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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Acceptance

This July, when I was in my nauseous-zombie-first-trimester-fog state, I got an email that made my day. For the first time in my writing career, I had a work of fiction accepted by a paying market. After five years of virtually nothing but rejections, this felt almost as miraculous as the little guy responsible for my zombie fog.

The story is called “The School Strike.” The paying market is an educational database called Schoolwide, which has a library of texts available for schools and school districts with an annual subscription. I heard about them through my local Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) chapter’s blog in April, and decided my much-rejected story didn’t have anything to lose. A few weeks ago, I filled out a questionnaire about my writing process and background that will accompany the story when it goes live. Every six months that it generates enough downloads to stay live, I will get a royalty check. Probably enough to take our little family out for ice-cream, maybe a fast-food dinner, but still.

It was so encouraging to get an acceptance letter instead of another rejection for my stack (and yes, I have a literal stack of my rejection letters, or rather a folder. I have one for acceptance letters too, but it’s so much smaller.) It was even more encouraging that this story falls into my favorite genre, historical fiction, and is my second story idea to come from wandering a museum in Europe. In this case, it was the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam, where I read the stories of college students who risked their lives resisting their Nazi invaders and wondered what a younger but equally determined child would do in the same situation. My last published article back in 2009 was also about this movement, so I already had the background as the story grew in my head during that eventful trip.

But when we came home, of course, life got a little too eventful. Writing has been a challenge for me ever since because it requires so much concentration and emotional awareness, both of which were often already occupied with the various facets of our infertility struggles. Somewhere in there, I managed to write this story, and revise it with the suggestions of trusted critique partners, and sporadically send it to a magazine or contest only to have it come straight back. That I sent it to the editor who agreed to publish it the same month God began knitting Jonathan together in my womb feels like the ushering in of a whole new era.

And it helped give me the courage to keep digging deeper into the first story that jumped into my head from a museum exhibit in Europe, the novel I used as my master’s thesis. It has been rejected four or five times as often as “The School Strike,” and I now see with good reason. It wasn’t ready for the big time. Maybe it still isn’t, and that makes me uneasy as I start to feel comfortable with the changes I’ve made and wonder if maybe it’s ready for another round of agent- or editor-hunting.

I don’t want to press my luck. I don’t want to feel the dull ache of rejection again. That was a constant presence during our two years of adoption possibilities, along with my writing attempts before and during that process. I finally feel chosen again. It’s a feeling I know won’t last forever, but I still want to cling to it like the softest of security blankets.

May I find the courage to deliver this story into the world when the time is right, just as I ask for the courage to bring forth that other piece of my heart I’ve waited so long to hold.

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For any doubters out there reading my blog, let me just say this: “pregnancy brain” is real.

It has given me some degree of sympathy for friends and family who suffer from ADHD. It makes concentration and short-term memory a continual battle for me, and as someone who has always been well-organized and focused, this has been an adjustment. I’ve had to apologize a lot for forgetting to return messages, for losing track of household tasks, for using all the wrong words when I’ve had a bad night’s sleep.

I know it’s a preview of things to come, and this kind of frightens me.

I know authors who’ve written whole new projects while pregnant, but this is not happening with me. I’ve written blog posts and one uber-short story that has been floating around my head for awhile (I’m not a fan of how it turned out, but maybe it’s worth revising). But a whole new book? This terrifies me as much as writing my first completed book at the start of grad school did.

But before my brain got swallowed up by hormones, something made me feel like that very first book, whose original opening lines I wrote in spring 2006 while suffering “wedding brain,” deserved another chance. I read it start to finish for the first time in years, wrestling once again with how to make an unemotional main character more emotionally available. I made some substantial changes, sent it to my grad school critique partners, and got the test result that changed everything.

My critique partner had some great advice on how to do even more of what I was doing, and thankfully her recommendations came around the same time my morning sickness finally subsided. It’s still not easy to focus, especially on such painstaking editing, but I’m making myself do it each weekday afternoon.

If Baby Jonathan is forcing my uterus and surrounding ligaments to grow to accommodate him, I owe it to myself as a writer to stretch my brain. “This is a story worth telling, and it’s worth telling well,” I intone silently at the start of each editing session. I have believed that for over eight years, and I’ve been given renewed proof that miracles happen. It’s time to resurrect hope in this dream, too.

