Book Review: Sunshine Sisters

As a voracious reader, I have to admit that I read a minimum of a book a week. Usually upwards of three. More, if one of them is non-fiction or I’m researching travel, writing or serial killers. I digress.

I have gotten to the point where I’ll pick up a dozen books, read the first page, and return most of them to the shelf. I love a good hard-boiled mystery, a non-cheesy love story and anything by Lee Child (his descriptions! The action! The ways he uses math and science to explain how Reacher moves in a cave make me want to like math and science!) I’m a sucker for travel memoirs and anything about the journey to the self.

The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green is different than anything else that I’ve read in quite a long time. It’s about three sisters (you guessed it- the Sunshines), following them from childhood to their mid-thirties or so. The think I find most fascinating about the story is the set up. We get the backstory upfront, as vignettes from the girls’ childhood. It’s like going through a photo album of them at 5, 12, 19, 27 and seeing the highs and lows. We understand why one sister never feels good enough, why one feels too much and the other shuts herself off from everything. Mid-way through the story, we’re smack-dab in the present and watch them struggle to reconnect with themselves and their mother, a well-known actress.

I’ve liked Jane Green since her first book, some stories more than others. This story was intriguing but what struck me as a writer was the way in which the story was told. It was new and interesting and really made me feel like I knew the characters. So often in writing and in life we’ll skim over details that might be small now but were huge at the time. Our first kiss (maybe he smelled like tuna and now you can’t eat seafood without thinking about him), something your parents always said or losing a grandparents who was your best friend.

It got me thinking that they are all just small moments in time that add up to a bigger picture. One paint stroke in the portrait. We’re a blank canvas before we smile. Or frown.

What stories do you use to identify yourself? Are they the ones that shaped you, truly shaped you? Are they the ones you choose when defining who you are, at your core? How do you pick what stories are relevant about your characters when you’re writing?

Whenever a story makes me think about the bigger picture, I feel I’ve spent my reading time well.

Work in Progress

It’s been a while since I posted last. I’ve moved (twice!), got a great job (and left it to become an entrepreneur, both as a reseller and to focus on my writing) and am editing a work in progress, not to mention writing the rough draft of a new book. Whew! Part of me wonders what normal people do- work, help the kids with homework, household chores, fall into bed when they’re beyond exhausted and start the process all over again the following day?

This blog– if all my hopes, dreams and crazy scheming become reality– will be undergoing some changes in the future. For one, I’m working on nitty gritty women’s fiction at the moment. I love reading thrillers and mysteries and anything that’s a psychosocial mind f***, but I also love a Happily Ever After (HEA, I’ve come to learn) more than anything. After being a social worker for over a decade where I saw and heard some of the most heartbreaking truths, I want some more HEAs in my life.

I’m on hiatus at the Oregon Coast for the next couple of months and loving it here. It’s gorgeous and ping pings between being 65 and sunny and storming with high winds and the temp doesn’t get above 35. It’s a great place to decompress and to focus on writing. Walking along the ocean every day and watching the sun set over the crashing waves most nights (when the sky isn’t a blanket of black clouds) is also pretty amazing.

I’m learning Spanish and how to fly crash a drone. It reminds me of all those stories where a character sequesters themselves off in a cabin or house swap or cave and learns about themselves, coming out the other side a better person. It’s like I’m in a cocoon! As long as it doesn’t turn in a Misery situation, I’ll be happy (thank God that Stephen King’s mind doesn’t control my life)!

Balloon Animals

I just finished reading A Dangerous Age by Kelly Killoren Bensimon and it really made me think about characterization and story structure and subplots. In a nutshell, the book is about a group of women who are are all facing their own issues and the main character is trying to keep her marriage together (or, rather, figuring out if she wants to try to keep it together), texting an anonymous admirer and trying to track down an elusive quasi-celebrity in the NYC scene. 

