Friday, August 24, 2018

reluctant review

I hate to post this, my heart is torn. You see, we went to Belize this summer and it was marvelous. Warm, friendly people who express so much pride in their country and culture. Delicious food, gorgeous scenery, fascinating history. And it's not commercialized and franchised and wrecked by too many tourists. Yet. There's no Hard Rock San Pedro, McDonald's or KFC in sight. Here's an example of the simplicity of Belize, the entire country has one brewery and their beer is everywhere: Belikin. You can buy a bottle of regular, light or stout. That's it. Belize is pure, authentic and not westernized to the nth degree. This destination is great--they deserve my endorsement, I want people to enjoy experiencing this country as I did. But on the other hand, if you all go there, you'll insist on making it JUST LIKE EVERYWHERE ELSE with conveniences and brands and end up making it the SAME AS ALL OF THE OTHER PLACES that have become interchangeable. How does one know whether they've landed in Cancun or Jamaica or Cozumel? They don't because all of these places look the same: Hilton and Hyatt and stupid mega-sized souvenir cups for drinking eighteen shots of fruit-flavored alcohol available on every corner.

So please, whatever you do, read my post and know Belize is fabulous, but don't rush to get there.

There's a lot to see while walking along the shoreline of Ambergris Caye.


Let's begin with ease of travel, five hour flight, everyone speaks English and Spanish, the currency is a 2 to 1 exchange rate so you can spend Belizean or American money without going through hoops or paying fees. The country is pristine, the waters off the coast so clear you can see the bottom while you fly overhead to your resort on Ambergris Caye.

The view from our puddle-jumper flight to the island.


You might feel initially inconvenienced by the lack of all-inclusive lodging, but a closer look at that model of vacationing will convince you of the absolute violation of human rights incurred by exploiting people's labor for crap pay, so you'll appreciate that people in Belize, while generally quite poor, have better opportunities compared to people in neighboring countries who offer all-inclusive resorts for a cheaper rate. The accommodations in Belize are clean and range from adequate to luxurious, depending on what you care to spend. Plus, everyone knows that when you leave a resort for meals or entertainment, you stand a better chance of getting the local flavor. Each member of my family tried new things--from fried plantains to red snapper to soursop. (I became addicted to soursop juice and have not been able to find it here in America.)

Typical dinner scene, complete with Belikin beer and Hawaiian shirts.

I spent the week there blissfully hot (not uncomfortably, ocean breezes were lovely) and barefoot because Belize is a laid back place where you'll eat all of your meals outdoors on the beach and notice that your waiter is barefoot, too. The tourist crowd tends to be older or families, so the beach isn't overrun like some sort of MTV Spring Break event with obnoxious music and debauchery.  It's easy to find a peaceful spot by a palm tree and feel your soul soothed by the sound of surf and the salty air. (If given the choice, I'd spend my life by the water.)
Your standard beach chair with ocean view.

Belize offers adventures. We snorkeled and saw an incredible range of sea life by the barrier reef. Stingrays, nurse sharks, coral, moray eels, tuna, grouper, sea anemone, starfish--we swam with all of these things. The boys found conch shells and we even discovered a baby octopus washed into our kayak (we replaced her into the ocean after admiring her for a moment). We hiked in the rain forest, astonished by the racket howler monkeys make while establishing their territory. We explored Mayan ruins a mile from the Guatemalan border. We learned about all sorts of flora and fauna, dazzled by the myriad of ways the rain forest provides for us. We zip-lined over the canopy and rode in rubber tubes down a rock-bottom river as clear as glass. We floated through caves filled with Mayan artifacts, stalactites and mystery. Team Testosterone went deep sea fishing, far past the edge of the reef, and caught barracuda and grouper and even a shark. (The fish tasted wonderful, we brought it to a restaurant down the beach and enjoyed it family-style, prepared in a variety of ways by a creative local chef.)

Belize from above!

From a high perch at the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins


Belize exceeded my expectations for relaxation and recreation. I loved it. You would, too. But please, stay away, so it remains lovely when I return.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

growth spurts

I'm starting my morning writing with my middle son lying at my feet. He's sleeping everywhere these days, partly because he's given up his room in a great act of sacrifice to a family member and partly because he's at that age where he rolls from couch to floor to bed. Mr. B has his driving temps this summer and eagerly takes the wheel at every opportunity. Life has boiled down to working out in the wrestling room, running, sleeping and playing Fortnite and Battlefield 1. Getting him to work has been a little difficult, but that's the age, right? He's also growing his mullet back. WHY? I don't know. I keep repeating, like a mantra, "it's only hair." It's only hair.

