Friday, September 14, 2018

Ten Dysfunctions

The Vermont Train Writing Residency was most helpful in forcing me to finish my story collection. Interested in checking out my snarky tales of workplace terror? You can get it here on Kindle or Paperback:

I've learned that three things happen immediately following the publishing of one's first book. First - you see typos. Lots of them. And weird spacing, and all manner of things that need to be fixed. I marked them on my proof copy and flagged the pages so I could make the updates to the electronic file:

Second, people will let you know that there are mistakes. It's human nature, I suppose. I have to admit that I'd been hoping to glow in the "just published my book" sphere a bit longer, but the notes are well-meaning and it has been generally well-received. Still, I applied myself to the necessary edits and bumped up the font size. This is why editors are so valuable!

Lastly, it becomes obvious right away that SO MANY THINGS were left out. I could dedicate a murder mystery to any number of conference bridge meetings with their passive-aggressive, time wasting, self-aggrandizing smugness. And I learned that there is such a thing as a "motivational magician!" For realz. Team building, the rumor-mill, tech issues, the commute, panel interviews and on and on. I made a joke about including this stuff in the sequel, but I actually could. Alas, I have to focus on the novels for now, but keep the ideas and hilarious stories coming.

I'm reading a spooky story next month for Highlandtown's First Friday Artwalk. Look for Yellow Arrow Press on Bank Street at Conkling.

I'll have a few copies of the book there for sale and I'm also happy to sign any you bring along. Thanks for all the support!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Vermont and the Three-Day Writing Experiment

So, we did it - we made up our own "Residency on the Rails" and rode for twelve hours to Vermont and back. Here's what I learned:

First - train stations are cool. Unlike the bustle of airports and the uncomfortable uncertainty of bus pickup locations, train stations seem to have some nostalgic class from eras past, even in downtown Baltimore. Penn Station is beautiful, if a little shabby. The long wooden benches are comfortable and there was a (much needed) Dunkin Donuts for iced coffee and glazed donuts. Normally, when I want to really concentrate on writing, I'm dressed comfortably (like a complete slob or in my pajamas) but I at least put on a tee shirt and real pants. Here I am waiting for the train.

Amtrak is cool because you can bring on two carry-ons and two personal bags for free - essentially, four bags. And all of them stay with you, either above your seat on the shelf or under the chair. So, I was able to bring my little suitcase, my laptop bag, my purse, and an insulated cooler which had my packed lunch, some bottles of tea, and some celebratory cans (don't judge me!) of sparkling rose for the end of the day. I did not want to rely on the cafe car and its mystery snacks and prepackaged sandwiches. Writers need constant fuel! And caffeine!

Coach is comfortable on a train, unlike pretty much every other form of public transportation, and you can get up and walk around.  There were bathrooms on each car. As a means of getting around, I recommend it. No security lines, no removal of shoes or laptops, and no fuss at drop off and pick up.

So, my writer friend Stephanie (this was her idea) and I roll out of Charm City and head north, laptops and notebooks out. The pressure! I stall by setting up files for my remaining stories and taking a selfie:

It's rainy out, so that should be a deterrent from spending the WHOLE time looking out the window, but...

I wrote, I napped, I ate the lunch I packed:

Frankly, the trip up is a bit of a blur. When we arrive in Essex Junction, I have two stories partially completed - hardly the bounty of pages I'd hoped for. Stephanie and I are hungry, without a car, and in a residential area where nothing is really open or walkable - so we order pizza. The hotel is a nice surprise - spacious and clean, with a full kitchen and super nice staff. I check messages, drink one glass of my rose and I'm unconscious.

The next day is our "rest" day and we plan to go visit Ben and Jerry's, which turns out to be much harder than anticipated. It's about 20 miles away and getting a ride proved challenging. Turns out a member of the hotel staff drives a Lyft part time and the manager asks her if she can take us - she does. B&J is a zoo and the factory tours are sold out until the afternoon - not feasible for us to wait - so we tour the flavor graveyard,

where the tombstones of discontinued flavors rest, raid the gift shop for silly items, and get ice cream pints to go. Lunch - check.

