Drumroll please!

It’s complete! Extinction Isn’t for Everyone is now complete on Kindle Vella for your enjoyment, as the final two episodes release tonight!

This wild 11-episode monster story was so much fun for me to write. I researched mythical creatures and legends from across the globe, explored places through Google Maps, created a digital vision board of the characters based on images I found on the Internet, and revelled in using uncommon words like “slither” and “pulverize.” Plus, it was neat to experiment with the new Kindle Vella’s episodic storytelling platform.

In October, I’ll be outlining the novel I plan to write for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which I hope to then rewrite and refine in preparation to present as a manuscript at next year’s ACFW conference. We’ll see how it goes. For now, I’m just celebrating that I finished the full arc of a story with a delicious halva bomb and honey halva latte from Tatte!

If you’ve had a chance to read some or all of it, who’s been your favorite monster?

What do you think of Kindle Vella?

Just Say No

Teachers, TV, and well-meaning volunteers: “Just say no to drugs!”

Smart-Alecky 6-Year-Old Susie: “My daddy’s an anesthesiologist, and he says to say yes to drugs, when delivered at the right time in the right dosage by doctors.” (Sorry for putting words in your mouth, Dad!)

This was more or less my quippy response to the Just Say No campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in elementary school. Sometimes I was an insufferable kid who thought she was a lot more clever than she actually was; forgive me!

Just Say No isn’t only for drugs, people. #truth

I accompanied my mom, who volunteered for another anti-drug program called DARE. I passed out papers and pencils during her visits to 5th and 6th grade classrooms and felt very proud of this contribution. I was in awe of her presentations and the older kids.

Though opinions vary on whether the Just Say No and DARE campaigns were successful in lowering recreational drug abuse, my personal opinion is that they worked on me. I was trained to say no to drugs. Though in middle and high school I was way too busy for anyone to even offer drugs to me, I had my first opportunity when studying abroad in Greece sophomore year. Someone finally offered me pot! Despite recognizing this was a really low-stakes moment when it would probably be fine and a sneaking suspicion it would be fun, DARE and Just Say No training from 15+ years ago came back to me.

I said no thanks.

Even then, it was hard. I beat myself up on the subway train ride back to our hostel.

But it’s not why you might think. It wasn’t the peer pressure that made me doubt my decision. I wasn’t worried about whether they’d still like me. Rory and Lakshmi were great friends, and I knew our friendship was built on other shared experiences beyond this. I knew we’d continue to travel together and laugh and share life while we explored Greece. And we did for the rest of that Fall 2007 semester.

What I feared was missing out on the experience.

Maybe this term is already dated now, but FOMO was popularized a few years ago: Fear Of Missing Out. This encapsulates why I find it hard to say no.

For years I’ve been conditioned to take opportunities. Authority figures in my life encouraged me to take on new things whenever possible. When I did, typically I learned something, had fun, made new friends, and made others around me happy because of my participation. And I felt good about myself for trying something new and figuring it out. And at work, I learned that when I say yes to taking on new projects, I’m going to learn something new. I become better, even if it’s a struggle in the beginning.

Is it any surprise? When you’ve been rewarded for saying yes, when being a good helper is positively reinforced daily in personal life and work, and when you feel good about yourself for knowing your actions helped someone else and you contributed, is it any wonder you could become addicted to saying yes?

For these reasons and more, I’ve said yes to some pretty crazy things that in retrospect I really wasn’t prepared for. Here’s a brief list of some standouts:

  • Running a marathon after training for 2.5 weeks (incidentally, the original marathon route from the town of Marathon to Athens, where Pheidippides made his run and breathed his last–so awesome!). I had a literal “dawning realization” around 6am in the blue fog of the morning when the bus drove away and I realized my phone and money were waiting for me 26.2 miles away at the finish line. I couldn’t speak a word of Greek to get help from anyone on the way. It was just me in running shoes and socks, a tank top and some soffe shorts. The fact that I finished in 4 hours and 30 minutes without stopping and had a fantastic time chatting with people on the way is pure testament to the strength of a 20 year old body! I knew this was a major physical effort that some people train for months to accomplish; why did I think I could just jump in?
  • Translating a German book into English. Never mind that my German vocabulary then and now includes just gutentag and 1-10 and ya/nein. I saw no reason I couldn’t accept a contract to do this for a client. I scanned in the physical copy of the book he provided to me, used OCR in Adobe Acrobat to recognize the text, used Google Translate to copy it over, and then painstakingly went through to use my actual skills as a copyeditor/proofreader to improve it. I am certain that this was not the most accurate translation, but the client was pleased by my rate and rapidity! He spoke German, Indonesian, and English, and he verified it was good enough. But still, why did I think I could do that?
  • Having a baby while writing a dissertation while working full-time (as the breadwinner) while my husband was full-time in his doctoral program. Yeah. Whoa. (But even knowing how hard it was, I would do this all again in a heartbeat.)

