital meeting spaces grew to fill that need.

When production and delivery delays occur, we learned to roll with it and be grateful for readers that will support us even when there are snags.

So far, quarantine has meant that two conventions I was scheduled to be a part of were cancelled. One of them has moved a fair amount of the content online, which helps, but it's not the same kind of charge I get from doing it "live and in person" even if online means potentially a broader audience because you're not limited by time and space.

I had TWO book releases under quarantine so far. I don't actually know how they are doing sales-wise yet, since there's lag between information on sales going to my publisher and being conveyed to me. I'm trying not to worry over it. The nice thing about books is that they don't "spoil"--you can read them a long time after they were released and still enjoy them. I'm lucky in that my creations have a long "shelf life" in that way.

It's *still* exciting! Even when I can't have an in-person launch party or sell my books from an author table at a book fair or convention, I still get a jolt just knowing that my book babies made it out there into the world. Look at the set now! There are five sisters in the Menopausal Superheroes family now!

Personally, I'm buying more books than usual, but I know that books are on the inessential list for families that are struggling financially. We're lucky in la Casa Bryant, with both parents still able to work full time, from home. My mortgage payment doesn't rely on my book money. I teach, too, so I'll make it even if the quarantine means fewer sales.

I'm glad my publisher put book one in the series on longterm sale. It's a good time for escapist fiction, and 99¢ is within most budgets, even on lockdown. (BTW: Falstaff Books has *all* their first-in-series books on 99¢ sale for the time being)

Take care of yourselves out there. These are strange times, indeed, and more strange times are likely on the horizon. Remember that heroism comes in all shapes and sizes. May you find the strength you need for whatever battles you must fight!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

IWSG: Writing Rituals

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

This month's question: Do you have any rituals that you use when you need help getting into the ZONE? Care to share?

The awesome co-hosts for the May 6 posting of the IWSG are Feather Stone, Beverly Stowe McClure, Mary Aalgaard, Kim Lajevardi, and Chemist Ken!

Two years ago my eldest daughter left for college, and for the first time in many years, I gained a writing room in the room-switching comedy that followed. I finally understand the value of that "room of one's own" that Virginia Woolf was always touting.

It's heaven, guys, even though it's half-remodeled and half still a storage room for the rest of the house. I have a window full of houseplants and a view into a tree-filled backyard, a door I can close (even if still has ninja turtle stickers on it), and an electric teakettle. I could stay here forever.

My ritual is pretty simple:

  • escape to my writing room (usually early evening)
  • turn on the teakettle
  • water my houseplants and talk to them for a moment or two
  • make a cuppa (usually Tension Tamer herbal tea, because I don't usually get to write until late in the day)
  • then pull up my document, read the bit where I left off yesterday and go

I usually leave myself an ALL CAPS NOTE at the end of a writing session with some thoughts about where to go next, which really helps me jump back in quickly. If it goes really well, my tea gets cold before I can drink it and I have to heat it back up.

If it doesn't go well, I write something else for one session (a blog post, a journal entry, a "play piece" bit of sidewriting), but I'm strict with myself about getting right back on the main task in the next session to stay moving forward. And I always at least get to enjoy the tea.

How about you? How do you cue your creative side that it's time to take over? I'd love to hear what works for you in the comments!

Thursday, April 30, 2020

April Reads

In March, when our quarantine began, I found it hard to read. Every time I sat still, I felt guilty. Surely there as some kind of preparation I could be making to shelter my family against the coming storm. There must be someone in need I could be supporting. Restless energy made it difficult to lose myself in story, but eventually, I returned to my roots as a reader and picked up short, escapist works.

I continued that theme in April and it's working for me.

I began with a few light romances. K Leigh and Ashley Cade are authors I befriended on Instagram. It was a great escape to lose myself with characters in danger of having their hearts broken instead of worrying about paying their bills or avoiding illness.

