Comfort Zoning Out

I admire people who can write short stories well. You’d think that as a writer I wouldn’t be so wowed by people who can write a good short story, but I am. I’m also a little jealous, because the short story is not an easy form for me.

I have written short stories, but none of them have lived up to the best short stories I have read: the ones that make you see a piece of life or human behavior in a completely new way, or that turn a situation on its head so that you think about things you never thought about before, or that simply leave you haunted and unable to get the story out of your head for days – or years.

My comfort zone is writing long. I’m a novelist at heart. But every once in a while I think I should hone my short story skills. I know it would help my long writing and in the market today short stories are a great way to help build an audience online. So lately I have been considering returning to the form and giving it some more elbow grease and education.

It’s hard to stretch beyond your boundaries and try something new in any area of your life, and writing is no different. Learning a new skill set or refining a little-used one takes time and perseverance. But recently a colleague challenged me to write a story using a genre I wasn’t very familiar with. At first I thought I wouldn’t try it. But then I decided to take the challenge and I have found that I am having a great deal of fun doing it!

So maybe now is the time to return to the short story and try to master it. I feel a little like I always do on my first day at a new job—wondering if I actually have the skill to do the job, and if I can learn everything I need to learn to do well. Since I have never met a job I didn’t master, I know I can meet the challenge of the short story writing and triumph.

What writing challenges have you faced and mastered?

Navajos Wear Nikes book signing

Join my author friend and classmate Jim Kristofic at his booksigning this Saturday, 5/21 6-8 pm at the Doylestown Bookshop. His awesome memoir is Navajos Wear Nikes.

If you can’t make it to his signing, pick up the book at your local bookstore!

Read more about it below:

LIFE ON AN INDIAN RESERVATION… WHAT’S THAT LIKE?
An Evening of Storytelling and Booksigning with Navajos Wear Nikes author Jim Kristofic
WHERE: Doylestown Bookshop
WHEN: May 21st, 6-8 p.m.

Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life

When Jim Kristofic’s family moved across the country to Ganado, Arizona, his life changed forever. Ganado was a “Rez-town” on a reservation the size of West Virginia. More Indians lived on the Rez than anywhere else on earth. White people called them Navajo. They called themselves Diné—The People. For Jim’s mother, living among the Navajo was a childhood dream come true. For Jim—who’d just learned barely learned to tie his own shoelaces—it was the end of the world and the beginning of something new and unforgettable.

In this memoir Jim Kristofic introduces readers to the complex world of the modern Navajo Nation, where Anglo and Navajo coexist in a tenuous truce. It is a place of spirits, where witches haunt the valley at night and the supernatural is part of everyday life. But his friendships with local boys lead Jim to understand the wit of the Navajo language, how to make fry bread, how to find hózhó, a beautiful harmony. He shares tales of rescued “Rez-dogs,” a captive hawk, a gang-style murder, an Indian Boy Scout troop, a fanatical Sunday school teacher, a sheep butchering in the middle of the school day, and his friendship with the Navajo bull rider and artist who becomes his stepfather. After the births of his Navajo sister and brother, Jim’s family moves off the Rez to an Arizona border town, where he and his family struggle to adapt to the Anglo society that no longer feels like the home he left behind.

With compelling honesty, Navajos Wear Nikes tracks a modern life on the Navajo Reservation, from childhood to manhood. Kristofic recounts the painful, fascinating history of Ganado, Arizona and tells the story of a boy trying to understand the truth of a people and the truth about himself.

Jim Kristofic has worked on and off the “Rez” for more than ten years as a river guide, journalist, and oral historian. He has written for The Navajo Times, Arizona Highways, and High Country News. He and his wife currently live in eastern Pennsylvania with—of course—a rescued dog.

CURRENT PRAISE FOR NAVAJOS WEAR NIKES

“Jim Kristofic combines the spirit of Joseph Campbell and J.D. Salinger to give readers an intimate look at the complexity of life in Navajo country. I rarely have tears when I read the last chapter of a book… with this book I did.”
Martha Blue, former Indian country attorney and award-winning author of Indian Trader: The Life and Times of J.L. Hubbell

“This is a story told on many levels. It can be brutally frank, irreverent in places, and funny in others. But it is so serious that it will hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end. It brings to Native life a strongly personal and emotional aspect seldom seen, and it will persist in memory long after a first reading.”
David Brugge, historian, anthropologist, author of The Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute: An American Tragedy

“Few regionally tied autobiographies have shown as much wit and keen observation as Navajos Wear Nikes by Jim Kristofic.” — Arizona Daily Sun

“Many years ago, a coworker and I thought about preparing a `primer’ for non-Navajo newcomers needing to learn the rights and wrongs about living on the Navajo Nation. This book could be used as such a primer.”
Ed Chamberlin, National Park Service curator of Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

“The story of how a minority overcame prejudice and made lifelong friends in the process will resonate with many teens.” – Booklist

Guest Blog on STET!

