Thursday, May 29, 2014

#HowIWrite Blog Hop: Free-falling, being 50, and four fab authors you need to read this summer

Tagged by my author buddy Jen Singer for the #HowIWrite blog hop. I’m supposed to answer four questions and tag four author friends to do the same, which struck me as a fun summer chain letter sort of thing to do. Plus I do love any opportunity to tout the big talent of Roz Morris, Barbara Taylor Sissel, John A.A. Logan, and Linda Gillard. (Sharing a stellar summer reading recommendation from each.)

First, the questions:
What am I writing? 
Well, at the moment, this blog post—one of several short pieces I owe right now. This past winter was pretty intense personally and professionally, and I fell wretchedly behind. (Amazing how clear one’s priorities become when one is in the crucible.) But in general, I’m not a great multitasker. Things tend to pile up while I’m writing a book. I go down the rabbit hole and forget about the real world until I’ve either exhausted myself or finished the thing. Right now, with the third (hopefully final) draft of my next novel fermenting in the wine cellar, I’m catching up on commitments, domestics, and sleep so I’ll be ready to check out again and obsess through revisions.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’ve never been able to settle into one genre, but as Shakespeare said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The uniqueness in any author’s work is the unique life experience, emotional intelligence, and personalized vocabulary s/he brings to the page. Your soul knows a story no other soul has ever known. For better or worse, my work is different because it’s mine.

Why do I write what I do? 
Because I bloody well feel like it. Look, I spent my teens pleasing my parents, my 20s accommodating various employers, my 30s facilitating my children, my 40s being a team player for publishers and agents. Later this year, I’m releasing an essay collection with the working title “50 is the New F#ck You.” I’m in the Power Decade now. If a woman’s not doing what she wants to do at this point in her life, what exactly would she be waiting for? Trade publishing has done a lot for me. I’m grateful for the craft skills I gained under the thumb of so many wise editors over the years, but I intend to spend the rest of my life drunk on creative autonomy, writing what I want to write, publishing under my own imprint, and helming my own financial destiny. Hopefully, there will always be a bit of money in my particular brand of quirky fiction and memoirellas. If not, I’ll dine on cat food and greet the evening with no regrets.

How does my writing process work? 
Surprisingly well. At the beginning of a book, I always feel overwhelmed. No way I can see myself climbing this mountain. I know from experience that doggedly clinging to an outline doesn’t work for me; I’m a research hound, and that always takes me in wonderfully unexpected directions, so every book is a free fall during the writing phase. Then comes the editing; you get jerked up short by your parachute. Everything slows down. You take a breath, look around, get your bearings. When I finish a first draft, I’m in love with the characters, and that gives me the energy I need to push through two or three rounds of revisions. So I guess my process involves being sufficiently inspired to leap and confident enough to trust my craft skills on the way down. I have the tremendous advantage of an excellent freelance editor on my speed dial: my daughter, Jerusha Rodgers of Rabid Badger Editing. The kid has an eagle eye and has never flinched at critiquing my prose or my wardrobe.

Enough about me. Time to tag my author pals, each of whom has written more than one book I can highly recommend for your summer reading joy, but I forced myself to narrow it down:

Roz Morris's fiction has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, although you won't have seen her name on the covers as she ghostwrote for high-profile authors. She is now writing fiction under her own name, starting with her critically acclaimed novel My Memories of a Future Life. She is a writer, journalist, fiction editor and the author of the Nail Your Novel series for writers. Roz’s writing blog: Nail Your Novel. Find Roz on Facebook and Twitter as @Roz_Morris.
Best summer read: Lifeform Three, a richly imagined fable in the tradition of Bradbury and Atwood, one of my all-time favorite books.

