My main character swears, and other confessions.

Cursing in fictionIt’s always a little awkward when relatives read my books. A couple of years ago, one of my in-laws bought copies of my books for everyone on that side of the family as Christmas gifts. It was a really wonderful gesture, and I was flattered. I was also terrified because oh my god, my in-laws —  lovely people I share a meal with maybe once a year when we are all dressed up and on best behavior — were going to read a sex scene I wrote. They were going to be exposed to my politics. They were going to read ALL the swears.

I’d been through this with my own family. In fact, I always feel compelled to warn my relatives about my fiction. When I’m writing, I try not to worry about what anyone thinks, because that would cripple the work itself. When I release my work to an editor, I’m ready for the public to read it. Once it’s out, I don’t care so much about what strangers think. But family? I care. Oh god, I care. Because I don’t want them to think that I am my characters.

Take swearing, for example. In life, I don’t swear all that much.
Which is not to say that I don’t swear at all. I do. But our child is learning to talk, so the big curse word in our house right now, when we stub a toe, or drop something, or get an unpleasant email, is “Benedict Cumberbatch.”

But when I’m writing? I swear a lot. Case in point: Beware the Hawk is 48 pages long. You can get through it in one sitting. But if you took a drink every time the main character says “fuck,” you’d be passed out by page 30. That’s just the kind of person that character is. She swears like a Big Lebowski cast member.

That’s who she is. But that’s not who I am.

You see this concern a lot in writing communities: often readers assume that works of fiction are about the author. There’s a little bit of truth in that. My political beliefs do inform my political thrillers. And all authors do put something of themselves into every character they create. But that doesn’t mean the protagonist is always a stand-in for the author. I’ve found that characters have to be built out, so that they make sense, fit into the framework of the story, and interact believably with the other characters.

I can actually think of one author who was writing a biographical novel. The main character was originally an author stand-in, and the novel wasn’t working. One day, the author realized that was because both the story and the protagonist had evolved. The character could no longer continue to parrot the choices the author had made.The character had to be allowed to do what the character would do, not what the author had done. After that, the story worked, but the character was no longer a substitute for the author.

This sort of transformation happens a lot, but readers don’t always know this. I’ve had people think that Beware the Hawk is about me (it’s not) and a even couple of readers think that it’s about them (guys, no.) So naturally I get freaked out when people I want to impress (my in-laws) read it.

Will I ever get over my in-laws reading my fiction? Probably not. Will I be okay with my son reading my books someday? Oh, Benedict Cumberbatch, he will, won’t he? Well, I’ll leap from that bridge when I come to it. Will any of this stop me from writing unlikeable heroines who cuss and fight and make bad choices? Nope. I was born to write fiction, and I believe in writing characters who are hot messes.

Looks like there’s nothing to do but write another chapter, and watch my language at the next family gathering.


photo credit: Fuck via photopin (license)

My galley proof is here, and I have a lot of feelings about it.

The proof of my new book, The Eagle and the Arrow, arrived on Monday, causing me so much agitation I couldn’t write for the rest of the day, so I took a bunch of photos that looked like this and posted them on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo 34

Shamelessness: Just one of the reasons you should follow me on social media.

Here’s the thing, though; excited as I am when a galley (a proof, galley or galley proof is a preliminary version of a book) arrives on my doorstep, I’m also filled with dread. Why? Because when the galley proof arrives, that means I have to sit down and read the whole thing.

I know that probably sounds weird. But now, a month before the book itself is released is the absolute worst time for me to sit down and read it, because at this point in the process, I am always convinced that whatever it is I’m publishing – in this case, my book – is the most horrendous thing I’ve ever written.

