December 31, 2009

Resolution Time!

I'm a big, big fan of setting goals, writing them down and posting them up where I'll have to stare at them. I come from a long, long line of crazy "list" people. There's nothing more satisfying than taking down that list that you've been staring at and getting to cross something off it with a big, juicy marker.

Usually I do this on my birthday, which is in November, but this year the goal-making sort of slipped on by me. I've thought a lot this week about what I want to focus on this year- what I want my life to look like- and what kinds of goals will help to get me there. I've realized recently that I'm happiest when I have a clear and inspiring sense of purpose. Being a camp counselor made me happy for many reasons, but chief among those was the fact that it gave me a strong and abiding sense of purpose every day. A busy, purpose-filled Kate is a happy Kate.

My problem is that I tend to be a little overambitious. I've tried to make sure that my goals for this year are 1) within my control and 2) not completely outrageous. I wanted goals centered around what mattered to me most and that would pose a good challenge.

So here they are:

1) Outline and write full draft of novel #2.
2) Finish editing Spellbound and seek representation for it.
3) Find a job that satisfies my needs (i.e. contributes to bills, points me towards future career goals, allows time for writing).
4) Learn a new artistic skill (photography, print making... TBA)
5) Revise Alexander P. Dragon AND draw accompanying illustrations.
6) Write 1 letter a week to a friend or family member that I haven't talked to in a while.
7) Travel somewhere with Manfriend that we've never been to before.
8) Write two pieces of travel journalism and attempt to get them published.

Here's to a challenging, goal-filled New Year!

December 21, 2009

Top 12 Books of 2009

I'm staring at my virtual bookshelf and realizing that this year has been, might I say, an eclectic reading year for me. My thesis- or, more accurately, the frustratingly fixed and brittle process of writing my thesis- led me in all sorts of literary directions, in search of escape. For that, Thesis Beast, I thank you. I must also thank my favorite indie, Northshire Bookstore, which I was lucky enough to skulk through (in a half-drunken state of nerdy euphoria) TWICE this year and which led me to some of the best books I've read in a long time.

(Excitement Overload.)

So, without further ado, my top 12 reads of 2009:

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
It is: A story about a farming family trying to carve a life out in the Delta after WWII. A captivating historical drama told through the voices of a confused farmer, a haunted brother, a struggling wife, and a rebellious black man and his family. A story about justice and connection.
I would give it to: Anyone who likes historical narratives. Anyone who likes good narratives, period. My Mom.
What made it special: The narrative swept me up like a tidal wave; it was that beautiful, that intriguing. I was repeatedly arrested by the eloquence of Jordan's language. The multiple characters through which the tale is told are engagingly, complex, and completely edible. This is one of those books that I was truly sorry to get to the end of.

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
It is: An American Civil War story about a young boy who is sent off into the fray on a coal black horse to find his father. A beautiful portrayal of exploration and love found and sustained amidst savage violence. A portrait of a young, thoughtful boy trying to hold on to his goodness, using his connection to his horse to help guide him.
I would give it to: Anybody. Everybody.
What made it Special: I picked this up while researching my civil war short story, finding myself drawn to the beautiful cover. This is a story that succeeds in being both brutally heart-breaking and incredibly heart-warming, often in the same paragraph. It is one of the most unique coming of age tales I've ever had the privilege to read. This is a magical book.