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New Year, Old Book

I tried to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) back in November.  I was doing so informally, just exchanging emails with a former grad school classmate each day to report on our respective word counts.  We were both trying out new projects that had been swirling around in our heads for awhile but had never been committed to paper (and in the process, discovered we both enjoy taking that last clause literally by writing by hand).  She came very close to her word count, managing to write something nearly every day of the month even though she has two boys under age six and spent a few days hosting her visiting parents.

I didn’t make it two weeks before waving the white flag.  Appropriate, I suppose, as I was writing a story set in the Korean War.

I sometimes look at my writing output since we started trying to have children (a little over three years) and compare it to the output from the two years in grad school and the year or so that followed.  I don’t do this often, as it usually just leaves me disappointed and wanting to crawl into bed with the covers over my head.  In grad school, I took a glimmer of an idea and turned it into a middle grade historical novel set partly in another country (England, of course)…then let it grow into a trilogy.  By graduation, I was zooming through a rough draft of the second book in the series, and a year after that I was knee-deep in the third.

A little over three years equaled three books.  When I ditched the pill the following spring, I was starting on a fourth, completely unrelated book, feeling encouraged despite no bites from agents or publishers.  I’ve finished that fourth book, but it still needs work, and it took forever.

Writing books full-time has been the only job I’ve ever wanted to spend my adult life doing.  It always seemed quite compatible with being a mom, especially when I got serious about writing for children when I was in college.  Every adult told my younger self that I needed a back-up plan, that I would likely never make it no matter how much I loved to write or how well I did so, that exactly my current life situation would happen.

Aiming and constantly being shot down for something I feel is essential to the person I was created to be.  Sounds an awful lot like trying to have children.

And when my mom was in the hospital and my husband was approaching surgery and our second IUI had failed and no progress had been made on our adoption, something as emotionally taxing as writing a novel in a month just wasn’t going to happen.  I tried it in the name of restoring some discipline and drive to my writing schedule, but the odds were never in my favor.

But we have had nearly a month of rest since my sweet husband had his jaw surgically manipulated, and since we got our Christmas cards sent out, I have felt free to relax most days.  It’s been like a land of eternal Saturdays, complete with too much TV.  Our chief series?  Old episodes of Foyle’s War via Netflix.  Its amazing attention to detail and deep digging into the mindsets of British people during WWII has reminded me of why I love this scary, jazzed-up, complicated era and why I wrote three books in three years chronicling two evacuated British sisters.  And it’s almost enough to make me swallow my disappointment and go back for another pass at the first book, to see if I can make it better so that it can finally leave the nest.

I guess I could call it a New Year’s Resolution (though hopefully it will go better than my constant childhood ones of be a nicer sister and do better in math).  Or maybe I’ll just term it getting back to normal–an old normal that felt a lot better than what I’ve allowed my new normal to become.

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It’s been five years since I graduated from Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MA program.  My first book about a pair of evacuated British sisters during WWII, A Common Language, served as my thesis.  Book number two, A Common Enemy, was a few chapters into its rough draft at graduation.  The third in the series, A Common Home, doesn’t feel as polished as the other two, which were more substantially edited by the faculty and students at SHU, but I finished a draft of it sometime back in 2010.

That’s three books in four years!  No wonder I was so burned out on WWII that my next project was set in 2011 (the year I began writing it).  But aside from my brain feeling like scrambled eggs from time to time, there was definitely a sense of accomplishment in those years of pushing myself to write.  It was the most crazy-making thing I did that was also the one thing that kept me from going crazy for good.

Somewhere between our trip to Europe and the endometriosis battle, I lost some of that discipline for writing.  My pain level on any given day is totally unpredictable, especially when my cycles are out of whack for some reason.  You’d think that writing, being a sedentary activity, would be a great way to pass the time when I can’t get up off the couch, but that’s not really the case.  Writing requires so much concentration and so much emotional energy that it just doesn’t come when I’m sick or in serious pain.  So I try to be kind to myself when I just can’t do it, but then the habit goes away, and the longer you stay away from a project or writing in general, the easier it is to keep staying away.

