On Getting Out of a Bad Mood

tumblr_ngmtvpBUHz1t1cy7no1_1280New Year’s Day, 2011: I am tired, obviously hungover, stumbling home in last night’s clothes, feeling like the unhappiest person in the entire world.

It was my last New Year’s as a single girl, but I didn’t know that yet. I was fixated on my bad night–being hit on by guy after guy, only for them to reveal they had a girlfriend, but could “promise me a good time” if I’d just give them a chance–and seeing it as a harbinger of the rest of my life. And instead of placing the blame where it should have been placed–on the guys–I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. 

As I stumbled down into the L train stop, my eyes on my sore feet in my too-high heels, I passed a homeless person with a cup in front of him sitting on the ground. Not an uncommon sight; it is NYC, after all. If I have a dollar or some change somewhere easily accessible to me, I tend to give. If I don’t, I keep walking.

I glanced into my bag, saw all I had was a twenty-dollar bill, and kept walking.

But then I stopped.

The guy–boy, really, he couldn’t have been older than twenty–looked the way I felt. He was slumped over his cup–which only held coins–not sleeping, not looking up at people begging, just staring at the ground. Like there was nothing left in the world worth seeing. His clothes and hair were dirty, he had tattoos across his face–far be it from me to judge what anyone else puts on their body, but he was so young I worried he hadn’t really thought the whole face-tattoo thing through.

What happened to him to bring him here?

I thought about it for probably about thirty seconds. Then I pulled out my twenty and dropped it into his cup.

He looked at it. Then looked up at me. In disbelief.

“Thank you,” he said. His eyes filled with tears, then overflowed, dripping down over his face tattoo. “Thank you,” he said again. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

The train arrived. I got on it and never saw him again. I don’t know if my twenty dollars did him any good.

But something weird happened. I walked home feeling like the biggest person in the world. My bad mood was completely, entirely gone.

So this is my secret for when you’re feeling down: help someone. A person on the street, a person on the internet, a homeless dog. Just someone. No matter how crappy you feel, I guarantee there’s someone out there who’s feeling worse. And if you’re sitting here reading blogs on your computer or phone, chances are you’re in a position to help them.

Lately, I’ve been feeling down (boring day job, but where else should I work? I don’t belong in NYC, but where else should I go? + I’m still not a published writer. Rinse and repeat…) So I decided to do something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: sponsor a child. I decided to go with Children International–it’s not religiously affiliated and it has a great reputation. I just signed up, so don’t have a ton of insight as to how it’s going to go, but even if I make just a tiny difference in the life of someone who really needs it, I will be satisfied.

So if you’re having a crappy day/week/month/year, give my method a try. I think it will help you. And more importantly, it will help someone else.

Image found here.

Learning from the Masters: The First 250 Words

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I’m currently revising the first book I ever wrote. After many years of debate, I’ve decided to definitively kill my darling of a prologue and start right away with the main story.

I wrote before about the importance of the first 250 words of your manuscript and I’ll probably write about it again because it was something I didn’t get right away, as a writer. I thought to myself, this book is good–especially the end! But no one will get to the end if they don’t get past the beginning.

So! Revising again. And for help, I’m pulling the first 250 words of both favorite novels and popular novels, even ones I didn’t particularly love. Because you can always learn from the success of others, even if you don’t agree with it.

So on to today’s excerpt…

Say what you will about Twilight–chances are, I’ll agree with you. But Stephanie Meyer definitely got one major thing right: she knows how to write a story that keeps you reading. Which is pretty much an author’s most important job. I read all four Twilight books, and regardless of the number of times I sighed over the poor decision-making skills of some of the characters or rolled my eyes at a particularly cheesy phrase (marble abs)–I never put them down.

You are hooked from page one. Let’s figure out why:

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That was the year I finally put my foot down; these past three summers, my dad, Charlie, vacationed with me in California for two weeks instead.

It was to Forks that I now exiled myself – an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.

I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering heat. I loved the vigorous, sprawling city.

“Bella,” my mom said to me – the last of a thousand times – before I got on the plane. “You don’t have to do this.”

My mom looks like me, except with short hair and laugh lines. I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself?

Why does this work?

1. Voice Right away we know the voice in which this story will be told: in a simple, no-frills, straightforward way. This style of writing can be pretty universally appealing, so it’s no wonder so many people were immediately sucked in (pun intended).

2. Conflict We know the protagonist is being sent to live somewhere she doesn’t want to go, so immediately there’s conflict.

3. Tension What is so bad about this town, besides the rain? What’s going to happen to her there? Plus, I don’t care how cliched it is, I love rain in stories. Makes them both scarier and cozier.

