Category Archives: Thoughts

This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) science fiction thriller or romance books. I’ll update this description when I’m clearer on what this category is about.

Being Uprooted

cover of Naomi Novik book, Uprooted, showing woman holding glowing flower, surrounded by castles, vines, animals, and other people

I just read a new favorite book: Uprooted, an award-winning fantasy novel by Naomi Novik. I could write pages about how much I loved this book. (Everyone who likes fantasy should read it!)

The book is set in a made-up fairytale-like land that has hints of eastern Europe. (It also contains really amazing magic, numerous awesome female characters, intelligent solutions to conflict where more killing isn’t the answer, and a subtle love story that has you holding your breath until the final page.) The author writes in the notes that she drew bits from the tales her family shared when she was growing up.

While I loved and admired the book, I felt a little sad thinking about my own lack of connection with a culture somewhere in the world.

Uprooted

I’m working on my first fantasy novel, and it came out as some sort of fairytale. This made sense: I’ve always loved fairy tales. I used to check out the giant books of fairytales from the grade school library, books so big they barely fit in my book bag and were a challenge for little me to carry home. But reading Uprooted made me look for any hints of my family’s background in my novel, and I didn’t find any.

This reminded me of something I learned a few years ago, when I participated in a workshop put on by the Racial Equity Institute, located in Greensboro, NC: The workshop leaders had the participants write down a few things that each of us liked about being a member of our racial group. The white people wrote things like, “The police don’t assume I’m guilty” or “I’m given a fair chance when I interview for jobs.” The people of color wrote things like, “Our food” or “Our music.” The workshop leaders explained that becoming part of the majority group often involves giving up one’s own culture.*

xerox of old timey ad for W.E. Davis and Son fishery
My ancestors’ fishery

This idea rang true to me. I tried to think of instances of a family culture in my own life. I remember some large Italian meals on a big birthday, wedding day, or funeral day. I remember homemade pierogi made by the women at my gramma’s church, and a Slavic lullaby that I can hum, if not sing. Once my aunt and I hunted down information on the German side of our family in the local history room at the public library in Wilmington, NC, where they had once run a fishery. But all I seem to have are bits and pieces.

Rerooted?

I wanted my story to have more depth, and I didn’t seem to have folk tales or a culture from my ancestors that I could use. This made me think, what do I have? What do I believe in one hundred percent, that I could use? Here’s what I came up with.

a drawing of a bridge leading forward into a forest with golden light at the far side

Religion. When I was about 30, I spent a few years thinking a lot about religion. I read a book about the world’s major religions that illustrated (at least to me) that the common thread is a higher power that we leave to come to earth and then return to. Different religions have different paths for this to occur: In many forms of Christianity, you get one chance to live a good life, and either you succeed and go back to the higher power, or you fail and don’t. In Hinduism (as far as I understand it), you are reincarnated over and over, slowly working your way up until you are ready to go back. In Buddhism, you can “skip ahead” of the cycles of reincarnation by altering your behavior to reach enlightenment ASAP.** Different religions also include or exclude the souls of animals as part of this higher power.

I decided this common thread would be the religion in my fantasy world, called the “old ways.” The fairies are still in touch with the old ways, the villagers are starting to forget, and the evil king has corrupted them with his own ideas.

Nonviolence. I eventually began attending Quaker meetings, where I learned about things like nonviolence and the power of sitting quietly and of listening. I had planned a revolt in my story, but hadn’t wanted to write a bunch of characters killing each other. I ended up with (spoiler) a successful nonviolent revolt. (I immediately connected with the unusual treatment of battles in Uprooted, although it is different than my own.)

The role of women. From the beginning I intended to write empowered female characters. It was harder than I thought; I kept catching myself making all the leaders men! But coming up with a religious philosophy for my world made me consider the role of women, and how it would get to be what it is; what would cause women to be respected or seen as equals, that is lacking in our world? It seemed like religion has played a big part in determining the roles women have in the real world.

pierogies with shredded cheese and bits of dates on top
Oh pierogies, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

But also, back when the main tasks people did were finding food and shelter, women’s role as mothers probably affected their roles in the community. I don’t know enough about the history of women’s roles in societies, and details about matriarchal cultures of the past are not easy to come by. So in this case, I’m glad not to be drawing from the recorded history of the real world, but instead inventing a history.

