Life Is Not a Novel

During the weeks and months that my husband was dying, I sat by his bedside, my laptop balanced on my knees, trying to write. I was working on my Deadtown series, but my heart wasn’t in it. There was only one story I wanted to write–Steve’s miraculous recovery and our happily ever after. My mind kept searching for ways to make it work. After all, I’ve written my characters into seemingly hopeless situations many times, and there’s always a way out.

Except when there’s no way out.

I have never been the type of novelist who thinks of myself as God. For me, writing a novel is more like trying to manage a group of unruly preschoolers on a field trip: “Come on, kids, don’t you think it would be nice to go inside the museum? Jimmy, don’t eat that bug! And Susie, please stop strangling Timmy!” I have no omnipotence; my hand is certainly not the inexorable hand of fate. No one tries to propitiate me. I can throw all the thunderbolts I want, but my characters don’t take orders. Only when I abandon my lofty post in the heavens and get down on the ground with the characters, seeing things from their points of view, can we all move forward.

So, as much as I wished for it, I never really believed I could rewrite Steve’s story. I knew where our novel should end–at that moment, 11 days into his coma, as the neurologist was telling the family that Steve would probably never wake up, when waking up was exactly what he did. When I asked him to open his eyes and they flew wide open. In a novel, Steve would have managed a smile, and I would have smiled through my tears and held him. End of story. Maybe an epilogue, showing Steve at home, recovering, with a hint that everything would be okay. A scene to leave readers feeling satisfied as they turn the last page.

But life is not a novel.

I thought I understood that. So my story didn’t get the ending I wanted. Yeah, well, that’s life. Time to move on.

The trouble is, I think like a novelist. In my mind, I started to write a new story–the story of my recovery. I did a lot of walking in those early days. I noticed that when I was walking, I felt more or less okay, and walking was the only thing that made me feel that way. So I hit upon the idea of walking out of my grief and into my new life. I’d trek the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches 500 miles across northern Spain, as a way to commemorate Steve and heal myself.

It was a good premise, one with a built-in story arc. I trained for weeks. I gathered my gear and made my plans. I developed a subplot–a friend from my bereavement group who might become more than a friend. I collected a stone from the hospital where Steve died that I could carry with me until I set it down at the base of the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, on the Camino. There were obstacles and doubts and fears and complications. But I kept moving forward. I knew where this story was going.

On the first anniversary of Steve’s death, I was well into my Camino pilgrimage. On that day I had a lovely, visionary moment that lifted some of my emotional burden. The Camino journey was a story in itself. I made some wonderful friends. I injured my feet. I got totally, frighteningly lost. I drank much good wine. I had interesting conversations with people who had fascinating stories of their own. I walked through heavy mud and breathtaking scenery. I struggled; I soared. I lay down my stone and the burden it represented. Eventually, I made it to Santiago.

After I returned home, I told people that my pilgrimage had given me what I needed. I thought, “This is it. Now I’m healed. Now I can get on with my life.” A year had passed, and I’d marked the passing. It was time.

And yet, life isn’t a novel. My story refused to conform to the arc I’d plotted out for it.

Just as I couldn’t write Steve’s story to the ending I wanted, my grief refused to follow the script I’d chosen for it. Some healing did take place, but I didn’t come back all recovered and ready to embrace life again. I have made progress, but I’m still struggling. There’s no resolution, not yet. I don’t think there ever will be, at least not in the sense I was hoping for. Things end and begin. Contexts change. People come and go. But not necessarily at the right time or in a way that neatly wraps up some theme or chain of events. While I live, I will never “close the book” on Steve’s death.


I’m back! With a #MondayBlog post

Yes, it’s been a very long time since my last post. Thanks for your patience. I’m ready and eager to rejoin the world, and jumping into an ongoing blog hop seems like a good place to start.

Thanks to Deborah Blake for inviting me to participate! Her blog, Writing the Witchy Way, is a fun peek into her books, her writing process, and her life. Check out her responses to the questions from this blog hop. Deborah’s debut novel, Wickedly Dangerous, will be released on September 2, and it’s getting great reviews so far. Deborah reimagines Baba Yaga, a scary witch from Slavic folk tales, as a heroine for the 21st century. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy, and I’m reading it now. It’s a fun, fast-paced, sexy read that’s hard to put down. Don’t miss it! (And if you can’t wait to read Wickedly Dangerous, check out the series’ introductory novella, Wickedly Magical.)