Barbara Taylor Sissel once lived on the grounds of a prison facility in Kentucky, which might explain the nature of her writing, especially her latest: Safe Keeping and Evidence of Life. Driven by the compelling reality that at the heart of every crime, there’s a family, her novels are issue-oriented, threaded with elements of suspense and defined by their particular emphasis on how crime affects families of both victim and perpetrator. She now lives and writes from her bucolic Story House near Austin, Texas. Find Barbara on Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads.
Best summer read: A Sophie of a choice, but I'll go with The Ninth Step, a lovely garden of complex characters entangled by a painful past, perfect for fans of Picoult and Shreve.

John A. A. Logan is the author of The Survival of Thomas Ford, Storm Damage, and Agency Woman. His fiction has been published by Picador, Vintage, Edinburgh Review, Chapman, Northwords, Nomad, Secrets Of A View, and Scratchings; with reviews of his work in Scottish Studies Review, Scotland On Sunday, The Spectator, and The Hindustan Times. His work has been published internationally in anthologies edited by A L Kennedy, John Fowles, Ali Smith, Toby Litt; and he has been invited to read his work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He blogs monthly for Authors Electric. Find John on Facebook and Twitter.
Best summer read: The Survival of Thomas Ford, an intense psychological thriller about batshit crazy scariness in the wake of a car wreck, perfect for fans of Stephen King and Dean Koonz.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands and has been an actress, journalist and teacher. She’s the author of seven novels, including Star Gazing, which was short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award (for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape), and House of Silence, a Kindle bestseller selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category. Linda’s latest is Cauldstane, a contemporary ghost story set in a decaying Highland castle. Find Linda on Facebook and check out some of her wise writing advice.
Best summer read: Emotional Geology, an offbeat, award-winning love story that showcases this author’s mad skills with character, dialogue, and throat-burning emotion.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#howilibrary Mom and I discovered the world at the Tomah Public Library

Library Journal is encouraging us to share our library flashbacks and fetishes with the #howilibrary hashtag. The library was a huge part of my childhood, starting with the grand old Tomah Public Library on Superior Avenue in Tomah, Wisconsin. (It's probably not as enormous in reality as it is in my memory, but they have a nice website and seem to be going strong, which makes me happy.)

Starting as early as I can recall, Mom and I stopped by the library almost every day after dropping off my older siblings at school. The summer before I started kindergarten, I was dying to participate in the summer reading program with the "big kids," so Mom took me to the librarian's desk and had me demonstrate that I could read.

The librarian chose a book so she'd know I wasn't just reciting a book that had been read to me many times. (A challenge, because many, many books had been read to me many, many times.) I don't recall the book, but I remember the librarian being very impressed and my mom proudly telling the Avon lady and myself getting lost in a haze of blissful summer reading.

Of course, I had no idea back then what the library meant to Mom. Never really thought about it until after she passed away this spring, and Dad told me that my mom's first inkling that a library existed was a class trip in 8th grade. She thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. When she and Dad moved to Tomah, they were in their 20s, expecting kid #5 (me) and poor as church mice. Neither of them had finished high school, but they were both intelligent and creative, eager lifelong learners. I understand now that while I was wandering the stacks or curled up in a corner at the library, my young mom was working on her GED, preparing for college, and discovering a new world for herself.

Flash forward forty years. My sister bought a used hardcover of my first novel, Crazy for Trying, from Ebay. Inside the front cover was a faded blue ink stamp: "Property of Tomah Public Library." Mom and I both got a huge kick out of that.

So how do you library? Library Journal wants to know, and so do I! FB, blog, or tweet about it with the hashtag #howilibrary.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Brainy gender bendation in dystopian sci fi warzone: Kameron Hurley's BRUTAL WOMEN

On the prowl for talented indie authors doing art they'd never get away with in the corporate publishing world? This excellent dystopian sci fi short story collection is recommended for HUNGER GAME fans, free-thinkers and adventurous readers of all persuasions. Well-rendered alien environs and the starkest possible circumstances are fertile ground for an experiment in gender reversal.