Forgive me if listing these stunts comes across as prideful; it’s not my intent. I’m sitting here genuinely shaking my head at why I thought these things were doable and praising God that He got me through them. Yes, there were real consequences for taking on too much. But thanks to God, and a lot of family and friend support, I discovered that I was capable of more than I thought, and these experiences enriched my life and hopefully others’ as well. Today, reflecting on things that once seemed insurmountable or crazy shows me that I can take on new things, which is good.

What are crazy things you’ve said yes to?

But how should I set limits on saying yes and learn to just say no? Across fields others warn there are costs to saying yes. Here are some I’ve encountered:

  • One of the core tenets of Malcolm Knowles’ andragogy, or the study of how adults learn, is that adult learners want to know WHY something matters to them before they take it on. Unlike children, adults have been around the block and have responsibilities now, so before they jump into learning they usually want to know why this is important. Because adults get that once you know something, you’ve a responsibility to act on it. So adults aren’t necessarily fearful of learning new things, but they’re cautious about taking new things on. One possible reason for this is we realize life isn’t unlimited; we’re more aware of the passage of time, and that as we age we aren’t guaranteed more time. So we want to focus our time on learning what matters most. This is finally starting to hit me now, as I commit to prioritizing my writing and recognizing I cannot do all things well.
  • In college I read about the Hedgehog Concept in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Simplified, it’s about identifying what you’re passionate about, what you do well, and what can result in income, and investing in the intersection in that Venn diagram rather than being scattered. I fought against this notion, railing against the idea that my whole life could be distilled down to a few core things. Now I’m more open to this idea, hard as it is to accept.
  • Another topic from my macroeconomics class infuriated me: opportunity cost, or the cost of choosing to do something is all the other things I now don’t get to do. To someone with a serious case of FOMO, this is a nightmare concept. The idea that the benefit of all the things I could be doing will inevitably outweigh the one thing I’ve chosen to do is overwhelming.

Though I’ve learned to say no, it still feels like swallowing broken glass to get the words “No” out of me, whether on paper or in writing. I can always come up with more reasons to say yes to a project than no.

(Doesn’t really relate to the point of this blog post except for a passing reference to the Hedgehog Principle, but let’s use any excuse to put a cute hedgehog somewhere, right? So cute…)

The Virtue Trap

As you know, I’m participating in 12 weeks of “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron, by reading a chapter a week, writing 3 “morning pages” of internal dialogue a day (well, I try to), and going on an artist date per week (this weekend I’m in Bethesda, MD, touring coffee shops and parks and museums!). Some points from her chapter covering “The Virtue Trap” hit me hard this week:

  • “An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing. Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction, and resiliency.”
  • “We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world….When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we’re there. We may act like we’re there. But our true self has gone to ground.”

Cameron goes so far as to describe this behavior as self-destructive. Rather than be viewed as selfish and face others’ disapproval, I and others ditch creative work for the ever-pressing needs of others, at the expense of what we really want and need to be doing.

For me, there is a balance here, as there so often is. Some middle ground of devoting time to writing and others and not letting the pendulum swing too far either way. It is beautiful and right to serve others and in so doing honor God. But perhaps there is a balance to be found.

In Closing

I’m wondering if I can trick myself into realizing that my writing isn’t just for me. If I can believe that others do need me to do this, to use the talents God gave me, then maybe it won’t feel so selfish. When I am writing and crafting stories, other areas of my life benefit, too: I am a more caring mom, wife, leader, friend, and worker. So, I’ve got to learn to Just Say No to things on occasion.

Cameron shared these gems which really struck me; what do you think of these thoughts?

“Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-groomed, and unaggressive.”

– Leslie M. McIntyre

“It is within my power either to serve God or not to serve Him. Serving Him, I add to my own good and the good of the whole world. Not serving Him, I forfeit my own good and deprive the world of that good, which was in my power to create.”

– Leo Tolstoy

Reading Deprivation

This is torture. Julia Cameron has taken away one of the things which I feared to lose most: reading.

NO READING?!

An accurate portrayal of me reading that I couldn’t be reading this week.

But doesn’t Stephen King and every other successful author say reading is the key to great writing? If writing is like exhaling, isn’t reading like inhaling? How can we possibly write well without reading what’s out there?

Ok, ok, let me explain.

In the Week 4 Challenge of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, we’re asked to give up reading for a week. I chose to give up reading for pleasure (though her chapter hinted at even giving up required reading for college classes and work). Don’t worry; I’m still reading my work emails and bills and my daughter’s medicine labels and road signs. Her reasoning is that the deliberate silence of the other voices which fill our daily lives would allow our minds to focus on our own voice. This made sense to me. From reading to radio to TV to YouTube videos to other people, other voices chatter at me all day. That’s probably true for most of us in this media-saturated age.

