The Bright Blue Sea

It is June in Greece. The sun is a white ball of heat, the sea so bright blue I ache to look at it. I sit in the cool shade of a plane tree and wait. My hair is tied with the first gift he gave me: a scarf of blues and greens, the hues of his home, his pride. At my throat is a charm, a blue eye specked with an ink black dot, to ward off harm. My eyes slide to the sea, where small waves lap the shore. I wait, but not for long. Soon, I see him in the road.

            His brown hair is shot with gold, his skin tanned from the sun. He laughs when he sees me. I stand and give him my cheek; his firm kiss finds my lips. He sits, arm slung on his chair, his smile drinks me in. I stare up at the wall near his back, which has been there since the god’s days, no doubt. It was white once, now caked with age, a frieze of blue squares at the top.

            His hand tips my chin so I look down at him. I smile back. A man comes and we ask for cold beers, a Greek brand called Fix. When they come, we sip but my smile does not meet my eyes.

            He frowns. “Kat, What’s wrong?”

            I look him dead on when I tell him. His eyes, green like moss on a tree, grow wide when he hears what I have to say. I tell him of just last month when I saw him with her back home. How she was tall with gold hair and bright blue eyes, just the shade of this sea. I tell him how I saw him brush her cheek with his hand, how he kissed her soft mouth, how she laughed and hugged him.

            His face is pale, the tan smudged with ash. He sits, mute; his eyes do not meet mine. When he does speak, his voice is low.

            “Why wait? Why tell me now? Why not say it when you first saw us?”

            “You need to ask?”

            He stares at me, blank. Then, a nod.

            “Look!” I cry, and raise my hands to the sea, the wall, the street, the beer. “For all this! Now you can’t have this and not think of me.” I stand up and pull the scarf from my hair and drop it at his feet where it pools on his toes. “Now you can’t bring her here and not know what you did to me. To us.” I grab my purse. “I hope you drown in it.”

His hands curl on his beer glass as a snarl curls his lip. I know he gets it as he looks past me to the waves, just the shade of her eyes.

            “That’s right.” I turn and walk. But as I go, I look out at the sea and smile.

Author’s note: This was an exercise from my MFA program at Lindenwood University. They asked us to write a story of five hundred words or less, but only using one syllable words. At first it seemed impossible, but as I got going, I found it was easy to find workarounds. But each word was carefully selected. Hope you like it.

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.

The 28 Year Wait

Last New Year’s Eve my husband and I were at a party at our friends’ house and Fabiana announced at the dinner table that this year for her birthday she was going to get a tattoo. And I immediately piped up with, “Can I come with you?”

I already have a tattoo. I got it in late 1992 when I was 18 years old. I got it on my rib cage just below my left breast. It is your typical cliche: a heart and dagger with a cross behind it. I picked the design out of a book and a woman with long red hair and tattoos of snakes twining down her arms inked it for me. She scared the hell out of me but was very kind and gentle. She even offered a teddy bear for me to cling to if I wanted.

I still like my tattoo and never once regretted getting it. Of course, almost no one ever saw it, me not being the bikini-wearing type of person. It was my own little secret that only a few were privy to.

I went on a study abroad tour when I was 20. We studied for five weeks in Oxford then had a three-week tour of Western Europe by bus. That’s when I first noticed the fleur de lis. A stylized picture of a lily, it was everywhere: all over the churches in France, on the city crest of Florence, everywhere. I liked it. To me it spoke of the history and art and travel that I so desperately loved.

I went back to Italy in 1996, a year later, and was once again suffused with the history and art and love of travel. The fleur de lis was everywhere, constantly reminding me of the things I loved. It was that summer in Florence that I adopted the fleur de lis as my own personal symbol.

I have many representations of the fleur de lis. Earrings, a necklace, a brooch I used to wear on my good winter coat back when I needed one. I had it on glassware, I made a mosaic of one:

It has been a constant in my life. And over the years it has only strengthened. Now, I have even impressed more meaning into this symbol. 

There are three petals. Each petal signifies one of the following: art, history, and travel. And the thing that binds them altogether? Writing. It could not be a more perfect representation of me. I am the fleur de lis and the fleur de lis is me. 

Not that I’m going to start asking people to call me that. Or go by a symbol instead of a name like Prince did for years. It is my totem.

