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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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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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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What I Learned from D&D: First One-Shot

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It started with Critical Role, a twitch livestream/youtube webseries in which voice actor Matthew Mercer and other voice actors play a game of Dungeons & Dragons that’s been going on for about four years now. When I first heard about the show, I thought it sounded fun, but…Dungeons & Dragons isn’t my thing. Still, it was fun to read my friends’ reactions and look at some of the fan art. Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me and decided to watch it. But…it’s probably just going to make me want to play D&D and I’m really no good at oral storytelling.

I tried to watch it and just enjoy the story, despite the temptation to jump into a game when I saw how much fun the players had. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends started talking about playing a one-shot. A more experienced friend offered to DM for them. But…I don’t know, it just sounds so complicated.

Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me.

For our one-shot, I created Fenoise, a high elf bard who had debilitating stage fright and one leg four inches shorter than the other. Fenoise’s parents were librarians and she spent most of her youth pouring over adventure tales and folklore.  Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she left home to become an adventuring bard herself, despite the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to get on a stage and perform anything. Fenoise was a good channel for my own writing insecurities, as well as my nervousness about my first game. I thought that I did a pretty good job of plotting out who she was as a person. Her motivations, her desires, her flaws. She was critically self-conscious, defensive and proud, a little unintentionally racist, but sympathetic and brave and she tried.  And then, once I felt like I had her personality and my character sheet was all finished, I stopped. All I had to do was wait, I figured. And maybe for some that would be true. It wasn’t quite for me, however.

The game was a lot of fun and I left it energized and wanting more. But it didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to. As content as I was with my characterization beforehand, I felt like I lost sight of my character through the game. She wasn’t coming off like I imagined. She’s not supposed to be this awkward–she is a bard, after all–and she should feel less comfortable with this character. And it wasn’t just the character. When we started the game, all four characters were in a waiting room, waiting for our employer to see us, and I didn’t know what to say or do. We asked the townspeople questions and I found myself at a loss when I tried to think of helpful questions. Witty one-liners became a far-off dream. At one point towards the end of the game, we were face to face with a small red dragon, and when my turn came, I was at a loss.

“I don’t know what to do,” I thought aloud. “I wasn’t prepared for a dragon.”

“In a game called Dungeons & Dragons?” the DM quipped, and we laughed.

I eventually just shot the dragon with a crossbow, and because they were already weakened by another player’s attacks, the DM borrowed a line from Critical Role and asked me, “How do you want to do this?” For those who don’t watch the show, it’s the same as, say, “Make it flashy.” I can describe, in dramatic detail, how my limping, insecure little bard slayed a fucking dragon. It was a swelling underdog moment worthy of an animated Disney movie with a killer soundtrack.

“Bard kills are the best kills,” the DM added as I hesitated. Except…

I blanked. I just couldn’t think of anything. She offered to give me a minute, but in my panic and utter lack of ideas, I just asked one of my other friends to take over and describe it for me.  And then it was over, and it was more good than awkward, and I don’t think anyone really cared except my anxiety.

But I decided there are lessons to take from this, lessons that can be put to use in my writing. Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, just another form of storytelling. I could say that I learned how awkward I am at oral storytelling, but I already knew that. Here’s what I did learn:

I am not a pantser.

I’ve seen this debate for a few years amongst writers: plotting vs. pantsing. Plotting means you prepare for your story, you outline, you plan; pantsing is diving in and “writing by the seat of your pants.” When I was a teenager, I only ever pantsed. To outline was to kill the story for me. But as I got older, I found that sometimes it helped me to have a sense of what I was writing and not get stuck if I wrote an outline first. In the past couple years, I’ve done a bit of a mix. Sometimes I plot; sometimes I pants; sometimes I start to plot and just end up pantsing. It depends on the story, I tell myself. Except it doesn’t. I always, always feel better about my story when I first take the time to figure out what story I’m trying to tell.

In D&D, you have to be able to play “by the seat of your pants,” and I was nervous about that going in. I am, after all, the girl who messed up an improv group exercise by bursting into giggles at everyone else, saved only by a much more talented improv actor who claimed I was drunk. Sure enough, it was an awkward experience for me. There’s only so much that can be done about that, but I think there are some things I can do to help it. I can spend a little time with my character before each game. I can write little snippets so I can get used to their voice and the way they respond to things. I can write out hypothetical scenarios, like killing a monster or questioning townspeople. And in my personal writing, I can accept that I am officially not a pantser. If I need to plot for a D&D game, I need to plot that much more when I’m trying to write a novel.

There was a time that I thought I would be less creative if I couldn’t just…form the story off the top of my head. But I grew up, and you know what? It’s okay. It’s good to know my weaknesses and to focus on my strengths instead. I’m great at plotting out a dynamic character and a compelling story. I just have to give myself the time and put in the work.