If you know me, you know I’m typically reading 6–7 books at a time. They’re stashed all over where I live: by the bedside, in bathrooms, in my car, and filling up the data on my phone. I love escaping into stories at the least opportunity, whether I’ve got fifty minutes or five. To give up reading for an entire week seemed impossible.

But I’m trusting Julia Cameron’s approach, which has helped many creatives rediscover their mojo. She acknowledges the hardship (“For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction”) and says this: “The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play.”

So I did it.

Multiple times I reached for a book or my phone to open the Libby or Kindle app out of habit only to remember my decision to abstain. I did what you’d probably expect of a reading addict: transferred to other addictions by filling the time with phone games, TV, and phone calls to friends and family. My writing output stayed about the same (I’m working on the penultimate episode of Extinction Isn’t Everything, and it’s a blast!).

Here’s what I discovered:

  • I had a greater sense of inner quiet.
  • I missed reading and the instant excitement of leaping into a story.
  • I prayed more.
  • I observed my surroundings and people-watched more.
  • Julia Cameron was right: I took on new, non-writing projects. (I began crocheting a blue and purple Sisu the Dragon hat for my daughter’s upcoming Halloween costume.)
Sisu the dragon is the look I’m going for…
The hat, sadly, is more similar to this right now. It’s a work in progress, okay?!

A long time ago, somewhere between childhood and teenagerhood, my mom took me on a retreat located at a beautiful Christian summer camp in Alabama where she and I had both attended as kids. I remember the sun’s warmth on the arm of the smooth wooden swing as we rocked back and forth and told each other what we observed about each other and ourselves. She told me she felt I was sensitive to the Holy Spirit, which staggered me and humbled me, and which I still hope to be. And I, recognizing her as this monumental extrovert which I aspired to be like but never quite could, said: “I think I’m a quieter person than I’ve allowed myself to be.”

I can only think that kind of revelation has stayed around because there might be truth in it. This memory came back to me a lot this week.

Would you be able to give up reading for a week? Or TV? Or radio? Or music? What might you discover if you quieted those outside voices?

Artist Date update: The Greensboro History Museum

It was another busy week, so I treated myself to the low-hanging fruit of another easy Artist Date: a local museum, free to the public, and chock-full of inspiration! Cue the Greensboro History Museum.

From arrowheads to the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter sit-ins to the birthplace of Vicks VapoRub and home of Dolley Madison and a flood of other rich stories of creative artisans and leaders who lived right here, you best believe I was inspired. Once upon a time I found history pretty boring, thanks to a slew of history teachers doggedly striving to imprint all dates and minutiae of state-mandated history standards on us for end of year exams, and thanks to my nature as someone eager to please, so dutifully memorizing dates and churning facts into my brain in time for chapter tests and then out again.

Then, in high school and college other teachers illuminated history to me as the stories of people past. People who laughed and cried and hoped and stubbed their toes just like me, but with wildly different contexts. Now history overwhelms me. The innumerable generations of nations living and dying and trying to be remembered in their own ways. So, entering a history museum fills me with those emotions: the familiar flare-up of the expectation of boredom, the subsequent self-inflicted impossible task of trying to study every placard as if for a test, and finally, the relaxing and immersive feeling that these are just people, and I’m one of them, living in a time which will once be considered history, too. I felt a new sensation, too: a new sense of paying homage to my grandmother, Sumama, who passed away this year on Easter. She adored museums, and I could never understand why.

Maybe I’m on the path now to finding what she found.

Let’s Go on a Date

This week, I learned octothorp is a cute synonym for hashtag, or the pound sign (#). I recognized my mother in a painting by someone else who has never met her. I found shimmers of pearly mica in paper.

These were the unexpected discoveries of going on a date to somewhere new to do nothing. On purpose.

I’m in Week 2 of Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way book, which guides creators (whether writers, sculptors, musicians, visual artists, custom iguana costume designers, you name it) to unblock their creativity. Her double-barreled recommendation is to write morning pages every day and take yourself on an artist date each week.

In her book, she calls artist dates “a necessary frivolity,” a time to take your artist-self out for a spin to somewhere new and then reflect. A dual experience of going out, then looking in. Unstructured playtime to inspire you and fill up your well of creative inspiration. And surprisingly, she says you may find yourself avoiding it, or allowing things to be scheduled over it.

As a bonafide workaholic, I can totally see me ditching my artist date at the first opportunity. When I stumble upon that stranger called Free Time, I think, what can I do to use this time to get ahead on my to-do list? But the concept of doing something new just for creative inspiration sounds pretty fun, so I’m trying it.

Last week, my artist date was attending the virtual American Christian Fiction Writers’ conference Fri-Sat, but this week, I had to think of something new.

Julia asks:

What did you do?

