On Writing and Knowing Your Characters

I have been playing with the idea of this entry for a while.  What has held me back is that I can’t attribute the origin of the concept.

While at Book Expo this year- I know it was the librarian’s lunch on the first day- one of the authors speaking talk about how a totally different, famous author once talked about how she talked to and lived with her characters while she was writing her books.  I am about 90% sure the famous author was Maya Angelou since she had just passed away and everyone wanted to remember her in different (and beautiful) ways.  I know the person who said this at the lunch was one of the authors speaking.  I just can’t remember which one.

It’s not really important who said it about who originally said it.  I just hate to not attribute a quote correctly.  I am a librarian.  If you were there and you remember the details, feel free to comment so I can correct things.

ANYWAY

This got me thinking about the characters I write and how well I know them.  I was already preparing for the July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo.  I knew a very simple idea of what I wanted to write.  I knew, like I had done with Pride and Prejudice in April, I wanted to give a modern spin to my other favorite Austen novel: Persuasion.  Like Pride and Prejudice I knew the original, I knew the outline of the story, the major events, the climax, and the basic modern changes I wanted to make.  Unlike with Pride and Prejudice, I didn’t know my characters other than the ones who would inspire them.

See, I do live with my characters.  For the terrible, epic novel that nobody will read (except maybe 1 or 2 people who I trust), I have lived with those characters for most of my life.  In high school these characters started to form in my mind and tell me about themselves.  In college and during the years I was depressed and trying to pull myself out of it, exploring these characters and learning about them kept me going.  I knew I would someday write down all these things I had learned about them.  When I finally did start writing the story they rarely surprised me because I had spent so many years talking to them.

Even when I wrote my version of Pride and Prejudice I had spent three years learning about my characters.  Who was my Lizbeth, my Darcy, and my Whickham?  Three years was long enough for me to simply type out what I already knew about these people.  There were surprises, more than I was use to, but I was happy with them because they helped me understand the characters better.

The more I thought about this, the more worried I got.  I know the original characters of Persuasion very well.  I didn’t want to write a modern version with the original version of these characters.  Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot needed to be more than just transplanted to the 21st century.   On the ride back to Boston from New York, I sat thinking about who my new characters were.  I had one month to figure it out.  I had to reconsider the themes of the original story, the modern changes that needed to be made, and why two people in love, in this century, would not end up together?

By mid-June I was no closer to my answers.  I had some minor story elements, but for the first time I actually talked to someone else.  I allowed my friend Christi’s perspective of the world to influence mine.  I have never done this before.  My characters, until this one, have solely been my own.  They are my friends and I am there confidant.  Why Christi?  Nobody else in my circle of friends love Persuasion as much as Christi.  I can admit she loves the book more than I do.  It took her all of 10 minutes to set me straight and to plant the right seed in my head.

I spent two weeks living with my new characters and even now I can’t say I know them.  Anne Elliot, now renamed Emma, cries a lot.  Fredrick Wentworth is now a writer who copes with the stress of a book tour (and being with Emma) by drinking and getting high.  I have actually learned more about them through writing the story than by thinking about them before I got started.  They are not acting like the original characters acted.  There is a surprise every time I sit down to write.  Things I didn’t even expect.  For example, I realized Fredrick’s side of the story needs to be told.  If my main character is officially unreliable due to depression, grief, willful ignorance, and manipulation then she has missed critical things.  Austen, writing in third person, had the benefit of  being able to pull in Capt. Wentworth’s thoughts when needed.  I did not write this the same way.

I am half way through my modern version of Persuasion as I write this.  I am actually taking a break from the writing to consider things that have happened so far and to think about my characters in light of this new information.  These are conversations in mind with them.  The anchor has been that I know the original story so well.  I know what has to happen.  Come November I won’t have this anchor anymore.  I have written everything I have ever wanted to write in the terrible epic novel.  I wanted to modernize my two favorite Austen novels and I have done that when July is over.

Next November, when I do NaNoWriMo again, is going to be interesting for me as a writer.  I won’t have characters I know better than I know myself.  I won’t have spent years with an original source to help anchor me.  I will be on my own.  I don’t have any idea at this point as to what I will write about.  Yes, it scares me a bit, but it also excites me.  While my characters drive my writing, I don’t think I share enough of them with a potential reader.  I think not knowing my characters so well will make me need to write down more about them so I can learn about them with my readers.

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Knitting Designs: Gradient Blanket

Gradient Blanket

Gradient Blanket

A few months ago one of the members of my writing group had a baby.  I searched for a nice blanket to make for the family, but wasn’t really interested in anything I found.  This led me design my own blanket.

Here is the gradient blanket.  You can see the details of the pattern bellow.  It is a simple design where you increase 1 color while you decrease the other over 15 rows.  I used acrylic yarn to ensure my friend can toss it in the washing machine and not worry about ruining it.

This is the third pattern I designed.  It made me realize, with the change to the blog and losing all those older entries, I should make a page where I keep all my designs.  I don’t design often, but when I do I should make it easier for people to make them.

Download Pattern: Gradient Blanket

See it on Ravelry!