 I ride a roller coaster of self-consiousness when I’m writing and publishing. it goes a little something like this:

  1. When I first write something, minutes after my fingers have lifted from the keyboard, I’m convinced that I’m a genius.
  2. When I look at it again, I regain my sanity and revise.
  3. When I revise again, after my writers’ group has seen it, I’m once again convinced that I’m brilliant.
  4. Then I submit it somewhere, and am certain that it’s the worst thing I, or anyone else, has ever written.
  5. If it’s accepted, I believe I’m a genius again.
  6. If it’s rejected, I also believe I’m a genius, but that no one appreciates me and that somehow makes me more awesome and when I die an old hermit, someone will discover my manuscripts under hundreds of tins of cat food and realize I was a genius and then people will teach graduate courses about my work.
  7. When the publisher and I start work on rewrites, I regain my sanity for a while.
  8. But when the rewrites are done, the copy editors have done their thing, and it’s time for me to read the galley proof before it’s finalized and sent out to reviewers, I hit my biggest low since Step 4 and I believe that this book is the crappiest crap to ever have been written in English or any other language.
  9. I also go through a mini version of this whenever I stand up to read from my work to a group of people.
The Eagle & The Arrow, book, A.J. O'Connell, Vagabondage, Battered Suitcase, Beware the Hawk

It’s here!

Why do I do this? I don’t know. At this point in the process, several sets of eyes have been over it and the book is certainly better than it was back when I thought I was a genius.

Maybe it’s because the reviewers will be the next people who read this and OH MY GOD THEY MIGHT HATE IT. Maybe it’s because after the reviewers read it, everyone else will be able to read it and OH MY GOD THEY MIGHT HATE IT.

Although the insanity doesn’t last long; last year, when my first book came out, a couple of weeks after the release, after I forced myself to look at my reviews on Amazon, and then I was fine. I’m hoping that’s what happens this time, too.

And so my first reaction, after the galley arrives is to be very excited about it and then to carry it around in my purse but not read it for a day or so. And then when I try to read it that thing happens where I read the same page three times but no words actually get from the page to my brain.

Luckily I have my husband, who reads the whole galley first, points out errors, and then, somehow it’s easier for me to read it.

The thing that makes me feel extra divaish about all this is that I’ve only published short stories and novellas. I can sit down and read my books in a few hours. I can’t imagine what it would be like to publish a full-length novel and have to sit down and read through the whole proof by the end of the week.

Someday, though, I intend to find out.

December: 2012 goals.

Well. This is it. The final check-in with my 2012 goals, which is delayed because I’ve been kinda lax these past few months.  But still this is a big deal for me, because this is one of the few years in which I’ve held myself accountable for the resolutions I made at the start of the year, and actually, I’ve made progress. Care to see how I’ve done? Read on. Can’t be bothered?* Below is my favorite Epic Rap Battle of History. Enjoy.

Now. Of the five concrete goals I set for myself in 2012, I accomplished three:

Make at least $20 off a piece of fiction. My book came out in January. By March I had accomplished this. I am not rich. I doubt if I’ve broken even on my expenses with this book, but I have made more than $20 and that’s a record for me.

Send out at least three short stories. Done. I’ve sent out three short stories and some chapters from my novel. I have more rejection letters for my office door because of this,  but I also have more finished work to send out.

Read one two novels a month in 2012. I set out to read 12 novels this year, because although I love to read, I tend not to do the things I enjoy and instead fret about things I don’t enjoy at all. The only time I read anything is when I had to, and then I did it in a state of stress. That’s counter-productive for someone whose job is to read and write. So I thought 12 novels would be a good way to make reading a habit again. I started out by re-reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a sort of holiday gift to myself last year and then I began to pick other books to read, starting with the shortest in my bookcase: The House on Mango Street, Heart of Darkness, Turn of the Screw and The Stranger.  By the time I finished those, l was binge-reading, like I used to read when I was a kid. The 12-novel goal turned into a 24-novel goal, and I am currently on novels 30 and 31.

So it’s been a great reading year. I’ve moved from very short novels and novellas to very long ones: Anna Karenina and The Count of Monte Cristo. I’ve read work that I’ve been wanting to read for years, and authors I know who published their first books recently. It’s been a great year, and I have to give some of the credit for this goal to Goodreads’s reading challenge, which helped me keep track of all my books.

Nest year’s reading goal will be however many books I’ve read in 2012, including one piece by Charles Dickens that’s neither A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist. Any suggestions?