In the evening, after a nice post-ice cream nap, we met up with another writer friend to explore Burlington. Chelsea is super-talented and has a novella coming out in September - stay tuned for more info on that. We had a lovely dinner, gazed at Lake Champlain, and back to sleep before the following day's ride.

I was a bit less organized on the way home - we did not have lunch packed up, aside from snacks we picked up at a gas station, and we very nearly missed the train but we were saved again by the wonderful staff at the hotel. (I sent Marriott a glowing report and shared their names. I'm told that they will be recognized, as they should be.)

It was crowded coming back, though the views were better, both due to the daylight in the mountains and the lack of torrential downpours. Check out the views below:

That's New York. I finished up my two stories-in-progress, and mapped out the final two. I'll finish them this week.

Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY. I think I would stay longer at my destination space and either get a car or better transportation. For longer trips, it might be worth reserving the "roomette" which is what they used to provide for the Residency on the Rails I believe. This is definitely an experience that is just as much about the journey as the destination. You can't be in a hurry. We spent 12 hours each way, but my story collection is nearly done, and it was a great break from my regular life.

No one was eaten by a bear.

So, a success I think! Do you have other ideas for self-designed writing retreats? Let me know - I have to polish the novel a bit and get started on the next one.

Monday, July 2, 2018

DIY Writing Residency For the Fiscally Challenged

That would be me. I'm the fiscally challenged. For an explanation, scroll down my blog posts to the series on my home renovations, most notably the kitchen. Alas, no hidden gold spilled from the walls when I pulled them down, so I had to apply my creativity to my financing options. Anyhooo...

I've been on a bit of writing spree lately, as much as one can be with two other jobs. Fortunately one of those jobs really helps with inspiration. I'm on story three of ten for a collection I'm tentatively calling "Ten Dysfunctions of My Team: Tales of Horror for the Cubicle-Bound." Seriously, it's cheaper than a therapist, and as mentioned before, I'm broke until my glorious new dishwasher is paid off.

I find it difficult to write at home. It's not impossible - I'm doing it right now - but my home is where my refrigerator is (I've eaten a ridiculous amount of ice cream just since I arrived home from work) and where my sofa is (I'm prone to napping. I'm prone to napping! See what I did there? Oh, never mind). When I plan better, I like to pack up my laptop and go to my favorite library - the Athenaeum at Goucher College in Towson because it has everything - study carrels, a quiet floor, a beautiful but not too distracting view, and hardly any students. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that I didn't plan at all and so I tap out whatever words I can before and after work, sometimes after waking obscenely early in the morning when I should be doing nothing social or communication-related until coffee has happened.

I'd like to say that I get most of my writing done on the weekend, but the opposite is true. Weekends are for napping and lazy breakfast, or even better  - brunch, because that comes with mimosas and then afterwards, of course, napping. I also have to catch up on my DVR stuff and usually laundry and dishes and whatnot. Occasionally, I see a movie. Dinosaurs may or may not be involved.

A couple of months ago, I traveled down to my uncle's lake house in North Carolina along with my boyfriend. Away from the distractions of my home and my wonderful doggie (who likes to go out and come back in and then go out and then have a cookie and a tummy rub), I wrote and revised a decent short story in a genre I'd not worked in before AND I got to ride in the pontoon boat with wine and snacks. It was a lovely, lovely time and even though I worked hard on my story, I still had time for recreation, rest, and socializing like a human. But my uncle won't let me move in, so I need another way to get some work done. I'd love to do a writing retreat, but the budget can't bear it this year, so what to do?

