May 12 Check In: Finances, Mentoring and Writer Peers

California PoppiesOne of the problems with freelance writing full-time is that there isn’t a whole lot of room to be sick or even just feeling poorly for that matter. I don’t write well when I can’t focus – in fact, I don’t write at all. I was having some trouble with the upright position and holding down food this week, so my focus took a hit. This week was a bit of a wash, minus a few blog posts and bits and pieces.

Here, I suppose is a perfect example of why you MUST have a good chunk of money in your bank account to weather this kind of working life. (Which I don’t, but I am making it a priority.) You don’t really have room for weeks that are hard fought writing when you are freelancing.  I suppose another way to help is to have paid work that doesn’t take so much brain space. It’s not a bad idea to have some lesser paying jobs that require less brain space and are more tedious. (Another thing I should probably make a priority.) No work means – no money. No one is paying for sick time if you take it.

So now that I’m back up to speed, I’m hoping I can have a double-time week.  Next week I hope, will look like I’m going gangbusters writing.

Writing Derailments:

Feeling ill absolutely destroyed my writing week. I also think I’m having some major issues believing the nearly-finished novel that’s on my desk is good enough to finish, but I’ll finish it. This is what I would tell my amazing students in my memoir class… the most important thing you can do is finish your work. If it’s awful, if it’s not as good as what you have written before, so be it. You can’t learn and grow to your best potential as a writer if you don’t finish what you start.

Writing Highlights:

Looks like there is a contract in the works to do a Puppy Bowl book in the same vein as the TOO CUTE! Kittens and TOO CUTE!: Puppies books I finished recently. That will be a spectacularly fun project! I love looking at photos of adorable baby animals and storyboarding them!!

We are coming up on my last week of the memoir class I’ve been teaching at the Banning Library and I am so in love with my students. I am see some of the most heartfelt and heart-risking work I’ve ever read come of this my ten-week class and am both in awe and inspired by the women who have been trusting me with their stories. Bravo ladies!!

I was equally in adoration of my tiny writing group of three trusted friends. We met this week and I felt refreshed and ready to get back to the page afterwards. If you don’t have a close group of writers who you trust with your work, find them!! I firmly believe great writers find peers who inspire, encourage and push them to take their writing to the next level.

So, Face the page, Brave Writers! Until next week….

Also check out this week’s post on the Inlandia blog on landscape as inspiration.

May 4 Writing Check In: Fires, Masterchef and Big News

As I start my weekly blog post over on the Inlandia Literary Journey’s blog, it occurred to me that sometimes the most encouraging thing to a writer is to see that they aren’t the only one struggling. It seems to me that the fight and the struggle to get the work done never goes away. At least not for me. I hear that some people simple sit down and write when they are supposed to be writing. I often wish I were them, even if they are mythical creatures. So here begins my first check in for my writing week.

I have plenty of deadlines that are looming, yet on Sunday, I wrote the first short story I’ve written in almost a year. I meant it to be a 500 word exercise, but in the end found myself hours later, holding a short story. I came back to it several times over the week, revising and then sent it out for submission on Firday. I’d be really proud about this if I didn’t have a proposal for a literary nonfiction book to rewrite and three chapters left of a novel I’ve been working on for five years. I hate that I do that sometimes. I hate it when I don’t finish things, but I try to forgive myself for at least getting something done. I really love this short story. Chances are it needs some more distance and tinkering, but it’s still counts as an accomplishment. Can you hear me trying to convince myself? I am trying to get better about forgiving and encouraging myself. I’m not very good at that:

Writing Derailments:

On Tuesday I was finally given permission to announce that I’m a top 100 finalist competing on MasterChef. To my surprise the press release and the reality of it sent me into a state of anxiety. I’ll write about it someday, but this week all I could do was pace around the house muttering “I don’t want to be on TV. I don’t want to be on TV.”

On Wednesday, Banning caught on fire, a big blazing 2000 acre swathe of wilderness behind my house, threatening friends and ravishing my hiking/hunting wilderness. It was hard to think about anything else, but the fire.

