A note to myself at graduation

file0002022362803My husband is graduating from college soon.  He’s been in school for a while, taking a few classes here and there, fitting them in around work, cross-country moves, children and military deployments.  And by some strange turn of events, we’ve come full circle and he’s graduating from my alma mater.

His diploma won’t look the same (they’ve changed the name of the school since I graduated), but I imagine he’ll be walking across the same stage in the same basketball arena as I did those many years ago.

And it makes me think back to my 23-year-old self and wonder: what lessons have I learned? What would I want starry-eyed, ambitious, dreamy me to know as she’s handed her Bachelor’s degree?

A few things come to mind.

You are a writer.

You will try to convince yourself this isn’t true. You will take jobs solely for the money. You will try your hand at several vocations – and you will be very good at some of them (and really terrible at others) – but none of them will fulfill you.  They won’t make your heart ache. They won’t wake you up in the middle of the night the way writing does. They won’t urge you on or beat you down or pick you back up again the way writing does. She’s a bitch, but you can’t live without her. Trust me on that.

Stop laying out.

You will never be tan. Your freckley Scottish/Irish skin will not stand for it. Just embrace the pale.

Read Rambo.

One day, you’ll send a story in to a contest. A story beyond your typical genre. A story you hate, because it’s an illustration of your worst fear. Your writing partner will hate you for letting her read it without warning. (A piece of advice – warn her first.) But then the contest judge – David Morrell – will read it and think it worthy of honorable mention. And you’ll be honored. Especially after you Google David Morrell and discover he’s the author of Rambo. And then you’ll be humbled because clearly that guy knows terror.

Enjoy your body while it’s young.

Stop obsessing over what you are not and instead focus on what you are. Stop comparing your body to others, who are more than likely comparing their body to yours. It’s a relentless, stupid cycle. Embrace the good, let go of the “bad”.

Write for yourself.

You will get rejection letters. Lots of them. Then you will get one bite that will spin your head. When you read the words, “congratulations,” you won’t be able to breathe. But eventually, through negotiations, you’ll realize they are not a good fit for you. And you will lie awake at night, wondering if saying no to them would be the worst decision you ever made.

It won’t be.

You will be published.

After dreaming for years of getting your book into the hands of others, you will. It won’t be quite the St. Elmo’s-Fire-playing-and-fireworks-in-the-background kind of moment. But it will be close. And people from several continents will read it and tell you how connected they feel to the book. And you’ll want to stalk down every one of them and wrap them into a hug.

Don’t stalk. It’s creepy.

Not everyone will like your work.

A woman from Sweden will post a bad review and it will crush your soul. And you’ll want to stalk her down and explain yourself.  Or at very least, throw angry looks at your IKEA bookshelves.

Don’t do that. It’s creepy.

Stop reading your reviews.

This is hard. But you have to do it. In order to keep writing for yourself, you have to stay grounded in who you are. And you can’t do that if you are pulled in either direction. As Maya Angelou said, “don’t pick it up, don’t lay it down.”

Don’t let compliments build you up to beyond who you are, and don’t let reproach pull you down. It’s not fair to the work.

Blog.

You’ll learn these lessons slowly, and through a series of relationships with other writers. Some of those writers you’ll meet through connections in the blogosphere. And you’ll treasure the insight those writers have. Putting yourself out into the world makes you vulnerable, but it also opens the way for new friendships. And helps you hammer out the ongoing flow of extraneous words in your head. Both are worth it.

Blog Tour

So, this is happening next week:

Wildifre bit'n tour April 2014

Stay tuned for details.

 

A few words on fear

I’ve written the climax for my WIP.  Finally.  And this morning, as I was scrolling through (and not reading) the words I’d written, a thought occurred to me.

I don’t want to read it.

I’ve been telling myself it’s because the scene is too intense. But that’s ridiculous.  The climax I wrote for Wildfire was intense.  And I don’t remember avoiding it. In fact, I relished the action.  It’s fun to put your characters in treacherous situations to see how they’ll fare.  (Sadistic, but fun.)

