Fall fast-forward

Snow during Halloween weekend?  Seriously?  Where’s our fall, eh?  Huh?  Huh?

Fortunately fall will be making a comeback tomorrow, just in time to sit out on the stoop with Halloween candy for all the adorable Park Slope kiddies.  That is, assuming we manage to resist the siren call of the trick o’ treat bowl and have anything left to hand out.

Halloween is a popular holiday around Casa Suri.  Sid, having grown up in New Orleans with its Mardi Gras costume traditions, loves to dress up (this year we went as Clark Kent and Lois Lane; Clive Bixby and Julianna — Phil and Claire’s alter-egos on Modern Family — were discussed, but there was no way I was wearing nothing but a trench coat in the middle of a blizzard).

I, having grown up on a farm in a very food-oriented family, love, love, love to carve pumpkins–primarily as an excuse to extract and roast the delicious seeds.

This year’s seed flavor combo: olive oil, salt, and a cayenne-curry spice blend.

They’ll be gone by tomorrow, no question.  In fact, I can think of no better snack to munch on while spending the afternoon working on revisions to the novel.

The sun’s back out, the snow is melting, and life is good.  Happy All Hallows Eve!

Managing our expectations

I’ve been thinking a lot about managing my expectations lately, and not just in relation to my writing but in many aspects of life.

I find that if I hope for something too hard, it can drive me beyond distraction, making it impossible to focus on anything else…and, if my hopes go unmet, it can be utterly crushing.   On the other hand, when I temper my expectations with too big a dose of pragmatism, I fear ending up with enervated dreams lying limp and lifeless on the floor.

What’s a girl to do, then?  How do we find that middle ground?  Where is the space between weeping inconsolably every time we receive bad news and shrugging with a practiced indifference that feels a bit more genuine every time we reach for it?

Coming from academia, I’ve literally been trained in the art of expecting rejection.  In fact, I know very few people who’ve escaped graduate school without a nigh-on ingrained expectation of constant criticism, failure, and stymied hopes.  Oddly, though, most of these people are also some of the least likely to give up.  It’s as if feeling constantly “not good enough” liberates us from the fear of failure and thus the fear of continuing to try.

This is a good thing, but it comes with some bad potential side effects, such as resignation.  We keep putting ourselves out there while holding on to conflicting and equally powerful beliefs:  that we’ll get where we’re headed someday, if only we work hard enough, and that we are most likely to always be told “no” to everything we strive for.

It’s numbing, honestly.  And while numbness is good when it comes to dealing with rejection, it’s terrible for cultivating hope.

Maybe there’s no good way to deal with rejection and dashed hopes, no satisfying means of managing our expectations.  Maybe it’s just all part of the ride: hope, fear, anticipation, dejection, panic, self-hatred, and, finally, the return of a rising sweep of hope.

Contemplating these things always makes me think of that wonderful scene from the original Parenthood film, in which Steve Martin, in the midst of a terrible panic attack, suddenly feels the clattering wheels of a roller coaster dragging him inexorably towards the precipice and, just as he imagines his car tipping down into oblivion, his gagging fear gives way to the elated thrill of speeding downward, hurtling towards the next, unknowable turn on the track.

Life is like that sometimes.

Weekend Update

This week, by the numbers:

Words written on the novel: 1,160

Short story rejections received: 1

Short stories on sub: 5

Slides prepared for lecture: 70

Exams graded: 80

Calories burned by staying on diet: 2,650

Days of exercise: 1 😦

Degree of crankiness (on a scale of 1-10): 2 (with occasional spikes of 6-7, mostly while waiting for the Q64 bus)

Today will be devoted entirely to relaxing around the house, preparing for my husband’s birthday party, and getting my weekly novel word count pushed a bit higher.  Tomorrow it’s all about getting next week’s lectures finished.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print.

Miranda out.

Writer’s Workspace: 10/19

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  forward motion on the second draft of my archaeological time-travel novel, ABSENT, is the order of the day (well, that and endlessly making slides for my class lectures).  I hope to squeeze in at least 1K words this morning.  In the scene below, the protagonist, Emily, attends a dinner party.

Snippet from the screen:  “Down the table, Kelly’s husband, James, a real estate agent, expounded to no one in particular about Park Slope housing prices.  His cheeks were flushed and his voice over-loud.  Kelly must have squeezed his leg under the table because he turned an even deeper shade of scarlet and subsided.  Mark was refilling the wine glasses and paused a moment to offer James an affectionate smile.  Emily had always loved that about him; he could find warmth in his heart even for the biggest of jackasses.”

On the iTunes: I’m on an Afro-Cuban Jazz kick these days.  Mongo Santamaria is playing right now.

In the mug: Numi Chinese Breakfast – I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Out the window: it’s fall at its saddest out there — dark and gloomy, like someone milled children’s tears into a grey film and draped it across the sky.

