A Study in Peregrination (Or, The Great Christmas Adventure)

A few Thanksgivings ago we started a tradition. We’d each write write what we were thankful for in a card and seal it up for the next year. It was a way to measure our blessings, to reflect on all the good things we bring to each others’ lives.

This year, as a large portion of our family was celebrating Christmas in New York – for some of us our first overseas trip, for others, the first trip in 30 years of marriage – we decided to write cards again. My mother-in-law picked out the cards and my talented sister drew on the envelopes, things that reminded her of each of us. She drew me a deer in mid-leap, with antlers over the “B” in my name.

On Christmas day I sat down to write in my card… and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t sure why. I had so much to be thankful for. After three years of planning, saving and dreaming, we were finally traveling again. We were in the greatest city in the world, and on Christmas!

Sunrise over the Pacific
Sunrise over the Pacific
La Brea Tar Pits
La Brea Tar Pits
Dinner in Mariposa
Dinner in Mariposa

But… it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Nothing on this whole trip had gone exactly to plan. The California leg was too rushed – we spent the whole week herding people from place to place, sleeping on trains and buses, walking more than some of us had walked for years. New York wasn’t quite as I remembered. The streets were grimier, our neighborhood rougher, and the subway stations were full of the lost and desperate. We’d hoped for snow, but other than a few pretty flakes, the city was drier than California. And I hadn’t written. My well was as empty as it was when I left home.

But then I realized: that’s exactly the point. That’s the very purpose of travel. To defy our expectations, to take us out of our comfort zones, to challenge and grow us. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood that when things don’t go exactly to plan, that’s when the magic happens.

Snow remnants at Yosemite
Snow remnants at Yosemite
Lower falls, Yosemite
Lower falls, Yosemite
Hiking in Yosemite
Hiking in Yosemite

When I eventually wrote in my card a few days later, I wrote about the good things that had happened on our trip so far. I wrote about secret Santa shopping at the Christmas markets in Central Park, how we all had to huddle together against the cold, and buying hot apple cider when it seemed our fingers might fall off. I wrote about the grandeur of Yosemite in winter, the coyote that walked right onto the path in front of us with a deer leg in its mouth, the snowball fight on the bridge. I wrote about picking up our first real Christmas tree, all seven of us trailing after Michael as he carried it, lumberjack-style, through the city streets.

But I didn’t stop there. I also wrote about the trials and disappointments, the illnesses, grime and near-misses, and how wonderful it can be when things don’t go exactly to plan. Passing sleepless hours on the plane, eyes gritty and sore, but being awake to watch the sun rise over the Pacific. Driving windy mountain roads in a rainstorm, trying desperately to stay alert, and the warm bed and amazing meal that met us when we got there. The snow in Yosemite melting before we made it to the valley floor, the roads to the Mariposa grove being closed, but then finding a bridge covered with snow at the end of a long hike. Constant, drizzling rain on our first visit to the West Village, running into the first pizza store we saw, and discovering it has the best pizza in New York (according to assorted celebrities). Going back three more times because the pizza was just that good. The simple blessing of a warm place to sit and free hot chocolate.

Nothing on our Great Overseas Christmas Adventure went exactly to plan. And I like it better that way.

Oh, Christmas Tree...
Oh, Christmas Tree…
Exploring Central Park.
Exploring Central Park.
Brooklyn Bridge in the rain
Brooklyn Bridge in the rain
Christmas at Washington Square Park
Christmas at Washington Square Park

After Christmas, our trip continued to surprise. A few days after writing in that card, something tripped inside me and suddenly I was bursting with inspiration, more than I could possibly contain. Turns out the best thing I could possibly do for my writing was not write, not even think about writing, go for months without a single idea.

On New Years Eve we tried to catch the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty from afar, but we missed the ferry we’d intended to catch. Online bookings for Liberty Island were closed, and the previous day the in-person line had stretched right down Wall Street, but on a whim we decided to try our luck. There was no one there. We reached the front of the line within minutes and booked ourselves on the next boat to Liberty Island. On the way, we froze our faces off standing outside on the deck, but we didn’t care. It was beautiful, miraculous, and we were so, so happy. I’ve never been quite as cold as I was that day. My fingers and toes hurt so bad I was actually worried about getting frostbite. But I never stopped smiling, because here was a moment that went beyond planning and booking and lines. Here was a moment that was magic.

