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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Still Life with Turkey Pie - 1627 - by Pieter ClaeszThe other day I realized I hadn’t updated the blog in over a year. Partly it’s because I wanted to focus on writing books rather than blog posts. But this being the holiday time of year, I figure a blog post can function a bit like the traditional annual Christmas letter to sum up my life for the people I don’t otherwise keep in touch with as well as I should.

Life for me still largely revolves around writing, and this has been a pretty productive year on the writing front. Two posts ago I mentioned that I had finished a historical novel (the third novel I’d written) set in France in the late 1850s. In the Fall of 2011 I queried a small number of agents on it, mostly to stick my foot in the water and get a sense of how much interest there might be in it. A couple of agents asked to see the manuscript, and one liked it but sent me five pages of editorial notes on changes she wanted to see. This was encouraging but also helped me see that there was a lot more work to be done. I had in the meantime started on a new manuscript (novel #4) that I was thinking would be a contemporary comic novel in the style of Christopher Buckley, with Mormons and spies in it. But I wasn’t very happy with how it was going, and it was dawning on me that I was not Christopher Buckley, so I set that one aside. I went back and spent about 6 months rewriting the historical novel, aka Novel #3.

In the spring I sent the revised version of Novel #3 to the agent who’d been interested in it. In the meantime she’d gotten very busy, and so while I waited for her to read it and get back to me, I started on a new book idea, which I’ll call novel #5. As the months dragged on with no answer on Novel #3, I kept thinking I should start querying other agents on Novel #3, but was crazy busy at that point myself, between working full-time, trying to keep my daughter entertained, trying to keep our apartment mostly free of health-code violations, and squeezing in writing time wherever I could, to keep up the momentum on Novel #5. So I didn’t get around to querying anyone until about a month ago. To my surprise, I’ve gotten a much stronger response than I ever have before on a book. I don’t want to get anyone’s vicarious hopes up, but I have sent out some partial and full manuscripts to some pretty good agents. What’s next? If you guessed “a lot more waiting for responses,” a gold star for you!

Meanwhile, I’m about 26,000 words into the first rough draft of Novel #5. It’s going to be another historical novel, but this time set in the ancient world, in the time of Christ, about the life of Judas Iscariot. Credit for the initial idea goes to my boyfriend, who is also a writer and is nice enough to let me steal his ideas. Apart from being a wonderful person, he has more cool story ideas in a morning than most people could come up with in a decade. One major challenge with this book, however, is that the historical research is so much fun, I keep just wanting to read and read and read instead of getting down to writing.

Also, I’ve signed up to go to my first ever full-blown writers conference! It’s in New York City in December, and is sure to be an adventure.

On the publishing front, it’s been a busy year as well – through my little micropublishing imprint, Strange Violin Editions, I’ve published Steve Peck’s novella A Short Stay in Hell as well as a nonfiction book by two former-Mormon sociologists of religion, Ryan Cragun and Rick Phillips, called Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion. (Spoiler: They don’t tell you who to vote for in the end.) And I’ve committed to publish one more book, a novel by Eric Jepson called Byuck, which is coming out shortly … in fact, writing this blog post handily allows me to procrastinate on some work I should be doing for it right now!

But the biggest news of all is on the personal front: My daughter is now in kindergarten! Yes, she is a big sophisticated school-ager now. She has definitely enjoyed the increased prestige. But the actual going to school? Not so much. I can’t say I blame her, because I never really liked school either. Luckily she only has seventeen more years to go!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here’s hoping yours is wonderful and food-filled!

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Best American Essays 2011My essay “Farzad, Son of Glory,” is on the list of Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2011! This is pretty exciting, because when I started with creative writing a few years ago, that was a goal I had in mind for some misty far-off future era when I’d have toiled long and hard in the salt mines of literary exertion. I clearly have lots more toiling and literary exerting to do, but still, there’s nothing like having a dream come true.

The essay was originally published in Bayou Magazine (from the University of New Orleans), Issue 53, in summer 2010.

You can read the essay here.

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Concussion mechancis

Concussion Mechanics, by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been an eventful spring and summer in some ways, so I thought I’d do another catch-up post.

May: Concussion

In mid-May I had an odd experience. I was coming home from a dinner with friends at restaurant downtown around 11:00 at night, and took the American University shuttle bus from the Tenleytown metro station, which lets off near my apartment building so that I only have a 5-10 minute walk from the campus. The last thing I remember was getting off the bus, before waking up with everything dark, hearing voices over me:

“Was she assaulted?”

[muffled response]

“Okay,” says a voice near my head, “we’re just going to stitch you up. This might sting a bit.” The cold bite of a needle in my forehead, not painful, but cold. I open my eyes. The needle was just an anesthetic; now the actual stitching happens. It feels like something tugging at the skin on one side of my forehead.

