Methods, Lost, and other stories

If you're interested in the meaning of story and don't have some compelling reason to avoid Lost spoilers, you should totally read Travis Prinzi's post on the series finale. Having seen only about four episodes, I went ahead and read it, spoilers and all, and it nearly made me cry. My favorite part is what he said about happy endings--well, that or the part about the vindication of imagination and faith and spiritual reality, which was a lot of what Harry Potter did for me. Great stuff.

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My friend and fellow writer Jana has begun a blog series about being single. It's the most real stuff on singleness I've ever read, and her posts lack the bitter taste that "being real" sometimes carries. The most recent, I'm Okay, Right?, is beautiful. How very well I remember that question.

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Writers, do you know your perfect writing method? I prefer to focus on one project till it's done. My natural tendency is--once I get good and started on something--to resent leaving the computer even to get food, let alone to get the housecleaning done in a timely manner. That might not be exactly what that post was talking about, though.

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I put that method to full use this morning with my essay. That piece has required a lot of my time in the last few days, but at this point I'm mostly happy with the first draft (as a first draft--I do want to give it some serious polish before it's set down for posterity.) My writers' group read the first few sections and gave me a lot of helpful feedback; Lou read all of it and upped my confidence significantly by telling me that almost all of my arguments made sense. Today has belonged mostly to fixing the parts that did not.

* * *

...of course, I got distracted around midafternoon by reading something on my late lunch break that talked about how critical agents and editors are of first pages. I had to go read the first scene of my novel, and got completely caught in a weird vacillation between "I love this, it's beautiful" and "This is awful--it doesn't give out enough information." Hmmm.

* * *

“If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars" (Arthur Hugh Clough). I should think of that now and then.

* * *

Last but not least, I love polyphony.

Happy weekend, everybody.


Creator and Created: On Liking Your Own Work

[Sorry, friends, about not blogging yesterday. Styling citations takes a lot longer than I thought it would ... or maybe it's just that I'm a writer and therefore I like quotes. Lots and lots of them.]

Alan Lastufka has vindicated all those of us who spend time reading our own words and listening to our own music. I've always felt a little weird about how much of that I do. After all, Chesterton said in the introduction to Orthodoxy that "there is in everything a fair division of labour. I have written the book, and nothing on earth would induce me to read it." Maybe that's how Chesterton was able to write so much.

But I've never been able to stop the compulsory returns to my own work. I have two reasons for this: first, it helps me improve my craft, and second, I write what I love and therefore tend to like the resulting product.

Regarding the first, I'll find myself listening to or re-reading what worked--songs where the harmonies and rhythms came together; places in a story where a character revealed part of his or her emotional depth, or where the plot got especially interesting. That strengthens my understanding of what parts are succeeding and what needs work.

As for the second, well--as Alan put it, "why would you bother investing that much time and energy and love into a product that you yourself don’t enjoy spending time with?" I love replaying songs where it seems to me that despite the weaknesses of my amateur performance, the music is actually beautiful and meaningful. Even more than that, I love my story. It draws from so much that I admire and adore: passion, peace, love, life, light and innocence. I love getting close to the people I wrote into being, reliving the moments that shaped them, that took them and sometimes even me by surprise, that made their story something I think I could share with the world and not feel ashamed.

Pardon the rhapsody! Perhaps you can sympathize through your own creations. Either way ... hopefully I'm not a total narcissist. Of course, I also re-read old blog-posts, usually just to make sure I didn't say anything stupid. You can make of that what you will.

P.S. While you're checking out Alan's blog, his latest CD--Erase This, with Luke Conard (vocals) and a lot of other gifted musicians--rocks. And it's not even techno. Or popera. :)


Essay Success

Mm, Tasty Tuesday. I even had a recipe picked out. But today I did all the week's laundry, made a double batch of lasagna, and wrote essay. That is all.

I finished the essay. And by "finished" I mean it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It looks a lot like a NaNoWriMo manuscript, though. Flow of thought? Patchwork. Section headings? Still the original outline. Citation style? Pffft. We won't talk about how many times I may have repeated myself. I don't know, and I don't intend to figure that out until tomorrow. But I do have a few days for polishing now, and the first draft is always by far my hardest.

