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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Criminally Difficult

Hello, dear readers, loyal followers, and those of you who stumbled randomly onto this blog in the wide inter-verse.

This past year has been a difficult year.

I've (now) written eight novels. I know how it's done. I have a system for writing novels and piecing stories together - one that involves a collision of plenty of pluck and pretty careful planning. I have never written a book that has not been marinating in my brain and in my writing journals for at least two years. I am deliberate and intentional, and I have a knack for knowing what works and what doesn't in a story. Writing is, for me, both a gift and a discipline. And that is why this year was so, so frustrating, because no matter how much all of my above-stated "ducks" were in a row, I simply could not make the time to get the sequel to BREEDER written when and how I wanted it to be written. Even though I felt like it shouldn't have been, CRIMINAL was criminally difficult to write.

It started with burn out. In March of last year, I wrapped writing on the first draft of BREEDER right on the heels of having finished the first draft of The Bone Whistle. So, from October 2013-March 2014, I wrote two novels in two different series in two entirely different styles and totaling about 290,000 words (That's more than the length of the first three Harry Potter novels combined). I only took about two weeks off in those six months, and while I was finishing writing BREEDER, I was also starting edits on The Bone Whistle, which was set for publication in September 2014. When I turned in BREEDER at the end of March, I sat back and took a break from writing while I continued to work with my editing team on The Bone Whistle, but I fully intended on picking myself up after a couple week break and beginning to write CRIMINAL so as to have it complete before my baby came in October - because, oh yes, I was also pregnant with my fourth baby.

And... It just didn't happen.

I was so tired. I look back on last summer and wonder why I couldn't make myself write, and I can only guess that I was just beyond burned out. The story was in my head, all my planning was done, but my creative juices were gone. I think the toll of basically completing six NaNoWriMo challenge equivalents in a row had caught up to me, along with the mental strain of those books - the last in a long series that had to tie up every loose thread, and the first in a series that was untested and unknown. Every week that passed last summer, I told myself I would get to work on CRIMINAL, and every week I didn't. And then school started, and I went back to teaching full time, and my time and energy diminished even more. And then I had the release of The Bone Whistle to manage, and then one week later, my fourth little baby boy decided to make his entrance to the world three weeks early. I'm sure everybody knows, or at least has heard, how exhausting the first few months with a newborn are, and so after Edmund's birth, all possibilities of writing productivity dwindled even more. November arrived, and with it, the Time of Much Sickness. Between Thanksgiving and Easter of this past year, between myself, my husband, and my four boys, we did not have more than a single week where everyone was well. We experienced the flu, RSV, bronchitis, pink eye, croup, ear infections, strep, asthma attacks, migraine headaches, and more. It was bizarre and awful and dispiriting, and... I couldn't find the time or the energy to write. I was nursing my baby, too, which takes hours of every day, and between that, working full time, cooking, taking care of sickies, being sick myself, being wife and mother, and all the other general things in life, I despaired at finding any time to get down to writing CRIMINAL. There were even a few dark moments where I wondered if my writing career was over because I simply couldn't balance everything in my life anymore.

I am the sort of writer who needs time to write. Perhaps that sounds like a "duh" thing to say, but let me explain. If I can't carve out a couple hours to devote to it at a time, it's hard for me to even bother. A half hour here and there is not enough time for me to get my head in the game. At least, that's what I'd always thought, because that's how I'd always written. I'd always started a book and knocked it out in 6-12 weeks, working several hours each day to get it done. This year taught me that if I was going to practice was I preach about the discipline of writing, then I would have to change the way I write books in order to fit into my new schedule with four little ones instead of three (that fourth one really does make a difference!). I would have to write in the stolen half hours - fifteen minutes - five minutes - in between diaper changes and staggered naps. I would not be able to stay up half of each night for a month to get a book written, because I just don't have the energy for that anymore, and it's not fair to my family! I would have to adapt to my new life, or my writing career would be over. So I did.

