I’m here!

Hi Everyone,

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I posted. I’ve fallen into that place where writers are told not to go. You know, that place where you start a blog, keep up with it somewhat and then masked men with Mac computers come take you away to a special place where you’re ordered to write and write and write and are forbidden to do anything else — including dishes, laundry and taking the dog out before the next accident on the carpet.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.

The truth is, I have fallen into the trap so many writers, and other professionals, fall in to. We start a blog, and then….life happens. Or in my case…a book happens.

Writers love their books, we have to to spend so much time with them, but this book is very special to me. To be honest, I didn’t think I was ready to write it. (It’s definitely one of those training-wheels off types of projects!)

I’m nearly done with the first draft and I’m still not certain I’m ready to write it, but sometimes a thing just has to be written and if that thing lives in your head, you have to be the one to write it.

That said, that’s where I’ve been — writing and researching and living in a mental cave deep within the earth, excavating very very dark things.

I love blogging and reaching out to people and feeling that odd cyber-connect. I also love reaching out to people with pages and pages of black ink on white paper and touching people in, I think, the most intimate way possible — by sharing stories.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth, I’ve just fallen in a very deep hole with my laptop and my story.

I’m near the end of it now and there’s that excited running-downhill thing going on.

I’ll be excited to share this book with you when it’s ready. Though I have to warn you, it’s dark, and truth be told, it might take me a while to climb out of that dark cave. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way out.

So if you see a hand reaching out from the earth and hear a voice calling from the darkness, it might be me.

“I’m here!”

 

 

 

Sleeping with the Lights On

I’ve recently started a new manuscript. The idea has been swimming around in my brain for a while, but I was somewhat reluctant to pursue it.

Part of it was timing. Part of it was fear.

Concept of security. Silhouette of refugees climb over the barbed wire at the border

All writers know the importance of research — of immersing oneself in the real world to help you create an authentic fictional one. For Deadly Design, I had to swim in the waters of DNA and ghost hearts and all things genetic. While science certainly has it gray areas and ethical dilemmas, this new project requires me to delve into a world which will NOT leave me unscathed.

One of the things I love most about writing is how writers become mini-authorities on the various topics that come into their fictional worlds. It’s fun to learn about science or space or history. But sometimes we get ideas for stories that are of a darker nature.

I have never been to a war-torn country. I have never seen, first hand, the way war destroys everything. But I have this idea, an idea that I truly love and that I believe could become an amazing piece of literature. Do I want to learn what war tastes and smells and feels like? No.

I don’t want to experience it first hand, and yet I want to create it on the page. So how do I do that?

I’ve talked before about writing naked — figuratively speaking — and when it comes to research, it’s the same.

If we are to have vulnerable characters, we have to become vulnerable ourselves. If war changes people, we have to be open to changing ourselves.

I have literally watched hours upon hours of war videos and interviews, and each is like having a flu shot, only instead of protecting me from some awful virus, the exposure makes me feel things — awful things, but necessary things.

When Elizabeth Kostova was researching and writing¬†The Historian, I’m sure she slept with the lights on, and maybe with garlic hanging from her bedroom door. She created a world where vampires seemed as real as anything anyone had ever read about in a history textbook, and I’m sure there were times when she wanted to take a shower in holy water.

Eilean Donan castle in the night, Scotland

We expect our characters to learn and to grow. But before we can create our characters and create their world, we, as writers, have to grow and to grow, we must be vulnerable.

We have to be willing to put ourselves on the front lines. We have to be willing to expose ourselves to things that might make us toss and turn at night. To things that might make us cry and make our souls age.

Before we can make our readers cry or cringe, before we can make their hearts double-over with joy or sorrow, we have to open ourselves to those emotions.

What would life be like without stories? The best stories are often the ones where invisible fingers reach from the pages like spirits and they inhabit us. They make us feel something new and unique. The make the reader more than they were before they started reading.

As authors, as creators of the stories, we must lay ourselves wide to the world, not to sacrifice ourselves for our art, but to become more. To get the stories right, even if it means sleeping with the lights on.

To Nano or Not to Nano

October is almost over which means the buzz of NaNoWriMo is in the air.

As a professor, I’ve always wished that the month writers are supposed to dive in and dedicate themselves to the purpose of writing, wasn’t November. Let’s see, there’re the holidays, the whole finals coming up and the last minute grading to get done. Not to mention hosting relatives and doing that cleaning that only gets done when relatives are coming (yes, I am one of those “spring cleaning be damned” kind of people).

Writers are drawn to the wonderful possibilities of dedicating an entire month to the magic of writing. Usually it takes nine months to create a baby, and even if the novel that’s been pulsing in your soul doesn’t emerge fully in tact by the end of the month, at least you’ll have something tangible, something so close to complete that the urge to continue the frenzied writing will continue long into the dark, cold months of winter.

