Best-Laid Plans

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,/Gang aft angly*.” –Robert Burns, from “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”

*awry

As you know, I look forward every year to Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The week-long workshop is the highlight of my writing year. This year, however, was special; the faculty asked if I’d be an alumnae reader. I was thrilled and honored, and because my first novel, A War of Deception, had just come out, it was also serendipitous.

“Class” Reunion

On Sunday evening after everyone’s arrival, we go to dinner, meet with our workshop instructor, meet our fellow work-shoppers, and go over the plan for the week. Because this was my sixth year at Tinker, this has become like a yearly class reunion. A lot of attendees are repeat “offenders.”

I was excited about my workshop, “A Writer’s Retreat,” led by Dan Mueller from the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Mueller called this a “generative” workshop, meaning we’d read a short story the night before, receive a prompt, and come back the next with something we’d just written to share. It’s certainly a break from the typical workshop where you submit 20-40 pages ahead of time and come prepared to comment in depth on the work of every other person in the workshop.

I left the after-dinner faculty readings with anticipation.

Day One

Monday turned out to be a typical Monday. Nothing went right. I’d discovered the night before that I’d neglected to bring enough of a post-operation medication. Annoying and totally my fault for not double-checking or bringing the whole bottle with me instead of filling a pillbox for each day of the week.

A quick call to the doctor’s office, and he called in a prescription to a nearby CVS. After the afternoon craft lecture by Fred Leebron (on using and creating writing prompts; fascinating and erudite as usual), I walked back to the dorm parking lot to get my car and go pick up the medication.

On the drive there, I felt extreme fatigue, in that I wanted to take a serious nap. I attributed it to the fact I’d walked three and a quarter miles that day and I was 10 days post-op for heart surgery.

I got the meds and headed back to Hollins.

Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop used to be the only June event at Hollins. Then, they added a similar workshop for potters. In subsequent years they added a youth music camp and a youth dance camp. The quiet cafeteria became full and boisterous. The parking lots for the main dormitory became overflowing.

As I discovered when I returned from CVS. There was no place to park near the dorm, and by now my fatigue had become acute. After driving around a bit and waiting to see if someone freed up a space, I flagged down a campus security guard, explained my fatigue and its likely cause, and asked for some suggestions. The best he could offer was to park in the fitness center parking lot, close to the dorm but an extra distance to walk. It was all I had.

I took a nap but felt no better. I was still so fatigued, I asked someone to drive me to dinner. Again, I figured I’d pushed myself too hard, post-op. I decided a good night’s rest and driving myself to breakfast the next morning would mean less walking and less of a chance of repeating the fatigue.

Day Two

A good night’s sleep, and I was ready to go. As the day went on my energy level stayed steady. The workshop was great. I read a piece of flash fiction I’d written the afternoon before and got good feedback. Pinckney Benedict’s craft lecture on “Logos vs Pathos” was intriguing and thought-provoking, again as usual.

I spent the afternoon doing homework in the cafeteria, rather than doing too much walking, had my one-on-one with Dan, and was looking forward to dinner.

As I ate dinner, I felt the fatigue come on again, not as intense as before, but I decided to forego the student readings that evening to make sure I got plenty of sleep.

This time when I got back to the dorm parking lot, there was a parking spot, but by the time I reached the front door of the dorm, I felt as if I’d run a marathon.

In my room, I drank plenty of water and felt better, and I sat down to do a little novel revising. Around eight-thirty, a tickle began at the back of my throat. More water. The tickle became a runny nose, followed by constant coughing, followed by a sore throat and an earache, and sinus pain.

I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of sinus infections in my life, and I knew what this was. Despite that knowledge, I was awake every couple of hours throughout the night coughing.

Day Three

By morning I knew it was time for Urgent Care, but I also knew I couldn’t drive. One of my writer friends offered to take me. A couple hours later, I was back in my dorm room with new meds and orders to rest.

Rest I was going to do because nothing was going to stop me from that Alumnae Reading on Thursday or so I thought.

And I rested, barely stirring from bed, and thank goodness for Hulu because it’s a dorm room. No television. Friends brought me lunch and dinner, but I only grew worse throughout the day and evening.

Tomorrow I’d be better. I had to be.

Day Four

I wasn’t better. If anything I was worse, and I should have expected that. I know how my sinus infections go. By now my asthma had become aggravated, and I made the decision to come home.

No Alumnae Reading, and I was pissed. At myself for getting sick; at my body for letting me down.

I’ve several, well, many decades of life under my belt, but in the last several years my usually reliable body has sabotaged me: a foot injury that took months to heal; episodic irregular heart rhythms that left me weak and frightened; a bout with shingles.

This past April in the midst of prepping for A War of Deception‘s release, I had a serious episode of irregular heart rhythm, so much so I had to go to hospital and get shocked back into sinus rhythm, followed a month later by the surgery designed to eliminate the problem.

Then, as I was beginning to feel like the old me again, a sinus infection and bronchitis took from me something I stood to gain validation from.

