When life gets in the way of writing.

Now that 2018 is wrapping up, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. As far as years go, it’s been as fast as any other and reasonably productive in terms of writing (I’ll have one more book out around Thanksgiving, and I’ve got two others actively in the works). But it’s been a year that reminded me of where I am in life. It hit me in the face with the news that yes, I am forty-three. I’ve got two aging parents with different ailments. My only child is about to turn fifteen. None of my current students were born before the twenty-first century and none of them seem to know who The Golden Girls are. It’s been…topsy-turvy.

I had lots of plans for my writing projects this year. I always do. I took my computer with me to the U.K. for the month of July, prepared to both care for my father, who has Parkinson’s, and to write in my spare time. But I underestimated the amount of work it takes (emotional and physical) to truly put in quality time with someone who is almost totally reliant on others, and I don’t know that I even opened my computer once. But it was a glorious month nonetheless. I got to take long, slow walks with my dad along the river that winds through the property where he lives, and we spent countless hours listening to the songs he used to play for me on his guitar (“Catch the Wind” by Donovan and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals). As I tucked him in each night, I’d kneel next to his bed and talk to him for a long time, just laughing about jokes we have together and reminiscing about everything.

At one point, he was searching for something in his nightstand (when a person has dementia, you often don’t know what they’re looking for and sometimes, neither do they) and he came up with a journal. As he can’t really write anymore, I knew that the pages were filled with thoughts he must have jotted down when he was first diagnosed. He handed it to me and I flipped through the pages, watching as his distinctive handwriting changed and sloped with the progression of the disease. I saw that there were pages and pages of detailed phone messages–as if he’d written down what he would say in case someone’s voicemail picked up when he called them: “Hi, Steph. It’s Dad. I’m sorry I missed you. I’ll call you later. I love you.” And his thoughts about having Parkinson’s: “It’s like I still have 10,000 messages floating through my brain, but only about ten messengers to deliver them.”

It was a challenging and beautiful month, and I had talks with him that reminded me of the old days. There were times when I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about things, and I don’t care if you have Parkinson’s. I just need you to be my dad.” And of course–as he always has–he listened. He patted my back in the halting, measured way he has now. He found the words and put them together and offered them to me as best he could, offering advice and consolation. And it was wonderful.

Those will be memories I take with me to the end. I have no regrets about not writing this summer.

I came home and got into a minor car accident right on the heels of that trip, then ended up in bed for a week with an MS flare-up. I normally give little thought to my own health condition, but when MS knocks you on your ass, it says, “Hey! Psst–hey, you. Climb into bed. I’m about to hit you with a wave of fatigue that feels like nothing you’ve ever known.” And it did. You’d think that a week in bed might equal thousands of words written in a story, but it doesn’t. The days pass in a blur of naps and food that people bring you and take away, and then eventually you emerge from the fog and you’re ready to put your feet on the floor again and face the world.

School had barely gotten going this fall (delayed by a teacher’s strike that set us back to mid-September), when my mother suffered a medical emergency while in Reno. She’d driven there to care for my godmother–her best friend of 40+ years–who had been diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Unfortunately, my mom had driven herself down there and was unable to drive home, so my brother and I booked a last-minute flight and went down there to get her. What resulted was a totally unplanned week with just my mom and my brother (something I haven’t had since the three of us went to Disneyworld together in about 1994). There were serious things to talk about and more than 500 miles for us to travel together with me in the backseat of a Subaru listening to my brother’s wacky music (a combination of alt-folk-country stuff that makes me gag, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Prince–my mom asking us, “But why did this guy want to put Kim in the trunk?” about Eminem is a definite highlight for me). The trip was draining and challenging and eye-opening in terms of my brother and I realizing that our parents both have needs that are escalating rapidly, but it was an unexpected gift to get to run around “The Biggest Little City in the World” with my brother, eating sushi while the chef coaxed fire from oil on the grill, running into little metaphysical shops to buy crystals and dream catchers, racing each other up and down the stairs in casinos, and brushing our teeth next to each other in our shared hotel room like we were a couple of kids again.

