Find strength in what remains behind

Last night, after a very inspirational writers conference, I watched an episode of It’s Me or the Dog that left me rather emotional. Not that the family in question underwent any moving transformation or anything. This crazy woman had rescued four dogs. One was “aggressive” and fought with another. Trainer Victoria Stilwell helped by having them walk the dogs side by side.

Side by side. That simple.

I cried after the episode because we never were able to walk Isis and Leo side by side.

I’m in a fragile place, because I’ve reached that place in the memoir. The last seven months of Isis’ life were very difficult for her and me both. I decided to press pause and go back to the beginning. Hey look, Isis is still a puppy and we just got her. Yes, that’s a much better place.

Before I went to bed, I flipped a few channels to find something a little less heartwrenching. What’s this? Splendor in the Grass is on TCM! I’ll just watch a few minutes

… Or the rest of the whole movie.

Does any movie better capture teen romantic angst? Seriously. My ribs constricted against my internal organs during several key scenes in this movie, just as they had when I first watched it, like, 20 years ago.

In the movie, Natalie Wood goes nuts after Warren Beatty dumps her. And he dumps her because he really, really wants to have sex with her, but he can’t because she’s a “nice” girl.

Granted, I have a sophisticated enough understanding of mental illness to recognize that not all girls go nuts after boys dump them. Surely Deanie Loomis (Wood’s character) had some predisposition toward a psychiatric episode. But what if she’d been allowed to have sex with Bud? Could she have married him and not gone crazy?

Either way, I cried for the second time last night. And then I went to bed.

If you liked The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, you’ll love Shadow and Bone

I mean that in the most sincere, best possible way. And I don’t mean that Shadow and Bone (written by my close, personal friend Leigh Bardugo) is irritatingly derivative of those young adult fantasy powerhouses. Rather, it is an incredibly original book that happens to share some of the qualities that make those books so seductive.

The author and me

True confession, while I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi fantasy in my film and television diet, I don’t read too much fantasy, and I haven’t tended to pay attention to young adult fiction until it crosses over. But that changed last week when I attended an event on the Fierce Reads tour, where I heard Leigh and fellow YA Fantasy authors speak about their books. Rob immediately got Cinder on audio, so I’ve been listening to that while driving, and reading my signed copy of Shadow and Bone in bed every night. Interesting parallels between the two, actually. Apparently there’s something happening in YA fiction with kick-ass girls who have the power to save the world. I’m cool with that.

Fierce Authors at Village Books

Shadow and Bone is the first book in The Grisha trilogy, taking place in an alternate world infused with a Russian folklore aesthetic, and layers of history and geopolitical intrigue that is surprisingly easy to follow. At the story’s core is a fight between good and evil (literally light and dark), magic and a love triangle.

Note: The following plot commentary does not spoil more than I would want to have spoiled for me before reading, but if you prefer to go in blind, you could go read the book before continuing on here.

Alina Starkov is the heroine (and yes, it’s totally fine that she goes by Starkov and not Starkova, okay, purists?). I found her as engaging, inspiring and relatable as my girl Katniss, and superior in at least one way. My one complaint about Katniss as a character is that she was awfully dense about Peeta’s feelings for her. Seriously? It never crossed your mind he might really like you like you? Alina, on the other hand, responds to the men at the tips of her triangle in a more believable way. She recognizes her feelings for Mal, and she has a perfectly understandable fixation on the Darkling. I found both relationships intriguing and would enjoy seeing her get it on with either (or both!) of them.

Alina is like Harry Potter because she gets sent to Magic Boarding School, but don’t worry, she doesn’t have to spend seven years there. Her transformation as a character, her coming of age, if you will, comes through as she learns to wield her power.

I loved every page. The action sequences, the description of the clothes and scenery, the relationship drama, the unexpected turns of the plot. I’m enormously proud and excited for Leigh and eager for book 2.

Special thanks to Village Books for hosting the Fierce Reads tour. Not only did I pay full price for Shadow and Bone (which I haven’t done since Mindy Kaling came to Seattle), I bought local!

Warrior, come out and play

Since I’m writing a novel about mixed martial arts, I was excited when I first saw the trailer for Warrior. It looked like The Fighter, right down to the rivalry between brothers, except about MMA instead of boxing. I didn’t give much thought about whether the movie would be good or not; it didn’t matter. Anything that raises MMA’s profile is good for the sport, and good for the marketability of my novel!

I was surprised, then, to see lots of positive reviews. 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Three stars from Ebert.

From the trailer, I understood there would be two brothers that wind up fighting each other in an MMA tournament. What I didn’t expect is that I’d want them both to win.

In the “tournament” genre, it is customary to give the hero some financial reason why he must win. Brothers Tommy and Brendan each have perfectly noble reasons for needing the $5 million prize money. I didn’t like Tommy for most of the movie. I thought he was supposed to be the hero, but found Brendan to be the more likable brother. But watching the final fight, I hoped whichever brother won, he’d split the prize money, because really, wouldn’t $2.5 million be enough?

