Our First 10K

For the past 20 years I’ve spent Easter weekend in the desert, getting hammered and dancing to exceedingly loud EDM under the lonely moon. This year, I did something much more bizarre. I got up at 5 in the morning to run 10 kilometers.

starting line

Yes, we did it! My bestie and I ran our first 10K. We ran the whole damn thing, and at a pretty decent pace, too.

running

The best part was that it wasn’t so hard. And that is exciting because we signed up for this race to keep us on track with our training for a half marathon in May. Next weekend we have to run an 11K without all the fanfare, and the weekend after that it’s 12K. Basically, Saturday’s run was one of the easiest we’ll be doing over the next six weeks.

Neither of us ever would have guessed that we were runners. It’s very exciting to learn that we have skills that were just waiting to be discovered while we were partying our asses off out in the desert.

running buddie

What will we think of next?

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Talking Story with Charles Johnson

My UCLA extension class, Novel IV, ended Tuesday. I’ve said before what a great class it was, and one of the highlights was that the instructor arranged for us to Skype with the author of the book we had studied all quarter, “Middle Passage.”

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for the book in 1990, and a quick look at his bio confirms that the man really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to writing.

We all got to introduce ourselves and ask two questions. What an opportunity. He is an incredibly thoughtful and engaging man, with a great sense of humor to boot.

Knowing that he is a buddhist, like myself, I asked him what he does if he has a story idea while meditating. He laughed and admitted it’s never happened to him. It happens to me when I’m on retreat, meditating for longer periods of time, and I never know if I should respect the practice of meditation and just let it go, or break my concentration to jot the idea down. When it happens, it always seems like the best idea I’ve ever had, and so it’s difficult to just let it go. Anyhow, Johnson’s vote was for stopping to write it down.

He said a lot of quotable things over the course of the class, but my favorite by far was about why he loves writing. He said: “Where else in life do you get to keep working at something until you get it right?” He talked about how we don’t get to edit our speech or our actions in the moments that they happen, but with fiction, we can revise until we’re happy with what we’ve got. I just love that.

I’m already signed up for Novel V, with the same instructor. It starts in two weeks, and I volunteered to be the first to submit fifty pages. So in the next couple weeks, I need to find time to polish up my first couple of chapters. Next week is AWP, and my kids’ spring break, so things continue to be hectic, but I will make the time somehow.

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Moving Day

Thursday was the big day. I can’t believe it finally came.

moving day

In honor of St. Patty’s Day, and because they’re just awesome like that, my sister-in-law and her husband brought over cinnamon rolls with green frosting, along with coffee, and we had a little moving day breakfast picnic on the dining room floor.

breakfast St. Patty's style

Then the movers arrived, and things got busy. We let the kids stay home from school, so they could see what was happening. It just felt too weird to leave the house to take them to school, then go pick them up and bring them home to another house.

This move has been one of serious mixed feelings. We loved that house. Our babies learned to walk there. We marked their growth on the wall in the garage, year by year. Here is a shot of the footprints we made by pressing Celeste’s baby feet into the wet cement of the garage over eight years ago.

footprint

We will miss Cicero Drive.

goodbye

I will post some pictures of the new place next week.

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Daily Word Count in Scrivener

I try to write 500 words every day (expect during NaNaWriMo – all rules go out the window in November). It’s easy enough to keep track on when I’m working on a new draft, or even if I just get rolling on a small segment, but when I’m at the stage that I’m at now, it gets much more difficult. These days, I monitor time spent instead of words written, but I still like to know, at the end of the day, how many words I added to my project.

So I am very excited to share that I learned a new hack for Scrivener to help with this. (Many thanks to UCLA Extension writing guru Mark Sarvas for this one.)

In Scrivener, go to the Projects drop down menu, then click on Project Targets (shortcut command shift T), and you will get a little window that pops up to tell you how many words (net) you have added in your current session. What’s more, if you click on the options button, you can adjust when the counter resets. I have mine programmed to reset every night at midnight.

SCRIVENER WORD COUNT

This function also helps keep track of total words written (I just trimmed that bit for the image above), which I like because when you’re working on a section in Scrivener, you only see the word count for that section. I find it deeply satisfying to watch my total word count creep higher and higher.

I know there are about a thousand little Scrivener hacks that I could probably use, but it’s always a fine line between learning to use a great tool and just flat out procrastinating. Some day, when I have nothing else to do, I will spend a whole day watching Scrivener tutorials on YouTube, and then I will be a Scrivener master (wha-ha-ha), but for now I will settle for finishing my novel.

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Fiction Submission Spreadsheet

lit journalsRejection is part of being a writer. If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not submitting enough, and I haven’t been rejected in years.

For a long time I didn’t submit any short stories to journals because I was working on my novel, and it just isn’t done yet. But recently I pulled about twenty pages from the middle of my novel and tweaked them to stand on their own as a short story, because it’s time to get back in the game. My thinking is that if I can get those pages published it will not only be super encouraging, it might also land my writing on the coffee table of an agent or two.

