Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Christmas Chronicle

The Part Where I Make a Bunch of Gifts
I have a habit of creating extravagent projects for myself. I got particularly creative this Christmas and made things for my sister, husband, mother, mother-in-law, best friend's daughter, and more. I'm really proud of how all of these turned out and I've wanted to share them before now, but I couldn't because the recipients might have seen them.
Clockwise from top left: Mars Rover LEGO set for Derek (which I had to assemble piece by piece since it's not a real set); Harry Potter light switch plate for my sister; silk flower wreath for my mother-in-law; embroidery for my best friend's daughter
The Part Where Derek and I Can't Wait
Derek and I have a problem in which we cannot let gifts sit under the tree. I wish I could say this was a Christmas-specific problem, but it's not. It's a birthday/Valentine's Day/anniversary, etc. problem. We work hard to keep this a secret from my mother, who believes we should get struck by lightning for such behavior. She usually finds out anyway. Derek and I exchanged our first Christmas gifts back in November. We made it a few more weeks before we opened the next ones and I think we made it to a week before Christmas before we exchanged the last two. (I got this beautiful Lord of the Rings print from DeviantArt.) We've accepted that we have a problem, but we don't really intend to do anything about it.

The Part Where the Airline Industry Hates Me
It's a running joke in my family that every time I fly, something goes terribly wrong. Two years ago, a  storm in Atlanta led to a clog at LAX. Derek and I waited almost four hours in a line to get the boarding pass for our pug (which you can't get online). The result was that we missed our flight ON CHRISTMAS DAY and didn't make it to Michigan until 10PM. My family was opening gifts well after midnight.

THIS YEAR we had a weather delay followed by a mechanical delay. We were stuck on the runway for over an hour before we returned to the terminal, and we had to do all of this with a pug in a bag under the seat. So airline industry, what did I ever do to you???

The Part in the Mitten
After we got to Michigan - I grew up here *points to center of right palm* - things got crazy. We stayed up until 2:30AM that first night, thanks to our delayed flight, and got up early the next morning to wrap presents. In order to avoid paying to check bags or risk the airlines taking carry-on suitcases, Derek and I only travel with a backpack each. However, these backpacks have little space for gifts, so I do most of my shopping online and get everything shipped to my parents' house. There was a pile of packages on my bed waiting for me when Derek and I got to Michigan.

About a week before we'd left, I came up with the brilliant idea to cook a huge brunch for a dozen of my friends. My mother graciously did all the shopping for me before I arrived, but Derek and I had to cook for about three hours the night before and two more hours the next morning. Everything looked gorgeous and the food was devoured, but it was too much work. I need to figure out how to work smarter, not harder, you know? I'm a little too good at working harder.

Later that same day, I woke up from a much-needed nap and the whole family cooked. We made appetizers to share and had a little cocktail party that segued into opening presents. My favorite presents were rather simple this year: a fantastic pair of socks, a glazed stoneware mug, and a lovely little pair of earrings from my sister. My mom got Derek the Helm's Deep LEGO set and I might have pouted a little because I wanted that, but it's not like he won't share.

The Part Where We Get to Dinner on Time
Derek and I flew back to LA Christmas morning to celebrate with his dad's side of the family. Given my luck with flying, we were well aware that we might never get there, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. And miraculously, nothing went wrong. I mean, I almost threw up going through some turbulence, but what's that? Nothing some airplane pretzels and Diet Coke can't fix. Everything was quiet at LAX and the lack of traffic on the way home felt like LA's Christmas gift to us. We walked the dog, grabbed some presents and a quick shower, and drove down to Orange County. Everyone else had been there for hours, but they had just sat down for dinner. We ate, opened presents - get this: I got a doormat from my father-in-law that says, "Speak, Friend, and Enter" - and then we played with Derek's uncle's murderous cockatiel, Layla.

Thus ends my Christmas chronicle. If you celebrated this week, I hope your Christmas was just as fulfilling - but far more relaxing - than mine.

Happy New Year, everyone :-)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tipping the Scales

Today was one of those days where everything that happened was a sign that the day was either going to be good or bad. I don't know why there are days like this or they happen for anyone else. Here are the factors that were tipping my scale today:

Pro: Today was the first day in a while that I was able to dedicate solely to writing.

Con: Derek and I made an offer on a condo on Monday with a deadline of Friday, but now apparently they're not even looking at offers until Friday. I don't know what this means for us, but I'm losing hope that we'll get the place. Being ignored by the sellers for three days has drained me of any goodwill I had toward them. Any counter-offers or requests for delays are not likely to be received well, although it would be disappointing to let go of this place.

Pro: I got a phone call that contained news better than a condo. My sister got into her top choice law school!!! I am so proud of her. She had a dream and she is just making it happen play by play.

