Creativity, Gratitude, and Self-Care in a Dumpster-Fire World

I’ve been finding it very difficult to write lately.

I know I’m not alone in this–it’s a refrain I hear from many creative types right now. It has less to do with my personal battles with depression and more to do with the constant bombardment of horrific news–especially the mounting tension as we move steadily toward the US mid-term elections. These elections are going to prove to be a referendum on so many things: where we stand as a nation on democracy, diversity, climate change, health care, decency, equality, and compassion. The stakes have never been higher.

As such, I find myself creatively holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the WIP despite a looming deadline. It feels too damn frivolous to be carving out a HEA right now, even though readers probably need the stress-relief, temporary escape, and emotional encouragement more than ever.

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

For a while now, Supergirl has been accurately needling social issues of the day in its writing. On the surface, the show is nothing more than a little escapist superhero television action, but at the end of season 2, Cat Grant makes an amazing speech on resistance and courage in the face of fearful times, and I fistpump the air every time I watch it.

 

It’s a powerful scene that fits seamlessly with the the plot without overtly hammering the viewer over the head with the message. It’s brilliant.

But the writers of Supergirl haven’t stopped there. In another episode, James Olsen shares an experience of being accosted and accused of a crime as young black child–an experience Mehcad Brooks had in real life when he was only seven years old.

And this season, the show’s opening montage openly describes Supergirl as a refugee on our planet–and the first couple of episodes have dealt with the growing hostility and suspicion of “aliens” living on Earth and a rising “Earth First” movement. Yes, it’s a somewhat cheesy CW show–but it’s tackling real issues and I applaud them for it. I was particularly struck in this past week’s episode when the AI’s shield that allows him to look human fails while he’s ordering pizza–and the resulting hostility on the part of the restaurant owner takes Brainy completely by surprise. He keeps saying, “But you know me…” while the pizza guy calls out workers with baseball bats to beat the AI to a pulp.

The imminent violence was stopped because one person stood up–a person, it turned out, who also had a lot to lose if her own secrets were publicly known. Who wouldn’t have been spared from the same violence. That’s courage. As is telling your boss that he needs to do more than ‘tell both sides of the story’, that he needs to take a stand.

And that’s what makes storytelling compelling. It’s what moves a program beyond the realm of ‘cheesy superhero TV show’ into something worth watching.

This is the kind of writing I want to do myself. I want to bring that kind of layering and introspection to a story that is meant for entertaining consumption. Because when we start to have compassion for the Brainys and Nias of this world, then we can see them as people in our neighborhood, and not enemies to be hated. 

But it’s hard when your creative well is dry. When fear and anxiety dominate your thoughts. I’ve recently come to the realization that I can no longer support this sustained level of outrage and horror. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful to anyone, let alone me.

In some ways, it means I’m still speaking from a place of privilege, that I can even say I need to distance myself from current events. There are so many who can’t, who are living the very events I find so appalling. But self-care and distancing is not the same as turning a blind eye. It’s saying that a warrior needs to sleep before a battle. That an army must be well-fed and rested before an incursion. That this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there must be breaks along the way.

So I purchased the little notebook pictured above. I can’t say that I really believe its sentiments, but I’m making a concentrated effort to find something each day that makes me happy–something for which I’m grateful–and jot it down in this little book. I’m cultivating a sense of gratitude in a field sowed with fear and poisoned with anxiety.

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

No one would expect you to eat tainted food day after day without making any effort to clean it up and make it healthier. No one would demand you willingly consume poison in sublethal levels when it’s possible to filter it (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, apparently). Yes, we should be outraged at what’s happening in our country and our world. But outrage alone is ineffective. And a steady diet of outrage will kill us as surely as the things we’re outraged about.

So I’m reading more and watching the news less. Taking a little break from writing and playing around with other forms of artistic expression, such as painting. I’m having my nails done, despite the fact it’s an expensive luxury. Having nice nails makes me feel good at a time when precious little else does. As coping mechanisms go, it’s probably one of the less destructive ones.

I’m also making a determined effort not to spread fear and hate. I’m of two minds over this–I think we should be outraged. I think we should be making our voices heard. To say nothing is to be complicit. But I also fear by pointing fingers at it, we’re also fanning the flames over it and keeping it alive.

Vote. Donate your time or money, whichever you might have. Overcome your fears and participate in the process. But don’t let the fear consume you.

Remember it’s okay to tell stories that are simply pure escapism. What may be a light fluffy story to you is what gets someone else through a dark time. It’s not a crime to be proud of your successes, and share your happy news. We need more happy in this world. 

On the back of my little “Okay” notebook is an awesome quote from Jane Austen. I leave you with that thought now.

Will Audiobooks Replace the Written Word?

