Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Writing Vacation

It’s been a long year. 

Job changes for my husband. A new school for my girls. A best friend moving away. 

Lots of upheaval. Lots of emotions. Lots of stress. 

I shelved the book I spent months writing. I felt like I just couldn’t get to the emotional core of a middle grade novel right now. I tried to bump it up to YA, but then it was too mundane. Months of work let go. I beat myself up for my lack of productivity. In the time it took me to write one novel, a dear writing friend of mine has written three. I feel compelled to keep up.

So when we headed to our my husband’s family’s lakeside cottage for a month, I came with high hopes. In the past, I’d spent every morning writing. It was one of my most productive, creative times.

I told myself I would write every morning until noon. I’d wake up early, do some yoga and stay focused. I would start the new sci-fi, paranormal I’d been brainstorming.

But life had other plans for me. Each of my daughters got sick - nothing serious, but definitely distracting. The weather was cold and rainy, so instead of playing outdoors, the girls were frequently inside. There were lots of relatives visiting. People coming and going, laughing and playing.

And then there was me - I was just plain exhausted. I couldn’t wake up early - all I wanted to do was sleep. When the sun did shine, and I sat in my room listening to everyone outside, on the beach, I didn’t feel inspired at all. I was grumpy and frustrated. I found myself snapping at everyone. 

“I can’t concentrate with all that laughing.”

"Could you sing a little quieter?"

And the words weren’t coming.

Finally, a week ago, I faced the fact that I wasn’t going to write this summer. That what I really needed - more than anything - was a true vacation. To be with my kids and nieces and nephew, to enjoy the sounds of the waves, to have day-long adventures, and to listen to the book on tape I downloaded last summer, but never found the time to listen to.

I started knitting a scarf. Each of my daughters had asked me to make them one months ago, and I promised I would, but I never did. That broken promise had been weighing on me.

Ironically, after a week of not writing, I am beginning to feel inspired again. My brain is spinning in all the best ways: imagining the first encounter between my main character and her love interest and the way mysticism will weave it’s way into the story. 

The truth is, even writers need vacations. Time to clear our heads and just let ideas percolate. The pressure we feel to write and produce can be worst when we are the ones imposing the expectations on ourselves.

I know now that writing is not what I need to do on this last week of vacation. What I need is to not write, to play with my kids, to walk with my dog - and to let my imagination run wild. 

Oh, and of course, I need to finish that scarf. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

WHAT IS NORMAL, ANYWAY?

I recently read a book that made me pause. In a nutshell: The main character is a size 2 and extremely pretty, with emphasis on her small size. The best friend is chubby and not attractive. The MC draws all eyes, while the best friend struggles to get guys to even consider her.

What. The hell?

I’m not talking plot or story twists or character arcs here. I’m simply looking at the way the characters are presented. First of all, a size 2 is small. Like, tiny. And hey, if you’re a size 2 and HEALTHY, rock on. But if you’re body is meant to be a size 12 and you’re struggling to get into a size 2—which doesn’t seem like it’s EVER going to happen (because lets face it, it really might not be achievable)—and you’re UNHEALTHY...that’s not really okay. Books like these are targeted at teens. Teenagers who would love to be noticed. But what, I’m wondering, is the cost of being noticed? Not eating as much as they should? Throwing up their food? Trying to be something they’re not?
        
         Fact: A size 2 doesn’t make you pretty. Neither does a size 12. No particular size makes you pretty at all, actually.
         Healthy makes you pretty.
         Being happy makes you pretty.
         Having self esteem makes you pretty.
         Accepting who you are and embracing YOU makes you pretty.
        
Truth is, body shaming is body shaming no matter the size. So being a healthy size 2 and being a healthy size 12 are the same things, actually. Just like being an unhealthy size 2 and an unhealty12. No difference. (Please note, these are example sizes. Obviously people come in all sizes).
There’s this weight chart, you’ve probably seen it. It says that if your this age and this height you should weigh this much. They give three weight options for small, medium, and large frames. Weight has so many factors. So when I pick up a book and read that the MC is so tiny and gorgeous, but the chubby friend is not attractive, I think one thing:
What kind of message is being delivered here?
“Hey, get tiny! It’s the greatest!” Never mind that it’s not physically possible for some people.
Where are the normal characters that are loved for who they are and what they represent and the things they overcome? Where are those characters? Where are the BEAUTIFUL characters, regardless of size? Hmm? Where? They need to be there. Because that’s real life. That’s what teens relate to.
I’m not saying to glorify obesity. I’m saying to show believable characters that are like you and like me. I’m putting it out there that it is NOT COOL to pair a small MC with a “chubby” friend and deal the “chubby” friend the unattractive card. Again, size=pretty is not true, and it’s not a good message. I’d like to think that it matters what readers perceive, how they relate to the book.
         Think about it. What makes pretty? What message, in the end, is really being delivered?
         Dr. Suess said it best.
         “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

         Or big.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

LEAVING THE AMISH

If you’ve read any of my Temptation novels or even my newest Amish murder mystery, Lamb to the Slaughter, you’re already aware of how passionate I am about the Amish lifestyle. Having lived in an Amish community for six years I gained a lot of experiential knowledge that inspired me to write my books, but I also made many close friends. Some of those friends were teenagers and for me, it was personally startling to watch them go through the process of rebelling against being Amish, to joining the Church and courting their sweetheart, to marriage and their own babies, and all in just the span of few years.

