Not a boys’ club anymore

“First female football player?”

Casey Baumberger writes this intriguing question in the corner of a classroom chalkboard at Iowa State University, straining to make the words visible upon layers of chalk dust that have collected over the years.

Underneath it she writes: “Breaking the Pocket: available December 31.”

Writing a book is often one of those idealistic dreams that few ever really expect to accomplish. It takes too much time, or they don’t have the drive, or the ideas, or the writing ability. The excuses given to no one in particular for never reaching that goal are abundant – unless you’ve actually done it.

For Baumberger, the dream of writing a book is becoming a reality in a big way as her début novel, Breaking the Pocket, hits stores on New Year’s Eve. Many take the path she did to complete her first novel, but few take their first manuscripts all the way to publication within just one year.

And anyway, how many people can say they published their first book by 21 years old?

•  •  •

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an annual event that challenges writers to write 50,000 words – a novel-length work – from 12:00 a.m. on November 1 to 11:59 p.m. on November 30.

While the inaugural 1999 event took place in the month of July, creator Chris Baty moved the 2000 writing fest to November “to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather.”

This depiction is probably more descriptive of Iowa’s harsh late autumn temperatures than the temperate climate of Northern California’s Bay Area, where the original NaNoWriMo writers were based, but the sentiment is the same: it’s crappy outside, so as long as you’re staying inside, why not do something life-changingly productive?

To that end, nearly 400 novels crafted during NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. Both have spent time on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Not bad for a month spent on their computers.


The front and back covers of “Breaking the Pocket.” (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger / Photos by GG Photography / Design by Andrew Busse)

As the internet grows, allowing for more creativity and self-sufficiency than ever before, even more novels coming out of this month end up being self-published by their authors. More still never see the light of day, serving only as proof of one’s success – or, in some cases, multiple successes. The personal triumph that come with writing multiple novel-length works cannot be overstated.

In 2015, more than 400,000 people participated in NaNoWriMo, of which around 10 percent reached 50,000 words – or “won.”

Despite it being her first try, Baumberger ended up becoming part of that 10 percent.

•  •  •

One day, Baumberger, an Iowa State English major, was searching for writing prompts on Pinterest when she discovered a post referencing something she didn’t recognize.

“I saw a pin that said, ‘15 Tips for Actually Finishing your NaNoWriMo Novel,’” Baumberger explains. “And I had no idea what that was, so I read the article and thought it was a great idea.”

Some writers are “pantsers,” the unofficial term for writers who begin NaNoWriMo with nothing but a spark of an idea that they hope they can extend to 50,000 words. Others, like Baumberger, are “planners” – the more second-nature term for writers who do extensive planning in the preceding weeks.

“I took all of October to outline my novel and get to know my characters, which made the writing process much easier,” she says.

In spite of never having completed a novel-length work before – though most who participate in NaNoWriMo haven’t – Baumberger saw this new experience as an opportunity to stimulate herself to reach that goal.


Baumberger, center, takes a break from the “Breaking the Pocket” cover shoot to pose with her sister and boyfriend. (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger)

While one of the informal, honor-system “rules” of NaNoWriMo is not to start early, nothing prevents writers from preparing ahead of the start date, as long as they don’t do any actual writing. Several participants come up with their ideas well before November, lying in wait for that motivation to come all at once as soon as the proper stroke of midnight gives them the green light to begin furiously writing.

For Baumberger, an unassuming day at the cusp of a completely different life change ended up sparking the idea that would turn this New Year’s Eve into a celebration of more than just the end of the year.

•  •  •

More than 205 million unique people tune into NFL games each year, not counting those who watch more than one game throughout the season. Unsurprisingly, there are no statistics for those who come up with a full-length novel idea while watching one of these games – but at least one person has.

In 2013, Baumberger was a freshman at Drake University in Des Moines. A Green Bay Packers fan, she and some friends were watching a game one Sunday when a clip came on about Sarah Thomas, who in 2013 became one of 21 finalists for a permanent NFL officiating position. She got the job in 2015.

