A Tale of Two Bombs

For my applications to MFA in Creative Writing Programs, I have to submit both a personal statement and a writing sample. I wanted to share with you the personal statement I wrote as to why I want to pursue the MFA.

One of the schools to which I am applying is Southern New Hampshire University (which is a 100% online program). They asked me to address the following: explain how someone else’s story – such as a novel, movie, or a personal account – has impacted your life and influenced your drive to become a writer.

Here’s what I had to say:

I was twenty-one years old in the spring of 1996. I had been working on campus in the Office of International Programs, a job I loved because it was all about studying abroad and travel. Tucked at the back of our department were two smaller offices that belonged to faculty in the English department. While I had never taken a class from Dr. T., she was someone who was gregarious and often engaged me in conversation because she knew I loved to read.

I graduated that May and as a gift, my parents allowed me to audit a two-week study abroad program to Italy. On my last day of work, Dr. T. pressed a mass-market paperback into my hands and told me it would rock my world.

I started reading it on the plane to Milan and was immediately engrossed. So much so that I stayed up as night bled quickly into the next morning to find out what happened next. I read it on trains, and at night in my hotel rooms in Florence, Rome, and Siena. Stunning art and architecture surrounded me by day and a great story, well-told, filled my nights.

Finally, in Venice, I finished it. I was sharing a room with two other women and they were both sound asleep. But I had been so completely electrified and inspired by that book that I wanted to jump from bed, fling open the shutters and shout into the darkness of the city: “You must stop what you are doing immediately and read this book!”

The title? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Dr. T. was right, my world had indeed been rocked to the foundations. I had always toyed with the idea of writing fiction seriously, but in the moment I finished that book something shifted. I was so astonished by the way Irving gathered together plot threads. Then he didn’t just neatly tie them together at the end, he wove them into a fuse that exploded a bomb in my mind.

If someone so unknown to me as John Irving could have that much impact upon me with a novel, I knew then and there that I wanted to do that. I wanted in.

By nature, life mostly does not go according to plan. I went on to get a second bachelor’s degree, but during my time at the University of Minnesota I took many literature and creative writing classes. I loved them as much as the classes in my major.

In 1999 I had two bachelor’s degrees (one in Anthropology and one in Art History). I knew plainly and painfully that I was neither truly motivated nor brilliant enough to pursue an advanced degree in either subject. While I loved both disciplines, it was the stories they told that held the most fascination for me. 

I did write, but not steadily. I knew I had the requisite talent to create stories and novels, and the muse occasionally got me by the throat and I would write furiously for a couple weeks. But I did not have the dedication nor the drive to create a portfolio in my early twenties.

Even so, I knew that books and literature were it for me. So, I did the only thing I could think of that would surround me with stories that paid well and had health insurance: I became a librarian. It was practical and it helped to lull me into a false sense of being part of the literary world.

It worked for a while, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. 

By my mid-thirties I desperately wanted to write something. I craved it. But I had no ideas. I started looking at mythology, thinking I could retell a story from the Greek pantheon. Then, on March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm, I was scrolling through a web page on the nine muses when I hit on the idea that would become my first novel. Like the explosion that had been detonated by A Prayer for Owen Meany, this too packed lots of gunpowder. I was a live wire, smoking and snapping with the charge I just received.

I was so excited that evening as I went for a walk with my husband. I gamboled around him like a baby goat, telling him about the story I was planning. Details and plot points flew at me in a rush. And with that second bomb, I started writing. Really writing.

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in twelve weeks. I have written three other novels since and have ideas for three more on the back burner. I have a steady, faithful writing habit I have sustained for ten years. Only once, after my mother died after a protracted illness, was I unable to write for grief. But I eased back in by writing flash fiction and working up to short stories. I even got some of them published.

My reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing are twofold. The first is I want to be surrounded with writing in my day job–I want to teach at the college level. The MFA will get me there. The second, and most important, is I simply want the experience. I want to indulge and immerse myself in a program that will engage my critical thinking again and make me a better writer. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

I have come a long way since that night in Venice when John Irving blew my mind. I now possess the maturity and motivation to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a portfolio to show for it. I will never forget the gift Dr. T. gave me that day she presented me with that well-worn paperback. A Prayer for Owen Meany cracked me open to the endless possibilities of stories and the devastating effect of great writing.

I want that.

Cowpokes and Bastards

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “What They Didn’t Teach You About the Wild West” by Mike Wright. It’s anecdotal in nature and chock full of information into the cowboy lifestyle of the Old West.

Some of my favorites quotes so far:

Cowboys often had their own way of speaking. A balding cook “ain’t got any hair ‘tween him and heaven.”  Another cowboy might be so crooked that he “could swallow nails and spit out corkscrews.” And a no-good cowboy “wasn’t worth a barrel of shucks,” referring to corn shucks for which there was little use…

And this gem of a letter written by a cowboy to his ranch owner back East:

Deer sur, We have brand 800 caves this roundup we have made some hay potatoes is a fare crop. That Inglishman yu lef in charge at the other camp got to fresh and we had to kill the son of a bitch. Nothing much has hapened sence yu lef. Yurs trulely, Jim.

I’ve also been watching a PBS documentary series at night called American Wild West. I’ve seen programs on General George Custer (a cocky bastard), Wyatt Earp (a crooked bastard), Jesse James (a mean bastard), and Billy the Kid (a baby bastard.) So far I have come to the conclusion that there wasn’t a decent man in all of the West during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Still, they were all colorful bastards, no doubt about that. And it makes inspiration for a good yarn. I’m inspired by these dastardly devils.

November first is a week away. I’m excited to get along with these little dogies.

Hoodoo Voodoo Chooka Chooky Choo Choo

I can’t wait. I said I was going to take a little time off to relax before starting on the next book, but I don’t want to! I want to plunge ahead and start researching.

I write historical fiction which means my research nerd gene gets exercised frequently. The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt is starts in London in 1817, right in the heart of the Regency period. Very Jane Austen, or Georgette Heyer, which excites me. But there is also the shadowy figure in a remote castle in the Carpathian mountains that I had to research as well.

Marie Laveau

This new book sees my heroine, Jane Bell, setting out from France on a journey to New Orleans. The war of 1812 still hangs heavy in the atmosphere, and a young Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo priestess, is just coming into her powers. What an enthralling period of history to explore!

I just went and ordered four books on New Orleans, Marie Laveau, and voodoo.  I can’t wait to dig in. I hope a visit to the city itself can be arranged within the next year. I’d love to absorb the flavor and history of NOLA first hand. I figure it isn’t that far and I’m already used to the heat living in South Florida like I do. Seriously. I could use oven mitts to handle the steering wheel these days.

Also: books are coming to meeeee!

I’ll still have a few days before the books arrive, so I’ll take that moment to breathe, relax, and do some recreational reading. Do you know of Book Bub? It’s a great little email service. You create an account and tell them your preferences and they send you a daily email with sales on eBooks from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, etc. It’s wonderful and terrible because I have about 50 new books on my Nook that are just waiting for me. Well, vacation is coming and I’ll have plenty of reading material to choose from.

But soon I’ll be in the bayou.

(p.s. The title of this post refers to a song originally written by Woody Guthrie and covered by Billy Bragg and Wilco. It has been my resident ear worm all week.)

 

Only Good Things

Good things happened today.

It is the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter being published in the US. That is a marvelous anniversary to observe. I always thought about which house I would have been sorted into. I don’t quite know if I’m quite clever enough to be a Ravenclaw, I know I am not ruthless enough to be a Slytherin, but I am a hard worker so I think I would have done nicely in Hufflepuff.