On Mum’s birthday in DC, it rained and rained and rained. We were wet from the moment we stepped out of the car, and cold, too. But I’d never, ever take that day back. The quiet conversations as we walked from monument to monument. The awe on people’s faces as they read the inscriptions on the Jefferson Memorial. Stealing warmth when we found it, in public restrooms and in cups of hot chocolate. Seeing Mum feed a piece of popcorn to a squirrel, her simple delight. And that night, going back to our favorite Irish Pub and finding it better than we remembered, so incredibly cozy on a cold, wet night with its low lighting and open fireplace. Being able to share that with my family, especially with my mum on her birthday, was just magical.

On the day after my parents and sister left for home, we drove to Colonial Williamsburg with a rebellious GPS which took us an hour out of our way. But if it hadn’t, we’d have never seen the gentle Virginia countryside, the one-lane roads, the farms and woods and villages. That night, buying chocolate at a candy store from one of my favorite books. Holding every scent, sound and sensation inside me, storing it up because I never, ever want to forget what it feels like to step inside a world you only ever imagined.

And perhaps most magical, on the day we were due to fly back to California, it finally properly snowed on the East Coast. Michael woke up at 4am dreaming of snow. He checked out the window, but there was nothing there. A few minutes later he checked again and… there were thousands of tiny flakes falling from the sky! We played in the snow until 6am, when the hotel owner opened up breakfast for us because he was worried we might freeze. We made snow angels, threw powdery flakes into the sky, blew snow off tables until it stuck to our lips and eyelashes, turning us into snow kings and queens. After breakfast, we went out again. We played and played and laughed and cheered until it was time to head to the airport and back to a warmer climate. We thought we’d missed it. But the weather had other plans.

Last sunset of 2014 on Liberty Island
Last sunset of 2014 on Liberty Island
Winter Classic 2015
Winter Classic 2015
Snow!
Snow!

#

On my way home from the airport, I started reading Joss Whedon’s biography, and what struck me most was how so many of his great successes were preceded by monumental failure. Job losses, rejections, moving back in with his father. Series cancelled, movies ruined, pitches turned down. And then, blockbuster movies, cult TV series, biographies and fame.

I think my favorite part is how he spent three years writing a script, only to have it reworked and butchered by a director who didn’t share his vision. Not to be deterred, a few years later Joss completely reworked the project into a TV series. He kept some of the characters, the premise, the plot, but he turned something pretty terrible into something brilliant: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For Joss, the end was never the end. Failure did not equal defeat.

Let that be true for you, too.

xx

Sunset off Mulholland Drive
Sunset off Mulholland Drive
A Study in Peregrination (Or, The Great Christmas Adventure)

Finding Yourself in Fiction

I’ve been thinking lately about the kinds of books I enjoy and I’ve come to a conclusion: Reading is a lifelong search for self in fiction. Oh, I am capable of enjoying a book for purely academic reasons, books about horrible people doing horrible things, but even those books inspire a measure of sympathy from us, don’t you think? That could be me. If life had turned out differently, if I wasn’t raised by good people, if I was desperate, that could be me.

If I’m completely honest with myself, though, the books I love, the books that meant the most to me growing up, the ones I re-read over and over are the books about people like me — but more. Maybe they are slightly braver than I am. Maybe they’re more adventurous. Maybe their world pushes them to the absolute limit, but still, they survive. The characters I fall in love with are people I identify with, and people I admire.

That’s not to say they don’t have flaws. I have flaws, and so I want them to, as well. I want them to make bad decisions sometimes, lose their temper, be too scared or too shy or too self-conscious. But by the end of the book I want them to use, or overcome, those flaws to achieve great things. I want to see my own emotional journey, my own hopes for myself, reflected on the page.

That’s why I’ve never liked the TV show Seinfeld. I just don’t like and can’t identify with any of the characters. Friends is different — I see myself, my strengths and weaknesses, in every single character. As they grow, I grow.

I want to know that it’s possible to overcome. I want to know that it’s possible to be loved exactly as I am. I want to see my deepest fears and highest goals, and I want to see characters who can go beyond them. That’s what satisfies me as a reader.

