Advice, Camp, and Memes (or, A Hodgepodge of Belatedness)

13 Apr

This post is going to be a bit random in terms of content. Bear with me.

First of all, I want to take a moment to introduce you all to a website I absolutely love: CaptainAwkward.comWhy? Well, because this is my blog and I feel like it. :P But also because I feel like I’ve been telling lots of people about the Captain recently, so I figured I could spread the word more effectively if I wrote about it.

What is Captain Awkward? Short answer: an advice column for the 21st century.

Long answer: I can be a bit of an advice column junkie. I don’t exactly seek them out, but when I find them, I nearly always read them. Dear Abby, Ann Landers, Dear Prudence–I knew all the usual suspects growing up. But I think it’s safe to say that the Captain and her team of associate bloggers are my favorite advice columnists ever.

The Captain herself (image created by a reader, from her About page)

Why? Well it probably helps that they’re not limited by the width of a newspaper column—a blog post can be exactly as long as it needs to be to address a question with the thoroughness and sensitivity it deserves. But it’s also because they tackle problems with an amazing mixture of bravery, compassion, humor, frankness, well-placed profanity, incredible emotional intelligence, and lots of nerdy pop-culture references. Though the questions come from people from many locations and age groups, there’s a youthful quality to the site, in the best possible way–unlike the traditional image of the Agony Aunt, it’s like getting advice from an awesome older sister: she’s been there and done that, knows what you’re up against, and will cheer and support you through it. Plus, she’s come up with some hilarious/insightful terminology for common experiences, from the Darth Vader Boyfriend to the Golden Retriever/Kwisatz Haderach of Love to Firthing.

Final thing I love about Captain Awkward: the comments section. Normally, comments sections on the internet come with the implied “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here” sign hanging over the top. Not so here. In the same way that the NaNoWriMo forums are the friendliest internet forums I’ve ever found, Captain Awkward’s commenters are respectful, kind, sympathetic, funny, and savvy folks who have a lot of great stuff to add to the discussion. It’s always worth a trip to the comments section there. :)

Second piece of news: I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month! Probably should have mentioned it a couple weeks ago rather than now when we’re approaching the halfway point, but…yeah. Oh well. Unsurprisingly, I’m using Camp as an excuse to continue writing the Novel That Wouldn’t End (aka my WIP). That said, I’m taking a less fanatical approach to Camp this year, and I’m finding it’s working rather well. Namely, although I do have an overall wordcount goal for myself, I’m doing most of my writing by hand in a notebook. It’s slower, hence why I’m not being as strict about holding myself to a certain goal every day. But I am actually getting stuff written, which feels great. :D

Third and final piece: a few days ago, I was checking up on some old CPs (critique partners) of mine when I discovered that one of them—Juliana Brandt—had actually tagged me in one of those talk-about-your-novel meme posts…over a year ago. o.O Oops. So my next post will likely be doing that; better late than never, right? (Could do it in this post, I suppose, but it’s long enough as-is.)

So, dear Readers and Raptors: what’s that one website you love that you wish everyone would read? Feel free to share in the comments!

All Your Plants Are Belong to Me (or, Thievery for a Good Cause)

15 Mar

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably at least glanced at the sidebar. And if so, you’ve probably read my mini-bio. But in case you haven’t, it states that I am a:

Writer, reader, aspiring WWI historian, former literary agency intern, tea drinker, scone baker, language lover, dinosaur enthusiast, and compulsive adopter of orphaned plants.

You’ve likely seen evidence for most of those things. I’ve geeked out about war poets, posted book reviews and snippets of my own work, talked about my life as an intern, flailed about my love for tea, scones, languages, and dinosaurs.

Then there’s that last point: compulsive adopter of orphaned plants. What the heck?

It is, my friends, exactly what it sounds like.

You know how some people compulsively adopt stray animals? I’m like that, but with plants. Don’t know why. Can’t explain it, except that I feel so sad when I see someone neglect their plants, so a plant in need is a plant I’m likely to abscond with.