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Sara’s Summer Conference Season: AdaCamp in Portland, OR

Bike Statue in Portland

Bike Statue in Portland

When I tell people I am going to AdaCamp, I get a lot of puzzled looks.  It seems that not many librarians have heard of this conference.  Everyone in my circle knows about Book Expo- I mean, I go every year.  WikiCon makes clear sense to people who pay attention to my research interests or explore tech in libraries.  AdaCamp though, that is new to librarians and, to be fair, even I hadn’t heard about it before January of this year.   Little did I know, I would spend a weekend in Portland at a conference that focuses on women in tech.

AdaCamp is actually an un-conference.  The program and schedule of the conference is determined entirely by those attending.  Sessions are proposed before the conference starts and during the conference.  Anyone can propose anything and anyone can participate, facilitate, or simply show up.  Session topics, in this case, ran from soft skills (public speaking for example), work issues (know when to find a new job for example), learning new code languages (Python for example), and feminism (impostor syndrome for example).  If your session didn’t get on the schedule you were free to find space and have it anyway.  People are encouraged to spend their time the way they wish to spend it.  At AdaCamp the focus is on women in technology.  The program is only open to women (yes, even trans-women).  The planning is open to everyone.  Not just session planning, but participants are included in policy development and more.  The Ada Initiative, made sure participants knew the space was safe and harassment free.

Walking around Portland, OR

Walking around Portland, OR

I can easily recognize and acknowledge that I work in a female dominated field that likes to share and toot their own horn.  I am routinely encouraged to speak at meetings and conferences.  I speak to classes frequently so I have trained myself to be a better communicator over the years (thank you Toastmasters).  Librarians are their own little bubble of uniqueness in the tech world.  Many women in tech are isolated in a field dominated by men.  Many are uncomfortable sharing their accomplishments and taking credit for work they do.  Most don’t have many opportunities to speak.  Having the opportunity to hear about different experiences and gain a better understanding of feminist issues was invaluable.  I learned more about issues like Impostor Syndrome and realized that I deal with problems like stress and criticism better than I thought.

I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to speak and what I would speak about.  I ended up proposing a session to learn more about running Wikipedia edit-a-thons and to learn more about hack and make-a-thons.  It opened up interest in people learning how to edit Wikipedia.  While the social drama research seemed to interest people, I didn’t feel like this was the right conference to speak about it.  AdaCamp, to me, felt more like a chance to learn about new things and to share how people can take action rather than looking at theory and research on a topic.  I did get a chance to facilitate a discussion, but I was happy to sit back and learn from others.  There was so much amazing information being shared by women who are doing amazing things in the world.  Even when I disagreed with things I understood that POV was informed by experience.

Mooooo

Mooooo

What I didn’t expect was that my public speaking experience would play a bigger role in my weekend than it has in three years.  It has been three years since I stepped back from Toastmasters.  I was, but shouldn’t have been surprised when I found myself surrounded by women who had amazing projects and ideas they wanted to share, but were uncomfortable with speaking in public.  I felt motivated to share what I had learned and did so through a 90-second Lightning Talk.  That sounds exactly like what it is: 90 seconds to present an idea or something to the group.  It was a great chance to test my communication skills.  Could I really focus myself to present just enough information to make an impact and not get cut off?  It turns out I can!

A view of downtown Portland, OR

A view of downtown Portland, OR

I did get a chance to see the city.  I had a short list of places to see (donuts, book, and yarn).  I made a point of getting out and walking around on Saturday during lunch and after the conference ended.  The pictures posted are the ones I took as I walked around.  I didn’t take pictures at the conference because people didn’t necessarily want photos taken and it was easier to just not take pictures than negotiate the nuances.  I walked as much as I could and even took the streetcar once, but there were times where the taxi was just a better option.  The city is totally not a driving city though.  Most people walked, rode bikes, or took the street car.

I feel like I walked away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for what is going on with feminism beyond my special little bubble.  I met a ton of amazing, talented, and passionate women looking to change the world.  I even got some Wikipedia editing done and learned more about ways to accomplish my goals.  It made me want to take the time to re-evaluate my goals and what I want to work towards in the future.  Meanwhile, it may mean some different content here.

Want to see the slide (that for reasons was not used) for my lightning talk?

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A Tale of Two Conferences: NYC 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Sorry, my inner Dickens had to be let out for a moment.

Me at WikiCon post presentation

Me at WikiCon post presentation

As I start to write this, I am three hours away from a long bus trip back to Boston.  I am in dwindling group of Wikipedia editors who all have amazing and interesting projects and research that will make Wikipedia even more amazing than it already is.  People are suppose to be editing entries.  This period and this room is technically an edit-a-thon.  In reality, it is more networking and collaborative on our own projects.  I feel like I broke my brain and I have been knitting for about an hour and enjoying the lunch time conversations.

30 Rock at Night

30 Rock at Night

My two conference trip ends with WikiConUSA and is probably the best conference experience I could have had to introduce me to the world of tech conferences.  The thing about tech conferences is that they are usually very few women.  This is not the case at WikiConUSA.  They are at least as many women as men.  There is a mix of high tech conversations about projects and discussions about content and programming.  My session, on day 2 of the conference (my day 1), was very successful.  People have been happy to give me feedback and suggestions on where to go next.  My interest in social dramas and editing conflict resolution has been reinvigorated.  I know what to do next and how I want to approach the overall project.  No more on that now- there is still too much to share about the week.