But this time, the danger was too hard for me to handle. I skimmed over the scene I knew was too extreme and intended to just move on. Until I stopped myself.

And said, “self, what’s up? Why so avoid-y with this particular passage?”

Well, if you’re a regular reader, you know I avoid for one reason and one reason only: fear.

Damn stupid fear.

Writers everywhere are familiar with fear.  It’s an enduring staple of our daily routine.

Wake up, Make Coffee, Write, Fear no one will understand it, Edit, Fear it’s not good enough, Send off to First Readers, Fear they are just humoring you, Edit again, Fear it’s obsolete, Publish, Fear it will receive bad reviews (or, worse, NO reviews), Start the next book, Fear the first one isn’t as “finished” as you thought, Sleep, Have nightmares about obscure character arcs and archaic plot lines.

This is the method. And fear is the constant companion.

But usually, I’m okay with fear.  We snuggle up together in front of the computer screen on a daily basis. I’m aware of its existence and I write through it. Because I have to. I don’t really have a choice.  I can let the fear win or I can beat it down until it’s just a whisper in the back of my mind.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some days, the fear does win.

But that is why I have a writing partner.  To help me through the bad days. And I read other writer’s blogs, to feel supported – and not so alone – in this struggle.

But today, as I skimmed over the scene, I was able to answer my own question.

This fear is more imminent than usual.

And when I asked myself why, myself answered swiftly and with the most obvious response possible.

Because I am going on vacation in January. Some friends and I are going skiing in the mountains of Colorado. Just like we used to every year in high school and college.  I’m looking forward to it, not just because I love skiing, but also because of the nostalgia we are bound to strum up over a roaring fire and a glass of wine.

Why is this important to the WIP?

Well, the climactic scene I’ve written, and seem unable to read at the moment, is about a young girl trapped in the thrashing of an avalanche.

English: I took this picture on May 2006, on m...

Ahhhhhhh! (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

As my six-yer-old would say, Duh.

Of course I’m afraid.  I’m going skiing in the mountains.  No wonder I’d like to avoid stories of a girl trapped under the snow-packed menace of an avalanche.

The fear I’m experiencing doesn’t stem from self-doubt. It’s a very realistic what-if-I-smother-under-a-packed-pile-of-snow brand of terror. Nobody wants to read about that right before they put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation.

This realization is interesting, partially because I had planned on giving my friends copies of the WIP to read on their way to Colorado (some of us are flying, others are driving). And now I feel the need to rethink that. Or at least warn them of it. In case their natural defense mechanism is also avoidance. (I’d feel a little smug if my writing made them huddle up inside the condo for the whole trip, but I’d probably feel some guilt about it too.  So I’d like to avoid that. Since, you know, avoidance is my thing.)

What I do feel good about, however, is the amount of research I’ve conducted on the nature of avalanches in order to write the scene.  While knowledge of the hazardous aspects of snow increases the fear (what I didn’t know wasn’t scaring me before), the newly-attained awareness of how to increase my chances of surviving an avalanche gives me hope.

Fear or no fear, I’m going skiing.  Because I can’t allow the natural anxiety about a conceivably perilous situation keep me from having that experience.  I wouldn’t want to be ruled by the fear, or let it dictate the quality of my life.  And perhaps the fear I’m working through now will make me a stronger, more aware skier.

In the same vein, I’m going to edit that scene in the WIP.  Fear or no fear.  Because it has to be done. Because the writing fills me up and enhances the quality of my life.  And maybe, just maybe, facing the fear will make me a stronger writer.

Life is too short to read bad books

Recently, Goodreads polled its members, asking what books they walked away from and why.

Here is the fruit of that survey (comments below the infographic):

goodreads

As a reader, I could start a discussion here about what books I’m surprised are in the top five (Wicked) and which ones I whole-heartedly expected (Fifty Shades of Grey).  But, as a writer, I’m more interested in WHY people didn’t finish the books they started.

