Girl vs. Mountain

Everyone in my family skis. Everyone but me, that is. I’ve tried it a few times, but I simply don’t enjoy rushing out of control down a snowy mountainside. My husband took me skiing when we were first together. Before that day I’d only ever been on cross country skis and had no idea what to do. Up the chair lift we went. Off the chair lift I fell. We were supposed to go down one of the easy green circle runs, but it wasn’t open, so he took me to a medium difficulty blue square run. I completely panicked. He tried helping me down the mountain by holding my hands and skiing backwards, but ultimately I decided to take my skis off and walk down. I felt discouraged and embarrassed. Later that day his sister offered to take me back up the bunny hill and share some techniques, which, in retrospect, was where I should have started the day.

A few years later, when living on the West Coast, we went with some friends to a ski resort, and I tried again. It went better that time, but I still hated the feeling of being out of control. I spent most of the day in the resort sipping hot cocoa.

The family tries every winter to convince me to go again, but I am older and more stubborn now; I always say no. I go with them to the resort at least once a year, watch them ski, then retreat to the lounge area to read a book. This year my husband mentioned that our local resort has snowshoeing and skinning trails. Skinning is a term that refers to using skis with “skins” on the bottom to walk up a mountain. We recently bought one pair of Altai Hok skis (they are a bit shorter than traditional cross country skis and you can use them with regular boots) and one set of snowshoes and had been out once so far this season. I used the skis. I decided to try the new trail, having never hiked in snowshoes.

Wait, you’re saying. We’ve been here before. This very same mountain, 20 years ago. Perhaps not the best plan?

I may not ever want to downhill ski again, but I am still up for an adventure. And an adventure it was. I told my husband I was nervous to try it, especially the coming down part, to which he responded, You just walk up the mountain, walk across it, then walk back down. You’ve done it in the summer, how hard can it be? True, we hiked the mountain at another nearby ski resort during the off season, and oh yeah, it was crazy hard! This time there will be snow! I nearly chickened out, but the boys wanted to go skiing and the weather was perfect, so off we went. (Hubby had to work.)

I went to buy what they call an “alpine pass” ($10/day), and the woman at the counter must have thought I exuded confidence because she asked if I wanted a season pass. Oh no, just plan to be crazy for today only. She gave me a map with the highlighted trails and sent me on my way. At the bottom of the mountain I ran into a friend who asked if I was going to take the chair lift up. I said no (the pass wouldn’t allow it and I’m pretty sure I’d fall off trying to snowshoe at the top – besides, the point is to hike up and down the mountain, right?), they wished me luck, and off I went.

First thought: Yep, this is completely insane. I can’t even get these snowshoes tight enough! (The shoes were adjusted to my husband’s feet and it took me until nearly the top to figure out how to fully tighten them. Brilliant, Sandi. Really.)

Second thought (as I stared up at the skiers flying down the mountain): How the BLEEP am I going to do this?

Third thought: You are stronger than you give yourself credit for. Let’s go.

And up I went. I climbed up the area next to the bunny hill, then had to cross oncoming traffic to get to the next part of the mountain. There isn’t a designated snowshoe trail; you’re basically supposed to stay to the edge and try not to get run over. Yep. It’s as scary as it sounds.

Hiking in snow is hard. Hiking uphill is hard. Hiking uphill in snow is, well, let’s just say it felt like my heart and lungs were battling over who was going to explode first, while my legs were crying, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO US? About halfway up I stopped to catch my breath, took off my hat and gloves and unzipped my jacket because holy cow it was hot. The ski patrol came by and asked if I was okay. Just taking a break, I said, waving my left snowshoe at them. Ah, I prefer skis, one of them said and sped away. About 3/4 of the way up I found a picnic table just off the trail and collapsed onto its bench. Thought about giving up, but knew I had to be close to the top, and kept pushing. When I finally made it, a guy said, You walked up here? I nodded. Impressive, he said.

Yeah, it was. Go me.

Once at the top, it’s a lovely walk along the edge of the property with gorgeous views. I passed by Holly, the run where I’d first tried downhill. Then I had to face my fear: walking down the mountain. The first part was gentle and easy (I’d decided to come up a blue and go down a green), but then it got steeper and I had to use the muscles in my legs to keep me stabilized. At one point, the trail merges with another and the only way down was to cross the main ski path. I checked for skiers, then made a break for it. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I collapsed into the snow.

