Revelation & Enlightenment

A few weeks ago, I attended the one-day conference of the East Texas Writers Guild, and after a day focused on writing, I still had writing on my mind during the 45 minute drive home. Driving along, I thought about all the stories I’ve written and about the new one I’m planning.

Then I had one of those light-bulb moments, an insight into my own writing that literally caused me to gasp. (I didn’t go so far as to yell “Eureka!”)

You know how they say all first novels are autobiographical? Well, I’m sure it’s true. I know my first two novels used a lot of details from my own life and background, even though they were very different stories. But as I thought about the other four novels I’ve written, I realized something rather startling: they all share a common theme.

Now please understand, they are all very different stories. Each story has many themes. But there is one  theme that runs through them all and I never recognized it before. All six of my novel-length stories feature a character who must at some point choose between two worlds. All of them.

Huh. How do you suppose that theme managed to sneak into all the stories written by a missionary kid who identified more strongly with her “new” world than she did with her “home” world? And yes, the new story I’m planning, which will have a five-book arc, will also end up with the main character having to make that same choice.

I’m not even sorry. Clearly, this is such an ingrained part of me as a person that I can’t write without referring to it. It’s kind of amusing I never noticed it before now.

Looking Back; Looking Forward

Sorry for my lengthy silence—I have been somewhat overwhelmed with health issues and with revising my first novel manuscript, which is what prompted today’s post.

I have now completed six full-length novels (and one memoir). Along the way I have attended over a dozen writers’ conferences and learned a great deal about writing and publishing. Soon after my first writers’ conference, back in 2009, I gave up on trying to sell my first novel and focused on revising my second one and writing more. Although I felt that first book had a very compelling story, I was told that there would be no market for it because it doesn’t fit into any of the pigeon holes (specific genres) that publishers use to sell books.

At the end of January this year, flush with my success in finishing my sixth novel, I had the bright idea of pulling out that first manuscript to see what kind of revisions it might need after lying neglected for eight years.

The experience was both dismaying and encouraging. You see, when I was working on that book and trying to pitch it, people kept giving me advice about how to improve my writing and I thought I was already doing all those things. It was so frustrating. Despite my English degree, I didn’t know enough to know how to make things better.

This time, as I read through, it was as though the scales had fallen from my eyes. I found that I often slipped into omniscient POV, which is mostly frowned on these days. There were hundreds of unnecessary dialog tags and adverbs. The story, I was relieved to see, is still a powerful one (at least in my humble opinion), but it was not ready for the big leagues back in 2009.

I will no doubt go through it several more times using my “triple sifter” approach, but I don’t think I’ll be pitching it any time soon. It is indeed hard to categorize, and my vague plan is to be famous first and then self-publish this book once I already have legions of adoring fans.

So that was the looking back part. The huge benefit for me was the realization that I have indeed improved as a writer in the last eight years, which means that looking forward, I might have a real chance at finally finding an agent and a publisher.

What I’m trying to say is that relentless self-education does pay off. I’ve learned from writers’ conferences, books, and from my wonderful critique partners. I had three short stories published last year and this year I hope to do better. I now feel somewhat confident that I finally have the skills to pull it off.

Genre Jumping

In my last post I mentioned a poetry project, and also several short stories that have been published or are about to be. I focus on fiction a lot, because I love it, but here’s the thing: what I really love are stories. Stories and words. So I don’t just write one thing.

I write poems, and that particular activity feeds a part of me that nothing else can satisfy.

I write short stories, and for some reason that I don’t know, my short stories almost all fall into the category of “magic realism,” though there are a couple of science fiction tales in the bunch.

I write novels, all of which are either fantasy or science fantasy.

I write essays, many of which incorporate a true-life story and what I learned from it, because stories are such a powerful way of learning something about yourself or about your world.

Finally, I write memoirs, because I am arrogant enough to believe that I’ve lived a life worth remembering. I don’t want my memories to be lost. I want my descendants to know what kind of technology-free childhood I had, growing up in rural Africa. I don’t think I’ve mentioned lately that my Africa memoir is still available. This particular book deals just with my life at a small mission boarding school in Zambia, but it’s also ultimately about being a kid and learning (one hopes) not to be jerk. Treat yourself for Christmas!

http://www.lulu.com/shop/linda-burklin/this-rich-wondrous-earth/paperback/product-20566208.html

 

WIPJoy #2

Today I tell you where I am with this project. I started it as a NaNoWriMo project last November and made the 50,000 word goal. I haven’t had much time to work on it since then and my current word total is only 55,684. I am expecting the final length to be in the neighborhood of 100,000 words, so I’m a little over halfway through my first draft.