Miscellaneous stuff. I’ve noticed that my characters (at least the good ones) seem to eat kind of healthily. They do things like garden or make useful crafts. These activities come from communities I’m part of. I’ve worked for years at a natural food co-op, and I know a lot of farmers and value homegrown and homemade foods. I teach at the Campbell Folk School, which has taught me about traditional crafts like basketry and pottery. I’m also involved in a community of musicians and dancers who play old-time Appalachian music.

So while I might have lost the culture my ancestors knew, I’m able to find new communities to learn from and participate in. Maybe I am growing new roots.


*This idea is part of a much longer discussion, covering the history of race in America. A balance is maintained of having enough of a working class for the people in power to use them to make money, without having the numbers of the working class swell such that they might be able to revolt. The result is that subsets of people in the working class are periodically subsumed into the majority, or given some privileges to dissuade them from banding together with the rest of the working class to rebel. Not being very knowledgeable in this area, I hope I’m presenting the idea properly.

**These were my takeaways from reading this book, and are extremely simplified. I’m sure there is plenty of room for people to argue that I have it all wrong.

It’s Okay to Be Quiet

two matching butterflies on small flowers next to each other, facing each other

In a week I’ll be at the Romance Writers of America’s national conference. I was feeling nervous about it at work yesterday, and I told my coworker that I imagined arriving, and how I’d be surrounded by confident people talking assertively, for hours. My coworker pointed out that other people might like talking to someone more quiet. I’d been assuming that, because I’m not assertive, I was somehow less than.

It’s not true, and I’ve learned this lesson before!

Example #1: One time, my friend Loren and I took our dinner out behind our apartment building to eat on a hillside overlooking the park. Two guys were playing baseball, and after a while they came over to talk to us. One of them did all the talking, was loud, and made jokes, while the other one didn’t say a word. And I liked the quiet guy better!

Example #2: One time when I was at the Campbell Folk School, an Australian blacksmith was on campus the same week. I wanted to talk to him but was too scared to sit near him at meals. I assumed he would not want to talk to me; plus another woman who was boisterous was always hanging around him. On Friday night after the bonfire, when I got up to leave, he got up, too, and said he’d walk back to the dorms with me. On the walk, we totally hit it off! Why had I assumed he would not be interested in talking to me? We sat together at Saturday breakfast, the final meal of the week.

I don’t need to have the most conversations or impress everyone I talk to. All I have to do at the conference is be authentic and open to conversations happening, and I’ll find people to connect with.

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Feminism and Romance Writing

Last weekend at the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers’ Monthly Meeting, Katharine Ashe spoke about feminism and romance novels. Katharine presented a list of “tropes”—characters or situations commonly used in romance—that she proposed writers leave behind.

But she recognized that some tropes might be “old favorites” that would be hard to leave behind. She used an analogy of a favorite chocolate cake her mom made. As she got older, the cake gave her headaches. At first she thought she’d have to stop eating it, or suffer the headaches. But she researched and eventually learned certain types of chocolate caused the headache. She started making the cake with different chocolate, and was able to enjoy it again. She asserted that we can change what we write while still keeping what we love about writing romance.

Setting the Stage

a man "playfully' choking a woman, both wearing medieval costumes
Ugh, not so sexy in real life

Katharine discussed the statement that “readers know the difference between fantasy and reality,” which is often given to justify including something in a book that might not be acceptable in real life. She gave some examples of studies showing that fiction can affect the brain and behavior, even if the reader doesn’t think it has. (She didn’t need to convince me; when I returned to Disney World as an adult, I realized what a warped sense of relationships I’d developed, probably as a result of too many fairy tales.)

She also made the point that her call to remove certain tropes from romance isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about creating books that display good behaviors, to ultimately make the world better. Heroines in romance should leave readers feeling stronger.

Feminism 101

Katharine gave her definition of feminism, which is simply a belief in equality. The word has been disparaged to the point that some people are uncomfortable with it, even if they believe in gender equality.

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Someone asked about the reality of history, when women often didn’t have many rights. Katharine pointed out that today, women have legal rights but still lack power. In past centuries, they might not have had legal rights, but they still could have power; often the instances of this are not recorded in mainstream history. For example, Katharine wrote a heroine who’s a pamphleteer (like an 1800s activist blogger) in the Regency period; this was a real thing, but no one knows about it.

