Monday, April 29, 2013

Friendly Reminder: Get Thee to LinkedIn

This one's mostly for my friends and peer group, but applies to anyone really who hasn't yet built up their LinkedIn and is wondering if they should get one. Yes, you should. Come join me.

As my job search starts off, I’m spending at least an hour a week going over my LinkedIn profile—adding classes and experiences, updating and linking my network to my current projects, and just staring at my completed resume going, “Hmm…not bad, actually.”

At least some of this is ego, and at least some of that ego is beyond proportion, but I am very glad to have that profile. It’s like a FaceBook page where I get to show off all the most flattering aspects of my work history and my talents, not to mention that LSAT score I have no other use for since dropping law school from my plans…and the updates are all of my connections doing interesting new things, rather than expressions of moribund wit in the guise of political commentary.  
For that reason alone--it's a place where you're expected and encouraged to brag about your accomplishments--I'd recommend you get to work on your LinkedIn profile if you haven't already. I touted Challenge Accepted for being fun and useful, how much more for something that's (a little less) fun, (equally or more) useful, and might help you connect to a future employer?  

Having a LinkedIn profile also gives you that much more control over what people find when they google you. If that matters to you. While some of its fancier services are sold on a subscription basis, the basic profile and networking aspect of it is free, at least for now. I'm hoping it doesn't pull a Duotrope and start charging, but even if it does, as someone who pays $5 a month for to keep up on my story submissions I can justify paying the same amount to keep track of my resume. To be fair, the Duotrope subscription was a gift; maybe in the future I'll hope my loved ones get me LinkedIn credits as a gift too (anyone want to bestow a premium account on a poor newbie job searcher? Well, you get nothing if you don't ask!)

It's also a portable, complete resume. As someone who agonized over trimming her resume down to one page--a resume that only covers my college years, because I haven't had any years beyond that--I really like the ability to expand on my skills, courses I've taken, languages I know (if only I had any to share, alas) and some of my publications. Speaking of which, it is considered appropriate to include your LinkedIn profile URL along with other contact information in the heading of your resume.

My LinkedIn functions not only as a resume but also a way to connect with writers and editors. Right now my connection demographics are split half and half between people I've worked/studied/interned/volunteered with and people who have edited an anthology or magazine I appeared in and/or shared a table of contents.
And by the way, if you fit any of the above categories, feel free to connect with me. I'd hate to think I spent all my time shining up a profile that nobody will see!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hanging Up My Shingle

The semester is almost over, I'm graduating, and I've decided to give myself a few more months in D.C. searching for a job in the field. It's a decision I'm very excited about, but in the meantime it means I'll be living on my own without a regular paycheck in a not-inexpensive urban environment. To stretch my savings, I'm offering my services as a manuscript doctor, offering developmental critique of novels and short stories.

I've done critiques for my friends (not to mention myself) for years, and two or three have credited me with helping them land their first publication credits. I've also received a glowing recommendation from author Zahara Heckscher for the help I gave her as an intern working on her first novel.

I’m focusing mostly on developmental edits, looking at plot and character arcs, with holistic advice for language rather than line-by-line critique (except for short stories and the first chapters of longer ones). My price point is fairly low for the service, reflecting the fact that I am still building experience. I’d consider my work especially valuable for anyone about to begin second-draft revisions for a story, whether your goal is to self-publish or submit to editors or agents. I  can also offer advice based on my perspective of the publishing process, especially helpful for new professionals.

You can find complete information through the link to the right of this page. Don't hesitate to reach me through email or a comment on this post if you have any questions.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Madwoman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge--the personalities of writing

This week my internship brought me to the Writing Staycation at the Writer's Center of Bethesda, where my supervisor, Zahara Heckscher, is leading a dedicated group of writers on a 9-5 retreat with the goal of sharing ideas, considering mission and goals of writing, and most importantly getting some words down on the page.

While I'm there to perform a number of internship duties (the staff at Trader Joe's are becoming familiar with me) and to assist with the Staycation--which has included the chance to talk shop and exchange advice with the 2 or 3 science fiction writers at the retreat--Z is also fantastically supportive of my own writing, and has given me a lot of time to concentrate on my work in between other tasks. Because my primary goal for this year, getting One Hundred Days revised and out to agents, has been nowhere near complete, I decided to use this time making edits rather than writing new fiction.

The first day, Monday, I edited one short story completely and wrote 1100 words of a new one. No work at all on One Hundred Days.

When we had our roundtable lunch Tuesday, I brought up my editing woes and asked if anyone had any tips. Lots of commiseration resulted--generally citing figures like '6 months to write, 3 years to edit.' Aqua Vitae was written in 2 months and took 3 years of editing, including removing and adding new material. Adding new material was always the easiest part. One Hundred Days was written in 6 months and so far has taken 3 years of editing. I wondered how National Novel Editing Month participants manage it, until I looked the challenge up. The goal isn't actually to edit an entire novel in a month, but just to put in 50 hours of revision. But of course, I was hoping for more than agreement that editing is hard. I wanted to learn a way to make it easy.

Then Zahara asked another participant if she remembered what they'd discussed earlier in the day.

"Oh, yes, how did it go? -Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge."

