The Dunes of Enceladus

It snowed a lot here over the last week. One day it took an hour to shovel the drive so I could get out for work, and I spent that hour pondering Saturn’s frozen yet active satellite. I imagined snow drifts piling up like dunes on the icy moon, Enceladus. There’s surely a story hiding in that thought.

Given the presence of humans on these wintry days, maybe Hoth is a more apt comparison, but I’m not here to talk about Star Wars. I’m here to talk about reading challenges and nonfiction and hikes through snowy woods. I have some goals for 2018 and I’d like to share them. Accountability, you know?

Reading Challenges

I did the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2016 and 2017. It’s a good, clear tracker that lets you set your own goal. Goodreads even sends me email updates to help me track my progress, stay motivated, and pick my next read. There are even group reading challenges you can join if you’d like to discuss your progress with a community of fellow readers.

My 2016 goal was 12 books and I read 7. Bad year. In 2017 my goal was 50 and I read 27. I increased my reading volume by nearly 400%! I’m sticking with the goal of 50 this year.

Book Riot also offers a reading challenge called Read Harder  It encourages readers to branch out and read widely and diversely. They have monthly themes with several excellent suggestions listed in each theme. I think January 2017 was ‘sports book,’ and it offered everything from a runner’s memoir to a book about the NBA by Bill Simmons (hello, sports people!), and everything in between. Book Riot does a fanastic job with their lists and suggestions, and they have a Read Harder group on Goodreads, too.

I listen to Anne Bogel’s What Should I Read Next podcast, and she hosts a reading challenge on her “Modern Mrs. Darcy” blog. I just learned about it this year so I have very little information on it. I will provide the link  I quite enjoy her podcast, and it’s worth a listen if you like books and bookish conversations in your podcasts.

I anticipate hitting my goal this year. I’m catching up on back issues of magazine subscriptions (Writer’s Chronicle/Poets & Writers), combing through my bookshelves and generally getting more organized. Life is fantastic!

Nonfiction

My first goal with my reading this year is to get more nonfiction in my book diet. I’ve had an increasing interest in narrative nonfiction, especially, of late. This year, I’m leaning more toward nature and outdoorsy titles. I read H is for Hawk and A Walk in the Woods this past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely for differing reasons. I also read Other Minds, which was more a philosophical work. I don’t have anything against philosophy, though. I just prefer the nature bits. 

Back to the nonfiction goal: I plan to read The Genius of Birds and Coyote America by the end of February. Lofty goals…have I said that before? 

On previous forays into nonfiction I tended to pick up medieval history with a European focus. I guess I tend to read in topics. One book I found fascinating traced the web of people and events that wove together the opportunity for William the Conqueror of Normandy to fight and win the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I might be the only one. I also read about Charlemagne, the Black Death, and a pope who quit the papacy (he got whacked for that). Maybe I’ll return to this period at a later date. I still have plenty of reading material on it.

Another realm of nonfiction I want to explore is the biography. Aside from kids “did you know?” books, I’ve never read a biography. My Charlemagne book was more of an overview, and I found it in history rather than biography. That book examined more about how Charlemagne set in motion the creation of modern Europe (politically speaking). There were still a lot of assassinations and intermarriages between the great Carolingian king and the most current map of Europe, but he was the first domino, so to speak. So reading about the lives of well known luminaries is now on my list. Maybe I’ll find a new reading love.

Hikes in the Snowy Woods

I’ve done one already! Here’s my end purpose: log terrain and how long it takes to cover a distance in different terrains and conditions. You were expecting, “To behold the austere beauty of nature in winter,” weren’t you? That’s nice, too. I plan on taking photos during my walks. There is plenty of wildlife in my neck of the woods, even in this weather. I do a little amateur bird watching when I hike and I have a pair of binoculars

So I’ll be hiking, and logging my hikes, and reporting on them. And reading a ton of books, including many about the natural world. 

And that’s the update!

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Personal Essays

I wrote this essay intending to use it for my graduate school applications, but it wasn’t quite what the schools were looking for. It turned out to be more of a story. If I was applying to an MFA program I could probably use it. Since I’m not, I’ll post it here. Once I find out if I’m accepted to one of the MA programs I’m applying for I might post the essay I ended up using, for comparison.