Today was a good day for another reason–I sent the manuscript of my book to my agent in New York. Can I just pause for a moment and give him some love? Alex Slater at Trident Media Group is my champion. He fell head-over-heels in love with my first book and demanded (very politely) that he be allowed to represent me. Goodness, who doesn’t want that? He’s tirelessly enthusiastic, kind but direct, and believes in me and my writing. I know how lucky I am to have him in my corner. I hope that he will love The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt as much as I do.

Now that I have sent it off to Alex I am quite without an occupation. I’ve been slaving over this manuscript in every spare moment for months now. I know I should be looking ahead to the next book and I shall, but first I think I’m going to do a little reading. It might be time to revisit the Harry Potter series and remind myself that I would have done well in Gryffindor too.

Elly Blake: Five Questions

frostblood

I am a sucker for a good fantasy. Magic, new worlds, adventure, and mystery are just the things that to me make a thrilling story.

Elly Blake’s Frostblood is a prime example of what I mean. Ruby is a Fireblood–she can control fire. But being a Fireblood is a big secret in her world. The Frostbloods, who can control ice, want to obliterate every last Fireblood and will stop at nothing to do so. When Ruby’s village is attacked she unwittingly reveals her true nature and is thrown in prison where she is tormented with buckets of ice water.

But then two Frostblood men arrive and tell her they will break her out of prison if she agrees to help them with a mission. She doesn’t trust them but is desperate to be free. She is taken to an abbey where she is healed and taught how to use her power properly, though most who know her true nature are frightened of her and the danger she represents as a fugitive.

And then there is Arcus. He is the Frostblood that freed her from prison. He hides behind a mask and is very reticent to share anything about himself other than what he expects of her. But a reluctant truce forms and they begin an unlikely friendship.

This book was so well done. The writing was outstanding and the story was well-plotted and satisfying. The sequel, Fireblood, comes out in September and I am ready for it NOW.

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

I started with a character — Ruby, a girl with power over fire. I actually dreamed about a girl with power over fire and a king with an icy heart. When I woke up, I knew right away that her name was Ruby. I decided to focus on frost and fire as opposing elements, and started spinning ideas from there.

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

I’m a pantser who wants to be a plotter. I try to plot, but I find it very hard to answer questions about character and plot before I start writing. I get to know the characters as I draft. So I know a few major points before I start, but the rest is a mystery until I have that messy draft. That’s when I focus on applying structure and plotting methods– during revisions.

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

There are many writers I love, and many writers whom I envy! I often wish I could write more like my favorite authors, but I’m not sure who actually influences my style most. I think when it comes to voice, most of our influences are unconscious. We pick things up from books we enjoy and it comes out when we write. A few of my favorite authors are: Marie Rutkoski, Megan Whelan Turner, Leigh Bardugo, Kristin Cashore, Morgan Rhodes, and so many more!

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I usually listen to soundtracks: Tron: Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Game of Thrones, The Dark Knight Rises, etc.

5. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It’s so good! I just finished Caraval by Stephanie Garber, which was a beautiful read. (I also met Stephanie recently at a signing and that was a total thrill!) Next, I plan to read The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles. I’m in a debut group so I’m reading a lot of 2017 debut books and loving them!

Elly Blake is the NYT bestselling author of Frostblood. After earning a BA in English literature, she held a series of seemingly random jobs, including project manager, customs clerk, graphic designer, reporter for a local business magazine, and (currently) library assistant. She lives in Southwestern Ontario with her husband, kids and a Siberian Husky mix who definitely shows Frostblood tendencies.

Ready for a thrilling fantasy?  Get your copy here:

Barnes and Noble                    Amazon

 

SICK

Where there was zing just a week ago, now there is the crud. I got it from my husband, who picked it up at work. I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on and so on.

rare objectsI’ve been sick enough in the past few days that I haven’t even felt like reading. I know. I’m as surprised as you are. Since my early year slump with the books I picked it up and never looked back. Right now I am trying to read Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro, but my head is pounding and my nose is leaking, and I really can’t keep two words together in my head. I think it’s really good though. I’ll get back to you.

