What Are You Trying to Accomplish? (Faith, Politics, and Obligations to Both)

If you live in Louisville, you may have seen our latest obnoxious group of doomsdayers: a Texas based pro-life group called Operation Save America. Why they’re suddenly so concerned with Louisville, I don’t know. Surely there are abortion clinics in Texas. Whatever the reason, they’ve stormed downtown Louisville with trucks and posters covered in pictures of mutilated babies and half-finished Bible verses (“The wages of sin is death” without “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”). When I step out of the office for my downtown day job, they’re at every streetcorner with fliers in hand. They stand in the courtyard right behind my office building and shout into a megaphone that the entire country is damned because we’ve legalized abortion. They’re unavoidable.

I built up a dozen righteously angry speeches in my head, but for the most part, I’ve walked past them with little more than a reprimanding glare and a faster step. Today, though, I was stopped at a crosswalk while one of these “evangelists” held out a flier told me and told me how God was going to burn sinners in hell. I was tired and sweaty and uncomfortable. I whirled on the guy.

“Listen,” I said. “I’ve been a practicing Christian my whole life. I read the Bible every day. I pray every day. And what you’re doing? It’s not Christianity. So, shut the fuck up!”

I stormed off as my crosswalk turned to “walk,” shaking the whole way to my destination. I didn’t feel very righteous. Here I am, trying to make a career out of words, but when I needed the right words, they were too blocked by my anger.  I oversimplified my religion (as if praying and reading the Bible on a regular basis was all there was to leading a Christian life). I didn’t change their perspective and I didn’t feel some “well, I stood up to the bad guys so I’m a good person” satisfaction. If anything, I felt worse than I might have if I had kept walking.

The problem is for me there’s more to it than anger. Every time I see these people, there’s this inner conflict raging inside of me. I definitely think that what they’re doing is wrong. I’m not sure that what I’m doing is right.

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What I Learned from D&D: Campaign Session #2

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Note: It’s been a while with these, I know.  It’s been a while since I’ve blogged at all, for that matter. I’m trying to be better about it. If you don’t see about seven more segments of this series in the next few weeks, feel free to yell at me.

“Wait, what was his name again?”

“What did you say we were fighting?”

“Oh, shit! I have resistance to fire! I forgot!”

These interruptions have been common occurrences for me in our new D&D campaign, and it’s a wonder our DM hasn’t snapped and put me in time-out for an hour.  (How would you go about doing that in D&D, anyway? Maybe an npc could curse Cherish so that that she would be paralyzed until it was dispelled? Not that I want to give dungeon masters ideas for how to punish their players, but I do kiiind of want to give dungeon masters ideas for how to punish their characters. Just not mine.) I tried to pay attention, but there are a lot of details to take in.  My mind wandered, thinking about something I wanted to say when an opportune moment arose or about the tentative respect between two characters–and suddenly we had to explain to a pair of guards what we were doing and I couldn’t remember any of the words I needed.

I’ve never been a note taker. In high school, I never had to be. I was one of those obnoxious kids that tested well without studying. We all know how the rest of that story goes. In my first week of college, one of my professors pulled me aside and said, “I noticed you weren’t taking any notes. You’ll really need to remember this material.”

“Oh, I will,” I assured her. “I don’t have to take notes. I’m just really good at remembering.” She gave me a concerned look. “You’ll see.”

She did not see.

I did horribly in that class, because I never took notes and thus forgot all but a few stray details. I also forgot most of the important details of all of the other classes in which I failed to take notes–which was all of them. I forgot most of the names of the many peers I met in the dining hall those first few months (when in doubt, just guess Katie). My brilliant retention skills evidently decided they didn’t need the college experience, moved to California and never returned.

But even after I left school and joined the working world, for some reason I still stubbornly insisted on not taking notes. “I’ll remember,” I kept saying. “I’m really good at that.”

