Category Archives: writing

A little from column A, a little from column B

And then I wrote it and I had nowhere else to put it except here, so here it is. It doesn’t have a title yet. Though it might be “Ariel, altered”.

—–

Looking up through the blue-green mirk, she could see sparkles on top of the water. The sun was shining up there, but down here it was chilly, dim, always. Whatever was up there didn’t concern her: her life was below. She had all day to do what needed to be done, but here she was rushing at the last minute. Her little boy would scold her, as only a serious four-year-old can, for not paying attention to her duties. He was off looking for shiny glass and pieces of metal dropped by those above, tossed away because they’re no longer needed, done with. Down here nothing is ever done with. It goes on. It stays until it’s nibbled or floated or rusted apart, but it’s still here, just in a different form.

Her heart was weighted, not bouyant like the little boy’s. He was the sort who would have bobbed up to the surface with sheer exuberance if biology had only let him. For her, meandering along the bottom was easy. She never said she was unhappy with her life, but she felt as if she’d come to the end of the new things, and she hadn’t done anything, and when would she ever?

Her long hair surged slowly around her head as she prepared the food, getting in her eyes. She didn’t have a spare hand to push it away, and it would only come back again anyway. No hair ties for mermaids. Even a braid was frowned upon, after a certain age. The man wouldn’t like it, though he didn’t like hairs floating around his dinner either. “You should have thought of that before you came down here and found me,” she said when he wrinkled his nose. So fastidious, she thought to herself. Men shouldn’t care that much about their food, they should just eat it and be grateful they didn’t have to catch it themselves.

She skewered the small fish with some sharp bones to keep them together, tied a wide ribbon of seaweed around the larger ones, and anchored the whole thing to the rock with a couple of round, white stones. “It’s ready,” she called out, but her words were whipped away by the current. She bobbed there peacefully, working at not minding. The food wouldn’t go cold. She flicked a hand at a curious catfish to keep him away. “Find your own, this is taken.” The small boy rushed down from the middle waters, grabbing a few mouthfuls and dashing off again. “Can’t you stay here a while and have a civilized meal with us?” she asked him. “What’s so urgent up there? Have you been snacking? You’ll ruin your appetite.” He was already gone.

She remembered playing with the shafts of sunlight at that age, watching the fry weave in and out, silver and black, silver and black. Flipping over and over with a friend, doubled up with giggles at the pure hilarity of life. He would take on the heaviness soon enough; let him have his fun now.

The man came, at last, neither fast nor slow. He asked about her day, he admired the dark greenness of the weed she’d found and the tiny sweet fish. He did all the right things, but her smile stuck in her throat. See me! she wanted to say. See me! Not the things I did, but the mermaid I am. See all the things I’m not doing because… because I can’t, because it’s too late or too far or too hard or because you won’t let me. He would be baffled. He would crease his forehead and ask what exactly he was stopping her from doing. He would ask how he could help, but she knew the fault wasn’t in him, it was somewhere else.

She ate the food. She listened to his story of work on the river delta. When he asked where the boy was, she motioned to the child tumbling happily in the warmer waters a little way off. They watched his lithe body, strong and fast, well proportioned and growing apace. They were pleased with him, in this moment.

She picked up one of the shiny pieces of metal the boy had collected. She knew it was sharp on one edge, because it had hurt his hand and they’d put it away in the cleft of a rock, carefully. She used it sometimes to cut seaweed, if they needed tough seaweed to bind something. She turned it this way and that, marveling at the rippling, ever-changing picture on the flat side that was some sort of a reflection of herself.

“Cut my hair,” she said suddenly to the man. She gathered her locks together at the nape of her neck, catching them with two hands spanned and then circling them securely in one thumb and forefinger, and gave him the knife. Do this thing for me, she thought, to show that you know who I am.

He took the blade and looked into her eyes. She nodded. “Do it. I want to be new.”

So he did.

IMG_9535

Story not story

I was trying to write something, but I wrote this instead.

————————

This is a story about a boy
Who finds a shiny thing
And it changes him.

This is a story about a girl
Who fights something
But it turns out to be herself.

This is a story about a man
Who wants to run away
But he can’t escape from himself.

This is a story about a woman
Who sublimates her rage into cooking food for her family every night
But eventually she cracks. (Like an egg.)

This is a story about a place
Where the people are free
Or maybe they just think they are.

