An anniversary

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The anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday Quake is coming up. On March 27th, it will have been 51 years. That’s a lifetime really, but the scars from the destruction are still visible throughout Alaska. It just bears remembering that we should never take anything for granted; it can all be wiped away in an instant.

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It’s all in your mind (well, actually it is)

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One of the best teachers I ever had was professor Ron Spatz at University of Alaska Anchorage, who was then the head of the Creative Writing Department and also the editor of the prestigious Alaska Quarterly Review literary journal.

Ron Spatz was one of those people with the unusual gift of bringing out the best in people. He didn’t settle for second-best from anyone, and had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was handing in something less than they were capable of. I could fill a book, I suppose, with great Ron Spatz-isms. But there is one lesson he taught us eager would-be writers that has really stayed with me, even 15+ years later. It’s a simple idea, really, but it’s influenced every piece I’ve ever written since, and even the way I deal with people in “real life.”

It’s this:

People act according to the way they see themselves, not according to who they really are.

Told you it was a simple idea. At least, it seems so on the surface. In reality, it’s profound, and remembering this can help us understand how people (characters) behave, both on the printed page and off.

For example, suicide is epidemic among young people – especially in Alaska, where I live.  Say a character loses his job, laid off with a bunch of other guys. If my character sees himself as unredeemable, a hopeless failure, that this is just further confirmation that he can’t do anything right, he might consider suicide. Whereas most people would consider being laid off just temporarily bad circumstances and never consider such a drastic response.  It’s that self perception, whether accurate or not, that makes the difference.

A woman who’s been told she’s “loose” or “immoral?” Odds are she’ll act that way, dress that way. If she’s sexually assaulted, she might even think she deserved it. A teenager who’s always been treated like a thug will probably act like one. A man who thinks he’s not very smart will probably never try for a mentally-demanding job – even if he’s actually got an IQ of 130.

Of course, our self-perception isn’t always formed by the opinions of those around us. That jobless, thirty-something loser living at home? He would never date anyone with less than supermodel good looks because inside, for whatever reason, he believes he’s worth it. On the flip side, we’ve all seen brilliant, beautiful people engage in self-destructive behavior (the supermodel in an abusive relationship, the amazingly talented singer who refuses to audition for a musical, and so on) because they don’t think they’re “good enough” in spite of the opinions of those around them.

mr rooney   “I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”

 The funny thing is, we all have our blind spots – those instances in which the way we perceive ourselves doesn’t *quite* sync with the rest of the world. This can make for great character development too. Remember Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? He thought of himself as a man on a mission – a rather righteous one at that; his students thought he was a nutcase. Or take Mr. Darcy, for example. Until the venerable Elizabeth Bennet set him straight, he had no idea what a stuck-up, priggish jerk he really was. One of the best ways I’ve ever seen this pulled off was with the Addams Family movies – Gomez and Morticia actually think it’s everyone else that’s strange, not them.

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“Weirdos.”

So tell me what you think. Have you found this to be true? Do you know anyone with a blindspot like Mr. Rooney? Has there ever been a teacher in your life whose advice stuck with you years later? Let me know in the comments!

So excited!

I’m so excited – six weeks until my oldest daughter and I get to attend the Willamette Writers’ Conference in Portland! Attending a conference has been a dream of mine for a while now, but life is busy and travelling is expensive, especially from Alaska. This year, we just decided we had to make it happen.
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I’ve been putting finishing touches on my new book, THE VOLUME OF WATER. I plan to have it completely spit-shined in time for the conference, and I’ve polished my query, which is what writers use to pitch their books to literary agents. It’s harder than you’d think, condensing an entire novel into a paragraph or two. I think my eleventh draft is the one I’m going with, although with six weeks left to fret over it, most likely I’ll go through another dozen or so before then, tweaking a word, obsessing over a comma, obsessing over whether I’m obsessing too much. I am scheduled to meet with three VERY AMAZING agents at the conference to pitch my book. And yes, I am terrified.

