I’m sure there’s a writing metaphor in this somewhere, but mostly it’s about the Olympics and hospitals. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The last time the Summer Olympics rolled around I had been in the hospital for fifteen long, terrifying, sleepless days. I was there for the duration of my pregnancy, which I was told could end at any second – or go on for another 16 weeks. So, either way, it felt like time had stopped and was just eating away at me. I couldn’t leave my bed and so I just laid there and wept and watched Million Dollar Listing and desperately missed my kids and learned everything there is to know about IVs and tocolytics and insurance companies and which nurses drink coffee at 3 am and which ones are less than deft with bedding changes.
And then… the Olympics started.
I watched the opening ceremonies amidst beeps and tests and nurse visits, while my husband sat with me and tried to get a bit of work done. I emailed my best friend and we made fun of how bored all the dignitaries looked. Watching the opening ceremonies was the first thing that had almost distracted me enough to slow the constant panic of my failing pregnancy.
I had been like a woman hanging desperately from a crumbling cliff, and then the Olympics suddenly offered me a little chink in the stone – a perfect place to wedge my fingers and rest for a bit. I clung to this little chink in time like nobody’s business. When I woke up the next morning, I flipped on the TV and watched nearly every second of every televised Olympic event. I watched the athletes just swimming and swimming or running and running or water polo-ing and water polo-ing. And I told myself, while our situations were very, very different, I could learn that kind of endurance, too. These people were going to put their bodies through huge extremes over the next two weeks – and if they could do it, I could too.
So while I stayed immobile in bed and watched everything, I would makes deals with myself – just stay pregnant until the 100m breaststroke finals. Or, just wait to see who wins the gold for Men’s horizontal bar and then the contractions can take over. Just keep going one more event, one more hour, one more day…
And in the midst of close calls and ultrasounds and stadol and clogged IVs, I never turned that damn TV off. I was obsessed with watching these people push their bodies to the limit as I pushed mine to its own kind of limit.
I would wonder what life would be like in four years when the next Summer Olympics rolled around. Would I still think of that time in the hospital? Would I have three living children? How would life be different? How would *I* be different? The questions haunted me through floor events and sprints and hurdles, but I kept watching, grateful for the distraction.
And then… two weeks later, I was still in the same bed, still pregnant. I had pushed myself all the way to the end of the show. The closing ceremonies began – and just like that, so did my contractions. I missed most of the ceremonies because of frantic nurse visits, doctor pages, and room changes.
The next morning my son was born. He was twelve weeks early, weighed only two pounds, but had functioning lungs (which was, you know, a goal met). My endurance test had ended, but his was just beginning.
Would I have made it those extra two critical weeks without having something to distract me? My son’s lungs depended on that extra time, and I depended on the Olympics to get me through it. It sounds ridiculous to say out loud, and yet… I’ve always been pretty competitive and I do really well with deadlines.
Today, he’s a thriving nearly-four-year-old. I did not succumb to septicemia or other terrifying prognostications. And the Olympics begin anew. Those two weeks were an endurance test for me, and the coming months and years were so very hard. But now here we are.
Do I still think of that time in the hospital? Obviously. Do I have three living children? I do, though it was touch and go more times than I’d like to count during this four year span. How is life different now? Perspective is everything. How am *I* different? I have pulled myself up from a crumbling cliff and bear both the scars and rewards from it.
Tonight, I plan to sit on the couch with my husband, all three kids, a bowl of popcorn and a hearty helping of perspective. For the kids it will be an endurance test of mama hugs and kisses.
For me? It will be lovely.
I finished the third draft of the first draft of my latest manuscript. Sort of. I keep thinking of things to add or change, but I've hit the point where I'm no longer sure that adding or changing things will make it better. It's kind of like making a huge pot of chili, you know? At some point you topple off the precipice of yummy cumin-flavored meat stew and you get an overcooked mess of face-numbing sludge. So, yeah. I'm trying to avoid creating face-numbing sludge. A feat that I am failing miserably at in regards to this blog post.
