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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Few Steps Into the Darkness

I haven't been sleeping well. That's a pretty neat trick considering I'm one of the 50,000 Americans diagnosed with narcolepsy. For reference, there are approximately 300,000,000 (that's three hundred million) people who live in the US., so about 6% of the population have what I have. And the treatment for what I have is so potent and potentially dangerous that it is the only category 3 medication with category 1 penalties for misuse. The monthly prescription of sleeping medicine that costs my insurance upwards of $6,000 every month. I am thankful for good insurance.

I'm giving you all this information so you understand when I say I'm not sleeping well, that means more than your average insomniac. Does anyone know how many 5 hour energies you can safely consume in one day? Thus far that seems to wake me up the best without causing havoc with my fibromyalgia.

But wait, you say, this is supposed to be a preschool and teaching post. Well, it is, and that's the reason I haven't been sleeping. I live in a place where every subdivision has its own Home Owners Association, and mine has been receiving complaints from the neighbors about the traffic associated with preschool. HOAs terrify me. They have the legal right to place a lien against my home and the property if I don't comply with the HOA contract. There are horror stories about HOAs turning people out of their own homes for the color they painted their house or where they park their cars. And the HOA who could take away my house has ordered me to close down the preschool.

I was immediately both angry and so scared I nearly threw up. This is my job. With all of my myriad medical issues, I can't hold down a job outside the home. This is also something I do because I believe every child needs to be given the chance to learn all they can, regardless of economic status or developmental labels. Here I get to indulge my love of reading and science with the only people I've ever found who are as enthusiastic about as many different topics as I am. But I have to end it.

To be fair, the HOA representative I spoke with was very kind and non-accusatory. She allowed me to explain what I do and was surprised at how different the truth was from the complaints. But the traffic was a valid complaint and I can see how it would be a problem, and I am determined to comply with the HOA because I don't want any problems with them and I really don't want to alienate my neighbors any further. Frankly I wasn't aware that any of them had a problem with it, and part of my injured feelings were that none of them came to talk to me directly. I've always tried to be kind and friendly to everyone. I get that anonymous complaints are easier than direct confrontation, but someone should have come to talk to me about it first instead of tattling to the HOA.

That is the first and last bitter thing I've said about it. They live here too, and they have a right to be put out if this has been a problem for them. The preschool parents I've communicated with have all been very sorry and very supportive, Several of them have said either they or their child has cried about the news. Don't cry! The HOA has given me until December 21st so that parents have time to make other arrangements. We still have two more months together. And hopefully that close to Christmas everyone will be too excited and too busy to be sad much. I appreciate each and every one of them, their sympathy, and most of all their understanding. One of the things I was most afraid of was preschool parents being mad at me about this. I've been doing it for four years now- I don't know why this year it's suddenly an issue for the neighborhood.

My husband and I have discussed what we're going to do from here, and there's only one thing that feels right, as scary as it is.

Writing. Letting go of everything else and just trying to make it as a writer. It feels right to write, if you'll excuse the pun. But that's terrifying in its own right because I have only been paid for my writing twice in my life, neither of those were recently and neither were very much. One was a short poetry collection to a poetry journal several years ago and one was a short story years before that. And the timeline doesn't work so well- even though I have a nearly finished manuscript, it takes months to find the right agent and then months more before getting it sold to a publisher. I'm looking at a minimum of 8 months before the manuscript returns any money.

And that's scary. So I'm considering making use of this vast internet and the technological revolution and self publishing, even though 98% of the time self publishing is a waste. If I do this, I'm going to have to dedicate every spare minute between now and January 1st to getting my manuscript ready. Yes, I'm on my 3rd draft and have sent it to editors already, but I haven't started making any of the changes they've suggested and I was planning on having copy editors to rely on and an agent and a publishing house to do the advertising. With self publishing, that's all me. I looked into hiring a freelance copy editor and an editor who would do the editing and formatting for publication for me, and that would only cost about $26,000.00. Yikes.

Self publishing, while almost never successful, at least has the possibility of a return on investment in a few weeks rather than after most of a year. I thought that I would have to buy the book in a bulk of several thousand and try to sell them to recoup the loss, but that isn't the way it works all the time. I've found a company that will print them POD style, which means print on demand. When someone orders a book, then it gets printed. I still have to pay for the printing and pay for all the up front costs like formatting and editing and an initial printing run of one to approve, and pay for the ad and the selling space, but that is significantly less than buying 2,000 books and then trying to sell them. But again, the downside is no help with advertising or copy editing or cover design.