46.4% of respondents said they stopped reading because the book was SLOW and BORING.

18.8% said they stopped because of WEAK WRITING.

The rest of the responses were scattered.  The two above seem to be the most impassioned.  For good reason.  If you don’t capture the reader in at the very beginning, then there’s no reason for them to stay.  If your writing does not draw them into the story, or if they cannot become emotionally attached to the characters, they won’t be invested. And if they aren’t invested, there are a lot of free or cheap alternatives out on the market for them to try instead.

It’s all about supply and demand, people.

2.7% said they stopped because of bad editing.

I find it interesting this statistic is so low. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I expect a well-edited manuscript.  Especially if I’m wavering on a story line.  If I’m feeling the writing is not engaging enough, and I come across a typo, especially in the first chapter, I’m guaranteed to roll my eyes and toss the book aside.  Because, in my mind, if the writer is not dedicated enough to ensure at LEAST the first chapter is typo free, then that is a good indication they will not focus on character arcs or story development either.

Now, here’s where the survey results take a weird turn:

When asked, “What keeps you turning the page?”

36.6% of members polled said “As a rule, I like to finish things.”

I don’t know what to make of that.  You continue to read it, even if it stinks? That’s some class-A OCD craziness happening there.

25.2% said, “I have to know what happens.”

Now that is a sentiment I can get behind.  Except, it’s not enough to keep me actually reading.

I was recently forced to scan through a book, reading only the dialogue and important tidbits, just to get to the end.  Because the writer set up a brilliant scenario, but the writing itself was not captivating enough to keep me going.  When I got to the end, I nearly threw the book across the room.  Because it ended on a cliffhanger, a cheap ploy intended to force me to read the next book in the series.  But, while I wanted closure, I didn’t want to waste any more time scanning for answers.  So, instead, I had brunch with a friend who had read the whole series.  And, in a matter of 30 minutes, over coffee and frittatas, she answered all my questions.

13.4% said they finished a book they didn’t like because, “It’s a compulsive habit.”

Again with the OCD.

So, on the flip side of that, when does a reader abandon a book?

38.1% of respondents said they always finish. NO MATTER WHAT.

Those poor people.  They need to know they don’t have to settle.  Don’t do it, friends, just don’t do it!  There is better literature for you out there.  And you deserve it.

27.9% jump ship at 50-100 pages.

This is the category I usually fall into (if I haven’t found a typo to make me quit sooner).

The best thing about reading is there are so many options out there. There are some books that will blow you away, make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside – books you add to your collection so you can look at them years later and feel those emotions all over again.  Books that are like old friends.

But just as some friends are not for everyone, not all books are beloved by all their readers.  Sometimes, those books are abandoned, in favor of literature that will better serve the individual reader.

And it’s okay to put down a book that isn’t working for you. Because life is short.  Too short to keep reading something you hate.

Here’s a link to the full list for your perusal.

Happy reading (or not).

 

Books as therapy

I’ve had moments recently when I feel like I’ve lost myself.  I look around my life and think, “is this it?”

And then I am awash with guilt.

Because I have a good life.  I have a loving family, a good home, a secure job.  And everything I’ve done in my life has been a building block – I’ve used the tools available to me to create exactly the “right” kind of life, the life I thought I wanted.  We bought a home in just the right school district, in just the right neighborhood.  My kids went to just the right preschool and I have just the right income at just the right job.

So why the hell am I complaining?

I don’t know.  This is my dilemma.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself: why did I want this life? Why did I work so hard to get me to this place, and why am I so unhappy now that I’m here?

To be fair, I’m not unhappy all the time. When my son crawled into bed to cuddle with me this morning, I felt truly happy in that moment.  The whole family went swimming last weekend and the kids listened and no one complained (or drowned), and that was a good moment.  And just now, I looked away from my computer and over at my bookshelf, and the memories I’ve assembled there make for a twinkling flash of good juju too.