The Empire State Building from the top of 30 Rock.

The Empire State Building from the top of 30 Rock.

I am use to being one of many women in a room where we vastly out number men.  This is the nature of being a librarian.  I am use to a mix of tech skills where mine are on the higher end.  I am in rooms with people who work with companies to help them navigate the world of Wikipedia responsibly, people who are bringing mapping data to Wikipedia, people who are successfully running edit-a-thons, people who working on medical data in Wikipedia so people can get the best information available, people who… well I could go on because it is fascinating what we never see on Wikipedia no matter how often we use it.  Some of it has been way above my head and it is nice to have to learn all these new things to be able to play in the sandbox.

I feel like a fish out of water in some ways though.  I may be an editor, but that is all I have the energy and interest to be.  I want to understand in order to study.  Many of the people here are editors who attend local events and know each other.  I know most of us are probably introverts.  I can tell the way people organize themselves.  A few of us hold back, assessing the situation and waiting until we find the right person for us.  I am holding back a bit longer than most.  I have to remind myself, when I am alone at the conference, is that these people may not know faces and real name, but they know each other well.  They have been working together on Wikipedia for years.  They attend local events and many can put faces to screen names.  I have stayed in the back ground as an editor.  I have yet to get involved in Boston events (this summer is already changing that).  Still, I met my people quickly.

Lego Chewbacca from Book Expo.

Lego Chewbacca from Book Expo.

I walked into WikiCon after three days at the other conference: Book Expo.  This is the first year, in many years, that I am doing it alone.  I had people to meet, but at the end of the day it was just me.  The NYC team of friends and family have moved on, moved away, or gone somewhere else at the same time.  I spent time with Etta, my favorite librarian and had a blast.  I got to see some of Team Unicorn: Anna and Kristi.  I walked in circles for two days grabbing books like they were going out of style.  I released the inner fangirl and snapped pictures of Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, Cary Elwes, Deborah Harkness, and more.  I  waited in a few lines for books that excited me.  I sat in the librarian lounge and tried to re-energize every few hours.  Thank goodness for that place.  Book Expo is about consumption though.  Your mission is to get things, get them fast, get the free, and say thank you.   You are suppose to read and share.  You are suppose to stop thinking.  Not thinking is as exhausting as lots of thinking.  Your body just moves: it walks in circles, it puts books in bags, and your face smiles.

I love Book Expo, but it exhausts me.  The pleasure of being alone, like in London, was that I did what I wanted every night.  I wanted to walk around Rockefeller Center?  Sure!  I wanted to go to the top of 30 Rock?  Sure!  I wanted to come back the next day and shop?  Sure!  I was too tired to see a show and wanted to just stay in?  OK! My goal when I come to NYC is to always do one fun and new thing.  This year was the top of 30 Rock at night.  It was wonderful up there.  Unlike last year, which was abysmally hot, the cool air made it a pleasure to aimlessly walk around the city in the evenings.

Me presenting at WikiCon

Me presenting at WikiCon – take by WIkipedia editor Slowking4

My great excitement at Book Expo was not the books or the celebrities, but the discussion I had with Arcadia publishers about possibly working on a book for them over the next year.  The idea came up after this years discussion series.  The local Cambodian population is often overlooked.  What if we pulled them in by making a book about the community in Lowell.  After talking with the publishers, I felt energized and excited.  This, combined with the research plans that came up during WikiCon, may have made this the best trip to New York ever.

Now I just have to process through all of the things that happened and start making plans to help it all happen in the next year.

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The March of the Living: 20 Years Later

I think it is totally accurate to say that, at seventeen, I was a very different person than I am now.  After a lot of reflection, the shift from who I was as a child to who I became as an adult happened about 20 years ago.  I want to be honest about my experience on the March of the Living.  In fact, I have written this post a few times and each time it comes off angry and cynical.  I don’t want to imply that the MOTL is a bad program.  This is probably the most important thing I have ever done with my life.  It redefined who I was in the immediate aftermath and it shaped who I would become years later.  I have to be honest though.

The March of the Living (MOTL) is a trip that jewish teenagers can participate in.  When I was seventeen it was done every other year and only open to high school juniors and seniors.  I believe now it is done annually.  A rare sophomore was allowed to attend if they showed they were mature enough to participate.  Why would maturity be an issue?  You spend two weeks immersed in the Holocaust and the State of Israel.  First, participants spend a week in Poland seeing increasingly powerful representations of the Holocaust.  You spend time in the, now destroyed, Warsaw Ghetto.  You go to numerous concentration camps.  You walk the mile from Auschwitz to Birkenau camps just as prisoners walked to their death on the same path.  You see some of what remains of Judaism in Poland.  You do this all over a week before you fly to Israel and spend a whole week immersed in modern Judaism and Israel.

