One Bite at a Time

“I can’t wait until June.” My son’s friend came up to me at lunch today and spoke these words, rousing me from the Good Part of my book. I was supervising the class of fourth graders, who usually talked amongst themselves, played cards, or otherwise stayed occupied with age-appropriate activities. It was an easy gig.

I raised my head, expecting her to say something about the end of school—still eight weeks away. If I were a kid, that’s what I’d be looking forward to. “Hmm? Why’s that?”

“That’s when Timber Howligan comes out!”

Instant panic! I’m only half way through edits, and still have a cover to design. I’m researching the American Humane Society. I’m at least a month behind on blog posts. I’ve been trying really hard not to think about that looming deadline. The last thing I want is to be reminded about all the work I have to do. And at the same time—“That’s really sweet,” I told her. Because it was.

“Have you been working on it?”

“Yes! Yes, of course I have.” I hoped I sounded confident. I didn’t want to turn off one of my only fans. “I’ll keep you posted.”

She bounced off toward her friends, satisfied.

Lately it’s been hard to get back into a writing routine, but that’s one reason I gave myself a deadline—and announced it. When I picked June as the publication date, back in December, it sounded so far away. Plenty of time! Over the past month, as the weather’s gotten warmer and summer has seemed suddenly closer, I’ve done absolutely nothing.

I know a writer writes. I know nothing is supposed to get between me and my craft, or my Muse will stomp off in a huff. I know anything I say is just an excuse. But we took a two week vacation with my family, and you know what? I needed that vacation. So did my family—and my kids needed me. I brought my laptop, I wrote some almost every day, but finding protected time to edit and revise my novel? Nope, that didn’t happen at the beach.

Then we got home, and my cat died. Not in an all of a sudden, over and done with kind of way. More a prolonged kitty hospice kind of thing. It is unbelievable how much time nursing a geriatric, terminally ill cat takes. Not everyone could afford to make that choice, but I did—with a lot of help from her vet—and we made her last week very comfortable.

By the time I picked up my novel again, I felt like another person. I’ve read at least a dozen books since I last worked on it. I’ve stared death in the eyes, watched it come in the middle of the night, breath by breath, and leave nothing behind at the end but a peaceful sigh.

I’m learning not to rush. Deadlines are good—they make things happen. But taking time off to renew myself was good, too. It’s important to write, but it’s also important to have something to write about.

Now I’m back, and I have to remind myself that everything will get done eventually. My husband calls it “eating the elephant,” usually in regards to his big work projects. You can’t possibly eat a giant pachyderm all at once, you have to do it a bite at a time. The same is true for writing a novel, especially if you then decide to take the leap and self-publish it. In the past week, I edited seven chapters and finished a blog post—that’s at least an ear, maybe half a trunk, don’t you think?

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Why I Write

I’m bad at taking vitamins, keeping track of my glasses, and returning library books on time. My cats probably wish I would change the litter box more often. If it weren’t for my husband waking up thirty minutes early each morning and doing all the hard work—making the kids’ lunches, being my alarm clock, turning on the coffee maker—I’d be a deadbeat mom. A morning person I am not, especially since chronic headaches invaded my life three years ago.

But I’m pretty good at writing. Sometimes. I try to do it every day, although I’ve reached the stage where I now think everything I wrote two years ago is crap. I believe this is progress.

What I’m really not good at? Putting myself out there.

Whether it’s posting regular blog entries (Me? have anything to say that people would want to read?), or submitting my short stories (Is it good enough? Is it worth sending if they’ll just reject it anyway?), I fall short of the last essential stage required to BE A WRITER:

Letting my work be read.

I mean, I’m really not writing just for me. I say that, to justify the hundred thousand words I’ve written in the past year. I say that to my disability company, because truthfully, I’m not fit for gainful employment (and certainly not capable of performing the duties of a pediatric anesthesiologist sixty hours a week—yikes). Staring at a screen for more than a couple hours quite predictably gives me a headache, which I wake up with every day to begin with. So why do I write?