Keeping me company: his Royal Furriness, Mr. Ramses, King of Cats, is seated on his throne.  Now that I have a Nook, there’s some free room on the bookshelf.  As with any free space in the apartment, Ramses has interpreted this as being his rightful domain.  Perhaps he is correct.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: First, in the “end-is-nigh, the publishing industry will go up in fire and flames” genre, there’s this from the New York Times re: Amazon starting up their own publishing fiefdom.  Second, if your bent is more scientific, check out the latest on DARPA research into long-term space travel.  And, for a lark, John Scalzi challenges us with some rather amusing writing prompts drawn from Scifi/Fantasy movies.

Alrighty, folks!  Back to work.

Please share your goals for the day, what you’re working on, and any juicy links in the comments.

Book Review: all these things i’ve done

all these things i’ve done by Gabrielle Zevin (2011, Young Adult, 368 pages)

Set in a dystopian New York City, “all these things i’ve done” tells the story of Anya Balanchine, the 16 year old daughter of the city’s most famous, deceased mob boss.  In this future world, though, it isn’t booze or drugs that Anya’s Family runs, but another now-illegal commodity:  chocolate.  Anya’s story is part of coming of age, part mystery, part romance, and 100% made of awesome.

What makes the book tick (and work) so very effectively is Zevin’s excellent portrayal of Anya.  From the very first paragraph, this girl literally reaches off the page, grabs you by the lapels, and pulls you into her world.  The story is told in the first person, and Anya’s voice and worldview are fresh, distinctive, and endearing.  I found her an incredibly well-written protagonist – funny, loyal, pragmatic (but not without the occasional flair for the dramatic), and flawed.

Nominally under the guardianship of her ailing grandmother, Anya has been left to care for her younger sister and older brother (who is mentally unfit after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt that killed their mother).  Thus, the stakes in this story feel real and weighty.  The plot kicks into gear when Anya’s ex-boyfriend is poisoned by (you guessed it) chocolate he got from Anya.  Sent away to a chillingly horrid future-New York version of juvie, Anya must prove her innocence and protect her siblings.  All of which means getting drawn back into the Family’s illegal affairs.  Mixed into the intrigue is a budding and forbidden romance with the new DA’s son.

Zevin takes a number of fairly familiar YA elements (dystopia, youth in peril, young love…also in peril) and manages to create something fresh and gripping.  This is partly due to a very authentically realized down-at-the-heels future New York, in which water is a vanishingly scarce resource — and one that is rationed along with most other natural resources (fabric, paper, food, etc.).  The success of “all these things i’ve done”, however, rests most squarely on the shoulders of its delightful heroine and her ferocious desire to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

Gabrielle Zevin, please give me more.

Update from the salt mines – send help!

Okay, so I know this is all my fault…after all, I’ve been aware that I’d be teaching a new class this fall for months (and months, and months).  I really could have gotten a head start on the lectures at any time.  I even had very good intentions to do so.

But I did not.

And now…oh, now.  I’m barely keeping my head above water over here, folks.  It’s 6pm and I just put the finishing touches on a (frankly) pretty sloppy lecture on Maya rituals for class tomorrow.  There’s a pile of exams to grade.  They are quite literally leering at me.  I’ve got nothing (zilch, zero) prepared for next week.  Heck, I’m not even sure what’s on the syllabus for next week.

And writing, you ask?  Writing?  What’s that?  I think I got a few hundred words in over the weekend, but who the hell even remembers the weekend anymore?  That was months ago.  Or so it seems.

I have been told by pretty much everyone that I do much, much better (as a human being in general) when I’m busy.  It’s true, of course.  A little structure in one’s life goes a long way towards shaping action productively (or, at least, preventing entire afternoons spent on the sofa watching back episodes of Dancing with the Moderately Famous People), but the last few weeks have thrown me a little more structure than I can handle.

This too shall pass, I know.  But in the meantime, I’d welcome suggestions for ways to find time to write.  I know a lot of you out there juggle full time jobs, kids, and so on and still manage to squeeze in those precious writing hours.  Where do you excavate them from?  How do you get your brain to ignore the huge piles of Other Stuff you need to do and focus in on writing?

I’d welcome suggestions, as I currently seem unable to prioritize even 30 minutes a day for my writing.  Tricks?  Tips?

Send help!

My Steve Jobs post

In his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs rather famously advised those fresh-faced graduates to wake up each morning and ask themselves the following:  “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”  He continued, saying “And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

After Jobs’ passing last week, my husband was listening to the commencement address and he posed Jobs’ question to me.  Was I happy with my work?  Did I have any regrets about our life?  Was I doing what I loved?

While I’d probably want to spend my last few days on a Caribbean beach or in a tapas bar in Madrid (or somewhere similarly wonderful and relaxing), that’s not a practical option for everyday existence.  So, barring living life as one long vacation (which would probably get tedious after awhile anyway), I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing in my day to day life than what I do now.