I’ve been thinking about that adage: Write the book you want to see on the shelf. I want to modify it. Write the book you want to pick up and read obsessively. Write the book you can’t put down. Write the book with characters who stay with you and stories you can’t stop thinking about for days afterwards. Write the book you want to re-read a hundred times (because, as the writer, you’re going to).

Writing, for me, has been a similar search for self. I think becoming a better writer is about getting closer and closer to that ideal book, the one that fits so well alongside your favorites on the shelf. That’s why reading is so important as a writer. As you learn about what kind of reader you are, what kind of stories speak to you most clearly, you can start to recreate them in your own unique voice.

If a beginner writer asked me for advice, this is what I’d tell them:

  1. Find your own process. Read advice from other writers, try different processes on, but the only right way to write a book is the way that gets it done.
  2. The only way to find out what kind of writer you are is to WRITE. Butt-in-chair mon frère.
  3. Read, read, read. What you like to read is a good indicator of what kind of stories you should be writing. Identifying what you love about those stories will give you the techniques to recreate them.
  4. Write about the things that scare you on a soul-deep level. Emotional resonance is key.

Really, it’s all about finding out who YOU are. Both reading and writing are about finding yourself in fiction, pulling at the threads of your psyche and using them to experience and create great stories.

Everglades, Florida
Everglades, Florida
Finding Yourself in Fiction

Five Things on a Friday

I’m meant to be cleaning the house right now, hence the lazy list. I’ve had a million ideas for blog posts this week but no energy to write them, so you may be hearing from me again this weekend. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

1. I always suffer a bit of withdrawal after finishing a draft, and this week has been no exception. I’ve been doing my best to distract myself with books and crafty things but I’ve been feeling a bit out of sorts every day I come home with no new writing to do. It’s the thing that gets me through my day: knowing I have words to write at the end of it. I’ve been brainstorming a new novel, but at this point the Sea Story is so large in my mind everything else pales in comparison. I’m itching, itching to start revising, but I must resist. As long as I still feel protective about the draft, as long as I see it with the rosy glasses of new love, I have no business touching it. Revision = objectivity, which I don’t have yet.

2. This week I read Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater again, for the first time since 2009, when it first came out. I love this book, guys. I LOVE it. It’s one of my all-time favorites. The thing is, not everyone I’ve lent it to has been as blown away as I have. I’ve been thinking a lot about literary soul-mates and that x-factor that makes me wobbly in the knees. What makes me love a book that some of my friends merely shrug over? It’s really a mystery, but I’m starting to see that my very favorite books share a few of the same qualities:
– Beautiful prose that gets under your skin
– Fantastical elements
– Set in the real world, in the here-and-now
– Characters I admire or feel a real affinity to.

3. I’ve been revisiting my New Years Resolutions, as I do periodically throughout the year. They were as follows:
– Read more
– Make a model ship
– Write Sea book
– Start running/yoga again
– Help Michael as he starts uni
As you can see, I’m doing pretty well. Michael starts uni at the end of this month, so I’ll be striking that one off soon as well. I’m thinking of adding on:
– Write another first draft of a novel (maybe Highway?)
– Revise and submit Sea Story

4. Next weekend, my housemates are taking me whale watching! This is incredibly exciting and a very lovely (and thematically appropriate) reward for finishing the Sea Story.

5. This weekend I have some cool crafty projects planned. I’ll give you a hint. It involved the Sea Story and this:

Photo on 2012-11-30 at 18.33 #5

Have a great weekend!

Five Things on a Friday

Best Books of 2011

So I sat down to write my “Best Books of 2011” post and I realized I was going to have a little trouble. You see, I didn’t write down the books I read last year, and I’m having trouble remembering them. Then again, maybe that’s part of the weeding-out process: If I can remember them after all this time, they have to be pretty good, right?

It was a tumultuous year for book buying and reading for me. My go-to bookstore closed. I got a full-time job. I traveled overseas for two months. But I did still manage to read a fair bit. In fact, when we returned from our trip we had an extra suitcase, entirely filled with books.