“From what they were saying on TV and from what my friends were saying, it was pretty clear that her presence was controversial,” Baumberger recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘How controversial would a female player be? That would be fun.’”

Two years later, Femme Fatale Football was born. The story follows Chelsea Tucker, a lifelong football player who takes her talents all the way to becoming a popular collegiate athlete. When college ends and she thinks her career is over, she gets a chance to make the jump to the pros.

As it turned out, Femme Fatale Football ended up being a decent working title and nothing more. November wore on, and Baumberger realized the deeper she got into her novel, the less appropriate the title was.

“As the manuscript developed and Chelsea grew, it just didn’t fit,” she says. “I know Chelsea would hate having her story called ‘femme fatale football.’ ‘I’m just a football player, dammit,’ is what her response would have been to seeing that title.”

Baumberger takes a break from the "Breaking the Pocket" cover shoot to pose with her sister and boyfriend. (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger)

Baumberger takes a break from the “Breaking the Pocket” cover shoot to pose with her sister and boyfriend. (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger)

Although Baumberger began with extensive outlining, she relished the idea that her characters were able to shape her story in the same way that she originally shaped her characters. She also found that the actual writing process told her more about Chelsea than her pre-November planning ever could have.

“I changed [the title] to something she would appreciate,” Baumberger adds contentedly.

“Breaking the pocket” is a term not normally used in football – players can “break the line” or “collapse the pocket,” but the phrase that combines the two is uncommon. It’s a fitting metaphor for the first female professional football player’s impact on the game.

“She’s not your typical football player, but she’s still a football player,” Baumberger says. “The title isn’t a typical football term, but it’s still a football term.

“And it is her story, after all.”

•  •  •

When most people think of the process of publishing a novel, one common factor tends to run through their minds whether they are conscious of it or not: the presence of a publisher.

Typically, a publisher seeks out new talent that fits their company’s brand, negotiates contracts with authors, oversees editing and design duties, and arranges who will sell the book, where it will be sold, and how much the author will be paid for each unit sold.

But Baumberger decided early on that she didn’t want to go through what can sometimes be a years-long process: she was going to self-publish instead.

“It’s a fairly simple process, but it’s not an easy one,” she explains. “Since I don’t have a publisher, I have to do everything myself: finding a reliable editor, marketing myself, creating covers, finding an ISBN number, pricing my book, learning how to correctly format everything.”

However, as someone whose entire scholarly repertoire revolves around writing and editing – her English major is supplemented by minors in Teaching English as a Second Language and Technical Communication, and she also serves as president of Iowa State’s literary magazine, Sketch – Baumberger initially wanted to dive into the editing process on her own.


Baumberger’s novel, then called “Femme Fatale Football,” in the early stages of the editing process. (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger)

She began formally editing on January 1, 2016, one month after finishing the manuscript, with an original goal of publishing by her birthday, June 10.

“Two weeks into the process, I realized that was not a realistic goal,” she admits.

So she did a little revision within her revision, enlisting the help of her retired copy editor uncle and a fellow writer friend to aid in her editing process. Baumberger refers to a phenomenon she dubs “author blindness,” not being able to see plot holes and grammar errors in her own work due to the fact that she is so close to her story.

“I had to find an editor who not only knew what they were doing, but would also want to work on an author’s first novel,” she explains. “These two people have been lifesavers in this whole process.”

Baumberger also learned along the way that seeking outside editing help set her apart from some self-published authors, where she claims it is “blatantly clear” who edited their own work. “You can self-publish,” she advises, “but you can’t self-edit.”

As the completed manuscript came together, she turned to the long process of self-publishing. Overall, it certainly involved a learning curve, but according to Baumberger it ended up being a completely feasible goal, even within her time frame.

