Now and again when life gets busy, I find I need to step back and think about what I’m doing and where I’m headed. Life has been like that recently, with the start of school for my kids and the start of the term at the college where I work, teaching writing classes and advising students. Sometimes things get so busy, I can hardly remember my own name. Who am I? What year is it? Don’t ask me how old I am, because I always forget. That probably means I’m old.
Anyway, taking stock…I’m sad to say I haven’t done much writing lately, but maybe that’s not terrible, because it’s given me space to think about my current writing projects and how I can improve them—fleshing out characters more and tightening scenes. A friend and I are co-writing a novel about a coastal town under siege. It’s been fun to think about our villains and figure out how to build the story around them. The project is in the early stages, so I can’t share much yet, but at some point I will.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the craft of writing because I’m teaching a class on short stories, starting Monday. Writing a short story is a different experience than writing a novel. You generally only have time to explore one major character and one conflict, and the writing has to be tight to be effective. You get in, you make your point, and you get out. You can’t afford to waste words. That’s a good skill to practice for writing a longer story too, because even though novels are more forgiving, each word should have a purpose. I’ll also be editing another novel for Barking Rain Press. I’m excited about this one because I loved the concept when I saw the author’s submission. No spoilers, but I can say the book portrays vampires in a way I’ve not seen before.
Besides the class and editing, October is filled with writing events. On October 8th, I’ll be at the release party for the North Coast Squid at the Hoffman Center in Manzanita, reading an excerpt from my short story, Sacred. This was my first time to submit work to the Squid, and I’m honored to be included in the publication.
On October 15th, I’ll be participating in the Written in the Sand Authors Fair, sponsored by Beach Books in Seaside. I’m thrilled to be a part of this, and grateful to Beach Books for all they do to support local authors. It’s a fun event for me, connecting with readers and other authors at one of the best bookstores on the coast.
Then, on Halloween, I’ll be telling ghost stories on the historic Astoria Trolley. This event was so much fun last year, and I’m excited to participate again. I’ll be talking about local legends and hauntings, as well as sharing classic ghost stories.
Although I haven’t done much writing lately, I have done some reading. I know—the time I spent reading could have been spent on writing. The thing is, if you want to write and you want to improve your skills, you’ve got to read, and you’ve got to have a critical perspective when you do, thinking about why the author makes the choices they make about writing. The more you read, the better you’ll write. The two go hand in hand.
So, what have I been reading? I just finished The Last Star, the third book in the 5th Wave series by Rick Yancey. This is a fantastic young adult sci-fi series, and it’s not just for teens. There are some big concepts in this one—genocide, and what it means to be human. The methods the alien invaders use to take over our planet are diabolical, and the books are full of twists I didn’t expect. If you saw the movie, don’t let it deter you from the books. As is true most of the time, the books are better because they have more substance. The movie had great action, but the story was abbreviated on film and there wasn’t time to get to know the characters. Read the books instead.
I also read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Although it’s an older sci-fi book, first published in 1985, it has a similar feel to more recent dystopian books. The world has changed drastically: society is controlled by a religious cult and women are property of the state, forced into roles where they have no rights over their own bodies. It’s well-written and an important read in thinking about human rights and equality. It’s a frightening read too, because even now, in 2016, there are places in the world where women don’t have rights and are forced into roles similar to what is described in the book. It is also disconcerting to read this book in our current political climate, where a certain presidential candidate makes misogynistic statements on a regular basis.
I have a number of books on my to-read list, but I’ll share one that stands out: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake. I loved Blake’s first book about a vengeful ghost, Anna Dressed in Blood, which hooked me from the start. She’s a talented and witty author. Her latest book is a YA fantasy about three sisters who must fight to the death for the crown. They all are thought to have extraordinary powers, but two of them might be faking. Even so, the strongest sister might not win. I can’t wait to dive into this world of intrigue and treachery.
What are you reading? Any recommendations?
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I need to preface this post by saying the universe has a twisted sense of humor.
First, my dog got a bladder infection. I took Gryphon to the vet, and we came home with a pricey bag full of goodies to patch her up, including a vial of antibiotics. You know how people and their dogs start to resemble each other after a while? Well, the next week I had a bladder infection too. We must be twins. We were even on the same meds, though mine were cheaper than the ones I got for the dog. Thanks, universe?
