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Happy Endings

Let me talk in praise of the ridiculously happy ending.

I was once in a fiction writing class in college.  It was a decent enough course, but one thing I noticed was that all the published short stories we read and discussed for class had one thing in common—or, should I say, one common thing missing.  There were no happy endings.  The endings were evasive, inconclusive, quietly tragic.  Not even bittersweet, just…bitter.  I couldn’t find a single story in the lot that ended well, that ended with even a suggestion of the possibility of hope.

As if the only stories worth valuing are the ones told with bleak cynicism.

I’m a sucker for a good happy ending.  And admittedly, happy endings can be a hard sell.  The pervasive perception is that they are simplistic, saccharine, and/or intended for children.  But I keep coming back to them, sucking them up like I’m some kind of story-Roomba.

Happy endings aren’t simplistic just because they’re happy.  Any sort of ending, happy or tragic, can be flat and unsatisfying if done poorly.  The question is, does the story SELL the ending?  Does the ending make sense as a natural extension of what’s come before and the overall theme it’s been communicating?  A well-earned happy ending is far from shallow; it can be a deep wellspring of renewing and revitalizing joy.  It can be transcendent.  Hope is not always an easy answer; but one can be clear-eyed and wise and still choose hope.

And sometimes a happy ending goes so over-the-top it breaks free of Earth’s gravity.  The storyteller hands out Happily Ever Afters like Oprah shouting “You get a car!  You get a car!” at a screaming TV audience.  The Power of Love and/or Friendship comes through.  The world is united and inspired by a song.  The world of the story ends up a noticeably better place because the heroes decide to Give a Damn.   And I’m sitting somewhere with a big goofy grin on my face and a knot in my throat because the story I’m experiencing is genuinely moving to me.

A world where stories always end tragically is just as misleading, I think, as a world where stories always end happily.  The truth is that life is a mix of both, and the world of Story is broad enough to encompass that.  It SHOULD be broad enough to encompass that.  Both have value to us; both comedy and tragedy have lessons to impart.  And sometimes you need to cry and sometimes you need to laugh, and sometimes you need to push through the crying to get to the laughing.

Sometimes, you just need to see some sunlight.

 

Yearly Writing Goals

It’s that time of year again!  Time to sit down and plan out my writing goals for the year.  I tend to be very goal-oriented as a writer; I find it helps me keep my mockingbird brain on track.

Note that these aren’t so much New Years’ resolutions as much as keeping up an ongoing progress.  Being a writer isn’t a singular goal one accomplishes in a year; it’s a series of goalposts you pass while climbing up the side of a mountain.  At least, that’s how I often picture it, so make of that what you will.

First is the obvious goal this year of writing more short stories.  I’ve sold a generous handful, so now I need to write some more so I can have something new to submit!  Overall, a good problem to have.  And I’d also like to make progress on on some novels I have in various states of completion.

Beneath the overall arc of yearly goals, I tend to break things down to weekly goals.  In my experience, life can interfere too much when it comes to daily goals, and a month is too long; when I tried monthly goals, I ended up procrastinating and condensing my efforts into the last week or so.  Weekly goals hit that sweet spot for me:  frequent enough to keep me moving, but with some wiggle room to account for, say, an unusually packed day when I can’t get to the computer, or I get waylaid by a sudden head cold.

(This is the key to good goal-making:  figuring out what works best for you, what makes you most likely to Get It Done.)

So I keep up a spreadsheet and keep track of my weekly progress.  (I should also point out that I’m a very spreadsheet-oriented person. My life is Spreadsheets and Lists!)  And really, weekly progress just comes down to making dedicated Butt-in-Chair time for my writing.  Time spent writing, editing, submitting stories, or even just doing a writing exercise or two if I’m stuck.  All of these are ways to be with my writing, to keep myself in that space.  To keep the writing muscles trained and in shape.

It’s like going to the gym on the regular.  The only way forward is through, the only progress a series of one step after another.

May 2018 be an excellent year for you, and whatever progress you’re making in the journey to the person you want to be.  I hope you continue to share this journey with me.

Happy New Year

Happy new year to all my readers!  It’s bitter cold up here in Pittsburgh, and we’re getting a lot of snow, but here’s to an exciting start to a new year.  I’ve got a lot of story ideas floating around, a lot of plans for this site, and I can’t wait to jump into them!

May the coming year bring us closer to who we want to be.

View of a snow-covered deck and partly cloudy sky.
Nothing is quite so cozy as looking out on fresh snow and not having to leave the house!

First Snowstorm

We had our first big snowstorm of the season this week.  A few inches of snow fell over the course of two and a half days, and the world was transformed seemingly overnight.  Dying grass and stark, leafless trees were suddenly layered under a white blanket of snow-themed cliches you’ve probably heard a thousand times by now.

Still, it’s a cliché that’s based on a truism:  the shift in landscape, happening so quickly, is magical.  Literally transformative.  One moment we are here, and the next, we are still here but ‘here’ is someplace different.  We don’t need to have moved from our spot.  The world has changed around us.