Sometime this past year - I think it was February - I opened my document (that I'd created last summer) and began to pick at CRIMINAL. There were days where I only got a hundred words on the page, but at least I got those hundred words on the page. But I lost track of things far too easily. The benefit of writing novels the way I usually write them is that because it happens so fast, I don't forget much of what I've already written as I go. But with CRIMINAL, sometimes it would be weeks in between scenes, and I couldn't remember which story elements I'd already included. This made for a lot of rewriting as I went along, and for a painfully, criminally slow writing of the first draft, but I got it done. I got it done! And then I did a complete revision, and that took a few weeks, too, because there were a lot more rough edges than I usually have, but that is now also done. It took me six months, and I think it was an important six months. I don't know if I'll ever again be able to write novels like I used to, but now I know I can write novels like this - with baby steps rather than marathon strides. I got to the finish line, beta reader feedback is already starting to come in (it's positive!), and I hope to have publication info soon. It still has a long official editing process to go through, so I don't know if it will squeak in before the end of 2015, but if it does, it will be a Christmas miracle! All I can promise at this time is, it's coming...

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Girl and Her Dinosaurs

Let me tell you a story about a girl and her dinosaurs...

In 1993, I was ten years old, shy, gawky, and a huge fan of everything dinosaurs. Because I was still rather young, my parents, being good parents, had no intention of letting me go and see the PG-13, probable (within reason) bloodbath, adventure flick that was Jurassic Park, no matter how much I begged and pleaded. Dinosaurs eating people on an island? Oh no. I do not think so. I lamented my fate and glued myself to the TV whenever the trailer for the movie played, but the theater run came and went, and no Jurassic Park for me.

Kids these days have no idea how to wait for anything, and yes, I do intend to sound like a curmudgeon when I say that, so (kids, if you're reading this), let me tell you how it used to be. We used to have to wait almost an entire year for a movie to make it from theater to film - yes, that long. And then we had the agony of being on the waiting list at Blockbuster for any popular films, since they were usually in high demand. Not that this gave me any real hope of seeing Jurassic Park, as the advent of a new year did not advance me to the magical age of 13, and I still did not expect my parents to allow me to see the film. If they wouldn't take me to see it on the big screen, why on earth would they bring it into our house? Oh, agony upon agonies.

And then, about a year after Jurassic Park left the theaters, I spent the night at a friend's house.

She had this amazing basement bedroom all to herself. I distinctly remember it because it had a pass-through fireplace from the main family room in the basement to her bedroom. It was, truth be told, rather creepy, but it was also private. And not only was it private, but she had her own TV and VCR down there, with access to the family's stash of VHS tapes.

Now, I was a good girl. I really was. I wouldn't have watched anything truly terrible. No R-rated forays for me, thank you very much! But... they had THE MOVIE. The movie I had wanted to see for a whole year. Jurassic Park. It was before me like a gleaming prize. We could watch it, and nobody would ever know. Her parents were fast asleep. She was game for it (and assured me it wasn't "that" scary), and we swore neither of us would ever breathe a word of it. So I said okay. I outright disobeyed my parents, and I watched Jurassic Park with my friend.

As naughty as I was, my first experience with that film is emblazoned on my memory - and probably in no small part because I watched it in the thrill (and horror) of disobedience, hovered around an old TV in a dark creepy basement in the middle of the night. I had never been so awed by a movie as I was in experiencing the brontosauruses for the first time alongside the characters, or as horrified as I was when the T-Rex escaped and when the velociraptors ate their handler ("clever girl!"). The movie scared me to death, but it also took a hold of me as a good movie experience does, and little did I know at that time I had experienced what could rightly be called, I think, a 90s-kid quintessential rite of passage. All I knew was I was so happy to finally have seen it.

I was also terribly guilty, especially when my dad surprised me by bringing it home not a month later.

