Monday, November 26, 2012

Railroads, Revamping, and The Best of 2012

Lots of cool things are on the horizon!

First and foremost, I get to visit my family in Indiana for a 6 day Thanksgiving/Christmas/"ZOMG I haven't seen you since Mother's Day" celebration. I haven't been able to spend that amount of time with them for about 2 1/2 years, and it's going to be amazing. 

But before that I have to survive a 16-hour train trip.

I say "survive", but really, I quite like trains. I greatly prefer them over flying. It's not that I'm afraid of flying. Excluding the horrific migraines I get between Albany and DC, being eye level with the clouds is neat. What I don't like is the palpable tension and paranoia of the airports themselves. I'm forced to lurk near the terminal, clutching my baggage tightly, hoping that The Voice of the Airport Gods won't announce that I and my fellow travelers are the newly chosen victims of their capricious cruelty. 

In contrast, the nice people at Amtrak are just that. If I'm in the bathroom at the station, I know they won't leave without me; if I fall asleep on the train, I know they'll make sure I'm awake when I reach my stop. I feel like these people really want me to get where I'm trying to go, and they want me to be comfortable in the meantime. I appreciate that. 

Next on the list is a blog redesign. The current look did the trick for a while, but I'm becoming increasingly less satisfied. I'm hoping that my father (a veteran web developer) and I can figure out a set-up that better reflects my content and image - assuming an unpublished dork like me can possess the latter. To any concerned, the turtle will stick around, he just might be attacking his strawberry elsewhere. Custom banner, better colors and improved functionality ahoy!

Finally, once I'm back in New York I'm going to start a series of posts about my favorite books this year. Becoming a writer has changed the way I read, which means that although I'm much pickier than I used to be, I also can better articulate why I love certain books as much as I do. 

This year my nightstand has seen more variety than ever before; I'm reading lots of different books for lots of different reasons. So, instead of doing it Top 5 style, I'm going to rate them according to my completely subjective opinion of what I found the most: Compelling, Entertaining, Beautiful, Informative, and Challenging. (Not necessarily in that order.) Detailed descriptions of what those categories mean will be included in the posts themselves, so you'll just have to wonder what my idea of things like "beauty" are until then.

See you in December!   

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post, Except Not Really

I find myself feeling extremely grateful this Thanksgiving season, if not in the usual warm, fuzzy way.

I've never been much of a patriot. I don't know why, but I have a hard time feeling proud or fiercely protective of something so vast and esoteric. I mean, what is "country"? For some it's the people living in it, for others it's the geographical makeup. Other still say it's the values it was founded on, or the values it is moving toward. Most people would say it's a mixture of all those things, and I think I agree.

It's not that I'm incapable of loving any one of those things, in fact I'm able to love all of those things, and at the same time too. But, I think what makes a person a patriot is the ability to say, "I love this country, which is the sum of all these concepts, more than I love any other, to the point that I will fight for it, be it with words or guns." They can probably say it with fewer commas too.

Part of my writing research involves delving more into the lives and minds of people who, for one reason or another, have decided that words are not enough. And among many other things, I've learned that soldiers have an interesting relationship with the country they represent. During this 10 year conflict in the Middle East (that's half my life, folks) public perception has changed from one extreme to another and back again. On a national level, I think we're currently somewhere in the middle.

One of the local papers recently addressed this trend, and made a statement regarding "the war everyone forgot we were fighting". As a card-carrying member of the Apathy Party who has no loved ones currently overseas, I found the concept convicting on a personal level.

I'm not too keen on this war, but I also know that it's not just the patriots out there. Some people are choosing to shoot and get shot at in a foreign country because it's the only job they can get.

That. Really. Blows.

I'm a cashier at a dollar store, and from the beginning of November to the few days before Christmas I'm going to have a little basket of toys at my register. Part of my job is to ask customers to donate one of these toys to an organization that will give them to children of local military families.

Sometimes I like to pretend I'm a scientist, so I'm conducting an experiment of sorts. I've found that if I just say, "Would you like to donate any toys to X today?" they can politely decline rather easily; however, if I say, "Would you like to donate any toys to local kids?" they're more like to reply, "Sure!" or "Tell me more!"

