Monday, November 30, 2009

When a Hobby Isn't a Hobby

To use Authoress’s words, I’m not one of “those” writers. I’m not the sort of writer who spends seventeen and a half hours in front of the computer screen every day and manages to cram the rest of life into the other six and a half. I can’t be. I have a husband and two kids and a house and church assignments and more laundry than I’d care to disclose, and all of them require my undivided care and attention every now and then. Writing is not the most important thing in my life; in fact, judging by this list, it’s not even the second or third. But sometimes I let it become so.

I went home for Thanksgiving last week, and except for the fact that my five-month-old decided nighttime was for crying instead of sleeping, it was a wonderful trip. We ate loads of turkey and my mom’s homemade stuffing, went on a Black Friday outing that didn’t involve busting doors (we cruised clearance racks instead)--and my favorite college football team even pulled off a win against their longtime rivals. But because Grandma was around to keep an eye on my kids, I started hopping online two or three times every morning. And then two or three times every night. And everything snowballed from there.

There’s so much to do online, after all. I had blogs to read, forums to post on, e-mail to check. Before long, I was stopping by QueryTracker every three or four hours and invading my inbox at least three times a day. And I never check my e-mail that often--the longer I ignore it, the greater chance I’ll have of actually finding something new, or so I usually think. By the time Saturday rolled around, I was feeling as jittery as a caffeine addict during a coffee strike. Every second I wasn’t writing or hanging out on Absolute Write was a second I wished I were. And every second I was didn’t satisfy me.

And then, like a ray of sunshine--or maybe a lightning bolt--it hit me: I don’t have to be this way. I don’t have to let my writing consume me. As my husband once so eloquently put it, my hobby is for me, I am not for my hobby. Writing is NOT the most important thing in my life; I have my priorities, and I’m sticking to them. I’m happier, genuinely happier, that way.

This isn’t the first time I’ve lived through this cycle of obsess and refocus, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Every car rattles itself out of alignment after a while; the trick is to get it to the mechanic before you wear your tires bald. Well, my proverbial tires are no longer balding. I’m happy to report I am comfortably, completely back on the hobby-writer bandwagon. I’m sure my mouse finger will appreciate the break.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Query Update

Is it the end of November already? Good thing I’m not attempting NaNoWriMo:) Anyway, here are the numbers:

Total queries: 75
Pending queries: 22
Full requests: 2 (2 pending)
Partial requests: 8 (2 pending)
Rejections: 36
Non-responses: 7

Another non-multiple of ten up there in the total queries count. What is my type-A personality to do? Well, at least it’s a multiple of five…

Interestingly, the two pending partials are the same two partials that were pending this time last month. So in the intervening weeks, I’ve had two partials both requested and rejected while the others are still holding on. I wonder what that means.

Well, I hear my baby crying. No more ruminations on what these grand statistics might mean, I guess. I’ll leave that to you:)

Friday, November 20, 2009

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

With Thanksgiving approaching, my thoughts keep turning to the many things I’m thankful for. Of course I’m thankful for the usual things--my husband, my children, my good health, my nice home, my writing; in fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I’m deliriously grateful for these blessings. But today I want to focus on some of the smaller, less usual things that make my life a little nicer, a little easier, a little better. So here are a few of the little things I’m thankful for:

1. Word processors. I can’t help but wonder if I’d be a writer without one. I’m sure I would have started writing, since I didn’t use one as a child, but would I have kept up the hobby if my only instruments were still a pen and paper or, gasp, a typewriter? I honestly don’t know. I don’t like to think of myself as a lazy person, but I think we’re all given to the path of least resistance. So I’m thankful for word processors, which make writing practically painless (blood, sweat, and tears notwithstanding).

2. A toddler who sleeps eleven or twelve hours every night (and has since he was six months old). This one is especially apparent now that I have another kid who doesn’t:)

3. Garlic presses. Love the taste of garlic, hate the mess of chopping it. This small tool has got to be one of the greatest inventions known to man.

4. The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. I live in a small town about eighty miles northeast of Las Vegas, so the local library is about the size of my quaint starter home. Thankfully, that tiny library is part of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, which moves more books than Butterball does turkeys. I (heart) LVCCLD.

5. Hand-me-downs (and the neighbors who keep bringing them). With all the money we’ve saved on toys and clothes, we could probably purchase a small island.

