Not Alone

I’ve tried many times to write about my story with multiple sclerosis, but every time, I can’t do it. Quite honestly, I don’t know what to say. Many blog posts offer tips and words of wisdom for others newly diagnosed. I don’t know where to begin — MS is such an individual illness, with no two cases exactly the same, so what works for me may not work for anyone else.

But maybe that’s just been my excuse. The thing is, it’s not easy to talk about. Even when I think I’m fine, when someone asks about it, I often realize I’m not. (Tears and awkwardness ensue.)

While I’m doing great now 2 1/2 years post-diagnosis, it was a different story three years ago. It’s not easy to revisit the scary weeks where I struggled to walk and had no idea why. Or the cold December day when I was diagnosed; I always flash to the moment after my appointment, as I sat in the hotel room across from the Mayo Clinic, staring in a mirror (very cliche-like), thinking about my future. The fear. The sadness. The uncertainty.

But May 25 is World MS Day, and I told myself that today, I would talk about it. Today, I would share something of value that could potentially lift up someone else struggling. The theme for World MS Day is Stronger than MS, and I had no problem thinking about what makes me stronger.

Not what, but who. Me kids MS Walk 2016

Because when I think back to that cold December day, I also think about my husband, driving us to Rochester through a blizzard on his birthday because we couldn’t go one more day without answers. He’s been by my side every day since, on good days and bad. In sickness and in health.

I think about my parents, driving six hours to take care of my little ones — one of whom had the stomach flu — so that we could go get those answers. I think about the text messages and phone calls from my sisters. I think about how, when I was sitting staring into that mirror, I was also staring at a dozen red roses, which my best friends had sent to my room, because even though they weren’t there with me physically, they were still with me. All of my friends and family have been with me ever since.

MS Walk 2016I think about my kids, who give me joy and strength every day. We completed the three-mile MS Walk this month. I took it as an opportunity to remind my 8-year-old about when Mom couldn’t walk very well, how it’s important for me to walk now because I can, and how much I appreciated him walking alongside me.

I think about the other MS Warriors I have met along the way, who have provided insight and a listening ear as I’ve navigated this uncertain disease. They are all what make me stronger than MS.

And so what I would say — what I am finally saying — to others newly diagnosed with MS is this: You are not alone. In this darkest hour, turn to those who give you light. Your family, friends, church community, co-workers. It’s scary to bring it up — and yes, tears and awkwardness might ensue. But you know what? You get through it. People are nice. They might not understand, they might not always say the right things, but they care. They want to help.

If you ever feel you don’t have someone you can turn to, please check out the National MS Society. They have loads of information; they hold several events; and they could help find a support group in your area. Or, check out their MS Connections feature, which connects people with MS to each other for support and sharing.

A lot of uncertainty comes with having MS. But one thing is certain: You don’t have to face it alone.

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Staying in the Game

Baseball 2016Lately my family has been busy with baseball – if there’s not a game, there’s practice, and if there’s not practice, we’re outside in the evening pitching to my 8-year-old aspiring major leaguer.

Of course, with baseball comes the heartache of striking out. And I have to say, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child go through a pain that you, too, have endured.

As he’s dealt with his first strikeouts, I’ve tried to impart encouragement:

You have to believe in yourself – you have to believe that you can do it.

But you also have to work hard – you have to practice your swing, practice keeping your eye on the ball.

But no matter what happens, you have to remember that it’s supposed to be fun. Win or lose, strikeout or homerun, stay in the game because you enjoy it.

As I’ve repeated these phrases, it finally occurred to me that I needed to take a look in the mirror. I’m usually one who cringes at sports metaphors, so I apologize, but I realized I need to take my own advice.

I will inevitably strike out – rejections will come. But one strikeout doesn’t mean I’m out of the game forever. Neither does two strikeouts. Or ten.

I need to remember why I do it – because I love it, because now that I’ve finally followed this dream, I couldn’t imagine not pursuing it.

I need to continue to work hard – to practice my writing – and believe in my stories.

Whatever your game is – be it baseball or writing or something else entirely – don’t let one setback bench you forever. Get back in the game, work hard, have fun, and believe.

Always believe.

Just Beat It

I’ll be the first to say that crafting a 35-word pitch used to be such a daunting task — it seemed nearly impossible to me. Then I entered Pitch Slam and Pitch Madness. Thanks to what I’ve learned from these wonderful contests, something clicked. I’m still not perfect at writing pitches, but now, I actually find it fun.

Now, I like to create pitches for WIPs. I’ve already created a pitch for my WF thriller — complete with comp titles, another thing I’ve really struggled with!

