Minuet, Goodbye

I lost someone. I lost something significant. For a lot of complicated reasons, I’ve given up on the book I spent the 8 years, 1 month, and 1 day writing. And rewriting. And rewriting again. I couldn’t ever seem to make it work. And just recently, a news event changed the context in which my book would have been read. And because of that, my book, my idea, my characters’ journeys, don’t have a place in the world anymore. A real story has supplanted it, changed the landscape for the type of story I was telling. So I’m bowing out and laying my story down.

I’m not going to explain further. I’m not going to change my mind. I don’t want anyone to try to talk me out of it or to tell me that I learned a lot. I know the time wasn’t wasted, though I have felt that at times. I know I grew tremendously. I know how much joy writing and rewriting this book brought me. And it still sucks.

I’ve felt this was coming for a while. I tried to work around it. I consulted my best friend and long-time writing partner, the only person I’ve shared this story and these characters with. She gave me the writing prompt from which it all came to start with. And after I laid it all out, she reluctantly agreed with me.

Thinking about my characters, imagining their scenes and stories and voices, is habitual for me now. My playlists and Pinterest boards are full of references to them. I’ll miss them. And I’ll miss what they represented. I thought they’d be the start of my professional writing career. Something my parents could read and understand me better, somehow. I believed in my idea so much, for over eight years. It was my safe place. And now…

Now, putting them away leaves my writing life wide open. And uncertain. For years, I’ve kept a bright pink post-it on my desk at work, saying simply: “I am a writer. I write books.” Monday morning, after Kayla and I agreed that I need to put this book to rest, I took that post-it note down and threw it away. 

I do still consider myself a writer. I do still want to write books. But I’m not writing now. I’m letting go of a dream, and all these beloved characters and their story. I’m saying goodbye. I have other books partially drafted, but it doesn’t feel right to try to jump back into any of them. I’m not excited about any of them. 

This book is over. It didn’t end the way I would have wished. 

It’s strange, and somewhat gratifying, to have seen my story become real for real people, and to have watched so many in the world rejoice at it. Part of me feels as though my idea moved beyond me, grew legs when I wasn’t paying attention, and bolted at full gallop into the world. It seems to have manifested as real in the world. Velveteen Rabbit-real. I don’t believe that I had anything to do with the news story, with those people’s real lives, but I am aware that this idea, this plot, these characters were a creature I purposefully fed and nurtured for most of the last decade. My pet project. And now it’s in the world with no help or connection to me at all.

The world has changed and it can’t be born into this world and be seen as anything other than a poor retelling of reality. Nevermind that I imagined my story first.

The only people who know, who really know, about my story and what it was before this extraordinary news broke, are me and my best friend. This huge part of my life, that I expected my family to read and my new husband to read, is going in a drawer. It’s quite the mental shift. And I am quite sad about it. 

I’m also aware that all this yawning nothingness before me is full of possibilities. And that should be celebrated. So should my past 8 years of work, really. I did something I didn’t think I could do, and then I did it again. And it never quite worked out the way I hoped, but I did write a 300-page book. And I revised it many times. I called it Minuet, after my protagonist. And I am proud of it. And of her. And of the real-life person who has supplanted her.

I imagine I’ll sneak the names of my characters into whatever I write after this. Just in passing. They’ll be hidden in a world between worlds.

That feels like a good reason to write, in and of itself. Something fun. But not yet.

Right now, I just want to say her name one more time.

Minuet, I love you.
Minuet, goodbye.

NaNoWriMo 2019

When I was a ministry intern, I would walk into my apartment after an emotionally draining day or full evening and all my energy would whoosh out of me at once, usually the moment I turned the lock on my door and my day. I’d step out of my heels in the dark—feet suddenly aching, shoulders suddenly slumping, suddenly away of my dry throat and sore, watery eyes—and drag myself toward the short list of necessities I had to accomplish before I could tuck myself into bed.

One day last week, my energy left me in much the same way it used to. I’d had a long, full afternoon. I’d spent it with people I love, and I’d enjoyed it. But I hadn’t intended to be out so long or to interact with so many people on my day off, the day after returning from a trip with Tyler over the long weekend. I felt the crash coming as I drove home, and held out until I could turn the lock behind me. 

