The Road to Recovery

10897766_10205097024978435_4367254805695423328_n

A view from my ‘other’ home town, San Pablo, looking toward the mist-covered mountains of Costa Rica.

Last week was a silent week for me on the internet. No Facebook posts, nothing on Twitter, certainly no WordPress updates. I checked my email twice and managed to send out three messages. I wish I could say my absence was due to some great adventure like hiking into Corcovado National Park. Unfortunately, I was dragged down by a very different sort of tropical challenge: a battle with a nasty stomach virus.

Two trips to the hospital and lots of fluids later, I’m well on the road to recovery. There’s nothing to make you appreciate good health like encountering an intense and debilitating microbe. Thank goodness for modern medicine, and most of all, thank goodness for IV therapy.

Coming off the illness, I had to pack my bags and hop a plane for the United States. My sabbatical isn’t quite finished, but my very long and indulgent stay in Costa Rica has come to a close. [sigh] Returning to my home in Kansas City was definitely bitter sweet. I wonder how many other people out there have lived this experience of leaving home to return home? I do it about every six months, and have done it for many years now. The feeling never changes. Sadness upon leaving home mixed with joy upon returning home. All in the same day, the same moment, the same set of circumstances.

11174804_10205787476679296_160758251324792007_n

I was a regular commuter on Costa Rica’s intercity train. I’ll miss those train rides. Fortunately, Kansas City’s new trolley service is starting up this year.

I miss the fresh tropical fruits of Costa Rica, its delicious beer, and rich coffee. I miss the mountains and verdant forests and warm beaches. I especially miss the people, their lively chatter and giving nature. I kind of miss the train, too. But I don’t miss the traffic.

In Kansas City, I love my quiet neighborhood, and having the parks and bicycle trails nearby. Last night I binge-watched all my favorite Monday evening TV programs, which I’d been away from for nearly three months. I look forward to working in my garden today, especially with the spring weather so lovely and all the trees leafing out in fresh, pale shades of green. I adore the big skies of the Midwest and the extended twilight as we head into summer.

I have a lot of news and new adventures to share in the coming weeks. ConQuesT is just down the road at the end of May. Shortly after that I’ll be attending the Campbell Conference at the University of Kansas. The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation will hold its annual meeting in Honolulu in July, and once I’m back from that we will be hitting the road to see some of the great National Parks of the U.S. before the summer is out.

In the virtual world, I have a blog tour coming up May 18-June 15, to celebrate the release of the audio edition of High Maga. I’m a little late with this party – the audio book was released last December – but we’ll make it a good one nonetheless. There will be posts  and interviews with the inside story on High Maga and audio book production.  I will also be hosting a giveaway with great prizes.

So stay tuned! It will only get better from here.

Every Writer’s Nightmare (or, How to Write a Synopsis)

Few things make a writer groan more than the word synopsis. 

I still remember my first encounter with the s-word, back when I finished my novel Eolyn and started the long arduous task of submissions. It seemed an insult, somehow, that anyone should demand I write a less-than-3000-word version of a story that clearly took 120,000 words to tell properly.  I mean, really. Who did these submissions editors think they were?

I’ve come a long way, I like to think, since those first rather botched attempts at writing a synopsis. And I have some good news for all my fellow synopsis haters: You don’t need a fantastic synopsis in order to land a publisher. The synopses that I wrote for Eolyn were not very good. Still, Hadley Rille Books took pity on me. Or, more likely, they saw some detail in that first synopsis that piqued their interest enough to ask for the opening chapters of my manuscript, and eventually to offer me a contract.

My personal anecdote aside, the better your synopsis is, the better your chances at reaching that next step in the submissions process, the request for a full. Your skills as a writer need to shine in that synopsis. The events of your novel should come through with the same passionate intensity that generated the 120,000 words it took to tell everything properly in the first place.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany on synopsis writing. I’ve decided to share some of those insights here, in hopes that they’ll help other authors come to terms with this dreaded task.

My first and most important epiphany: If I hate writing this, everyone else is going to hate reading it. 

What we feel at the time we write comes through in our prose, whether we are telling an adventure story for our kids or finishing that interim report at work. If you despise sitting down in front of the computer and grinding out that synopsis, that resentment will come through in your writing. So the first challenge is to figure out how to make writing the synopsis fun for you. If you can answer that question (and it’s likely to be a somewhat different answer for every author out there), then you can probably skip the rest of what I have to say. Everything else that follows is my personal answer to this same question: How can I make synopsis writing fun for me?

Focus on characters, not on events. This is, coincidentally, also a basic rule of teaching history. The boring history classes are the ones where we have to memorize timelines. The interesting history classes allow us to discover the personalities behind the events, the real men and women who lived, hoped, struggled, and died during the times given to them. An editor does not want to read a chronology any more than you want to write one. So instead of listing what happened when, emphasize the people in your story: who they are, their hopes and dreams, and how circumstances lead them to decisions, actions, and consequences. Believe me, this makes the synopsis so much easier. You will feel like you are sitting down with your characters again, having coffee and chatting over old times, going through family albums, and the like. No one wants their life story summarized in a list of dates and events. Remember this when writing about the journey of your characters.

You don’t need to include everyone. In fantasy, this is a particular challenge. Fantasy worlds typically have oodles of characters, and even minor ones can play important roles. But your synopsis doesn’t have room for them all. Keep a tight focus on your protagonist(s) and only include the bare essentials of all those other characters involved in their lives. Yes, this means certain threads won’t make it into your synopsis, but that’s okay. What the editor wants to see is the primary conflict, and the character arcs of those directly involved in this conflict.

