Archive | Fiction

My Running Coach and Learning to Run All Over Again

running coachI met with Steve, the running coach, on Friday. You wouldn’t think that two hours spent learning to do something that you already do on a regular basis could fly by, but they did.

Basically, I am learning to run all over again. The method of running that Steve the running coach teaches is called Chi Running. It’s based in the principals of T’ai Chi, which I’ve actually never done, but the way Steve explained it, it teaches you to run while being mindful of your center of balance.

You lean forward, so that your center of gravity falls right over where your feet land. Then you focus on landing on your whole foot, and kicking back. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it actually takes a ton of concentration to maintain. Before we met Steve told me: “you’ll start a white belt and finish the session as a white belt.” He was right.

The good news is I’m running again and my knees are not screaming at me. The bad news, I feel like I’m back at square one. This new form uses different muscles, so all that endurance I built up for the half marathon isn’t helping me much. I’m going to have to bust my ass to get my distance back before the full marathon in August.

The other thing that has given me pause is the metronome. The way you hold your body when running like this lends itself to lots of small steps, and it is taught with a metronome. Literally. I now run with a metronome clicking in my ear. I’m at 170 steps per minute and will work up to 180 by race day.

While this helps me keep my pace up, it does not allow me to listen to my audio books while I run, which frankly might be a deal breaker. I love, love, love listening to stories as I run.

So I’m going to do another week with the metronome, to get a feel for it, and then I’m going to switch back to my books. Hopefully I can keep a focus on my form, while still listening to a story. If not, I will be forced to seriously reassess.

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out Meetup.com, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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What I Learned at AWP This Year

AWP is a pretty epic gathering of writers. I went once before, when I was in grad school, and had to travel all the way to Chicago to do it. So when I found out it was going to be here in LA this year I signed up right quick.

AWP16

In case you’re unfamiliar, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is like a lot of other conference-style events, except much more awesome because it’s all about writing (that’s Jonathan Franzen there on the left). There are seminars, and panels, and parties, but the best part is the massive expo floor with hundreds of booths, almost all of which exist to promote literary journals.

For three whole days, I wondered the convention center, sitting in on sessions, and bit by bit making my way to every booth on the expo floor. I met a lot of journal editors, including some that have my latest short story in their slush piles. I shook hands, and bought a few editions. Totally worth the price of admission.

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend at this year’s AWP:

  • The Sun Magazine is looking for fiction. Not only do they pay (well), they are also a fantastic publication printing high-quality work. I sent them my latest short story, and you should too.
  • A woman on a panel, talking about how women are published at a lesser rate in most journals, noted that when they are rejected, women tend to stop submitting. Men just send another story until something is accepted. This is not to say there isn’t a bias in publishing, but women need to know that a big part of being published is simply being persistent.
  • On that note, I discovered VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to women in the arts. They actually do a count every year of the percentage of women published by major journals. You can read about it here. #wecount Spoiler alert – The Paris Review is rocking it.
  • I attended a panel about forming a writers collective. The basic idea is that you gather about a dozen or so writers that you admire and pool your resources to help promote each other. Sounds pretty awesome to me. At some point, I really want to try this, but for now I’m focusing on finishing my novel, so I have something to share.
  • Lastly, I heard a well published writer encourage us all to just keep writing. He talked about how he wrote his first novel ten minutes at a time, in the driver’s seat of his car, before going into the office. What’s more, he said that when he looks at that writing, and compares it to writing he does now (with ample time to contemplate and formulate), he can’t tell the difference. Just keep writing.

Those were the major take-aways for me, the last one being the most important. Just keep writing.

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Reverse Engineering a Novel

When I started my novel, my thesis advisor suggested I check out a book called Winter’s Bone. This was back before it was a movie with the impeccable Jennifer Lawrence staring as the main character, Ree. (Yes, I’ve been working on this novel for a long time, shut up.)

It is a stunning book, stark and bleak with a young woman at the center who somehow brings a warm spot to the prose and makes you turn page after page. I have gone back to it many times to see how the writer, Daniel Woodrell, handled certain pivotal moments, but this weekend I began re-reading it, start to finish, to look at how it works as a whole. It’s pretty fucking amazing.

Chapter 1 is five pages. It introduces all the characters and paints the setting. By the end of page 14, the Sheriff has come to tell her that her dad put the family home up as collateral to post bail and if he doesn’t show up for his court date, the family will lose the house. “I’ll find him,” she says.

Then we’re off. It’s only 193 pages. It doesn’t need any more. I’m about half way through, marking up the margins with notes and thinking about story structure.