As it turned out, my stubborn Jewish godmother had opted not to tell us when she’d come up to visit in June that she was already battling cancer, so by the time she was hospitalized in the fall it had metastasized and spread everywhere. There was no turning back. Being able to see her in Reno (as she and my mom were in the same hospital, only in different wings) was a gift. At one point she was only eating through a tube, but she really wanted a Whopper from Burger King, so I brought it to her even though I figured she’d never be able to eat it. Unfortunately, by the time I got there she’d been readmitted to the ICU and was having trouble breathing, but she told me in a stage whisper to hide the cheeseburger in her bag for later, which I obviously did. The fact that we were in cahoots over something as silly as a Whopper while she struggled to catch her breath will be something that makes me smile forever. She was a huge, mythical figure in my life–a gorgeous, successful journalist with a long history of traveling the world to report the news–and the first person to really tell me to roll up my sleeves and write. She mailed a book to me when I was living in Miami twenty years ago (Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”) with the inscription “For my dearest Stephanie–Let’s check out this one and talk. Love, Aunt Beverly.” She read my books and sent me Hanukkah gifts, gave me advice on situations with all of her love and wisdom, and laughed every time I said “Oy vey!” She died on Halloween just before midnight. I already feel the loss of having her in my life.

So now, here we are, fast approaching Thanksgiving. I’ve got another book in the Christmas Key series ready to release in the next few weeks, and two other projects that I’m chipping away at. Sometimes life gets in the way of writing and that’s okay, but sometimes writing is there as an escape when life gets to be too much. It’s a gift to be able to put my fingers to the keyboard and disappear into a world of my own creation–a place where my crazy, creative mind can roam free and invent people and things that amuse or entertain me. And it’s a huge bonus that other people are willing to come along for the ride.

As 2018 winds down I can say that I’m really grateful for all of it: the good, the bad, the painful, the happy, and the gift of the written word. Life is challenging. And beautiful.

Lose plot. Ramble a bit. Find plot again.

After putting out the third book in my Christmas Key series, The Edge of Paradise, on January 31st this year, I got stuck in a loop where I wasn’t sure what to write next. I started a book that would have probably qualified as a romantic political thriller (?), got 20,000 words into it, and then realized there were way too many things happening and I had no idea how to tie it all together. It may come out of my iCloud file at some point and get a re-read, but ultimately I put it aside and started pondering my next move.

It’s a common refrain in indie-author world that once you have three books out in a series it’ll take off (if it’s ever going to), so my thought was to put out Book Three, diversify a bit, and start a new series so that I would have a few things going on at once. I planned a free run for early February for Book One of the series, There’s Always a Catch, paid for a ton of advertising, and stacked it up for a single week. The downloads came in like gangbusters, and I gave away almost 8,000 copies of the first book. There’s all sorts of conventional wisdom about what percentage of free book downloaders will go on and read the rest of the series, but I felt hopeful. It’s been a pretty slow burn so far. I’ll have days where a single person buys the next book in the series, or the third book, or a novella, and then a random day happens where ten or fifteen people will move on to the next books. There’s Always a Catch got a handful of new reviews (some positive, which is–of course–what you want, and others less wonderful, but hey–you can’t win ’em all), and it’ll most likely just keep moving in that direction until something falls into place or until I do exactly the right thing at the right time and start making my own magic.

As for the next writing project, when I decided the political romantic thriller thing wasn’t going where I wanted it to, I started a cozy mystery that was actually pretty fun to write. But I got about 20,000 words into that and had a minor panic attack: why wasn’t I working on Book #4 in the Christmas Key series?! What was I thinking wasting my time like that when I only have an hour or two a day to write? By the time I finished one of these new books, I’d have squandered any momentum I’d built up so far! So I put that aside and started the next book about Mayor Holly Baxter and the other islanders, which I’m almost halfway done drafting now. I also put out a second novella in the Christmas Key series, which gives the reader insight into Coco, Holly’s mom, and fills in some of the blanks about how she got to be the way she is. Writing the novellas is lots of fun–the pace is faster, the details easier to keep track of, and the ability to focus entirely on one character’s journey frees me up to really explore their minds rather than just seeing things through Holly’s perspective.

So it’s been a busy Spring so far, with lots of writing–some of which might never see the light of day. But that’s okay. Never one for detailed graphs, data-tracking, or set-in-stone outlines and plans, I’m trying to let the ideas flow and make getting up at 5:00 in the morning to write before work a fun thing, not a pressured “must get this done immediately!” grind.

June will be my two-year anniversary of being an indie author and I’ve hit some great milestones–some things I never envisioned or dreamed could happen. Wonderful people–total strangers! Not my mom!–have reviewed my books and given me kind words; my whole life has been enriched by disappearing into the stories inside my head and giving them life; and there have been months where I’ve made a thousand dollars or more from my books, which totally blows my mind. I’ve learned a ton about everything self-publishing related, and the as-yet untitled Christmas Key Book Four will be published by the beginning of summer. It may have taken a couple months of stumbling around during my dark, quiet, early morning writing sessions, but I’ve definitely found the plot again!