I’m new to this artist-date business and staggering under the weight of pandemic stress, full-time work tasks, and the joyful yet undeniably constant roles of serving as a wife and mom (oh, also, we’re selling our home, so that’s a whole thing in it of itself!), so forgive me for a pretty obvious artist date.

I went to an art museum.

The Weatherspoon is free to the public and located on UNC Greensboro’s campus, just over a mile and a half from my building. In my eight years of working at UNCG, somehow I’d never entered the Weatherspoon. It was high time, I decided on Wednesday at lunch.

Determined, I parked my car in the lot outside the building, strode past outdoor sculptures and circular tables with lemon curd-bright yellow umbrellas and the sounds of chimes, and pushed my way into the glass doors.

There is something special and uncomfortable about going somewhere new, especially if you’ve been living like a hermit during a pandemic lately.

My heels on the floor echoed around the rotunda entryway. I wobbled, having worked from home for over a year now and worn high heels only a handful of times during then. Far ahead of me was a welcome desk with pamphlets, and far to my right was a hallway. Uncertain of myself but still filled with the adrenaline of Having Made A Decision To Come Here, I chose right.

It was so quiet that I was startled to see the gallery filled with young adults. Each had a notepad or iPad and was peering at the framed artwork then scribbling notes. Only one sound reverberated through the room: the deep voice of an instructor saying, …notice how ink and glue were mixed together to form this rich pattern. See how the artist made this rubbing with the wood blocks…

I’ve never been comfortable in art galleries. Am I standing too close or too far from this picture? Is there an unspoken flow to which direction I should go? I feel like I’ve seen all this painting has to show; is it rude to walk away now and does it show my ignorance that I didn’t linger longer to fully appreciate it? Are they watching me instead of the paintings? They’re all in a class, maybe they know each other; do I stick out like the outsider I am? Am I even looking at the right things in this painting?

Worse still, some objects in the museum like benches and light fixtures were artistic as well as functional; was I even looking at the right art?

I’m like Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman (2017), admiring an object before realizing it’s just a trash can.

I hushed those voices, remembering the affirmations Julia mentioned. I am allowed to nurture my artist. Through the use of my creativity, I serve God. As I listen to my creativity, I am led to my creator. I realized how much I was thinking “should” and “is this right”, and I let that kind of negative, narrow thinking go.

Ok no, I didn’t remember Julia’s specific affirmations in the moment, but I did remember the spirit of what she wrote, and decided to go for it, to embrace the discomfort and silence the frantic voices inside my head telling me to walk briskly out of there, back to the parking lot, and hide in my car.

I walked up to the first framed photo. I let my eyes travel the flawless, calm face, the arms with no imperfections, the delicate brush strokes of her eyebrows and hair, and the vibrant flowers and stars of her gown. The plaque on the wall identified these paintings from Shinsui Itō, from a collection called Twelve Images of Modern Beauties.

But what caught me most was the attention he paid to the backgrounds. The handmade paper that winked and shone with flecks of mica. The muted red and black tones from rubbing against wood blocks that seemed to have secret, faint patterns.

And that’s what it took. I relaxed, standing inches away from paintings, no longer counting the seconds I lingered, moving on eagerly to the next one, to discover the less-than-obvious strokes and shades.

I puzzled over some penciled, grayscale art. Leaning in closely, I saw the drawing was comprised of rows and rows of thousands of tiny hashtags (octothorps, the plaque said), some of which were dark and some light, all forming an impressionistic picture of something larger.

Ivana Milojevic from Serbia says her drawing displays the physical and mental parallels of a woman as a mother, wife, and daughter. Even before reading this, I saw my mother in her painting, the lines of her limbs forming the angles of our home, her forearms like the row of piano keys she plays, her legs like the spines of the books she’s encouraged me to read, and now write. It was shocking, to say the least.

I found a series of art from Carmen Neely, based in Chicago, who says the repeated elements across her paintings are like characters, even friends.

I saw Shinsui Itō’s signature in vertical kanji along an edge of a painting, and the plaque beside it said because it has a signature, this may have been a gift for someone.

I’ve been to many art galleries throughout my education and travels with my parents, but between Neely and Milojevic and Shinsui, this was perhaps the first time I truly thought about the artist. That these paintings were moments in their lives, how they carry meaning for them no one else might experience the same way.

And I saw paintings that I couldn’t make sense of, paintings that confused me, like staring at a math problem I hadn’t the least idea of how to begin solving.

And that was ok. It’s ok to not understand all art. It’s ok to accept that not all art is meant for me.

In some ways it was like Scripture. I may not understand all verses when I read them. I may get the words’ general gist but still have a sensation that deeper meaning waits, eluding me. But perhaps in time I will understand more, when the meaning is meant for me to grasp, after I’ve matured or lost or listened.

How did you feel?

So you see: I was uncomfortable. Insecure. Uncertain. Curious. Surprised. Moved. Inspired.

And glad!