I took off my shoes, set down my purse, changed into sweatpants, and lay down on the couch. And because I have a capable and sensitive husband, I didn’t have to do much else. When he got home a few minutes after I did, he fed and played with Tara. He checked the porch for packages and made sure I had a glass of water. He cooked. I didn’t put in a load of towels, as I’d intended. I didn’t write, as I’d hoped. I didn’t even read. I merely lay on the sofa under my favorite blanket and recharged for four hours, then went to bed. 

As I look ahead to November and the writing I hope to accomplish during it (50K words as part of National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo, or NaNo), I’m looking at ways I can try to avoid becoming emotionally and physically overtaxed. 

First, I’m taking an honest look at my calendar. I have multiple trips already planned, including a work trip I’m trying hard not to dread, and Thanksgiving, for which neither of our families have finalized plans. I’m considering how I can write on weekdays and my few free weekends to help make up for the days when I’ll be traveling. I’d like to believe I’ll at least get a sentence written even on those days, and I might, but I’m not going to saddle myself with unreasonable expectations or set myself up for failure. I also don’t want to burn out because of the combination of life events, work requirements, and my writing. Holidays can be overtaxing in and of themselves. So can writing 50K words in a month. So I need to be honest about when and how much I can hope to write. Thankfully, I have participated in, and written about, NaNo before.

Two, I’m outlining. In drafts past, I’ve written a bunch of scenes, then strung them together and decided what I needed to write to fill the gaps. To some degree, I’m doing that again. I’m rewriting a manuscript I “finished” years ago but that wasn’t working. I’ve selected a few scenes from that draft that work with the new characterization and pacing, and written a lot of others to mark the changes in plot and the addition of a second point of view. But the main thing I want to avoid with this project is overwriting. I don’t what to write a bunch of scenes I don’t need. I don’t want to waste the time or the energy. 

Throughout October, I’ve been spending my lunch breaks researching various outlining methods, and working on a detailed outline for myself. I’m sure I’ll deviate from it, and I’m not sure how effective it’ll be, since I haven’t written from one before. But I have found it helpful so far. I think it’s also helpful to announce my intentions, thus this late-October treatise:

I’ll be attempting to write 50k words in November. I may not get back to you. I may not be able to hang out. I may not sound particularly with it when we talk. I’m sorry in advance if I sound rude or distant. I’m building worlds with words and it’s taking up a lot of my brainpower. I’m trying hard not to overdo it, and I’m grateful that you understand. 

For the Love of Hallmark Movies

It’s hardly a secret—though I haven’t talked about it much here—that I love Hallmark movies. Admittedly, they aren’t always the highest quality possible, but they are sweet, comforting, swoony, and leave me smiling. When the world feels like the flashback chapters of a gritty post-apocalyptic novel, it’s really important to me that I’m smiling when I close the back cover of a book or turn off my TV to go to bed.

Yesterday I read an excellent discussion of the use of “fluffy” to describe books, particularly Young Adult books (my favorite genre). Although some author balk at the word, readers generally use “fluffy” to mean a book, usually a contemporary romance, with little angst or melodrama that makes them feel happy and that they often reread. Hallmark Channel original movies, for me, meet this definition of fluffy. They aren’t only cheerful, neither are they insignificant. They could have wonderful messages or deal with deep or complex topics. The angst is limited in degree and topic to the relationship, and because it’s a Hallmark movie, we know what to expect and how it’s going to end (happily).

Now, let’s talk about what goes into the structure of a Hallmark, using a favorite fall Hallmark movie as a case study.

1. Plot set up. We’re introduced to out main character—almost always a woman—and the plot element that will put the main character in a position to meet the love interest—usually a man.

2. Meet cute. The couple meets for the first time or reconnects after a long separation, and they often don’t get along.

3. Thrown together. For plot purposes, the couple has to spent time together, though they try to maintain physical or emotional separation. This is often because of initial dislike, past hurts, or the existence of a significant other.

4. Bonding. The couple sees good qualities in the other person, overcome an obstacle, and help each other advance their goals. This takes most of the movie—everything except the first fourth and last fourth of the movie—which is why it’s really important to have an interesting situation or reason why they’ve been thrown together, as well as compelling goals for each person.

5. Small crisis. At the 50% mark of the movie, something relatively small but meaningful happens, often threatening one of the character’s goals, and which can only be overcome together. Doing so solidifies the relationship, revealing to the couple that they each care for the other. A first kiss might happen here.

6. More bonding. Now even closer, the couple works together toward their goals with increasing cuteness, perhaps peppered by a second kiss.

