Off hiatus!

nano_14_ml_badge_300pxAfter an unannounced hiatus between late October and early January, I’m back!

Lots of changes came my way in the past few months, and I think it’s safe to say I’ll probably be on hiatus and mostly unavailable online during the NaNoWriMo season every year.

I can’t wait to get all caught up and start writing here again!

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What even is an organizational skill?

20140905_195124_1 Ten minutes can count for a lot, if you know how to use them.

NaNoWriMo teaches this through the magic of word sprints, which have pulled countless writers across the finish line just in time.

Most sites intended to help you out of clutter and hoarding habits, like FlyLady and Stepping Out of Squalor, are based off a a similar principle. You may look around at your messy house and feel too overwhelmed to begin, so instead of tackling the problem as a whole, you set a timer for ten minutes (or five, or fifteen). Anyone can clean for that long. Build up a few small blocks of cleaning time, and you’re on your way to an uncluttered home.

For the longest time, I couldn’t accomplish anything even with the ten-minute method. I couldn’t even focus on something fun without feeling walled in, trapped, and desperate to do anything to relieve myself from the pressure of obligation and impending failure.

Now that things are changing for me, I’m discovering that I never developed the organizational skills that get most people through the day. I barely know how to look at the big picture, even though it doesn’t overwhelm me the way it used to. For goodness’ sake, at my last followup with my doctor, I told him that for the first time in my life, I feel capable of routinely choosing to get up when my alarm clock goes off. (And let me assure you, my past failures were not for lack of trying.)

As November draws nearer and my duties as an ML kick in, I find myself alternating between planning styles and states of mind. One day, I’ll feel fine checking off a few boxes on my to-do list and allotting the rest of my time to other tasks. The next day, I’ll be posting in the private ML forum in a panic, feeling like I’m weeks behind and have to get things done right this minute.

The truth is, I’m just no good at estimating how much time and effort a job will take.

I’ve moved mountains to get copious amounts of work done in no time at all, and I’ve ducked out of commitments just to get some of the pressure off, but I’ve never succeeded at pacing myself. I’ve tried my best to use ten-minute blocks of time productively, but I always either get distracted or let my ten minutes stretch into a frantic race against time.

So here’s my goal for the NaNoWriMo 2014 season: Realize that ten minutes means ten minutes. Break up my tasks into small steps, and schedule in downtime if I need to. I can do this! But the more I let myself stress over how much I have to do, the less I end up getting done.

A Decade of NaNoWriMo

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Over a decade ago, in 2003, a friend begged me to sign up for National Novel Writing Month and try to write 50,000 words with her in November. I didn’t make the goal, but as an aspiring teenage writer, I was overwhelmed and delighted to discover a whole online community of people like me. We didn’t all aim to be professional authors. Some of us didn’t even want to be published. But we all had ideas, we all did our best to put them down on paper, and we supported each other.

NaNoWriMo has sustained plenty of criticism over the years. People fear that being called a “novelist” will go to your head. You’ll try to send off your unfinished manuscript to harried agents and publishers. You’ll think it’s okay to veer off into a fight between pirates and ninjas in the middle of your narrative. And real writers don’t need an event to motivate them to write, anyway.

Maybe some of these fears are valid. All I know is that I stand 100% behind anything that seeks to enable anyone, anywhere to be creative. NaNoWriMo gave me the support and encouragement I couldn’t find anywhere else in my life. If that makes me a fake writer, then so be it.

Last weekend, I got an email inviting me to become one of the Municipal Liaisons for my area. This November, I’ll be hosting parties, leading write-ins, and reaching out to fellow local writers in an attempt to get them across the finish line. I finally have the opportunity to give back to the event that has given so much to me.

I only wrote 3,000 words during my first NaNo, but I showed them to my creative writing class. They liked it enough that I felt motivated to finish a few short stories, none of which were ever published, but all of which received many encouraging personal rejections.

NaNo has kept me going through hard times. My first win in 2007 was an oasis of peace, happiness, and cooperation in the midst of a busy, scary year. Local meetups, like the ones I’ll be conducting, have provided me with healthy competition, inside jokes, face-to-face support, and friends.

The first Camp NaNoWriMo session in 2011 gave me something to hold onto while I drifted across the country, unsure where I’d settle down. I completed a cathartic memoir, and the peace it brought me allowed me to sit down that November and finally complete a novel, start-to-finish, that I fully intend to submit for publication one day.

This year, I’ve worked on outlining and revising the series I began in 2011, written down solid beginnings to two new standalone novels, started and completed a 60,000 word novella, and just recently, gotten into the habit of writing regular blog posts. I’m still not published, but now I have a plan for getting there.

I may have had it in me to write this way all along, but I needed the NaNoWriMo community to show me how to have faith in myself. There’s nothing I want more out of life than to inspire just one other writer in the same way.

