The Muse Wields a Sledgehammer

NaNoWriMo

On November 1st I am going to embark on a writing frenzy. Every day for a month I am going to write an average 1,667 words until I have a grand total of 50,000 by November 30. This is National Novel Writing Month. I’ve participated twice before, once in 2011 and once in 2013, each time I wrote over 50,000 words.

Yes, my book is still on submission, and while I am waiting I have been toying with a book idea. I’ve started writing the thing three times and each time I’ve been dissatisfied with the results. The plot, the characters, all feel derivative, like I’ve seen it before a million times. That is a disaster waiting to happen.

And in the past two days I’ve gotten three passes, which is hard to take. I know it isn’t personal, but each one is another little cut until I’m stinging and bleeding all over the place. Yeah, I suppose that’s dramatic, but I allow myself to wallow in misery for a night and then I suck it up and move on.

So last night after a visit to Royal Scoop ice cream to drown my sorrows, I went to bed. I was idly thinking about a tweet my agent had put out last week about how he would love to see a Western. So I started thinking about how I love Westerns myself, and what I would do if I ever wrote one.

That’s when the muse descended and whacked me in the back of the head with a sledgehammer. I had a hard time falling asleep because my brain was galloping away in a thousand directions, coming up with brilliant ideas and details. I kept having to get up and write them down.

This morning I have two protagonists, a setting, the rough outline of a plot, and even a title. I’m calling it West of Never and on November 1st I am going to start the first draft. The rest of October will be given over to drafting an outline, character sketches, and general noodling. I’m pitching it as True Grit meets Thelma and Louise.

This. This is going to be wicked fun.

And that’s what writing is all about, right? If it isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Five Questions: Katharine McGee

The Thousandth Floor

It’s one hundred years in the future, and New York is still the center of civilization, but with wicked cool new technology. Contact lenses can make calls and show your social media feed, cars are replaced by self-driving machines, and the tallest building in town is now 1000 stories tall: complete with schools, shops, parks, and houses–there is literally no need to go outside. Why would you want to?

Some things never change, however, and the wealthy still live extravagantly on the upper floors, teens still party and experiment with sex and drugs, and the course of true love still doesn’t run straight.

The Thousandth Floor and its sequel The Dazzling Heights follows a group of teens as they try to navigate their way to adulthood. Avery is the golden child, genetically modified to be gorgeous and smart. Her friends Eris, Leda and Cord all go to an exclusive school “Up Tower,” while Rylin and Watt, kids from the lower floors stumble into their orbit of parties, expensive clothes, and killer digs.

The Dazzling Heights

But things aren’t as perfect as they appear on the surface. Many secrets and troubles exist between the different players and someone ends up getting hurt. Will the others keep the secret, perhaps the deadliest secret of all?

Katharine McGee has put together a tale that is at once gleaming with polish and raw and authentic. I would pitch it as Gossip Girl of the 22nd century, and it really is a glossy read filled with lifestyles of the young and rich and the all-too-real troubles of a teen from any age: substance abuse, bullying, sex, and forbidden love. I really enjoyed these both and look forward to the next in the continuing series. Here are Katharine’s five questions:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

I lived in Manhattan for five years after I graduated from college, working as an editor of young adult fiction. This was back when the dystopian craze was all the rage, series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. I couldn’t stop thinking about those books, wondering what it said about us as a society that we were obsessed with such bleak, dark visions of the future. What would the future look like if, instead of destroying the world, we actually got things right—if each generation left the world better than they found it? I wanted to write a non-dystopian young adult novel set in the future, but hadn’t quite figured out what would look like.

Then I read an article about a concept called “vertical urbanization”: the idea that cities in the future will grow increasingly tall until they become massive skyscrapers. The idea captured my imagination. I mentioned it to my boss at work, who said the phrase “the thousandth floor,” and I knew I had my title right there! 🙂

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m an outliner through and through! I couldn’t survive without an outline, especially since I’m dealing with five different narrators, whose stories all intersect in complicated ways. One of my old writing professors called this the domino effect: if you change one thing that happens to one character, it creates a ripple that extends through all the stories. So before I write I spend a lot of time on my chapter-by-chapter outline. It inevitably changes along the way, but that’s just part of the process.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

My favorite series of all time is still Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—there’s really nothing else like it, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t yet read it. I’m also very into George R.R. Martin lately, in no small part because of the way he so deftly handles his various narrators, killing off characters and then cycling in new ones, all while still maintaining a heart-pounding sense of urgency. I’ve been trying to do something a bit like that with The Thousandth Floor!

