For the past couple years, I’ve worked on a book of interlocking stories, all of which follow the lives of four siblings as they travel through the foster care system. Each chapter is told from a different point of view: the police officer who removes the kids; foster parents; the birth mom; social workers; the kids themselves; etc. In February, sixteen chapters in, I decided to go back to the beginning and work on revisions before moving forward. And then the world collapsed, and I stopped working on it altogether.
When I opened the document last week, I found myself reading about a cop sitting in a bar, drinking a beer and listening to a woman nearby talk to her friends. In the next scene, he waits in his patrol car while three kids step off a school bus. Well, shit, I thought. This is a pre-COVID world. And since I have no idea what a post-COVID world will look like, and I don’t feel like rewriting the whole book with the characters in masks and physically distancing, I decided the project needs to be shelved.
The upside of this is that I’m returning to Aret.
Book Three has been sitting around tapping its foot for years, and it’s time to give it some attention. Besides, spending time on a world with multiple wars and man-eating dragons seems like a pretty decent option right about now.
To me, spring is a huge relief. As I emerge from the oppressive darkness, freezing temperatures, and skeletal landscapes of the winter doldrums, I am reminded once again that happiness is possible.
Months ago, I attended a daylong conference on authentic happiness. About halfway through, the presenter asked the audience if we believed optimists or pessimists possess a more realistic world view. Most of us voted for the pessimists, and we were right. (I’ve certainly remarked on occasion that I’m not a pessimist; I’m a realist. Turns out my cynical assessment was correct.)
But she then told us this: while pessimists’ predictions tend to be more accurate, optimists rate themselves as happier people, have far fewer health problems, and live longer than pessimists. The logical conclusion, she said, is simple. Choose optimism. Being right is overrated.
On the day I attended this presentation, winter reigned. When I walked to my car at 5 p.m., night had already fallen, and sleet prickled my face. As I rubbed mittened hands together, trying to raise some warmth in my frozen fingers, I thought of the presenter’s advice about optimism and could only muster a sardonic laugh.
But today, the air is full of bird calls and the scent of blossoms. Redbuds, dogwoods, and tulips are in full bloom, and my vision is awash in pinks, purples, and lush, new greens. As I learned during four pitiful years in Oregon, my emotional state is a slave to the weather. That’s just the way it is, and I accept it about myself (another key to happiness, as it turns out). So today, I choose optimism. I choose to believe that events are unfolding as they should. I choose to believe there is a glow of hope on the horizon. I choose to believe humans are capable of powerful goodness.
Screw pessimism. Reality be damned. I choose happiness.
Self-published authorship is a hard row to hoe. Even if you wrap yourself in glittery lights, wave your arms, and yell, “Look at me! Over here!” 99.99% of the world will reply, “Why? I’ve never even heard of you. Leave me alone, loser. I’m watching The Real Housewives.” But you must soldier on and keep hope alive, believing that one day, someone not connected by blood or friendship will give a crap about your work.
Several months back, I posted Aret’s book trailer on my Facebook page. A few minutes later, I got a notice from Facebook offering a $10 voucher for a sponsored post. I figured, what the hell? I’d never found their ads effective, but for ten free dollars? Sure. So I turned the trailer post into an ad, chose an audience of fantasy-focused book lovers, and cast it into the interwebs.
I check Facebook once a day (a sanity-preservation deal I made with myself a couple years ago), so it wasn’t until the next morning that I logged in and discovered that, unsurprisingly, the trailer had gotten minimal attention. It had, however, received a comment from someone I didn’t know! Hurrah, such a boon for the self-published writer! I experienced about 2 seconds of happiness before clicking over to the comment to find this:
“A movie trailer for a book? I’m too old for this shit.” – Joe the Shmoe from Idaho* [*not his real name or state of origin, but the rebrand comforts me]
That was it – the only comment. Joe the Shmoe had taken it upon himself to stand alone, boldly sharing his brilliant observations with the world.