So it's me. And maybe this will work out. I do believe that my book, with its Harry Potter-esque school for the magically inclined meets Hunger Games you still have to fight for survival themes, is well written and engaging. I believe it could be successful because it has merit. But even if it is the best written book in the world, it could flop completely because no one hears about it.

I panicked a few days ago and applied to be a legal assistant. With my background experience and references they called me to schedule an interview the next day. It would be part time and while my sons are at school and it isn't too terribly far away, and part of me is really tempted by the promise of a safety net. I could figure out something for Christmas vacation and Spring Break with my kids, right? But I can't do it. It doesn't feel like the right move for my family and I. I can't even make myself go to the interview without the strong impression that it's the wrong move. So I cancelled it.

The plan. Preschool through December 21st and then throwing myself into my writing, and make it profitable to stay afloat or sink under all the medical bills and keep submitting. This feels like the biggest risk I've ever taken. I'm betting on myself and making everyone else in my family hold the ticket, win or lose. The risk right now is huge; potential severe financial strain and being unable to continue my medical treatments. The reward is equally large; financial independence and freedom from debt, and that's just the gravy to finally finally finally being a published author and getting to do something every day that brings me joy.

I've heard it said that faith is taking a few steps into the darkness and hoping the light will follow. I got a lot of experience staring into the dark last night, and this feels more like a leap off a cliff than taking a few steps into a dark room. Three nights now I've been unable to sleep, and I don't see that stress letting up any time soon. The moment the sword of the HOA's anger is removed by the end of preschool, the walk on the financial tightrope of success or failure begins.  I've considered emailing my neurologist and asking if I can take 3 doses a night instead of two.

On the plus side, I feel more ready to take this risk now than I ever have been before. And I'll document the plunge here. So if you're interested in my self publishing adventure, because apparently I've talked myself into it, you're welcome to come along for the ride.

And maybe I'll sleep again when I'm 33.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dialogue Part Two!

"Hello internet! Long time, no see," I said, blinking bleary eyes. Too much worry, not enough sleep.

The infinity of the cloud glows back at me from the monitor, the cursor blinking in the Google search text box. There is a finite, though impressively large, number of sites on the web but an infinite number of clicks and links that tangle us more tightly. It does not care that the medicine I take at night to force me past REM sleep makes me feel drunk, nor that if I don't sleep well with the medicine I wake up feeling hung over. I have friends who are experts in both states and we've compared notes. I'm glad the internet doesn't answer me, because it means I've held onto my sanity for another day.

Not that I'm in any real danger of losing it, I've just heard that people who are crazy never question their sanity, so I make a point of questioning mine. It makes me feel better. Plus I said I'd post again on October 15th, and here it is, October 22nd, and I'm writing my first post in over two weeks. Oddly, not writing in all that time has made me feel more disconnected from myself than any amount of missed sleep. It was worth it, though. Having so many good friends (including my mom, who is also a good friend) come and visit for my birthday was incredible. It was better than incredible. It was peaceful, and happy.

And then one airport trip at a time, they left, and now I'm back to real life and laying awake last night realizing that there's a character in my book whose every line of dialogue needs to change. Yep, every line. Because I struggled every time he entered the scene writing in a voice that was not his, but my idea of what his should be. And that is a writer's struggle when a character will not conform to what you think they should be but continues to fight against you in your own subconscious to be what you really know it ought to be. Which is why this post now changes from "My stream-of-consciousness ramble about how I am and how I'm feeling," into "Dialogue part two!"

We last left our discussion on dialogue with the promise that I was going to talk to you about letting your characters speak for themselves, the best dialogue tags in the universe, how to know what to cut and what to keep, how to spice up the conversation, and how to know when it’s good. I was fighting against letting my character speak for himself because of how he was first presented to me. I didn't let him evolve into a character that would be better for my book, and one who I would write more fluidly. This character is Charlie. I talked about him last time, with the accent and the excerpt. Remember all the distracting apostrophes? Every time he came on stage I fought to make his accent Cockney, the dialect of the lowest caste of the British. And it's awkward. Let's look at it again.

"That's bollocks, I'm out," Charlie stated flatly. "You can't put that kind of pressure on me or on 'im. Giving me six bleedin' days to teach something it takes an 'atchling a decade to get right and then bootin' 'im back into the world with just a prayer you won't need to call the cleaners to fix the mess? No. I won't be on the line for that. You've got enough on me already, and I'm not 'elping you cut the kids arm so it's bleedin' when you throw 'im back in the shark tank." Charlie crossed his arms and stared, unblinking, into Gage's eyes. "Get one of your Omega monkeys to do it. I won't."