Anyway, three days after Gryphon was done with her pills, the vet wanted me to obtain a urine sample from the dog and bring it in so she could test the sample and make sure the infection was gone. I’m not in the habit of collecting urine, so I had no idea how I was supposed to do this. I have a friend who recently had to do this for her dog though, and she advised me to use a pie pan or some other container with low sides so it would easily slide under the dog while she was doing her business.
Here was the plan. First thing in the morning, I’d put on rubber gloves, grab a disposable container with a lid, and follow the dog out into the yard to get the sample. Simple enough.
I got up, still in my pj shorts, top, and socks, and slipped my feet into flip-flops before following the dog outside. (Yes, socks and flip-flops. What?) Meanwhile, back in the house, my husband turned to my son and said, “This is not going to go well for your mother.”
The first part of the plan went okay. I had the gloves on and the container in hand. Things went awry when the dog spotted the plastic dish and thought I had food for her. She got excited and started jumping around. Then she landed on one of my flip-flops while I was trying to dodge her. The thong pulled loose from the shoe, rendering it useless.
That, of course, was the moment Gryphon decided she needed to pee. Urgently. She trotted off to a corner of the yard, which meant I had to limp after her wearing only one flip-flop. My shoeless foot grew damp on grass wet with what I hoped was only dew.
I caught up to Gryphon and shoved the container under her butt. She looked up at me, aghast. Could the dog speak, she would have said, “What the heck, lady? Personal space.” Then she scurried off to the opposite corner of the yard, pee still dripping from the spout.
I lurched after her, muttering things that shouldn’t be spoken in polite company. Again, I tried to obtain a sample. I caught a few drops in the container before the dog gave me another dirty look and scampered off. Strike two.
I tried a third time, and got about a teaspoon of pee. Despite the gloves, I also managed to get pee on my hands. I believe there was more urine on my hands than in the dish.
I gave up and called the vet. “So, um, how much urine do you need in the sample to do the test?” I crossed my fingers, hoping the answer was a drop or two. It wasn’t. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
In hindsight, I see my error. I should have put a leash on the dog so I wouldn’t have to chase her around the yard. Common sense, I know—now. I probably should have worn sensible shoes as well.
I wised up for day two.
First, I put the dog on the leash. Then, I took myself out of the equation entirely, and made my husband do the deed. Voilà! It worked like magic. An acceptable sample and zero pee on my hands.
The husband doubled bagged the urine sample and passed it on to me for delivery.
When I dropped off the sample, the vet’s assistant gave me a smile and said, “Thank you.”
“That’s the first time anyone’s thanked me for handing them a container full of pee,” I told her. “But you’re welcome.”
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Rejection sucks. We all face it at one point or another, and if you’re a writer, you might encounter it more than other people because you’re constantly making yourself vulnerable, whether you’re submitting your work to agents, publishers, or book reviewers. You can’t make people fall in love with you; you can only submit your best work and hope that someone will like it enough to give you a chance.
Even though I’ve had some of my work published, I’m still pitching projects, and even though I get more positive feedback than I used to, I still get rejections. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with rejection. These days when I get a rejection letter, I don’t even flinch. I can’t afford to waste energy feeling bad about another failed attempt. I’d rather spend that energy creating. I tell myself, “Okay, now move on.” I have a spreadsheet I use to keep track of queries sent to agents and publishers, so I make a note under the appropriate entry, recording the outcome of the query. Then I move on to focus on something productive.
That’s how it works most days, at least. Other days, I feel like the universe’s punching bag.
You’ve probably heard that quaint little phrase people use at such times: when one door closes another door opens. It was Alexander Graham Bell who said that, and he was a man who knew a thing or two about failure and rejection. Here’s the full quote:
“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
A worthwhile notion, but some days, I feel like I’m trapped in a room full of doors that have all slammed shut. I’d love to try another door, but there are none to be found. I’ve exhausted my options, and I’m stuck.
