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.
Yeah.snoopy

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.

Research is vital (and fun!)

Research is an important component of writing – even in fiction. Of course the common advice is to write what you know, and that advice is absolutely dead on. However, details matter. So for a writer, it pays to educate yourself.

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Toward that end, I spent a wonderful afternoon at a friend’s house learning how she cooks on her woodburning stove. Mona, the main character in my novel MOTHER MONA, is a city girl who rarely cooks for herself at home. Most of her meals involve take-out or the salad bar at the local organic grocer. However, when she travels to a remote Alaskan cabin to be with her sick daughter, there’s no grocer for miles. Nor is there any electricity, gas or running water. Mona has to learn to cook on her daughter’s woodburning stove. And Mona learns, as I have today, that it involves as much art as science.

Luckily for me, today’s lesson involved baking three loaves of fresh whole-wheat bread. YUM! My friend Athanasia has been cooking on a woodburning stove for years. She’s lived the off-the-grid lifestyle for much of her life, and let me tell you she makes it look easy.
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It’s not. And we didn’t even go into the wood-chopping part.

I took notes on when to close the main regulator, when to turn the bread so it doesn’t all brown on one side (because the fire is hotter closer to the wood box), how to manipulate the burner rings on top to accomodate your tea kettle or fryer (cast-iron cookware is heavy!) and how to make your house smell pretty simply by adding a bit of dried lavender buds to the bread-warming drawer.

Of course, any good researcher will tell you thoroughness is of vital import. And so, as I drove home I tore off and ate about a third of the steamy warm loaf of whole wheat she sent with me. Oh yeah!

Sadly for Mona, her first few tries at woodstove cooking come out looking nothing like this. But let’s just say that’s an area in which I already have plenty of expertise. I’ve already done that research, thank you very much.

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NOTE:                                                                                  (It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the bottom of this kettle is actually inside the stove here. The fire box is directly below it. That round piece you see normally lies flat, but can be removed so the bottom 1/2 inch of the kettle fits directly over the flame. There is another ring that also can be removed to accomocate a frying pan. How cool is that!)