To be honest, I’ve never participated in Nano month. Not because I don’t absolutely love the idea of it, but because I’ve always been in the midst of working on something that I didn’t want to put aside. But I’ve considered it this year. I have a new project I’m wanting to start, something very challenging and the idea of getting a running start at it takes away at least some of the anxiety. But I’ve noticed something about writing lately,

It has to do with pacing, or should I say, my pacing. To use the old fable, I love writing like the hare, racing through the story, getting it on paper as quickly as I can and perfection be damned — that’s what rewriting is for. We’ve all heard the advice, and good advice it is, to get the story out. Once you’ve created your world and characters, you can go back and fix and polish and tweak all you’d like.

little baby rabbit

Enter the frail ego of a writer faced with the shaky first draft of a manuscript, and well, lets just say the hare curls into the fetal position and sucks his paw while questioning what made him think he could write in the first place.

We’ve all had those moments when we’re reading something and we stop, mesmerized by the beauty of the words or the image they’ve created. It’s magic. It’s eating a sandwich or a bowl of soup and suddenly finding a flavor that’s new and exquisite, and it makes you appreciate being alive just a little bit more.

My race towards the end of a first draft is slowing down. When I go back and read what I’ve written, I find myself not caring how many words are on the page, but whether or not they are the right words.

But there must be a balance. If a writer becomes too critical during that initial stage of getting the story out, it’s like taking their muse and breaking its fragile spine over your knee. The next thing you know, it’s curled up next to the rabbit who’s still sucking its paw. Tell the story, first and foremost, but keep an eye out for those moments of possible greatness.

If writing is a journey, you have to find the pace that works best for you. I’ve found that of late, I want to look around more, explore more and worry less about how quickly I reach my destination. In other words, the process matters. Spending thirty minutes staring at the computer screen hacking at the block of marble in your brain to release the right combination of words is worth it sometimes, because as wonderful as it is to stop and inhale the beautiful words of another writer, it’s even nicer when you realize they’re your own.

Every writer must find their pace, the method of writing that works best for them. In Kansas, the wind blows cold in November.

Long summer dry grass against a sunset.

But I love the idea of winds being created by words, by stories racing from the minds of writers and onto the page. Write. Write like your life depends on it. Write like some crazed maniac is coming to nibble your fingers off so it’s now or never. But no matter how you chose to write, enjoy the journey, and remember that sometime along the way, your job is to create magic.

The Homicide of the Arts

When I was a kid, I attended a small school that literally sat in the middle of cow pasture. It was a nice school, even having solar power which was very innovative for the time. We had music, band, drama and jewelry making — some the basic outlets thought sufficient for young people’s budding artistic sides.

June of this year, my young adult medical thriller, Deadly Design, was released by G.P. Putnam & Sons. I’ve always loved writing, and I remember receiving some encouragement from one of my teachers, but creative writing wasn’t taught or really encouraged. That’s why I thought I’d offer myself as a speaker in some of the schools in my area.

Deadly Design is a novel dealing with real science, both science that’s actually possible now and technologies that are in the works and will be possible in the very near future. Talking about the wonders of DNA and technology, coupled with the ability to talk about creative writing seems like a combination that could really inspire students.

Now I know that right now, especially in my home state, schools are strapped for money, and as a true believer in giving back, I offered to speak to students free of any fee. While some teachers are open to having authors come and speak with students, one district reacted in a way that was somewhat surprising to me. Basically I was told that any form of assembly in the school would take away from the time students have to prepare for standardized testing.

Hmm.

I will say that this did not come from a high up school official, but from a staff member who believed attempting to speak at the school would be pointless due to the time factor and the schools policy against assembles — large or small. Students need to have every possible moment dedicated to achieving high scores on their standardized tests.

Time to vent.

Okay, I’m not Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. I’m a local author, lucky enough to land a book deal with one of the big publishers. But as a kid from Kansas, I can tell you that having a local author come to one of my classes and tell me that someone who grew up looking out the window at cows could actually achieve such a thing, would have been amazing. Maybe even life changing.

Right now there may be a student who could be the next the King or Gaiman or Hemingway. Maybe all that student needs is a spark of inspiration. Maybe there’s a student who could be the next Stephen Hawking, just waiting to be dazzled by the mysteries and wonders of science, but alas, those students need to study for their tests.

To some extent, education has always been about conformity, but never to the extent that is it today. Just yesterday one of my students told me that she was denied access to certain courses in high school because she was told she should go in to a career working with her hands and not her mind.

Over 50 million children attend public schools in the United States. We hear about art and music programs being cut. Already, creative writing classes are basically nonexistent. We live in a society where children are exposed to a whole host of issues that would cause anxiety in the strongest of individuals, and yet instead of helping them deal with those issues through creative outlets, we add stress to their lives by forcing them to conform, to think inside the box.

In other posts, I’ve talked about my concern about the current suicide rates among children and teens. Suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst teens. We know that artistic outlets have helped children around the world in dealing with issues of anxiety, depression, even post traumatic stress disorder, and yet when kids are trying to figure out who they are, what their place in this complex world is, we put astronomic pressure on them to be “standard”. To pass tests that have bearing on the school’s budget, but not on the students’ lives. All while stripping them of the various ways that exploring the arts can offer in leading them to self-discovery.

I’m just one author, one voice in the cosmos, but there are seven billion voices in our cosmos, 300 million of them just in the U.S. I want to hear what those voices have to say. What they have to sing. I want to see what those individuals can create through dance and sculpt and painting. I want to feel the emotions those voices can inspire.

Standardizing testing may well be the homicide of our artistic future.