I didn’t particularly like the characters: the dialogue, their high-society problems and the way they all talked about each other. However, I love the way the author braided together the MC’s issues, threading them throughout the entire book and dropping hints in scenes when they’re out clubbing or doing yoga or eating take out. While I thought I knew who the admirer was and what was so special about the person she was trying to locate, I didn’t quite know. It was enough to keep me guess– and reading. 

Writers talk a lot about plots: how to plot, should you plot, is it better to wing it, storyboards, outline, Scrivener, napkin notes, etc. While subplots are mentioned, I don’t think they’re always successfully executed. I get such a thrill when the story has an element that reminds me of a good mystery, like a trail of breadcrumbs from beginning to end. 

What I want, really, is for reading the book to be like wathcing a clown make a balloon animal. I see the balloon blown up and tied off and then the twisting starts. It starts with a leg, then two legs, and then I think wait- is one of those legs a tail? More twisting. Probably a funny face from the clown for a distraction. Then another flick of the wrist and what I thought was a elephant is now a seal balancing a ball on its nose and I think “yes!”. I’ve been amused, entertained, made to think I knew what was happening and then pleasantly surprised. Of course it was a seal– didn’t the clown make all the other balloons into sea animals? There was also a corny joke I missed about how he “really better seal this balloon up tight”.

I want a story like that. I want the author to bring their best every time. It’s also the type of story I’d like to deliver. Every time. Which is why I’m working hard on my novel, slogging away at a rewrite and trying to make the characters genuine and the plot interesting. I hope it’s engaging and lets the reader get lost in the story so that they read two minutes over their lunch break at work or burn the sauce because they forget to stir it, book in hand as they make dinner. I want them to be anxious to get to the end to know what happens but sad to finsih it because they’re enjoying the story.

Wait…wait…is this a romance?

I’m fortunate enough to have stumbled across an amazing online writing community, Scribophile, and am even more thrilled that I found a small group of intelligent, hilarious, kind, honest, motivated women writers willing to exchange beta reads. One of the best things, besides the fact that I felt like I had my very own cheerleading squad, was just how motivational they are. We are diverse in just about every way possible yet we share the same dream: to be published authors. 

We want the early mornings or late nights, the neglected piles of laundry, the bowls of cereal the kids had to have for dinner, the excuses to friends (I swear I really was home writing. Yes, ALL of November), the pots of coffee we shouldn’t have had for dinner and every other side affect of this obsession to be worth it. To “count”. Despite how hard we might be on ourselves, though, we are ever-helpful and encouraging to each other. 

The hardest part about an internet community–and which I suspect many of my fellow introverts would mark in the pro column–is the lack of physical interraction. As awkard as live writing groups are, if I overstep the bounds with a comment, I can usually tell it bothers the other person and fumble all over myself trying to make them feel better. It’s easier, I think, for feelings to get hurt and people to fade away in virtual groups. I thought originally that people would be more callous and bold, but I’ve found the opposite is true: we are more cautious with our words and find succinct ways to get our point across without verbally ripping up the paper. 

Oh, there are passionate discussions, and it’s hard when you can’t catch a quiet moment with that person before or after the meeting at a coffee shop and say, “hey, I think I came across a little too strong last time. I didn’t mean your character was one-dimensional, I just meant that I’d like to see you describe the hero in as much detail as you do the villain, becaues you’ve captured my interest with the villain”.

I’d like to think that both sides keep in mind that the other is doing their best to give and receive feedback and to improve in both regards.

When it was my turn for a critique, I wrote down every scrap of comments because I value their opinions and admire them as writers. The suggestions they had were great, but I was sitting down to write my revision and…nothing. It felt stilted. What about the character development I’d outlined? The plot holes they helped me fill in? The main character and her love interest didn’t kiss enough…cue sexy loving scenes.

Wait. What? Full stop. I love reading what’s dubbed as “chick lit” (I’m looking at you, Jennifer Weiner, Katie Fforde, Meg Cabot). I l write darker stuff, though. The story in question, about a woman who returns to her hometown licking her wounds has romantic elements, yes, but if I had to categorize it, I’d call it woman’s fiction. When I confessed this to the group, weeks later, after we’d already broken apart a bit to work on rewrites, I felt nervous. What if they were mad they wasted their time? What if I should be writing a romance book? The response i got was so great – it’s my story, write what I want to, they’re happy to read the revised version – and I felt even more emboldened as a writer. Plus, they still found my plot holes and helped me develop my character and taught me countless other lessons.