Writing is its own kind of therapy. It keeps me from going crazy. It is a substitute for the intense mental hoops I used to jump through, juggling the anesthetic management of up to fourteen children a day, supervising residents, conducting trials, taking classes, and writing research papers. I never wanted to leave my career at the age of 38. I dearly miss my job. Writing gives me something to do each day. So would yoga.

Don’t get me wrong—I like yoga. But even in the middle of the one class I’ve found that’s mellow enough for me to get through, I’ll find myself zoning out, revising my latest story in my head. (Especially during the ten minutes of sitting and breathing. I know it’s meditative. It’s probably great for my headaches. But it’s boring.)

But secretly, I love an audience. Even as an anesthesiologist, once I had that patient in my clutches, helpless, vulnerable, strapped to the bed, I used those precious minutes before the drugs kicked in to tell jokes. Yes, yes, it established rapport, alleviated anxiety, and put my patient in a beneficial state—beneficial for me. People tend to wake up in the same mood in which they fall asleep. It also was my only chance to perform, since I had neither the time, nerve, nor repertoire for stand-up comedy. In my heart, I want to make people laugh and cry and scream out loud. Maybe even in the same story—I aim high.

Without that outlet, I write. Today, I want to be a better writer than I was yesterday. Tomorrow, I admit it, I want that story to be read.

The only way to do that is to write as if no one is watching, knowing the whole time you’re performing on stage. I did it at the beginning of every case, in front of impatient surgeons, skeptical scrub nurses, and parents who didn’t appreciate my sense of humor. (A sample: “What do you call cheese that’s not yours? Nacho cheese!” It’s all in the delivery.) But if I could make that kid smile as the anesthetic took hold, it was all worth it–even if I had thirty seconds to get the airway in as soon as the little tyke stopped breathing. If I could tell jokes under that kind of pressure, you and I can submit our work. When that story gets out there, it won’t matter how many rejections it gathered along the way. In fact, the more you have, the more you can brag.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t think about what your mother or your English teacher would think. They probably won’t read it, unless you send them a copy. And God forbid, do not even consider the fact that your children have Internet access and know how to perform a Google search.

And the Liebster nomimees are…

JF Owen was right: Being nominated for a Liebster blogging award is a lot of work. And everyone knows that we blog because we enjoy the extra work, right? But never one to leave a task unfinished, especially one that is a labor of love, here is the rest of my Liebster task list:

  1. Post the Liebster Award graphic on your site.
  2. Thank the blogger who nominated your blog.
  3. The nominee is asked to write 11 facts about themselves.
  4. Answer the 11 questions from the post of the person who nominated them.
  5. The nominee will nominate 5-11 other blogs.  The caveat is that the nominated blogs have less than 200 followers.
  6. The nominee will advise the new bloggers that they’ve been nominated.
  7. The nominee will then create 11 questions of their own for their nominated bloggers to answer in their Liebster post.

I realize now I skipped part 3. Eleven random facts about myself somehow doesn’t seem like a gateway to an interesting blog post. But here goes: Mac. Socially liberal, economically conservative. Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. Cats, four. Yoga pants and Uggs. Naturally curly. Astronaut. A swimming pool, fruit trees, a swing set, and a worm composting bin. Contradancing. Clarinet. The Princess Bride.

The hardest part was coming up with nominees. I am picky about the blogs I follow, and most have more than 200 followers. But these two stand out:

1. colour the moment: A blog about the colourful life of the outstanding wife

My talents, as I see them, are an ability to laugh at myself, undignified honesty and a deep-seated love for a good story.

via The colourful life – 20: The emotional needs of a bladder.

2. Bizigal’s Blog: A blog about raising freeloaders–er, teenagers, with and without special needs

At age 29 (again), I have many problems, and I learn what they are each day. But the one problem I don’t have is that each day that passes, I am 1 day closer to freedom.

via What’s your problem?.

