New Year, New Priorities
Now that a new year is upon us, I’m thinking, inevitably, about priorities.
I have a deep and somewhat obsessive love of lists, To-Do lists in particular. Some days are successes or failures based on what little box I can check off next to some little (or gargantuan) task. I finish books I hate just so I can mark them as “read” and prepare a short review about them. I put off so many things I would enjoy doing because I’ve filled my list with self-imposed obligations that I prioritize first.
Well, this year, I want to focus on other things instead. I don’t want to die wishing I’d spent more time playing video games (or, you know, reading books or spending quality time with family and friends)!
Many of you, I know, have new resolutions focusing on productivity and accomplishments. That’s wonderful, and I absolutely support those efforts. But I was talking to someone on January 1 who commented, “Productivity is my drug.” I knew exactly what she meant. And I know that I’ve taken my productivity effort too far.
So this year, less time making lists and checking items off. More time considering what I want to do at any given moment—and what the consequences will be if I don’t do something else—and making choices then.
How does that impact this blog, this oh-so-popular blog? My reviews may be a little lighter. And I may not post them all on GoodReads or on LibraryThing. Because the truth is that I hate to post negative reviews on those sites, especially for still-working writers.
In November, I read The Portrait of a Lady. I hated it. I was already burnt out on classics, but ordered it from the library it because I thought it was short. I was wrong—it’s longer than Moby Dick. And I hated the characters and the plot and the writing style throughout the whole thing. But I finished it because I wanted to have had read it, and the I basically collapsed in mental exhaustion. After that, I read a couple novels that I picked at random from Amazon because they were shorter and not “classics” and no one will care whether I like them or not, except of course the authors who are still living and working. I may post reviews of all of those books on here, and I may not.
This blog has always served as a way for me to spend writing time working on something other than my novel. Something lighter and less mentally demanding. So, I’m acknowledging that with the assertion that that is, with mindfulness, what it will continue to be. If a review is difficult and thinky enough that I’d rather be working on my novel, I’ll go do that instead. Because really, I’d rather be making progress on that. (Or, I may try to finish moving the rest of the blog archive over from my dead WordPress site, which is time-intensive but mentally easy.)
If you are a regular reader of this blog, thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. And please feel free to tell me what you’d like to see in this space. Until then, you may not catch quite as much of me here, but I still appreciate your support.
Don Quixote or Ahab? Part 2
So who might be closer to a real-life Don Quixote? I think a better example might be George W. Bush.
I can’t claim to know his personal intentions, but my impression of him through his public persona is that he has (or at least had) a deluded view of the world. Given his upbringing, lifestyle, success, and the people he surrounded himself with during his presidency, this hardly seems surprising. And I think it’s likely that he really thought his actions as president were the morally right things to do, just as Don Quixote constructs moral justifications for everything from freeing the galley slaves to slaughtering the hotel wineskins. And Don Quixote too is quick to anger, unrepentant of his mistakes, certain of his understanding of right and wrong, and not convinced by reason.
But Don Quixote was one man, and his actions involved a very limited number of people. Unfortunately, I think Bush surrounded himself with Ahabs and trusted the information they gave him, maybe on the assumption that they also were knights of chivalry. By the time it became obvious that Bush’s giants were actually windmills (read: among other examples, that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction), he’d already committed too much to the effort. Too much industry, money, policy, and rhetoric--and too many lives--to make any deathbed reversal meaningful.
(I recently saw [the first half of] Longford and read Lord Longford's Wikipedia entry, and he seems like another Don Quixote candidate. I haven't done enough research to make a good case, but what I've seen so far is quite interesting.)
Don Quixote or Ahab? Part 1
Now that I've read Don Quixote, I keep finding references to him. They've probably always been there, but now I'm trying to understand more specifically what they mean.
For example, I recently saw Central Ohio's darling dairy farmer, Warren Taylor, referred to as Don Quixote. Was the writer saying that he doesn't understand the world around him? That he's delusional?
Then I saw Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed (so far) attempt to make a move of Don Quixote. The movie really wants to make a claim that Gilliam is Don Quixote, deluded into thinking that this movie dream of his is possible, despite the evidence to the contrary. But that never quite worked for me either.
And here's the reason. I get the impression from this movie that Gilliam understands exactly what he's up against. He has experience making movies, even big productions. Some of them have been hits, and others have not. He's pursuing one specific idea, one that he knows will be a challenge but one that he's willing to try again and again until he makes it happen.
