Being a Beta

During the past two weeks, I have re-entered the world of being labeled with a Greek letter and become a Beta.  No, I have not rediscovered my inner sorority girl (though I can still proudly sing the Greek alphabet).  I have become a Beta reader.  This is the official name of someone who has the honor of reading an unpublished novel and providing feedback for the author.

In my day job as a high school English teacher, I spend countless hours reading students’ rough drafts, essays, paragraphs, stories, and personal narratives.  It can get grueling. In fact, the one part of my job that I struggle through (well, I actually hate) is all the grading.  I love the kids, enjoy the curriculum, like the lesson planning and teaching, but the grading? It sucks.

With that said, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to respond to an entire novel.  Would it be like reading 150 pages of student work?  If so, I feared my new venture as a Beta reader would send me down a path I’d rather avoid:  annoyed that I’d agreed to the job and downing far too much wine to get through it.

Happily, I discovered I like being a Beta.  I tried to read and respond to each chapter at a time, to record questions that I had about plot or characters, impressions that I got, directions I thought the story was heading at that point.  Since there was a bit of a mystery involved in the story, when I finished it, it was also interesting to go back and see what I thought would happen.  I was wrong and didn’t figure out the culprit until it was revealed at the end, just like I was supposed to.

While there were elements of the story that were fabulous, I also had questions about some of the characters, their relationships, and even some plot elements.  I had read a draft, not a completed work, and while it’s a solid draft with tons of potential, it was just that, a draft.

I’ve been somewhat stuck in my own novel project over the last two months, and participating in the Beta process took a bit of the pressure off that I’ve been putting on myself to make the first draft reach a standard that it won’t ever meet.  The lesson? Just finish.  Get the first draft done.  I can revise to my heart’s content . . . later.  I needed that reminder.  Writing is a process.

I’d like to congratulate my writing friend, Susan, for her amazing first draft, and thank her for sharing her work with me and encouraging me to get my project own project done so she can read it.

The Denim Quilt from Hell

Just before Christmas, I finished the denim quilt that I started in October.  I thought I’d be able to finish this beast of a quilt in a few weeks, but it took much longer than expected.  It just about killed me, and after I explained to a friend that my thumb went numb trying to trim all the edges, she kindly notified me that it was my carpal tunnel syndrome.  I explained that I don’t have that.  She looked at me like I am stupid, and reiterated her point.  Lovely.

I bought this pattern at least ten years ago, thinking how cute it was, and when another friend gave me a large stack of pre-cut denim squares, I dug out the pattern and started in.  My original plan was for the quilt to be 14×15 squares. It ended up being 10×12.  I just couldn’t take it anymore.  Have you ever started a project and then halfway through thought ‘what the hell was I thinking’ but since you already told the recipient they were getting it you were stuck?  Me too.

The first step was to cut all the squares into circles and then sew the fleece and denim circles together.  The cutting gave me a bruise on the fat part of my palm (where my thumb attaches) but my mom did feel adequately sorry for me and got me an ergonomic rotary cutter for Christmas afterwards, so that was a happy bonus.

Then, I had to mark a chalk square on every circle and sew the circles together on the chalk lines.  The result of that was that all the little round edges had to be stitched down.  This wasn’t too bad, for the first thirty circles or so, but after the quilt was almost completed and I had to shove the entire thing under the arm of my machine to stitch the edges down, I was cursing the cute pattern.  All I have to say about that is that denim is heavy.

After the entire thing was done, all circles sewn together, all edges stitched down, I had to clip the edges to give it a frayed look.  This is what caused the carpal tunnel episode. Thankfully, I have recovered all feeling in my thumb after I went to the quilt shop and bought a pair of quilting pruning shears especially designed for this task.  They are the beasts of the scissor world, and I’m sure I can probably use them this spring on my rose bushes in the front yard.  Thank God – not many of my quilting supplies can multi-task like this, so that was kind of exciting.

Thankfully, I completed the quilt in time for Christmas and experienced the joy of finishing it.  Completing a project, especially a difficult one, is gratifying.  I ended up loving the quilt as did my daughter who opened it first on Christmas morning, so she could wrap up in it all morning. Bless her.

Small Stones #1

“A small stone is a very short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.” This is defined on the website which hosts a free mindful writing challenge called The River for the month of January.  The idea is for writers to live mindfully and note at least one moment a day.

One of my goals for this year is to write something every day, whether it’s a blog post, 2000 words on my novel, a character sketch, or even a “small stone.” I want to write something.  This challenge fits into that goal perfectly.  It also fits into an ongoing spiritual goal to live mindfully which is sometimes difficult in my busy, distraction filled world.

I’ve included my first “small stones” of the year that I’ve written so far.  I haven’t managed one everyday but I have managed to write something every day. The site has prompts to look at nature, people, etc.  They’re actually kind of fun to write.  Enjoy.