Neither of these things are good reasons not to get writing done, but here I am.

Writing Highlights:

I learned a ton about memory studies while working on a blog for NatGeo’s show Brain Games. I love this show! If you aren’t watching it, you should be!

The best moment of the week however, was signing a contract that I have been waiting on since the beginning of the year. I’m excited to be (ghost)writing a memoir about Judy Fridono and her magical and inspirational surfdog/fundraising champ Ricochet. In fact, I’m going to go see Ricochet surf on Sunday while ESPN films.

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Of course…. I still have to write it, right! Here’s hoping for a more productive week and wishing you the same.

Face the page, Brave Writers! I’ll meet you there.

Write-Cation Day One

I knew when I won the week-long stay in Sedona, Arizona exactly what I would do with it…. WRITE. I would consider it a free writer’s retreat, a gift from my recalcitrant muse. “Here. Have a pretty place to write. Now quite effing whining to me and do it yourself.”

So here I am, the second day here, trying to write. Writing is not easy, no matter how beautiful the place, how free of distractions, how desperately you want the novel to be finished. I’m trying though…

Yesterday, I got groceries. I took a few minutes to marvel over the amazing red rocks. I took a long bath in the gloriously large tub in the condo where I’m staying. I ate food I probably shouldn’t have and consumed a crazy amount of caffeine.I took a nap. And ultimately I went to bed early.

The writing just wasn’t coming. Where to start? How to finish a book begging to be finished, but determined not to end? I doodled on the first page of a Moleskine my good friend Jessica Lawrence sent me in a package of New Year’s goodies, thinking about how strangely the same beginnings and endings can be. Then I took my newly decorated notebook, a pen and the manuscript and re-read the first 60,000 words of my novel. I let go of the fact I should be writing and read instead.

I treated it like another author’s book and jotted down sentences that caught me as I wrote, not so much as encouragement, be re-embracing the heart of the story. The lines were ones like these, no so much graceful prose as moments I found myself caught up in again:

  • “Quit being a cowboy, McClane, I’ve got this.”
  • “My heart in the belly of this new world, I felt myself still and let go.”
  • “Hunting required energy. Energy required calories. These were the new and wickedly simple mathematics of my life.”
  • “I’ve always suspected that you were my Bolson,” Branson said, but he wasn’t smiling.
  • “This place is wilder than I imagined. I think we are wilder than I imagined.”

Writing a book is a long relationship for me, a relationship that sometimes doesn’t a make it. Sometimes I fall out of love. There are at least four half-finished book manuscripts languishing in my file cabinet. Not every manuscript survives the tumult of living with me.

All the same, twice while I was re-reading this partial novel, Park West, I found myself in tears. I fell in love again with the story I am trying to write and I was so very relieved by this. I don’t know if anyone else will cry, or love those same words and moments in my Moleskine and honestly I don’t care. It doesn’t belong to you yet. For now, it is wholly and completely mine. Right now it’s a story I’m telling myself. I wonder why we as writer’s don’t spend more time enjoying this place, these few minutes when we can be jealous lovers.

I only wrote a few sentences yesterday, but for me the bigger part of writing a book happens off the page. I’m here now, though. I’m writing a story I’m going to finish.

 

Writers Need Friends

Being an artist is hard. I don’t have to tell you that. There is so much rejection and so many unexpected tiny cuts to your confidence and determination. It seems like successes are so rare and fleeting.

Yet, when you gather a group of other artists around you — and it doesn’t even have to be in your own art — you have strength in numbers. Screenwriters, poets, musicians, visual artists and audio artists are all fighting the good fight. When they are your friends though… you can rejoice in the battles they win as well. There have been so many days when I have tried to convince myself that the work is pointless. Then I stumble on new work by friends, an essay that guts me, a song that takes my breath away, a cartoon that I can’t stop turning over in my mind and I’m inspired again. You all know who you are. I can barely articulate how grateful I am that your work keeps me going.

