Monthly Archives: April 2012

Honing Craft at a Conference

The problem with having set the standard with well thought out, well edited and well written blog posts is that you have to continue with the well thought out, well edited and well written posts, even when you’re tired and the well is dry and the dog is groaning at your feet because he wants to play frisbee. (Y’all might not think this blog is all that, but I do, and you’re still reading, so there) But I had a heck of a weekend and the rest of the week stretches out before me like a giraffe trying to reach that last branch, so I’m going to cut myself some slack just this once and talk about one of the reasons why I feel like the antagonist from Zombieland.

This last weekend was the Pikes Peak Writers Conference down in Colorado Springs. My very first writing conference. I felt very official. I had business cards. They said “Kendra Merritt: Novelist” so I guess that makes me a professional, right? No? Well, I’ll keep trying then. PPWC is considered one of the friendliest conferences in the country, and it really is. I swear every staff member knew my name by the end of the weekend and every published author I talked to was really excited about my pitch and wanted to hear about how it went. For the first time since PT school, I felt like I was part of a professional community. I belonged there. When I tell people that I’m a writer, I get a variety of responses, but the inevitable “Are you published” always sinks my boat. At PPWC it didn’t matter that I wasn’t published yet. I was still respected for pursuing my writing goals and honing my craft.

Carol BergThursday was filled with an entire day’s worth of Young Adult workshops. I spent hours immersed in the world of writing and marketing for teens. I met Bob Spiller, author of cozy mysteries who made me laugh so hard I had to excuse myself from his workshop on humor to go pee. And one of our speakers, Darby Karchut, has inspired me to try my hand at books for boys (I don’t usually write boy books, but I want to be Darby when I grow up, so I’m darn well going to try). Friday, Saturday and Sunday were other various workshops on writing and publishing. I can’t list them all, but I will mention that if you ever get a chance to listen to Carol Berg teach, don’t miss it. Or Donald Maass. Dear God. You’ll leave with your brain coming out your ears, but it will be well worth the cost of paper towels.

One of the things that makes a conference worth every penny is the opportunity to rub elbows with the giants (and the up and coming) of publishing. And one advantage of being in a wheelchair is that I got into the banquet hall early for every meal, meaning I got to scope out and pick the best seats (hey, I’m not above taking advantage of the disability when I can, I think I’ve earned it). I sat next to Debra Dixon, who runs her own publishing house, Amanda Luedeke, another agent I’m considering, and Lou Anders from Pyr Books, who kept Josh and I entertained with Star Trek stories all through the banquet.

My pitch appointment was scheduled for Saturday morning, around ten. Perfect for me. Not first thing in the morning, but before lunch so I could actually eat without feeling nauseous. During the first workshop of the day I was actually really nervous. I looked down at my watch and had that moment of panic when I realized I was pitching in less than an hour. This was my big chance, I’d been preparing for months. What if I blew it? So after the workshop, instead of going to another panel until my appointment, I went and sat in the lobby to calm down. Darby Karchut was sitting nearby and I had her book in my bag, so I zipped over to ask her to sign it for me (as distractions go, books are always my go to). She managed to wheedle my pitch out of me (confession: it didn’t take much wheedling) and got so excited when she heard about my novel that I forgot to be nervous. I had a great idea that I could articulate and who wouldn’t want to get on this train as it leaves the station.

By the time I got up to the room where all the pitches were held, I was still confident (thanks, Darby). As I rolled out of the elevator the coordinator met me and told me she was moving my appointment up to … right then! So I didn’t have time to sit and stew in my own juices, and now that I think about it, it was a very good thing I was right on time.

