Creative Ebbs and Flows

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Hello (hello)… Is there anybody out there?

Several years ago, I decided that I would have a book published by the time I turned 35.

In April, that date came and went, and still I have no book.

Sometimes I set goals that seem to make sense at the time. They seem to be far away. They seem to allow enough time to do everything that needs to be done. But they don’t account for real life.

I like to imagine that if I were a full-time writer, I’d have all my ducks in a row. I’d leave the house, go to my creatively decorated shed (like Roald Dahl’s), and spend the day coming up with awesome things that would be loved by people around the world. However, when I have two hours free, and I know I should be writing, I do chores. I don’t know why. If I’ve decided I won’t write, I at least play video games or do something fun. But if I think I should be working, then I’m reorganizing junk in my apartment. I think it’s a form of self-torture by procrastination.

I’m on the 4th draft of a book now. I have beta readers sending me messages and asking when the book will be ready. This is a good place to be. But those last steps, which seemed so small a few months ago, are SO BIG right now. When in the world am I going to do all of this? I need a cover (I have a cover). I need multiple different formats for epublishing (once I get it typed in, I can do this with a few clicks). I need a website (got one), and a blog (started one), and a platform (got that, too), and, and, and, and…

What I really need to do is keep getting the book typed in. (I wrote draft #3 by hand.) But when I look at the notebooks filled with my chunky scrawl, it doesn’t seem that easy. Forget that I’ve been working on this book for over a year now. Forget that I’ve diligently written 3 complete drafts of it now, and it really is almost finished. Forget that I’ve put in over 150,000 words on it. It still feels hard right now.

I’m tagging this post naval-gazing. I apologize that you had to read it, but I really had to write it.

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A Dangerous Man

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I found this story lurking in one of my writing books, and did a little polishing to get it here. This is for #FridayFlash. I hope you enjoy reading it!

Lighter

image by code1name at sxc.hu

Carl Murphy looked harmless, with his white socks pulled halfway up his shins and one hand in the pocket of his plaid shorts. Not even the well-worn Metallica t-shirt gave any indication of his true danger. When he walked into the dilapidated house, several people looked up to smile and wave. 

“Yo, it’s Murphy! What took you so long?” A man with stringy blond hair walked up and gave him half a hug, holding his cigarette at arm’s length.

Carl nodded a greeting. He didn’t even need to talk anymore. His strength was in being both charming and vague, attaching a wisp of personality to his constantly changing face.

“Here, man,” said another guy, this one sporting a well-trimmed goatee and a pair of greasy cargo pants. “We saved this one for you.” Goatee held out a small roll of paper, a fresh joint.

Carl took it with a smile. “Thanks, man,” he said. No one ever used names. It was part of the scene. In his mind, they were Goatee and the Scruff, but ‘man’ and ‘dude’ tended to get the job done. 

Carl took a moment to glance at the crowd. He recognized a few faces from previous gatherings, but not all. He wouldn’t feel bad for any of them, except maybe a few of the girls. The girls looked young, too young to be here, but old enough to know better. 

The Scruff shoved a purple lighter in Carl’s face. Carl smelled stale cigarettes and saw the yellow stains on Scruff’s fingers. They matched the yellow stains on the man’s teeth. 

“Fire it up.”

Carl looked at it, feigning suspicion. The Scruff leaned in close and half-whispered, half-shouted the words Carl was waiting for. 

“White Widow, man! There’s more where that came from.” Scruff lowered his voice slightly. “Pierce scored three pounds today. We’re gonna be rich!” He broke into a chortling laugh that ended in a painful-sounding cough.

Carl grinned, but not for the reason Scruff intended. Carl avoided looking at the door and kept his anticipation secret. As he waited for the imminent raid, he fingered his police badge quietly in his pocket.

An Exercise: The Reluctant I

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This is a writing exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany, which is probably one of my favorite prompt books of all time. I did this as part of Rowan Cota’s Writing Exercises in the Google+ Writers’ Discussion Group. If you’re looking for good writing community, I highly recommend this one. I enjoy the resources and encouragement that people are sharing there. (Disclaimer: I’m a moderator of that community, so I’m mostly biased. I wouldn’t be a moderator if I didn’t think it was a fantastic group, though!)

