NaNoWriMo 2015: revising without revising

It’s been a while since I’ve posted updates on my NaNoWriMo. That’s because it’s been a busy month, with a lot of side obligations I’ve been fulfilling. I judged a literary contest, I blurbed a friend’s book, I did a couple of readings, I wrote an essay a magazine solicited. It’s also been a busy month of my usual, primary obligations, like attending meetings and catching up on grading. (I am proud to report, by the way, that at least one of my students is also participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Like me, she has been struggling to keep up with the word count in addition to school work, but I’m super-impressed that she’s tackling NaNoWriMo, and for a while she was even outpacing me! We’ve been discussing our progress outside of class, which has been a treat.)

Screen shot 2015-11-25 at 6.41.04 PMSo, with all this other work, I feel I could be excused for falling behind on the novel, and if you look at my word count meter, it looks like I sat around and wrote nothing for about a week or so and then all of a sudden, in a burst of inspiration, hammered out something like thirteen thousand words.

In fact, I’ve been needling away at it here and there all along, but it wasn’t until the other day that I remembered to update my word count. I’m thrilled to say that I’m nearly at the 50,000 word goal (I currently sit at 45,645 words), and this Thanksgiving break, I plan on crossing the finish line.

But what’s interesting is looking back over what I have been writing this month and realizing how much of it is just thinking my way through the book — and therefore realizing how much of it I’m going to wind up throwing out.

When I wrote my first NaNoWriMo, I hammered out 53,000 words in a mere 15 days and then packed it in for a long Thanksgiving break. When I went back to revise, I found I had far more to add to the book then to cut, and over the next few years, I added another 20,0000 or so words to flesh out the story and develop the characters. Sure, I also cut several thousand words, and the resulting book wound up around 68,000 words (and I think it turned out much better). The result, for people who are just now following me, was my first published novel, Hagridden.

For my most recent NaNoWriMo, before the one I’m writing now, I wound up doing something like the opposite: I got nearish the official goal but never crossed the finish line, and, after a year or so of reworking that book, I realized that I had approached the story in entirely the wrong way and wound up throwing out the whole book. (I’ve since restarted and have written about 30,000 words on the new version of that book.)

But for my current novel, I’m experiencing the same sense of vision I had with Hagridden, and I’m already able to foresee enough of the book to know what works on the page and what doesn’t. So I already know now — rather than later, in revision — what I need to throw away and what I will end up using in the book, and I also know, in advance of when I eventually throw away the unneeded text, what I am going to replace it with.

It’s a strange feeling, revising in my head as I am still drafting. One would think that it’s frustrating to wind up putting so many thousands of words on the page while knowing I’m going to throw them away later, but this is the nature of the process, especially in NaNoWriMo. You hammer out the words whether they’re useful or not, just to get you through the text, and in this case, it’s actually been very instructive to me to see, in real time, this editorial process.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m planning on writing a sequel to Hagridden, and I always tell them that I’m not. The truth is, I like all of my work to connect to all of my other work in some way, and I have already written a handful of short stories that are in fact related to Hagridden, some of them prequel stories and some of them concurrent with the novel. And my previous book, which I still plan on finishing, is not a direct sequel to Hagridden but does include some of the same characters and is definitely in the same thematic vein. But sometimes, people don’t ask me about Hagridden; they just ask me what my next book is going to be, whatever it is. And the answer to that question is much simpler:

You never know what your next book is going to be.

I could tell you what book I’m working on, or what book I want to work on next, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be my next book. The book I’m writing now wasn’t the book I intended to be writing now. It just showed up, mostly whole and with the revisions already in my head. And now, nearly finished with this NaNoWriMo draft though nowhere near finished with the book itself, I have a feeling that this thing might wind up being my next novel, whether I wanted it to be or not.

But I won’t really know until I finish this “prevision” draft, a few days from now, and then sit down to begin the long, long process of revision.

Allow me to show you Where There Is Ruin

11038149_820445841383185_3496110615123760053_oI am thrilled to announce that my fiction chapbook, Where There Is Ruin, has been accepted for publication at Red Bird Chapbooks! I’m a big fan of Red Bird’s work, and this new chapbook is especially exciting for me because I get to be part of their impressive roster of authors and poets, including my friends Matthew Burnside, Eirik Gumeny, Michael Lambert, Meg Tuite, and Joe Wilkins (whose books you should all buy).

Where There Is Ruin will be available sometime in 2016, so stay tuned for updates!

NaNoWriMo 2015: plot, structure, shape

I struggle with plot.