So without further ado, my Best Books of 2011 list:

1. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Ever since I first picked up Shiver in a bookstore and read the first few lines, I’ve been a huge Maggie fan. There’s something to be said for making language invisible, but as a writer I sometimes like to pick up a book and just roll around in the beautiful words. For those who don’t know, Maggie is terribly talented at many things. She was first published in her early 20s, after having worked full time as a portrait artist. The thing I admire most about her is how much better she gets with each book. The Scorpio Races is her very best yet. I read it while driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Highway 1, which might be the best possible place to read this book. Cliffs, beaches, the fear of imminent death… what more do you need? I couldn’t tell you. I thought it was perfect.

2. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

I don’t read much contemporary YA literature, and I’m not sure this one even counts, but it makes me want to read more. I loved the restraint Nova showed in not giving us all the answers. I loved the chapter headings. I loved the sense of mystery and foreboding. I loved the lake, and all its stories. I admit I was surprised by how much I loved this book, but it left a deep impression. It makes me want to reach deeper and become a better writer, as all good books do. Unsettling and beautiful: Just my kind of story.

3. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

When I was younger I just gobbled up post-apocalyptic fiction. It was my favorite kind of story. Back then these books were relatively hard to find, and I pretty much just read my Isobelle Carmody novels over and over again. Then came the YA boom, and vampires, and finally post-apocalyptic overload. It seems like every second book is about the end of the world. You would think this would be exciting for me, but unfortunately I haven’t found too many that live up to the quality I like. So while book after book was released, I’ve kind of sat back and waited for the cream to rise to the top. The Hunger Games was cream. Ship Breaker is definitely cream. What I like about it: The completely different setting. So many post-apocalyptic worlds these days seem interchangeable, but this one is completely and totally unique. It’s believable and beautiful and heartbreaking. Also, the writing is magnificent. It’s more restrained than Stiefvater, but it’s another one I could just roll around in. The character voices were so unique and the world just made my brain spin. I loved it, loved it, loved it.
Aside: I read this while driving through the desert towards the Grand Canyon, which is thematic if not accurate.

4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone

You know when everyone tells you you should read something and that rebellious side of you rears its ugly head and you find yourself resisting? Everyone has always told me how wonderful Laini Taylor is, but this is the first time I’ve actually given her a go. Somehow I thought if she was such a fantastic author, the kind who won awards and whose books made it on prestigious lists, then maybe her stories were more educational than entertaining. Wow, I was wrong. I am so glad I finally picked this book up. I read Daughter while in Montreal (which, by the way, might be the perfect place to read it if you can’t make it all the way to Prague) and my traveling companions actually had to drag me out of the car to see the city. All I wanted to do was curl up with this book forever and ever. Which might be why I was so mad when it ended. Warning: Daughter is the first in a series. Its ending isn’t really an ending. But other than that: So, so good. My favorite part was voice. Let me tell you, Laini Taylor has voice just leaking from her pores. Love, love, love.

Honorable mention:

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The only reason I can’t add this as a full entry is that I haven’t finished reading it yet. I bought it just before the end of 2011 and have been slowly savoring it since. I can’t tell you if the book is fantastic, because you never know, it could totally fall over in the back half, but the first 100 pages have totally hooked me. I love atmosphere and I love a good mystery, and this book has both in spades.

 

So, how goes my own book, you ask? Pretty good! New Years slowed me down a bit, as did going back to work, but I’m still over my goal, so cheers to that!

Here’s where I’m at currently:

30000 / 70000 words. 43% done!

 

I’m hoping to get to 50% by the end of the weekend, so I better get hopping!

Lately I’ve found myself getting unreasonably annoyed at this manuscript for not being done yet. Unreasonable, because I started writing Restless not even 12 months ago. By this time with my last novel I hadn’t even finished the first draft. Last time it took me six months to revise. I’ve been working for four weeks and I’m almost halfway there.

I don’t know where our unreasonable expectations come from, but I think when you find them you need to kick them in the arse. It doesn’t matter that such-and-such writes two books a year. Such-and-such isn’t writing the same story as you. Her life and process are completely different. What matters is your story, and what it needs. What matters is putting your best effort it, day after day. Nothing else.

I need to remember to pat myself on the back for my achievements, and I suppose this blog is one way I do that. I love my story, I’m making good progress and I’m doing my very best. Those things deserve celebrating.

So how will you celebrate your achievements today? And how do you keep your expectations in check? Are there any fantastic books you read last year that you think I should read?

Happy weekend all!

 

Best Books of 2011