The Pieces of a Life

My grandmother has a hoarding problem. It’s not like the TV show where the homeowner is suffocating beneath thirty years of trash and dead cats, but there’s a lot of stuff in her house. And it stands to reason. She’s lived a long, storied life. She is the middle of seven children, born at the start of the Great Depression. Her father was the son of a Lebanese immigrant and business owner, her mother a German orphan who married at fifteen. She grew up on the south side of New Castle, PA. She went to school for nursing. She married, had two sons, traveled a lot, and moved a few times. She lived in Hawaii for twenty-some years before moving back to the area. Eighty-five years of life and thousands of miles of travel resulted in the collection of stuff that surrounds her in every room of her house.

Her hoarding is a source of frustration for my family, but to her each object is a memory manifest, something she can hold as proof of her accomplishments. If you ask her about any one object she has a story ready. I think she sees letting go of her things as getting rid of a piece of her life. She worked hard for them. Why would she give them up? But to me, the stories are more important.

Every week for several years now I pick her up on my day off and take her shopping. I drive and she tells me stories. Most of them I know by memory. There are nursing stories, or tirades about the wrongs people have done to her. I ask at that point what she says about me to others, and I’m blessed with thirty seconds of stony silence. Then she tells me about Hawaii.

Once in a while she comes up with a new story. On rare occasions, a memory floats to the surface, some story I haven’t heard. My ears prick up. I’m at full attention and I listen without interruption.

It’s strange to feel that joy of a new story stemming from my grandma’s personal brand of oral history, yet there’s something significant about it, too. I’ve learned in recent years the value inherent in both telling and hearing stories, and studying the layers within. It’s a deeply human thing; we all do it. From the Bible and Beowulf to weekend recaps around the watercooler, we are storytellers.

I am interested in studying these stories, classics and contemporary, visual and written, fiction and nonfiction, and how they inform and broaden my understanding of the world, and how they intersect with and influence each other. I want to examine how stories are put together, especially those that move me. I want to break them apart, see what works, follow the structure of the narrative, and use that knowledge to inform my writing. I want to find new ways to structure stories, new spins to place on them. I read an article from The Daily Mail that claimed there are only six basic plotlines used in all the stories (novels, movies, TV shows) ever made. Yet writers continue pushing the boundaries of storytelling and creating narratives that feel unique and innovative. So what if the building blocks remain the same? We return to the classics time and again for good reason, because the authors made the stories their own. And we learn from them.

I realized while driving my grandma around and listening to her stories that I have stories of my own to tell. They’re not all personal anecdotes like hers. They hinge on lives and places I’ve made up or co-opted for my own ends, but they have value just the same. And like her stories, they contain pieces of my life. I want to learn from the old stories how to fit those pieces together to make stories of my own. I want to share my stories with others and show what I’ve learned on my journey thus far. I collect stories like my grandmother collects stuff. I have shelves of books, and notebooks full of the seeds of ideas, but I’m lost on structure. I have a clutter of thoughts like her clutter of things, and I don’t want to get buried under it all. I want to learn how to make good use of this skill.

I have one more motivation for pursuing this degree. In all the stories my grandma tells there’s a hint of disappointment. Deep under the bravado and pride, there is dissatisfaction. Her life never turned out the way she planned. When one opportunity closed she picked herself up and adjusted her goals, only to be knocked down again by circumstance or obligation. These missed chances left her with a deeply hurt heart and many regrets. I can feel them running through the stories she tells, even when she doesn’t say it out loud. I know they’re there because I’m a lot like her; we both dwell on the ‘what ifs’ of our lives. And so, my motivation for pursuing a master’s degree is in part selfish. I don’t want to look back on eighty-five years of my life with a heavy heart.

My bachelor’s degree was hard won because I fought myself the whole way. I got that degree because I was expected to go to college and graduate with one. I’m choosing to go back now for better reasons. There are three specifically, and they are mine. First, I have a personal desire to learn more in my chosen field. Second, by learning more I hope to improve myself and my writing. Third, from learning more and developing my skills I hope to make myself more marketable for writing jobs. I have a decent job, but I envision something better in my future. I want to improve my chances of getting a job that uses my talents and creativity, that can become a career, and that I might actually love. Pursuing a master’s in English is my best plan to reach these goals. When I look back from eighty-five I don’t want to see the pieces of my life stacked around me like a fortress against the world. I’d rather see a body of work, ideas I’ve created and put into the world. I want my life to be things I’ve shared, not stuff I’ve hoarded. I want to write my story.


That’s the original version. I shortened it while trying to make it suitable for my graduate applications, but it has the same gist. I may post that sometime to examine approaches to editing. Maybe.