This is the very first exercise from the book, and involves writing a scene from the first-person perspective, but only using the words I or me twice in the entire 600 words. Feel free to join in and try your hand at this one if you’d like! Here’s mine:

———————————————-

I was not on shift when they brought Jane Doe into the hospital. The others said it had been a hard night, full of the twists and turns of life and death. They operated on her through the night, while the nurses spoke with police officers and detectives who were on a desperate hunt for clues and next of kin.

They found no one. There was not a trace of identity to Jane, nothing to reveal that she had, in fact, existed at all. No photos. No dental records. No finger prints. Nothing matched. The only evidence of her existence was the fact that she was found half-dead in the road by a good Samaritan and delivered to the hospital.

The Samaritan offered no clues either. He was a gentleman of 60, not a Samaritan at all, but a man from Detroit who had taken a wrong turn on his way to the Stadium. There was a game that night. There’s a game every night of the week, it seems, based on how many people come in talking about the game.

“What’s the score?” they ask.

“Try not to move, sir,” the nurse says. “The doctor needs you to stay absolutely still while he stitches that wound.”

“Somebody in this place has to know the score!”

The score is the most important thing. It’s the thing that keeps them all motivated. It’s their reason for getting up each day, for going to work, for coming to the hospital to have their bleeding stopped and their wounds stitched. It’s always about the score.

Even the Samaritan that wasn’t a Samaritan only stayed for a moment. He disappeared before signing the paperwork, before anyone could question him or identify him or find out where he’d found the half-dead woman or why he didn’t call 911 or how he found the hospital at all if he was lost on his way to the stadium. These were all the questions he left unanswered in his search for the score, and that’s why Jane Doe still lies in my ICU ward with no identifying connections at all.

The nurses tried their best. They worked all night. The hard battle was written all over their faces the next morning. The score. That morning, life was winning, but the game between life and death was close.

Jane Doe still holds her slim lead in the game. She looks as peaceful now as any of the other patients, as though she has quietly forgiven the injustice enacted upon her. The gashes on her face have healed to tight little pink lines. The rest of her wounds are closed now, and no longer need packing. Her body is alive, building and repairing itself. 

It’s only her soul that’s still missing.

In Darkness

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image by Leeca at sxc.hu

image by Leeca at sxc.hu

This is a story of a time when a land fell into darkness. Once full of wealth and structure, the empire was conquered, ravaged, then deserted. Sickness came and devoured the people, one by one, one thousand by one thousand.

In those days, there were no kings, no chiefs, no lords. There were small groups of people scattered across the countryside, huddling together for survival. There were no conquerors. There were no leaders of men. Fear led them. Death held them in its tyrannical fist. Despair ruled their villages.

In those days, the secret to survival was whispered to the sleepy children and recited in hushed voices across crackling fires. The secret was wrapped in the words of other times and other people, in stories and myths. There were once people, the stories said, who were strong and golden, people not wasted away by disease and grief. The people in the stories were proud and fearless. The lands in the stories were paradise. The gods in the stories were just and mighty and made all things new.

As the words flowed out into the chilly night air, something magical happened in the minds of the listeners. Across the dark grey of a winter’s expanse, they looked out and saw the promised land: a bright sun shining over glowing green hills. The harsh call of the carcass-eating crows was heard as the soft trill of a lark singing in a dense forest. Warmth spread across the listener’s skin to fill the voids of their hungry stomachs, and for that one moment in time, all was well. Instead of the despair crushing a man’s shoulders, he felt hope lifting his chin. Instead of the weakness of hunger, he felt power coursing through his arms and legs. Then he would look down at himself, through the eyes of the story, and see a hero, golden and strong.

In those days, the story was worth more than bread.

Obligatory New Year Post

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Hello to my handful of readers out there! I hope you are all feeling happy and healthy on this fine day. My entire family is sick at the moment – the kids with the flu, the adults with colds – so we have been watching movies and cuddling together on the couch for the last few days. I think it’s the quietest New Year I’ve ever had.

I spent the morning going through my writing journals and seeing how I did in 2012, and despite a whole lot of real life and death getting in the way, I see there were a lot of awesome things about 2012. Here are a few highlights:

*I got my first story published!