Freytag's pyramid

Freytag’s pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In grade school, I learned that plot was just another word for story. Later, I learned a more mechanical version, that plot was the arrangement of events in a narrative. It is the order in which things happen, and it has a shape. Mostly it looks like an arc — often a sharp one, like two sides of a triangle, with a definite, pointed apex at which things come to a head and then begin their inevitable decline — though in college I saw Kurt Vonnegut give a version of his “Shapes of Stories” lecture and learned that the classic “arc” isn’t so classic, and it certainly isn’t the only shape a story can take.

Then in grad school, I began to learn the new-old lesson that the best literature is character-driven, not plot-driven, and I sighed with relief, because I had figured out by then that I was no good at plot. Where I got this idea, I couldn’t say — a workshop comment? a professor’s remark on a story I’d turned in? — but figuring out the sequence of events in a story scared me, and I was glad for the excuse to just focus on my characters and let plot sort itself out.

This let me forget my anxieties over plot for a while — even to pretend that plot was no problem at all. I remember having a conversation with a grad school friend of mine who’d gone into our creative writing program with an eye toward writing genre fiction. We were discussing the absence of plot from our curriculum, and I remarked that professors probably didn’t bother teaching plot because it was the easiest part of writing — if you craft well-rounded, believably human characters, you can simply let them behave as human beings do and your plot will evolve on its own.

My friend countered that perhaps professors didn’t teach plot because they didn’t really understand it — they didn’t know how to explain how it functioned. And I think she was perhaps onto something there. Plot is certainly something I have difficulty explaining, and every time I try, I find the explanation too thin or too formulaic, too focused on the insignificant progression of moment to moment and not enough concerned with the evolution of a consciousness. I remember my early lessons in responding to literature; I remember how often teachers would steer me away from simple plot summaries and toward more nuanced, critical analyses: don’t tell me what happened — show me what it means.

And yet, in narrative, things do need to happen. There are events in a story, and they should follow a certain order. It doesn’t have to be the triangular arc; it doesn’t even have to follow any of Vonnegut’s shapes. I know a lot of writers these days who vociferously eschew “linear narrative” in favor of a more emotionally or intellectually charged jumble of associations. And I’ve certainly played with breaking shape and violating order. But even disorder, crafted correctly and with purpose, is a kind of order, and the way we arrange those events, linearly or nonlinearly, is still plot.

For me, plot now usually comes down to questions geometery, of shape and pattern. I’m very much in that camp that sees possibilities in nonlinear narrative, and I’m not terribly interested in a mere sequence of events, but I have become attuned to the importance of order in narrative, to the power of a sequence of emotions or ideas. And these are what give shape to the stories I want to tell.

While working on this NaNoWriMo novel, I went in with only a handful of ideas — a few characters, a setting, a traumatic event, a powerful set of emotions — but no idea of plot. At the outset of the story, a character dies, and I was interested in exploring the grief of the other characters in the aftermath of that death. But to what end? I had no idea, and after the first week, with several thousand words all in disjointed scenes and meditations, I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to stick with the story long enough to discover where it was headed.

Then, while driving home the other day from work, I was thinking about the novel and dictating a bit of text into my phone, when I hit upon a connection between two characters that I hadn’t thought of before. The connection surprised me, and I stayed with it for a while, and I discovered another connection, and another . . . in the space of about 90 seconds, I saw the whole novel, the shape of it, the relationships between characters and events, the larger narrative arc as well as the small character arcs, the resolution, everything. Everything! I saw at a glance both the summary and the symbolism, what will happen and what it will mean.

I began to shout in the car. I looked around at the cars passing me — in my exhilerating creative vertigo, I’d decelerated considerably — as I searched for someone to witness the moment. I felt like I’d just finished reading my own unwritten novel, all in one sitting, all in one rush. I felt like I’d just jumped from a plane — I wanted to spread my arms, to increase drag and extend the freefalling giddiness for as long as I could.

Some day this will make more sense. When I’ve finished the novel and can talk more openly about its shape, its structure, readers will better understand this excitement I continue to feel about that sudden insight. It’s not that the structure is especially brilliant — it isn’t — but it’s the right structure, the necessary shape for this story. And in the days that have passed since, as I have started putting that structure into place and am blazing forward according to this new narrative map, I have begun to see not only that it works but also why it works. And here’s the trick, gang:

It’s about connections.