I’d set out writing this post to talk about having a plan in mind, but being okay with taking a different path if you choose. In writing it, though, I think I really just want to acknowledge the group I’ve found- you ladies are AMAZING. These are the type of people I want in my life, be it in person or via the internet, because they’re not afraid to be honest but they know how to deliver news gently. They’re quick with praise and Friday afternoon photos. I wish everyone could have such an awesome critique group, because the sense of community really does keep me sane in the writer’s block moments.

New Projects

Not one for resolutions, I’m a little late to the game when I say that 2017 is the Year of Writing. Having survived another round of NaNo last November, I’ve immersed myself in the land of writing, which is thrilling and scary and intense and educational. What’s different about this year is that I’m not alone in this journey. As much as I love writing, I have been honest with myself about the fact that the act of writing in only a piece of the puzzle. It’s marketing and networking and being part of a critique group. Through my critique group, I’ve met a writer who has opened my eyes to the world of romance (and writing about sex) and whose rich characters are people I’d like to know in real life. She’ll be coming out with a book soon, so check out her website: http://www.teddyhester.com

 Last week I met for coffee with one of my old writing buddies—someone who would meet me at the 24-hour coffee shop at any hour to hash out a scene and who does an amazing job at world building with his novel, Mister Mercury. Giando shared with me a new project he’s working on, a Write-O-Tron: http://www.giandosigurani.com

 As for me, I’m in the rewriting stage of a new novel, Sound Roots, about Becca Campbell, who realizes that her small-town roots aren’t all that bad after all and maybe, just maybe, a simple life is the good life.

Introvert Love Story

Roughly two years ago, my extroverted boyfriend (who can literally sell ice to an Eskimo) suggested I have a bigger presence in social media. I had many of the usual arguments: how can I be writing if I’m so busy on social media? I’m a writer, hence an introvert- people should like my books, not me. Social media is a downward spiral; I get on to post about writing on Facebook and three hours later I’m looking at cute dog photos and haven’t posted a single thing about writing. He keeps nudging and I keep resisting.

Then I noticed something. I really like quotes from writers. Especially if they have a cute dog in the background. So I set up an Instagram account. I can share with people the intersting things I run across in the course of my day related to writing and can take a break and get some inspiration when I have writer’s block. There are also loads of cute puppy photos.

So, please check out my Instagram: https://instagram.com/p/BPi8D8Rjn60/   or you can find me as uncagethewriter

Because that’s it, isn’t? Opening the zoo door and letting the wild animal that is my writing self free. It’s taking the restrictions off that I’ve placed on myself, the expectations from me and from society, and let my inner 8-year-old who declared she’d be a writer run free in the world. I figure that if I was brave and quirky enough to dress up as Poe for my 4th grade wax museum project, then I sure as hell better bring that same enthusiasm to my day and grit to ignore the naysayers.

Write for the love of it. Social media, because if you’re too damn shy or quiet or absorbed in how to kill off your next character to pay attention to the world around, because it’s just one more avenue to get your voice heard. It’s networking and marketing for the introvert, and a strange part of me loves that.

Perserverance

The goal was 50,000 words in 30 days. The annual challenge of NaNoWriMo entices and exhausts me, but it’s always a great experience. This is the first year I’ve completed it before the 11th hour and I hope to spend the next few days polishing my story. For those of you still in the middle of it- keep going! Don’t give up! The world needs to hear your story! 

 

NaNoWriMo

For those of you that don’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month. The challenge: 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve participated for several years and “won” (completed the challenge) all but last year. It’s great for moving forward with my writing and getting in that habit, but that’s just one benefit. The list is exhaustive, but here are a few. I think they translate into more than just writing, and I often say that the two worlds- reality and imagination overlap.