The second week is spent seeing the holy sites, climbing Masada, extensive time in Jerusalem, seeing museums and famous spots.  In each location you celebrate holiday.  In Poland you are there for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  This is the day you walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau in memorial to the walk of death.  The walk is called The March of the Living and this is where the program name comes from.  You are one of thousands of people in blue jackets walking through the town.  We all look the same as we silently walk from one camp to the other.  All of us are in matching blue jackets. In Israel you celebrate Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).  These are actual celebrations in Jerusalem.

The cynic in me wants to say this is all merely pro-Israel propaganda.  The cynic in me sees how the horror of the Holocaust was increasingly pushed upon us before we arrived in Israel.  We were isolated in Poland.  We were not allowed to go out on our own.  In Israel we had plenty of free time to roam about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

There is also a voice, equally as loud as my inner cynic, that knows this program was critical to me understanding who I was and what I wanted out of life.

I remember the first camp we visited, Treblinka, which is nothing more than a memorial to those who died there.  I remember walking through Auschwitz thinking it was more like a college campus than a work camp.  I remember the rubble of Birkenau and the discussions our chaperones and Rabbis led about maintaining the camps in memorial or letting them fall apart because of what they actually did in them.  I remember Majdanek, the camp that could be up and running in 24 hours.  This was the last camp we visited and the worst of them all.  I walked through barracks full of shoes, suitcases, and hair.  There were three barracks full of shoes and the last one was just children’s shoes.  That was when I finally cried.  I could not maintain my stoicism any longer.  I remember Poland being cold and grey and lacking any color.  I know there was color.  I see it in the photographs I took.  I just don’t remember color in my memories.

I also remember the variety of color in Israel.  It was green and sunny.  We went from our blue jackets and warm clothes to shorts and t-shirts.  We drive up the Golan Heights where we discussed the struggle Israel had with surrounding nations.  We shopped around Jerusalem picking up things to take home to people we loved.  We ate anything we wanted rather than only the items supplied for us.  We went to the Wall and put in our prayers.  We left our hotel in the middle of the night so we could arrive at Masada before dawn.  We climbed up and watched the sun rise from the top of the destroyed fortress.  The cynic in me reminds me that this was all a sales pitch.

For weeks before we departed we met weekly to prepare up for what we should expect.  We read about each place we would visit.  We discussed what life was like for modern Polish Jews and for Jews in Israel.  We talked about the hidden Israel: bombings, battles, death, and depressions.  We were middle class, American teenagers.  We had no idea these things existed in the world.  It was our Judaism that prevented us from wearing rose colored glasses.  No matter how many jewish friends we had (and in Miami, I had a lot), we were always confronted with anti-Semitism and hatred.  The Holocaust had always been part of our lives.  We were desensitized to the talk.  We needed to see in order to understand.

There are things I associate with this trip that have nothing to do with it.  I was in Israel when the girl sharing my hotel room told me Kurt Cobain had killed himself.  Schindler’s List came out just a few months before we departed.  I read the book and saw the movie many times.  We were excited when we merely passed by this camp on the way to another.

I made and lost friends because of this trip.  It shifted how I saw the world.  I came home with no desire to engage in the planned activities of my senior year in high school.  I gave up a spot on a trip to Disney that all seniors went on.  I decided I couldn’t be bothered to go to prom.  I realized the people in my high school had nothing in common with me.  I didn’t actually like them and I didn’t want to be around them.  The friends I had outside of school began to push my buttons as well.  I had no desire to be in fake friendships.  Even a friend who went with me was not someone I wanted to be around anymore.  I saw some friends from the trip develop, what seemed to be, PTSD.  They claimed they were sleeping with their jackets and having nightmares about the camps.  For some, I knew this was true.  For others, I felt they were simply trying to demonstrate depth that didn’t actually exist.  I did cling to my old point of view sometimes, but more often than not I was reminded that this was not who I wanted to be.

I had a resurgence of faith after the trip.  It was more of a devotion to the idea of Judaism rather than faith in a higher being.  I had struggled for many years with faith in god.  I thought I had figured it out at seventeen, but it would take me years to realize I was wrong about that too.  This trip did result in me being honest with myself about what I didn’t want.  That distinction is important.  I only knew what I didn’t want, not what I did.  I didn’t know myself well enough to know what I wanted.  I had always just done what I was told and this trip pushed me to realize that I didn’t like doing what I had always done.  To be fair to the teachers and my parents who told me what to do, it wasn’t like I had an idea of my own.  I wasn’t fighting to do what I wanted or forced to do what they wanted.  It was simply the way I thought it was suppose to be.

It doesn’t matter that there is an underlying tone of propaganda about this program.  The March of the Living was the first step in changing me.  It was the first time I thought about who I really was and what I wanted to be.  It was the first time I tried to get comfortable with who I really am.  It was the first time I began to recognize that I wasn’t like my peers.  It certainly wouldn’t be the last time either.

You can see some of my photos on Flickr.

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How I am going to spend my summer vacation

It is officially summer in academia.  Finals are completed and summer plans are happening.  I have a ton on my plate this summer and I am excited about all of it.