What this experience indicates for my writing, we shall see. But I am definitely glad to have ventured out on this artist date.

Will you go somewhere new this week?

Me at the Weatherspoon, sitting on an artsy bench that was (probably) meant for sitting on, and definitely not an art exhibit. I think.

So you see, the date went well. I’ve been out of the singles dating game since March 15, 2014, thanks to my husband, so this might be terribly outdated but here we go: I had a good time. Let’s do this again sometime. Text me!

Tune in Next Time…

To be continued…

Tune in next time…

Remember seeing those awful words on-screen at the end of a show?

Those words always brought me misery, because I wanted to know what happened next now. There was the uncertainty that I wouldn’t be able to find out the ending, as I might miss it.

Here’s the story of how I joined the ranks of authors torturing readers an episode at a time by writing the story, Extinction Isn’t for Everyone.

Throughout high school and college, I spend free time reading stories from fanfiction.net, which is a delightful (free) community of writers who reprise their favorite characters in entirely new lives (an “AU,” or alternate universe), inject themselves as new characters into stories (the “Mary Jane”), bring characters from one story into another (the “crossovers”) and more. It is a dazzling play place of asking, “What If?” So naturally, I read nearly everything out there related to stories like Phantom of the Opera, Harry Potter, Dragonriders of Pern, The Immortals series by Tamora Pierce, and other personal favorites.

Those stories were told episodically. Authors–everyday people like you and me!–posted their chapters one by one.

Fearful of engaging a story that an author would abandon and thus be left on an eternal cliffhanger, I filtered stories by whether they were Complete or In Progress, and I’d typically only read the completed ones.

Now, in my emerging career as a writer, I’m finding that episodic writing is terrific training grounds for me. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Releasing bite-sized episodes enables me to focus on one portion of the story at a time and not get overwhelmed.
  • Feedback from readers per episode helps me hone my understanding of what readers like. (And don’t like!)
  • Writing in episodes gives me good practice for scene-writing in a novel. Episodic structure requires me to practice ending each scene with a question or cliffhanger or something to “hook” the reader into reading the next one.
  • There are no barriers to entry so publishing is fast and up to me. No publisher or agent to wait on to approve the story. (Downside: No one else is reviewing the story pre-publication to tell me whether it needs improvement or not! Yes, I could ask someone to…but like most writers once I’ve written something, reviewed it myself, and I’m impatient to share it!)

For these reasons and more, I’m trying out Kindle Vella, Amazon’s new episodic storytelling platform. In a nutshell, I can release an episode immediately or set it to release at a later date. There’s no limit to how many episodes there can be. Episodes are encouraged to be a minimum of 600 words and a maximum of 5000 words. I can go back and edit episodes if *gasp* I discover errors (it’s happened more than I care to admit). Readers can “Like” a chapter and, if they spend money on tokens, they can “Fave” one story per week.

Screenshot of “Liking” a chapter.

There is a small payment which authors can earn if readers choose to spend tokens to unlock an episode at a time (hence the importance of ending each episode on a cliffy so they want to read the next one!), but it’s so small as to be really unimportant to me now (which is why I didn’t even list it as a benefit). Essentially it’s roughly 1 token for 100 words, and readers can buy 140 tokens for $1.99, and authors gain 50% of the royalties. So, “if a reader spends $1.99 to purchase 200 Tokens, then spends 50 of them on your 5000-word story, you receive $0.25. This comes out to $.0005 per 100 words.” Or often, even less. (SOURCE) So I harbor no illusions that this is a worthwhile source of profit. What is important is the practice and the motivating excitement of releasing the story into the wild!

I was surprised when Amazon sent me a bonus payment of $37.16 for the activity on the first few episodes! Whew, big money! Haha, I know it’ll likely be the most that I will make on this story. But what fun! Thanks, Amazon. That was pretty cool of you.

Email from Amazon. A nice surprise!

They’ve provided a dashboard and slowly begun to add functionality to it. Right now it looks like this:

Behind-the-scenes snapshot of the dashboard for “Extinction Isn’t Everything”

There are other episodic publishing platforms; some of the best-known are Radish, which started in 2015, and Wattpad, which started in 2006. These are far more established than Vella, which just began this summer of 2021, and offer better dashboards, tons of stories, more complex author payout structures, and long-running story options. But…from what I see, they tend to be saturated markets already, and the majority of stories run to R-rated content. Vella offers the opportunity to be one of the first authors on the platform just due to its novelty, and Amazon has the deep pockets and wide reach to promote Vella stories more broadly to readers. Though Amazon has tried other forms of serialized storytelling, which didn’t work out so well, there a few reasons Vella seems like it might stick around. So, I gave it a shot.

I wanted to give myself a break from the long and getting longer Christian fiction novel I’m writing. Currently I’m wading through the middle of the novel, and putting all the pieces together is giving me a headache. (The second act of novels is notorious for being a bit difficult compared with the first and third acts.) So, I wanted to reinvigorate myself by embarking on a departure from novel-writing and doing this completely unrelated monster fiction story.