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I’m one of those people who needs silence to write! Somehow my brain has trouble sorting through the prose, especially dialogue, when there’s music on. It’s like my brain can’t process the words of the music and then also come up with new words at the same time! So I’m not very good at getting work done in cafés: I mostly work in my home office, or occasionally in a library. But I do play music between scenes to take my mind off things!

5. What are you reading right now?

I just finished Kendare Blake’s One Dark Throne, which is the second in a fantastic fantasy series set in a world where three princess sisters have to kill each other, and the one who lives will become the queen! I’m also reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, an adult historical fiction/fantasy about the rise of early modern Europe. It’s one of those epic, sprawling stories that builds an incredible and intricate world, so I’ve been savoring it.

Katharine McGee

Katharine McGee is originally from Houston, Texas. She studied English and French literature at Princeton University and has an MBA from Stanford. It was during her years in New York, working as an editor by day and writing by night, that she began a manuscript about life in a futuristic skyscraper. The Thousandth Floor is her first novel. She currently lives in Houston with her husband. Check out her website at katharinemcgee.com.

Nerd is the New Black

I’ve never claimed to be cool. That is just not in my makeup. I’m not into parties or dressing edgy. I’d much rather have a beer with a few close friends or read, or sit with some needlework. I remember one time when I was in grad school a friend called to ask if I wanted to have lunch. She had asked me what I was doing, and I replied “Oh, just sitting on the couch, knitting and watching Unsolved Mysteries.” There was silence on the other end of the line, and then the question, “What, are you 82?”

Holly Hat Clown–Red Skelton

Yeah. I’m a nerd. Look at the needlepoint project I’ve been obsessively working on the past few weeks. It was a kit I discovered in my grandmother’s sewing basket after she died seven years ago. Mom told me she had bought needlepoint projects for all of her grandchildren at one point, but never finished them. This one had barely been started. I was also told that this particular project had been intended for my cousin Scott, who was just a little kid at the time. Hey Scott, you’re welcome.

I have hung onto this thing for years and never worked on it more than a few stitches here and there. But I dug it out right before the hurricane and started on it again, and somehow it clicked this time. I’ve been rabidly stitching ever since, and binge watching TV shows on Netflix. And just to prove what a total nerd I am, I watched the documentary series The Royal House of Windsor and and am now halfway through Secrets of Great British Castles. So, yeah.

I hope to finish this in time for Christmas. I plan on making it into a pillow to put in my office. It’s so awful that I absolutely adore it.

What’s my point? That I am proud of my nerd status. When I was in my teens and twenties it really bothered me that I wasn’t more outgoing, that I was awkward in large groups, that parties gave me wicked anxiety.  I did get better at it, I learned how to relax and be more outgoing, although it still takes its toll. But in my 40’s I have found that I really like me. I think I’m pretty cool just how I am.

I’m proud of my clown. I can’t wait to see how he looks in my office. I’ll post a picture when Old Red is complete.

Again, Scott, you’re welcome.

 

Five Questions: Jodi Kendall

I have this theory that baby anything is cute. Puppies, kittens, piggies, scorpions…

Okay, any baby mammal is cute.

Hamlet is no exception. She is the runt of a litter and eleven-year-old Josie Shilling’s big brother sneaks her home from college over Thanksgiving. From the first moment the wee piglet enters the already cramped Shilling household Josie’s life is transformed. She convinces her parents to let her keep the pig until she can find a proper home for Hammie, and they give her until New Year’s Day.

Josie already has a busy life with four siblings, school, and gymnastics. Add in the rapidly growing pig that needs feeding, bathing, and exercise and Josie’s already full plate is overflowing. Can she manage everything and still find a safe place for her darling pig to live a long, happy life?

I can’t tell you how much I loved this story. Josie is a great character–earnest, sweet and awkward. The descriptions of her relationship with Hamlet are adorable, and I could really hear the pigs little grunts of contentment when they curl up in front of the fireplace. Add that it’s set during the Christmas season and this book just about explodes with fuzzy good feelings. But nothing is contrived, or overly sentimental. I think this book has Newbury Award written all over it. Everyone needs to read it.