The answer came from a colleague who is regularly forced to listen to me whine. Stephanie has found a different writing idea inspired by our work environment - children's books explaining the absurdities of project management. I have my doubts that anyone can explain the absurdities of project management even in a board book, but we'll see. It turns out that both of us had longed to do the short-lived Amtrak Writing Residency where after submitting a writing sample and an application, a few chosen writers got to ride the rails at no cost as long as they blogged and tweeted occasionally about their experience. Alas, neither of us were selected and we have neither the time or the budget to do the cross country thing, but Stephanie scouted out a route to Vermont from Baltimore that took roughly 12 hours each way. That seems like a lot of good writing time! And we end up at the birthplace of Ben & Jerry's! Win win! The round trip train ticket came in less that $150 and I had enough travel points saved for two hotel nights. Two nights were necessary, I reasoned, so that we could rest up between marathon writing sessions. And I wanted to gaze upon Lake Champlain. And go see the ice cream factory, maybe for the second time.

Thus was born our DIY Writing Residency on the cheap. We will go in August and I pray that lake breezes or mountains or northerliness saves us from what will be oppressive heat in Baltimore at that time. My renovations didn't include central air.

We will scope out some good seats, hopefully away from children, annoying businessmen on their phones, and the hygienically challenged and see how much we can get done. I will channel all my Murder on the Orient Express juju into twisty tales with only intermittent breaks for the club car, naps (plural - the rocking and clack clack of the rails is like writer-ambien), and a few stretching walks where I may look for suspicious characters. Stephanie likely has her own processes and strategies for success, though as long as they do not include primal screaming, we should travel well together.

Amtrak, if you feel moved by our plight, feel free to toss us an upgrade to business class - we won't say no. We'll be live tweeting and Facebook posting about it the whole time anyway. Who knows, maybe this will become a thing! God knows, we can't wait on another full on Residency on the Rails but we can get out of the house and find our own writing adventure, at least until our literary ships come in. Writing cruise, anyone? That's going to take many more yard sales.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Churn

I got caught up in a series called The Expanse - a sci fi mystery of sorts with a lot going on a few weeks ago. The churn refers to a character's dark notions about survival, but the image of a swirling, crushing mass of stuff that one could easily get sucked into resonates with me right now.

I'd like to think of it like this:

But it feels more like this:

I imagine that we all get caught up in the pressures of work and family and responsibilities and our dreams and finding our path. Lately, this feels overwhelming, like I'm caught up in machinery outside my control and I'm struggling to keep from getting too bruised to function.

The new year brought more change professionally than I am used to and honestly, it's left me questioning my life choices.

Facebook reminded me of a post I'd made over the Memorial Day weekend in 2010 commenting on the abundance of angry posts cluttering my feed and asking for reflection and positivity. I read it with dismay, thinking - Oh, sweet summer child, you have no idea.

I'm definitely angrier and my coworkers are as well. I channel my rage into short stories usually, but I wonder about the negative affect that this continual stress takes on my emotional and psychological health. There's a powerlessness that drives us to futility which might lead to recklessness. I have no idea what form that will take, though I can share that I bought lottery tickets and three pints of Ben & Jerry's last night.

And I'm writing.

And I'm thinking up new projects to write.

And I'm trying to stay aware and open to new possibility.

And I'm trying to remember to practice some self-care.

And I'm trying to rise above the pettiness and passive-aggressive jabs from others so as not to get caught up in their churn.

I spent last week in North Carolina where I got up early every morning and took my coffee down to the lakeshore so I could absorb this:

It's a start.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Momentum and Despair: The Slog of Writing Life

2017 was a decent year for me writing-wise.  My first published story came out in print - though the publisher still didn't manage to correct the spelling of my name on the Amazon listing, so you won't find it unless you drop an "h" or click here:

You will find "Handymen" in the middle somewhere - where my name actually is spelled right, but the story title isn't. It stings a bit that my "Hey! I got published!" moment is then qualified by, "but my name is spelled wrong" when someone asks me how to find it.