The decision to forgo the pursuit of a tenure-track position in academia was probably the best of my life.  I love teaching and researching part time.  It’s like taking all the best things about being an academic and sloughing away all the worst things.  I can’t think of a job that provides so much bang in terms of stimulation and fun and still allows me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.  And that’s the real gravy.  When I get to sit down at my computer at 10am on Wednesday and know that (excepting that lecture I haven’t finished) I can spend the entire rest of the day making up stories that maybe, just maybe, someone other than my dad and my crit partners will want to read…well, yeah, to me that’s a life well-lived.

Are there things about my life that are a bummer?  Of course.  Do I wish I could change X or Y?  Naturally.  Do I encounter disappointment, frustration, and – from time to time – a burning hatred of my day job (say, for instance, when it’s time to grade exams…)?  Hell yes.

Still, I wouldn’t trade it away.  I can look in the mirror in the morning and feel that should death sweep out of nowhere to claim me, I am living the life I want for myself.  That is a gift.

Thank you, Steve, for making me realize it.

So, what about you?  Can you say the same?

Plumbing the well

As writers, all of us have gotten The Question at some time or another.  A friend asks about the story we’re working on, or someone reads something we’ve written or published, or finds out that we’re writers…and, inevitably, The Question comes out:  “So, where do you get your ideas?”

What do you say?  Where do you get your ideas?

For me, there are two possible answers.

The first is that my ideas come from a combination of:

1. new experiences – be they informative, sensory, or whatever, and…

2. time for my brain to mull them over and combine them in interesting ways.

The new experiences may be anything from traveling to a new place, smelling or tasting something I haven’t before, hearing an interesting TED talk or listening to a friend tell me about their research or ideas, seeing a performance or piece of art, trying out a new activity or developing a new skill.  Something that triggers me to think about old ideas in a new way.  Anything new, really.

By “time for the brain” I really mean time in which I can get my brain to stop fretting over the here and now.  Time to stop worrying about that lecture I haven’t written yet or when I’m going to get the grocery shopping done.  Time to ponder.  This typically comes when I’m zoned out on the subway, out for a walk or a jog, or the like.

So, my story ideas often come from this combination of new sensory/information input + time for my brain to subconsciously do cool stuff with that input.

The second answer I sometimes give to The Question is that coming up with ideas for stories has gotten a lot easier than it used to be.  When I first started writing, I had to really sit down and think.  And most of what I came up with was pretty trite and cliched.  Over time, though, the process described above began to happen.  My ideas came more quickly and were more complex and interesting. I learned that the first two or three ideas I came up were probably the same ones anyone would think of and started going with the fourth or fifth idea.  I learned more about what makes a good story and my brain started processing information accordingly.  Nifty brain.

So, that’s how it works for me.  And I expect if I were to rewrite this post in a year or two, I’d have a different answer then, just as I would have had a different answer a few years ago.

So, where do your ideas come from?  What’s your answer when someone asks The Question?

September whosit whatsit?

September is always a tough month for professors.  After the long, lazy sprawl of summer (which invariably ends with an abruptness that I never seem to see coming), the onset of the fall semester is both exciting and traumatic.  This year I’m teaching a new course (on the Aztecs, Maya, and Olmec) and the prep work is all but burying me alive.  So, as far as writing goes, September has been a lean month.  Here’s what I’ve managed to get done:

1. I wrote only about 9,000 new words – most of it on the second draft of my archaeological time-travel novel ABSENT, but also a bit on a steampunk short about 17th century skull collectors.

2. I sent out one new query for BLOOD RED SUN and am still waiting to hear on the partial request I got over the summer.

3. My short story ARK IN A SEA OF STARS won Honorable Mention at Writers of the Future.

4. I completed zero critiques – a first for me in awhile.

5. I read a lot of books.  My Nook is making the 1 1/2 hour (each way) subway commute to work a literary paradise.  This month I read 6 books, including: Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs, In Shade and Shadow by Barb & JC Hendee, all these things i’ve done by Gabrielle Zevin, An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire, and Summer Knight by Jim Butcher.

6. While I may not have accrued a very high word count this month, I have done a lot of thinking (that good old subway commute is not wasted time, my friends) which resulted in some good forward progress on the Urban Fantasy novel I’m working on outlining.  I’m still debating the wisdom of trying to begin drafting this for NaNoWriMo (or attempting NaNo at all, given my teaching schedule this year), but the outline is getting to the point where I think it might be doable.

Seabrook Island, SC

7. I took 2 trips this month.  First I traveled to Charlottesville, NC for a wedding and then to Charleston, SC for a weekend on Seabrook Island (from where I am currently writing this post).  The latter really surprised me with its awesomeness and proved a great spot for writing.  I’m already mentally plotting a return here for a writing retreat sometime.

I’ve still got a major completed-lecture-deficit going forward into October, so it’s not like I’m expecting to have tons of free time, but I am hoping that with the first crazy push of the semester over I’ll be able to establish a better rhythm for writing next month.  This month, that is.

Fingers crossed.

What did you get done in September?  Do share, please!