Giving the film complexity, both brothers are estranged from each other and from their recovering alcoholic father. For some reason, even though he’s really, really mean to his dad almost until the very end of the movie, Tommy asks him to train him for the big MMA tourney. (That was my only complaint. I felt bad for dad, played by Nick Nolte. Did they have to be so mean to him?) An interesting parallel, which I don’t know how many people will notice is that at one point, Tommy holds his father in a comforting manner that looks similar to a submission wrestling move we see later in the movie. Both times, the “embrace” moved me.

Although there are a lot of perhaps overused conventions at work here, Warrior is a good movie. I appreciate that neither of the heroes are “thugs” who must redeem themselves. They aren’t guys who get in street fights, and then learn how to channel their strength in the cage. They are a U.S. Marine and a physics teacher. The teacher, Brendan, gave up fighting because his wife didn’t want to raise their daughters in a house where “their father gets beat up for a living.”

Here’s the thing: there doesn’t have to be any shame in that, and I think this movie shows it.

Write what you know

When I started NaNoWriMo in November 2009, I wanted to write something that was actually fiction, rather than a thinly veiled version of my life. I thought, “What can I write about, that I know a lot about, but that wouldn’t be about me?” Of course! Mixed martial arts. Rob’s passion.

I gave up trying to write it in one month, thought about it quite a bit over the next year, then signed up to take a 3-term novel-writing class at WWU starting last fall. The novel has come a long way since then, and I still feel like it has great potential and is totally original and marketable. Plus, I expanded the plot to include my passion: dogs!

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been on a stay-at-home, play-with-the-dogs, write-a-novel vacation. I felt way more productive last week, because it was sunny and warm, so I’d write a few pages, go lie down on the grass with my dogs in the backyard, rinse and repeat. Still, I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to produce 10 pages a day. This is a somewhat misleading goal, since it involves rewriting and combining scenes that already were written. I didn’t write 10 brand new pages each day. But the important thing is that I now have about 100 pages of novel to show for myself.

Yesterday, I felt a little bogged down in the martial arts stuff, which is peculiar, since that’s what the book is about. At this stage of my writing, I have two main audiences in mind. People like Rob, who will read my book because it’s about martial arts, and the people in my writing class (we’re continuing to meet monthly even though the course is over) who don’t know anything about martial arts, don’t really even like martial arts, but who like my writing and have been enormously helpful in developing my book so far.

The people in my class are not going to enjoy reading 30 straight pages about grappling and hubud and cage matches. But all that stuff needs to be written. Before I share it with them, I’m going to have to take a hard look at it and anticipate them saying that they don’t understand my description of what the hell hubud is. How does the hubud scene advance the narrative, other then to show that the heroine likes the way her instructor’s arms feel against hers?

I feel better about it today after working on some dog stuff. The main dog is absolutely a fictional character. He’s a pit bull named Apollo and I love him. I have a vision of what the book cover will look like: A silver pit bull with a pink boxing glove in his mouth. The title: Fight Like a Lady.

Don’t steal my idea, OK?

Early criticism

Trains of thought are funny things. I was driving home from book club, thinking about a caption I wrote under a photo of Leo on Facebook. I wrote, “Leo smiles more ever since Mia joined the family.” I wondered if maybe I should delete the “ever.” Yes, I actually copy edit myself after I’ve posted things online, and think about diction while driving. When I catch errors in old FB posts that I cannot change, I cringe and worry that people will think less of me. I think less of me.

The phrase “ever since” triggered a memory. I want to say I was in second or third grade when I was assigned my first book report. I’d heard of book reports, of course; I have an older brother. And I’d read books about kids who had to write book reports, like Anastasia Krupnick and Ramona Quimby. I don’t remember who the teacher was, or what the book was. Looking back, I don’t think we were even assigned to do “real” book reports. We were given half-pages of paper and were supposed to write back cover summaries. I read a lot, so I knew from back cover summaries. I wrote something like, “Ever since Susie Q started her new school, she suspected her classmates were really witches.” I was pretty proud of myself. It read just like the back covers of my books.

The teacher (might have been a teacher’s aide) was displeased with many of our book reports. She read an example of one that was especially egregious. Mine.

She didn’t name names, but I was really embarrassed and had no idea why mine was an example of what not to do. We weren’t supposed to start with “Ever since”? Was I supposed to write, “I read a book called Blah Blah. The main character’s name is Susie Q. Blah blah blah.”

This happened nearly 30 years ago, and I’m still scarred. What a shitty teacher. Sadly this wasn’t the last time I was told by a teacher at a fancy private school (who ought to know better) that I didn’t know how to write. Which reminds me of the time Anastasia Krupnick wrote a poem that she thought was wonderful, but got a bad grade because it didn’t rhyme. Her poet father disagreed with the teacher and changed the F to Fabulous.

