Introspection

The Official Un-obligatory Project Update

2017 project title plate: Namesake

I finally finished my experimental manuscript. I’ve battled this beast for over a year, and my brain wanted it done a long time ago, so the last stretch took a lot out of me. I typed “The End” on April 4, exported the text to Word, and closed the Scrivener project file.

And I haven’t opened it again.

Gleefully.

I’ve learned enough of my writing patterns to expect a creative depression to hit me after I finish a draft. The focus required in that end-game sequence of tying all my plot elements together really jacks up my everyday life. I forget how to live outside of my craft, and when the project closes and I have to come back into the real world, I experience a loss of purpose and become despondent for a spell.

Not so this time around.

The Boondoggle Project

When I started into Namesake, I didn’t think much of it. I had jotted the idea down almost a decade ago. I even sketched out some scenes, gave some characters names, and outlined a couple of major events. But I did it almost flippantly. The concept seemed too predictable and the conflicts too trite, so I hadn’t considered further development a good use of my time.

I can’t remember why I picked it up again. I think the throes of real-life drama made me want something brain-candy-ish to experiment with. It was an escape. I changed the POV from 3rd Limited Omniscient to 1st Lyric Present and made my protagonist a sarcastic little punk. I wasn’t going to do anything with it, so why shouldn’t I play?

The plot merited a novella, a quick there-and-back-again adventure where my bitter protag could get some perspective knocked into her. For kicks, and because I wasn’t working on anything serious, I brought it to my critique group.

And that’s where I ran into trouble.

The Questionable Joys of Critique

Critique groups are awesome. They make you accountable for your work and help you refine your craft. And sometimes—sometimes—when you phone in a brain-candy draft, they demand that you get your act together and develop it properly.

I didn’t want to. Rachel and Jill insisted. When I told them last summer that I was five chapters away from the end, they looked at each other in alarm and said, “No you’re not.”

I balked. They lectured. I revised characters and scenes and villains and plot points and lived in dread of that weekly meeting.

(Sometimes accountability really bites, y’know?)

But the process refined me. I had to take my craft seriously instead of flouncing through self-indulgent mediocrity.

And the end-result? This story is wayyyyy better than I ever expected it to be. Color me pleasantly surprised.

 The Moral

My grandfather used to say, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” but in the literary world, “right” can be subjective. The road from Mediocre to Fantabulous requires slogging through a lot of hard work. It definitely helps to have course checks along the way.

(And yes, “Mediocre” and “Fantabulous” are both subjective as well.)

Further Reading

Curious about Namesake? I’ve posted a couple of excerpts over on my critique group’s site, Novel Three:

From Chapter 1, here.

From Chapter 6, here.

Look for the book sometime this summer. If I get my act together, I should announce more specific dates soon.

2016 State of Kate

This post is 100% self-indulgent. If you’re coming to the table hoping to learn anything linguistic, move along, little bronco.

If, on the other hand, you’d like a little insight into the resident author’s neurosis, pull up a chair.

(Sadly, I’m not being cute with that comment.)

The Year in Review

I have semi-jokingly referred to 2016 as my “sabbatical year.” My original goal when I started indie publishing was to put out a book a year, and from 2010 to 2015 I did exactly that. At the end of last year, I looked at my work, saw that it was good, and thought it might be nice to take a rest.

Clouds, because I can. (Also, light and shadow in beautiful interplay.)

Clouds, because I can. (Also, light and shadow in beautiful interplay.)

Not that I actually rested, mind you.

The real issue going into 2016 was that, although I had several completed manuscript drafts, I didn’t have any I was aching to publish without first performing major surgery on their plots and/or structure. And I couldn’t make up my mind, and I was busy with a million other things, and I’d already absolved myself of my usual June deadline.

So.

First Quarter

I was blogging three times a week—which I knew was unsustainable, but when you have a demon to exorcise, you get that sucker out rather than scheduling its extraction forward into measured deadlines—and I was participating in two weekly critique groups, in addition to twice-weekly volunteering and two separate duty-heavy leadership positions. Plus, you know, the occasional freelance job and four active book projects.