Tropes to Retire

Finally Katharine presented the list of outdated tropes. Here are some that I liked best:

a smiling male cartoon doctor, and an overly sexy cartoon nurse holding a needle
No more of this!
  • The hero is a misogynist who hates all women, until he falls for the heroine; wouldn’t it be better if he LIKED women and still picked her?
  • The hero is a villain whom the heroine tames into domesticity; wouldn’t it be more exciting if they were allies, and if both of them were part domestic and part wild?
  • The hero’s behavior would, in real life, be creepy harassment.
  • The heroine is exceptional, the only woman like her in the world.
  • The hero has more power or authority than the heroine (he’s the doctor, she’s a nurse), or more money while the heroine struggles financially. Why not try making them equal or flipping the traditional roles? Note that “power” doesn’t have to equal money; it can also be about the characters’ personalities.
  • The hero physically rescues the heroine, while the heroine emotionally rescues him.
  • The heroine is pitted against an evil “other woman” and must best her to win; it would be better for the heroine to have female friends.

Katharine concluded that yes, these tropes still work to create an appealing story. But authors can choose not to use them, because it would be better if they went away. And readers might like new stories better: A large part of the reason the old tropes persist isn’t that readers like them, but that large publishing houses keep putting them out, and the marketing budgets are spent convincing people they want to read them. This situation is slowly improving with the rise of independent publishing. 

crackers with hummus spread on them and raw peppers, plus fruit scattered nearby

Writing for My People

a couple in a coffeeshop, seen through the window; they are holding hands and she is wearing glasses
They’re on a date! And she’s wearing glasses!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different communities of readers in the world. As a future published fiction author, I want to write books that readers will like. At the same time, I want to write books that I like.

A lot of book characters have different lifestyles than I do.* Which is fine, but sometimes I wish I could read about a character more like me. So perfect; I’ll write that character!

But I see these things so often… is this what readers want? Is my writing career doomed if I can’t muster the willpower to include these in my books?

Ugh I Could Never Write This

Here are some things you probably won’t find in my books:

a candy car with caramel and chocolate poking out of a wrapper
Delicious… or toxic?
  • Characters eating junk food constantly, with relish. I dislike how the sugar and corn (syrup) industries have so much power, and how their products cause major health problems.
  • Female characters wearing makeup and heels. Some women like to wear these—great. But other women wear them because they are expected to in their job or situation, which bothers me.
  • Characters wearing perfume and cologne. I have a hypothesis about scent: Studies show that scent helps humans determine who their compatible partners are. So wouldn’t wearing perfume or cologne confuse the issue? Blinded by fragrance, people will begin relationships that are less likely to work in the long run. Also I just find all cologne stinky.
  • And even if they’re not wearing cologne, characters always smell like random things (cinnamon, strawberries… sandalwood shows up a lot).
  • Characters who spend their free time shopping and watching television.

Things You Might Find in My Books

Here’s what I’m likely to put in a book. I’m hoping other readers would like characters with these habits:

crackers with hummus spread on them and raw peppers, plus fruit scattered nearby
And then they ate some hummus!
  • Characters eating a meal with vegetables.
  • Characters wearing practical clothes. And when they do dress up, flat shoes.
  • Characters who wear glasses. Even on a date.
  • Characters who smell like soap or clean laundry or vague, natural things like “the forest.”
  • Characters who read and go on walks in their free time.

*I’m not saying these things are wrong or that I don’t ever do them, just that I don’t want to promote them or encourage them to be the norm.

eight teenage girls in formal dresses outside a school, posing for a photo

The Legacy of Middle School

Each week I listen to Write-Minded, a podcast of “Weekly Inspiration for Writers.” The episode on January 28, 2019, was “Healing through Writing” featuring Francesca Lia Block. (You can listen to it here: https://podcast.shewrites.com/healing-through-writing/.)

During the episode, one of the hosts commented that everyone has an incident from childhood that results in the “flaws” we must heal as adults. This statement seemed too broad to be true—doesn’t anyone just have a nice childhood that leads to a healthy adulthood? But at the same time, I immediately knew what my incident was.

The Backstory

Let me set the scene: I was shy and still friends only with girls. When I started middle school, school dances appeared. I decided I had no interest in them: I didn’t want to dance with a boy, so what was the point? So while all my friends went, I stayed home. Really, I was just scared of going to a dance, of moving into new territory with boys and who knew what else.

eight teenage girls in formal dresses outside a school, posing for a photo
Here we are! Actually, this photo was from the last dance of middle school, in eighth grade.

