The siren song of “almost”

“Almost” is a funny word.

It can be tinged with negativity. “I almost finished writing a book.” You tried, but you didn’t quite make it.

It can be tinged with optimism. “I almost got hit by that truck, but it missed.” Thank goodness, a miracle!

The key, I think, is how you approach it. Last fall, I participated in NaNoWriMo. If you aren’t familiar with it (and you probably are), the goal is to write 50,000 words, a complete novel (first draft at least) in 30 days.

It’s really hard. First, that averages out to 1,667 words a day. It’s no joke to write that much ever day, especially if you have a family, and a day job, and other obligations (which most of us have). A lot of people who start don’t finish. Life has a way of getting in the way like that.

Second, writing like that demands the ability to turn off that inner editor. You know, the one who wants to polish every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence until it gleams before going on to the next one. Some writers can do that. Some can’t. Neither one is right, they just are.

The folks who don’t write 50k are often left with a feeling of “I almost made it,” or “I didn’t win.” But here’s the thing, and the message that wrapped up NaNoWriMo: Even if you only wrote 30,000 words, that’s 30,000 words more than you had when you started.

If a typical novel has between 60,000 and 90,000 words, you are one-half to one-third of the way there.

And that’s big, huge in fact. It’s a start. You’ve almost finished. The ring is within your grasp.

I write this on a day when I’m feeling kind of down, actually. I spent the morning reading up on publishing industry news, and was left with a decidedly dispirited attitude. So few people make it. Why should I bother? Why am I even trying to do this writing thing?

And the answer has to be, because I love it. I don’t feel complete if I’m not crafting a story – some kind of story, either my police-procedural series or my middle-grade fantasy. In the end, that’s really the only valid reason there is.

As I told my husband about my feelings, he said, “Look, you’ve been at this for what, three years? Look how far you’ve come. You’ve got books out, stories published. Don’t give up now, you’re almost there.”

Perhaps that is the greatest thing about “almost.” You’re not quite there yet. You’ve got more work to do, more revisions to make, more experience to gain. And there’s a huge amount of luck involved, too. But you’re further along than you were. Don’t give up now.

Because, in the end, the distance from “almost” to “finished” is in your mind.

And that’s one thing that is completely in your control.

Advertisements

Very Nearly But Not Exactly or Entirely

I’m not going to lie. I’ve been struggling with the concept of an “Almost” blog post for days now. It would have been longer, but until the calendar turned to February, I had effectively blocked it from my mind. I think the reason I have trouble with “Almost” is that to me, it’s interchangeable with didn’t, which is a negative, and I try to keep negatives from my internal vocabulary. Consider:

You almost finished reading that book vs. You didn’t finish reading that book. Same, right? Finish the book, and then the almost goes away. You finished reading that book. Hooray! Now you can celebrate!

Because I was struggling with “Almost,” I looked it up. Here’s what Webster says: very nearly but not exactly or entirely. Only sort of a negative, it seems, but also a bit positive too! Kind of like close but no cigar.

I think back to when I started querying. Early query letters were met with form  rejections. I polished my query and resent it and got a few requests for partials. When those turned into rejections, I considered what the agent or publisher had said and revised again. And resent. And started getting request for fulls. And a revise and resubmit. And a “sorry it’s taking me so long, but I’m not quite ready to decide yet.”

You could say, I was almost there.

The “almost” doesn’t represent failure, it represents the distance I’d gone from first query to final query. Sure, I could have told people I almost had an agent the day I sent that first query letter, because I took the time to send that query letter. Almost isn’t a negative, as it turns out, it’s an arbitrary benchmark along the sliding scale of success, but it’s as benchmark with an arrow that says “keep going that way; don’t stay here forever!”

I’ve decided to view “Almost” differently. Now it’s like the last 25 yards of a 1650 (swimming reference) or the final stretch of a marathon. You’re almost done. Just a little more. And then you can celebrate!  

Hold onto your dreams: don’t settle for “almost” close enough

Boston 1970s

The musty old house had deep closets hidden behind the hanging clothes and secret staircases that led from the kitchen to the basement. The kids in the neighborhood talked about the haunted house at the end of the block and the little old lady a street over who was a witch.

I was a California kid and things such as witches and ghosts were not part of my childhood. But my summer visits to my father in Boston were infused with a sense of mysticism.

