Writing exercise, or something like it
Given as long as it’s been since I’ve made a blog post, this feels a little like when I was in elementary school, and would return to class after a long summer. It was almost tradition for a teacher to assign a “what I did over summer vacation” assignment, much to all of our dismay. The teacher would suggest picking one activity or incident that happened over the three month span rather than try to talk about all summer, as if we, as eight and nine year olds, had done so many exciting things it was difficult to choose just one to write about, rather than the fact that the majority of us just learned at what time and what channel we could find every rerun of our favorite shows from six in the morning to midnight.
Even as a child, I understood the exercise. It was, of course, to get us back into the habit of writing after such a long break, to jog our imaginations– and what better way to do that than to talk about something we liked? Focusing on the self is one of the easiest ways to get back to writing, given you need no other opinion or experience but your own. And so that’s what we’ll be doing here.
As a grown up, I don’t have much in the way of summer vacations anymore, outside the part where I don’t have to drive kids to school and monitor tedious homework in the evenings. I still go to work, still have to shop and cook and pay bills. This summer, though, was chock full of strange and stressful things, as well as interesting and fun. My kids are at an age where they’re both self-entertaining, and also hilarious to talk to. We had storms that did major damage to our city, a death in the family, and even a surprise surgery on yours truly. I’ve never been fond of talking dramatics in my own life, though, so, instead of my appendectomy, I’m going to tell you about my chicken.
If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you’ve probably gleaned that I love animals. As a child, I was the one who went looking for cats in peoples’ houses and had to be restrained from running right up to strangers’ dogs on the street. I went to zoo camp and still tell people the story of feeding a giraffe out of my hand. When I got older, I had to have outside influences prevent me from collecting pets– I’ve often told my husband he’s the only thing standing between me and being a crazy cat lady.
When I was writing my first novel, one of the main characters had chickens. There is a specific paragraph describing how gently he handles his chickens, and a later scene where he and his son are cleaning up their coop and preparing for winter. Given my love of research, I did some on chickens just for these passages, and fell in love with the idea of having my own flock.
At the time, we lived in a townhome, with an 5×8 slab of concrete for a backyard, and an HOA that had been known to come over with a tape measure to make sure your trees were the right height. A year and a half ago, we bought a house with, frankly, too damned big of a yard. This meant, however, I could finally get my beloved chickens.
We bought a coop kit off the internet, and some 12 week old hens from an acquaintance at work. It was everything I dreamed of, except: the chickens didn’t really like us. They scattered and ran when we came out, and wouldn’t let us pick them up. If you’ve ever known an animal person, this is devastating: all you want is to cuddle all the animals of the world!
The following spring, we decided to buy chicks to hand-raise. We got four, one for each of us: four little balls of puffy feathers, cuter than even the cutest kitten by a long shot.
One of them, Springtrap (named by my son), developed a condition called “pasty butt” which is basically exactly what it sounds like. It also requires that the keeper monitor the chicken’s backside, and keep it clean so the poo doesn’t cake together and block the vent, thus killing the chick.
I’m nothing if not obsessive, particularly when it comes to the health of my pets (though, you know, with my kids I’m a big fan of “if you’re not bleeding, you’re going to school”). I checked on her throughout the day, wiping her butt when needed, drying and warming her to keep her from catching cold. She was our runt, our littlest chicken for the duration of their tiniest phase. Despite “my” chicken being a different one named Lady Mary, I became attached to Spring through these treatments, and was proud that she not only survived this hiccup, but grew into a lovely large chicken with the feathered feet of her breed.
Recently, she started acting strange. She spent all day in a nest box and made growling, trilling sounds when approached. The internet informed me: she was broody. Because we have no rooster, as they are not allowed in the city, she would have no babies. She had to be broken.
A note on chickens: they are not like cats. They possess a tiny, lizard brain that makes them both forgetful, and constantly convinced that the next second is their doom. While they can be convinced to be cuddly, it almost seems as though it’s under duress. Every day is their last. I’m obviously just hiding an axe somewhere to come after them when they least expect it.