The challenge of submitting is that it’s difficult to know where to start. If my goal is to be published in a journal that an agent might actually read, I have to aim high. The last time I really submitted anything I focused on local journals, as most of my stories are LA-based, and at that point I was a student, happy to have my work published anywhere, but at this point, I feel I’ve grown a lot as a writer. I have this crazy idea that I’ve actually become quite good at my craft, and to test that idea, I am only submitting to journals that receive a lot of submissions. I want to see if I’m the cream that rises, or the low-fat milk that gets left behind.

So I set up a spreadsheet. You can view it by clicking here. If you’d like to use it, which you are absolutely welcome to do, you will have to either download it, or copy it to your own drive. You won’t be able to edit it. I didn’t want people forgetting to copy it to their own folders and accidentally sharing their entire submission history, but I do welcome comments, if you have any thoughts on how it could be better.

Here’s how I use it:

  1. I spend a shit-ton of time making sure my story is ready. I get feedback from as many people as I can, I re-write, and edit until it’s as good as I can make it.
  2. Then, I go to the Lit Mags page of the Poets & Writers website
  3. I use all the filter options (including the advanced options) to set up a search. For me, that is genre: fiction, sub genre: lit fiction, format: print, payment: any
  4. I scroll through, page by page, looking for journal names that I recognize
  5. When I see one, I click to view details
  6. I use those details to fill in columns B-F of my spreadsheet. NOTE: for circulation enter the higher number that is listed (so if P&W lists circulation as 2,500-5,000, enter 5,000)
  7. Once I’ve entered details for every journal that is at all interesting, I do a data sort based on circulation, column D. In case you’re new to this: click in column D, select all, click on “data” up at the top, and choose the first option to “sort sheet by column D, A-Z.”
  8. You will notice that there is also a column (A) for rank. That column is my acknowledgement that size isn’t everything. Sometimes certain journals rank high for me because I know an editor there, or I know that an agent I’m interested in reads that journal. So after I’ve sorted for column D, I go through and add ranks. I don’t bother ranking 1-20. I use tiers. I rank things either 1, 2, or 3. So a journal that has a smaller circulation may still get a 1.
  9. Then I resort for column A.
  10. At that point I have my game plan. I submit to the top five journals on my list, noting the date I sent in my submissions.

Then, if I’m being honest, I am overcome with anxiety, and I spend a week obsessing over my final draft, editing it for stupid, tiny things (was she on the bus or in the bus?). Then, when I’m done obsessing, I submit to the next five journals on the list.

And then the waiting begins. But waiting for the inevitable rejections (because there will be rejections), seems easier when I have a game plan. When a rejection comes in I will simply pull up my handy spreadsheet, add “PASS” to column H, and send the story to the next journal on my list. (I always use PASS. Because the truth is, not every rejection is negative commentary on my writing. Sometimes a story just isn’t a good fit. PASS is just a way of being nice to myself. )

This method has worked for me in the past. True, I am aiming higher this time, so if I get through my list and my story hasn’t been accepted, I will have to take a hard look at where I’m at. I guess at that point, I will either have to submit to my lower tier of journals, or scrap this story, write a better one, and try again. I’m not sure what I’ll do. I haven’t gotten any responses yet, so it’s a big fat mystery so far.

Keep in mind, too, that this is an investment. Ten journals, at $10-15 a submission, is going to cost a bit of cash, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by making stupid mistakes. As an associate editor for a small journal here in Southern California, I have learned a few things by sorting through the slush pile:

  • Always include a cover letter. It doesn’t have to be long, just a few sentences saying that you are writing to submit your short story, “title here,” to “journal name here.” Get the name of the journal right.
  • Take a minute to look online at the masthead for the journal and address your cover letter to the editor by name.
  • Don’t tell them how great your story is. That can only count against you.
  • Be patient. It takes months to hear back. In fact, a quick response is almost always going to be a no, so if it takes a while, you can tell yourself that your piece has made it into the second or third round of reading, which is great.

Lastly, there is the question of reading the journals you plan to submit to. This is always a good idea, and even more so if you’re on a tight budget. You want to make sure that your work is appropriate for the journal you’re submitting to, or else you’re just throwing money away. Of course, if you have money to throw away, go crazy. I can’t imagine a journal that wouldn’t happily take your cash in exchange for a rejection letter.

Above all – don’t give up. Keep writing, keep submitting. The only difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful writer is that the successful one never gives up.

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My New Writing Desk

Moving sucks.

We haven’t moved in so long, and we’ve never done it with kids, and there is so much to do, and we’ve entered the “I know it’s here somewhere” phase. Ug. And while getting ready to move, I’m trying to get our current house ready to go on the market. I weeded and planted the garden, re-seeded the parts of the grass that had gone brown, and called in a handy man to fix a couple things inside the house.

But there are some fun chores on our list. We went furniture shopping this weekend. The new house is bigger than our current house, not by much, but enough that we decided we wanted a couple book shelves, a table for the entryway, and (drumroll) a desk for my new office!