Some days I feel like I’m sailing a tiny boat through a storm, helpless to watch as it is thrashed against rocks by angry waves. My sails have wilted, my mast is cracked, and it’s all I can do to hold on and bail water. Overly dramatic? Probably. But don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Star-crossed heroes fighting against the odds, even if it’s only in our own story? Surely I’m not the only one who has days like this.
There’s another saying: when it rains, it pours. I don’t know who said that, but it’s a good way of conveying the idea of a number of difficult things happening at the same time. On those days, it feels like the universe is cruel, taking pleasure in raining misfortune on your head.
I had one of those days recently—four rejections in a single day. Two of those were hard to shake off. One was for a job I would have been thrilled to have because it seemed like a great opportunity to use my writing skills. That one stung, because I felt like I’d done well in the interview and thought I might receive an offer. The other hurt worse. It was from a publisher I’d wanted to work with, who had been talking with me about the possibility of writing a sequel to the book I was pitching. Hearing no, after a series of conversations that felt like they could be a yes, wasn’t easy.
It’s hard to stay focused on those days, to see the big picture. It’s easy to question why I keep making myself vulnerable to rejection, why I’m even trying. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stop, to be content with all the good things I have in my life? It would, but then I’d always long for more. I didn’t have the heart to write anything that day. I wanted to take a vacation from my own thoughts for a while, to escape those feelings of failure and disappointment.
I told one of my sons I was having a rough day, and he gave me a hug, which is one of the best things in the world. I prayed—for wisdom, for strength, for direction.* Then I went and volunteered at my other son’s swim meet. Focusing on other people was a good antidote for a bruised ego. After that, we went out for pizza and bowling. Spending time with my favorite people was good medicine too.
The next day I woke up, took inventory of what I could do better, and got back to work. I’m battered, but not beaten. I still have hope.
*P.S. During my talk with God asking for direction, I asked for a sign that I’m on the right path, something positive to show me I should keep writing. Five days later, I got a message saying one of my short stories had been accepted in a literary journal. I take that as a sign and a victory. This week, I feel like doors could open, walls could get knocked down. I’m grateful.
P.P.S. Maybe you believe in that kind of thing, maybe you don’t. My point is this—don’t give up just yet. We all face rejection as we work toward our goals, but you never know what’s coming next. Maybe it’s better than you imagine.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I didn’t want to go in, to be honest with you. Every cell in my body knew it would be bad. And it was—the lake water was just as frigid as I thought it would be, in spite of the day being warm and sunny. When the weather on the Oregon coast is that gorgeous, it’s kind of a sin not to go outside and enjoy it. But still, I could enjoy beautiful Coffenbury Lake without actually swimming, right?
Wrong. My thirteen-year-old son had already leapt from the dock five times, and was treading water, begging me to jump in. He’s not going to be thirteen forever, and it probably won’t be long before he prefers someone else’s company over mine. So, I stood on the edge of the dock, braced myself for the shock of cold, and jumped. As I plunged down eight feet, I held in a squeal when my foot brushed the slimy weeds at the bottom of the lake, and then launched myself toward the surface. At the top, my son was laughing, enjoying the look of misery on my face. That made me laugh too.
My other son wanted to snorkel, so we got out, grabbed our snorkels and fins, and jumped back in to join him. Visibility was limited to about five feet—deeper than that, everything was masked in dark green. We decided to leave the dock for shallow water where the visibility was better and the water was slightly warmer. There, we saw tiny fish and shells.
My waterbug son, the one who likes to jump off the dock, practiced diving below the surface to retrieve rocks and sticks. He has a mischievous sense of humor, and kept trying to grab my ankles from below to startle me. It didn’t work, but we played a fun game of underwater tag.
He’s a great swimmer. He’s been on a swim team for almost a year now, and has become much more skilled. He has always loved the water, however. When he was little, we had to watch him carefully around pools, because he had no fear about jumping in. He loves the ocean too. As frigid as it is (even colder than the lake), he never seems to feel the cold as he boogie boards or body surfs. He never seems to tire either, fighting the waves.
I love the water too, and I’d much rather swim in a cold lake with my son than sit on shore watching him have fun without me. Even if doing that means executing an undignified cannonball from the dock. Who cares if I don’t act my age? Dignity is overrated, and there was a bowl of soup waiting for me at home to help me warm up.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016