Moving-Induced Paralysis

AnxietyThis week, we slipped under the six-month mark. We move 20 December and I have a zillion things to do. Really. I have furniture to sell or get rid of, loads of appliances to offload (but not until after I cook Thanksgiving Dinner of course!), a cupboard full of spices and other food items to use up, and basically a whole house to declutter. Oh yeah, and you know, my real life, where I’m writing a book and trying to sell it.

So yeah, I’m paralyzed and anxious and feeling sorta like the guy in the animation. A million things to do and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time trawling Redfin and Zillow for houses (which just makes me more paralyzed because oh my god, sticker shock!). And blogging, apparently. Oh yeah, and watching junk TV (but I’m finally caught up on Scandal!). The nutty thing is that I’m feeling really positive about living in Washington. Just not so good about the moving part.

It’s not like I haven’t done this before. The first time I moved, I was twenty and flew by myself to France with nothing more than a backpack and a suitcase. That felt exhilarating and rebellious and all kinds of things. Yeah, there was some stress in there too and saying goodbye, even if only for six months, was tough. But it was nothing like this.

This feels like I am going to run out of time, but that all the balls that need to be set in motion are completely out of my control. Like I’m an anchor in a relay, watching her teammates get farther and farther behind and not being able to do anything but sit there screaming, reaching for that baton, and knowing that even super-human speed won’t be enough. Wow, where did that running simile come from? Can I use that in my fiction?

OK, my sense of humor is at least somewhat intact, so I’m probably going to survive this. But I’ll probably need to grumble about it again between now and 20 December…

Liebster Award – 10 Questions

My writing buddy, Jessica the Maniac Marmoset, tagged me in this fun 10 questions-style Liebster Award and I decided to play along!

What first inspired your current WIP?

When I first got to Finland in 2010, a friend gave my children a copy of the Canine Kalevala, a hilarious illustrated version of Finland’s epic poem The Kalevala, with the main characters all depicted as dogs. After reading it, I bought a translation of the full version (which is hundreds of pages long) and read it cover-to-cover. I’ll admit it, I’m obsessed with the mythology and the subtle ways it influences modern-day life, from names of companies to street and product names, to people who have named their children after mythological heroes, perhaps even without realizing it. So it seemed natural to write a story about a couple of expat children who discover that some of the mythology from The Kalevala is real.

Are your characters based in any way or did they spring, Athena style, from your cranium fully formed.

The sibling dynamic between Lauren and Henry is very much inspired by my little brother and I. But their personalities are quite a bit different. Henry in particular popped fully-formed (name and all) into my mind about six months ago. Lauren didn’t start talking to me until I’d started writing Henry’s story, so now it’s told from dual POV.

What genre are you writing in?

Contemporary fantasy. My first time writing about magic and I love it! It feels like going back to my roots because I love reading fantasy.

What’s your favorite part of your current WIP?

Now that we’re leaving Finland, this work is, in many respects, a love letter to our host country. I have woven so many little details about the country from the smooth glide of the emerald green trams that run through Helsinki to charming Christmas market to the importance of reindeer and snow to the national image here. I want people who read my book to take an interest in this place and its mythology.

Do you cast your characters? Figuring out which actors would play your characters in the movie of your book. Who would play your MC? Your antagonist?

It’s a dangerous thing for me to even think about this. By the time I get this thing published and sell the movie rights, any middle-grade aged actors I could picture will be too old to play the parts!

Where is your novel set?

Mostly in Helsinki, Finland. But the children take a few side-trips during their adventure, visiting other locales in Finland and even making the trek north to Tromso, Norway.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What brought you this decision?

Pantser. I’ve even blogged about my five-line outline, which is basically outlining for pantsers. I’m a planning by nature in normal life, but changing plans causes all kinds of pain and anxiety for me, which I learned after a few failed attempts at writing to a detailed outline really impinges my creative work. So I spend a lot of time getting to know the setting and the characters before I start to write (sometimes even for 3-6 months), thinking about them, visualizing them, maybe even jotting some notes down. But mainly, I just let them percolate in my subconscious. Then, when I’m ready to write, I let them tell me where the story’s going. So far, through two novels and numerous short stories, I haven’t run out of steam or gotten stuck using this method, so I’m sticking with it.