A year ago, I could not have made it to the top of that mountain. But a few months ago I committed to daily exercise and have been getting stronger and more confident. We’ve been doing the winter hiking challenge (five trails done – three to go!) and staying focused on our health. I may be stubborn about some things, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and push the limits now and then. Will I ever downhill ski again? Probably not. Will I ever snowshoe up a mountain again? Maybe. Need to recover from this trip first.

The four faces of my journey, starting from top left:
3/4 way up – pretty much dying
at the top – HURRAY!
1/2 way down – sending pic to hubby for proof I was on the mountain
at the bottom – in need of water and a good stretch

EVERYTHING IT TAKES Book Birthday!

Today my third verse novel enters the world. I’ve been a little nervous about this book because she had a bit of a rocky start. The idea came to me during a college recruitment event – I work as an Admissions Counselor at a Community College and part of my job is to attend local high schools and try to convince them to attend our school. The students vary in their level of interest and enthusiasm – some genuinely want to know more about our programs while others only care about the free pens. The opening scene in EIT comes from that observation, as I put myself in the shoes of a high school student, laser focused on getting into college in hopes of escaping her small town. I wondered what would happen if she tried to interview with a college and they rejected her for being too focused on academics and not well rounded, and how she would react. What if she had tried to find clubs to join but never truly fit in? What if her last resort was a group of environmental activists that challenged her rule following impulses?

And so, an idea was born. The original title was GREEN FOR GOOD, after the name of the environmental club, but my editor wanted something catchier. On a Friday afternoon in December of 2019, we went back and forth trying to decide on a title. My husband jokingly suggested LILY AND THE ECOTERRORIST, which our youngest latched onto and continues to use to this day. (He even told me he was going to white-out the title on his copy and write it in.) Finally, we landed on EVERYTHING IT TAKES and I proceeded to write the story.

Lily’s voice came to me immediately. I loved writing her character and watching her grow throughout the novel. The supporting cast was a lot of fun too. My biggest struggle was plot. My original outline needed revisions and I kept getting stuck about halfway in. In February I went on a camping trip with our cub scout troop (my last one!) and brainstormed with some of my friends. They helped me come up with the idea of the buried trash and got me over the plot hurdle just in time for my first draft deadline: March 15, 2020.

Hey, remember what was happening in the world on March 15, 2020?

Yup. I turned my book in just as the world shut down. My very first zoom meeting was with my editor, Caitie, where she lovingly told me that the voice was spot on but the plot, well, we needed to do some major editing.

Editing in a pandemic when all you want to do is hide under the covers and cry? Yeah, not fun. But the book meant a lot to me, and I desperately wanted it to have a positive environmental message. So I pushed through and am deeply grateful for Caitie’s help and patience as well as my husband’s constructive feedback. He is always my first reader, the one who assures me that, no, the book does not suck. He helps me brainstorm ideas and listens to me wallow in self-doubt (then promptly tells me to stop wallowing).

Final draft accepted – YAY!
Cover designed – YAY!
Book will release in April 2021, Earth day month – YAY!

World still a dumpster fire in 2021…
Book release delayed until December
Friends asking why Amazon says it came out in August and they can’t get a copy!??!

Publishing is not an easy journey. But here we are, my third book baby out in the world for real, and I am very excited. When the author copies arrived the other day I quickly re-read it and said to my family, hey, that’s not as bad as I thought it would be. And then my parents read it and told me they loved it. And Kirkus gave it a good review.

Lily is here and ready to take on the world. I hope you’ll give her a chance.

Approaching the lockdown anniversary

March 3, 2020 was a big day for the van clan. Youngest got his braces off, and he celebrated with a bag of microwave popcorn. Plans were in the works for an epic Blue and Gold dinner to commemorate his Webelo Den earning their Arrow of Light awards, and he looked forward to his first year of Boy Scout camp. (Hubs and I were excited to spend that week celebrating our 20th anniversary.) Oldest had earned Life Scout and was elected to serve as Troop Guide, which meant he would help navigate the new class of scouts. He planned to finish his last remaining Eagle required merit badges during summer camp and had begun to toss around ideas for his Eagle project. That night, his artwork was featured in the annual district art show and had been nominated for one of the top pieces. Winners would be honored in a special ceremony. He smiled with pride as he showed us his artwork, a smile I haven’t seen much of in the past 12 months. We’d finally agreed to get him a cell phone, so he would have a way to check in with us during his class trip to Washington DC. We joked about whether or not his chorus teacher would let them sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at the eighth grade chorus concert.