This summer begins my sabbatical and work load reduction.  Instead of getting a whole semester off to focus on tenure requirements, I am taking a full year with a reduced work load.  Same pay, but more free time.  Why?  I need to publish something in a scholarly, peer reviewed journal.  It is something I have known I need to do in order to get tenure, but I rarely get to finish things I start over the summer because the normal duties of the school year take all my work time.  As a result I have all these unfinished research projects that I want to continue to work on.  All this extra time through the year will allow me some time to focus on these things.  I have a plan too!

  • Summer: conference season and working on an article about the public programming I do.
  • Fall: write about my outreach efforts with the College of Health Sciences
  • Spring: write about Wikipedia and the research I have been doing there.

The success or failure of summer will dictate how I spend the rest of the year.  So, how am I going to spend my summer vacation?

First, conference season happens in the summer.  I am going back to Book Expo, but this may be my last year for a while.  I may need the money and the time if my hopes and dreams become a reality.  I am going because, not only are some amazing authors going to be there, I want to talk to some publishers about the 2015 reading and discussion series selections.  The very same week, in fact over lapping, is Wiki Con.  Many people know, but this is the conference at which I will be a speaker.  This is my first, professional, national level conference as a speaker.  I am presenting the research I did for my thesis a few years ago.  I will be bouncing back and forth between the two conferences.

I also got accepted to an un-conference called AdaCamp in June.  This will take me out to Portland, OR (first time in that state) for a technology and gender themed program.  Again, my Wikipedia research is what got me accepted and I am anxious to meet people that can help me move forward with this research.  My increasing interest in the gender divide on Wikipedia is something I want to work on over the next year.  I am not sure what to expect, but it has already led to some new work related friendships that I am excited about.

Other summer vacation plans?  Knitting like crazy!  I have wedding presents to make.  September is my sister’s wedding in CA so I want to be ready for it.  Not only do I need to knit some gifts, but I have to get some sun.  Six months covered up and cold has made my skin a bit too pale for my liking.  I am looking forward to reading articles and having tea on the deck on my days off.

My personal writing is moving forward.  In April I participated in another round of Camp NaNoWriMo and wrote a novel that I may actually want people to read.  Some people have already been giving me feedback and I have some edits to make.  I am going to use the summer start making the edits I know have to be made and then, in the fall, I am going to start letting other people read.  This may be something I try to get published.  I am not sure yet.

There are other things going on.  I want to take off two weeks to just relax like I did last year.  It would be a local vacation because I am spending a ton of money on other things.  I want to sit at an outdoor pool for hours getting sun and reading books.  I want to knit tons of things and read some of the books that have been sitting on the TBR bookshelf for years.

In the end, it will be a busy summer without a doubt.  Hopefully I can get everything done!

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April Writing

April means something new for me.  This year I am trying my second Camp NaNoWriMo.  This time I have a smaller goal: 20,000 words.  I have playing with the idea of Pride and Prejudice taking place in a university sorority and fraternity.  I realized, as I started writing it, that I haven’t really followed up on what happened with the piece I wrote last July for Camp NaNo.

For those who don’t know or remember, last July I made my first attempt at a memoir piece.  I wrote about 15,000 words and realized it was a short piece.  I contemplated it being a small part of something bigger, but I put it aside to focus on other things.  My hope had been that my writing group would start reading and giving me suggestions.  That hasn’t been able to happen yet because they haven’t been able to get to it.  I haven’t forgotten about it, but it has been put on the back burner for a while.

My main focus for editing has been to edit that epic novel that I finally finished writing in November.  All my little appendixes are written.  Now I have to clean it up and edit it.  Why bother editing something just for me?  Well, I want to print one single copy of it.  One single copy that I can read when I want to immerse myself in my personal fantasy.  One copy for someone to find when I die and read at my funeral.  I think it will give everyone a good laugh and they will feel better after I have died.  It really is terrible.

I do plan on letting people read the Peekskill memoir.  I am hoping to spend some editing time with it this summer.  I need to take it from stream of consciousness to  organized with a clear message.  It changed a few times while I was writing and it needs some work.  Then will come the alpha readers- people who can comment on this second draft.  These people will be close to home.  After those edits comes the chance to take it beyond my little circle.  People who donated to The Letters and Light last July (through my donation page) will have the chance to play editor.  This is when my family will probably ready it as well.  This all may not happen until the end of the year though.

For now, I am still chugging along with it and other things I have been writing.  Someday, someone will read something from all of this.

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Where In the World is Sara? Well, Lowell, but I was in the UK!

The 4th Doctor

The 4th Doctor

It has been a long time since I found the desire to post something here.  Count on big trips to new places to trigger a desire to write.  One of the nice things about traveling is that it provides you with many things to write about.  Traveling alone even more so since you spend most of the time in your own head thinking about things.  With my friend Leslie in Oxford for a year, the chance to see a new country was one I couldn’t pass up even if nobody else could afford to join me.