On to the questions:

1) What am I working on? I’m still working on the sixth and final novel in my Deadtown series, Firestorm. The past year has been a tough one for me. My husband, Steve, died last September after a long hospitalization, and part of the aftermath for me has been intractable writer’s block. But I don’t want to dwell on that. No matter how many times I lose momentum, I keep returning to the story, listening for my characters’ voices and letting them guide me. It’s the only way I know to regain my focus. There have been times over the past months where I was ready to give up, but I’m not going to let trauma and depression win. Steve wouldn’t have wanted that—he was always a great supporter of my writing—and I don’t want it, either.

Firestorm is the explosive ending to the story of Vicky Vaughn, a Boston shapeshifter who kills other people’s personal demons for a living. When Vicky allowed an ancient goddess to possess her, she had no regrets—it was the only way to save two people she loved. But now Ceridwen refuses to leave. The goddess is locked in a power struggle with the Hellion that, years ago, claimed Vicky with its mark. Each believes controlling Vicky is key to winning the coming war for the human realm. No wonder Vicky feels crowded out.

But Vicky needs all her wits about her. The denizens of Hell are growing bold, and she can barely keep up with the demon attacks that plague Boston: sirens in the Mystic River, goblins snarling traffic on Storrow Drive, imps ripping the gold from the State House dome. Her mate, Kane, is battling to gain dominance over Boston’s werewolves. And her missing protégé, Tina, has been spotted among the zombie gangs making random attacks around the state.

As signs of war multiply and Hell threatens to overflow its borders, Vicky faces an impossible choice—one she never dreamed she’d have to make.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? The Deadtown series is straight-up urban fantasy, so if you like paranormal action/adventure with a kickass female protagonist, you’ll enjoy my books. All of my favorite urban fantasy series have great characters with a strong voice, exciting plots, and fully realized fantasy worlds, and I like to think my series has those, too. What makes my series different is its background mythology. Vicky and her world originate in medieval Welsh stories and legends. I began my career as a medievalist, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way people from the early Middle Ages understood the world and where they came from. Vicky’s race of shapeshifters is called the Cerddorion, the “sons of Ceridwen,” a powerful witch/goddess who could change her form at will. Much of the mythology on which Deadtown is built comes from The Mabinogi, a collection of early Welsh stories that a source for Arthurian legends. Characters and themes from these stories appear throughout the series.

3) Why do I write what I do? I’ve always enjoyed reading urban fantasy, so that’s why I wanted to write it. I love the combination of action and mythology in a contemporary setting. I love how characters in this genre are dealing with everyday problems we all recognize—from paying the bills to building a career to being in a relationship—while saving the world and stopping some really nasty bad guys. I see urban fantasy as a contemporary version of the medieval stories I studied, recognizable people having larger-than-life adventures and protecting their tribes from the monsters. This genre offers the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer.

4) How does your writing process work? Even though I’ve published six novels, I still don’t know “how to write a novel.” Every one has been different. Sometimes I start with a short outline of the main plot points; sometimes I start with a detailed synopsis. Sometimes I start at the beginning and write the story chronologically; other times I jump into a scene from the middle of the book and only try to write the beginning after I’ve written the end. Sometimes I zip through the first draft; sometimes I work and rework each scene the first time through. Sometimes I write best early in the morning; sometimes my writing engine doesn’t get going until nine or ten at night. There are, however, a few things I’ve learned about writing that hold true no matter what the process turns out to be for a given novel:

