Wednesday, March 30, 2011

10 Years to Publish

Ten years. That’s how long it takes to publish your first novel. At least that’s what I keep hearing from people who probably know what they’re talking about (read: every professor in my MFA).

Of course, the question then becomes: from what point do you count the ten years? Do I count from the point when I first began muddling through an attempt at fiction? If so, then I’ve got one year to go (counting from that week I spent writing in Romania).

Or do I start counting from the moment of that first flash of inspiration for this particular novel?

I was in Merida, Mexico with my parents. It was fall break my senior year of college. That summer I’d begun a romance with my co-worker, Andrew, and after I’d gone back to school we’d both come to the conclusion that we were in love. He came along to Merida and, despite my parents being there, it felt like a honeymoon.

I don’t remember when the actual idea came, but I remember the first time I said it out loud. We were all sitting at tippy tables in a tiny little café on a cobble stone street. We were having flan and coffee for breakfast and a perfectly temperate breeze was rustling the napkins on the table. I told everyone that I was going to write a novel about “a man who is a bear who is a man.”

“I don’t really know what it means yet,” I said when everyone looked blankly back at me.

If so, that means I’ve got four years to go.

Or do I count from when I seriously started putting words to the page? Seriously began assembling chapters?

Seven years to go.

I like reading physical books because I can see how I’m progressing. I hold a finger on my current page, flip the book up to look at the top edge, and come up with a fraction for how far along I am: 1/5, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and then I stop paying attention because I’m almost finished. This helps when I get stressed out by a book. For instance, when Prince Andre “dies” for the first time in War and Peace, I was devastated until I flipped my book up and realized that there was no way Tolstoy could rob us of Prince Andre in the first quarter of the book and not bring him back to us.

So where am I? What fraction of the way am I? I’m almost through my first draft. That’s where I am. And then I’ll write a second draft. And another. And probably another.

And then I’ll write the second book that’s currently lurking on edges of my mind.

In the last two years I’ve been telling people that I’m a writer. In this last year, when I finally, truly let go of any hope of a timeline for when my novel would be finished, I actually became one.

I do want to publish. I do want to hold my book in my hands and to be able to give it as a Christmas present to every single person I know. But, I’ve got to write the damn thing first.

So. How long? It doesn’t really matter.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shoot Those Pigeons Down Girl!

During the spring I shoot trap once a week with the only all women’s team at the Juneau Gun Club. There are two things that I always have to explain when I say the above sentence:
  1. Trap Shooting – Trap is a competitive clay pigeon (those orange clay discs) shooting sport. You shoot in a group of five people first at 16 yards and then at 20 yards from the pigeon house (the location where the clays are shot from). There are five shooting stations, each at slightly different angles. For each distance each person shoots a total of 25 shots. The shots are taken one at a time until each person has shot five times at the station they’re standing at, then everyone rotates. Once everyone has shot five shots at each of the five stations, the whole group moves over to the next distance.
  2. A diagram of the set-up stolen from
  3. The Juneau Gun Club – this is a private shooting club which has a club house and the set-ups for trap. If you’re a member you can buy cheap shells, shoot, borrow guns, and drink coffee. They run the league after work during the winter, so they also run floodlights for the shooters.
The team I shoot with started three years ago with a group of gals who had never shot trap, and in some cases, never shot a shotgun. That’s still true this year as the team is made up of whoever we can find who might be interested. It’s a no pressure team, which is great, and I’m sure we’re the only team that shoots out there that thinks that getting one pigeon out of fifty is great.
The majority of the folks we shoot against are white, early to late middle aged men. Many of these men have special shooting jackets and shotguns that are only used for trap and cost thousands of dollars. The first year our team shot, they didn’t quite know what to do with us. Now, three years in, it feels like we’re an accepted part of the club, if a totally bizarre part. It’s probably because we giggle.

In general I shoot around 18 or 19 out of 50 pigeons. Last night I had my best night of shooting and got 26.

Trap shooting feels a lot like you’re in a live video game. When you have a great shot, the pigeon explodes in a satisfying neon orange firework, the shards dispersing over a huge patch of snow.
For our team, it’s all about personal goals. Last year my personal goal was to shoot at least one pigeon at each of the ten stations. This year my goal is to shoot at least two pigeons at each of the ten stations. I came close last night, but have not yet achieved this year’s goal.

But the result of having these goals is a complex series of mental summersaults I go through.