But hopeful. =)

Since I’ve been completely absent for the last year, I figure the best way to explain my new novel is to post my query here. So here it is …

 

Alaska, 1964: Mary Henderson is almost fifteen. She’s quiet, shy – not someone you’d notice. Childhood polio has stolen her volume, and that pale/weakling thing just doesn’t cut it with the rough cannery kids on the tiny island her family now calls home. Her one tether to the outside world is her HAM radio; nights are filled with the voices of friends all over the West Coast. Someday, she might actually find the courage to speak to them. Her own parents, a pair Baptist missionaries from Pasadena, are just too perfect to relate to, and not even the perky style mavens from her hand-me-down magazines can help her with her feelings for Noah, who is seventeen, an Aleut, and absolutely off limits.

At 24, Nadine has seen and done it all. Left behind in Kodiak by a guy whose idea of forever proved shorter than the summer sockeye run, Nadine serves whiskey to the men from the docks and waits for her real Prince Charming to sail in on the tide. A chance photo makes her famous, but self-loathing might just drag her under. Phillip, a Navy officer, has the perfect wife, but God help him he’s sick of her, and it doesn’t help that he can’t keep his eyes off Nadine. Lonely Coast Guard lighthouse keeper Reed Franklin only wants to make it through his one-year tour on The Nightmare and get back home to Bakersfield, but for LA newspaperman Hank Wasser, breathing in Alaska’s sweet, salt air is like waking from a bad dream – he may never go home again.

Then on Good Friday, Alaska is hit by a 9.2 mega thrust earthquake – the strongest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. Giant waves come crashing in afterward, and overnight their way of life is swept away forever. For Mary, Nadine and other lost souls, it might just mean redemption: anyone can now be anything they want … if they can just get past what they’ve always been.

So that’s what’s up with me. I’d love to hear what everyone else has been up to over the past year – let me know in the comments section!

Writing: A life of discipline and hard work

In my last post, I noted that one of the best (and least fattening) ways to survive the querying process with a wee semplance of sanity intact is to keep on writing.
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Toward that end, I’ve been working on a new project. Two new projects, actually. One is another novel that’s been stewing in my brain for a long time, a historical fiction set during the time of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Ever since we moved to Alaska (almost a quarter century ago – how is that even possible?), I’ve been sort of obsessed with it, and the tsunamis that wreaked major destruction all over the state. I’ve been doing research for months now, and I’ve even unearthed some pretty cool firsthand reports that to my knowledge have never been published. Being what writerly people refer to as a plotter (as opposed to a pantser – one who writes by the seat of their pants and goes back to fix plot elements later), I spent months planning and tweaking and plotting before I even wrote a word. But I must say it feels so good to be writing again.

The other project I am working on is a middle grade book about a boy whose stuffed moose accidentally gets dropped off at the Goodwill. I wasn’t planning to write a kid’s book, but this one basically slammed into my head – the whole thing – while I was thinking about something else. What can you do? I said to myself, “Self, stop it. You do not write children’s books.” And my brain said, “Oh yeah?” and WHAM! Up popped the idea for a sequel. Then a third book. Alright, already.

The more I thought about, the less crazy it seemed. For one thing, a million years ago, I was a kid. Who loved books. Some of my very favorite books of all time are middle grade books (more on that later). For another thing, I have five kids who love books like heroin, so I have done my fair share of reading to them.

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So now my brain is on overload with wanting to write. And what happens? Summer happnes.

If you don’t live in Alaska, you may not understand the burning desire to get outside the moment actual sunlight happens. After seven months of snow and dark, we get a little manic about it. Our last two summers were rather crummy. But this year – wow. It’s been gorgeous. Perhaps if I had a nice windowless attic to work in, I could buckle down and get these books written. But no. Look at this:

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This is the view from where I write.

I thought perhaps if I went outside to work on the balcony, I might get something done. But it just gets worse when you go outside.

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Outside, you can smell the fun-ness and feel the warmth and hear the kids playing. A dragonfly flew by and laughed at me. I think he also called me an idiot, but I’m not sure.

The bottom line is this: being a writer means making tough decisions. It means being serious about your work and disciplined about your writing schedule.

Therefore, I’ll be up late tonight. Writing. For now, I’m headed outside to do this …

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Because summers in Alaska are way too short not to.

For Mother’s Day I Want A Heap of Guts

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People in your works of fiction always think the story is about them.

It is.

And, it’s not.

For example, I have spent hours (okay a lot of minutes) trying to convince my mother that my novel MOTHER MONA is not about her. It really isn’t.

She’s in there though – just a wee bit of her. So is my beloved mother-in-law. So am I.