The nervous breakdown hit me sometime in March, as best I can recall. It disrupted my sleep, affected my health, and rendered me constantly on the verge of an anxiety attack. I was Lucy trying to keep up with the accelerating assembly line of chocolates, and falling short in my efforts.

So, I “cut back.” I withdrew from one of my critique groups and saw my doctor to confirm that there wasn’t anything chemical going on.

(There wasn’t. My body just reeeeally doesn’t respond well to stress.)

Second Quarter

On my mother’s advice, I put all of my book monsters back in their cages, with the rule that I would only take one out at a time. I semi-broke the rule by keeping a second and sometimes third project window open in Scrivener, but I didn’t look at them… often. I continued forward with my single project and single critique group and scheduled a break in my thrice-weekly blogging near the end of the quarter, so that I could do a formal project inventory and maybe get my bearings.

The project inventory came back with this result: “Kate, you have way too many active projects to be blogging three times a week.”

Unfortunately, it seems that if I don’t keep to a rigorously insane schedule, I don’t keep to any schedule at all. Hence the sporadic posts since that inventory. (Sorry, but not really, haha. Sanity first, guys.)

In June, as my two-week hiatus was coming to a close, my grandmother died. This event was 100% expected, as she had entered the end-of-life care phase at the start of the year. She has lived down the street from me since I was a teenager, and was mentally sound until the end. My sainted mother basically moved in with her and acted as a primary caregiver to allow her to pass within the comfort of her own home.

My inheritance, purchased at the family estate sale. Because what better memento than an adorable blue hat?

My inheritance, purchased at the family estate sale. Because what better memento than an adorable blue hat?

If you are familiar with end-of-life care, you know it is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. My secondhand experience—trying to support my mother as she supported hers—revealed a whole slew of weaknesses and frailties within me. I wish I had been better than I was, but under the weight of all my other responsibilities, I did what I could.

My grandmother passed peacefully in her sleep, a blessing for her and for all of us. She wanted a concert instead of a funeral, so we gave it to her. She is now hard at work on the other side, reunited with her sweetheart and countless other souls.

Death, however peacefully it may come, brings with it a somber weight of perspective for those left behind. I will shamelessly admit that I said, “Aw, screw it,” to all non-essential activities for the next six weeks.

Third Quarter

For the last two weeks of July, I holed up in my house and wrote 20K words. It was the most I had written in a long spell, and I thought I was wrapping up that project until I took it to my critique group and informed them that I only had five chapters left in the draft.

They informed me that I was wrong, and that I needed to go back to my plotting board.

I spent August dragging my feet on their well-reasoned advice.

Cosplaying as Penelope for the ANWA Writers Conference Character Gala. Costume courtesy of my amazing and talented mother.

Cosplaying as Penelope for the ANWA Writers Conference Character Gala. Costume courtesy of my amazing and talented mother.

In September I attended the ANWA Writers Conference for a third year running. The conference was phenomenal. I hit an energetic high of associating with like-minded authors and friends, I learned some lovely tips on harnessing better productivity, and I broadened my sense of the writing craft. I was extremely choosy in which classes I attended, and that worked to my benefit, anxious introvert that I am.

My one regret is that I didn’t spring for a headshot, because the photographer they had was outstanding. I am totes jelly of the beautiful profile pics some of my author friends now sport.

Fourth Quarter

October is upon us. I am still slogging away at the same project I selected back in April. My critique group is still pressuring me to refine it. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish the draft by Christmas.

(It was supposed to be done by now, if only people would let me have my crappy way with it.)

I’m on the fence about NaNoWriMo. It’ll be the first year since 2008 that I haven’t participated if I decide to forego the experience, but I’m past the point of doing things for the sake of tradition. I reached my 50K words last year, but I have yet to finish that draft (another monster waiting in its cage) and the last thing I need right now is to add to my list of unfinished projects.

They scream at me from the corners of my mind: “Work on me! You can’t leave me in this state forever!”