I am even more grateful when a friend in another genre collaborates with my work and the resulting collision takes me somewhere new and at a breathless pace. Friendship should be a journey, but I love it best when its an adventure.

So I’m not ashamed to say that I wept when I listened to the surprise recording Xe Sands sent me last night. She is like listening to my subconscious only without the filters. When Xe reads my writing, I find myself holding my breath, hearing not just what I wrote, but what I meant and didn’t quite admit to myself.

I thought it would be so much easier to write once I got home and when it wasn’t I thought it would be easier when I settled and when it wasn’t then maybe when I had some work and didn’t have to worry as much about money and when it still wasn’t easier I had to admit that it just doesn’t get any easier.

I’m barely writing, but Xe reminded me that every little bit counts if you make it count. Listen to her read, I think you’ll understand what I’m saying. I’m suddenly not just grateful to be home, but for all of you.

In Defense of Home

Banning, CA

I love this place and you don’t understand why.

I live in a pass and that is what you do, pass by, maybe think briefly that you are glad that this isn’t your home. Maybe you are on your way to Hollywood where you are building your own dreams. Or perhaps on your way back from Vegas where you broke them. Still you pass by grateful not to stop and maybe you do stop at McDonalds or Carl’s Jr. and you eat your hamburger, looking around in a hurry to leave. It could be worse; you could live in this place.

I probably saw you this Memorial Day weekend. You saw me at the Chevron Station filling my little white Tacoma. I wasn’t wearing any makeup. You thought I was kind of pretty for someone who would live in a town like this. You briefly thought about talking to me, about luring me away, even though you knew you would leave me in the end. You looked away when I smiled at you.

Thing is, you don’t know what home means..

Home is not a lover. You think you are born there or perhaps that you choose. You can’t. You can’t choose her, she chooses you. She gets under your skin; you drink her, breath her out through you pores. You need more. At first though, you think you are doing her a favor.

It was an investment house. It was a first step. It was where the man I loved the most in the world helped me break his heart and then my own. Those first three years here were walk-away years. The kind of years you are relieved to have survived. I left. I did. I left, but I could never get away.

It could have been the red-tailed hawks or the redwood boards or the chaparral. It could have been the fires in October or the lightening-spidered sky in August. The final straw might have been the rare snow that dared to fall without me standing in the yard, palms up. I left for a better job, a bigger city, the house was just an investment, after all, but home was happening without me.

When your hands have cracked from kneading the clay into grass, when you have stayed up all night listening to the wind sing through boards in an eighty year-old melody, when you have stared into a sky that is a highway in wings, then you have to come back. You have bled and breathed and believed in a place. And for once it doesn’t matter if it believes in you.

I used to think that you owned home, that it was a thing you could claim.  Home doesn’t belong to you, though. It is you. I am the poison of the broken rattlesnake I found on my morning run, the audacity of the infant opossums slipping through the cracks in my pigeon loft, the lie of the heavy fog on a June morning, the gorgeous belligerence of the grosbeaks at my feeder. I am this place. This place is home. I love this place and you don’t have to understand why, unless, of course, you plan to love me.

Representing

Literary Nightshade...?

Finding an agent has been nothing like anyone told me it would be. I was never discovered online or in a literary magazine. I was never plucked from the slush pile and propelled into my future. I really haven’t sent out hundreds of queries over the years… I’ve sent out many, but I’ve stockpiled my writerly rejections in other ways than in queries. I just have my own brand of weird luck, good and bad.

LIFT had two agents. The first abandoned the project as a proposal. He wanted a book focused on surviving as a woman in the “man’s” world of falconry. He wanted to call the book “Sky Trials”.  It wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but I was so thrilled to have an agent that I would do anything to please him. I tried to write what he wanted anyway and not surprisingly, he hated what I wrote him and stopped answering his phone.