I looked between them, wondering if this was a major misunderstanding of a John Le Carre novel or its recent film. But no, it has nothing to do directly with Tinker Tailor or with the Mad Men TV series--unless screenwriters experience these states, too, which they probably do. Mad(wo)man, Architect, Carpenter, and Judge are modes of approaching your writing, and each person will experience them in a different proportion and with different feelings for each.

Madwoman-- "The muse is riding me," I say to explain this one. As if I'm a car, or a horse, or perhaps demonically possessed. The "Madwoman" has the inspiration side of the inspiration, perspiration equation.

Zahara makes a hobby of asking writers, especially professionals, how much of their work is produced through this fun, creative fugue and how much is...well, work. The answer is always heavier to the side of hard work, with inspiration being less than 30%, and sometimes 0% (yes, zero, nothing, nada) of a writer's career.

My own answer would be at least 25% inspiration/madness, 75% hard work. This doesn't reflect the amount of time I'm actually inspired--sometimes when I'm inspired I don't get the chance to write because of scheduling (and that can lead to a different sort of madness) and often months pass by without a good strong bout of inspiration. But when it does come, I can get massive amounts of writing done.

Two ready examples are the writing and revision of Aqua Vitae, and a short story I wrote while in Ghana. Aqua Vitae's original 15,000 word draft came out in 3 weeks or so, a pace which shocked and delighted the newbie writer I was then. Revisions took, as I've said, far longer, although I got a massive boot to the bum from the insightful reviews I received through the Critters sci-fi critique group. The feedback and suggestions got me to do the final revisions over the course of one summer. This included a point at which I realized a lot needed fleshing out. I added 3 new chapters, about 9,000 words, in 3 days. Then I had to revise the new additions, which took the next 2 or 3 months. I'm only exaggerating a little.

More recently, and with no exaggeration at all:  I had a remarkable Easter Sunday, 2013, at Mole Park in Ghana. It started at 7 am with a safari. I could wax lyrical about elephants, antelope, and the troop of baboons, but that's not what this essay is about. Suffice to say it was a busy morning.

When we returned from the safari, I sat in my motel room meaning to take a nap. But instead, I wound up picking up a notebook and started drafting a story idea that had followed me for the past week, ever since my class took a nature hike along a polluted, indeed a 'dead,' river and waterfall. The story incorporates some characters I've been carrying around for over a year as well, and between the shiny new idea, the familiar protagonists, and something more...maybe the environment, the relative peace, my lack of access to the Internet, the Muse coming down from the heavens, I just kept writing. I carried my notebook out to the motel pool and wrote there, with the help of a cool beverage (non-alcoholic, indeed Milk Malts are far more interesting than any alcoholic drink ever could be). I took a break for the afternoon safari, which got rained on, but that wasn't a problem as the cool water was a blessing. I wrote on the restaurant porch until dinner, at which point the sun set. No problem, I'd write by electric lights.

The motel at Mole lost power. It didn't regain it for the rest of our time there. As we finished dinner, the staff thoughtfully distributed candles and matches for us. I found that it was fair easier to write by candlelight than I expected. With my story almost complete, but a wind rising that made my candle flame flicker, not to mention turned pages most annoyingly, I got up to go back to my room. On the way, I looked up and saw a sky crowded with brilliant stars. The image was so beautiful it even terrified me. I returned to my room, encouraged my roommate to go out and look at the heavens, set the candle down and wrote another page. The stars haunted me. I went out to gaze at them. The absolute darkness on earth made them gleam as if they were close enough to touch. I was standing out in a clear spot, not far from the edge of the ridge the motel rested on, and while I was mindful not to stumble too far in one direction lest I fall off, the sight above me as so disorienting that I began to worry about falling up more than down. I thought of the 19th century romantics and realized maybe they weren't so crazy after all.

Then I returned and finished the story, by candlelight, at around 8 pm. I'd written 7500 words that day. Without missing a safari, and despite losing light and air conditioning. I think that's a wonderful sort of madness.

[Page 13 of 18, and a Milk Malt]

Architect--So much for inspiration. Now for the rest of it--for the working part of writing. While the Madwoman just produces, the Architect drafts and designs stories. She's a planner, an outliner.

Logically, I know outlining is essential to the success of any story. But I can't convince my gut that it's really writing. Which is perhaps why I find it so much fun. I outline stories before I begin them, while I'm in the middle of them, and when they're done (then as part of the dreaded writing of the synopsis, which if it really is just an outline with storytelling flavor, perhaps shouldn't be so dreadful after all).

Architects are also editors, going over the finished story and decide if scenes are out of order, missing, or extraneous. This aspect of story architecture is not as much fun for me, especially because when I dictate that scene needs to be moved, removed, or rewritten, I know exactly who has to do it down the line.

Carpenter--the Architect makes the blueprint, the Carpenter hammers in the nails. And gets battered thumbs for her trouble. The Carpenter is the one who rewrites sentences, cuts & pastes, does that dreadful bit where you have to search and find every example of an overused word and remove 50% of them, rereads trouble paragraphs until her brain goes numb, and basically commits all the drudgery that makes a story worth reading.

It's really satisfying to fix a problem sentence here or there, and I love the Track Changes strikethrough as I hunt down pleonasms (as Alan Guthrie would want me to), do that over an entire story?

I don't like being a carpenter.

Judge--the Judge is the last of the editorial roles. After the Carpenter shapes the Architect's vision, which makes sense of the Madwoman's creation, the Judge is the one who reviews each line and fixes or improves the use of language.