My life

My life

This is why book lovers are so entirely dedicated – because of our overflowing bank of memories.  Just a glance at the spine of a book reminds us of the times we held our breath, of the times we laughed and cried, of the times we read something that changed the way we felt or thought or envisioned. We recall the time we read that one thing that broke our hearts, or soothed us because we thought no one else in the world felt that way. It made us feel a part of something; it made us feel bigger than ourselves.

And I think – I’m unhappy because I haven’t had that moment in a while.

So why haven’t I?

In asking that question, I’m reminded of the transcript of a speech I read recently, given by author Veronica Roth at Book Expo America 2013.

When I originally read the transcript, this is the part I related to most:

Young readers can tell when an author is trying to force them to have a meaningful experience through preaching or manipulation. They can tell when a character doesn’t feel real or when a plot is contrived. Or when writing is clumsy. It’s important for everyone to learn how to spot those things, actually, and how to critique books.

I love this because I have always thought young readers were smarter than they are thought to be by some.  I hate when YA books lay something out that was already clearly understood, as if everything has to explained thoroughly so a YA reader can understand it.  Here’s a tip: they probably got it before YOU did.  Kids are smart.  Smarter than you know.  Or want to believe.

But.  When I started writing today’s post, I realized another part of this speech may be what I was meant to take away:

A few months ago, I realized the answer was clear: I lost my love of reading at the same moment I started to say, ‘I already know’ instead of ‘I’m here to learn.’ In other words, at the moment that I lost my reading humility.

So maybe that’s my answer. Typically I read in my writer shoes, with my writer eyes and my writer brain.  I find a typo and I roll my eyes. I see an underdeveloped character and I yearn for more.  But that is ridiculous.  Who the hell am I, anyway?  What right do I have to judge?

Next time I pick up a book, I’m just going to sink into the chair and make some memories.  I’m going to enjoy it, and not try to mold it into what I want it to be.  I’m going to be surprised; I’m going to be excited; I’m going to learn something new.  Because that is why I love books.

And perhaps I can also apply that to my life.  I still have a lot to learn.  And even though I have just the “right” kind of life, clearly I have more growing to do.  I’m going to believe there are more moments out there to be excited about.  There is more to do.

And just knowing that makes me happier than I’ve been in a long time.

The power of dreams

“I had a weird dream,” my six-year-old said, crawling into bed with me this morning.

“So did I,” I said, feeling his little body shudder before he tucked himself under the duvet cover and snuggled up against my side. “What was yours about?”

“There was a singer in our house and people were coming here to see him.  There were TVs everywhere and he was on all of them.  What was yours about?”

I pulled him in close and thought about what to tell him.  Weird for kids is different from weird for grownups.  I knew I couldn’t tell him what I had really seen in my dreams.

So I modified. “I was in a boat, and someone fell out.”

“Did you try to save him?”

“Yes.”

“Did he have a life jacket on?”

“Yes.”

“To keep him from drowning?”

“Safety first,” I said, biting back at the bile in my throat.

I couldn’t tell him what I really saw.  I couldn’t say I had dreamed of being in a boat with my friend Michelle and her family.  And that we were white water rafting. And that at one point, Michelle’s head went under the water, and the rest of us didn’t know she was in trouble.  And she drowned.  Right there in the boat, with the people who loved her.

I also couldn’t tell him I woke up crying, angry with myself for letting her drown. And that – for a few moments – I thought that story in my mind was real – that my friend had really drowned in a boat, wearing a life jacket, two feet from me.

“How could you let her do that?” I said to myself.

And then the realization came to me:  I’d never been white water rafting with Michelle.  I’d only met her family once – at her funeral, just a few days after her step mother called me and said Michelle had been putting away groceries and, somewhere in the middle of it all, she set a can of peas on the kitchen counter and swallowed a bottle of pills.

Fresh tears spilled out of me, as the object of my anger switched to her.  It’s easier to blame her instead of myself.   It’s easier to imagine that I did try to save her, as my son had asked.  That I reached out for her, but couldn’t grasp her.

