How to pack for Camp

Camp NaNoWriMo starts Monday which, incidentally, is also the day I become a parent of a teenager.

I can’t decide if I should be stocking up on coffee or vodka.

This April marks my fourth time doing Camp NaNoWriMo, which is a relaxed version of the National Novel Writing Month that takes place every November. You set your own writing goals, and I learned the hard way that they better be realistic or I’m a barrel of disappointment by the time I reach the end of the month.

Writing camp takes preparation, much like regular camping. The first time I tried it, I was woefully unprepared. It was a disaster, much like the first time hubs and I went camping and realized we were missing about half the things one needs to survive a weekend in the woods.

My life is a bit crazy. But recently I decided that if I am going to be a successful writer, I need to look at it more like a second job rather than a hobby. Something I commit to. Solid, productive writing. Not opening a word document, staring at it for a while, then wandering the Internet. The problem? I’ve been frustrated with my current project and afraid to wander back into the novel I shelved last year after a round of query rejections. I needed to get out of my head and let the words flow. But how?

While writing SECOND IN COMMAND, I had tight deadlines, which was extremely motivating. So the first thing I did was look at my calendar and give myself an end date. The annual PennWriters conference is mid-May, and I signed up for pitch appointments. Which means I need to have a project to pitch. A finished project.

Step One: Set a deadline for writing project. Commit to focusing on that project ONLY.

I printed out a March-April calendar, looked at it alongside our life calendar, and circled days I would be able to write. I think one of the obstacles facing writers who also work, raise children, take care of households, etc, is that we feel guilty carving out time for writing. But writing is important. Even if it pays very little or not at all, it is something I need to have in my life. I’m happier when I’m writing. It’s therapy. So far I have followed through and written on my circled days, and on the non circled days I spend extra time with my family or just relax. Giving myself permission to take time off in between has helped me focus on my writing days.

Step Two: Create mini-deadlines. Make them reasonable. If they aren’t working, revisit the schedule. Celebrate success. Crossing off days is weirdly rewarding. (Stickers work well too.) I calculated how much work I need to do to finish the project in time for PennWriters, and wrote mini-deadlines on the circled days.

The time part figured out, I moved to the other part of my blockage. Where the hell do I even start with this thing? The novel originally had two separate story lines, and the feedback I got was that they weren’t gelling and a few agents didn’t like the one character’s voice. So I cut her. And was left with half a book. Now what? I needed to get back to the drawing board. I read books on outlining and plotting, and thought ugh, I’m normally a panster, but I don’t have time to spend in multiple revisions. I need to fill the plot holes early.

Step Three: Make a plan. Get the hard stuff out of the way.

I brainstormed on my trusty legal pad, then filled out note cards for each chapter. They’re three different colors to indicate where they fit within the three act structure. I figured out which chapters from the original version would work moving forward and where I’d need to add additional content.

I’ve been writing for two weeks now, and the note cards have been an amazing tool. I know where the scene starts and what I need to include and can focus fleshing out characters and creating tension. The fun stuff. I told hubs last night that this is the first time I’ve been able to write freely in a long time. It feels good. Of course there was a large hurdle to overcome — my first scene is brand new, and right now, it’s not great. But I got to the point where I had to tell myself to let it go and move on. To paraphrase Dory: Just Keep Writing.

Step Four: Find ways to keep the flow moving. Meditate. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Go for a walk. Focus on how your senses perceive the world around you.

Step Five: Love yourself. The last thing I did to get ready is a tip I learned from @qnwrites on Instagram. She posted about writing a letter to her future self that she’d open during Camp. I loved this idea and expanded it a little by writing letters to my future self to be opened at the end of each week of Camp and when I finished each section of the book.

notes

They’re color coded to match my index cards. Of course.

I taped them up on my bulletin board to keep myself on track and motivated.

April is packed. The boys’ activities fill our calendar, my parents return from Florida mid-month, and our biggest recruitment event at work happens on April 30. In addition to Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m also this month’s hashtag leader for the Writing Challenge  on Twitter. And we’re taking a mini vacation to visit family. Whenever I open my online calendar, panic ensues.

Step Six: Commit to sit. It’s the only way. Fill the coffee mug, crank the tunes, and write.

 

Second in Command’s BOOK BIRTHDAY!

Today is the day. Second in Command is officially in the world! I am excited — and slightly terrified — but mostly excited for friends and family to be able to read something I wrote, to be able to hold a book in their hands and say, hey, I know the chic who wrote this!

cover

The journey to this moment isn’t exactly as I’d planned, but whatever is, right? I was working on an blog interview earlier this week and reflecting on my wandering path as a writer. It’s definitely been in my blood since forever. I used to make up songs about the weird wallpaper in my parents’ bathroom, and there are an usually weird number of notebooks in our house that contain my random thoughts scrawled on the pages. I write. It’s what I do. Whether or not it’s any good has always remained a mystery. I never successfully wooed anyone with my poetry, but there was that time I wrote a haiku as a model for my seventh grade students entering into a local newspaper contest and ended up with the winning entry. I’ve accumulated my share of rejections from the industry, but as my husband is fond of saying, it only takes one yes in a pile of no’s.