MONA, my main character, is a woman who’s lived her life restrained by fear. Fear of connecting, fear of leaving her comfort zone, fear of leaving an alcoholic husband. Fear of germs. Of spiders. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of fear.

See, there’s me in there. Certainly not that bad, but one of the perks of having a vivid imagination is that not only do you view the world in a way that makes people think you’re at least a little bit nuts, you also have the capability to imagine every little possible thing that can go wrong. And, I hate spiders.

So here I’ve gone and written a novel. Now, Mother’s Day is in a couple days and if you follow any kind of media whatsoever, you’ve been inundated with gift ideas for Mom. My kids have been asking me what I want (clean house, long nap, vacation to someplace warm, lots of hugs and kisses – not necessarily in that order). Then that Little Voice said, “What do you want? Guts.” Not the moose kind (been there, done that) or the fish kind (done that too). The writerly kind. Yeah.

So my Mother’s Day gift to me? The guts to query. For you non-writer types, that means I’ve spent months writing a novel, and weeks and weeks polishing it until my eyeballs bled, and now it’s time to send a blurb about it to literary agents to see if they like it well enough to represent me. The blurbs are called queries. So “to query” literally means “to rip your heart out and wave it in front of the whole wide world to criticize or reject or maybe even laugh at.”

Gulp.

I went bungee jumping once. Years ago, in Florida. Bouyed by copious amounts of liquid courage and the effrontery of my husband, who said I’d chicken out. I showed him. From 1,000 feet, I jumped. It was terrifying. And wonderful. And ever since, I’ve been able to look back and say to myself, “Ha! You did that! You can do anything!” and “I told you so” to my husband (which is also fun because it doesn’t happen often).

Today, I’m jumping. Leaping off the big fat, scary query cliff is my Mother’s Day gift to me. Tawanda!

But I still want all the hugs and kisses from my kids. And the long nap.

May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month

bigstockphoto_My_future_sibling__738782In my novel MOTHER MONA, my main character Mona travels to remote Alaska to help her daughter who is hospitalized with preeclampsia.

What the heck is preeclampsia? A lot of people have never heard of it. Neither had I, until I had it.

The first time I had preeclampsia, I thought the swelling in my legs and face and the headaches were just a normal part of pregnancy. Thankfully, my doctor thought otherwise and put me on strict monitoring and bedrest. A few days later, my daughter was born.

The second time – being seen at the hospital on base this time – I showed up for an appointment and my blood pressure was 250 over 210. Yeah, you could say that’s high. Because of a mistake on the appointment calendar, the front desk people almost wouldn’t let me be seen. Fortunately an on-the-ball nurse saw the state I was in, and my baby was delivered by c-section that afternoon.

The third time I had preeclampsia (back to a civilian provider) I ended up on strict bedrest for three months (with four young kids. Yeah.). At 34 weeks into the pregnancy, things started going downhill. My baby still wasn’t due for another month. Initial test showed I had protein in my urine and I looked like the Michelin Man, but my doctor wasn’t too concerned. However I had a feeling of complete dread – headaches, dizziness, I *knew* something was horribly wrong. My doctor knew about preeclampsia, but in my opinion didn’t fully appreciate how deadly it was. At 36 weeks I was back in her office, in tears, begging her to do something. To humor me, she re-did the tests. She called a few hours later. I was scheduled for a c-section the next Monday. When I showed up at the hospital, they re-did the tests again. I was worse. My doctor said, “(Bleep bleep), get her on the mag sulfate and in the OR now!”

I am incredibly fortunate blessed. At 36 weeks my baby was born healthy, his lungs fully developed. It was determined that I had severe preeclampsia and also had acquired HELLP Syndrome, a complication of preeclampsia that attacks the liver. Having the baby is the only cure for preeclampsia (although it can also attack after delivery), and within a few days my blood pressure had dropped to the point I was no longer in imminent danger. Yet, it took months for my body to return to normal. Five years later, I still have residual liver and kidney problems. I am just thankful to be alive.

When I was sitting around on bedrest for those three months, I came across a group called the Preeclampsia Foundation. Literally, they saved my life. Talking to their experts, and the encouragement and support from other women on the forums, gave me the confidence to insist the tests be repeated. If I hadn’t had that encouragement, if I had waited another few days, I could have lost my baby or even died.