I will skip the story about the snow storm that almost ruined my trip.  I will skip the wonderful flight on Virgin Atlantic where I upgraded a class for $300.  I will skip the logistics of jet lag and sight seeing. These things are not interesting.  What is interesting? Doctor Who, Harry Potter, and the fact that most of my favorite books came out of the UK or were very influenced by things there.  To be fair, my book club did send me on a little hunt in Oxford.  What, most people asked me, does your little lady book club care about the most academic city in the entire world?  I have to remind people that just because we drink and cast movie versions of books more than actually discussing the book, doesn’t mean we don’t recognize quality.  Also, we enjoy the Discovery of Witches series and the first book spends a lot of time in Oxford.  Why would they care about All Souls, the most exclusive College in all of Oxford?  Well, our favorite character is part of that College.

The Divinity School at Oxford.

The Divinity School at Oxford. Part of the Bodleian Library- this is the Hogwarts infirmary in the movies. No, seriously.

For me, this trip was pure indulgence.  For an academic, going to Oxford was necessary.  It was an hour bus ride out of London and I decided I had to stay at a College over a much more comfortable hotel.  How many times in my life would I have this chance?  Who cares that the tub, sink and toilet are all in the hall.  It was worth it!  I got to see the Ashmolean Museum.  I got to tour of the Bodleian library.  I walked around Trinity College.  I saw the exhibits at the Museum of History of Science.  I ate in the same pub where Bill Clinton failed in inhale.  I realized that a pint of any beverage, cider specifically, is a lot to drink.  I bought books and book related things.  I found a lovely UK edition of The Goblet of Fire that I *HAD* to have because it was pretty.   I did spend time with Leslie, but my own need for sleep and her schedule didn’t allow as much as I had hoped.  These are the problems that come up when your plans change at the last minute.

Me at the Millennium Center in Cardiff.

Me at the Millennium Center in Cardiff.

I really enjoyed Oxford and wished I had planned for more time there.  I felt like, if my Paris retirement plans don’t work out, I could easily enjoy myself in Oxford and get to Paris often enough.  I could even imagine myself aging in the Bodleian library.

I couldn’t stay though, because I had to go to Cardiff.  Why Cardiff?  Doctor Who.  Yes, I traveled 2+ hours out of my way to London to indulge in Doctor Who activities.  Cardiff isn’t very special on Doctor Who, other than on Torchwood.  What is important is that they film Doctor Who in Cardiff and this is where the Doctor Who Experience is located.  This is a Doctor Who museum and show.  I made and brought the 4th Doctor’s scarf especially for this one day of the trip.  If everything else about the trip had gone wrong, this one afternoon in Cardiff would have been worth the entire expense of the trip.  Here is why: I flew the Tardis.  Not a Doctor Who fan?  The Tardis is the machine in which The Doctor and his companions travel through space and time.  On the outside it looks like a 50s era British police box.  On the inside it is much bigger.

The Millennium Center at night.

The Millennium Center at night.

Why did I get to fly it? Well, because there were all of 7 of us on the tour.  It was a week day afternoon.  Only tourists and college students are out and about in a tourism area.  I suspect, when the tour is packed with people, I would have given up my spot for someone younger.  The fact was that there were seven spots and seven people.  I took my time walking around the museum.  The displays focus primarily around the most recent versions of The Doctor, but the classic Who stuff was fantastic.  Having seen almost every episode of the show over the past few years, I recognized almost everything.  What I didn’t recognize were small things from current seasons.  There was just so much and great displays about the sound effects, costuming, and make up.  For those at Torchwood geek level- I did the Millennium Center too.  It was a wonderful evening for walking around so I did just that.  I had dinner right there and then walked back to my hotel room.

Trafalgar Square - for Frank.

Trafalgar Square – for Frank.

So here is the thing about being alone.  There is nobody there to take pictures of you.  I was more than happy to pay for pictures of myself assuming I looked good.  You see that above selfie of me?  Yeah, that mirrored pillar made me look great.  Another problem with traveling alone is the lack of people to talk to.  Oh, I would make friends with people in cafes and pubs if they seemed nice enough.  I had some great conversations with people.  Nobody was mean to me, but then I was a bit self-deprecating and apologetic when it came to asking for help.  I am an American and internationally recognized as jerks when we travel.  I did it in Paris too and I think it makes a world of difference.  People are willing to forgive and help when you are seem embarrassed by yourself.  The point is, I was alone most of the trip.  I know what it is like being alone.  I tend to like things that way.  When you are traveling and being a tourist it can be limiting and liberating.  There was nobody to roll their eyes when I needed to take pictures of everything in the Doctor Who Experience.  There was also nobody to giggle with about how accurate my scarf was.  Nobody else cared (someone was dressed up as the 8th Doctor, which is far more ambitious than a scarf).  There was nobody to push me to do just one more thing when I got tired.  There was nobody there to make me do something I didn’t want to do and would end up loving.  There was nobody to do anything with at night.  Since it was early in my trip I was trying to budget too so I didn’t just keep going out to see shows every night (though, that is a great idea for next time).  Most of the time I was in my head making up little stories of what it would be like if I was picked up by the Doctor and was his new companion.  It was a lot of little fan fiction moments for Sara.  Did I write them down?  No, none of them ever really worked out well.  Even in my head I was being too realistic.

The Tower of London and the Tower Bridge.

The Tower of London and the Tower Bridge.