Now I did a lot of research into the Cockney dialect and specific words. There are several things in here and all through this character's dialogue that are correct phrases for the dialogue that don't make a lot of sense to non-Cockney speakers. That's the first rule of accent writing- do your research. But even with all my study and near psychotic insistence on correctness, it just didn't fit the character. In my head, he's Scottish. Partly because he's supposed to be a womanzier and to my ear the Scottish dialect is more attractive than the Cockney, and partly because he's supposed to be abrasive and impulsive and the only thing more abrasive than Cockney to a highly educated British ear is highland Scot. But because I knew the concept of the character first as a Cockney, I tried to stay true to that. 

This is a time when strict adherence to the outline made the story harder to write. I was trying to write, but the Charlie in my head was speaking in a Scottish accent, so I'd translate from the Scottish to English to Cockney. Don't make things harder for yourself by doing that. Let's see if the dialogue flows better without all the translating.

"Yer daft. I'll not be responsible for that," Charlie stated flatly. "You cannae put that kind of pressure on me nor on the lad, tae be learning sommat that takes a hatchling a good score to get right and giving us six peerie days. Then what? Yer'll boot him out inta the world with just a prayer there'll be no need tae call the cleaners? I'll not be hooked for that. Yer Sanctum jackanapes have enough on me without me seeing the lad down the road just enough to cut him open an toss him to the sharks." Charlie crossed his arms and stared, unblinking, into Gage's eyes. "Get one o' your Omega monkeys to do it. I won't."

What do you think? There's one apostrophe in place of a letter instead of many, but the dialect is still clear. Which way do you like better? (And for those of you who are very familiar with the Charlie character, think of this as a way to protect his anonymity from generations of jealous husbands). I'm going to have to slog through all the dialogue again to change the dialect to what it was supposed to be in the first place. Learn from my mistake, and allow your characters their own voices from the beginning. 

But how do you know when it's good? After you've been lost in the world of your story for hours, writing down everything as it appears in your brain, how do you know when the dialogue rings true? It's easier than you think. All you need is people. Real live people. First read it out loud by yourself. You'll find that you say the line differently out loud than you wrote it down. Modify it as needed. Then do it again. After a while, you'll move on in the story or you'll decide you need more testing.

If you need to test out your dialogue, what better way than in the mouths of people to speak it? Copy and paste the section of dialogue into a new document. Then either re-write it like a script, or only ask people to help who you can trust to keep their opinions to themselves. Read it out loud with them. Don't tell them anything about the characters, because the more they know the more they'll try to make the dialogue conform. You don't want that. You want to hear it as written, to see if the lines stand for the characters on their own. If it's written well, the words will flow naturally. If it's written really well, the readers will slip into the character without any prompting from you. Just make sure they know to read only the dialogue, and not the tags. That can confuse actors/readers, especially since dialogue tags usually come after the words and if you have those dreaded "ly" words then they might want to read it again to follow your direction, and that will mess up the flow. 

The very best dialogue tags in the world are "said," "asked," and " ". You don't want your writing to detract or distract from your characters and your story. Words like "blandly" "angrily" and "zestfully" are not nearly as useful as you might believe. We've talked about this before in the show don't tell section of another post, but it bears repeating: don't get in your own way. If your character is tired he or she does things tiredly, sure, but that is a word describing other words, not painting an image. Your character doesn't say things tiredly, she says them. Sleep, or the lack thereof, slurs her words together. Her hands fumble with the keys and her eyes droop while she tries to restrain a yawn. Your character doesn't shout angrily, he shouts and bangs his fist on the table, or says through clenched teeth with narrow eyes. It's even better if you don't need dialogue tags at all, but you can tell who the speaker is by what they're saying and how they say it. Go through your most recent piece of writing and search for your dialogue tags. Copy and paste a section of dialogue into a new document and get rid of every tag, then read it. Can you still tell who is saying which line? If not, go back and clarify your characters in your own mind. If so, get someone else to read it. Give them highlighters in different colors and assign each color to a specific character. Then have them highlight who says what. You may be surprised with what they think.

We still have to cover what to cut and what to keep and how to spice it up, but we'll get to that next time. I must cut myself free from the internet for now. But it feels good to be writing again, and it feels good to get myself back a bit more with each word.

Tune in next time for another exciting installment of A Writer By Day, same bat time, same bat channel!