*I wrote over 200,000 words while participating in #WIP500

*I completed a rough draft of a script during Script Frenzy and a novel during NaNoWriMo

*I taught 6 piano students, ranging in age from 5 to 30.

*I read 46 books (68 if you count the entire Fruits Basket series)

*I made a lot of new friends on Google+ and became a mod for one of the biggest Writers Communities there.

*I started running with a friend and training for an upcoming Spartan Race. I’m still a weakly loser, but I’m getting stronger and feel much healthier.

When I started the WIP500 challenge last year, I wasn’t sure how it would go. It was kind of insane to see the numbers piling up over the months. Now that I know what it feels like to write 200,000 words over the course of a year, I know that it’s a manageable goal. So here’s what I’d like to do in 2013, if all goes well:

*Get a draft of my novel Illuminated out to beta-readers.

*Write 200,000 words again.

*Write at least one short story a month for publication. Write flash fiction often.

*Continue submitting finished stories until they get picked up, or until I have a decent collection to self-publish.

*Read 50 books.

*Blog more often. This year, in addition to flash fiction and writerly updates, you might see me post some of my collage art, since I’m joining a Mixed Media challenge. I love having a lot of creative things to do, since it seems to help when the writing gets stuck.

So what about you? What did you do in 2012, and what do you hope to do in 2013? If you wrote a new year’s blog post, feel free to link me up in the comments and I’ll come check it out. I hope you all have a very happy 2013!

Post-Operative Impressions

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I could swear the last few weeks have been trying to break me. There has been a sudden downpour of conflict from all sides. In my real life, it’s painful and hard. In my writing life, I’m learning some excellent things about how to better develop a character (hint: make the sky fall down on them when they least expect it).

One of the less pleasant things I had to do was get oral surgery to remove my wisdom teeth. The teeth in question had decided to make pain for me in my old age. I kid, I’m only in my thirties, but that seems to be old for these kinds of things. Recovery took me longer than I expected and it was a good 6 days later that I finally felt human again.

And somewhere in the middle of that recovery, I scribbled down the following lines, trying to grasp what I’d been through. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as my bizarre recollections make me laugh now. And no, I never did figure out who zipped my hoodie on me.

Post-Operative Impressions

I remember they took my glasses. Maybe that’s why I never got a good look at the doctor’s face. They took my glasses and tied down my hands.

I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, and wires, and tubes.

Now I’m in my hoodie, my jacket, my scarf. I notice a hot tear running down my cheek.

“Who put my clothes on?” I ask. He seems to think it a funny question but I don’t recall his answer.

There was a wheelchair I was expected to get into. I can see the blur of it, off to my right.

“I could hear them,” I say. “I could hear the beeping. I could hear them talking.” He tells me it must have been when I was waking up. It must have been.

My hoodie is zipped up. It’s not easy to zip. I was in a short-sleeve shirt. Who put it on me?

“Did you come get me?” I ask. He is amused that I don’t remember.

I remember there was a wheelchair I was expected to get out of. I remember the feel of it under my hands.

I can see my jacket and scarf in a pile across the room. My hoodie is still zipped snuggly on me where I lay on the couch.

“Who put my clothes on?” I ask. He says I was dressed when they brought me out.

I remember the wheelchair, but not the time I spent in it.

“I could hear them,” I say.

“You told me,” he says.

I was in a short-sleeve shirt. My hands were tied down. The doctor asked me a question. I slurred out half an answer and faded.

I am fully dressed now, my mouth full of gauze, missing my teeth

and my memories.

Good News! And some Nightmare Fuel…

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Those who follow me know I’m pretty familiar with rejection by this point. I’ve been putting my stories out there and getting all sorts of great letters from editors about my writing, but none of them have been acceptance letters.

Until yesterday. I spotted the email in my inbox and could see that the first few words included the word, “Sorry” and I almost didn’t even open it. I’m glad I did, because it wasn’t a rejection at all! They’d held onto my story for an extra month because they liked it so much and wanted it for another topic they had coming up. And you can bet this rejection-laden writer did some serious happy dancing yesterday!

I’ve also had some really kind encouragement from others, especially in the Google Plus writing community, that has lifted my spirits the last few days. The writing is really hard some days, especially when trying new things. It’s  nice to know others out there going through the same things.