Think "Apocalypse Now" if Brando and Sheen are on their periods.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

I'm Baaaack -- Reflections on Three Years of Freelancing

I can't even remember when I last posted on here, and for that I am sorry.  In fact, some of you may not even remember me! I would give excuses, etc., but honestly, now that I am freelancing, I've just had to be super careful how I spend my time, and that includes my writing time.  That said, I have resolved to be more active on this blog, as this community has in the past been great supporters, and, well--I miss you all!

The last time I was on here, I think I had decided to stop teaching and instead begin a freelance writing and writing coaching business.  I told myself that after a year of full-time freelancing, I'd evaluate the business and what it had taught me.  Well, the fact that one year turned to three sort of sums it up for me.  I can't believe it's been three years, but it has, and they've been the fastest, busiest, and yet most rewarding (by far) of my life.

In that time, I've cultivated a list of long-term clients who are as devoted to me as I am to them, and I've worked with thousands (yes, literally, thousands) of others.  I've worked with more projects than I can count.  I've blogged about, edited, coached, cajoled, listened to, urged, and interviewed more than three hundred writers, and I've helped develop more than a hundred manuscripts.

In short, I've had a blast.  But what I've not done as much of as I'd like to lately is my own fiction writing.  I think back to where I was three years ago and laugh, because I originally started my business as a way of having more freedom to do my own writing.  And in some ways, that is still true.  I still have the flexibility of taking on work or passing on a project, and I can generally do it on my own timing.  The problem--and it's a nice one to have--is that I've been completely booked.  Quite literally, since the day I quit teaching and started full-time freelancing, I've had work, and generally more than I can even do at one time.  It's been sort of mind-blowing how very easily the work has come, especially compared to how very difficult so many other parts of my career have been, and for that I am deeply grateful.

Right now, my calendar is more full than I'd like it to be, but I'm just sort of going with it.  I'm still making time to write, just not as much as I'd like to.  But for now, for this moment, for this season in my life, it feels right.  What I'm doing and the balance I'm finding is necessary for my growth and development.  It's also really teaching me a lot about the business -- so much so that I know the next time I begin a novel or even a short story, I will approach it far differently than I have in the past.

And as for the novel I had going, way back when?  No, I haven't given up on it.  Currently, I am at a crossroads with it because I received feedback that felt "right" but will take the work in a very different direction than I'd planned.  I'm not sure that it's the right direction for the story (it involves adding a whole other narrator), but it feels good.  At the same time, I know how long each rewrite has taken me, so I'm really thinking hard on this before I commit to it.  It will almost be like writing a whole other book.  And yet--maybe that is what I need to do, given the knowledge I have now.

Regardless, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I've had to make a steady living freelancing, a living that has been more than five times as lucrative as the one I was eking out as a "part-time" college teacher.  And that, sadly, says far more about the system of adjunct labor than it does about the virtues and values of freelancing.

Most importantly, though, I am happy.  For the first time in my adult life, I can say that, without shame and without reservation.  I am happy, and I look forward to what the future will bring.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Muddling through my first Mothers Day without my mom

My mother, author/historian Lois Lonnquist, died six weeks ago, ending a long journey through the valley of Alzheimer's. So I was afraid I'd find all the opportunistic tenderness of Mother's Day marketing especially depressing this year. (Melodrama tends to chafe in the presence of real drama.) Instead, I find that the shell-shock is giving way to gratitude. Mom always said, "You've got to bloom where you're planted," and this year, I am planted in the reality of losing her, but I have the fertile ground of a happy childhood well hydrated with music, lovingkindness, and frequent trips to the library.

Mom lived a creatively vibrant life of the mind, so Alzheimer's was a horrifically ironic way for her to die. She stubbornly refused to go easily and let us off the hook; in death as in life, she compelled the best from us, not because she bullied us but because she was so completely, tirelessly, respectfully present in all our lives. That kind of love is magnetic; it attracts great things from the universe and draws out the noblest qualities in the people who orbit nearby. 