Back to New Year’s Eve. I had not known when Fabiana announced she wanted to get a tattoo for her birthday that she had been announcing this for years and always fell short of going through with it. (She hates needles and pain.) But when I jumped in and offered to go with her she was sort of stuck. Now someone else wanted to share her experience and I guess she didn’t want to disappoint me?

Her birthday is in March and so we made appointments with a really great tattoo artist in Tampa named Adam Dunning with Visionary Tattoo in Tampa. We chose him because Fabiana’s daughter, who has a lot of tattoos really likes him because he’s a fabulous artist and a really nice guy.  

But then COVID-19 hit and everything went to hell.  We had to cancel our appointments because of the stay at home order. But we waited and they opened back up at the beginning of June. Our new appointments were made and they happened last Saturday, June 13th.

Fabiana had to go first or she might not go at all, and I wanted her to do this because she’d been wanting this for a very long time. She was a trooper. She got the clam shell symbol of the pilgrims that walk the road to Santiago de Compostela, because she did just that. She walked however many hundred miles all by herself. It is a reminder to her that she can do anything. Even get a tattoo. She lay on the cot, didn’t move her arm a muscle and did not cry.

My turn next. After Adam had fastidiously cleaned everything he put the stencil on my wrist, I lay down on the cot, and he got started. It stung, but it didn’t really hurt too much. Apparently I have a high tolerance for pain because I didn’t flinch once. I just lay there with my eyes closed and breathed. 

And then it was done. 

I absolutely love it. It means so much to me that I can look down whenever I want and remind myself what matters most in my life. (Besides my husband and my Dad who top the list, of course.)

I chose the inside of my right wrist because I wanted to be able to see it whenever I wanted. I also want the world to see it, and let those interested ask me about it so I can tell them a little bit about who I am. Because in the 28 years between tattoos I no longer feel the need to keep my story a secret. The world can share it with me and I’m fine with that.

I don’t think I’ll get another one. I can’t think of a more perfect representation of who I am. Of course, as we grow and evolve, things do change. I hope to never stop growing, so maybe there will be another symbol in the future that means more to me than this one. But it has stood by me for twenty-four years, so I’m pretty sure it’s okay to set this one in the flesh.

 

 

 

 

Getting Shit Done

And so I have. I know we still have Covid-19 but it feels like it is has been pushed away somehow. So no more plague diaries. Time to talk about what I’ve been doing. And that’s getting shit done.

bookcaseFirstly, my bookcase. It took a six hour trip to Miami (most of it was waiting for the email to come to tell me my order was ready at IKEA) and then a quick assembly. (I’ve put this particular bookcase together four times now.) I should get some sort of medal, I believe. I’m fast. And then I had the pleasure of putting out all my books and stuff and things.

 

It’s a little crowded, and please don’t look at the ratty old carpet. But my stuff is right at my bedside where I can see it every day now.

Between that and the mosaic studio (which I’m going to get to in a minute) I reorganized my closet. I got new shoe racks, new shelf dividers, and everything is so damn neat and tidy I get a zing of pleasure just opening the doors.

But the mosaic studio. I set it up last weekend. It took about a minute and a half:

mosaic studio

See? It isn’t much, but it is a place for me to work with glass and not get shards all over our floor. I’ve got that project you see there, plus two new ones I am working on. I sit and listen to podcasts while I work. My favorite right now is the Moth Radio Hour. I could listen to people tell stories all day.

So now I have a new outlet for creativity and get to reacquaint myself with some old skills.

I’ve bought some new glass and have a few new ideas in mind. I’d love to do a really big project someday. My ex-sister-in-law mosaicked a toilet. It was pretty charming. She put plants in the bowl, but the neighborhood association was less thrilled with her artistic endeavors and made her move it to her back yard.

dolphin socksWhen I was cleaning out my closet I found a canvas bag that had knitting in it. Inside was an almost completed pair of socks for my husband. It took me two hours to finish them. We call them his Miami Dolphin socks. Again, please ignore the ratty carpeting. We’ll be remodeling within a year or so and getting laminate floors. Please.

That pattern on those socks is the bomb, though, don’t you think?

And finally, the BIG NEWS. I am getting ready to query a novel. I have been waiting for one agent to get back to me for over six months and I’m done with the agonizing. I am sending it out TONIGHT! I’m going to be 46 in August. It’s time my writing career as a published novelist was started.

That’s right. I’m getting shit done. And it feels damn good.