Sharp Objects by Gilian Flynn
It is: A deliciously disturbing story of a woman journalist (a cutter who carves words into her own skin) who is forced to return home to cover a creepy series of child murders. It is about what happens when this damaged, damaging woman falls back into the laps of her manipulative mother, her destructive younger sister, and the haunting memories from her past. A story of female power, female violence.
I would give it to: Anyone who is into mysteries, or crime series, and to people like me, who aren't. Anyone who likes Stephen King-type horror stuff.
What made it Special: I don't usually do creepy. I'm not into reading about violence, especially towards women. This book was all of these things... and I LOVED it. I would have eaten it for every meal if I wasn't afraid of ink poisoning. It was that good. The writing is powerful, seductive, witty. The characters are wickedly addictive. Flynn's unique take on what happens when women use violence to gain control is riveting. It kept me up into the wee hours, wanting (and not wanting) to find out what would happen next.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
It is: This probably doesn't need explanation, but I'll give it anyway: It's a vampire mystery/romance/adventure story about what happens when a twenty-something telepath sees a vampire walk into her bar.
I would give it to: All of my lady friends who like a romance with a little bite. Spec fiction fans. Anyone who finds Southern culture interesting and sometimes a little bit absurd.
What made it Special: This series was sort of instrumental in getting me through my thesis, so I have a special fondness for everything Sookie. One of the reasons I loved it is because it doesn't take itself very seriously (no offense, Twilight); it is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Southern life and small-town prejudice. Harris uses her sassy, wonderful leading lady to explore themes of intolerance and hatred while seducing us with whodunit mysteries (and-let's face it- some pretty glorious sex scenes. Ooooh, Eric!). Go ahead. Just try it.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
It is: A non-fiction piece of investigative/travel journalism in which the author, Tony Horwitz, travels through the Civil War South of today to try and find out what kinds of remnants it has left behind. He finds all sorts of things: monk-like reenactors, bar brawls, memory keepers, racists and abolitionists- every crazy Southern character you could dream of- written about with wit, sensitivity, and complete hilarity. This is a book about the unique and fascinating place that is the American South.
I would give it to: Anyone interested in the Civil War. Anyone interested in American culture and identity. Anyone who needs a few laughs. Anyone who loves some good non-fiction. Anyone who I can force to read it.
What made it Special: I don't read a lot of nonfiction. I try, but it's rare that one will engage and capture me the same way that good fiction does. This book was the MOTHER of all exceptions. It surprised me by making me laugh until I almost peed myself. It asked me, subtly and in stages, to think about my relationship with the South, REthink my perspective on the Confederate flag, and completely reexamine my American identity. It touched and moved and enraptured me. In short, I fell in love with it. This is a book that I will read again and again, just for the joy of it.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
It is: A YA werewolf love story, and SO much more. A story about a girl who has spent years watching the wolf that lives behind her house, only to find out that he isn't just a wolf and that he's been watching her, too. What's unique is that THIS werewolf is a boy who turns into a wolf when it gets cold.
I would give it to: Any female between the ages of 12 and... I don't know, 50? Do we ever get too old for good love stories?
What made it Special: I am a great lover of this author's blog, and I love good urban fantasy/mysticism, so I figured that I would like this book, but I didn't know I'd end up loving it. Stiefvater's writing is lyrical, a pleasure to experience. She captures so many of the unique and wonderful qualities of teenage love and feeling. Her descriptions of nature and the enrapturing pains of first love are a joy to read. The pace, the characters, the uniqueness of her take on werewolves all added up to a wonderful page-turner of a story.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
It is: This one isn't really about wolves, Were or otherwise. It is about a young woman in the harsh Canadian wilderness who discovers a dead body that is blamed on her only son. She goes off into the wilderness with a solemn tracker to prove his innocence, finding out things about the world, and herself, that she never imagined. It is about family secrets coming back to haunt us and about going in search of one thing only to find something else entirely.
I would give it to: Anyone who likes dramatic, pioneer-type fiction. My Canadian friend Lyndsey (not so much because she's Canadian, but because she'd love it).
What made it Special: The story is immediately engaging, the setting unique and captivating, and the characters both frightening and fragile. This is a murder mystery that compels you to read greedily forward to find out what happens in the end. Between end and beginning, I discovered a beauty I hadn't expected, and a book that I thought about long after it had ended.

Giants of the Frost by Kim Wilkins
It is: A speculative fiction-type book about a young female who takes a job on a tiny island and falls in love with a mysterious man who ends up being from another world entirely. This story takes its cue from Nordic myth, transforming some of its most famed characters into unique living, breathing characters. This is a suspenseful tale about lost love, family ties, and the twisting of fate.
I would give it to: My best friend, who loves this stuff.
What made it Special: I should say that I'm a little biased towards this author. She was a teacher of mine in grad school, and if every would-be writer has a literary crush, she is one of mine. That aside, I loved this book to pieces. The way she interprets Nordic myths and themes is fascinating, the narrative fast-paced and completely spellbinding. I found myself literally grabbing at the pages- I devoured this book. Kim knows how to tell a kick ass story.