Kristin was very good about putting people at ease and leading with easy questions. She asked how my conference was going, and we gushed about how much we love Carol Berg. And then I gave her my pitch. For those of you that are interested, my first logline was “By Wingéd Chair is a young adult fantasy that is a retelling of Robin Hood where Maid Marion kicks butt from a wheelchair.” Scripted, “Ah”, and my second logline was “It’s about a teen struggling to make sense of her disability when the local lord tries to kill her father, drawing her into a plot that encompasses family betrayal and otherworldly magic. In order to save the day, she has to team up with an irritating outlaw who she doesn’t know if she wants to kiss or run him over with her wheelchair, and along the way she must learn to accept her limitations and embrace her strengths.” I’ve thought of some improvements I could make to it but it’s too late now. And she said she wants to see it so it must have been all right to begin with.
Success Story
So as soon as I got back from the conference, I went back to work on the first thirty pages of my manuscript, implementing all the things Carol Berg emphasized in her workshop on revision and wrote my query letter, keeping Weronika Janczuk’s tips in mind. It’s done, it’s sent, now all I can do is sit back and twiddle my thumbs and hope that the writing is as good as my beta readers have said (I can’t tell anymore, I’ve seen it so many times it all looks inane to me). Whatever the result, I am one step further than ever, so I’ll take that as a win.

I try to have a take home message for each of my posts, but I didn’t write this with one in mind. I guess what I learned this weekend was that if you’re passionate about something, you’re never done learning about it. You should keep getting better, keep honing your craft, and most of all never give up. As Susan Wiggs said at the farewell lunch, “the only sure way to fail is to quit”.

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One of the Phamaly

Every year, I wait impatiently for a certain musical production done by an incredible group of people here in Denver. I buy my tickets months in advance, I plan other events around it, and then finally, I drive downtown and sit in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise. Maybe that paints a melodramatic picture of a sad, obsessed woman who really should take up knitting or something, but that’s how much I look forward to seeing PHAMALY. The Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League has been amazingly inspirational to me.

PHAMALY was formed in 1989 in response to a distressing lack of theatrical opportunities for physically disabled actors. Every actor in the company has a disability, whether it’s physical, emotional, or cognitive. Some are blind, some are hearing-impaired, some have anxiety or personality disorders. Some are even in wheelchairs. Let me tell you, you haven’t seen a sword fight until you’ve seen someone wield a blade from a wheelchair. PHAMALY provides a place for disabled actors to hone and spotlight their skills. And these people are good. The shows are produced professionally and the actors really know what they’re doing.

The first show I saw was “Man of La Mancha”. I still have the program gathering dust down in my sewing room (see, I sew, I don’t need to take up knitting) because I can’t bear to throw it away. Watching these actors – some with disabilities much more severe than mine – sing “The Impossible Dream” filled me with a sense of awe and pride in myself. I left the theater that night feeling more empowered than I’ve felt in the six years since my injury.

Something about that show struck a deep and resonant cord in me. I once was a little girl who dreamed of being a Broadway star along with being a Disney princess. Alas, that dream will never be realized since I have a voice like a hyena and the sense of pitch of a house with old plumbing (that might be an exaggeration, but it sounded so good, didn’t it?). But seeing a girl with paraplegia drag herself across the floor, singing “Aldonza”, in a scene rife with anguish and regret made me look at myself in a new light. I, crippled little Kendra, can do anything. I can be anything. If you’ve seen “Man of La Mancha”, you know this is the theme of the whole show, but PHAMALY’s performance lent it something more, something amazing and all-encompassing. I thought to myself, if she could do that, what could I do? And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience that felt that sense of community and competence.

PHAMALY puts on one musical and one stage play per year. Also they put on original sketch comedy shows periodically. Arielle, Josh, and I went to one of these last week. “DisLabeled” is the new series they are doing out of Boulder, written by the handi-capable actors who perform in it. It was, in a word, hysterical, featuring sketches like “You might be disabled,” (in the style of Jeff Foxworthy) and a sing-along of “Your, your, your row boat. Dyslexia have we”. I particularly liked the blind date between two people with TBI’s (traumatic brain injury), neither of which could remember why they were there.