Looking Forward

It’s the end of the decade and the beginning of the twenties. I wonder if these will roar as loudly as the previous twenties did. And if not, what will they do? Are we about to enter the Exploding Twenties? The Whimpering Twenties? We’ve just been through the Dumpster Fire Teens, at least where politics is concerned.

Ahem. No politics, Anna.

This is a time of year, that nebulous, hazy time between Christmas and New Year’s, when people take stock of things. What have I accomplished in the past year? In the past decade? In my life? What do I want to do next?

I am of two minds about this practice. While I always think it is a good idea to write down your goals–it makes them permanent–I’m not always sure doing it this time of year is the best. We go into January with giant expectations of ourselves. For instance, I could say that I want to lose fifty pounds, learn Greek and Norwegian, start and Etsy business, Marie Kondo my house, and land myself a literary agent.

But I am sure I would only end up in a tepid teacup of bitter disappointment. The expectations we place on ourselves probably aren’t unattainable. I mean, I could do all those things above, but would it make me happy?

Probably not. Sure, I would have a huge sense of accomplishment, but I think I’m starting from the wrong angle. Instead of thinking about correcting my deficiencies (for example, my shameful monolingual-ism or my cluttered bedroom), maybe I should think of things that I know would make me happy and start there, working backwards to it.

Maybe we need to focus less on what we should be doing, and concentrate on the things that make us happy. Unless you’re a serial killer, of course.

On March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm I was hit with the bolt of inspiration that led me to write my first novel. I’d always thought of myself as a “writer” before then, even though I had only written a few short stories and some terrible poetry in college. But that day I was researching Greek mythology and I came up with the idea of writing a modern day take on the muses.

I confess, I might have been doing this at the end of my work day (Shame! Shame!) But at 5 pm I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go with the story and I roughed it out with my husband as we went for a walk after work. I was frolicking in circles around him, I was so excited.

I wrote the first draft in twelve weeks. I remember bursting into tears right after writing “the end” at the bottom of the page. Even though I wasn’t published, I had the chops to finish a novel! I really was a writer.

Since then I have worked very hard at my writing. I did my homework about the publishing industry and sent out queries to literary agents. I slaved over that first query letter. Every word was lovingly selected and combined into what I thought was a sculpted thing of beauty. I got a few nibbles, agents asking to see more than the initial pages I had sent out. But no one took the worm and pulled.

I did not give up. I thought the first novel might work better as a young adult story so I rewrote it completely. I queried again. Several agents asked to see the whole thing, but ultimately, I once again did not find someone to represent me.

I did not give up. I wrote a new book. This one was a young adult historical thriller set in Tudor England that is very dear to me. My wonderful husband, who is also my first-line editor, worked with me every night after work to hone that manuscript until it sparkled like a gem. (Let’s go with rubies, I really love rubies.)

I sent it out to agents starting in February of 2015. I got lots of positive responses, but still no takers. But then, after about 140 rejections, at the end of July, a brand-new agent from a huge agency in New York wrote to me to say he was head-over-heels in love with my book. I remember opening that email. It was on a Friday afternoon that I was off work.

I shrieked. My husband came running in from the other room. All I could do was put a hand over my mouth and point at the screen. I moved so he could sit and read. By the time he was done I was on the floor, on my hands and knees, and pounding the rug. (This is not a euphemism.) I was screaming and crying and filled with joy.

I had found an agent! Within a couple weeks I signed a contract and we started getting the manuscript in shape to send it to editors.

EDITORS. People who publish books. I had made the next rung on the ladder!

We queried editors until Christmas. Many were extremely favorable about the book but ultimately it came down to one thing: young adult historical is extremely hard to get past a sales team. I had many interested, but no takers.

And if you think that it stings less when an editor says no, you’re so wrong. It hurts like a motherfucker.

Finally, my agent had to break it to me that we had to shelve this book because there was no one left to send it to. I was devastated. I loved that book with everything I had.

I did not give up. I did my homework. I went out and grabbed up YA historical new releases and gobbled them down. It seemed that all the YA historical fiction that was being published (and still is) has some sort of fantasy element to it.

I wrote my third novel, another YA historical thriller with a fantasy element. I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it. My agent said he was very excited to take it out to the editors. We sent it out. And once again we did not succeed in snaring an editor’s attention. The reason? There were too many YA fantasies out there right now and mine would just get lost in the mix.