Two years later, the manuscript finished, I found another agent who swore she loved the book, but shopped LIFT to one editor at a major house and when that editor said, “no one but falconers will want to read this,” my agent told me to put it on a shelf and write her another. When I stuttered and suggested that Red Hen Press wanted to see it, my agent said to go ahead and send it myself. She too stopped answering emails and phone calls and I signed the book contract with Red Hen Press myself.

That was five years ago and though I’ve tested the waters now and again with new projects, I haven’t seriously sought representation since. I think I’m not really afraid of rejection so much as I am afraid of abandonment.

I’ve met a handful of agents I have lusted over along the way, agents with catalogues I drool over and personalities that I adore. These agents thought I was a wonderful writer, offered words of encouragement, but just didn’t love whatever project I was working on at the time enough to offer representation. I firmly believe you should suck up every little bit of encouragement you can along the way, however, and I have. No one has to take the time to say kind things to you. It essentially costs them to do that, it costs time that could be spent on clients they are already promised to or who they could be the right champion for and no matter how magnanimous, time really is money and the industry is tough for everyone. I am grateful. I say thank you. I should probably say it more.

The bottom line is that agents can’t represent everyone just because they “like” them or think they have potential. They can’t represent things that are a “maybe” to them and if you don’t believe that, I remind you again of my first two agents. Neither should have offered representation in the first place. Agents can’t represent with lukewarm feelings or even out of the goodness of their heart, not even if the writer is a friend. Everyone loses.

Which brings me to one of those agents who happens to be a friend. She was my editor when I published my first book, Falcon’s Return with Avalon twelve years ago. We double-dated at RWA in Denver one year, perhaps the only two women who gleefully tormented their boyfriends by making them attend. I’d like to forget my boyfriend at the time, but Erin married hers and we’ve kept up ever since. Shortly after, she became an agent. Erin has been there for me when I needed a friend to talk to me about book contracts, about retainers, about finding a publicist and the various dramas of publishing, but I’ve never had a project that was right for her.

She’s a great agent. She would never pick up a book she couldn’t get 100 percent behind. And a couple of days ago Erin offered me representation for What We Lost When We lost Barbara Jean (the prologue is over here at The Rumpus).

I know Erin. She’s going to kick my ass and make this an amazing book. I’ve already seen some of her notes. She’s also going to kick ass shopping it. And I feel like my long journey to finding an agent (the RIGHT agent) was the exact road that was meant for me. I have learned a lot about patience, about gratitude, about the vagaries of life being capable of shaking up all matter of things. My expectations of Erin the agent are separate from my expectations of Erin the friend, but I am thrilled I get to have them both at a time in my life where perhaps I can truly appreciate the synchronicity and possibilities of partnerships.

It’s been a hell of a road to get here, but you know what, it was worth it. I think you get what you need in life, but only if you don’t give up. So keep writing. Keep believing. Don’t buy into the idea that there is only one way to get where you are going. The journey is going to be yours alone and good things happen when you stay on the road. I bet they’ll happen to you too.

Much love,

Rebecca K. O’Connor, Author
Represented by Erin Cartwright Niumata, SVP Folio Literary Management

More Doing. Less Yearning.

The goal behind quitting my job and moving home being to write, here is the next regular installment on the Blue Sky Writing blog, a weekly meditation on process. I’m somewhat reluctant to do this because no one’s process is the same, no one has the same challenges. All the same, I love reading and hearing about how other people write. Sometimes you stumble on something that is encouraging or that makes you glad you don’t wrestle with another writer’s particular devil, although surely we have a similar devil prancing by the keyboard. We all think we’re uniquely challenged until we discover that we aren’t. Writing is living and living is the damnedest thing. Turns out it happens to everyone.

This morning I was thinking about, or perhaps the better phrase would be berating myself about the same thing I do most every morning. I need to be more focused and motivated. I had gone for a jog before the sun had scaled the hills, early enough to meet a cottontail rabbit on the road. I even made my bed and did my morning pages before most folks had set off for the office. Still, with the “you’ve got to be more focused.”

Twelve books in, a slew of essays and articles and I still argue with myself about how much more I could be getting done. Thing is, this is how I procrastinate. Seriously. Why get any work done when you could lament all the work that isn’t getting done instead?