Aftermath

Now, don’t say I should have prayed harder or been a better person or that it’s God’s plan, because I’m a rationalist. Believe me, if prayer worked, I’d have been healed in a day. And I’m not a bad person; that threat of punishment over trivial matters is what pushed me away from religion.

No, I can’t and won’t accept my age, but I understand my anxiety about the surgery, which kept me from sleeping well for a month, depressed my immune system and helped bring this.

And, no, 20/20 hindsight is not useful nor appreciated.

I’m four and a half days into recovering from bronchitis, but since I have asthma, it takes me weeks rather than days to fully recover. Then, I expect the old me to make a command performance.

Oh, and they asked me to read again at next year’s Alumnae Reading. I’ll be there–one way or another.

 

#TMWW17

If it’s June it must be time for Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop.

I got a memory on Facebook the other day about my first time here in 2012 and how I was terrified of what was going to happen during the critique. I had plotted how I could pack up and move out in the middle of the night.

Turns out it was the best writing experience I had in my life. And the best critique experience. That’s good and bad. Good because I’ve grown so much as a writer because of it; bad because I now expect them all to be that way.

I’ve been every year since 2012, and each time I’ve been validated as a writer, I’ve established a wonderful circle of writer friends, and, frankly, my novel wouldn’t have been published without TMWW.

Trying Something New

This year isn’t the typical submit 40 pages for review and critique. I’m with Dan Mueller, who last year taught a flash fiction workshop in the traditional manner. This year, he’s going to make this a true writing workshop. We’ll get prompts and other inspiration, and we’ll write on the spot.

A daunting task to be sure, but I’m looking forward to it.

They Really Like Me

For the past two years a group of TMWW alumna and I have contributed money for an Alumni Scholarship. This experience has been so meaningful to me, I can’t help but provide part of the means for someone else to be able to get the benefits.

That, along with the publication of my first novel, inspired the faculty to invite me to do an Alumni Reading this Thursday. I was surprised and shocked then honored and humbled. It’s my Sally Field second Oscar moment: “You like me! You really like me!”

I’ve settled into my 1950’s style dorm room and am greeting friends as they check in, listening to Leonard Cohen, and writing this.

It’s going to be a great week.

Post-Workshop Let-Down

It doesn’t take long. A weekend, in fact. You spend five solid days and nights immersed in writing with other writers, and the workshop becomes a routine, something you wake up and look forward to each morning. Then, the week comes to an end, you pack the car, turn in your room key, eat the final meal with people who’ve become family, and go home to face the reality of day-to-day writing.

In the midst of a scene, you turn to ask one of your workshop-mates if something will work, and you realize you’re all alone now, in your writing cave, with only The Google for company. And, well, you miss hearing how great your writing is.

Let’s face it. You learn a lot in a workshop, mainly how other people perceive the words you’ve decided are golden and untouchable. When the emphasis is a positive experience, as it is at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, you definitely get the praise, but you also understand what you need to work on to improve your writing. You come away feeling good about yourself and your writing, no matter your level of experience. That daily dose of “I really liked how you…” becomes addictive, and you crave it once you’re home and don’t have anyone telling you how good you are.

And that’s a good thing, because as with anything, complacency will ruin your writing.

 

Post-workshop, you feel as if you’re writing in a vacuum without those voices saying, “What did you mean here?” You know, the questions you never ask yourself while you’re in creative mode. A workshop goes beyond beta readers or a critique group. Your betas and your critique group members become accustomed and somewhat inured to your style, your characters, your writing. A workshop puts fresh eyes on your work, scrutiny that can put a spotlight on weaknesses you’ve missed.

Now, it does require a leap of faith to put what you’ve sweated blood over in the hands of strangers for them to vivisect while you sit there unable to say a word. I make it sound like a nightmare, and it is daunting; however, you will be a better writer because of it.

But, in the week following the workshop, you can’t help but think, Wow, this time last week, we were going over my short story, or, Was it just a week ago we sat around the lounge and debated the worthiness of James Joyce (uh, no debate there). You miss the company of writers; you miss your family; you miss the challenges they offer you. You lament that you’ll have to wait a year to do this again.

Somehow, you’ll muddle through.

Tinker Mountain 2015 – My Writing Tribe

The countdown calendar to the right of this post indicates that, as of today, I have seven days to go before the 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I find it amazing this is my fourth one! Three years ago about this time, I was having big second thoughts. For one, I’d never had my work critiqued by strangers, much less a well-respected, actual writer who was my workshop instructor. To say I was a nervous Nellie would freshen that cliché.

But 2012 was all positive with the incredible Pinckney Benedict; 2013 was amazing with the insightful Fred Leebron; and 2014 was an eye-opening experience with a master of genre writing, Laura Benedict. So much so, I’m re-taking her workshop this year, and I hope what I’ve submitted embodies everything I learned from her last year.

As critical as the workshop is now to my writing, the making of writer friends is, in some ways, more important. I have a circle of extremely talented writers who’ll beta-read what I’ve done and point out exactly what I need to do to make it better. More importantly, because we have that shared workshop experience, I respect their opinions. There is no sense of competition; just genuine, meaningful critique. What more could you ask for in a writing workshop?