Mentally, I feel like I’m emerging from a fog, where I can maybe sort of manage having goals again. I still have a billion things on my plate, but by the Grace of God alone I can handle them now. Throughout this year, He has been ever patient with and watchful over me. Where He wants me to go from here is a great mystery, but it’s always fun to see His work unfold.

I can say this, though: 2017 looks to be a beautiful year. Here’s hoping I can contribute to the beauty of it.

When Someone Has an Axe to Grind

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We find one of the longest battles in English linguistic history in that simple, problematic word “ask.” You wouldn’t think that three small letters could cause so much trouble, but you would be wrong. Nowadays, someone using the pronunciation of “aks” (or “ax,” as it’s commonly written) gets painted as ignorant or lower class.

When really, it’s been a dialect issue from the beginning.

If you look up “ask” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology section will provide you with 40+ different spellings that have been used over the past thousand years. Old English used both acsian and ascian (but note that it’s also generally accepted that “sc” was pronounced like modern “sh” rather than “sk”). Middle English, true to its nature, has a dozen or more variations, depending on which dialect of English the written work comes from, and a good number of them use the letter x.

In other words, over the course of English history, it has not been at all uncommon to axe someone a question. In fact, for a good stretch in the Middle Ages, it appears to have been the standard.

Tell this to a modern Grammar Nazi, though, and you’re taking your life into your hands. (I did once. All I got in return was a hard stare and a single word: “NO.” I still get the giggles thinking about it.)

When two sounds in a word switch places, it’s called metathesis. This is a natural linguistic phenomenon. It’s the reason people sometimes pronounce prescribe as “perscribe” or nuclear as “nu-kyu-lar.” And, oddly enough, it probably has less to do with the speaker’s education and more to do with the ever mysterious brain-to-mouth process.

Nuclear is a fun one to look at. One of my professors back in the day pointed out that there are only, like, three words in the English language that end in that particular sound combination (the two-syllable “KLEE-er” as opposed to a one-syllable “KLEER” or “KLIR”), and that the other two are obscure. (I still don’t know what they are, so I can’t tell if he was being hyperbolic or literal; I can only report the anecdote.)

Meanwhile, you have particular, molecular, ocular, circular, spectacular, and dozens upon dozens of others than end in –cular: a quick Google search yields a list of 105, many of which have the scientific/medical context that someone might associate with nuclear.

In that respect, metathesis to “nu-kyu-lar” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The sound cluster is a common linguistic pattern. (And this professor was a pioneer for Analogical Modeling, so patterns played a huge part of his research.)

Similarly, pronouncing ask as “ax” isn’t such a stretch either. The consonant cluster “sk” occurs less frequently than “ks”—so much so that we have a single letter in our alphabet that can represent the second cluster (much love to you, letter x), while the first is always two letters or more. Plus, “sk” requires slightly more effort to articulate.

Go on. Say the two sounds against one another.

sk-sk-sk-sk

ks-ks-ks-ks

I’m not going to say that people are linguistically lazy, but we all slur letters and drop syllables. I mean, really. Who’s vocab’s perf? Obvi erryone’s had this awks convo wi’ th’r fams, amirite?

The Path of Least Linguistic Resistance is almost a birthright, and metathesis is one of its many variables. If chronic mispronunciation really is a brain-to-mouth process issue, calling someone out for it would be akin to mocking someone who has a speech impediment.

But whatevs. Do what you want.

(Just remember, though: on the Grand Scale of Time, you might be the one who’s saying things wrong. Language change is funny like that.)

 

When Resistance Really Is Futile

GrammarNazis_01

 

True story: “its” as a pronoun didn’t come around until Early Modern English. Up until the late sixteenth century, the 3rd-person gender-neutral possessive pronoun was “his.” (“Thereof” served the same function, though it appeared after the genitive object rather than before it: e.g., “the tail thereof.”)

Even better: when “its” finally did enter the language, it was frequently spelled “it’s” (including by Mr. William Shakespeare himself). Chew on that, high school English teachers everywhere.

Every time I see someone correcting someone else’s grammar, I instinctively think back to this and the many other changes our exquisite English language has undergone. And then I wonder how such people would have functioned in previous eras where those changes were more distinct.