London was more than I imagined it would be.  Paris was the same way.  The reason is that there are so many statues.  I am not sure to seeing statues everywhere.  The first day I spent taking pictures of as many statues as I could because that person could be famous.  By lunch I realized this was a silly plan.  Not only were there just too many, but I had no idea who these men were.  I did a round on the tour bus before deciding day one would be spent at the Tower of London.  I did a tour that had many routes and I had 48 hours on the tour to take as many of the routes as I wanted.  The first route was mostly historical places.  I loved the Tower of London.  I saw the Crown Jewels (I want the things that sparkle in colors).  I saw an exhibit about torture devices from the middle ages.  I walked around aimlessly pretending I was a prisoner.  It took me a few hours to get through it.  I also made a point of getting back to the room early as the final episode of Sherlock was airing that night.  I had watched the previous 2 episodes on the BBC webpage in Oxford just so I could enjoy the finale when it aired.

A cast of a king, can't remember which one.

A cast of a king, can’t remember which one.

Day two was spend on the museum route of my tour.  That meant the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Natural History Museum.  I like the first two the most.  When you wonder where artifacts are stored, remember: museums.  When you wonder where they put the things they steal from other countries (let’s be honest), remember: museums.  I saw things I know about from art history classes, television, and the world.  I saw the Rosetta Stone.  I saw pieces of that Parthenon.  I saw a lot of Hindu deity statues.  Everyone has a Shiva statue… well, everyone except me.  I was tempted to ask someone if I could have one.  I didn’t love the Natural History museum.  I think it was part age and part experience.  I have been to the one in New York.  The Dinosaur skeleton was neat, but I have seen a T-Rex.  Also, I feel like the wonders of the world for a child are different for an adult.  The planet is cool, but not as cool as it was when I was 10.  Art and artifacts were far more interesting for me.

Neptune and Triton

Neptune and Triton

Day three was my last day and the day I did things without the tour.  I enjoyed the tour and hearing about all these places I have only read about in books and seen on TV.  That was fun.  I am a pretty self motivated traveler though.  I didn’t really plan much on this trip, but I know how to get around without a taxi and tour bus.  My hotel was right next to Paddington Station (yes, I bought bears for kids).  I spend most of day 3 on the Tube.  Years of NYC and Boston subway systems- plus having done the Paris metro in a language I don’t really speak at all- made is easy to know how to do this on my own.  I wanted to see Kings Cross station.  I wanted to see the British National Library.  I wanted to hit the one yarn shop I knew about.  I wanted to get tickets to a show.  I wanted to see this tourist trap Beatles store I found a brochure for at the hotel.  Turned out that most of that was right off the Tube and three of those things in the same area.  I even managed to find the Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street.

I have few pictures from day 3- especially when compared to the rest of the trip.  It was just the nature of the day.  I may have spent more time at Kings Cross than I should have.  The thing is, I had to buy a wand at the Harry Potter store and they didn’t have what I wanted.  I had a hard time picking out the alternative.  The library had an exhibit on the Georgian Era of the UK.  This is Austen era so I probably spent more time there than other museums.  While many people had suggested I just splurge on the cab ride to the yarn shop, I realized I was but one stop away on the Tube and made the short trip.  I went back to the room early to get ready to see Mojo.

The truth is, I barely had enough time to see the things I wanted to see.  I need to go back.  I can’t wait to go back, but it is probably going to be a while.  I want to see so many more things and visit with more people.  If Leslie hadn’t decided to spend a year in Oxford, this might not have happened either.  It was one of those trips that ended up happening the way it should have.  Plus, I have plenty of things to help me remember.

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Another Year, Another Win

It is official: I have won my 9th NaNoWriMo.  This is my tenth year and I am pretty sure I have my winning system down pat.  You see, I am a social writer.  I know, seems odd, but I am.  I write more and better when I am writing with people.

When the month started I was reflecting on how my annual exercise of writing 50,000 words in 30 days has impacted my greater writing skills.  Now, on the flip end, I am focused on something different.  I am shocked at how well I did this year.  Within the first week I was half way done.  Most of that, about 15,000 of the first 25,000 words, were written in the first weekend.  This year I did something differently in how I planned my novel.  I decided to focus on two things.  First, I focused on my ending.  I struggle with endings in all my writing and communicating.  Most of it can be solved with knowing what my point is.  Writing the thesis reminded me the importance of knowing your objective and sticking to it.  The same is true in fiction writing.  You need to know what your story is and what points you need to make.  Once you make it, you wrap this up and move on.

That was what I did this year: decided on my ending.  I knew when and where the story should end.  What should be happening to my main characters to identify the end?  That was where my second point came in.  I had to decide what themes were important to my story.  I focused on two themes.  First, I looked at the men my main character had loved before she settled with her ‘soul mate’.  I wanted her to reflect on how those men and her feelings about them shifted as she changed.  Second, I wanted to have my main character to determine her full sense of identity.  Well, enough of one to make her happy.  I knew I was done when she was with the right man and had a strong sense of identity.  No, I won’t share more details than that.  The rest was terrible.