And speaking of areas of difficulty…enter the beat sheet. I probably should be embarrassed to admit that I’m just now discovering them. But the truth is, I am way too excited to be embarrassed. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of them before. “Save the Cat” came up at the first conference I attended last summer. At that point, though, my first manuscript was largely finished, so I filed it under “helpful things for later.”

Well, later turned out to be about a week ago. I found a nice template online and decided to fill one out for my finished manuscript. It was so cool to see what fit where. I can see how it’ll be a helpful tool if and when I need to revise again (which of course I’ll inevitably have to, at least to some degree).

So then I thought, why stop there? Within about a half hour, I had completed beat sheets for three WIPs: the manuscript that I’ve completed a first draft of (a sequel to the manuscript I’m querying); one for that women’s fiction thriller I recently started; and one for a YA with magical realism I started previously and have picked back up again.

Suddenly, I had road maps for all of these stories floating around in my brain. I do want to be careful not to plot things out too strictly — I’m a panster by nature, after all. But I’m continuously seeing the value of a certain amount of plotting.

Overall, it’s a great feeling to see improvement in those tough areas. And believe me, there are plenty of other such areas…comps, as I mentioned. Knowing when to revise — and sorting through conflicting feedback — is another. So is maintaining this blog.

But I’m working on not letting those things overwhelm me. Instead, I’m focusing on those moments when something clicks and becomes easier — like pitches, or beat sheets. I’m working on celebrating my successes, however small they may be, one step at a time.

What aspects of the writing process do you struggle with?

On Endings

Monday night was rough.More books for blog

I know that sentence conjures up images of raucous nights of partying, perhaps a high-speed chase or an arrest. But I’m talking “bad” from a viewer/reader sense. First, I was quite disappointed with the ending of The X-Files. Yeah, I’m talking about THAT cliff-hanger. Then later that night I finished a book, and it, too, had a surprising – and disappointing – ending.

After some (much) initial complaining to my husband and friends, I decided to turn things around and learn from this. I’m a writer – certainly I could benefit from examining exactly what irked me so much about these endings. Here’s what I’ve determined:

X-FILES

The issue: In case you missed my last post, I was a die-hard fan in the 90s, and I viewed this year’s resurrection as a farewell season that would answer questions and tie up loose ends. Instead, they ended what is supposed to be the final show ever with an abrupt, confusing cliff-hanger. I’m hoping this means another season or another movie, but thus far nothing has been confirmed.

The lesson: Don’t leave your fans hanging. If you don’t have a sequel waiting in the wings, don’t leave your ending so open that readers are left lost and irritated. Sure, there’s room for a bit of mystery/ambiguity sometimes, so the reader can fill in some blanks. At the end of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, we don’t know where Offred is being taken (to a good place or bad), except away from her current horrible situation. The “historical notes” provide just enough clues to satisfy me as a reader. But to me, this is the exception. Usually, I want resolution, closure, satisfaction.

BOOK

The issue: I’m not naming this book because I don’t want to be a jerk and also in case anyone else is reading it. The book is superbly written; this is an excellent author. But, the ending (again, to me) was a disappointment. Readers find out in the last 10 pages that things weren’t as they seemed – the MC had already died, some characters never even existed. Later, I realized this ending could be a way to show there have been so many lives cut short throughout humankind’s history of wars, etc., and this was a way to imagine how one of these lives could’ve been led. But here’s the thing: I’d invested a lot of time and energy into this 450-page novel. I felt betrayed, honestly. I cared about those characters who ended up not being real. (OK, yes, I know this is fiction, so technically none of the characters are real, but you get my point.)

The lesson: Don’t trick your readers. You want them to feel happy they’ve invested in your characters and your story, not end up feeling cheated. I do love twists, but I also think timing is key. I can’t say for sure, but it might have helped if I would’ve known about this plot twist sooner and had more time to come to terms with it. Think about GONE GIRL – you go through half the book thinking Nick is a wife killer on top of being a douche, and then halfway through you’re thrown the curve of whoa! She’s alive! He’s not a killer, just a douche! But you have plenty of time to process it. And then you as a reader are in on the the secret.

The disclaimer: I realize a lot of this boils down to personal preference on my part. These are my interpretations of the endings – these are the lessons I am personally taking away from them. Other readers and writers could and likely would disagree – perhaps you do, too, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

As for me, I’ll definitely be applying these lessons to my writing from now. I might even go back through my finished work and try to determine if I’ve made these mistakes. Of course there is no way to please everyone, but you can work hard to create the best possible experience for your readers. I think that’s every author’s goal.