When you delete a comment (which I did immediately, in this case), Facebook asks if you’re sure you want to delete it. I wish there were also an option to generate a private message to the commenter, timed to arrive the moment the comment is obliterated. If there were such an option, I’d send this picture of myself:
But this irritating incident wasn’t really about Aret’s book trailer or my futile attempts at marketing. It was about communication choices. As I read and deleted Joe’s comment, I recalled a helpful and easy-to-remember model, posted in pretty much every school counselor’s office across our nation:
I love the THINK model, hokey as it may seem. Can you imagine if people used this framework when choosing whether or not to communicate? Incidents of getting butt-hurt for no good reason would be driven to near-extinction, and internet commentary would decrease by about 98%. In short, the world would be a much better place.
Unfortunately, the framework people seem to choose instead is something I’ve come to call the SO model:
S = Is it Stupid? O = Is it Obnoxious?
If SO...you should definitely say it!
Joe the Shmoe, and millions of other trolls just like him, are big supporters of the SO model. Some dumb idea flits through their heads, and they promptly carve it into the universe. From a professional standpoint, I suppose I should be happy about this, as people’s prevalent use of the SO model provides an ongoing stream of clients for mental health workers like me. But I am not happy about it. I would much rather have people think for two seconds before spewing their nonsense into the world. I believe our species is approaching max capacity for nonsense, and you know what happens when we hit that threshold, right?
The robots take over. 🤖 ☠️
So please, folks – choose THINK over SO. I can find another line of work, and I’d like to have the option to choose it myself, rather than being forced into servitude by android overlords.
The past couple of weeks have been all about patience and how much it sucks. The 2nd edition of Aret: Book One has been written, reviewed by a team of editors, updated, read through twice more, just to be safe (God help me), and uploaded to Amazon. Since then, the old and new versions have battled for dominance, the old version refusing to give up the ghost and no one, including Amazon, understanding why.
What that means for me is that I can’t do a formal launch of the 2nd edition, even though it is so totally ready, because I don’t want any new readers to end up with the old version of the book. Therefore, I sit in the doldrums, waiting to receive a message from Amazon that says something better than: “We are still investigating this matter. Thank you for your patience.”
Ah, patience, the virtue touted as “its own reward.” But we all know what that means, right? Choosing to be patient is slightly less awful than opting for impatience. That’s all. Ambrose Bierce offers a more accurate assessment. In The Devil’s Dictionary, he defines patience as “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” Precisely, Ambrose. Very perceptive.
But none of that matters. The fact is that I can’t move forward, so there’s nothing to do but wait for the all-clear from Amazon and pretend I possess the patience for which they keep thanking me. In the interim, I will go to my happy place.
With my consciousness nestled in paradise, I will try to avoid thoughts of Aret, books in general, patience, or impatience. When Axl Rose starts to sing in my head about the-virtue-that-shall-not-be-named (🎶 “Said, woman, take it slow and it’ll work itself out fine…” 🎶), I will tell him to pipe down, reminding him that he’s sung that song to me five hundred times in the past two weeks, and it’s time to give it a rest.
Someday, this lapse in the doldrums will be naught but a distant, annoying memory. That will be a good day. For now, I’m off to the tropical tree swing in my mind. 🌴
At this time six years ago, Libby the Dog, Sid the Cat, and I were halfway through our three-month stint on Orcas Island, and I was 100 pages into Aret. By the time we left Orcas, I’d written a raw first draft, though it was more of a blurry blueprint than a book. Four years later, I published a better version. The other night, I completed a MUCH better version. Now, it’s in the hands of a group of editors, and I get to step away from revision-mode, which is a huge relief.
My youngest nephew is three. When he attempts a task without immediate success, he pitifully cries, “I can’t!” But because he’s a resilient little guy, he keeps trying, and when he succeeds (usually within about five seconds), he joyfully exclaims, “I did it!” That 180-degree emotional shift is something I experienced about ten thousand times during Aret’s grueling rewrite. I’d hit a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that stopped me dead, decide I was the worst writer in history and a complete idiot to think I could write a whole goddamn book, and seriously consider smashing my computer. Then I’d keep trying, fix the problem, and think, I did it! I do know how to write! Yay!