My teachers were right: great fiction is character-driven. But plot doesn’t evolve from crafting a strong character and then seeing where they go or what they do. Plot comes from building a whole world of characters and letting them interact with one another. Plot is about the moments where a character connects with — or fails to connect with, or refuses to connect with — another character. Plot isn’t Harry Potter discovering he’s a wizard; plot is Harry meeting Hagrid. Plot isn’t Holden Caulfield running away from school; plot is Holden refusing to touch or be touched by any other character, rebuffing everyone in a kind of antipolar magnetic repulsion that drives him through his story. Plot isn’t simply a gang of vampire-hunters out to stop Dracula; plot is Dracula invading — infecting, really — London, one person at a time, bite by bite, with all the problematic ethnic and colonialist complications that implies.

English: Spider web

English: Spider web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Connections, as well as missed connections and disconnections, are what move a story forward and define when it must end. And this past week, folks, I saw the whole web of connections between my characters. I saw each path fork and intersect and ultimately tie off or drift out into another story, somewhere beyond the confines of this novel. I saw the whole thing, in one big spiderweb, one single image.

Now I just have to write it.

NaNoWriMo 2015: inspiration

A few months back, while looking through some old family miscellany, I had an idea for a new novel. This month, I’m writing that novel for NaNoWriMo. But unlike in years past, I’m trying to avoid reading much of anything while I’m writing the book — I have a pretty clear narrative voice and, as of yesterday (more on that in a later post), I have a very clear sense of structure, and I don’t want other reading to distract me from that.

But I make an exception for the material that sparked the idea in the first place: my maternal grandmother’s family documents. So, in addition to revisiting the legal and financial documents I found a few months ago, I’m also reading a shoeboxful of correspondence among various family members, almost all of it from the early 1920s, which is near when my novel is set.


The letters are mostly between family in Oklahoma, though I have found the occasional postmark in Texas and Louisiana. And I haven’t got far in their content yet — mostly I’ve just organized them chronologically and by author/recipient — but already they are offering some fascinating clues to the period. And I’m finding some wonderful stylistic quirks in the few letters I have perused while sorting, like a whole series of letters addressed to “Dearest Boy of Mine” — I love the human warmth in that!


(Also, the family farm had letterhead! Though note that this isn’t the same Breeze Hill Farm that currently exists in New York, nor is it the Breeze Hill Farm in Kentucky, and it’s not the Breeze Hill Farm in Virginia either . . . . Turns out, there are a lot of Breeze Hill Farms, though the modern ones seem to exist mostly east of the Mississippi)

I even found some old Valentines, though they seem to have never been mailed — there’s no postage and not much beyond a name written on the backs, so perhaps they were hand-delivered, or else were just collected as pretty cards.



I also have a file folder full of memoir narratives my grandmother wrote, as well as a bunch of tall tales written by her father (whom the family still refers to as “Daddy Bill”). And that man, folks, was a hoot! Look at his humorous experiments with dialect, for example!

“The Bar I Met When I Was 15”

I am gettin to be a ole man now, so gess I will tel u a few uv the things that happened to me when I wuz groan up. They wuz purty eksitin to me when they wuz hapenen so u mite enjoy herrin about them. I wuz bouarn bak in the das when oklahoma wuz still injun teritory an i didn’t hav no edication only ma tot me to reed an rite.

We get it drilled into our head in writing workshops that we should avoid dialect as much as possible, a lesson I kept in mind while trying to capture the accents and idiomatic quirks of my characters in Hagridden, and here, it’s easy to see why that rule exists — you almost have to relearn English in order to read a text written entirely in dialect! But you can also see the temptation of dialect — look how much fun that is! (And before people chime in with examples of dialect done right — Robert Burns, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Irvine Welsh, etc. —  I know. I’ve seen it work, too, and I love it. But there is definitely a learning curve both in the writing and the reading of it!) And I certainly enjoy watching my great-grandfather play with words on the page!

So what am I doing with all this material? Some of it is already providing details for my characters, in much the same way that my grandmother’s narratives provided crucial details for Hagridden, though this time the facts are more contemporaneous to my novel. In fact, several of my grandmother’s narratives, both of her own life and of the stories she’d heard growing up, are providing crucial insight to the world I’m writing about.