New England was a foreign land to me. I spent the days running around with the neighborhood kids from morning until dark. They taught my brother and me how to play new games, such as Capture the Flag and Kick the Can.

As much fun as my brother and I had outside, something magical awaited us indoors. My father had a large, square table set low to the ground where he kept a giant chess set. The pieces were 6” high and the board was made of black-and-white squares of fur.

On rainy summer days in Boston — and there were plenty of them — my brother and I played chess with the giant pieces. At first, we were enchanted by the unique chess set, but ultimately we fell in love with the game itself.

From then on, chess was always part of my life.

When I was older, I asked my dad if he still had that giant chess set and he said he had sold it at a garage sale. I was bummed. I looked for a set like that everywhere I went without any luck.

And I continued to play chess. My love for it continued to grow. Everywhere I lived, chess was a part of my life.

I  played it under black lights at The Bourgeois Pig, a gothic coffee house on Franklin Boulevard in Los Angeles across from the Scientology mansion.

In every city I lived in, and there were plenty, I played chess and continued to hunt for a giant chess set like the one my father had. I found ones that were a little bit like the ones I’d played with as a child, but almost wasn’t good enough.

I continued looking for a giant chess set and playing chess wherever I went.

I played it on a hot sandy beach next to my small orange tent overlooking the rollicking surf in Todos Santos, Baja California.

My boyfriend and I played it on our pension’s wrought iron balconies in the gothic quarter of Barcelona with two kids from Boston, Matt and Mike. We all became fast friends, as backpacking college students often do.

Later, I played chess when we lived in Minneapolis, in Monterey, and then in Oakland.

I kept looking for that large chess set and could never find it. Now that the Internet was around, I did find pieces that were “almost” but not quite the same. They were either much larger or much smaller than the fabled chess set from my childhood.

One day, our friend we met in Barcelona, Matt from Boston, called. He was driving cross-country and wanted to visit us in Oakland.

We were ecstatic.

The day Matt arrived; he came bearing a gift for me. He lugged it up four flights of stairs: a giant plastic bag that looked like it was about to rip from the weight of the contents. I was at a loss as to what the gift could possibly be.

Then I peered inside. They were black and white chess pieces. Six-inch high ones. Just like my father’s set from when I was a child in Boston. Just like the set I had tried to replace, but never found.

Immediately, I wanted to know where he had bought them. They were obviously used and at first I kept thinking of the connection — Matt lived in Boston, my father was from Boston, and that is where I first played with pieces like that.

I expected him to tell me that he had bought them somewhere in Boston, but then he said he had picked them up at a thrift store along the way.

In a small town in Colorado. In a little town fifteen miles from where my father now lived. Fifteen miles from the garage sale where my father had sold his chess pieces that looked just like these.

You can spend the rest of your life trying to convince me otherwise, but I know deep down inside — those are the same pieces I played with as a child. Somehow, they made it back to me. I didn’t settle for “almost” close enough and it paid off in a strange, very cool way.

Almost, I think I love you!

It’s February 2nd as I write this. And the Broncos ALMOST won the Superbowl! Almost, you see, because they were one of the two teams playing. Almost, you see, is a tricky little beast, a squirmy, wiggly kind of word. What is it, exactly, about almost that is so, so tempting?

It can be tantalizing, teasing, tempting. He almost kissed her, she almost ate the whole dessert, they almost won the game. Almost suggests that if the smallest of details had fallen into place, victory would have been achieved.

My favorite mysteries are the ones where the villain almost gets away with the crime, the stories that have the reader on the edge of his or her seat, reading frantically to make sure–because surely the author would not let the villain get away with this!–to confirm that the villain is caught and punished as is just and right. Because the story is where things can be tied up neatly, no stone left unturned, no avenue left unexplored, and where the messy realities of real life are a distant thought.

Almost.

Except when the author, those terrible, wonderful, tricky authors leave us just enough of a suggestion, a hint, a tiny breadcrumb of a clue that maybe, just maybe, the story isn’t quite finished. Which, of course, can cause a reader to go swiftly to the nearest bookstore or website to order the next book by this terrible, wonderful, tricky author, and go on another journey where the author lets the villain get away with the crime.

Almost.