Jodi Kendall is an agent sibling. This means she is another client of my agent, Alexander Slater of Trident Media Group. I’ve been following her publication story for a while now and I am so pleased to tell you The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City was released this Tuesday to great reviews. Here are her five questions:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

It was actually my husband saying an off-hand comment like, “You know your childhood pig? You should write about that.” That seed started the wheels turning in my mind, and memories flooded back from when I was a kid and my brother rescued a runt piglet from certain death at a nearby farm. He brought it home on break during college, and it lived with us in our house for about six months.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m a pantser that’s a wannabe outliner. I usually only know a few things before I open up a blank document, and as I get further into the draft, I’ll have some notes with characters and opening problems and closing resolutions. Then I try to thread it all together. But so much of my process is an organic, surprising mystery to me.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

As someone passionate about nature and human-animal connections, I absolutely love the work of Katherine Applegate, Kate DiCamillo, Peter Brown, and Sara Pennypacker. I’m in awe of Leah Henderson’s beautiful debut ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL – Her writing has such a lush, lyrical quality to it, almost like music. Studying her prose has recently inspired me to develop the loveliness and cadence of each sentence when I’m writing and revising.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

Most of the time, yes. While I was writing THE UNLIKELY STORY OF A PIG IN THE CITY, I blasted holiday music. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, so I listened to Pentatonix albums on repeat.

5. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading ENGINERDS by Jarrett Lerner, which recently published. It’s hilarious, and fast-paced, with short chapters and great voice. I imagine it’ll be a new, funny favorite book for reluctant readers.

Please check out this book. Anyone who has ever loved an animal will get all the feels.

Jodi Kendall grew up in the Midwest with her family of seven and their household of countless pets, including hamsters, ducks, dogs, rabbits an iguana and yes…even a farm pig! As a freelance writer, Jodi once followed  a secret nighttime transport of a manta ray over state lines, swam with seven species of sharks, got up close and personal with venomous snakes, and motored through a saltwater crocodile breeding ground. These days, you can find Jodi typing away at home in New York City, where she’s still an animal lover at heart. Jodi holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is an active member of SCBWI. This is her first novel. Visit Jodi online at www.jodikendall.com.

We’re Back in the Saddle Again

Good old Gene Autry. He wrote the song about being back out on the range, toting his old ’44 and feeling at home. When I set out to write this I just conjured the line of the chorus without really considering the rest of the lyrics, but I find that they mean something more than being back in one’s old routine.

I`m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again
Ridin` the range once more
Totin` my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again
Whoopi-ty-aye-oh
Rockin` to and fro
back in the saddle again
Whoopi-ty-aye-yay
I go my way
Back in the saddle again
It’s more than doing something familiar. It’s about being in a place that is comfortable, that suits a person right down to the blood marrow. Every person is different when it comes to their saddle. Some people never discover what theirs is, and for those I feel the most sorrow, for there is something so satisfying at being in a place that brings you quiet joy.
For me, it’s writing.
The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt is currently out on submission to editors in New York. It is a thrilling and terrifying prospect all at once that chips away at my concentration on everything. My brain is always half somewhere else, wondering, hoping, and wishing for the best news possible.
To distract myself I have started a new novel. I won’t tell you about it yet because the idea is still just a seed and I need to work things out before I start yammering about it to the world. But this is exactly what I need. Writing is being in the saddle for me. It is a place so familiar and sweet that it calms and energizes me at the same time. I can throw my entire brain at it and be absorbed completely, no fretting about what may or may not happen in other arenas of life.
So I am going to dive head first into a new project and give it all my attention. What may come with Audrey will happen in its own time. Don’t get me wrong, I will be out of my mind with happiness if it sells. But in the meantime I am going to do what I love most.
Whoopi-ty-aye-yay.

Help for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean

I know first hand what it is like to live through the aftermath of a hurricane. But the devastation that was seen in the Caribbean last week from Hurricane Maria far surpasses anything I know. Our government is not moving fast enough to help the situation that is very quickly becoming cataclysmic.

If you want to help, I am posting a link that I donated to earlier today. Global Giving has a goal to raise $2 million dollars that will go directly to buying food, water, medicine and other emergency supplies for Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and other islands in the Caribbean that were toppled by the hurricane. They are vetted and legit.  As of this posting they have about $700,000 left to raise. Every little bit helps.

These people are hot, thirsty, hungry and afraid for their lives. Please consider donating.