And thus “Extinction Isn’t for Everyone” was born. Well, ok, it’s still in the middle of being born. Bad metaphor, haha. Let’s say it’s planted, put down roots, sprouted leaves, and the bud is beginning to blossom. I released Episodes 1, 2, and 3 in July (the first three episodes are free, so the pressure is on these to set up the story and hook the readers to want to read more!). With glee I sat at my in-laws’ kitchen table, waiting anxiously to see if I could search the Kindle app and see the story. Then suddenly, it was THERE! For the whole world to see! Just as I’d written it! The feeling of delight and heart-pounding terror that people would see it and know I’d written it was extreme. What if they wouldn’t like it? What if they judged me? What if there were errors in there I hadn’t caught? What if it was dumb? All of those questions stabbed and stung like poisoned arrows for the next few days. My sister-in-law Leslie helped me overcome my self-constructed house of horror by just asking, “Are you proud of it?” And yes. I am. So there it is, world!

With a mixture of relief and disappointment, the number of readers and likes didn’t really rise for the next few weeks. It illustrated to me that just because you make something and make it publicly available, people won’t necessarily find it. The “Field of Dreams” quote, “If you build it, they will come,” is not actually the case. I posted it on Facebook stories, and sure enough, the numbers rose. For someone with a graduate degree in Marketing, this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Marketing is something that I know about and plan to invest in when I have a novel ready to promote, and I’m actively attending seminars on marketing through Goodreads, social media, BookBub, and more, plus investing in my Facebook account and this WordPress blog (and eventual newsletter) on occasion. But for now, my focus is on the writing moreso than audience growth.

I decided to continue writing the episodes, because well, it is a really fun story to write! My original reasons for writing it as practice and enjoyment for myself remain true, regardless of whether there’s a large volume of readers. (Though even a few are a major boost to my motivation!)

For a time I published an episode a week. With feverish joy I’d set up camp at a coffee shop, research mythical monsters and sketch out an episode, write it in fits, then review it when I could take a break from it to approach it with fresh eyes. Then I took a break for a few weeks as episodes 7 and 8 were especially critical in answering some of the question I set up. Now I’ve got the final episodes 9-12 sketched out, and I cannot WAIT to write them (which is a mix of plotting and pantsing, which is writer jargon for seat-of-your-pants discovering sentence by sentence) and call this story Finished.

It’s a small step. As usual I’m tuning in to Andy J. Pizza’s Creative Pep Talk podcast, and the latest episode (vastly simplified here, you should just listen to it!) encourages artists to not expect that everything you produce is Shakespeare. Whether it’s fine art or not, we’re making something new. And that is squarely where this lands for me: I’m making something new, it’s good and fun for me, and it’s energizing for now!

If you’ve read all this, thanks! I hope you’ll check out Extinction Isn’t for Everyone and let me know what you think! And, of course, tune in next time…

The Artist’s Way

Morning pages, every day.

Artist dates, every week.

Julia Cameron has touted these two primary tasks for years in her books and workshops on creativity. In the podcast I often listen to, Andy J. Pizza’s Creative Pep Talk, Andy and others have mentioned her book as a great resource. (Andy takes care to explain that recommending a resource doesn’t necessarily indicate he agrees with every single part of it, and I’m glad he said so, because I feel the same way about this book so far.)

The Artist’s Way is a 12-week guide inspired by her workshops. It’s an international bestseller that has earned acclaim and criticism over its 25-year existence.

And one chapter into the book, I already see why.

Informed by the workshops, this book has special value:

  • She anticipates the resistance, questions, and reactions I’m experiencing in my inner voice as I read, thanks to hearing these comments from her workshop participants. In this way, she engages me deeply by answering my questions as I go along.
  • She provides examples of other artists who participated in the workshops and the challenges and successes they faced. I see bits of my journey in the examples she shares and almost feel as though I’m going through this workshop with others.
  • She uses elements from the workshop in the book, such as signing a Creativity Contract.

She provides practical tasks and creative ideas. I especially loved the Creative Affirmations–a set of 20 statements to help orient and confirm our sense of purpose, ability, and connection with God. The quotes throughout from a wide variety of artists, not only authors, added pithy moments of profundity, humor, and corroboration to her words. It feels like she’s coaching me through the book, and I find myself motivated, encouraged, and very “seen” with the challenges she describes in becoming an artist. I believe that by engaging in morning pages (3 pages a day to unblock creativity, on any topic, no editing or rereading them) and artist dates (playing, going somewhere new) I can develop a more consistent habit of creativity. I’m going to try it for the next 12 weeks (ok, I’m notorious for starting things and not finishing them–anyone else like that? And November seems so far away from now…) to the best of my ability and have set calendar reminders. I am eager to see what Week 2 holds.