6. No-bake cookies. I recently rediscovered the joys of these childhood delicacies. All you need to make them is a few common pantry items and about ten minutes. And with three whole cups of oats in every batch, I’ve decided they’re even good for you, too:)

Well, those, in my book, are some of life’s little miracles. What are some of yours?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How Do You Know You Write Well?

That title is meant to be sung to the tune of ENCHANTED’s “That’s How You Know,” by the way. Just in case you were wondering…

Anyway, measuring your own writing skill is tough. Giving something someone else has written an honest critique isn’t too difficult, but how can you be objective about your own work? You can write and rewrite and re-rewrite, but how do you know, once the words finally settle, whether they’re any good?

Turning to friends and relatives doesn’t help. While their opinions and encouragement are, well, encouraging, deep down inside, a teeny, tiny voice reminds you they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Well-meaning English teachers aren’t much better. They get pretty good at spotting tolerable writing, since most of what they spend their lives reading is barely tolerable crap, but that’s about it. By the time I was in junior high, my English teachers had stopped marking up my essays because they were convinced they were fabulous. But let me assure you, those essays were anything but.

Other writers’ assessments are helpful, even essential, but it’s still not quite the same. Sometimes you just want to know for yourself that these words you’ve been smashing together aren’t drivel, that you know that you know that you KNOW what you’re talking about.

Well, I haven’t figured out how to do that. (Sorry.) What I have figured out is how to measure my own relative writing skill--that is, how much I’ve improved. And that all comes down to reading.

When I was a teenager, I devoured books by a particular author. Of course I’m not going to mention a name, and I doubt that many people would recognize the name, anyway, but suffice it to say that she (that’s not too much of a confession, I guess, to let that pronoun slip) wrote the books that made the teenage Krista read. After a while, her books started exploring themes that I had no interest in, so I stopped reading them. But I still thought back on those first few books with fondness.

Now fast-forward nine or ten years. When a friend recommended another of her books to me, I decided to read it. I’d long since abandoned that genre, both in my reading and in my writing, but since my friend had suggested it--and since I still thought of this author as a generally good writer--I decided to give it a try. So imagine my surprise when, mere paragraphs into the novel, this author launched into a four-page-long info dump that was one part back story and two parts telling, not showing.

I couldn’t help but gasp. Was this the great novelist of my youth, the woman whose stories I couldn’t put down? Had she really written this? Had she really written all of that other stuff? After mulling it over for a few minutes, the answer came to me: Her writing hadn’t deteriorated over the past nine or ten years; mine had just improved.

To be fair, her characters were as engaging as they’d ever been, and because I wanted to know what would happen to them, I kept reading. But I was disappointed her books weren’t everything I remembered. I was disappointed they never had been.

So there you have it, another one of my solutions to everything. How do you know whether (or not) you write well? Just keep reading. Sooner or later, you’ll figure it out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Recipe Recommendation: ABC Sandwiches by Tyler Florence

All right, so Tyler Florence doesn't call them ABC sandwiches. He just calls them grilled cheese, but that doesn't do these sandwiches justice. I guess calling them ABC doesn't really do them justice, either, but I think it's kind of snappy. The ABC stands for apple, bacon, and cheddar, which means that these aren't your three-year-old's grilled cheese.

Here is Tyler Florence's original recipe from the Food Network, and here's my (slightly altered) version:

ABC Sandwiches

8-12 slices of bacon
2 apples (nice baking apples, like golden delicious or granny smith), sliced
8 ounces of cheddar cheese, sliced
8 slices of sourdough bread
Butter...for buttering

Cook the bacon however you like (I recommend laying it out on a baking sheet and sticking it in a 425-degree oven for 12-15 minutes; you won't have to tend it and it won't go all crinkly). Then assemble the sandwiches, each with two to three slices of bacon and enough apple and cheddar slices to cover the bread.

Butter the outer sides of the bread and grill for four to five minutes over medium to medium-high heat, until the cheese starts to melt and the bread gets toasty. Flip the sandwich over and grill on the other side for about the same amount of time.