7. BIG PROBLEM. 75% of the way through the movie, the romance is threatened by a big problem, the couple separates, and everyone is miserable. In Hallmarks, the problem is usually something objectively small, like a misunderstanding or the reappearance of the aforementioned significant other who no one likes, as opposed to a massive problem like both of their dreams came true but now they live in different countries. Massive problems are difficult to overcome in the last fourth of the movie, so usually a simple but honest conversation will solve things. However, first they have to be miserable and the audience must pretend to wonder if they’ll ever work it out. (They will. This a Hallmark. We’re here for happy endings.)

8. Reconciliation. Often prompted by a friend or mentor shedding new light on the situation, one person doggedly pursues reconciliation, usually in a big or public gesture, offering a solution to the problem and pledging their love. This is always where the couple kisses. It might be a first kiss or the third kiss, but they kiss.

An Aside on Kissing: Hallmarks generally have a 3 kiss rule. If the couple first kisses around the halfway point of the movie, they likely kiss again before the BIG PROBLEM and kiss a final time to cement their reconciliation. However, in slower burn sorts of movies, the first kiss is at the end. Cheesy clichés like a Christmas tree lighting up in the background, the bang of fireworks overhead, or the first snowfall often accompany these finale moments. Some actors and actresses sell this well. Sometimes the actress is Danica McKellar (Winnie from The Wonder Years), who always looks doe-eyed and devastated right before the final kiss. This would be annoying but okay if she’d just follow it up with non-awkward-looking kiss. But she doesn’t. Ever.

To help us understand how this structure plays out, I offer All of My Heart, a goat-tastic fall Hallmark movie from 2015. Its sequel (a Hallmark rarity) came out earlier this month.

1. Plot set up: Jenny, a young chef wanting to open her own restaurant (played by Lacey Chabert, Gretchen from Mean Girls), learns she’s inherited a house in the country from her great-something-aunt. She decides to adjust her dream and open a B&B, a “restaurant with beds,” in the big country house.

2. Meet cute: Brian (played by Brennan Elliot), a Wall Street financial consultant, inherits the same house and, since he and Jenny have equal claim, wants to sell the house and split the proceeds. Jenny asks for time to start her business and buy him out, Brian wants the deal done so he can move on.

3. Thrown together: Brian is fired from his firm and can’t afford his apartment, forcing him to move into the inherited house Jenny is already living in.

4. Bonding: Money-strapped and grumpy, constantly searching for a new Wall Street job, Brian tries to save money by fixing the house’s many problems himself. He’s quickly won over by Jenny’s cooking and encourages her to sell her pastries to local cafes and restaurants, helping lay the base for her future inn. Jenny likes having help, even if Brian isn’t naturally handy, and flourishes under his encouragement and business advice.

5. Small crisis: Gabby, the nanny goat that came with property, goes missing. When Brian and Jenny finally find her and get her back to the barn, they learn she’s in labor. The morning arrives with happy kids, happy housemates, and a happy Gabby.

6. More bonding: Paint war on the porch, singing pipes, a wobbly table, a stuck window. New lock screen images of the furry kids. Jenny gets a deal with a regional supplier and Brian finally fixes the sink.

7. Big problem: Brian is hired to consult again and takes off back to the city. He’s just as good at his job, but not enjoying it like he used to. The advance on Jenny’s baked goods deal gives her enough funds to start buying Brian out. After he signs a few papers, they’re connection will be severed forever.

8. Reconciliation: Brian returns early, asking Jenny to let him move back for good. An epilogue scene includes the B&B’s grand opening and Brian’s proposal to Jenny.

I also want to point out that this structure is similar to most romance genre books—contemporary, historical, fantasy, and otherwise. Furthermore, it’s the basic structure I will be using for this year’s cozy mystery NaNo project (Eeek!).

I’ve already watched my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the year and am planning to enthusiastically watch and rate all 31 holiday movies Hallmark is debuting this year. I don’t want to be too annoying about this, so I’m starting a new tab on the site (see above, or follow this link) for my summaries and ratings of all the Christmas Hallmarks I watch this season. I’ll also post on Facebook and Twitter when I update the list, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher.

Every freshman at my alma mater had to attend a certain number of enrichment presentations—skits or lectures or plays—for our ‘intro to college’ class. Of those I attended that first semester, I only remember two. One was about consent (yay!), the other was about…well, courage, I guess. It was called Major in Success and attempted to get us to buy the speaker’s book (I did) and to think about what really makes us happy. He told stories about other college students he’d met and helped, about gloriously successful people in their respective fields who’d once been doing other things. He encouraged us to find a way to make that really happy, fulfilling thing in our lives our major, and promised success would come.

