Surveying the damage

It took me about six weeks to fully read through my first draft, which included 2 1/2 weeks without a babysitter, extensive note-taking and some light editing.

After coming off of the high of finishing the 400-page draft, returning to the earliest days of Part One, Scene One was, well…absolutely depressing. According to my husband, I was depressed for the entire first week.

Like so many things in life, it felt like the Magic Mirror Gate from The Neverending Story:

Engywook:
Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu will have to look his true self in the face.

Falcor:
So? That shouldn’t be so hard.

Engywook:
Oh, that’s what everyone thinks! But kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men find out that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away, screaming!

And good writers find out that they are bad! In small doses, over and over again, for six entire weeks. There’s even a small chance I’m a better person now for having done it.

But Part Five really held up, and is actually pretty exciting and amazing. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that for all that I didn’t do yet in the previous sections, I did manage to successfully lay out the necessary groundwork for Part Five. And now that I’ve gone back and re-re-read some of the worst chapters, it’s easier to give myself a break.

It’s really just a first draft, simultaneously overwritten and underwritten. This is also the first time I’ve written anything in the first person, and I’ve realized that that, alone, is probably going to require an extra draft over what I was planning just to drill down one more layer into Mika’s inner monologue.

So I spent one or two writing sessions last week reading through all of my notes, and then most of today’s developing the next outline for the first serial in this universe–covering a quarter or so of the material from the full draft, while adding more.

So, without further ado, here is my first book (please don’t plagiarize me!):

IMG_0274

 

 

 

Surviving the Fire

I began this blog nearly two years ago (!), and at the time it was not much more than an intention–that eventually, I would emerge victorious from my postpartum brain fog, I would write a novel and I would blog about it.

It was nearly twenty months ago that I abandoned my first effort, and with that the blog went fallow as well. After all, even though all the best advice seemed to say a self-published author needs to have a blog, it eventually dawned on me that what a self-published author most needs to have is a book. And to break it down even further, what a self-published author who is also a stay-at-home mom really, really, needs is a babysitter, which due to some combination of fatigue and insanity I didn’t manage to hire a single time until my daughter was fully a year old.

So a year and three months ago, now, (!) I hired a babysitter three mornings a week and started writing the first draft of my novel, which now stands at about 400 pages. In those early, early days, when nearly all of the work was still ahead of me, in order not to lose heart I indulged in some fantasies in which I was already a successful author.

Tell us,” The award-winning journalist of my mind, thoroughly fascinated by my process, would ask me as I fired up Scrivener to another blank page and took a sip of my cappuccino, sloughing off my daughter’s wails of separation anxiety as I tried to remember how to think. “What is it like to write a first draft?

Over the weeks and months that followed, as I was doing it, I decided that writing a first draft is like running through a city on fire. And all I had to do to make it out alive was get from one side of the city to the other. I told myself that if I stopped to edit anything along the way I risked certain death.

So here I am, a year and three months later, having made it out of the burning city alive. I haven’t actually looked at or read any of it since the day I wrote it, which is why it’s hard for me to feel a huge sense of accomplishment at writing 400 pages. After all, I was there. I watched the city burn for over a year. I have a faint sense of the wreckage that awaits me when I return, and how much work I have left to do.

As soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m going to begin rereading the entire beast, start to finish. Then I’ll re-outline it into three or four serial novellas, which I imagine will be about 80-100 pages each (I figure I have about 50 pages more of backstory/world building to add, and probably 100 pages or so to edit out). Then I’m going to finish one, figure out how to publish it, and then go back and do the rest one by one.

So, I have already written the source material that I expect will get me through the next several years of writing and motherhood, until gloriously, when the children are all in school, I can speed up the process I’ve begun to establish into a chop shop of write-and-release YA fiction.

And now that this significant, though incomplete, chunk of work is behind me, I no longer fantasize about what people may or may not one day ask me about my process. Actually, being a real writer is pretty boring. Long gone are the sumptuous days of would-be writing, when I had hours to spend waxing romantic about my favorite pen. Hell, I don’t even have the time now to write by hand. I have a writing quota to fill and then I have to get home to put my daughter down for her nap. If it’s a particularly good writing day, I might even have time left to get most of my FitBit steps outside.

My fantasies now are more along the lines of remodeling the kitchen with money I’ve made from my writing.