I am proud to be guest blogging on Backspace’s awesome blog STET!

I’m addressing how our manuscripts are like our children, and how we can channel those protective maternal/paternal feelings into productive actions.

Come visit! I’ll be there through Wednesday!

The Best Laid Plans

In an earlier post about juggling multiple projects, I said the switching back and forth every other day between two stories was working for me.

Not so much anymore.

I’ve put the middle grade on the back burner and have focused on the YA fantasy for the past week. I tried to figure out what it was that disrupted my lovely balancing act. Part of the reason is that I have always preferred focusing on a single project to completion before starting another—that allows me to immerse myself in the details of the project in a visceral way. I can live, breathe, and dream it.

The other part, the “craft” part, is that I am in two very different stages in the manuscripts. In the middle grade, I am writing what is essentially a heavily revised first draft. The YA is in its fourth major revision, and is getting close to being query-ready. So while I needed to plot, character, and write from scratch in one manuscript, in the other I needed to search for –ing words and other grammar issues, as well as incorporate the latest feedback from my wonderful beta readers.

Of course, I certainly could have chosen to continue bouncing between the two. I have often juggled more than one project in my video editing life and created products the clients loved. But, because I did not have deadlines to meet, I chose to focus on a single project to completion, especially since “changing gears” between those two very different skill sets seemed inefficient. Since I have less than 3 hours a day to write, the time it took to get “into the groove” of each mindset felt like lost time to me.

The final deciding factor, though, was the closeness of the finish line. As I reached the last 25% of the YA revision, I could smell the end of the book. I could see the words “The End” emblazoned on the horizon. I wanted to get there, gain that feeling of accomplishment, revel in the knowledge that the manuscript was one step closer to being query-ready.

People reward themselves in different ways when they reach their writing goals. Some put money in a jar, to be used for fun when the project is fully complete. That doesn’t work for me. Some people give themselves “me” time. Well, I have an 18-month-old—all my “me” time is taken up with writing.

So how do I reward myself? It might sound completely pretentious, but my reward really is the exhilaration I feel when I accomplish my goal. I actually get giddy. It is a moment when I have proven to myself that I can do what I set out to do. It lifts my spirits and gives me confidence that I can do it again—and again. As often as needed. That soaring moment when I can’t wipe the smile off my face and my eyes feel like they are literally sparkling is all the reward I need.

Dog Days

Dogs can teach us a lot, if we pay attention.

Abused and abandoned, our black Lab mix Cody could have hated people forever. Some dogs carry a grudge and never get past the pain. But he didn’t, and that is but one of the lessons my dog taught me.

Forgiveness and Trust. When you’ve been hurt, it takes courage to move on, to learn to trust someone else, to make yourself vulnerable.

We didn’t realize how traumatized Cody must have been by his abandonment until we noticed that knickknacks and plants on our bow window’s sill had been moved every-so-slightly. To solve this mystery, we set up a camera. While we were out of the house, our 80-pound dog paced back and forth on the windowsill, carefully stepping in between the stuff on the sill.

Cody didn’t forget his abandonment quickly. It took him a long time to realize that we weren’t going to leave him. The first six months with us, he never barked. But he finally decided our home was his territory to defend, and his powerful barking scared us to death when we first heard it!

He eventually stopped pacing the windowsill, and the mailman can attest to the ferocity of Cody’s protection of the house (although when Cody did “catch” the mailman, all he did was sniff the man’s knee, wag his tail, and come back home).

Carpe Diem. Dogs (and small children) are great at living in the moment. The joys of little things are magnified, and the world is painted in vivid colors.

Cody greeted us with insane barking every day when we came home. He took us for several walks a day. He climbed up between my parents on the sofa as if he was a lap dog. He would sit on the sofa like a person, back legs stretched out in front of him, front legs tucked up like arms.

Cody loved the Barbie kiddie pool in the summer, where he would snap at the waves he created in the water. His first snowfall mystified him, but once he assured himself that the ground was still there, he rolled and bit it—a black shadow on the white snow.

He enjoyed everything.

Faithful Friendship. Any friend can stand by you in good times. A true friend will stand by you in bad times.