Many thanks to those of you responding to my question about rest! I'll try and jump into the comments before bed. I've been enjoying the thoughts from afar.


Sunday Struggles

As I wrote awhile back, days of rest are necessary. I believe pretty strongly in taking one per week, and commenter David (newmaldon) recently gave me a link to a guest post on Chip MacGregor's blog that reinforced that thought beautifully.

But I'm lately finding rest days a challenge. The problem comes on a Sunday afternoon, when I'm supposed to find something to do with myself. If a book has my attention, great. Sometimes Lou and I make it a home-date night, with a nice dinner and a movie or Scrabble; also great. But time to myself almost always means turning to the internet or writing, both of which I consider--to some extent--work. [The internet qualifies as work because participating in the great online conversation is, for an introvert and obsessive self-editor, something that requires a fair amount of effort.]

The writing side of my mind doesn't stop on Sundays, anyway. Creative process has no sense of reverence; it'll hit at church, right in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer if it gets the chance. It's also happy to really get going at 10 PM, making it ever so likely to drive away sleep. Hey, I'm not complaining--at least it comes to me. It's just ... like one of those people who, with the best intentions, always seem to call or arrive at an awkward time.

There's not much to be done about that (at least, I haven't come up with anything yet.) As for Sunday afternoons, maybe I just need to pull out my guitar more often. Somehow that hardly ever feels like work.

Most of you who come by this blog regularly are writers or artists/photographers or parents or otherwise busy people for whom "a day off" doesn't necessarily mean rest and relaxation. If you have thoughts on what making time to rest means for you, I'd love to hear them. :)


Mindlessness and Amusement

Time to blog, and I've got nothing. Hmmm.

Thanks to a late night, my brain is pretty shot today, and if it can manage anything in the next couple of hours, it needs to work on essay. The last couple of sections still need writing--1500 words or so--and I might put a little time into it and then try and take the rest of the evening off.

Allow me to leave you for the weekend with something funny, something that will be understood by every writer, everyone who has ever worked in an office, and ... well, pretty much everyone who has ever used a printer. [Disclaimer: This is not quite squeaky clean. But it really is funny.]


Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

This is really beautiful.

According to the video notes on YouTube, this gentleman reversed the strings on a right-handed guitar so he could play it left-handed (as a left-hander, maybe I should've tried that when I was learning to play!) He's also blind. And while he's originally from Australia--the Galpu nation--he's touring America.



Crazy Plant Lady

Wind and rain, go away! I want to stargaze. And start on my garden.

I think I post pictures of my plants the way some people do of their children.

You know those little $1 and $2 baby plants you can get in stores? I can never resist those. Anyway, my neighbors and I are about to start a joint raised-bed garden, and Haggen had these adorable mini herbs, and Wal-Mart had everything else. All told, the box holds a bell pepper, cucumbers, dill, savory, chives, orange balsam thyme, and regular thyme which I got on accident thinking I'd picked up oregano. Now I still have to get oregano. Oh well.

I've never been much of a gardener--or at least, never much of a shovel-wielder or a weeder--but I do love taking care of things. Sure, a plant is not quite a small dog or cat, let alone a small human, but give it a little tender care and it'll grow and love you back. :)


Tasty Tuesday: Easy Shepherd's Pie

Tasty Tuesday
I think that to be true shepherd's pie, this recipe ought to use ground lamb. Ground beef is just so much more widely available here, though, not to mention cheaper; you could, of course, substitute lamb for beef as you choose.

Today's is a quick recipe, one I make--like spaghetti--when I want dinner in 45 minutes or less. (It's also one I thought I could write up quickly. I have got to get back to my essay.)

Easy Shepherd's Pie

1 lb ground beef
1 can green beans
2 cans mushroom soup
1/2 small/medium onion, chopped
Garlic powder
Mashed potatoes, prepared however you like them
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Season the ground beef with thyme and garlic powder and brown over medium heat on stove. Add onions and continue cooking till the onions begin to turn clear.

Remove from heat and stir in mushroom soup (do not add water.) Drain the green beans and stir those into the beef and soup mixture.

Top with dollops of mashed potatoes and sprinkle cheese over everything. Bake about 15 minutes or until cheese and soup bubble.