I never quite suffered for that the way I did in college; usually, I just asked my supervisor, “I’m sorry, can you show me again?” They sighed, but they showed me again and I repeated the steps to myself a few times until I had it down. Each time, I decided I had learned my lesson. I would pay closer attention.

And then we started playing D&D and, even though everyone talks about how necessary it is to take notes, I still found myself thinking, “Nah, I’ll just pay attention.”

Learn from my mistakes, reader:

You need to take notes. 

At least, you need to take notes in D&D. And to take notes, you need to pay attention. I had a notebook in the second session, determined that I would start to take notes, but because I was so out of practice, I was never sure what to write down.  What names would come up again? How much did I really need to remember about each city? My first notes were sparse: a couple names and a vague description per page, tally marks to remind me how many spells I had used. In future games, they didn’t help me much, but in future games, I learned to take better notes. I learned that when in doubt, the closer attention to detail, the better.

I’m an odd creature of a writer. I consider myself a detail-oriented person who cares about the little things in the story. I have a feel for them in my head, a vague, abstract feeling that sort of contradicts the nature of specific details.  I like the idea of having a rich setting. I like the idea of having thorough world-building and knowing the names and backstories of the characters that have one line of dialogue in the whole story. When I actually sit down to write, though, those details intimidate and exhaust me.

I put them off. Even with important things, I say, “I’ll just make them up as I go along,” or “I’ll leave it vague for now and I’ll fix it when edits come around.” That might be all fine for some writers.  It’s even necessary for most writers. There are some things you just won’t be able to figure out until you finish a first draft and go back through to revise it. However, I’ve caught myself a few too many times thinking that I don’t need to worry about the details right now, only to run into a plot hole or a block later.  I find myself thinking I have a developed character and even though their motivation is a little vague, it’s enough. I have a firm idea of them in my head, but when I write it, they come across flat. I even forget elements I added into my own story five chapters ago, because I never thought to make a note of it.

The best stories I’ve read are rich in detail, whether external world-building or the protagonist’s inner world.  Their settings aren’t just places where the story happens, but living, breathing characters themselves. Those authors don’t just think, “Eh, I’ll figure it out.” They put in the work. They make notes so that they remember. Or they don’t. Maybe they don’t need to. But as a writer, and a tiefling cleric, I need to take notes to make sure that I remember everything I need to know. It’s time to stop fooling myself and pretending otherwise.

Story Struggles

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For many people, Camp NaNoWriMo is something of an easier NaNoWriMo. I’ve actually recommended it to many authors who struggle with NaNoWriMo as an alternative. It takes place twice a year, April and July, so the writer can choose the month that’s most convenient for them (for me, it’s usually April, but I sometimes do both). The writer can set their own word count goal, so if you’re just trying to create a habit of writing regularly and want to set a goal of 20,000 words, you can do that and no camper worth their keyboard will judge you. Many NaNo veterans use Camp NaNo as a way to finish their manuscript from NaNoWriMo, and I’ve done the same.

This year, however, I went for challenge. 50,000 words isn’t really a novel, after all. That’s still more of a novella.  So, instead I tried for 70,000. I set a daily word count of about 3,000 a day, because I don’t write on Sundays. But that was not actually the difficult part. The difficult part was that soon after I started writing, my story decided to play Hogwarts staircase and change its direction in my head–in a way that I was unable to change on screen without losing thousands of words.

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Fruits of the Day: Day of Peace

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Growing up, Sunday was the day we went to church, though we stopped going while I was still a teenager. The churches were obnoxious and the pastors were showmen. There was too much petty fighting between the denominations (Southern Baptism vs. Methodism seemed to be the worst offender, but most of my hometown also believed that the Catholics, The Church of Christ, and possibly the Presbyterians were going to hell). The seventh day is “a day of rest,” but when I was strapped for cash and my manager asked me if I would be willing to alternate Sunday shifts, I didn’t deliberate long. I try not to write on Sunday, because I consider writing to not only be my work, whether or not I’m getting paid for it, but also the work I most want to make into a career. Sometimes when I’m getting really into a story, I resent Sunday for forcing me to take a break.

