My Least Favorite Question: “How is the writing going?”

Five years ago I was accosted by a girl in my head. She showed up uninvited, as if she’d been waiting for the opportunity to pounce. She told me her name, her story, and then sat down to wait as I considered it.

In secret, I started to type.

Within days I came out to my husband as a wannabe novelist – a surprise to both of us – and confessed that I had no clue what I was doing. Could he still love me if I followed a crazy dream? Did he think I had potential? Can a nobody journalist just morph into a somebody novelist? Furthermore, why do people show up in your brain if you’re not meant to do anything with them? 

He nudged me forward. Yes, do it. OF COURSE DO IT. So I did, and that’s how Leona came to be. Then Mallory showed up two years later, and now a third cast of people have arrived. The new ones are still in progress, but frankly, so are Leona and Mallory because I’m still learning about them. Just today, while on a long run, I discovered something else that belongs in Novel No. 2. Like a sweet gift, she whispered something in my ear and I ran harder to mull it over properly.

This dream is not gone, not even a little. In between the freelance writing, the homeschooling, the teaching, the photography… I am still thinking of my characters. I carry them with me. I know which chapters need trimming. I know which plot points need attention. I know these matters will be tended to at the correct time.

But oh, some of you still ask, and you are dear to me. You are. Please know that I covet your support in that rooted, quiet way. When my time comes, I know some of you will race to buy a copy my book. You’ll jump at the chance. THANK GOD FOR YOU. Yet, I cannot bear to answer this question – “How is the writing going?” – because it nearly kills me every time. There is no suitable answer.

How do I summarize the hours I’ve spent crafting these stories, or the hours I’ve spent just thinking about them? How do I explain the many query letters I’ve sent out only to receive rejections in return? How do I describe the requests for full manuscripts – real jolts of hope – only to be told that something is not quite right? How do I harness the encouraging feedback from industry professionals and churn that into a better story? 

And how, please tell me, do I balance the things I must do with the things I long to do? That is something I’m sure you all understand.

Perhaps I should return to the monastery. Something about that feels right.

So yes. I’m still writing. OF COURSE I AM. There is no need to ask. Until further notice, assume EVERYTHING FORWARD.

Top Ten Favorite Books of 2016

In 2015, I read 53 books, verifying to myself that I could, indeed, read 50 books in a year. For 2016, I gave myself a break and set a goal of 40. If all pans out by New Year’s Eve, I will have finished 46 books (45 on paper, one audio).

Of those, I chose ten favorites with ease. Numbering them 3-10 was even easier, but depending on the day, my top two choices could be swapped. It could go either way. That’s what happens when a book reaches Ken Follett and Khaled Hosseini levels. Those books have their very own shelves.

To be on my Top Ten, the book has to be all-consuming. Not only does the writing have to be fluid and paced, the plot has to be imaginative and addictive. The book has to take over my whole brain so that I’m thinking about it while I’m driving and running and I must ten minutes here and there to read. It has to hit me in the gut or keep me up at night or break my heart. I want to feel it.

The genre doesn’t matter. On this list are thrillers, post-apocalyptic stories, fantasy and contemporary narratives, well-known authors, not-so-well-known authors, and subject matters that range from fashion and terrorism and murder to historically and culturally specific events. Each book is linked to my original review. Enjoy, and Happy Reading in 2017!

10. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Funny, quirky, and strangely troubling as it pertains to our national security. All Boy Hernandez wants to be is a fashion designed. How unfortunate to be mistaken for a terrorist! Be careful who you trust!

9. Station Eleven. This was the first book I read in 2016 and it was such a great choice! Though I’m not usually into post-apocalyptic fiction, I found Station Eleven to be endearing and unique in its focus on a traveling symphony in a post-apocalyptic reality. When there is no electricity, no means of transportation, and no way to communicate with one another, you must whittle humanity down to its very basic form and see what survives.

8. Long Man. Set over the course of three days in 1936, Annie Clyde Dodson refuses to surrender her property to the government and the TVA. It doesn’t matter that it will all be under water soon anyway. She won’t do it. But just when her resolve reaches fever pitch, her three-year-old daughter Gracie goes missing. With all her might, Annie Clyde must keep the government at bay and find her daughter alive. The pacing of this book is so steady, so even. It was hard to put down.

7. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay lands himself a job at a bookstore and immediately knows the place is super weird. The contents, the layout, the patrons. All weird. But he needs the job so he can’t be picky. It isn’t long before Clay is swept into a centuries-long adventure that feels like an Indiana Jones movie. This book gets extra points for its attention to detail in typography. Design nerds will love it.

6. You. Before this one, I’d never read a book written in second person, but now that I have, my standards are very high. We read You from the point of view of Joe, a sick, twisted, vulgar young man who is transfixed by Beck, a girl who is cute and oblivious to so much attention. Readers are in Joe’s mind so deep that it’s hard to crawl out. And actually, I didn’t really want to. (The sequel, Hidden Bodies, is on my must-read list.)

5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Having just read this one, it is still fresh and tender in my mind. It is 1987 and June Elbus has just lost her uncle to AIDS, a confusing and troubling disease that the 14-year-old doesn’t understand. Finn was a renowned artist and also June’s godfather and closest confidant. While her family just wants to move on with their lives, June is unable to, especially after Toby, Finn’s partner, who is also dying, extends an invite to grieve together. The two develop a secret, sympathetic friendship that teaches June about life and love in more ways than she imagined.

4. The Winter People. This one had me on the edge. Unable to read it at night, I hurried to The Winter People first thing in the morning and read it over the stove top while cooking dinner. When it got dark outside, I put it down. Set in West Hall, Vermont, over two time periods, it focuses on the murder of Sara Shea (1908) and Alice (Present Day), who lives in Sara’s old house and has gone missing. Sara’s old diary has been unearthed, and there are things that happen in the woods behind the house. And then there’s that closet that’s been boarded up, and the strange passageways inside the house that only a few people know about. There are a dozen little mysteries that form one big crazy equation, and Ruthie, Alice’s daughter, sets out to solve them all. IT IS SCARY GOOD.

3. The Snow Child. Having just finished this one a couple of days ago, I’ve pinpointed a new reason why it moved me so. Beyond its magnificent style and elegance, more than its magical setting, The Snow Child tugged on a part of my heart that has long since healed. Infertility is a wretched beast, and the loss one feels when she’s told she cannot bear children is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. When Jack and Mabel, painfully childless, build a girl out of snow, it’s done in fun, with imagination, with a nod to what might’ve been in another lifetime had things worked differently. And yet, when a girl appears in the Alaskan wilderness, the couple doesn’t know what to do with her. Call out to her? Bring her inside? Is she even real? The Snow Child is beautiful in so many ways. If you’re going to read it, make sure you read it in wintertime.

2. The Devil of Nanking. Grey is a 23-year-old Brit who’s traveled to Tokyo to find a survivor of the 1937 Nanking Massacre. She’s spent a decade trying to prove something she believes to be true, and this survivor supposedly has footage of some kind that confirms it. This story is nail-biting and brutal. Like The Winter People, I read it at every free moment. The author is vivid in her details, even the most horrific ones. I’ve never read another thriller like it. It is perfect.

1. The Secret History. Donna Tartt is good writer. A damn good writer. The Goldfinch proved it, but The Secret History solidified it. Though it’s nearly 600 pages, you don’t even notice it because the pacing is lightning fast. You don’t have time to sit around and wish the book would end already. Richard Papen is our narrator who tells the story of how he and his college classmates killed Edmund, nicknamed “Bunny.” Richard is troubled by what they did and by how they managed it after the fact. We’re all a little mad, but some, I believe, are more mad than others.

Top Five Books of 2015

I completed the 50 Books Challenge by late November, a feat that both surprised and pleased me. I went on to read a few more and will likely round off the year at 54 if I finish Station Eleven by New Years Eve.

Of the 50+ books I read in 2015, I chose five as favorites, along with an honorable mention. To meet the criteria of “favorite,” the book had to 1) keep me interested 100 percent of the time, and 2) be one that I’d recommend to anyone and everyone. Note that these aren’t books that were written in 2015. Some are several years old.