According to advice, we put Spring in a metal dog crate up on blocks of wood to “air out” her nethers. I felt terrifically sad for her, and would take her out in the afternoons, after the other chickens had laid eggs and I could close the coop. I thought I was doing her a favor. She acted as though I were the cause of all her anguish, and started taking to chasing me when I came out into the yard, pecking at my feet when I fed them, and, on two occasions, bit my arm hard enough to draw blood.
She earned the name “Bitch Chicken.”
The chicken seemed unbreakable. Every morning, I’d haul her out of the coop and put her in the crate, where she’d huddle right back down and give me angry glares anytime she saw me. In the afternoons, I’d shut up the coop and let her out, and she’d mostly behave like the others but, at night, when the coop was reopened, she made a beline for it, threw herself in a nest box and hissed at anyone who came near.
I thought for sure she would be broody forever. I’m not above hyperbole, ever, but she definitely seemed as though none of our efforts would prevail. I started sneaking in when it was dark and putting her on the roosting bar so she would forget where the nest was. In one dramatic and ill-conceived plan, we filled the kitchen sink with cool water and dunked her backside and chest in. The entire room got wet, including me. She kept chasing me through the yard while my husband cackled from the doorway.
And then, she stopped. One morning, I opened the coop and she was the first out the door. She spent all day scratching and pecking and wandering, and then seemed protest going to bed that night. She was cured. The chicken gods had finally smiled on us.
So that is what I did with my summer vacation. Oh, I wrote, too, a book that apparently has decided it’s never going to end, or will actually be three books, I haven’t decided. I’m hoping to finish it by 2030.
Don’t quit your day job
It’s one of the most common phrases a writer hears (possibly just after “have I read anything of yours” or “it must be fun to just get to write all the time): something about that day job of yours. Whether you flip burgers or are a neurosurgeon, everyone seems to think they have an opinion on how you earn a living, and that you need to hear it.
Of course, here I am with an opinion, and think you need to hear it. I’m cool with hypocrisy.
Don’t quit your day job. No, really, don’t.
I, like most other writers with middling to piddling success, require a day job. I’ve been lucky that my husband works in an industry that is ever-expanding, allowing me to stay home with our kids when they were young, and then work on my writing career as they’ve moved onto full-time school, and maintaining a Lord of the Flies-like rulings in their kingdom of two.
I also work, part-time. I understand that this might make my point a bit more moot, as I work mornings and have afternoons and evenings more or less free to write, or dick around as much as I want. However, I’ve also held a full-time job, a rather grueling one, requiring fourteen hour days and lunches eaten hunched over my computer in a closed-off office. It was when I was at this job that I started my first manuscript; it was after I was laid off that I finished it.
Writing is an extremely insular art form. Most writers work in solitude, and books are read far from the reach of the writer. While an artist may not be able to stand right next to you and explain their intention in color selection, a painting can be seen by more person than one, at the same time, can be shared by an entire group at once, and discussed in real time. Books require a dedication to read, to consider, and to reach out about. Being a writer is pretty lonely.
I write in the morning, when I first get up, before my brain is awake enough to let the inner critic carry on at me, telling me everything I do is pointless and stupid. I write in the afternoon when she’s in full-force, too, but, in between, I go to work. I do administrative stuff in health care, for a doctor’s practice, inside of a hospital (how’s that for vague?). This means that I interact with, on average, at least 50 people a day, in an important and direct manner.
Every writer has the ambition to be able to live off their writing. I know few who have expressed blockbuster dreams, or millionaire fantasies– most writers just want to be able to call writing their actual job, with a decent paycheck, just like their day job.