Judges are in love with words. I am in love with words. I enjoy weighing and balancing, deciding and choosing, picking out the right words for a given sentence. I enjoy it so much that I'm guilty of giving overpassionate line-by-line critiques of other people's works. Although I've also received many compliments for my critiques and my work as both an Architect and Judge (I credit myself with helping at least one friend edit her way into publication, to say nothing of my editorial clients). Both the large-scale vision and the small-scale polishing can become an almost meditative exercise. Ever since I was a kid I could get lost in a piece of writing, all the more so when I'm allowed to share my thoughts on it and help make it that little bit better. But when you're beta-reading someone else's work, you get to do the jobs of the Architect and the Judge while they're the one who does the Carpentry. There's also a lot less pressure--I can make whatever Judgements I like, in the end it's not on my head what the writer chooses to do, or how the story turns out. Except when it's my story. Then it's all on me.

And I have to go get the hammer.

Learning this about myself might not cure my editorial woes, but at least I've pinpointed where the problem is--the basic paragraph-by-paragraph drudgery of fixing obvious problems and picking nits in the prose. Lunch was wrapping up, so I didn't have time to compare among the group and see who else finds Carpentry to be their bugbear, and who, if anyone, actually enjoys it (and if so what their secret is and/or their drug of choice). That may be a discussion for the coming days. For now, I'm hoping diagnosis is the first step towards a cure. If not that, at least I can console myself by remembering I still enjoy 75% of my roles as a writer (even if I don't spent 75% of my time on them).

Exciting update 3/2014: The information from this essay--plus much more--can now be found in The Starter Guide for Professional Writers, a step-by-step handbook through completing, editing, publishing, and marketing your writing!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dancing Memorials

Yesterday my blog post was about getting a dose of perspective. It came before events that offered yet another sort of perspective...and pushed me to work on this post, which has sat in my drafts for over a month now.

There's a story I'm not certain I will ever be able to write. The title is "Dancing Memorials". For a time I thought of it as science fiction, because everything I write is science fiction or fantasy, but then I stopped thinking of it as a story that needs genre and quickly it came to deny any classification at all. I'm not sure it's even a story, so much as a prose poem or, what is strangest and probably truest, a reflection of the ideas within its own text.

He first saw her dancing around a perpetual flame, the oil lamp that burned marking the mass grave of a nation.
(It hadn't begun as performance art. It was more like a breakdown, madness. Or divine inspiration.)
She had danced for the fist time at a memorial where stones marched in endless rows, each marking the death of one or ten or a hundred. The stillness had threatened to seep into her bones, and so, in protest, she danced. She could not bring them back to life, but she danced for them. She could not take the weapons from the killers' hands and shatter them--her slender, small body lacked the strength, for one thing, for another, it was not bulletproof, and lastly she was too distant in time and space for any physical impact--but she poured her energy, her anger and her pain into beautiful patterns shaped with her living body. 
She danced in gas chambers, in battery factories with blood still staining the brick walls, in a public square until the police asked her to stop, in fields of high grass where her steps trod on half-buried bones. The dance was not of victory or defeat; it was beyond both.
She danced so that, though people went and bled and died, still there would be dancing left in the places their eyes had closed on. It was disrespectful, some said. Why? she asked. Because joy was out of place. Is my dancing really joy, she asked, and then, is there a better response than joy in the face of evil and death?
He followed her. Watched every interview--distant when she spoke of family or friends, or the job she'd tried to hold until sponsor donations enabled her to quit. Sometimes musicians followed her, and she did not tell them to go away but she didn't dance while they played, either. She came to places when invited, but usually her destinations were her own choice. Some she visited more than once.
He read about genocides. About the forensic archaeologists who opened the mass graves and sorted through the bones, learning their stories: of heroes, of victims, of lovers that died together. 
Once he'd thought of becoming a journalist. He spoke to one--interviewed him--and was told, you have to believe in a higher power to do this job and survive. The forensic anthropologists must believe in one, too.
He didn't. At first he wondered why they bothered. The victims were dead, what did it matter?
Yet it did. Their killers could not keep them hidden in the ground, forgotten. Their families could bring them home. It did not defeat the killers, though it undid as much of their work as could be undone; it was not victory, it was something beyond all that. More than a matter of moving around dead bones. It transformed them, made them human again. Like the touch of a higher power.
Her dancing brought not closure so much as transcendence--not ignoring tragedy, but answering the unanswerable by side-stepping it, almost with a non sequitor. But not completely, since her response stemmed directly from what she confronted. If it was any less terrible she would not have danced so beautifully.
In a cave, where the echos of gunshots and ricocheting bullets had splintered the stone and the shadows still held secrets, he joined her in dancing for the first time. As was inevitable, he realized now: his every step had led to it. 

The dancer in the story responds to genocide because it was in response to learning about genocide that I began it. I started the night of an educational forum on the topic of peace and reconciliation in the wake of the Bosnian genocide. The cave was the location of a massacre and, years later, a concert. The battery factories do exist, and the blood is still there. I don't think anyone has danced in them, but it's possible.
The forensic anthropologists exist as well. The ones I had in mind were working in Latin America, but while in Ghana I read an article about mass graves being uncovered in Cote d'Ivoire, records of post-election violence. The journalist and his advice are also real.

