Wednesday, October 31, 2007


It's that time of year again, boys and girls. Time to ingratiate myself with my usually stubborn muse, feed him chocolate (leftover Halloween candy, anyone?), and beg him to feed me 1,667 words every day for the entire month of November.

Otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month (

I've participated in this collective insanity—churning out 50,000 words of fiction in a single month—since 2004. Each year I've made the deadline with all 50,000 words. Then, I've gone on to finish that year's novel (usually adding another 25,000 words or so) by the following October in order to enter it into the Christian Writers Guild's current Operation First Novel/Book contest.

In fact, I just finished my 2006 NaNo novel late last month and entered it into this year's Operation First Novel contest. The first round of semifinalists probably won't be announced until December. I'm not holding my breath, but I've placed as a semifinalist or better twice before. In fact, my first NaNo novel from 2004 went on to be a Top 4 runner-up in last year's contest.

While hyping myself up for that first NaNo challenge in October 2004, I trolled around the NaNo forums and read about AlphaSmarts. I was so intrigued, and so plagued by my internal editor (who had hog-tied and gagged my muse on numerous occasions), that I immediately hit eBay and scarfed up a used AlphaSmart 2000 for about $50. It was the best fifty bucks I ever spent. Between the AS2000 and NaNo's insane deadline, I not only untied and ungagged my muse, but I bitch-slapped that internal editor upside his head and spit in his eye just for fun.

Otherwise known as an epiphany (although saying it the first way was more fun).

And now I am standing on the precipice for the fourth time. On the floor to my left is a huge white board filled with multicolored scribbly notes on this year's novel (you can take notes but can't write any prose until 12:01 a.m. on November 1). I took it off the wall and put it here next to my desk so I can copy it into OneNote and work with it.

For the next three hours, before I can start the actual writing, I'll be concocting characters and plot lines, perhaps even running that first sentence in my head a little bit.

And since no project gets anywhere without a working title (at least not in my world), I've come up with one I can live with for now: Mrs. Needlemeier's Novel Idea.

Yes, it's supposed to sound quirky.
Yes, it's important that she's a Mrs.
Yes, she's writing a novel. That's all I'm going to say about that.

And now, as the countdown clock strikes T-minus three hours, I'm off to do that plotting and planning I've been avoiding all month. This is one project on which I cannot procrastinate.

Which is why I hate . . . errr, love NaNoWriMo so much.


Madame Bovary Update: I finished Madame Bovary over the weekend. I found absolutely no character to sympathize with, which made the novel vexing to read all the way through. I felt no remorse at Emma's downfall, and once everyone else around her scattered to the four winds or died, well, I'd about had it with these people.

Now I'm reading Stephenie Meyer's Twilight—a much better choice for Halloween, and certainly a lot more fun. I'm about 100 pages in, so I'll report back on this one once I'm done and moving on to the second book in the series, New Moon.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Weekly Book Watch: Madame Bovary

This week I'm reading Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. (Obviously I'm reading a translation. The only French I know includes such essential terms as crepe suzette, Jacques Cousteau and French fries.)

I'm not quite at the halfway point. Emma Bovary hasn't started any of her shenanigans just yet. She's just had a baby, though (not due to shenanigans, but rather, with her husband, the longsuffering and rather clueless Charles). For those of you who know me, I'm sure you can guess that I expect to find it difficult to sympathize with any of Emma's struggles. Well, not with her struggles, exactly (the boredom and frustration of a bad marriage and a husband who doesn't know you from Adam) ... with the solutions to her struggles that I already know are coming. For the past decade or more, I've had a lot of trouble relating to main characters who decide that infidelity is a solution to marital issues. Can't fault me for that, I suppose, but I find I sometimes dig in my heels about such characters being portrayed sympathetically. Any book or movie that is trying to coax us into thinking, "Well, the poor thing had no choice -- look how unhappy he/she was!" or "Can you blame him? Look at what a bitch his wife was!" really irks me.

I suppose I just don't go in for situational ethics in any form, not even in my literature and cinema.

Don't get me wrong: I've written characters with plenty of sins, some of which are meant to be sympathetic. But, I think I draw the line when a book or movie portrays evil as good and good as evil. So, I can identify with a character who is sinning like crazy ... as long as there is a struggle with those sins. Heck, as long as the character is still calling them sins.

But once the character gives up and starts to justify his or her sinful actions as inevitable or as mere "mistakes," then I'm outta there, especially when those sinful actions involve betrayal, lying and adultery.

With Emma Bovary, I have yet to see what her own feelings about her upcoming actions will be. And that will largely determine my overall reaction to this classic.