When I finished Aret’s first draft, if someone had mentioned how long it would take to complete the final edit, I might’ve thrown the manuscript in the trash. Six years is quite a stretch of time, and a lot has changed since 2012. Loved ones have been gained and lost. Much of my hair has turned white. My husband and I have begun the debate I remember my parents having throughout my childhood: You’re Going Deaf vs. You’ve Started Mumbling. A wrist brace has been added to my already super-sexy nighttime routine (mouthguard + earplugs + wrist brace = HOT). And I’ve gone from watching bald eagles outside my cottage on Orcas to having a Harris’ hawk perch on my hand.
Several weeks back, when I mentioned to my sister that I was editing Aret, she replied with this text: What. Are. You. Talking. About. Why oh why would you do that to yourself??? She had a good point. But now that the travail is over, I feel like my nephew with his beatific smile, glorying in an accomplishment that once seemed impossible. I suppose that’s another thing that’s changed since 2012: I have a new role model who’s three years old.
[P.S. ~ If your takeaway from this post was: Hey, I want a hawk on my hand, too! and you happen to be in Western North Carolina, you can experience an afternoon of falconry here: http://curtiswrightoutfitters.com/falconry/. It is truly amazing.]
About six weeks back, my stone mason pal and I installed a creekside patio on a previously undisturbed area of land. My first task was to dig out a large pathway. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem, but this soil was unique, in that it was chock-a-block full of grapefruit-sized rocks, so whenever I drove my shovel in the dirt, it slammed straight into a rock (CHING!), sending up a shower of sparks. After several of these attempts, I got tired of the nails-on-a-chalkboard, chills-up-my-spine effect, abandoned the shovel, and proceeded to dig out the entire area with a pickaxe.
Every couple of hours, the homeowner came down from the house to chat with us, and as she watched my pile of extricated rocks grow into a small mountain, she apologized profusely for the condition of her land. I told her it was fine – it was my job, plus I was gaining muscle and getting a good cardio workout – and we all had a good laugh. By the end of the day, she’d given me a new nickname. I was no longer Kelly; I was Digger.
A week later, the patio was complete.
Nice, huh? Let me know if you need any rock work done. 😉
By that time, we’d become friendly with the homeowner, and I’d told her about Aret, my soon-to-be-published fantasy novel about dragons. She said she wasn’t a fan of fantasy, but her spouse was, so I gave her one of my business cards before leaving on our last day.
That was also the day an enormous dragonfly paid me a visit.
Last week, I received an email from the homeowner, who let me know that she and her spouse read and loved Aret, and I’ve converted her into a fantasy reader. She said they can’t wait for book two and concluded the message with this sentiment:
“More writing!!!! Less digging!!!!”
And that, friends, is my new battle cry.
[P.S. – When I told the stone mason about this, she replied, “Well we are all awaiting book 2, but I’m sure digging is inspirational.”] 😄
[Disclaimer: In general, I am not a woo-woo person. However, this is a woo-woo (yet true!) story. If that sort of thing makes you gag, you may want to leave now.]
The first time I saw the forest dragon was on 11/11 in 2012, when I took a visiting friend on my favorite hike in Moran State Park. It was a chilly day, and by the time we reached the summit of Mt. Pickett, it had started to snow.
Libby’s snowy head
Snow falling onto a carpet of green moss is quite lovely, but as we descended the trail towards the Twin Lakes, the snow turned to sleet, then rain. My friend and I hurried along the path, our wool hats and sweaters growing heavy in the downpour. At one point, I noticed an upturned root system that resembled a giant dragon head. I wanted to stop and take its picture, but given the weather, I chose to continue down the trail, knowing I could come back another day when conditions were more favorable (and less likely to ruin my camera).
On November 15th, I returned to Moran in search of the dragon. Soon after I left the summit of Mt. Pickett, I saw a root system that was vaguely dragony. I stopped and stared at it for a long time. Although it wasn’t anywhere near as cool as I’d remembered, I chalked up the discrepancy between my idea of the dragon and its reality to my deplorable visual memory. With a profound feeling of disappointment, I took a picture of the sort-of dragon, then continued down the trail.