Les Chats Miserables

The cats are okay.

We took them to the vet on Friday. They got fluids and antibiotics and were sent home. It took most of the weekend, but the snuffling has mostly subsided and as of last night they were eating again. (Hurray!)

Although Fingers did sneeze in my face this morning, quite possibly on purpose for dragging him back out for another trip in the car (or torture chamber, if you had it directly from him).

But they are quickly returning to their former rambunctious selves. Thanks to all who were concerned.

If Comcast fixes our Internet we will officially be back to normal.

Shady and Fingers

The boys in their usual, rambunctious state.

Things are getting back to normal. The boil water notice was lifted yesterday and the sewage system is stable so we can do laundry, shower luxuriantly, and flush the toilets with abandon again. The library only has half-power air conditioning, but the public parts of the building are cool. Part of the a/c is running on a generator and it sounds like an airplane taking off, but if that’s all, I can deal with it.

But our kitties, Shady and Fingers, are sick. They haven’t been eating and drinking very little. We were able to get them an appointment at the vet tomorrow morning, but I’m worried about them. They are so lethargic, snuffling and sneezing. Fingers has rubbed his nose raw, poor baby.

We are borrowing a second cat carrier from a friend and coworker. We only have one, and while they can both fit reasonably well, trying to get them both in is impossible. When we left before the storm we only got one inside of it. The other we had to wrap tightly in a towel to carry out to the car. I got scratched pretty bad on the arm from one of them.

I am hoping that they are lethargic enough that they don’t resist much to the cat carriers this time.

If you pray, send one up for the kitties, and for us that we can get them to the vet without incident.  Otherwise, good wishes, vibes, or energy are also appreciated.

 

Summer Swelter

Here is how we coped with the heat for the next few days:

  1. We moved as little as possible. (After taking down the storm shutters on the patio and office window we sat outside, trying to catch an elusive curl of breeze. There was none to be had–the world was still as death. )
  2. Drank as much water as possible. (We couldn’t get still water before the storm so we stocked up on bubbly water. Bubbly water is not fun to drink when it’s warm. But you do because it is 2 in the afternoon and you haven’t peed all day.)
  3. Went to bed when the sun set. (It got dark about 8:30 and the heat from even tealights was too great to stand. And that bed we were dying for when lying on the floor of the shelter? It was now akin to lying in an oven like a roast chicken.)

Then one night we were sleeping and I rolled over and opened my eyes a crack. I nearly shit myself when I saw the light coming from the living room. My first thought was, “There’s someone in the house.” But then it dawned on me that it was the little lamp we had purposely left on so we would know then the power was back on. It was about 10 pm and we both bolted from bed and ran for the air conditioner. Sweet relief!

We got our power back earlier than most, and we were really lucky we only had to live a few days in that exhausting heat. Some people today, eleven days after the storm, are still living in the stifling and oppressive darkness. The power company says they will have all power restored by the 22nd, which is still two days away and I feel for the folks who are last on the list.

But even though we had the power back on things were far from normal. There was a boil water notice in effect which meant you could take a shower, but good grief don’t open your mouth. No washing dishes, rinsing food, or disinfecting hands.

And then the sewers started to back up.

Florida is FLAT. And when water goes into the sewage system it is sent along to the treatment plants by a series of pump stations. But if the pump stations have no power then all the water (and the STUFF in the water) sits there and builds up until it’s exploding out of manhole covers and backing up into people’s drains.

Ew.

Gas was scarce. There were only a few stations with generators that had fuel and the lines were hours long. We waited in line for 2 hours one night to get filled up and missed curfew by 20 minutes. I have vague recollections of the gas shortages in the 70’s and the lines where people would shut off their engines to wait. This was no different.

The world, for a few days, was a scary place. But the thing is, this is how life is like for many people on this earth. I am thinking about the folks in Mexico City today digging out from a far worse disaster than we could imagine here. What’s a little heat compared to being trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building?

Things are getting back to normal. More than 80% of the power in my county has been restored. Gas and water are readily available again. The curfew and boil water notices have been lifted. But this whole experience shows me just how thin the veneer of civilization is. The power goes out and you’re left in miserable conditions. People get angry, hot, tired, and thirsty. Fist fights break out over gas. You can’t flush your toilet every time you use it.

A disaster like a hurricane puts things in perspective. I know exactly how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, food on my table, and running water and electricity. I hope I never take them for granted again.