The last dance of sixth grade was on my birthday. I wanted to have a party, but I knew my friends would want to go to the dance. “Why don’t you have a party,” my encouraging friend Kelli said, “and then we’ll all go to the dance together?” That sounded manageable, plus I didn’t want to let her down, so I agreed.

And it turned out dances were fun! There was very little dancing, at least among my crowd of friends. There was a lot of giggling, talking about who was cute, and running to the girls’ bathroom when any boy looked your way. Toward the end of the two hours, a few brave souls ventured out for a “slow dance,” which looked awkward, dull, and not much like actual dancing.

After that, I was in. I was going to the dances from then on.

The Inciting Incident

Emily in a flowered dress on a deck, with and without a white jacket
I would still wear this dress. I would not, however, pair it with a white Miami Vice jacket.

I remember the boy involved. But he could be a lawyer now, so I will withhold his name. Let’s call him M. It was seventh grade, and I left the cafeteria to buy a ticket for the dance that Friday, from the ticket booth set up in the hallway. I was heading back to my table when he struck.

“Why did you buy a ticket for the dance?” M asked from his seat as I passed.

I knew he was about to be mean, but felt I had to answer. I don’t remember what I mumbled back, maybe “Just to go” or “They’re fun.”

“No one wants to dance with you,” he said, his whole face cringing in disgust.

And he was right, it seemed. No one did ask me to dance. Never mind that no one asked anyone else to dance either, or that I hadn’t wanted to dance, or that slow dancing looked pointless and stupid. No one asking me seemed to prove M right. I didn’t dance with a boy until the end of eighth grade, when Valerie decided she’d had enough of everyone standing by the bleachers and started dragging boys over to us and pairing us off. I remember that boy’s name, too. The song was “Open Arms” by Journey. Slow dancing was just as unpleasant as I’d expected.

The Aftermath

two women with loaded bicycles under a tall sign that says "Welcome to Idaho" with evergreen trees in back
Mary and I at the top of Lolo Pass on the bike trip

I think of my cross-country bicycle trip as the major event that began my healed life, but probably writing about the trip was what actually did it. The memoir of the trip, Somewhere and Nowhere, explores a few themes, but the general idea is that getting away from the noise and busyness of regular life enabled me to see my patterns more clearly, the first step in overcoming them.

A few scenes come to mind when I remember the middle school dance incident:

  • Becoming extremely self-conscious because of the cute barista in the coffee shop in Powell, Wyoming. While writing this scene, and struggling to figure out what “becoming self-conscious” actually meant, I realized all the thoughts I’d had during the moment, such as thinking the barista would be repulsed if he knew I thought he was cute (because I was so romantically repulsive—thanks, M!).
  • Talking to Ryan at the Jackson Hot Springs in Montana, and how I’d been acting confident, but felt sure that I could never pull off a whole day in his company.
  • Making up elaborate daydreams about Scott, the ranger on Lolo Pass. I was prone to daydreams because they helped me avoid any real-world actual dating, which was sure to fail because of my flaws.
two log structures with an American flag flying and a parking lot, alongside the road, with a backdrop of evergreen trees
The Lolo Pass ranger station

Writing these scenes helped me realize the negative patterns I had internalized. (One of my early beta readers called Somewhere and Nowhere my “search for Ranger McDreamy,” which made me laugh. But the book has other themes as well, I promise!)

What I’m Writing Now

a view down Lolo Pass with a road and a bicyclist in the distance, mountains beyond, and evergreen trees lining the road
Onward! Heading down Lolo Pass

Since I’ve been writing fiction, I haven’t settled on one genre, but I have identified my mission as a writer: to show characters overcoming beliefs about themselves like the ones I harbored for so long. Even if the story begins with an adult character, it’s helpful to identify the inciting incidents that led to her being the way she is in the story. So maybe I should thank M for giving me such a clear example of how an incident can be internalized, festering for years before it’s exposed and overcome.

one black sheep eating in a field of white sheep

My Wish for Goodreads

A few weeks ago I visited a friend’s “Little Library” and picked up a few romantic-looking books. I wanted to see where they fit in the wide world of romance, as I figure out my own place. The difference between two of the books made me realize how different audiences value different books.