That is easier to accept than what I really thought the dream was trying to tell me – that I let her drown.  Right in front of me.

chelle

Chelle on Bay Lake at Disney World – sans life jacket.

Michelle has visited my dreams several times since her death.  I assume it’s my subconscious’ way of working through those emotions, which clearly remain strong.

I’ve seen her in other places too.  Every time I walk into a Victoria Secret store, I smell their Pear Glacé lotion and feel the prickle of Michelle on my skin.  A few weeks ago, I saw her eyes in a movie called Broken English.

Like Parker Posey’s character in the movie, Michelle had these dark brown eyes that, in the right light, pooled in a way that made the pupil indistinguishable from the iris. This effect made her seem as if she were staring off into the distance, under some kind of trance, as if she were having an ethereal moment I couldn’t take part in.

And perhaps she was.

She also had panic attacks, the way Posey’s character does in the film.  And sometimes she had a desperate loneliness crouching inside her. It seemed she was never able to escape that unhappiness, no matter the beauty she had in her life.

But Michelle’s story didn’t have a happy ending.  And as a writer, I desperately want to rework that ending for her.  But I can’t.  This is a story line I can’t control.

But clearly, I need to write about it more – to get that buildup of anger and fear and guilt off my chest.  So I can have better dreams.  And so I won’t have to lie to my son about them.

So.  Here:

Pear Glacé

Tomorrow, I will see you.

You will fill my lungs with your sweet smell and your pink lips will break my heart.

And I will forgive you.

Tonight, I am seeing your small hometown for the first time.  I am sitting with your friends at a coffee shop that sells dumplings from a side window.  The sound of grinding coffee beans melds with the chatter of the line cooks and the sizzle of the fryer.  Grease hangs in the air as I sip from my cup.

We talk about you, about the tone of your laughter, the way your eyes crinkle when you smile.

I love you.  And I hate you.  But I cannot say the words aloud.

We recall a trip we all took to New York City a few years ago.  We were all strangers then.  Our only connection was you.  You said you wanted to see everything, but you rarely looked up from your map with the infinite folds.   You laughed when I said all I wanted was to buy a hot dog from a street vendor.  I knew you would laugh, and your eyes would crinkle over the top of your map.  But you wouldn’t look up.

You smiled when people ran into you on the street.  You smiled when we made fun of your huge map.  But just a second before those deep brown eyes cut into absurd slits on your face, I saw it.  I saw the anger you held inside.  The sadness, the pain.

You should have told us to shut the hell up.  You should have screamed out loud to the people on the street.  You should have kept your eyes open and shared your pain with the rest of us. But you didn’t.

You just smiled.

Tonight, in the dark, I drive back to my tiny hotel room.  The grass is so green here.  The deep color is visible even in the mask of night.  Dampness hangs in the air, threatening.  Tomorrow there will be rain.

Suddenly, I feel you.  I am signaling for my exit, and your sweet smell seeps into the crevices of the small rental car.  You are there with me, in the backseat, slitting your smiling eyes into the rearview mirror.

“Don’t do this,” I tell you, out loud, to the empty car.  “I can’t handle it.”

You respect my wishes, and your smell fades.

And I feel guilty.

I am guilty of never seeing your hometown before now.  I am guilty of not visiting when I said I would.  I am guilty for not loving you enough.  I am guilty of being too much of a coward to speak to you now.

Maybe you wanted to explain to me.  Maybe you had reasons I didn’t see.  Maybe you wanted to offer selfless consolation to me in that empty car. But your smell and my remorse were too much to handle all at once.  And now I’ll never know.

Tomorrow, I will see you.

I will touch your cold hands, folded on your chest.  I will look into the face I once knew.  I will tell your father I am sorry.

And I will try to forgive myself.