Homecoming

On Tuesday morning we were up before six, eager to be away from our patch of floor. We asked the police officer on duty at the shelter if he knew of any place that had gas. He told us Sam’s Club received fuel at about 4:45 am. We plugged the coordinates into the phone and left the shelter behind without a backward glance. We are grateful to the folks in Marion County who helped us out. Without them we would have faced the hurricane sleeping in our cars. That’s not a place you want to be.

The line at Sam’s Club was already long at that early hour, but the folks working there were efficient and had a good system going to keep things moving. We probably waited 45 minutes altogether to get to the gas pump. We didn’t have a membership but one of the worker swiped a dummy card for us, which was very nice. We had gassed up just as the sun was breaking over the horizon.

But Mom and Dad, still at the special needs shelter had only fumes left. When we had left home we put Mom’s oxygen generator in our trunk because there was no room in their car. They forgot to take it with them when we split up so Dad had to drive back to us to get the machine and then drive back. His light was on and his gauge was on E.

Before we could address the issue (we were going to see if we could find a gas can and bring him some fuel) we had to wait for the stores to open. We found an IHOP open and pulled in with a screech of tires, relief washing over us. There was coffee to be had.

Breakfast was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had. I’ve had better meals, but none so sweet as that one. Eggs, sausage, hash browns and toast with cup after cup of coffee. They were one of the few places open and they were packed by the time we left. We were fortified and ready for our next task: getting gas for my parents.

But we failed utterly. We went to a handful of stores (Target, Pep Boys, a hardware store) looking for a gas can but they were all sold out everywhere. But then Dad took matters into his own hands and he and Mom left the shelter without telling us. They ended up at an empty gas station with God only knew how much fuel left. I may have freaked out a little bit.

Gas Buddy saved us. We were about 8 miles from a Pilot on the Interstate and we decided to drive there, the two of us following my parents in case their car died in transit. It was one of the most nail-biting rides of my life. How would we get Mom out of the car if they had to pull over on that country road? We were out in the middle of nowhere and Dad had already pushed the gas tank to the limit.

But we made it. Again, there was a fantastic line at the station, but their car must have made it on fumes and good wishes. They filled up and we parted ways again. They could go on their way home, but we had to go get the cats who were still at the Marion County Animal Shelter.

The cats were piiiisssed. They were both put in the one carrier, which was a tight fit, but they could both lie down inside of it. They were very vocal when we brought them out to the car. The staff at the shelter warned us that they could both very likely pick up colds from being exposed to so many other cats. I was just happy to see them alive and loudly protesting.

We got on the road around noon and started to head south, but it was very slow going on the freeway. We prayed it wouldn’t be like that the whole way home, but it cleared up after the exit for the Florida Turnpike headed towards Orlando veered off. But then, we were stopped dead on the freeway again a few more miles down the road because of an accident. It took us a good half hour to get clear of that. Finally, we were sailing along at a good clip and eager to get back to see our house.

We didn’t really see much evidence of the hurricane until we hit Ft. Myers, which is just north of us. There was a lot of water in the ditches, lakes were really high, and trees were down here and there. We saw a few homes with water up to their front doors and I began to grow anxious. There hadn’t been any reporting about storm surge damage in Naples, just wind and rain, so we were hopeful.

Getting off the freeway we hit ground zero. All the traffic lights were dark, trees were down everywhere, some still blocking the roads in places. We crept slowly towards home, navigating the intersections as best we could. We got to a corner close to home and saw the local Lutheran church nearly underwater and we drew a deep breath. Around the corner, and into Mandalay, and there was our house! It looked all right from the outsides. There were a ton of leaves and minor debris in the driveway, but everything looked fine.

We went in to our dark and stuffy home and found that indeed, we had been spared. I think that was the moment that I finally cried a little. We let the cats out, filled up their water dishes, and headed out to see how Mom and Dad fared. The cell towers were down, power was out, so we had no way to communicate.

A few miles away we got to their condo. The roof was lying on the ground in front of the hall to their front door. But because they were on the first floor they only had a small amount of water damage. They too, had been largely spared. No broken windows, no other damage than a little water.

Back home we took the shutters off the patio and opened the doors. It was hot. The temperature in Florida this time of year hovers between 91-94 degrees with around 80% humidity. Without air conditioning, or one lick of breeze, we began our exciting and new brand of suffering.

More to come…