I pounded my head on my desk. I wept. I felt like shit for quite a while.

In fact, about this time my mother’s health began to fail in earnest and 2018 was filled with me watching her die and then grieving for her. I did not write. I didn’t even read. I couldn’t. But there was that spark in me, that one that loved the process of crafting stories that wouldn’t be quenched.

But my contract with my agent expired and he did not offer to renew. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t had success when it had been at the tips of my fingers.

I did not give up.

In 2019 I started to come out of the well. I started by writing some flash fiction. I wrote a few short stories. I wrote a non-fiction piece about anxiety. And lo, when I sent some of these out, they were published! I had a flash piece called “Teeth” in Everyday Fiction. My essay on anxiety ended up in Vamp Cat Magazine. And two more flash pieces ended up printed in The Mangrove Review.

I went to The Mangrove Review launch party. I gave a reading. I LOVED it. I’m not just a writer, it turns out I’m an excellent public speaker too. I read with inflection. I crack jokes. Dammit, I’m witty.

I went back to a novel I had been thinking about since I was an undergrad taking art history. There is a famous Renaissance painter named Fra Filippo Lippi who was a monk. He used a young nun as a model for the Virgin Mary and ended up falling in love with her kidnapping her, and spiriting her away from the convent. You can’t make that shit up.

Or can you? I took that seed of an idea and started working on my fourth novel: a paranormal thriller set in Italy in the 1400s and present day. This one is for the adult market. I have it on good authority that the adult historical fiction market is hot.

While I’ve been working on this novel I’ve built an acquaintance with a literary agent. He has been very kind and given me good advice.  I sent him my second novel at the end of October and he responded with delight. He is a great agent: he started as an editor and now has a cadre of talent all over the spectrum. He’s seen all sides of the industry and really knows his stuff.

I know there’s no guarantee he’s going to take me. It isn’t his job to take me on because he likes me. He has to love my writing. But I have the talent and the drive. If he doesn’t take me I’ll keep going until I find someone that will.

I will not give up.

So to go back to the beginning, what am I expecting of myself in 2020 and beyond? I’m going to say “fuck you” to the resolutions and keep doing what makes me happy. That is writing. And even if I never get anything published, I will have had a satisfactory career as a writer. Because I love it.

New Year, New Me?

It’s the second week of the new year and I was hoping for some magical transformation. Like I would suddenly be satisfied with my job and editors would start sending me acceptances for the short fiction pieces I’ve written and submitted in the past few months. Life would lighten and I would be able to breathe and look forward to the future.

In short, I was looking for a miracle.

It seems like so long since anything has gone right in my life that I am despairing a little that I will never catch a break. My mother has been gone for seven months now and Christmas was a bugger to get through. I did, and am relieved it is over. The day itself wasn’t as bad as the lead up to it. Everywhere I looked and saw the decorations and heard the music I would think of her and how much she loved it.

There are good things to look forward to. We will be moving into the condo we own at the end of March. That is going to save us a significant amount of money a year in rent. We’ll be able to pay off debt, and maybe even squeeze in a trip to Greece this September.

We are currently downsizing, as we are lopping off 550 square feet to our living space. Many books, furniture, old clothes and other odds and ends are going away. I am starting to feel lighter with the purging we have already done. Come March I want our place to be positively Spartan so when we move we will fit. That feels good.

But I feel like my writing career is dead. I’ve tried so hard, worked tirelessly, and it seems that the world doesn’t want to read my stories. I’m weary with the sting of rejection. But I love writing. So what do I do? Just write for myself and not try to pawn my words on anyone? Perhaps, but that makes me feel like a failure.

So there are good things and bad things happening. I suppose that is life. I just feel like I’ve been down so long that there is no climbing out of this well. When will I catch a break? I’m putting it out there: I want transformation. I will work hard for it if I just had a hint that something good was coming. Because I’m getting tired. I’m losing faith that everything will turn out all right.

Sorry to be such a downer. Life has been kicking me in the teeth and I don’t have many left. Maybe dentures are in order? At least I’d have my smile back.

Five Questions: Catherine Egan

Julia can be unseen. She has the ability to “step back” into a shadowy place that renders her invisible to most people. It comes in handy when one is a spy. And Julia has been sent to Mrs. Och’s house to find out who is locked in the basement and what they are doing there.