Down & Up

A few days ago, I received my first Realm Makers rejection for this year. It didn’t sting as much as it sometimes does, because I hadn’t really expected anything to come of that particular contact. Nevertheless, it was frustrating and discouraging. One more instance of the prize being eternally just out of reach.

Recently, I have been wondering about the fate of a story I submitted during my early summer submitting frenzy. All the others I submitted had been rejected, but this story had been “short listed” and I thought I would have heard by a month ago whether or not they had decided to publish it. I checked out the website and didn’t see anything helpful.

This evening, I checked my email, and there it was. My story “Dragon Moon” is going to be in the Fall 2016 issue of The Colored Lens, an online fantasy magazine. I have no idea if I’m actually going to be paid, but I’m pretty excited nonetheless. Dragon Moon is one of my favorite stories and I really hoped that someone would want to publish it. This was my fourth time to submit it.

What’s ironic to me is that for this story I broke one of my self-imposed rules, which is not to write about dragons. True, it is hardly a typical dragon story, but it does have a dragon! I will of course shout it from the rooftops when the fall edition of the magazine comes out.

Meanwhile, you can still get the Realmscapes Anthology  on Amazon. It contains my story “Doomsafe.”

The Curse of Creativity

Now, obviously, as a writer I don’t think creativity is a curse—at least not most of the time. But it can be problematic when your creativity tries to take you to a place where your skills can’t keep up.

Last fall, I taught a class at a writers’ conference which was held at a nearby university. I worked, very, very hard at preparing. Almost as an afterthought, I dreamed up a very silly sentence to use as a memory device to help people remember the various categories of world building.

The few people who took my classes loved it. I had printed it out on bookmarks, which I passed out. But from that moment, my brain was working on a way to make the memory device more visual. An image took form in my mind, as I figured out how to get all the words from the sentence into one picture. The problem was that I don’t have the skills to create such an image. However, I could not get it out of my head. I wanted to have it professionally printed onto bookmarks I could hand out next month when I teach the class again.

Fortunately for me, I have a daughter who is a very skilled graphic artist and image manipulator. When she visited last month for her sister’s graduation, I got her to pose for me to create the central part of the image. Then I sketched out what I wanted, along with explanations of the image dimensions, etc., and sent her a scan of my sketch.

This weekend she worked on completing the image. She complained that it is silly—and it IS silly. Very, very silly. That’s what I love about it. I hope that will make it memorable. She did a fantastic job of making my vision a reality.

Last night I uploaded the files to a printing site and was pretty happy about it until this morning when they informed me that the edges of the image were too close to the cutting line for the bookmarks. Three tries later we had something that seemed to work, and I am so grateful to my daughter Mary for taking time out of her busy day to help me.

I have just received an email saying the bookmarks have shipped. I am dying to see them. Even if no one else likes them, I already love them.

Bad News, Good News

I haven’t updated here for a while. The last few weeks have been insanely busy, so rather than report on every detail of my writing life, I’ll just hit the highlights.

  • I attended the DFW Con (a writers’ conference) for the second time late in April. I had three agents request my work. Two asked for the novel I was officially pitching, and the other for a novel I asked for help with. One agent rejected me within hours and I have yet to hear from the other two, but it hasn’t been ridiculously long yet.
  • One of the fellow writers I met offered to critique the beginning of a novel I was having trouble with, and she gave me some very helpful feedback which made revising so much easier. Furthermore, she got back in touch with me recently to ask how things are going. I really appreciate that.
  • While waiting to hear from the other two agents, I decided to send out some short stories a week ago. One was rejected quite quickly—but I was invited to submit again, so I believe that means the quality of my writing was acceptable.
  • Today when I returned home from church I found an email from the editor of a publication I had sent one of my stories to. She likes the story but asked me to make a tiny little change, which I was happy to do because she was right. She is seriously considering it and will let me know if I make it “in” sometime in the next few weeks. This is good news!
  • I have some teenage girls reading that new novel beginning I worked on, and am eagerly awaiting their feedback.
  • I am also working on improving the class I’ll be teaching at a local writers’ conference next month. My daughter is helping me put together an image that I dreamed up to help people remember the basics of world building.
  • I am gearing up to plunge into writing the rest of the first draft of the book I started during National Novel Writing Month. I am really jazzed about this story. I can’t wait to get back to it.