Both are busy moms who may have nothing more in common with me than that, but I love reading their posts about life, motherhood, and coping. Both are full of honesty and humor. Ladies, this nomination simply means I enjoy your blogs, and know that others would, too. If you choose to take the time to go through the whole process of accepting it, these are the questions I would have:

1. You have one week to spend away from your families, guilt-free. What do you do with it?

2. What is one joke that you can reliably tell in public, and always get a laugh?

3. What books are on your nightstand, right now?

4. Have you ever locked yourself in the bathroom to get away from your children? For what purpose? For how long? (My mom eventually confessed to eating chocolate this way.)

5. Favorite TV show, and why?

6. If you had a totem animal, what would it be, and why?

7. What is the longest journey you have ever made?

8. If you had a “Happy Moments Jar”, what are three things you could put in it from the past week?

9. It’s the dreaded zombie apocalypse. All you have to survive are the contents of your house. What would you do?

10. A guardian angel hands you a scroll and says, “Here, this is your bucket list. Pick two items.” Then it shrugs awkwardly and says, “Oops, the two for one special ended last week. Sorry.” What ONE things do you want to cross off?

11. Desert island scenario. You only get to take ONE BOOK. For the REST OF YOUR LIFE. Which one is it?

An honest reply

I’ve seen the Liebster Award on other blogs I’ve admired, and thought, “That’s kind of cool. But it looks like kind of a gimmick.” And then there’d be the usual twinge of it’s not like I’d ever get an award grumble grumble sour grapes.

Then JF Owen nominated me for one, in his post “I’m Surrounded by Talented People.”:

Fine Feathers – Heather writes a blog about balancing life, writing and being a parent.  Her blog is interesting, witty and honest.  I enjoy reading her viewpoint on life.

He went on to give the best explanation about the Liebster–actually, the only–I’ve ever seen.

The Liebster was originally intended to allow bloggers an avenue to highlight new and interesting blogs.  Along the way, the Leibster and other similar awards have developed a “chain letter” type reputation.  There’s no doubt that accepting and participating in the process is a time consuming effort and many, if not most, nominees elect to pass on the opportunity.  I get that and I want to make sure that none of the good folks I mention feel any obligation to take on a job that they really don’t want to tackle.

To JF, I can honestly say: I’m honored. To be included in this thoughtful and thorough nomination was more than I expected, and now that you have access to my full interior monologue, more than you might think I deserve.

But as you yourself said, I’m nothing if not honest.

I’m going to take JF’s approach to responding. Partly because I think the award deserves a thoughtful reply, and I like the snack break in the middle. Partly because I spent 8 hours today sleeping off a migraine, so this is the best I could do. This constitutes my announcing the award, posting the logo, thanking my nominator (thank you, JF!) and my deeply honest replies to to his 11 probing questions.

Next week, look for my nominees, who will hopefully be as pleasantly surprised as I was!

1.    If you could live anywhere on earth (and take whomever you wanted along), where would it be and why?

JF, this is a loaded question. My husband reads this blog. Occasionally my mother does. And you’ve accused me of being honest.

But honestly? I’d live right here, in Durham, North Carolina, conveniently located near my friends and family. We have four seasons, but very little snow. This year it never even hit a hundred degrees. We have mountains over here, and the beach over there, all within a couple hours drive. We have hundreds of restaurants, a thriving local food movement, and are the Tastiest Town in the South!

And I’d make my parents move down here 🙂

2.    What is your best childhood memory?
Curled up in my father’s leather armchair, swallowed by a book. Any book–I often brought several, and passed hours this way. I could shut the whole world out. (Ask my mother.)

3.    What’s your pet peeve?
The word “peeve”. And “irk”.”Irk” and “peeve” irk me. If I indulge my many peeves too much, my natural peevishness ascends, and people stop telling me how cheerful I am.