  • Write every day. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, it keeps momentum going. Often five minutes turns into two hours. But if I miss a day, I don’t beat myself up over it. I justy get back to business the next day.
  • To learn about your characters, give them something to do. For me, the best way to learn about my characters is to see them in action. At the start of a project, I write scenes that will never make their way into the book. The point is to drop my characters into a situation and see how they react. I use character sheets to record details about each character as they reveal themselves. But just like with real people, I have to listen to and watch my characters to get a sense of who they are.
  • You don’t write a novel, you write a scene. The idea of “writing a novel” can be intimidating, even to someone who’s written several. But, as with any large task, the secret is to break it down into a series of manageable steps–take it “bird by bird,” as Anne Lamott put it. Thinking in terms of scenes works for me, and each scene becomes a building block of the novel. On those days when even a scene feels too big to tackle, I’ll try to write a sentence. Do what you can, and more will follow.
  • Minimize distractions. I’m one of those people who can happily claim to be doing “research” for weeks while wasting time I should be using to write. So I often have to seek out places to write where I—gasp!—cannot connect to the Internet. I’m not a multitasker. To be able to get deeply into my characters’ world, I need to focus only on that. I write best when I’m doing nothing but writing—no music, no laundry, no checking emails or updating Facebook. Nothing to claim my attention and pull me out of the story.

Thanks for hopping along with me! Next up is my friend and fellow author Sean Cummings, who writes a variety of fantasy, including urban, YA, post-apocalyptic (with zombies!), and more. He’s a first-rate writer with a wild imagination and a great sense of humor. Check out his website, and be sure to see how he answers the questions next Monday.

 

 


Hellhound release and acknowledgments

Today is release day for Hellhound, book 5 in my Deadtown series, and although I wish the book well and am happy to send it out into the world–for myself, I’m lying low for this one. As I’ve mentioned on this blog, my husband died last month after a long and difficult illness with many ups and downs. He fought so hard and rallied several times, but he didn’t survive. I haven’t been online much because I’m still in mourning. Most of the time, I’m quite sad and even still in shock. I’m working through those feelings offline, as I should. This blog doesn’t seem like the appropriate place to grieve. In the same vein, I just don’t have the heart to do a blog tour or make a big promotional splash this time around.

But I would like to update Hellhound’s dedication and acknowledgments. I wrote those on the day after Steve had the sudden cardiac arrest that would put him in the ICU for more than three months. After the arrest he was in a coma and on life support, and no one knew whether he’d wake up. The neurologist had told me it would be at least 24–72 hours before we see whether he’d regain consciousness. (It actually took 11 days for him to wake up.) I had copy edits due. I decided to spend those first couple of days finishing the edits and writing my not-yet-written dedication and acknowledgments to keep myself from going crazy with the waiting.

It was a scary time, and I was trying very hard to stay positive. I wanted to dedicate the book to Steve, but what should I say when I didn’t know whether he’d live to see the next week, let alone publication? I thought about simply writing To Steve, but it seemed so plain. I wanted to give the dedication a jolt of positive energy, so I settled on the dedication you see in the book: To Steve, with hope for better times ahead. I wrote those words thinking of all we’d been through and hoping sincerely, with all my heart, that we would share better times going forward.

When I turned to the acknowledgments, my brain just wasn’t working right. I had so many people I wanted to thank, but the faces that flashed through my mind were the legions of hospital workers who’d been taking care of Steve. And, at that moment, I didn’t yet know or had only just met many people who would show kindness and compassion and take excellent care of my husband. Even now, I can’t remember them all: Pam, Zach, Kayla, Christie, Sherrell, Mary, Britney, Kelly, Britnee, Ashley, Stephanie, Donna, Shira, Wendy, Laurie, Rose, Noreen, Bonita, Philip, Caroline (respiratory therapist), Caroline (ICU nurse), Carol, Jesse, Jan, Erin, Raina, Mindy, Moses, Shirley, Jona, Ryan, Dan, Joe, and so many others whose faces I still see clearly even though the names begin to elude me. I’m probably getting some names wrong, too, and I apologize for that. I appreciate each and every person who cared for my husband, chatted with me, and showed us even a little kindness. Steve literally (and I mean literally–I counted) had a dozen specialists working with him. I am especially grateful to Dr. Domat, Dr. Kim, Dr. Okwiya, and Dr. Pessero for their good bedside manner and for trying so hard to help Steve recover. Elena, along with the other medical ethics and palliative care people, also helped us. Special, heartfelt thanks go to Chaplain Sachs; I would have disintegrated into a puddle of tears on the floor without your support and true friendship.