Without further ado, here’s today’s story, for Nightmare Fuel on Google Plus.

Marissa leaned against the doorway with a soft smile on her face. Four-year old Sylvia was finally asleep, her arms and legs sprawled across the Hello Kitty sheets, her dark eyelashes brushing across her pudgy cheeks. It was Marissa’s favorite sight of the day, when her daughter transformed from wild terror to peaceful angel. Even Judas the cat looked content, tightly curled at one end of the bed.

“Sweet dreams,” Marissa whispered. She pulled the door closed, then leaned against it and closed her eyes. Marissa didn’t consider herself a religious person by any means, but she spoke her request to the darkness just as she had every night for months.

“Please let her sleep,” Marissa said. “Please.”

Marissa had taken Sylvia to every doctor her insurance could afford, and then some. Night terrors, the doctors called it. They told Marissa to make sure Sylvia was eating properly and to limit time watching TV. Even the sleep clinic told her that it was a passing phase that would resolve on its own. Marissa wasn’t so sure. The episodes had been happening several times a week for months now. She just wanted her daughter to be able to sleep in peace again. Children shouldn’t have such terrible nightmares, she thought.

Marissa trudged down the hall to her bedroom, nearly tripping over a box on her way in. For a moment she thought about unpacking, but there were too many boxes, still in piles all over the half-empty house. Marissa had no energy to go down that road tonight. Maybe if Sylvia slept tonight, she could try tomorrow. She tumbled into her bed and was instantly asleep.

It wasn’t Sylvia’s screaming that woke her. She could tell because she was still in bed. When Sylvia screamed, her mother instinct would kick in and she’d be halfway out the door before she actually opened her eyes. Marissa sat and listened. What had woken her?

She heard it again, a high-pitched wail like a baby crying. Marissa felt a tingle run up her back. Then there was a sharp spitting sound, followed by a low growl. It was Judas the cat. Somehow, the realization didn’t make Marissa feel any better.

She stepped out of her bed and toward the door just as Sylvia woke. Sylvia’s screams blended with Judas’s yowls, making an otherworldly sound. Marissa felt a prickling all over her body where her hairs stood on end, and as she ran towards Sylvia’s room she was hyper aware of everything around her. The red light of the digital clock shown like blood as it flashed out the time. Marissa thought she smelled fresh dirt and cinnamon along with something like boiled eggs.

Marissa threw open Sylvia’s door. A black figure dashed out the room with a yowl. Judas. Inside, Sylvia sat as she did with every night terror, with her blankets tucked under her chin and her eyes squeezed shut. On other nights, Marissa had gone to Sylvia and shushed her until she stopped crying. She always thought it was just nightmares afflicting her daughter. Tonight she stood in the doorway and searched the room. She saw nothing but a few shadows.

“What is it, Sylvia?” she asked.
“It’s him, Mommy.”
“Where is he? I can’t see him.”
“He said to tell you he can see you,” Sylvia said, her eyes still tightly shut.

Marissa’s scalp tingled. She walked into the room, her eyes running over every nook and cranny.
“Can you see him, Sylvia?”

Sylvia squinted into the darkness, toward the closet, then quickly shut her eyes again. She nodded. Marissa glared toward the closet, trying to get a look at the intruder, but she saw nothing but shadows.

“He’s laughing, Mommy,” Sylvia said. “Make him stop.”
“Get out,” Marissa said. “This is our house.”

A ghastly face appeared suddenly before Marissa, a skull with empty eye sockets. A broken jaw hung loose from one side of its yawning mouth. Marissa screamed as the figure floated closer to her, its cloak floating in tatters around it as though it walked in water. She took a step back. A box on the floor caught her foot and she tumbled backward.

The face hovered over her and she heard a scratchy whisper.

“It’s my house,” the thing said, then disappeared.

Marissa got on her feet and rushed to Sylvia. The two of them cried together for several long minutes before Marissa rose and carried Sylvia out of the cursed room.

They slept in the car that night, and moved out of the house the next day. Sylvia’s night terrors never returned.