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Let me start this post by saying I’m not against audiobooks. I’m listening to an audiobook right now, as it was started on a long car drive and I hadn’t finished it by the time I returned home. A well-done audiobook is a delight, and some of my favorites include the Poirot books read by David Suchet, the actor who has played Poirot in some of the Agatha Christie screen adaptations.

My husband has a two hour commute to work each day, and has become a big fan of podcasts as a result. My current commute is much shorter, so I tend to listen to music instead. I get frustrated when I can’t listen to something in large blocks of time. I also tend to use walking the dogs and riding horses as a writing brainstorming time, and as such, would prefer music or simply appreciating nature to listening to an audiobook anyway. Ditto the rare times I clean house. 🙂 Since I tend to listen to an audibook when I’m doing something else, I’m usually not able to devote my full attention to it, and as such, I don’t feel as though I’m getting the maximum amount of enjoyment out of the story as I would if I were reading it instead.

But I don’t begrudge people the right or ability to access their reading material via audio over the printed word. For many, audio represents the only way they can easily access books, especially for the visually impaired. Many more simply prefer audio to print. Perhaps like everyone else, they’re so busy it’s the only way they can fit “reading” into their schedule. Or maybe reading presents challenges for them that listening does not. I’m all for people accessing fiction any way they can get it, and it is one reason I’d like to create audio versions of all my works.

As a reader, however, I can rarely afford to buy audiobooks. Death on the Nile as read by David Suchet is almost $30 US dollars. Newer cars are no longer including CD players, so checking out books on CD from the local library won’t work for me either. Sure, I can subscribe to a service like Audible.com but we’re back to another subscription service. Do I really want to pay for cable, Netflix, Hulu, CBS All-Access, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Audible, too?

The answer is no.

Yes, I have a smartphone, but it’s an Android, not Apple. I don’t have a tablet. I have an elderly iPod Nano that is on its last legs and I don’t want to lose it because they aren’t freaking making them anymore and that’s how I listen to music in the car. *weeps*

But that’s okay, right? I don’t have to listen to audiobooks if I don’t want to.

Only the buzz I keep hearing is that in the not-too-distant future, everything is going to go the way of audiobooks and podcasts. I haven’t been able to pin down the source of this information, but I keep hearing it repeated over and over. Certainly articles such as as in Forbes, calling Audiobooks Officially 2018’s Publishing Trend would seem to support this notion. Sales of audiobooks were up 43% in 2018. I keep getting advice to make podcasts, or short video presentations on Youtube. Every time I open a news article, it pops up with video. Whenever I click on a link for marketing information these days, it is only available in a video format.

I have to say, as a consumer, this pisses me off a bit. I can read an article–and retain the information in it–faster and more efficiently than it takes for me to watch a 45 minute video. I can read articles on my lunch break–or when I have five minutes between appointments. Presenting everything in video format also assumes the viewer has perfect hearing, which isn’t necessarily the case. Moreover, I can’t watch videos until I’ve finished my 10-12 hour workday and am at home with the headphones on so as not to interrupt anyone else’s activity, and let me tell you, I have more pressing needs to take care of by then. Am I going to take 45 minutes to watch another video or spend that block of time writing a scene? Writing is going to take precedence every time.

As a writer, this notion that everything will go to audio format in the future disturbs me greatly. For starters, creating quality audiobooks is expensive. I experimented with creating an audiobook for one of my older stories, and I found that while I could lower production costs by sharing royalties with the narrator, the top-notch narrators wanted payment up front. Also, for the costs involved, the payout is skewed. Despite the high costs of production, only a sliver of money earned gets paid in royalties. I have as yet to recoup my ROI for my one attempt at producing an audiobook. I may never earn back the investment at this rate.

But it’s possible I’m just doing things wrong. Perhaps my tech is out of date. Maybe I’m uninformed because I’m behind the times. So I’m curious: how do you consume your fictions these days? Ebook? Print? Audiobook? Do you pay for a subscription service? Are you finding limitations on the books you’d like to check out because it doesn’t come in your preferred format? If you preferentially consume audiobooks, does this dictate what other books you may or may not read?

If you’re an author, what cost-effective methods are you using to invest in audiobook production? Are you seeing a ROI? What service are you using? How are you finding your narrators?

Drop a comment here and let me know what you’re doing. I’ll select someone at random from the comments to win their choice of one of my stories (though sadly, they will only be available as ebooks).

I Dream of Strong Heroines

Let me start off this post by saying you know what I mean when I say “strong heroines”. I realize it’s not the best term: a heroine, by definition, is someone we look up to and seek to emulate. “Strong” as a descriptor seems both redundant and lazy somehow. When I say I’ve always been attracted to strong heroines–I mean the female characters that star in their own stories, who pull me into their adventures and make me long for their strength, their no-nonsense attitudes, their ability to Get The Job Done. 