I’m sorry for any omissions. They’re not intentional. Steve truly had an army of caregivers fighting for him, and I appreciate the efforts of each and every person who took care of him. We should have won.

I’d also like to thank the staff of Family House, where I was able to stay at a reasonable cost for a significant part of Steve’s hospitalization. The facility is right across the street from the hospital, and it gave me peace of mind to know that I could be at his bedside in three minutes if necessary–and there were some times when it was necessary. You run a great facility with wonderful staff, and I’m so glad I was able to stay there and get to know some of you.

Steve’s medical issues dominated my life for most of this year–and, to be honest, for several years. There are other people I want to thank, people who had nothing to do with hospitals and health care. First and foremost is Cam Dufty. Cam was the Ace/Roc editor who bought the first Deadtown book, and I have always been grateful for her belief in me and her enjoyment of Vicky and friends. Cam has moved on from the crazy world of trade fiction publishing, but it was always my intention to thank her explicitly in each book of the Deadtown series. In the miasma of stress and worry last spring, I somehow left that mention out. So I’ll say this now: Thank you, Cam, for rescuing Vicky from the slush pile and setting her loose in the world. You were a great editor; you’re an even better friend. You gave me the chance to chase my dream, and anything I manage to accomplish as a writer is built on the foundation you created.

Numerous bloggers have discovered, reviewed, and recommended my books, bringing in new readers who would never have found my series otherwise. Some have become good friends, as well. So thanks to Sharon Stogner, Jen Twimom, Natasha Carty, Amber Chalmers (Cymru am byth!), Sullivan McPig, Roxanne Rhoads, Sara M., Spaz P,  Larissa Benoliel, Melliane, Chelle Olson, and Jennifer (The Book Nympho). Thank you so much for reading my books and sharing your thoughts with your readers. And thanks for being patient with me as I find my way through this phase of my life.

To be honest, I still find it hard to read Hellhound’s dedication. I wanted to ask my editor to change it to an “In memoriam” style of dedication, but by the time it was clear that Steve wouldn’t survive, it was too late to change the words on the page. Steve was an author, too (he wrote many more books than I did–more than 130 all told), so he knew how deadlines and production schedules work. Now, I look at that dedication with a tear in my eye and with a vow that everything I ever write will be dedicated to his memory, with love and appreciation.


On not writing and writing again

As my husband’s illness escalated into a health crisis, it became difficult to write. As he was dying, writing became impossible. How could I pay attention to made-up people in my head when one of the people I cared about most in the world was suffering and fading?

And here’s another question: My protagonist is a demon slayer involved in a supernatural war. How can I write about death as entertainment now that I’ve held my husband’s hand as he died?

I’ve had writer’s block before, but nothing like this. This was a complete loss of any sense of purpose. After the agony and loss I’d experienced, how could fiction matter?

It wasn’t just my own loss, either. On any given day, when I scan the headlines, I routinely see that dozens were killed by car bombs in the middle east. Or a disgruntled worker shot former colleagues. Or an estranged spouse killed five people. Or three people died in a car crash. Or the civil war in Syria has caused several hundred more deaths. Or a drone strike had unintended civilian casualties. On and on. Place after place. Day after day. I am conscious now, in a way I wasn’t fully before, of how each of those deaths–every single one of the dozens or hundreds broadcast by each new day’s headlines–causes profound, unimaginable grief to the survivors. To the husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings, friends left behind. Sometimes it seems like the world’s atmosphere is thick with anguished cries of “No!” and “Why?”

Mine are among them. They have brought my life screeching to a halt.

Still, when I think of Steve, I remember how much he celebrated my successes. He told me, many times, that one of his greatest joys in life was watching me blossom. He didn’t care what that blossoming entailed–he would have been just as happy if I’d been writing obscure monographs on medieval hagiography as he was walking into a bookstore and finding my mass-market urban fantasy paperbacks on the shelves. He wanted me to achieve my dreams, whatever they were. And he fully supported me in going after those dreams.

From that perspective, how could I not write?