Currently Reading: From Union Square to Rome

Gratitude brought me into the Church and that gratitude grows, and the first word my heart will utter, when I face my God is "Thanks." And that goes, with the help of God, for the gift of free will even though it entails sin, evil, suffering and death.

Author: Dorothy Day

Synopsis: The author, a former Communist, addresses her brother with the story of her conversion to the Catholic faith.

Notes: This is a horribly un-PC thing to say, but my first emotional response to the words "social justice" is usually frustration. Not that I don't care about justice for the poor and the oppressed, not that I'm unwilling to work for it, but I feel like the words have been too often commandeered by political ideologies with which they have little in common.

Dorothy Day, however, set such a stunning example of love and compassion for suffering people that she got those words past me. She came out of Communism holding on to its right ideals--concern for human need--and renouncing its wrong ones, like violent means and hatred of religion. As a Christian, she did not try to find a platitude answer for the question of suffering, but worked to ease the pain of others.

Her story gave me a lot to think about. I'm interested to hear what my fellow book club girls have to say when we discuss it next week.



I am feeling grouchy today, owing to waking up with some of those nobody-likes-me-everybody-hates-me-guess-I'll-go-eat-worms dreams after a rough evening. Blech.

But ... it's still sunny. I have six tomato plants to care for instead of two now, and the original two are starting to look like they might live and be well again. Lou came home early from work, so I get a whole afternoon with him, and we're off to visit the godson & family and hit up two birthday parties on Saturday.

Happy weekend, everyone. :)


Going Pro

I made an investment in my writing career this week and bought Microsoft Word. (Of course, in order to do that I had to buy the whole Office package ... really, Microsoft? Why is Office Home & Student $117 on Amazon, and Word by itself is never cheaper than $230? I just don't understand.)

Open Office has been a great program, especially for freeware, but it was almost worth buying Word just to have curved single quotes that don't have to be added by means of regular expressions and don't break words. All over my manuscript file, "I'm" and "don't" and all other contractions and possessives have a curvy red underline. Maybe I should send their development team a suggestion.

The thing I miss most about Open Office is that it isn't quite so jumpy with the auto-correct. Also, I wish Google Docs worked with the .docx files.

Anyway, I've heard that Word is necessary for going back and forth with agents and editors, so I have it now--not that I used it today. We had warmth and sunshine, and I spent the day in a friend's garden. Sometimes the mind just needs a holiday.


Tasty Tuesday: Tortellini Soup

Quick interjection for writers: Chip MacGregor's annual Bad Poetry competition is open for another couple of days, I think, if you want to join the fun. I haven't time to try and participate, but I did laugh till I cried at some of the entries.

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Tasty TuesdayThe original of this recipe came through family friend Sharyn Sowell (who says she didn't originate the recipe either, but her blog is too neat to skip linking). I love it so much that I make it regularly, especially in the winter.

Of course, because I almost never actually use a recipe, I've tended to make this from memory, with the result that it never turns out exactly the same twice. It's great, though, in whatever form. This is one of those "make with what you have" kind of recipes, so I'll post the recipe in steps rather than the standard form. I've highlighted the ingredients; hopefully that helps.

Tortellini Soup

Chop about a pound of stew meat and put it on to boil in salted water. [Alternately, you can start with beef or chicken broth.] Throw in a couple of bay leaves.

Brown a pound of Italian sausage with a few cloves of minced garlic and, if you wish, a chopped onion.

Add the sausage, garlic and onion to the boiling beef and lower the heat to a simmering level.

Add a cup of red wine and a teaspoon of oregano.

About 20 minutes before serving, add any vegetables you wish: my usual minimum standards are quartered mushrooms and a can of green beans, but Sharyn's list of suggestions also includes zucchini, carrots, celery, bell peppers, canned tomatoes, canned kidney beans, and broccoli.

At around the same time (check package directions): add a package of tortellini or other pasta.

The result is tasty and hearty, and I serve it with the rest of the red wine and a loaf of French bread which we shamelessly dip in the broth. It is a great dish for company as the recipe makes a very large pot of soup, and in a pinch I've even made it in the crock-pot (brown the beef right in with the sausage until nearly done, turn the crock-pot on high when you add the vegetables, and allow a longer cooking time for the vegetables and pasta. You might want to add beef broth or boullion for stronger flavor, but I didn't.) Enjoy!