But not all the young people in the community experienced the same fate. A few of the teens actually left their Amish roots to experience life in the outside world. Not only did they face the horror of being shunned from their families and their community, but they also had to catch up on their education, learn to drive a car and manage the almost unimaginable amount of freedom that they suddenly had. Unlike how the TV reality shows (I won’t mention their names here) depict the wild behaviors of the Amish youth when they break away from their culture, the young people I personally know, were for the most part sensible with their departure. They didn’t leave their families, friends and Church to party, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and get pregnant. On the contrary, they left because the Amish lifestyle just didn’t suit them.

Of course it’s still a huge decision for a teenager to make and one with many unforeseen consequences and that’s why I asked my friend, Ella Mae Peachy, to answer some questions for my readers. Ella Mae left the Amish when she was sixteen. She’s nineteen now and living in her own apartment and works full time at a local factory. Instead of frumpy polyester dresses and a horse and buggy, she now wears jeans and t-shirts and drives a sporty white mustang.

The changes in her life over the past three years have been monumental, but I’m very proud to say that she’s handled the challenges with strength and determination. I admire her independence and fortitude greatly and am very excited that she happily agreed to do this interview for the blog. She came to the farm today for a horseback ride, something she hadn’t been able to do very much since leaving the Amish world so our following conversation took place while we enjoyed a leisurely ride in the beautiful Kentucky countryside.

 
Karen: Why did you leave the Amish?

Ella Mae: There were a lot of reasons at the time, but mostly I just wanted to do more with my life. Amish kids finish school at fourteen and I wanted to be more educated. I also couldn’t imagine myself getting married young and immediately having babies. It just wasn’t for me.

Karen: What arrangements did you make in order to leave your family?

Ella Mae: I had friends in Indiana who agreed to take me in. I later moved in with an English family who helped me a lot.

Karen: How did your parents react to you suddenly moving out?

Ella Mae: At first, not so well. They actually came to Indiana and had me put into a type of probation home for troubled teens. I stayed there for three months. When I got out I was even more determined to not return to the Amish.

Karen: How is your relationship with your parents now?

Ella Mae: It’s better. Since I didn’t join the Church officially before I left, I wasn’t shunned as hard as my brother, who also left to be English, but after he’d become a member of the Church.

Karen: Joining the Church is a serious matter. Why do you think some young people do it when they still aren’t completely sure that they will remain Amish?

Ella Mae: I think that wanting to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend makes a difference in their decision. But once they have officially joined the Church, it’s much worse if they leave.

Karen: Are you allowed to eat meals with your family and attend community events?

Ella Mae: It depends. My parents are more relaxed about it than others, so I do sometimes eat dinner with my family, but it’s more of a cafeteria style meal and we don’t all sit down together. I wasn’t allowed to be a server at my brother’s wedding, because I had left, but my sister got married in another community and I was able to be a part of her ceremony there.

Karen: Can you tell me one thing that you really love about being English?

Ella Mae: Besides all the freedom I have to make my own decisions, I absolutely love driving. It’s so much fun! Right after I got my license I drove my sister and her husband down to Florida. It was a really neat experience.

Karen: On the flip side, what do you miss about being Amish?

Ella Mae: That’s a hard one. I guess the only thing that I really miss at this point is not being able to spend more time with my family.

Karen: What was one of the more difficult aspects of becoming English?

Ella Mae: I got my GED last year and that was hard. I didn’t have the same training in math that I probably should have had, but I caught on and passed the test.

Karen: Do you think that you’ll ever go back to being Amish?

Ella Mae: No, I can’t see that happening. I don’t think I could live without my car now. Besides I’ve gotten used to being independent and I like it.

Karen: What are your plans for the future?

Ella Mae: I’m taking classing this fall at the Maysville Community College. I want to be an RN.

Karen: Your best friend also left the same Amish community that you did and she’s now happily married to an Englisher. Has it made it easier for you to have a relationship with someone who went through a similar situation and that you can relate to?

Ella Mae: Oh yes, we help each other out so much. I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Karen: Thank you so much for answering my questions! I’m very proud of the young woman you’ve grown into and wish you all the best in your new world.