I wrote the above outline, in a somewhat less organized fashion, on the night of the forum and then let it lie aside for over six months. What brought it back to me was another meeting of the same group that had brought me to the forum (the Plowshare Center of Waukesha, dedicated to advocacy for peace and justice). It opened with a reflection on "Music and Peace," an excerpt from John Paul Lederach's book, The Moral Imagination. We read about a cellist who played in the marketplace of Sarajevo for 21 days after a bombing there killed 21 people. He explained that he just did it because it was "what needed to be done."

Things had come full circle, then, from the story of a concert in the Bosnian cave which had led me to write about Dancing Memorials in the first place. I'd wondered how those musicians had thought about what they were doing. Here was one who gave his reason--transcendentally close to no reason at all.

It all comes to the same thing--the musicians, my fictional dancer (and perhaps even the journalistic pursuit of the character who follows her), and perhaps in the humblest way my own writing of it. A creative impulse comes up in the face of massive tragedy.

It may be an effort to heal, psychologically and psychically. The experiences that triggered my reflections here were both mediated through a woman who examines the use of art therapy for healing and peacemaking, especially among children. But not only among children. Warrior Cry is a volunteer organization that helps wounded soldiers with their recovery by teaching them to play musical instruments (I first heard about the nonprofit through my inclusion in the charity anthology Battlespace, proceeds for which are donated to Warrior Cry. My story in the anthology, Ayema's Fleet, is about recovery from trauma, if not through the creative arts exactly, through something like imagination and something very much like love).

But I think there's also an element of what comes out in Dancing Memorials: a protest. Futile, ultimately, but ultimately all responses to tragedy on this scale are futile.

There's also creative work serving as a memorial. Yet I'm not satisfied with my own explanation here: what exactly goes into memorializing something? Grief, and often horror or awe (it comes with the scale, I think). An attempt to ensure something or someone important is not forgotten. Sometimes I fear if there is no danger of the memorialized subject being forgotten, a memorial work appears to be piggybacking off their larger fame, becoming exploitative. That may be why, even when writing a prose poem for my own personal contemplation, I named no names: none of them are my tragedy to memorialize or my story to write. Perhaps if I dedicated more time into research and thoughtfully depicting them it would be acceptable, but as it stands, I don't quite dare to make the story anything but a fantasy.

There's one last use of creative work in the face of tragedy: escape. Or escapism, which as China Mieville once powerfully pointed out is not at all the same thing. That's hardly the fault of creative art. At least it provides us with breathing room, with a space of peace and quiet to wipe tears and stitch up wounds. Discussing the toll a visit to the Holocaust museum in DC had taken on a friend of mine, I suggested I should make it a hobby to stand outside the museum with a "Free hugs" sign. Another friend volunteered that whenever she visited a particular Holocaust museum (I believe it's the Breman one in Atlanta, given the location) she would end the afternoon by stopping by a museum of puppetry arts. I don't think it's disrespectful to the victims to take one's mind off their suffering by looking at cute and amusing puppets. It may be a requirement to keep stable and mentally healthy in an unstable, unhealthy world.

Last night, as students in my dorm floor sat in the lounge watching the news out of Boston, I brought my Plushie Eighth Doctor, handmade by one of my dearest friends, along with me. The news was not the sort of thing to be watched without hugs on hand, and I was sure to share him around with others who seemed like they needed it. It helps, perhaps, that I associate my plush with a number of things--my friend and one of my favorite fictional characters, one known for saving the day--that give him almost an aura of personality (of course, I've always made my stuffed animals rather lively. Perhaps it comes of being a chronic story teller and character creator. My entire family does it). Having a created person to lean on along with real ones can prove strangely helpful in times when no real person is completely able to offer selfless support, needing to look after themselves (I was the last person left watching the news, until I was finally able to tear myself away).

Art can help us look away from terrible things. It can reveal to us things that aren't terrible; that are even the opposite. It can create the surface appearance of a world where unimaginably horrible things do not happen, even if perhaps nothing on earth can keep unimaginably horrible things from happening in this world.

Because I'm not certain anything can. Domestic terrorist attacks, murder, war, are things that have been happening at every point in history and in all places. As much as I'd like to make them out as the symptoms of a particular culture (and I do think Americans as a whole have an extremely unhealthy fascination with guns and explosions, although the worldwide success of summer blockbusters with heavy firepower suggests it's not unique to us) that can then be 'cured', I look around and find them frighteningly prevalent. The day of the Sandy Hook tragedy the Internet was buzzing with news of a similar attack by a knifeman in China--not occurring at the same time, as it happens, but concurring nonetheless. The fact that there were no fatalities in the Chinese attack had more to do with weaponry than motivation. And there's no controlling the motivations of others.

There's still oneself, though, and one's own stance. Which must include a protest against malice and violence and evil. The protest doesn't need to be in the form of a creative work--perhaps it doesn't need to be outwardly expressed at all. The day of the Sandy Hook shooting, I went Christmas shopping. I took special care to select the best gifts and included a few people on my list I might otherwise have overlooked. Consumerism is not perhaps the most creative response, but gift-giving is psychologically healthy, and being consciously generous allowed me to voice my own rejection. There might be hurt and wrong and evil in the world, but so far as I can help it, it will not come from me.