Goldengrove by Francine Prose
It is: A story about a young girl who loses her older sister in a mysterious boating accident and the effect that event has on her and her family's lives. The narrative, told from the perspective of the surviving sister, encompasses the summer after the older sister's death- the summer that changes her forever. It is about the acute pain of teenage-hood and the strange paths that grief takes us down.
I would give it to: Pretty much anyone.
What made it Special: This book is so beautifully written that the language alone makes it worth reading. But it has so much more to offer than that. The point of view is so incredibly convincing that I had to stop and marvel at the author's ability to so fully illustrate the mind of a young, grieving teenager. Reading this book felt like a gift.

In The Woods by Tana French
It is: Three kids go into the woods that border their small Irish town: only one comes out, and he has no idea what's happened. Many years later, that boy has become a cop who is drawn back to the scene of his childhood trauma by the murder of a young girl. This is an enjoyably creepy story about old wounds that come back to bite you and the blurry line between the real and the imagined.
I would give it to: Anyone who likes a good mystery/police drama with a psychological twist.
What made it Special: This book sucked me in with its lyrical language and beautiful plot exposition. The author brings the life of a murder detective to life in such a masterful and convincing way. I wanted to throttle the main character, and yet, I loved him. The story is masterfully well-woven; it will keep you up until 3 in the morning, wanting- no, needing- to figure it all out.

The River King by Alice Hoffman
It is: About a mysterious drowning at a small-town New England prep school, and the people who set out to investigate it. This is a book about first love and finding ways to belong in a small town that doesn't like to (can't seem to) change.
I would give it to: Anyone who digs books that blur the line between reality and magic.
What made it Special: After falling in love with Practical Magic, I was hoping that this book would be as good, and in many ways, it was. Hoffman throws a healthy dose of her magical realism into her story, along with an interesting cast of characters and a beautifully described backdrop. I absolutely love the way she finds ways to tell an ordinary story in very extraordinary ways.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
It is: How can I describe this book?... It's a kind of cruel, twisted fairy tale that stretches back and forth between two words. After suffering abuse of many kinds, the main character escapes to a world where nobody hurts and raises her two daughters there. There are men who turn into bears, and magic coins, and... all sorts of stuff.
I would give it to: Any of my fantasy-loving friends.
What made it Special: It's funny- I'm still not sure if I actually liked this book. It was disturbing and strange... so why include it? Because it was just so good. The story is brought to life in such a beautiful, forceful way. I have never read anything so inventive or tactile. The details are so luscious that you can almost taste them. The story is fresh and just... so haunting (and not at all in a bad way). It stayed with me long after I finished the last chapter, revisiting the amazing world that Lanagan described.

December 10, 2009


It's been a week, and I've written all of five measly words.

Most "successful" writers will tell you, that's a very good way to NOT to get published. I've read a lot of pieces of writerly advice over the years, and the one nugget that is forever constant is to write every day. Those much-beloved and envied writers are currently squatting in my brain, wagging writerly fingers and bunching furry eyebrows. I was doing so well with every day. Until this vacation happened.

Because there has been jet lag. And family time. And countless small wonders that seem to fill every day to the brim: my Australian man friend laughing with Mom at her kitchen table. My man friend cooking us complicated dinners over overflowing glasses of red wine. Watching him soak in a place and culture that is still, in so many ways, new to him. Scrabble on the iTouch (What does it mean that I'm only getting 20 words out of a possible 150? That I should know what words like 'gaum' mean?).

Wonders aside, there have been seven days and no words. Hence this aspiring-writerly post. Because of all the things I want to see and achieve in 2010, becoming a better, more dedicated writer tops the list. Hell, it is the list.