Ella Mae: Thank you for the horse-ride. It was fun and I enjoyed answering your questions.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Zone


We’ve all been there before, lost in that total sweet spot where the words all but fall onto the page and, without our knowing it, we’ve begun to effect the various facial expressions of our characters. Meanwhile, the other coffee shop patrons surrounding us are either assuming we must have multiple personalities, or that we’re chatting online with several people at once, some of whom may or may not owe us money.

Athletes, dancers, artists and actors experience their own version of this state—an almost trancelike form of consciousness known as “The Zone.” A place in which you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, what you’ve done, or what you’re going to do next. You’re just doing. Not only that, but the fantastic results being produced seem to be in charge of their own creation.

The thing about The Zone is that you often don’t know you’ve been there until the moment you reemerge or “wake up” and reconnect with reality. In other words, that moment when you look up and, not only have two hours flown by, but the word count in the lower left-hand corner of your computer screen has climbed to a number you’re sure can’t be accurate.

Yeah. The Zone is a great place to be. But how do we get there?

I’ve given this some thought and I’ve come up with a few ways to achieve that lovely and highly productive altered state of being when your writing writes itself. You'll be pleased to know it doesn't involve magic potions, moonlit rituals or the consumption of large quantities of tequila.
1)      Establish a routine.

I know. Boring, right? If The Zone itself is so ephemeral, often as fleeting as it is absorbing, why would something as constricting as developing a routine help to induce it? I’ve heard it takes twenty-one days to establish a habit, good or bad. For me, writing has become a habit. I write every day, usually at the same time and for the same amount of time. While I always have a loose idea of what I’d like to archive in word count, I’m only strict about the hours themselves. The thought is that, if I condition my mind and body to the act of sitting down regularly and performing the same task, then slipping into The Zone becomes a matter of time rather than chance. In essence, if I write every day, then reaching The Zone is bound to happen sooner or later.  Not all the time mind you, and certainly not during every writing session, or even every week (or sometimes every month,) but, all in all, my chances do improve with the conditioning a schedule provides. Also, writing on a schedule helps to keep me connected to the story. The more days that pass that I am unable (or unwilling) to write, the harder I find it is for me to reconnect with my story and characters. And, consequently, that makes falling into The Zone harder to do, too. Also, think about dancers and athletes and artists. They aren’t always in The Zone, but they know that if they want to archive that space of ease where the subconscious takes over and things flow, they have to practice and continue to condition. Writing on a schedule is like lifting weights or doing pushups. It gets easier the more you do it.
 
2)      Don’t expect to always be in The Zone.

Writing is hard. Some days are harder than others. And some days feel downright impossible. But, even when I’m in The Zone and thing are flowing more readily, I’m still working. There’s still elbow grease involved, I’m just less aware of the heavy-lifting aspect of what I’m doing. Until I'm done and then I look back in awe and wonder if I'd somehow been possessed because the writing is usually that good (or that bad ;D ) And even if I was in the Zone on Sunday, when I sit down to work on Monday, I find it’s a different story. Suddenly, I hate everything I’ve written and everything I will ever write. Furthermore, I’ve convinced myself I’m a sham, a charlatan who has bamboozled my readers and fooled myself, too. But, at the same time, there is a part of me that recognizes I’m being melodramatic. That I’m funneling my creative energy into berating myself. And I write anyway—even though I feel like I’m in the desert and The Zone is a million miles away—as mythical and unobtainable as Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. I muscle through, though. Because I remind myself that I’ve been in The Zone before and that means I’ll most likely find my way there again. If I keep going. The work will get easier, I reassure myself. But the only way out is through.

3)      You MUST turn off the censor.

This one’s a big one, but probably the most important, too. And I know we hear it all the time. I also know this is easier said than done. But in order to archive The Zone, (or to write anything at all, for that matter,) you have got to be willing to allow yourself to write badly first. And, the truth is, you will most likely not write badly at all! You just have to be willing to write schlock. For work to feel like play, you have to ignore the serpent voice whispering in your ear, telling you how horrible every word you put down really is and how wretched a writer you are, how you’ll never attract an agent or get published and that you’re such a nobody that, when it comes time to bury your ass, they’ll be forced to chisel “What’s-his-face” on your tombstone. Buck up. Put on your Frozen soundtrack, sing along once to “Let it Go” and then get back to the work of playing. Stop worrying about the quality when you’re just drafting anyway. If it helps, put on a pair of those funny glasses with the big nose and moustache. There will be time for seriousness and critiquing later. And, if it helps, you can tell that old hissy snake just that. In the meantime, get something down. NO, don’t get cerebral and insist you have to online the entire novel again. Outlining doesn’t count. Taking notes doesn't count. Researching doesn’t count. Those are all good things and great tools if they are part of your individual process, but they cannot replace the actual act of WRITING, and they will not give you the same results that you can only get through the act of drafting. And by the way, once you do have something down, you’ll find it’s easier to get a little more and then, pretty soon, you won’t be able to hear the censor’s voice at all. Not over the amazing things your characters are telling you now that you’re knee deep in their story and, oh my God, has it really been three hours since you sat down to just “tinker?”  