It can be hard when, amid the grief, there's also anger. When there's a need to lash out at something, to attack and fight back. Perhaps that's the best time for creative responses, and why they're so popular among peacekeepers and peace builders. There might be evil in the world, but it will not begin with me; I will not respond to violence with violence; in the face of violence, I will bring forth a dance instead.

EDIT #1: Waukesha, the place where I went to college, where the Plowshare center is located and operates on its mission of peace, and the city where my sister is student teaching, had a lockdown of its downtown area (including the college, my sister's middle school, and the Plowshare center's row of shops) because of a gunman roaming. He's since been arrested and the lockdown is over. No shots were fired. I spent most of the time communicating with my sister through Facebook. She's okay, and I've called my parents to pass that on.
I think I may write a story tonight.

EDIT #2: Strangely, I just recalled that I have written a short story along these lines, about a creative response to destruction. Its title is "Sibial' in Exile" and it's slated for an upcoming issue of Neo-Opsis Magazine. I wrote it as my cousin was dying of cancer, almost two years ago--late March 2011--and before  I joined the Plowshare Center. I think it was my characters' decision then to confront loss with art (rather than me deciding it would be a story about that), but of course, their choice paralleled my own.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Three doses of perspective

In order to make up for internship days missed while in Ghana, I worked 4 days last week instead of the usual two (class being canceled). Not only did I have plenty to catch up on, this was the week I also got to visit some consultations with my supervisor and join the other office interns for a personal sharing workshop--the kind of thing you only can get at an internship in the creative arts!

Three statistics stood out this week and offered a healthy dose of perspective to my young, impressionable, jetlagged and end-of-semester-stressed mind.

1. I haven't found a source online to back this up, but I've heard the average worker gets only 3 hours of productivity out of an 8 hour workday. This made me feel much better about my output this week, even when jetlag left me stymied at the idea of a simple flowchart. More, this is average productivity, so for every one of you reading this and snorting disdainfully at such lazy slobs (...anybody?), there's someone putting in less than three hours. I mean, I know Facebook can be a time suck, but really?

In any event, make it your goal to get at least 4 hours of work done, and it looks like you'll be above average.
(I have days where I put in at least 3 hours on my writing, much less jobs I'm being paid/receiving academic credit to do. Then again, I've found desk jobs way more than service or retail offer a temptation to sit at your desk and browse the web. Because if you're not at a desk job, you have little choice but to work. I'm looking askance at anyone who says teens and people without college degrees are lazy workers.)

2. My supervisor and I met with a marketing consultant to bounce ideas around about planning the promotion of her novel, currently out on submission as we build up and display her platform.

He was a very interesting person, asking all the right questions (as a beta reader, I got interrogated while she watched us. She was impressed at what I managed to remember, and we had interesting areas of agreement and also differences in how we viewed the plot and thematic goals of the story). He's also a former lawyer, now searching for a job in marketing/social media/promotion. At this stage in his job search, he's realized keeping the record of his decade-plus stint as a lawyer is just holding him back, distracting interviewers and raising the wrong questions. "If they'd ever worked as a lawyer, they wouldn't need to ask why I left it to do this," he told us.

So he deleted all evidence of his law profession, wiping it from his resume and LinkedIn and asking friends not to bring it up.

As someone who just had to delete things from her resume for the first time (part-time jobs can only do so much, and I've found that some of my experience, as with the consultant's legal work, just becomes a distraction in light of which positions I want to pursue) this was a relief to hear. When you're only in your twenties, spending six months at something is a huge deal, and it feels frightening to take that off your record. Will human resources look at that empty semester and question what I was up to? These experiences seem so precious that it's strange to think that, for once, I have too many of them.

3. For the writers out there: during our 'learning & sharing' workshop, I told my fellow interns and supervisor more about my writing career. It's amazing the things you remember only as you start talking about them. I remarked how at one point, the writer's market database Duotrope refused to accept my reports for its statistics because my acceptance rate--at 20%--was too high.

"I'm telling that to my students," announced Zahara, who also teaches technical writing at the University of Maryland and prose at the Writer's Center of Bethesda.

I suppose that with one of my key occupations never bringing me more than one yes in five (and lately, shall I say Duotrope has found my reports far easier to swallow), I've grown a thicker skin than I realized. It's true that when I find newbie writers who are terrified of getting rejection slips I find it endearingly green of them.

So. If you're getting 4 hours of work done a day, you're above average (though I would not stake my job on this--maybe the occasional day, yes. Especially with the aforementioned jetlag). If you took the bar exam and built a career for fifteen years and it no longer serves you, chop it out. Even more so with that time in fast-food, I suppose (I'm keeping my retail stint for the time being because it's where I developed the bulk of my experience with direct customer service, handling money, and answering phones. But it'll be the next thing to go once I find another position that incorporates any or all of those skills). And if you're getting more than one 'yes' in five, you need to aim higher if you can. You certainly aren't doing badly. If you're getting one yes in five hundred, you're not at all a failure. After all, you're getting a yes.

Friday, April 12, 2013

List: What's surprised me most about Ghana

When I was younger, and I wasn't sure what to write but I knew I wanted to write something, I would make lists--to keep my thoughts in order, to generate some brainstorming, to summarize or highlight my ideas.