“If I had just written 500 words a day for the last month, I’d be done with this novel.”

“If I just wrote this, this and that over the next week, I would have THIS much done. I better make a list!”

“No. Not just a list. I need a SCHEDULE! Better write it…”

I can spend hours planning, scolding… yearning. Thing is that the writing is in the doing. Devising new plans for the doing does you no good. I have tried everything, but nothing makes writing easier. And nothing gets it done except doing it, one word, one page, one manuscript at a time. I believe that if you can just face the page, if you can just start, you are already hurtles ahead of everyone who wants to be a writer.

And I still wish I was more focused…

Tuesday Triggers: Goldilocks Gets Naked

I had a crazy idea while I was writing my morning pages. I was thinking about using my blog for personal accountability for my writing, for sharing good information I stumble on and also for getting myself to write. I’ve been doing some crime reporting which means I have a close ear to the crimes that are happening in the Inland Empire, most especially the desert cities that are closest to home. I had been thinking that I should use the strange, funny, heart-breaking, startling and thought-provoking tidbits that I stumble on for writing prompts. Then this morning I got to thinking… why not share? So here we are at your first installment of the Tuesday Trigger.

You’ll get 300-500 words from me by Saturday. 300 is better– it’s harder. They may suck, but they’ll get written. It sure would be nice not to do this alone… Your stories in the comments would be most welcome.  I give you your first offering: Goldilocks Gets Naked:

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. — Police say a naked burglar has been arrested while taking a shower after he sipped champagne and ate a meal in a Southern California family’s home. Click through to RTWT

Why? Who is he? Where did he come from? What must that steak have tasted like to him? Insert your own question here. It doesn’t have to read like Law&Order. What if it were a Steam Punk universe, a dystopian, a YA, a romance?

What to write… what to write…?

Through the Windshield

Looking Out

I’ve been home for sixteen days and nothing is settled.

I wrote a lot of copy last week. I think I have a gig teaching. I wasn’t expecting to have so much work only a week after getting here. I am very grateful for that. The falcon is in his chamber. He complains at the dog, “chee-ups” at me, already content. A pair of my pigeons are on eggs. The wisteria I wincingly loosed from the pots on my porch in Sacramento were transplanted in my yard in Banning, their spring leaves already unfurling. This sense of “right” is almost overwhelming. Home, I think. And I remember why I bought this house 7 years ago. I heard it say my name, dreamily, but not unlike the California quail I hear on my morning walks, “re-BEC-ca. re-BEC-ca.”

All the same, most of my things are in a container on the street, my office isn’t ready for me yet and my mom and I still haven’t quite sorted our things into a sharable space. Tasks are queued and have to fall like dominos or not at all. It’s hard to be patient during the frantic desire of Spring. I told myself on my birthday, on Imbolc, that this would be the year of less yearning, more doing, but I yearn.

And I feel like I should be writing. Really writing. But I’m not yet.

I keep thinking of Annie Dillard chopping wood. I have been in the yard, shifting contents, tearing out the guts of my carriage house, shoring up the walls, pruning trees, my muscles screaming louder than any questions about my choices. And somewhere behind all that my subconscious is sorting and this I guess is writing too. Writing needs space… and sometimes aching muscles.

In this haze of sharp mind dulled by over-tired limbs, I nursed a beer last night on the couch next to my mom and asked her about the car accident when she was a teenager. I had heard this story many times, but there are things you do not wonder about when you are young. Now I wondered what this did to my mom, her own mother long lost to wherever the dead are taken and my mom making a swift knock on the same door.

 

Broken Glass Shards by Steven Depolo

She was a sophomore in high school in the passenger seat of a Datsun and she went through the windshield in the crash. No one wore seat belts then. There was no safety glass. She remembers seeing the car they hit and then nothing until the emergency room, but she lost teeth, fractured her skull, fractured her pelvic bone and the wrist of the hand she brought up to instinctively cover her eyes. And when she runs her fingers over the scars I’ve never noticed on her face, we ponder that surely she lay in the street with her face flayed open. It took 88 stitches to sew her face back together.