I'm a big fan of making resolutions. Give me a challenge and poke me a few times: that's when the magic happens. The thing I've realized about resolutions is they're difficult to remember and to act upon if you don't proclaim them. Usually, proclaiming is reserved for when you get to the top of the mountain and dig that flag into the craggy earth, but I find that proclaiming counts most when you're at the beginning of that arduous climb. There is a power in telling the world what your goal is: it carves itself out in your mind and the minds of others, helping to make you into whoever you're becoming. Of course, proclaiming a goal doesn't ensure that you'll achieve it. You still have to put one foot in front of the other, continuously and with intent. Proclaiming just makes your goal clearer, more tangible- it makes it real.

It also makes you more accountable. If I proclaim a goal in my head and don't meet it, no one will know. No one but me, anyway. I'll be disappointed, but I'll find ways to excuse my falling short. When you let the world in on your goals, then you know that they know that we know. You have people willing to remind you about that thing you said was important to you that you are putting off. You know that if you cheat on your goal, there will be other people to mark your fear or laziness or whatever it is that is keeping that goal from becoming.

So, here is my small, very achievable December goal: I will write every day for at least a half an hour. Not read other people's blogs or scratch around in my notebook pretending to write. I will prove to myself that I can fit writing into my life no matter what else is happening.

But first, breakfast.

December 1, 2009

All I Want For Christmas...

There are scores of reasons to love December. There are parties and mittens and slippers with bells. There are nine million semi-legitimate excuses to indulge in chocolate desserts. It's a time of enjoyment, of merriment- of giving.

And then, there's the receiving. December is the only time of year that I get given BOOKS.

Let's face it- I've cursed myself. My obsession with books, which borders on reverence, is so well known by friends and family that they are terrified to give me any. They argue that A) my tastes are so 'refined' that they think I won't like what they pick out, and B) that chances are if it's good, I'll already have read it.

To which I say: what rubbish.

First, I like to think that my tastes are rather varied. Literary classics and Sookie Stackhouse ain't the only things I read. Give me speculative, historical, literary, mystery, doesn't matter: if you loved it, then I'm excited to try it. And as for fearing I've already read it? I have two words for you. Shelfari and Amazon. My wish lists will show you which books I'm drooling over. Consider it a cheat sheet that you're allowed- nay, encouraged- to use.

Lists aside... I probably haven't read it. Because there is SO MUCH out there. If I had a thousand lifetimes, I couldn't get to all the 'good stuff' on those bookstore shelves. I wish they'd hurry up and figure out regeneration so I could have a few more years just to read more of what's out there. There I books I stumble upon that I am amazed I didn't know about before. Again, if you loved it enough to want to share it, then chances are you're giving me a really thoughtful gift.

In fact, Dad and I reconnected through the giving of books. Every year, Dad would research new releases, scanning BookWorld clippings and online reviews for reads he thought I would like. I'd drive through the deserted Christmas morning streets knowing the treasures that awaited me under the tree. Dad would pile them on my lap, each one beautifully wrapped and waiting. As each one was unveiled, he'd tell me why he picked it out as I caressed their covers and read their jackets. In this way, he gave me some of the great books of my life. That's not to say I loved them all, but I loved the ritual through which they were chosen. Each book formed a small connection, a brick in the ever-growing foundation of him plus me.

That's what I really crave for Christmas: to pick up that hefty rectangular present that bends just slightly between your hands. Knowing that the thing waiting beneath the shiny paper could give me pleasure, make me think, ignite my passion, maybe even change my life.

Bring on the giving season!

November 26, 2009

They Don't Eat The Turkeys Here

As I watch a bush turkey wobble its fat bottom on the fence in my backyard, I am reminded how much I have to be thankful for.

This year, I've had the opportunity to go diving with sharks, hike over volcanoes, and have adventures with family and friends on both sides of the equator.

I'm with someone who makes me laugh, who isn't terrified by my bursts of weirdness, AND who celebrates me, and my writing, every day.

I have the time, and the courage, to write. And finally, I'm doing it. And loving every minute.