Work Schmirk

"The problem," Lou said tonight, "is that all of our hobbies are too much like work."

So we blew it all off and watched Office Space. Not clean. But funny. :)

Life is good.


Jenna Milquetoast and other stories

Awhile back, I ordered a veggie lasagna at a great little Italian restaurant. The guy behind the counter said "You look like a veggie lasagna."

Last night, our schola director brought chocolate bars for all the members--lovely treat, and we were all grateful. He let us pick which ones we wanted, and I took milk chocolate. I like milk chocolate. I don't mean to have bad taste, I just like the flavor. He said "I can see the personality coming out here."

... seriously, guys?

If you think I'm bland, it's only because you've never attempted to really cross me. Ha. :D

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In other news, I've looked back over my blog posts this week and realized that I've talked about myself a lot (yeah, I know I just did it again.) To make up for that, here are some things that you might find interesting or helpful or humorous. At least, I did....

Normally I hate things that open up in pdf, but I loved loved loved Stratford Caldecott's piece on children's fantasy literature, Landscapes with Dragons and Angels, which John Granger linked awhile back. It's worth dealing with the frustrating format. In fact, I just read the whole thing again in outright defiance of other demands upon my time.

For all my writing friends, Rachelle Gardner is asking what we've given up to pursue our dreams. Reading her post and the comments is a great way to realize that you're not alone in your insanity. I haven't commented yet, but I would have to say that my sacrifices currently include all television and most movies, a lot of sleep, any kind of regular relaxation, and trying to pretend I'm not an introvert.

Tyler Stanton has been making me laugh all week. Among my favorites: Electronic Laughter: A Definitive Guide (although I've got enough teenage girl in me that it's really hard to stop myself from responding to funny stuff with "ahahahahaha! xD") and the Hate List. "If I made gift baskets for my enemies, I'd fill them with Mounds, Almond Joys and Zero Bars." Ahahahaha. xD

This also made me laugh. Classify yourself! I'm either a nerd or a dork. How about you?

* * *

I'm going to go clean house and enjoy some of the beautiful and very welcome sunshine before getting back to work. Have a happy weekend, everyone!


The Next Few Weeks

That's me, pretending to be very hard at work. If you look closely into the picture, you can see the parsley hanging upside down on our refrigerator. Hopefully you can't see the cord spaghetti in the study, though. :)

I have a writing project to finish, due the end of May, and there's no way I'll be able to put my novel aside until the other project is complete.

This means that I need to cut back on Internet time. Blogging can't take more than half an hour or so per piece. Twitter needs to be something that I click into only on breaks and only long enough to scan the feed and perhaps tweet or retweet something. Google Reader needs similar treatment. This is where social media and the writer can really get into trouble: as good as Twitter and Facebook and Blogger are, they can't take the place of actually writing the things I most need to write.

But I am going to try not to disappear.

For the next little while, my writing time gets divided into two segments: one for essay, and one to be shared between novel and blog. Much like Lent, I'm allowing myself no Internet for non-research purposes during work hours. There's plenty of time on lunch and breaks.

... oh, and I'm supposed to be learning new polyphony pieces, too. Eek.

If I miss blogging a few days between here and the end of May, I'm sorry. And if I forget something I should have said or done, or someplace I was supposed to show up, or my own name ... forgive me!


Beta Readers and Thoughts

The huckleberry pie turned out tasty, if a little soupy, and my beta readers stayed till 9:30 talking over the tale. I took three and a half pages of notes. Then I stayed up until 3 AM thinking over what they said, and naturally I can't concentrate upon much else today. The new ideas have kept my mind busy separating concepts into categories and plans.

Having people read and give critical feedback on any work that you put this much effort into is an emotional experience, and no two ways about it. As important as the input is, it's hard to listen to others' opinions on it, knowing that at any moment someone could challenge your own vision for the story. I knew I'd be a little overwhelmed by the end, and I was, but it was both necessary and worthwhile.

Short of hiring actual professional editors, I probably had the best beta readers imaginable for my kind of novel. They're four intelligent, gifted writers who read a lot and all have at least some familiarity with the children's/young adult and fantasy genres. Each of them brought a unique perspective that I found helpful.