That’s really it. I’ll be doing this again soon, so look out for the next one!

Image found here

Friday Things

This week was interminable. But now it’s Friday!

Here are some things that made my week:

1. I’ve been dancing around this idea for pretty much the past five years, but I think we are finally, FINALLY ready to … leave NYC. Has anyone out there gone from borough to suburb, from subway rides to train rides, from tiny studios to actual houses? I’d love some more insights on what this will be like…

2. One of my favorite new writing tools: ambient noise sites. I personally can’t listen to music while I write–unless it’s lyric-less–but I love having something always available to block out the noise. My favorite is rainymood.com.

3. One of my friends told me I post too many pictures of books on my Instagram. This is false, because there’s no such thing as “too many books”, but then I decided it would be fun to create a new Instagram dedicated entirely to bookishness. If you like books too, follow me here!

Reading: All The Light We Cannot See. Finally. The prose is amazing, the characters compelling, and it takes place in one of my favorite tiny cities.

Watching: The new season of Game of Thrones, obv. Watching it with very little clue of what’s going on (because it’s diverging so much from the books) is a brand new experience. I’m not sure I like it as much as watching the stories I already know. Time shall tell.

Listening to: The National. It’s mellow, spring-y stuff. Me gusta.

Have a lovely weekend!

Wanderlusty Wednesday: Saint-Malo

Saint Malo_RETIn honor of the fact that I’ve just started reading this book (and so far, it’s amazing), today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite little places on earth: Saint-Malo.

Rampart_RETLa Ville_RETSaint-Malo is a walled port city in Bretagne, or Brittany, France. You should go there.Les ramparts II_RETWhy?

You can get there easily by train from Paris. It’s a great place to stay while exploring the area around it–you can hop a bus to the famous Mont-Saint-Michel, a ferry to the less famous but still amazing Channel Islands, which include Jersey (the namesake of my home state!) and Guernsey (the setting of this beautiful book).

Also, Saint-Malo is just a beautiful, amazing place, all by itself.Face_RETWhen I first visited I didn’t even know this city had sustained damage in World War II–that’s how well it’s been restored. You feel like you’re walking through the fifteenth century.

At low tide, you can wander the beaches and climb all over the rocks…Le Vieux Quartier_RET…it has pretty yellow lichen on its rocks, and nice messages written in the sand…Yellow Rocks II_RETJe t'aime edited…you can wander the ramparts and pretend you’re a medieval soldier–or just take in the beautiful views…

On the Ramparts_RETPresque Ile_RET… and the town inside the walls is adorable, with narrow little cobblestoned streets, boutique hotels, and amazing seafood…La Ville at Night_RETBut pay attention to the tides:Danger!Because for part of the day, the beach looks like this:Peninsula_RET… and then later that same day, it looks like this:Peninsula devient Ile_RETI’m really enjoying learning more about Saint-Malo in my book. I know I’m going to be devastated when the Allied bombers arrive, though since I spent a year living in a town where the destruction was even worse, I guess I should be used to it when visiting this region of France, whether through the pages of a book or in person.

I’ve been to Saint-Malo twice and I fully intend to go back again someday. Can you imagine living there? One can only dream…

All photos taken by me, April 2004 and April 2007

MK’s Book Reviews: Chaos Walking

chaos-walking-wide-560x282I’ve been reading up a storm lately, barely pausing to update my Goodreads, much less write a review. But I recently read a trilogy of books that merits one.

The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness merits a lot more than that.

 “Without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.”

These books, a trilogy comprised of The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men, are some of the best books I’ve ever read. EVER.

Technically they’re YA science fiction, because the protagonists are young teenagers and they take place on another planet. But even if that’s not your taste, I’d press these books on absolutely anyone. They’re easy to read while being deeply complex and beautifully-written, long and involved but you fly through them so fast you don’t even notice, in a richly-imagined world with more richly-imagined, flawed, morally ambiguous characters.

I don’t like writing out the summaries to books, especially these ones, as so much of the beauty of them is in the surprises that come along, chapter after chapter, book after book. I’d actually encourage you not to even look at the backs of the second two novels until you’ve read the previous ones–however, I’d also encourage you to have the other two at the ready because the first two end on agonizing cliffhangers.

All you really need to know at the start: this is the story of Todd, who lives in a very strange town. It’s a town comprised of all men, where everyone can hear one another’s thoughts–including the animals. Throughout the course of the story, you’ll encounter action and romance, spaceships and farmers, talking animals and aliens. It sounds utterly bizarre, I know–but it works.