“You just need to have the right motivation,” she adds. “And I’d say that seeing your name in print is a pretty good motivating factor.”

•  •  •

Her release date for her début novel just weeks away, Baumberger maintains that she doesn’t have any glamorous plans to celebrate.

“Nearly all my family and friends are out of town for [winter] break,” she says. “It might just end up being me with a glass of wine at my house, eagerly watching the Amazon page for my first sale.”

Baumberger poses with her finished manuscript of what became "Breaking the Pocket" on Nov. 30, 2015. (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger)

Baumberger poses with her finished manuscript of what became “Breaking the Pocket” on Nov. 30, 2015. (Courtesy of Casey Baumberger)

The lack of fanfare doesn’t mean her journey was somehow less legitimate, though. Baumberger’s newfound confidence extends beyond her writing, even beyond the stress of publishing.

“I learned that I don’t have to be afraid to be pushy,” Baumberger tells me. “If your editor slacks off, doesn’t do what they say, go ahead and find a new editor. If your cover photographer isn’t giving you the photographs you want, let them know.”

So as December 31 rapidly approaches, it’s more than a new year for Baumberger; it’s a new outlook on life, including her work. She’s learned to stop second-guessing herself and maintain ownership of her writing, realizing that what she once perceived as rudeness was actually the assertiveness she needed to succeed.

But for this soon-to-be newly-minted published novelist, her view extends to others as well.

“I firmly believe that anyone can become published author,” Baumberger says. “You just have to want it badly enough to put in the effort and time to accomplish it.”

•  •  •

Breaking the Pocket is available December 31, 2016 through Amazon and Amazon Europe and at bookstores, libraries, academic institutions, and the CreateSpace eStore.

“Sunvault” anthology brings the solarpunk genre to a wider audience

Iowa State’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment produces authors, poets, and playwrights well-versed in what the program refers to as “the environmental imagination.” But for two students, exploring this idea meant setting out to advance a whole new genre.

After learning about solarpunk in a Tumblr post that gained popularity last September, now second-year student Phoebe Wagner came to fellow second-year Brontë Wieland with an idea.

“Phoebe approached me and asked me if I wanted to put together an anthology of environmental science fiction,” Wieland said.

“Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation” was born out of this conversation.

Solarpunk is an emerging genre focused on working toward a better environmental future in science fiction as well as the associated positive solutions. The “-punk” suffix refers to its association with countercultural ideology.

“There’s also a lot of social justice that’s also associated with it,” Wagner added. “This idea that you can’t take environmental justice away from social justice, that they’re just sort of woven together.”

Phoebe Wagner is creating spray art as a Kickstarter reward for

Phoebe Wagner is creating spray art as a Kickstarter reward for “Sunvault” backers. (Courtesy of Phoebe Wagner)

Wieland and Wagner turned to Kickstarter at the recommendation of their publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books, and leaned on their own previous experiences with the platform to make it successful. One of their major goals was to raise enough to pay every author whose work they decided to publish in “Sunvault.”

“It also seemed right that something like solarpunk that’s so based in community is also funded by the community,” Wagner said.

In less than a month, “Sunvault” reached its initial goal of $5,000. By the end of the funding period, 236 backers had helped them exceed their goal to the tune of $6,121.

“Having the Kickstarter funds allowed us to be generous so we were able to up how much we were paying for art,” Wagner said.

With solarpunk being such an unexplored genre, Wieland and Wagner were both worried and excited about the kind of submissions they might receive, as well as how people might interpret the genre and how they as editors would select the stories that would help define and embody solarpunk for a wider audience.

“We wanted to be able to give authors the chance to expand that without necessarily breaking the genre,” Wieland said. “I think we did a pretty good job; we’ve taken it interesting directions.”

The pair promised backers and fans on their Kickstarter that submissions would open as soon as they reached their initial funding goal. But in addition to open submissions, they also solicited work from some of their favorite authors, including A.C. Wise, Nisi Shawl, and Daniel José Older.