I have a jumble of ideas and memories from Ghana, so one way to sort them out--and give a preliminary taste of my trip--is to give you a list. A list of the things that most surprised me on my first trip abroad:

*The Handshake. One of my classmates had spent the previous semester in Ghana, so at the beginning of the year we asked her to share some of what she'd learned and done there. She introduced us to the handshake, which starts as an ordinary firm handshake. However, as your hands part, you trail your fingers against the other person's and then 'snap' their fingers with your own.  Now, I cannot snap my own fingers, much less anyone else's--though I'm happy enough to let somebody snap my fingers for me. Still, this seemed like such an unusual sort of greeting for me that I'd assumed it was something for the young, hip generation only. Instead, everyone I met in Ghana--professional speakers, community leaders, schoolchildren, businesswomen, craftspeople in their workshops, operations managers in their offices, mothers with babes in arms--used this handshake. At best I managed with a sheepish smile and an attempt to at least slide my fingers across theirs like I was striking a match. They seemed to forgive this inadequacy of mine with great generosity.

*For the past five years my professor has brought a class to Ghana, and each time in Accra they would find the huge, gorgeous presidential palace unoccupied. One of the first things we learned this year was that the new president has moved in after the recent elections. Opinions on this seem mixed--the building is no longer going to waste, but one of our taxi drivers commented acidly that it was just 'Too big' and gave the impression that he wished it would all just go away. While reading the paper one morning I found an editorial article that discussed the prospects of the palace's future inhabitants being "the first lady or even the first bachelor or first spinster," and found that last rather admirable. The United States hasn't even entertained the thought of electing a spinster (nor for that matter is our record on bachelors particularly rich).

*Another surprise, even a shock, that came near the beginning of our trips was news of the death of Chinua Achebe. I'd just read Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease this semester. This discovery, plus my proximity, appear to have finished off a literary giant. My discovery and admiration did the same thing for poor Elizabeth Sladen. In any event, the fact that Achebe died while I was in Africa is one of those things I'll be talking about for the rest of my life. Now that I've returned with a better appreciation of the context, I'm working my way through the African Writers series he edited.

Interestingly, I also had the opportunity to try the kola nut Things Fall Apart mentions so often. It came when we greeted a chief and were welcomed to his village. Kola tastes, for lack of a better term, nutty but with an edge of bitterness. A bit like water chestnut and wood varnish. It's also supposed to contain high amounts of caffeine, although I don't recall feeling a buzz. Yet again, soon after I went out and carried a bucket of water on my head, so maybe I was under the influence of a stimulant (to be fair the bucket was only half full, and I did a very poor job of carrying it).

*Accra. I wasn't quite prepared for Accra. To be fair, I'm not certain anyone could ever be prepared for Accra. The city is huge, and hot, and a hodgepodge of buildings--old, new, under construction and falling apart, rich houses with gardens behind barbed wire topped walls and with sheds at their backs and shantytowns around the corner--and street vendors, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and larger vehicles, and there are few street signs and virtually no numbered addresses. My teacher has been going to Ghana for five years, has built longstanding relationships with people of all walks of life there including guides and policymakers and history buffs, and she has never seen so much as the suggestion of the existence of a map of Accra. But I'd especially like to repeat that "no addresses" thing. We stayed at the Coconut Grove Regency Hotel. On...the street where the Coconut Grove Regency Hotel was. Number Coconut Grove Regency Hotel. It's what we wrote as our address on our immigration forms, and it's what we told taxi drivers when we needed to get somewhere.

And about taxi drivers. Given this lack of clear addresses (navigation is by landmarks according to one Accra native we spoke to), it's very easy for strangers to town to get lost. But everyone's a stranger somewhere. In three out of four taxi rides, the driver had to ask for directions to take us where we were going. I found this experience unnerving, and after one particularly long evening came to the jaded and less than fair conclusion that hiring a taxi in Accra is just hiring another person to become as lost as you are. This isn't to say I was dissatisfied with the taxi experience overall, as one driver in particular was very upfront about the fact that he had no idea where we were going and did his best to keep in sight of the taxi ahead of us, which contained our friends who did know where they were going. Then the car in front of us at a taxi light did a driver switch in the middle of the road, holding us back, and we lost what my friend beside me had referred to as "the most stressful game of Concentration ever". We had no cell phones. This was our first ride ever in a Ghanaian taxi. In the end, we and our driver asked for directions.

*The sheer amount of advertising took me by surprise. I'm not sure if the quantity of billboards and signage is so much in excess of what you get in some parts of America (Los Angeles stands out for comparison in my memory--certainly rural Ghana has much more advertising than, say, rural Minnesota, which doesn't allow billboards at all). But what there was stood out to be because it was in a different style, and there was also advertising in places I didn't expect, and of things that I didn't expect.. When driving out of towns and villages there was frequently a "Farewell" sign, sometimes sponsored by an instant noodle company or phone service provider or the local congregation. The walls of houses, stores, compounds, and at least one hotel (not one we stayed at, though it might have been interesting) were painted with the colors and logos of IndoMie noodles, Glo Mobile or its competitor MTN, or Club beer, the last in bars especially. Also I think one street block was decorated in honor of a birth control device or prescription, in a gorgeously feminine purple with petal patterns. Offering your wall up for advertising seems an easy and affordable way to get someone to paint it, although I'm not looking forward to the day Americans figure this out. It seems the kind of thing that would get out of hand with us.