This is a story.

This is a story about a time
When nobody had love
But time passed and things got better.

This is a story about the sea
Because I like the sea.

Creativity calling

Writing is addictive.

I put words together, one after the other, flowing through my fingertips and blossoming as if by magic on the screen. I think it, and lo! it appears. If I don’t like it, I can make it go away as easily as it came.

More than that, I can bring a story out of nowhere and set it on the page as if it has every right to be there, to be read by people, to be set free and fly into the world. I don’t know where the story comes from, most of the time; but if I keep typing, something unexpected will make an appearance. I can bend this way or that, leaning into a curve, trying to steer the story, but sometimes it doesn’t want to go there. Sometimes it just stops, it wants to get off. Sometimes I have to pull the cord of the coughing outboard engine a few times, or over and over, until we’re off and chugging again.

And when it’s done, if it’s ever done, it’s a whole thing where there used to be nothing at all. It’s creation. It’s a thing that I made.

I think I’ll make another.

Collectable

Maybe a blog post will help me collect my thoughts. They’re a bit scattered at the moment. They come under three main headings:

Physics

I don’t usually think much about physics, though I am grateful to it for providing my family’s income, but today there’s a big announcement from an NSF-funded collaboration called LIGO telling everyone that gravitational waves have been detected for the first time. I know a tiny bit about this because this is exactly my husband’s field, though he (sadly) didn’t work on this stuff himself. But we know lots of people who did, and it’s fun watching them have their long-awaited moment just now.

Skiing

At the start of 2015 I said that taking the kids skiing was something on my wishlist for the year, along with fixing our shower and going to New York. Well, miracles do happen and we fixed our shower up beautifully last August, and we went to NYC twice, and now, finally, we are about to go skiing. A few weeks ago I got all proactive and booked two nights at Liberty Mountain in Pennsylvania, about two hours’ drive from here, as well as a private ski lesson for the kids with us in attendance, so we can start them off right. (B and I have both skied a little, though not for years.) I was delighted with myself for using a Friday off school to get the nights I wanted, and crossed my fingers that the weather would cooperate.

Well, there’s no snowstorm forecast for this weekend, so in that sense I suppose the weather didn’t entirely shaft us. But in other ways my timing was serendipitously awful. Both school districts (now that we’re in two) decided to have school this Friday after all, to start making up for the week that was missed due to snow, so now I have to take the kids out of school for it. (We won’t be the only ones absent, I’m sure.) Valentine’s parties that were meant to happen today will happen tomorrow instead, and they’ll miss them. Dash will miss his vision therapy session today, because we weren’t doing VT when I booked this. And Mabel was very annoyed about missing her ceramics class on Saturday morning, because she loves ceramics and she is suspicious of skiing, which she’s never tried.

Finally, the weather forecast is not for snow but for extremely cold temperatures on Saturday. I decided nobody would want to slide down a mountain on two planks in a possible high of about 14F (before windchill) – that’s minus 10 C at the warmest – so I cancelled the second night at the hotel and the second day of skiing. It will be cold tomorrow too, but hopefully not so cold that we don’t get in some more time on the slopes after the one-hour lesson is over.

And of course, B has to rush away from work early, today of all days, when they’re all congratulating themselves on what great sciencers they are and having cake and partying it up in their novelty physics ties and their socks and sandals.*

Silver lining: Mabel gets to go to ceramics after all. Here’s hoping it makes up for the dental appointment we have scheduled for Monday, when she gets yet another crown. Worst teeth ever.

Book

The final thing that’s got me not settling down to anything today is that I heard back from the agent I’d sent the new-and-improved version of my book to back in October. It had taken so long that I knew nothing wonderful was going to happen, so I wasn’t surprised when she said no, but it was a very nice no. Basically she said she likes it a lot but she can’t take it on right now because she’s too busy, and she gave me some suggestions of people I should send it to. She said nice things like “charming” and “delightful” and “I hope to see it in print some day soon.”

So do I, y’know.

So now I have to gird my loins and write a better 500-word synopsis and send it out again into the world, and a colder and less cosily familiar world at that. The realm of Irish publishing is very small – and it’s a very Irish book, so I think it has to start there – which means there aren’t that many options for places it can go, and I’ve exhausted all the personal contacts I have. I’m trying some UK agents too, but without luck so far.