However, I am not thankful for the bush turkeys that crash through our saplings and peck over my leftovers at our favorite cafe. Too bad we aren't supposed to eat them: it's too hot for turkey, anyway.

November 25, 2009

Nano, I Think It's Over Between Us

There are four more days in November: that means I should be at about 46,000 words. I'm currently squatting on 32,740.

For those of you who don't know, November is National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). The challenge that Nanowrimo poses is to write 50,000 words in one month. That's a heap ton of words.

Not that I was worried, mind you. At the beginning of the month, I was flying. Since I was jobless and waiting-for-visa, I had all the time in the world. My fingers were singing along to the tune of thousands of words an afternoon. I was feeling badass and author-like.

Of course, I cheated. You're supposed to start the month with a fresh project, something you haven't yet started to write. I was already 65,000 words into my first novel-length project. The juices were flowing. I was at the 'By George!' stage of the process, where plot details finally click into place and you slide manically and excitingly towards the story's resolution. I had fallen in love with my characters, who were about to go through some big deal experiences- I couldn't very well STOP. So I used the first half of the month to finish. Fist-pumping ensued. Midnight brownies were made and consumed along with copious amounts of cheap champagne. Pupils became dilated to dish-plate status.

That got me to 20,000 words. I was feeling so excited by my writerly fervor that I soldiered right into a new project, thinking the first 30,000 words of that would go as smoothly as the last 20,000 of the other had.

My mistake.

The first section was great, as it always is: the idea was fresh, the characters were mysterious, and the plot-line was still misty. Then I hit the section where I realized that the words coming out of my fingertips weren't doing justice to the story in my head. Not even close. My characters were silly. My plot was undefined. I seriously considered printing out a copy just so I could set it on fire.

I have to tell you, Nanowrimo, I applaud your enthusiasm and your general goal. I just don't like to write to word count. It gives me no time to brainstorm about my characters, or pace around my office flapping intermittently and talking to myself. It forces me to pump out 'filler' words that I'm going to have to throw out later. It turns writing into a race, and getting to a certain word count into 'winning'. The thing is, a really bad draft makes for a terrible trophy prize.

Thanks, Nano, for teaching me that this is NOT the way I like to write.

July 14, 2009

Read of the Week

Now that I actually have time to read for pleasure, I find myself wandering into bookstores all over Brisbane and being too overwhelmed to choose a book out, which got me thinking about that standard get-to-know-you question, "What is your favorite book?". I've always thought that was a boring, not to mention unanswerable, question.  So I've come up with some more interesting ones in an attempt to shake off my book buyer's block.

What was your favorite book as a child? 
The Fledgling by Jane Langton. Even as an adult, I still dream myself into that story.

What book did you have the strongest positive emotional reaction to? Negative reaction?
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. This book made my heart overflow with happy feelings, and the conviction that love can heal anything.  
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. I hated the whiny, selfish main character so much that I threw this book against the wall and wished evil things on it. I actually felt like he'd insulted me personally with his fictitious decisions.

What book have you most identified with?
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. When I first read it, I felt like someone had ripped off my shadow and made it into the book's main character. It was a surprisingly fulfilling experience, discovering a piece of myself in someone else's book. 

What book do you read over and over to escape?
Harry Potter, of course. Like all "trendy" reads, I didn't want to love this series, but I inevitably fell for it, utterly and eternally.  No one creates a world that readers long to run into like J.K. Rowling. I'm very grateful to her for that.

What is the most rewarding book you've ever read?
Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. Reading this book felt like wading through molasses; it was arduous and difficult. That said, every page gave me something unique and rich. Every chapter taught me a lesson about literature, about reading, and about living.

What is your favorite guilty pleasure book?
The Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Vampires, Southern culture, and detailed sex scenes? Sign me up. When I'm feeling stressed, this series is my go-to, and I enjoy every page. Don't tell anyone, though.

When forced, what do you tell people is your favorite book, and why that one?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. It is intense, haunting, beautiful, and dark- it is a timeless work that transfixes even dubious readers with rich characters and a 'love story' that is tortured and real. If I was being honest, though, I'd say that's changed to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, the much-forgotten youngest sister. Her tale may not be as immediately transfixing as Emily's, but it is, in many ways, more grown up, more haunting, and more beautiful. 