The “day of rest” has always been a struggle for me.

Today, the “fruit of the Spirit” on which I directed my focus was “peace,” which seems like a message if ever there was one. Today, I need to put my work aside, stop worrying, stop planning, and just breathe and relax into the rest that God has offered. And you know what? I’m not fighting it in the way that I normally would. Maybe I’m just worn down. I’m working on projects I’m not passionate about, and neglecting the ones that I desperately want to be writing because of some inexplicable idea of “balance,” the reason for which I don’t even remember. I hate my day job…I always have. Even before this job. I know that it’s not just this job, it’s just me. I burn out on these office jobs too easily. After about a year, everything about it makes me feel like I’m going to explode. At the end of this past Friday, I felt a panic attack coming on. My boss had gone home for the day, and I locked myself in her office for a few minutes, hyperventilating and not-quite-crying. Nothing had even really happened. I was just so overwhelmed by the prospect of coming in every day and feeling this…heaviness, and the fear that I might never be a good enough writer. What if this is all there is for me?

I can do something about the writing.  I cut my list of projects down to the four I cared most about. (“But the potential!” I worry as I strike through one story that has some good elements but doesn’t really grab my attention. “If it’s meant to be written, I’ll remember it when the time is right,” I remind myself.)  I can’t do as much about my day job.  I don’t have the vacation time that I used to since we outsourced. I already have most of my time scheduled for the year, so I can’t take a day off just for the sake of my mental health (and get paid for it, anyway). And I can’t do as much about my fear of failure, which is always there, even if I’m not actively working. And there’s only so much I can do about the world around me, that makes me increasingly more discouraged and worried.

I get the weekend off, and I know I’m lucky, because many of my friends don’t have that.  But the weekend never quite seems long enough. I never come back to the work week feeling ready. But I’m taking advantage of the peace of today. It’s calming to know that I can just lie back, that if I watch TV shows about LARPers and eat pizza all day, it won’t be a failed day. God has everything under control. And tomorrow, I won’t be able to rest, but God will still have it under control. I just need to remember that.

A Reader’s Thousand Lives: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it when I chose this book as the next for my Thousand Lives project. I have two rules when it comes to my reading project: 1) nothing that would be more harmful to me than beneficial and 2) nothing that would hurt other people. So to try to take life tips from a book about a wronged man who swears revenge on all his enemies without hurting anyone or myself seemed impossible. I’m a big believer in forgiveness over revenge, in part because I so often fail at forgiveness.  I don’t want to undo any progress I’ve made on that front because a bitter character in a novel did it.

But when I started to really get into this book, I realized it’s not about revenge. Not at its heart. The takeaway message in The Count of Monte Cristo seems to be in the famous line: “All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope.” At one point after years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the hero, Edmond Dantes, becomes suicidal. When he befriends the Abbé Faria, they begin to plot an escape and Dantes realizes the enemies that framed him. He becomes more determined than ever to live so that he can one day enact his revenge. Not the healthiest motive, admittedly, but it gives him a renewed drive. Towards the end of the story, he also encourages his young friend, Maximillian Morrel, not to give in to his despair but instead to find reasons to “wait and hope.” It pays off for Morrel, too, not in death and vengeance but in life and a renewal of joy.

To me, The Count of Monte Cristo is not about vengeance at its core, but perseverance. It’s about finding the drive that gets you through the day when everything else seems lost.

I’ve known my two main “reasons to live” for most of my life. I’m a Christian, so my ultimate reason to live is to try to bring glory to God in as much time as I’m given on earth. I’m also a writer, and in dark times, I remind myself of my goals to be published and to have people around the world that I’ve never met read something that I wrote. There’s a good deal of waiting in both of those things. God’s plans almost never develop as quickly as we humans would like, and it takes even longer to know whether we made any kind of effect on the world. The process of trying to finish a piece of writing that I want to publish and getting that piece of writing published and distributed is a long, painful one. And I’ve never been good at waiting.