How many drafts have you written for this WIP?

I’ve been calling this my first draft because I’m not done with it yet (about 10-15k words left to write). But I have to admit that it’s already in much better shape than my tenth draft of last year’s NaNo project, Finding Gib. Not only because I’ve learned SO much, but because I’ve been submitting it in 10k word chunks to a Writer’s Digest University Advanced Novel Writing class. Getting the incremental feedback has helped me ward off problems as I worked on the story, and having regular deliverables has really helped me keep on schedule (I should finish the whole thing start to finish in 12 weeks!). Such a different revision history than Finding Gib, which was written in 30 days, but has been completely rewritten twice, and significantly polished over the course of about four major rounds of editing.

Do you set up some sort of reward system to keep you motivated through the long, arduous process of writing a novel length work?

This may sound cheesey, but I love the writing so much that it hasn’t felt arduous. The slower pace of a 12-week first draft is a lot less frantic than NaNoWriMo and feels a lot more comfortable to me. Even my husband has commented on how stress-free this drafting process has been compared to past efforts. Querying is another situation entirely. I’m using this fall’s crazy contesting schedule as a motivation/reward system to keep me distracted during the endless waiting. And honestly, the WIP is a welcomed distraction as well.

Do your characters talk to you?

Although I’ve been writing fiction for the past twelve years or so (with a pretty huge break to have children), I always thought it was a little weird when other writers claimed their characters talked to them. I think I was expecting some sort of hallucination or out of body experience, and that just wasn’t happening for me. But this past spring, a full six months after I finished Finding Gib, I sat down one day and, instead of the third person, past-tense I’d been writing all along, this first person present voice bubbled up in my mind and told me a whole different version of the story. As soon as I showed this new stuff to my critique partners, they agreed that it captured Elias’s voice so much better than the other version. So I guess I had to find my voice as a writer before I could hear my characters. It’s still not an out of body experience for me, and it’s not like they address me “Hey, Julie, don’t forget to tell them I did XYZ…” but when I write now, I hear them in my head in a way I never did before. And when I revise, I can see pretty clearly when something out of character has happened. No matter what happens with my querying, I feel good about this shift in my work.

Play Along!

I nominate Sara Eastler, Kimberly VanderHorst, Jilly Gagnon, and Olivia Bright to play along and answer the following ten questions about your work on your blog.

  1. Can you share one example of how you came up with the idea for a story?
  2. What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
  3. What genre do you write? What age category?
  4. Do you think you’ll ever vary from that?
  5. What’s the best book you’ve read in your genre recently?
  6. What inspires you as a writer?
  7. Do you use visuals (photos, paintings) or audios (voice recordings, music) to help form the characters in your stories?
  8. What does a typical writing day look like for you?
  9. What do you do when you’re not writing?
  10. Tell us about your current work-in-progress!

Talking to Kids About Sex

SMirC-embarassedEvery parent I know dreads having “the talk” with their child. It’s tough to decide when to have the talk, what to say, and how to broach such an important subject in a way that won’t be embarrassing or uncomfortable. But talking to kids about sex needs to happen, and probably sooner than you think.

Before this was even on my radar, a friend of my son’s (who had very informative older brothers) told him about the mechanics of sex. He was seven and I was horrified when an adult made a joke about sex in front of him and he replied “I know what that means.” As much as I wanted to freak out, I remained calm enough to talk with him about what he’d learned so that I could figure out what to do next. For better or for worse, the little boy’s brothers had given him a fairly anatomically-correct description of sex, which he’d helpfully passed on to my son and his first grade classmates.

So that’s my first tip: If you want to be the first one to talk to your children about sex, you’re probably going to need to start talking about this earlier than you thought.

My second tip: Do your homework. And make sure you know what your own views are on this topic as you read up. After that first surprising conversation with my son, my best friend directed me to Planned Parenthood’s website, which is full of excellent age-appropriate resources for talking about sex and sexuality with preschoolers, elementary schoolers, and teenagers about sex.