The first novel I wrote wasn’t very good. I know that now. At the time I thought it was genius, having never been able to write an entire novel before that moment. I wanted EVERYONE to read it. I should have kept it to myself, neatly bound and stuffed into a dresser drawer. But I didn’t and had to endure a painful amount of criticism, most of which was rightly deserved. My second novel was better, but it just couldn’t deliver all that I’d hoped it would, and it too suffered criticism and rejection. (Note: I haven’t given up on her just yet, but she needs to age a bit, like a fine wine, until I figure out how to sort out the difficulties.) While I was in the painful throes of revisions with #2, an opportunity came my way. One of the members of my critique group is an editor and she was starting a new imprint aimed at reluctant readers. She wanted young adult books written in verse. Pitch your ideas to me, she said. Hmm, I thought. I could do that. She had a list of possible topics and one of them was a parent on deployment.

My mind went immediately to 2003. We lived in Silverdale, Washington, on an incredibly steep dead end street full of military families. My husband left in January for a three week underway and didn’t come home until late September. Our next door neighbors were a sweet family with three young kids. Mom served on a deployed hospital ship. Dad worked in Seattle, which from where we lived took over an hour to get to. I remember checking up on the kids once in a while and helping them with the yard work. (We each had about .08 acres of land. Seriously. You could have cut the front lawn with a pair of clippers.) Sometimes they had me over for dinner, and once I went to a school meeting for the middle son. There’s an unwritten agreement among military families: we look out for one another.

I wanted to tell a story about a family struggling through deployment, and I wanted it to be universal so that someone who has never experienced deployment could understand what the characters felt. Separation is hard. On everyone involved. And we all handle it differently. What if one character wanted to be strong on the surface even though he was hurting on the inside? What if another character was angry and needed to act out his feelings, even if it meant getting in trouble? I wrote a poem about two brothers who promise to look out for each other. Sketched it out in the back of one of my notebooks and then read it out loud to my writing group. They loved it, so I kept going. I asked my kids to help me with character names and worked on the pitch.

My idea was accepted, and from there I had deadlines, something I have discovered is very helpful in the writing world. Left to my own devices, I’ll write when the muse strikes, but give me a calendar with something due and I’ll sit at my laptop like it’s my job. Because it was, in a way. This was the first time I got paid to write.

So here we are, a year after turning in the initial draft, a copy of my book sitting next to me on the desk like no big deal. Only it is a big deal. My kids actually read it. A book I wrote. With my picture in the back. Youngest seemed most excited about that part and wanted to know if I realized all the stuff written in my bio. (I wish I had video taped him incredulously saying, “What? Featured in Adoptive Families magazine?!?”) Oldest, who disagrees with everything I say/do/recommend said it was, “Pretty good.” My parents haven’t read it yet, but they are flying from Florida into the icy winter grips of Buffalo to attend my launch party. And my late grandmother has been sending me signs all month. She’s proud, I think.

So yeah, I’m pretty excited about today. And I hope people like the book. But if they don’t, that’s okay. Poetry isn’t for everyone. But I hope it lands in the hands of a kid, or a spouse, or someone that feels the loneliness that comes when someone you love is far away — possibly in danger, and you are doing everything you can to keep it together for your siblings, or your kids, or maybe just yourself as I had been back in 2003. I hope that person reads my words and feels a little stronger. A little less alone.

If you’d like to read the book, or send a copy to someone who might need it, visit one of these links: Amazon * IndieBound * Barnes & Noble

Happy book birthday, Second in Command!!

The art of letting go

One of the great contradictions of my personality: I want to be a minimalist, but I have difficulty letting things go. I also struggle to follow through on the ever popular resolution of being more organized. Nevertheless, it’s a new year and once again I’ve committed to paring down and organizing the house. Inspired (as many of us have been based on the amount of trash I see at the curb each week) by the Marie Kondo Netflix series, Tidying Up, and a helpful guide to living with less by one of my favorite You Tubers and blogger, Pick Up Limes, I hit the ground running.

If you haven’t watched the show or read her book, Marie’s approach to taking your home from disaster area to peaceful organized bliss is to focus on one category at a time; examine each item one by one and decide if it sparks joy. Start with clothing. For some people, that is a struggle. Not me. I easily purged several bags of clothes and donated them to a local charity, and I plan to donate my formal dresses when it gets closer to prom season. I folded my t-shirts into the cute little packages as demonstrated by Marie, which I have to say does actually bring a smile to my face when I open the drawer. Even my socks got the treatment!

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I felt energized and quickly moved onto the next item: accessories. Makeup and toiletries, easy-peasy. Purses and shoes, no problem (I loathe buying them in the first place). Jewelry was a bit tougher, but I decided which pieces held special memories or that I enjoy wearing and organized them so I would actually wear them more often.