The takeaway is this: sometimes doctors and nurses are up to speed on the symptoms and complications of preeclampsia – sometimes they’re not. It is up to every woman to learn for herself what the danger signs are, and to stand up for herself if the health care system isn’t listening. This holds true, I suppose, in all situations, but with preeclampsia, often the mother just knows something is wrong. That feeling of impending doom that had me questioning my own sanity? A major sign preeclampsia is getting critical. During my pregnancy, the the preeclampsia Foundation forums I got to know a lot of women all across the country who had preeclampsia. Some of the friends I made lost their babies. One of my friends had to deliver at 26 weeks, and I watched with tears for updates on the forums every day. Happily, her baby survived – a miracle if ever there was one. But there is a section of the forums dedicated to moms and babies who were not so fortunate. The testimonies of surviving children, spouses and parents will rip you heart out. Especially because so often, their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented by a better understanding of this disease.

The Preeclampsia Foundation reports that “by conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year” around the world. And that’s not just in underdeveloped countries. Preeclampsia affects 5-8 percent of all pregnancies. Doctors don’t know what causes it, although they have identified a few risk factors. The point is, it is unpredictable. It usually starts after the 20th week of pregnancy. But not always. Know the symptoms:

  • No Symptoms (surprise! yeah, that’s why this disease is so evil. You can have it and not even know)
  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • Proteinuria – protein in your urine. That little stick you dip every prenatal visit? This is why.
  • Edema (Swelling) – beyond the usual swollen feet. I gained 70 pound of water with my first.
  • Sudden Weight Gain – again, beyond the obvious
  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Abdominal (stomach area) and/or Shoulder Pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Headache (worst headache of your life? Go to the ER immediately. I mean now.)
  • Changes in Vision
  • Hyperreflexia – overactive or over-responsive reflexes
  • Last but not least, my personal “favorites:” Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened sense of anxiety, shortness of breath or chest pain, sense of impending doom

The Preeclampsia Foundation is an incredible resource. Check them out. And while you’re there, please donate a little something in honor of Preeclampsia Awareness Month. And in honor of all those who didn’t make it through.

Everybody, duck!

IMG_5094One of the fun things my main character Mona gets to do in my novel MOTHER MONA is feed the family ducks at her daughter’s cabin on Spruce Island, Alaska. When our family last visited Spruce Island, we were rather surprised to see locals keeping ducks rather than chickens. We personally own 11 pet chickens – and I say “pet” chickens because they haven’t given us any eggs in months. My guess is they are waiting for Lent, when we give up eggs, meat and dairy. Our chickens are sarcastic like that.

If you’ve never had farm-fresh eggs, you’ve practically never had eggs. When our chickens started molting (that’s a poultry-esque term for turning into a diva and eating lots of expensive chicken feed for free), we had to go back to buying store-bought eggs. It was kind of like switching to diet rootbeer … not even close.

So when we learned that breakfast would include duck eggs, we were definitely intruigued. They were delicious. If we hadn’t known they weren’t chicken, we never would have guessed – although they are quite a bit larger than chicken eggs.

duck-eggsThe great thing about most domestic ducks is that they aren’t food snobs. In fact, one of their favorite meals was the slugs that grow so abundantly in Southeast Alaska. Every morning, the kids would walk the plank-covered paths, plucking the slimy little dudes from the grass at the edges, getting slug juice under their nails. The ducks went crazy for them, and the kids had a blast holding the slugs for the ducks to gently grabble with their beaks. Yes, I just made up the word grabble, but it suits.

The ducks poor Mona had to contend with are nothing like the sweet-tempered creatures we visited. Generally, most domestic ducks are very nice. My fictional ducks Quick and Quack are Indian Runners, and Bear, ironically, is a Buff Orpington Duck – known for being sweet and docile. In a novel, where’s the fun in that? In real life though, they ar4353579009_6dc7ee490b_ze two of the most popular domestic duck breeds, producing on average around 200 eggs a year. Sometimes even more.

My characters – like our friends on Spruce Island – own ducks rather than chickens for several reasons, but primarily because they are more cold-hardy than chickens. They’re usually quite affectionate too, and on a frugal homestead, 50% larger eggs are a definite plus.

And, they eat slugs. What’s not to love about that?

For more info on raising ducks, I recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks.