Author Event This Weekend

Hey there.  🙂  For any of you in the Houston-and-surrounding-areas area this weekend, I’ll be appearing on Saturday at BrazCon, which is a book festival and comic con aimed largely at the YA set but really open and friendly to all ages. It’s a free event, happening all day. I’ll be speaking on two panels and signing books, so please come by if you’re around and say hello!

Click on this link to see more about the event, including author and artist lists and a full programming schedule. Spoiler alert: there’s a LOT to see and do here! In addition to a veritable slew of authors (myself included), you’ll find workshops on writing and drawing (with Mark Kistler, no less!), a cosplay contest, anime, video and card gaming, fandom paraphernalia (including, if I understand correctly, Daniel Radcliffe’s wand he used when he played Harry Potter in the films), and Houston’s Quidditch team. Plus Star Wars. And Doctor Who. And more I haven’t listed here. Check out their website for further details.

Sounds pretty fabulous to me. I hope to see you there!

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The Moss Wood Writing Retreats

Back in June of last year I had the extraordinary experience of attending my first-ever real writing retreat, Moss Wood in Cape Rosier, Maine. From a Wednesday to a Sunday during one glorious week I escaped the heat of Texas, trading it for the jacket-worthy chill of Penobscot Bay.

The Moss Wood Retreat occurs in a house right on the water, above a pebble beach and backed up by a forested hill whose spongy ground sinks beneath your shoes when you go for a hike.

The ground looks hard, but the forest floor gave way just as much as the bright green moss suggests.

 

The house is generously sized, with an inviting living area warmed by a stove furnace and a large, furnished, screened-in porch overlooking the water. The upstairs boasts several bedrooms and a bathroom for the writers attending the retreat. As soon as I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and went up to my room, I was arrested by the stunning view from my bedroom windows, which lined an entire wall. I was not in the big city any longer, which should have been obvious, but for someone like me who hardly ever gets out into nature enough, it took me a while to fully appreciate the tectonic shift in my body as I adjusted to my new environment.

I think I must have stared out the window for fifteen minutes when I first arrived, just listening to the water from the second story as it lapped at the pebble beach below the house.

 

The retreat leader the week I attended was Gregory Maguire, one of my favorite authors and an extremely gracious man.

Selfie with Gregory Maguire, author of many, many excellent books, including the Wicked series, Lost, and his newest, Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

 

There were seven other writers there, including myself and Moss Wood’s director, Patricia McMahon, and assistant director, Conor McCarthy. Each day and evening offered our group hours of high-level conversation about literature, narrative craft, our own individual journeys as writers. And the attendees were an excellent mix of published and competent authors. We workshopped, we shared, we wrote new material. I came away inspired, validated in my work but also enriched by what I’d learned, ready to grow.

Selfie with Patricia McMahon, Moss Wood’s director and the author of so many wonderful books for children, including Just Add One Chinese Sister (co-written with Conor McCarthy), One Belfast Boy, and The Freaky Joe Club Mysteries.

 

The setting at Moss Wood offers tremendous opportunity for indulging in the natural world for those who are interested. If I wanted to spend all my downtime hours working away on a manuscript, I had the full support of everyone there, and there were times when I did this. But the siren call of kayaking on the bay and hiking the hill with my fellow writers snagged my attention, too, and I loved every minute!

The view from the shaded pebble beach on a clear day, where we collected seashells and unusual rocks.

 

About half the time we had spectacular weather, cool and sunny and relaxing. The other half the time, we had foggy days and sometimes cold rain — and I loved this too. The difference in temperatures between what I had left behind in Houston and what Maine was giving us could be measured in dozens of degrees. It was my favorite kind of weather, no matter the weather, all week. I loved the novelty of needing a sweater and a scarf on a mid-June afternoon!

This was the view from my room on the morning I woke up to fog. The horizon seemed to have vanished, as if swallowed up by The Nothing. It rained some that day but cleared up enough for kayaking later.

 

At night, the view from my bedroom window was a void, the darkest expanse I could imagine, with no lights to penetrate the landscape. And while there were stars aplenty when the clouds dissipated, I couldn’t really even see them well through my window screens. One evening, around 11:30, as I puttered around getting ready for bed, I happened to notice a fiery orange light across the bay. I wondered if one of the houses down the reach had turned on a strange floodlight or something. It was odd and, in the unfamiliar, abject quiet of a near-sleeping house, disturbing. I speculated on what it might be, each product of my overactive imagination slightly more unsettling than the last. As I watched the horizon, it occurred to me the light couldn’t be a massive flame because it was stable — but it was growing.

A few minutes later I realized this light was the moon, a burnished copper bowl rising like a cheshire smile from the water, its visible half so breathtaking and enormous that I couldn’t stop watching it glide upward. The next morning at breakfast, I mentioned this to my colleagues, and one new friend, Elizabeth, said that sounded like something she’d love to see. So I checked my phone for what time the moon was scheduled to rise that night, and we hoped for clear skies. She said to come to her room a few minutes before, and if she was still awake, she’d join me.

At the right time, I went across the hall and saw the light was on under her door and knocked softly. She came over and we watched the moon together, observing as it heaved itself silently from the invisible water and dripped its reflection back down. It was a profound sight. Elizabeth, who lives in Manhattan, can’t see the moon from her apartment, and I just love gazing at the moon when it’s so low to the horizon, enormous and gold and close enough to float up into the sky while we watch. This isn’t something I can see very often in my city, either, as flat and clogged by buildings as my own landscape is.

 

Selfie with Elizabeth Lim on the last day of the retreat. Her new book Reflection: A Twisted Tale, comes out March 27th.

 

Going to Moss Wood was about more than just making new friends and colleagues, although it was definitely that, too. Having time to engage in the art and practice of writing — and in the business of writing — is more than a challenge from August through May due to the intense and demanding pace of life as a full-time high school teacher. Not being able to do my own writing enough during the school year is not only detrimental to my mental health, it hampers my ability to be creative in the classroom. All of the classes I teach are either writing classes specifically or have a very heavy writing component, and the more I work to improve my own writing skills, the more effective a teacher of writing I am. I have seen this circumstance play out frequently over the last twenty years of my career in education.

The Moss Wood Writing Retreat was a generative, nurturing experience, and a marvelous escape from the daily minutiae which seems to dominate my life. Although I missed my family very much — and will be forever grateful for their support of my going — I think the last time I didn’t have to worry about the constant barrage of household tasks and parenting obligations for so many days at a time was my and Aaron’s honeymoon, which happened some time around the turn of the century. So it was nice to get away for a bit and do something radical just to care for my own creative self. In fact, it wasn’t until I had been at Moss Wood for a couple of days that I realized this is what I had done. (I pushed away the mom guilt by reminding myself how important it is to be a good role model for my kids, a woman who doesn’t constantly put herself last. My therapist would have been proud.)

One of the things I appreciated most about being at Moss Wood — and understand, there were many things to love about it — was that I felt intellectually and creatively nourished. Here I was, in an idyllic setting for five days with a small party of similarly passionate writers, with no other obligations than to write, to talk and think about writing, to enjoy my surroundings, and to eat delicious and lovingly prepared food. (And oh my goodness, the cuisine was amazing. I still miss it!) Attending Moss Wood made me feel like a version of my best self. And as happy as I was to get back home to my family, I could have stayed at the retreat for several more days, too, maybe just to kayak once more or feel the cold wind after lunch or finish writing a short story I began while I was there.

As you plan out this year, if you are a writer, consider Moss Wood. In my perfect world, I would snag all my best writing friends and head up there every summer. In fact, I haven’t given up that ambition.

Ah, well. Maybe one day.

New Year’s Round-Up (Part 2)

Yesterday I posted the first part of this round-up, in which I discussed my blog’s 2017 statistics and some cool author and artist things coming up for 2018.

New Year’s being a traditional time to make resolutions about one’s life, and my general penchant for fresh starts and improved routines being an ever-present concern, I feel optimistically compelled to participate.

Yet I’ve had some real trouble crafting this blog post. All of last week, it was so hard to do it. It’s not just that Continue reading “New Year’s Round-Up (Part 2)”

New Year’s Round-Up (Part 1)

This year my New Year’s round-up really needs to be split into two posts for thematic and length reasons. So today I’m going to cover blog statistics for 2017 and some cool author stuff coming up, and tomorrow you’ll get another post about resolutions and why that concept is such a mixed miasma of obligation and glory.

***

I came late to the blogosphere. Sappho’s Torque has been around since August of 2011, and like many of the authors whose blogs I read, I try to do a summary of the year’s statistics here. 2017 saw my readership expand significantly, which is a trend I rather like and which I am grateful to be able to say about every year’s blog stats. It’s a slow way to build an audience, but it’s a worthwhile one. I’m grateful for all of my readers and hope you enjoy my work here. I wasn’t sure blogging would really be right for me when I started, but a friend in the publishing industry convinced me to do it, and I’m glad she did. My hope is that I will continue to post here, in a mix of thoughtful memoir writing and commentary and all of the very popular series connected to my other interests (reading, music, food, fashion, poetry, etc.).

In 2017, I posted to the blog 88 times. That’s not bad, I think. It averages out to more than once a week, though my daily poem series for every day in April and my 12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck series in December do throw that timeline off a bit. (The links take you to the start of the 2017 editions of both of those.) The most I’ve ever posted here in one year is 99 times, in both 2013 and 2014, so I feel like I’m doing all right. Maybe in 2018 I’ll crack 100? Oh, watch my ambition climb!

Sappho’s Torque is being read in a lot of countries around the world, but as I write in English here, it’s no surprise that most of my readers are in English-speaking countries. The USA, the UK, and Canada have my biggest audiences, but my blog also has a healthy following in India and Germany. Welcome!

Most people find my blog through search engines, by far. This was a surprise to me. The next most common access portals are Facebook, WordPress Reader, and Twitter, with big gaps between them.

***

So what else is going on in my artistic life these days? I’ve been considering resuming some of my old hobbies — in particular, making jewelry. You might remember that I am desperate to make art and have been my whole life. I can’t stop the urge. Writing is the art I’m most competent at, I think, and it’s definitely my primary vocation, but I also dance and paint and make stuff. I even have an Etsy shop, called Arts Eclectica. In this shop you can find my handmade cards, and soon you will also be able to find there journals and jewelry and my daughter’s art. She is already a much more accomplished visual artist that I am, and some of her watercolor paintings have been made into limited-edition print runs, which we’re going to make available there.

I also have an exciting author event coming up in a few weeks! I’ve been invited to speak at BrazCon, which is a combination teen book festival and comic con happening here in southeast Texas on Saturday, February 3rd. Last year it was extremely well attended for a relatively new event, and it should be even bigger this year. For those of you in the area who want to drop by, it’s going to be held at Shadow Creek High School in Pearland from 9:00 to 4:00. I’ll be speaking on a couple of author panels and also signing books. More details on my schedule closer to the event. If you’re there, drop by and say hello! More author events for 2018 are in the works, but I can’t say much about them just yet; rest assured you’ll read about them here when I have firmer details.

***

Finally, because I think that a community thrives when its inhabitants are readers, and because I love the concept, this year we put up a Little Free Library in front of our house. Within a week it was full of not just my family’s contributions but also those of others who have passed by it. Our LFL has been particularly well received by the kids in the neighborhood, some of whom come by several times a week, which has been an absolute joy to witness. I even have a whole box of books in reserve to make sure I can rotate and restock as often as needed.

My husband built this charming Little Free Library. The roof was constructed and painted to look like an open book, and the doorknob is a tiny book he made on his 3D printer. One of his best anniversary gifts ever!

***

Tomorrow I’ll post about my goals for 2018. Leave a note in the comments about what your resolutions are, if you have some — or whether, like many people, you’re not sure if the concept of resolutions works for you.