My new book project is chugging along. I'm writing in spurts of 1,000-1,500 words a day. This boils down to a scene or two each day. I realize it's becoming a little messy as I head into the middle section and events will require reordering. Do I hit pause and rearrange it now or keep going and wade through more volume later? I cannot decide. It is satisfying to watch the page count increase steadily, so I keep writing scene after scene, making the later work of putting the plot in order more difficult for myself. I guess I have decided, haven't I? I'm going to make a real mess of it.

Mr. T has done the heavy lifting for his summer (written thank you notes for graduation gifts, finished sending transcripts, etc. to college and sorted out his housing situation). Now he hangs out with his friends and earns money at the golf course until he leaves town. "Grown and flown" is the term used by parents of college-aged kids. His wings are new and fragile, but I have faith they'll hold him up. He seems clear on the direction he's heading, a bit vague on the details but that's not unusual for most young adults.

My garden flourishes, the trees have gotten big enough to house all manner of birds this year--including Baltimore Orioles! God has provided me with ample opportunity to expand my faith and grow fruit of patience and kindness, too. For example, I didn't kill Mr. T with my bare hands when he kept failing to write his thank you notes and left that project on half of the kitchen table for over a month! And I've opened my house to a person in crisis and mostly kept my opinions to myself, which is no small feat.

Mr. G turned 14 last weekend. FOURTEEN! Thirteen is kind of a puny excuse for a teenager, but fourteen seems legit. So that's it then. No more boys. Even this youngest one has passed me up in height and shoe size. He's all legs and arms and long shaggy hair (not sure what look he's going for, but I'm pretty sure it's inspired by MLB players). Thank goodness for his freckles, they keep him looking boyish. And he still tolerates hugs and kisses from his mama, bless his sweet heart. He's another kid coming far in developing self-control and maturity. I'm proud of his ability to help when asked, and more importantly when not asked. He's kind to animals, fairly clean and endures most frustrations with good humor.

And look at this, the Screw Iowa Writers Workshop got together for the FOURTEENTH time this June. These dear ladies flew in from both coasts and we rented a cottage on Little Green Lake. It was a good week for all of us creatively and emotionally speaking. These friendships are as vital to us as the solid writing advice we exchange. Over the years we've collectively produced so many things--writing seminars and workshops for various people, books, articles, short stories and essays. It's easy to forget how far we've come when I get bogged down in current work. Time and effort has stretched and built me into a much better writer, and I'm thankful for the part they've played in developing me. This year we worked on one full manuscript, two solid starts on new novels and a short story during our time together.

Spill it, reader. What's growing in your world these days?


Monday, June 18, 2018

formerly a "pantser"

If you attended UntitledTown, you probably were privy to a conversation happening on the sidelines--what kind of writer are you? A "pantser" or a planner? New writers in particular are "pantsers"--they write by the seat of their pants. I've generally written that way. I've had a vague idea of the story I want to tell, but I'm foggy on the details. It's a happy surprise when I write because I usually have no idea where things will end up. Sometimes a character takes a strange turn, and I've literally reached the end of two books with no idea how to wrap things up--as some readers have probably suspected. It wasn't until those last pages of Kicks Like a Girl that Gretchen picks one man over the other. That's great, because the reader winds up just as surprised as me most of the time. But it's awful because I have no idea what will happen so making things happen in a book can be dicey.

Conversely, a planner is exactly that. They've got the story arc in mind, writing with an outline or some structure assisting them while they go along. I attended a plotting workshop at UntitledTown 2017 and learned about using bullets to plot a book from Patricia Skalka. No surprise that a mystery writer needs to follow an outline, the logistical issues require good organization.Writing a series also demands some organization because readers expect consistency.

This spring I released my first sequel, On the River (available here! or from me! buy a copy! buy one to give to a friend!) and writing it was a GRIND. I sort of knew the big picture I wanted to paint, but this middle book needed transition plot lines for a lot of characters and had to develop their stories, as well as the story of Bassville. Now I'm working on the last book in that series and early on I made a decision to plan it. What did I have to lose? So I typed up a bulleted list of what various characters WANT, what scenes had to happen, what stories had to evolve and how they had to end. That page-long list is the first thing I see when I open the file to work on this book. It's a great reminder of where I'm headed, a road map of sorts.