I'm looking for something that will sweep me up with good language and a captivating story. Any suggestions?

May 28, 2009

Life Lessons

I've been putting off my first blog entry for months. I wanted it to be sharp, witty, and filled with clever insights. And then, my last semester of grad school swallowed my creativity whole and rendered me the most boring person alive. I can feel myself falling behind on what I want to be writing about in favor of what I have to write about, so I figured it was time to start writing whatever was on my mind.  My mind is, inevitably, wondering where I'm going to find the motivation to finish my thesis in the next three weeks. I know I left that motivation somewhere... but I've never been known for my finding-things skills.
In trying to move forward, I find myself looking back: what 'life lessons' have I drawn from the thesis process? What kind of education has this experience offered me thus far? 

1) Life sucks. (Just kidding.) I've learned that it's o.k. to wallow in your own juices sometimes, but that negativity gets you nowhere. Except into a chocolate binge spiral. Negativity also renders you very uninteresting and unproductive, and makes you endlessly un-fun to be around. Unfairness happens. Nothing kills negativity like tough love and a brisk walk around the block.

2) Ooh, shiny! There's no way around it: rejection sucks. But, as much as I hate to admit it, there is a lot to be learned from being told it isn't good enough. I've learned that even if you have the brightest, best idea in the world, sometimes acceptance comes down to packaging. You have to know the people you're trying to please and understand the world in which they operate.  The trick is to take the idea you're passionate about and wrap it up in the kind of shiny paper that they think makes for an awesome present. You have to be confident enough to stick to what you think is a great idea, but savvy enough to know how to sell it to the people who matter.  

3) It's not personal, it's business. How I hate that mantra... to me, rejection has always been personal.  Having my thesis plan rejected was like being dumped over text message on my birthday. I found myself listlessly wandering the sidewalk, wondering where I'd gone so terribly wrong. Then I realized that it really wasn't personal. There was nothing wrong with my idea, or with me in general. Their comments were not a commentary on my ability to excel. My idea just wasn't laid out in a way that the Almighty Panel could appreciate. That's academia for you. Being a writer will always mean rejection. I learned that if I ever want to call myself a writer, then I need to learn how to take constructive feedback and let the rest wash right over me.  

4) Bend over, please. No one likes to have to mold themselves around someone else's expectations. I certainly don't. One of the thousands upon thousands of reasons I would never join the military: I'd be kicked out of boot camp for sassing commanding officers. "You're not the boss of me" was one of my favorite slogans as a kid. But then, I'm not a kid anymore, and sometimes molding is required. It's bend or break. And breaking is more painful by far. There is a pride, and a skill, in being able to compromise without giving up what you think matters.

5) One step at a time. I'm an ideas girl: I like to take in the whole picture at once, which means I am easily overwhelmed by the enormity of a task. This thesis has forced me to take it section by section, process by small process. I've learned that when a big things is broken up into small things, that they aren't as scary. And they get done. Weeks go by, and you realize, wow: I've written a thesis. You don't have to take huge steps: either way, you'll get there.

6) Make it yours. Academics everywhere tend to want to take what's your and make it theirs: they are possessive about what goes on in their sphere. It is all too easy to end up feeling like what was once your thesis doesn't belong to you anymore. I've learned that it's important to keep your projects yours, even when you have to mold them to fit what others expect them to be. Because it's you who will have to spend months writing it. You who will have to sift through musty library books that no one else has opened since the 50's. The more ownership you feel over something, the more dedicated you are about getting it right. The more you care what happens to it in the end.

A few weeks ago, I could see no useful lessons in my thesis at all. I'm glad to have found that it is the most profoundly horrific of setbacks that sometimes teach you the most.  I may not walk out of my degree with the tangible results I wanted. But I think I will walk out having picked up some unexpectedly handy tools. I think that, in a backwards way, my thesis has made me a better, more thoughtful, more resilient writer.

Now where did that motivation go?