Even though I know that I have these things, and they’re important, they’re so long in the making that sometimes when life gets me down (as it has been wont to do, especially lately), it can convince me that these things are useless. Not useless for everyone, surely, but useless for me, because I’m not any good at them. Sometimes the drag feels stronger than my drive and I need as much encouragement as I can get. So for this novel, besides renewing my commitment to focus on the things that drive me and be patient, I’m going to make a list (not exclusive) of some things worth persevering for.

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What I Learned From D&D: Campaign Session #1

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“I really want a campaign,” my friend, Jamey, told me over Skype soon after our one-shot.

“I know,” I replied. “Same.” Actually, we had been talking about this for at least a month before we ever played our first Dungeons & Dragons game. I said that I wanted to play the first game to get a feel of things and be sure, but we knew we would be hooked right away, and we were right.

So, we took to Tumblr with our plan for a campaign, and, when no one on Tumblr was available, we tried Facebook. “I’ll DM if no one else wants to,” Jamey offered.  By the next day, that had changed to, “I really don’t mind if I have to DM. I think it might be fun.” And by the end of the day, “Yeah, I have an idea. I want to DM.”

At first, we had about seven people, not including Jamey as our DM; but, through scheduling, computer, or personal conflicts, that number dwindled before we started our first game. By the time of the first session, our party consisted of:

  • Daarga, a half-orc druid who was taken in by druids after his orc tribe beat him nearly to death;
  • Alerith, a half-elf monk daughter of a diplomat (left later because the player decided D&D wasn’t for her);
  • Neeks, a half-elf bard with a secretive past; and my character,
  • Cherish, a tiefling who became a cleric to avoid consequences after an affair with a noble’s daughter.

Cherish is a far cry from Fenoise. She’s irreverent and selfish and her motivation of “well, serving a badass volcano goddess I’m not sure I believe in is better than being a fugitive” couldn’t be further from Fenoise’s idealistic ambitions of becoming a bardic folk hero. But in creating her, I did notice a common pattern:

I like to write characters that don’t quite “fit” their type.

I hesitate to say that Cherish is “bad” at being a cleric or Fenoise “bad” at being a bard, though I suppose they start out that way; that’s what character development is for. In each of them, though, I made a point to do something unexpected. Making a cleric: what about an irreligious young woman that looks a bit like a demon? And if the cleric’s deity is known to have aggressive, passionate followers: well, what if my cleric doesn’t really care yet? What if this was just a last resort for her? What if this elf who wants to make a career of music and making magic out of her words is terrified of performing? Even the fact that Fenoise had one leg four inches shorter than the other was something I added to combat the stereotype of lithe, graceful elves. My favorite characters that I’ve written start off with a concept like that: take this stereotype and flip it. As I get to know them, I develop them into fully fleshed out characters.

I don’t think that these are genius subversions of character that no one has ever thought to write before, but I think  it can be fun, and it’s something I like about my writing. And as a writer riddled with self-doubt, I don’t often find things about my own writing that I can, with certainty, claim to like.  Character creation is one of my strengths, and it’s just as important to learn about my strengths as it is to learn about my weaknesses. Character creation has always been one of my strengths, but I’m not sure I’ve often tried this trick when writing something that doesn’t have clearly designated character classes. I did try it recently, though: I wrote a short story for a contest featuring a suburban stay-at-home mother with a secret past as a grifter. As soon as that twist came to me, the rest of the story started to fall into place, and a daunting assignment became fun.

Finding the unexpected in my characters is one of my favorite parts of writing, and from now on, I’m going to commit to looking for it.

I Entered a Contest

I’ve been a little busy this week.