Meet Malice

Content warning: this post contains discussion of death and descriptions of physical violence.

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Malice the computer, one of the few possessions I’ve ever named, is a small purple netbook that has been my NaNoWriMo companion for four years and counting. He’s also the last gift my grandma ever gave me.

His namesake, Malice the fictional character, is a sixteen-year-old drag queen who may have saved my sanity.

In September 2010, I had two thoughts on my mind: outlining my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel, and carefully plotting an escape from my abusive boyfriend. During the five years I spent with my ex, my stories and characters were often my only solace, and I wasn’t about to abandon them just because an event my whole future could hinge on was coming up. I needed them more than ever.

Though unaware of it on a conscious level, I modeled Malice’s story to parallel my own. When he was born, his mom called him Andrew. When he asked to wear the girls’ uniform at his private middle school, his request was met with punishment and shame. When he sought sympathy from friends, they couldn’t understand. He found comfort in watching performers, older ones who wore their makeup thick and dressed in bright costume-like clothing. He chose Malice as a stage name for himself — exactly the kind of name I thought would appeal to an angry, femme, misfit teen. But in the end, no one in his life could help him feel safe expressing himself.

And so, like me, he ran.

He’d been hurt too. Unlike the character whose story ran parallel to his, he’d developed a hard, uncaring mask to protect himself from the outside world, and in the final days of my relationship, I found that I needed to borrow it. Despite my careful efforts, my ex somehow sensed that all wasn’t well, and he took it out on me. I remember being shoved against the closet door, smashed over the head with a desk lamp, and for once, I didn’t apologize or cry. I shut my eyes and thought what Malice would think: He’s in the wrong, not me. I know what’s best for myself, and I’ll be out of here soon.

I left my ex in October, and in November, I threw myself into writing Malice’s story. He fled home, jumped a train south, and wandered through an abandoned seaside town hoping to find his absentee father (who, in his secret fantasies, was loving and accepting). 

That’s how far I’d gotten by the time I got a call asking me to get to the hospital as soon as I could, because my grandmother was dying.

I arrived on the eleventh. In the hospital room, my mom gave me the laptop my grandma had bought me for Christmas, which we all knew she wouldn’t live to see. Its petite size and bright plum color factored into why I named it after my favorite character, but really, I knew that again, I’d need his strength.

That night and the next I spent in a chair by my grandmother’s bed, watching over her, trying to work up the focus and will to type.

Malice the character and Malice the computer were there with me when I woke from a restless night to find that she was gone. They came with me to the city where she was buried, and waited in the car while my brothers sang and cried at her grave.

Those months, from September to November 2010, might have been the hardest of my life so far. Everything was changing. Nothing was reliable. All I had to hold onto was Malice.

Malice the computer has been through a lot more with me since then. He’s moved houses four times, including once across the country and back. He has sustained a handful of battle scars, such as a quite appropriate smear of glitter nail polish by the touchpad. He’s the bright spot of color that helps friends pick me out of the crowd when we get together to write. He’s even been to Disney World.

He has his flaws — his speakers broke the first week I used him, and his wireless card has never worked — but he has outlasted any other computer I’ve ever known. Even aside from our trauma bonding, I’ve grown quite attached to him.

As for Malice, the character? He’s still around. His original story hits too close to home to be considered for publication, though you might see excerpts turn up in The Darling Graveyard someday. But he’s there, his fierce little essence scattered across worlds. Sometimes he reverts to his birth name and finds that he likes dressing as a man, if no one’s trying to force it. Sometimes she transitions to living full-time as a woman. Malice has been to college, been onstage, been at the front of a foreign language classroom, been the star cellist of an orchestra.

And he’s turned up in World of Warcraft too, which is about the only thing I do that Malice the computer can’t handle. Desktops do have some uses.

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Maybe I’m not very good at writing fiction, because I can’t draw boundaries around my characters. I can torture them or kill them off in one story, but in the end, I want them to be free to move to another and find happiness. They’re important to me. They help me realize that it’s okay to live the way I want to, and I’m not ready to give up that connection.

This November, Malice the character is slated to star as a noblewoman-turned-pirate in the next installation of my fantasy series. Malice the computer will be toted around to countless meetups, subjected to days on end of frantic typing, and by December, will be home to at least another 50,000 words.

We’ll live. We’ve been through worse together, but wish us luck.

Carpe diem: seize the carp (or, My Works In Progress)

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I’m having trouble with ideas lately.

I try my usual tactic — taking a walk — to brainstorm up the next scene in my current project. I arrive home an hour later with four new ideas. Novels spawn short stories spawn alternate universes spawn fanfic. I try to sleep on it and wake up certain that my dream of biker gangs who ride motorized wheelchairs and make vrooming noises (some with their mouths, some with communication devices) is the next big thing in the YA genre.