Yes, cynics, I'm basically practicing my guilt-tripping skillz. But it's true, if my customers know that the toys are going to go to a child in this area, a child they might know, they're much more likely to donate. And ever since a local soldier was killed shortly before he was scheduled to go home, the odds are even better. Make of that what you will. It's certainly one of the grayer quirks of human nature.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a bad scientist. I tend to get involved.

Once every day or two, the baskets need to be refilled. When it's my turn, I like to put in things like packages of army men (We have the ones with the parachutes!), crayons, coloring books, stuffed animals, etc. On Sunday, I had to count up the number of toys people donated the previous week. Apparently someone, I don't know who and it doesn't matter, thought that a fake winning lottery ticket from our prank section would be a brilliant gift for a kid who's dad has been gone for 6 months and might not come back while Mom does the work of two people to keep the family together in the meantime.

Honest question: does it mean I'm oversensitive if that made me want to start flipping tables?

Okay, so it wasn't that bad. And I really don't think whoever bought that did it because they had an overly morbid sense of humor. They probably just weren't thinking at all. "Yeah, sure, just pick whatever and throw it on my total. (Then I won't feel bad for saying 'no' next time.)" Even so, it surprised me how bothered I was.

I must confess I'm at a loss when it comes to taking action. Yesterday I donated a comic book, but since it only put me out a dollar and required no further effort it did little to assuage my sense of...I don't even know what to call this. It's a strange blend of duty and impotence. I'm just a broke cashier with limited transportation and opportunity. What can I do to actually help a complete stranger and tell them, "I'm not blind to the sacrifices you're making"?

I really want to know, but since I don't, I'm going to set the bar a little lower. I'll start with genuine appreciation and work myself up to true self-sacrificing compassion once I've figured out the specifics.

So then: I'm thankful my own dad has suffered nothing worse than back aches, wrist strain and migraines at his quiet office job over the years. I'm also happy that my brother-in-law could play with his 3-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter today, even if he has to leave tonight for a grueling shift at a paper mill. It's a hazardous place, but he can be reasonably certain he'll come home the next day. And I'm so relieved that when my husband and I did the long-distance thing for 2 years, he was safe on a college campus and not putting his life on the line for reasons unable to be pinned down by general consensus. Because whatever banal suburban ennui I might experience, it's nothing compared to the real pain that others are feeling right now. Pain that can't be fixed by a dollar store toy.

The men and women of the armed forces aren't angels or demons. They're humans that place themselves in situations that most of us couldn't bear. That can often lead to some unfortunate things, but it often leads to something wonderful too. And I'm finally starting to understand and respect that like I should.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"That's a Pretty Good Excuse" Writing Retreat Scholarship

I recently experienced that light-headed, acrobatic intestine feeling I get whenever I crash headfirst into a startling discovery filled with endless possibilities. Don't worry, this only happens to me once or twice a year.

I've been following a podcast called "Writing Excuses" for quite some time. Hosted by a variety of authors that I greatly admire, "Writing Excuses" is a weekly 15-minute talk about all things writing-related. It's mostly SF/F focused, but it's an awesome resource for writers in other genres as well.

On October 1st they announced their very first writing retreat, a week-long workshop held in Chattanooga, TN. Not only would this be an awesome opportunity to get one-on-one time with some of my favorite authors, but I would also get to tick a box on my extensive list entitled "Places With Long Quirky Names I Must Visit Before I Die".

Sadly, as with most amazing discoveries I make, I tripped over a massive speedbump. The total cost of the trip would be about $2,000. Not only would I have to work for about 9 months to earn that much, but if I'm going to shell out that kind of moolah for a vacation, I would want my husband with me and it would have to be something we would enjoy equally.

So I said to myself, "Aw, bummer, maybe they'll do it again someday when I'm fantastically wealthy," and I thought that was the end. And anyway, all the spots were taken in exactly 9 minutes, so my imaginary money might not have been enough.

But on November 5th (historically, a lucky day for me) my insides hopped on the ole pommel horse. The folks at Writing Excuses announced they had one last supar sekrit spot reserved - a spot that would go to the recipient of the "That's a Pretty Good Excuse" Scholarship. This will cover the registration fee, the hotel costs, and up to $500 in airfare; IE, all of those things that made me fall flat on my face a month ago.