Book 1: Beach Read

the covers of the two books mentioned in the text; The Big Love has a woman lying on a bad; Summer at Oyster Bay has a couple walking on a beach

The first book I opened was Summer at Oyster Bay by Jenny Hale (Bookouture, 2016). It was a about a young woman returning to her hometown after a breakup, figuring out where she fits in while dating the rich developer who is building/destroying her town. It had lots of description of the setting and interactions with the woman’s family. A typical sample: “Rachel turned back to the bay. Emily followed her line of sight. A speedboat rushed by, agitating the tide, sending it slamming against the shore. The sun was behind the trees now. The sand was cool on Emily’s feet as she took off her shoes and set them beside Rachel’s.” (p. 35)

a heart drawn in beach sand

This book wasn’t really for me. I didn’t relate to the main character’s journey, I didn’t connect with her struggles, and I was not drawn to her personality. I grew tired of all the description. I noticed lots of references to clothing and grooming; I’m not into fashion and such references make me dislike the characters who are noticing such things. The thing is, I don’t think this is a bad book; it’s just not for me.

Book 2: Neurotic Narrator

a sad looking woman in the woods holding a book

The second book I opened was The Big Love by Sarah Dunn (Back Bay Books, 2004). It was about a young woman trying to get by after her boyfriend leaves her. She acts out with atypical behaviors and considers how her upbringing led to her current state. A typical sample: “Well, I haven’t figured out what the point is. Another thing I haven’t been able to figure out is whether the religion of my childhood is the source of my neurotic problems or the cure for them. I have figured out a few things, of course, but for the most part, none of them seem to apply.” (p. 23)

I immediately loved this book. The narrator rambles on about her thoughts, emotions, and habits, but I totally got it. I related to her struggle to overcome a pattern in her life, and understood the bad decisions she makes along the way. I liked her snarky attitude, and felt uplifted when she finally got herself together. I could see that some people would find the book unreadable, but it was a perfect fit for me.

The Problem with Goodreads

When I went to Goodreads to review The Big Love, I already knew what I would find, because it happens so often. The book had an overall rating of three-point-something, and the top review was one-star. As I scrolled down through the reviews, they continued to be mostly bad. This used to confuse me, until I realized the order is based on how many people have liked each review. Inevitably, some “clever” one-star review gets a lot of love and ends up on top.

I’ve hesitated to rate books I don’t like because Goodreads doesn’t clarify: am I rating the quality of the book, or how much I liked it?

Many of the site’s reviewers use language that suggests they are rating the former, and also that they are the harbinger of truth about the books they rate and review. And the bad reviews make me sad because authors are people like anyone else. The buffer of the Internet might protect a caustic reviewer from feeling like a jerk, but it doesn’t make reading the biting, nasty criticism any easier on the author. I don’t want to give a low rating and contribute to the negativity.

How to Fix It

one black sheep eating in a field of white sheep

The conversation could be framed differently: “Rate this book for your tribe—is it the kind of book you and your fellow readers will enjoy?” This language would clarify that the rating simply means the book isn’t a good fit for a particular audience. That a review isn’t so much about the book as it is about the person who wrote the review. I’d happily give Summer at Oyster Bay three stars, knowing I’m rating how well the book fits me and not the book itself.

My wish is that Goodreads* would order reviews differently for each user. The top reviews I’d see would be those written by readers who have the most “book overlap” with me, based on books we have both read and rated. Seeing those reviews (by my book tribe) would be much more helpful to me than seeing the generic one-star reviews that currently rise to the top.


*Or some other platform. If you know of one, please share!

a small cat on a table with an open book on top of him, making a tent-shape

This Is Only a Test (Plus NaNoWriMo and Cat GIFs)

Since setting up my blog subscription list, emails to the “Thoughts” category subscribers have not been working. Each time I tinker with that email campaign, trying to fix it, I want to test it. So, this post is a test, but to avoid sending subscribers an empty post (assuming my tinkering worked), I thought I’d share some thoughts about NanoWriMo last month.

What Is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is the nickname of National Novel Writing Month, which occurs in November. At the website https://nanowrimo.org, writers can register (for free) and commit to writing 50,000 words in November. There’s a handy tracking tool that displays your word count and shows if you’re on track. There are also “write-ins” around the world where writers gather to work, an online forum and pep talks emailed out from successful writers, and a Twitter community where writers share their experience (using #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoCoach, and more) and support each other.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times now: In 2014 I wrote my science fiction thriller, The Knowledge Game. In 2016 I wrote a fairytale romance called Rose Fair. And this year I wrote a light-hearted contemporary romance called Kensington.