So, as you can see, although I might have been silent on this blog, I have not been idle! I am encouraged by the fact that I seem to be making at least a little bit of headway. I have several other short stories that I intend to send out over the next few days. I am going to try to commit to sending stuff out on a continual basis, in hopes that eventually some of it will be accepted.

 

Pitch Practice

Yesterday I went to a lot of trouble to attend a writers’ workshop in Dallas. It was actually two separate classes taught back-to-back. The workshop was free, but it was a three-hour drive to get there. The primary topic being handled was how to construct your “pitch” for when you interview with an agent or editor at a conference.

I am a conference veteran now and have pitched my work many times, but I figured a review wouldn’t hurt, especially since the DFW conference is coming up next month. That by itself wouldn’t have warranted a drive to Dallas, though. My secondary motive was to meet one or two other writers and establish enough of a relationship with them to feel like I knew someone at the conference.

This will be my second time to attend the DFW conference. Last year, I enjoyed it and found it very useful–but I did not know a single soul there and it was a rather lonely experience. Outgoing, gregarious writers are always talking about how you can’t help making friends at a conference. They make it sound like you will be mobbed with people dying to make your acquaintance, and that many of them will become your new best buddies.

I have never experienced this phenomenon. As an introvert, spending large blocks of time in a room crammed with strangers is my definition of “hell.” One or two people I can handle, but not large herds. So I thought maybe at the workshop I’d meet one or two others and be able to strike up a conversation.

This turned out to be what happened. Because I was late, I was seated at the very end of one of the long tables, next to a lady with gorgeous rainbow hair and across from another lady of my generation. We talked a little during the course of the afternoon, but the real chance to connect came at the end when we had a pitch practice activity.

We each had a form to fill out. We had to get three other people to pitch to us, and we had to write down their name, genre, and what stood out about their pitch. So of course the three of us pitched to each other. I had not come actually prepared to pitch, so I had a moment of panic, but I just did the best I could pitching a novel I have pitched in the past. Both of my new acquaintances will be attending their first conference and pitching for the first time.

Here’s where it got interesting. I’ve been at this for so long now that even with no notice, I was able to come up with a coherent pitch giving the kernel of what my book is about. Both of my associates tended to ramble and bring up nonessential details. I had almost forgotten how hard it is in the beginning to condense your book down to the bare essentials for a pitch. It is a very important skill. It is also hard to learn and (for me) no fun at all. You have to learn how to do it, though. If you can’t tell an industry professional what your book is about in a couple of sentences, they are unlikely to be interested in it.

We rounded up another lady to participate so that we could all fill out all the slots on our forms. It was really interesting! Then the forms were gathered up and there was a drawing for a bonus free pitch session at next month’s conference. One pitch session comes free with conference registration, but normally “extra” sessions cost in the neighborhood of $50. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when my name was one of the ones drawn. Now I will get to pitch my stories to two different agents.

Then came the big surprise of the day for me. One of my new friends came up to me and told me that it was worth coming to the workshop just to hear my pitch. She said it was so clear and compelling it gave her a great example to follow—and made her want to read the book! That made my day. It never occurred to me that just hearing my pitch could be helpful to another writer.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Here’s a little Valentine for you—a chapter of my memoir dealing with a childhood crush at boarding school in Africa.

THIS BUD OF LOVE

 

This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, shall prove a beauteous blossom ere next we meet.         William Shakespeare

 

Romance at Sakeji was a virtually forbidden subject. The staff believed, quite rightly, that we were all much too young to be entertaining romantic notions about the opposite sex. However, that did not stop us from doing it! I always had a crush on someone, though never again another one so all-consuming as “Morn.”

You communicated your interest in another person in various established ways. The first indication, normally, was to begin calling him or her by first name only. In this narrative I have generally used only first names, in order to protect the identities of my classmates, but in reality we always called members of the opposite gender by both first and last names. I was always referred to as “Linda Moran,” and if the last name was left off, even by accident, everyone assumed that the unfortunate boy had romantic feelings for me.

If you were not rebuffed after calling someone by their first name, you might move on to more overt displays. By “overt” I mean saying “good night” to the object of your affection. When the “All In” call wafted over the playground, if you sought out that special someone and said “Good night,” calling them only by their first name, then you were as good as engaged in the eyes of any onlookers. Another big sign of favor was to give your beloved some or all of your sweets, or if you were really serious, your fudge on Sunday. Any gift of food was a sign of true love.