Events don’t necessarily need to be in exactly the same order as they are in the novel. I didn’t understand this until fairly late in the game, but it’s an important flexibility to have. The structure of the synopsis can be slightly different from the structure of the novel. The order of certain scenes and events may need to be tweaked for better flow, in order to facilitate the communication of a lot of information in a very condensed space.

Make sure to include the ending! Not a new revelation at all, but I see this piece of advice repeated a lot, so I’ll do the same here. Do not leave the submissions editor hanging. It’s important that he or she understand, by the end of your synopsis, that you know how to bring a big messy conflict to a clean and satisfying ending. Everything you write in the synopsis should flow neatly into the summary of that final chapter.

Go ahead! Use your favorite lines. All of us have sparkle moments in our novels, places where we were particularly connected to our muse and the words came out just perfectly. Find a way to weave these sparkle moments into your synopsis, in the same way a movie trailer gives us a sampling of the most exciting scenes of a movie. The synopsis is an opportunity to let your best moments as a writer shine.

Okay. That’s my advice. I hope it’s helpful. If anyone out there has ideas and suggestions to add, fire away! If not, go back to working on that amazing (and fun!) synopsis. Good luck!

What We Believe

512px-Alexander_Ivanov_-_Christ's_Appearance_to_Mary_Magdalene_after_the_Resurrection_-_Google_Art_Project

All four gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, a not-so-subtle hint as to the importance Jesus placed on women in his ministry.

In Costa Rica, celebration of Easter is embedded in the larger event of Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of Semana Santa are national holidays. Many families take the entire week off to travel to the beach or the mountains. Others enjoy their vacation in the city, with friends and family at home.

For the faithful, there are processions and services to commemorate the final days of Jesus. The largest procession takes place on Good Friday, a re-enactment of the crucifixion that moves slowly through the streets. The sale of alcohol is banned, but most people get around this by stocking up beforehand. Eating meat is prohibited, but no one truly fasts. Indeed, the daily menu is packed full of seafood delicacies, baked goods, and the like. From a certain perspective, Holy Week might be considered the Costa Rican equivalent of Thanksgiving, in terms of the sheer amount of food put on the table, as well as the cultural emphasis on family gatherings.

By Easter Sunday, most of the excitement has died down. As a Hispanic country, Costa Rica embraces few of the northern European pagan traditions that have shaped Easter in the U.S. There are no Easter eggs here, no Easter baskets, and most tragically, no chocolate Easter bunnies. (Of course, we’ve all eaten more than enough paella by Sunday anyway, so it’s probably best to avoid chocolate and jelly beans.) In fact, relatively few people go to mass on Easter Sunday, since the “big” day here for worship is Good Friday.

For faithful Catholics in Costa Rica, the culmination of Holy Week is the Good Friday procession, a custom inherited from Spanish conquistadores that commemorates the crucifixion.

Though I no longer attend Catholic mass, Holy Week continues to be important for me, spiritually and culturally. My personal reflections this year have centered on a related tenant of the Catholic faith: the Second Coming.

Catholics (and I think, pretty much all Christians) believe that Jesus’s story did not end with the crucifixion and resurrection. It’s prophesied that Christ will return someday, to rule over the “Kingdom of God” on Earth. In the Catholic Church, this belief is celebrated during the lesser-known holiday of Christ the King. (Why we insist, in this day and age, on imposing a feudal organization on the spiritual realm is beyond me. I would much rather have a “Democracy of God” and a “Christ the President”, but that is a topic for another post…)

Belief in the Second Coming is a tougher challenge than belief in the crucifixion and resurrection. Prophecies are shrouded in mystery and riddle, subject to multiple interpretations. As a result, there have been countless moments in history where people have believed the Second Coming is at hand, only to be disappointed once again. This is just as true now as it was a thousand or two thousand years ago. And if we are to be honest with ourselves, we’ve had multiple apocalypses by now. So, what in the name of Christ, is Christ still waiting for?

When I was a girl attending Catholic grade school in Kansas City, I had a remarkable religion teacher, Sr. Catherine. One of the many things I remember from her class (and I remember more from her class than from all the sermons I’ve heard before or since) is what she taught us about the Second Coming:

“I believe Christ will not return,” Sr. Catherine announced one day, “until we as a society have established the Kingdom of God on Earth.”

The first thing that went through my head when I heard this was, “Wow. That’s never gonna happen.”

It’s sad to realize, looking back, that at the tender age of twelve I’d already grown cynical about the capacity of humans to achieve a world of peace, justice, and love.

Maybe salvation will come from above, but like Sr. Catherine, I tend to believe the future is in our hands.

But as Sr. Catherine’s words percolated through my spirit, I began to understand the power of this belief she professed. What if it were true that the Second Coming depended intimately, wholly, on us? How would it change the way we live, the way we interact with each other, the choices we make on a day-to-day basis?

Which path of faith would have more impact: passively waiting for Christ to come again so he can destroy the riff raff and save the rest, or proactively building a better world, brick by brick, so that we can welcome the spirit of God back into our midst?

As time has gone on, the simple wisdom of Sr. Catherine continues to resonate with me. Hers are words that I wish were repeated many times the world over. Words that might make a difference. That’s why I’m repeating them here, today, for you:

The Second Coming is not Christ’s job, it’s ours. In order for it to happen, we must build a world of peace, justice, and love. We must eliminate poverty, hatred, and bigotry. We must put a stop to greed and exploitation. We must love our neighbor, as Jesus once urged us to do. If we don’t succeed in making manifest the world Jesus envisioned, Christ cannot and will not return. This might be a depressing thought for some, but it puts the challenge right where it needs to be: On our shoulders. Here, and now. As active participants in the journey of faith.

Many blessings to all of you this Easter season. May our actions this year bring everyone closer to a world of peace, justice, and love.