Sure, I’ll be fact-checking all this and reading more academic accounts of the time, the regional history, agricultural lives in pre-Depression Oklahoma, and so on. And already I’ve started taking notes on a few details, like the types and mechanical operation of 1920s cars and farm trucks, phases of the moon and growing seasons, and so on. But I know from experience that research, especially the detail-oreinted kind, can too often serve as a distraction from the writing, and these family narratives and letters can provide me with a lot of intimate, human details of actual lives lived in that time and place without sending me down into a cross-referenced labyrinth of other research. Which, so far, is how I’ve been using these: I just sit with them (or, to use my grandmother’s phrasing, “set with them”) and read them for pleasure, and whenever a detail leaps out at me, I either make a note and keep reading or set aside the pages and start writing my novel.

Speaking of which: the word count, as of this post (which doesn’t include the writing I’ll do later this evening) sits at 16,735.

Wordstock 2015

I’m still earning my Portland literary street cred, y’all. Case in point: somehow, even though I’ve been in Portland for a handful of years now, this year was my first Wordstock.

For folks not in the know, Wordstock is Portland’s massive literary festival. Or, one of them, anyway: just last month, we had the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association fall trade show, and next month is the Holiday Cheer book event at the Oregon Historical Society, and in March there’s Smallpressapalooza at Powell’s, and in June this past year we had the bar-hopping LitHop PDX, which is different from Literary Arts’ Lit Crawl, which is different from Literary Arts’ Arts and Lecture series and the Oregon Book Awards . . . .

(This town spoils me, gang!)

But almost as soon as we moved to Portland, I began hearing about Wordstock as something special, and I was long past due for attending.

And in many respects, I wish I’d gone earlier, just to have a basis for comparison, because in years past, the event was its own, independent organization and was held at the massive Oregon Convention Center; but this year, for the first time, it was organized by Literary Arts and hosted in the Portland Art Museum. And those changes were the primary topic of discussion at the event: the changes from last year, good and bad, and all the suggestions for how to improve the experience for next year.

The Oregonian‘s recap later in the day does a fairly good job of summing up most people’s experiences — even the headline is a solid overview: “Wordstock 2015: big crowds, steady rain, great readings, mass confusion.” The only two things I might add to that recap, because they’re important, are problems with ADA-related accessibility, and the appearance of the event placing more emphasis this year on big-name celebrities from out of town and (slightly) less emphasis on our own local authors and publishers, big-name and emerging alike. Notice, for example, that the Oregonian article features actor-turned-author Jesse Eisenberg as their lead photo, rather than Ursula K. Le Guin or Cheryl Strayed or the powerhouse panel of Suzy Vitello, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chelsea Cain (more on that later). One the other hand, looking at that list reminds me of one particular note of praise I heard from lots of people: this year’s Wordstock featured several panels that were entirely women, which was important to see! (Next year, Wordstock: more local writers of color, more LGTB writers, more diversity in general. You’re on the right track, but keep stepping it up!)

Otherwise, I have only my own limited experience at the event, which I showed up to later in the day (I wasn’t one of those poor folks fighting round-the-block lines in the rain first thing in the morning), and which I limited mostly to the bookfair since every headline event was crowded well beyond capacity.

In the bookfair, I felt like I was running into everyone: John Carr Walker, Mark Russell, James Bernard Frost, Liz Prato, Laura Stanfill (who was the hit of the bookfair; Mo Daviau has proposed founding a new literary event in Portland called “Laurastock,” just so we all can bask in Laura’s presence), Art Edwards, Stevan Allred, Suzy Vitello, Ross Robbins, Brian Tibbetts, Michael Heald, Domi Shoemaker, Natalie Serber, Jessica Standifird, Jason Arias, Emily Grosvenor . . . . I even tweeted about it (when I finally found a quiet space and moment in which to tweet):

Later, when I got home and started checking in with my social media feeds, I realized that I hadn’t actually bumped into everyone: I missed Mo Daviau, Ellen Urbani, Davis Slater, Kate Ristau, Cari Luna, Dan Berne, Olivia Olivia, Margaret Malone, A.M. O’Malley, Kevin Sampsell, Jenny Forrester, and a whole gaggle of other writers who were somewhere in the multiple spaces of the Art Museum but whose paths I never managed to cross.

20151107_132337I kept wanting to take photos of all the amazing booths and displays, which included not only books for sale and writing groups and conferences to plug, but also games and swag and opportunities to play with words (I especially loved a cut-out paper “magnet poetry” board with which to compose your six-word memoir), but my phone’s camera doesn’t do well in dim light and the bookfair was CROWDED, so I only managed to snap one photo of a very cool display at the Oregon Humanities booth, where they were asking writers to pin whence they had come to Wordstock and where they felt most at home. (It was telling that the greatest crowd of “feel at home” pins, by far, were in Portland, and yes, that’s where I stuck my pin, too.)