Julia and her brother Dek have been on their own since their father disappeared and their mother was drowned for being a witch. Spira City is a cutthroat place where you live and die by your wits, and fortunately Julia is more clever than most.

But when things take a turn for the unusual at Mrs. Och’s house Julia is faced with a conundrum–should she do her job as she has been paid to do, or listen to her conscience?

JULIA VANISHES and JULIA DEFIANT are the first two books in the Witch’s Child trilogy, and I devoured them both. Julia is such a complex and likable heroine–funny, warm, and yet a little more ruthless than is good for her. I loved watching her character develop through the course of these two books, and I am waiting rather impatiently for the third, which Catherine says is slated to be released June of 2018.

I can’t mention all the characters, but I will tell you there is one named Pia, who is frightening, strong, devilishly quick, and rather ruthless herself. Julia finds her repulsive and yet oddly magnetic, like a tragedy from which she can’t look away.

I can’t tell you enough how much I loved these two books. Julia is such a complex character, and I found myself swallowed whole by the story. I aspire to write books as thoroughly good as these.

Here are Catherine’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 don’t think I can pinpoint a single seed – every story is the result of a few seeds that manage to connect. I can identify three main “seeds” that turned into JULIA VANISHES.

The most obvious seed was just the idea – I don’t know from where, really – of a spy who can step out of sight, so she’s there but unseen, though not fully invisible either. Another seed was connecting this vanishing spy to the world-building of a failed book. I’d written close to two hundred pages of a book about witches before giving it up, but when I decided to write a spy story, I returned to that disaster of a half-written book for salvage. I pulled out the entire setting and a number of side characters, like the fanatical, witch-hunting prime minister, Agoston Horthy, the fiercely protective witch Bianka and her magical little boy, and my favorite character, Pia, a villain I knew I had to use somewhere.

The third seed was a kind of daydream-image of a girl in a nightgown creeping through a dark house, picking a lock, and entering a room full of books. That became my first chapter. Julia herself emerged as soon as I began to write, and pulled the whole story along after her.

I always imagine my stories will be fun, rollicking thrillers, and they always come out much darker than I intend. After a friend pointed out that most of my characters have lost either a parent or a child, I had to acknowledge that I plant my story-seeds in the ever-fertile soil of my worst nightmares.

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

I’m an outliner through and through. I can’t even start to write until I have a thorough, chapter-by-chapter outline. In the process of drafting, of course, I do diverge from my outline, but whenever that happens I panic and I have to stop and remake the outline to fit with the new direction the book is taking. This happens several times over the course of a couple of drafts, so maybe I’m really part pantser masquerading as an outliner. I do use my outline as kind of a crutch. I envy the faith and courage required to just leap into a story without a plan and see what you emerge with at the end.

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

Style is probably the hardest thing to trace back to particular influences, and also the hardest thing to change about one’s writing, I think. I desperately admire a kind of spare and flawless prose – think Kazuo Ishiguro – that I couldn’t dream of emulating.

I’m sure everything I read creeps into my writing one way or another, but when trying to think about influence, it’s easiest to think about late childhood / early teen reads, when I first began to think of writing as a craft. For the first time I wasn’t just absorbed by a good story – I was recognizing good writing.

The two books that leap to mind immediately are Louise Fitzhugh’s THE LONG SECRET, which was a revelation about writing complicated shades-of-grey characters, and how seeing a character from different perspectives changes everything (Harriet from HARRIET THE SPY is a central character, but she is mostly seen from Beth Ellen’s point of view), and Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, also a master class in character, voice, and giving the reader what they need instead of what they want.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

No! When my children were smaller I wrote with all kinds of noise in the background, but now I prefer silence whenever possible.

5. What are you reading right now?

I just finished THE BOOK OF DUST – for fans of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS, it doesn’t disappoint – and now I’m reading Carmen Maria Machado’s riveting short stories, HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES.

 

Catherine Egan is:

My books: JULIA DEFIANT, JULIA VANISHES, Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star
My blog: bycatherineegan.wordpress.com
My superpowers: high-kicking, list-making, simultaneously holding two opposing opinions
My weaknesses: fear of flying, over-thinking and then making bad decisions, excessive list-making
My allies: my made-for-walking-in black boots, Mick, the English Language
My enemies: decaf, low blood sugar, the passage of time
My mission: the coexistence of ambivalence and joy.

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.

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.