“Probably our most exciting one was Margaret Atwood,” Wagner said. “We don’t have a Margaret Atwood story, but Atwood did email back our publisher and say that she liked the idea. So we were very thrilled about that.”

Brontë Wieland “exercises his limerick muscle” completing rewards for “Sunvault” backers. (Courtesy of Brontë Wieland)

In the two months where submissions were open, “Sunvault” received more than 200 submissions, of which around 35 stories, poems, and black and white line art pieces were chosen for the final anthology.

The anthology is due to be published in May, but in the meantime, many backers of the Kickstarter have some unique rewards coming their way as a thanks for their contributions. Wagner is creating several spray art paintings, while Wieland is writing around 30 personalized limericks.

“Limerick is a fun form, and I think Kickstarters usually work better when they have something a little bit different in them,” he said. “I was excited to get a chance to exercise my limerick muscle.”

Throughout what will turn out to be an 18-month journey from conception to publication, Wieland and Wagner both learned valuable lessons about the publishing process.

“[We’ve been] writing copy for the Kickstarter and creating our website and doing social media, and we’re currently proofing the entire book at this point,” Wagner said. “That’s been a unique experience. And working with a publisher and soliciting authors is not something you generally get on your own, so that’s been a really big learning experience for me.”

“Now we’ve got a pretty good idea of all the legwork that goes into it,” Wieland added.

And as for a second volume of “Sunvault”?

“We’ll see,” Wagner said. “Probably some of it will depend on [the] response and if Upper Rubber Boot offered and said, ‘we would really like to put out another one,’ then I think we would definitely both be involved. But we’ll see.”

•   •   •

This post also appears at The Cardinal.

Header photo courtesy of Brontë Wieland and Phoebe Wagner.

5 Things I Learned During My Gap Year

Throughout college, I always assumed I would segue straight from my undergraduate studies to graduate school without a break in between. I figured that maintaining an academic mindset over the summer, as I always had, would serve me best as I entered the next chapter of my life. But as I entered senior year, it became abundantly clear that taking a year off between schools would benefit me greatly. It would not only improve my mental health, which had taken a significant toll throughout college, but it would also provide a valuable opportunity for me to clear my head — to detox, as it were — and go into graduate school with nothing but excitement for the years to come. I felt that taking a year off would shift my views of school from something I had to do, to something I wanted to do, which was a feeling I had yet to experience since I’d been in school nonstop since kindergarten.

I start graduate school in a few short weeks, and I am happy to be able to look back on the past year knowing that I learned something, even if it took overcoming several hardships to get here.

The following points are not meant to serve as a cautionary tale about taking a gap year, terrifying as they may seem, but to show future students considering taking this step that, truly, anything can happen.

1. If graduate school is in your future, make sure you have a game plan as early as possible.

Before I walked across the stage in May and received my bachelor’s degree, I had already asked three professors to write me letters of recommendation. Their enthusiasm for my next steps aided me greatly in staying on task over the next months — essentially, not following through with my plan would mean that I had not only let down myself, but them as well. Even though I had yet to narrow down the programs to which I would apply, I knew the field I wanted to enter and I was able to make a good sell to these professors in order to ensure they would write me the best letters possible.

Of course, it’s not all about these specifics. The process of applying to graduate school can be confusing all on its own, between wrangling transcripts (and figuring out which schools want multiple copies), essays, how each school wants to receive letters of recommendation (online or in the mail), and more. In some ways, organizing the application process itself was more stressful than actually getting it done.

The takeaway here is that if you have time-sensitive plans following your gap year, you can never be too organized. It’s always better to prepare too much for something than realize you missed a deadline.

2. The job-search stress never really ends, even if you’ve already found employment.

Before I graduated, I optimistically assumed I would spend my gap year balancing full-time work and graduate school preparation, all the while getting a taste of what it was like to be a Real Adult™. But when August arrived and the hundreds of employment applications I had submitted had not yielded a single interview, I realized the coming year would probably not be as clear-cut as I imagined.

