On the verge

Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!

We all handle rejection differently.

Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.

My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.

I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.

I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.

My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.

It was okay, I said. I could wait.

But the kids are older now.

I am ready and so are they.

I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.

More next week!

My Fitbit died … and I woke up

feetI remember well the day I first wore my Fitbit. It was nearly three years ago, and I strapped that thing on my wrist certain it would prove how conscientious I was about getting up and moving between bouts of writing.

I quickly forgot I was wearing it, so I didn’t peek at the steps screen until the end of the day. I was shocked. Only three thousand steps. I was embarrassed – no – ashamed. Before having kids, I was a regular road racer and a veteran of six marathons. Life, not necessarily kids, got in the way after that — a couple of cross-country moves, freelance writing, contract work, elder care, injuries, surgery.

Over time, I stopped running, but I hadn’t realized that I had also stopped moving.

It was a revelation so intense I became obsessed with my new toy, challenging myself to hit 10,000 steps and 20 floors each day. When I was short of my goal, I sometimes walked in circles around the living room, often carrying a glass of wine in one hand and ducking into the TV room to catch the next development in a show because it was time to relax, but I wasn’t ready.

I learned my Fitbit didn’t record steps when I pushed a shopping cart or my father’s wheelchair, so I shoved it in my pocket during those adventures to ensure that I wasn’t cheated of my goal. The hip movement triggered the step counter. I connected online with other Fitbit users, including my sister and my husband, to compare achievements and gloat when I beat them.

I made sure I carried the mail up our quarter-mile driveway in my left hand, so my right hand could swing with my body and accumulate steps. I monitored my sleeping habits and my pulse on my Fitbit, getting so worked up about getting a good night’s sleep that I couldn’t sleep. I wore that watch night and day and regardless of my outfit. I worshiped that thing.

Then it broke.

It happened in August. My Fitbit had stopped working before, but I had always been  able to resuscitate it with the help of customer service. Not this time. This time it was dead-dead, probably because I so rarely took it off that I had accidentally dunked it in a hot tub on spring break three times. It had been behaving oddly ever since.

Fitbits are expensive and I couldn’t afford a new one.

I felt naked.

I was lost without it.

I bought a cheap knock-off, but it didn’t work. Sometimes it counted steps. Sometimes it didn’t. I probably would have rejected it even if it counted steps precisely the same. It wasn’t a Fitbit. I wanted my Fitbit. I was sad.

But something strange happened a few days after I chucked the knock-off. I was at the grocery store wearing pants with no pockets. For an instant, I stressed about where to put my Fitbit. Then I felt my wrist and remembered. And I smiled. I didn’t have a Fitbit, which meant my step total didn’t exist. Since it didn’t exist, it didn’t matter.

Without a Fitbit, I was free.

I have to wonder if fate played a role. Over the next few months, a nerve problem in my foot worsened, limiting my ability to walk long distances. If my Fitbit had been functional, I would have failed to meet my goal every day. I found I had gained weight over those three years, not lost it. In trying to figure out how to battle the weight gain with fewer cardio opportunities, I realized I had forgotten all about strength training. I used to do floor exercises regularly. I had stopped in favor of steps.

Last month, I resumed my floor exercises and, this month, I signed up for Weight Watchers. I am down five pounds and I am feeling stronger every day. I am sleeping better and I am living better. I will soon have surgery to fix the nerve, which will allow me to run and hike again, but I won’t get another Fitbit.

I know better now.

I know I didn’t own that Fitbit. It owned me.

 

 

Where am I now?

I was recently asked to write an update for Penn Writer, a publication of the Pennwriters organization, about the impact its writing contest had on my writing life. It was excellent opportunity to reflect. So here it is:

The 2017 Pennwriters Novel Beginnings Contest came at a critical time for me. I was feeling down about the business and about my role in it. I had just parted ways with my agent of four years in search of pressure-free time to regroup and figure out whether I even had a future as an author. I entered the contest because I wanted validation. So, I was thrilled when No Stranger Here won first place and A Dead Man’s Eyes won second place.