They drew my attention to several holes that I could immediately respond to with "Oh, duh" because the sense was so obvious it could only have been missed by the cross-eyed stare of a writer absorbed in her own work. Other points of criticism are really making me think. They also brought up excellent suggestions that I never would have thought about, that gave me a new understanding of different aspects of the story--a kick-start to the creative process; I'm always startled by the new ideas that readers have for expanding upon the details. Of course, the single biggest criticism was "Not enough detail"; apparently I'm a little over-the-top with the "unexplained vistas" thing. :P

I'm looking forward to playing with their ideas, strengthening the weaker sections and giving the mythology more depth. And the fact that all of them said they liked or loved the story itself--its heart, its concept, plot and characters, themes and voice--gave me encouragement to make the further revisions.

Many, many thanks to beta readers Annie, Jana, Katrina, and Heather; also to alpha readers Mom, Beth, and Briana. Also to my first reader, Lou. And by thanks, I mean: seriously, you people are wonderful and I can't tell you what it meant to me to have you care enough about my little book to talk it over with me the way you did.


Beta Readers

My beta readers arrive at 6:30 tonight to discuss my novel and cash in on the huckleberry pie promise I made. I'd post the recipe for Tasty Tuesday, but I'm following Betty Crocker for the filling and Fannie Farmer for the crust and those might have copyright restrictions. Also, I'm short on time.

If agents are going to see this book, I want it as perfect as I can make it from one end to the other. Therefore, I am looking forward to the feedback, even the criticism. But I can't quite keep down the nerves. How much will need changing? What places failed to hold their interest, or challenged their suspension of disbelief? If they had been agents hunting for a book worth selling, would the first five pages have caught their attention? Was anything awkward or confusing or unsatisfactory or cliche? Would they want to re-read the book, or wish for a sequel?

I'll find out tonight. In the mean time, I'm going to go make a pie.


Hurry Up, Summer

Last Saturday the sun came out, after several weeks of rarely-broken spring rain. I borrowed a shovel from my in-laws, turned up some sod alongside the house--I haven't turned sod in years, it was harder than I remembered--and very carefully planted my two flopping tomato plants, both of which had well outgrown their pots.

Then we got a rainstorm with a lot of wind. And of all things, there's no gutter on that section of roof. Did I check that? Nope. It didn't even occur to me to look.

Now I feel guilty. Poor little things ... I'm not sure what to do for them except pray for sunshine. A couple of warm sunny days would make them all better.


Rambly Friday

12:02 AM. Oops. I did hope to get my Friday post up before midnight.... hello, Saturday!

Quick note: The other day I gave in at last and put up the Google Followers widget. It's in the sidebar, so if you want to be my Google Friend, feel free!

I've had a completely distracting day, but a fun one. This morning, after working on an essay project for awhile, I decided to time myself at getting through Google Reader and Twitter and all my email. Social media is drowning me a little; I've got to figure out a way to manage it. Unfortunately, I picked the wrong morning; email and Twitter direct messages kept me working well past noon and then I discovered a bit of a problem with one of my Myspaces. Fixing that got halted in the middle for a coffee date with my sister, and upon returning I had to clean house and make dinner, so I put on some wrock and got busy. Or, at least, mostly busy--I kept putting down the housework long enough to belt out the chorus to The Butterbeer Experience's song for the Whomping Willow or harmonize with Zoe from Split Seven Ways on a Marauders-era piece.

Then, after dinner, Lou and I walked up to WWU and saw Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah. It's a lot of fun seeing a show in your own town because you actually know people on the stage. A friend from church sang in the chorale and Chris from the WWU Harry Potter Club was in the university choir and one of our former coworkers played French horn in the orchestra. The performance was absolutely splendid, and then Lou and I had a beautiful walk home in the rain. Afterward we drove up to Wendy's and got Frosties and ... then it was nearly midnight, and here I am half an hour later, rambling off a sugar buzz.

Ah well. After a week of focused writing about revising novels, my Friday post was bound to be a bit rambly and useless, right? Oh wait, it's Saturday. Maybe I should go to bed.

Have a good weekend, everybody!