Yesterday, my mom took me to the mall to go shopping. This was an action born of necessity, not desire; shopping for clothing is one of my less favorite things to do, and my mother hates the mall. I also happened to be sick with the world’s worst headcold. I was a hacking coughing sneezing snotty mess (you’re welcome for that mental image). Probably not a good day to take me out in public, but as I said, this was necessary shopping. So I loaded up my pockets with tissues, and off we went.

We got the stuff we came for pretty quickly, as it turned out. So on our way to the parking lot, we ended up taking a detour through a couple of other stores, including a Starbucks where my mother bought her poor ailing daughter a cup of tea. We were almost back to the car when my mom decided to stop at one more store. I didn’t follow her in. I’m sure the store clerks had better things to worry about than whether or not the bedraggled, snot-faced zombie was going to infect their place of employment. Instead, I stood outside in the sunshine, finishing my tea, sniffling loudly, and gazing—with the pointless, abstract fascination that comes from being not all there, mentally-speaking—at the potted trees planted on either side of the store’s entrance.

Eventually, in my hazy state, I noticed that around the base of each potted tree, a number of sprouts and seedlings were poking their heads up out of the potting soil. And while the seed-leaves were rounded and generic-looking, the first real leaves looked exactly like the new leaves sprouting from the branches of the tree overhead. Meaning that these weeds were, in fact, baby trees. And, if left there, they’d inevitably be weeded out by whoever cares for the mall’s potted plants.

If you paid attention at the beginning of the story, you should be able to see where this is going.

I walked into the store and accosted one of the employees. Our conversation:

Me: Hey, umm…

Her: Yes, can I help you?

Me: Can I take one of the seedlings from your pots?

Her: I’m sorry?

Me: *pointing* Those pots outside have baby trees growing in them. Can I have one?

Her: Uh…well, they’re the mall’s trees, not ours…

Me: The mall’s people will pull them out.

Her: Well…I…*takes in my disheveled, mucousy appearance*

Me: *stares*

Her: Well, I don’t see why not.

So I took one. I scooped it out of the clayey planting soil, wrapped the soil and root in one of the tissues from my pocket, and nestled the little bundle next to the teabag at the bottom of my empty Starbucks cup.

Photo 465

So cute, isn’t it?? :D There was already some liquid in there from the tea, but when we finally got back to the car, I drizzled a bit of water in there as well to keep everything nice and moist.

Photo 460

It was a warm day, so as we drove home, I kept leaning over to check that the plant was okay (didn’t want him to get jostled too much by the bumpy road, or to wilt in the heat). At which point I realized that he needed a name. (I name all my plants: Fred, Philip, Georgiana, Smuckers, Corm, Son of Corm, etc.)

Me: I think I’ll name him Arthur.

Mom: Don’t you already have a plant named Arthur?

Me: No, I have a character named Arthur. But you’re right, I should pick something else.

Mom: “Siegfried”?

Me: *rolling my eyes* Ha ha. No. That’s part of my stuffed velociraptor’s name, anyway. I suppose I could call him Wilfred. *pause* No, wait. That’s part of the velociraptor’s name too.* But something war-poet-related would be good. 

In the end, I named him Edmund Arthur. And today, I transferred baby Eddy to his new home. :) :) :)

Photo 461Photo 467Photo 468Photo 470

And that is the story of how I stole a baby tree from the mall, named it after a war poet, and gave it a home. I am, and I  shall remain, a compulsive adopter of orphaned plants.

Photo 471

A curious Winston says hello to Edmund

* The velociraptor’s full name is Winston Wilfred Siegfried Sassoon, in case you’re wondering. He was named by Facebook vote. I wanted a WWI-related name and asked people to suggest names and/or vote for their favorites. Those were the top four options in the end, so I used them all.