My agent had submitted both those novels to publishers. The general response was that they enjoyed my writing, but that the novels weren’t quite commercial enough for the current mystery/thriller market. I had previously accepted that verdict, but those wins inspired me to dig deeper into genres as they are defined by publishers.  I succeeded in finding published novels like mine, ranging from mid-list to best sellers, and I contacted some of their authors. I learned their works were not initially promoted by agents as mysteries, but as women’s fiction or as southern fiction. Book sellers generally market them as both.

That revelation revived me, but I wasn’t ready to submit those novels again just yet. I had revised them so many times in attempts to appease major publishing houses that I felt the need for some distance. Instead, I started a new novel with a better feel for the expectations of mystery/thriller market. My progress has been slowed by a teaching gig at a local university and by the usual challenges of raising four kids, but I am now 20,000 words from the finish. I am confident that this new novel is more “commercial” than my previous works, but I don’t feel that I sacrificed the strength of the character arc to get there. It feels balanced. I feel better about my previously completed novels as well. I have even submitted No Stranger Here and A Dead Man’s Eyes to a few small publishers, though they remain in limbo.

Along with insight and confidence, I gained a whole new group of writer-friends thanks to the Pennwriters contest. With the contest wins came free registration to the 2018 conference and half-price registration to the 2019 conference. I met dozens of wonderful people last year with whom I remain in contact. I look forward to seeing them again in May and meeting many more. I also came away from the conference with some valuable advice and information. Someday, I hope to return to the conference with a published novel in my hands and advice of my own to give. So thank you, Pennwriters.

For more information about Pennwriters or to join, click here.

Distance and the evolution of friendships

I remember a conversation with a friend a few years back, when we still lived in Cincinnati. I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We’re not so close anymore, I said.

Not since I moved.

My friend’s reaction: So when you move, they’re not your close friends anymore?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I were planning to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn’t want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.

Not at all.

But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.

They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.

It is a lesson I have learned over the past 19 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cincinnati to the hills of Northern Pennsylvania, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presence of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails, text messages and occasional visits.

I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.

But then something happened.

Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. The older ones became teenagers, applying to colleges and taking dates to the prom. Suddenly, I noticed my old friends and I had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the texts less detailed.

The kids were one factor.

The other was simple logistics.

In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks – some more than others – but, for the most part, the networks remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.

I had left them with everything, but me.

But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperament of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to build a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.

It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.

In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.

Too easy, especially with social networking apps, like Facebook.

But it wasn’t easy for my old friends and it wasn’t healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.

I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.

That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of “best” friendship can never be undone.

It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don’t call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don’t call her when my kids reach particular milestones in their lives, when I’m thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a certain situation in my life.

And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.

I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And thank goodness I did. It has been seven years since we last saw each other in person. In that time, she also moved, leaving old friends behind. She gets me and I get her.

We don’t speak on the phone often, but we make sure we do if it’s been too long. We both understand the struggles of being the new person in the place that is old to others. That shared experience adds a new and unique dynamic to our friendship. Hers is a new kind of long-distance friendship for me. She didn’t leave a void in my life when we parted ways. She fills one I didn’t know I had.

 

Coming soon! Raising Identical Twins: The Unique Challenges and Joys of the Early Years

I remember that moment.
It was ten years ago and I was in a hospital bed recovering, just hours after giving birth to twins via a double-whammy (a vaginal birth and a c-section).
The pediatrician had arrived to do a quick examination of both boys. He sat on the edge of my bed, reached into the crib they shared and tickled their toes.
“Congratulations on your identical boys,” he said. “They are perfect.”
Identical?
That was a word I was unprepared for.
When we learned I was carrying twins five months into my pregnancy, my doctor assured us they were fraternal. The placentas had implanted on polar opposite sides of the uterus. Identical twins who have their own placentas implant close together, he said. They couldn’t possibly be identical.
I was relieved.
Imagine all the ways parents could screw up identical twins!
Then along comes this hospital pediatrician, telling me our look-alike babies are identical. (Okay, so maybe we had our suspicions after we held them that first time.) Six weeks later, DNA tests proved him right.
That’s alright, I thought.
I’ll just Google some information on raising identical twins or buy a book.
But I found nothing anywhere.
Absolutely nothing.
So at my husband’s urging, I started a blog. I recorded the development of our twins from birth through their sixth birthday, supplementing the posts with research, fun facts and advice from my own experiences and the trials and errors of others.
I felt a bit like a journalist again. It was fun and it was, according to the comments and emails I received, appreciated. I ended the blog on their sixth birthday, figuring they had reached an age where they deserved a new level of privacy.
But the emails didn’t stop.
Several readers suggested I create a book, something they could give to relatives or to other new and expecting parents of identical twins. I toyed with the idea while working on my fiction. Finally, I put the fiction aside for a bit and dove in.
Raising Identical Twins: The Unique Challenges and Joys of the Early Years will be released in just a few weeks.
I hope you enjoy it!