So, today, I’m positively giddy. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here to head the loaded car south to Roanoke, set foot on the absolutely gorgeous campus of Hollins University (an inspiration in and of itself), and see my writing tribe.

Oh, and, I might get a writing themed tattoo while I’m there. Gasp!

Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain

TMWW logoI’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.

The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.

The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.

Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.

This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!

So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.

A Friday Fictioneers Anniversary

Today marks one year since our fearless leader Rochelle Wisoff-Fields took over the reins of Friday Fictioneers from our intrepid founder Madison Woods, and it’s true. Time flies when you’re having fun. Rochelle has worked tirelessly at making Friday Fictioneers the “go-to” flash fiction site, and her success is marked by the fact that we “charter members” keep going strong while we add new participants every week. Three cheers for Rochelle!

National Novel Writing Month is just a week away, and I’m all set with character sketches, plot outlines, and plenty of enthusiasm thanks to an online workshop put on by my other writers group, Shenandoah Valley Writers. We called the workshop “Finish That Novel!” but we based it on The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris. The book had some good points and not-so-good points, but the exercises were certainly useful to me in that I realized I needed some back story to make this novel more understandable.

This year’s NaNoWriMo project is Book Two of a series on the attacks of 9/11. The series is called Meeting the Enemy. Book One, drafted after last year’s NaNoWriMo, is Terror; Book Two is Retribution; Book Three is Rendition.

I’m also working on a sequel to my collection of espionage short stories, Spy Flash. Spy Flash II will also be short stories, but they collectively form what’s called a novel in stories. I hope to have that ready to go after the first of the year.

So, I may be going to my last writing workshop of my year of conferencing/workshopping this coming Saturday (“Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville), but the writing work continues.

This week’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt, taken by our fearless leader herself, was a bit of a challenge to the challenge I posed for myself. I’d decided that for the spooky month of October, all my Friday Fictioneers stories would have an edge of the paranormal. This week’s still-life had me scratching my head, wondering how on earth… Then, I remembered the title of a 1982 movie, and off I went from there. My story, “Noisy Ghost,” isn’t quite as scary as that movie, but I hope it’s a little chilling.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

My Name is Phyllis, and I’m a Writer Workshopaholic

They say the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. In eight months this year, I’ve been to nine writer conferences and/or workshops. There, I’ve said it. I may be addicted to writerly things. Yes, I may be addicted to meeting other writers and learning from them or, more importantly, becoming friends with them. Yes, I may be addicted to picking up information or techniques to improve my writing. Yes, I may be addicted to making my craft, well, more artful. Yes, folks, I’ve got it bad, and I gotta have my fix.

What am I going to do about it?

Not a bloody thing. I think this is one addiction we can overlook. 😉

On Friday I got an email from WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. (I’ve written about this writer’s space before–a great place to write and a great provider of one or two-day or even longer workshops.) They had openings for a one-day workshop on Saturday–“Ready, Aim: Firearms in Fiction.”

Okay, a little diversion here. If you abhor guns and think they’re the physical manifestation of evil, don’t read any further, and have a nice day.

I read the description, and, even though I have a good familiarity with firearms and gun safety, I thought, “Why not?” As one of the workshop attendees, who is a gun safety instructor said, “You always learn something new.”

This turned out to be the kind of workshop I really like to attend–one where you bring work to be critiqued and where you get writing exercises. Thanks to the workshop instructor, Betty Joyce Nash, and the other attendees, it was a great day learning about the importance of fitting a weapon to a character and how to research to make certain you get the details right. Three of us were very knowledgeable about gun safety and the mechanics of guns. The third was a novice, who left the workshop ready to go to a gun range and get some instruction in safety.

Even the three writing exercises were informative. First, we selected a picture of a person from a collection supplied by Ms. Nash, then we had to write a bio or expository scene about the person in the picture and include a gun. After reading aloud and critiquing each other’s work, we went over some examples from literature where authors included guns in their work, how successful they were, and whether the gun was necessary or superfluous to the story.

The second writing exercise involved keeping in mind the bio/expository scene we’d written before while we wrote about the first time we each became aware of guns. Again, we read what we’d written aloud and critiqued each other’s work. Another workshopper and I decided to directly link the two exercises, and it became obvious we both had stories in the works.

After lunch, we each read a portion from the stories we’d brought with us–the story had to involve a gun, easy for me, since I mostly write about spies–and critiqued them. I had the efficacy of these workshops proved to me when I finished reading my excerpt and another participant said, “I want to read the rest of that!”

Finally, we had the third, free-writing exercise–two people arguing about money with a gun in the room. (And I forgot to mention, the instructor also participated in these exercises, and we got to hear and critique her work as well. I liked the fact she didn’t set herself apart.) Then, we had a free-ranging Q&A about guns and about writing and publishing. I’m so glad my schedule is flexible enough to able to do last minute writing things like this.

Again, if you’re close to Charlottesville, check out WriterHouse. It’s very inexpensive to join and has different kinds of memberships so you can get exactly what you need from them. I know I certainly do.