My mom was in intensive care for eight days, but back to school in three weeks. She had to have follow-up plastic surgery and really wasn’t supposed to walk for three months. Yet the girl in the back seat of the Datsun, the girl with barely bumps and bruises, didn’t go back to school for the rest of the year. My mom and I sipped our drinks on the couch and wondered if the sight of her, pretty, petite, sixteen and now disfigured on the road was more than the girl in the backseat could manage.

Me & Mom

It seems to me that sixteen is far too young to lose time, to have your face changed by fate, to go through the windshield. And my mother had already lost my grandmother, Barbara Jean to suicide (or perhaps something more sinister) when she was much younger. She has always told me that she thought it was a good thing that the pretty sister, that my aunt Dorothy hadn’t been in the accident –as if fate had been kind. And the way she says this, I think that her father, her step-mother, her sisters, that they all must have felt that same way. They must have called her “lucky” when a mother would have pulled her close and begged her to never knock on such wicked door again.

This makes me so angry at Barbara Jean. This makes me think about how dark and long the void a dead mother can leave behind. This makes me ache because somehow life wasn’t precious in my family and loss was a given. I want to ask Barbara Jean, “Why,” but I can only hear her answer in my head and there is a lot more wood to chop, stories to hear, words to mull before I take comfort in anything I channel her saying. And this makes me glad I came home, that my mom and I decided to share space for a while until the details feel a little less like flotsam, until we decipher the legacy of Barbara Jean.

I am trying to be patient. I am trying to write. I am hugging my mom because it scares me that she went through the windshield and because this means so much more than I realized. And I am so very glad to be home.

And… Begin (Again)

 

Wonderful finding things you planted, hoped for and abandoned now blooming.

I made it home on Saturday after an eight hour drive and with a truck full of animals. And by full, I mean 11 pigeons, 3 parrots, a falcon, a dog and a goldfish. All survived the journey. Although I had my doubts about my own well-being in the face of mutiny. The grey parrot started asking for “apple” about an hour and a half from home and was rather insistent. I kept reminding myself to be grateful that he and I were the only ones in the vehicle who could talk.

By home, I mean the house I bought seven years ago. I bought it because I love it and I still do. It rests in a mountain pass, in a town that is about to celebrate being incorporated for 100 years, but is much older. It was the last stagecoach stop before the brutality of crossing the desert. It was the last haven before hard journeys. In my fiction, I call it “Storms End” because it is, in fact, where the storms end. For a little while, at least, my mother is living here with me- and all of this seems right. No. It seems perfect.

So I did it. I mean I really did it, although I still don’t entirely believe it. I keep having dreams that I get talked into going back to my old job or that I forgot to tell them I was leaving. That isn’t what’s coming though. All that’s next is to the placing of one foot ahead and following with the other. This all feels so rash, so resolute… so real.

I’m a writer. For a living. I wonder what Barbara Jean would say to me, what my artist grandmother would say if she hadn’t died in 1958, if there hadn’t been a shotgun in that closet. In fact, I think I’m going to spend a lot of time wondering this, whispering to her in trying moments. I can still feel the hollow of letters on her headstone beneath my fingers.  I imagine too that I will have some choice words for her when I stumble upon her blame. But we are none of us blameless and I will also forgive her. And by Barbara Jean I mean myself.

I’m doing some crime reporting, a few blog posts for National Geographic, press releases, content for non-profits and pitching articles.  And I’m hoping that as soon as I get a little more settled I will be tackling a short story I’ve been outlining for a month, figuring out how to revive my ailing 3/4 done novel, writing things that steal me away when I should be crafting something I’ve committed to finishing.

I wonder what I’m going to say about my process, about my schedule, about my struggles. I suppose none of this is as important as being able to say what I’ve really wanted to all along.

I’m home. I’m writing.