“Where am I?” I ask, as the tugging stops and I hear the snip of scissors cutting the thread.

“You’re at George Washington University Hospital.”

“How did I get here?”

“An ambulance brought you.”

I mull over this and realize yes, I am lying in what appears to be a hospital bed, in a hospital gown. There are IV lines in my wrists. I put a hand to my head and feel that my hair is oddly matted and crunchy. It turns out I am covered with blood; my hair is saturated with it. The hospital bedlinens are also covered with it.

“What happened?” I ask. In retrospect I’m not sure why I was so calm, but nothing really bothered me too much about the situation at the time.

“We were hoping you could tell us that. You were found in the street on Nebraska Avenue. You got a pretty big bump on your head.”

It’s about two in the morning, I learn, and nobody knows exactly what happened to me. A night nurse tells me she saw my police report, which says that some witnesses found me on the ground and saw me throw up. I have a concussion and severe bruising on my knees and on the back of my left lower leg. Apparently when the ambulance came I was talking and moving around, but I couldn’t remember anything about myself to tell the ambulance workers other than my name and where I worked. I have no memory of any of this.

I still had all my clothes on and nothing had been stolen, so it appears the answer to that first question was no, I hadn’t been assaulted. Later I would formulate the theory that I’d been run over by a bicyclist or a moped, because of the bruises on the back of my left calf. They were too low to be from a car, but something had definitely run over me. I think a bike or something similar must have been coming up from behind as I got off the bus, and didn’t see me until it was too late. I still don’t know if it was the person who hit me who called the ambulance, or if it was a hit and run. I still don’t really know much at all about what happened.

They kept me in the hospital for two days. Whenever I stood up I was dizzy, and my bruises hurt a lot. I managed to rinse some of the blood out of my hair, but couldn’t really shower, and felt pretty gross. A handful of friends came to visit. When I was finally allowed to leave, I had to call someone to drive me home. The nurse gave me a bag with all my things in it. I tried to put my clothes on that I’d been wearing the night of the accident, but they’d all been cut up by the emergency room staff. They were soaked with blood and vomit and smelled horrible, so I threw them in the trash. A guy I’d gone on a couple of dates with, who’d come to visit me in the hospital and had brought me flowers and read to me for an hour, also bought me underpants from the hospital gift store – they were Hanes and they were huge granny undies that came up to my belly button. He was very embarrassed, but I appreciated having underwear. We are still dating.

My friend Tanya picked me up from the hospital and brought me some of her old clothes to wear, and drove me home (did I mention Tanya is a wonderful person? Check out her blog, and you’ll see what I mean.)

So that was kind of an adventure. In all I missed three days of work, and was dizzy for a week or two. Apart from the hospital bills, that was the worst of it. It could have been worse, and I feel pretty lucky, considering.

June: Novel #3

In June I finished the first draft of my third novel. It’s called What They Sought in the Sea, and is about a girl who washes up bruised and naked on the shore of a fishing village in Northern France in the 1850s. A local family takes in her, and they and their neighbors find their lives disrupted as they try to solve the mystery of the girl’s origins.

I’ve been revising the book since June and have gotten some good feedback from beta readers. I’ll be querying (more) agents on it soon.

July: Foray into Self-Publishing

A Lost ArgumentIn July I started to work on self-publishing my second novel, A Lost Argument, since despite a number of promising leads in the end I’d been unable to find an agent for it and didn’t have much hope for finding a publisher without an agent. In researching self-publishing, I gradually started to realize that with all the work that went into it, I could almost as easily set up my own press for publishing other people’s books.

The idea was kind of appealing to me, because as I’d tried to find a publisher for my book, I’d had some discussions with other former-Mormon writers who wrote about Mormonism. There are a lot of very talented people out there writing about their experiences in and out of the Church, but it’s hard to find a publisher because Mormons, let alone ex/post/former/alumni Mormons, are something of a niche audience. If you’re writing faith-affirming stuff, there’s always the chance of getting picked up by one of the handful of Mormon publishers: Deseret, Covenant, or even brave little Zarahemla Books (go them!) And every now and then you get the rare breakout book that catches the attention of mainstream publishers, like Elna Baker’s  New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, or Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints. But for the most part, ex/post/former/alumni Mormon writers are on their own. If I started my own press, though (I thought), I could maybe do my own little part towards finally giving that niche audience a home for those writers’ books.

And so I kept on researching …

August: Publication (and Novel #4)

And in August I registered my own publishing imprint, Strange Violin Editions, with the United States ISBN agency (Bowker) and bought a ten-pack of ISBN numbers. I bought the website domain name, and put in a registration with the Library of Congress so that in the future I’d be able to get cataloging-in-publication data for the books I published. And I published my novel as an e-book through Smashwords.com under the Strange Violin Editions imprint. Whoo-hoo! Next came the Kindle Edition on Amazon. Then I dove headfirst into the arcane world of print book design and formatting and immersed myself in the geeky details of typography, and finally uploaded the files for a paperback version on Amazon.