On Winter

Part III

Crows on carrion carry on cawing,

carving out a living on dead things,

flapping black flags on the roadside,

undertakers of the animal kingdom,

leaving white bone and fur bits by

winter highways, ravens on dark wings

weaving shadows over wintered fields.

Corvus corax, common raven,

dark intelligence, inquisitive

sentinels against a snow white world.

Part II & Part I

Oh Hi!

It’s been a week and some change and speaking of change….

I have some news and plans.

Firstly, the next installment of On Winter is posting at the end of the week. I plan on sharing more poetry and fiction in the coming year. 

Next, grad school applications are going slowly but I’m nearly done gathering materials for the two schools I’m most excited about. 

And finally, I’m going to trunk my current WIP because I’m just not experienced enough at this point in my writing journey to do that story justice. I’ll come back to it. This is only a brief farewell, not a goodbye forever. There will be no updates on it during 2018. 

On NaNoWriMo with a full-time job and overtime hours this month…

I am in over my head. I’m fixing up an academic paper to send in with my graduate school applications. I’m trying to keep up with this blog. I’m neck deep in rewrites for NaNoWriMo. This is probably our busiest month at work this year. And i want to write more short stories and poetry.

I need to get organized if I hope to accomplish even a fraction of this list. In the interest of preserving my sanity, my posts this month will be of the poetic variety. I have stuff to do, and precious little time. This idea–a serial poem in parts– has been pinging around in my brain for nearly a year. It’s time to eject it.

Part I is posted.

The rest are on the way.

On Story as a Reflection of Character Action

I have a note card posted by my desk listing the problem/need of each of my three major viewpoint characters. The problem and the need each character has are unique to him or her, but they play off one another. I have this card in a prominent place so that I see it every day. I (literally and figuratively) don’t want to lose sight of my characters’ greatest desires and motivations. 

These are the main desires, and knowing them is crucial to the story I’m writing. I realize they aren’t the only desires that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Recently I purchased Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig, and in reading it, saw that my characters need depth and breadth in their desires and motivations. Which I already knew. Still, it’s helpful to have it spelled out via examples, and by a professional author. And with Damn Fine Story, the focus is on story and not mechanics or plot or beat sheets. I’ve read a fair few books on writing and the writing life. This one is–so far–unique, helpful, and fun. It has a monocle-wearing elk on the cover! This post is not intended as a book plug, however, it did prompt a critical thinking process for me so I thought  it worth mentioning. 

So here I am, looking into the deepest parts of my characters’ souls and asking, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”

Wait, hold on…

Wrong script. 

Here we go: “What would you do with all that power?” And to follow up, “Why?”

Some of my characters have standard issue fantasy trope magical abilities. [I discussed my struggle to hit on some credible yet original magic system in a previous post.] Some have political power, wealth, or armies backing them up. A few have the strength of personality. Several have nothing but friendships propping them up. 

All of them want things. Peace, security, personal gain, political power. One wants to be rid of his power for personal peace. Others will use their power for personal and political gain, no matter the cost. My job as the author is to tease out the nuances based on the interactions and conflicts that shape them. 

 Now I want to focus on a specific example of how I’m incorporating this idea into my rewrites. 

There’s some popular writing advice that says something like, “Start as late in the story as possible,” and I agree. In trying to follow that advice, I started too late. I left out the entire status quo period for my protagonist, which left out an important episode in his life. That episode turned him onto the path he follows in my story. I stuck it in later as a flashback. Now, I’m not leaning heavily on flashbacks in my story, but this one comes at a pivotal moment for the protagonist–a confession (as recalled by flashback) leads to a change in his attitude toward the events around him– and I’d like to keep it where it is. 
How do I reconcile two scenes related to the same event–the opening chapter and a later flashback–without being repetitive? Point-of-view! and a little narrative sleight of hand. I can show him approaching that moment then cut to his reaction after the moment has passed. Later, the moment itself will be revealed during a vulnerable moment for the protagonist. 

This is only one small tweak with big impact that I’m making as I go through revisions. Rearranging is easy work, the hard part is building or restructuring scenes to bridge the gaps and accommodate changes. My characters are necessitating a lot of changes. It seems that once I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with my characters, they become alive, almost. They push on the narrative. The weaknesses in the plot are obvious as places where the characters are acting, well, out of character. 

I never had a good handle on my plot. Now that I know my characters better, I have a clear grasp of the story I can tell through them. The plot will grow alongside that.