Gilliam's not Don Quixote. He's Ahab.
Moby Dick's Ahab was an experienced whaling captain with years of success. After losing his leg, Ahab becomes obsessed with finding the whale that did it--a whale that happens to be white and therefore recognizable as an individual he can track across the globe. And he does. He charts his course through waters not based on where the best whaling is, something he understands from his previous experience, but based on where he's heard rumors that the white whale has been spotted. At one point, the Pequod comes across another whaling ship that requests assistance--the captain's son has been lost during a hunt, and the captain is scouring that part of the ocean to find him. Certainly, Ahab, who even has children at home, could relate to this desperation, but he can't tear himself away from his own search. (Luckily for Ishmael, the captain is still searching for his son after Ahab has battled and lost to the whale.)
Don Quixote would never do this. Don Quixote has a skewed understanding of the way the world works, but he tries always to do what is most noble and right, albeit by his own definition. When Don Quixote agrees to help (what he sees as) a damsel in distress, she makes him promise not to grant any other promises of help until he completes her mission. He has a really difficult time sticking to this, in part because of his short temper and in part because he so quickly recognizes injustices and feels a compulsion to right wrongs. After Don Quixote attacks his first giant, he doesn't keep attacking it once he sees that it's a windmill.
Don Quixote's actions are completely coherent *given his delusion*, but he is under a delusion. Ahab, on the other hand, understands perfectly well what he's facing and what he's asking of other people, but he is intent on reaching his goal.
I'm not recommending that Terry Gilliam give up on his white whale, a movie production of Don Quixote. If I can cross references here a bit, I feel a bit like the Duke and Duchess, encouraging him on in something that may not be good for him or others, but that is fascinating to watch. I want to cheer for Gilliam in a way I could never commit to cheer for Ahab, maybe because he's a real human and therefore more sympathetic. But he's still Ahab.
So who might be closer to a real-life Don Quixote? I have an idea, but I'd love to hear yours too. Tune in next week to hear mine!
Happy holidays to all
How’s the holiday season treating you this year? I’ll admit that I’ve struggled. Didn’t we lose a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day this year? I’ve had so much travel and other obligations this fall that I’ve felt the season rush by in a frantic scramble.
It dawned on me a couple weeks ago that I hadn’t heard my favorite album all season: A Christmas Together with John Denver and the Muppets. (I usually play it on LP at home, but I’m not working at home anymore, and I’ve been mailing most of presents unwrapped to Florida, where I’m spending Christmas, so I haven’t had much wrapping time.) No wonder I was feeling so stressed! So I got it (free?!) on my phone and plugged in my headphones.
You know that feeling when you’re lying in savasana or when your favorite tree is still standing after a storm or how your dog looks when you come home or when someone rubs your shoulders or when you step outside during the first really warm day of the year or when you bite into your favorite Thanksgiving dish? Yes, that was the feeling.
It reminded me of the whole point of the holidays. …a time to come together, a time to put all differences aside … a special kind of way … a time for gifts and giving … if you believe in love, that will be more than enough for you to come and celebrate with me…
And that reminded me of the most popular post on this blog: Why I Love the Holidays. I stand by it. If you’d like, go read it again.
And happy holidays.
Keys to a successful retreat
If you have a day job, like I do, then you’re pretty limited on the time you can set aside to focus on writing. But if you’ve surrounded yourself (virtually or physically) with a solid community of writers, like I have, then one option is to go on writing retreats together.
I’ve gone on the Naked Wordshop’s annual retreats for 5 or 6 years now--since the inaugural retreat--and it’s one of my favorite events all year. We’ve largely ironed out the logistical issues we stumbled over the first year or two, and now it’s just unadulterated quiet writing pleasure with around 7 or 10 other writers. I’ve also taken a solo retreat and recently took a weekend retreat with a long-distance friend and a new friend.
Out of this "vast" experience, I’ve obviously become the expert on all things writer-retreat-y. Rather, I have Opinions! on what works, and I’d like to help first-timers skip the learning curve. Everyone’s process is different, of course, but I find that with a little planning you can accommodate a lot of different styles and keep everyone happy.
Do I expect you to read this post straight through just because it’s here? No, but I do hope that next time you’re planning a retreat, you’ll come back and use it as a reference. Happy writing!