Their purpose is not just to give theatrical opportunities to people with disabilities. They also strive to promote understanding, showing that we aren’t unapproachable, we just do things a little differently. At the end of the show, the actors all sat down and answered questions about how they came up with their material and their lives in general. You’d be amazed how easy it can be to find the ridiculous in the mundane.

PHAMALY has come up with what they call Phampathy Cards with sentiments like “I’d have gotten you a prettier card but you’re blind so…” and “Have you ever thought of yourself as half NOT deaf?” and, my favorite, “Thinking of you and all that awesome free parking.” PHAMALY treats living with a disability with irreverent laughter that shows it’s okay to have a sense of humor, it’s okay to look past the big crappy things and find joy in the little quirks of life. This is something I believe is so important to maintain mental health in everyone, not just those of us with more problems than most. We can’t pretend we’re not different, we can’t pretend we don’t have a hard time occasionally, but we can reach out to find our similarities and we can smile when something’s funny.

On a side note, I’ve added some things over in the sidebar. If you want to receive updates whenever there’s a new post, just click to subscribe.

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The Leandros Brothers are Back

Moonshine by Rob Thurman

Cal and Niko are back in New York after saving the world from the machinations of Cal’s unpleasant relatives. With the Auphe out of the picture, Cal’s biggest worries are having to work for his living and keeping his burgeoning love for cute, psychic George under wraps. He and Niko have started their own monster-ass-kicking business with occasional help from Robin Goodfellow and Promise Nottinger, Niko’s vampiric love interest. One of their first jobs is an undercover gig with the werewolf mafia, but what seems at first to be a straightforward assignment quickly goes downhill. When George is kidnapped they realize that they’re caught up in something far more sinister, and now Cal has to conquer his inner monster in order to rescue her. And if that isn’t enough to keep this dynamic duo on their toes, it seems like the Auphe might not be as extinct as they thought.

 

Cal and Niko are as snarky and bad-ass as ever in this sequel to Nightlife. They might bear scars from their previous ordeal, but they’re not letting a little emotional trauma get in their way. Fans of the first book will be glad to see the return of Robin Goodfellow and George, the psychic.

While I love the dynamic between the brothers, it was nice to see Cal operating on his own for a bit in this book. Niko wasn’t always there to sweep him out of trouble and as a result we got to see Cal step up and hold his own against the baddies. He even got to do some brother rescuing himself.

Cal still struggles with his nature, but there are some new angles that bring out the depth of Cal’s character. He knows he’s not a monster – that was covered in the first book – but now he has to overcome some scary Auphe-like rage and emerging abilities that remind him of a time best left forgotten. I’m really impressed with how Rob Thurman has created this character that is so easy to love without shying away from the darker, grittier aspects of his being half monster. I especially liked that Moonshine begins a discussion about Cal’s future with George and all the messy possibilities his dual-nature brings up. It definitely is something that would have been easy to glaze over, but Thurman doesn’t pull her punches.

I would have liked to see more development of Promise as a character. To me she felt a little flat. She’s introduced as a love interest for Niko in Nightlife but not a lot is said about their relationship or how it develops. This is all right at first because it rings true for the style of the book and Cal’s limited viewpoint. She has a much more substantial role in Moonshine, but our knowledge of her doesn’t really grow with that role. She was just there with very little explanation about her background or why she is with Niko at all. I feel like she could be really interesting if given a chance, but we don’t know enough about her to tell. Her interactions with Cal were very promising, and I’m hoping that her character continues to expand throughout the rest of the series.

I’m a big fan of this series. The characters have really stuck with me, and I’ve enjoyed watching them grow – and occasionally backslide. If you want to find other great books, check out my shelves on Goodreads.

I’ve realized I’m rather behind. Rob Thurman just came out with the seventh book, Doubletake. I’ve read the whole series, but as you can see, I’m still reviewing the second one. I’d really like to give a timely review of the newest book, but I’m kind of a completionist, and I feel weird jumping ahead. So what do you think? Should I go ahead and skip to the newest book, or should I plug away and do them all eventually?