At this point in my life, I don’t know that I would want to quit to solely write. I’ve mentioned before that I hate the romanticizing of the artist life, like writers (and painters, weavers, photographers, actors, et al) are doing something deeply enlightened. It’s still a job, it’s still work. And it’s a lonely, drudging job at that. When a chapter is going poorly, and I’m tired and crabby and nothing seems to be going right, there are few people to turn to in my misery. Writer’s groups, in theory, are the outlet for this– but, I feel, everyone is suffering in their own bubble, and they’re just amassing the bubbles in one place.
At a workplace, there’s a shared feeling that is impossible to get solo. It’s that “we’re all in this together” feeling that makes any terrible day feel a bit more manageable.
I have no desire to quit my day job. Writing will always be my chosen career, but, in lieu of some kind of overwhelming (and, honestly, unwanted) celebrity, I can’t see myself wanting it to be the whole focus of my days. I love writing. I also like my sanity.
New Release: After Life Lessons, Book Two
Laila Blake and I are excited to be releasing the second, and last, book in our After Life Lessons collection today! Available now in ereader formats, you can follow Aaron and Emily, as well as new characters, in a brand new journey in the life After the apocalypse.
Years after the end of the world, the scattered survivors have begun to reconcile with their fate and are starting to build communities from the rubble. Life has been kind to Aaron and Emily, and maybe it is that infusion of hope that leads them on a winter trip to search for Aaron’s family. But the world outside their little haven has grown harsher, the conditions rough and dangerous.
Not everybody they meet on their journey allowed the grim realities to harden their hearts, however. Malachi and Kenzie – an easy-going drifter with a bum leg and amnesia, and a teenage girl who has lost everyone and everything – are on an ill-conceived mission to Mexico, while Iago and his band of nomads work to forge trading connections between the small settlements of the south. All of them will discover new nightmares on the road, far surpassing the threat of the last rotting zombies still roaming the countryside. And now they must come together to fight for peace and justice in the world they trying to rebuild.
This novel contains language some might find offensive, some gore and situations of a sexual nature. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Available at the following online retailers:
Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | Ibooks | AllRomance
A year in review
It’s that time of year, where a frantic scramble to get things done is not only predicted, it’s somewhat expected. In my life, we have not only the holidays, but also both of my children’s birthdays flanking Christmas, and my visions of my own personal deadlines so I can look over my year of work and be pleased with myself.
I frequently make myself sick this time of year.
Three days before Christmas, and I still must venture out for a few small presents for dear friends, but this writing business stops for no one.
The year has been a modest one in terms of word count. I started, and then stopped around 50k, a tightly-wound story about a family in the throes of crisis, having written myself into a corner. I hope to go back and figure out how to unravel this, because I think, at the heart of it, the story is a sound one, and interesting. With Laila Blake, I completed a collection of short stories centered around our characters from After Life Lessons (you can find it here), as well as the first draft for the second, and final, book featuring those characters and their post-apocalyptic world. I completed the first in a trilogy about a dystopian world with a mysterious narrator, and rewrote 3/4 of a novel I originally completed last December, giving this year a sort of fun, cyclical sort of ending. Several pieces of erotica were also accepted this year, and a few have come out in print already, with more planned in anthologies next year.
This year, on a lot of fronts, was more dedicated to the publishing side of writing, which is a much newer experience for yours truly. Editing is one of my favorite activities, and one of my greater skills, and I found myself doing a lot more of that this year, with several rewrites and edits on After Life Lessons before it went to print in April, as well as several edits on At the Edge of the World, which came out in August. I also have picked over and helped groom Laila’s first two installments of the Lakeside Series, and the last in her Breaking in Waves trilogy.
From there, I am still a little floundering, still learning to swim, in a way. Lilt Literary is slowly gaining steam, and with it, we are working on aspects of publishing that are mostly new and foreign to us. I used to work in marketing, in advertising, but on the production end: I wrote and composed ads, I did not sell them. I am innately shy, a little terrified of talking to just about anyone– I had a friend once comment that I never looked in anyone’s eyes, something I’d never really noticed, but find myself doing kind of constantly unless I know a person well.
