Category Archives: fiction

the importance of craft-related reading

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I’ve been busy this year.  From our trip to Thailand and Bali in the winter/spring, to hopping from one place to another into the summer, to finally settling down again in the fall, I haven’t had the time to post very often.  I am hoping to change that now.  

As far as my writing goes, I’ve been hard at work with subsequent drafts of my YA Science Fiction novel.  I started a new practice in July during a break from my writing that has been extremely helpful in tackling the usual problems of world building, plot continuity, and character development.  I read other books in my genre, which is my usual break activity, but this time I also read Stephen King’s On Writing.

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This book floored me.  

I had no idea that Stephen King, like me, also has trouble with plot and feels that the books of his in which he did plot his way through are actually his worst books.  

“Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”  

~Stephen King

I felt empowered by my own tendency towards character driven stories, because he writes them, too.  

I enjoyed the first half of the book, which was a memoir of how he started out as a writer, but the second half was where his little bits of advice helped to illuminate many of the things I struggle with in revisions.  

He advises writers to write a draft of their book with the door closed first – so that we aren’t influenced by the opinions of others.  Our second major draft should be after a break of 6 weeks (or however long feels right to us) and written with the door open, so we can let the world outside mesh with our world and enrich it.  Both concepts aren’t foreign to me, but King spells them out with brevity and articulation that begs for rereading when needed.  He’s not just concise with his words, he’s actually funny, which makes this non-fiction book stand out from some of the more boring lecture-type books on craft that are out there:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

I’m on yet another shorter break from the revising and I’m planning to reread the second half of this book to uncover some of his jewels of advice I’ve forgotten.  And I want to stress this practice for the writers out there that are feeling stumped during their revisions.

Craft is important.  Craft is essential.  Go out there and find books on craft and read them.  Today.  I guarantee that the more you read, the better your writing will be, and King does, too:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The whole point of writing in the first place, for me anyways, is to visit another place and time, to gain a fresh perspective on life and what it means to be human.  Nothing does this as well as a book.  To give you a final, wise quote from Stephen King:

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

Yes, I remember feeling as I read that line.  They are magic.  But there are tricks to harnessing that magic.  It’s not all play.  It’s work, but the results are dazzling when we do it right.  

And we can read books within our genre critically, but sometimes it’s easy to forget some of the things we all learned in High School about writing clearly enough for our readers to not only be drawn into our stories, but to forget they are even reading something.  Sometimes, it’s easier when a writer actually spells things out and reminds us of the tools that can make our jobs easier.  And when we do mange to hone our craft, our writing has the potential to become a spaceship or a magic carpet to this other realm where our characters live and breathe, just like we do.

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Deaf Lit Extravaganza

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I am so excited that two of my favorite poems have been published in Deaf Lit Extravaganza, another anthology put together by the wonderful John Lee Clark, author of Suddenly Slow and Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology.

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If you are at all curious about the Deaf community, I urge you to pick this up.  It had great range, from fiction to poetry to non-fiction, and features some very talented writers.

From the introduction by John Lee Clark: 

“…this book represents the latest blow to the audist vision of deafness as a calamity, as something that must be fixed at all costs.”

The cover of the book, a dandelion, is a tribute to Clayton Valli, a ASL poet and linguist.  His famous ASL poem “A Dandelion”, which is about the persistence of ASL despite oralists attempts to weed it out, is transcribed in the book, though I love the ASL version below:

[A note from Wikipedia:  

“Audism is the notion that one is superior based upon one’s ability to hear, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear.”]

[A note from me:  

Many hearing people are audists without even realizing it.  

They are audists when they feel bad for someone who is deaf—because of their deafness.  

(Though when they just feel bad about a deaf person being left out, or when they wish to learn ASL to communicate better with a deaf person, that’s not audism.)  

They are audists when they see a deaf person as disabled, or hearing impaired, or suffering from hearing loss.  

They are audists when they think that person should have hearing aides or cochlear implants, or speak with their voice rather than their hands.  

When you are part of the Deaf community or use ASL, hearing loss is not something that is “suffered.”  Hearing loss then becomes deafness.  It doesn’t include words like “impaired” or “loss” or “disabled.”  

I do feel disabled when I am surrounded by hearing people who cannot sign.  Or when someone turns on a movie that doesn’t have captions or subtitles.  But that doesn’t really make me disabled.  It just means I can’t hear English, despite the fact that I speak and write in English.  

