week two: life gets in the way


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.

The Last House in Levittown – Chapter 1

capecod1-1947-fmI will be posting chapters from my new novel, “The Last House in Levittown”, every Friday afternoon until it’s complete (it is currently at 10,000 words). This is the first draft, and so I would covet your feedback–anything that confuses you, bores you, and also what excites you! Also please feel free to simply read and enjoy without comment. Thank you! 🙂 


Chapter One

Harlow was lost. The sun had just set for the first time, or else he would have believed he’d been walking for days. Or had the sun finally died after all, and had he actually been walking since the last morning on Earth?

It all startled him—the sunshine, the cold, the eerie ruralness that had retaken Long Island. He wrapped his sport coat even tighter around his torso, feeling chilled. He had lost weight during his years inside, and every ten or so steps he stopped to pull his trousers up again.

But where was he? He had been released out of Manhattan’s East Wall at 5 a.m. with his old clothes and three days of rations. As the sun came up, he had started across the old Queensboro Bridge, then found the rails of the long-abandoned Ronkonkoma line and followed them all the way to Hicksville. The letters H-i-c were all that had remained on the stucco front of the old stationhouse, and the stationhouse itself, he had discovered, was all that remained of Hicksville.

From there, his route had become less clear. The buildings had all been destroyed and without the old landmarks to guide him, he had come upon a fork in the road, feeling as if he had landed in an old riddle. Show me the way to the City of Truth, or else show me the way to the City of Lies. He recited it to himself as he tried to determine which path was Jerusalem Road, the road that would lead him homeward. One man guards the path to the righteous, and that man cannot tell a lie. The other man cannot be honest, and he guards the path to demise. Try this saying with each and they’ll point the same way; they will point out the path of the wise.

He stood at that V for a long time, hours past cursing his decision to show up for his arrest a decade prior wearing wingtips and a summer suit. The riddle had been something his grandmother had passed down, told and then retold by his own mother when he was a boy. If he had ever seen it written down, he could have pulled the image from his memory in a heartbeat. But his auditory memory had never been any different than anyone else’s, and that even wasn’t what it used to be.

It was finally the setting sun that forced him onward. He decided at last to follow the road on the right.

He had chosen correctly, and followed Jerusalem Road south past Nelson, West Marie, then Nicholai. Every street he crossed was one street closer to home. Of the street signs that still stood, most now bent the wrong way. One had suggested in purple graffiti that “DOOM” and “MISERY” ran perpendicularly. Traffic lights still hung from most intersections, although the electric grid on the Perimeter had already been shut off at the time of his arrest.

By the time he reached Cherry Street and had seen no other buildings, he’d begun to lose faith that his house still stood at all. But he had been released, meaning they’d found Penny, meaning she was still in that house. Or at least had been two months ago—and the Dozer Squads weren’t that efficient…were they?

Harlow walked to the middle of the intersection to inspect a large piece of debris—a tattered section of an awning for Vernon C. Wagner Funeral Homes. He looked at all four vacant corners, trying to remember on which he had laid his mother to rest what felt like several lives ago now.

By First Street, night had set in and that’s where his real problems had started—not the least of which, he was hungry, old, tired, sore and cold. A few blocks after he lost his bearings, he sat down on the asphalt, took off his shoes and ripped the cellophane off his tuna fish sandwich with a side of hydroponic salad. The bread inside the city tasted like tree bark and everything hydroponic tasted like it came from a jar of expired pickles. He thought for a moment about tossing it for day two’s rations—grilled cheese and a brownie—but he didn’t know when or how he would find his home or what they were doing for food there.

The more empty streets he’d seen reclaimed by underbrush, the more impressed he had become with Penny’s ability to survive this long on the Perimeter. But then, she had been a survivor since the day she was born. And now she had that guy with her—what was his name? Harlow had only met him once, a thin young man with a frenetic quietness about him. A man’s prolonged interest in his daughter had surprised him, even though she had started to look just like her mother had. She was just too smart for most of them.

He lied back on the asphalt and stared up at the sky. The stars had never been so bright on Long Island. He closed his eyes and opened them, and in that beat allowed his world to change. What have we given up, he thought, and what have we gained for it? He would never be allowed back on the inside, but now looking at the stars, still in the familiar patterns he’d memorized as a young boy, he felt an immense peace and wondered if that meant he was about to die.

He closed his eyes again, letting his body fall heavy and open against the road. A cold breeze rushed over his face and he began to remember why he couldn’t die right now—he’d had a breakthrough. In spite of the tests, the injections, the dull, white walls of his windowless cell, in spite of the constant interrogations—the same, insipid questions—he’d lied and lied a thousand different times. What were you inventing and why, Doctor? In spite of nothing to write with or on and the loss of days and nights that created the worst sense of infinity, the thoughts had come like water babbling from a secret spring and he’d held on. Like a thousand grains of sand all headed for a sieve—that’s what they’d built, a thought sieve the size of New York—he’d clutched what he could in his fists and he’d held on. Now he thought of these clumps of sand, hard from the dried sweat of his fists, and of how he might break them back apart and save the world.