When I moved out to LA in my early 20s to try to break into TV writing, I remember reading an interview with the hugely successful TV writer/producer Shonda Rhimes. In it, she said something along the lines of, “You have to know you’re going to be successful when you start out. If you don’t know that, why bother?” And I balked when I read that, because I had absolutely zero inkling that I would ever be successful at that. And obviously, I wasn’t.

But this time feels different. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger on the morning before he became Mr. Universe, “It’s one of those days when you know you’re going to win.”

on killing my novel

I’ve now put six weeks into writing “The Last House in Levittown” after putting it on hold for three years, and last night I realized that I’m not interested in finishing it anymore.

burning-book-001

This happened once with a play–I started writing it when I still lived in Los Angeles over six years ago, and then my entire life upheaved and I landed in NYC in a much, much better place. But still I had this part of a play, called “The Creation of Monsters”–what a great title, right! I was between projects in a writing workshop at the time, and I was nostalgic for what I felt this play could have been. My teacher told me to sit with it for an afternoon and see if I could find my way back into it, and if not, move on. He said plays have a shelf life, and once they expire, the best parts will come back in a new form. (BTW what a wise and wonderful teacher!)

My answer to that was to start a brand new play, first called “The Lights of the Parkway”–then I got rejected from all the top playwriting programs, again, and decided to focus on fiction, where I had total control over the process. I turned my scenes of a play into a novel, calling it “The Last House in Levittown”–WHAT A GREAT TITLE, RIGHT!

That was 3+ years ago. Since then, I got married, I quit my longterm, soul-sucking job, I had a baby–many, many other things have happened and I have gone through at least one evolution from where I was back then. And in the meantime, the shelf life expired–whatever I was grappling with when I came up with this story of Penny and her father, out to get each other on the fringes of a new society, I no longer care about (probably something to do with my father? serious yawn!). But I had nursed this idea as “my one great idea!” “this one will really put me on the map!” “people who i really respect really loved it back then!” etc.

When I told this to my husband last night, he replied that he had sensed this for a while. We both have experienced a lot of getting tied to old ideas over the years that wind up holding us back. The classic sunk cost fallacy, combined with two people who know we’re very good at what we do, can lead to some very precious thinking that can be, at best, counterproductive.

So here is to sloughing off the old and embracing the new–and faster and faster each time (hopefully). I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I know that in writing “The Last House in Levittown”, I created a vibrant, addictive (to me) new future-world–I think I’ll stay in it, just move on to a more interesting place, character, and storyline that better suits the now-me.

It’s also come up before in my self-analysis that both of my finished plays star a 17-year-old girl. And the storyline I’m most interested in in my “Last House” world is that of a teenaged girl.

When I was growing up, my most voracious and addictive reading period was probably 10-14 years old. So maybe in a world where every story has been told at least a hundred times, and probably better than I could ever tell it at least once, the most exciting idea for me, going forward, is to be the first person to tell it to someone. Maybe that’s why reading was so much more exciting to me back then–books were the wide, open frontier that introduced me to the world of ideas.

So, I’m not sure how to proceed from this point–except to keep writing. Stay tuned! 🙂

week two: life gets in the way

week-two

Remember week one? That was so great.

Week two started with us getting insulation installed on the entire first floor, which turned our just-cleaned home into a war zone one night before my sister came. Then she was here, the day after she left a contractor came, and by then everyone was exhausted for days.

My writing schedule went to shit. I didn’t write Tuesday, Thursday or Friday. Additionally, I read some bleak reports on the self-publishing author outlook. Basically, the e-pub market is saturated right now, and it’s harder than ever to get traction. Amazon is using its genius to try to take as much off the top (i.e., from the writer) as they can. I should have done this years ago (Sorry! I was still trying to be a playwright!). Hugh Howey seems to be traveling the world in his yacht right now drinking mai-tais and taking shirtless selfies on tropical sands, while I and my fellow indie writers hustle and weep. For a lot of indies, it’s a full-time job and they seem to spend more time on self-promotion than on writing, while I’m a stay at home mom who has a few nap-time hours a day to divide among all the other things I have to do.

I spent 100% of my free time on Thursday trying to figure out how to post to the blogging site Medium, based on a book marketing chat I had followed the night before on Twitter. And after all that, I finally accomplished it only to have zero people see any of it! Medium is another full-time job for the people who do it well, and so I decided I could only do so much at a time re: social networking and abandoned that avenue for now. But sometimes it’s just going to feel like wasted effort, because you don’t always know what will pay off until you try it. And maybe it will still pay off at some future time.

