Category Archives: writing

Summer reading list!

Sooo… my plan to write three pages a day hasn’t gone very well. Yet. By making that pledge right at the start of the school year, when the kids have a million things happening and I have a bunch of extra volunteer responsibilities, I may have set myself up for failure. But I’m not giving up, just restarting. (Although today, I went to a writer friend’s house for a “writing day” with grand plans of getting pages and pages written, then realized that I’d forgotten my laptop power cord–meaning that the battery on my elderly laptop died within the hour. Sigh.)

“Sweet Solitude” by Edmund Blair Leighton

In the meantime, I have managed to write about the books I read over the summer! Here’s what I’ve been reading. If you have any recs from your summer reading list, post them in the comments!

Room, by Emma Donoghue: I got this book more than a year ago, but I put off reading it because of the subject matter: Room is told from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, who is being raised in a prison-like room where his mother has been held captive for seven years. Jack’s biological father is their captor. Depressing, right? Not as much as I’d thought. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that Jack’s mother has worked hard to protect him from the reality of their situation and make his childhood as fun as is possible in a small, concrete room. It’s not the story of a young woman’s imprisonment—it’s the story of the lengths this mother will go to in order to protect Jack.

One minor quibble—the story is set in the U.S., but the writer is Irish and a few little Irish-isms slipped past the editors (the word “grand,” used to mean “great” or “terrific,” for example). It’s not a huge deal, but the few times it happened, I was briefly taken out of the story as I thought, “Wait a sec—where is this taking place again?” But that’s a tiny flaw in an otherwise well-executed book.

Pledged, by Alexandra Robbins: I picked this up after reading Robbins’ The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, which is a brilliant analysis of teenage cliques. But Pledged, an undercover look at college sororities written a few years earlier than Geeks, doesn’t have the same level of insight. I wasn’t surprised by most of Robbins’ findings, except for a short segment that addresses the differences between traditionally African-American and Latina sororities (which still focus heavily on community service and career mentoring) and traditionally Caucasian sororities (many of which have become far more focused on partying and husband-finding). If you haven’t read Geeks though, you should.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi: Star Trek meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The disposable background characters in a Trek-like world begin to develop an awareness of the fact that their primary purpose seems to be to get killed in order to kick off the crew’s latest adventure. The story starts to get a little convoluted and over-explainy near the end, but otherwise, it’s a unique premise and a fun read, full of in-jokes for sci-fi fans.

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My First Week of Just F*#king Writing Stuff

Last weekend, I vowed to “Just F*#king Write Stuff.” Inspired by an off-the-cuff comment about writing from The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick, I decided that I would try to write three pages every day, even if it was three crappy pages, just to keep the machine working. This week, I met with mixed success, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Judging by my notes below, I’m going to have to try harder to not only set aside non-work writing time, but also to protect that time so other obligations don’t intrude too much upon it–and so that sleep doesn’t have to be sacrificed for writing.

I’m hoping that within a few weeks, the three daily pages will become a habit and I won’t need to track them like this to keep myself honest. But in the meantime, here’s how Week One went.

Monday: Three pages done! I had to fight hard for those pages though. I had a couple of hours to myself in the morning, but there were a lot of distractions, so I only got two pages written. That third page was done at 11:30 pm, just under the wire. But I did it!

Tuesday: Not so successful today. Wrote about three pages of material for a client, but only a paragraph of fiction. I guess some writing is better than none…?

Wednesday: FAIL. I’ll cop to hanging out in Starbucks with some good friends for a couple of hours in the morning while our kids were at camp (and it was worth it!), but after that I didn’t have a minute to myself until 10 pm. Our power had gone out at 9 though, and didn’t come back until 1:30 am. I suppose I could have written longhand by candlelight, but… no. I made big plans to make up for lost writing on Thursday though.

Thursday: I didn’t completely make up for the Lost Wednesday, but I did make up a little–four pages written. I did three pages of my novel draft and one page of other nonsense (which Hardwick says counts for something).

Friday: I’m attempting to write now, but EVERYONE is home and it’s just too damn loud. One kid is reading, but the other is dancing and singing out loud in the living room, and the husband is hammering something or other (and occasionally cursing). I’ve holed up in our bedroom to try and make some progress on the manuscript. I need to get a few more pages done to send my latest chapter to my critique group, which meets this week, so I’m off to try again.

Saturday: I got a page and a half done last night, and another three today. I still have to fill in two to three pages of material before I can submit it to my critique group so that page and a half makes sense.

Sunday: Three more pages done! Again just under the wire, before midnight.

So, overall, it was not bad but not great. Part of the problem is that I’m not writing very fast. An hour or two should usually be more than enough to write three pages, but it was taking a lot longer than that. I’m hoping that once I’m a well-oiled writing machine, my pace will pick up.

Onward!

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“Just F*#king Write Stuff”

So I’m writing a novel. At least, I’m trying to. Off the top of my head, I’d say that the biggest obstacle has been finding the time, but that’s not 100% true.

Indeed, I’m always strapped for time. Between my corporate freelance writing and editing “day job,” taking care of the kids, and my volunteer responsibilities, I’m pretty damn busy. I usually have at least one outstanding client project, so whenever I have a few minutes to write, I feel like I should be working on that.

But lately, the other equally big obstacle has been deciding what to write about. I have the general idea of my story, but I’m blocked on a few things so that’s making it hard to work on the manuscript. It’s making it hard to work on this blog too, and any other non-paid writing projects, for that matter.

Many published authors, when asked how to conquer this issue, have said some version of “Well, you just have to keep writing.” Usually, my reaction is some version of “Easy for you to say, Published Author.”

During the last few weeks, I’ve been working on some home improvement projects (more distractions!), and while doing that, I’ve been listening to The Nerdist podcasts. The Nerdist is a project by Chris Hardwick, a former MTV host who wanted to write and talk about sci-fi/fantasy TV, movies, comics, cartoons, and pretty much all other nerdy entertainment. He’s got a blog, the podcasts, a Youtube channel, TV specials, and oh yeah–he wrote a Nerdist book. Basically, rather than waiting for the entertainment job to come to him, he invented an entertainment job that he’d love and uses technology brilliantly to get it to the masses. And he’s really funny.

So I was listening to a podcast of one of his live shows and an audience member asked Hardwick how he gets past writer’s block. What he said was, more or less, “Well, you just have to keep writing,” but he said it like this:

“You have to sit down and just force yourself to write and it doesn’t matter what comes out of you, you just have to get the wheels turning. Even if you spend an hour writing shit, it’ll get the wheels turning so that later you will be struck by the good idea that you’re looking for.

“So never let the excuse of, like, ‘I don’t have anything to write about’—just fucking sit down, even if it’s just gibberish— ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’—doesn’t matter. Just fucking write stuff to get it out so you can keep the machine greased. Because what’ll happen is that you’ll start to get afraid to write if you don’t do it, ’cause you’ll be like, ‘I don’t ever have anything to say.’ So you just have to force yourself to sit down let your fingers start moving and it’ll unstick the wheels and you’ll write.”

For some reason, that hit me. Maybe it’s all the cuss words? Maybe it’s because I love The Nerdist and worship Hardwick and his crew as pioneers in new media? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, it hit me. I need to keep the machine greased. I need to not worry about “wasting time” writing material that I won’t keep (which is something I really try to avoid when I’m getting paid by the hour).

I need to just fucking write stuff.

Beginning Monday, I’m going to commit to writing at least three pages a day, even if it turns out to be gibberish, just to unstick the wheels. And I’m writing it down to make sure I really do it.

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The Art of the Cardigan: Lessons Learned at AWP

Last week, I attended my first writers’ conference, AWP 2012. This is a big-deal conference in the writing world, and I just lucked out that it happened to be held in Chicago this year. It was overwhelming and inspiring, so I thought I’d share a few things that I learned:

  • Once I am published, I will need to obtain a wardrobe of chic, artfully draped, long cardigans in dark colors. (Corollary for men: If you’re under 30, the cardigan must be Mr. Rogers-style and be paired with black-framed hipster glasses; if you’re over 30, you can just go with a sport coat—no cardigan required.)

  • It’s really cool to hear famous authors read from their books. The national award-winning authors I saw at AWP include Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), Darin Strauss (Half a Life), Isabel Wilkerson, (The Warmth of Other Suns), Jaimy Gordon (The Lords of Misrule), and Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). I know a lot of you loved Henrietta Lacks, so you’ll be pleased to know that Skloot seems like the kind of person who’d be fun to meet for margaritas.

  • It’s also really cool to “discover” authors who I hadn’t heard of. If you’re looking for books that are not on the best-sellers lists (yet), check out Alexi Zentner and Alexander Yates for literary fiction; Kristen-Paige Madonia, Kat Falls, and Bridget Birdsall for young adult novels; Amina Gautier for short stories; and René Colato Laínez for young children’s books. Colato Laínez’s The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez looks especially fun (El Ratón Pérez is the Latin American/Spanish equivalent of the Tooth Fairy—in the book, the two characters accidentally meet at the home of an American boy with immigrant parents), and the author is an entertaining speaker.