But actually, prescriptivism probably didn’t exist in the 1500s—at least, not in the form with which we are most familiar. In the Early Modern English period, anything of value was written in Latin or French; the first English grammar wasn’t even published until 1586 (hat-tip to you, William Bullokar), and for a century afterward, successive English grammars were written in Latin.

Yes, Latin. English was a vulgar language. Only boors used it for scholarly writing.

Starting in the late 17th-century, scholars began to give English a little more credit. At that point, grammarians swept through and codified everything and tried to pattern our rules after Latin instead of Germanic structure. English words derived from Romance languages took on more prestige than those that came from good Old English (a belief preserved to this day in such mundane issues as “writer” vs. “author”: an “author” is so much more important, don’cha know, even though the only real difference between these two words is their etymology).

This is the era that chastised us for for splitting infinitives. (You literally can’t split an infinitive in Latin. It’s a single word instead of two.) It’s the era of inkhorn terms, those delightful absurdities. It is the great-grand-pappy that bred all the millions of self-appointed grammar gurus in the world today.

(The poor souls.)

Language changes. Trying to control that change is like trying to dam the Amazon with a handful of twigs. You can’t.

But that sure as heck doesn’t stop people from trying.

(Which is nice in its own way. I need a good laugh every now and then.)

 

Season of Gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others. ~Cicero

In honor of Thanksgiving this week, I’m taking a short hiatus from The Adventures of Average Everygirl. Every November, my schedule gets packed with deadlines, plus NaNoWriMo, plus all of the mundane responsibilities of life. This year has been no different.

(In fact, it’s something of a miracle that I’ve weathered through everything with my mind mostly intact. Yes, mostly.)

So, I’m giving myself a breather from the non-essentials.

I love the Thanksgiving holiday with its focus on gratitude. (I also love its secondary focus on pie, but that’s because I’m grateful for pie. Really, really grateful.) I have been very blessed in life, and I am grateful for it.

I’m grateful for the sacrifices of those who came before me, for grandparents and great-grandparents who have left me a legacy of hope and diligence. I’m grateful for a father who provided a stable home, and who serves as an example of faith, patience, and wisdom. I’m grateful for a mother who provided and continues to provide incredible emotional support and who helps refine me into my best self with her guidance. I’m grateful for my three brothers who are good, upstanding men and for my two sisters who are kind and generous women. I’m grateful for all my nieces and nephews, who bring such joy into my life and into the lives of their parents and grandparents.

I have been richly blessed with family. I won’t get to see most of them this Thursday, which is an odd change from past years, but they will be in my heart.

Above all, I am grateful for my Heavenly Father and for His Son, Jesus Christ. I am grateful for their perfect example of unconditional love. I make a lot of mistakes. I’m grateful for a Redeemer who loves me so much that He was willing to die for me, so that I may repent, so that I may improve, so that I may return to God’s presence one day. When I ponder His goodness, a sense of sheer and utter awe overwhelms me.

Truly I am blessed most in this life because of Him.

And for that, again, I am grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Got Low Self-Esteem? Meet One Girl Who’s Had It.

AverageEverygirl001

I’ve had more than a usual amount of reading time lately (*coughprocrastinationcoughcough*), which has reminded me of why I previously took a time-out from reading. My mother says I’m a snob when it comes to books. And she’s probably a little right.

Okay, a lot right.

I’ll be blunt: a lot of common literary tropes get under my skin. I’m guilty of some of them. They’re so inborn to our writing culture that they creep into the draft before we even realize it, with their eely assumptions and biased presuppositions oozing all over everything. On one hand, we have archetypes that act as a starting point for characters to grow and develop. On the other, there’s this sinister narrative that some negative traits and quirks are natural, normal, or even desirable.

Women in literature have an exceptionally difficult role, I think. It’s bad enough that a female protagonist hallmarks a “girl book” (but male protagonists are for everyone, amiright?), but I’m increasingly disheartened by how women—especially when written by women—are portrayed. Fellow writers, “The Girl with Low Self-Esteem” stereotype has got to go. We want the reader to relate to the main character, but is this really a characteristic we should encourage? “Look! She feels like crap about herself! She’s just like you!”