Interview: A.R. Kennedy

Please welcome A.R. Kennedy, author of the Nathan Miccoli Mystery Series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

A nice walk with my little mini schnauzer, H. Then go to Citi Field for a day game and watch the home team, my team, The New York Metgonebutnotmisseds win.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Signature meal: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  It’s my lunch every weekday.
Signature colors: Blue and Orange.  I bleed blue and orange, Mets team colors, and I always have them on.
Signature phrase: “Fantastic!”  Picked up from ‘My’ Doctor (the 9th Doctor Who)
Signature accessories: There are two.  My gold monogram necklace and my Men’s Mets watch.  I wear both everyday.

Excluding family,
name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.

  • My 12th grade English teacher – Dr. O.  She was the first teacher I ever had that allowed her students to read whatever novels they wanted for a term paper.  I was so thrown off she had to help me pick the books.  My term paper compared and contrasted the vampires created by Anne Rice and Stephen King.  I liked vampires long before they were cool:).  Do you remember when you’d read about vampires and fear them, not lust after them?
  • My friend Jackie.  She really respects my writing process.  She wants to know more about the characters, because she knows I know more than I’m telling:)
  • My editor, Anne Dubuisson.  Every author needs a good editor.  I was very lucky to find Anne.  She truly enjoyed Gone…But Not Missed and provided constructive criticism on how to improve it.  The story remained the one I wanted to tell but better.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Alternative.  I regularly hope my neighbors don’t hear me singing along.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
A Hershey bar with almonds. Because Gone…But Not Missed is pure fun with a few nuts.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
When I moved to Long Beach, NY, I had a thirty minute commute to a job I wasn’t particularly fond of.  I realized one day that if I didn’t show up for work one day, they would notice but wouldn’t care.  I also realized that I had met few people in the apartment building I had moved into.  So, if not for my mother, who I speak to everyday, how long would I be gone before someone did something about it?

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Friendship – Friendships are unique and complex.  My writing frequently delves into these relationships – some good, some bad.

Being Alone – Both main characters in Gone…But Not Missed are alone, whether they realize it or not.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Gone…But Not Missed is a story told from the point of view of two characters- Lily, the young woman who is kidnapped, and Nathan, the off duty police officer who is searching for her.

Lily is passive without being pathetic.  Recent losses of her family have made her become extremely introverted.  Her only regular contact is her dog, Laude & her college roommate and best friend, Annie, who lives two hours away.

Nathan is intense but is drifting in his life.  He thinks he’s drifting because he’s waiting for his promotion to detective to become official.  Until he sees the pictures of Lily and learns of her story, does he realize what his life is missing.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Nathan is ruggedly handsome like Nathan Fillion (of Castle and more importantly, Firefly); intense like Law and Order Criminal Intent’s Detective Robert Goren; and has a big heart like Doctor Who companion Rory Williams.  He waited and protected his love, Amy, for two millennia.  Nathan would do the same for Lily.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

  • Stephen King, as previously mentioned, I’m a fan.  I respect his ability to tell diverse stories in many genres.  Plus, I’d love to know more about my favorite literary character, Roland Deschain.
  • J.K. Rowling.  I’m a huge fan of Harry Potter.  Early on, she knew that getting her story published would be the hardest part of the journey.  I often hear those words in my head as I write.
  • Charles Dickens, a man from Victorian England would bring a little poshness to the party.
  • Louise Penny.  With one request, please bring croissants.  When I read her novels, I have an overwhelming desire for croissants and cafe au lait.
  • Joe Hill, because in addition to being a big fan of his works, I have a crush on him. 🙂

What’s next for you?
The sequel to Gone…But Not Missed is currently being reviewed by my editor, Anne.  I’m currently working on the third book in the series.  I work on short stories in different genres (horror, science fiction and supernatural) as well.

***

A.R. Kennedy is a physical therapist who lives in Long Beach, NY.  Gone…But Not Missed is her debut novel and the first in the Nathan Miccoli Mystery Series.

Twitter – @ARK_author
Facebook – A R Kennedy
Website – arkennedyauthor.com

Guest Post: Mikkilynn Olmsted

Sweeping Out for the New Year

Walter Mitty and I could’ve been soul mates. Like Mitty, I routinely day dream about change, but when change is necessary, I resist. There are lists of reasons why I might resist something new, something different. A lot of the reasons are fear of failure.