Oldest smiles in front of his winning art piece

You know where this is going. None of that happened. The Blue and Gold dinner – canceled. Washington DC trip – canceled. Eighth grade chorus concert and graduation – canceled. Summer camp – canceled. Anniversary trip – canceled. His artwork was chosen as one of the top pieces, but instead of a reception, we received a letter in the mail. Oldest had already coined a phrase to reflect his newfound apathy: I don’t care. And why should he care? Everything he’d looked forward to was taken away. He slogged through the remaining Eagle merit badges after hours and hours of nagging, and says he has no plans to complete his project. He started freshman year in his pajamas behind a computer screen, where he now spends most of his day.

This past year, there have been a mountain of disappointments and a river of tears (mostly mine). Sorry for the clichés, but this year has sapped a large chunk of my creativity energy. Sure, we’ve been blessed – friends and family have fallen ill, but no one we know has died. (That doesn’t stop me from worrying 24/7.) My husband and I still have our jobs, although I have never felt more stressed. Enrollment declined significantly, budgets were slashed, and the constant back and forth of working from home and going into the office has been an ongoing challenge. Working parents, and working moms especially, have faced nearly impossible tasks this past year. My kids have been learning from home since mid-March, and we are all burnt out, we are all desperate for a return to normalcy. Whatever that even means anymore.

When I think about the events from last March, it is hard to imagine I would be sitting here a year later, still wondering when I would be able to hang out with my friends in a coffee shop, watch my kid sing on stage, celebrate work birthdays in person, see students walk across the quad. Hug my parents without worrying about making them sick. Instead of doing those things, I’m planning for our one year work-from-home-iversary. Trying to keep my teenager from sinking. Pushing forward day after day toward an uncertain future.

It’s exhausting. And I’m tired.

I thought about ending my blog post there, but I can’t. Because, to paraphrase President Snow, the only thing stronger than fear is hope. The past 12 months have been full of fear, disappointment, heartache. I want more than anything for the next 12 months to be full of hope, resiliency, love. We can’t change the world. We can’t singlehandedly fight illness, alleviate depression, create peace. But we can change ourselves. For me, that meant a recommitment to the things I love: reading (something I had trouble doing in the early months of the pandemic), making time to write, practicing yoga daily, dancing. Checking in with friends and family. It hasn’t been easy. Most mornings I argue with myself about getting out of bed and getting on the mat. It’s so much easier to cry, complain, doom-scroll – but all those things leave me empty. It occurred to me a while back, as I sat staring at the blinking cursor of an empty word document, that when we lost everything to lockdown, we lost our joy, we lost our sense of purpose, we lost our muse. Our wells were quickly tapped dry and there was nothing to fill them up. I kept reaching into mine and coming up empty, and based on the high number of social media posts referring to the “pandemic wall” I know I wasn’t alone.

So what do we do? My advice? Start small. Look for joy in unexpected places and hold onto it. Like I tell my boys with some regularity, lower your expectations. Celebrate tiny victories. Make space for grief, but don’t let it swallow you. Remind yourself what it means to be human. I get the feeling we’ll be spending the next several days looking backward, at how this year has changed us. And it has. But we should also look forward. What will you do when the world reopens? What will you never take for granted again? Who will you hold tighter than ever before?

Stay well, my friends. ❤

Behind the scenes of my second verse novel

Book journeys are all unique. From plot bunny to manuscript, from query letter to author copies – every book has its own story. So what’s the story behind Listen Up, my verse novel newly released from West 44 Books?

In early 2018, while I anxiously awaited the launch of my debut novel, Second in Command, my editor called for the next round of pitches. A pitch is one sentence that describes the general plot of a book, but in this case, she was looking for a query and first 500 words. Fiction queries, letters of about 250 words designed to give an agent and editor an idea of the who, what, when, where, why of your book, are typically written when a book is complete. Writers often complain about them, but I’m actually one of those weird types who enjoy writing query letters. Maybe it’s all those writing conference sessions, or the satisfaction of being able to sum up the major players and conflict of a book in 250 words or less. Maybe it’s because I once got to hang out and pick the brain of literary agent and query guru Janet Reid, better known as the Query Shark, and she gave my query her stamp of approval. (It may have helped that my friend Dee introduced Janet to sponge candy the day we met.)