See? This is what happens when you're in the throes of having just finished a draft. You forget how to write nice things, and instead end up blogging about meat sludge. My brain is in an unfortunate place.
HOWEVER, this time a week ago, my brain was not in an unfortunate place. It was in a lovely place, as was the rest of me. Specifically, my brain and myself were at my agency retreat in Port Ludlow, Washington. There was good food, even better company, a bald eagle sighting here and there, and weather that required a sweater… what more could a girl ask for? A jacuzzi tub? Yeah, had one of those, too. A fireplace? In my room! Time with my agent that may or may not have included sleepaway camp antics at 2 am? This, too, was a thing.
My brain was happy. The rest of me was, too. In fact, I am STILL in a kind of post-retreat afterglow situation, even while I wage an epic battle against face-numbing brain sludge. (Side note: was afterglow a weird word choice? I'm feeling that it might be weird. Oh, well. TOO LATE. THANKS A LOT, BRAIN SLUDGE.)
Anyway, what was this blog post supposed to be about? I can't remember. Probably something about how when you write a draft and never feel like you're done, that's OK, because what you really need to learn is when to relinquish it to someone else to read. Of course, you also have to learn when NOT to relinquish it to someone else because it's not ready yet. I guess the obsessive-compulsive problem of most writers is trying to find that pre-face-numbing window.
Basically, what I'm telling you is that when you're ready, throw your chili words through a window – directly at your agent – and hope that your timing is right so that you do not burn off his/her face.
Manuscript out of my hands for now. Retreat over. Still a month of summer before the kids go back to school.
It's time to read some books, isn't it? I think this blogging idea might need to be revisited. Also, I am feeling compelled to make a big pot of chili.
(side note: Hello, author blog! Thank-you for patiently sitting here, gathering dust, and waiting for me to have something to say)
I’ve been working on a new project. It’s something very different than anything I’ve done. It’s dark and violent and harm comes to the main character in a variety of ways (but for good reasons, I swear!). There are funny parts and terrifying parts and devastating parts, and as I finished the first draft I found myself exhausted, but jubilant, too, that the initial intimidation I felt when starting this manuscript was beaten to the wayside. I was finally able to break through the barrier of “you’ll never makes this as good as it deserves to be” and able to settle for “it’s as good as it can be for a first draft (which is pretty terrible) but now you have the skeleton you need to make it better.”
The thing is, when I was about four or five chapters from the end I started wondering what if this book was about a girl fighting for her place in a hostile world, instead of a boy. How would that change things? Would it change anything at all? So once I was finished, I copied the draft, did a search and replace for the character name and began going through the whole thing to make appropriate he/she changes. Just as an experiment.
What I found surprised me. Like, really surprised me. My manuscript became an entirely different book. Motivations and desires of the character morphed. I began to worry about the violence and the harsh conditions the character suffered. I wondered if this was more YA than middle grade.
And this was without changing ANYTHING other than the character’s name.
I have a gender bias I would never have suspected – in fact if I was at a conference talking to someone about gender in children’s books I would argue until blue in the face about the equality all genders deserve, because duh, right?
But when I was going through the manuscript I came across scene after scene that I would have written differently had the character started off as female. I wouldn’t have done this on purpose, but because there is a gender bias deep within me — an unconscious softening of the world — I would have perpetuated my bias towards both my character and my reader.
I am SHOCKED by this. And not a little bothered by it.
Is this kind of buried instinct to soften things only within me, or is it within other people, too? If I decide to keep this character a female, what will the feedback be from editors when they see what she has to go through to get where she’s going? Does the mere act of changing the character’s gender make the book’s story more powerful, or suddenly make it full of scenes that could be construed as gratuitous? Why this difference?
Now I find myself in a bit of a quandary. Do I follow through with my experiement and create a second draft with a fully (or as fully as a second draft allows) realized female protagonist? Even without changing the story, committing to doing this makes me mourn my previous main character a bit. I feel like I’ve abandoned him after spending so much time together – watching his character grow and change. But if this character morphs into a girl so many other things change, too. I see her becoming a real person – like a hologram on my desk. It is, frankly, a little terrifying.