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Manic Mayhem with Miles

Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan is the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, a science fiction series that starts with The Warrior’s Apprentice and goes through Cryoburn, which just came out in 2010. There are also two prequels, Shards of Honour and Barrayar, that are about Miles’ parents that you might want to check out if you’re a completionist like me.

Miles is the son of a renowned general on a militaristic planet that admires physical prowess and abhors genetic imperfection. So when I say Miles is disabled, you can immediately see some of the struggles he will face. Before he was born, he was exposed to toxic gas which caused brittle bones and stunted growth. As an adult he stands at a mere 4′ 9” tall. Miles has to deal with prejudice just for his physical appearance alone, constantly explaining that his differences are due to teratogenic changes, not genetic abnormalities.

But what’s even more dangerous than the prejudice he faces is the weakness in his bones. A simple fall will break his arm, yes, but also too much pressure on his chest will break his ribs. Bones are there to give a body structural integrity, and if his break too easily, then Miles can’t trust his own body. I have very weak quads, the muscles that keep your knees straight when you walk. So like Miles, every time I stand up in the morning or take a step I have to wonder if my legs are really going to hold me this time. They almost always do, but I’ve been dumped on my butt enough to have developed that moment of hesitation. Toward the beginning of the series, Miles wears leg braces to help make up for his disability. Another medical torture device I can relate to. Are they very helpful? Yes, of course. Are they also the most annoying and uncomfortable things on the planet – or in Miles’ case, planets? You bet your sweet KFOs they are (that stands for knee-to-foot orthotics). So it’s no surprise Miles eventually trades out his leg braces for synthetic leg bones that won’t break as easily.

What makes Miles such an awesome character and so much fun to read about is his personality, his indomitable nature. He suffers from an excess of both genius and energy and there is no off switch. In The Warrior’s Apprentice he couldn’t get into the military academy so he started his own mercenary company. Yes, it was sort of by accident, but that’s the charm of Miles’ character. He plows forward at full speed, only dealing with consequences when they come back to bite him in the butt. He’s always telling himself the key is forward momentum.

One of my favorite moments in the series comes in the epilogue of Barrayar. Miles is five and has escaped from his parents to try horseback riding. When they finally find him, he’s fallen and is holding his arm. His bodyguard asks him if it’s broken. Miles doesn’t cry. He just replies “Yeah” and waits while the bone is set and put in an emergency cast. Then he’s back up and convincing his grandfather to teach him how to ride properly.

Miles never falls into self-pity – he probably doesn’t have time for it, and most of the time the reader doesn’t even notice his limitations. And yet, Miles is clearly shaped by his disability. He knows what he looks like, he knows what his weaknesses are and so he pushes himself to be bigger, better, faster. He exudes confidence, radiates loyalty, and in the end those around him are so staggered by the strength of his personality that they can’t help but hitch their stars to him and ride to glory in his wake.

That’s not to say that Miles is perfect. He fails almost as often as he succeeds, but he does both spectacularly. Instead of playing it safe, he tried to prove himself on the academy obstacle course and ended up breaking both legs, thereby barring his way to the military academy. And while he may not have time for self-pity, he feels guilt just fine. If he’s not manic, he’s depressive. There is no middle ground.

Somehow it all works for Miles. There is a balance between those times when I want to cuddle him and when I want to smack him over the head. He is one of my favorite characters ever written. I’d read the whole series just for Miles. But he’s not alone. He’s supported by hundreds of characters just as wonderfully portrayed as he is. I dare not get started on Miles’ clone-brother Mark or we’ll be here forever. Or his cousin Ivan. Or his mother Cordelia. Okay, I’m stopping now.

All that to say, when I’m teaching myself how to write gripping fiction, I reach for Lois McMaster Bujold. She brings to life characters who take hold of you, who change you. If Miles passed me on a street in Denver, I’d recognize him. Not just because his stature is pretty recognizable, but because I know him. He’s a very dear friend who has shaped the way I see myself.

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