One lovely blog award

one-lovely-blog-awardI’m humbled to have been nominated for the One Lovely Blog award by Olive at Olivethepeople, a much more entertaining blog than my own.  I’m certain if you click on that link and read just one of her posts, you will forget about my existence altogether.

Such is life.

Here are the rules for this award:

1) Give generous thanks to the blogger who nominated you. (Thanks Olive! You rock!)

2) Write seven random things about yourself (ready for that, interwebs?).

3) Link to ten bloggers you admire and ping them to let them know you have passed the “One Lovely Blog” award on to them.

So, here we go, with the random:

1)      I love water.  Drinking it, swimming in it, bathing in it, listening to it trickle or pour or swell or gush.  It calms me.

The Great Ceremonial House features a large &q...

My kind of zen.

2)      When I’m stressed, I have reoccurring dreams about tornados.  I theorize this stems from the trauma created by mandatory tornado drills enforced by the public schools of my youth. I still remember looking at my teacher suspiciously and thinking “crouching under my little metal desk isn’t going to help me if the roof blows off, lady.”

3)      When I was seventeen, for a full year, I only dated boys named Kevin.  Not as a rule, exactly, but just because it happened that way.

4)      I had a speech impediment when I was a kid and had to take special classes to keep me from saying my R’s like W’s.  Because of these classes, I’m the only one in my family without a Texas accent.

5)      I was once a Jungle Cruise Skipper at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort.  Truth.  Check it:

skipper me

One gets to sport some spiffy duds when one works for The Mouse.


6)      I have two wee boys under the age of six.  They both call me “Mamas” – as if there were two of me.  And sometimes, I feel like there are.

7)      I love power ballads.  I think they’re making a comeback.

And now for the linky love.  These are not the only blogs I follow on a regular basis, but I could only choose ten.  So I’ve whittled it down to:

1)      http://austenprose.com/ – I’m a dedicated Austen fan, and this blog explores all things Jane.

2)      http://projectwastenot.wordpress.com/ – This is my writing partner’s blog, so I’m biased.  But she’s brilliant, and unique, and just finding her way in the blogging world. Expect great things, people.

3)      http://1storyaweek.com/ – Adam posts short stories that are deeply layered and rich in characterization.  And that is not biased, as I don’t actually know him.  His mom, however, says he is brilliant.

4)       http://mikeallegra.com/ – Mike is a clever writer and a talented artist.  His dislikes cats, but I enjoy him immensely, in spite of this tragic flaw.

5)      http://surisburnbook.tumblr.com/ – Suri would clearly turn her nose up to anything less than an Oscar, but this is all I have to give.

6)      http://paleologiceats.blogspot.com/2013/02/hey-there-2013.html – Maggie’s writing – like her blog – is total comfort food.  You’re welcome.

7)      http://michelleproulx.wordpress.com/ – A recent post of Michelle’s is entitled:  “Amateur Writing Tip: Stuff Needs to Actually Happen in the First Chapter” – I dare you NOT to want to read that.

8)      http://www.opendiary.com/entrylist.asp?authorcode=C100226 – My friend Claudia’s blog is hard to crack into – it’s at Open Diary, which isn’t as open as the name implies. But just her intro page is worth reading. Girl is hysterical.

9)      http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/ – Kristen Lamb has started a writer’s movement.  And she has a lot of great things to say.

10)   http://catherineryanhoward.com/ – Catherine – also a former Disney employee – writes a blog that is snarky and wonderful.  And very pink.

Peace out – from me and my Lovely Blog.

The writer as a vessel

I just finished writing a scene in my second book today, and it went well for me.  That doesn’t happen every day (actually, that doesn’t happen often at all), so I thought I’d record it.  For posterity and such.

It was my favorite kind of scene, the kind in which two characters are feeling each other out, and the dialogue takes them to places they never thought they’d go.  Or maybe they knew. But I didn’t.

This is the greatest part of writing fiction – when something develops nicely into an exciting piece of the puzzle you didn’t know you needed.  And a story line is deepened. And a character’s dimensions are revealed.  And you are allowed the pleasure of sitting back and watching it happen.