Marketing yourself is hard. It is even harder when you, as a person, don’t do well talking yourself up, not to mention live in a society where women are, for the most part, conditioned to shy away from self-congratulation, from believing they’re worth listening to, or caring about. Selling a book is a little like selling yourself– I’m not one to compare a book to a baby, but, certainly, it represents a large amount of time, and effort, and skills, and, so, it’s a product of you, of your abilities. Telling someone how great it is, and that they should care about it, read it, is like telling them why they should be your friend. It’s uncomfortable at best, horrifying at the worst.
Independant and self-publishing means you’re doing a majority of the work of a book on your own. You write it, you proof it, you edit and re-edit, you design and format and convert files, get it to distributors, advertise. At Lilt Literary, we’re lucky to both be trained as editors, and proof-readers, and pride ourselves on tightly-written and edited work. Laila is a wizard with graphic design, and has produced jaw-dropping covers for all of our books. We’ve become well-versed with computer formatting for different output (both physical and digital), and in many avenues of distribution.
My confidence wavers at advertising. As a small-time publishing house, we are shut out of many traditional channels: obviously we’re not going to be able to put an ad in a widely-read magazine, or get ourselves on a talk show. Our budget is smaller than a traditional publishing house, and so getting our books on the shelves of local and national bookstores isn’t within our ability at this moment.
There is a stigma attached to independent and self-publishing, too, one that is, and isn’t, accurate. With the ease of Amazon uploading, for instance, a person can take a poorly-written fanfic and have it for sale in 5 minutes flat. What is a beautiful invention– the ability to reach masses with a click of a mouse– can be burdened by lack of quality control. While this is a topic for another time (and I do love talking about it), the point is more: it’s hard to get noticed, harder to get people to read, and believe, in your ability when you are not coming out of a big-name publisher.
It’s definitely been a learning process, but one that is slowly becoming easier, clearer, and showing results. Over the last year alone I, and we, have learned so much about getting our books to readers, and making a successful profit, that I’m actually excited about doing more in the new year, where, even a few months ago, I even loathed writing an email to a potential reviewer.
It turns out writing is an ever-evolving practice. Who knew?
Here’s wishing you the happiest of holidays, and bountiful new year.
Hipster call to support indie publishing!
Now, listen here, you hipster. You put down that caffe crema and turn off that Dandelion Hands album, stop stroking your beard and reading Teju Cole, and focus on me.
You’re not a bad guy, Mr. Hipster. You like to support the indie spots in town – you visit the coffee shop that has no siren on its sign but prices even higher, with a pierced barista who refuses to smile; you still buy vinyl, from the punk store that employs the barista’s clone; you patronize the ancient barber down the block for your weekly hot neck shave; you even take your dollars to the bookstore run out of a decaying storefront that keeps a cat and sells more used books than new. You’re conscientious about how you use your money, to whom you pay, and what you support. You’ve contributed several Indie Go-Gos, Kickstarters, and GoFundMes for filmmakers, artists, bloggers and nostalgia generators alike. You’ve got good taste. Better than any of your friends.
So why are you still only reading books from the big six publishers? Go take a look at your bookshelf and jot down the names of the publishing houses for me. I’ll wait.
You’ve got Random House and Penguin on your list, don’t you? HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster? You missed Hachette and Macmillan, but my point is: out of those books you glanced over, only maybe one was from a small house (nope, that one you just wildly defended? That’s an imprint of Penguin). I’m not judging your reading selection – those are some really great books, and every writer deserves an income. That you pursue such a wide variety of authors and genres is quite commendable.
However (you knew there would be a however, right?), you’ve missed a beat. Where you strive to spend your dollars with businesses and people who, you feel, embody your beliefs more closely, by shopping locally, organically, and ethically, by giving more money directly to the producer of your goods, you’re not doing so with your reading.
