Saturday, October 31, 2015

Where Do I Go From Here?

I've spent my hiatus from Astrid's story resting, reclaiming my physical, emotional, and mental space as a single person, and completing unfinished projects that had lingered for far too long. I've made great strides in those projects. I've cleared out a lot of unnecessary clutter. I've sewn nearly two dozen Brownie badges on my daughter's vest. I've moved furniture around to better reflect our lives now. My goal was to have ALL THE PROJECTS DONE. Then I could begin the rewrite completely distraction free. 

Who am I kidding? That isn't going to happen, nor is it a sound expectation. There will always be things on the to-do list. Instead of feeling like I fell short, I'm reframing my outlook. For one, there are far fewer unfinished projects now than when the hiatus began. That's a victory right there. For another, I know I'll need things to work on when I hit a plateau or need a mindless chore to keep me busy whilst I marinate

So what's it going to look like for me to craft this draft into a manuscript? Last Friday after work, I crawled into bed with post-it notes, highlighters, and Astrid's binder. I opened it and began to read and highlight and post-it. And then I got really overwhelmed. There were some places where the writing was horrible. “Did I write this? Ugh,” I heard my internal monologue start churning. I was overwhelmed by how many pages there were to re-read. “How am I going to begin to keep all of these disparate pages and scenes straight.” 

I set the binder aside, looked at the clock, and turned out the light. It was 7:00 on a Friday night, and I was going to sleep. I slept hard for three hours. I heard a text come in on my phone. I turned on the light. I stayed up for a few hours and then went back to bed for the rest of the night. I'm grateful for the experience. Getting overwhelmed and going to bed with the toddlers in the neighborhood helped me fine-tune my plan for hammering out a manuscript.

I'm going to re-read my entire 212 pages. I'm going to highlight passages and story development I want to keep. I'm going to flag scenes pink for Astrid to tell and blue for Derrick to tell. Then I'm going to number all the flags and create a word document list that contains a summary of what happens at each numbered flag.

Once that's done, I'll take that list and begin shuffling the scenes into the story's flow. Then with the pink and blue flags I'll organize the flow into chapters told by Derrick in first person and from Astrid's perspective in third person.

When that's complete and I feel comfortable with it, I'll open up a new document, name it Astrid's Story Draft two, and begin retyping everything I'm keeping from the notebook and write new content as the story warrants and as my muse guides me.

Just yesterday I renamed the antagonist a name more fitting his character and gave his name to a new character, Derrick's pet Irish Setter. I never imagined adding a dog to the story, but I had a sweet moment with the beloved pet of dear family friends. That experience was profound and has inspired me to give Astrid some canine comfort as she grieves and rebuilds her life. I'm excited.

I have set one goal for this next phase: complete the manuscript by December 2016. I suspect that it won't take me that long, but I want to be realistic and build in time for marinating and living life. I am not counting words or pages this time around. I am writing and reshaping until I feel like I have a solid story. I've learned to trust my gut, and she does not steer me wrong.

"It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all."

- Will Shetterly

"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story."

- Terry Prachett 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Shhh...They're Sleeping - A Hiatus

For years I worked as a PR Specialist for a healthcare association. I wrote press releases, trade magazine articles, executive correspondence. Strangely during this time, I did not consider myself a writer because it wasn't in my “title.” As I am crafting this post, I am coming to understand just how fortuitous that job was in my development as a writer. 

There were the distractions of office politics and difficult personalities. They were big obstacles to a young woman eager to do her best work. But I persevered and over time, I began to see the way I approached my writing at work as “a thing.” I learned that I'm a marinator. That ideas have to sit and soak for awhile before they can come out whole and ready to be consumed by their audience. And if I give those ideas time to marinate on the front end, the actual work flows out of me much more freely on the back end. I learned that my frequent walks around the office for more tea or a chat with a co-worker wasn't mere work avoidance. Those pauses were encouraging the marinating process. They were a part of my process. And then one day it occurred to me: I have a process! Once I got in touch with that, I relaxed more and the work came easier. I understood myself better as a writer, a creator of word documents, and the work got easier.

I haven't actively worked on Astrid's story since July, but I know that the work has continued in my subconscious. I know that her story is with me all the time and that it is growing stronger in this hiatus. I have felt like a mama putting her children to bed for a nap. I tucked them in, told them I love them. I kissed their foreheads, turned off the light, and closed the door. Like any mother, I'm not interested in waking up these children before they're ready. In July, I knew I'd know when it was time for the hiatus to end. I thought October was the time, and then the #write31days challenge began. It was all-consuming, and I knew Astrid and the gang would have to sleep just a little longer.