Laughing at Gold Medals (or, Olympics and Happiness)

17 Feb

Three facts you should know about me:

  1. I love happy people. I love making people happy and I love watching people smile and laugh and get excited about things.
  2. I love the Olympics. 
    Okay, I can say that, but I don’t think you understand. We all toss the word “love” around pretty casually, declaring our love for everything from our families to sandwiches. But I love the Olympics. The Olympic Games are quite literally one of my favorite things on earth, and have been since I watched the Nagano 1998 Games as a kid.
  3. I have a funny reaction to happiness. I mean that in both a figurative and literal sense. Where most people seem to grin a lot or whoop or jump up and down…I mean, I do those things too sometimes. But I also just…laugh. Sometimes I giggle until I actually cry tears of happiness. This is often very confusing for people who don’t know me well. Them: “Uhh…is there something funny about that?” Me: *wiping away tears of laughter* “No! It’s beautiful and wonderful and I’m so happy!”

Put these three things together and you will understand why I have spent a lot of time in the last week laughing with utter delight.

I’m not much of a sports person most of the time; I enjoy downhill skiing and have attended myriad soccer matches, but beyond that, sports-apathy is the name of the game. But there’s something special about the Olympics. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s only every couple of years (though the Winter Games are actually my favorite, so I look forward to those even more). Maybe it’s the spirit behind the Games–the idea that, just for two weeks, the nations of the world attempt to set aside their differences and try to compete with grace, honor, and sportsmanship. (We rarely live up to the ideal, but I appreciate it nonetheless.) Maybe it’s the Parade of Nations, full of beautiful, smiling people. Maybe it’s the nerve-wracking photo finishes. Maybe it’s marveling at what human beings are capable of. Maybe it’s all of the above and more.

I grant you: these particular Olympics are the most fraught ones I can remember seeing. #SochiProblemsRussia’s horrendous policies towards the LGBTQ community (and stray dogs), Russian hackers, NBC’s terrible coverage and commentary…the list goes on. I understand and respect why some people have chosen to boycott the games; I’m angry about a lot of this stuff too. And, I love the Olympics. It is perhaps one of the few facets of international interaction that I am not completely cynical about. 

So I’m choosing to do my best to laugh as much as I possibly can in this last week of competition. Doing my best to marvel at humans and what they can accomplish, and doing my best to appreciate the Olympic spirit. Because if nothing else, the world could use more happiness, and 2016 and Rio de Janeiro are such an awfully long way away…

Assembling Mango-stein’s Monster (or, Writing Connective Tissue)

29 Jan

Remember that time I started writing a book?

By which I mean, remember that time I did NaNoWriMo three times (2 regular NaNos, 1 Camp NaNo) with the same manuscript? Remember how I have about a zillion different documents and sub-documents on Word and Scrivener, all of them filled with scenes and characters and research and more?

Picture 57

I remember. By which I mean, I’m in the process of re-membering: putting pieces together like Dr. Frankenstein. For the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with how best to proceed with this story (now that I’ve taken the requisite time off from the manuscript post-NaNo). The obvious thing to do would be to just keep writing—push through until the entire glorious mess of a manuscript has at least one beginning, middle, and end instead of 2.5 beginnings and a patchy middle.

The issue was that I didn’t want to.

I mean, obviously I wanted to write, and I wanted to tell the whole story. But the notion of ploughing ahead when I don’t have the beginning sorted out…I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for the idea because it just bothered me. I had too many beginnings. I had too many scenes with multiple versions. I hadn’t decided for sure on how certain events would play out and had written them various ways, then simply left them like that. If you want to push the Frankenstein metaphor, I had a basket full of legs, one set of hips, and a few heads to choose from–but no torso or arms. (A daunting prospect for any Modern Prometheus.)