Show me the way to your city, he thought, and smiled for the first time in ten years. That was the answer to the riddle. Harlow sat upright, took a bite of tuna fish, and realized for the first time that Penny would try to kill him.

To continue reading Chapter 2, click here.

there are free lunches everywhere.


The concept of TANSTAAFL is ubiquitous in economics–“there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” If something is advertised as free, there are probably strings attached. Solid advice.

My favorite class in college was an advanced Economics course taught by Israel Kirzner on Austrian Economics. I’ll never forget the time he stood in front of us all and smiled, as if he were a benevolent magician anticipating our delight as he imparted to us with a stage whisper–“There are free lunches everywhere!” 

My Christmas gift to my parents never arrived. Weeks later, it turned out the matching set of Grandma and Grandpa scented candles in apothecary jars was not only sold out permanently, but mine had been declared lost by the international courier. The US company was very sorry and offered to replace the candles I had purchased with two other candles that retailed for over twice as much as I had paid. I was disappointed, but accepted their replacement and they guaranteed it would ship out that day. (And I have to admit, the idea of owning an $85 candle was pretty seductive. How can $85 of value be squeezed into one small cylinder of wax?)

That very same afternoon, however, the lost packages arrived on my doorstep. Wrapped adorably, even!


I wasn’t sure what would happen–would the company find out it had been found and stop the replacement order? I couldn’t very well ask them about it, so when nothing came for a few days I began to lose heart. I wanted my free super-expensive replacement candles. My instinct was, markets are NOT that efficient, and to just be patient.

I was right. The following Saturday, this arrived on my front door:


Oh well,  I thought. I guess they only shipped one. At least it was the more expensive one.

But then, I checked the back door:


I guess they just sent two of the more expensive ones instead of that inferior, ugly-sister $65 candle!

So, I had thought the matter already settled in my favor and long since laid to rest, when this past week, I got one more package from them:


Ugly-sister candle! You are so much more beautiful than I remembered.

I had stumbled upon the Perfect Storm of market inefficiencies–about four or five fuck-ups all had to go my way in a row for this outcome. I won the candle lottery! And since I figure the markup on an $85 candle is probably about $83, I can’t even feel too guilty about it.

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

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.”


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.

getting to work

Here I am, 2017. It’s time to write. Tiiiiiime to write. Tiiiiiiiiiimeeee to wriiiiiiiiite.

How does one write a novel, again? Whatever the answer is, it is apparently so daunting that I have spent the better part of three years not doing  it. And then the better part of the past three weeks of family vacation waiting until vacation is over to start doing it.

After three years of not writing my novel, I have amassed a misfortune in disparate computer files and handwritten paragraphs in what seems like thousands of near-empty Moleskine journals (haha! no, just six.) that I have no idea how or where or when or if to incorporate at this point. So I made the decision last week to not look at any of them again until I have a complete first draft.

I also have two or three fairly polished chapters from a writing workshop two years ago, back when I was still more concerned with getting affirmation than getting the hard work done (in front of near strangers? no thanks!). I don’t take writing workshops anymore, and I’m coming more and more to terms with how bad a first draft is truly allowed to be. And I think the answer is, really, really bad.

When I started this blog, the tagline I wrote for it was, “blogging from ground zero of my e-publishing experiment”. Then I chose a layout that doesn’t have a tagline. But that’s a main reason I started blogging again–to chronicle my journey from here to there. The writing, the business of it, what I would already have done differently–while daunting to set out in the dark on a brand new voyage, I think it’s what keeps me feeling young. I just had a birthday, and I can safely say I felt older 10 years ago than I feel right now. I think feeling old is, to some extent, a rise-over-run consideration. And maybe also a little bit about frequency of doctor visits–so now that I’m not pregnant anymore, I expect to have a windfall year by the latter metric (that is, short of an imminent and epic failure of birth control).

Aside from seeking to perfect things that will probably have to be trashed, anyway, or at least completely rewritten, another one of my biggest pitfalls is biting off more than I can chew, overdoing it, getting discouraged, and then quitting. I’ve done this my entire life with basically anything that this pattern can apply itself to. So, of course, I initially decided upon the really arbitrary yet ambitious goal of writing 10,000 words in January. That sounds awesome, right? That also sounds like more than I’ve written in the last three years, combined!

Plus, it’s already January 7, and I don’t plan on writing anything until Monday.

So today I’m setting a goal for myself for January of 5000 words. If I only write on the weekdays left in the month, that’s just under 300 words a day. Reasonable, but still moderately ambitious right out of the gate. I’m working on it.