We were going to have a family movie night, and my dad had gone off to Blockbuster to get the movie. I fully expected another Disney animated flick, as per the usual, and I was having a bad attitude about the whole thing, so much so that when Dad arrived home with the movie, I huffily pronounced (in good, preteen fashion) that I was just going to hang out in my room instead. "Stay, stay!" Dad said. I remember folding my arms and sulking while he put the tape in. As I waited for the Disney music to begin, instead an image of the globe appeared on the screen and the words "UNIVERSAL" began floating around them. (I remember this like it was yesterday). I dropped my arms, and my jaw, and shouted, "Is this Jurassic Park?" "I thought you'd like to see it," my dad said. He never asked how I knew it was Jurassic Park just from the opening production credits, and I never told him. Until now. (Sorry, Dad! Mea culpa.) I watched it through for the second time, pretending like it was my first time seeing it, and thoroughly enjoying it all over again.

Now that my parents had invited it into the house, however, I was free to indulge the obsession. My school library had every Michael Crighton book on the shelves, and I read every. single. one... multiple times. In hindsight, 6th grade was probably not the most appropriate age for Michael Crighton books, but I survived. And, to bring this around to writing (which is really what my blog should be about, after all), I mark Michael Crighton's works as being formative for me. He mastered creepiness that didn't feel like horror to me, and I liked that and wanted to emulate it as a writer. Anyhow, I also delved much further into all things dinosaur. (We'd just moved and I had NO friends in my new school - shocking, I know. Who doesn't want to be friends with the girl obsessed with dinosaurs?) When my 6th grade science teacher assigned a project where we had to pick a dinosaur to do a report on, I chose procompsognathids. Yes. That's right. Procompsognathids. "Whatsits?" my teacher asked. "Oh, they're also called compys," I said. *sigh* I was such a winner. He let me do the project, and gave me an A on it.

As time passed and I made some (human) friends, my obsession with dinosaurs cooled. I grew up and out of infatuation with the wonderment of the prehistoric unknown, and I came to recognize Jurassic Park for what it was - fantasy. Great, gripping fantasy, but just that, all the same. Of course I saw each of the successive Jurassic Park movies as they came out, but when I heard about Jurassic World, I honestly kind of rolled my eyes. Hasn't this been done already? Isn't it tired out? Welll... there was still a curious corner of my brain and a nostalgic corner of my heart that wanted to go and see it, but I had no concrete plans to do so.

But then my parents came in town for the 4th of July holiday and my dad volunteered to take me to a movie. It just seemed fitting for my dad, who rented Jurassic Park for his poor, desperate, dorky 11-year-old daughter to take his poor, not-as-desperate, still-dorky 32-year-old daughter to see Jurassic World. And I'm so glad he did! Jurassic World was so ridiculously awesome, and I take my hat off to the film makers who managed to recreate the wonderment this 90s-era kid felt at seeing dinosaurs on the big screen for the first time all over again. The music, the choice of dinosaurs, the sounds, the fights, the action, the island, the throwback vehicles and buildings, it was all perfection. Oh, don't get me wrong - it was totally stupid, too. I mean, ridiculously stupid (training velociraptors for use in combat? Puh-leaze), and so predictable (called the ending - called it!), but it was stupid and predictable in all the right ways for the sort of movie it was. And I loved it. I ate up every moment. I pulled my knees up to my chest and tucked my feet onto the seat like a little kid, grinned from ear to ear, and covered my eyes at the most jumpy moments. Perfect movie going experience. Nostalgia for the win.

So what's the moral of the story? The moral of the story is, good stories have the power to be life experiences. Here I am, 21 years after I saw Jurassic Park for the first time, blogging about dinosaurs.

Another moral of the story is that procrastination produces amazingly long blog posts about dinosaur movies when you're supposed to be revising your manuscript, so... yeah. I'm going to go get back to work on CRIMINAL. Dystopian novels don't produce themselves! Maybe I should try my hand at screenwriting next...