So what is the point of this blog post? I guess it’s a confession. I could never have written a female character like this, with a story like this, unless I wrote her as a boy first.
As a tomboy, “boy-book” author, with a tomboy daughter, I am having real trouble allowing that this revelation is true. But I guess it is.
What biases do you bring to your writing? If you’re like me, you don’t know until you experiement. This, I guess, is the second reason for the blog post – to encourage others to try new things with their drafts. Try something on a lark and see what it does to your story.
You may have to write a confessional blog post, too. :)
I don't often find time to blog here about writing things. I figure there are so many writer-bloggers out there (ones who have more eloquent ways to say "blog about writing things", for example), I'm happy to not get lost in the mix. I just avoid the mix completely.
But I was sitting here, drinking a nice hot cup of tea and thinking about my day and I wanted to talk to someone about it. Since my children are ignoring me on Facetime and my cell phone reception is half a bar, you, lucky blog readers, get to listen-read to this ramble.
Today was one of those crazy writing days where a million things happen at once. One book is ready to send to editors, another was rejected (a couple of times). A decision was made for a revision, a plan was constructed for a proposal. There was a long drive through rain and Texas countryside, and then, after briefly veering off in the wrong direction, I checked in at a small B&B-type motel in order to be ready for a school visit tomorrow and a book festival appearance on Saturday.
It's been a day of ups and downs and all arounds. I had grand plans of ending it on a creative note – working on the new revision ideas, or brainstorming plot points for the proposal. Instead, I've found myself seduced by having a quiet hotel room all to myself. I'm watching Enchanted (on cable!) and eating Oreos (free from the lobby!), and drinking tea (also free from the lobby!), and while I have papers and notebooks spread out all around me, I can't quite get into the work because – and this is going to sound ridiculous – I'm so happy to have the work to do.
The thing is, I've been struggling all week to update my school presentation. I've been fretting over it. I've been feeling guilty and not on top of my game. I wanted to combine two previous presentations and then make some alterations more befitting a middle school audience. But I've been stuck. Everything I add to the presentation seems fun and interesting, but it doesn't take me all that long to talk about it. I've been trying to fill a few extra minutes of time at the end, and really struggling to do so.
Tonight, though, sitting here, rejections still simmering in my inbox, a new manuscript burning a hole in my documents folder, papers and notes spread out around me, a memory stick containing a presentation (which, itself, contains a quick how-to on creating not just zombie haiku, but fake blood to go with your zombie haiku), I'm having a kind of calming out-of-body experience.
This is my job.
These things… they are my job.
Writing words, talking to kids about writing words, fixing words, talking to kids about fixing words… this is it. This is my deal. It might not be fancy. And I might not be famous. I might not have a thousand books and a bajillion dollars, but I am just fantastically excited to be where I am today, both professionally and physically, in this hotel room, with these weird flowers on an armoire, and with this elephant lamp shining a warm light on framed pictures of fruit.
Maybe that's what I'll talk about tomorrow in those extra minutes I have to fill.
Fake blood and submission highs and lows are exciting, but realizing you've mostly answered a promise you made to yourself in the 3rd grade is pretty freaking awesome.
And even though it wasn't expressly part of that 3rd grade promise to myself, sitting in a room with an elephant lamp shining warm light on framed pictures of fruit is, frankly, kind of a kick ass thing. Not that I would turn down a suite in Manhattan, but you know, smalltown Texas is pretty damn fine, too.
It's a good night.
And now I better get to work.
and I’m reaching to my depths to remember a time when someone sitting in my chair at the kitchen table would have reduced me to indignant, angry tears.
I’m trying to not be angry with a five-year-old who is crying into her cheese and crackers because her little brother is sitting in the wrong chair. I’m also trying to not be angry with her for, first, covering the entire couch with cracker crumbs, before being asked to please take her snack to the table.