#1  A bed of coals, glowing, radiating, heating, engulfing, burning.

My cheeks heat as I watch the flames, red and hot, as if I said something perhaps I shouldn’t have, but not this evening.  This heat is delicious, warming all the way through, safe, no regretful words involved.

#2  My Mandala . . . placing pebbles winding, circular, encompassing the garden of my own creation, paper, flowers, glue, my soul, reaching outward to create, becoming . . . me.

#3  My old dog snores, adjusting his legs, sighing in his relaxed contentment.  The puppy shakes and wriggles before yawning, his jaw stretching wide, sounding like a baby pterodactyl, high pitched and squeaky.  My son, his voice recently deepened, laughs his new sounding laugh and carries the pup off to snuggle and bed.

#4  He approaches, chews on the smile that tries to spread across his face, looks at me then steals a glance at the young woman by my side before looking down again.  His hair, sweat soaked, sticks to his cheeks, his forehead.  He holds his hockey stick across his chest, his gear in a pack on his back, a young warrior.  “You played well,” she says, grinning.  He looks up, nods, the smile makes the briefest of appearances again before vanishing into . . . cool.

#5  The pen, scratchy on the page, my lower thumb aching with the exertion of actually writing, using a pen and paper.  The words, inscribed forever, no delete button here.

#6  A spider dangles, slowly lowering himself on a thread, swinging over my morning coffee, too close.  He pauses, unaware of our rescue, swaying in the air as I move my cup; his descent continues.

I haven’t yet written a small stone while I’m at work.  Perhaps it’s the environment of 29 teenagers in my classroom that prevents me from remembering to take note of a single moment, but it is a goal for the next week or so.

Books at Night

As a lover of books, bookstores, color and design, I fell in love with the following video.  I have no idea how the creators did it, but it made me smile.  It also reminded me of two of my favorite films Toy Story and Night at the Museum.  While those focus on what happens with unsupervised toys and historical icons, this little film envisions what all our beloved books might be doing when the lights go out.  Enjoy.

‘Tis the Season

Following the Christmas holiday, I was talking to a friend expressing my frustration with my lack of progress on my novel.  I told her I had been thinking a lot about it, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t been able to sit down and write much on it, or at least as much as I felt I should be writing.  “’Tis the season,” she said.

“I know.  It’s so busy with . . . stuff!” I replied.

She laughed and said, “That’s not what I mean at all.”

“What are you talking about then?” I asked.

“It’s winter,” she replied.  We were talking on the phone, and she obviously noted my silence which prompted her to continue with an explanation.  “Winter,” she said, “is the season for dormancy, for the plants and trees to rest before all their growth in the spring.  Why would you be any different? Can you be creative and productive 365 days a year? Is it reasonable to expect that of yourself?”

Hmmmm.  These are great questions, and their answers made me pause because I think she’s right.  I have noted throughout this past year that my creativity comes in spurts.  Sometimes I am highly productive and other times . . . I’m just not, but are my “unproductive” times necessarily “unproductive”?    Or am I just like anything else in the natural world which follows the cycles and rhythms of forces far greater than us?  Why do I expect myself to produce all of the time? Why have we created a society that demands that of us?  I’m not sure that makes any sense whatsoever.

I don’t mean to say that I’m just like an ant or a tree at the mercy of mother nature, but I do think that she made a valid point, one that allowed me to back up and back off of beating myself up for my perceived lack of progress because since my “creative dormancy” began.

Perhaps the most heartening idea behind all of this is the idea of spring which is the season for growth.  Spring has never failed me; it always will come.  I will welcome it, both the green leaves and new growth in my own life, with open arms.  I’ve always looked forward to spring, or to any new season for that matter, for the change in the weather, but this year, I have a little different view of it, and I think I like it.

Reading for Fun

“You seriously bought a book called Hot Rocks?” my husband asked.

“Yep.  It looks good too!”

Most every published author will tell you that you need to read, and read a lot, in order to write.  I have always read a lot, but this past year it seems I’ve been reading lots of what would be considered literary fiction, some classics, and lots of non-fiction research and craft books.  I keep thinking that I need to read stuff that will improve my writing.

In On Writing, Stephen King advises writers to just read and read a lot.  He doesn’t read to improve his craft and even argues that the “bad” books sometimes teach writers more than the “good” ones.  I completely agree with that, but  I’ve been focusing so much on learning that I’ve forsaken one of my favorite hobbies, just reading for the pure escape and joy of it.  That is . . . until this weekend.

My son played in a hockey tournament, and on Saturday, we had several hours between games.  I live thirty minutes from the rink, so it wasn’t really enough time to go home.  We went to lunch, ran some errands, and then I asked my husband to stop by our little local bookstore.