4.    Who is your favorite author?
Neil Gaiman, because he writes brilliantly for both children and adults whether he’s being funny or serious and almost always makes brings tears to my eyes, either way. Robert Heinlein, because his books made me want to be a better person and the world a better place. Jim Butcher, because while writing the coolest urban wizard series in the world also published an equally amazing fantasy epic without missing a beat. Scott Westerfield because he creates worlds and characters as easily as other people create outfits. Or at least, he makes it look that way. And I can’t even create cool outfits.

5.    If you had to live in an era other than the current one, which would you choose?
Easy. Steampunk. I may struggle with today’s fashions, but I look good in leather, lace, and buckles.

6.    What is your favorite line from a movie and why?

Scarlett O’Hara, last line of Gone With the Wind: “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Why? Because tomorrow, she was going to get Rhett back. You just knew it.

I would have looked good in a hoop skirt, too.

7.    For your vacation, would you prefer a cabana at the beach or a cabin in the mountains?
Mountains. Plus raging river and kayak. Those were the days…

8.    What is the biggest obstacle you have faced in your life?
Obstacles imply immovable objects. So I almost said “Not getting into medical school the first time,” but the immovable object in that scenario was ME. I was too stubborn to give up, and all the angst, heartbreak, and stress was self-induced. Trying again was humiliating and hard, at the time. But it was a choice, at least, and it paid off eventually. I made it through all my training and worked as an anesthesiologist for five years.

Over two years ago, I developed a headache that never went away. I fought it (and it was a battle) by going through invasive medical tests that led to more headaches. I fought those by getting treatments that either failed, or caused headaches of their own.

Or, in the end, it turned out…I just had a bad headache that wouldn’t go away. Thus the chronic migraine diagnosis I now have, which took me about three months to accept.

Obstacles don’t go away. They can’t be abandoned, negotiated with, or bashed through.

Somehow, this one turned me from a doctor into a writer.

9.    What will be the title of the story of your life?
Headaches and Hoop Skirts. Starring Vivien Leigh.

10.    What’s the weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
Yak ear soup, in Western China. It was on a medical mission. I thought it was just a really tough, chewy noodle.

11.    What’s the number one thing on your bucket list?
I’m doing it. Writing was my first love, and always something I said I’d do “someday.”

There is no someday. Despite the headaches, I feel extremely blessed. (The problem with growing up in the church of science fiction is, I have no idea by “what”…or what sacrifice they’ll demand, someday. But you know what? For this job, I’ll pay it.)

A Word About Word Count–Inspiration Grab Bag #3

A Word About Word Count

But before I start, let me pause to swoon:

Dean Wesley Smith. There, it’s out. I’ve got a writer’s crush. Is it the cowboy hat? The prolificity? Or the fact that the man just wrote a 70,000 word novel in 10 DAYS?

(And to my husband, who I know is secretly worried: It’s the hat. You can buy one of those, and you’ll look awesome in it.)

DWS recently blogged about his experience. For anyone who has ever struggled with daily motivation to write, meeting word counts, or wondering if they have it in them to write a novel, these 11 blog entries (10 days of writing plus the day after) are eye-opening and well worth your time. If he can find the time to write them (and respond to all the comments!), you and I can find some time to read them, or at least write a few thousand words, or at least write my spy kitties out of that metaphorical hole I’ve gotten them into this time.

In one of my favorite “How to” books, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them), by Jack M. Bickham, there is a marvelous piece of advice, so important that he places it at number one in his list: Don’t Make Excuses.

“At the end of each day, write down…the number of hours you spent…working on your fiction project, and …how many pages you produced. For those days when you don’t have anything in terms of work to report, type one double-spaced page of excuses.”

Today, I only managed about 160 words. Because….The kids are on summer break. I had a headache. I slept in because the kids slept in. My husband was working in the garage on a wood-working project and I had 12 cups of mashed strawberries that just had to be turned into jam. I thought I should finally cook dinner, for once. The laundry was piling up taller than we were. I secretly feel guilty when I ask my husband to do too much housework, even though he’s always cheerful about it and we have always shared parenting responsibilities (and sometimes he’s carried more of them). And when I did finally sit down to write, I chose to edit a short story (easy) than put more words on the blank pages of my novel (hard).