For a long time, it stymied me. I would do background and worldbuilding and character development and plotting—anything to avoid confronting the heap of dismembered limbs on my hard drive. (Ew?) And then I remembered that, while the NaNoWriMo adage of “get it written, then get it right” is good advice in a 30-day writing challenge, I hadn’t actually followed that advice in my post-NaNo life—and not following it had resulted in at least one complete manuscript. Case in point:

Several years ago, when I did NaNo for the first time and created the draft that became Unfamiliar Spellings, I spent several months away from that Word doc. When I came back to it, I realized that a lot needed to change. Unlike Shadeshock, my sense of the story’s direction was foggy at best, but I knew that the form I had, while readable, wasn’t functional. So rather than forging ahead, I backtracked. I tweaked and pushed and pulled and rewrote tons of material until the first half of the book actually looked like the first half of a book. I wound it up with plot and intrigue and new characters, and I set the story loose.

The darn thing wrote itself.

It was one of the easiest writing experiences I’d ever had; words and events flowed onto the page without conscious thought, and SOMEHOW, it all made sense. To this day, the second half of the story works so well that I’ve barely changed a thing, plot/structure-wise.

It’s probably too much to hope that the exact same thing will occur when I’ve finished assembling the current project’s various limbs. Nevertheless, I am working. Creating connective tissue. Sorting and hacking and twisting and stitching and tugging these disparate parts into an organized form. Part of me wishes I could stop to fix the bloated and utterly pedestrian NaNo prose, but the objective for now is just a cohesive narrative. (In that sense at least, “get it written, then get it right” is completely applicable.) And with any luck, by the time this process is over, I’ll have a solid jumping-off point for the rest of the story.

And then I’ll write the rest.

And then maybe, just maybe,

at (very) long last,

I’ll let somebody read it.

My (Powell’s) Book Haul + Book Recommendation Request!

16 Jan

(Two blog posts in one day! Crazy, I know. I guess I’m making up for the inadvertent hiatus caused by my travels. Or I’m really just impatient to talk about books. One of these two things. :P)

So I went to Powell’s recently, as you may recall. And it resulted in a…oh, you know. A few small purchases.

Photo 393

From top to bottom, left and then right:

  1. Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, by Robert Service (a 1916 first edition!)
  2. The Face of Battle, by John Keegan
  3. The Beauty and the Sorrow, by Peter Englund
  4. The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler (was free, since it’s an ARC)
  5. The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front, by Peter Hart & Nigel Steel 
  6. War Verse, edited by Frank Foxcroft (1918)
  7. The Complete Poems of John Keats, edited by the Wordsworth Poetry Library
  8. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard
  9. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
  10. Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East, by Roger Ford
  11. Some Desperate Glory: The WWI Diary of a British Officer, 1917, by Edwin Campion Vaughan

Really, it’s a miracle that I managed to fit them all into my suitcase to fly home. And lest you think me richer than I am: it took all of my Christmas book money to do it (majorly helped by some discounts). Oh, but it’s a thing of beauty! I’m particularly enamored of the two war poetry tomes: they smell deliciously of old book. :D I’m particularly excited to read A Monster Calls—I’ve heard nothing but good things about it (if by “good things” I mean people saying “oh my God that book made me cry please read it”).

All of that said, certain people *coughMarkcough* :P are sad about the fact that this list is only about 27% fiction (the rest being poetry and nonfiction). SO: I still have some leftover birthday money in the form of a Barnes & Noble gift card, and if anyone has fiction recommendations, I’m all ears! What are you reading these days (particularly in the way of MG/YA fiction)?

“Books; what a jolly company they are…” (or, On being a Peace-lover who reads about War)

16 Jan

Sometimes I astonish myself.

Last week, I visited my dear friend Azalea in Portland, Oregon, and not unsurprisingly (because we are book nerds), we spent a fair bit of time in Powell’s Books (it is also Azalea’s place of employment, the lucky duck). For those of you who have not heard of Powell’s: prepare to have your eyes opened to wonders. It’s the  largest independent bookstore in the world (or claims to be, anyway). Their main store location is called Powell’s City of Books because it is literally an entire city block, with multiple stories (oho, punny), filled with every sort of book you can possibly imagine, and a coffee shop with delicious chai.