Something That Could Last is a world's collide kind of story, about a young man and woman from very different backgrounds finding ones another. Four Day Prince Charming is an older woman-younger man romance with a save-the-world theme I really loved. One Week Queen is a hate-into-love story with dogs! (He's a veterinarian). All three were short, sweet, and distracting. Just exactly what I needed and wanted.

That's not to say that everything I read was short. I also read The Annotated Alice and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. I confess though that I wouldn't have read either of those this month were it not that I had committed to do so for my First Monday Classics Book Club, which I help run for my local library.

You might think the giddy silly attitude of Alice in Wonderland would have been perfect escapism, but it didn't jibe with my mood at all. Then again, I've never been that fond of Alice. There's not enough story to her story, and the humor is so self-congratulatory in its cleverness that it doesn't make me laugh. Not my cup of tea, with or without dormouse.

In contrast, An American Tragedy worked pretty well for me. While the story certainly goes dark  enough to earn its dire title, the story is not relentlessly sad. In fact, the ending is all the more effective because so much of the book is about hope and ambition and striving for something more. Even though I feel the book is flawed, I can see how it has earned its place in the canon of great works, and I'm glad I finally read it.

I can't entirely say I *enjoyed* Dreiser's classic tome, but I did stay engaged with it, and I'm still thinking about it several days after finishing reading it, trying to decide exactly how I feel about it. I even sought out the 1950s movie adaptation, A Place in the Sun.

I don't think I would have stuck with it if I were reading it in paper or on Kindle though. I listened to it as an audiobook over the course of six weeks, in 10-20 minute increments while I cooked or took care of household tasks. It wasn't the kind of book wanted to sit down and devour.

For both these longer works, I was happy to get off screen. Now that I'm teaching from home, I feel like I'm on screen time 20 of every 24 hours--for the day job, for fun, and for writing. I was glad to read Alice on paper and Dreiser by listening.

That might be why my next five reads were all short and why I read them in paper editions.

Dreadful Penny and Unsettled Spirits by J. Matthew Saunders, and two graphic novels: The Sixth Gun: Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers and The Sixth Gun: Book 2: The Crossroads by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Bill Crabree.

Interestingly, these also all came to me via family members. My sister lent me Dreadful Penny and Unsettled Spirits, having purchased it at a convention sometime last year where Matthew and I were both convention guests, as well as sharing Raven. My husband suggested The Sixth Gun series.

All were violent, but non-realistic, with magical elements and interesting heroes. I read all of them sitting on a swing in my yard, in the sunshine, too. Quite a contrast to the content. (I must have really liked The Sixth Gun, because I immediately ordered Book 3. Looking forward to reading it when it arrives!)

I finish the month in the middle of three more books, but I'll tell you about them in May. I'm about 1/3 of the way through Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea on audio book, 3/4 of the way through Bill Blume's Gidion's Hunt on paper, and just started The Reckoning: A Time Travel Thriller by DM Taylor on Kindle.

How is your reading life going?

Did you read my latest yet? Friend or Foe came out in late March. It picks up literally moments after the end of Going Through the Change: Book One in the series (book one is on 99¢ sale, too, BTW).  It's a novella, available in digital or paper formats, so you can choose your poison.

I'm also excited to announce that you can get the next in the series on May 7, 2020!  The Good Will Tour fits in the Menopausal Superhero universe right after book 3, Face the Change, but can be enjoyed as. stand alone story as well.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

COVID-19 Birthdays

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My youngest daughter and I both have April birthdays.

The last time I had a birthday party, I turned forty-two. She's still in the party-every-year phase of life.

I had a Douglas Adams themed birthday party, including petunia and whale related art, and had friends over to play games with us. Some wouldn't have considered it a real party because no one got drunk and it was overall pretty quiet, but it was exactly the kind of celebration I wanted. Good food and good fun with good friends.

It's been a few years since then, and I've been fine without another party in the intervening years, so clearly I'm not anyone's definition of a party animal.