And yet, even the opening paragraphs feel somewhat defensive, akin to a chapter on apologetics. Cameron expressly describes creating as a spiritual experience (yes!), then tries to gently wade readers in by thinking of the universe as a “vast electrical sea,” then states there is a higher spiritual power. She writes, “Christ said, ‘Wherever two or more are gathered together, there I am in your midst.’ The god of creativity seems to feel the same way.”

2 reactions to this:

Maybe that is a particular version of the Bible, as there are many which vary, but in the English Standard Version I typically prefer, the statement is, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” In her version, it’s slightly misquoting to leave out the “in my name” bit. I checked this in a few other versions and that does seem to be a consistent element. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But to me, the essential difference is that when people gather in Christ’s name, He is there, not necessarily at every gathering of people. Commentaries like this one and this one on the importance of context of this verse aver that this verse specifically relates to church discipline and how Jesus would be present in those difficult conversations. I’ll leave it to the theologians as to whether the “in my name” is critical axiologically and whether this can be applied more broadly to creativity as well as church discipline, but for me, it seemed she’s using Biblical quotes while conveniently dropping the part that points back to Christ and taking this quote out of context. All the same, she wouldn’t be the first.

Secondly, it’s interesting to quote Jesus, who Christians view as the one and only God, and then to state “the god of creativity seems to feel the same way,” either implying a lowercase “g” god who is not divine but rather a concept, or another god who is separate from Jesus and has authority over creativity. She’s had the challenge of teaching this spiritual approach to both Christians and non-Christians, and the effect seems like a bit of pandering to both in order to smooth over the edges and find some murky middle ground, where we all recognize that spiritual creativity is mystical but there is a creator with whom you can have a relationship. She says, “Again, I do not ask you to believe this. In order for this creative emergence to happen, you don’t have to believe in God. I simply ask you to observe and note this process [moving out on faith] as it unfolds.” Maybe that’s fair enough.

As a Christian who believes that God is a distinct being and definitely the God of creativity, the Creator of all things, her approach semi makes sense to me even as it’s off-putting with the backpeddling that you don’t need to believe in God and, as she suggests in the Introduction, can instead insert an abbreviation, “good orderly direction,” or “flow,” each time you see the word “God,” to help you tolerate her mention of God. Eh. It feels as though to try to wrangle the vast spectrum of beliefs she’s speaking to, she’s trying to acknowledge the challenge, offer a buffet of bland options to appease all tastes, and ask you to shovel it down quickly so we can get past it. I trust that she’s done this workshop enough times that she feels it is necessary to do it this way so we might progress past an endless philosophical, religious debate that spans lifetimes and march into the program’s actual start. At the very least, it’s probably good she does this right in the Introduction so that if it is upsetting enough, people will stop there. For me, as a religious studies major with a fair amount of experience seeing people attempt diplomacy on the subject of God to a diverse audience and the knowledge that I can absolutely learn from people who have substantially different beliefs than my own, I am able to move on to see what can be learned from the rest of the book, but it did suspend my engagement enough as to react in this blog post.

Overall, notwithstanding the Bible quote roadbump, I feel extremely encouraged by this first chapter. She has a veteran mix of motivation and tough love that I’m responding to. I didn’t expect to take on the 12-week challenge, but here I am, within the first week and doing my morning pages daily (ok, I missed Thursday) which are very satisfying and an artist date (taking off work Friday to participate in the ACFW virtual writers’ conference! Ok, that was preplanned, but it serves the purpose!).

And now, back to the writing…current project is finishing up Extinction Isn’t for Everyone!

Announcing “Cayo & Patch,” a comic book for pre-readers and read-aloud

I’m delighted to share with you a new story! Davey Morgan, consummate maker in media like photography, illustration, storytelling, music, and more, invited me to assist in a light edit of his brand-new comic for kids, Cayo & Patch!

cayo and patch cover. fox atop a smiling t-rex.

This story is wonderful as a read-aloud. If you’re parenting a young one like me (my daughter is 3), this is a terrific story to read together.

It’s also an excellent story for pre-readers who want to turn the pages themselves. Why is this such a great story for pre-readers? Davey’s artwork primarily tells the story; the narration and captions have a supporting role. Some of the words will probably be a little beyond their usual level (think words like “anomalies”), so little ones will have the chance to expand their vocabulary and ask you questions!

BONUS! The storybook has coloring pages so your little one can let their imagination fly along with Cayo and Patch.

Here’s the gist:

Cayo, a talented t-rex space pilot, and his sidekick robot fox named Patch, experience the dangers of space on their first official mission together. Will asteroids, space bandits, and anomalies prevent them from getting to the moons of Elindor so they can help Princess Taffy?

Davey and I talked for hours about the message of the story and the delivery within frames. Through Cayo and Patch’s adventure, we crafted the language to share a meaningful lesson, evoke excitement, and be as succinct as possible.