Planning this last book has made a huge difference in how I write. I'm much more focused, I'm not spinning my wheels trying to figure out what happens next. I'm more efficient. Every day I gloss over that list and pick up one thread to write through. I haven't written a scene just to chop it out later because it doesn't lead anywhere or contribute to the big story arc. While I don't ever see myself working off of a detailed outline (because hey, I like some surprises and I've even had a couple while writing this last book), there's a lot to be said for having a plan. I don't need to know every little piece of the puzzle, but knowing the grid sure is lovely.

Spill it, reader. Are you a "pantser" or a planner when it comes to working on projects?

Friday, June 15, 2018

week 2 summer vacation

My summer pace has been delightful. I deep-cleaned all the rooms and edited 2 manuscripts for my writing partners. We knocked off appointments at the orthodontist, auto shop and the DMV. My book project is evolving at a steady rate. I swim, practice yoga or ride my bike. I watched some baseball and wandered to my neighbors' backyard campfire last night to chitchat and eat a roasted marshmallow. It's been so wonderfully calm and normal. Summer break with three teenage boys translates into much less heavy lifting than in previous years. It's like living with roommates who eat all your leftovers and don't pay their part of the rent.

And every single day I do the following:
1. Read. So far I've read Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, Experiencing the Presence of God by A.W. Tozer and Donna Parker: Secret Agent by Marcia Martin (I needed something fluffy while reading Salt to the Sea, Donna Parker books are like Nancy Drew and this is the only one of the series I never read. Published in 1957, this copy smells like your grandma's basement. It probably came from your grandma's basement.)

2. Remind Mr. T to write his thank you cards for graduation gifts. I hope he finishes soon.
3. Feed people.
4. Pick up towels from the floor.
5. Admire the view of our front yard. The peonies have bloomed in a staggered fashion this year, just gorgeous.
6. Water the flowers and veg garden because it just won't rain here. My rain barrels are nearly empty!
7. Putter in the yard.
8. Add to the small pile of donations for Habitat ReStore and St. Vincent DePaul.
9. Drink coffee. 
10. Curse while I read the news.

On that last point, here's a link if you're as angry as me and want to DO something useful:
RAICES Family Reunification and Bond Fund


Spill it, reader. What have you done every day of summer so far?

Friday, June 8, 2018

pace

Incredible how one can go Mach 10 during the school year, juggling teaching, grading, planning, meal prep, loads of laundry, track and baseball schedules, volunteering and irregular workouts to A FULL STOP when the calendar page turns. The last two weeks of May left me breathless between graduation (which was its own beast this year between teaching seniors and having a senior of my own clad in cap and gown), track season (Mr. T made it to sectionals) and baseball. We held a party for the graduate, we made it to the state track meet to cheer on the qualifiers, we cleaned up the house and I finally checked out of my classroom for the summer.
Mr. T's last race. He's the one wearing the headband.

And just like that my life slowed down to the occasional appointment on the weekly schedule and a couple of baseball games for Mr. G. I read a lot. I deep-cleaned a few rooms and caught up with the stack of random papers and bills and correspondence that accumulates while one is armpit-deep in grading final exams and busting out dinner for five at nine o'clock at night.

The summer pace here is leisurely. Nobody really checks the time too much. I kick back in the hammock after pulling weeds and getting a little sweaty. Our main meal is now lunch, when Mr. T is back from his job at the golf course and his brothers are fully emerged from their bedrooms/Fortnite battles/chore list. (Be impressed, we haven't had sandwiches or frozen pizza all week!) Team Testosterone is handling the dishwashing rotation and I hardly have to drive anyone anywhere because the younger two have bicycles and the oldest has a drivers license.


The laundry load has decreased exponentially now that school's out. Mr. B declared he'd wear nothing but swim trunks for the first two weeks of summer and nobody's changing three times a day from school to practice to some new outfit before bed at night. I don't have papers to grade, but I have three manuscripts to read with a very generous deadline.

I'm writing again. Every day I've sat down and produced a couple thousand words for book three in the Bassville series. I'm bringing that trilogy to its conclusion and I finally figured out how it's all going to work.