My NaNoWriMo Experience

This year, for the first time, I outlined the plot and character arcs of my novel in advance. Having an outline made the writing process easier. But I still went through some stages as the weeks passed. From what I’ve read online, these stages are universal among writers. In fact, Week 2 has earned the nickname “the muddy middle.”

Here is a representation of my NaNoWriMo experience using cat GIFs:

October: I outlined my plot and could not wait to get started.

November Week #1: I jumped right in and had no trouble writing. The opening scene seemed fabulous, and then one fabulous scene after another came tumbling out.

November Week #2: After a week, it became hard to write. I had to make myself keep typing, and everything that came out felt boring and terrible. I fell behind.

November Week #3: I’d wake up in the morning thinking, Oh God, I have to write AGAIN? I felt like the time-to-make-the-donuts man from TV when I was a kid. I managed to catch up in my word count, only to fall behind again.

November Week #4: In the home stretch, things eased up. I could see my word count getting closer to 50,000, word by word.

And suddenly I was there!

November 30: Theoretically, I wanted to keep writing. But I was so happy not to have it hanging over me! It was hard to be motivated to do much of anything for a few days.

Writing and Revising

I should add that the point of NaNoWriMo is to get a first draft out—not necessarily a GOOD first draft. It’s okay to leave a note-to-self in the manuscript, like “verify this” or “insert correct furniture style here.” I use an “xx” each place I need to fix, so that I can find them easily using the word processor’s search function.

Many rounds of revision will follow. A first step might be finding places where you “tell” something instead of showing it (e.g., “Jack looked sad” might change to “Jack stared after Aurora, his eyes misty, his smile fading”). You might read your dialogue out loud and make it sound more natural, or remove adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs (e.g., “He walked slowly” might become “He trudged”).

This year, I found myself writing more carefully, trying to avoid some of the mistakes I’d made in the past that led to heavy revisions. The outline helped a lot—while I did incorporate new ideas during November, I didn’t get wildly off track, writing scenes that I’ll just have to cut. I also avoided writing “knowledge dumps” that would take the reader out of the story. Still, I have lots of work to do now, turning the draft into a book.

cowboy riding horse holding American flag, with blurry stadium seats in back

Rethinking My Audience

Last weekend I participated in a Local Author Book Fair at the Orange County Library. The organizer signed me up for a ten-minute slot reading from my work. I picked what I call the “Go Cow” scene of my bicycle journey memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere.

Why I Picked “Go Cow”

Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming, with empty parking lot in front of it

Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming

I set the scene before beginning to read: Mary and I were two-thirds of the way through our cross-country bicycle trip and had stopped in Cody, Wyoming, the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” Of course we had to go to the rodeo. But I had never been to one, and I had some incorrect ideas about what it would be like. I pictured lassos flying and cowboys thundering around the arena, but not the tiny calves skittering across the dirt in terror.

So at first, we were disappointed by the violence and harsh treatment, and there were several rounds of “calf roping” to go before events like racing and bronco riding. But then, a child behind us started calling “Go cow!” We joined her, and cheered when a calf escaped the arena without being roped.

cowboys chasing calf across arena during calf roping event, mountains in background

Calf roping at the Cody Nite Rodeo

I usually read this scene because (1) it is free-standing, not entwined with events that happened previously, (2) it doesn’t include too much internal drama, and (3) it’s somewhat funny, and I can use voices. But I also feel a little uncomfortable, thinking the scene doesn’t represent the book accurately, because much of the books *is* about the internal drama, that is, how being on the road helped me see the thought patterns that were keeping me down, so I could start to overcome them.