While they slept, I kept writing every day. I felt my voice grow stronger. I felt my confidence build. I also read my favorite book Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. I wanted to study the way she told the story from two characters' distinct perspectives and I learned so much. As I've shared snippets of Astrid's story in this series, my excitement to restart my project has increased. I am really excited to dive into phase two.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


In this, my fortieth year, I have come to appreciate in deeper ways wisdom that while clichéd is absolutely true. Enjoy the journey, not the destination. Do what you need for yourself—nobody can do it for you. Celebrate the little victories. 

Writing Astrid's first draft has been a journey, and I have loved it. So when I hit the hard-won goal of 80,000 words, I decided it was time for a celebration. I walked into Dairy Queen one evening after work and picked out an ice cream cake—one of my favorite things.

“Could you personalize my cake please?” I asked the woman behind the counter.

“Sure, what would you like it to say?” 

“I know this is going to sound crazy, but I'd like you to put the number 80,000 on it. I've just written 80,000 words of a book and I want to celebrate.”

“Sure. What color icing would you like?”

The next day at work I sent an e-mail inviting my co-workers and a handful of colleagues from other areas to join me in the afternoon for ice cream cake. They had offered so much encouragement and cheerleading through the process. Sharing this cake and personal celebration was my way of saying thank you. I was blown away by their attendance. I had inadvertently picked a really busy time for the celebration, and yet people came to congratulate me any way.

I brought my notebook with the printed draft and placed it on the counter. Proof of my efforts. A friend took over the cake cutting and another assumed the role of making sure every one got a piece so that I could talk with my guests. I received repeated requests to read a passage from the book. When I had confirmed that this group of encouraging people really wanted to hear something and were not just flattering me, I hopped up on the counter and began to read.

I was nervous and felt a little vulnerable, but I read any way. There was so much love and encouragement in the room that I felt safe to put myself out there. My passage was well received. 

As the crowd returned to their work and I cleaned up the sticky mess of the yummy cake, I wondered, “Was this a little out there to have put on a celebration for myself?” And then I began to realize that in celebrating my achievement I was role-modeling how to set a goal and achieve it—something we adults lose sight of when there are jobs and mortgages, kids and stress. I am a firm believer that the pause and celebration at the end of one milestone is an important part of the process before moving on to the next big goal. I had set a big, hairy, audacious goal, and then met it. Of course it should be celebrated. I wasn't going to wait around for someone to suggest the idea because no one would have. And in celebrating my own achievement, I was granting permission to others who might have a big goal they want to achieve. This is how it can be done. Just Do it! Celebrate it! Make another goal! Repeat.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Special Delivery

I stood at the counter with my flash drive in hand. “Hi, I have a document I'd like to copy,” I said when the Office Max employee asked how she could help me.

I handed her the flash drive and told her the name of the document.

“It's the first draft of my first novel,” I gushed like an expectant mother. I couldn't help myself.

She asked me the title of the book. ( I don't have one yet.) And if I have a publisher. (Again, not yet.) It's funny. These are always the two questions I hear any time I say I'm writing a book. 

Another employee joined the conversation while I waited for the print out. 

"What's the name of your book?" he asked. 

"Do you have a publisher?" he asked. 

See what I mean?
He asked a question I could answer. “What's your book about?”

“A young woman experiences a devastating loss and becomes a mechanic to rebuild her life,” I answered. 
“What's your name? I'm going to keep my eye out for that. It sounds real interesting.”

“I'm Julie Mahoney, but I'm publishing under my maiden name Steele. Look for Julie Steele. Steel with an e at the end.”

“Julie Steele. I like that. I'll keep an eye out. Good Luck.”

It took no time for the commercial printer to spit out 212 pages of Astrid's story. The woman behind the counter pulled the stack of papers—my BABY—off the copier, placed them in a box, and handed them to me.  I added mini post-it notes, highlighters, and pens to my order and returned to the counter to pay.  I felt breathless, jittery, excited.
I knew this sensation and when I'd experienced it before: the evening after my daughter was born. The labor had been long, and well, laborious. I was exhausted and in a lot of pain from an unexpected c-section. The nurses settled us into our room for a long morning's nap while they took my minutes' old baby to the nursery. The new day unfolded before us. We welcomed visitors. I made the first post-surgery trip out of the hospital bed. I snuggled my newborn. We exchanged rooms for a bigger one. By evening, I was wired. Blissed out by this new perfect creature in my arms. I couldn't take my eyes off of her and I couldn't stop thinking that just hours before, she'd been tucked inside me. Waiting to greet the world. With great effort on the part of me and a surgical team, we had ushered her safely here.

These memories flooded me as I walked out of Office Max cradling my book in my arms. The metaphor was not lost on me. Over the past seven months, my creative juices had flowed. An idea had gestated within me, and I had labored and delivered this book into the world. I felt breathless, jittery, excited. 

I felt like a proud mama for a second time. 