How common is this story line: Girl is plain, overlooked, unloved. Girl meets super-spechul hot guy who inexplicably likes her. Girl is suddenly worth something because a man took notice of her.

Pardon me while I rigorously barf up my lunch.

Not every female protagonist fits this stereotype, thank heavens, but there are far too many that do. (I’m giving you the squinty eye, Romance genre. You know exactly why.) There’s a flip-side of this equation, too. Often, the literary woman with self-esteem is a barracuda, seen as aggressive, and ultimately she gets humbled or changed to a more submissive persona by the end of the book. And we, the readers, applaud. Or rather, we’re supposed to.

In the real world, it’s possible to have self-esteem and be normal. In the literary world, that type of character is almost like an ivory-billed woodpecker, elusive and critically endangered. (If you find one, please broadcast her existence to everyone who will listen. We need to protect her habitat with lots of readers.) Instead of “She feels like crap about herself! She’s just like you!” a better message would be, “She’s confident and knows her worth! You could be just like her!” Alas, how rarely this message gets communicated.

I know, even as I express these frustrations, that some people will dismiss me as a feminist. Because this sort of discontent could only be harbored by someone marginalized into an -ism that is as much derided as it is espoused, right? Wrong. Good literature has good female characters. If Elizabeth Bennet had low self-esteem, she would have burst into tears at that first dance and run into a back room to sob over how the rich, handsome hot guy considered her only “tolerable.” If Jane Eyre had low self-esteem, she would have groveled to her abusive aunt and everyone at Lowood. If Cathy Earnshaw had low self-esteem… Well, maybe people wouldn’t have been so miserable. BUT THE BOOK WOULD HAVE BEEN TOTALLY RUBBISH DIFFERENT.

Anyway, long story short, I’ve harbored my feelings on this subject for years. Decades. Ever since the first time I read a book with a simpering heroine and internally thought, “Oh, that’s awkward. Why is she behaving like that?” The harbored feelings grew into conversations with myself. The conversations have now morphed into cartoons—rudimentary in drawing, but the message is more important than the art.

I’m poking fun at my hated literary tropes. “The Girl with Low Self-Esteem” gets the first skewering.

And thus I give you The Adventures of Average Everygirl.

Enjoy! Or not! I don’t really care!

PS—My recent readings did yield a couple of ivory-billed woodpeckers: Polyhymnia from Spindle by W.R. Gingell and Rosemary Mayfield from The Villain by May Nicole Abbey. Click the titles for links. Protect the habitat.

Writerly Confessions

SpellcheckConfession

This post has languished in my draft file, in one form or another, for well over a month. It’s not meant as a pity-party post, but more as a State of the State of Mind. Honestly, I hesitate to admit to any of it, but here goes.

Confession #1: I don’t have a reliable computer of my own right now.

Sometime back in mid-February, the left hinge on my laptop cracked, which made the screen tear apart every time I went to open it. Just leave it open then, right? Yeah. The next day, the computer itself started acting like it had had a stroke, and the day after that, it gave me the fatal blue screen and claimed not to have a hard drive when I tried to restart it.

Thanks to a timely prompting, I had just backed up all of my writing files to a thumb drive. The laptop did restart on subsequent attempts, but my confidence in it was shot and I’ve only turned it on three times since then. Basically all of my work relies on Word and Excel documents. With the impending Windows OS update on the horizon, I have been borrowing computer time elsewhere and working off of file-sharing software. (And yes, I know I could get an Apple instead, but Office for Mac has a horrible reputation, and I can’t justify shelling out that amount of cash when my main program would be subpar.) Which means,

Confession #2: I haven’t started any new writing projects since finishing a manuscript last January.

In some respects, this is okay. I’ve been editing The Legendary Inge and prepping it for publication. I’ve worked on various freelance projects, which have provided me with actual paychecks. I’ve also started into a second-draft edit of a book I wrote 4-ish years ago. So it’s not like I’ve been totally delinquent in the writing arena. I just haven’t committed to any new projects (aside from one, brief foray that lasted for all of a page before I decided I can’t write on someone else’s computer, even if the file is saved elsewhere).