New Years Resolutions

Nothing makes my imposter syndrome kick up like making New Years Resolutions. Every last few months of the year, I tell myself that I’m not going to do New Years Resolutions, because I only ever finish half of them and there’s no point in setting myself up for failure. But every last week or so of the year, I get caught up in that spirit of newness and renewed motivation and soon I have a little list of goals in my mind of things I want to do over the course of the next year. I might as well write them down, right? And if I only finish half of them, well, that’s a half-list of accomplishments for which I can pat myself on the back.

So, here goes. My goals for 2017.

  1. Work on my relationship with God. This is my constant goal. If I have no other goals, this one will still remain, because I can never be close enough or rely enough on my LORD.  I’ve created a lot of obstacles between myself and God in the past few years, though, and while I’m trying to get back to where I was, it’s an uphill battle.
  2. Enter more writing contests and submit to magazines. To be specific, I want to enter a minimum of two contests and submit to a minimum of six magazines. I’m already on my way with this one. My friend Sam and I are both going to enter NYC Midnight‘s Short Story contest, the first round of which begins on January 21. It has the healthy-dose-of-panic sort of goals I love: first round is a short story in 8 days, second round is a short story in 3 days, and final round is a short story in 24 hours.
  3. Travel. I have plans to go to Philadelphia to visit a friend in April and to go to Bookcon in New York with another friend in June. So far, it looks like it might actually work out, if I’m careful with my savings. And that’s the catch. I’ll also be staying at hostels for the first time, so that will be fun. And in October, I should be going to a friend’s wedding in South Dakota.
  4. Decide where I want to move. I’m planning a move by fall of 2018 at the latest. I’ve always wanted to move out of Kentucky eventually, and I really feel like it’s time. Well, that might not be all of it.  The truth is, I’ve always liked the idea of living everywhere and I think I’m just ready for the next chapter of that book.  Right now, I have it narrowed down to Atlanta or Minneapolis, or Kansas City if I can’t afford either of those. I thought about this all through last year, and went through half a dozen cities. I don’t want to add more options to this list this year. By the end of the year, I want to have an idea of where I’m going.
  5. Read 55 books. This is actually just my Goodreads reading goal for the year. Shouldn’t be a problem, as last year I read 65.
  6. Get the guitar fixed up. Last March, my mom told me that she passed a stack of encyclopedias by one of the dumpsters at our apartment complex and that if I wanted them, I better go get them, because it would rain soon. While I was out there, I found an old Stella acoustic guitar. It was dusty and cracked, with two of the strings missing and all of them in bad shape. It had these old stickers from the 60s or 70s stuck to it. I don’t play guitar (tried to learn once, until my guitar teacher quit on me without warning to join a band), but it struck me so immediately that I couldn’t just leave it there to be ruined by the rain. I took it home, duck taped it as best I could, bought a case, bought some polish. I named it Chelsea Morning, with the help of Laney. And for several months, it’s just been resting between my bookshelf and my dresser. I didn’t want this to become one of my unfinished projects. I wanted to actually clean the guitar up, if it can be cleaned, and learn how to play it. So, this year, I’ll have to hit up music stores for new strings, a tuner, and probably show it to someone that knows something about guitars to see what can be done to rehabilitate Chelsea.tumblr_o3jlp7k1l81uccj6go1_1280
  7. And finally…blog more. Believe it or not, every week I set a goal of an amount of blogs I want to write. I have yet to meet my weekly goal. I never really expect to, it just gives me a little push to blog at all during the week. But I want to try harder to make a habit of it this year.

A Reader’s Thousand Lives: The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

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Before I started this blog, I had a Tumblr dedicated wholly to a new literary project I started in February. The premise was that I would take “life prompts” of sorts from every book I read.  It started out lacking focus. I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and sent an old journal of mine to a close friend, like Helen gave Gilbert. When I read The Raven Boys, I picked a lesser known historical figure to “search for”/research (in my case, it was the Breton pirate Jeanne de Clisson), and I knitted my own fingerless gloves, much like Blue Sargent. But eventually I started cutting to the real lesson to draw from the book. When I read A Wise Man’s Fear, in addition to rescuing an old guitar that someone had thrown in the trash, I did some soul searching to find the “question that drives me.”

When I started this blog, I realized I wouldn’t have time to keep the other one running. Each book usually had anything from 3-5 entries dedicated to it, and as quickly as I read, I was already running behind. I love that project, though, and I’ve learned so much from it, so I decided to incorporate it into this blog. Rather than several posts, I’ll just write one post per book, and it will be published after the book is already finished. More like a summary of the prompt I took from the book and how I followed it than a play-by-play. And now, without further ado…

I recently read The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown.