I also started a new novel, which will be my fourth. I haven’t picked a title yet, but it’s going to be a comic novel (a la Christopher Buckley, hopefully) about a high-ranking Mormon Church leader gone bad who’s secretly working to undermine the Church. When he takes a ditzy young artist for a mistress, the two get caught up in international intrigue and espionage. It’s going to be seriously fun to write, I think.

September: Introducing Strange Violin Editions!

That paperback version is finally available for sale. And I put together the Strange Violin Editions website. I’ll be sending around a formal call for submissions at some point, but the online submissions manager is already set up and ready to go, which means folks can start submitting now. And last week, I sent out a book contract to my very first author, Steven L. Peck (well, my first author other than me, that is!) It’s all coming together. Pretty exciting!

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Hotel AmerikaI have a new essay out, published in the latest issue of a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika, which is run by Columbia College in Chicago. The essay is called “A Surefire Recipe for Unassailable Faith, Involving Four Judgments and a Vegetable Analogy.” In it, I give my own homecooked recipe for getting faith and intellectual integrity to cohere. This one is pretty short and easy reading (relative to the last essay I had published, if you were one of the two people who tried to read through that one). Just four pages of literary-philosophic-culinary musings.

Incidentally, this shows what a long, long time it takes to get something published. When I wrote this a couple of years ago, I was still a housewife who spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Now I’m a divorced working single mom who, alas, rarely sees the kitchen.

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Jabberwock Review

I have a new print publication out in Jabberwock Review, a literary magazine published by Mississippi State University. It’s a nonfiction essay called “The Economy of Souls.” It’s kind of a long essay, so I will make cookies for anyone who manages to read the whole thing. There will be a quiz afterward. Enjoy!

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Steampunk Butterfly Pendant with Vintage Watch Movement

Steampunk Butterfly Pendant with Vintage Watch Movement, from The Blue Carbuncle (www.thebluecarbuncle.com)

My first print publication in a literary journal is out (my previous publications were both in online journals). This one is a nonfiction essay called “Farzad, Son of Glory,” and appears in the 2010 edition of Bayou, a literary journal published by the University of New Orleans. (Support the cause of literature by buying a hard copy here.)

For now, though, you can read it online in PDF format by clicking here. (Sorry, the quality of the scan isn’t the best.)

As for me, I’ve been in my new full-time job now for three weeks, and while the job is great (as is having a job tout court), it’s been very busy. I landed on a team that was right in the middle of field work, which is always a time of crazy-busyness and hecticity (no, that’s not really a word, I just made it up). Besides that, I have a horrible commute that involves dropping my daughter off at a daycare in the opposite direction of the metro, then retracing my route and driving like a maniac to get to the metro in time to catch the 7:50 train downtown, running at top speed on foot from metro to work, and then repeating the whole thing in reverse at the end of the day. I get up at 6am, get home at 6:30pm, and just have time to feed Amandine dinner, bathe her, and put her in her pajamas before she conks out, c. 8pm. At which point I’m a vegetable and incapable of any further brain functioning, and soon thereafter am also asleep.

I expect things to ease up a bit starting next month though, because Amandine will be starting in a new daycare in the building where I work, so my commute will be shorter, and we can go downtown together, which means I get 2 and 1/2 more hours a day with her, and that’s a lot. And fieldwork will be mostly done and we’ll be into report-writing, which is also grueling, but in a less tightly-scheduled way. So hopefully I can write more regularly then—I have a new novel that I’ve been trying to start, but it’s hard to get much writing done when one regularly metamorphoses into a brainless vegetable every night after one’s toddler is in bed.

Lastly, I wanted to give a shout-out to a friend who I recently found out makes amazing steampunk jewelry out of old clocks and sells it on Etsy. Check out her shop – it’s called The Blue Carbuncle (in clever reference to a Sherlock Holmes story!)

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Moonshine

Moonshine, via Mark Oldman (http://www.markoldman.com/)

(Quick announcement first: I’ve added a new section on Mormon-interest books to my “Recommended” page, in case anyone’s interested.)

So, the weekend before last, Amandine and I drove down to Knoxville, TN, so she could spend some time with her dad. The drive was long (8 1/2 hours), but I dulled the pain somewhat with one of those portable DVD players you hook on to the back of the passenger seat, so Amandine could watch videos. (Her hands-down favorites: Barbie in The 12 Dancing Princesses and Angelina Ballerina.)

