Busy, apparently.

Oof, school kicked my butt this past week. A six-page paper plus a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation plus mandatory discussion all due the same day. And that’s just in one of my two classes.

I was out of town visiting family for most of the last week, which is always good for stepping away and reevaluating how you’re doing life. At times I found myself worrying about “wasted potential”—wondering if I could be doing something amazing if I just hadn’t watched so much TV as a kid, or had eaten a better diet growing up, or just tried harder. Such thinking isn’t terribly productive, though, and eventually I decided to stop worrying and think about what I want to do with the days ahead. Being out and about tore me away from the Internet for long stretches of time, which I realize has made me a generally happier person. I read too much news anyway, and news is overwhelmingly negative and largely about things outside my control. Spending less time with TV and video games was good for me, too. I can’t see myself ever saying “I’m sure glad I spent my entire summer consuming content in front of a screen.”

Now that I have a bit more breathing room before my next big assignment is due (well, kind of; there’s a 10-page paper due next Wednesday) I’m going to make sure I take time this week to pick up and delve into the stuff I want to be doing. (And call that accordion repair guy, for reals!)

A side note: On the trip to visit my relatives I took a couple of paperbacks for airplane reading: Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens and Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13,* and while I enjoyed both (or at least the first half, in the case of the 432-page Good Omens, which I haven’t yet finished), I’m still partial to middle-grade fantasy. I have to constantly quell the fear that this affinity is a sign of stunted development (more wasted potential!), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting that section of the public library every time I’m there. Also, I’ll read anything by Eva Ibbotson. She might be my favorite author ever. Island of the Aunts made me cry.

Here’s some relevant Neil Gaiman from a 2013 Guardian column that accurately reflects everything I believe about libraries and children’s literature:

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

*It’s about a pure-hearted boy raised by horrible stepparents whose destiny lies in the magical place accessible only through a secret portal in King’s Cross station. If that sounds familiar, note that The Secret of Platform 13 was published in 1994 and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. When asked about the striking similarities, Eva Ibbotson reportedly said that she’d like to shake J. K. Rowling’s hand, and added, “I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”

Stepping out.

I finally did it—I attended an SCBWI event. And it was totally worth it.

A neighboring regional chapter hosted a workshop on revision techniques yesterday, led by a local professional (bestselling) author. It was truly fantastic, and completely worth the 45-minute drive.

I’m still in that gap between Draft 2 and 3 on the novel I started in 2010. There are a few parts that I know need to be rewritten that I’ve been avoiding. After yesterday’s workshop I realize I’ve been avoiding rewriting it because it’s actually boring. I’ve got my work cut out for me—and a lot of different tacks I can take.

Another memorable takeaway from the workshop was an exercise in determining a story’s theme. “It’s 10 years after the events of your story. Imagine that you’re at a bar or a coffee shop and your main character sits down next to you. You get to talking, and the character recounts his or her experiences. Then you ask, ‘So what did you learn from all of that?’ What does your character reply?”

That’s one I’m going to be chewing on for a bit.

Drumming and reading.

Drum performance went well, though the best part is probably the camaraderie I’ve found within the group. Since joining I’ve been invited to birthdays and happy hours and have really gotten to know everyone a lot better than if I’d limited my contact to just classes and rehearsals.

Haven’t been keeping up as well with the creative endeavors per se, but I did make dedicated time for reading, which professional authors seem to universally agree is an essential part of being a writer. I must have finished four or five books this week alone. Granted, they were pretty much all middle grade, which tend to be fast reads (and working in an environment with lots of kids and books makes access to them easy). But there’s some certain honesty that middle grade fiction tends to have in abundance that I rarely find in YA or adult literature—an honesty that allows mounds of subtext without taking away from an engaging surface narrative. C. S. Lewis famously remarked in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Best Say What’s to Be Said” that “a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.” I’m very pleased to be discovering (and rediscovering) the surprising depths in these books ostensibly aimed at middle schoolers.