We also frequently passed 'advertisements' for funerals, which can be enormous, grand occasions in Ghana. They showed an image of the loved one, gave their name and nickname, age and dates, and the date and location of the event. Some notices were years old, so it was too late to attend, but they continued to provide a memorial to the deceased. I learned of the existence of dozens of people who seemed rather interesting, and it's a pity I won't ever know them or more about them.

*I knew it would be hot, but the heat was the sort you could never quite get used to. It always took you by surprise. "How do you function in 120 degree heat?" we'd asked our professor during orientation. "You don't," she told us. We spent a lot of time sitting or lying down in air conditioning when we could get it, and sitting or lying down fantasizing about air conditioning when we couldn't. We were lucky in that there were occasional cool breezes to revive us, and in light clothing and with plenty of water I was capable of participating in all our activities, including nature hikes, helping to open a village school, playing with the neighbor children, going on safari, and carrying water in a bucket on my head. Yet there were also times I almost fell asleep during speakers' presentations from exhaustion. To make matters stranger, I found out I can't sleep in extreme heat without at least a fan running to keep air moving. If the air isn't moving, I am. I fidgeted all the way through three nights at Mole National Park, where the motel lost power the first night of our arrival and never regained it. Mole is one of the hottest places on Earth. There was a thunderstorm in the middle of our afternoon safari, and we stayed on top of our open-air ride and let the drops fall on us. They were freezing cold, and we were deliriously happy.

Meanwhile, this week in DC it's 80 degrees. Combined with jetlag, I still can't function. That's part of the reason why this post is almost 5 days late.

*Disparities between rich and poor, I understand. They're hardly foreign to the US, and Washington, DC is an especially dramatic example. The side of town my dorm is at has some of the highest incomes in the country. Across the Anacostia, the majority of people live significantly below the poverty line. Yet in Accra you would find that same sort of wealth disparity in two homes side by side--a shack built behind the walls of a villa, the walls topped with broken glass. And the middle class seemed far less visible. They were in TV advertisements, eating at some of the more local restaurants we went to and shopping in the Accra mall, but I'm not sure which houses or apartments were theirs--I saw few that fit my American view of middle class, which my just be a function of my own expectations and/or the places we went to. Yet our guide, who helps plan and host tours throughout the country and has humbling amounts of historical and cultural knowledge (I don't think many Americans know as much about different aspects of their country as he did about Ghana) lives with his wife, a professional woman working in educational policy and in her early thirties, in a single room behind the bar his father owns, and frequently lacks running water and is not linked to the electric grid. As hard as it is to get ahead in the States, I don't expect to be living in a single room in my thirties, and if I am I will not be taking it as gracefully as they did.

*Things were startlingly inexpensive, with the exception of dining and alcohol at the hotels. Those were the sort of prices you can reasonably charge Western tourists. However, we had several memorable experiences with street vendors where what we thought was one cedi (or about 50 cents US) worth of goods turned out to be a fraction of that--we were paying for a bowl of mangoes instead of one, a string of peanuts instead of a single package. Taxi rides were five or fifteen cedits--$2.50-$7.00 US. I purchased a genuine kente-weave tie from a cooperative store for 7 cedis, and a basket that in the US would have been $35 at the cheapest was only 15 cedis. Quality did not suffer on the whole, although service in restaurants was very inconsistent with American expectations. And they were charging us the higher prices!

*I said that among Accra's buildings were many either under construction or falling apart, but to be honest I'm not certain about the falling apart bit. I played a game throughout the countryside--"Going up or coming down?"--trying to decide the state of the cement walls, shining blue glass panes, and metal or tile roofs that were in place but clearly not in use. At first I thought Ghana was full of ruins, but when I asked my professor she told me to guess "Going up" every time, as I'd be right. Construction is booming, but in many cases it's a slow boom. People go to work in the cities or sometimes abroad, and start building a new house back at home. They add on to it little by little as they have money to spare. Sometimes the process takes so long that trees begin sprouting in the rooms, adding to the appearance of ruin. Also, in some of the more urban areas it looked like people got impatient with the process and moved in to the ground floor while rooms higher up were still being constructed.

*So while there certainly wasn't much decay architecturally, the landscape did look ruinous in places for another reason: very little trash collection, almost no trash cans, and a lot, a lot of plastic and consumer waste, not to mention sewage (the sewers were for the most part open, and located where in the US you would have sidewalks. We learned to step around and over them). We saw a canal flowing through Accra was literally choked with black plastic bags and waste. All of it flowing out to the ocean. Even rural villages had areas of ground covered in refuse. It was unparalleled for me and disturbing. Nobody else seemed to notice, although areas meant to attract tourists and investment were usually better maintained.

*In general I do not enjoy the presence of children. They make me nervous. They are human beings, but they do not yet think or behave like the human beings I am most used to, and also they are fragile and I'm afraid I might break them if I hold their hands too tightly or try to pick them up only to prove incapable or, most fatally of all, try to communicate to them in words of too many syllables. Barring that, as a group they haven't learned social mores like 'be quiet in public,' 'don't be cruel to animals,' and 'don't take things that don't belong to you,' making them adorable miniature agents of chaos.

