Sunday Lost

Monday, 9:38 pm

It’s raining outside. The kids are finally asleep, Zach’s working late, and I’m wandering in that space between succumbing to sleep and not willing to call it a day just yet.

My laptop broke a few weeks ago. Then, while I was transferring a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer one recent afternoon, it occurred to me that the boys were being entirely too quiet for anything innocent to be going on. I found them in my bathroom. They had confiscated my kindle and were holding it under a running stream of water from the spout of the tub. Sitting at my desktop right now would feel too official, what with the sleeping house and the rain tapping on windows, so tonight I am huddled under the blankets on my bed with a notebook and pen, going at this the old school way.

I am writing to you, Sunday, because I have a bone to pick with you.

You began gloriously, gently nudging me from sleep at an early hour so I could write, offering me a hot cup of coffee and a mind clear and focused. Nearly two hours sped by, my fingers tapping on the keyboard, only pausing for sips of coffee, until the whirlwind of littles fluttered downstairs, and I joined them. I sipped on more coffee and played with my trio of babes in sunlight warming wood floors while Zach made pancakes. By mid-morning, my feet were hitting the pavement. I set out with a modest goal in mind and ended up running the farthest and fastest I’ve run since the boys were born.

As I let the water run over my muscles in my post-run shower, I started writing a post in my head. I wanted to address the minor successes we too often dismiss in the wake of what we perceive as failures. I wanted to address this because right before I had this idea, I caught myself thinking, “Half the day is over and what have I done? I wrote and I ran. Me, me, me.”

I was taking care of my mind and my body, so why was I feeling guilty for spending the first half of my day nurturing myself? I had every right to view these goals (write more, run farther) as successes.

Not success in the name of sacrifice.

Sure, you can hunker down at your computer for the morning, but you’re going to miss the way the sunlight pours over the three of them as they sprawl on the floor constructing elaborate train tracks only to tear them down and rebuild again.

Not success with strings attached.

You can go for that long run as long as you make up for it with extra books at bedtime.

It was time, I thought, for us (me) to cut ourselves some slack. It’s taken me a while to admit that I love my children best when I take out time to care for myself.

Oh, Sunday, you courted me like a new lover, then abandoned me, leaving me raw and full of sorrow after pent-up emotions were released in daggers that I knew would cut deeply even as I let them fly from my lips.

There is only one person in this world who can call me a sister, and I failed him. I snapped. I said things I shouldn’t have. The words came from a place of fear and grief, but they were dressed as spiteless wolves full on pride.

The smooth afternoon I had planned — Mia would be at a birthday party, the boys would be napping, Zach would be watching football, and I would settle in for a second writing session — was now punctured by the sharp edges of anger and dull thrumming of heartache. I couldn’t recover and Sunday was lost to me.

I picked Mia up from her friend’s birthday party. Her hair was sprayed pink and blue and dusted with glitter, her eyelids brushed with sea foam green shadow, her lips painted sticky pink. I hid my red-rimmed eyes behind sunglasses and ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the get-up that looked more drag queen than sparkly mermaid.

“Look at you,” I said. “I love it.”

And we’re back to small successes.

mermaid cleanse

mermaid cleanse

On Story Ideas and “High Concept” vs “Non-High Concept”

When I read interviews by authors, especially children’s authors, I’m always intrigued by their answers to this question (or some variation of it): What were your favorite books growing up?

Usually these authors can rattle off a few titles that had profound impact on them as young writers. Some say they knew they wanted to be a writer after having read some of these books, that after reading The End and closing the cover, they felt a calling to write.

I never had that moment.

I’ve often wondered why, when I think back to my early reading years, my most loved books failed to clue me in on my desire to become a writer. I didn’t know it then. For as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with stories, but it took me years to realize I wanted to write them. I don’t think I viewed writing as something someone actually does as a profession, despite growing up with a mom who was aspiring to become a published author and signed her first book contract when I was in middle school.