A porch overlooking a snow-covered neighborhood
Looking out on a changed world.

Snow and slush and ice are a mess to drive through, and I’m not a big fan of the cold, but I never get tired of this dramatic turning of the seasons.

It’s probably for the same reason I love fantasy.  It is a shift into a new world.  A thrilling, dizzying change in perspective.  It is our landscape transforming, and we—sometimes without even knowing it—transform with it.

Liminal Spaces

I remember the first time I crossed an ocean.  I was onboard a red-eye flight from New York City to Manchester, England.  I’ve never been able to sleep well on a plane, and certainly not this time.  Everything was new, and I was too excited for sleep.  I spent much of the flight with my face pressed to the glass, watching the Atlantic Ocean by moonlight.  The upper humps of scattered clouds passed below, bright with moonlight.  I landed on the threshold of a new day, literally.  The plane had to wait a few minutes for the runway to clear before it could land, so the pilot took us on a slow circle around the airport, giving me a 360-degree of the sunrise.

It was the first day of a semester abroad.  The details of my adventure overseas are a story for another day:  it had its ups and downs, its moments of wonder and homesickness.  But the most important thing it gave me, I think, was a better sense of the world and my ability to move through it.  I had gotten aboard a plane and arrived in a different country.  It was something that Could Be Done ™.

A threshold was crossed for me, and in crossing, a part of me never went back.

Fantasy plays a lot with this idea.  The adventure doesn’t begin until Bilbo leaves his house, or Wendy flies out the window, or Sabriel leaves her boarding school to cross the Wall into the Old Kingdom.  Or it could happen the other way:  something arrives from the other side into what is familiar, like a mysterious stranger on your doorstep.

woodedpath2
Into the woods we go again….

But the liminal space does not even have to be literal.  And it certainly is not limited to fantasy.  It could be a decision made, or a turning point reached.  Either way, the crossed threshold represents a vital change:  a point after which there’s no going back.  You cannot un-cross a threshold.  Retreating back does not undo the fact that you crossed that point.  Even if you’re the only one who knows you crossed it.

The Adventurer returns home, but it’s never quite the same.

This is not to say one should avoid crossing thresholds.  Far from it!  Sometimes doing so is a necessary choice.  Sometimes it’s inevitable.  Certainly, growth requires it.  My only wish, my brave adventurers, is if you choose to pick up your lamp and leave your home and walk out into the unfamiliar, be brave.  Be wise.  Be kind.  Be clever.  You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Letters from Imaginary Places

Hi all, my latest short story is now available!  “Letters from Imaginary Places” can be found in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Issue 69.  It’s a story about magical junkmail, and the shenanigans that ensue when a talking animal tries to hand you a quest.   But it’s also a story about family, and about finding your place in the world. I hope you enjoy it!

Andromeda Spaceways Magazine is available in a variety of ebook formats as well as a .pdf, and you get a bunch of stories and features all bundled together for less than five bucks, so check it out!

 

 

My Muse & Me

My muse is acting up again.  She has this habit of getting really excited about a new story idea when I have “no time for writing”:  when my non-writing to-do list is juuuust past the point where I start freaking out. Housework to catch up on, errands to run, shindigs to attend, travel to prepare for, people to get in touch with, plans and events to arrange.

That’s when she jumps into the room, ponytail bouncing, clapping her hands excitedly and dropping a fresh new story idea right in my lap, lovely and nearly perfectly formed.  I should get it down on paper, is the unspoken understanding–as soon as possible, before this ripe and juicy fruit withers on the branch.

This is how my muse behaves.  Excitable and contrary, listless when I want her help and helpfully underfoot at times when I’m not in a good position to receive her–like a delivery person who shows up in that 15-minute window when I’ve run down the street to get milk.

Creative folks throughout history have talked about their muses.  We give them different names or forms, or understand them through various frameworks.  For some, it is an object they find helpful to keep around in their writing space, something to keep them on task and inspired.  For others, it can be a spiritual embodiment:  a guardian angel, a daemon, an ancestral spirit.  They are as varied as there are different ways to approach the act of creating.

My muse is the character I’ve given to my inspiration.  She looks like a younger me in a classic toga ripped from any number of sculptures and images of “Greek Muse™” but without the restrained decorum and somber, thoughtful expression.  She wears striped toe-socks and bounces around like a caffeinated jackalope when she’s onto something.  At other times, she’s lounging lazily on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, binge-watching some new Netflix show and stubbornly ignoring my pleas for help.

I find my muse fun to imagine and occasionally helpful.  She is shorthand for an important aspect of my life as a writer.  I talk to my writer friends about how the muse dropped a new story idea in my lap and I am immediately understood.  This is important to me, if only because writers–by nature–spend a lot of time in their heads, and the creative life involves unique challenges that can appear downright alien to people who aren’t living in that world.  Being able to explain this ebb and flow of ideas, its joys and frustrations, my relationship to it all–even by pinning the blame or praise on some imagined hyperactive doppleganger–is perhaps the greatest gift my muse has ever given me.  It is, after all, a story:  and stories are how I speak to the world.