But here is the “upside of the downside”–even with all that, I still wrote about 1000 new words, which is more like 2000 when you factor in the words I deleted in order to rewrite. And I even though I was too busy to stick to my new exercise schedule at all, I was apparently also too busy to remember to eat, and I lost two pounds!

I’ll be posting the first excerpt of Chapter 2 on Friday, which I am still rewriting. 2000 words be damned, rewriting one early chapter is a slog that feels like going backwards instead of forwards. This is probably why NaNoWriMo forbids it entirely, but I press on.

If you missed Chapter 1 on Friday (something about an inauguration), you can read it here.

week one, complete. and i’m fee-ee-lin’ good. ♫

weekone72
I’d like to first just pause for a moment in awe that there are eighth notes in this post’s browser address!

Week one has been great–I met and exceeded my writing goals (300 words/day on weekdays)–The Last House in Levittown now stands at 9,210 words. I updated my blog template to be more user-friendly and to better streamline my content, and even added a widget to the homepage to update my daily word count. I also added another widget that makes it easy to follow my blog through either WordPress or by e-mail. I also love saying the word “widget”.

I just plugged in 50k words as a “novel” there because I think that’s what NaNoWrimo says–sort of arbitrary at this point, and a certain number of words does not a novel make, even though you do need a certain number of words to make a novel. I won’t know until I get there how best to break it down in its final version–maybe releasing it in smaller segments, not sure. More to learn about the shape this story will take and also about different publishing strategies before then. For the near future, I’m mostly just concerned with churning out pages.

I’ve just started to learn more about the e-publishing business. Currently reading “Let’s Get Digital” by David Gaughran, which was recommended to me by the author John Birmingham, who recently made the leap himself (although he was leaping from mainstream publishing, whereas I will be leaping from obscurity).  I’m simultaneously reading JB’s newest self-published novel, a great time-traveling romp called A Girl in Time, although I haven’t had enough time yet to read it as rompily as he probably intended. On Gaughran’s blog, he says that curating a mailing list is of unbridled importance and I should have done it yesterday, but I might be unique in that I decided to e-publish before I even had anything to e-publish. So, I’ll get to it when it feels right.

The blog is my central command–ground zero of ground zero, if you will, and it’s been a bit frustrating getting it off the ground in terms of readers. But this is only the first week I’ve published twice, and Friday’s post has had over 50 views (but only after two hours with no hits, in which I kept googling “how to boost blog traffic” while rocking myself, gently.) I’m cross-promoting it on Facebook and to Twitter, where I just opened a new account (my old account, @babesmcphee, went viral one afternoon in 2009 and although that’s one of the most fun and rewarding things to happen to me yet, it kind of stigmatized the account for my own personal purposes and I had long since stopped using it.).

Twitter seems to be both dying and not–I am getting hits from it, but not many. A lot of people who were using it heavily no longer are. I still think is potentially worthwhile over time, although right now it feels a bit nippy over there as I am hanging out in my underwear with only 35 followers! So if you want to see me in my Twunderwear, or even better, follow me, check it out at https://twitter.com/christyhelzner. I was playing one of their hashtag games on Friday and one of my #TrumpNoir tweets got 1300 impressions according to their analytics, so I’m just having fun with it and am happy to see where it goes, or not. I also got like, three free eBooks from authors just for following their pages. Interesting data!

(update: one link was broken, one required signing up for the author’s mailing list, and one required signing up for a newsletter–but it was specifically geared to indie publishing, anyway. so i got one free e-book.)

I’m also closing in a blog routine of one regular post, one novel excerpt, and one progress update per week. I’m going to start posting my novel from the beginning soon, but I have to rewrite Chapter 2 first because I got rid of Penny’s boyfriend (see previous post). I’m sticking to my 300 words/day for weekdays, but weekends are for special projects like that.

Thank you for reading along, and stay tuned! 🙂

the sensitive curmudgeon’s guide to one-off friendships

mom-friendsI’ve always felt like I was born without a certain social chip. Let’s call it the “Steel Magnolias” chip. I mean, sure, my eyes have been known to glaze over when looking at a $700 pair of shoes, but what you didn’t see was the girl-power chant I was incanting in my head and the deep slumber I fell into for weeks afterwards from having exhausted my limited powers.

Pregnancy, for a time, buoyed me into an orbit that I had previously only gazed at longingly as though through a department store window. I could finally communicate with women! I cried for no reason! I even started up-talking. 