The month didn’t start out with this story though.  I woke up on November 1st with a strong idea for Harry Potter fan fiction.  I wanted to write that done as much as I could before moving on to my planned story.  It was an interesting experience.  I have woken up on November 1st with the perfect opening for a story or an idea that I want to write down.  I bolt out of bed, typically much earlier than I normally would have, rush down stairs and open the laptop.  Sabine meows a few times to remind me that she wants fresh water and some treats and, once the most important details are typed out, I take care of her needs.  This year I had an idea for a totally different story.  I spent the first weekend writing a 12,000 word bit of Harry Potter fan fiction.  I by no means finished that small piece, but I got all the ideas on paper.  That was all I wanted to do with it: get the ideas written before I forgot them.

By the end of the weekend I was working on my main story and already building on momentum.  Here is what I realized about that first weekend.  As the local organizer, the municipal liaison, I was at all three writing events that weekend.  I spent most of the Friday writing and then wrote extensively when we had events on Saturday and Sunday.  I write between 600-800 words in 15 minutes and that is how long we often work at events.  We call them writing sprints.  The goal is to write as much as you can without chatting, researching, or distracting yourself.  People do really well with these.  So, within 45 minutes of a 4 hour event, I had hit my daily minimum.  I had written about 5,000 words every day at these events because I was there for hours.

I tried writing from home too.  The best I did was when we ran sprints over Twitter, but it was hard to do when nobody else was online and the television was on.  I felt I was doing well enough at events that I didn’t need to worry about writing during the week at home.  This allowed me to have a small life outside of writing.  I was able to get knitting done, spend time with people, go to my book club, and more.  I just wanted to make sure I was done before Thanksgiving.  In fact, I was done on November 19th.

I don’t recall ever finishing this quickly.  Even taking off days to focus on life keeps me working until right before Thanksgiving.  Last year I didn’t finish until Nov. 26 and the year before that, Nov 22.  In past years my daily average has been about 1,800 words.  This year I jumped to 2,394 words.  I think changing my process could have been they key to my success.  I didn’t outline, I just stuck to my themes and ending.  Everything after that was free to develop as I needed.

I did other things as well.  I didn’t get stuck on chunks of text that didn’t come easily.  I moved on to chapters or action that came more easily.  I figured it would be easy enough to return to those sections when I can think them through.  I also had a plan for what to write if I finished my planned piece before 50,000 words.  I am glad I did both.  Right now I am still writing (I still have a few events to run) and have enough to work on for a while.  I am done though and now its time to think about next year!

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NaNoWriMo 2013

This year is the 10 year of NaNoWriMo for me.  If I am lucky, this will be my 9th win.  National Novel Writing Month is something I do every November.  I attempt to write a 50,000 word novel.  For most of the past 10 years, I have been writing and re-writing something terrible.  Every year someone asks me if they can read what I wrote and every year I laugh.  When people ask me what I am writing about I make a joke about it.  I am not trying to make it seem like I have no confidence in myself as a writer.  My point is that what I write in November is not for you to read.

I have learned, after all these thirty-seven years, that practice is the only way I can get good at anything.  Not only do I have to practice, but I have no expect nothing from the practice.  NaNoWriMo is my practice.  It is how I exercise my creative muscles for the moments that find me writing something that actually will be read by people.  For example, I think I did a great job writing a thesis (telling a story, organizing, and explaining the data) because of the years I have spent writing crap for NaNoWriMo.

When I read the stories from my first few years a number of things always strike me.  First, I get such an interesting picture of where I was mentally and emotionally when I wrote it.  Once I thought I would work my first NaNo Novel into something publishable. As I tried to go through it I realized I had been in such a dark place at the time that I can’t actually get back there now to make edits that would be true to the theme of the story.  Second, I get a great understanding of how my writing has improved.  This year I am actually re-writing something I wrote 3 years ago to see, among other reasons, what would change now that I have written so much and learned so much as a writer.  I realized, the first time, I felt a need to tell every little bit of the story.  Every relationship my main character had was important to tell even though it had nothing to do with the story and had nothing to contribute to understanding her.  I have learned how to edit my imagination.  I have a very deep understanding of the character I am writing after years of thinking about her.  Just because I have imagined things for her, doesn’t mean they need to be told in this story.  Third, I have tried a number of things that have failed, but I learned from the experience.  One year I tried to write an entire story in exposition.  It was the worst thing I have ever written.

Then there are the ways NaNoWriMo has helped me beyond my ability to write.  It has helped me meet people in my community.  I love social writing and people get really intrigued by this because writing is considered to be such a solitary experience.  It has helped me get involved in my community.  I meet people who run community events and I get involved in those activities.  It helps me get out of my head by putting what is in my head on paper.  Without the burden of all these ideas, I can get away from them and pay attention to other things.

In the end, NaNoWriMo is not about the end product for me.  It is a moment when I focus on the process and give myself permission to focus entirely on this creative pursuit.  Yes, I try to knit and read and have a life in November, but everything else gets put aside for me to write.  Maybe someday I will have something for you all to read- in fact, I do think there will be something very soon- but until then understand that what I write in November is not for you.  It’s not suppose to be.  It’s mine and mine alone.

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