212 pages of Astrid's story

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Word Count Frenzy

For not being a numbers person, I got very attached to the number of words that were piling up as I neared my 80,000 first draft word goal. At the beginning of June, I set the mini-goal to go to the Haven retreat having reached 65,000 words, which I did. That meant that when I came home five days later I would only have 15,000 words to go minus whatever I'd written during the retreat.

In addition to texting Dan my daily “page done” texts, I began texting him my daily word count. He cheered me on until one day he'd had enough.

“Are you writing for word count or for the story? Stop counting words! The word count doesn't matter!”

I insisted that I was writing for the story, but that the word count was a goal I had to meet. I had tricked myself into believing that if I didn't finish 80,000 words by the end of June I would have somehow failed.

“What are you talking about? Failed? Because you wrote a book you didn't believe you could in a few short months? There's no failure there,” Dan said, exasperated.

I wasn't granting myself much gentleness around this time.

But Dan was. 

“No word counting for a week. Just write and see where you end up after the week.”

By this time I knew that following Dan's advice was the only smart thing to do. Look how far it had gotten me already. I had 5,151 words to go. So for one week I wrote. From June 24 to June 30, I didn't look at the word count. And my frenzy fizzled and I regained perspective and composure about this big task I had undertaken and at which I was, in fact, succeeding.

On July 1, per our agreement I was allowed to look at the word count and I did. In a week's time I'd whittled those 5,100 words down to 2,126 and I kept writing. On July 7, I surpassed 80,000 words! 

I couldn't articulate until after I'd met my goal why those 80,000 words had become so important. 

Two summers before I had written an essay that I had carried with me for twenty years. It had taken me that long to be brave enough to commit it to paper. I poured my heart out in this narrative. I had been vulnerable in class and workshopped it. With my classmates' help, I had crafted a beautiful story of which I was very proud. I put so much effort into the story, and when I turned it in it was seven pages. SEVEN. Those seven pages had felt like seventy. Going into the class, I believed this story was going to be a book one day. And now I'd written it and it only took seven pages to tell. My hopes for a book were dashed. If I couldn't write this story into a book, I convinced myself that I didn't have a book in me after all. 
Writing to 80,000 words was my way of proving myself wrong. To Dan's point, by 75,000 words, I had already proved myself wrong, but in those last weeks of June, I'd lost sight of that. With Dan's help, I regained equilibrium about my goal and my unbelievable success.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Words of the Year and Building a Writing Career

In January, as I was celebrating my 40th birthday and launching my 4040 list, I also chose the word Gentle to guide me through the year. I sensed that it was the right word to accompany me through my divorce proceedings and the transition to life as a single woman with an eight-year-old daughter. At the beginning of the year, very few things were certain—how peaceful the process could unfold, how my daughter would adjust to her new life, where we would live, how I would stretch my salary to meet new obligations. As a recovering perfectionist, I knew this landscape of uncertainty was rife with opportunities for me to expect things of myself that weren't reasonable under these circumstances. Historically, I have been gentle, accommodating, and kind to everyone around me with very little of those attributes to offer myself. I wanted to spend 2015 retraining my brain and finding a gentleness just for me. 
I have had plenty of opportunities to pull out the gentle word and wave it over me and my circumstances like a magic wand. With each reminder, I have breathed deeply and given myself an extra margin of patience, space, and kindness. Words have power. Even words like gentle.

Another word has emerged to define 2015: goal. I have set more goals in the past ten months than I have ever set in my life, and I am on pace to meet them all. Between the 4040 list and the novel writing, I have been one busy writer-mama. All of these activities have been so life affirming that I haven't experienced too much overwhelm or burnout. Being gentle with myself, I am certain, has helped me keep a reasonable pace and has given me the permission I need to back up and take a breather when need be.

“You know you're building a writing career, don't you?” Dan texted one day. 
“Yes, I actually do know that.” I replied.

“What goals have you set? You know, without goals you have no way of knowing where you're headed or when you've achieved it.”

I had a mild fit along the lines of “I want to be published, but I can't control whether that happens or not, so how do I set goals for things I can't control?!?”

Dan let me rant. Then I listened to my ridiculousness and answered my own question: set goals for the things I can control. I can't control getting published, but I can control what I submit for publication. I can't submit work if I am not writing. I can control how much I write. I set three goals for each of three separate time periods—within one year, within 18 months, and within three years. My overarching objectives were: To Build my Portfolio, Platform, and Freelance Opportunities. My one-year goals are: Retool my LinkedIn profile into a writer’s profile; Publish at least two blog posts per week.; and Meet with other writers monthly.

At the time, my blog posting was sporadic at best. Nearly four months later I post between four and six posts per week. When I set out to meet with writers monthly, the goal felt like a stretch. I have a lot of writer friends, but I wasn't sure any of them would want to commit to a monthly rotation. Mere weeks after I created these goals, a pair of writers who live in St. Louis and also attended a Haven retreat found their way to me, and we now meet monthly!