At the Forest Avenue Press table, I also discovered a promotional board with the press’s impressive line-up of books and, what do you know, a quote from me! Laura Stanfill, the amazing woman behind Forest Avenue Press, had contacted me a while back to ask about borrowing some lines from my blog post about Ellen Urbani’s Landfall release event at Powell’s, and sure enough, there were my words right in the center of the poster! That was pretty thrilling.

While I was standing there gawking at my name, Laura Stanfill was nearby with her ever-present camera, taking LOTS of photos of everyone, and she snapped a picture of me palling around with John Carr Walker.


“We do hair and fiction,” John cleverly wrote on Facebook when Laura shared this photo there. “And literary-themed attire.”

I also managed to pick up a bit of swag, including pins, silly photos of myself, an Anne of Green Gables scarf from Storiarts for my wife, and, of course, books.


That’s an ARC of Robert Hill‘s The Remnants, coming March 2016 from Forest Avenue Press; my friend Sean Davis‘s memoir The Wax Bullet War, from Ooligan Press; and a copy of Heart of Darkness illustrated by Matt Kish, from Tin House (longtime readers might recognize Kish’s brilliant work — I put one of the illustrations from this book on the cover of Jersey Devil Press back in March 2013).

I would have been happy to attend basically all the panels at Wordstock this year, but I’m glad I mostly stuck to the bookfair and skipped the long lines into the panel venues. Still, the end of the day was a taping of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s radio program State of Wonder, which I love — I’m a huge fan of host April Baer, actually; she’s a fantastic radio host and reporter — and the final taping included two panel discussions. The first was with Portland authors Suzy Vitello, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chelsea Cain, and their relationship with their rockstar writing circle (which also includes Monica Drake, Chuck Palahniuk, and, when she’s not busy being superfamous, Cheryl Strayed). The second panel was with husband-wife team Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) and Carson Ellis (author of Home), the pair behind the fabulous Wildwood Chronicles, as well as Colin Meloy’s sister, the powerhouse fiction writer Maile Meloy. And yeah, I geeked out the whole time, utterly starstruck even by writers I’ve met before and (public-radio nerd that I am) by getting to see April Baer live! To be fair, I think everyone was a little starstruck, even the stars: at one point, each of the three authors in the first panel spoke about how nervous and excited they were the first time they joined their writing group; Suzy Vitello let slip the word “shit” on what was supposed to be an FCC-friendly radio show, and Lidia Yuknavitch described hiding out in the road and spying on the workshop house before going inside because she wasn’t sure her invitation was even real. We can relate, Lidia!

I took photos, but I was pretty far back in the packed room, so they’re a bit fuzzy:

Some observations from my first-ever Wordstock: According to friends and to conversations I overheard, apparently Wordstock used to be so much better/worse when it was at the Convention Center, and Literary Arts definitely needs to stay at the Art Museum/return the Convention Center/find a new venue altogether. And people universally loved/hated limiting Wordstock to a single day this year. The massive crowds, which consisted almost exclusively of Portland literati — I mean avid readers — I mean curious onlookers — I mean out-of-towners — were a sign of how much we love books here/were a total pain in the ass. Also, it was wonderful to see so many big names join Wordstock this year, which helped elevate our recognition outside of Oregon — except when all those big-name non-Portlanders detracted from the emphasis on local Oregon writers and publishers. And it sure was nice that the conference attendees had access to the museum exhibits during Wordstock/it sure was confusing to track down all the pop-up events inside the museum!

In other words, there are large camps of people in total agreement on the new Wordstock, but there are many of those large camps, and each camp seem to disagree with the others on just about everything.

There was one genuinely universal sentiment, though: the volunteers were bonafide heroes. Everyone I spoke to or read later agreed that the volunteers displayed a superhuman ability to keep calm and friendly in the face of the many wet, claustrophobic, cranky attendees and presenters and bookfair vendors (to say nothing of the Portland citizens and tourists who had just come to see the museum and were utterly overwhelmed by the Wordstock crowd). So, many thousands of kudos to the fabulous volunteers who made Wordstock possible!

For myself, having no basis for comparison, I think the venue in the Art Museum is lovely, and while moving from building to building and floor to floor was confusing and, in the rain, sometimes frustrating, the actual spaces Wordstock occupied were beautiful. And it felt nice to bring together the visual and literary arts that way. Of course, those media might have been TOO brought together, as many of the museum-goers grumbled that they’d have preferred a separate ticket line, which would have sped things up for both the museum attendees and the Wordstock attendees. And the space was cramped, so perhaps extending the festival to a second day (as it has been sometimes in the past) would be a good idea in future years.