The most comprehensive article I found on talking with kids about sex is this one from US News and World Report. For a slightly less dry first-hand account, this one written by a doctor sharing her own ongoing conversation about sexuality with her daughter, provides a helpful perspective. The University of Washington also did an excellent Ask the Experts on this topic this summer, interviewing two experts in human sexuality. The interview contains not only good tips, but some great books that parents can use to facilitate these difficult conversations.

Third tip: Bring a book or two to “the talk.” Not only does it give you and your child a focal point (especially helpful if one or both of you is embarrassed), but it also gives the child a text they can walk away with and mull over in privacy. These types of issues are hard to take in for the first time and especially if your child needs some time to process, it may take an hour, a few days, or even a few weeks for your child to come up with the questions he or she wants to ask on this topic. It took my son several months to admit to me that his friend had told him about sex, and the conversations that revelation started continue today (he’s now ten, and on the verge of beginning sex education at school).

Narrated by the proverbial bird and bee, this popular series starts with a book for preschoolers called It’s Not the Stork and continues on to It’s So Amazing and It’s Perfectly Normal for older children.

I wish I had discovered this series when my children were preschool aged so that my son would have had a little more preparation for his enlightening conversation with his classmate. The same author wrote Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From, which is the book I ultimately selected to fill in the gaps in my son’s knowledge and to present to his younger sister when the time came this fall for her to have the talk as well.

There’s some great fiction on this topic too. Judy Blume’s classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret isn’t the only choice any more. Stephanie Greene‘s Sophie Hartley and the Facts of Life also handles this issue in a more contemporary setting.

We’re just getting in to puberty discussions with our children now (*gulp*), so a follow-up post will be in order when the time comes. What resources did you use when talking with your kids about sex? Have an embarrassingly-hilarious story of your own to share? The more we talk about this as parents, the easier it will be to talk to our kids.

Repatriating Expats

Seattle world fair stamp
Expat life is full of Big Questions. When do you go? When do the kids & I follow? Where will we live? How do we enroll the kids in school? Who is going to pay for/schedule/plan which pieces of this craziness? Am I going to go nuts in the process?

From these questions, you can probably tell that another move is on our horizon. Next month, we’re moving to the Redmond, Washington (Greater Seattle) area so that my husband can continue his job with Microsoft. Despite being asked regularly if we’re excited to “go home,” this is new territory for us. Sure, we’re American, and we are lucky enough to have both friends and (for the first time in the kids’ lives!) family in the area. But I’ve never even been to Redmond. Or Bellevue. Or Sammamish. Which, according to our very helpful realtor, are the best housing options if we want to avoid giving Matt a hellish commute in a traffic-laden urban area.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not ready to leave Finland after four years. Did I mention how dark and dreary it is at this time of year, a time of year that I have now experienced FIVE times? But saying goodbye to friends is hard for the children and for us. In typical expat fashion, Matt needs to be in the US now to do his job, so that means much of the next six weeks of insanity will be navigated as a solo parent. Whee!

The kids don’t really remember living in the US before, so most of their memories come from this past summer. Considering that I packed in as many activities (summer camp! theme parks! mountain climbing! boat rides! beach time!) and as much cousin/grandma time as I could, they’ve got a fairly positive attitude about the move. Oh, and I might have promised them kittens too, just to keep them out of therapy sweeten the deal.

Despite the bribery carefully-managed expectations, the kids are still nervous. Gabriel asked me about first impressions on the way to school yesterday, spurring a long conversation about how first impressions when you start a new school are totally different than first impressions that you make at a one-time event like a job interview or performance. Yes, my heart squeezed big time as we had that conversation. My mellow little man may not be saying much, but he’s definitely processing.

Even as I madly declutter, organize, stalk real-estate web sites, book a 10-hour time difference house-hunting trip, and research schools, we’ll spend as much of the next six weeks as we can just hanging with friends and making just a few more memories before we go. In the meantime, if it’s a little quiet around here, you’ll know why.

Fall 1st Page Critique Blog Hop – Search for the Sampo

I pretty much never post my writing on the blog a) because it’s always changing and b) because I’m hoping to go the traditional publishing route. But I love a good blog hop and peer-critiquing, so Michelle Hauck’s Fall 1st Page Critique Blog Hop seemed like a fun way to start the week. You can also follow it on Twitter under #Fall1stHop.