What is remarkable is that setting these goals has sharpened my focus and made me more attentive and disciplined in achieving what I've set out to achieve. Also, opportunities—like the new writing group—came my way when I was ready for them. This is the power of goal-setting. It's also a testament to breaking bigger goals down into smaller mini-goals. 
Where gentleness fits into goal-setting is that sometimes the goal won't be met on the original timeline or in the way it was envisioned. Being gentle reminds us that even if we haven't met the goal, we're closer than we would be had we not set the goal in the first place. Being gentle helps us to re-evaluate what needs to be done to accomplish the goal, re-calibrate, and start again. I mean, I was the last to believe that I could write a novel at all let alone to complete a first draft in seven months! 
The last five days of this writing challenge will detail how I achieved that big hairy audacious goal.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

More Character Surprises

My characters surprise me constantly. My characters are like my friends—I can give them advice, but they don't have to take it. If your characters are real, then they surprise you, just like real people.” 
- Laurell K. Hamilton

When Astrid first walked into my life, I pictured someone tough, a little alternative, and with a big, good heart. Early on I imagined part of the story line would include her having or getting a tattoo across her chest. I want a tattoo across my own chest, but since I can't foresee a time when I will have the nerve or gumption to do it, I thought I could live vicariously through Astrid. I wrote a scene that includes the tattoo, and I love it so much.

Now Astrid is fully formed. And she's tamer than I first imagined. She's got a good head on her shoulders. She's thoughtful, composed, and measured. And she's telling me that the tattoo isn't her thing. I can't as clearly see when getting a tattoo would fit into Astrid's backstory. I've been so disappointed since she hinted to me that the tattoo was a no-go. 

I can really relate to Laurell K. Hamilton's quote. Astrid IS real to me, and she's surprised me with this no-tattoo stance. What's surprised me most is the fact that I'm having to persuade a character of my own creation to do something I want her to do. I can suggest that getting the tattoo is a good idea until the cows come home, but if she doesn't want the tattoo, I can't force her. It just won't work in the story.

I want Astrid to have the tattoo—badly. But only if it works. If it makes sense. If Astrid can be convinced that it's the right thing to do for the integrity of the story. She and I have been going back and forth. For awhile I was convinced that the tattoo was a dead issue, but I couldn't let it go, so I kept pondering how I could naturally fit it into her story. I think I may have come up with a way to convince Astrid, but it will require convincing her grandmother, Phoebe first. 
I was not prepared for negotiating with imaginary characters when I started writing this book, but it's just part of the territory, and I'm used to it now. It adds to the mystery and mystique that is novel writing.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Conversation with Cadence about Writing and Pursuing One's Interests

With just a few days remaining in this series, I'm running out of things to say about my first attempt at writing a novel. I thought it would be a nice breather both for writer and reader to share a conversation I had with my eight-year-old about my writing and what, if any, opinions she has about it. 

My daughter's interests are a hybrid of her dad's and mine. I love it. She will be the most well-rounded person one day. His love of cars and sports and my love of words and the arts have found a comfy place to reside in our daughter. I really didn't expect the conversation to go where it did, but I stayed open and found it very interesting. On face value, it would appear that her ideas are strongly influenced by her dad's interests, but I can't help but think that my writing about a woman who becomes a mechanic has also shaped some of what she shared. At eight, there's no telling how many times her preferences will ebb and flow, change direction or stay on course. Whatever she decides to pursue, I like that I have documented her interests at this time. 

My questions are in bold. Cadence's answer are italicized.

What do you think about my writing habit? 
You work on it and I like it.

What do you like about it?
Everything. Like when you talk about Astrid. She's my favorite character.
Why has she become your favorite character?
Because she's interesting to hear about and has interesting friends and family.
You aren't very happy about one of the characters dying. Tell me what you think of it.
It's sad because he was very nice to Astrid and to their friends and family.
But we've talked about it, and you understand that every story has to have a problem to solve, right?
I know. Duh.
Does it bug you that I spend time writing every day?
No. I think it's good because I get to play with my friends when you do it.
You also sleep when I write in the early morning, right?
Yes or sometimes I'll wake up earlier.
What do you think of moms having hobbies or things that are important to them separate from their kiddos?
Good because I think it is cool to see my friends and family learn their talents.[We have a friend who is a photographer and my sister is an artist.]
Does it make you want to pursue your talents and interests?
Yes because I think it would be interesting to do what my family does.
What interests do you have right now?
I really like cars so I'd like to be a salesperson or fix cars for a living. I really want to be a cars person because I really know a bunch about it.
So going to car shows with Daddy has been a way to learn about cars?
My Dad is a tire salesman and he has to learn about cars for his work because he sells tires and he teaches me how to know car names and how to fix stuff on cars. [My favorite of her answers because this is how eight-year-olds talk when you are transcribing their words.]
We are running out of time. Is there anything else you'd like to say about art or pursuing your dreams?
I love working with cars and me and my friend like to work with cars and like to see the styles at car shows.
Thank you for talking with me.
Your welcome, Mommy.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sometimes Writing Looks Like THIS

I hit the snooze twice before finally getting up. I visited the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and settled into my writing space for this morning's session. I reviewed my editorial calendar. As I perused the final eight days, I felt uninspired by the prescribed topics and overwhelmed by the gaps I had to fill before the challenge comes to an end.