I Want to Believe

X-Files book

I got this book as a birthday present circa 1996.

Something revolutionary happened this month.

My all-time favorite show as a teen returned to television. And the new X-Files is amazing, if you ask me. I heart Mulder and Scully today as much as I did 20 years ago.

Before this new season began, I had fun catching up with the last few seasons and the second movie. I enjoyed the anticipation leading up to the premiere.

And I have absolutely loved the camaraderie of tweeting about the show with other X-Files fanatics. This is what has been the true revolution for me: the realization that there are so many fans out there – that they were there, like me, back in the 1990s.

Yes, this show about us as humans not being alone has now helped me realize I was not alone. Growing up in a small Midwestern town in the 1990s, I had no social media to connect me with like-minded X-Philes following the adventures of FBI’s finest agents. Now, a part of me wishes I could tell my teenage self that she wasn’t alone in her interests.

X-Files drawing

And here is the fan art I drew as a teen. 🙂

I would also tell her: Love what you love. Watch the TV shows you want to watch. Read the books you want to read. Be who you are.

I’ll have to be content with living that truth now, and I’ll add one more: Write what you want to write. Stories from the heart are what speak to people and help inspire them to be who they are.

That truth has always been out there. And I want to believe it.

2016 Reading Challenge

Last year, I made the mistake of not keeping track of how many books I read. I hope to not repeat Book challenge 2016that mistake this year, so my plan for 2016 is to make it official with this post, and to keep updating it as I complete books.

I don’t have a specific number I’m trying to achieve, but I came across a 2016 reading challenge that includes the following categories:

  1. A book published this year: ON THE EDGE OF GONE (December)
  2. A book you can finish in a day: DUCK ON A BIKE (June)
  3. A book you’ve been meaning to read: THE HISTORY of LOVE (January)
  4. A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller: NEVERWHERE (March)
  5. A book you should have read in school: GROWTH HACKER MARKETING (December)
  6. A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (July)
  7. A book published before you were born: THE BELL JAR (April)
  8. A book that was banned at some point: THE ZAHIR (August)
  9. A book you previously abandoned: THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST (October)
  10. A book you own but have never read:
  11. A book that intimidates you: WRITTEN ON THE BODY (January)
  12. A book you’ve read already at least once:

I love this idea, and I’m already thinking of books on my (ever-growing) TBR list that fit some of the categories. I’m currently halfway through THE HISTORY of LOVE (amazing so far), which will be one that I’ve been meaning to read. [UPDATE Jan. 29: Finished and added to list!] I’m also reading HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE with my son, which fits number six. And I think I’ll pick an old favorite, JANE EYRE, for number 12.

I can’t wait to start filling these categories in! What are your reading goals for the year?

UPDATE: I realized I need to add an “other” category because I keep reading books that don’t fit any categories!

OTHER 2016 READS:

SHARP OBJECTS (February)

A GOD IN RUINS (February)

BIG LITTLE LIES (March)

ME BEFORE YOU (March)

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (May)

DARK PLACES (June)

LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE (September)

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (October)

A MONSTER CALLS (November)

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (December)

2016 in one word…or two?

To speak a little more about New Year’s resolutions…well, I’m all for them, obviously. The past few years we have set resolutions for the whole 2016 resolutionsfamily. Cheesy, perhaps, but I think it’s good for the kids to learn about setting goals, and for us to talk about what new experiences we want to pursue in the year ahead.

But as much as I like resolutions, it’s easy for them to become overwhelming and unattainable. Besides my one specific resolution (finish my next book), the rest of mine are pretty broad and a bit cliche, I admit: eat more healthy foods, exercise more consistently, spend more time with family.

Which one do I focus on first? How do I manage all of these different goals?

The other night at book club, one of my friends mentioned the idea of boiling down all your resolutions into one word for the year. The more I think about this concept, the more it makes sense.

The first word that came to mind was balance. But, real talk here: I kind of cringe at that word. It conjures images of a stopwatch that goes off when you’ve spent too much time on one priority/area of your life, blaring in your ear when you need to hustle off to the next. Balance is anxiety-inducing for me, so I dismissed that idea.

Right now I’m fluctuating between two that I believe fit better: care and presence. Both of these words bring a sense of calm and peace, and the reminder that it’s important to take care of myself and my loved ones, and to truly enjoy the moments with them.

Maybe having two words is just fine. So I hereby announce that 2016 shall be my year of care and presence. Let’s see what this year brings!

How about you? If you had to come up with one word (or two!) to focus on this year, what would it be?