That’s right. Two weeks from now I will be writing from my very own home office. I used to have a home office here, but when my mom moved in, mid-2012, it became her room, and then when she moved out, my daughter pushed for it to be her room, so she wouldn’t have to share a room with her little brother any more.

These days I write on the couch, or at the kitchen table. It’s okay. I don’t mind, but after a long day my neck starts to ache. Ergonomic it is not. Also, I have nowhere to put anything.

I am so excited to have a home office again. And check out the desk we found:

Hemingway Desk

It’s called the Hemingway Safari Writing Desk. How perfect is that? I love it for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we got it for a total steal from a furniture store that lost its lease and is selling all their floor models for 50% off. (I love me a bargain.)

It will be delivered, along with the other items we bought at the perfectly-time fire sale, late next week.

Just a couple more weeks of total chaos.

We are never moving again.

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No Need to Ask

Preparing to move has gotten the better of me. All I want to do is work on my novel. It is coming along very well, better than it has in a long time, and yet, life continues. Lunches need to be made, bedtime stories told, appointments attended, and then, on top of all the usual, moving.

So today I will defer my writing duties and share with you a poem by Rumi, a little beauty to ponder as we go about our busy lives.

No Need to Ask

The one who brings wine
pours again, no need to ask.

Do you ask the moon to rise
and give its light?

When ranks of soldiers dissolve,
dismissed for a holiday,

when a lost hand reaches to touch
the rescuing hand,

when a candle next to a mirrored
sconce gets lit,

your presence enters my soul.

(from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks)

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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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For the Dads who Have to Leave

pool dad words

It is a messy world we live in. We fall in love, then out again. We find jobs and lose them. Sometimes things just don’t work out like we plan.

For me, things got messy when I was eight and my parents got divorced. For myriad reasons, my dad had to leave. My memory of this period is hazy, but I have pieced together a rough family history that includes him traveling all over the world as a helicopter pilot, stopping in from time to time.

As a kid, I would have told you that it was no big deal. That was how my parents framed it. They remained friends, albeit long-distance, and my mom provided a loving, reliable home for my sister and me. We never moved, not once. With the exception of my dad, my childhood was pretty normal, but I really did miss him. A lot.

A couple weeks back, I was talking with a friend whose ex just left the country for a job in New Zealand. They have a hilarious and sensitive eight-year-old daughter together. As my friend told me about this tough transition, I found myself struck by how familiar the situation was. It was as if I was talking to my mom, thirty years ago, and it gave me a whole new perspective on my childhood. Since then, I’ve thought a bit about I would say to my dad, if I could go back thirty years and give him some advice.

If you’re a dad who has to leave, consider this:

  1. You have to own that you are abandoning your kid. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but if you aren’t around (physically in the room with them) on a regular basis, that’s what is happening. This will make your kiddo sad, or angry, or both, and that sucks. Don’t try to pretend that she’s not sad, or try to make her feel good about this shitty situation. No puppies. Sit with her before you go and feel sad together. Let her see that you’re sad too. If she’s younger, help her put words to her feelings (sad, scared, upset) so she can better understand them. This will probably make you uncomfortable, but you’re the grown up. Deal with it.
  2. Call once a week, at the same time every week. Calling more often will be tough logistically on both ends, but less isn’t enough. Kids thrive on consistency, and you leaving will rip a hole in that, so a phone call every week is the least you can do. Don’t flake. Do whatever you have to do to not flake. This is something my dad got right, and though there were times that it felt like a chore, every Sunday evening at 6 (my time), it was a major bridge in our relationship. And this was 30 years ago when phones were harder to come by. You have no excuse.
  3. Don’t forget her birthday. Mark you calendar. In fact, mark it a month ahead of time. Buy something (anything – it doesn’t have to be expensive), wrap it nicely, and mail it with time to spare. If you are international, it will take longer to get a package to her, so plan ahead. Birthdays are a big deal to kids. This is one of those little things that will matter.
  4. Don’t drop in unannounced. If you don’t see her very often, it will be tempting to surprise your kiddo by stopping by or flying in without notice. Of course she wants to see you. Of course she will be excited. That’s not the point. This ties back to the whole consistency thing. Let your kid know exactly when she will see you again and then stick to it. When you are with her, make sure she knows when you’re leaving. Never sneak out when she’s sleeping. Teary goodbyes suck, but you’re the grown up. Deal with it.
  5. Have your kid visit. Notice I said visit. Seeing other parts of the world is a great opportunity, no question, but having two homes sucks. Having a group of school friends at mom’s house and a group of summer friends at dad’s house is not cool. I call this disjointed custody. If both parents live in the same city, joint custody makes sense, but if you live far enough away that your kid has to fly to see you, don’t make them uproot their lives to come stay with you for long periods of time (like whole summer vacations). It will fuck up their lives. They can visit for a week and you can be super fun dad, but then send them home to their regular lives.
  6. Pay your child support. Parenting is hard. Doing it alone makes it even harder. Don’t be a deadbeat dad.

I can’t promise that adhering to my list will work any magic, but I hope it can be of use to the dads out there, who, for whatever reason, have to go.

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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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