In the end, this was a good day after all.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lessons from Big Sur

Clockwise from top left: jellyfish, view from the PCH, sardines, a sea dragon, trees at the conference center, and a seagull who tried to steal my breakfast

Last weekend I attended the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop. Ever since I got home, people have been asking me to sum up my experience, and it's been hard. But as I've answered this question over and over, my answer has gotten better, and I think I can sum up the experience in a few key points:

I met wonderful people.
The workshop was arranged so that each writer was part of two critique groups. You met with your groups twice, and each group had five writers and a faculty member, who was either an agent, an editor, or a published author. These critique sessions were what the weekend was really about. Getting feedback on my work was the primary benefit, but there was also a surprising secondary benefit in simply getting to spend time with other aspiring authors. We read each other's work, explained our histories with writing, and bonded over the shared misery of synopses. Before I even got home, I had emails from fellow writers. I now have several brilliant people I could ask to read my MS once it's ready, and I'll happily do the same for them.

My book is on the right track!
At my very first critique session, I brought copies of the first three chapters of Vix. We only got through the first three pages. It became a running joke with that group because nobody got through more than three pages at a time, and while giving feedback, people always wanted to know information that was on page four (grr!). My group had some great suggestions, but nobody said any of the things I had feared, e.g., you should start over, your protagonist is despicable, nobody will read this, I have no idea what's going on, this is offensive, etc. I was expecting much more criticism, but I happily traded that expectation for affirmation.

My synopses and query letters got some much needed help.
I brought querying materials for both Vix and for my last book, Safira. I queried Safira last spring a little last spring but I wasn't able to attract an agent's attention. I've never fully understood why. With my very first book, Mina, I knew a few weeks after I finished that I could do better. As the criticism for the book began to came in from agents who requested it, I agreed with everything they said, and I'm happy to keep that book on a shelf forever. But with Safira, it was different. I still adore that book. I love the characters and the world I built and I feel like that book somehow defines me, even though my current WIP is more directly related to my worldview.

I think 90% of the reason Safira failed was because I made mistakes during the querying process. I shared my synopsis and query for this book at the workshop and got so much feedback that I struggled to write everything down. This was wonderful. It might not sound like it, because nobody likes to hear that something they wrote sucks, but the thing is, I already knew these things sucked, and I was thrilled to finally understand why. Not only that, but my group members gave me suggestions for fixes, things I can actually do to make the querying materials better. Despite the fact that I left with my pens half-drained, I felt extremely hopeful.

I remembered something important about querying.
Back before I ever sent my first query letter, I had a confident attitude toward the process of finding an agent. I was as concerned with finding an agent who suited me as well as I suited them. (See this post from almost a year ago.) But after getting so many rejections, it was easy to forget about the partnership and fall into the mindset that I was at the mercy of agents.

There were several panels regarding querying at the conference. The agents there supported the idea that an agent is a partner, and that writers need the right agent just like agents need the right writer. (Say that five times fast!) Hearing this took some of the pressure off my shoulders. Now, when I query Vix, I'm going to say, "Here's a little about my book. Here's why it's great. Here's why I think we might work well together." And I'm going to remember that I have to accept the agent just as much as they have to accept me, so there's no place for apologies or excuses or kissing up. I wouldn't approach my spouse, my neighbors, or my co-workers like that, so I won't approach an agent like that either.

I got to go to Big Sur.
I say this without reserve: Big Sur is the most beautiful place on Earth. The trees and the ocean and the rugged cliffs - it's so overwhelmingly lovely that it defies description. (Stupid thing for a writer to say, right? Maybe I'm just being lazy.) I'm already working on convincing Derek that we should go there for our next anniversary. Luckily, our anniversary is not in December. I didn't mention this yet, but despite my awe for Big Sur's beauty, it tried to murder me. Sheets of rain, strong wind, narrow roads, rock slides, and waves so big they washed over the freeway - this was my path to the conference. I got to appreciate the trees once I got there, but I think I'll return when the sky is clearer and the atmosphere is less hostile.

After the conference, I drove up the coast to Monterey and visited the aquarium, which I've blogged about before. Derek tells people he could leave me at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for days and I wouldn't notice. He's probably right. I spent almost five hours there this time. I wore earplugs to tune out the screaming kids whose parents are allegedly deaf, and I spent at least 30 percent of my visit just sitting in front of the Open Sea tank. I don't have a good picture of it, but this tank has a million gallons of water, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the most graceful creatures in the aquarium - sharks, rays, turtles, shimmering schools of sardines, yellowfin tuna, and my very favorite: the Mola mola.

The Mola mola, AKA the Sunfish, is the pug of the sea. It is a huge, slow, dopey-looking fish that's basically the biggest joke natural selection ever played. At least the pug has the excuse of being bred by humans. One of the great things about the aquarium is that a lot of their animals aren't permanent residents. They pull them out of the bay, keep them for a while, study them, then set them free. (They believe - and I agree - that caging mammals is inhumane, so you'll never find dolphins or orcas here.) This rotation means that you never know what's going to be in the big tank. There was one sunfish this time, but it lingered down at the bottom, so I didn't get a great shot. You can see a few of the pictures I did take in the collage above.