So I’m making an effort to get back to it. I want to finish Deadtown’s story. I want the readers who have followed my series to get an ending that excites, pleases, and satisfies. As corny as it may sound, I want the blossoming that gave Steve pleasure to achieve fullness. I will not let him down.

Since I’ve been back home, I’ve been taking walks on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings with a local writer friend. On Monday, she suggested that we finish Wednesday’s walk by meeting another writer at a local coffee shop and spending an hour or so writing together. Not talking, not sharing, not critiquing–just writing together.

We did that. And it was great.

There’s something about being in the presence of other writers who are working that makes it impossible to procrastinate. No more letting myself be blocked. I read through the outline for Deadtown 6, looking for a scene I could draft. I found one. And I started to write.

To my surprise and delight, Vicky and crew were right there, waiting for me to give them voice. There was no awkward period of getting reacquainted. As soon as I turned my attention to them, my characters stepped forward. Vicky’s voice was still there, as strong and distinctive as it’s ever been. Mab, always a leader, gave me the first line, and off we went. Just like that.

It’s good to know I can trust my characters; they’re here for me, true to form, when I need them. It’s good to know that I can use fiction to explore some of the thoughts and emotions I’ve encountered in the past year. It’s good to know that my characters are ready and eager to deliver an exciting conclusion to the series. Most of all, it’s good to know I can continue to blossom in the way Steve so enjoyed seeing. This book–and whatever I accomplish in the future–is for him.


Music and mourning

As many of you know, my husband, Steve Holzner, passed away on September 4 after a long and excruciating illness. He was a diabetic and had many, many complications of that terrible disease. He’d almost entirely lost his eyesight. He had his right leg amputated. He developed chronic kidney disease. He had terrible neuropathic pain. We traveled to a top-rated hospital in Pittsburgh from our home in central New York in an attempt to save his leg. For various reasons, he opted for the amputation, mostly to avoid the horrible process of losing his leg little by little as further surgeries became necessary in the future. As we were starting to plan his discharge, he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest that left him in a coma for 11 days and sent him to the ICU for what would become a stay of more than three months.

I wrote here before about how Steve woke up from the coma just as the neurologist was telling us he never would. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I thought he’d be able to make a significant recovery, if not a full one. For weeks, he was alert and responsive. He couldn’t talk because he had a tracheostomy and was on a ventilator. But he nodded or shook his head, made appropriate facial expressions (such as smiles and grimaces) when someone talked to him. He mouthed words, tried to write (although he’d lost a lot of fine motor control and the writing was illegible), traced letters in the air with his finger. Once he asked the night nurse where I was by writing “WIFE” in the air. I treasure those weeks. I was able to tell him, over and over, how much I love him. Although I often had trouble reading his lips, I always knew when he was mouthing, “I love you.”

But the recovery didn’t hold. Multiple problems and complications developed, and over the course of more weeks I watched him slip away from me.

For 132 days in a row, I walked into that hospital. I did not miss being beside him a single day. For the last two weeks, I moved into his room in the ICU so he wouldn’t be alone. I was with him as he died. I held his hand and stroked his hair and told him I was there. I watched him take his last breath. I watched his final heartbeat pulse in his neck.

While Steve was ill, I played him his favorite music, even when there was no indication he could hear it. I hope he got some pleasure from that. I haven’t been able to listen to those pieces since, but I have turned to music to help give expression to my grief. I’m an opera lover, and one aria that I turn to again and again is “Che farò senza Euridice” from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. As I’m sure you recall from the myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring back his beloved wife, Eurydice, to the world of the living. He is allowed to escort her from the realm of the dead on the condition that he neither looks at nor speaks to her until they’ve returned to the mortal world. Eurydice, not understanding his silence, pleads with him to look at her. He does, and she dies for the second time. This aria comes after that second death.

Here are the lyrics with English translation, courtesy of the Aria Database:

Che farò senza Euridice		What will I do without Euridice
Dove andrò senza il mio ben.	Where will I go without my wonderul one.
Euridice, o Dio, risponde	Euridice, oh God, answer
Io son pure il tuo fedele.	I am entirely your loyal one.
Euridice! Ah, non m´avvanza	Euridice! Ah, it doesn´t give me
più socorso, più speranza	any help, any hope
ne dal mondo, ne dal ciel.	neither this world, neither heaven.