Update on The Memory Keeper's Daughter: I felt this book had a lot of potential, and individual scenes often lived up to that potential. But the way Edwards handled the broad scope of the novel (hopping years ahead every few chapters, skipping huge chunks of time as if we wouldn't notice or be curious about them) didn't work well for me. And, without giving away the ending, let's just say I was disappointed in it. It felt contrived and a little too ... tidy. The tone of most of the novel was melancholy and sad; the change in tone at the end jarred me into thinking this wasn't even the same story.

All in all: Good plot idea, lovely storytelling in general, but the execution felt choppy and insincere in spots. Sometimes -- at crucial moments -- people did things I didn't expect or see coming. And not because Edwards is good at plot twists, but because they suddenly did things I hadn't seen in their personalities before that point. Too many times I thought, "Hey, he [or she] would never do something like that!"

I'll give it three stars out of five: * * *

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Weekly Book Watch: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

I'm currently reading The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards. I'm going through a rash of "current" books, mostly feeling my way around by what sounds interesting or looks slightly out of the ordinary. (Suddenly I see why those one-minute book blurbs we learn how to write are so important.) After having just finished reading Water for Elephants (which I loved) and The Dante Club (which I also loved), this book is so much slower in pace and tone that I'm having trouble adjusting and allowing it to be what it is without comparing it to those other two bestsellers.

It is, though, a book that breaks so many of the current "rules" of writing fiction: There isn't all that much dialogue, and it all seems so very polished and smooth. There is a ton of slow, deliberate description (compared to so many sparsely written novels nowadays). The book starts semi-fast (having read Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages, I can't say it starts as fast as he recommends, which I feel tries to put everyone in a "thriller" box anyway), but then slows down its pace and seems to stay there.

I'm enjoying where the book seems to be taking the reader, although I find it jolting to find she jumps ahead years at a time from one chapter to another. This makes me constantly reassess where we will end up at the end of her story. And for now, that kind of plot-driven curiosity has been enough to keep me engaged in the story.

Next will probably be Stephenie Meyers's Twilight (first in her triology of YA vampire books—I have the other two waiting in the wings). I have most of Anne Rice's vampire books, and I read Bram Stoker's original decades ago (and reread it in recent years), so I think reading this popular vampire series right around Halloween ought to be fun. My daughter is already finished with the first two books (no small feat considering how fast she read them!), and we're awaiting the Amazon delivery on the third volume tomorrow! (She and I are trying to keep busy with our reading while we both await the publication of Libba Bray's third volume in her own YA trilogy in December.)

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cinderella Understood Writers

Well, I'd say she at least understood married, female, mommy writers. Because writing does not yet pay the bills for me, it too often remains at the bottom of my to-do list each day. I've heard all the suggestions about carving time out for writing, about making it such a priority that you hang a sign on your home office door that says, "Don't bother me unless you're bleeding. I'm writing!"

As things tend to go currently, there are a few things wrong with these suggestions at my house. First, my home office has no door. The house used to be apartments, and my office used to be the upstairs kitchen. There was a bifold door on it when my son used it as a bedroom (the only bedroom with a sink and cabinets), but that's now buried somewhere up in the attic. Trust me: No one wants to venture up there to look for a bifold door just so I can hang a paper sign on it.

Another dilemma is that I was blessed at birth with an innate sense of panic, anxiety, and guilt. If someone in the house is upset, it is automatically my fault and I must make things right. If someone feels bored, I must entertain the masses. If someone needs a load of laundry done, I must drop what I am doing and take the laundry basket down to the basement. Despite being a mediocre cook, and despite having a semi-empty nest, I am responsible for dinner, and in some cases lunch. I pack lunches for family members who work outside the house. I also do grocery shopping, clutter-control, and the modest amount of cleaning I can bring myself to endure.

And, of course, I do freelance copy editing, proofreading, and sometimes typesetting as projects come in. I rarely turn down projects -- part of that "Just Say Yes" syndrome that guilt-ridden folks are born with. We don't wish to hurt anyone's feelings, even clients we've met only through e-mails, and so we say yes to everything and then hope a calendar day magically becomes 40 hours long.

In my guilt-ridden mind, all of these things must come before writing. I pick up on the unspoken opinion that the writing should come in dead last, after I take out your trash or paint your living room or run to the bank or take you to the movies or a trip to the store for some Very Important Personal Shopping at the last minute.

I don't know why I buy into these opinions. I don't know why I cannot hang that sign on the rhetorical door and force family members to fend for themselves for a few short hours every day. One thing I don't buy into, though, is the theory that I probably don't take my writing seriously. I do. I've wanted to be a writer since grade school. I've accomplished some things with my writing, more now than ever. However, I think I take my family seriously too. What I need to do is find a way to help them understand the difference between needing me to do things for them and simply wanting me to do those things.