And with this leisurely, luxuriously slow pace of life, I now turn to book two, On the River, which came out last month. Now I have time to really promote it, so here it begins:



CHAPTER ONE
The winter had become a test of endurance and patience, especially for those living in northern Wisconsin. Three friends, June Butterfield, Dottie Trayson and Arlyce Shanski sat at the end of the bar near the Bassville Pub’s kitchen and pored over knitting patterns, ignoring the grumbling men gathered to watch basketball on the wall-mounted TV set. A cold and snowy February had left behind three feet of snow, and now it was March 3, 1985, with no sign of a spring thaw. Even though the Shanskis had turned on every light, their bar still seemed dim. The huge windows overlooking the Wissipaw River let in little light on an overcast day and the view in both directions looked the same: a solid mass of unmoving snow and ice, except for the occasional vehicle crossing the bridge that connected both sides of Bassville.

So, dear reader, if you want to slow down your pace and read my book, you can email me (mwestemeier@melwestemeier dot com) or you can buy one online

Spill it. Do you have a different pace for summertime?



Wednesday, May 9, 2018

a book and an interview

On the River
At last it's in print! The sequel to Across the River. The Amazon links aren't quite ready, but I'll update information as I get it. Meanwhile, I'm happy to fulfill orders by shipping copies, so message me at mwestemeier@melwestemeier dot com. $15/copy, includes s/h.

What's it about? It's 1985, the winter is lingering and the folks in Bassville are itching for spring. Maw Cooper's trying to swindle a documentary filmmaker about how his minnows are bred. Mona Butterfield's got a big decision to make about her relationship with Jake. June Butterfield gets caught up helping a neighbor. And a mysterious death rocks the town to its core. 

Here's one generous reader's comments: "In her new novel, On the River, Melissa Westemeier has created an entertaining world of living, breathing folks you'll feel like you've known forever. They'll make you laugh and cheer and cry--and worry about them when your own living, breathing people demand you put down the book and find them some dinner! I so enjoyed my time in Bassville, Wisconsin, and I know you will, too!"  Becky Ramsey, author of French by Heart: An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France  and The Holy Eclair.

But wait! There's more!  Claudia Hall Christian interviewed me here:
I talked about writing and teaching and books. Give it a listen!

Friday, April 27, 2018

UntitledTown wrapped, new book unwrapped

Last Friday I trekked to UntitledTown 2018 with a posse of high school kids to hear R.L. Stine tell stories about being a rock star horror writer. Before joining the throngs to swoon over the Goosebumps dude, we sat in the front row at a workshop and took notes while Joyce Burns Zeiss and Patricia Skalka talked about writing.  I returned to Green Bay's amazing book and writing festival Saturday and Sunday, binging on the conversations and camaraderie this sort of event creates. I presented a workshop on injecting humor in writing and participated in a panel discussion about writing Wisconsin as a character in fiction (doesn't that sound all literary and brainy?). The panel discussion was interesting. I struggled to say intelligent things because I got so wrapped up in what the other people were saying. I felt humbled to sit at the smart kid table.

Me, trying to come up with clever things to say while sitting next to Christi Clancy who is effortlessly elegant and clever. Photo credit to Amanda Jo Danihel and Dan Moore, UWGB Marketing and University Communication 



The best session I attended was on writing flash nonfiction. I didn't even know what flash nonfiction was, but for a while I've been chewing on an idea I'd like to write about and submit to This Wisconsin Life. The workshop I attended gave examples and walked us through the process of writing what is essentially a really tightly focused memoir essay. I left with a rough draft and an idea of how to replace the dreadfully tired personal narrative assignment I use with my seniors. The latter was an unexpected win. I feel grateful to have an idea with better structure and a way to craft my description of an idea into a more palatable story. My sister attended the workshop with me, and while she's not a writer, she found the experience worthwhile and interesting, too. 
My students enjoyed the weekend, one read some of her work at an open mic event and discovered a couple of equally talented writers to network with. It made me happy to see her approach these other two high school kids tentatively and within minutes chatter away enthusiastically about their shared passion: writing fantasy fiction.
And I convinced Mr. B to tag along to the final event of the weekend: an evening with the hilarious and bizarre Christopher Moore. He claims it was "pretty good," high praise coming from a kid who isn't terribly keen on reading.
My brain and heart were equally full when I returned home Sunday night to finish the regular routine of laundry-grocery shopping-etc. Without missing a beat the week got full of a visit from my dad, two track meets, trying to teach 2 cats to use their new cat door to the basement, convincing Rose to stop peeing on the hamper of dirty clothes in the laundry room, enduring an afternoon in-service, grading a stack of AP arguments about Buy Nothing Day, locking down a caterer for the senior class picnic, evaluating the progress of my English 12 students' Genius Hour projects, and getting a huge step closer to launching this:


It'll be for sale soon, hold tight!