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What Christmas Means to Me

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As much as I love Christmas–and believe me, I really do–this year again, I find myself feeling a little cut off. I have my mom, my sister, my pets and my sister’s cat. But many of my loved ones are too far away for us to get together on Christmas. We mail each other presents, text each other our “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” texts, and like each other’s social media posts about Christmas, but at the end of the day, I still find myself missing them.

So, this year’s Christmas playlist, which is a little late coming (I only put it together last night), goes out to the faithful friends who are dear that can’t gather near. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to spend Christmas with some of you in person; in the meantime, we can listen to this together from far away.

  • “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Ella Fitzgerald. I’m a sap around Christmas time. Every year, I hope for snow, even though I live in Kentucky, and I know that snow on Christmas almost never happens. This is just a cute little classic that never gets old to me. And you can’t go wrong with Ella.
  • “What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder. Hands down the most fun Christmas song I know. I defy you to listen to this song completely still. Like most people who aren’t…little kids, I went through a disappointing period in my life in which Christmas just wasn’t as fun and magical as it used to be. It was just another day. It took me a couple years before I stopped expecting Christmas to be what it had been when I was little and just reevaluated what it was to me now. And it’s different, maybe smaller, but still a lovely reprieve from the rest of the year.
  • “What’s This?” from The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. I don’t know why, this always reminds me of my friend, Josh. Not the movie per say, but this song in particular. And it is an adorable movie. One that I might need to watch tonight.
  • “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Jars of Clay. As great as Christmas is, it’s not a wholly happy time for everyone. It can also be a really lonely time, especially when you’re surrounded by messages of togetherness and separated from those people you love. And that’s as much a part of Christmas as the “tidings of happiness and joy.”
  • “Christmas Bells” from the RENT Original Broadway Cast Recording.  I would ask if it was strange that RENT is one of my favorite Christmas movies/shows, but judging by the the posts on my friends’ social media lately, it’s not weird. As I’ve gotten older, my taste in Christmas movies and my mom’s have diverged a bit. She still loves the classics. I’m less moved by stories of the magic of believing in a holiday delivery man in a big red suit (even though yes, I understand, it’s a metaphor for faith in Christ and all that) and more interested in the magic of imperfect people who had a hell of a year pulling together and making the most of it.
  • “Light of the World” by Lauren Daigle. As a Christian, I do believe in reflecting on Christ and the sacrifice He made by coming to earth and living and dying for us all those years ago on Christmas. (Even though evidence actually points to Christ being born in spring or summer and the Catholic church placing Christmas on December 25 mostly to quash out pagan holy days.) But also as a Christian, I’ve heard all of the traditional Christian themed carols enough times that I’ve become kind of immune to them. I only heard this for the first time yesterday, and it really struck me because of the way it ties the story to today and not just this wondrous thing that happened 2000+ years ago. The world needs Christ and his love and light as much now as we did all that time ago. And His grace is a perennial gift, continuing until the end of time.
  • “Heaven Everywhere” by Francesca Battistelli. This is more of a resolution for next year. This year was a hard year, and next year there will be some…difficult trials for all of us, I think. But I want to be an example of love and positivity throughout the year. I don’t want to save it all for the last couple weeks of December.
  • “Only at Christmas Time” by Sufjan Stevens. This is just such a lovely, soft song. It never fails to be soothing. But then, that’s Sufjan Stevens in general.
  • “The Christmas Waltz” by She & Him. I’m actually pretty indifferent to She & Him for the most part, but this is such a nice song, I had to add it. It’s that time of year when the world falls in love… I wrote about how rough November was for me. December, by contrast, was softer and more healing. I’m not saying bad things didn’t happen or that there weren’t news stories that terrified me. But most of my energy was spent thinking about my friends and my God and what I have to be happy about. I needed that this year.
  • “Mvmt IV, ‘Every Bell Shall Ring'” by The Oh Hellos. I found this two days ago, actually. As soon as the idea of a Christmas song by The Oh Hellos was in my head, I thought, Oh, that must be so pretty! And when I heard that third, “siiiIIIng,” I was sold.
  • “The More You Give (The More You’ll Have)” by Michael Buble. Okay, Michael Buble is getting a little tired, especially when it comes to Christmas music. His “Santa Baby” is hilarious in his aggressive need to affirm his very masculine heterosexuality. But this one is actually pretty cute. It’s just another sappy, upbeat, feel-good kind of Christmas song.
  • “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Aimee Mann. Like I said, this year has been hard. It’s kicked the shit out of a lot of people I know, and I would like to have some words with it, but it kind of kicked the shit out of me, as well. I hope that you all have a softer Christmas, because you deserve that, and I hope that next year, things start to look up for you.

So, Merry Christmas, my friends (and Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate it)! I hope this playlist gives you a little smile and helps you to feel a little closer.