This is nothing new. My mind brimmed with ideas when I was a kid, too. Back then, I’d throw myself into them headfirst, underestimating the amount of work they’d require. I’m sure my under-10-only radio show and sidewalk carnival would have enjoyed greater success if my friends and family could manage to approach my level of passion.

I had this idea that I could do anything, anytime I wanted, which later in life manifested as the tendency to put off even school projects I know I would have enjoyed. I could pick it up later. I could whip it out in record time. I could wait until my passion turned in that direction, but of course, it never did. Or it did, but it was short-lived, and after ten minutes or a sleepless stretch of ten hours, I bounced off toward something shiny and new.

It’s good to have passion. I think most writers, professional or amateur, enjoy the feeling of being completely wrapped up in a project they love and unwilling to put it down. The part I have trouble handling is picking one and sticking to it. Polyamory never worked for me in romantic relationships (more accurately, it crashed and burned), and it’s not going to work for me in writing fiction.

With Camp NaNoWriMo around the corner and the promise of local meetups in sight, it’s time to admit that I don’t get plot bunnies. I get plot carp. They’re shiny and beautiful enough to distract my from what I’m doing. I decide I need to chase them and pin them down right now, but they’re so slippery that it’s not long before they wriggle from my grasp, leaving me to reach for a different one. So, in the interest of learning to leave the carp alone, here’s a list of my current works in progress. With luck, I’ll learn to trust that they’ll still be here when I’m done with the one I choose to focus on first.

Last edited 1/11/2015

Main Project – epic fantasy/steampunk series

  • Prewriting/backstory, ~40k so far
  • Sister Cities (complete at 120k, revising)
  • Disinheritance (slated for rewrite early 2015)
  • Heartland (50% drafted at ~80k)
  • Bloodline (to be drafted NaNo 2015)
  • Untitled Book 5

Other Novels

  • Floodplain (horror/magical realism with lesbians, 35k/85k)
  • Radioactive (working title; coming-of-age plus zombies, 16k/85k)
  • Cat’s Meow (working title; Egyptian gods in Chicago during Prohibition, 18k/85k)
  • Our Red Room (working title; something like historical erotica, outlining)
  • Untitled horror (from the ghost’s pov; thoroughly outlined)
  • Lots of others, but considering those abandoned unless they assert themselves.

Short & Personal Work

  • Nightshade (m/m erotica with vampire fire sprites, complete at 60k)
  • The Purse (short horror, 1k/~5k)
  • They Kill (very short horror, outlined)
  • Mermaid (scene from main work, 2k/3k)
  • Session Rouge (this plus this)
  • Look through old documents, add to list, cry

the girl who started it all

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I was nine years old when the need to write overtook me.

I’m sick; I’m chronically ill. I don’t have a good grasp on what that means, but I have a new black Five Star notebook and a set of Gelly Roll pens (the start of a collection that will later make me the envy of seventh grade math class). I make a girl who looks like I want to look: petite, thin, straight black hair, fair skin, bright green eyes. I put her in my blue hooded shirt, white shorts, and sneakers. Like a cartoon character, she does not need to wash them.

I write her into my favorite TV shows, games, and books. She’s stranded on a desert island thanks to The Baby-Sitters Club, where she kisses a boy who turns out to be her long-lost twin à la Star Wars. On her way home she boards a train, which derails in the style of an accident I heard about in Reader’s Digest (I think this is the one), complete with my newfound knowledge of triage tags.

I can’t sleep one night, so I slump on the floor dramatically: she’s the damsel in distress, and someone must carry her to safety.

I scoop up my pillow and vault with it over the bed: she’s the selfless hero, carrying her beloved to safety.

I pull my mattress half off the bed and tumble down: there’s been an avalanche! Run! To safety!

By the time I’m eleven and she’s twelve, I’ve filled three notebooks and run out of ideas. I get my hands on a demo of Final Fantasy VIII and spend the rest of the evening trying to hop around my room without touching the floor, brainstorming about how I can write her in and have her steal the main character’s heart.

She becomes a teenage soldier, and an accident-prone one at that. When I visit the doctor I can pretend I’m her, getting a blood transfusion. We upgrade our wardrobes together. To get the boy, she needs a red spaghetti strap tank, a black miniskirt, combat boots, and gloves. I never do successfully communicate to my parents why I would like to wear fingerless leather gloves to school.

She and I begin to even out. I lose weight, she gains it. My hair straightens and darkens. I give her crooked teeth. We top off at five foot one before either of us turns fourteen.

The war ends; she survives. She becomes a healer. She becomes a teacher, and this is where her life begins to splinter. I’ve settled her down with her beloved and a truckload of friends. I’ve even given her a steady income. Now what?