I’m trying to remember how unfair it feels when all you want is a snack, and everyone keeps telling you what to do.
I’m trying to remember those bubbling emotions when everything is so unfair, and everyone is so against me, and all I want is a couple of pieces of cheese and a funny cartoon on the TV.
Where is the lesson for this formerly quiet Sunday morning? Is the lesson for me? To be more empathetic with a child who has had a busy weekend and will be having a very busy week to come? Is it for her? To learn that listening often begets calm? That flexibility can earn you a more peaceful snack?
So many things I’m trying to remember about being five, but the one thing that stands out from those days is how that snack would stick in my throat as I tried to eat and not cry at the same time. How hard it was to swallow both my crackers and my pride while struggling to come to terms with whatever indescretion had befallen me.
I look at my sweet girl and think about how young she is to be accosted with feelings of how unfair life can be. Especially on a Sunday morning. And regardless of the fact that those feelings are spurned on by cheese and crackers and little brothers and kitchen chairs instead of bigger, worldlier things.
It’s hard to be five. It’s hard to have two brothers. And I hope if I tell her these things enough that, while it doesn’t give her a pass for decimating a snack all over the couch, it does give her a sense that I’m on her side, after all. I’m on everyone’s side. I’m on the side of “Where did the quiet Sunday go, and how do we get it back?” and “Life can be hard, but at least you still get to eat all that cheese.”
What was it like when I was five? What was it like to be just realizing how big the world was around me? To be conscious of all the unfairness I would have to swallow just to get to eat my cheese?
I’m trying to remember. I think I can remember. I want to remember.
And in the meantime I also want a couch that is not covered with crumbs and a five-year-old who is not screaming on a quiet Sunday morning.
It’s not too much to ask. Is it?
This past weekend I had the most amazing time at Austin’s Comic Con. It’s the first comic con I’ve ever been to, but I wanted to make sure I did it right, especially since I was there as an author trying to sell some books. Since my most recent book, Brains for Lunch (a zombie novel in haiku), is about zombies I figured, what the heck, I’ll go all out and zombify myself.
The response was HUGE. I haven’t posed for so many pictures since ever. I earned some street cred with teenage boys, I made little kids cry (sorry!), and I sold more books at one event than ever before.
So what’s the trick to making yourself a dripping gorefest? I’m gonna tell you.
1) Hit up those Halloween superstores. I knew I wanted to go for some serious skin trauma so I bought a 15 ounce jug of liquid latex. I didn’t need that much, but it was a good price compared to the teeny vials. You’re also going to need a palette of greasepaint in grody colors. I got a nice collection of brown, green, yellow, red, black, tan and white. These are the only things you need from the Halloween store, everything else you can get at Goodwill or Target. (Side note: I bought a can of spray on blood that I used on my clothes, but in hindsight, I could have just used my homemade blood for this.) (Additional side note: I spent some money on crazy zombie contact lenses. I wasn’t going to because they were so expensive, but on the first day of Comic Con I found a vendor that gave me a great deal, so I splurged.)
2) My next trip was to Target. I got some cheap foundation that was a fairly close match to my skin tone. I bought some super cheap skin-tone colored powder, with a puff. And I picked up some toilet paper, make-up wedges and extra eye make-up q-tip things.
3) You’re going to also need some chocolate syrup and red food coloring (more than just a few drops). Luckily, I had both of these things at home already.
4) Now get yourself over to Goodwill and find some clothes that look like they need a good gross-ifying. I chose some gym clothes. If you want to go all out, find yourself a pair of shoes that are a couple of sizes too big, and then another pair that are regular size that relatively match the big pair. You can use one of the big shoes to make it look like one of your feet is on backwards.
5) OK! Now you have all of your stuff.
6) Get after those clothes. Rip some holes, mess up your hems, make sure your neckline is funky. Once everything is ripped, take the clothes and rub some dirt and/or mud all over them. Run over them with your car. Get them grungy. Do the same thing with the shoes. You can mess them up with some scissors, or you can just douse them with some homemade blood and let that do the trick.