But whatever Literary Arts and Wordstock plans for next year, I know one thing for certain: I’ll be back. Year after year.

The Jersey Devil ate all the Halloween candy and is ready for Thanksgiving now

JDP Nov 2015 coverGang, the November issue of Jersey Devil Press is out, and it’s a beauty. Are you into creation mythology built on severed fingers? Have a taste for bodily invasive noodles? Feel like more heartbreaking love stories ought to involve geophagia? Harvest many organs? Like to hail Satan?

Yeah, we got all that. Plus the fun sugar-skulled bulldog art of Loulabelle Hales.

So now we’re all full of awesome for the month.

Oh, but wait: have you heard of the upcoming Sherlock Holmes-themed issue? Out next year, and submissions are open now!

Against my better judgment: NaNoWriMo 2015

I don’t know quite why I’m getting myself into this, except that I don’t know what else to do.

I’ve had an idea for a novel for a couple of months now, but I haven’t done anything with it because I’m still in the middle of writing a different book. When it comes to big novel-length works, one project at a time, I say. But the novel I’m currently writing has been slow going these past several weeks, and I’ve come to wonder if this other novel idea is one of the reasons for that. I find myself thinking my way through the new story as often as I think my way through the book I’m supposed to be writing. Still, as an act of discipline, I have been resisting writing anything on that other, newer novel so I don’t lose sight of the story I’m supposed to be telling.

Until the other morning, when I was thinking about the third book while feeding our cats, and the primary driving force for this third novel suddenly appeared wholly formed and ready to go. If I had not needed to rush out the door and get to the classes I teach, I easily could have sat down to my laptop and typed out the first chapter, maybe some character notes.

Instead, I just scribbled a sentence or two about the direction this book is headed, and then thought about it through all of my commute to school.

And now it seems I’ll be working on it during NaNoWriMo.

To be perfectly honest, I am a bit nervous about this year’s attempt. Not because I’m reticent about the content — in fact, quite the opposite; I’m eager to get those ideas onto paper! — but because of the time constraints I’m facing this year. These last few years, experience has shown me that trying to balance a regular work schedule with this attempt to knock out a 50,000-word draft in 30 days, especially when those 30 days bridge midterm to finals, is incredibly difficult, and I have rarely been successful.

This year also brings the added complications of longer-than-usual commute times for some of my classes, the return of the Wordstock literary festival to Portland in the first week of November, and a contest I have agreed to judge this fall. Where exactly I think I will be able to squeeze in the hours it will take to generate more than 1,600 words each day, I don’t quite know. Already I am giving up a several hours of sleep each week, and I’m not as young as I used to be, so giving up yet more sleep is probably not going to be an option. And unfortunately, I’m already losing some of my pleasure-reading time — in fact, this year in general, I have read much less than I have in years past. My backlog of to-read books in my study is starting to pile dangerously high.

But one of the key points of NaNoWriMo is that it’s only 30 days. Whatever sacrifices I make in pursuit of this first draft, I will only have to make for one month. And then, thanks to my academic schedule, I will have only a couple of weeks left of school to wrap up that work and then I can finish working on that draft during my winter break (or, more likely, sleep for three weeks).

So, here I go, off on another NaNoWriMo. I’ve been successful at this before, after all. So here’s hoping I can pull it off again.

Book porn, autumn 2015

I don’t think I’ve posted any book porn since I brought back my tremendous stack of books from Sewanee more than two months ago. And yeah, I’ve barely made a dent in that stack but in the meantime, I have indeed still been collecting more books. The backlog, it is impressive.

Anyway, here are some of the books I’ve recently bought, swapped, or finished reading:

Clockwise from top-left: BODY PARTS, by Gayle Towell; BITCH PLANET, by name; TITLE by Shawne ???; PEOPLE LIKE YOU, by Margaret Malone; BEAR THE PALL, edited by Sally K. Lehman

Clockwise from top-left: BROKEN PARTS, by Gayle Towell; BITCH PLANET, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landroz; THE EXISTENTIALIST COOKBOOK, by Shawnte Orion; PEOPLE LIKE YOU, by Margaret Malone; BEAR THE PALL, edited by Sally K. Lehman

And here they are in a list:

Broken Parts, by Gayle Towell

This is the first book in a trilogy, the teaser-prequel to which, Blood Gravity, I’ve mentioned several times on the blog (and which I reviewed on Goodreads — it’s a hell of a book). I picked up this copy in August, when I read with Gayle as part of Christopher Bowen’s West Coast tour.

Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Extraordinary Machine, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landroz

I first heard about this comics series when author (and Portlander!) Kelly Sue DeConnick appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. The series sounds fascinating, and when a librarian and bibliophile friend of ours mentioned her interest in it, too, I knew I needed to pick up the first collected volume. (I’ve already read it, and it’s amazing — well-crafted and cleverly written, insightful social commentary wrapped up inside a brilliant send-up of exploitation film and literature.)

The Existentialist Cookbook, by Shawnte Orion

Recently, I was lucky enough to get invited to read with poet Shawnte Orion on his book tour for The Existentialist Cookbook. Dude is a fantastic presence on a stage, y’all! He puts on a highly entertaining reading.

People Like You, by Margaret Malone

This book is technically still forthcoming from Atelier26 Books. I got an early copy via Atelier26’s indie-press fundraiser several weeks back. I would have bought a copy of this one either way, really, because I loved the craft conversation I got to have with Margaret when we discussed John Carr Walker’s Repairable Men on Late Night Debut several months ago. So I’ve been eager for this book for a while now!

Bear the Pall: Stories & Poems About the Loss of a Parent, edited by Sally K. Lehman

Full disclosure: I blurbed this one, gang. And with good reason — it’s a beautiful anthology. Here’s what I wrote for the blurb: “How to sing a song of remembrance when our voice is gone in grief? What is the weight of a life when that life is gone — and how do we bear that weight? In love and sorrow and joy, in celebration and confusion and contemplation, the authors and poets in this slim but beautiful book have crafted a touching tribute to parenthood, a eulogy for fathers and mothers everywhere.”

But wait! There’s MORE book porn!

This past week, I had one of my classes read “The Sanctuary of School” by Lynda Barry, but I (rightly) assumed that none of them had heard of Lynda Barry and didn’t know she is a famous cartoonist. So I bought a copy of Barry’s much-lauded Syllabus and brought it to class. The students were taken aback a bit, but we spent almost a quarter of the class flipping through its pages, and we even tried a prose-adapted version of a drawing exercise in the book — it’s an inspiring text, and the students really got into it!

SYLLABUS, by Lynda Barry

SYLLABUS, by Lynda Barry

The same day I picked up Syllabus (at Portland indie fave Broadway Books, where Ellen Urbani was doing another event in support of the fantastic Landfall — another book I blurbed), I also found the 2015 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories, which I’ve been eager to get because it contains a story by a friend and Sewanee workshop colleague, Brenda Peynado!

Speaking of Sewanee: I’ve recently started reading two books, one of them by another Sewanee friend and the other by an author who’s repped by an agent I met at Sewanee:

Easiest If I Had a Gun, by Michael Gerhard Martin

I met Michael at Sewanee as we both were headed to dinner the first day — he was at the end of my conference dorm hall, and we frequently passed each other coming and going. He’s a super-cool guy, generous, great for a conversation. But I was planning on buying Michael’s book even before I put face to name and knew it was his, because, come on! There’s a kid on the cover who just lost a lightsaber battle!

I’ve been sitting on this for a couple months, but I finally picked it up this morning, and it doesn’t disappoint — the first story is excellent.

I Was a Revolutionary, by Andrew Malan Milward

I read about this book well ahead of its publication date — I was working on my current novel, set largely in the aftermath of the Civil War, and I was digging around for reading material and a teaser article for this book turned up in my results. It sounded like exactly the sort of thing I was looking to read, but alas, I was going to have to wait a few months to get a copy. In the meantime, at Sewanee, I was talking to literary agent Renée Zuckerbrot about her recently-sold My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh, and about Southern fiction, and about my book, and she mentioned she’d also recently sold a book about a subject similar to my novel’s — and it was Milward’s I Was a Revolutionary! Small world.

On that book’s release date, I was in San Francisco for a reading, and I picked this copy up at City Lights Books. And yeah, that first story? This is going to be a brilliant book, y’all.

I can start these two new books because I just finished reading two others:

Emma, by Jane Austen

Emma is the last Jane Austen I hadn’t read. I picked it up partly because I wanted to finish reading all of Jane’s novels (including her unfinished work, which I’d read in grad school), and partly because I had a student last spring who wants to be a writer but confessed she had tried Pride and Prejudice but didn’t get very far. I told her I was reading Emma this summer and challenged her to join me in reading Emma, too; soon, another student of mine opted in, and then my wife said she wanted to revisit Emma, so we had a kind of unofficial one-book club. But my wife and I decided, since we live together, to share the experience by reading Emma aloud to each other.