Reasons to read these books?

They’re character-driven action novels.

I am, have been, and will always be one who prefers character-driven stories over plot-driven ones. In spite of the massive amounts of action in these books, I’d argue they fall more in the character-driven story camp, because of how much our protagonists go through and see and feel and change. BUT if you’re not a character-driven person, the fights and the bombs and the wars and the chase scenes will satisfy your action-loving heart.

They are not black and white.

“He looks up and the loss in his Noise is so great it feels like I’m standing on the edge of an abyss, that I’m about to fall down into him, into blackness so empty and lonely there’d never be a way out.
“Todd,” I say again, a catch in my voice. “On the ledge, under the waterfall, do you remember what you said to me? Do you remember what you said to save me?”
He’s shaking his head slowly. “I’ve done terrible things, Viola. Terrible things-”
We all fall, you said.” I’m gripping his hand now. “We all fall but that’s not what matters. What matters is picking yourself up again.”

You find yourself questioning over and over whether a certain character is good or bad, whether or not they’re lying, whether or not to trust him or her. Moral ambiguity is so great in novels because it’s so real.

The unmistakeable voice of each of your narrators, but especially Todd:

Ben’s sent me to pick him some swamp apples and he’s made me take Manchee with me, even tho we all know Cillian only bought him to stay on Mayor Prentiss’s good side and so suddenly here’s this brand new dog as a present for my birthday last year when I never said I wanted any dog, that what I said I wanted was for Cillian to finally fix the fissionbike so I wouldn’t have to walk every forsaken place in this stupid town, but oh, no, happy birthday, Todd, here’s a brand new puppy, Todd, and even tho you don’t want him, even tho you never asked for him, guess who has to feed him and train him and wash him and take him for walks and listen to him jabber now he’s got old enough for the talking germ to set his mouth moving? Guess who?

If there are any writers out there who need a lesson on how to create a distinctive voice, read these books.

The beautiful prose:

“Ah, well, then you’ve never stood on a beach as the waves came crashing in, the water stretching out from you until it’s beyond sight, moving and blue and alive and so much bigger than even the black beyond seems because the ocean hides what it contains.”

“But a knife ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.”

TODD HEWITT. If you don’t fall in love with this protagonist, you have no heart:

“The army your girl’s been talking about has been spotted marching down the river road.”
“She ain’t my girl,” I say, low.
“What?” Doctor Snow says.
“What?” Viola says.
“She’s her own girl,” I say. “She don’t belong to anyone.” 

“That’s the thing I’m learning about being thrown out on yer own. Nobody does nothing for you. If you don’t change it, it don’t get changed.”

It also manages, in the midst of all the horror, to be funny:

“Didn’t you finish your chemistry in school?”
“You closed the school and burnt all the books.”
“Ah, so I did.”

“It’s always darkest before the dawn, Todd.”
I look at him, baffled. “No, it ain’t! What kinda stupid saying is that? It’s always lightest before the dawn!”

It also manages to state these beautiful truths without being remotely preachy:

“Usually when a man calls a woman a bitch,” a voice calls over from a cart pulling up near us at the edge of camp,”its because she’s doing something right.”

“Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”

I have absolutely no idea why these books aren’t as huge as The Hunger Games, or just about any book franchise out there. There is apparently a movie in the works–no idea how that will work, with the thought-reading and all, but here’s to hoping it’s great.

In the meantime, please go read these books right now so I have more people to discuss them with.

Wanderlusty Wednesday: Sintra, Portugal

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Over brunch on Sunday, we learned that a friend of ours was considering vacation in Portugal. To which I responded immediately: go!

Other people were full of suggestions on what to see and do in Lisbon, Lagos, Porto, etc. And you should go all those places! But please, while you’re in Lisboa, don’t miss my favorite place in all of Portugal: Sintra.

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Sintra is a beautiful little town made almost entirely of CASTLES. It’s an easy daytrip from the capital by train, and once you’re there, it’s so small you just wander around on foot. We went in April, which was perfect because the flowers were in full bloom. You wander down garden paths, peek over stone walls, walk across lily pads (okay, stones that look like lily pads), pet the cats wandering the grounds, before stepping inside to see how the Portuguese royals lived. (They lived quite well).

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Bill Bryson wondered once why it is that now, so many buildings are purely functional, with no thought to their aesthetic value, no consideration how they’ll look with the land around them. But back in the day, they created every structure, from castles to regular houses, to perfectly complement their surroundings. Sintra is the perfect example of this.

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All photos taken by me, April 2007