English was my first language, and Hearing culture was my first culture.  Gradually, I’ve become a part of Deaf culture, too, and I’ve realized, it’s okay to be both.  It’s okay to feel a part of two different cultures—the same way I feel at home in India or Ireland, but I was not born of those cultures, either.  

I love ASL, but I’m not a master of it.  I need it, but I cannot sign nearly as well as I can speak or write.  This is why—this is exactly why—I’ve chosen to read my writing aloud, in English, because it was written in English.  But if Deaf individuals attend my readings, I will always deeply want to sign for them.  

I wish to take hold of my own voice with my hands as well as with my mouth.  But I don’t feel adept enough to translate my English into ASL.  And for a true ASL performance, I would need to read my work aloud, and then sign it in ASL.  Not every venue would be open to that (being that it would take twice as long to do a reading), but that is something I might later wish to attempt in the performing of my own work.  

Until then, I’m proud to be a part of anthologies like this—where my words can exist alongside other deaf writers speaking about the Deaf experience from their minds and from their hearts.

the lure of horror

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I’ve felt the lure of horror stories since I was seven and wrote about a shark biting me in the neck.  I believe that was the same year my cousin Stacey and I made a sheet tent over the television in her basement while our mothers (who were sisters) spent a few hours talking upstairs at my aunt’s kitchen table.  

We promised we wouldn’t watch a scary movie, but my uncle’s collection of VCR tapes had too many enticing titles.  We chose “Return of the Living Dead: 2.”  

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As soon as it was finished, we ran upstairs to confess—not out of shame or guilt—but out of pride for having watched a real horror movie and lived to see the end credits, lived to pull aside the sheet tent, crawl back out into the light of day, and know that there would be no zombies.

My first long piece or prose, written in 8th grade, was called The People in the Lake.  It was a hundred hand-written pages with illustrations, about a town in New Hampshire plagued by lake zombies who basically pull you down into the lake if you swim after dark.  One girl has the power to release the spirits of the people in the lake, but there’s a good guy and an evil guy…and you know the rest of a story like this.  I was thirteen.  I loved the idea of zombies, I loved my vacation cabin on a lake in New Hampshire, and I loved the idea of a good boy that seems bad and a bad boy that seems good.  

I also used to write short plays that my cousin Stacey and her little sister Allison and I would act out with my aunt’s old dresses, costumes, and cabbage patch dolls.  

I’m not sure what happened to me in High School to make me switch from writing horror to writing nearly all poetry or high fantasy.  I got into witchcraft and I fell in love with The Princess Bride and Neverending Story (the book, though the film was great, too), and nature.  

I suppose those were nice diversions from the darkness in the corners of the room and under the bed—darkness that I still filled with monsters, reaching hands, or evil fairies.  

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I’m still in love with horror, still reading Steven King, Anne Rice, and other, less known horror writers like Poppy Z. Brite, from time to time, though I mostly feed my craving through movies.  Cabin in the Woods is one of my favorite horror movies.  I love everything Joss Whedon does, though.  Older horrors I still watch are Jaws and the Halloween movies.  I love The Walking Dead and Dexter, too.  

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There’s a part of me that’s sad I am not writing horror now, and I can see myself gravitating back that way in the future.  What has prompted some new thoughts about horror as a genre has been Kristen Lamb’s blog.  

Horror author Kevin Lucia has been guest blogging on her website, and his words have been truly awesome for me to ponder.  They’ve brought me back to that little girl I was under the sheet tents watching zombies, the teenager who surrounded herself with stuffed animals every night so that the monsters under the bed and the evil fairies in the corners of her room wouldn’t get her while she slept, and the adult who still can’t sleep on the edge of the bed, and who still prefers to swim in any water with a companion (a companion who somehow makes Jaws or the people in the lake or the people in the pool—not get her).

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Read Kevin’s wise words here:

Why is Horror Important—Part One

An excerpt:

“…we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones...”

Why is Horror So Important—Part Two

“Good horror takes characters of depth and exposes them to their worst fears, watching closely how they either rise or fall…which speaks (no, SHOUTS) volumes about us as humans.”