Can’t wait to explore our copy over and over with little Susan!

Explore this wonderful comic book series more through any of these links:

Find more of Davey’s great stories and artwork at daveymorganillustration.com.

Using the Time to Write Right Now

This Easter Sunday, the woman I’m named for went home to Jesus. We traveled to the salt-soaked shores of Ocean Springs, MS, to lay my grandmother Susie Wilkinson Moran, a resilient, loving, relentlessly blunt adventurer and faithful Christian, to rest. Her grave, next to my grandfather’s, enjoys the shade of giant live oak trees with gnarled branches laden with silvery Spanish moss and a view of the sparkling sun on gray-blue ocean waters and marsh grass. Her visitation ran for 2 hours and 45 minutes, way over the estimated time, and the church was full to bursting with people; you can read of her life of service and love in her obituary. Our family, and indeed the town of Ocean Springs, MS, will never be the same without her. There simply are no substitutes for Susie Moran.

I knew her as “Sumama.” She called me “namesake.” Our family tradition includes naming the eldest daughter Susie or Susan in alternating fashion; my daughter Susan is the 6th person to carry on this legacy.

When you are named for someone, you can’t help but think how else you might be like them.

I hope I have a tenth of her heart for serving others. Each Sunday after church, Sumama traveled to 9 nursing homes–nine!–to deliver church bulletins and sit and talk with people who had few, if any, visitors. She brought cakes and pies to people suffering from loss of loved ones or injuries after car accidents or cancer diagnoses or bad days. Sumama served on dozens of committees and charitable organization boards.

Sumama wrote. Her weekly letters began with “dear ones,” and contained paragraphs of updates on her town and organizations she served. She edited my undergraduate dissertation and read my doctoral dissertation, providing suggestions and above all, questions. Though fiction is my playground, I hope to write as consistently and meticulously as she did.

I also hope I have at least a modicum of her curiosity. She asked questions endlessly, fearlessly. She never seemed to care if a question might make her seem uninformed or silly, or even if she’d asked it before. Sumama adored museums and tours and college cafeterias; in short, any place meant for learning. She was on a nonstop quest to learn more about everything.

Physical boundaries didn’t hold her back from exploration, either. My siblings and I have stories of her sneaking us in to properties late at night, sometimes past a locked gate or over a fence, to show us something. She traveled widely, making it to 6 of the 7 continents, with souvenirs and stories and photos that bespoke adventure and hilarity. One of my favorite trips with her was her gift to me upon my high school graduation: touring Australia and New Zealand for 3 weeks. She, my mom, and I climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge, wearing bulky harnesses and big grins, in early evening just as the stars came out. She cheered me on as I ran the 6-odd miles around Uluru, Ayers Rock, as its windswept carvings shone orange-yellow in the morning sun. When I had no close-toed shoes for a fancy dinner, Sumama let me borrow her black boat-shoes to fly under the radar. My sense of adventure was just short of hers, as demonstrated when she hassled me for being too chicken to go bungee-jumping. (She would have gone herself, she said, except for that pesky hip replacement.) Perhaps I should have mentioned that all this occurred when she was a young 69 years old.

Now, at age 85, she’s reunited with my grandfather, who was parted from her abruptly when she was only 45, and she’s in the presence of the Lord Almighty, who she served faithfully.

It’s tempting to compare a life like that with my own and go wow, I need to get my rear in gear! She did so much with the time she was given. It’s both daunting and motivating to consider what an obituary for me might read. Will I have served my God with the same level of dedication and resilience? Will my life tell the story of using what I’ve been given, whether trial or treasure, as Sumama did?

The pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs shared the parable from Matthew 25:14-30 of the master who gave his servants varying amounts of talents (an ancient Greek currency which conveniently is a synonym in modern English for gifts or abilities–a coincidence? I think not! God teaches us in so many ways). Some used their gifts, another hid them. What we do with the talents we’ve been given does not determine whether or not the Lord loves us; however, it reflects our love for and trust in Him.

Sumama chose to overcome her personal tragedies by serving others and seeking to learn. To care for others, she used what she had: mundane things like church bulletins and irreplaceable things like her time. To me, time is the most precious resource; we cannot obtain any more of it than God has allotted. There are many demands on my time right now which are part of my calling as a mother, wife, educator, and more. Additionally, through prayer and weekly accountability goals, I believe I am meant to use the time to write, and write right now.

How else will I use what I have been given?

How will you?

New reviews to come!

Hi all! It’s been a rollickin’ semester with many new courses and books to discover. I’m reigniting my book reviews now that some major projects are complete! Stay tuned for reviews of science fiction hits such as books one and two of The Saga of the Seven Suns, historical fiction/romance like Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and a few topics related to my studies, such as Gamestorming and The Elements of User Experience.