Cody fell in love with my mother. He followed her everywhere—upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside. He would sit outside the bathroom door and stare a hole in it when she was in there. My mom, who had sworn a dog would “never” live in her house, felt like she was being stalked. But it’s difficult to stay hard-hearted when a dog loves you so steadfastly. She fell in love with him. Cody became “her” dog.

Companionship went both ways. During thunderstorms, Cody would come and lay by my bed. On 9/11, I cried into his fur as I watched the Towers fall.

The Final Lesson.

Cody brought so much joy into our lives. For 13 years, he was a constant shadow to my mother. On April 30, it was time to say goodbye. After overcoming lung cancer, several tendon operations, and a myriad of other medical issues, he finally succumbed to old age.

I cannot help but contrast Cody’s beginning with his end. As a 1-year-old puppy he was abandoned in a backyard. As an old dog just six weeks shy of 15, he left this life surrounded by three generations of a family that loved him.

And perhaps that is the most important lesson of all—that to love and be loved is the single greatest gift we can receive in this life.

Juggling

Life is all about juggling, right? We’re always prioritizing something because our to-do lists never seem to get any shorter. We also have to juggle because so many things on our to-do lists require input from other people—and other people are not always as on top of things as we’d like them to be.

So I, like all of you, am juggling. I’ve got my 18-month-old daughter’s needs. I’m buying a house, so I’m neck-deep in the needed inspections and paperwork. I do have a husband, too, although sometimes he’s hard to see through the piles of diapers and mortgage paperwork. There are, of course, the hundreds of things that crop up that can’t be scheduled—like the air conditioning going on the fritz. And amid all that, there is my writing.

My writing time is precious (about 2 hours a day). In that time I not only have to write, but I have to keep up with the social networking that is so crucial for every author today. I read blogs (and write them!), as well as check in with Facebook and Twitter. So even within my slice-of-heaven writing time, I must prioritize.

As far as the actual writing goes, I am juggling two projects. They are both novels in the later draft stages. One is a middle grade that is undergoing a seismic shift into a different genre. The other is a YA fantasy that is in the middle of a post-beta-reader revision. Two very different projects that have the same deadline—December.

As an unpublished writer, I have the luxury of being able to work on what I want when I want. But as a serious writer, I know that giving myself deadlines and sticking to them is necessary to get ahead in my career. I wondered how best to break up my week between the two books—in chunks such as 3 days in a row each or alternating days.

I chose to alternate days. I think springing back and forth between the two plots and the two genres will help keep my mind nimble and my enthusiasm fresh. And it allows me to always have a feeling of forward progress on both projects. So far, it is working for me.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you juggle multiple projects?

Prologues: Thumbs Up or Down?

I just began another workshop with authors Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba. This one is called Write Your YA Novel in Nine Months. Its focus is to get at least a first draft completed in nine months, as well as gathering and polishing marketing material we will need to sell the book once it is complete. We will also discuss craft as it specifically pertains to YA and Middle Grade.

Our group is a lively one, and we got into an online discussion about Prologues. While I had been under the impression that agents and publishers did not look favorably on them, others pointed to a plethora of prologues in current books.

We also discussed whether or not readers actually read prologues. I always do. Another person in the group admitted to never reading them. I have found this split among my friends, too. It seems to be a stark black-and-white policy—no one “sometimes” reads prologue. It’s all or nothing.

So today I open the floor to those of you who have been around the publishing block a few times, as well as the readers among us:

Thumbs up or down on prologues? Why?

When It Rains, It Pours

Have you ever noticed how things in life all seem to happen at once? Like the day I had a pediatrician appointment for my daughter, then had a class, then faced a 5-hour drive to Virginia (in the rain)—until the skylights in my house started pouring rain on my head.

Everything at once. You all could tell your own version of the story. That’s life.

That’s also what makes compelling fiction. Piling one complication on top of another so fast that the protagonist can’t breathe—and raising the stakes each time.

You start small and build up: A guy and his wife buy a house. Then they find out she’s pregnant—with twins. She gets pregnancy complications and has to quit her job. Then he gets fired for a mistake someone else made. He starts doing something slightly illegal to make money. Then it gets more illegal. Then he gets in way over his head, only to find out that there’s about to be a terrorist attack sponsored by his employers. He snitches to the FBI but his identity is leaked. Now he’s on the run, but the bad guys grab his way-too-pregnant wife to lure him out. He finally gets to her, but there’s a bomb ticking down. They have time to run—but she goes into labor.

You get the idea.