I did not accomplish two goals: I didn’t finish the second draft of my novel or send it to agents, mostly because I was working on another manuscript for half of 2012. That manuscript I did finish and send out.  I didn’t know at the time I set my goals that the manuscript was in my future, so I don’t feel too badly about not finishing my novel. That said, it’s time to get back to work on it.

I also chose to work on two conflicts that have been giving me difficulties for a long time: My feelings about faith and my issues with anxiety. I worked on both, on and off, throughout the year and although neither is by any means resolved (and may never be) I do feel like I have a much clearer idea about faith now.

The idea was that I was going to write an essay about whichever issue I came closest to resolving, and I still might try to do that. But the problem I face, ironically, has to do with the other issue: anxiety. I’m not sure I want people to know how I feel about faith and religion. I have people in my life who are both very religious and who aren’t religious at all, and I enjoy not coming down on one side or the other. For now, it might just be enough for me to know how I feel and what I believe.

And that’s it. I will be putting together a new list of goals for next year. I’m wondering if I should include more personal goals and not just writing goals this time. I don’t want to have a huge list of goals, but I also have some things I’d like to do that are not writing-related. Thoughts?

*Dear people who can’t be bothered and for whom I am posting distractions,  if you are truly out there, why have you been clicking on these posts all year?

May: Goals for 2012

Tomorrow’s May 1. Time for another round-up of my new year’s writing goals. I did pretty well on some of them (I actually submitted something) and completely ignored my big goals. Scroll on to join me for a quiet, writerly moment of accountability. Or, if you couldn’t care less, click below to watch badgers dance. Your choice.

Finish the second draft of my novel by April (September.) Revisions are actually trundling along, after months at a standstill. I heard back from my readers, got myself organized and I’ve been working on the novel daily, putting in 500-1000 words a day. I’m retyping the whole thing because I’m out of my mind. See below tweet for confirmation of this.

But seriously, retyping is slow going, but it’s forcing me to re-read everything once again, and I’m revising as I go. Hopefully things will speed up for me in the coming month.

Get it sent to agents before summer. Let’s jump off one bridge at a time, shall we?

Send out at least three short stories. I sent out one and was rejected. In fact I woke from a Blood Meridian-inspired nightmare this morning (see next goal for clarification) to an email from a prominent literary magazine which essentially said “Thanks but no thanks, we’re zombied out.” Psssssh. As if the literary merits of zombies have been exhausted. Girl, please.

Read one two novels a month in 2012. I read one novel this month, toiling through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. That brings me to 11 books for 2012. I will try to read more books in the coming month. Hopefully those books won’t involve scalping, flaying, Judge Holden, or a lack of quotation marks/apostrophes.

Cormac McCarthy isn't afraid of violence, depravity, or the darkness in men's hearts. He is afraid of these.

Make at least $20 off a piece of fiction. Done in March. I also started keeping a spreadsheet about my earnings/spending as an author. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a pretty small spreadsheet at the moment, but it makes me feel like a responsible grown-up.

Other goals: I also set to work on two of my big conflicts this year: My feelings about my faith and my issues with anxiety. You know what I did about those in April?

Nothing. Unless you count feeling anxiety about the plight of nuns in the U.S. as progress on both of those. Which it’s not. I did sign a petition in favor of the nuns. And then I worried, because what if the Inquisition sees?

April: Goals for 2012.

It’s the first of April and I’ve completed all my 2012 goals!

Okay, fine.  April Fools. In fact, I have bombed on a few of my goals, and must modify a few if I am to continue with this experiment.

Here they are. If you’re bored by New Years resolutions posts, leave now. Here, have a video about the honey badger.

Finish the second draft of my novel by April. I have started revisions. I read the whole first draft over spring recess, began work on the second draft and will meet with my readers to discuss the draft on Wednesday evening, but am I even close to being done with draft two? No. So I’m going to push the deadline for this back. I’m loathe to give myself an actual deadline, but I’m going to say that I want to have this draft finished by September. If possible before.