Thank you, every one of you, for reading my blog and making my forays in the blogosphere fun. Happy reading!

NaNoWriMo 2017 Wrap-Up

So today is the last day of November, and I’m ecstatic to report that my NaNoWriMo project is worth calling a success.

You might remember my post a few weeks ago when I launched my NaNoWriMo project for this year. In case you don’t, I’ll recap: it’s utterly ludicrous for me to expect, with my current life circumstances (teaching high school full-time, two young kids), that I can write 50,000 words in 30 days. I don’t even try that. (You can listen to an interview I gave, which aired on November 23rd, about this subject on the Pacifica radio show LivingArt by clicking here, but the archive will be easily available for just a few weeks, so I suggest you do it soon.)

So what do I try, if not the traditional NaNoWriMo? I attempt to make a commitment to writing something significant or furthering my writing career every day in November. This year my goal was to write 350 words a day on my current WIP (a new novel) or some other manuscript. A couple of those days I made or supplemented my word count with a blog post, and I took a few days off — one after my grandfather’s death and a few for Thanksgiving, which I hosted for my family. These were just things I really needed to do.

But the rest of the time? I made (and usually exceeded) my word count. I added almost 7,600 words to my WIP, which brings my current total to almost 22,000. I’d say I am good and well writing this book now, even if the plotting has been spotty at best. I’m suspect I’m just a pantser at heart, and trying to manage 350 words a day, allowing myself to write weak sentences now and then and stopping myself in the middle of a scene when I hit 400-500 words, has really facilitated the ease with which I’ve been able to meet my daily word counts. I learned this nifty trick from my dear friend and writing partner Sarah Warburton: if you stop writing in the middle of a scene, when you start up again, you already know what to write; the added bonus is that you’ll have the urgency to keep going if you had to interrupt yourself in the middle of things the day before.

Well, dear reader, it works.

Aside from the solid and satisfying progress on my novel, I also wrote an essay about Grendel, which still needs revision and editing, but which I then hope to be sharing with you relatively soon.

So all of this progress is lovely, of course. But now what? With the end of November, is that the end of my writing for a while? Holy canoli, I hope not.

Much like a Lenten fast or a fitness challenge can be used to cultivate good habits and purge unhealthy ones, my bigger goal in doing my modified form of the NaNoWriMo is to make myself get into the daily habit of writing practice. It’s all kinds of miserably hard to write books while you’re also teaching English and Creative Writing and raising kids. I mean, if you also want to sleep. I spend what sometimes feels like an inordinate amount of time grading papers, but I also recognize that’s the job. Understand, though, managing creative, generative energy is tough when I’ve pushed that part of my life, the artistic self, to the end of my to-do list. It’s not tenable, and it’s not healthy. As much as I love and appreciate all the other aspects of my life — and I do — I need that artistic pursuit if I want to be a whole, healthy person.

My hope is that when November is over, I will still keep trying to write 350 words a day (or night, as the case may be). Will I be successful every single day? I can aspire to that, but I also have to give myself permission to be human. That means not a robot. That means not rigid and inflexible. That means that sometimes I will make a compromise or two: I might not write 350 words every night; some nights I will write 475 or 632 or a thousand. I’ve even been thinking that perhaps a weekly goal might be better.

We’ll see how it goes. I mean, look at tonight: I just wanted to do a blog post to wrap up this project, and I’m already at nearly 800 words. And maybe that’s enough for tonight. After all, I’ve still got some grading to do.

Happy December, tomorrow. You’ll get an earworm on Monday, and later in the month you’ll get 12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck. Probably one or two other blog posts as well, if things go smoothly.

And I?

I will get some writing time in, as often as possible.

NaNoWriMo Update: Poopy First Drafts and Trying to Find a Balance

I have never been one to write a garbage first draft of a short story or novel, going from beginning to end in one long vomit of mediocre writing, with the intention that I can fix it all later.