Whatever the reason, I wrote a query, sent it to Dee, who helped me clean it up, and wrote my 500 words. Hit submit.

Wait, back up. Where did the idea come from? you ask. My intent at the time was to do a modern retelling of Pump up the Volume, an awesome 90’s movie staring my teen heartthrob, Christian Slater. If you’ve never seen the film, you should watch it because, well, because Christian Slater. With no shirt on. Also it’s a pretty good movie. It’s about a super-shy kid who moves to a new town and uses the radio his parents got him, intended to keep in touch with his old friends, to start an underground radio station. He starts out using it to push boundaries but ends up tackling serious issues and uncovering a plot to remove “bad” students from the school. I knew I couldn’t take on something so huge in 10k words (and wanted my book to be inspired by, not a copy of the movie), so I kept the key elements: shy character, wants to speak out but struggles in real life so finds a way to do it anonymously. In the movie, it’s radio. In my book, he starts a video channel.

So I pitched the book idea in January 2018. Pitched another idea shortly after, about two friends who try to solve the mystery of a missing girl in their neighborhood. Neither were approved. But they weren’t outright rejected either. I started working on the second idea, wrote a few poems, read them to some of my writer friends, who promptly told me they were terrible. Which they were. So I worked on other projects. I wrote several short stories for another imprint, blogged a bit, and changed tenses and major plot lines in my YA historical fiction novel after an unsuccessful round of queries. Forgot all about Listen Up.

Then in October of 2019 my editor wrote to ask if I’d like to write the book. That she’d been thinking about it since I sent the pitch in nearly two years earlier. Oh, and could I write it in a month?

Queue excitement, followed swiftly by panic. Sure! I could write a book in a month. People do that all the time during NaNoWriMo. I made myself a schedule and spent nearly every soccer practice camped out with my laptop. Thankfully, the characters were very cooperative, telling me who they were and what they wanted. The plot was a bit more elusive, and as I approached the end, I realized there was a major hole that needed to be fixed. With a deadline fast approaching, I locked myself in my writing room one weekend and brainstormed until I figured out how to untwist the mess I had made and give the book a proper ending.

Wanna know a secret? That is not easy when your book consists of nothing but poetry. You have to figure out a way to move or rewrite in chunks while keeping the story flowing and the poems intact. When I finished the first draft, I brought it to my husband and asked him to, “Please tell me if this sucks.” He’s a no BS kinda guy, so I knew he’d be honest. And he was. He told me it didn’t suck and helped me fix the parts that were confusing or unclear. I’m deeply thankful for his insight and for my other three beta readers: Adrienne, Alexis, and Carla, who were able to quickly give me notes before I turned it into my editor. And for the random student I met during an instant admit session who answered my questions about Autobody classes. I think his name was Joe. Thank you.

I’m also deeply indebted to my editor, Caitie. Her notes are always kind and helpful, and my favorite part of the process was when I turned in my first draft and she called me a “writing superhero”. Her faith in me has been a huge confidence boost.

Sadly, the journey from acceptance to release day hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows. The pandemic caused a lot of problems in the publishing industry, especially in educational publishing. I originally wrote and planned to publish this post on October 1, but on that day there were no books available to order. I haven’t gotten my author copies yet, and the library rejected the request to carry it because their supplier didn’t have any copies. But my friends, family, and coworkers have been encouraging – sending me texts, pre-ordering the book, letting me read some of the poems at our weekly meeting. And my mom called to say her friends were all excited to get their copies. I’m thankful for all of that, truly.

There is so much I love about writing – I love creating characters and stories, of letting my mind wander into all the what-if’s. I love the way it feels like therapy sometimes, like it’s this free, easy way to work through the garbage in my head. But I mostly love when someone reads something I’ve written and tells me how it made them feel. When a student admits my book is the first he’s ever finished and another sends me the poem she felt inspired to write.

I went into a few classrooms to talk about Second in Command, and I am hopeful that I’ll be able to do that again someday. In the meantime, if I can get my procrastinator’s butt into gear, I’ll put together some video clips of me reading the book and would love to find ways to interact virtually with my readers. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are the links to order a copy if you’re so inclined:
West44 Books
Amazon

And if you read the book, please leave a review. Thank you all, for the support. ❤