Get it sent to agents before summer. I guess the previous goal renders this one moot.

Send out at least three short stories. I still haven’t sent out any short stories.

Read one two novels a month in 2012. Hey, here’s one I’ve done well on! I’ve read 10 books since January 1, so I’m upping my goal to 24 books. During the month of March I read five. Granted, I decided to read five of the shortest classics ever written (Hello, Heart of Darkness), but they’re still books and I’ve finished them. At the moment, I am beginning Blood Meridian, which is not short at all. In other news, tracking my reading through GoodReads has made this goal a lot easier than it otherwise would have been.

Make at least $20 off a piece of fiction. Done in March.

Other goals: I also set to work on two of my big conflicts this year: My feelings about my faith and my issues with anxiety.

I’ve been doing a lot of work on the anxiety issue. I’m practicing mindfulness and getting back into yoga and meditation.

I’ve also been doing some work on the faith issue. I’ve been listening to an audiobook by the Dalai Lama, reading up on Catholicism, looking at the website for a major atheist organization and I even looked at the pamphlet the Jehovah’s Witnesses dropped off at our front door. I understand that none of this adds up to real scholarly work, but the important thing for me is that I’m not shying away from issues of religion, faith and spirituality. Last month I wrote that everyone seems to be interested in their own spiritual development, but that listening to someone’s experience of religion and faith can be pretty boring, so I’ve been testing that theory and trying to listen, when others talk, write or post about their faith. I’ve not done so well with this, but I’m going to keep an open mind and keep trying it out. Even if I come out of this year as an atheist, it’s important for me to a) understand why people feel the way they do about religion and spirituality, and b) be tolerant.

It’s crazy; when I was younger, I would get all militant and righteous about certain things. Now tolerance is increasingly important to me.

Return to real life, and my novel.

Wow, last week’s release for Beware the Hawk was crazy in a I-tricked-myself-into-thinking-I’m-a-celebrity kind of way.


This is what my novel looked like when I was working on it last year.

I received emails  and messages and comments from all sorts of people about my book, I mailed out signed Post-Its to people who wanted “signed” copies of the e-book, I hosted a giveaway and did the first four dates of my book tour, including a review. In short, I felt like a proper author. My family even threw me a little celebration with flowers and an ice cream cake. I would love to have been in Carvel when my mom handed the clerk the pink cake and asked her to please write “Beware the Hawk” on it in icing.

Then this week started and I came crashing back to Earth, where Real Life was waiting for me with its arms crossed and an unamused look on its face. I’m teaching my first week of spring classes, there are deadlines for my newspaper, and most importantly, it’s time to get cracking on revisions to my novel.

Oh dear. The novel. I haven’t posted about my novel in a long time, mostly because I’ve been dragging my feet.

It’s nothing like Beware the Hawk. It’s a literary fiction piece that currently clocks in at 272 pages, and that’s only the first draft. I’ll be honest. I’ve been avoiding it, submitting it piece-meal to my writing groups and wincing at the critiques. I have all of those comments and critiques in neatly labeled manila envelopes in my office upstairs.

I did sit down a few times this past fall and attempt to start a second draft. I also did some research, but for some reason,the task of actually revising the novel has seemed intimidating. There is so much feedback and I don’t know where to start.

But one of my 2012 goals is getting the novel revised by April. It’s ambitious, but I need I fire lit under me and I’d like to stop worrying about  my project and start working on it. One of my writers’ groups gave me an opportunity to get moving on the revisions in January when they suggested that I give them the entire first draft to read.

I think I might have broken out into a cold sweat when one of the people in the group said “Maybe it’s time for us to see the whole thing,” but it is a good idea, because I need to read it – from front to back – as well. I’ve only really read it in pieces, partly because I can’t read it without getting bogged down in a scene I think needs fixing, and partly because I’m afraid I will read it and decide that the whole thing is terrible and can’t be fixed and I’ve wasted a year of my life on it.

I know that last fear is adolescent, melodramatic and irrational (I graduated  from my MFA program with this book as my thesis, so it can’t be that bad) but that’s what I think every time I open the file to start revisions.