What Was Different This Time

cowboy riding horse holding American flag, with blurry stadium seats in back

I pictured this… (photo by Melissa Newkirk on Unsplash)

I describe the theme of the books as, “It is better to live in the present moment.” This theme manifests in many ways: not being stuck in the past, not worrying about the future, not being lost in daydreams. I realized that the Go Cow scene actually has a deeper point, related to this theme. It was my daydream about rodeos that led me to have expectations, and to form misconceptions about what the rodeo would be like, which led to disappointment when the reality didn’t match. I might have still disliked the rodeo, but I wouldn’t have been as disappointed if I had gone in with no expectations, just waiting to see what it was all about

Three young cows looking peaceful, with tags in their ears

…not this (photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

This time when I introduced my memoir, I spent a little longer describing how I wrote it, before setting the scene for my reading. I described how a theme emerged that I wanted to share—the benefit of living in the present moment—and what this theme meant in my life. As I spoke about the theme, I saw audience members nodding along. Seeing that recognition on their faces gave me such a boost. I wanted to connect with people who might benefit from seeing my thought patterns exposed, by recognizing similar patterns in themselves. I felt happy that I had reached someone.

Rethinking My Audience

book coverWhen Somewhere and Nowhere first came out, I tried to brainstorm as many audiences as I could: people who’d benefit from the theme was on top, but also bicyclists, people interested in traveling cross-country, maybe fans of other introspective travel books like Becoming Odyssa or Wild, or readers of books about outdoor adventure. But I never felt comfortable with all those audiences.

After the talk at the library, though, I thought, the one audience I do feel comfortable trying to reach is the original one: people who might benefit from reading my book, because they struggle with over-thinking and avoiding the present.

Then I started reading This Is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). It’s a modern take on marketing, which is no longer about advertising but about solving a problem for your audience. Godin describes finding your audience not as a demographic but as a “psychographic” (p. 28–29), and about the value of marketing to the “smallest viable market” (p. 31), which will ironically lead to growth.

ticket for the Cody Nite Rodeo, $15The affirmation from an expert is just what I needed. I want to help solve a problem: people who’d like to be present and happier but struggle to change their mental patterns.
Those people are whom I wrote the book for. I’d be confident marketing it if I described it with that audience in mind. So I have some work to do rewriting my marketing materials!

Staying Calm in a Stressful World

The past six months, I participated in a health coaching program. I’m excited by the effects I’ve seen and wanted to do a post to share the process.

Panic Attacks Are Real!

two bikes leaning on a post by the road with grasslands behind them

Our bikes on the open road in South Dakota

Understanding my moods and working to make them more positive is something I’ve worked at a long time. In particular, at the end of my cross-country bicycle trip, when I returned to “normal life” after living outside, on the road, for several months, I started having anxiety attacks: my heart would skip, I’d think I was dying, and a tight feeling would settle in my chest. One time, my limbs went numb. It would take about two hours for the feelings to pass.

When the first doctor (in an ER in Colorado) told me I’d probably had a panic attack, I didn’t realize he was serious. As far as I knew, “panic attack” was a made-up term kids used on the playground when someone got over-excited, as in “don’t have a panic attack.” Finally, after I’d returned home and had a second trip to an ER, I thought to look up “panic attack” on the fledgling Internet. Turned out it was a real thing.

After I learned about panic (or anxiety) attacks, I was able to stop them from happening. I started telling people I’d had them. I often got a response like, “Oh, that happens to me.” I realized that attacks were common, but no one talked about them. But talking about them could only help other people, so I included them in the epilogue of my memoir of the bicycle trip, Somewhere and Nowhere.

Last weekend, at the NC Writer’s Conference, I discovered a new symptom: I was scheduled to meet with an agent to learn about pitching and get feedback on my novel. About an hour before the meeting, I started getting dizzy; I left my conference session early and found a place to stand in the hallway, taking deep breaths. I didn’t recognize the symptom, but it seemed likely to be anxiety. My conference friend Fran said I should write about it, which inspired this post.

Strategies Developed via Health Coaching

silhouette of person meditating, surrounded by words like Notice, Listen, and BreatheOver the years, I’ve tried a lot of strategies to manage anxiety, which can get worse during stressful times. A main strategy is getting enough sleep. Everything looks worse when I am tired. I’ve become an early morning person, shifting my schedule to have more good hours before work, and less hours in the evening, when everything seems bad. I’ve never succeeded at officially meditating, but have had a regular practice of forced sitting still and doing nothing for several months at a time.

But I’ve never managed to practice all my strategies at once, or to do them in the long term.