Do not bring:
Above all, a writing retreat, like the rest of life, can succeed or fail based on your attitude. Whatever happens, enjoy your time. This is YOUR retreat, so do what you need to do to make it work for you. Enjoy yourself!
Yes, I’m still here. Are you?
Let me start by saying that I hate the I’ve-been-neglectful,-but-it’s-all-going-to-be-better-now blog post. It almost never is. But I also think, even though my readers aren’t exactly chomping at the bit for more posts, I owe you an explanation for my absence.
In addition to that, I’ve been reading some really boring books lately. Since most of this blog is book reviews, that really cuts into my pool of resources. I’ll review some of them eventually, but ones I don’t intend to review include one on the natural history of Ohio that read like a text book. By the time I wrapped up the ice ages and progressed to weather patterns, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a sentence.
My own novel continues, slowly but surely. Certainly, the travel interrupted things, but I’ve been trying to take myself out for lunch once a week to just work on the novel. When I actually stay in town for most of a week, this works nicely.
The next series of The Outbreak is more imminent than the novel. Michael Neno is finishing up the last few panels of “The Hunter” now. Then, I just have to prepare them for the website and launch the pages. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m hoping to have it ready for you by the end of December. Also, my laptop recently died, and I replaced it with an Android tablet. I only bring that up because I just discovered that I can’t actually view Prezis on my computer now, which means I can’t see my own comic! (Prezi, if you’re reading this, get on that Android app. I’m your biggest fan, and this is not cool.) Now that I know about this restriction, I’ll be releasing a PDF version of both “Monster at the Institute” and “The Hunter.”
And now for the obligatory I’m-going-to-be-better assertion. But really, I am. I have a couple other posts nearly drafted, and I’ve been reading much more interesting books lately. I have two personal trips to Florida planned for December, but that’s all the travel on the horizon at the moment. I’ll be doling out posts over the next few weeks, and I hope you enjoy them. But really, isn’t this a time to be thankful for RSS feeds? I know I am.
TURN DOWN FOR WHAT blog tour
The incredible Amanda Page tagged me in the TURN DOWN FOR WHAT blog tour, started by Emma Bolden and Chantel Acevedo. They provide a great list of questions and I’m supposed to limit myself to only two (!) to share with you. So, as Jim from my (unfinished) novel would say, balloon goes up!
Agatha Christie, as the story goes, created many of her stories while eating apples in the bathtub. How do you spark the story-or-poem-making part of your brain?
While that bathtub thing sounds good, I haven’t figured out how to keep my laptop dry yet. When I really got going on my novel, I bought myself a cork bulletin board and started pinning things to it. I have photos of the houses where my characters live and objects that they own. I have hand-drawn floor plans of important buildings, which keeps these clumsy characters from walking through doors that don’t exist. I have a map of Atlanta folded back to the neighborhoods where the action happens. For a while, I had strings attaching from points on the map to related photos and business cards--Beautiful Mind-style—but I got lazy about putting all the strings back after taking everything to a writing retreat. And above the bulletin board, I have a neat woodcut by a local artist that nudges me about where my attention should be.
When I see those images from my desk, it reminds me who the characters are. Thinking about them makes me excited to write about them again. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately. So I try to keep them in sight.
We know getting your work out is all about hard work, perseverance, & talent, but there’s always a dash of luck involved. So, name the luckiest publishing-related thing that has ever happened to you.
After college in Florida--where I was a writing major surrounded by writer friends--and before moving to Ohio, I lived in DC for about 3 years. I love so much about DC, but most everyone I knew was very profession-oriented. By that, I mean that your day job defined you more than your hobbies, where you lived, your background, or anything else you were into. I didn’t know any writers, and I had a really hard time 1) getting any writing done and 2) getting help/mentorship/support/advice for the small amount I did get done.
My eventual-husband-to-be moved to Ohio a few months before I followed him. As he got to know his new colleagues, he mentioned to some that I was a “writer” (a term I was shy to use about myself at the time). Another said his wife was also a writer and belonged to a local writing group. Soon after I moved in, we went to our first work party, and I had him point out the colleague who had said this. I hung around that guy until I found out who his wife was, and then I basically glommed on to her until she causally mentioned writing and her writing group. ZAM!! I pounced. I got an invitation to the Naked Wordshop, and they’ve been an endless source of the advice and inspiration and support that I had been missing before. I feel very lucky to have found them so soon after moving to town.