What disciplined me so well before?  SCHOOL!  Since I can’t do more about my endometriosis than I already am (ineffective though it often feels), the next best thing to jumpstarting my writing seemed to be going back to school.  I can’t afford full-time school (and I’m not sure I’m up for it anyway, being fourteen months “pregnant”), but I could easily afford a continuing education class at a local community college.  So last Thursday night, I went to my first session of Editing Fiction.

Editing sounded great to me because I would be using a different skill set and a different part of my brain than I use for creating stories.  However, one of our assignments is to present one of our classmates with a short story so that we can learn how editors operate from both sides of the table.  I now officially have no excuse for not starting in on my fourth book in my “Common” series, A Common Cause.  After all, a deadline is calling–finally!

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A Moment to Brag

Last Tuesday, through tears of anguish, I begged my heavenly Father to let something good happen. A couple hours later, I had an email that nearly knocked me to the floor. An agent I contacted back in October about the first book of my WWII series asked me to send her the entire manuscript as an attachment to her personal inbox. Like me, she’s a young Seattlite finding her niche in the world. And she loves “all things British.”

So I sent it, barely containing my urge to give it one last read-through (it was my masters thesis and has been read, in whole or in part, by at least ten fellow writers). And now I add her response to my list of things for which I am impatiently waiting.

But wait! There’s more!

I also turned my musings on Sarah’s infertility journey into a twenty-eight-day devotional over the holidays. A select group of ladies read it and offered constructive suggestions but also heaps of encouragement. Last month I sent it to a manuscript service for Christian writing called Writers’ Edge, where it can be viewed by editors at many Christian publishing houses. Today’s email happy-maker was a note from a reviewer at their service saying it had passed their criteria and would be available to publishers soon. The editor even said she had dealt with infertility and found the sample chapters very moving and biblically sound.

So…now I wait. Both of these projects still have the capacity to go nowhere, but they got this far and for that I am thrilled. So maybe I’m not bragging so much as rejoicing and feeling grateful for the encouragement that others in this industry don’t think I’m totally wasting my time. And praising the One who keeps my head above water no matter what.

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Grandpa’s War

One of my grad school mentors left me with a great explanation for both my fascination with World War II and my mother’s dismay at said fascination:

“Your dad’s war is boring, but your grandpa’s war is cool.”

My dad was a kid/teen during Vietnam and never served in the military, so I can’t test this theory too far.  I do know that I wouldn’t care much about World War II if I didn’t have a grandfather who’d served and who waited fifty years for his most captive audience to start asking him questions about it.  Ironic that I was his only granddaughter and none of his three grandsons showed much interest, but after awhile he didn’t care.  He liked having someone to share his stories with, and they were stories that could grow with me (aka get more colorful as I figured out more of life).  Maybe my mom and her sister had heard some of these stories in passing as they grew up, but they never seemed impressed or interested.  I lived for these moments with him, and similar moments with my grandma when she would tell me about experiencing the war as an adolescent (she was eleven years his junior).  I see that period in history through their eyes and it comes out in my love of swing music, old movies, my American Girl Molly doll, and historical fiction.

Oddly, I never wrote stories set in that period (other than one horrible piece in undergrad about a disabled man who wanted to join the Army to impress his wife).  I read them voraciously (whether they came with companion dolls or not).  I just never had a firm idea that made the most of the era until I visited the Imperial War Museum in London in 2005.  There I learned about children evacuated from Britain to safer countries.  I started crafting one book about a pair of evacuated sisters that eventually stretched into three books, set in 1940, 1941-1942, and 1944-1945, respectively.  While my grandparents’ stories gave me a good feel for the time to help me get started, I spent the better part of four years immersed in research of some kind, trying to get everything right.  It was draining, especially when my grandpa passed away in the middle of writing book three (Grandma died when I was in high school), and I wrote a contemporary novel next to give myself a break.

But in the back of my mind, I knew there was a fourth book, one narrated by the younger sister.  The older sister marries her high school friend/rival/sweetheart when he comes marching home in late 1945, ending the third book and the war.  As far as young adult literature is concerned, her story is closed.  But her younger sister is only fourteen at the time of this wedding, the same age her sister was five years earlier when they crossed the Atlantic in the wake of their father’s death and in fear of persecution because the head of their household was their German-born mother.  Somehow I always pictured the younger sister, yearning for a little adventure, enlisting in the Army as a nurse and finding herself in Korea.