To qualify for the scholarship, I must submit by January 15th, 2013: 1-3 separate pieces totaling no more than 10,000 words, a 450-700 word personal essay explaining why I'm a good candidate, and finally, three letters of recommendation from non-relatives.

That last part is where you guys come in! There's still a bit of time before the deadline, so I wanted to put it out there for those who need to ponder such things. If anyone is interested in supporting me in this way, and if you'd like to actually read my fiction before you decide to tell a complete stranger that I'm legit (I highly recommend this) please leave a comment here, or contact me through email or Facebook.

Just like Highlander, there can only be one, so I know my chances are pretty slim, especially when there are so many deserving people out there who've been chasing this dream far longer than I have; however, this is a once in a lifetime chance to not only do something amazingly fun that teaches me a lot about the craft, but also make some valuable connections in the writing and fantasy community.

The Writing Excuses website will give all the details about the scholarship, and what they're looking for in the letters of recommendation.

And now I'm out of excuses, so back to writing!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

This Weekend Is Going To Be Awesome

I could tell you that I'm going to spend tonight, all day Friday, and a good part of Saturday intensively planning and outlining a book, and I would sound totally hardcore, or I could tell you that I'm playing a tabletop role-playing game. (For the record, I'm still hardcore.)

At first it was just myself, my husband Matt, and a friend of ours getting together for an especially geeky weekend. Matt, a veteran Game Master, had had a campaign idea percolating in his mind for about 6 years, and life circumstances had finally given us the opportunity to finally see how the idea played out "live". About two hours into the first session, I thought, "Holy crap, you guys! We're telling a story!" (For long-time tabletop players that are thinking, "Like, duh", please understand that I was pretty fresh off the bus.)

Thing is, this was a GOOD story - the kind of story that I'd love to read. And the more we played, the better it got. At this point, I had also made a few false starts on my First Real Novel. I couldn't get anything to stick. Five, maybe six months later, and a few weeks before the second geek weekend, I decided that this was the story I wanted to tell.

I didn't know then that novelizing your tabletop stuff was a sort of hallmark of amateurism that almost 100% of the time resulted in a shallow Tolkien or Dragonlance pastiche. When I did make that discovery, I was embarrassed by my story's origins. I knew that the setting my husband created, and the cultures, characters and conflicts within it were as inspired as any other good fantasy I'd encountered, but as an amateur writer, the last thing I wanted was to be accused of being an amateur.

As my present efforts can attest, I got over it. That said, I'm trying to be smart about it. A straight-up transcription of the campaign would be a wandering, schizophrenic mess. The pacing and structure of a game, even if it is story and character focused, is quite different from that of a series of novels. There are things that I will have to take out because they veer too far from both the main plot and the various subplots in content and tone. Other things, like minor characters and the aesthetics of the world will have to be fleshed out further. ("Matt, how do Mequisians dress?" "...Lots of colors? I dunno, but it's probably very impractical.") The way the magic works has to be tweaked, because certain spell mechanics are great for game balance but kind of horrible in a narrative setting.

It could take as long as three years before the things that happen this weekend are transformed into the first draft of a book, and I can't even say with certainty if this will be Book 3 or Book 5. I think this is to my advantage, in the end. I'll be able to write the earlier stuff with the newer stuff in mind, so I can make sure everything matches up. Matt and I will have a lot of time to think back on past events and, if necessary, say, "You know, it would fit the story and the characters better if X happened instead of Y."

It's not the system I had in mind when I pictured being a novelist, but as a gamer this enriches the experience for me tenfold. I love that both mediums are starting to influence each other as they gain shape, making both stronger. And most of all, I love working together with my husband to create something. We've been a right good dragon slaying duo over the years, and to me this is the natural meeting place of our respective hobbies and passions. That, and it's way cheaper than swing dance lessons. (Someday, someday...)

Whether I'm typing away in my word processor or sitting around a table rolling dice and eating pizza by candlelight, I'm doing what I love and trying my best to tell a story worth hearing.