So, for your Monday enjoyment, here is the first page of my new middle grade contemporary fantasy. I’d love to hear your (constructive, kindly worded) thoughts. And don’t forget to read the other submissions too.

Search for the Sampo (revised thanks to feedback!)

Chapter One: Suspicion

Lauren’s reading like she does every. single. day. But this isn’t every day. Today, I need her to pay attention.

“Whatcha reading, bird brain?” I pluck the book out of my sister’s hands. “MacBeth? You know this stuff will turn you into a nerd, right?”

“Give it back, Henry.” She clenches her teeth and glares at me. Scary.

I kick the beanbag she’s sitting on a few times with my foot. “Calm down.” I hold the book out to her. “Just messing with you. But seriously, we’ve got to talk.”

She groans, but she also gets up and follows me into my room, shutting the door behind her.

Good, I don’t want anyone to hear this. “Mom and Dad are up to something.”

“What do you mean?” Lauren says, fiddling with the ribbon of one of the medals draped over my trophy from regionals.  The medal makes a sharp sound as it hits the marble base. Click. Click. Click.

“I overheard them talking in the kitchen this morning. They said something about a new job, and selling the house.”

The clicking stops. “Not again. Did they say where? Boston? Seattle? Not Dallas.”

“That loose tile in the hallway creaked. They clammed up before they said where.”

“So what do we do, Hen?”

“You distract Mom, I’ll check her browser history for clues.” I head for the door.

Mom’s downstairs in the kitchen. Lauren invents some question about MacBeth—well played, Nerdo—and I slip into the sunroom and tap the iMac’s trackpad. She didn’t even close Chrome. So not stealth, Mom.

Revisiting Classic Middle-Grade Books

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never get on top of my ever-growing reading list. And yet, I love revisiting a handful of favorites in each genre from time to time. Here are six middle-grade books that are still relevant today. When your middle-grade reader has burned through Harry Potter, the latest Percy Jackson, the fourth Magic Thief, and the last Ranger’s Apprentice, point them to some of these classics.

Westing Game
A classic whodunit, The Westing Game tells the story of sixteen people brought together for the reading of Sam Westing’s will. When they’re challenged to find out who murdered him to inherit a share of his vast fortune, a series of slap-stick adventures ensue.

The Book of Three

One of the books that inspired the fantasy genre as it exists today, The Book of Three is the first in the Chronicles of Prydain series that tells the story of Taran, an assistant pig-keeper with a much larger destiny.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

If I had to credit one book with my desire to write children’s books, it would be this one. Any book that can capture a child’s imagination so thoroughly that she’ll venture into every coat closet in her small midwestern sphere hoping against reason and logic to end up in Narnia is worth revisiting a century after it was originally published.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Recent news gave me reason to pick this book off of my daughter’s shelves this weekend. The story of a brother and sister who decide to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While there, they become obsessed with a mysterious marble statue of an angel they believe was carved by Michelangelo. The details of their life in the museum (living off of money scavenged from their “bathtub”–the museum’s fountain, sleeping in an ancient bed that’s part of an exhibit, hiding in a bathroom stall each evening at closing time) are as interesting as the mystery itself, which brings them in touch with the reclusive elderly benefactor and the mixed-up files that will answer their questions about the Angel.

Harriet the Spy

As the mother of an eight-year-old who writes everything down in her notebook, I appreciate this cautionary tale of Harriet, who goes through great misadventures when her friends read what she’s written about them in her own secret book.

A Wrinkle in Time

The first in a series of fantasy books called the Time Quintet, A Wrinkle in Time introduces readers to Charles Wallace and his big sister, Meg. When their father goes missing, a magical stranger comes to take the children and their friend Calvin to another world where they have to overcome their own fears and insecurities to save him.

What books have stuck with you over the years? Are there ones that you can’t wait to introduce to your children?

Spooky Middle-Grade Books for Halloween

My eight year old is on a spooky book kick just in time for Halloween, so I thought I’d continue my children’s book recommendations with a Halloween-inspired list of middle-grade books. I have to be honest that scary isn’t really my thing. I was never a die-hard Goosebumps fan, and I’m the girl who peed her pants screamed her head off the one time her high school boyfriend convinced her to watch Halloween. But regardless of my own preferences, these books are almost sure to be a hit with the middle grade (8-12 year old) crowd.