So that’s where I am. Photos of smiling children on skis to come, I hope. Or news that we broke our legs.

 

* They don’t really wear socks with sandals. Hardly any of them do. I just like to tease him about it.

Maximum hope

I am at the point of maximum hopefulness. The zenith of expectancy. I did what I could and sent it on its merry way, and it’s too early to think I should be hearing back yet, and much too early to despair that I never will, so I can indulge in daydreams of success and affirmation with nary a niggle. In short, I think I’m great.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you can do so much with letters on a page, if you get them in the right order. If I do it right, I should be able to smudge out a background with wide brushstrokes and then fill in tiny details with a sharpened pencil. I want to evoke emotions, spark memories, coax a grin of recognition or maybe even bring a lump to your throat. I want to set you on tenterhooks and swoop you back off them; to bring you on a ride you were planning for, and then turf you out exactly where you didn’t think we were going, but get you home again safely in the end.

The best books leave me with a feeling, a sense of time and place and people, that lingers in my heart long after I’ve forgotten the details of what actually happened. Or they give me a sentence or a phrase or a tiny snippet that worms its way into my brain and stays with me, that I take out and look at every now and then, and remember, or don’t, where I got it from, but that I never lose.

If I can write something that does that for someone, I’ll consider my aim achieved.

Peak optimism, remember.

The next draft

The first draft is like the first pancake. Have I said that before? The first pancake (and maybe this only applies to crêpe-like pancakes, not fat American ones) is made to be discarded. You have to make it, you can’t skip straight to the second, but it’s never any good. You know that from the start, so you don’t resent it. It’s just part of the process.

No matter how much I wanted the first draft of the book to be the book, it wasn’t the book. It wasn’t even the bones of the book. It was the canvas of the book, maybe, the background. I knew nothing in particular happened, but I thought a sequence of lots of little things happening would knit together into a book.

They didn’t, though. The agent was very nice, but she said that while she liked the characters and the setting and the writing, my story lacked a story. And I couldn’t argue and send it off to someone else who would see things differently because I knew that she was right.

It was the first pancake. It had to be done, but it wasn’t for public consumption.

Because I am a contrary sort, though, I didn’t just chuck it and start afresh on pancake number two. This was in large part because I’d already written most of pancake number two by the time I heard back from the agent, and pancake number two was a sequel to pancake number one. It couldn’t stand alone, and I felt that it was good enough that I didn’t want it to fall by the wayside.

So over the summer I hatched a plan to rescue pancake number one. I came up with a plot that could be applied to the book I had, once I’d thrown out all the parts that didn’t fit it. This is a bass-ackwards way to do anything and I don’t know yet if it’s going to work or if the pancake is just irredeemable.

I’ve been stitching the plot bits into the surrounding bits since the kids went back to school. It’s going … okay, I think. It’s hard for me to tell. When I think about the book as a whole, it feels like a sheet on a lumpy bed that I need to smooth over. I want to put a nice blurry filter over the whole thing so that it fits together neatly and the seams aren’t visible. I want it to flow, but I’m not sure if that’s possible when the plot has been retrofitted into the whole.

I’m not going to spend months and months more on this. I’m going to finish it up in the next couple of weeks, hopefully, and make it good enough to be proud of. And then I’ll send it back to that agent and maybe some others too.

And then I’ll start on pancake number three. The third pancake is usually a good one.

Lizard brain

The kids are at school, the book sale is over, there’s nothing standing between me and that novel I’m going to get right this time. Nothing except me, that is.

Here I am, first thing in the morning – first thing after I’ve got whichever child is my turn to school and maybe taken some exercise and then had a shower, I mean – sitting down to my computer. I have to make sure nothing vital is in my e-mail – dash off some replies on PTA-related matters – and then take a quick look at Facebook in case anyone has done something exciting since I ate breakfast.

I really should start working. I quickly click on the big W in my sidebar to open Word; if I do it fast enough I can con myself into thinking it’s nothing important, and then it won’t scare me away.

Word is open under my browser. I know it’s there, lurking. I’ll nip over and open up the document I was working on yesterday. It took me a while to find it, as I hadn’t been near it since June. Finding it was most of the work I did yesterday, actually. I’m easing myself back in gently, you see.

But I’ll pop back to Facebook while it opens, because this computer is terribly slow. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the thousands of photos I keep here, because they take up hardly any space at all. It’s not my fault you can’t ever really delete anything from iPhoto, no matter how hard you try.