A revised fable

Apparently Aesop’s got a fable about an ant and a grasshopper.

In my writing class, we were asked to rewrite the fable so the grasshopper looks good, is triumphant, even. As far as I was concerned, there was only one way to do that.

My fable:

The bugs emerged from the long winter in a state of depression. The butterflies didn’t want to leave the safety of their cocoons. The aroma of thawing feces failed to stimulate the appetites of the dung beetles. Worker bees snuggled up against their queen, having lost all interest in making honey. Even the ants, renowned for their work ethic, were slow to exit their colony.

Grasshopper and Cricket, the most gregarious members of the bug community, worried about their friends over sips of dew one morning in mid-April.

“I don’t understand it,” Cricket said. “Usually everyone is out and about by now. I expected the fleas at least would be in the grass, affixing themselves to the legs of dogs running though the park.”

“We have to do something to cheer everyone up,” Grasshopper said. “Otherwise, they’ll all waste the summer away. Let’s do what we do best.”

“Yes,” Cricket squeaked. “We’ll put on a show!”

The next morning at dawn, Cricket and Grasshopper made the rounds. They sang outside the cocoons, the beetle nests and the beehives. They harmonized atop the anthill.

The butterflies pulled their cocoons over their heads, the dung beetles rolled to their backs and the bees said, “Buzz off!”

For as everyone knows, pulling someone out of a funk takes more than one joyful song.

“We’re too depressed to gather food,” the ants wailed.

But Grasshopper and Cricket did not give up. They woke up every morning and sang to their fellow bugs.

One morning in June, a butterfly finally felt like herself again. She spread her wings and fled the cocoon. The streak of red and yellow across the sky inspired the dung beetles to inhale deeply. The uneaten poop had ripened quite nicely in the summer sun and the beetles got their appetites back.

The hum of activity inspired the bees, the fleas and the ants to resume their neglected duties making honey, bleeding dogs dry and gathering grain for winter.

“We did it!” Cricket said. “We’re heroes.”

“Let’s not get too cocky,” Grasshopper said. “We can’t stop now. You never know when they might get depressed again. We have to sing for them every morning and every night to make sure no one slips back into depression.”

The bugs had to make up for lost time, but Grasshopper and Cricket’s songs kept them active until the first frost that fall. Thanks to Grasshopper’s plan, everyone had gathered enough food to last the winter.

Everyone except Grasshopper and Cricket, that is.

“Surely everyone will share their food with us,” said Cricket. “After all, if it weren’t for us, they’d all have starved to death by May!”

The beetles were happy to share their dung, but neither Grasshopper nor Cricket had a taste for the stuff. They snacked for a while on the bees’ honey, but after weeks of nothing but sugar, Grasshopper craved something a little more substantial.

He saw Ant drying some of the grain he’d collected during the summer.

“That looks really good,” Grasshopper said. “I don’t suppose you’d mind sharing with me and Cricket.”

Ant rolled his eyes. “Really? You guys sang and danced and did your little Vaudeville act all summer, instead of working hard and gathering food like the rest of us, and now you want some of my grain?”

“Forget it, Ant. After all we did for you, if you can’t find it in your heart to share with us, I’m not going to beg. We’ll eat honey all winter, if that’s how you’re going to be. But don’t expect us to sing you out of hibernation again next spring.”

Honing the craft

I’m so happy my writing class is back in session. I volunteered to turn in pages at the first class last week, so last night I got to hear great feedback and advice from my teacher and classmates. I already was inspired deeply by last week’s class and the suggestions I got for rewriting a short scene I read aloud. I rewrote it the next day, even before I got an email from the teacher asking me if I’d like to rewrite it and read the revised scene at last night’s class. So I got feedback on that scene as well as the 13 pages I handed in last week.

What’s so rewarding is the feeling that I’m hearing things that will actually make me a better writer. For a long time, I’ve felt like that’s what I’m missing. I get lots of positive feedback at work, but nothing that will help me grow.

I can see that other students take criticism hard, like what they’re hearing is that their story sucks or they don’t know how to write. I don’t hear that, though. I hear, “This is an interesting story, but it bothers me that the character does this,” and “What would make this scene better would be this.”

I think my dialogue is pretty good, but have discovered a weakness in scenic depiction. So after I rewrote my scene, I went through and noted a few places where I could add more visual description. One of my classmates noted that I do have good scenic description but it’s mutually exclusive from the great dialogue. “Often when the characters are speaking, I have a difficult time imagining the scene because I’m not sure what they’re doing.” Astute.