I was the recipient of a boy’s affections on two occasions at Sakeji. The first came when I was only in grade six—and ten years old. There was a boy in my class who was quiet, studious, and unfailingly polite. He seemed nice enough, but I rarely had any occasion to speak to him. In fact I hardly noticed him till the day I went into the classroom during Afternoon Tea to finish up an assignment. As it happened, he was the only other student in the room.

When I finished my work, I rose to leave, only to find him blocking the way, nervously shifting from one foot to the other and polishing his glasses with his handkerchief. I looked at him in surprise.

“I have something to tell you, Linda,” he said.

This was even more surprising. He had never had anything to say to me before.

“I like you!” he blurted out (the word “love” was rarely spoken at Sakeji), and went on to declare his feelings for me with endearing formality, ending up with something along the lines of “and I wondered if you could possibly have feelings for me too.”

I looked in astonishment at his earnest freckled face. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined being the object of his affections. I barely knew him! Yet he seemed such a truly nice boy, and it had obviously taken a lot of courage for him to confront me. So I stammered out something about how I valued his friendship but really hadn’t thought in terms of anything more than that. I felt stricken when I saw a couple of tears slip out from beneath the spectacles, but he kept his stiff upper lip and graciously allowed me to leave, after asking me to please let him know if I ever reconsidered. I walked up to rejoin my friends, so stunned I could hardly believe it had really happened!

 

Years later, when I was thirteen and in Form II, I was to have a different sort of romantic encounter, again with a British boy, only this one got off to a bumpy start. I noticed that I was being stalked by a Grade Two boy named Bruce, who was only seven years old. He and his sister were new at Sakeji. Bruce was adorable and had big thick glasses, but I had never had anything to do with him, other than teaching him to swim, so I couldn’t understand why he followed me around, then ran up behind me when I wasn’t looking and hit me on the back!

This continued for some time. I never knew where Bruce was lurking, or when he might be following me, but I was repeatedly attacked from behind while I was walking with my friends or otherwise going about my business. I decided the best way to deal with it was just to ignore my pint-sized attacker. Robert, one of my classmates, told me to put a stop to it, as it was unbecoming to the dignity of a Big Girl. I knew from past experience that if I did not take action, Robert would step in and handle it for me. He believed that it was of utmost importance for the “seniors” to maintain their dignity.

One day as Carol and I were walking from the quad to the Hall, we noticed Bruce lying in wait behind a large shrub.

“Here’s your chance,” whispered Carol. “Get ready, and when he attacks, we’ll both turn around and grab him!”

I reluctantly agreed. Sure enough, we heard the patter of feet behind us and we tensed for the moment of impact. We timed it perfectly, and in an instant we each had one side of a howling seven-year-old in our grasp.

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded. “What have I ever done to you?”

“Nothing,” he admitted. This wasn’t much help. He stared at the ground.

“What do you want then?” I asked in exasperation.

“I want to be your friend,” he said shyly, lifting his huge blue eyes to look into mine.

“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it,” I said, while trying hard not to giggle. “If you want to be my friend all you have to do is ask! I’d be happy to be your friend, Bruce, but you’ll have to stop attacking me once and for all.”

Behind his thick spectacles his eyes lit up.

“I promise I’ll never do it again! Good-bye, Linda!”

And off he ran to play with his friends.

Finally Carol and I could indulge our need to laugh. She thought I had been too easy on him. I was proud of myself for solving the problem without resorting to Robert’s strong arm tactics. But I was also a little uneasy about Bruce calling me “Linda.” It was unexpected coming from someone so much younger. I chalked it up to the fact that he was relatively new and didn’t know Sakeji customs yet.

I was quite wrong, as I discovered that very evening. Just before All In, as I walked across the playground, Bruce stepped carefully up to me with his hands behind his back.

“Here, Linda,” he said shyly.

From behind his back he pulled out a beautiful handmade card. It had a heart on the front and said “I love you” on the inside.

I gave him a serious look. “Thank you very much, Bruce,” I said. “I’m glad we’re friends now.”

He beamed at me and then brought something out from behind his back with his other hand. It was a little pile of perfectly ripe mulberries, artistically arranged on a large, flawless mulberry leaf. That clinched it. Bruce definitely had a crush on me. I knew he must have had to climb pretty high to get those mulberries, because all the ones within easy reach had long ago been picked.