7) Make your blood. It’s about as simple as you can get. Find a small bowl, squirt in several tablespoons of chocolate syrup, and then dump a whole little bottle of red food dye into it. Stir. You want to make sure your blood is very dark with just a hint of red, otherwise when it dries on your skin it will get kind of pink, and it will stain and look fake. So mess around with your concoction until it seems right.
8) Dribble and splatter the blood on your clothes and shoes, then rub everything in the dirt some more. Once your clothes and shoes are sufficiently bloody and dirty, leave them outside to get dry and crusty – but watch out for ants and bees.
9) Now it’s time to zombify yourself. There are four important things to note before you start messing around with liquid latex: a) it smells really bad b) you have to put some kind of oil or lotion on your skin before you paint the latex on, or when you remove the dried latex, it will rip out every tiny hair on your skin c) make sure you’re not allergic by testing out a small patch on your arm d) if you have crazy zombie contact lenses, put them in now before you start in with the latex and get your hands all mucked up.
10. Once you know you’re not allergic, it’s time to figure out where you want your wounds. Pour the latex into a small container and find a paintbrush you’ll never need to use again. Slather the spots of skin where you want the latex to go with oil or lotion or creme make-up. (Note: I used white creme make-up, and it was still pretty excruciating getting some of the latex off. Especially on my face.)
11. Now that your skin is protected, paint the latex on with a good even coat. The thicker the latex is, the more you have to mangle, but having some really thin layers here and there works well, too. If you want to make a serious wound, you want the latex to dry until it’s tacky. If you’re just going to mangle some skin, you can let it dry all the way. A hair dryer set on cool can help speed this part of the operation.
12. Grab some sheets of toilet paper for your wound work. Two-ply works best, because you can split it and use really thin tissue.
13. You want to roll the tissue into thin tube-type things and stick them to the tacky latex in the shape of your wound. (Alternatively, you can just attach little tears and rips to add icky texture to patches on your face or wherever.) Then, you’ll paint the latex over the tissue. When you do this, the tissue might get a little mucky and tear some. Totally fine. It just makes your wound grosser.
14. Whip out that hair dryer again and dry the latex.
15. Once your wounds (and other latex patches) are dry, smack them with your powder puff, so everything sets nicely and starts to get a skin-type color to it. After the powder is on, you can start adding make-up. I added some straight-up black and red grease paint outlines to the insides of my wounds before I painted over the whole thing with foundation. I imagine you should do the foundation first, but really, it all worked out fine.
16. Once you’ve got your outlines, get everything else with liquid foundation. I found that it went on better and faster with a paintbrush than with the make-up wedges. But the wedges come in handy for blending with the rest of your skin.
This is pre-liquid foundation, post-powder
17. After your latex patches are skin colored (or close), you can add bruise-y, dirty colored grease paint and then rip at the latex carefully with tweezers or your fingernails. Just peel bits off here and there, and if you can leave the bits hanging, even better.
I didn’t use any special technique for adding the colors. I just globbed the brown and green and yellow and red all together on a couple of fingers and smeared them around.
18. Now it’s time to gunk up those wounds. Add your greasepaint inside the wound and outside of it, and use your chocolate syrup blood liberally. Let it pool inside the wound and drip out.
Here’s another angle. So gross! (But it smells like ice cream. Thanks, chocolate sauce!)
19. Now you just tear at your latex spots, add make-up and blood everywhere and ta da! You are a gruesome zombie sure to terrify everyone in your path (especially the unsuspecting people in the parking garage).
Don’t feed the author!
20. And for that last, special touch, don’t forget your backwards foot. I wish I could’ve figured out a better way to do this, but it was reasonably effective. It made people laugh and/or grimace, and it caused a few double takes for sure. All you have to do is use one of the big shoes you bought at Goodwill and either remove the tongue, or smush it down. Then you stick your foot in between the laces. Very simple. And if you tie it tight enough, the laces will still hold your foot in nicely.
photo by PJ Hoover
Ta da! You are now a disgusting zombie. Go forth and terrify.