I’ve placed them in order, so I’ll start with number five. (Each title is linked to my original review.)

PatronSaintofLiarsNo. 5: The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. This was my introductory book to Ann Patchett’s writing, and since reading this one I’ve acquired two more from resale shops. She is a beautiful storyteller and in this novel weaves together three points of view regarding an unwanted pregnancy, an escape to a nunnery, and a slew of lies used to comfort oneself. It is a revealing story about the things we do to make ourselves feel better.

No. 4: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. This one had me at the start because I simply could not conceive of doing away with one child to appease another. Of course the plot isn’t that simple. Not far into the story we learn that Fern wasn’t a normal child, and the family in which Fern was placed wasn’t a normal household. This book is so well thought out that the author practically spoon feeds readers proportionate bites of information at the proper time. It is a must-read for animal lovers.

No. 3The Circle by Dave Eggers. This book is the cautionary tale of our time. It is the 1984 of our generation. Though every character is an archetype and the equation of the plot is semi-predictable, it is a wild ride down a road that could very well be our future. Read with caution and let’s go off the grid together.

The GoldfinchNo. 2: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Not everyone would agree that this book was a home run. A few folks I know tried to read it and couldn’t get through, but that was not the case for me at all. I came to care for Theo, the main character so dearly that I couldn’t bear for the story to end. In my mind, he exists still. The story is so much more than the journey of a painting. It’s about how we long to make sense of things we don’t understand.

No. 1: Night Film by Marisha Pessl. This shouldn’t surprise you one bit. If I know you in real life, then I’ve tried to push this book in your hands. It’s not literary like The Goldfinch and it’s not endearing like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s not rooted in reality like The Circle and it’s not heartstring-tugging like The Patron Saint of Liars. It’s just pure reading fun. It sucks you in and won’t let you go until the very last word on the very last page. It’s CRAZY and bizarre and a touch scary.

Night FilmNight Film wins because it put me in a trance for four days and that’s the kind of magic I want out of a book. I read it at every free moment and hardly fed my children because I couldn’t put it down. That’s the sort of power I’d like to have in storytelling, and since I don’t have that power, I’ll give a hardy handshake to the writers that do.

The honorable mention goes to Tana French, writer of two books I read this year and fully enjoyed: In the Woods and Faithful Place. They are part of an ongoing crime series set in Dublin and I plan to continue reading onward.

What are YOUR favorite books from 2015?

Writer nesting

It’s coming, and soon. That second novel is ready for attention. But before I withdraw to Scrivener and stream loud music through my ear buds to muffle the sound of my children, everything needs to be just so.

Isn’t that what nesting is? That preparatory time when every nit-picky thing has to be tended to? Bookshelves aligned, desk cleared, crevasses dusted. I pulled up Scrivener yesterday, in fact, but I couldn’t focus on the words because there were eight pens strewn about my desk. And then I noticed a stack of random receipts, a box of colored pencils, eraser bits, unopened mail, a role of tape, and crumbs from the brownie I ate four days ago. ALL THIS DISTRACTION.

So I clean and organize and nest. I’ve turned in the boys’ grades for the year, pulled out school books we no longer need, and dumped my overflowing garbage. I ran a scan on the computer, redesigned this blog for simplicity, and started the long, arduous process of deleting excess raw files on my hard drive, a task that will take me weeks to accomplish.

Become-a-writer

Do y’all do this? Fiddle about before starting something big? One might call this procrastination, but it’s not an issue of avoidance. It’s about creating an environment conducive for writing. I’m easily distracted, so there’s no way I can write dialogue or sketch a workable Freytag’s Pyramid if there are pencil shavings on my desk. It’s an impossibility.

I’m not sure how long this nesting season will last. It might be a couple of days, maybe weeks. I’m embracing it because it’s the process. Professional writers often say that to be professional one must write every day. It might be a single sentence or it could be 10,000 words. If writing a novel, I would agree. When I finally begin Mallory’s story, it’s likely I’ll write every day.

Until then, I see a long orange string on the floor and I must go pick it up.