Playing by House Rules

Hi folks, one quick announcement: later this week, I will have a new short story out!  Watch this space for more details!

I hope, if you are reading this, that you are enjoying a fine Thanksgiving weekend.  I hope your time with family and/or friends was enjoyable, and I hope that if you’re traveling, that your journey is safe.  A safe journey is a good thing to wish anybody, because we are all journeying, in one way or another.

In honor of a holiday deeply steeped in ideas of family and tradition, today I’d like to talk a bit about traditions.

Traditions are a bit like house rules for that old, well-loved board game you’re always playing.  Maybe the house rules make the game sillier, or more challenging, because that’s what the gaming circle likes.  Different gaming groups will have different house rules, because the dynamic is different and people are looking for various experiences.  House rules arise organically and stick around because (ideally) they work.

For example, I’ve spent the past several years enjoying Thanksgiving (and every other Christmas) with my in-laws.  Prior to every holiday dinner, deviled eggs and a shrimp platter are brought out as appetizers.  The deviled eggs are there because my brother-in-law brought them one year and they caught on like wildfire.  So he continues to bring them and we continue to enjoy them.  The shrimp platter is there, presumably, for a similar reason:  one person did it once and everyone liked it, so it stuck around.  So now, our family holiday tradition involves deviled eggs and a platter of fresh shrimp.  It’s assumed that, barring catastrophe, those two items will be present.  They are the house rules.

But here’s the thing about both traditions and house rules: sometimes they don’t work.  Sometimes they change over time.  Just as they arise organically, they can be phased out or altered organically.  People move away, social connections shift.  Life happens.

Let’s go back to that gaming group.  Maybe half of them like a good challenge and they insist on using the house rules to make that favorite game harder, while the other half of the group would really prefer a lighter experience, and feel frustrated and left out.  There are many ways this particular situation could shake out, based on the players and what they agree to.  But the point of my extended metaphor is this:

The ultimate point of traditions is to create a positive group-bonding experience through the use of shared emotional touchstones.  And if the traditions you’re familiar with don’t give you that, it’s okay to create different traditions.  It’s okay to have prime rib for your Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s okay to have a friendsgiving dinner, and host or attend a gathering of folks who don’t or can’t visit family.  It’s okay to sit at home playing video games with your significant other.

This can be hard.  Thanksgiving is always presented as one very particular experience in our media.  And if recreating that experience is difficult or impossible for you, it’s easy to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me?”

Nope, you’re fine.  Sometimes traditions leave people holding the short end of the stick.  Sometimes they pressure people, through the invisible web of social obligations, to enter situations detrimental to their well-being.  You are not obligated.  Traditions are not set in stone.  They are implied social contracts that are always subject to re-negotiation.

So for those of you celebrating a non-stereotypical Thanksgiving, I hope it is a great day for you.  I hope you have fun writing your own house rules, making your own traditions, and telling your own stories.

Writing Before Dawn

A question that often comes up for writers, especially those with full-time jobs, is “When do you find time to write?”  More often than you’d think, the answer involves getting up one or two hours early and locking oneself in one’s home office (which is sometimes just a commandeered closet) and tapping away first thing every day.

I am not, as the saying goes, “a morning person.”

As much as I love writing, I need my sleep and I’m terrible at going to bed early.  Give me more time curling up under my blankets and hitting the snooze alarm!  If I’m going to steal extra time in my regular routine for writing, it is not that time.

But what if it were only for a month or two?  Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a try.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks: getting up just a little earlier, and free-writing for exactly 30 minutes.  At this time of year, that means getting up in the dark.  There’s no trace of dawn against the window-blinds yet.  There are no birds singing outside my window, and even the cats aren’t yet begging for their breakfast.

It’s been a strange experience, but so long as I get a decent amount of sleep to off-set my shifted schedule, it’s actually been both relaxing and enjoyable.  Sometimes my little free-writes read more like journal entries, sometimes I note the last fading details of a dream, but other times I find myself typing out half-formed ideas for stories.  I don’t get very far in thirty minutes, but it’s something:  a seed that can become something more, if I turn it over a bit, if I plant it and nurture it patiently.

There’s a weird mystery to writing before dawn:  the darkness, the quiet, and my brain still wrapped up in a sleepy haze.  Digging little nuggets out of the dark earth of my subconscious, which is still loose from being upturned and dug through in my dreams.  Mostly these story-nuggets move like fairy tales.  Mysterious witches make cryptic requests.  Castles and towers rise from mist-bound forests, while shapechangers lurk in deceptively comfortable cottages.  Heroes and heroines are bound by strange rules: you must wear a black coat when you leave, you must travel with a gray dog.

The timer goes off after thirty minutes.  I get up, wash my face, eat breakfast, feed the cats if my husband hasn’t already.  I get ready to face the rest of the day.  The stories slip away like dreams, and I think of other, far more mundane things.  By the time I reach the bus stop, with neither black coat nor gray dog, I will have forgotten most of what I’ve written only an hour beforehand.

But I will have written it.  The seeds are still there, in my pocket.  Ready to be planted.