I didn't plan to have a birthday party this year. Forty-nine didn't feel like a milestone or anything. I am hoping to celebrate bigger next year, when I hit the big five-oh. But still, knowing that I *couldn't* have a party felt strange. Knowing I couldn't invite my parents down for their usual visit made me feel cut off, even though I'm introverted enough to not really feel that sting as hard as some.

But my daughter . . .well, she turned thirteen and that was a rough one to spend in solitude. It should have been a big sleepover extravaganza with so much giggling. Dad and I should have woken up the next morning bleary eyed and grumpy, but happy that our girl had a great time.

Lots of us are celebrating different milestones in quarantine: important birthdays, anniversaries, big moments of life like retirement or publishing a book. It's harder to make those moments shine when a lot of our go-to celebration ideas are just not available to us.

So, here's what we did for our special days:

My girl was allowed to "skip" school on her birthday and sleep until lunch.

Lunch was the takeout of her choice (Chik-fil-a). Dinner was the mom-and-dad-prepped meal of her choice (pot roast, mashed potatoes, and broccoli).

She helped make her own birthday cake because she likes baking almost as much as she likes eating sweets: Mexican chocolate cake with cinnamon frosting.

We wrote out a treasure hunt set of clues and followed her around the house while she figured out where her presents were, and then built her a fabulous pillow fort from which she watched Wall-e with the dog (Mom and Dad watched from the couch). 

I can't describe how much it lifted our hearts that our baby turned thirteen and wanted a treasure hunt, a pillow fort, and an animated film for her celebratory activities.

We still plan to give her that sleepover with her friends, in a few months, when it's safe to do so. And Grandma has promised her a pet snake and the apparatus to take care of it, too. But she said she felt pretty spoiled, and I believe her.

As for me, I also chose skipping school--a personal day spent to just ignore my teaching responsibilities for a day.

I spent the evening before my birthday dying my own hair pink (I used Overtone and it went pretty well!). Usually, I get a salon day around my birthday and get a cool color for convention season, and this was my substitute.

Sweetman made me breakfast and left me to eat in alone in my quiet office watching sunlight on my plant and glass window and daydreaming. I usually have to hit the ground running, even on quarantine--schoolwork happens early--so taking the morning slow was a treat.

Then, we went for a walk in my current favorite wooded area, picking up some supersweet coffee treats on the way. The weather was perfect: neither hot nor cold, neither cloudy nor sunny. I laid on a fallen tree trunk for a while, watching clouds and enjoying the sound of wind through the leaves and my girl talking about the bugs she was tracking.

My chosen lunch was takeout from Tacos Los Altos, a local taco truck/restaurant with nice people and awesome food. I splurged on a Mexican coke to go with my tacos. A FaceTime call with my sister so she could see me open her gifts, left for me on a touchless drop off.

Then the hubby and the girl went upstairs to do her school from home activities and let me have the "big TV" to watch the Miss Fisher movie on Acorn, which was fabulous!

Another walk in the late afternoon, a shorter one this time, so I could take the elderly dog with us, this time riverside. Then some writing time while Sweetman fetched my Turkish dinner from Talulla's in downtown Chapel Hill (a favorite date and special occasion restaurant for us), enjoyed with ANOTHER movie (two in one day? what!) with my family and then my raspberry chocolate cake from Weaver Street.

Throughout the day, I responded to texts and social media birthday wishes. At some point my publisher sent me my latest book cover which definitely felt like another present! (The book comes out in May!)

It's the first day in many a moon that I can remember entirely setting the pace myself, based only on what I wanted to do.

My older daughter is quarantined separately, so I'll see her tomorrow for a six-feet-apart walk and talk.

Were these the birthdays we would have had in a non-COVID world? Not a bit.

But were they still good? Definitely.

There are joys in quiet pleasures, too, and at the end of the day, I am relaxed and pleased to have a day that was all my own.  What's working for you when you have something to celebrate in quarantine? How are still making these moments feel special?