There are more writers than books, truly, and definitely more than books that are published with the aforementioned publishing houses. For every book on the shelf by Jonathan Safran Foer, there are about a thousand other people typing madly in their ill-lit apartments and on their work latops, in coffee shops and on college campuses, in cushy studies and between two squalling babies. There are more stories than books published, too, more stories about fantastic new worlds and the drudgery of the same life troubles, characters with no vowels in their names and at least 654 named Mary.
But, you say, self-publishing has no regulation for quality! Any dumbass can write something and have it uploaded to Amazon in minutes, complete with a shitty cover and no editing!
Right you are. But, if you’ll remember, big name doesn’t equal quality. Remember Twilight? Remember 50 Shades of Grey?
Like anything indie, self- and independently-published works have a wide variety in quality. Indeed, some people finish a 50 page Word document, save it, and hit upload on Amazon with nary a thought for formatting, editing, or even spell-check. They make a cover in Paint. This appears on searches next to best-sellers, next to meticulously-created works.
Music the same way. Anyone can record a song on an iPhone nowadays, on a computer, and have it on the web in a few minutes. A Facebook fan page can be arranged before the file is finished formatting. A BandCamp site can be created with just a login and a credit card. This, of course, doesn’t mean that every band on BandCamp is shitty – far from it. Are there awful albums on the site, terrible sounds that can hardly be called music? Well of course.
Generally, you’re happy to give a band a listen, right, Mr. Hipster? If it’s not in the Top 40, you’ll check out a sample, maybe even throw in a buck to download. Indie bands and musicians helped change the face of how we listen and collect music as we know it. Napster, and everything that came after, made it easier to access bands that might not be able to afford a van to come to your state, or press CD’s to sell at shows, let alone ship to stores hundreds of miles away. The sounds of the world were suddenly in our reach. Big record labels were terrified.
Now we have hundreds of indie labels, ranging from companies created to curate some of the best rock bands, like Frenchkiss Records, to labels created specifically for a single artist to maintain and control their own vision of their music, like Ingrid Michaelson’s Cabin 24 Records.
Indie labels are celebrated in music. So why not your books?
Of course you’re going to have to sift through some stinkers. Not everything brought to print or digital is going to be worth your time. And of course it might take more time and effort than going to your local bookshop (even that one with the cat, hipster) and picking up whatever cover catches your eye. But isn’t some of the glory in finding something truly special, in being the person just that far ahead of the curve?
Writers, like artists, like musicians, work – long and hard hours crafting and creating engaging stories, and then even more time polishing them. Self- and independently-published authors continue working: in formatting and graphic design, in coding and advertising. From start to finished product, and well beyond – after all, once the book is published, the work of getting people to read it has just begun.
To appeal to your egalitarian side, Mr. Hipster, I want you to know: I hold no bitterness against the traditionally published, or, even the publishing houses that take them on. A large amount of the books I read, myself, are from those very lists. There is, indeed, often a reason these people were picked by Random House, by Penguin: they’re usually pretty damned good (and profitable, but that’s a different subject). You’re welcome to read them just like, in the securely closed confines of your house at night, you’re welcome to crank up your secret Maroon 5 albums. No one is taking your hipster cred for that.
But you’re going to lose points if you don’t put your money where your mouth is. Indie means indie, means supporting those who are doing the work, and getting more of your money to those creators. Indie means fostering the new and the interesting, and the weird, and demanding your right to it.
Think of it this way: would you be happy listening to only what the radios want play? Why should you be happy only reading what the publishing houses want to print?
You can get back to your espresso and iPod now, Mr. Hipster. I believe in you, even if I think you need to lose the beard.
This blog entry is mostly a work of satire, and should be taken tongue firmly in cheek. When I say mostly, I mean I wildly support the work of Teju Cole and other authors of his ilk, and I’ve been known to drink Starbucks. But I really do hate beards, and think you should buy more independent and self-published authors if you believe in supporting artists and progressive thought. Because duh.