And I have another grandfather, one who was a young Marine in the Korean War.  This grandfather is still alive and well and I see him when I can, but he’s never been talkative about his childhood and his war like my other one was.  The only time I ever heard him open up about his war experiences was when my youngest cousin asked him what he was doing at age nineteen (her age at the time) for a school project.  The idea was to show how life was different for young adults a generation or two ago, and we all got an earful that Thanksgiving dinner.  I wish I’d been the one taking notes, because I don’t know that I’ll ever get him to say any of it again.  It isn’t trauma that keeps him silent, I don’t think.  It’s probably not even not knowing my interest, because he took me and two cousins to the Wright Patterson Air Force Museum when we were kids and he must have noticed how enraptured we all were.  But his lack of desire to relive the past has kept my own interest in his war pretty dormant.

Until now.  Until I can’t stop thinking about my younger heroine and her journey around the world and what that might look like.  I may have to buck up and send Grandpa a note with some questions on it, praying he’ll be as gracious to his oldest granddaughter as he was to his youngest.  He may not have been the grandfather who held my heart in his hands all my life, but his war is still worth writing about.

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I gave my trusty, three-year-old Acer Aspire netbook to a girl from my church’s tutoring program who started college this fall.  Her family of six shared one ancient desktop, and I thought having something she could take to class or the library would help her get some work done.  She was thrilled.  But I wouldn’t give away my writing tool without a back-up plan–I’m not that altruistic.  When I handed it off in late August, I thought it would only be until the end of October that I’d have to make due with the desktop that lives on Mike’s desk and is a great machine for web surfing, blogging, and whatever it is Mike does in his spare time.  Note that “writing” isn’t on that list, because I can’t write on this machine.  I can blog, I can email, I can write my Kirkus Indie book reviews, but I can’t write my books and short stories.  For someone who wrote first drafts of fiction exclusively by hand until grad school forced me to speed things up, the formality and inflexibility of a desktop does not make for a creative space.  I need something that will come with me to the library or the couch or the back porch, something where my fingers and the words they type are not a foot-and-a-half apart and so feel detached from each other.

I had October in my head because that was when Microsoft, which employs my husband, would release their new Surface tablet.  Unlike the iPad, it is not the embodiment of evil consumerism comes with a keyboard cover and can function as a kind of “laptop lite.”  It would let me write my books, keep up with email, and start a Kindle library (though I am still a paper-book reader at heart, except for that pesky sequel to the hard-copy cliffhanger I read last spring that only came out as an ebook).  Oh, and did I mention it would be free?  He and all his fellow Microsofties would get one, probably more as promotion than just goodwill.  My sweet husband would let it live on my desk as long as I promised to share with him on trips and such.

Two months without a laptop, when we’d be on vacation for two weeks of that time?  Sure, if it’ll make a sweet college girl really happy.

Silly Microsoft.  Don’t you know that in this day and age, people pre-order the latest gadgets?  “We sold out of our pre-orders, so employees will have to wait” is not a valid excuse for anything.

Except, of course, if there is no Surface to bring home, there is no Surface on the surface of my desk.  I tried to line-edit my slow-going YA novel by printing several chapters at a time and marking them with red pen at the library, but I had no energy for bigger changes on the cold, menacing desktop.  I’ve felt so unproductive all fall, even using the desktop to research ways to go back to school and train for a job I really don’t want so that I will at least make some money toward our adoption costs.  But somehow a couple of books and lectures on the importance and difficulty of creativity have taken root in my heart just in time to welcome my new toy on Wednesday:

Microsoft Surface

It’s been a little rough getting used to the touch cover (which will probably be replaced by the more button-like type cover soon) and figuring out what is best done with the mouse and what with my fingers on the touch screen.  But glory halleluiah, I feel like a real writer again.  Like I have space that is just mine in which to create fabulous stories and polish their rough edges.  This afternoon, I think I’ll try it at the library, where I can be internet-free and just write to my heart’s content.

Assuming I don’t touch the wrong button and squawk as my document suddenly becomes the weather app.

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