Sure, I can rattle off a list of books that made an impact as a young reader and have stuck with me all these years: Charlotte’s Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Ramona series, A Wrinkle in Time, Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, The Giver, and Bridge to Terabithia to name just a few. But none of them made me think: “I want to do that. I want to write stories.”

The one story that played a role in uncovering the writer in me is one that was never a book at all. I don’t even know if the words were ever written down, but as a little girl I requested it night after night (at least that’s my recollection). It was a story invented by my mom about a little girl named Emma and the ghost that inhabited her attic. I can’t recall the specific plot points or the climax (if there was one), but I know now that I was drawn to Emma’s character, to the ghost (who provided comic relief as I recall), and what I can now pinpoint as the atmospheric quality of the story. Coincidental or not, character and atmosphere* are two aspects of novels that draw me in now as an adult reader, followed closely by theme. It follows, then, that my story ideas usually begin with a strong character or a rich atmosphere or a theme I want to explore, not so much plot (and therein lies my greatest obstacle as a writer).

*Atmosphere: (the feeling, emotion, or mood a writer conveys to a reader through the description of setting and/or objects and/or interiority of character)

Confession: I haven’t posted a writing update in a while because I’ve been unable to commit to one story. I’ve been story hopping. At first I told myself that there are worse problems than having too many ideas. I just needed to flesh out the ideas a little more and then I would decide which one I wanted to take the plunge with. The two story ideas that have been in the lead for most of the time are “high concept” ideas.

What does “high concept” even mean? It means that the premise of an idea can be summed up in one sentence and includes an attention grabbing hook that generates inherent appeal. It is pitch-driven whereas non-high concept ideas are execution driven. Execution driven works are more elusive on the core idea, more character-driven, and you have to invest yourself in them in order to appreciate them.

High-concept: A 14-year-old victim narrates her own murder and the events that lead to discovering her killer. (The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold)

Non-high concept: A 16-year-old boy narrates a couple of days following his expulsion from prep school. (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)

As for the two high concept ideas I’ve been playing around with: One is historical fiction, the other is contemporary. Both are Young Adult. Both offer suspense and intrigue and mystery. I have a pretty clear understanding of both protagonists and their supporting casts as well as the basic forward motion of both plots. I don’t know the endings to either one, but I almost prefer it that way. So these are the two stories that I’ve most been focusing on.

Except.

Except there’s this idea that I’ve had for a while now — one that is murkier in plot details, the “high concept” idea yet to be uncovered (if it’s there at all). What this idea has is a protagonist I can’t shake. I know a bit of her story, and she always comes to me cloaked in a nearly palpable atmospheric setting.

When I think of the two former story ideas, I know that they will work. It’s only (haha) a matter of asking the right questions, figuring out some key details, doing some research, and of course, sitting down to execute said ideas. And I’m excited by them enough to want to see them through.

But this third idea? It’s the one that sets my pulse racing, and even as I try to stay away from it, to categorize it under the “later” file, it creeps into my thoughts as I focus on one of the others.

And here’s where I get to the point of the post where I wonder, What is the point of this post? It’s this: During the month of October, I managed to write inches within two story ideas when I wanted to — and should have — written miles within one. And now NaNoWriMo is in full swing and here I sit, still unable to commit to one. Of course, if I dig a little deeper, fear is at the heart of my indecision. Fear of failure, fear of not meeting my arbitrary deadline, fear of “wasting” time on something that might never be anything more than a stack of papers and wasted ink, fear of discovering that my inner bully was right all along — that I really can’t do this.

I have to find a way to squash the fear.

What are you afraid of as a writer? Do you have an inner bully? Have you ever been pulled by multiple story ideas simultaneously? Do you find questions at the end of blog posts annoying?

Helpful links:

How to Develop a Story Idea into a Book

Brainstorming Your Story Ideas

Generating Story Ideas and Overcoming Writer’s Block

Neil Gaiman — Where Do You Get Your Ideas?