No surprise that as January ends, my New Year resolutions are starting to wane. Why did I make them anyway, I grumble. My old routines invite me back to hit the snooze button, order take-out, and watch cable reality TV marathons. No amount of self-help advice can reverse the downshift because the responsibility to reset my day to day life relies with me.

The same is true for my writing practice.

My practice hasn’t staled; in fact, it feels cozy, familiar . . . cramped. Cozy is fine for long winter nights and weekend mornings. Not so much for creative invention. The same type of characters get into the same type of trouble and, how amazing, decide the same conclusions. All this repetition has my characters day dreaming of living better, more dynamic lives – without me, since I’m the one writing them into their same old, same old lives.

Several times a year, I clean out my writing practice – what’s working, what’s getting in the way, what could be better. Since I teach, these days of reflection tend to follow the academic calendar. I dust my office. Rearrange furniture. Buy a new writing notebook, or swap out the toys surrounding my keyboard. I wash my coffee cup. I compile all the notes and stickies of scribbles. I inventory my writing schedule. I’m not at a point in my life where half days (or whole!) are devoted to writing, but I am able to rethink when I can write the most with the least distraction. I also consider what I haven’t tried.  I’m a morning writer, so I’ll try to compose in the afternoon. Maybe I’ll write to a new type of music, like jazz instead of classical. Write outdoors. I scrub the writing process raw to basic elements: discipline to write, an open imagination, and a writing tool or two. Sometimes, this process of renewal leaves me feeling as energized as late Spring, knowing I’ve hung everything out to air. But not always. Not the days I want to lounge in holey pajamas and blanket my writing with tattered half-thoughts I meant to get to last year.

Again, I pull out the dust mop.

Out from under mental stacks of doubt and procrastination, without dust bunnies of routine, my writing revives. I write scenes differently at dawn than I do at dusk, most obviously because the shadows shift, the air smells fresh or crisp. I may meet a character who lives in a place and time that depends upon a particular rhythm of life very unlike mine. I’m glad to meet this character.

Very glad to be presentable.

***

Mikkilynn Olmsted writes prose and poetry. At the moment, above her writing desk is a postcard of the rolling hills of San Francisco Bay and a news photo of an Australian koala as reminders to be open to the environments she (and her characters) inhabit. Her writing often reflects the places she’s lived, including Puerto Rico, Kentucky,  Nevada, and Colorado, where she teaches writing at MSU Denver. Her blog morethanoneroom.wordpress.com debuts in February. 

Real Memories, Fake Setting

I’ve spent the past several days in my old hometown, the place where my Style & Error series is kind of set. Kind of, because the town has changed so much since I lived here: highways have been moved, businesses have come and go, restaurants have closed permanently, and my parents have moved to an unfamiliar part.

The memories I have about Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly Exeter Township, are faint and attached to memories of high school, of dating, driving, hanging out with friends. I think about shopping at the Reading Station (no longer there), miniature golfing at Schell’s on Perkiomen Avenue (no longer called Schell’s), turning onto 47th street at Fegley’s (nope) and having dinner at the Seafood Shanty by Boscov’s east (nix).

That’s not to say that everything has changed. V&S sandwich shop is still there, as is Brother Bruno’s Pizza. Two of my favorite pretzel outlets, Tom Sturgis and Unique Splitz, both maintain substantial pretzel meccas for peeps like me. Boscov’s is still Boscov’s. (Did you Boscov today? I did!).

When I grew up in Reading, I was discovering who I was. My friends and I went from kids who hung out together at the pool to teenagers who borrowed our parent’s cars and went to movies. My first dates were in Reading. My first kisses were in Reading. I went out of state for college but moved back, an adult version of myself. Even though I found a FT  job, at the end of each day, I drove back to my parent’s house, where I lived until finding my own place. I was caught between being an adult and being a kid.

That’s where Samantha Kidd was born, and it’s why she lives where she lives.

Because so much of my own town had changed, I decided to go with my own version of Reading. I renamed it Ribbon, Pennsylvania. In the Style & Error books I nod and wink at locations that I remember fondly and occasionally reverse time and reopen a business that has long since been gone. And since I’ve made it a town where a fashionista relocates after her career as buyer in New York, I’ve glammified things a bit. (Hey, it’s my party and I’ll glam if I want to).

I’m curious about other peoples’ processes: have you set your stories in a place where you live/d? Have you stayed true to the town as it is? Or have you falsified the town enough that you made it fictional?