The chapter I turned in was about mixed martial artists who infiltrate a dog fighting ring and rescue four of the losing pit bulls. A classmate who is new this quarter noted, “I like what you are doing even though I detest dog fighting and am opposed to martial arts. Try to win me over!” Uh, no. First of all, this is not a pro-dog-fighting story. Second of all, who’s opposed to martial arts?? Sorry, sir, you’re not my target audience.

Another new student, a older fellow, told me he though the dog fighting stuff was “just fantastic,” and that he thought the people in the audience were probably a lot of crumb bums. The villain in the piece, the guy who brings my heroes to the fights, “he seems like a real crumb bum.” Love it.

My alternative lifestyle

While on vacation the three days before Christmas, I decided to pretend I’m a different kind of writer. The kind the writes from home.

I volunteered to turn in 10 pages at my fiction writing class on the first day back after the break. On top of that, we have another writing assignment we’re supposed to read out loud.

Between the days off this week and two next week, I should be able to write 10 pages easily. But I’m having a hard time. I can’t visualize what it is that I’m writing about, is the problem, I think. Sentence construction like the previous is another. Problem.

I should just write write, not care if it’s good and go back and revise later.

If I were self-employed, this is what my day would be like:

  • Take Leo to the dog park from 9-10.
  • Play with Isis in the backyard.
  • Shower.
  • Sit at computer and check e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.
  • Eat.
  • Maybe write something.
  • Take Isis for a walk.
  • Play with Leo in the backyard.
  • Write?
  • Talk to Rob when he gets home from work between 4 and 5.

Given this, I did write 1,000 words yesterday. While walking Leo a short while ago (we skipped the dog park, it was raining), I decided I would have a solid 2,000 words by the end of the day and also make some headway on the other assignment, which is to write obituaries for some of my characters. Harder than I thought it would be.

I’m hungry.

Wasted time

Last night, my novel-writing teacher described her creative process. “It’s not very efficient, but then, being creative is rarely efficient.”

I’m efficient in a great many ways. The journalistic writing that earns my paycheck, generally, is efficient. But other aspects of my life are not.

I walked around on a broken sesamoid bone for six months before I knew it was broken. How much further along in my healing I would be if I’d known from the outset that it was broken.

Isis has displayed serious anxiety for more than two years, and we only started her on Prozac a month ago. Could I have saved the expense of four root canals, and would she not have worn all her teeth down if I’d put her on Prozac sooner?

We’ve had Leo since late June and the dogs still can’t be loose in the same room together. How many months will it be before our dogs can cohabitate? Is there something I could have done differently from day one that would have made a difference? How much time have I wasted doing the wrong thing?

~~

Leo is still recovering from his surgery. The day after, he was leaping around so aggressively that I worried he would hurt himself, so we went back to the vet to get a cone and some sedatives. I’ve been very sparing with the sedatives, only giving them to him for his own safety, and not because, like, I’d like him to go to sleep and shut up for a few hours.

His incision looked fine to me, so I didn’t make him wear the cone. I didn’t realize that he would be more likely to lick the incision as it heals because it itches. The whole area looked inflamed to me on Tuesday so I took him back to the vet. They said it was fine. It looked inflamed and oozy to me on Wednesday, but I didn’t want to be a hysterical dog mom who brought him in every single day, so I waited until Friday. When they told me it was infected. Was it already infected on Tuesday? How much faster he would have healed if we started him on the antibiotics three days sooner!

So he’s pretty much wearing the cone all the time. I take it off for training exercises and walks. It looks better, but I’ll feel better when the scab falls off. He’s not going back to daycare until that happens.

In defense of quitting

I’m not really quitting…just postponing, delaying, failing to meet a deadline. (Have I ever missed a deadline before? I don’t think so).

The last time I wrote anything in my Nanowrimo novel was Nov. 11. I had about 9,000 words. So I’m not going to write 41,000 more between now and a week from Monday.

It’s OK. When I’ve done this before, I raced to throw in enough to meet the deadline, but both books required so much rewriting that after Nov. 30, I didn’t touch them again. Better, I think, to do what I did with my first novel, which was write it over a period of a year or two. Toward the end there, I worked on it each Sunday until I was done. It’s much more complete.

I think this one has potential, and it’s not autobiographical. It’s about a female mixed martial arts fighter. I’ll say it’s Whip It meets Million Dollar Baby. (meets something with a more troubled protagonist). So you can see how I’ll be able to draw from things in my own experience, without writing about myself.

There seems to be more going on this November than in previous Novembers. Granted, I started a dog class two years ago in November as well, but our current dog class has a lot of actual written homework. Sure, I don’t really have to do it, but I’m pretty accustomed to doing well in school. Not being very successful in dog classes has taken a toll on my self-esteem, so it feels good to shine in dog class.

I’ve also been reading a book for my book club (Old School) and socializing more than usual. So, I decided it was better for my well-being not to force myself to sit at my desk when I have other things to do.