It gets me in the habit of writing. Every day. Regardless of whether I’m tired or sick or it’s gorgeous outside or I have writer’s block. It doesn’t matter. 1,667 words a day.

Practice strengthens my craft. Even though this is more of a freewrite exercise (this isn’t choosing between antique white and cloud white. Choose white and go! Don’t look back. Don’t second guess) and it’s just that- freeing. 

Community. I’ve met such an amazing group of writers over the years and am so happy that I have found my tribe in them.

The children. Seriously, this is a global practice and the school based programs get kids involved and excited about writing.

No. It’s truly liberating to have a month to say “no” to the million little things I don’t want to do (attend a book group that never reads anything I like) so that I can say “yes” to myself and my writing this month. It’s routine now; friends and family know I check my email and texts when I’ve hit my word count for the day. If it’s important, they know to call me. 

Countless friends have thanked me for showing them it’s okay to make themselves a priority. 

Like I said, those are just a few of the benefits I never imagined. Of course, I’d love to pick up an amazing writing contract and be able to extend this 30 days into a lifetime. But maybe that’s the point: get in the habit of writing daily on deadline and with that dedication, the money will follow. 

Conquering Oneonta Gorge and Falls

I love hiking. LOVE. I’ve yet to do an overnight trip. It’s one of those things where you want to go with someone who’s done it before but isn’t, you know, the type of person that would be content to spend an entire summer living in the forest and bathing in a creek. I shudder to even think about pooing in the woods. But I digress. So when my friend Manda suggested that we do a hike that involved wading through a creek and climbing over things and that we couldn’t take her two youngest kids because they might get washed away, I heard “hike.” And when she said something about timing it right so the snow melt off wasn’t rushing too fast or to slow, I heard “hike.”

 Manda, her oldest son (a fit, fearless, nimble 13-year-old) and I set off mid-morning for Oneonta Gorge and Falls, which is considered “easy” and is only a 1.5 mile hike round trip.

 Luckily I was forewarned that I would need water socks and I thought that since I would be in water, I should wear my bathing suit under my clothes so it would dry off quickly. Under, you know, my knee-length quick dry hiking shorts and a tank top.

 I failed to notice that they were both wearing layers and long sleeves. While the hiking trails are considerably cooler than being in direct sunlight, I still get fairly warm trekking through the woods, so other than my bathing suit, I dressed as I normally would.

 After going down a cute rock staircase (think: great spot for pictures), we walked a short trail to the creek.

 That’s when it got real. Very early on, you must get into the water, although it’s only about ankle-deep at this point. The first hurdle scaling a huge boulder. At the top of that, the challenge is figuring out how to get down the other side and which path of broken tree trunks (yes, trunks) are the most stable.

 As Manda and I are both on the shorter side, her son’s easy paths proved difficult (did I mention he’s super athletic? Don’t judge us for having him go first. He would have gone around like a flying squirrel if we’d let him).

 After the tree graveyard, we plunged chest-deep into the river. This is when I remembered that she said it’s snow run off. I’ve never had to walk in ice cold water up to my collarbones while holding my pack over my head. Until Oneonta.

 The destination is a gorgeous waterfall and a pristine pool of water, if you’re crazy enough to go swimming. We weren’t. The amazing thing was knowing that I made it— fear of heights be damned.

 After taking way too many pictures of the waterfall, we turned around and did the entire thing in reverse. Numb body plunging into icy run off, then scaling the haystack of downed trees and sliding down the rock wall.

 A trick I learned a long time ago is to double bag my cell phone and car key in sandwich bags. Right at the end, after we’d completed the obstacle course and took pictures, Manda slipped and her phone took a polar plunge. It didn’t survive and, sadly, we lost some of our amazing pictures.

 It was just invigorating enough to make me want to go back for Round 2, though, so next year, when the snow isn’t melting too fast or too slow, we’ll go again.