About twenty minutes later, I came upon a section of forest that was so ethereal, it brought me to a dead stop. As I scanned the path before me, I noticed my shadow encircled in a rainbow of light.
I couldn’t quite capture the rainbow aura, but you get the idea.
I began to fan my arms through the air, which made the light glimmer all around my shadow’s circumference. That looked incredibly cool, so I continued doing it for…I don’t know…ten minutes? (This is what happens when someone like me lives alone for too long.) When I’d finally had enough, I glanced to my right, and there, shrouded in mist, was the forest dragon.
No shit. It was right next to me. If I hadn’t been halted on the trail by rainbow-encircled Shadow Me, I would’ve marched past it, especially since I wasn’t even looking for it anymore, as I’d convinced myself that I’d already found the dragon from the other day.
I was beside myself. I did a happy little dance on the trail (again – too much time alone), then climbed up to the dragon, gave it a hug, clamored around on spongy soil to view it from the other side, and saw this:
I took one shot and knew I didn’t need another. When I sent the photo to my husband later that day, he wrote back: “That should be the cover of Aret.”
Now, almost four years later, it is.
I think about that dragon a lot. I wonder what it looks like now. I hope it’s still there, looming on the side of the trail, perfectly intact, waiting for me to come back and visit.
I got this lovely skull carved into my arm about a decade ago. Nadie sale vivo means No one leaves alive, and people’s thoughts on that phrase vary considerably, from the Tico in Costa Rica who interpreted it as: “Me tocas, y no sales vivo” (essentially: Touch me and die), to the guy who saw it at a party and launched into a murderous rampage speech à la Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction, which was not only loud and annoying, but also completely inaccurate.
Nadie sale vivo isn’t meant as a threat. It doesn’t mean I’m planning to kill everyone; it means we’re all going to die. I think of it as a cross between Carpe diem & Memento mori, and I’m grateful that skull’s on my arm, observing me through cavernous eyes with the continual reminder: Live life now.
People tell me they think about Nadie sale vivo when contemplating risky decisions that require the transcendence of fear. While I love those stories, I also wish folks would consider the brief, fragile state of our mortality when deciding how to interact with one another, especially in the realm of cyberspace, where pseudo-anonymity and physical distance create a weird, false sort of “courage,” leading to a shit ton of pointless ugliness.
If you read the average internet comment stream, it appears that everyone’s itching to have a rageful meltdown. Even something as innocuous as a video of a baby elephant playing in a puddle will be followed by some inexplicably-furious, all-caps declaration like: “ELEPHANTS ARE MURDERED EVERY DAY IT’S HORRIBLE THAT YOU’VE EXPLOITED ELEPHANTS LIKE THIS I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT MONSTERS PEOPLE ARE TO MURDER ELEPHANTS!!” Following that, of course, will be a string of five hundred comments from other people insulting the original commenter and/or one another, all along the spectrum from “You’re an idiot” (or more likely “Your an idiot”) to “Eat a bullet” (it is unbelievable how many death threats fly around between strangers on the internet). All because of a baby elephant playing in a puddle, which really deserves only one comment: “Aww cute <3”
Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice from your old pal Kelly (I’m big on offering my 2 cents without being asked). Let’s use our tiny shreds of life – the brief sparks in the universe that we’ve been granted – to be good people and do good things. To start, what if we all decided to have extremely positive reactions to things, instead of extremely spiteful reactions? Returning to the above example, the all-caps declaration could read like this: “OH MY GOD I LOVE BABY ELEPHANTS MORE THAN ANYTHING THEY ARE SO ADORABLE I COULD JUST EXPLODE THIS IS PROOF THAT THE WORLD IS UNBELIEVABLY FREAKING AMAZING BECAUSE HOLY SHIT BABY ELEPHANTS!!!!”