Instead I’ve been watching TV. Thank heavens for Netflix. I’ve been binge-watching Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover and it makes me about as excited as a crusty-eyed, gooey-nosed person can get for a vacation that is just 23 days away. layoverAnd although he isn’t visiting any of the places I am going, I adore looking at cities I haven’t visited yet like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Montreal. I wasn’t all that enchanted with the Miami episode. I guess the party attitude of South Beach just isn’t my thing. But finding where to get a bacon butty in London? You’re singing my song, Tony.

I also watched Grease on Monday. Holy shit, I don’t think I’ve seen the unedited, un-censored version since I was at a sleepover in 6th grade. It’s one of those movies that once you catch it flipping channels you have to watch the whole thing, isn’t it?

grease album

That’s right, I played a record album, and not ironically.

Grease is one of those movies that is highly nostalgic for someone of my, ahem, years. I remember being five years-old and owning the soundtrack on vinyl. That’s right folks, because cassette tapes were’t a big enough thing yet. It was a double album set and I listened to it over and over in heavy rotation with the Sound of Music soundtrack I inherited from my Mom and Disney’s Macho Duck. It was the late 70’s, kids, and I was five and in love with Andy Gibb. I never claimed I had taste. At least not at five. Hell, I’m still not sure.

Anyway. Grease. There are so many wonderful memories in that movie. The sheen on Sandy’s cheek at the pep rally when she flirts with the quarterback, the exact bubblegum hue of Frenchie’s hair when she had “a little trouble in tinting class.” That giant cotton candy Madge whips ups at the carnival. And of course, a hickey from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card.

Say it with me folks, "When you care enough to send the very best."

Say it with me folks, “When you care enough to send the very best.”

But watching it on Netflix gave even a new dimension of enjoyment to me as I now get all the jokes that flew over my head as an eleven year-old. I won’t go into all the vulgarities here, but let’s just say there was more than a little innuendo going on and wasn’t the squeaky clean film I remember. Which made it all the more delightful.

I’ve you’ve read my blog at all, you know I have a tendency to pick up earworms. Rest assured I will be singing “Summer Nights,” “You’re the One that I Want,” and “Hand Jive” (as sung by Johnny Casino and the Gamblers played by Sha Na Na) for oh, approximately two months. At least I don’t have the desire to sing out loud and share my good fortune with others, as I am sure my husband and friends in France will appreciate.

What Happened to My Reading Life?

my reading life copy

It is Friday, February 19, 2016. So far this year, I have not finished reading a book.

Not. One. Single. Book.

For those of you who know me, this is about as batshit crazy as I get. My husband calls me a “Reading Fool.” When I started this blog, I had hoped to write one book review a week. It started out that way but when you don’t read, you don’t review.

What the hell happened, you ask? I can’t believe this, but I got too busy to read. Since January 1, this is me:K7bdG

I’ve been working on opening an Etsy shop. (More about that soon.)I have been purging all the closets in my house. I have been shooting arrows. I have been going to the gym. Above all, I have been editing my book. I have almost finished editing this draft and then all that’s left will be the final polish to make it shine like the top of the Chrysler building. (Bonus points to anyone who caught the Annie reference.)

Seriously. When I get a spare moment, and they are far in between, I am usually so tired I fall asleep. And when I do try to read (for instance on Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee and a purring cat beside to me), I can’t concentrate for very long because I feel there are other things I should be doing. So I read a few chapters and then get going with my day.

I do know that this particular cycle can’t continue. I will read two books in the next two months, if only because I am leading two book discussions at the library: one in March and one in April. March’s selection is Longbourn by Jo Baker and April is How to Be Both  by Ali Smith. Yes, I chose both books without reading them only on the merits that they sounded interesting. I do that all the time with book discussions. We librarians play fast and loose with your literary lives and you don’t even know it.

So I am going to have to force myself to slow down and read for a bit. Either that or I am going to have to be very good at faking my way through a book discussion…

Just kidding. I’ve never done that before.

Honest.