I’m currently devouring the House of Night series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. I read the first one as a recommendation by our local librarian, and got hooked. The books are addictive, not just because of the strong voice of the protagonist Zoey and the well-drawn individuality of the other characters, but because Zoey’s life is a never-ending series of problems that simply get worse and worse. Every time she (and the reader) think that maybe she finally has things under control, that maybe things will start to go her way, that she can take a break and maybe even relax for a second, something else heaps on top of the burden she’s already carrying. Zoey’s problems start off normal—overbearing step-father and drunken boyfriend issues—and eventually (in Book 4) ramp up to saving the world.

There are nine books in the series (so far).

Zoey’s already trying to save the world in Book 4. What worse problems can she possibly deal with in the next 5 books?

I don’t know, but I’m sure going to read on to find out!

Camazotz, USA

Some images in books stay with you for a long time. I find that many of the most lasting images have come from books I read as a child—perhaps because children are so impressionable.

One of my favorite authors as a child was Madeline L’Engle, particularly her Murray family series. The other day as I was taking a walk, I saw something that reminded me powerfully of an image in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

In A Wrinkle In Time, the Murray children land on the planet Camazotz. At first it seems comforting, familiar, until they start to notice that all the houses are identical, all the mother figures could be the same woman, and all the children are playing in coordinated isolation. As the Murrays walk down the street, they notice a single child playing in front of each house. Every child is bouncing a ball—and the eerie part is that each ball is bouncing at exactly the same moment. The children and balls are all moving in perfect unison, as if controlled by a single mind.

I am not the first person* to equate L’Engle’s identical Camazotz houses with the sprawling suburbia of America. The fact that we often refer to subdivisions as “cookie-cutter” homes means that everyone understands the assembly-line mentality that has bled so much of the individuality out of our lives. The mind-numbing sameness of the houses is not, however, the image that struck me the other day.

Basketball nets stood in front of a dozen houses on a single street. As I watched, children came out with their basketballs and started shooting hoops. A single child at each basket. Seven of them, in all. They never even looked at each other, although they could all obviously see each other (since I could see all of them at once). And although they were not in unison, I could hear the sameness of their play—bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish.

No so long ago, all these boys would have been down at the neighborhood basketball court, scrimmaging against each other, learning to play together, fight together, and settle their differences. Or there would have been only one net on the street, and the whole group would have gathered there. Now they played alone.

Of course, that was a single moment on a single day. Perhaps at other times these boys do play together—I cannot say. But as I walked along that façade of a neighborhood, I shivered. In spite of L’Engle’s warning in 1962, we are not that far from Camazotz.

*Hettinga, Donald R. (1993). Presenting Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Twayne Publishers. pp. 27. ISBN 0-8057-8222-2.

Machetes vs. Machinists: Reaching word count

I never liked math, which is one reason I decided against becoming a scientist (always loved astronomy). I went into writing because you don’t need math, right? Wrong! Who knew how often numbers would come into play?

The business side of things obviously contains a lot of math. Like figuring out percentages in contracts or how many books you need to sell to earn out your advance. Or how far you can stretch your money in a publicity campaign. Or how many conferences or workshops you can go to in a year. Or if you can pay your babysitter in Monopoly money.

I never realized how many times numbers can figure in the actual writing of the book, though. I mean, it’s words, right? But the devil is in the details, and one of the biggest details authors need to be cognizant of is word count. You know—a number.

Every genre has its own word count range, and authors would do well to try and follow them. If the author becomes the next J. K. Rowling, then word count goes out the window, but an aspiring author had better treat that number as if it is set in stone.

How do you make sure you reach that magic number? I have found two ways of approaching it. One, you write without counting and then edit down, like using a machete to cut your way through the jungle. Two, you control precisely how long each chapter is as you go along, with very little editing needed on the back end, like a meticulous watchmaker.

Personally, I am a practitioner of formula one. I write my first draft with no thought to word count at all. Which is fine because my first drafts are usually written short—I tend to leave out a lot of description and depth. My second draft is where my manuscript packs on pounds. I elaborate on everything that needs depth and color and description, and my word count balloons. It is only in the third draft that I start working on word count, trying to trim and rearrange and streamline things. Normally, I have no trouble getting down to my word count.

Those who follow formula two are something of a mystery to me. I see them post things on Facebook like, “I’m 1,000 words from my end!” How on Earth do they know how many words away they are? Chapters I could understand, but words? I suspect these writers have a very precise outline they follow, which would help them figure out words per chapter, etc. If any reader out there can elaborate on this technique, feel free to share!

So which are you? A machete-wielder or a precision machinist?

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