4)      Encouragement

For me, this one is as vital as number 3 and, if my current work-in-progress is a budding plant, then encouragement is the sunshine and rain it needs to blossom. Also, when it comes to encouragement, I find that a little goes a long way. I trust my friends and critique group to be honest with me, and to let me know when something I’m doing isn’t working or when a scene or a line or even a word could be better. But I also trust and look to them to let me know what is working. I trust them to tell me the absolute truth, and when that honesty includes a compliment about my perseverance, my work ethic, the humor in my current project or a character they’re in love with, this provides me with the high-efficiency fuel I need to enter The Zone. The work becomes easier, because I know I have a support group eager to see what I’ll do and come up with next. I’m incredibly grateful for this invigorating enthusiasm. And I’m also eager to return the favor and to encourage others, because I know how much encouragement means to me—and how powerful of a motivator it can be.


So I’m encouraging you to seek The Zone and maybe leave a comment to tell us what helps YOU get in The Zone?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Submission: Hanging in “The In Between”


“You’ve reached a milestone,” my agent said.

“You’re going to give the nation chills with this book,” she said.

“I’ll send it out to editors on Monday,” she said.

 
And I was elated. High. Freaking out. Happy as anything. I’d made it to the “on submission” stage. Finally. After twelve years of writing for kids and young adults. Placing in contests. Going to conferences. Publishing in magazines and online journals. Networking. More writing. More writing. More writing. I’d done it.


Then the high wore off. And the waiting started. And I’m waiting. And waiting. And biting my nails to nothing. And distracting myself with more writing and with running and working out and with “Now what can I work on?” and with long walks with my husband where I ask repeatedly, “What if I don’t get picked up?”


What if?
 

Sara Zarr has called this place The In Between. Where you know you are good enough but others have to realize it. Where you know you just need one editor to say they love what you do. The In Between is a scary place. It’s a place of confidence chiseling and soul searching. It’s a place where I have to ask myself over and over, “Why do I do this whole writing thing?”


Everyone is motivated by something. I write because the voices of strange characters in odd places speak and I don’t have a choice but to get up at 3 a.m. and transpose -- like a vehicle for words, an intermediary between the enigmatic well of imagination and the world. So I can’t say I’d stop because a contract didn’t land in my lap. I can’t. Writers write. To watch their own manipulation of words create meanings and emotions and elicit responses. Whether I elicit those responses from my husband, my friends, the several hundred that subscribe to an online journal, or a nation, I’m still up at 3 a.m. because some sixteen-year-old, female character with a West Virginian twang is whispering to me that she is about to embark on a journey of a lifetime because she doesn’t want to disappoint her father. Never mind that I’ve never been to West Virginia. Never mind that her voice may never reach a nation. I’m still up, still writing. No choice.    

 
“Hold on,” I tell myself.

“Keep writing down what you hear,” I say.

“Give yourself chills with the words you create.”

 

 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

In any beginning...

In any beginning, I have one word, and the word is: WhatTheHeck!

With this being a holiday weekend, and having three days off, I decided to start some projects, one landscaping, one painting, and one new manuscript. I don't know about you, but whenever I come up with a new project, I spend copious amounts of time planning, strategizing, and possibly procrastinating until that golden moment, that lightning strike, that time-is-now moment hits.

It's hard to pin point what triggers that ready-set-go moment, easier to look back and see all the excuses that kept me from moving forward.


 I'm not one hundred percent sure what I want. It's too hot.





      I'm not one hundred percent sure of the color I want and I don't want to deal with the mess.











I'm not one hundred percent sure how this is going to go and I don't have a nice long stretch of time to sit and write.






                                       

I would chalk it up to being lazy, but every scrap of laundry is done, every dish is washed, the house is spotless, and the dog has been walked into a coma. When I really look back, it seems more like I'm running away--away from what I want the most. What makes me feel most vulnerable. What has the potential to be the biggest disaster. 

But also has the potential to be the biggest success. To be the most satisfying. To make me stronger.

 So this weekend, I dug one shoveful at a time...
  Removed curtain rods, light fixtures and outlets...
And wrote in long and short spurts, even when the words flowed as smoothly as cold peanut butter.







This weekend, I took the first steps to cease being my own worst enemy and becoming my best friend. My dreams are my responsibility. I'm the only one who can make them come true.

I hope that as you look at your goals, your priorities, your dreams, you'll take the same step. As Nora Roberts once told me: "If you don't try, the answer is always no."