I hugged my daughter in her first moments of wakefulness, and then told her I had to write.

I logged into my blog dashboard and wrote my pageviews on my tally calendar. I logged into Pandora and heard my Avett Brothers sing I would be sad. I logged into Facebook and paused Pandora to watch Adele's video for her new single Hello. I was taken by her exquisite eye makeup and artificial eye lashes, her blemish-free complexion. I considered how the video must have been shot in America because rural roads don't look like that in her native U.K.

I shared the video on Facebook and admitted that I should be writing.

I went back to my document and formatted the text of the quote I was going to write about today. My daughter's hugs pulled me away from my writing again. Her hugs are the BEST.

I sat back down. I heard her show on Netflix in the background and turned my Pandora station up a little louder. I considered leaving the writing to this evening.
“Have you done your writing yet?” Cadence asked.


“You better get going.”

I stared at the screen for a few more moments and then stood up. 
I figured showering would be a productive stall tactic. Maybe something would come to me in the shower. As I shaved my legs, I heard the words that wouldn't come yesterday in a business proposal come to me now. “I hope I remember this when I get into the office,” I said to myself. I kept shaving.

And then it came to me. THIS little morning non-writing is what I should write about. I don't want to give the impression that every moment of writing is inspired and blissful. This is what writing looks like some days. And the less I fight it, the quicker the blocked moment passes, and I am restored to my moment of productive creation. Knowing oneself and one's strengths and weaknesses, what motivates and de-motivates and working with them rather than against them is key to successful writing. I knew sitting there for too long would leave me frustrated and set a bad tone for my morning at work where I also write.

It's now 7:33. I have time to post this to my blog. Drink my tea, toast my bread, pack a snack for Cadence and a lunch for me. Day 23's writing is complete!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Research Assistance

“So, I'm writing a book about a woman who becomes a mechanic. Would you mind describing what it looks like down there?” 

 I was getting my oil changed, and knew that this was a place to start in turning Astrid into a mechanic.

“Would you like to see the pit for yourself?” Mike at Valvoline offered.

“Really? I would love to.” I grabbed my phone to take photos and opened the car door. 

“Hold onto the rail the entire way down. I don't want you to fall.” 

I may have audibly gasped. What I saw below my car was nothing like I imagined. It was a complete basement work space. I met Will, the technician who was going to do the oil change. I looked around, took photos, and asked questions. 

That visit to Valvoline inspired and informed a scene I wrote between Astrid and Derrick. I gave Astrid my entire experience as her own. My questions became her questions. My reactions became hers. It made writing the unknown so much easier.

I love getting my oil changed now because I make new friends and enlist new research assistants each time I go. Just last week, I went in for an oil change in advance of a road trip. I learned that Will, the one whose experience was closest to what I envision for Derrick, had moved away. I was disappointed. He was the one of all of them that remembered me each visit and had offered his help. But then I met Brittany—the only woman in the shop. We talked and she agreed to talk to me about what it's like to be a woman in that environment.

“Are there any cranky or hard-to-deal-with people here?” I whispered.

She nodded. “I've cried here.”

“I definitely need to talk with you.”

She smiled and agreed to me calling her.

I met Angela, the new assistant manager at Autozone, one evening when I was picking up the second strut for the rear hatch of my Pathfinder. I had noticed her the evening before when I'd picked up my first strut. (I hadn't known to specify that I needed two, so in the process I ordered only one. Novice mistake. Gosh, I have a lot to learn!) Just as I suspected, Angela had a story. She'd grown up working on cars with her grandpa, but hadn't been allowed to pursue her interest in car repair because she was a girl.

Angela grew up, had children, and started working on cars in adulthood. She was thrilled to work at Autozone. She showed me her hands. “They're always stained. I just love working under the hood.” I told her about my book and Astrid's transformation into a mechanic. 

“Could I pick your brain when I get to that point in the writing?”

“Sure. I'd be happy to help.”

Angela mentioned that she insisted that her children demonstrate their ability to do four things to their cars before they can get their driver's license. I didn't have paper with me, so I've forgotten what she told me, but I've put a placemarker in my story. Derrick tells Astrid she needs to know how to do these four things to maintain her car. In the second draft, I'll visit Angela and with pen and paper in hand, I'll ask what those four things are again and take notes.