I plan to write more about this later, because it was a fascinating experience, but I wanted to note two things here: 1) that edition in the photo is actually my mother-in-law’s edition, published in 1964 and added to my mother-in-law’s collection in 1973; this is the copy my wife read as a girl and then took with her (along with her mother’s other Jane novels) when Jennifer and I got married. I love the heritage of that. And 2) yes, Emma is exasperating, as is the insufferable Miss Bates, and really most of the characters in the novel, but folks, try reading this thing out loud! Because the classic Jane satirical wit that is so biting and clever on the page is just plain uproarious aloud! This is a genuinely hilarious novel, and I don’t think I would have appreciated just how smart and searingly satirical it was if I hadn’t heard these voices and this narration aloud. Trust me: try it.

The Small Backs of Children, by Lidia Yuknavitch

I’ve already effused about this book in my post about Lidia’s launch party back in July, but I wanted to note here that I just finished reading it, and it is as brilliant (and as challenging) as everyone is saying it is. Truly stunning, inspiring writing. Get a copy, fortify yourself, and read it. Let it reach inside you and wrestle your intestines.

Disarming my words

I will no longer give trigger warnings to my students.

I will not shoot them emails; I will not fire off messages.

As a writer, I no longer have targets and I will no longer take aim at them. When I send out new stories for publication, I will not shotgun or scattergun my submissions — I will not bombard journals, will not send a barrage of stories to magazines. When I prepare a submission but fear rejection, I will not bite the bullet before sending out my work.

When I argue with people, I refuse to take potshots or cheap shots; I will not bring the big guns.

I might try to respond to arguments or situations as they arise, doing my best to think on my feet, so to speak — but I will never shoot from the hip. Conversely, no matter how prepared I am, I will never be locked and loaded.

I will solve no problems with silver bullets. Not even this one.

As a fiction writer, I will continue to write about guns and the violence they assist in. I write about our world, and as much as I loathe this, guns and gun violence are a major part of our world. This is not a call for censoring violence; this is no charge that violence begets violence, no claim that “the media made them do it.”

But for me, personally, in my daily language, I will seek whenever possible to set aside the metaphors of violence and firearms. Our language is rich, capable of so much — I have so many other ways to speak, to write. And besides, the realities of violence and firearms are far too prevalent as it is.

We are Umpqua Community College

This morning, a young man went to the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, walked into a writing classroom, and opened fire. As I write this, the most common reports are that twenty people are wounded, and thirteen people are dead, including the writing teacher.

I teach at Chemeketa Community College; today, I was at the Salem campus, about two hours north of Roseburg. I was teaching my writing class when the shooting occurred; I didn’t hear the news until I was in my car and on the way home.

Online, a number of dear friends immediately contacted me to express both their heartache at this violent tragedy and their relief that it wasn’t my campus. I am so grateful for these friends, for their deep and sincere concern. I love them so much for checking in like that.

But here’s the thing: it was my campus. It was yours, too.

I don’t teach at Umpqua Community College, but I do teach at a community college in Oregon, alongside several of my brilliant Oregon writer friends. My wife is a faculty librarian at another community college (I texted her the news; she’d already heard via her campus email); a few more friends, more of Oregon’s brilliant writers, also teach at her college. Other friends of mine and other writers I know teach at yet other community colleges, other four-year colleges, other universities.

We’re a family, in a way. All in this vocation for more or less the same reasons, with more or less the same fierce conviction in the talents and successes of our students.

This shooting could have happened to any of us. And today, it feels like it did.

Folks, I am gutted. I am dizzy, lost. I feel eviscerated by some emotion — some combination of genuine shock and conditioned resignation, of heartshaking grief and impotent rage — that I cannot find a word for.

I not even sure why I’m here writing this. It’s not to share the news — I refuse even to link to the story. You can find it if you want.

It’s not to offer solutions — the only solutions I know of, we’ve all known of for years, decades now, and as a society, America refuses to enact anything like those solutions. It’s not to arrive at insights — I am struck blank by this news, my mind razed.

It’s not to say or do the things I have said and done so many times before. So many shootings before.

So many shootings.

So many.

So many of us affected by it. So many of us emotionally wounded. All of us wounded. All of us Umpqua Community College. All of us Roseburg, Oregon.

All of us.