Coraline & The Graveyard Book

OK, I don’t typically like spooky, but I make exceptions for Neil Gaiman. Coraline, the story of a little girl who moves into a spooky house and uncovers a rather diabolical ghost who wants to trap her in an alternate world, is spine-tinglingly creepy. For more sensitive readers, Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is equally good and while still involving ghosts, monsters, and bad guys, seemed a little milder to me. Still, these two are more for the upper middle grade (10+) age group.

Cinderskella & Little Dead Riding Hood

I just recently discovered Amie Borst’s amazing dark reimagined fairy tales. And my daughter can’t get enough of them. If the creepy-factor of tween girls who are trying to live a “normal” life under very abnormal circumstances (Cinderskella turns into a skeleton by night and Scarlet from Little Dead Riding Hood is a vampire), these books are co-written by Borst’s middle-school aged daughter. I would read them for that alone, but they’re also hilariously dark and gripping stories.

Bunnicula, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, & Howliday Inn

Some classics are more timeless than others. These suspense-laden tales about a vampire bunny and his other furry pals still get a giggle from my kids just like they did from my brother and I thirty years ago. Oh, and in case you missed it, there are SEVEN books now instead of just three.


I may not have appreciated R.L. Stine when I was 10, but I sure do now. A prolific and abundantly spooky writer, Stine knows not only how to create a scary scene, but to connect with what middle grade readers will find interesting. With a good mix of male and female protagonists, Goosebumps has something for everyone.

What’s Up Wednesday

What's Up Wednesday
What’s Up Wednesday
My writing buddy Sara Eastler introduced me to a fun little blog series called What’s Up Wednesday and since I’m trying to blog more these days, I decided to play along. And since my readers seem to enjoy my book recommendations, you’ll be happy to notice that this means I’ll be recommending a book every Wednesday.

What I’m Reading

I just finished Helene Wecker’s beautiful The Golem and the Jinni and I really can’t stop thinking about it. This gorgeous story about two mythical creatures–a golem and a jinni, of course–who are both trapped in 1899 New York City explores fate, free will, spirituality and mythology all in an evocative setting and through the eyes of two very interesting narrators. It reminds me of a cross between Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.

What I’m Writing

As things continue to come together for my 2013 NaNoWriMo project, Finding Gib, I’m also mid-way through drafting a new middle-grade project called Search for the Sampo. Set in Finland, it tells the story of two expat children who discover an ancient book and with it, a plot to use a long-forgotten and powerful tool to take over the world. This story gives me my first opportunity to write about magic and considering my long-term love affair with fantasy, this alone is reason enough to celebrate. But I also have to say that I love writing in the dual-point-of-view of the two sibling main characters and am really enjoying the project so far. That makes sense because I still love drafting so much more than dreaded revision.

What Works for Me

I’m juggling a lot right now: polishing last year’s manuscript, querying it, contesting, and drafting the new novel. And I have to admit, that works for me. Querying is an agonizing process, full of waiting and uncertainty, and keeping myself almost manically busy distracts me from the fact that I have manuscripts out there as. I. type. this. post. Just typing that made my heart flutter a bit. So yeah, I’m querying. It’s cool. *shoves sweaty palms in pockets and pretends to be calm and relaxed*

What Else I’ve Been Up To

Just returned from a lovely week in Hvar, Croatia, a small island in the Adriatic along the Dalmatian Coast. Watch this space for tips on traveling to Hvar with your children as part of my Traveling with Children series. It’s a gorgeous place to visit, especially at the tail end of the season when things are quiet, but the sea is still warm enough to snorkel and sail.

I also guest-blogged over at Book Country, introducing my five-line outline method for pants-ing your way through NaNoWriMo.

Check out Jaime and Erin‘s blogs for more What’s Up Wednesday fun.

Insomnia Hacks


As the light fades to winter darkness here in Finland, I’ve been pulling out my woolens and preparing for my annual fight against Seasonal Affective Disorder. What I hadn’t planned for, however, was a bout of insomnia.