Also, I have to say this: Diary of a Wimpy Kid is truly funny. Its protagonist is such an awful role model, so realistically self-centered and unaware. I had to stop myself from spit-taking on some of the pages.

Adventures in un-ickying.

Tried un-ickying my goals this week and ended up writing a list of musical instruments I want to eventually learn how to play, ranging from the tin whistle to the $2,000 Array mbira (seen in this video). Retitled the list “How I Will Go Bankrupt.”

My harp’s still in the shop. They say they’ll need to contact the manufacturer and get parts, which means I’ll probably be harpless for a while yet. I should focus on my other, functional instruments.

On the writing side of things, I finally compiled and sent my responses to my friend who critiqued my second draft. Now I need to start looking toward Draft #3, which I’m determined will not take four-and-a-half years like last time.

Keeping it up.

Wanting to remind myself of how serious I am about writing, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators this week. It’s something I’ve been looking at for a long time, and with this second draft finished and revisions underway I feel like I could get more use out of the resources it offers. That is, if I can concentrate and apply myself enough. Maybe one day I’ll have the money and the body of work and the confidence to attend their New York conference.

I’ve also taken in one of my aforementioned folk instruments, a little lever harp, in for repairs. A couple of the levers have gotten buzzy and I’ve been using that as an excuse not to practice. Sending it in is not only to remove that excuse, though; it’s also to remind me how much I enjoy it. Somehow, even with how I’ve been slacking at practicing, not having it in the house makes me miss it, and more resolved to keep at it once it comes back.

My self-discipline has been lacking recently, even at work. I need to watch less TV and remember where my passions lie.

Confidence and supportive writer friends.

I started writing a novel in December of 2010 and finished the first draft (an unreadable 100,000-word mess) in June of 2012. I remember being embarrassed that it took me so long to finish (eighteen months!), but revision took even longer. I finished the second draft (rough but readable at 45,000 words) last month, after four-and-a-half years, and sent it out to some writer friends. One of them read through the whole thing in a month, leaving copious notes in the margin.

With every step I’ve completed in this process has come a strange but welcome confidence. Before I even started the novel I was terrified to even tell people I wanted to be a writer. Finishing the first draft was an endorphin rush, but after that faded away and revision purgatory began, doubts crept back in as to whether the thing was salvageable, and the last thing I wanted was anyone to read it. Finally, last fall I resolved to throw myself into the thing and at least write a decent ending.

Something about that second draft flipped a switch in my brain. I actually liked what I was writing. Sure, there were some definite problem spots and it wasn’t ready to hit an agent’s or editor’s desk (or the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, for that matter), but I felt like I’d found decisive proof that there was a good story somewhere in there. It was like waking up to find that Santa had eaten the cookies you’d left. He does exist!

Then, Sunday night, I got the email attachment from my friend. The copy of the draft with her 1,430 comments. I purposefully put off reading it for a couple days, excited and terrified. Plus I couldn’t commit more than an hour or two at a time to it, and I knew once I started reading it, I wouldn’t stop until I’d read all the way through. I ended staying up two hours past my bedtime on Wednesday to finish, and am I ever glad I did.

Everything she wrote, from her raw reactions to her predictions to her snarky (hilarious) comments to her frustrated keyboard-mashing (either at characters’ actions or author’s negligence/apparent stupidity) was helpful. The praise and the critique both. The next morning my sleep-deprived brain was buzzing with ideas to make the story better. It was amazing until the headache hit around 8:00pm and I went to bed.

I used to keep my writing very close to my chest. After entering high school or so I stopped showing it to anyone. I still can’t write with someone else in the room. Sometimes, when writing longhand, I write in extremely tiny letters so I don’t have to face the insipidity of my first-draft voice unless I squint.

No, my second draft isn’t perfect. But the Mythbusters proved you can polish even a turd, and I’d like to get this one to at least a good shine. Thank God for supportive writer friends who take time out of their lives to help me do this.