Even as I finally found employment at my county auditor’s office, the fact that it was a temporary position (processing voter registrations and performing other behind-the-scenes election tasks) meant that I knew exactly when I would be unemployed again. So while I was making money and, indeed, experiencing Real Adulthood™ for the first time, I still felt like a high school kid whose job at the ice cream shop would only last the summer.

To top it all off, a sudden move near the end of my tenure at the auditor’s office complicated things even more. Before I knew it, I was in a new city — a much smaller one, at that — with my future job prospects diminished. And while my circumstances allowed me to live rent-free for the first time since high school, I could feel my perceived adulthood slipping away. I felt obligated to find a new job as soon as possible, but also pressured to bring my life as a whole back to where it had been as soon as I could.

3. You will probably throw a lot of money away.

Between graduate-school applications, ordering transcripts, and making the 200-mile round trips to see the professors who would be writing my letters of recommendation, I was hundreds of dollars in the red before I knew it. This, I quickly learned, is a necessary evil when your life has no clear direction one way or another.

As the year wound down, I decided to sign up for a spring medical terminology class at the community college. Even though I knew the class would prepare me in some way for my future education in the public-health field, it was still an extra $400 that I was spending without any real justification. Sure, it made sense to take the class, but I also know that it will probably be a while before what I learned there will aid me in any significant manner.

In the last month, I also fairly impulsively forked over the $30 to become a notary. There was a job I was looking to apply for that required the applicant to be a notary, so without regard for the fact that I would not be approved before this particular position’s application deadline, I figured it would eventually be worth it. I’ve got three years to justify this one, folks.

Looking back, I’ve concluded for now that this spending was a fair introduction to the financial woes of Real Adulthood™: Sometimes, you throw money at something and don’t see the benefits right away. But I’m hoping that by the time I do — or don’t, who knows — it won’t matter, because the experience was enough to propel me forward.

4. You will get bored, and it won’t be pleasant.

By the time 2012 ended, I had become complacent with my situation. As soon as graduate school applications were in, boredom finally reared its ugly head and began its onslaught.

The excuses came en masse: No one hires around Christmas, so don’t bother applying for jobs. It’s too cold to leave the house today, so I’ll just stay inside. There’s nothing to do inside, so who’s stopping me from sleeping 16 hours a day and watching movies the other eight?

Luckily, it didn’t take me long to realize that part of being a Real Adult™ was making yourself feel busy, even if you aren’t doing much at all. With that epiphany in mind, I made a daily schedule for myself: Wake up by this time, run errands here, go grocery shopping there, do laundry on this day. Sticking to my schedule made me feel like I had something to show for myself, even though these tasks felt wholly unimportant. And when I started my medical terminology class in January, knowing I was needed somewhere made the rest of my life feel a little more worthwhile.

5. Expect the unexpected.

On my list of “things I never saw coming when I graduated from college”:

  • My move. While I had envisioned remaining in the same place for the duration of my gap year, I now find myself 100 miles away from my college town.
  • That it would be possible to apply for hundreds of jobs and receive only a handful of calls back. I also found it strange that while hiring machines like Target and Walmart never invited me to interview, libraries, banks, and bookstores only looking to fill one position did.
  • Having a choice of graduate programs. While I knew I had submitted strong applications, I never imagined that every single one would offer me a place. Unfortunately, by the time I had a choice to make, it was essentially made for me. My #1 and #2 programs were out of reach by virtue of distance alone, and #4 and #5 were financial long shots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly happy with my current program, I just could never have guessed that I would end up there in the manner I did.
  • That I would find myself in July without a job. I have resigned myself to the fact that full-time employment is now out of the question, considering the amount of work I must put into my graduate studies.