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I started writing when I was about eight years old. At first, it was just a school project, and then some stories to amuse myself and my friends, though I think I imagined publishing a book one day even then. By the time I was sixteen, I decided it was what I wanted to do with my life.  When I dropped out of college and nineteen, I said that writing was the only career I saw for myself and if I had to work entry level positions until I made that happen (I was a little naive at the time and didn’t realize that writers often need day jobs even after they’re published), so be it.

At that time, I gave myself a goal: have something published, even if it’s just a short story, by the time I’m twenty-five.  I’ll be twenty-six in a month, but I’m nowhere near that goal. In fact, in all the time I’ve been writing, the only time I’ve submitted a story for any kind of judgment was to apply for the Governor’s School for the Arts, to which I was rejected. I usually either don’t stick with projects long enough or I feel they’re not ready, or they’re not what I had in my head. Well, there’s that, and then there’s me. Sharing my stories with even family and close friends makes me feel sick to my stomach. Workshops? Unbiased betas? It’s painful to even think about it.

It’s a stumbling block I know I need to overcome, so this year, I made a New Year’s Resolution to enter more contests and submit to magazine’s. And NYC Midnight‘s annual short story challenge seemed like the perfect place to start. You all know that I’m a long time participant in NaNoWriMo, and that my favorite thing about it is the “healthy dose of panic” it induces. One of my NaNo friends told me, when I explained this challenge to her, “That sounds exactly like something a NaNoWriMo writer would do.” It works like this: each writer is placed in a random heat and given a genre, a topic, and a character to work with. For the first round, they receive assignments at midnight and have eight days to write. The writers of the top five stories of each heat will then go on to the second round, placed in new heats, and given three days to write. The four best of each heat then go on to the final round, in which they have one day to write.

With over 3,000 participants, I don’t expect to get past the first round, but that’s not really the point. At each stage, participants receive feedback from judges who are writing professionals themselves. Just in participating, I’ve sort of accomplished my goal. I finally put myself out there. And I freaked out the whole way. I stayed up too late worrying. I woke with my stomach in knots. I anxiety-vomited all over social media almost every day to tell everyone how nerve-wracking this was. I’ve been a little obnoxious, but this whole experience has been, though rewarding, a little uncomfortable. Knowing Sam was also in the contest and going through the same thing helped a bit.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint what scares me about my story being judged. This story, a thriller of all things, was not really within my strong suit, but there are parts of the story of which I’m actually very proud. I have a complex, interesting protagonist.  I used clever twist of an ending. I really liked some of the quotes. I don’t think it’s the best story, but I don’t think it’s bad. I’m terrified the judges will think it is, though. That’s the worst thing that could happen, in my mind. They’ll tell me that it’s boring or that the characters aren’t compelling. I know that I’m probably just doubting myself because I’m too close to the story to see it objectively; but I also might not be able to tell if it’s bad work because I’m too close to it. It is possible that they won’t like it.

When I tell my friends about my fears, they like to tell me, “Oh, no, they’ll love it” or “they won’t say that, it’s not as bad as you think.” And yes, there’s probably something to that. If nothing else, these judges probably know how to give more constructive feedback than, “This sucks, don’t quit your day job.”  But if they do think my story is bad…I need to let that happen.  If this is a bad story, or if there’s an element to it that’s very weak, I need to know. How can I ever expect to improve if I won’t let anyone tell me what’s wrong? How can I develop a thick skin to rejection if I don’t let myself be rejected in the first place? It will hurt, of course, if the feedback is mostly negative. I’ll probably be crushed, and just thinking about it is sure to keep me an anxious mess through the first half of next week. But I need honest feedback from people who don’t love me if I’m going to be the best writer I can be. I really hope the feedback is positive, but negative feedback might be just what I need right now.

After editing and reading through the story, just shy of 2,000 words, until I was sick of it, I sent it in late last night. Now there’s just the agonizing process of waiting.

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