I’m going to have to look at the document, aren’t I? But wait, maybe there’s something else I’m forgetting to do in my e-mail first. I should check the headlines. And the weather. And pay my credit card bill.

If I write 1000 words in good time, I can go to Target before I have to pick anyone up from school. There might be nice shoes in Marshall’s. I might need new shoes.

Sold. Here we go.

Faith

I really feel like I have the work/life balance thing down nicely right now. I aim to write 1000 words a day. Once I get there, the rest of the time is my own. This works much better for me than aiming to write for a set amount of time, or a set period, in the day, because sometimes I faff about for the first five hours of my time and pound out 999 words in the last hour before I have to pick the kids up.

Other days I get all those words out before midday and don’t know what to do with myself. Other days, I have to do the shopping and the laundry and chaperone a field trip and write up the PTA meeting minutes and so my 1000 words are more like 200, but the important thing is that most weekdays I do manage to get it done. On those days, I have a really nice feeling of accomplishment: I’ve furthered the plot, I’ve probably come up with some nice new things I hadn’t even thought of before, and there are more little black marks on paper heading towards the magic number of 45,000 or so. (That’s about right for a middle-grade book, apparently.) I need to finish this first draft of the second book – it’s going to be a trilogy, it appears – before the school summer break because I won’t get anything done once the kids are off.

Of course, I’m missing a vital part that would take this from ideal imaginary career to ideal actual career: right now nobody is paying me to do this.

The beta-readers’ reports on the first book were good. Everyone who read it loved it, or at least liked it enough to want to read a second one, if one were to appear. A couple of them didn’t get around to reading it, but I won’t hold that against them: ten-year-old girls are pretty busy. I laid my heart on the line by sending them my words, and they returned it with interest. I was, as you can imagine, happy. Bolstered, emboldened.

I’m still waiting to hear from the agent I sent it (part thereof, as requested) to. I know she got it. I fear her silence is a bad sign, but on the other hand, an e-mail saying “thanks, but no thanks” is an actual bad sign, and I haven’t had one of those, so I refuse to despair. Yet. Maybe I should send it to other agents. Maybe I should American it up* and try agents over here, but I don’t want to do that yet.

*I would have to go through the whole thing and change the spelling and punctuation to American, and decide whether to bowdlerise the vernacular or not, or create a glossary, or something. And I think it’s for an Irish audience. Time enough to conquer America later.

Dash is my champion. He hasn’t read the book, or heard it, because frankly it’s for girls, and Irish girls at that; but his faith in me is strong. He wrote a poem about me and read it aloud at the school’s mother’s day assembly. It’s in diamante form, and it goes like this:

Editor
Sure, precise
Checking, perfecting, reviewing
Writing, reading, words, changing,
Creating, flowing, knowing
Expressive, planned
Writer

Without even stopping to admire his wordcraft (which I do, a lot), it’s more perfect than he could possibly understand. It’s not just what he knows I do when he’s at school; it’s the progression from one to the other that I’m experiencing with every new day that I churn out my thousand words. I sit back with the glow of something new excavated, carved out, that I never knew was inside me, and I think, “I can do this; and I think I can do it tomorrow and the next day and for a lot of days to come. I think I’m finally here.”

I want it to be true. It is true. Maybe it’s just needy to seek the validation of external approval, but mostly it’s because I want this to be my job; and until I see a paycheque, it’s just a very nice hobby for a stay-at-home mom who should probably be doing something more practical instead.

A different shade of green

I knew it was time to start trying for the second baby when I was consumed with envy every time I saw a pregnant woman. I didn’t have normal nice “ah, look, isn’t that lovely” feelings about other people’s bumps. I had indignant, self-righteous “I could do that too, you know” feelings instead. “I’d be just as pregnant as she was, if I’d started four months earlier” feelings. There was nothing else for it but to take the plunge and throw away the condoms.

It’s sort of the same with books. Lately, every now and then, it turns out someone I know has written a book. And instead of being admiring in a detached way, the way I am when a friend paints a beautiful picture or has a business success, I take it as a personal affront because I have not (yet) done this. But I totally could if I wanted. Maybe.

It’s time to put my money (that is, my pride) where my mouth is and find out.