The amiable steadfastness with which my father fed and cared for Mom was an echo of the preceding decades, during which she set before him thousands of dinner plates, countless cups of coffee, carefully balanced checkbooks, sleepy babies and lively conversations, high standards and low tones, brutal honesty and forgiving rationalizations. My sisters and I hovered around her during the last three days of her life, singing four-part harmony, checking her pulse and blood oxygen, loving each other and letting our differences slide, because each of us is, in her own unique way, our mother's daughter.

My parents raised six children: a tight quartet of girls bookended by an older and a younger brother. Mom was a savant play-anything-by-ear musician, a freelance journalist, newspaper librarian and editor, meticulous research hound, and lightning fast typist. She could pilot a small aircraft, develop photos in her basement darkroom, and make a decent supper out of the unlikeliest trove of leftovers, pantry staples, and clearance items from the dented can cart. She was a busy woman, but she had her priorities straight. What was most important was not always most immediate. She made us know the difference.

Starting the year I turned 16, I sent my mom flowers every year on my birthday in January. Not on her birthday - on mine. Because on her birthday, I was just another face in the well-wishing crowd of people who loved and admired her. Even on Mother's Day, I was #5 of six, which is a long line to stand in when you want the attention of a woman as multi-talented and driven to achieve as my mother was. On my birthday, the day I was born, she belonged to me. I know what I was to her in that moment, because I've held my own babies and felt the rest of the world momentarily fall away. The fact that my mother kept that moment alive for me - and for each of my siblings - until her brain literally shriveled like a raisin is a testament to the kind of mother she was. She didn't make us feel precious. We were precious. That was our reality, not a feeling we had.

On my 16th birthday, I was working as a cashier at a local grocery store, and Mom was at school, hacking away at the bachelor's degree she carved out by inches and in betweens over more than a decade. I left the flowers on the kitchen table with a note so she would see them right away when she got home from class. We were miles apart (geographically and ideologically) for most of my birthdays after that, but she always sent me a present and a card with a lucky penny in it, and I always had flowers delivered to the house and eventually to her office at the Helena Independent Record. I always knew that at some point during the day, I'd answer the phone, and Mom and Dad would sing "Happy Birthday to You" in the robust harmony that soundtracked my upbringing, and I would know I was as unconditionally loved and celebrated as any mother's child could hope to be.

Mom's decline was agonizingly dragged out, but the trajectory was plain; I knew in January that this was the last year I'd give her birthday flowers. She was no longer mobile or verbal. Her universe had collapsed to the confines of the living room, where Dad lifted her between a red leather recliner and a railed hospital bed. We took turns holding the cup and straw while she vacantly sipped at cranberry juice and Ensure. I stayed most of the winter in the spare apartment on the lower level of my parents' home in Helena, sitting beside Mom every morning and evening, playing ukelele and singing songs from my childhood, Googling the words on, watching and waiting for the occasional spark of connection in her eyes. 

One day, spelunking the downstairs storage cupboards, searching for a waffle iron among the old popcorn tins, punch bowls, and Tupperware, I discovered a cache of cheap glass vases, brittle baskets, and oversized coffee mugs in which my birthday flowers had been delivered over the years. Apparently, a particular budget-conscious favorite was the FTD Sunshine Bouquet, which came in a squat white mug with a rainbow on it. There were several of those. She'd kept them like you'd keep your child's artwork. Not because it has some great decorative or archival value, but because you can't bear to let go of the moment.

In the evening on my birthday, I brought my mother roses - soft orange, vibrant yellow - and I told her, "Thank you for being my mom. I know it was a tremendous amount of work, and I didn't make it easy. You did all the important things right. And you got the less important things just wrong enough for me to believe I could do it too."

We weren't sure how much or how well she was able to see, so I carefully removed the thorns and spread the roses across her lap, and we sat together for a long while, running our hands over the petals, pulling them apart, setting them in rows. 

How silly, I suddenly realized, to always stage flowers out of reach. There is nothing you can do to make them last forever, and there is such great tactile pleasure in the textured lightness and deckled edges. Look at a rose, and you recognize that it is lovely. But hold it in your hand as its life comes full circle, and you know how precious it really is.


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