John Bickham is right: You’ll soon get sick of writing excuses. To write 7,000 words a day, there’s no time for them.

Fine Feathers: A word about the name

The Vain JackDaw copy

The Vain JackDaw

So the other day, someone asked why my blog was called “Fine Feathers.” (Okay, it was my husband.)

The quote at the top, “it takes more than fine feathers to make a fine bird”, is the moral of one of Aesop’s fables in which a plain jackdaw, trying to make himself more than he is, covers himself in the feathers of fancier birds to appear before the god Jupiter, who plans to choose a king of birds. Of course he is ultimately revealed and stripped of his disguise, as any wrongly placed bird should be. (Stick with me, I’m going someplace.)

To me, the line leads naturally to:

“…and it takes more than fine letters to make a fine word.”

Clearly, to me, a fine word is like a fine bird: it should be strong enough on its own to face a god.

This does not mean that all those fancy adjectives and adverbs are evil. Yes, there are authors who brag about writing entire novels without a single adverb. In FicFac, a tête-à-tête with Subhakar Das, “An Aversion to  Adverbs”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is quoted as saying he wrote an entire novel without a single one. J.K. Rowling is maligned for using them like salt and pepper. Yet, between my mother, sister, husband, 8-year old son and I, a book with “Harry Potter” in the title has been read at least 40 times. For GGM, the total may be zero. I would have to check with my mom. I’m sure she’ll let me know if I’m wrong.)

The point of the article, which I agree with as much as I love Harry, Ron, and Hermione, is that “adjectives and adverbs are a hallmark of florid, overwritten prose; verbs add muscle and precision.” (Children’s literature is more forgiving, I’m finding. Sometimes it’s just quicker to use an adverb, for the writer and the reader, and word counts matter in that market.)

But no matter what I’m writing, whether it’s fluffy spy kitty or a spec-fic short story, when I write a scene I focus on two triads:

1) nouns, verbs, and emotion

2) plot, character, and tension

Adverbs and adjectives sneak in. But plain feathers and strong words serve both missions well.

(Artwork is by Sarah Geesey, print available on imagekind)

Starting Somewhere

Image

A little bird flies

High up in the sky above

Then turns back to me

That’s the first poem I remember writing. I was seven years old, and my parents were very proud. My grandparents were proud. I was very proud. It was just an assignment for school, but I had put my heart into it, and they seemed to know it.

It may be the best poem I ever wrote. But this is not a blog about a poet, nor is it the blog of a child prodigy. (Er, obviously. You did read that poem, right?) I did write again, in second grade, but my second effort lacked the emotion of the first (“Rainbows are windows/That show you the fairies’ world/But only a glimpse!”). In fifth grade, I turned my hand to what you could call fiction, if a series titled “BORING” (consisting of pages and pages of my ten-year old, ecstatic/sarcastic–it is possible to be both at the same time–ramblings on our new Macintosh computer) counts.

I published six pieces. My parents had bought a dot matrix printer, too.

I’m 38 years old and a retired anesthesiologist and I FINALLY am learning how to be a proper writer. There, I said it. I didn’t plan to leave medicine so early, and I might (I hope) someday return, but a chronic illness that I’ll get to in a future blog entry knocked me out of the game eighteen months ago, and I haven’t been back since. Last September, a conversation with an old friend made me reconsider writing as more than just a hobby.

I started writing every day, and haven’t stopped since.

My plan for this blog is to share my experience. Why? First, because learning to write and write well is painful and lonely, and shared pain is lessened. Second, because I absolutely live on other writing blogs. Does that mean the world needs another one? Probably not. But there’s a heck of a lot of good advice out there, and I need a home to pull all the helpful stuff together, and this is where I’m going to put it.

Here’s one of the helpful pieces of advice I keep running into: Keep a journal.

Now I can check that one off the list.