It’s a little hokey, but the part I most remember was when he asked the question, “If you could do whatever you wanted and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” Talking it over with my roommates that night, I said I wanted to be a novelist. The rightness of that moment solidified in me and has defined by long-term goals in the decade since. Judgeship was out. Law school was out. History teacher was out. I realigned my life and goals and on I’ve marched since then.

Until November 9, 2016.

I’ve had no desire to publish since that date. None. It evaporated. Or exploded. Or was sucked out of me in that single, pain-blurred moment I can barely remember when I opened the BBC news election page and realized Donald Trump had won. My desire to publish had been a constant of my identity and inner world for nine years, and it’d been whispering in my head far longer than that. I felt robbed, horrified, and guilty that people were at risk of losing their rights if not their lives, but I merely felt bereft of my dream.

Then things got worse.

About a week after the election, I was fighting depression and didn’t know it. I lacked vitality, energy, motivation. I could not get enough sleep. I didn’t know why I couldn’t write letters and call representatives like I had the week after the election. I didn’t know why it was so hard to craft a tweet, though I kept retweeting. I had trouble praying. I kept writing—completing NaNo—but took none of my usual joy in it.

As my depression worsened, I would sit at my computer feeling wretchedly guilty for being so inefficient, so distracted, so unproductive, but every email I read cost me something, as did every paragraph of my answer. I couldn’t drive across the street to the store for food and Christmas shopping made me want to lie down and never get back up. In the evenings, I lay on the couch and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. Or two. Then I went to bed.

I had almost no appetite so I let myself eat whatever I felt like or whatever I easily had on hand. The one time I tried to bully myself into eating an actual breakfast with actual nutrition, I made a dozen breakfast casseroles in a muffin tin and forced myself to eat one standing in the kitchen. I threw the rest away a week later, feeling like a ridiculous failure that even reheating had been beyond me.

Caught off guard by a coworker asking about NaNo, I confessed that I felt like I was dying. He assumed it was because NaNo was hard or I was behind on my word counts. I wasn’t.

I don’t know if the election result was a trigger or just bad timing. The situation was never far from my mind, though. I felt despondent, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless, and unable to face the next year, let alone the next four. I didn’t want to die or be dead, but I wanted to be unaware. Not hiding in a hole somewhere, more like unconscious. I wanted to sleep away the next four years. That’s all I felt capable of doing. And I felt incredibly guilty that I wasn’t joining those who I knew were already fighting for people’s rights.

After about a month of this, I emailed my best friend, telling her I wasn’t okay and asking her to pray for me. Explaining my symptoms was the first time I thought I might be depressed. In her reply, she gently suggested the same thing.

Just having a name to it helped. I read up and talked to more people about it. I ordered books and sweatshirts. I found a graphic novel that made me laugh aloud and read it over and over. One weekend when I had a cold, I left work at noon, went through the drive-thru for a dozen Krystals, got in bed with a book, and read it. I ate Krystals, read, fell asleep, woke up, finished the book. I ate more Krystals and started another book. I didn’t get up more than necessary the entire weekend and refused to feel guilty about it because I had a cold. Nevermind that I was also depressed.

I’m not really sure when I came out of the depression. I got up the Monday after Christmas knowing a friend was coming for the day, but until then the house was empty and still. I organized books, cleaned, started laundry, then met my friend for lunch and had a great day with her. She’d suffered depression the year before, and I could tell she understood what I’d been going through by the way she nodded and leaned in as I spoke, even before she shared some of her struggles. We looped arms and walked and walked, swapping book recommendations and snarking at bad Christmas novels on the second-hand bookstore’s clearance racks. It was the first really good day I’d had since the first week of November.

But I didn’t know if I’d be okay the next day. (I didn’t know that about depression until my first good day, how every new day is laced with uncertainty: Will today be the day it comes back?)

The next day was another good day, except that was the day Carrie Fisher passed away.

So many others have written about what she means and meant to them. I won’t add to it, except to say that I’d been following news of her closely since she first fell ill, and I’d been revisiting some of my favorites of her work. That day, once she was gone, I finally started listening to The Princess Diarist on audiobook. I wanted to sink into her insight and humor and honesty. I wanted to hear her voice again.