Why Writing Horror Is—SHOULD BE—Hard Part 1

“In the right hands, horror can hold up a very unflattering mirror and show us what we really are: broken, scared creatures flawed and cracked, a species tragically ruled by fear, prejudice, insecurity, pride, anger, selfishness and cruelty.

And in the right hands horror also shows our better selves rising above our flaws.”

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There’s probably going to be a part two for that last post, but I’m too excited about this to wait!

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In conclusion, I resonated with Kevin Lucia’s theories and I was reminded of reading King’s novel Cujo in 7th grade, and spending the last hour of reading in tears.  

Horror isn’t scary because of the monsters, it’s scary because all of these monsters are inside of us already.  

We’re the monsters.  

We’re the heroes, too.  

As humans, we literally can be anything, and sometimes it takes horror to show us the depths that despair or pain can lead us, or the heights we can reach when we are tested.

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a rose by any other name

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I feel like I’ve been swamped by names lately.  Not by names themselves, but by references to the naming of things and by my own frustrations with naming the characters in my latest book.

Here’s some TV/music and literary references to names that I’ve been trying to get out of my head after seeing/reading them:

1. American Horror Story’s Second Season, Asylums, has a really annoying 10th episode where the nun who is stuck in the crazy house sings a song in her head “The Name Game,” in which everyone in the asylum joins in and sings with her.  She calls another character “Lana Banana” and I can’t get that out of my head – seriously, I keep hearing “LanaBananaLanaBananaLanaBanana” over and over.  (I’m thankful I’ve at least finished watching this season!!)

2.  The above example reminded me of one of my favorite movies/books of my childhood, Anne of Green Gables.  Anne was always a character I related to intensely, and I loved the way she talked about things (like names): “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk-cabbage.”

3. Anne was referencing Shakespeare in her above comment.  The real quote was from the play Romeo and Juliet:

“What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; “

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So what am I trying to say here—besides exorcising the demons in my head that keep repeating these phrases?

I suppose I am asking a few rhetorical questions:

How important ARE the names we choose for our characters?

How important are OUR NAMES to ourselves?

How do we come up with the kind of names that people never get tired of hearing—like Romeo and Juliet, or Anne with an “e”, or Frodo and Sam, or Harry and Hermione, or Luke and Leia Skywalker, or Mal, Inara, River, Kaylee and Jayne?

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The names within popular literature or TV/movies seem like they’ve existed forever, and the characters we imagine or see on the screen wouldn’t make sense if they had other names.

So HOW do writers come up with the perfect names?

And should we stress over it?

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The only answer I can really give here is, yes, I stress over names, but when I focus on the story, and try out a name for a while, I feel closer to the character.  Sometimes, I do change a name while editing, and for a long time that usually means I’m uncertain about WHO the character IS anymore—and sometimes I want to go back to the previous name, and sometimes I’m torn.

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I don’t think this ever gets easier for writers, even though some characters can have perfect names from the start.  Names are important.  Of course, they shouldn’t be a reason why Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be together, and they shouldn’t make us hate a character if we hate their name, but they have power, as in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, and in the Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin, where things can be controlled when their true names are discovered.

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I’m sending this post out into cyberland as an ode to names and to the struggles we all have in the naming of things.

Good luck, and choose wisely.

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for those who’s passions are divided…

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A friend recently emailed me about feeling like she is pulled between two different directions for life work and graduate school.  It reminded me of my own experiences during my 20’s, and I feel like this is something many people must go through, so I want to devote a post to how I came to decide between my art and my writing.

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I grew up writing poetry and drawing, because my mother used to write poetry and she did a lot of sketching, toll painting, and craft projects that made me really inspired to do my own things with pencils, paint, and pens.  I loved English and Art throughout High School, so when I went to college, I double majored in both English, with a writing focus, and Studio Art, with a painting focus.  The first job I got after college was painting a mural of a sunset and a Robert Frost quote.  After that, I painted a handful of murals in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North India, Kenya, and Key West.  I also taught mural painting to primary school children in Dun Chaoin, Ireland (which was even more fun than painting murals).  You can see these murals on my author website HERE.  I am most proud of my experiences teaching mural painting in Ireland and of the Key West mural, but during all of these projects, I was always writing poetry, memoir, or fiction on the side.