However, I really loved the kids I met in Ghana. They were more mature, quieter, more responsible, and more well-behaved. They were friendly, but they didn't seek attention in loud or disruptive ways. As my class was led through a village I might suddenly feel a little hand slip into mine, and look down to see a surprisingly grave face turned up to me. They were very happy to wave and be waved at when our bus drove past them (it made me feel a bit like a celebrity to see faces light up when I waved back, and I was glad to add some excitement to their days because, while many of them should have been in school, they were instead at work looking after livestock or their younger siblings or fetching and carrying water or firewood. It's an odd feeling to be enthusiastically saluted by a child who is obviously taking a break from heavy manual labor). Also, our professor, who specializes in early childhood development and education, ensured we were all equipped with bubbles so that we had something to do should we suddenly encounter a child and be in need of an icebreaker.

*Whatever my anxieties about children might be, I at least recognize them to be blown out of proportion. Monkeys, however...I was both more afraid and less afraid of primates that I should have been. I'm afraid of children because they resemble human beings I know best but are more difficult to communicate with. Monkeys even more so, plus they can bite you. The day before we visited the Tafe Atome monkey sanctuary horrible visions danced in my brain of a rabies-infected bite sending me home prematurely. I didn't want to miss the rest of my trip to Ghana, or did I like the thought of rabies or rabies shots. My professor didn't help with the warning that a monkey might jump on my back, although "They're less likely to do it if you aren't holding a banana" and she approved of the veneer of stoicism I promised to keep up.
It turns out the Tafe Atome monkeys were tiny, silky-furred, and interested in humans only as a vehicle for delivering bananas (which aren't supposed to be monkey food, but it's what the people running the sanctuary decided to feed them, so). I didn't hold bananas until the very end, when after watching everyone else beckon cute little harmless woodland creatures near them I decided my veneer of stoicism wasn't necessary after all. Two monkeys each grabbed half of my banana and ran off without a ghost of a whisper of physical contact. Much less rabies.

I've come around so far in regards to tiny primates that I befriended the little monkey kept in a cage at our beach resort in Cape Coast. It should not have been in that cage--he or she was far too intelligent to be left alone and without any source of amusement. I'd offer the monkey snacks from the corn cobs left, I think, for the purpose of feeding the parrots next to him. He seemed to enjoy the momentary amusement and would always chirp (like birdsong) when I walked by.

On the other hand, my class was mugged and then besieged in our motel rooms at Mole by a band of baboons. Primates are terrifying.

*On that note, the number of things that I did and which happened to me that I cannot tell my mother about is truly alarming. From visiting two 'slums' in Accra (I'm hesitant honestly to call it a slum, because while it was certainly very impoverished I don't want to imply anything unsavory about the people living there, who were hardworking, friendly, and were hanging out their Sunday wash to dry as we came through), to designating a pair of sneakers my 'walking-through-sewers-and-compost' shoes, to being besieged by baboons, to managing without running water for several days in a few of our motels and hostels. My mother, bless her, is a neatnick. I'm not, at least not anymore. You just come to stop worrying about it. I can objectively say the filthiest I have ever been in my life was the Kintopo Rest Stop, after 3 days in Mole with no air conditioning and little running water, after a 4 hour bus drive. It only really hit me when I used the offered water bowls and soap at the canteen to wash my hands. And then I bought myself some chocolate Fan Ice.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

WolfSongs 2 is EPIC's 2013 Best Anthology!

Another exciting piece of news I missed sharing while I was away.

WolfSongs 2, a collection of science fiction and fantasy incorporating wolves of all sorts--from the mythological to shapeshifters to metaphorical--has won EPIC 2013's award for best anthology. This second volume in a popular series (and the origin of the name of my publisher, WolfSinger) contains my fantasy not-exactly-romance "The Loving and Keeping of Wolves," which features--spoilers!--wolves of the shapeshifting and, depending on your feelings for them, metaphorical sorts. My other personal favorites in the anthology are "Wolf Dreams" by S.A. Bolich and Laura J. Underwood's "Song of Feasting." For these stories, if not for mine (not that I'm saying "Loving and Keeping" had nothing to do with it, ahem ahem) this award is well-deserved!

Daughters of Icarus released!

One of the exciting things I was away from (doing even more exciting things, so I can't be too sorry) was the release of Pink Narcissus Press's feminist science fiction anthology, Daughters of Icarus. This collection of stories exploring future possibilities of sex and gender includes my piece, "Two Rivers".

As ForeWord Reviews has it:
In “Two Rivers,” by Therese Arkenberg, researchers travel to a planet to study people whose unusual characteristics include a third gender and a complicated hierarchy. The narrator struggles with how the researchers’ interactions with the individuals they are studying, starting with their first diplomatic outreach, play a role in a growing and serious conflict between the planet’s civilizations. That thoughtful conflict and Arkenberg’s rendering of a strange-but-familiar world make this story stand out.

Daughters of Icarus is available in ebook and paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Pink Narcissus Press catalog.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I'm Home!

And extremely jetlagged!

I arrived back in the states at 5 am yesterday, landing at JFK in New York, and was in D.C. by noon. I spent most of yesterday clearing through the 300+ emails that had built up over the trip, some of them bearing good news I'll have to share later! Most of my energy went towards replying to notes from family and friends, before I logged off, ate an early dinner, and managed to stumble to bed before falling asleep in my dessert. I've drafted some blog posts about my Ghana experience, which was far too vast to neatly summarize. Those posts will be completed and published over the next few weeks--along with photos!