John M. Vincent / The Oregonian / 2006

I would live there if I could. :D

At any rate, you can probably imagine where I found myself a lot of the time when I was there. The Gold Room, which is where the science fiction and fantasy reside. The Rose Room, where the MG/YA fiction sprawls, vast and glorious. And…the Purple Room, where military history lives.

If you can’t guess what kind of military history, I’m very disappointed in you.

But what astonishes me is the realization (over a year after the fact) of how my life has been turned upside down by the First World War.

I was thinking about this when I was sitting on Azalea’s bed and flipping through a book she had acquired called Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle, by Richard Holmes. As I paged through it, I suddenly let out a startled little laugh. Azalea looked up in surprise.


I shrugged. I might have explained, or maybe I only explained to her in my head; I can’t remember. But I do remember the thought that prompted the laugh: it was the sudden awareness of myself, sitting there, reading a book on the psychology of combat and intently searching out the details pertaining to my war.

My war. My war.

My God but it’s absurd. I don’t have a war! I’m not a soldier. I’ve never even been in a fistfight, let alone a combat zone. I’m horrified by violence, hate watching gun and artillery use in films, will often bend over backwards to settle interpersonal conflicts calmly/peacefully, and have a lifelong irrational phobia of physical mutilation/injury that has prevented me from even considering getting a tattoo, much less a piercing of any kind.

“My war”? What the hell?

It’s not a new train of thought—far from it. It’s been a common recurring reaction since the fall of 2012, and definitely since this time last year. I think what made me laugh in this moment was the fact that Acts of War is the sort of book that would have held 0% interest for me two years ago. Less than that, actually. Active dislike. I wouldn’t just have ignored it; I’d have avoided it. Discussion of the kinds of things that frighten me most? Why on earth would I want to read about that?

And yet there I was, reading.

I’ll be frank: WWI isn’t easy to read about (in case you were wondering). And as someone who spends and inordinate amount of time reading, thinking, and talking about it, I vacillate between a kind of callous numbness and active horror; it depends on the day, my mood, and the material itself. This confuses people, understandably. If you don’t know me well, it’s unlikely I’m going to let you see me in my more vulnerable WWI-induced moments, so I don’t blame you if you’re baffled by how a generally cheery, optimistic, thoughtful person can deal with learning about this stuff and remain emotionally unscathed.

The truth is that I’m not unscathed. But neither am I wounded, and in the end, I’m always okay. Really, I am. And the only explanation I can offer for why I put myself through this is that, on some level, it feels like a duty. Like I owe it to the people who experienced the war to learn about what happened, even when it hurts to do so. Like it’s something I promised to do ages ago and simply forgot about until last fall. Those people had to live through it; the least I can do is bear witness and, someday, tell their stories as best I can. And it’s the human experiences—the people—that actively fascinate me.

I guess the point is that I still have plenty of times where I realize how absurd it is for me, of all people, to be the person this fascination happens to. I’m not the military-history-buff type; I’m the peace-loving little hobbit who agrees to take the Ring to Mordor.* And even as the people around me get used to the idea of me being a WWI history nerd, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it, if only because of moments like the one I described.

But I continue to be fascinated, and I continue to learn. So thank you for your patience and understanding. :)

*** *** ***

In general housekeeping news, hello! I’m back from a two-week-long voyage to visit some dear friends in Seattle and Portland, and lovely times were had by all! There was much tasting of chocolate and drinking of tea and seeing of sights and hugging of wonderful people. :D But I’m back to my regular blogging schedule now, so you’ll hear from me again soon.

*** *** ***

* An inadvertently apt metaphor, come to think of it—Tolkein fought in WWI and his wartime experiences influenced his writing a great deal. He apparently described Sam and Frodo’s relationship as exactly that of a young officer and his devoted soldier servant in the trenches. And the parallels between the Dead Marshes/Mordor and the blasted landscapes of the trenches/No-man’s Land should be pretty damn obvious.

Reviewing the Past and Foretelling the Future (or, “In 20 and 14 we took a little trip…”)

1 Jan

2013 was a hell of a year.