This cast of characters I've assembled in my real life to help translate car maintenance and repair is making the task of making Astrid a mechanic seem less daunting. In this season of facing fears and doing what I think I cannot do, it seems appropriate that I would choose something that I know nothing about as a central plot in a story I told myself I didn't have or couldn't write. 

During the Haven retreat, Laura made the suggestion that I write the entire book set in the auto shop. I love the idea, but it means that the second draft will be vastly different because virtually none of what I've written in the first draft is in the auto shop. (There are a lot of scenes in the shop's office because I could envision that the first go round. I've been scared to have Astrid walk into the shop itself.  I have to get over that in round two!) She suggested I watch Barbershop starring Ice Cube to get a sense of how place informs the story. Watching the movie helped me visualize how I could incorporate the auto shop without being an auto expert. The barbers stand at their stations and cut hair. But really what happens in each scene is dialogue that has nothing to do with hair cutting. 

I see now after watching the movie that my characters can be under the hood of cars and in the pit under a car, but they don't have to be talking shop the entire time. This is a relief!  I really cannot wait to get started after the #write31days challenge is complete.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Cheering Section

A theme throughout this series has been the support I have received from my friends. While I am the one who writes the words, the encouragement my friends have offered in the form of texts, e-mails, comments on my blog or Facebook page, and phone calls have fueled my writing. I don't know that I would have been as successful in achieving my goals without my cheering section. I suppose I would have been, but I am certain that I've struggled a lot less because of their support.

The following text exchange is one of my favorites throughout my Astrid “page done”daily texts to Dan: 
Me: Page done.

Dan: Good Morning!!! Gj on page. More proud of you everyday. Go forth and kick some ass today. 

Me: The world would be such a better place if every human got a text like that every morning. I am super lucky. Thank you.

I have heard the words “Proud of you” more in the past year than ever before. Those words are powerful. I was aware that teachers, parents, and other influential adults might say these words to children, but I was less familiar with the idea of peers saying the words to one another. I have a special peer group. They have taken to saying these words to me regularly and for a variety of achievements. “Proud of you” carries more weight when uttered by a peer than an authority figure because, well, the teachers/parents/adults in our lives are “supposed to” offer that encouragement. It feels completely different when it comes from a friend. 
Because of the powerful effect these words have had on me, I now look for appropriate opportunities to share the same words with others. I don't want to say or hear it too often, but a “proud of you” every once in a while, feels so good. I pay more attention to my friends as they parent, as they pursue their own dreams and passions, and as they do the hard stuff of life. And when appropriate, I send a “proud of you” their way. 
We all deserve a cheering section in our lives. Those people whose love and support say, “I know achieving this goal is hard, but it's the good kind of hard. Keep at it! I'll be cheering you on as you go. It will feel so good when it's complete.”

I know firsthand how valuable that support is, and I am committed to being that cheerleader for my friends.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Writing Gives Strength

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I am afraid of.” - Joss Whedon

I began writing this book as a challenge or a dare to myself. I'd spent a lot of years talking about writing. I'd also spent a lot of years telling myself that I didn't have any fiction in me. I grew tired of that story. When I look back at 2015, I will remember it for many things. But one of the biggest things that will stand out will be how it was the year I stopped repeating narratives that were outdated or simply untrue. 

I set out to write Astrid's story to put the narrative to rest. Either I did have fiction in me or not, but I would KNOW having tried it.

I didn't know in January that writing every day would become a lifeline through one of the most difficult times of my life. It became an oxygen mask. When things around me felt crumbly, I would put on the mask, make use of the assisted air, and keep going.

Just as Joss Whedon expresses in the quotation above, writing has given me strength. I have written my characters to be what I am not, and I have definitely written to explore what I am afraid of.

Astrid is confident and brave in ways I am not. She isn't fearful of confrontation. She says what needs to be said even when it's hard. She's not afraid of ruffling feathers. When she stands up for herself the words come out of her mouth fully formed and confident. As I try to do the same, the effect is more clunky than polished, wavering instead of solid. 

If I've been able to give Astrid those words to say and the attitude and courage to convey them, then I have to believe that somewhere deep inside of me are the words and attitude and courage to do the same for myself. In conjuring up Astrid, I have created a role model for who I want to be moving forward. Through Astrid and the other characters, I get to practice being all the things I want to be but am afraid of in real life. Astrid the character and Astrid the project are teaching me to stop avoiding fears. To walk through what scares me most because likely the anticipation of said scary thing is much worse than just facing it head on. 

I can no longer say that I'm not a fiction writer. I proved myself wrong. I, indeed, have a story. I know this now because I WROTE IT.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Asking for Feedback

When Laura Munson introduced attendees' readings to the group each evening, she gave the group a particular thing to listen for and provide feedback on that would help the writer move forward in her writing. Each focus was particular for the writer giving her reading, but the direction was instructive for the entire group. 