Five months post-partum, I still have a few new “mom” hormones, but I’m mostly back to being my old self, with all my old problems and also a new one–

Being a stay-at-home mom can even be isolating for me. So, I subscribed to the local mom’s listserv that is quite active and another stay-at-home mom sent around an invitation to meet up. Our daughters are two months apart and she seemed friendly and open. We played text tag for a week or two trying to sync up.

During that time, I Facebooked her.

The first thing I noticed were her Crazy Eyes™–but crazy in itself is hardly a deal breaker for me (glass houses, etc.). Then I noticed that she disabled adding her as a friend–red flag. But again, not a deal breaker. There are plausible explanations (I imagine). Then I scrolled down further.

“Baby,” I whispered hoarsely to my husband. “Her husband is wearing a cape.” I closed my laptop and sulked at him, wearily. “I can’t do this.”

“Baby, you’re setting your bar too high.” He countered.

“No I’m not! I can’t do it. How can I do it?”

“So what…you’re just not going to do it?”

(long beat)

“Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”

So we met up for a walk one afternoon, and talked for forty-five minutes or an hour. She watches Girls and I didn’t get her Girls reference. (I actually hate Girls.) But so what? We both voted for Bernie this primary but for Hillary in ’08. She said she would cut off her little finger to make Hillary president. I agreed pending the conditions I was heavily anesthetized and it would be reattached immediately, and she allowed me those conditions. There were some things really stressing me out that day and I likely over-shared for a first encounter, but I don’t really worry about that kind of thing because it tends to sort itself out.

It seemed like she got a bit weird towards the end, though. I was just a few blocks from my house when she announced she had to get home because it was about to rain. I offered to walk a few blocks in the other direction with her to the edge of my neighborhood, and once we got there, I was waiting to cross the street to go home and she suddenly announced she had to go grocery shopping in a totally different direction from her house–weird, but again, no biggy. Maybe she had just remembered something she had to get.

I got home, put my daughter down for her nap and texted her that it was great meeting her and I’d love to go for another walk next week or so. She texted back, “Yes, let’s definitely go for a walk soon!” Wait, wait, record scratch–I once blogged during my dating days about how “definitely” means “never” (which I stand by).

I never saw her again. In the old days, when I was used to losing the few friends I had when we moved to place to place as a kid, or as I then moved place to place as an adult, I would have been devastated. My world was either kept small for me or I kept it small, and I struggled to make the people right in front of me work out. Perhaps since I felt disconnected from everyone, anyone would do. Or perhaps the fear of rejection and the exhaustion of new social encounters simply kept me with people I didn’t connect with to the point I began to believe that I couldn’t connect with anyone.

Then, the next week, I met a woman I genuinely liked. And I realized I did things differently. I made sure not to overshare this time. Not because of any lesson learned from the previous encounter, but because I actually wanted to be friends with her so I was thinking about it.

Which made me realize–maybe the other woman was being really weird at the end. But maybe I had also over-shared on purpose. And maybe, when you’re a stay-at-home writer who mostly talks to her husband, going for a walk and letting off some steam with someone you’ll never see again is perfectly okay.

bored by your female protagonist? get rid of her boyfriend and give her an axe.

axeAt least, that worked for me.

This is the first excerpt I’m posting on my blog–smelly, fresh, and straight-from-my-fingers-this week first draft from my novel-in-progress, “The Last House in Levittown”. I am not sure why it is indenting some paragraphs and not others, but I’m still new at this and I’ll look into it. Would love to hear your thoughts.:


Twenty minutes later, she heard a car pull up, jolted off of the floor and splashed some cold water from the decanter on her face. Her general policy these days was not to look in the mirror—a girl could only take so much bad news—but visits from Lew called for a lapse in protocol.

She tousled her hair and pinched her cheeks—did that even work? Or was it just to give herself the illusion of control? No matter, the illusion of control might be all she had going for her at this point, so she smoothed her hands over her unwashed button-down shirt, took a deep breath, and walked to the front door.

Her heart sank and fear pricked her senses when she saw Lew’s car with a different driver, a man she had never seen before. She grabbed the axe next to the door and tried to rationalize that the fact he was here at the scheduled time must make him Lew’s emissary, or at least a colleague—not a killer.

She brandished her axe in a way that she hoped did not convey that she’d never actually picked one up until the night before. She had done a dry run of how murdering her father would go and had found the axe surprisingly heavy. Her muscles now ached from the presentation and she tried to look cavalier about it. This was her modus operandi, she told herself. She was the Axe Lady.