So I’m not opening a file this time. This morning I ordered five printed copies of the draft from Lulu. Three are for my writing group. One is a spare. Most importantly, one is for me. When it comes in the mail, I will sit down and read the whole thing from cover to cover. And then, I’m willing to bet, I will no longer be afraid to revise.

Me and My Panic Attack: What Fresh Hell is This?

This afternoon, I think I had a mild panic attack.

I don’t know for sure if it was a panic attack because I’ve never had one before and I sure didn’t think I’d be getting one any time soon. My breath became short, my heart pounded, my hands shook and I started to stutter. I was able to quickly dispel it, but I was shaken, and disgusted with myself.  Stuttering, A.J., really? What is that?  The last time I stuttered, I was in high school.

So what was I doing that caused such fear? Making a phone call. That’s it. That’s all. I was calling someone for work.

I never have liked making calls. In college I always hoped that someone else would call for the pizza, but I never had any huge problems with dialing the phone. Like just about everyone in the first world, I have made millions of phone calls for work and never had a panic attack. In fact, I spent a decade making hundreds of phone calls a week, sometimes dozens a day, when I worked as a reporter. I knew, when I was making those calls, that a lot of those people didn’t want to talk to me. In fact, some of them were downright hostile, but my attitude at the time was much more “game on” than “freak out.”

Today, the shadow of the phone calls I had to make – a task that should take less than three minutes – hung over me from the moment I woke up. I actually slept in a little to avoid them. I dreaded them. I did everything else on my to-do list first. I sent emails. I did research. I paced the floor. I went on Facebook. I emptied the dishwasher. Finally I decided to just do it. I wrote out all the things I had to talk about in each call, something I’ve never done before and picked up the phone.

The first went off without a hitch. The second triggered the attack, if that’s what it was. I forgot my name. I forgot my phone number. I forgot my business. Then I was angry with myself, which made it all much, much worse. It took me a half an hour to make myself confront the fear and make the third call.

Now the callbacks are giving me trouble. Though I know I can now go about the rest of my day knowing the calls are over with, and though any callers could leave me a message, I feel compelled to linger over the phone, doing nothing,  just in case someone calls me back.

I have no idea why the phone calls would cause me such anxiety. They weren’t particularly difficult calls.  But all of a sudden it feels like I have a sudden phone phobia, and it’s hard not to judge myself here. Phonephobia sounds like a disorder for weirdos. And since when do people suddenly sprout phobias? Since when do I sprout phobias?

One of my resolutions for 2012 has been to work on my anxiety, which has been growing, inexplicably, over the last few years. In the days since I made my resolution, I’ve been doing some research on ways of handling anxiety, reading books about it, practicing yoga daily to control my breathing, looking for my triggers, all that good self-help stuff that one is supposed to do. Then today happened.

I don’t normally share my struggle with anxiety, which quite frankly embarrasses me, because – as someone once asked me –  what have I to be anxious about?  But I’m beginning to think that keeping quiet about anxiety might be contributing to the problem, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll jump into the conversation. At least I can get it out there. Maybe it will be one less thing to worry about.

Writerly goals and personal battles for the new year.

On New Year’s Eve, I posted about a minor resolution dilemma. I was torn between posting a list of New Year’s resolutions and checking in monthly on this blog to report progress or using 2012 to work on some major inner conflicts.

Since I’m the sort of person who likes to have her cake and eat it too, I’ve decided to do a little of both. My resolutions are mostly writing-related. I’ll check in on the first of each month with my progress on these.

My conflict resolutions are personal, but I plan to treat them as if they were a project for grad school. I’m going to do more than search my soul for the answers to my questions, because I need a little more assistance than my soul is capable of providing. So I will pair navel-gazing with research and examine as many sides of each issue as I can. By year’s end, I plan to have written a long essay about at least one of the conflicts I worked on, and I will try to publish it. (I’m going to try to submit the essay to a magazine or journal, but if all else fails, I will publish it here.)

The ground rules are set. Here are my resolutions and conflicts: Continue reading