And, I suppose, a little shot of writing-self-esteem and a suppression of that conflict-guilt would go a long way toward finding daily time to write. After all, even Cinderella found time to make that dress and go to the ball. Granted, she had a bunch of singing mice to help, but as I look around my office at the guinea pig enclosure behind me (housing Murray and Ajax, who keep me company up here), I somehow don't see either one of them singing and cooking up a nice ham dinner for me so I can spend my time writing instead.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to put the laundry into the dryer and run to the store. We're out of milk. Again.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Resurrecting the Past

It's time to resurrect the ol' Blogspot blog, and get it back on track as a place for writing- and publishing-related posts. The "other blog" (which shall remain nameless) will stick to more family-oriented and personal posts. Right now, it seems my entire life is related to publishing in one way or another:

• I've restarted my Journeyman course with the Christian Writers Guild. (In fact, I'm sitting here with the current lesson open and half-finished.)

• I've started a new semester as a writing coach for WriteAtHome, an online writing course for homeschoolers. I'm grading papers for 8th grade composition again, which I enjoyed last term. I'm personally maxed out at a dozen students, but I have a friend who's got about three times that many. Apparently she dislikes the word "hobbies."

• Although I've put freelance projects on hold during September, I'm theoretically doing freelance copy editing*, proofreading, and typesetting. I may have to scale some of this back. The spouse is slightly concerned about something called a "tax bracket." I secretly wonder if it's like a parenthesis or brace, but I also secretly have a feeling I am way off.

• I am scrambling to finish the first novel in a cozy mystery series in time for a contest deadline in early October. (This explains putting the freelance projects on hold this month.) It has been slow going during this first half of the month. Which can probably be explained partly by this:

• I am putting in eight days in-house at my previous job with my denominational publishing office, a job I have now started with them four times in two decades. This time I am merely filling in a few days this month while they find someone willing to come in on a more semi-permanent basis. As for me, I have too many self-induced projects to consider going back to the job. Plus, once I factor in the huge commute, nonprofit pay scale, and price of gasoline for aforementioned huge commute, I clear less than five dollars per hour. I mean, I love these people, but not THAT much.

• Due to a furniture gift from my mother of a comfy wing chair recliner, a Levenger lap desk I bought on sale, a book light I got for free, and several trips to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I am finding time each day to read. I've recently finished Cold Mountain, The Dante Club, A Great and Terrible Beauty, and am currently reading Rebel Angels and Lord John & the Brotherhood of the Blade. And, waiting in the wings are The Glass Castle, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Water for Elephants, Madame Bovary, and too many other books to mention. So many books, so little time. It's been enriching and fulfilling to set aside time each evening to put my feet up and read how others have accomplished the publishing tasks I am yet trying to master.

All of these endeavors take up the brunt of my brain space each day. And, they are certainly more than the sum of their parts, for they've made my current lifestyle and routine the kind of thing I've been striving for my whole adult life. I get out of bed each morning eager to start my day (well, except for those eight days this month I have to get up and commute to the office -- that's still a buzz-killer). Who even knew such a thing was possible?

*I really wish they'd officially make this one word, like "proofreading" and "typesetting." I find it perversely ironic that copy editors haven't stormed the lexicographical castle over this yet. If somebody brings the torches, I'll bring the pitchforks.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

I Think I'm Gonna Hurley!

Hurley's Here! Hurrah!

Well, little month-old Hurley came home with us tonight after a casual trip to PetSmart in Monaca. He's upstairs feeling overwhelmed in his new big, open-topped cage (2 feet by 3 feet), but earlier we were holding him calmly (his eyes kept closing halfway when I petted him) and he seemed to relax and enjoy being petted, even lying his head on your chest and squealing a little bit. He's in his little plastic igloo right now, up in my office, but we'll acclimate him a little better once I'm back up in the office and working.

I won't get to take a picture till tomorrow, so till then, I found a pic on the 'net that looks a lot like him (but this is an adult version):

The name "Hurley" has gotten the most votes across the board, but votes are still being taken for alternate names, including (but not limited to):

Jeff, Bob, Richard, Daryl, and maybe Amadeus

If you have a preference, vote now! He's here and he needs a name. We don't want the little guy to end up with an identity crisis or anything....

Monday, February 13, 2006

Countdown to Cavy!

I have the hay. I have the food and dish. I have the bedding. The cage (a large, open cage) is on its way from eBay. Soon I'll be getting one of these:

Gracie says the name "Richard" would be good. So now it's either Jeff or Bob or Richard. Unless someone comes up with a better name. I'll post photos once Jeff/Bob/Richard is actually here.


"Careful, kid, you'll poke yer eye out!"