She took a frightened breath, blinked her eyes open and closed, and opened the screen door.

The man was still idling in the driveway that used to belong to the house next door, which used to belong to the Sanchezes, Tony and Luz, who had been one of the first families to move indoors. The demolition crews—known colloquially as dozer squads—had razed the house but left the driveway. It had been bizarre and terrifying to watch from her kitchen window as the entire 125 year old subdivision had become nothing but driveways in a matter of months. She closed her eyes again, knowing this was terrifying, and reminded herself that adaptation was the mother of survival.

Her tongue was dry as she stepped out to greet this threat idling in her neighbor’s driveway behind the wheel of Lew’s beat up Chrysler Nemesis.

“You’ll waste your gas.” Penny asserted as she walked slowly towards the car, willing her eyes to look steely.

“Hasn’t been starting.” The man grunted. “Wouldn’t want to get stuck here.”

She took in the man. Maybe fifty, corpulent in that sloppy way—dirty John Deere baseball cap, flecks of gray in a beard that was only a few days old. Bloodshot, hound dog eyes. Most moonshiners tended to be drunks. It made sense. Hell, drinking up to your gills with whatever elixir you could manage was one of the only things that still made sense. Even Penny had battled her own struggles with it—Lew was the exception.

“Where’s Lew?” Penny asked, feeling her grip tighten on the smooth, steel handle of the axe. The illusion of control.

            “Dead.” The word carried no more heft in his tone than if he had offered her a Slim Jim.

“Who killed him?”

“How’d you know he was killed?” The man rubbed his chin stubble and eyed her warily. Everyone was an enemy until proven otherwise, now. But just because someone regarded you as as their enemy didn’t mean they weren’t still yours.

“He seemed healthy.” Penny shrugged. “Who are you?”

“Name’s Wayne. I’m one of the Dogs. Knew Lew pretty well. He was one of the good guys, it’s a damn shame.”

“What about you? Are you one of the good guys?”

“When it behooves me.” When it behooves him? “It’s a dangerous world anymore. ‘Specially for a pretty young lady like yourself. You here all alone?”

Penny swallowed her fear for the hundredth time in ten minutes and stared the man—Wayne—down. The illusion of control. Fake it ‘til you make it.

“My dad’s coming home soon from hunting at dawn, be here any minute. Why?”

“No reason. You seem to handle yourself fairly well, even if you are out here all by yourself.”

“Well, I’m not.” She gulped dry, and thought to her dwindling supply of clean water. She had always braved the wells when Jimmy was still around, but now it seemed too dangerous. But was it more dangerous to buy it from Wayne and let him know she needed even water? “What happened to Lew?”

“Rumor is someone came upon him in the woods—he was on night duty, guarding the shine. His face was burned off but there weren’t more than a jug or two missing. Whoever killed him must have been after something else.”

Rumors used to be things to discount, but now that word of mouth was the only source for information, they had become indiscernible from facts.

“Wasn’t he armed?” Penny asked.

“Dagger and pistol, most assuredly. Standard issue for the Watch Dogs.”

“Huh.”

In this delayed moment, Penny’s heart sank as fear eroded momentarily into grief. She blinked away a lone tear, hoping Wayne hadn’t noticed. A lone tear for a cold beer and a game of Chinese Checkers and a man who had given Penny hope. In this lonely and barren new world, hope seemed to blow out before it even had a chance to take shape, and that grief now got one tear.

“You sweet on him, huh?” Damn. She really had to work on her poker face. One tear was one too many.

“Nah.” She looked away, then reconsidering: “Maybe a little. Hardly knew him, really. But.”

“Well, if it means anything to you, seems it was mutual at least. Seems according to his books, he was still accepting Old World cash.” He closed what she took to be Lew’s accounting ledger, a black book she had never seen. “We don’t do that anymore. Haven’t for months now.”

Penny willed herself not to panic but if she had been hooked up to electrodes at that very moment, they might have guessed she’d already fainted. She steadied herself and hoped she didn’t look woozy, but was starting to fear her cover had been blown since she had mistaken it for a cover to begin with.

She emptied this thought from her mind, tightened her grip on the axe handle and remembered to breathe. Cash was all she had. It was how she had survived for ten years and how she had planned to survive forever. This is why religion was flourishing again on the Perimeter.