Once I dropped Amandine off at her dad’s Friday night, though, heaven awaited: a weekend all to myself, my first since Amandine was born nearly three years ago. (Amandine seemed pretty excited about it too. She was all: “Okay, Mommy, you can go now.”) I stayed at the St. Oliver Hotel in downtown Knoxville, right on Market Square. It was pretty close to my ideal as far as hotels go: historic, with charm and character, clean, cozy without being kitschy, and not too expensive. All the rooms were furnished with antiques, but there was no chintz and lace like in some stuffy Victorian B&B (the kind I never get to stay in, because they tend to be child-hostile)—instead it just looked cool and chic. And my room had real wood floors, even in the bathroom!

Saturday was a nearly perfect day. I slept well, woke up early, got dressed, and went downstairs to the library room, where the hotel had free wi-fi, to check my e-mail. After that I stepped outside, and market day on the square was already booming, with farmers and artisans setting up their stands. I wasn’t hungry for breakfast, and the coffee shop wasn’t open yet, so I sat on a park bench and people-watched in between working on novel revisions. Then I found I was hungry after all, so I went and had flapjacks at Trio Cafe, which were very good (if only they used real maple syrup, though; my Canadian connections have spoiled me for the fake stuff. I had to make up for it by smearing the pancakes with a whole ball of butter …).

Next stop was Coffee & Chocolate for a chai latte, more people-watching, and more work on novel revisions until the early afternoon, by which point I was hungry again. Then to Tomato Head for a nutritious and fortifying lunch of carrot soup and chorizo-avocado enchilada. After that I was in a bit of a food coma, so I went back to the hotel for a short nap.

Through the afternoon heat and into the early evening I stayed in my hotel room and had a particularly successful revising session. I finally managed to rewrite a scene that almost every one of my critiquers had said was a missed opportunity, and which I had felt intimidated about attacking.

It’s a peculiar sort of pleasure, but a genuine one, to spend almost an entire day in the company of  one’s own imaginary novel characters. A bit like being around a group of delightfully well-behaved children who go around saying one absurd, adorable thing after another—at least, when your characters are clever likeable people rather than, say, depraved evil villains.

At 7:30pm I had a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants in the whole country, RouXbarb,* headed up by chef Bruce Bogartz. (Other favorite restaurants: Buck’s Fishing & Camping in DC and Boulevard in San Francisco. All three of these I’ve liked better than wd-50 in New York.) Since I was eating solo, I was seated at the “chef’s table,” which is sort of like bar seating, but in a u-shape so it’s easier to talk to other people. Being a shy yet sociable sort of person, I appreciated this setup. At one point, back when I was single the first time around, I trained myself to enjoy eating in restaurants by myself. Since then, I’ve known I can always do fine with my own little table and a book, and as often as not I end up in conversations with people at other tables anyway. But the chef’s table was still a nice accommodation—sort of the restaurant equivalent of a youth hostel atmosphere.

I had the chicken liver appetizer, the watermelon salad, the scallops, and the white-chocolate banana pudding. Everything was amazing, especially the chicken livers, which were sumptuously crispy and perfectly complemented by the sweet-tart tomato jam and cheesy grits. It’s a BYOB place, and I hadn’t thought to bring anything to drink, so the bartendress poured me a glass of house red, looking sorry that I wasn’t getting anything better. Then some of the other people at the chef’s table invited me to share a glass of some really nice wine they had brought, and the bartendress was greatly relieved.

Meanwhile, Chef Bruce kept leaning over from his post in the kitchen, greeting new guests, teasing and hassling the regulars (of which there were many), and making colorful remarks. Upon learning why I’d come to Knoxville, he declared I ought to be drinking moonshine. I laughed it off, but later in the evening a mason jar was set down on the counter in front of me, containing a clear, cold liquid, alongside a couple of chilled shot glasses.

“We don’t have a liquor license, so you’ll have to pour it yourself,” I was told.

Intrigued, I screwed off the lid of the mason jar and poured myself a shot. I asked my newfound friends at the table for advice as to whether I was supposed to sip it or just knock it back. The consensus opinion was that I should take a sip first so I’d know what I was getting into, and then knock it  back. So I took a sip, and ended up sipping all of it, because it was actually not bad-tasting at all. It was the sort of drink that wakes you up, too, instead of making you feel sleepy, so fortunately it gave me renewed energy for tackling my banana pudding.

No longer a moonshine virgin, I came back to the hotel, read a few chapters of a book (Allison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, which I picked up randomly in a used bookstore and ended up enjoying a lot), and went to sleep.

Sunday afternoon I went to pick up Amandine from her dad’s house and heard about her many adventures, which included making cookies, swimming, drawing, and playing with power tools, apparently.  Then we headed back to DC. So it was a short trip, but a successful one all around.

In moonshine’s honor, I leave you with this nostalgic video to contemplate:

*I wrote a fuller review of RouXbarb a couple of years ago on TripAdvisor, after the first time I went there (it’s the one entitled “So good it made me want to do backflips”).

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