In essence, I’m the same unemployed student I was a year ago. But if there’s one thing my gap year taught me more than anything, it’s that the only sure thing in life is that there are no sure things. And in that vein, I’m excited to see where the coming year will take me.

Originally published at Mic on August 5, 2013.


FIFA, gender discrimination, and women’s soccer’s “turf war”

This was inspired by Jessica Luther’s piece on the recent lawsuit filed against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association by some of the sport’s top players. The lawsuit charges that forcing women to play competitively on artificial turf, an issue that men’s players at the highest level will not face in at least the next two World Cups, is gender discrimination.

I played soccer for 12 years, the last 5 of which were played on a competitive traveling team. While field conditions weren’t always ideal – driving 5 hours to play a game on an undersized, muddy field in the pouring rain will always stick in my mind – most of our games took place on grass fields. Playing on grass meant disciplined slide tackles, better ball control, and being able to run up and down the field, in cleats meant for grass, without fear of slipping on “padded concrete” and sustaining a serious injury.

When I was 14, I played on artificial turf for the first time. It was summer in California, which meant that during day games, it would be at least 90 degrees outside. At one tournament in particular, we played at a complex where the only shade around was created by the large umbrellas that parents brought to sit under while they watched their kids play.

This is what I normally wore when playing games in the heat. Not conducive to playing on artificial turf at all.

This is what I normally wore when playing games in the heat. Not conducive to playing on artificial turf at all.

As a goalkeeper, I had relative choice when it came to what I could wear. During my first turf game, I took the heat into account and simply wore our secondary kit in opposite colors – a short-sleeved jersey and shorts. This way, I didn’t have to wear a heavier keeper’s jersey and I could stave off the heat just as well as my teammates.

I realized my mistake the first time I slid out to collect the ball.

It felt like a carpet burn, only worse. The entire right side of my right leg was red, both from the friction against the turf and the dozens of cuts that had formed between the top of my sock and just underneath my hip. (See Sydney Leroux’s photo of her own legs after playing a game on turf for a good reference point; yes, there is blood.) On grass, this slide would have maybe caused some grass stains on my clothes and some dirt I could easily brush off my leg. On turf, it really, really hurt.

This is a good place to mention that not only is artificial turf brutal on skin when it opens cuts, it’s also hot. Studies have shown that the surface temperature of artificial turf can be up to 35 to 55 degrees hotter than natural grass – something that can be easily confirmed by anyone who’s ever played on it. Your feet feel noticeably hotter than the rest of your body just standing on a turf playing field, especially on an already sweltering day.

After that initial game, after having slid and fallen all over the turf in the keeper’s box – much less having to deal with how much higher and more erratically the ball bounces on a turf field – I realized that I couldn’t deal with playing on an artificial surface in what I was wearing again. My legs, arms, and even my face were scratched up, simply from trying to play the same game on artificial turf as I had always played on grass without incident.

For the rest of the time I played soccer, whenever we were sent to play on a turf field (including an entire winter league season, which in California could still mean relatively high outside temperatures), I always wore a long-sleeved keeper’s jersey and long pants to try to avoid what I went through in that first game. However, the turf remained relentless. I still felt it burning and cutting into my skin whenever I hit the ground. My arms and legs were bloody and bruised underneath my clothes, and I’d only discover the extent to which this was true when I changed into a T-shirt and shorts after the game.

This is not how anyone should be forced to play soccer. In a contact sport where pivotal parts of the game take place on the ground, female players should not have to take this kind of damage because the sport’s governing body doesn’t see a problem with allowing men, and not women, to play on a surface conducive to the sport.

With no sense of irony, FIFA chose this statement from the coach of the Albanian women’s team as one of two “quotes of the year” in its 2013 women’s football review:

The word football doesn’t differentiate between male and female. Football is a game featuring 22 players and one ball, and it’s the same for both men and women!

Perhaps if this were actually the case, this sentiment would carry more weight among women’s soccer players worldwide.

Also published at Medium.