Perhaps an hour into the book, my desire to publish surged back. I could feel it returning, slower than it left me, beating in me until it was solid. I don’t exactly know how Carrie Fisher inspired that, but I believe she did. My depression didn’t magically go away—I still had some bad days, but none of them were anywhere close to the bad days of December. I also had more good days than bad, then a whole week of good, then I stopped counting how long since the last bad day. My energy is still a little low and my progress is slow, but I’m working again. And I want to publish one day.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. If Donald Trump stole my dream, you pulled me back to it.

November Means NaNo

I’ve wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo since I learned about it in college, but I never felt like I had the time. Looking back on all the Novembers since then—almost a decade of them, which isn’t disheartening at all—I can point to ones where I could have tried it, at least. And there are some that I genuinely could not have managed. Not the 50K words, not the mental devotion, not the emotional drain.

Like two years ago. So many people in my life died that month that I physically could not attend all of their funerals. Emotionally, I could hardly bear to read all their obituaries. I was overwrought in every way. My birthday and Thanksgiving came and went as usual, but I don’t remember them at all. And just before the month’s end, as I staggered under the weight of it all, someone I love dearly fell, and fell ill, and died just before Christmas.

A year later (last year), I did NaNo for the first time, and I won. In NaNo-speak, that means I finished: I wrote all 50K words.

I joined NaNo because I had to do something. By October of last year, every day I struggled more and more to get out of bed. No matter how much or how little sleep I got, I couldn’t seem to motivate myself. I tricked myself upright sometimes but I knew it was bad when I couldn’t even bribe myself. Not with Chick-fil-a, not with a new book, not with a nap later. Where everything else failed, guilt would eventually get me up. I was leaving the dog whining outside my door, him knowing I was inside and awake, me knowing he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get up and open the door to see him.

Ten minutes became fifteen, twenty, thirty. I was regularly late for work and stayed late to make up the time. Trying to scare myself out of bed, I’d watch the clock on my bedside table tick to, and past, the time I should have left for work. I’d berate myself that “They are going to fire you and you will deserve it.” Despite having a job I was good at with coworkers I love, despite my wonderful family, despite an understanding roommate, despite friends, despite professional counseling, I couldn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning.

Now, I don’t want to over-dramatize this any more than I already have: as best I can remember, I did get up every day. Out of habit, out of guilt, out of shame. I don’t think I ever called in sick because I couldn’t make it out of bed. But I also didn’t know each morning if today would be the day I didn’t get up.

I started thinking of November as my month to save myself, to set a big goal and to meet it, and I thought NaNo might be what I needed. NaNo has built-in ways to track and celebrate my progress, plus a community of people also writing their way into or out of or through things via these 50K words. I’ve been writing to escape for as long as I could write, which is almost as long as I can remember. And, when I did a test run, I discovered that, if I could write very first thing, I could get out of bed.

As November strode on, though I grew increasingly tired and did sleep through my pre-work writing sessions a couple of times, I flew out of bed. I was excited. I felt driven. My mind sharpened and I got better at other tasks, like editing and social media writing at work, like memorizing scripture and focusing on the sermon. I think it did help that I was writing about death and grief, generously heaped with humor. It also helped that the dog liked to come downstairs for a pet and to wish me well.

As I always have, I wrote to cope and to understand. And I saw people draw near to me, people who asked about my project and cared about how it was going. Near the end, probably the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my brother came into the room where I’d been holed up for hours, miserably trying to pry words from my brain. He came up behind me, kissed me on the crown of head, and told me I could do it. I grabbed his hands and hugged him, and when he had left I cried. And then I kept writing.

That’s something else about NaNo: it forces you to take care of yourself. You’re still galloping toward 50K words, which you likely wouldn’t have written otherwise, and you’re staying up later and getting up earlier and not returning friends’ texts and ordering pizza again, but you have to sleep. You have to eat. You have to laugh. You have to go for walk. You have to, or the words won’t happen. And in November, it’s all about the words.

I don’t need NaNo with the desperation of last year. Still, I am incredibly excited for my 6am writing sessions and I’ve literally been stockpiling cookies since the spring.

I don’t know if I’ll finish. I do have an idea I like. I’ve tried to prepare better than I did last year. And I know what NaNo can be.

I love to write, and I’m going to try really, really hard.

Forgive me if I’m a bit distant this month, a bit hard to find, a bit more tired and less conversational than usual. I’m doing something that’s really, really important to me. I hope you’ll still be there in December. I’d love to catch up.