Right now, there are seven ten-year-old girls in Ireland who are reading words I put on a page. Lots of pages. They are my team of beta readers, and I love them very much, though if they don’t like the book they’ll have to be replaced by some others. Of course, I can’t expect to please all of the people all of the time, and I’m perfectly fine with the idea that some of them just won’t love it (sob) but I would be indescribably delighted if some others of them did. They don’t know me, so they have no reason to want to please me, so I’m hoping their feedback will be unvarnished in its candour.

I haven’t even asked more than a couple of my friends to read it, because much as I value their input, they’re not the target audience. If the ten-year-old girls, generally speaking, are not positive, then I need to go back to the drawing board.

I’m only telling you this because so far, reports are good. But anything can happen between the start of a book and the end of it, in terms of reader experience. It can fail to hold your interest. It can get tedious, or annoying, or go in a direction you weren’t expecting and don’t like. Or everything can be going along decently until the end, when you might feel cheated, or disappointed, or hoodwinked, or bamboozled. It might fail to tie up loose ends. It might stop short, or drag on too long. It might just leave you with a nasty taste in your mouth for a reason that you can’t quite articulate.

But on the whole, I’d prefer any of those complaints to a general sort of “just didn’t really get into it” response. I can fix the story. But my writing is my writing, and sending that out into the big wide world, even to seven ten-year-olds I don’t know, is my biggest leap of faith right there.

So I’ll let you know how that goes.

Writing it down

I’ve been guest posting at the new Irish website HerFamily.ie this week – I had a piece there on Monday, Wednesday, and today. They “soft-launch”-ed last week and are having their official launch this week, so I was quite chuffed to be asked to do it.

So that’s why so quiet over here, I mean. The posts over there are new, not published anywhere else, so if you want to read them, please do head on over.

Other than that, I don’t have any editing to do at the moment so I’m trying to write. Like actually as if it were my job, which sadly it’s not, and the trouble with trying to write something as ambitious as a whole – go on, say it – book – is that it’s a front-loaded activity. Nobody pays you until right at the end, years after the end, if you’re very very lucky. Otherwise it’s just a hobby that makes you feel good until you get to all the rejection and then it makes you feel stupid because you wasted all that time.

So I can’t look at it that way. I have to look at it as just putting the words on the page: that’s all I have to do. Just keep moving my fingers until I reach the magic number (which at the moment is 1000 a day, heading for about 60,000 altogether, because this is a sort of tween fiction thing, which doesn’t need to be as long as an adult novel). (Tween fiction, you say, surprised. I didn’t peg you for that, Maud. I’m a little disappointed, Maud. Well, yes, that’s as may be, but this is what grew and this is how it is. I don’t really know who I’m writing for, I’m just writing this story that nuzzled its way out of me, and I’m trying to keep up the momentum.) I’m not the sort of person who says “I have a million ideas!” I mostly have no ideas at all, in spite of all the blathering away I do here and elsewhere, whenever anyone will have me. Give me a writing prompt and I’ll happily spout out some paragraphs, but ask me to make up something from inside my head and you’ll be met with silence. Just ask my children; Daddy makes up good stories, I don’t.

But Daddy, unaccountably, doesn’t seem to want to write stuff down. I don’t understand that, but there you go, apparently some people don’t feel the need to channel everything in their brain onto pages.

And so, when I have a seedling of a notion of a sentence out of nowhere that worms its way into my mind and wants to be written down, which happens once in a blue moon, it gets written down and maybe, just maybe, turned into a short story. And then there was this one short story that I let someone else read, someone who knows about writing, and she said it was good and that I should write more of it. So first I spent a long time mourning the perfect short story that I thought had a lovely beginning middle and end and shouldn’t ever be touched, and I bade goodbye to the unthought, undecided future that I liked so much about it, and then I started writing more. Because, see, as soon as I’ve written it down, then it’s happened, and I can go back and change it but most likely it’ll stay happened, and then the infinity of possibilities are narrowed down to one. Just like life, as your future becomes your present becomes your past.

So I am totally making it up as I go along, and like the Oompa Loompas, I have no idea where it’s going. It has certainly been a long time on the knitting needles of my computer, if I can mix my metaphors, and has a good long time to go; but maybe some day it will get there and I can move one step closer to the fun rejection portion of when you write a book.

But I will have put that many words down, and that will be something. For now, that’s as far ahead as I should look.