To keep this party going, I’m going to tag Matt Betts, author of Odd Men Out (Raw Dog Screaming Press). Can’t wait to see your responses, Matt!
Blog Hop Interview
Friend and writer Lia Eastep sent me these questions for sort-of a blog self-interview. You should check out her site to see her responses, but here are mine.
1) What am I working on?
Predominately, I’m working on a novel, my first. The story involves some characters who are ghosts, others who can freely interact with the ghosts, and others who don’t believe in ghosts at all but who think they’ve stumbled on a way to produce truly clean energy. I’m about 2/3 through the first draft, although I’ve already rewritten most of the middle part, so maybe it’s more like draft 1.5?
In addition to the novel, I’m working on the next series of my online comic, The Outbreak. One series, “Monster at the Institute,” is already online and freely available, and the next one, “The Hunter,” is being drawn by Michael Neno now. Hopefully, I’ll have that one ready to go by the end of August. I’m working on additional stories and scripts for The Outbreak as well.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The Outbreak uses a unique presentation platform, Prezi. As far as I know, mine is the first comic to use Prezi in this way. When I started this project, I knew wanted to have an online comic (for ease of production and cost reasons), and I didn’t understand why so many online comics look like they’re intended to be print comics that are then scanned and slapped up on a website. At best, this requires reader software that allows you to zoom in on the panels in order, like the Comixology and Dark Horse apps allow. But often, you’re basically just looking at a portrait-oriented PDF on your landscape-oriented monitor, zooming in to see the art and text better. I’d used Prezi at work before, and I really liked the way it directs viewers through a large canvas, pointing you to exactly what you need to see at the zoom level you need to see it. This seemed like a good way to push viewers through my born-digital comic without requiring too much re-learning from readers or custom programming from me. And I really like the way it has turned out. (BTW, all “Monster at the Institute” issues are now available on the public Prezi site, in addition to my website, for free!)
As for the novel, I’ve tried really hard to balance character development, plot, and larger themes. So many books I read rely on one of those three significantly more than others, and the work as a whole suffers for it. Hopefully, it works!
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write things I’d want to read. I know that sounds obvious, but I spent a long time trying to write things that I thought other people would want to read. That’s actually very difficult and involves a lot of self-doubt. Eventually, it dawned on me that I’m a reader (and I certainly read more of my own words than anyone else does), so it only made sense to write the kind of stuff I’d actually enjoy. Even though I’m not as far along in the novel as I’d like to be, I would never have made it this far—or produced The Outbreak—without learning to trust my own judgment on what makes an entertaining and compelling story. And if that makes me my own biggest fan, well, so be it. That’s better than disliking what takes so much time and effort to do!
4) How does my writing process work?
I have to treat writing like a job, otherwise it’s too easy for me to push it off for “easier” work with a more immediate payoff. I have to set aside some time—like right now!—and have some kind of goal. Occasionally, my goals are product focused, like finishing a blog post or a comic script. I actually keep a to-do list of these smaller projects so I know exactly where to dive in. But more often, and especially when working on my novel, my goals are time focused. For example, I’ll decided to write until 4pm; when my lazy, instant-gratification-monkey brain wants to knock off by 3, I have to make myself keep going until quittin’ time, even if I don’t think the writing is as good. Half of the battle is just getting the first draft down on paper—I can always go back and edit later (and, oh trust me, I will)!
Listening time, thinking time
I recently switched day jobs, and I managed to snag a week off in between them. So I took a personal writing retreat, spending 3 nights in Hocking Hills state park.
This was my first trip to Hocking Hills, but I’ve heard nothing but people gushing about how wonderful it is since I moved to Ohio about 6 ½ years ago. One thing my comic friends like to mention is that Jeff Smith set most of Bone in Hocking Hills, and the iconic cover image is inspired by Old Man’s Cave.
I stayed in the cottages run by the state park, which were clean and mostly bug-free, but without WiFi or even cell service. I checked in all directions, and it was a 30-minute drive to find cell coverage. Since I was alone, that was a little alarming at first, but it of course turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to live within my own head without constantly checking in to see what everyone else was up to. When was the last time I focused inwardly for that long?
The first thing I really noticed was all the sounds. Although I live in the city, I’ve never considered it particularly noisy. But out there in the woods, the nature sounds were amplified. I decided not to listen to music/podcasts/anything electronic the whole time I was there.