I thanked him profusely for his gift and went on up to the dorm, pondering the best way to handle this situation. It was surely a passing fancy, so there was no reason to reject him or embarrass him in any way. As the days passed, he showered me with notes, cards and further gifts of food. He always came running up to say good-night at All In. My friends were very entertained by the situation and couldn’t believe I was encouraging it.

Bruce was such a sweet boy I couldn’t bear to hurt his feelings. But I found my diplomacy skills really tested when he came right out and proposed marriage. My mind raced as I tried to think of a tactful reply.  I finally hit on a great solution.

“Bruce,” I told him, “I really care a lot for you too, but we’re both pretty young to be talking about marriage. I’ll make a deal with you. If we’re both still not married when you are twenty-five, I would be honored to be your wife.”

He was thrilled with this answer and often reminded me that I had promised to marry him if we were both unattached when he was twenty-five. He was completely confident that I would one day be his! For me, it was a relatively safe promise—I would be thirty-one when he was twenty-five, and I was convinced that one of us would be married by then!

Our friendship continued till I left Sakeji. I truly enjoyed his company and loved to see him smile. Over two years after I left Sakeji, I was at a boarding school in Kenya when I received a valentine from my old friend Bruce. He had not known how to reach me, so he had sent it to his dad, who sent it to my dad, who forwarded it on to me. I received it in late March and it brought a smile to my face and many warm feelings too. That was the last I heard from him till we were both adults with families of our own. I married at twenty-two so was never called to deliver on my long-ago promise to a seven-year-old boy!

This Rich & Wondrous Earth

 

 

 

Have I Made My Million Mistakes Yet?

Let’s pretend you are going on a hike up a mountain. It’s very important to you to succeed. You know it’s going to be a difficult and steep climb, but you believe you are up to the task, and so you set off with confidence. The path is steep, but it’s only one mile to the top, and you know you can make it.

It turns out the path is much steeper than you thought, and overgrown with vines and blocked by fallen logs, but you keep going. Finally you think you must be almost there, but when you check your GPS you find that you are only at the halfway point. Still, that means only half a mile left to go, and there is plenty of daylight left.

If you thought the first half of the distance was difficult, you were wrong, because now it’s so much harder, and you’re no longer fresh. The sun is low in the sky when you again pause, thinking you are just about at the summit. Nope. You have again halved the distance, which means you only have one quarter of a mile to go. On level ground, this would be an easy five-minute walk.

You set off again even though you are weary and you now have to carve out each step with your pickaxe. You put your all into the effort to reach the summit, even as you realize you will be coming down in the dark. When you are at the end of your strength, you check your location again, only to find that you still have an eighth of a mile left.

You begin to think that the mountain is playing tricks on you. Every time you put forth effort to reach the summit, you get halfway from where you started off. If this trend continues, you will still be one-sixteenth of a mile from the top next time you stop. After that it will be one-thirty-second, and so on. You will be getting closer to the top, theoretically, but you will never actually reach it, because the distance can always be halved again, and at some point the distance from your destination will be so infinitesimally small that you no longer have any meaningful understanding of how far away it is—just that it is out of reach.

This is what it’s like to try and get published, if you’re an unknown and don’t have any connections in the industry, and if you are extraordinarily stupid and slow to learn, which seems to be the case with me. After ten years of effort, you know you’re a lot closer, but you begin to suspect that you will never, ever, be close enough. It is disheartening, to say the least. And of course, when it comes to publishing, there is no GPS to tell you how close you are. You never actually know. There is no way to find out. You hope and assume you are getting closer, but there is no proof and no reward for “almost” making it.

Furthermore, when you’re my age, you start to wonder if you’ve even got ten more years left in which to continue failing.

So yes, in case you haven’t guessed, I got rejected again this week. I’ve had my day of mourning. (I give myself one day to sob and moan, and one day only.) In this case, once I had achieved some level of equilibrium and reread the rejection, I felt that it was not as harsh as I feared at first. What made it hard was that the primary complaint about my manuscript was that I had failed at something I actually thought I was rather good at. *sigh*

However, I also got some great feedback and perceptive comments on my manuscript, which are thought-provoking and I believe will lead to improvements in the story before I send it out again. I am glad, if I had to get rejected, that it happened now when I still have two full months before my next writers conference. I’ve got time to do some revising and deciding which projects I should pitch.