In my case, Laura asked the group to listen for when they began to care about my characters. I read the first scene I'd written that takes Astrid into the mechanic shop. I was nervous. I hadn't shared this vignette with anyone. I was self-conscious. I know nothing about cars and now I'm writing about a woman who becomes a mechanic. I took a deep breath and started reading.

Derrick pulled the navy Pathfinder into the bay. Astrid stood to the side taking in her surroundings. It dawned on her that somehow even though Derrick had built this shop from the ground up nearly ten years ago, she'd rarely come in here. How exactly was that possible? I guess I was intimidated and stayed in the customer area, Astrid reasoned with herself.

Now she was standing where the magic happened. Where cars came in with problems and drove away in working order. She wished there was a shop like that for broken hearts. Pull in, fuse all the fissures, pull out restored. Tears pricked her eyes. There was no way around it. There were no easy fixes. Just one damn day at a time.

Asty, open the hood will you?” Derrick's request interrupted her thoughts. Startled, she wiped her tears and walked to the driver's side. She opened the door and pulled the lever to open the hood.

First test passed,” Derrick winked at his sister. “Thank you.” He motioned for her to join him under the hood. “Would you like me to introduce you to your car's engine?”

Sure,” Astrid said.

Nissan Pathfinder engine I'd like to introduce you to your driver, Astrid Cole. Astrid Cole, please meet your Nissan Pathfinder engine.”

Astrid giggled and playfully elbowed her brother. “Girl, the better you take care of this engine, the better it will take care of you. And an oil change is one of the most important things you can do to preserve your engine. Can you point out where the dipstick is?”

Astrid rolled her eyes and pointed accurately to the dipstick. She leaned forward and pulled the stick out and waved it at her brother. “Watch it, girl. We don't need any sass. Message received. You know where the dipstick is. Very good.”

Astrid looked around. 

“What are you looking for?” Derrick asked her. 

“I need a paper towel.”

Why?” Derrick was grinning as he realized his sister was showing off. 

“I need it to wipe off the oil. I'll reinsert the stick and determine what the oil level is.” Derrick walked over to a stand that held equipment and tore off a sheet of paper towel.

Here you go, pro,” Derrick said as he handed her the towel. He watched her swipe the towel over the oily stick and return it into its place in the engine. She pulled it out and read the oil level.

Whoa. I'd say I'm past due,” Astrid moved the stick in front of her brother so he could read it. “I guess this is one time where being heart sick and depressed is good for a car. I haven't driven much, so I haven't burned up the engine yet.”

Astrid handed the dipstick to her brother. He took it and replaced it. Then he gave her a big hug. She hugged him back and then announced, “Well that concludes what Astrid knows about her car.”

Laura asked for feedback when I finished reading. The women described moments when they started caring about my characters. I looked back at the text. They started caring on the first page! I was humbled, excited, and motivated to keep writing.

They talked to me about how natural my characters were with each other. I also heard that Derrick was too evolved. That he wouldn't talk like that. I love Derrick, and found myself slightly defensive. But I listened and knew she was right.

The feedback from these women echoed what I had received from friends at home when I'd begun asking others to read. I shared Astrid with Tammy and her response more than I expected. She loved Astrid. She wanted more! I kept writing, encouraged that I was actually achieving this fiction thing. I shared the scene when Astrid's in-laws surprise her at her condo. Tammy was angry with the father-in-law and had choice words for him. 

Another friend said, “Astrid's hanging out in my head. I can't stop thinking about her and she's not even my character. I want to know what happens next.”

And then I shared a somber scene with a co-worker. She e-mailed me. “I am crying, Julie.” My writing made someone cry? I was taken aback. Rendered speechless, and so grateful. 

Asking for feedback is nerve-wracking, but it's an essential part of the writing process. Writers have to be intentional about who they ask for feedback. They also have to learn when the feedback is helpful (even when it isn't what they want to hear) and when to let it go. 

My writing is consistently better after I have had a trusted friend read it and make suggestions. The more writers ask for feedback, the better we'll get at receiving it. And most importantly, the better our work becomes.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reading Like a Writer

I read fiction differently now that I've written Astrid's first draft. I pay attention to the way an author marks time in a way I never did before. I look at the way the story transitions from the end of chapters to the beginning of new ones. It is fascinating and instructive.

My list and piles of books to read are an eclectic assortment of presidential bios, spirituality, literary fiction, and other subjects thrown into the mix. I generally do not read the latest craze when it's the latest craze. A quirk in my personality prevents me from wanting to read what everyone else is reading, so when 50 Shades of Gray the movie was soon to open this past winter, I still hadn't read the book. A friend wanted us to go to the movie, but felt I should read the book first, and so she loaned me her kindle.