Shortly after this appeared on Amazon, I was invited to read at an event by Writers and Words, a Baltimore  reading series held in a trendy coffee shop called Charmington's. This would be the first time I was invited to read a story I'd written, rather than required to do so. The organizers were excited to have an author of mysteries and thrillers and I was given the "wildcard" slot for July. I couldn't have been more thrilled! I read a piece called "Swim Trials" which had been the result of the previous winter's NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge prompts and I provided my spooky story "Office Hours" for the chapbook. "Office Hours" had been my first contest-winner back in 2015 and may eventually be included in a collection of Plant Hall pieces. In the meantime, you can read it here on my friend Steven Thomas Howell's blog. Plus, the blog is awesome and worth checking out anyway.

I had a piece of microfiction published on ScrawlBrawl, a site described as a "100-word battle to the death."  Microfiction, it turns out, is a blast to write! You can read "Hell's Kitchen" here. While you are there, check out some other stories, particularly by the Despot (a talented, zany presence in the writing world) because they're awesome, and it takes but a moment to read a 100-word story. Seriously.

The fall brought a third place win for "Close Neighbors," and the opportunity to read my work (again!!!) by the "ghost story fire-pit" at Toast Among Ghosts. This was a nail-biter because it was dark, I had to hold pages and a microphone, and speak up over the nearby band. And I said the word "masturbation" in front of strangers. You can read that story and learn more about the event here. If that wasn't crazy enough, I was interviewed by two local papers! Of course, one spelled my name wrong, so...

The event staff spelled my name right at least, but they had another unfortunate spelling error on the posters. I'll let you find it on your own.

In December, Gimmick Press took an essay and a flash fiction piece for their Worthless Treasures project. You can read them both here. "Beedancing" is my first published (by someone else) nonfiction piece, so I was super-excited. "Stupidhead" had earned an honorable mention by Glimmer Train, but had not gotten picked up by any of the places I'd sent it before, though I'd had my best "good" rejection letters for it.

In August, I attended the Writers Digest Conference which you can read about here. I pitched my novel, which was celebrating its second birthday, to literary agents in a massive zoo called "pitch slam." I followed up with requested pages, synopses, and queries. And nothing. I am due to send out another batch of queries, but that nagging doubt that anything will ever happen always lingers, clouding the edges of my joy when a piece get accepted. The novel is sitting there, judging silently and gathering virtual dust.

One agent asked me for my "series" pitch - how will I continue these characters through more adventures. I quickly wrote one, summarizing the next tale and the opportunities my premise provided for a successful, sustainable continuation of mayhem. I have dreams of my own Hallmark Movies and Mysteries series with a spunky female writer spinning wit and solving murders. It would fit right in with the bakers, librarians, and antique dealers solving crimes.

I guess that means I have another novel to write. In the meantime, I'll keep sending queries, praying that I'm not exhausting all possible chances for representation. And I'll keep writing my short stuff. NYC Midnight is kicking off the Short Story Challenge soon. Wanna join? You can read about it here.

2018 will be a year of perseverance I suppose. I wish I had access to a writer's therapist who could coach me through novel-despair and encourage me to keep going while I wait for lightning to strike. In the meantime, I'll just keep typing.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thanksgiving Pressure Cooking

In direct defiance of everything Food Network declares to be the Thanksgiving Turkey Commandments, I refuse to brine. I refuse. I don’t baste, I don’t roast my bird in an open pan on a bed of carrots and turnips. I’ve never even touched a turnip.  I have no idea what one tastes like and I’m not risking it with my Thanksgiving dinner. I've used the same enameled  roasting pan for decades. People get super-judgy about Thanksgiving meal preparation. Even the nice relatives who you genuinely like will cut you over the “berries or jellied” cranberry sauce debate.  Don’t cross them. 

            I learned to cook a Thanksgiving meal pretty early and even though my process is pretty simple, I’ve had consistently delicious results. I’m not monkeying around with success by roasting it upside down, or sealing it in an oven bag, or shoving herbs and butter under the skin. Just thinking about cramming twigs under the skin makes me uncomfortable. 

            This year, I will be hosting my boyfriend and his two teenage daughters for Thanksgiving.  It’s terrifying. Even more so than last year when it was my boyfriend, his mother, and his brother and sister-in-law. His mother called my adorable wicker turkey napkin holder tacky. That was still better than this because the girls are picky eaters, not big chatters, and it’s not like we can all share a bottle of wine. Dave asked me to include macaroni and cheese and dinner rolls so there would be something his oldest could consume. 