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I was doing a lot of smaller paintings while living on the west coast of Ireland from 2005 until the end of 2006.  It was during this time that I wrote the first draft of my memoir of Animal Care in South India and the life of my dear friend Ann, who I lost to colon cancer in 2005.  I’ll always love that magic that happens when I sit in front of a wall or a canvas and just paint.  Or the magic of travel photography, which I also dabbled in, but I never developed my ability to edit my photos after taking them.  I just loved taking great travel pictures, which made me more of a snapshot photographer than a real photographer.

Anyway—it was through the writing of my memoir of stray dogs, and through the poetry I was perpetually writing about my romantic relationships and my relationship to the world, that I came to realize something important:

I might LOVE painting and photography, but I also LOVE writing.

So how do I choose which to devote my life to 100%, knowing that the “runner up” would probably only get 30% of my attention henceforth?

I decided on the writing because I read my words and I looked at my pictures, and I saw that I was a much better writer than I was an artist/photographer.  I also needed to write far more often than I needed to paint or take pictures of things.  And that’s what prompted me to apply to Goddard College for my MFA in Creative Writing, instead of going to art or photography school.

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So what I’m offering to you with this post, if you are thus “undecided”, or “balancing between” two passions, or three passions) — do the following:

1.  Seriously critique your work thus far in those fields.  Answer this question honestly—which thing do I do better?

2.  Think about your NEEDS.  Ask yourself—which thing do I need to do more often?  Which thing can I live without, and which can’t I live without?

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Don’t think about money, or which would be easier to devote your life to, because we aren’t here to sit back and take it easy.  We’re here to follow our passions and go on adventures—right?

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draft 5…draft 6…draft 15…?

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One BIG QUESTION for all writers is – how many drafts do we really have to write for our manuscript to become that elusive “DONE”?

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I’ve been struggling with that question for years, but I think with the completion of each project, the answer gradually gets clearer.  I would now advise any new writers (those without at least one published book-length manuscript, in Prose or Poetry), to do at least 10 drafts of their project before submitting it to publishers/agents or self-publishing.  I thought that might be the “rule” to always follow, but I’m realizing, at draft 5 of my newest manuscript, that the more books you write, the more “finished” your writing is from the start.  It’s all about practice, though there will always be those books or poems that take ten years or longer to finish, or twenty revisions before they get to the point that feels like they have hit their true form.

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I am a firm believer that no piece of writing (or art) is ever “finished.”  We can always always revise it more, go deeper, let it grow, evolve, dream itself into new forms, but there is a point where something has taught us as much as it possibly can teach us—the point where our journey and the journey of a manuscript has certainly reached the point of parting ways.

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It’s terribly hard to know sometimes, when we are done, or even just—when we need a break.  I get obsessive with my writing, I dive into it like it’s a parallel world, and if I don’t have the right goal/dream in mind, sometimes I carry a project to a place I didn’t mean to carry it, a place it shouldn’t be.

I thought draft 4 was DONE for my latest work, so I sent it out, and sure enough, it wasn’t done yet.  It was missing the deeper energy and lyricism I think of as my own personal style of writing.  And I realized, that draft was missing something because I was just trying to get it done fast—I was rushing it.  Rushing the first few drafts of something is absolutely FINE, though.  It’s the part where I thought they were DONE that was wrong.  So now, with draft 5, I’ve started over completely.  I’m telling the same story, but I’m changing a lot of the world facts, some of the plot, some of the characters, etc.  And I’m writing it slowly—I’m not forcing myself to write every day, and I’m only letting myself write when I NEED TO WRITE, when the desire to write surpasses every other feeling in my heart.  Because then, I’ll know, I’m writing from the right place.  I’m writing from my heart.

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I’ve so far written almost 5,000 words, some of them taken from the 4th draft, but most are new.  And it’s been one week (which means, I’m writing in pretty much half the speed I wrote the first 4 drafts, where I wrote 10,500 or so words a week for 6 weeks).  So, really, I’m still obsessed enough to make good progress, but I finally feel that amazing, mysterious sensation that my story is telling itself.  I think that happens when the words are flowing exactly the right way—it doesn’t mean I’m writing the final draft, but I’m writing the real story, and my characters are speaking from their hearts, too.  It’s the most incredible feeling and probably my favorite part of writing.