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Next stop: books. Now some of you may have seen the controversy on Twitter regarding how many books is too many books. I have always had a problem with book collecting/hoarding. My grandmother left me her collection of paperbacks and my frequent trips to used book stores/book sales, etc. have caused a bit of a build up at our house. Moving around a ton in our early years of marriage should have put a damper on my compulsion, but it didn’t. We moved far too many extremely heavy boxes full of books. Each new place I would unpack them, shelve them in alphabetical order, then stare at them and smile.

Books give me joy. There’s no doubt about it. But it is time to let some of them go because all they are doing now is collecting dust on the shelves. Most of what I currently read comes from our local library, and the majority of my purchases are to support author friends. It is time for the others to find new homes. Yesterday I started in the youngest boy’s room. His bookshelf was bursting at the seams and filthy with dust. I pulled everything off the shelves and got to work.

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Seneca supervises the sorting

I saved a few of our favorite board and picture books along with some holiday classics and everything by Roald Dahl (of course) and piled up the rest for donation. Gave the boy an opportunity to go through and re-shelve anything that had meaning to him. He pulled a handful of seemingly random books out of a pile (I promised no judgement as who are we to decide what brings joy to another person?) and returned them to the now half empty shelves. It looks wonderful. I then popped my head into oldest’s room and asked him to do the same. We’re organizing the house; I’m coming for your books, I said. Eye roll and heavy sigh.

Today, it was my turn. I looked at the built-ins in our den for a long time. Books are all over the house, but most of mine live in the den, a room that makes me anxious every time I walk into it. It’s a hot mess, a dumping ground for everyone’s junk, the place where I hide our crap when company comes over. Currently it’s home to several completed Lego sets, as hubby’s contribution to minimalism is to sell all his castle Legos. They’ve been hidden in the basement and attic since before we had kids — his hope was that they’d be worth money some day. I had no idea we had so many Lego sets. It’s slightly insane.

Back to the bookshelves. I pulled everything down and went through the books one by one. Some clearly sparked joy — for the lessons they taught me or the feelings they brought to the surface. They immediately went back on the shelf. Others have been read and re-read, annotated and loved, and I couldn’t bear to part with them. I made a special shelf for books I haven’t read but want to, and made another giant pile for donation. Our library holds book sales throughout the year, so I’m hopeful my book friends will find a good home.

I feel a little worn out today — not as energized as I’d been with clothing and accessories — and I know the hardest is still to come. This is about how far I usually get in the process before giving up. But I am desperate to be able to walk into the den and find what I’m looking for instead of having a panic attack. To go into our basement storage and not get overwhelmed with waves of nostalgia.

We can live with less. If we concentrate on what we truly need and what sparks joy as Marie says, it makes it easier to let go. But it’s truly an art form, one that I’m determined to perfect.

Reflections

December 31, 2018. Tomorrow I will write the annual letter to my future self and set forth goals and intentions for the year to come. Today I reflect on the year behind us — the good and the bad, accomplishments and setbacks, the things that fueled my soul and the things that made me cry.

This year I went on two writing retreats and attended my favorite writing conference. Weekend trips are the perfect way to re-energize, take time to focus on my writing, and connect with some of my favorite people. I’m thankful for each opportunity and hope they will continue in 2019.

Several friends welcomed new book babies into the world, some for the first time, and other friends bravely shared their words and ideas. Writing, in its rawest form, is a solitary activity, but we need each other for encouragement and feedback. It is not easy to ask someone to read something you’ve written. I love that I’ve been able to see friends go from sharing pages to holding their book in their hands.

As far as my own writing career, it has been an exciting year of anticipation. My debut verse novel comes out in 32 days; the early part of 2018 was spent in edits, the later part in preparation for launch. I queried a previously written novel and got some helpful agent feedback. Unfortunately I can’t quite figure out how to fix the issues with a story that may have bitten off more than it could chew, and there’s been a fair amount of time spent staring at the screen. In the meantime I started a new project, but lack of time/focus and too many excuses has left it pretty neglected. I kept my commitment to the blog (although posts tapered off a bit late in the year) and created my website.

I attended both my high school and college reunions and spent time contemplating the whole getting older thing. I’m not exactly where I thought I’d be in life, but I’ve learned to embrace divergent paths.

Life has certainly had ups and downs this year. We said goodbye to our beloved cat, Mia, but welcomed new two kitties into the house who bring joy to the family. We enjoyed quality family time this summer, but struggle as our oldest enters into the next phase of his life. There have been personal setbacks and heartbreaks, but also a handful of miracles.

Over the past few days, I’ve watched videos about how to reflect, set intentions, and reach your goals. I think it’s useful for all of us to take time this week and appreciate what we’ve learned/accomplished in the past year. To give ourselves credit. And then maybe, instead of a list of resolutions we’ll never keep, we should make promises. Promises to be better versions of ourselves.  To peel away the layers of other people’s expectations that have built up on our hearts, just peel them away until we get to the core of what makes us each unique.

I’m still figuring that out. But I’m happy with 2018 and look forward to what the new year will bring.

Happy New Year, everyone. See you in 2019.