            I should mention that I love Thanksgiving. I love planning out my menu, shopping carefully over the preceding weeks for all of my ingredients, mapping out my cooking plan (I am a trained project manager, and Thanksgiving dinner prep with one oven is still the best way to teach the critical path), and making it all come together for an amazing spread that inspires awe in spite of my refusal to brine. Here’s what I do believe:

·      Thanksgiving should be relaxed and casual. Yes to the stretchy pants, no to the pocket square.
·      It’s a participation sport – give your guests something to do. It doesn’t have to be whisking gravy over a hot stove, have them open and serve wine or fold pretty napkins or just keep you company as you whisk hot gravy.
·      Release your death grip on the menu. Make some compromises so that your guests get a piece of their traditional Thanksgiving. My family has (mostly good-natured) fights over Waldorf salad which had bananas in it during my childhood. Unconventional for you? Yes, but it’s one of the high points of the day for me. Like macaroni and cheese might be.
·      Don’t skip the Macy’s parade on TV. That might be the only chance to see those Broadway numbers before nuclear winter.
·      No need to choose marshmallows or pecan streusel on the sweet potato soufflé – have both. You get this once a year.
·      Don’t get peer pressured into how you should do your thing. Want to deep-fry your turkey? Check your homeowner’s insurance and then knock yourself out.  Brine if you must, roast covered or uncovered, baste or tent or whatever works for you. The house will smell divine all day long.
·      Get the extra bottle of wine. When the questions start about possible matrimonial futures or the stories about your boyfriend’s ex-wife or the passive-aggressive commentary on your rattan table accessories, you’ll be grateful for the chance to sip and smile with unrelenting eye contact until the offender looks away in shame. Maybe you should buy two extra bottles.

This holiday, my guests and I will enjoy unbrined turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, whatever vegetable my boyfriend chooses, waldorf salad with bananas and raisins, macaroni and cheese, and rolls. While I’d be happy to skip the cranberry sauce altogether, we shall have the berried kind because there are strong feelings about the need for it and too many sharp objects in the house to take the risk.   

I will not use the giblets. I haven't eaten a giblet since it was my responsibility to cook the turkey. There's just no reason for that. I do slow simmer the neck for broth that I will use in the stuffing (dressing, actually as it does NOT go inside the bird, because - ew), and sometimes the gravy if needed. Growing up, my family added chopped hardboiled egg to the gravy too - another culinary preference that I've learned is not commonplace outside of my mother's family. 

There will be pie. For many years, I was the grateful guest of friends each Thanksgiving (along with my dog - the real attraction) who ordered much of the meal pre-prepared. Delicious, yes, but missing that "roasted all day" aroma that permeates the house and tortures your soul. Through a complex backstory that I won't recreate here, they end up with a pumpkin pecan pie each year that is one of the best things I have ever tasted IN MY LIFE. It took me about four years to get a hold of the recipe, modify it slightly, and start to make my own. It turns out that one "batch" makes three pies. Perhaps if I was better at math, I could work out how to get just the right amount of filling for one or two, but right now, I double the original recipe and that makes three perfectly.  I take one to my uncle's house over the holiday weekend usually. My work colleague Keith starts his lobby for the third pie to be shared at the office pretty early in the season. I can't blame him.

But pie is another cornerstone of the culinary experience. If you don't dig the custardy deliciousness or can't eat pecans, another pie is required. Should that be apple, cherry (I hope not), blueberry (perhaps, if there is ice cream), or a cold pie like lemon meringue or chocolate silk? I am willing to relinquish control over pie number two to Dave's youngest foodie-in-the-making daughter. Go to town, sister - I'm sure it will be delicious.

We will eat too much, and then have pie. And if I’m convincing, perhaps we will have a board or card game before we all succumb to tryptophan turkey comas. Probably not, but I’m a Thanksgiving optimist.