2017 in Review

This weekend many of us will look over our shoulders and see what’s behind us, not what’s stalking us, but what we have accomplished, other than staying alive. Mostly, I think of the work I’ve done. Keeping a positive attitude so that I don’t shred myself to tatters over what’s left undone. So, let’s see what I have accomplished:

Finished and launched a third novel, Invisible Juan; had eight poems published in a variety of venues; coached an enduring group of eight other writers; maintained my poetry output with the help of a weekly critique group (thanks, Gamuts); led a workshop or two, one for the News Writers of the Colorado Independent; participated as an invited guest in the seasonal poetry reading at the Loveland CO Museum; read more good books than I can list; posted a few reviews on Goodreads; wrote regularly with two groups of friends, one the Free Writers, the other a women’s group; maintained this weekly blog; had Providence reviewed in Publishers Weekly; spent many productive hours in libraries and coffee shops with my pen in hand; started yet another novel (what am I thinking?) and met regularly with my climate fiction partner to share ideas and information on writing and publishing.

Thanks to my followers for sticking with me here, on FaceBook, and on Twitter. I’ve learned from you, taken your presence as encouragement, and your discernment as a measure of my skills. Feel free to jump in here and let me know how your year of writing has gone. Next week, let’s set some goals for 2018. HAPPY NEW YEAR.

One-Hundred Word Story

The newest issue of Poets & Writers is on my desk, liberally underlined and already a little creased. Useful, as usual, and challenging. Of note is Grant Faulkner’s article “Imagination Under Pressure,” in which he recommends writing in sprints and in limited ways. Limited as in exactly a 100-word story. Gauntlet thrown, news article recalled, dream images accepted as prompt. Here’s my attempt at the shortest of short stories, exactly 100 words (not counting the title).


RESCUED

At sunrise, Ed awoke. As the forecast had promised, the air was biting cold—not so easy then to die of hypothermia. His bladder demanded relief, stomach rumbled, mouth felt like dryer lint. Poor Marcia had insisted he hike with his survival pack, now pillowed under his head, a water bottle, beside him in the sleeping bag. Body heat had prevented its freezing. The slip of water over his tongue reminded him of coffee, suggested one more day with hot, black coffee. Okay then. He would tie his Day-Glo scarf to a branch and let the search drone find him.

Book Launched

On Saturday a gaggle of friends and fellow writers helped me officially launch Invisible Juan. I talked a little bit about the inception of the book–it’s been lounging on the shelf far too long and needs to get out and earn its keep–and I read an excerpt, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Then signing books, I was winging it all the way. Because I knew these people well, it wasn’t hard to make each book unique.

An event like this one is definitely not a one-woman show. My heartiest thanks to Caribou Coffee on W. 120th in Westminster CO. The baristas were welcoming and efficient and the coffee, as always, delicious. Another grand thank you to my friend and writing partner Carolann Walters. She is my “handler” in these situations. By which I mean that she provided snacks and took care of book sales, even packed up my box when it was all done but the shouting.

Now a shout out to readers: the book is available on Amazon. The gift of a book is a wonderful thing. If you are not yet aware of Juan’s problems and adventures, I have a page on this website, Bookstore, where you’ll find a synopsis. And any writer these days is thankful forreviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Writing in a Stockpot or a Skillet

There are at least two ways to cook up a new story or poem: #One is the stockpot process. You take out the stockpot with the intent to make chicken soup. You go to the refrigerator, get the chicken and carrots and an onion, find in the pantry the rice, reach down the sage, salt, pepper and bay leaf. You know in advance the ingredients and the process. You boil the chicken till the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove the chicken, strain the broth and shred the meat. Chop and add the veggies, measure in the rice and seasonings and there you have it, just what you intended.

If you’re writing a sonnet, a short story or a novel, you know the size of the pot you’ll put you ingredients into and you may know the ingredients ahead of time–characters, plot, theme, etc.

But another time you look around the kitchen and find one potato, a couple of eggs and two slices of bacon. What to make of this? Quiche? Or a traditional breakfast? You get out the skillet, cook the bacon, use the bacon grease to fry the potato and the egg. This time you began with no preconceived idea but the inspiration of ingredients.

I often do this when I see an image that triggers my imagination. The shadow of low-flying Canada geese, a phrase that seems loaded with mystery, or an interaction between strangers. The new novel that is coming to life started this way: I made a silly pun in my journal, “Dear Paige,” the way writers used to say Dear Diary. Well, turns out Paige is a fully rounded character and she gets into trouble without too much help from me. I go to work every morning not knowing what she’ll do next. So far it’s working. Spicy!

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Life Gets Busy, You Know?

I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.

The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.

In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Whoever first coined that phrase was not in the business of selling books. Authors and editors pay for and applaud effective book design. Readers expect to know at a glance who wrote the book and which genre it fits. The all important title may do the job, but often a sub-title helps to categorize the book. And given that we have probably hundreds of Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) codes that help sellers, librarians, and publishers sort books, genre is a very big deal.

I don’t often read noir or romance, and the typical dark or décolletage covers usually tip me off, so I don’t need to see the BISAC. The author’s name, if he/she is someone whose work I know, will tell me if I’m likely to read the book, but I am suspicious if the author’s name glares at me in gold 100-pt font and the title is squeezed in at the bottom of the cover. Says something about marketing and ego.

Some books lie. They pretend to be what they are not. Recently I saw one that had no identification on the cover, front or back. Not even the author’s name. Quite a ruse, as I then had to pick it up and open it to find its DNA. Not one I could relate to.

Of course, the physical properties of the book matter. I don’t expect Stephen King’s latest novel to be printed on heavy stock like a baby’s first book. For one thing, King’s book would then require a fork lift to get it to the register.

I’m about to design books I’ll publish this year and I won’t allow the fiction to look like poetry. Nor will I shout out my name and override the title, thus robbing the work of its own appreciation.

Climate Facts & Fiction

How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.

According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I  believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.

Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.

Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess.  What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.