(I’d like to thank Instructables.com for helping me figure out how to do all of this. Specifically, this instructable for wounds, and this one for blood. I didn’t follow their instructions absolutely, but they were a great guide. Also, in that first link, if you scroll down into the comments you can see a picture of a guy who used chicken bones to a horrifying result.)
photo by PJ Hoover
Sometimes I get a little panicky before author events. The idea of mingling and talking to people is overwhelming for an introverted author with the resting heartbeat of a gerbil. I will often sit in my hotel room and stare in the mirror and give myself the Jack Donaghy pep talk (“You’re a lion! Take what’s yours!”). Sometimes, the events are in my hometown so I have to bar myself in my bedroom and do the pep talk while my kids scream in the hallway (“Who are you talking to?! WHY ARE YOU LEAVING UHHSSSS?!).On Friday, I was giving myself this pep talk in my backyard while I wrangled the hose (to fill the kiddie pool to keep the aforementioned children from spontaneously combusting). I had several events at our local ArmadilloCon coming up and I was excited to see what the con was all about, but also nervous about being around, well, other people. There were a bunch of famous-y authors in town doing panels and I was looking forward to/panicking about fangirling and stammering on some panels with them. BUT THEN… Instead of pulling a Jack Donaghy and finishing my pep talk while I expertly filled the kiddie pool with lukewarm water, I pulled a Liz Lemon (story of my life) and fell in a hole. Yes. I fell in a hole. Bam. My ankle made a terrific, disgusting pop pop pop pop sound as I landed ass over elbows in the grass. Now you might be wondering, “Wait, what? Where did that hole come from? Is your backyard full of holes? Are they from ARMADILLOS?” Well, I’ll tell you: the hole was not from armadillos, nor was it from my neighbor who routinely shoots his shotgun into the ground, aiming at bewildered rattlesnakes. This particular hole comes from a time in recent history when it would rain here and there in Texas. On those rainy afternoons my oldest son would go into the yard and work on making a mud puddle. He would dig and dig and then stomp and stomp and it was all glorious fun until we realized there could be dog poop mixing with the mud and then the hole was abandoned. As time progressed (here I want you to imagine a timelapse movie of my backyard, all sped up and filmstrip looking), the mud in the hole dried to cracked dirt, the grass in the backyard died and came back as ugly desert-like weeds, and the opening to the hole was obscured by a cthulhu of dead St. Augustine grass and these wispy things that make you itch. So, here I am, minding my own business, working up the courage to talk about zombie haiku in front of Paulo Bacigalupi and Rosemary Clement-Moore, and into the hole I go. I knew immediately that the hole had won. My ankle got all wobbly and squishy and registered on this pain scale at about a 7. The children put on their firefighter jackets and ran around the house bringing me ice and random baby dolls to make me feel better. After hobbling around for a few hours I relented and went up to the urgent care behind the Wendy’s (the best urgent care around, and also the urgent care that is located on a road named Slaughter, which is pretty awesome) and had some x-rays taken.
Nothing broken. Hooray! But sprained, nonetheless. And required to be stuffed into an aircast (also called an air stirrup, which sounds sort of steampunk to me). This aircast requirment increased the pain immensely even though the nurse said “most people” experience immediate relief. Drugs were prescribed. I was sent on my way. And I knew my fretted over panels at ArmadilloCon would have to be forsaken. The idea of walking around a hotel to get to various conference rooms made me cry giant tears of anticipated agony.
So I had to email the organizers and cancel. And I was embarrassed and sad to do so. After all of that worrying and working up my nerve, to be taken down by a hole was unexpected and (while potentially hilarious if it had been caught on video) very irritating.
I’m sorry, ArmadilloCon, for missing your nerdy delights.
And I’m sorry, ankle, for ripping you in half by not paying attention to the cthulhu grass camouflaging the giant hole I should not have forgotten.
Alas and alack.