  

When two worlds collide: motherhood and writing

I told a fellow writer recently I would not be attending two appealing conferences this spring and summer because of conflicts with my children’s lives. One falls on the weekend of my son’s first-ever prom and the other clashes with summer camp drop-off.
She commended me on my “sacrifices,” but suggested I reconsider.
I need to put my writing first, she said.
I need to ensure that I am taken seriously if I want to succeed.
I was taken aback.
I just don’t see it that way.
I chose my career, but I also chose to have children.
I believe in balance, but when I am forced to tip those scales, they will always tip in favor of my four kids. My husband is no different in his approach to his career, though it’s less obvious because he doesn’t have as much flexibility.
Motherhood has made me a better writer, so if it slows me down a little, that’s okay.
My perspective is unpopular, at least that’s what I gather from forums, blogs and books on the subject. We female writers are supposed to protect our writing identities at all costs and forgive ourselves the selfishness required by our career choices.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am selfish sometimes.
Um, plenty of times.
Just this morning, I encouraged my sick ten-year-old son to watch YouTube videos so I could write in peace. The house could be a lot cleaner. I could put better meals on the table. I could be doing art and science projects with my kids during school breaks and on the weekends to keep them off their iPods and computers.
I could also take a regularly paying job and earn money for after-school activities, upcoming college costs and educational summer outings. I have sometimes worked part-time when our finances required it. Most recently, I was a taxonomy specialist for a media company.
But as soon as our finances allowed, I quit.
Why?
Because I’m selfish.
I want to write even if I can’t guarantee that my writing will sell.
But I have my limits.
No conference is worth missing my son’s first prom.
I want to see the flush in his face when I tell him how handsome he looks in a tuxedo. I want to see him give his date her corsage and wave as the two of them head off for a night of dinner and dancing with friends. I want to hear all about it when he gets back.
No networking opportunity is worth missing camp send-off.
I want to hug my twins before they disappear into their cabins for their first full week of overnight camp and squeeze my daughter before we let her go for two weeks, longer than we have ever been without her.
And no novel of mine is going to suffer because I didn’t go to that one workshop.
Look at all the real-life experience I am getting through my kids.
You can’t buy that.
We women have good reason to be protective and defensive when it comes to our identities as writers. Despite all the strides we have made as a gender, society as a whole still tends to see male writers as professionals and women as hobbyists.
But we don’t have to deny one identity in order to reinforce the other.
I completed four novels while my children were in the most physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding stages of their lives. They still need me now, but their needs have changed. These days, the conflicts with my writing are more about the schedule.
Achieving a balance is easier and it will only get better.
If I get published now, my youngest kids are old enough to understand that I will have to travel for signings, to teach workshops or to participate in conferences. They are old enough to be excited for me, to be proud of me and maybe even to sometimes travel with me.
And it goes both ways.
I am secure enough in my identity as a mother to do all that without guilt, to enjoy success as a writer.
I have not sacrificed.
I have compromised to get what I want, an entirely different concept.
We are not going to change society’s view of female writers by mimicking the success of stereotypical male writers. Why would we want to do that? We need to show the world something different. We need to show society that parenthood (fatherhood included) is a valuable asset for writers, not a complication or a burden.
I will go to a conference this year, but I won’t miss a child’s birthday, a school event, or a milestone to do it. Childhood lasts for only so long, but I intend to write forever.
Where’s the sacrifice in that?
(Margaret Atwood, you are my idol!)