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So, in speaking to new writers, and writers everywhere—remember that deadlines are nobody’s friend.  This is a sailing lesson, too.  If you rush a boat, you might wreck your boat.  The same is true for our novels and poems and memoirs, but thankfully, with our writing, the repairs are easier.  Of course, writing “repairs” are less tangible, they’re only words, they’re not a hole in your hull, or a torn sail, or broken mast, but they might feel that way.  When we work so hard at something, when it takes over our lives, and we find out—alas—it’s NOT DONE YET, that can be devastating, but when we get over the initial shock, the initial feeling of loss and emptiness (because I have felt empty of words), we realize that we CAN ACTUALLY REVISE, that the words never leave us.  The words never leave at all.

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I’ve heard some people say that “writer’s block” is a myth, and we can always get out of it, we can always free write ourselves out of those kinds of blocks, and sometimes I believe it.  But sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes, I think it’s okay to take a break, feel the emptiness for a while, and then let the words come back slowly (or quickly), like wild animals we might meet in a forest, or on the water.  You can never predict when a dolphin will decide to play between your hulls when you’re sailing a catamaran, just like you can never predict when a fox might step towards you, might even walk straight up to you, and look you in the eye—when the words just appear seemingly out of thin air, and it’s like floodgates opening.

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Part of me is writing this to tell other writers: don’t despair when you realize you’ve revised your work to death and it STILL needs more revising.  Or when your work gets rejected.  I don’t yet have an agent (though I feel absolutely blessed to have one published novel out there circulating in the Universe), but I’ve heard that even when you do have one, you’re still going to get rejected, or be forced to revise things so many times, you might find yourself going crazy.  Take a breath, and keep going though, this is our dream job, isn’t it?

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Wishing everyone the best of luck in their endeavors, whether they are writing or sailing, and remember, two things from this post:

DON’T RUSH.

THE WORDS NEVER LEAVE US.

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navigating the waters of poetry and fiction

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I must admit, I write from the poet in me first and foremost, and I’m so in love with poetry, that I don’t want to ever put that part of me aside.  Lyrical fiction has been the “answer” for me, after working for a long time between the genres of fiction and poetry and discovering that my voice pours out more naturally when I either write a poem OR a novel.

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This isn’t true for everyone, and I LOVE some of the cross-genre writings I’ve studied (anything by Bhanu Kapil, a friend and fellow AROHO 2011 women’s writing retreat presenter, who was also one of my advisors from Goddard College).  I’ve also read a lot by Carole Maso and Anne Carson.

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My first novel, Makara, was initially cross-genre, but through numerous edits, it became clear that lyrical fiction was the way that story needed to be told.

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Now, I’m working on yet another fiction project, and this time for Young Adults, and I’m working faster than my usual pace (Makara took 2 years of serious, full time writing, and then 4 years of submitting and small edits here and there).

I’ve started my newest novel only 15 days ago, and have written a total of 27,048 words (almost half the minimum length it will be upon completion).  For this book, I’ve been thinking through the entire plot every night while laying in bed, and all day while doing other things.

Within a few days of starting, I knew the “log line”, which is a one sentence description of the whole book.  This is essential for anyone writing a book-length work.  I’ve heard this from agents as well as fellow writers, and it’s why I haven’t been able to write a good-enough draft of my memoir-in-progress (because I still can’t figure out what that one sentence IS yet).

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I’d like to not discuss my current project’s plot yet, but I can say that figuring out the plot before really getting into the story was essential.

The book I wrote between this one and Makara was something I wrote day-by-day, without thinking about plot until a few drafts into it.  It took me one month to write a rough first draft of that one, one year off, then one and a half years of intense editing to get a “finished” draft (draft fifteen!).  But the market isn’t biting for that one, so, it’s going on the shelf for a while, and I am now conducting a writerly experiment with this current project:

HOW FAST can I write a GOOD WORKING DRAFT of a novel in a new genre?

Some smaller questions to consider would be:

Will it be fun, or hellish?

How much will it suck?

How much will my friends and family end up hating me for ignoring them for 4-6 weeks?

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Because it would be safe to say that this blog might otherwise get pushed aside in the coming weeks as I work hard to write an entire manuscript, I will use this blog to update on my progress.

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I’ll also be posting more on AROHO women’s writing retreats, which take place every two years at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  I’m going for the second time this August, though I won’t be presenting this time, just attending, and soaking up all that amazing writer/artist energy at the ranch.

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Wishing everyone the best of luck in all of their creative endeavors.

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