I often struggle to fall asleep (or go back to sleep if I wake in the night) when I have a lot on my mind. And boy do I have a lot on my mind this month. We’re planning our move back to the US, with fewer concrete details and less time than I would like, trying to sell our house in Colorado after quite a bit of fixing up/painting/cleaning and hiring a new realtor, and on top of that, I’m querying the book I wrote last year as I work on finishing a different manuscript. Whew! No wonder I can’t sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that 48% of Americans struggle with insomnia, 22% chronically. They also point out that women are 1.3 times more likely than men to suffer from insomnia. Being over the age of 65, or being divorced, widowed, or separated are also all risk factors. I don’t know if this makes me feel better because I’m not alone or worse because so many people know exactly how lousy I feel right now.

I need to be alert to make it smoothly through the next two months of writing/moving, so walking around in a daze until the sleep goddess returns to me is not an option. But neither is taking a pill, since they typically make me feel ill and groggy. So here is a list of natural insomnia remedies that I’ll be working through this week as I try to sleep. If you also struggle with insomnia, maybe they’ll help you too.

Eight ways to combat insomnia:

  • Exercise – This is the best natural remedy I’ve found for insomnia. Part of my problem with sleeping this month is that I’m also nursing an injury that has kept me away from my usual routine. Luckily, I returned to my beloved footy this morning and I already feel more alert. Just remember to exercise early in the day. A 10pm run is likely is to wake you up instead of help you drift off. The National Sleep Foundation has more detailed information here.
  • Supplements & Herbs – Taurine, Tryptophan, Magnesium, Valerian, Melatonin, L-theanine, and GABA are recommended in various places, including this detailed WebMD article and this one from Psychology Today. I’ve tried GABA and Tryptophan with great results and Magnesium is good all around for lowering stress. I haven’t tried melatonin, taurine, valerian, or l-theanine, but I may have to if things don’t get better soon.
  • Turning off the screens – If I write in the late evening, it’s almost a guarantee that I won’t sleep. I even try to avoid checking in on Facebook/email in the hour before bedtime. The light itself can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms and on top of that, anything that makes your mind active is likely to prevent you from sleeping. If you read on an eBook reader of some kind, use the black background/white text option and turn the brightness down for that bedtime reading.
  • Consistent bedtime routine – This, in combination with turning off screens an hour before bedtime, really does help with insomnia. We have to wake up at the same time every day to get the kids to school, so now we go to bed at approximately the same time every night, with quiet reading time each night before we turn the lights out. I haven’t yet added yoga/meditation to the list, but Dr. Weil and Mayo Clinic both say I should.
  • Skipping the Nightcap – This may sound counter-intuitive, but I can no longer deny it–I sleep better on days when I don’t drink. Prevention Magazine agrees.
  • Watch caffeine intake, especially after noon – This is hard for me, because I often write in the afternoon and a pot of tea is my constant companion. But I’ll be switching to herbal today.
  • White Noise – After several years spent coaxing a reluctant little girl to sleep and using white noise to try to keep her asleep, I have also added white noise to my own bedroom in the form of a fan. It’s a double-bonus because I like to sleep cold, so I use the fan even through the Finnish winter.
  • Sex before bed – Well, it’s worth a try, right? And Psychology Today says I should, so…

Do you have any other tips for breaking the insomnia cycle? Share them in comments!

Contest Craziness Continues!

Sub It Club already posted a great guide to a few of the remaining writing contests for 2014, but I wanted to share some of my experiences as a newbie contester.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know you could pitch your novel as part of a contest until I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in July. At that point, I was on the verge of having my first query-able manuscript completed and knew absolutely nothing about what it would take to try to get it published. The conference provided an amazing overview of the process thanks to two people who are fairly active in the world of online pitching contests: agent Pete J. Knapp of Park Literary Group, and writer, Summer Heacock (also known as Fizzygrrl).

During that panel discussion, I heard the two words that changed my querying strategy: Pitch Wars. Brenda Drake’s amazing contest was my first, but definitely not my last.

If you’re new to contesting, or you’ve dabbled and aren’t sure it’s for you, consider this post the post I wish I’d read back in July. And enjoy! Read more