My story is different, of course, but there are some similarities, and it’s interesting to think about how I might use what I’m learning from Woodrell’s minor masterpiece to help shape my own attempt at art.

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Feedback on my New Opening

Last week I got feedback from my class on my new opening pages.

When I finished the last draft of my story, I asked a former teacher of mine, Rita Williams, to give it a read. Her biggest note was that she felt I came into the story too late. In her opinion, the first 100 pages of the story were missing.

There was something that rang true in her feedback, and the more I considered it, the more I decided she was right.

Of course, you can’t just add 100 pages to the beginning of the story and not expect things to shift. So in addition to writing those pages, I am also doing the work of re-writing the rest of it, so that the end matches the beginning.

For this UCLA extension class that I’m taking, I submitted the (new) first twenty pages of my novel for critique. I was a little nervous, as I usually don’t show anyone new pages except for my writing group or my husband. But I got some great feedback.

In general, everyone was very encouraging. It’s a great start, they said. Their biggest note was that I could slow down a little bit. Classic first-timer mistake to try and get too much information in the first twenty pages.

I’ve found it very encouraging, and I’ve been writing up a storm this past week.

On a totally separate note, the moving supplies arrived this morning. We’re trying this service called EcoFastPacks. They deliver a whole pile of plastic bins and other packing materials. We pack and move, and when we’re done with them, the company comes and picks them up again.

I priced it out and it is about $30 more than buying cardboard boxes, but we’re saving trees, and I’d pay that just to not have to break down and deal with all the boxes when we’re done.

Here’s what they look like, freshly delivered:

boxes

I will admit that it made my heart hurt a little to realize it’s actually happening. I take a lot of comfort in my home. To start boxing it up, and to know that the next couple months will have me unsettled until I find a new place for everything in the new house, well, it brings up some anxiety.

But it’s happening. And I am excited for the new home. I just hope I can get through the next few months with a bit of grace.

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Reading as a Parent

Girl Reading

My girl loves to read. Imagine my pride. I find her reading in bed late at night. I find her reading on the playground when I pick her up at school. She actually won a reading trophy at the beginning of the school year for reading half a million words over the summer, and she wasn’t even trying.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop bragging and get to the point. While I love how much she reads, I sometimes worry about what she reads.

Up until now she was into age appropriate books (see the cover the Goddess Girls series in the photo above – totally made for a third grader) and really stupidly popular books like Harry Potter. I never read past the first Harry Potter, but I saw the movies and talked with friends who read it and was comfortable that I knew what kind of story she was getting.

I always told myself that I would stay ahead of her reading. That is, I always figured I would read books before her to make sure that they were appropriate, but she just reads so much, I can’t keep up. Or, I guess I could, but then I wouldn’t have time to read the books I want to read (see my bookshelf in the column on the right there and you’ll get why our tastes don’t completely align just yet, oh, and while you’re at it, look me up on Goodreads, we can be buddies).

Anyhow, this all came to a head last night when my daughter decided to pick the first book in a 4-book series titled Uglies. It’s for grades 7 and up. She’s in third.

Here’s a snippet from the Amazon page:

Playing on every teen’s passionate desire to look as good as everybody else, Scott Westerfeld projects a future world in which a compulsory operation at sixteen wipes out physical differences and makes everyone pretty by conforming to an ideal standard of beauty. The “New Pretties” are then free to play and party, while the younger “Uglies” look on enviously and spend the time before their own transformations in plotting mischievous tricks against their elders.

Clearly, it’s about image. I assume it has a message about image being only skin deep, and doing a bit of homework, I got hints of Hunger Games in that it sounds like a rebellion is coming, but the theme definitely taps into some of my fears about raising a girl in Los Angeles, an insanely image-conscious place.

So I dropped what I was reading to read ahead of her. I got through about sixty pages last night. It’s a good read. I told her she could start it today after school, so I’m going to try to get a little more ahead of her, and then keep reading after she’s asleep, but this whole staying-ahead-of-her thing is proving to be so much more challenging than I thought it would be.

Does anyone else have this problem? I want to encourage her to read, and I’m not afraid of adult topics, I just don’t want her in over her head without having anyone to talk to about what she’s reading. Maybe there are book clubs she could join?

If anyone has any thoughts on this one, I would sure appreciate some input.

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Black Lives Matter in Story, Too

Black Lives Matter

The protagonist of my novel is half African American. When I began writing (oh, so long ago), I had a good reason for her (white) mother’s lover to be a black man. Basically, I wanted to layer in that mom’s brother had been sexually abusive, while dispelling any notion that my main character’s uncle is also her father.