This year, my health insurance included health coaching, so I signed up, with the goal of managing stress and enjoying every day more. I shared the ideas I’d tried through the years with the health coach. She helped me implement a few new ideas each month, and to get back on track when I got off. By the end of six months, I was regularly practicing all my strategies. Here they are:

  • Step outside or walk at lunchtime (4x per week); as winter darkness comes, do 15 minutes to get some sunshine
  • Sit still after work for 15 minutes (5x per week); try to do a longer period of 30 minutes 2x per week
  • Do something nice for myself (2x per week)
  • Spend some time outside (2x per week)
  • When something upsets me, try to recognize it as soon as possible and turn the situation around, letting go of whatever happened and not continuing to think about it
  • Stop checking email at 3 PM (every day); since everything seems worse later in the day, looking at email can easily result in becoming upset or worried
  • Stop working at 5 PM (Friday)

Lessons Learned

blank calendar with icons for health activitiesWhen I’m tempted to skip an activity—like I get home from work and it seems like there is no time to spend sitting for 15 minutes—I remind myself of how much better I feel in the long term when I maintain my practice. Also, sitting still seems to slow time, and the whole evening will be more productive if I do it.

The health coach helped me understand that it’s not the end of the world if I “mess up” and miss a few days of taking care of myself. There’s no reason why I cannot immediately start up again.

I use a calendar to keep track of how I do each day. I created one I can easily print that has icons for each of my activities across the top. At one point, my calendar ran out and I had not printed a new one. Not having the calendar made me realize how much it helps me stay on track. (A PDF of my calendar is here.)

woman at laptop holds face in hands while cartoon images of money, work, and social media swirl overhead

What Are My Goals for Writing?

At the NC Writer’s Network fall conference, my new friend Fran asked me how I felt about the need to tailor my writing to match what sells, in order to interest an agent and sell to a publisher. I know I’m supposed to hate the idea: selling out, diminishing a literary work to make it marketable. But I didn’t really hate it.

I’m Not Aiming To Win a Pulitzer

I’m relatively new as a fiction writer, so I see my writing as somewhat simple. I hope that as I learn more about the craft, my writing will evolve: deeper characters, better world-building, more intricate plots. But that’s not where I’m at, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy to write a simple love story.

two images, one is a desk with a book with grass, a dog, and a child popping out of it, versus a desk with a cartoon book and financial spreadsheetsFran’s question made me think about my goals for my writing. I’d like to make part of my living as a writer, so that I can spend time writing more books. I’d like to write books that are fun to read—the kind where the reader can’t put it down and breezes right through it. At lunch during the conference, the organizers announced the winner of an annual essay contest. The winner got up to read part of her essay. I could see that it was probably very good, with lots of description, a wide vocabulary, and deep themes. But I couldn’t follow it; it didn’t resonate with me. I found myself thinking, that’s not me. I’m never going to be the one who wins the award. But I might be okay with that.

Kim Wright, the teacher of my Scene Sequencing session at the conference, stated that you never hear people say “It took me a while to get into it” with new books, because those books no longer get published. This comment really brought home to me how much a new writer has to fit in to get anywhere in traditional publishing.

The Value of Marketable Work

When I was a kid, my grandpa had the TV channels you paid extra for: HBO and Showtime. Each week I’d scan TV Guide, looking at the movies listed beside HBO and SHO. (This was before the days when everything was available online.) When I’d see a movie that I wanted to watch, I’d call Grandpa and he’d record it for me on his VCR.

a cartoon person holding a book with money floating out of itOne time I had him record Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn. After, he left the tape recording and I got a movie called Sullivan’s Travels. It was about a commercially successful comedy film-maker who wants to learn about the plight of poor people so that he can make a deeper film. He disguises himself and sets out, only to be (eventually) attacked, robbed, and arrested. Without his identification or money, and dressed like a vagrant, he cannot convince anyone that he’s a famous film-maker, and he gets the experience he set out to have: he’s treated like a poor person. While in prison, he sees how much joy the inmates get from a comedy movie, and realizes the importance of those movies and his place in creating them.

Even though I like “deep” movies, the theme of Sullivan’s Travels always stuck with me. Maybe my role as a writer is simply to write entertaining books.

There’s More than One Way To Do Good

a book with a money bill sticking out of itBut I also think that so-called commercial, entertaining books CAN do good, particularly if they reach large audiences. I’ve read young adult books for a long time because reading about the characters’ experiences helps me navigate my own. Books can show people experiences other than their own, to help them see a different perspective. Political issues can be woven into an entertaining book, to get readers thinking. This is a way to help the world, one reader at a time. Maybe this is what I’m being called to do.