The interior narration:

Sweet! Got one. I love getting the first pigeon! Okay. That’s great. Pressure’s off. It would be great to get another one, but if you don’t that’s okay. You already got one. So to meet your goal all you have to do is get one more. But if you don’t, that’s okay. Okay. Stop thinking. Stop thinking. Breathe. Shoot. Dang it. That’s okay. You still have three more shots at this station. Three more chances. But if you don’t get any, it’s okay, you already got one, which is good.
The gals from the trap team who shot last night.

And on and on.
During the league, each team has two work nights. On those nights our team doesn’t shoot, but fills up the pigeon houses when they run out of pigeons and scores other teams while they shoot. Scoring the other teams is usually a bit of a shock. They shoot so quickly! They shoot so many pigeons!  The best shooters shoot 48 or 49 out of 50.  It’s clear that the mental game these shooters play is very different from mine. Their expectation is that the pigeon will always explode and when it doesn’t they tighten their jaws and stare up at the night sky.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Self Contained and Abroad

This morning, the howl of the wind moving across the roofs of our neighborhood sounded exactly like a faint adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. With eyes closed and still on the soft edge of sleep, I woke with Turkey on the mind.

It’s hard to believe that nine years has passed since I took my first major solo trip. I was newly 19 and had settled on Eastern Europe as a good place to try: it was cheap, most of the countries were on the verge of entering the EU, it was mostly out of the major Europe travel path, and it was western enough that I wasn’t scared to go (like I was a little bit of South America and Asia).

The path:
U.K.: London
Czech Republic: Prague
Hungary: Budapest
Poland: Krakow, Oswiecim, Zakopano
Back to Hungary: Budapest
Romania: Targu Mures, Cluj-Napoca, Brasov, Sighetu Marmatiei, Bucharest
Bulgaria: Sofia, Pernik, Plovdiv
Turkey: Istanbul, Cappadocia Region
Back to Cluj Napoca, Romania
Back to Prague, Czech Republic
Back to London
Back home.

Two and a half months. A lone American woman. My first day in Prague I watched with the other hostel folks as America dropped the first bombs of the second Iraq war. That was the first moment that my trip scared me and it was the first time I ever felt the need to call myself Alaskan rather than American.

I had very little money to survive on and a strict budget. I wrote every single expense down in a small notebook, calculated my daily costs and then adjusted if needed. Some days I ate nothing but rolls with cheese from the market.

Almost everyone I met was shocked to find a nineteen year old American girl traveling by herself. This worked in my favor. Instead of being the vulnerable target that everyone thought I must be, I became the opportunity for people to do a good turn. Almost every person I met thought I needed help, I needed protecting, and as a result it was like all of my problems melted away. And I did have problems, and other scary times, but inevitably a good Samaritan would step in to help me out.

Maybe this trip is why I retain my belief in the inherent goodness of people.

It took me most of my trip to figure out that I was taking advantage of an attitude towards woman, and girls, that I had always objected to. I considered myself strong, independent, un-needy. And I was those things, but I know now that the only way I made it through those two and a half months was by allowing other people to see me the way that they wanted to and taking advantage of that attitude. I learned that there is nothing weak about accepting help when you need it.

This trip was also when I started to learn how to talk to people. I was extremely shy, nervous, and reserved around unfamiliar people. But now, traveling by myself, there were times when I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t find someone to be around and share with. At the first hostel I stayed at I watched another traveler go around and introduce himself to everyone at breakfast, ask where they were from, what they were up to, where they were going. He walked away from breakfast with two new people to spend the day exploring with, me and an Irishman.

I learned and adapted.  If I hadn't opened up myself to new people, I never would've: traveled to Poland, gone to a bathhouse, gone spelunking, learned how to deal with corrupt train guards, gone to a monastery, or learned that French fries are the secret ingredient to delicious kebabs.

Turkey was the hardest place for me. Blondish, blue-eyed, big-boobed, I was a target there more than I ever had been, constantly harassed on the street. If I had gone to Turkey earlier in my trip, it would’ve been a disaster, but towards the end of my trip I had grown stronger, more willing to throw myself into uncomfortable situations and believe I could make it out the other side. Sitting in the Blue Mosque for an hour every day was my reward. Exploring the underground cities in Cappadocia, living my Indiana Jones dreams, all made it worth it.

I left Turkey and went back to Cluj-Napoca in Romania, the place I had felt the most comfortable on my trip. There, sitting at a small café, watching the tiny sparrows hop around my feet, gathering crumbs like mice, I began my first attempt at writing fiction.

Odd to know that I am that same person, even though I feel so changed.