Translation by Gabriel Huaroc (ghuaroc@usm.edu.ec)

(The singer is a woman–the wonderful Dame Janet Baker–but she’s playing the male character of Orfeo.)

I hope you’ll listen. It’s a beautiful aria. The repetition of “Che faró” and “Dove andró”–“What will I do?” and “Where will I go?”–perfectly captures how I feel. There’s bewilderment at the loss of someone who was so central to Orfeo’s world and whom he tried so hard to save. And there’s no sense of purpose or how to move forward. That’s very much how I feel right now, and although the aria makes me cry, it’s wonderful to have such gorgeous music give shape to my feelings.


Hellhound release date

You may have seen around the Web that Hellhound is coming out next Tuesday, July 30. I’m sorry to say that’s not the case. Hellhound was originally scheduled for publication on that date, but due to my husband’s illness I missed some deadlines and the release date got pushed back.

So when will Hellhound hit the shelves? October 29. I’m sorry (very sorry) for the wait, but you have to admit a new Deadtown novel makes great Halloween reading!


Where I’ve been

To anyone who hasn’t given up on this blog, it probably seems like I’ve dropped off the face of the earth. And right now, that’s close to what it feels like. I spend my days in a windowless room in an intensive care unit, by my husband’s bedside. He’s been in the hospital for nearly two months and in the ICU for over three weeks.

My husband suffers multiple complications from diabetes. He’s already lost most of his eyesight. He’s been in and out of hospitals since September. Last winter, an infected wound in his foot sent him to the emergency room and a hospital stay that stretched to three weeks. We were told he’d need to have his leg amputated below the knee. Devastating news, especially when diabetes had already taken so much. He came home for a month on IV antibiotics while we got second opinions and considered his options. During this time, I became his round-the-clock nurse. I was happy to take care of him but often feared I was in over my head. I don’t have any medical training, and suddenly (other than a weekly visit from a real nurse) I was the one responsible for holding him steady.

For a while, we thought that he’d be able to have a less drastic surgery, but for various reasons that didn’t work out. He opted for the amputation. That surgery went well, but he developed pneumonia and, on the day we were supposed to start talking about his discharge, he went into sudden cardiac arrest.

We were lucky. I was in his room and realized he was in distress. I got a nurse, who called in a crisis team. They were with him when his heart stopped, so he got immediate CPR until the doctor was able to get his heart beating on its own again. They moved him to the ICU, and for more than a week we waited to see if he’d regain consciousness. Day after day, things looked grim. He had another close call. Staff gently warned me that each day that slipped away took another sliver of hope with it. Counselors appeared to talk to me about the possibility that he wouldn’t wake up. Someone even asked me about organ donation. My husband had signed a living will; I knew what his wishes were. Still, I kept asking them to wait one more day, do one more test…

On the twelfth day after the cardiac arrest, I was with him alone in his room. Standing by his bed and holding his hand, tears running down my face, I asked him one last time to open his eyes. I didn’t expect anything, but he did–wide. He relaxed a little, and I asked again. He opened them again. I asked him to close them and he scrunched them shut. By this time I was yelling to anyone who’d listen, “He’s waking up! He’s waking up!” I don’t even know how to describe the abrupt switch from profound despair to absolute joy that I felt just by seeing him open his eyes. Since then, he’s continued to wake up–slowly, but we have hope. He’s got a long road ahead and I’m not even sure where it leads, but I’ll be walking it with him.

During these weeks and months of crisis, I missed some work deadlines, which means that HELLHOUND’s release had to be pushed back to the fall. I regret that, but I couldn’t help it. No matter how much I love Deadtown’s world, it’s hard to focus on made-up characters in your head when someone you love is in crisis. Now that my husband is more stable, I’m working on Deadtown 6, which will be the final book in the series. I’m excited to bring together the plot lines and character arcs in a grand finale! It feels good to get back to work.

Thanks for your patience. I expect to be around more in the coming weeks, and I look forward to getting back in touch with online friends and readers.


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