The very idea of that feels like giving up on craft. Yes, many have advised me, the best thing to do is just to write it all down, get the whole story out, and then fix the bugs later. And perhaps if I were the kind of writer who can churn out a few thousand words a day, this might be a feasible option for me.

But that is not the world I live — or write — in.

I deeply appreciate Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts,” that they are children on a playground, carelessly exploring the world of the manuscript to see what treasures lay buried in its leaves. And I fully acknowledge that I have never, in my adult writing life and possibly not even in my adolescent one, given myself permission to write terrible first drafts all the way to the end, and that perhaps this is an error.

But to keep writing away on something I know in my gut is terrible seems an awful lot like wasting time to me, and if there is one commodity I do not have enough of to spend it willy-nilly, it’s time. I write slowly. I have all the usual demands on my attention of the modern wife and mother and career-woman (i.e., with a day job). I write slowly, thoughtfully, paying attention to the words I’m using. Blame it on my being formally trained as a poet. Or blame it on my attention to detail. Or blame it on my taking pride in my work, even my first drafts.

Or blame it on my not wanting to be a writer of crap and on my persistent efforts not to be. (I acknowledge I don’t always get it right, but at least I try.) I see very little value in writing an entire story that I know isn’t going to be good, or in writing an entire draft of a story and then throwing it away and starting over. This might be a viable option if I were immortal and had an eidetic memory. Neither of those being likely, well… I try not to waste any more time or effort than necessary.

When I write a story, I want to make sure to get the foundations of it right, to weave the texture in a way that sets up the rest of it for competence, if not success. Most of my fiction lives in the fantasy genre — magic realism, urban fantasy, literary high fantasy, paranormal steampunk — and I know that if I haven’t done at least a little economical world-building in the first chapter, my story won’t teach its readers how to read it. They won’t know the genre or the rules they’re dealing with, and the story could be confusing and end up a non-starter before we’re even out of the first chapter. (And if anyone thinks an agent or editor reads more than a few pages of a manuscript that appears not to know itself, well, that optimism is worth its weight in gold.)

Getting the voice right takes work. And once you have that, the other narrative vectors (like point-of-view, conflict, setting, pace, etc.) had better be on trajectory. This is a jargony way of saying that you need a strong foundation for a story if you want it to stand on its own. For a succinct explanation of the building-a-house metaphor, read this piece by George Dila; it’s a counterbalance to Anne Lamott’s treatise.

So I’m doing the NaNoWriMo again, or a modified version of it that makes sense in my world. My goal is 350 words a day, because I don’t often have more than thirty minutes a night to work and because the level of my creative energy by then is in in the basement. So I’ve set a generously low bar for myself, and so far I’m exceeding it nightly. (May this ever continue.)

But I realized about two days into November that I had to give myself permission not to write beautifully every time. I’ve been struggling lately with writer’s block — as well as Writer Brain (TM) — and sometimes the thought of sitting down to write stuff that I know isn’t going to be beautiful can paralyze me against writing anything. I’m a literary writer, a poet: words fucking matter. And the way I arrange them for others’ consumption is not a responsibility I take lightly.

So I’m trying to find a balance between shitty first drafts and publishable awesomeness. I recognize that’s a wide spectrum, so I’m feeling pretty good about hitting the mark somewhere in there.

Tonight I wrote about 100 new words on the latest chapter in my WIP. I also edited the whole thing (a good seventeen pages) and sent it off to my critique group. They will workshop it next week, and then I will revise it before I get too far into the next chapter, because I work too hard to weave the elements of a story together to have to unravel that tapestry every time.

After that chapter went on its merry electronic way, I wrote (and revised) this blog post, which is almost a thousand words. That means I’ve exceeded my word count again for tonight. Is any of what I’ve written tonight worth its weight in gold? I sincerely doubt it. But I’m not trying to be a perfectionist in a rough draft or a blog post any more than I’m allowing myself to write crap.

I’m just trying to write. And according to my word counts — and my growing readership — I’d say it’s working. Onward and upward.