I love hiking. LOVE. I’ve yet to do an overnight trip. It’s one of those things where you want to go with someone who’s done it before but isn’t, you know, the type of person that would be content to spend an entire summer living in the forest and bathing in a creek. I shudder to even think about pooing in the woods. But I digress.

 So when my friend Manda suggested that we do a hike that involved wading through a creek and climbing over things and that we couldn’t take her two youngest kids because they might get washed away, I heard “hike.” And when she said something about timing it right so the snow melt off wasn’t rushing too fast or to slow, I heard “hike.”

 Manda, her oldest son (a fit, fearless, nimble 13-year-old) and I set off mid-morning for Oneonta Gorge and Falls, which is considered “easy” and is only a 1.5 mile hike round trip.

 Luckily I was forewarned that I would need water socks and I thought that since I would be in water, I should wear my bathing suit under my clothes so it would dry off quickly. Under, you know, my knee-length quick dry hiking shorts and a tank top.

 I failed to notice that they were both wearing layers and long sleeves. While the hiking trails are considerably cooler than being in direct sunlight, I still get fairly warm trekking through the woods, so other than my bathing suit, I dressed as I normally would.

 After going down a cute rock staircase (think: great spot for pictures), we walked a short trail to the creek.

 That’s when it got real. Very early on, you must get into the water, although it’s only about ankle-deep at this point. The first hurdle scaling a huge boulder. At the top of that, the challenge is figuring out how to get down the other side and which path of broken tree trunks (yes, trunks) are the most stable.

 As Manda and I are both on the shorter side, her son’s easy paths proved difficult (did I mention he’s super athletic? Don’t judge us for having him go first. He would have gone around like a flying squirrel if we’d let him).

 After the tree graveyard, we plunged chest-deep into the river. This is when I remembered that she said it’s snow run off. I’ve never had to walk in ice cold water up to my collarbones while holding my pack over my head. Until Oneonta.

 The destination is a gorgeous waterfall and a pristine pool of water, if you’re crazy enough to go swimming. We weren’t. The amazing thing was knowing that I made it— fear of heights be damned.

 After taking way too many pictures of the waterfall, we turned around and did the entire thing in reverse. Numb body plunging into icy run off, then scaling the haystack of downed trees and sliding down the rock wall.

 A trick I learned a long time ago is to double bag my cell phone and car key in sandwich bags. Right at the end, after we’d completed the obstacle course and took pictures, Manda slipped and her phone took a polar plunge. It didn’t survive and, sadly, we lost some of our amazing pictures.

 It was just invigorating enough to make me want to go back for Round 2, though, so next year, when the snow isn’t melting too fast or too slow, we’ll go again.

Breathe into the Transition

Writing has long been my passion, but I have been an avid yoga student since I was a teenager. Now a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), I still consider myself a lifelong student as I am constantly in awe of the world around me.

I write this after a day of snorkeling and soaking up the sun while on vacation in Hawaii. While snorkeling today, I was enchanted by the coral, urchins, giant turtles and myriad of fish. I saw creatures that have only existed in my imagination, the aquarium, or a beloved deck of cards from Long John Silver’s from when I was a kid (who knew Rainbow Fish were real?!). I spent hours leasurely exploring the reef and all it had to offer. Physically, I was weightless. Afterward, I felt such a sense of peace and belonging that I haven’t felt in a long while.

On a walk this evening, I was sharing my experience and realized that it was the same stillness I feel when I meditate regularly. Where all thoughts and feelings fall away and I simply am lost in the experience. I noticed the rainbow fish, Ther black one with the iridescent stripe and the school of bright yellow diamond shaped fish. But I didn’t think about them. I was the observer–for hours–and it was amazing.

As a writer, I often have a handful of stories weaving their way through my thoughts at any given moment. Plots and character arcs and titles and the correct use of its or it’s is forever orbiting like the stars in the sky, sometimes present, but often invisible. 

It’s nice to turn of the mind chatter, be it in life or in writing. Not only is it a break, but it’s so energizing to run on my default setting for a few hours. Some of the clutter has fallen away, but there is also some clarity–in life, and in my writing.