After all, each of us has a finite number of heartbeats, inhales, and exhales, so let’s not waste them spewing vitriol at one another. The angrier we get, the stupider we get (this is a biological fact), and nothing productive comes from insults, name-calling, or death threats. Everyone just gets angrier and stupider. If you need further proof of this (aside from the irrefutable neurological evidence), take a look at the current state of our nation. We are an angry, stupid mess.
I vote that we kick our self-righteous, reactionary b.s. to the curb, rise above the fray, and try out some extreme, all-caps positivity. At the very least, we could make each other laugh, and laughter, unlike blind rage, is actually good for us.
I MEAN WHAT THE CRAP DO YOU SEE HOW RIDICULOUSLY GORGEOUS THIS BUTTERFLY IS JUST LOOK AT THOSE WINGS THEY’RE LIKE STAINED GLASS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE AND THAT LITTLE FACE! OMG! THE CUTENESS! IT BURNS! AND IT’S EATING FROM A GODDAMN PINK POOFBALL!!!!
See? Much better.
[P.S. – Along these same lines, let’s please stop calling each other hypocrites. It is entirely redundant to call another person a hypocrite. We’re all hypocrites. There’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to human beings. Mahatma Gandhi beat his wife. So there ya go.]
My name is Kelly Wolf, and I am a murderer. I plan my kills far in advance, determining each detail – who the victims will be; how they will die; what will transpire in the aftermath. Everything.
Here’s my nephew figuring out his aunt is a sociopath.
[Really he was just wowed by my drawing skills, which are only impressive if you happen to be 4.]
But here’s the thing about being a killer: there’s a big difference between the planning and the execution.
For a couple of weeks now, I have strategically avoided working on the second book of Aret. This was an unconscious process, helped along by the fact that I’ve started another job, which offers plenty of convenient distractions. I am also quite skilled at finding diversions around the house as needed. Hmm…I should probably wash the sheets, brush the dogs’ teeth, patch my jeans, wipe down the windowsills, write a letter to my grandmother…
It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon that I realized why I’ve been dodging my book. I have arrived at a section in which a bunch of tragedies occur. And I don’t want to write it.
Portrait of an avoidant killer
To hold a reader’s interest (and to mirror life), stories need conflict, sometimes to a terrible extreme. At some point, especially during the course of a fantasy trilogy, the antagonists triumph. They are stoked. Of course, that means the protagonists face defeat and are devastated, which royally sucks.
As a writer, it is one thing to map out the events of a story; it is quite another to put down the words. Systematically slaying the characters I have worked with great care to create is uncomfortable, to say the least. Not only does it trigger feelings of sadness and guilt, but it also eliminates my freedom to hang out with those characters ever again.
However, these cruel deeds are necessary, and although I must tromp through many pages of depressing text to get there, I see the light of hope at the end of the tunnel of despair I’m about to create. So I suppose it’s time to quit stalling, put on my big girl britches, and go kill someone.
I recently read that medieval cartographers wrote “Hic sunt dracones” (Here be dragons) over any unexplored, unfamiliar, and/or potentially treacherous areas on their maps. I loved that concept. “I have nary a clue what’s over here. I’ll just put Hic sunt dracones and be done with it.”
But as it turns out, like lots of “facts” I encounter, it’s not true. Humph. The Lenox Globe, completed around 1503 AD, is the only known cartographer’s work featuring the words “HC SVNT DRACONES.” It appears on the east coast of Asia. And that’s it. It was not a common practice. I was lied to.
However, after the sting of the lie wore off, I realized where the words Hic sunt dracones should appear on maps. They should be emblazoned right over my house.
My house is full of dragons. They are everywhere. You can’t even sit on the toilet without finding a dragon staring straight at you. Dragon figurines. Dragon books. Dragon duct tape. Dragon stuffed animals. There is, in fact, a dragon staring at me right now. (And no, I’m not on the toilet.)
So even though ancient maps don’t really say Here be dragons, we now know the answer to the question: Where be dragons? And here it is: They’re at Kelly Wolf’s house. All maps should be marked accordingly.
Now I just need to convince the folks at Google Maps that this is a legit idea.
[It should also be noted that the back of my car looks like this. I don’t think the mini-knight has much of a chance.]