You'll notice that Tyler Florence slathers the bread with dijon mustard during the assembly phase. I'm sure that tastes fantastic, but my husband doesn't like mustard, so we never have any in the house. Normally I'd say a sandwich needs some kind of sauce to keep it moist, but the apples work nicely in that regard, so I don't miss the mustard--too much:)

I've been looking for a great recipe to share for a while, and this one's a keeper. I'd never have thought to put apple on a grilled sandwich, but it's the ingredient that makes this recipe sing. The bacon's not so bad, either. Has anyone ever gone wrong throwing a little bacon into the mix?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Books that I Grew Up With (and that Made Me Grow)

I first read Lois Lowry's THE GIVER in junior high, when I was just beginning to appreciate literary symbolism. I remember how gray Jonas's world was, literally and figuratively, and how he discovered the color red. I remember the ceremony in which he became the new Giver, and I remember the old Giver, his wrinkles and his age, and his weariness. I even remember the final scene, that image of Jonas whooshing away on his toboggan.

What I didn't remember was the baby, Gabriel--not until I reread it, anyway. I picked up the book again a few weeks ago to refresh my memory of its themes, but it was the baby that stuck out to me. I'd forgotten about little Gabe and his developmental struggles, his lack of perfection. I'd forgotten that Jonas flees the community with the baby to save his life. And I'd never even realized that, as he and Jonas are whooshing away on the toboggan, they're actually dying.

The ending's interpretation is up for debate, I guess, but as I read those final pages, tears dripping down my face, that was what they meant to me--this time. Interesting how the same words, the same scene, can communicate something so completely different to me now. Because although the book hasn't changed, I have.

My brother-in-law never reads the same book twice, but I read the same books over and over again for this very reason: to see how I see them now. And the disparity is never more pronounced than when I reread the books I remember from my childhood.

Take TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, for example. I also read this book for the first time in junior high (whoever decided fourteen-year-olds could grasp this one was a knucklehead), and when I read it again a few months ago, I was surprised at how little of it I'd understood back then. I remember my fourteen-year-old self saying something like, "Well, it was a good book [I think I mostly said this to sound intelligent], but what the heck did that Boo Radley have to do with anything?" But this time, as I stood with Scout on Boo's porch and saw her world through his eyes, all the subplots and the symbolism and the characters swirled together into one beautiful, complex whole. Tom Robinson, as it turns out, wasn't the only mockingbird in that story, just the more obvious one.

Does that ever happen to you? Do you ever pick up a book again and discover it afresh? Do you ever go back to your childhood in the pages of a book? And if so, what have you found?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NaNo My WriMo

Ah, November. November is a month of goods and bads for me. On the one hand, Thanksgiving--and especially Thanksgiving dinner--is fantastic, but on the other, the air is now cold enough that it can no longer reasonably be called brisk. Fortunately, that means sock season is upon us, but it also means the college football season is kicking its last. And somewhere in the middle of all this is NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) is, apparently, the month set aside for writing novels. The idea is simple: Start and finish an entire novel sometime between November first and November thirtieth. But the actual doing, of course, is much more complicated.

Consider, for example, a 60,000-word novel, which is actually on the shorter side. To complete said novel within the allotted timeframe, you’d have to compose an average of 2,000 words a day, or roughly eight typed, double-spaced pages. If you’d like to take a day off every week, you’re looking at averaging just over 2,300 words a day, or about nine and a quarter typed, double-spaced pages. And if you only plan to write on weekdays, you’re up to a little more than 2,700 words a day, or nearly eleven of those typed, double-spaced pages. And they’re probably not going to be terribly polished pages, either. Heck, I don’t even know if I’d have the time to put 2,000 stream-of-consciousness words down on paper every day, let alone anything that was actually readable by someone who wasn’t living inside my head.

But I think the thing about NaNoWriMo that really gets to me is the whole, I don’t know, randomness of it all. It’s like Valentine’s Day: If you don’t have a special someone, you probably don’t even notice the day’s any different (or you notice too much and work yourself up into a hand-wringing dither that only chocolate will fix). And if you do have a significant other, do you really need a special day to show that special someone you love him/her? I mean, don’t you show him/her that sort of stuff every day?

So it is with writing. Either you don’t write most of the time and you don’t plan to this month (or you decide to try and don’t last the first week). Or you do write, all the time, and then November comes along and you…what? Write all the time? Weren’t you already doing that? Except now your writing is probably far below its usual standard, since you’re struggling to churn out those 2,000 words.

I’m sure this method works for some people, and that’s great. Maybe it’s a wonderful way to produce a first draft and I just haven’t caught the vision yet. As it is, I think I’ll just hunker down and hold out for Turkey Day--and go buy myself a new pair of fuzzy socks.