However, the creative valve has been in its “off” position for long enough that it leads me to

Confession #3: I often wonder if my well of creativity has run dry.

Is this a common concern among writers? I don’t know. When I first started writing, I never thought I had it in me to finish even one book, let alone 12, and I grapple with a near-constant fear that as I progress, I’m really just writing the same book over and over and over again. I see parallels in my characters, my plots, my themes. They each have their different quirks, of course, but I wonder how one book would stand under close scrutiny with another, whether I’m wearing into a “you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” sort of rut. What’s the point of treading across the same grounds again and again? And then I go and look at the list of 7 original plots and I just… I don’t know. Give up? Because, really,

Confession #4: I often struggle with whether to give up writing entirely.

By “often,” I mean basically every day. I look at what I’m doing, what I’ve done, and what lies ahead, and I think, “Okay, Kate, you’ve had your fun. Maybe it’s time to abandon ship and go live in the real world. Get a real job with a steady paycheck and give up on this pipe dream.” And my Id adds in a whisper, “You were never really that good at it anyway.” And I’m not. Most of the time I’m a mass of writhing insecurities cobbled together with apathy and cynicism. The apathy is what whispers back to that insidious Id, “And your point? No one gives a rip.”

Oh, Apathy, my dear friend for all these years, how much heartache you’ve spared me!

Ever since I started writing, I’ve wondered if I should stop, if it was a waste of time, if I was capable of producing anything of quality, how writing fiction fit into my worldview and my goals in life (or lack thereof, unfortunately). When I was in high school, I thought, “I’ll quit when I start college.” In college, it was, “I’ll quit when I graduate.” After graduation, “I’ll quit when I turn 22” and then “…when I turn 25” and then “…when I’ve finished my Master’s.” And every time, I reneged.

When I finished my MA I finally decided to give writing a fair shake, but 7+ years down the road, I don’t feel like I’ve hacked very far into the bush at all. Mostly because I haven’t. The path in front of me is clotted with obstacles, and I can still see the easy way behind me. I can also see others hacking their way through the overgrowth in front of them, and I admire them for it. I’m just still dithering, but without a specific deadline to renege on anymore.

The past 2-3 months have been pretty difficult, insofar as my writing struggle goes. I attended a writer’s conference (also in February, when the laptop fizzled) and saw the energy of the other attendees, and their enthusiasm, and their renewed determination to go out and create. I just wanted to go home and burn everything to ashes. (Thank you, Apathy, for intercepting that desire.)

In general, crowds drain me to a soulless husk anyway, but attending class after class of, “Hey, this is how you should write!” and “You need to do this but not that,” instead of motivating me to hone my craft simply instilled in me the message, “Hey, stupid, you’re doing it wrong.” And that created inner conflict, because I’m not doing it wrong, and some of the well-meant advice was poorly wrought, and most of it consisted of guidelines or suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules. But that inner conflict churned up doubts and hopelessness, and I had to stay quiet for some time afterward as I sorted it all out.

On some level, it’s hard not to feel like the broken laptop and the dormant creativity and the vast alienation I feel in a crowd of writers aren’t a combined message from the universe that it’s time for me to give up and move on.

But I can’t. I can’t let it go. I don’t know why. I’m far enough removed from the process right now that I’m not going to claim something poetic, like that it’s etched into my soul, or that I would wither and die without writing. I think I could live just fine on that easy path. I really just don’t want to. And as much as it feels like the universe is giving me the perfect opportunity for a graceful exit, I haven’t actually received that message from The Only One Who Matters.

We’re tight. I think He’d tell me.

In short, forgive me, Dear Reader, please. My faults are many. I will continue to struggle, to dither, to haphazardly post (or not). I know I should be better, more committed, more aggressive, more routine. I should be, but I’m not.

And really, that is cause for gratitude, not hopelessness. A work in progress, after all, still has endless opportunities to improve.