This is why I do this work.

Gilbert sharing some interesting view on creat...

Gilbert talking with TED.

I couldn’t type fast enough – the characters were sharp and snarky and were firing words at each other faster than I could record them.  And I was reminded of a TED talk my friend Maggie directed me to not long ago, given by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she talks about the writer’s process, and introduces the lovely thought that (at about 5:40) maybe we are not the source of the creativity we convey, but that we are, instead, the vessel in which it is transported.

Beautiful idea, isn’t it?

If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, when a character ripens without your explicit intent, you might relate to this idea.  Sometimes, we start writing, and we have a small idea of where it’s going to go and then something happens – SLAM – and we are suddenly thrown into a scene that’s out of our control.

It’s surprising when it happens.  And riveting.  And makes me look forward to writing again tomorrow.

If you listen to nothing else in this podcast, listen to the story (at about 10:13) of the American poet Ruth Stone, who used to work in the fields in Virginia and would “feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape” and she’d have to chase it back to the house in time to get to a piece of paper fast enough.

Too bad she didn’t have a laptop.

 

For the love of characters

When I was in college, I worked at a resort hotel – a rugged place in the country that rented out condos owned by wealthy tennis players.  It was an easy job and I was afforded large swaths of time perfect for studying.

At the end of my shift most nights, a stout old German woman named Senta would take over for the night audit.  Senta walked slightly hunched over, and her stern, hard-angled face was softened only by her animated voice and the sweet spirit in her eyes.

She was a warm comfort at the end of every night, a grounded part of my routine.  But I didn’t appreciate her fully, until one night, when Senta told me something about herself that changed the way I saw her from that point on.

pistolpacking_custom-277eaefa7afa78dd204296b050abad153816b636-s4She had arranged to come in early for her shift, cutting mine short by two hours.  I had made plans with some friends for my early night off, and had organized the desk, completed the necessary paperwork, and was ready to cut out as soon as she arrived.

The front door always flew open with a clattering force when Senta came through it, making her entrance audible and familiar. And that night, the glass door rocked with such exaction, I was surprised it didn’t shatter when it collided with the doorstop.

As the woman set her oversized bag in the office and removed her coat, I relayed to her the information I’d added to post-it notes throughout the evening: the plumbing in #206 is acting up, I’ve asked maintenance to look at it first thing in the morning; #125 has called five times, there may or may not be a raccoon on their roof; the Johnsons are playing a match on the indoor court, they have it reserved until midnight.

But Senta wasn’t paying attention.  She seemed distracted, arranging paperwork on the desk, pulling out her thermos of coffee.  She moved her coat three times before deciding it was safest draped across the back of the desk chair.

It then occurred to me I was in such a hurry to get out that night, I hadn’t attempted to make any small talk with Senta.

“What are you doing with your extra two hours in the morning?”  When I asked the question, the woman finally looked over at me.

“Hunting,” she said, her stern face lighting up as she said the words.

I smiled as I pictured the old woman hunched over, lurking through the woods.  With a shotgun.

“You hunt, Senta?”

She beamed at me.

“I love it,” she said, her eyes glazing over with joy.

My own family never got into the hunting tradition, but it’s hard to grow up in Texas without recognizing hunting season when it arrives.  It’s not uncommon to see men – or even young boys – walking around in full-on winter camouflage, or to hear hunting stories retold at the checkout counter at the grocery store.  These men seem to flock together, as if called by their need to shoot things.

And I never really paid much attention to them.  They were just a part of the scenery, with their big loud trucks and ugly green jackets.

But when this sweet, broken old woman started talking excitedly about hunting, my interest was suddenly stirred.  She was not what I considered part of the hunting season landscape.  I don’t know what I imagined her hobbies to be – knitting, maybe? Canasta?

We often talked about books, so I knew she was educated and well-read.  But beyond that, I hadn’t taken the time to get to know her, to find out what interested her.

