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.

Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New

I’ll admit that 2012 was not a good year in my household, so I’m looking forward to what 2013 may bring. The turning over of the calendar from one year to the next is a pretty arbitrary thing; tomorrow morning will dawn much like this morning did. Still, it’s a good time to pause and spend some time to reflect. What have I made it through? Where am I now? Where would I like to be?

When it comes to resolutions, I tend to be the kind of person who makes several, follows through for about two weeks, and then sinks back into my usual patterns. It can be discouraging. So this year, I decided that instead of making a resolution, I’d choose something I wanted to learn–and then take a class. This appealed to me for a couple of reasons. My husband’s ill health keeps me home most of the time, and a class would get me out of the house. Also, there’s much greater motivation to follow through on something that you’ve paid for. Finally, it’s been a long time since I went out of my way to learn something in the context of a group of people, and doing so seemed like fun.

So I started thinking. Initially, I came up with three main ideas:

  • A physical activity. Most of my exercise these days comes in the form of taking walks. So I was thinking that something like yoga or Pilates (a new studio just opened a couple of blocks from my house) might be a good addition. My daughter does Crossfit and loves it, but I don’t think I’m ready for that. 🙂
  • A musical instrument. I took piano lessons as a child, abandoned them, started playing on my own when I was in high school, and then stopped again in college. We don’t have a piano, but I do have an electronic keyboard. I wondered how quickly I could learn to play again.
  • A language. I love studying languages. I used to have decent intermediate-level French, and I have a friend who takes French conversation classes. I’d also like to learn German (which my husband speaks) or Italian (largely due to my opera obsession). And ever since starting Deadtown I’ve wanted to learn Welsh, although I think I might have a tough time finding a Welsh class in central NY.

Those were my first three thoughts. All of them are appealing to me. But in the end I signed up for something completely different: a writing workshop. I saw one advertised in my local weekly. It’s called Writing Through the Rough Spots, and it seemed like it might be a good way to process some of the changes and challenges that have been happening in my life. One of my goals for 2013 is to expand my writing repertoire. Of course, I’ll be writing Deadtown 6 and (hopefully) a sequel to my mystery, Peace, Love, and Murder. (People have been asking for that long enough!) But I have other stories to tell and other voices to let speak. A workshop seemed like a good way to open up to those stories and voices. I’m not taking it for therapy (although writing can be therapeutic). I’m not taking it with the intent to write something publishable (although who knows what stories might emerge). I’m taking it to flex my writing muscles and explore new possibilities in my writing. And I’ve committed ten weeks to doing that. It’s the best resolution I can think of.

Happy New Year to you! Whether you make resolutions, set goals, or simply go with the flow, I hope you have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2013!

The Next Big Thing in Deadtown

I was recently tagged by Sean Cummings to participate in The Next Big Thing, where authors answer ten questions about their current works in progress. If you haven’t read Sean’s post about what he’s working on now, jump over to his blog to take a look. It sounds awesome–how could you resist an apocalyptic young adult tale featuring zombies?

In turn, I tagged three excellent writer friends. K.A. Laity has already posted about her weird noir project. (And she’s such an amazing writer she’s been tagged three times now to share her “next big thing.”) I’ve also tagged Keith Pyeatt, award-winning author of “horror with heart,” and J.R. Turner, whose urban fantasy Redemption I called “a heady mix of action, thrills, and sizzling romance.” Watch for their posts on November 21.

So thanks, Sean, for asking me what I’m up to with my writing. Here’s what I had to say:

What is the working title of your book?

Hellhound. It’s the fifth book in my Deadtown urban fantasy series featuring demonslaying shapeshifter Victory Vaughn.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Because I’m writing a series, everything that’s in this book comes from two things: Vicky’s story as it’s unfolded so far and the overall plot arc that will finish with book six.

What genre does your book fall under?

Urban fantasy. I try to write the kind of urban fantasy I most enjoy reading, with tons of action, some humor, and a touch of romance. There’s also some darkness as Vicky struggles with her own fears as she races to save others.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This question always gives me trouble, because the characters are like real people to me, and I’ve never been able to match them up neatly with actors. Keira Knightley or Emma Watson (in a few years) could probably play Vicky—but that’s mostly because they both look good with hair that’s short, like hers. I think of Vicky’s werewolf boyfriend Kane as looking sorta like a decades-younger Richard Gere, but keeping the silver hair Gere has now. And my mental image of Pryce, Vicky’s nemesis and demi-demon cousin, looks a little like Cillian Murphy. See? I’m really bad at answering this question.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When some of Boston’s zombies turn murderous, Vicky must find out what’s causing the killing spree, while trying to prevent a demon war and outrun the pack of hellhounds on her trail.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have an agent. The publisher for this series is Ace. Some time next year, I hope to self-publish a collection of Deadtown-related short stories, including a novella-length prequel set during the zombie plague that created Deadtown.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Probably about three months, if you don’t include some breaks related to pressures of the day job (which is also writing, but mostly related to technical and educational topics).

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t like to make direct comparisons because it feels presumptuous. So I’ll say that if you like to read fantasy series set in a modern urban environment that show characters with special powers trying to save the world while dealing with the problems of everyday life, you’ll probably enjoy my books.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’d been reading a lot of urban fantasy and thought it was a fun genre that I’d like to try writing. Several things came together to launch Deadtown, the first book in the series—a blog comment that no one besides you can “wrestle with your own personal demons,” my background in medieval literature with a long-standing interest in Welsh mythology, a joke that zombies improve any book (and that was before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out), and a desire to use Boston as a setting. And so Vicky Vaughn—a descendent of the Welsh goddess Ceridwen who lives in Boston’s paranormal-only district and kills other people’s personal demons for a living—was born.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hellhound features a book that doesn’t want to be read, a teenage zombie fashion entrepreneur, and a wisecracking guilt demon that may or may not have an actual conscience. Not to mention a pack of actual hellhounds.

My Halloween horoscope

I’m one of those people who glances at her horoscope each morning and then promptly forgets what it said. It’s a fun way to start the day, but for every prediction that seems uncannily accurate, there are hundreds that had nothing whatsoever to do with the way my day unfolded.

Today, though, the horoscope that landed in my Inbox was too good not to share, especially on the eve of NaNoWriMo. Here it is, as sent by Astrocenter.com:

You need to start giving yourself more credit, NANCY. You have tremendous talents, many of them untapped. If you would just begin to harness the talent and power that is already within you, then you would begin to see a dramatic arc to your career path. Something is holding you back. Could it be fear of failure or, more likely, fear of success? You need to spend some time meditating about what you really want out of life. Once your heart’s desire is clear, it will be that much easier to claim it.

This feels less like a prediction than good, solid advice for anyone who creates. You don’t have to be named Nancy, be a Pisces, or write books. Whatever your dreams and goals, decide what you want–and then go for it! It’s the only way to succeed.

Happy Halloween! And good luck to all the NaNoWriMo writers who are revving up their creative engines!

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