A groan followed by, “Noooooooo, it’ll take fooorrreevvveerrrr,” came wailing from my fourteen year old daughter in the backseat.  How I gave birth to a child who I would consider a non-reader will always be one of my life’s great mysteries, but I did.  My husband, bless his heart, ignored her and pulled into the bookstore parking lot.

“Really, this will just take a minute,” I said before dashing into the store.  My daughter, having spent hours with me in bookstores, didn’t believe it at all.  She just stared at me with that look that fourteen year old girls have perfected especially for their mothers, sort of a mix of resignation and annoyance all covered over with “why me?”.

I was out of the store in under six minutes which, for me, is something of a record, and I had exactly what I wanted, a couple of romantic suspense novels: a little mystery, a little sex, a fun story.  Perfect.

I spent the rest of the weekend watching three more hockey games, a little football, and snuggling in my chair with tea, a quilt, and my new book.  I remembered why I like these quick, light reads.  The characters are fun, the dialogue is always witty, and they always have a happy ending.

They’re entertaining!  I guess it’s like watching a romantic comedy as opposed to an academy award winning movie.  As an English teacher and lover of good literature, I sometimes get in the mindset that one is “better” than the other, but that’s ridiculous.  I get sucked into romantic suspense novels just as much as I get sucked into what would be considered “literature,” sometimes even more so.

I read for a good story, for the entertainment, for the escape.  This weekend, I got that.  Thanks Nora Roberts.  It was just what I needed.

Lessons Learned from 2011 to Help Build 2012

In listing my accomplishments from 2011, I also discovered some important lessons I’ve learned.   While my list of accomplishments made me feel pretty good, it is the lessons those things taught me that I need to remember to carry forward as I live 2012 with intention.

Lesson #1 – Creativity feeds creativity.  Whenever I got stuck in my writing, I would sew or go for a run and listen to music.  Giving my mind a creative outlet of another for somehow seemed to “unstick” the stuck part.  All of my creative endeavors go hand in hand, but I never realized how intertwined they truly are until this past year.

Lesson #2 – Doing my daily Soul Writing centers me.  Some call it journaling; Julia Cameron with The Artist’s Way calls it writing your “Daily Pages,” but Janet Conner’s method of deep Soul Writing, resonated with me.  It’s a daily meditation with a pen in my hand.  I’ve tried journaling for years and never stuck with it until now.  Perhaps I was finally ready for it, who knows, but in any case, I love how it centers and grounds me.

Lesson #3 – I can write! People actually read my writing and like it, or at least they tell me they do.  That was shocking for me to discover.  I’m usually pretty confident, but when it came to sharing my writing, I felt like I did when I was six and had to go to swimming lessons with the high school wrestling coach who taught swimming in the summer.  The man was huge and terrifying.  The idea of sharing my writing gave me the same huge pit of fear in my gut, but I got over it and survived just like I did with the scary swim teacher.  I enjoy swimming, and I now actually like to share my writing.

Lesson #4 – The more I write . . . the more I write.  In mid-November, I decided to cut down my blog posts to once a week in order to be able to devote more time to my novel. I found that overall I actually wrote less.  Writing my twice weekly blog posts forces me to sit down and write . . . something . . . anything!  I realize that I made that commitment to focus on my novel as we headed into the holiday season which is already extra busy, and then both of my teenagers decided to seriously challenge my parenting skills.  I’d like to blame my lack of progress on the holidays and “momflict,” but really, I just didn’t put my ass in my chair like I should have.  Posting twice a week makes me do that, despite all my other commitments, and if I’m writing one thing, I learned that I will write more on other projects as well.

I hope to carry these lessons through 2012 (and beyond) as I build my life around who I truly am and how I want to live. With that said . . . (drumroll please) . . . my intentions for 2012 are . . .

  • Run a 5k AND a 10K – this is a holdover from last year.
  • Write something every single day, whether it’s a blog post, a paragraph, a small stone, or 3000 words on my WIP.
  • Focus on doing work that I love and incorporating those components into my regular day job.
  • Finish the first draft of The Overlander’s Daughter by April 15.
  • Finish a first revision by July 1 and get it to some readers for feedback.
  • Learn how to write a query, write one, and submit it.
  • Continue to clarify my intentions, my message, my life with regular deep soul writing.
  • Post on my blog twice a week.
  • Regularly feed my creativity through quilting and playing with fabric.
  • Start a website/community for Teen Writers that includes options for sharing writing as well as an instructional component.  This is an offshoot of a Creative Writing Club that is a goal of mine and a group of students.  There’s NO time for a club with meetings at school, so I’ve decided to take this route and build it in an entirely different way. I’m excited to see where this can go.

I’ve never put such strict deadlines, so we’ll see how this goes.  Just reading over those dates my tummy did a little flip-flop, so that means it’s either a good thing (or not). I guess we’ll see!