Before my friend's interest in turning the movie into a girls' night, I'd had no interest in the book or its hype. The subject matter held no appeal to me. 
I was six or seven weeks into writing Astrid's story exclusively, so when I read anything, I read it as a writer. Because I was paying attention to character development (or lack thereof), plot, and scene, I didn't get caught up in the scandalous aspects of the story the way I might have if I was “just a reader.” In fact, reading it as a writer made me think, what's really the big damn deal? They are both adults. He doesn't force anything on her. She's curious, and so she explores this alternative lifestyle. 

Plus, as I read, I kept saying to myself, “Oh my gosh, she hasn't signed his contract! She hasn't signed his contract!” That's where the tension in the plot was. I didn't expect that, and I liked noticing it as an element of craft. Because I read this book as a writer, I actually liked it more than I expected I would. 
I also gained a good bit of confidence in my own fiction writing. I kept thinking, “Up against this bestseller, my story's not so bad. My characters are have more depth than hers—and she sold millions of copies.” Our genres are vastly different, but reading 50 Shades of Gray as a writer helped me think about my characters and how I wanted to tell their stories.

I recently re-read my favorite book Love Walked In and its sequel Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos for the express purpose of studying how this gifted writer told a story from two different perspectives—first person and third person. Laura Munson had suggested I structure Astrid's story by telling it from hers and her brother, Derrick's, perspectives. I liked the idea. I liked it even more as I re-read the way Cornelia told the story in first person and Clare's story was told in third person. By the eighth page of Love Walked In, I determined that Astrid's story would unfold in third-person and Derrick would tell his story in first person. 
This epiphany might not have come to me—or come as easily—if I hadn't been reading another's work as a study in craft.

Writers must be readers. You'll hear well-known authors say it so often you'll think it's cliché, but I know first-hand how important it is.  Find authors in the genre you want to write in and read their work like a textbook.  You'll learn so much.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

How God Speaks to Me

Laura Munson sat in front of the fire. Eleven women surrounded her as she read from the book that introduced me to her years before. I couldn't take my eyes off of her as she read her own words. She removed her glasses, looked up at her audience, and taught. 
“Do you hear what I did there?” she would ask as she pointed out a specific lesson in craft. She put her glasses back and kept reading.

When she was finished with the reading, she closed her book and looked up at us and smiled. I raised my hand.

“I would just like to say that it is amazing to sit and listen to these words you've written and to be reminded that it is THESE words that helped shape the way I would move through the next few years of my life. I had forgotten how influential your book was until just this moment. Thank you for sharing your words with the world.” 

I wept quietly in front of these strangers-turning-friends. 

Laura's reading reminded me: God uses books to teach, to comfort, and to guide me. Laura's book wasn't the first book God used and it wouldn't be the last.

I haven't read much in 2015. The 40/40 list and writing the novel have taken up most of my free time. The books I have read were ones I had included on the 40/40 list. I have a pile of books in a container in my room. When I've finished the book I'm reading, I peruse this collection to see if any of the books in it are my next selection.

I picked up The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. Two friends had loaned me the book at different times, but I hadn't read it yet. Within the first 50 pages, I knew I was “supposed to” read this book now. I read these words:

“Nothing honors God more than a big dream that is way beyond our ability to accomplish. Why? Because there is no way we can take credit for it. And nothing is better for our spiritual development than a big dream because it keeps us on our knees in raw dependence on God. Drawing prayer circles around our dreams isn't just a mechanism whereby we accomplish great things for God; it's a mechanism whereby God accomplishes great things in us.” (page 43)

2015 has become the year of the big dream. I wasn't ready for this book when my friends initially loaned it to me.

“God isn't offended by big dreams; He's offended by anything less.” (page 55)

“Okay, God, you have my attention,” I thought as I kept reading. 

And then, THIS:

“Too many authors worry about whether or not their book will get published. That isn't the question. The question is this: Are you called to write? That's the only question you need to answer. And if the answer is yes, then you need to write the book as an act of obedience. It doesn't matter whether anyone reads it or not.” (page 77)


If I had taken this book out of the stack earlier or read it when my friends loaned it to me, the author's words would have buzzed right past my head and my understanding. I whimpered when I read this passage and choked up when I read it to my friend.

God Speaks to Me Through the Books I Read.

He uses fiction and non-fiction indiscriminately. In fiction, He uses the lives of characters to help me weigh my own life against their circumstances, conversations, and choices. In non-fiction, He shares authors' insights to move me forward. I am grateful that I am paying attention. It would be easy for all of these books to be just “good reads” and for the good stuff not to stick.

Never knowing which book will be host to God's next message makes reading a constant adventure. I just know that at some point there will be something really good and much needed waiting for me.