And I heard the trees. Sometimes, they sounded like old creaky doors groaning on their hinges. Other times like chickens clucking.
The birds were active too, singing, chirping, tweeting, cawing, screeching, all different noises by different birds at different times, but all much more when it was sunny.
I saw some deer one evening—one adult and two young ones. I stood and watched them crash through the underbrush. Then a hawk screeched, repeatedly, and they sprinted off. The next evening, I saw deer in the same place (probably the same ones). The adult stood and stared at me, and I stared back at her. I waved. She opened her mouth, stretched her neck and her tail out, and SCREECHED! It was the same noise I’d heard the night before and attributed to a hawk. But it was a deer screeching! And as soon as she did, her and her babies scampered off into the woods again.
And the clouds too. When was the last time I slowed down enough to watch the clouds pass overhead and to pick out shapes?
I visited several sites around Hocking Hills, including Old Man’s Cave. I was struck by how the attractions themselves were less impressive than I expected, but everything around them was much more amazing. Part of this was a language barrier. I grew up in the south, and I remember visiting caves in Georgia that were the underground kind that are pitch black and have stalactites and stalagmites (I’ve been told since that these are “caverns”). In Ohio, a cave is more of an overhang or open shelter made into a rock formation. I walked straight through Old Man’s Cave without realizing until I noticed the sign posts started pointing back the way I came.
I got lost on one of the trails around Old Man’s Cave too. I had the map upside down. Or really, I switched trails without realizing it at some point and ended up on the wrong side of the map. I wandered without seeing anyone through the woods on what seemed like an established trail, but I wasn’t sure. It had been rainy all week, and when the wind blew, the raindrops pattered down from the leaves onto the forest floor. At least, that’s what I thought. When one landed on my map, I realized that it was the pattering of gypsy moth caterpillars falling from the trees that I was enjoying. Another moment I was glad to have short hair.
I didn’t talk to too many people during my stay in the woods. There was a family in the cabin next door, but they weren’t the Southern Mama and Southern Daddy I’m used to. They’d just as soon leave me alone. Some younger kids stayed for one night at a nearby cabin. Why do kids feel it necessary to communicate entirely by yelling? The cottages had TVs, but I didn’t plug mine in. I was amazed at how many glowing screens I could see when walking down the cottage street in the evening. Why would you come all the way out here just to watch network television? There are books to read! Games to play! Thoughts to think!
I did quite a bit of work on my novel while on this retreat, which was the point after all. I was able to connect much more strongly with one of my characters who I’d been a bit out of touch with lately, and rewrote several of her scenes (I’m in the repair stage now). Probably because of the isolation and internal focus, and also because of what I was reading while there. I feel pretty good about what I was able to get done, and it certainly felt great to do it.
And now I have a new day job. It’s going well, but it’s a long commute and I’m there 5 days a week, so I have a lot less free time than I used to. That is, I have a lot less writing time. I’ll have to review my previous posts on finding time to write, I suppose!
But I’m very glad I took that quiet time in the woods to listen and watch what was around me.
Free Comic Book Day
Until recently, I didn’t realize that Free Comic Book Day is a “thing,” like Black Friday or something. Not a holiday, but still a nationally recognized day when comics people stop what they’re doing and celebrate comics. Yay comics!
I’m equally passionate about the idea that art (ideas, knowledge, inspiration) should be free as I am about the idea that artists should be able to support themselves doing their art. Public funding for the arts is incredibly important, but there are only so many grants to go around. I address this in my work with a pay-what-you-want model, which allows the comic to be open to everyone who wants to see it and allows those who have the means to contribute to the creation of more art.
Free Comic Book Day aims toward the same goal. Go to your local comics shop(s) today and pick up whatever free comics look interesting. Then browse around to see if there’s anything else in your budget that might be fun. Buying a comic from a local brick-and-mortar shop not only supports that independent retailer, but it also supports the publisher (can you find a small press producing comics you like?) and everyone else who contributes to the comics creation, such as the writers, the pencilers, the inkers, the colorists, the letterers, the editors, the publicists, etc. (I should also mention that you can catch Michael Neno, artist of The Outbreak, at Pack Rat Comics all day.)
But even if you can’t make it to a physical store for some reason, take some time to check out the amazing free/pay-what-you-want comics online, most of which are available all 365 days of the year! Pay attention to the names of the creators, and try to find other work they’ve done. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are a few of my favorites:
Read my reviews on