Which is odd, because it doesn’t feel like a big year for some reason. There are some years where I look back over my shoulder (come New Year’s Eve/Day) and whistle under my breath. “Whooeee. What a year.” That isn’t the case with 2013; it’s sly. Its peaks and valleys are precipitous, but camouflaged. When I look at it objectively, though, some crazy/awesome/intense/memorable stuff comes to light. Off the top of my head:

  • Almost exactly a year ago, I nearly died of shock and excitement upon discovering that my university’s rare books archives had collections of letters written by Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves.
  • A fortnight later, I visited the archives for the first time, and the next thing I knew I was visiting the archives a couple times a week for nearly the entire semester, poring over dozens and dozens of letters, books, photographs, and postcards.
  • My obsession with the First World War did  nothing but grow, to the point where I literally shaped my course schedule around it during my final semester of university. In spite of the fact that my degree is in psychology, I ended up taking WWI, Gender, and Literature and Cinema of War, not to mention making my other non-war-related classes about WWI: for Abnormal Psychology, I read and wrote about shellshock and British military psychiatry; for Statistics, I analyzed the international interactions of the July Crisis of 1914; for my writing course, I wrote incessantly about WWI (thank God my assigned writing tutor was a sympathetic Brit who could converse intelligently about the facts and literature of the war).
  • And I learned so much about WWI. SO. MUCH. To the point where, even though last January I knew a hell of a lot more than the average person, I actually laugh when I think back on how little I knew, in the grand scheme of things. Come to think of it, I’m still pretty convinced I know nothing (and I don’t know if I’ll ever know enough to write a novel set during WWI ahahahaha *weeps*).
  • I decided I wanted to go to grad school. In the UK. A huge shift for me (the grad school part, not the UK part).
  • I graduated. It happened eight months ago and still feels unreal. Like, I’m a university graduate now. I have a bachelors degree in psychology (or a fancy piece of paper with my name and lots of Latin on it that is apparently representative of my degree). How the heck did that happen??
  • Wore a British Brodie helmet for Class Day. :) I’m still inordinately pleased with myself about this.
  • Traveled to China and Hong Kong with my university’s choir!
  • Wrote a bunch during Camp NaNoWriMo, then a bunch more during NaNoWriMo proper (oh yes, I won NaNo again, by the by!).
  • Read many, many books (though still not as many as I would like).

Finally, the obvious thing you’re probably all thinking about: I blogged far less this year than any other year. I am sorry! *hangs head* And while laziness and busyness probably factor in at some level, a lot of it is a function of me spending so much time on WWI and thus having less writing-related stuff to talk about this year (writing being the primary subject of this blog). Which is not to say that I did no writing this year! *points to the penultimate bullet point* I’ve just been…sidetracked. And while I fully intend to continue obsessing over WWI, I want to fix this irregular blogging of mine.

2014 will be a hell of a year.

It’s odd to say that too, because it’s a strong feeling—a kind of glowing warmth in the pit of my stomach—rather than concrete facts. Perhaps 2014 will be a hell of a year simply because it’s 2014. For those of you who don’t measure time in relation to historical events, 2014 marks the centenary (i.e. 100 year anniversary) of the beginning of World War One. The next five years are going to be packed with films, television shows, lectures, exhibits, projects, and books about WWI. It’s going to be incredible.

Or perhaps it will be a hell of a year because I’m not going to be at home next fall. Whether that means grad school or a job in the publishing industry or something else entirely, I do not know what 2014 will bring—but whatever it turns out to be, I’m definitely going places and doing things. Which is an exciting and terrifying feeling.

But a few concrete things I want to do. Not resolutions per se. Just goals. A to-do list:

  • blog at least once a week
  • finish the final installment of the “How to Write a Snarky Character” series (long overdue)
  • finish a complete draft of this freaking novel so help me God
  • read 42 books in 52 weeks (and try to balance my WWI and fiction intake)

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I salute you! And from Fred and me to you: a very happy New Year, dear readers and raptors! May your 2014 be as full and exciting as we expect ours to be. :)


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