Still with me?

The story has changed a lot since then, and the incest bit has fallen away. Her uncle is just her uncle, and her mom was not sexually abused. But I kept the bit about about mom running off, pregnant at sixteen, because that’s the kind of person the mom is, and the fact that she ran off with a black man seemed neither here nor there, so I left it.

It is no longer “important” that my main character be half black. But she is.

Recently, I was told that my audience for the book will be bigger if she’s white. Just drop the race thing and make her white. It doesn’t matter. And besides, who am I to write a half black character?

Truth be told, it is a little daunting as a white writer. I want to be sure I tell a story that rings true, but this is who my character is, and I don’t want to change her into a white girl just because that’s what the market wants. It’s that kind of thinking that continues to have white men dominating everything from astrophysics to feature films. Fuck the market. If people don’t want to pick up my book because the main character is a half-black woman, then they’re racist mother fuckers who probably won’t like my book anyway.

So I guess it is important that my character is half black. Or rather, it’s just as important that she’s half black as it is that she’s half white. This is who she is. Just like in life, we are who we are.

That said, I’m still afraid of fucking it up. So, if there’s anyone out there who has some first-hand knowledge of being an African American woman in a white man’s world, holler – I’d love to get your feedback on my next draft. I promise to list you in the acknowledgements.

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Defending My Writing Time

For the past four years, I have been getting up at 5am to write. It was a tough transition at first, getting up that early, but between working full-time, taking care of two kids, and occasionally exercising, it just ended up being the easiest time of day to consistently set aside time to write. Over the years, I have really come to love my early morning writing time.

The trouble is, I’m always exhausted. I try to go to bed early, but often end up reading until eleven. Over time, the lack of sleep starts to build up. Daniel called me out on that last night. After dinner I said “I can’t believe how tired I am.” He remarked that I’ve been saying that every night for about two months (which is, not coincidentally, when I started feeling better and resumed my writing).

Given that I am (f)unemployed right now, I got to wondering why I’m still getting up so early to write. What I realized is that it is simply my most defensible time. The kids are asleep, no one expects a call or even an email that early in the morning, there are no errands to run. I’m afraid that if I shift to sleeping in and writing after I drop the kids at school I will get distracted.

Can I block out two hours every morning and write? Or will I end up writing a blog post, dicking around on social media, planning camping trips, doing the dishes, or employing one of a hundred other procrastination tactics?

I sure would like the extra sleep. It might be worth a try.

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Best Books of 2015 (says me)

Okay, folks, here it is, just under the wire. My best-of list for 2015. As a quick disclaimer, it’s a list of the best books I HAVE READ in the past twelve months. Not a list of the best books published in the last 12 months. (My blog, my list.)

Best Books 2015

So here goes. (No spoilers, promise)

The best books I read in 2015, in no particular order, were…

The Golem and the Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker
I love, love, love this book. It’s magical, but grounded. It’s a love story, but not. It’s almost historical fiction, painting a New York of old with amazing detail, but it’s much more the story of these two characters – the golem and the jinni. A must read.

The Signature of All Things (2013) by Elizabeth Gilbert
Stunning. This woman can write. I loved this book so much that I slipped my Kindle underneath my papers at work and turned my back so no one would see that I shifted the work aside and just fell into the story. I couldn’t put it down, and then felt kind of depressed when it was over. It is also highly discussion-worthy. If you’ve read it, please let me know because I am dying to debate some of its finer points with a friend.

The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern
My friend Brian McGackin bashed this one on his own blog. I was shocked. It was fantastic. A love story told in the setting of a magical circus, created by an eccentric old rich guy trying to win a bet. The story telling is highly visual, which is a real feat given that most of the things she describes are completely fabricated. Inventive and engaging.

Purity (2015) by Jonathan Franzen
My favorite Franzen yet.

The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd
This one took a few pages to grab me, but by the mid-point I was totally hooked. Her characters were based on real people, dealing with slavery, religion, family, and politics in the 1800s. It was a beautifully woven story.

The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot (2014) by Bill Collier
I think this was the only nonfiction I read this year. It is my dad’s memoir. I love it, and though I may be biased, being his daughter and all, it has been really well reviewed on Amazon and he’s sold over 2000 copies so far (go dad!). It’s definitely worth checking out. You can buy a copy on Amazon.

So there it is. I would love to hear your favorites. I am always on the lookout for recommendations, though Brian’s picks will be a bit suspect after his panning of The Night Circus.

Happy New Year!

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