“What are you thinking,” I said, “when you look down the barrel at the animal you are about to shoot?”

I wasn’t asking to be PETA-style annoying. I was honestly interested in her thought process at that moment.  Because I certainly didn’t think I could pull the trigger and end the life of an animal.  I couldn’t risk looking it in the eye.

Senta laughed at my question.  She held her hands up, one near her chin, the other stretched out before her, as if she were holding tight to the barrel of a gun.  She leaned her head down toward her imaginary gun and squinted one eye.

“I’m thinking,” she said, squeezing the trigger softly, “venison.”

I laughed and Senta smiled at me, turning toward her bag and pulling out a package of jerky.  I accepted a piece and turned to gather my things when Senta said something I will never forget.

“Anyway, it’s not that much harder than training to shoot Nazis.”

I never did meet up with my friends that night.  Instead, I sat on the front desk of a rural resort hotel, snacking on venison jerky and listening to Senta’s war stories.

The Johnsons returned the key from the indoor tennis court and hugged Senta like an old friend, asking after her husband’s health.  Condo #125 called again about the raccoon that may or may not have been on their roof.  Senta joked about going over to shoot it, but her gun was at home, safe in its case, ready to hunt bucks the next morning.

And interlaced through these mundane happenings, Senta told me about the war.  And I discovered that this old woman I saw every day, who walked with a hunch in her back, used to fly planes into war-torn Germany.  And she was truly disappointed that she never got to parachute into the war itself, because women weren’t allowed at the time.

She and her friend Maude jumped out of planes every chance they got during training.

“There is no feeling in the world like jumping out of a plane, your best friend by your side, falling into who knows what situation,” she said.  “That’s when you know you are truly alive.”

When she spoke of the war, her chest filled with air, and her hunched back straightened. Then, her eyes filled with tears when she talked about holding Maude’s hand as she died the year before, in a small dark hospital room in New Jersey.

After the war, Senta moved back to Texas and fell in love with her husband, a sweet, slightly rounded man who loved to cook.  She blushed when she talked about him.  And it made my stomach throb with warmth.

I was thinking of Senta today.  Because I’m in the creation process of my second novel, and I am crafting new characters.  And when I get stuck, I’m inspired by Senta.  Because what made her so interesting – what made me sit on the front counter eating jerky and listening to her talk half the night – were the unexpected layers of her personality.

Real people are multidimensional.  And characters should be too.  Not every protagonist has to be wholesome and innocent.  Not every antagonist should be purely malevolent.  (Even Hitler was a vegetarian and loved Charlie Chaplin films – not exactly traits you associate with unadulterated evil.)

Multi-faceted characters are more realistic.  They are tangible.  Relatable.  And frankly, more interesting.

Senta didn’t knit. Or play canasta. She hunted. She had seen the world. She’d flown planes; she’d jumped out of them.  She’d trained to shoot Nazis, but ended up shooting deer instead.  She beamed when she talked about the war, she cried when she remembered her old friend, and she blushed when schmoozing about the gentle man who cooked her dinner every night.

And I won’t ever forget her.

And that, my friends, is something to strive for in characterization.

Amazon Serials – are they for me?

A dear friend asked me recently if I’d ever thought about writing serialized ebooks.  And I have to say, the thought had crossed my mind.  But I had some reservations.  I understood the concept, but I wasn’t entirely familiar with the genre, so I tucked the idea away for another day.

And today, at the home of Lindsay Buroker, Amazon Serials writer Roberto Calas wrote a very compelling blog post which was entertaining, enlightening, and made me want to revisit the idea.

I love Roberto’s rendition of the writing process.  Step #8 made me spit coffee through my nose a little.

It was very relatable, and very much like my own write – doubt – get feedback – revise – doubt – consider quitting – write some more – kind of cycle.

Comforting to know someone else does this too.  Only he does it all in a two-week time frame.

Anyone else tried serials before?  Any recommendations for or against?