  • Translations aren’t just for Greek epic poems that you had to read in high school. A lot of publishers specialize in English translations of books from other countries. I picked up a copy of Children in Reindeer Woods by Icelandic author Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Amazon and B&N don’t even have it ready to sell yet, but I’ve got it! Muahahaha!

  • Not all literary journals are full of relentlessly depressing stories and abstract poetry. There are some fun, unique journals that you might not always find on the bookstore shelves. Fairy Tale Review (variations on familiar fairy tales), Kugelmass (humor), and The Normal School (a blend of humor and other offbeat pieces) particularly caught my eye. I bought copies of those and will probably look into submitting too.

  • My obsession with funky-colored pens is not uncommon to writers, even in this technological age. A lot of exhibitors were giving away cool pens. Score!

  • A lot of them were also giving away pins—my favorites are the ones in the photos here.

  • Wait until the last day of the conference before buying anything—the exhibitors don’t want to carry all those books and journals back home, so they’re selling them at a discount or giving them away!

Have you ever been to a book-oriented conference? Have you ever met a favorite author? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

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Published!

Well, sort of–it’s a review, not my own fiction. But it’s for Ploughshares, one of the most well-respected literary journals in the country, so I’ll take this one as a win.

I mentioned here a few months ago that I had been selected to review a past issue of Ploughshares, edited by Sherman Alexie–and here is my piece! Read and enjoy.

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“Back” to Work?

Angry bird is angry!

A few months after my oldest child was born, I became a freelance writer. Over the subsequent eight years, I wrote articles late into the night, scheduled phone interviews during nap times, and answered client emails on my Blackberry while my kids played in the sandbox. I got over my paralyzing fear of “networking” and reached out to former co-workers and bosses and others who might have projects for me.

I got to be a pretty damn good freelancer, if I do say so myself. Most years, I’ve managed to bring in nearly the same salary that I was bringing in at my last full-time office gig—if you count the fact that I’m not paying for transportation, dry cleaning, or child care, my family has probably come out ahead.

Meanwhile, I got to keep the parts of my office job that I liked (writing, editing, and researching) while getting rid of the parts that I didn’t (meetings, committees, meetings, departmental budgeting, meetings).

Last fall, my youngest started “all-day” school, meaning that both of my kids are gone for nearly seven hours a day. To me, this means the chance to pursue more and bigger freelance projects, to finally write the novel I’ve always wanted to write, and to spend fewer nights tapping away at the keyboard well into the a.m. hours.

But apparently, to some others, my kids being in school means that it’s time for me to go “back to work.” I’ve been asked this a number of times in the last few months: “When are you going back to work?” “Are you going to get a ‘real job’ now?” One of these queries came from someone whose organization pays me thousands of dollars each year—I’ve written for nearly every division there. And yet I apparently do not have a “real job.”

Here’s what I would like to say to those people (but did not, because see above—thousands of dollars): Writing is not my hobby, dammit. It was my hobby when I was ten, but then I went to college and graduate school to learn more about it. Every job I’ve had since graduation has been a writing job.

And yes, I like writing, but I don’t write for entertainment. I don’t noodle around at it for fun. I sit down each day and write articles and software manuals and press releases and book chapters because that is my job. I’m good at it, and that’s why clients pay me (in some cases, quite well) to do it for them. Just because my office is the kitchen table does not mean that this isn’t real work.

So no, annoying questioners, I’m not going “back to work.” I can’t go back to something I never left.

Photo: Courtesy of ToNToNi, Wikimedia Commons

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Smut in Space!

Cartwheel Galaxy (It sounds like it's from a sci-fi story, right? But it's real! This pic is from the Hubble Telescope.)

*** UPDATE: This project got fully funded! Woo hoo! ***

A writer friend, Mary Anne Mohanraj, is looking to publish a book of erotic sci-fi–I’ve read the first three stories of the collection (along with a lot of her other work) and they’re great. In addition to being hot, fun, well-written stories, she also makes an effort to include characters that are diverse racially, sexually, and in other ways, which makes her work more interesting than most.

Instead of going through her usual agent/publisher route, she’s trying something new and going through Kickstarter. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Kickstarter: It’s a site that allows artists of all kinds to post their projects and get them funded by people who are interested and would like to see the final project get made.

In addition to wanting to see my friend succeed, I’d also like to see this project get published because it’s important to get more diverse characters in sci-fi. Plus, it’s gonna be good.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, check it out! She’s got some really fun prizes for supporters. :)

Photo: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/P. N. Appleton (SSC/Caltech), Wikimedia Commons

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