Bait and Switch

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They started as a small group
A gathering of the faithful
In homes, around tables
Children in laps or crawling the floors

They bought a building
And painted it
with a sign that read
Everyone Welcome

People arrived
The homeless
Single mothers
Those rowdy teenage kids
that smoke in the parking lot

It made them uncomfortable

They put locks on the doors
To keep out the homeless
The addicts
The rowdy teenage kids
that skateboard in the parking lot
but still the sign read
Everyone Welcome

After a while
The gathering dwindled
The elders got more elderly
And no one new came
“What can we do?”
They asked themselves
“How do we bring more people in?”

One of them got the bright idea
To build a big cross
Bigger than the billboards on the freeway
“That way they’ll know who we are.”

But the town already knew
That they would lock their doors
to the homeless
the hurting
the teenage kids
who have no families to go home to

And the Cross Tower which should have meant love
became a symbol
of the fortress
their fear had built

To Lose is to Learn

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My almost 9-yr old boy joined a new Chess Club last night. As part of a talk on sportsmanship, the head teacher shared the Chess Club motto: To Lose is to Learn.

That little line resonated with me in a big way last night. Earlier in the day, the kids had asked, “Mom, did people call you a nerd in high school and college?” I’ve told the kids how I was teased in school for being smart, and how they might be teased for the same thing and how to deal with it. But we had talked mostly about elementary school.

It took me a minute to think of the answer. I was teased in high school, but not in college. College was a different place, where most people attended because they were smart and where they wanted to learn things. In fact, I was not a nerd in college. In college, I wasn’t even that smart. And that was one of the hardest things I had to experience in my life.

See, everything was easy for me growing up. I was that kid who helped the teacher grade papers for extra credit because I finished my work so early. School was a breeze. I understood everything. I got As on all my papers. I was in the top percentile for everything. And I thought it would always be that way.

Then I got to college, and I was a nobody. All the great things I had done, people there had done better. I wanted to be a piano major, but since I’d only had lessons for six years, they wouldn’t let me. I was last chair in the university Symphonic Winds, despite filling the first chair and winning state festivals every year in high school. In the 80-member Honors Program I was in, I was probably the least accomplished of the entire bunch. Others had already read all the great books, they understood the great philosophical ideas, they could put together a presentation and speak to a group. Not me. I still don’t even know how I managed it all most of the time.

In all my years of “gifted” programs, I had never learned how to study and work. I had never learned what it meant to be a beginner at something. I was always the best. So when my big fishy self was taken out of my small pond and tossed into the ocean of real life, I was absolutely lost.

It still frustrates me to this day. Now I want to be a writer, and I’ve poured a couple of years into studying the craft. Still, I’m a beginner. My stories keep getting rejected. I still don’t have a body of work I can self-publish. There are other writers out there who seem to be magically great at it, but it’s hard work for me. And some days I just want to call it quits.

So I was really thankful to hear that wonderful motto last night.

To lose is to learn.

I’m glad my son is learning that now. I’m glad I’m learning that now. It means I can’t quit. I have to keep trying and keep learning and keep practicing until it becomes easy for me.

And in case you’re curious, those piano professors couldn’t keep me down. I didn’t get my degree in piano, or even music, but I still teach piano lessons to several fantastic students in my home these days. And that’s another thing I’ve realized. There are people who will think you’re not good enough, but there are others who will find you amazing. I think half of success is learning not to listen to either of them.

Nightmare Fuel Day 15: At Dusk

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I’ve still been keeping up with daily writing, although I feel like I’m starting to lose momentum. I have learned a lot from this process though, and greatly appreciate those of you who have read and commented on my stories the last two weeks!

Today, you get a prosem in the style of Kary Gaul, who is also doing the daily prompts on Google+.

image by daviniodus on Flickr

The children played baseball in the hot evening
Their shouts filled the thick summer air
The mother watched from inside
Smiling to herself
She might have joined in if she could
But instead let the sound
Wash over her

The window was open to let the air in
The mother called out,
“It’s getting dark.”

An ancient phrase
Full of meaning
Full of foreboding
It’s getting dark
The monsters are coming
Come inside

But the children didn’t hear
the warning

The window was open to let the screams in
when the monsters arrived
in a swarm

The mother was out the door
before she knew she was running

but no amount of flailing could frighten
the killer bees