I attempt sequels, spinoffs, and alternate dimensions. None of it sticks; I’ve written her into happiness. I’m outgrowing her cast of friends gleaned from other people’s stories. A character who’s not in pain is no good to an author like me, desperate as I am not to lose her. So I do the only thing I can: rip her from her comfortable world and begin again.

Same girl, same name. Her hair is blonde now, her eyes dark. She’s got freckles across the bridge of her nose. When she’s the same age as I was when I made her, I kill her parents in a house fire. Custody goes to her big brother, who’s a different guy than the one she kissed way back when, but who still has an inappropriate relationship with her. I give her a redheaded love interest who looks like my own. I also give her the belief that both men in her life are occasionally possessed by the Norse god Loki.

I still, after all this time, have a penchant for drama.

For my first NaNoWriMo in 2003, I try to put down her story. I get about 3,000 words in before quitting, with the excuse that people keep peering over my shoulder while I’m on the family computer. Really, I just don’t know where to direct her within the confines of the story. She tries to ritually kill her love interest’s ex. She tries to ritually kill herself. Her brother is arrested for a hit-and-run. She turns up pregnant. I amp up the drama; I don’t know what to do with the girl. If I solve her problems, how can she help me cope with my own?

I try again to write it down for NaNo 2005. I finish three chapters, which impress my senior year creative writing class, but not me. Not until close to graduation do I realize that I have finally out-aged the girl. I’m eighteen and off to college. She’s stuck at fifteen, agonizing over the big history project where she’s partnered with her crush.

I give the thing one last go in November of 2006. I’m in my first semester of college. I’ve got a dorm room and a boyfriend and, so far, a straight A average. Despite my class schedule, I make it to 35,000 words, farther than I’ve ever managed before. I believe life is going the way it’s meant to go at last. I’d like to tell you that I no longer need the girl and relegate her stories to history, but it isn’t true.

For a while, she and I still see romance as the end of the line. I’m still sick, but I’ve gotten the guy, and he will help care for me. With him, I will feel loved in spite of my flaws, and I will no longer be lonely enough to resort to imagining that a merry band of fictional characters are my closest friends. I am dedicated enough to this idea that I am willing to overlook it when my dream lover pulls a book from my hand and flings it across the room because behind it, I am falling asleep. He’s right, I should show more respect when reading something he has recommended to me.

I am willing to overlook it when he shouts at me and shakes me for failing to wash his favorite shirt in time for class. After all, I did offer to do his laundry. He’s right, I let him down. I offer to do more to make it up to him. I am willing to overlook it when he slaps me because his cereal bowl isn’t clean. He’s right, I’m lazy. He’s right, this is real life, most couples are like this behind closed doors, it’s the price you pay for love. If I were to ask anyone else, he says, they’d laugh and repeat what he’s told me. I wouldn’t want to be a whiner.

I’ve lived my whole life in a world of fiction. How am I meant to know these rules?

Before I understand what’s happening to me, I’m living in a war zone. So this is what it was the girl I made used to feel when she was running for her life. This is what it felt like when a man held her down. Now, I dress her in bruises. Comparing scars with her is the only way I know to survive.

I need help to leave. External, not internal.

The last time I write about her is for NaNoWriMo 2010. I have been away from the boyfriend for a month. I am trying to process what has happened to me, but she insists upon acting as a filter. I give her what she wants: a man like mine. I have him chase her across county lines. He pounds his fists into her arms and leaves overripe-looking bruises that I describe too graphically. She begs and pleads, but she is powerless to escape.

That’s the girl’s problem. She is powerless. Obedient, kind, bright, and determined, yes, but without a situation to react to, she cannot act.

I can’t afford to be powerless any longer.

I kill her off that year. She’s between her man and another character he wants to get at. She she’s cornered but does not idly wait to die. She charges at him and tackles him, sending him through a window. Together, they tumble five stories down. She’s dead on impact, and so is he.

It’s been three years since then. Her essence is still around, but diluted. I am done being her reflection. I am the one who is real. Today, November 11,  would have been her twenty-seventh birthday, had I let her live.

So, here’s to you, Ashley. I kick off this blog in your name. You were there when I needed you, and I don’t blame you for holding me back. Without you, I wouldn’t have written the hundreds of thousands of words that helped me develop the ability to handle what I’m working on today: an epic fantasy series about two immortals who, if you lean in and look close enough, carry the fragments of your heart somewhere deep inside their souls.

I’d be lying if I claimed that I no longer consider my characters friends. They have a part of me, each and every one. It’s what gives them life. Ashley, whose favorite color was red, whose necklace I still wear, had the part that was a scared child, desperate for safety and love. I promise to write my characters well from here on out, but I will never stop loving them.

Rest in peace, little girl. You’ve grown into something bigger.