They are smart, tough, and competent. They are all beautiful in their own way, as varied as their own backgrounds. They kick-ass. They make me want to be better than I am, to reach my full potential and more.

Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to find heroines in my preferred books and stories. Women frequently played a secondary–sometimes even tertiary–role in murder mysteries or sci-fiction. They were often love interests at best, and victims at worst. Television programs frequently featured a Heroine of the Week, a guest actress to play the part of the woman who is placed in jeopardy (all too-often by refusing the advice and help of the male hero) so that she can be conveniently rescued by said hero. I confess, I ate up these shows in the eighties. Not because I identified with the female characters in them, but because I identified with the men. Many of the shows I adored back then, I find uncomfortable to re-watch today. Men had the best roles, the best lines, got to do the fun things. I accepted that it was men who went on adventures and the women largely stayed home. Eowyn aside, the Fellowship of the Ring was a boys club.

But when I found a heroine I could admire, I grabbed on with both hands, even if the source material was a little problematic. Lessa from Dragonflight. Princess Leia. Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I wanted to be Laura Holt from Remington Steele. I devoured the Honor Harrington books by David Weber. Sam Carter in Stargate might have been ‘one of the boys’ but she was the scientist that was smarter than everyone else on team SG-1.

I cheered when Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella outsmarted the gypsies in this scene from Ever After.

 

It was simply brilliant–as was the scene at the end when the Prince rushes up as she’s leaving the castle. When she asks him why he’s there, he confesses he’s come to rescue her–only she’s already rescued herself.

This trend of loving powerful heroines continues today. I fell hard for Elsa in Frozen. I am a HUGE Peggy Carter fan (hence the T-shirt above). I love Phryne Fisher so much that I supported the crowdfunding for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears. I love these ladies for their strength, their beauty, their abilities. I wish I had their confidence, their competence, their resilience. 

I am sadly aware I fall far short of their standards.

Recently, I’ve had a bit of a health scare. It’s rattled me hard, and while my condition is imminently treatable, I’m still in adjusting to both the medication and the notion that I need medication. More than anything, there is a disconnect between accepting that this is my new normal when it doesn’t fit with my mental image of who I am. It’s not part of a kick-ass heroine’s backstory.

Or is it?

Perhaps my definition of what makes a kick-ass heroine needs to evolve. Maybe she isn’t the woman who takes out the bad guys with a single punch, or patches a Stargate on the fly, or delivers a snappy one-liner while saving the world.

Maybe she’s the woman who works ten to twelve hour shifts, only to come home and take care of her family. Maybe she’s the cornerstone in a multi-generational household, the one that everyone looks to in order to make things right. Perhaps the very fact she’s still here, still trying, and still alive is a major achievement in itself.

Maybe she’s the one who speaks up even though her voice is shaking. The one who says, “No, that isn’t right.”

Being a kick-ass heroine isn’t just looking good in a catsuit, or solving multi-dimensional math equations while piloting a starship, or discussing with wit and erudition the dead body in the library. It’s both harder and easier than that.

It’s standing up for what you believe in, even when the rest of the world thinks you’re stupid for doing so.

There are more of us out there than you think. You’re more kick-ass than you think. Be your own hero.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have a thing for mushrooms. Not to eat (I think I read too many murder mysteries where the victims were taken out with the local mushrooms) but to photograph. There is something magical about them–not only their variety and color, but also how rapidly they can grow–seemingly overnight!

My mushroom photo collection is extensive, and I delight in spying some delicate fungal growth hiding beneath fallen leaves or nestled in pine needles during my morning dog walks.

Just the other day, I took these side by side images–both probably Aminita species, which contain some of the most toxic mushrooms known. My fingers are in the frame for scale. The first image is of a typical mushroom growing in my yard right now. The second is one I found growing beneath the horse trailer. I’ve never seen one so large before! And I swear, it wasn’t there a few days ago…

I can’t do justice to the second mushroom, as it was hidden up under the horse trailer. But trust me when I say it was bigger than a NERF football!

 

 

 

But while I admire mushrooms in the wild, I confess I am less enthralled with them when they are continually popping up in my fenced yard. It goes back to reading all those British murder mysteries as an impressionable teenager and the likelihood these particular shrumes are Aminita species. Mushrooms in that family account for 50% of all mushroom-related deaths in people and most of them in dogs.

With all the heavy rains we’ve had here, the mushrooms are literally growing overnight. For the last couple of days, I’ve been pulling up mushrooms as I find them in the area where the dogs play, and I’ve been getting at least five pounds a day, I kid you not.

I’ve also had to induce vomiting in one of my dogs, after catching him gnoshing on a mushroom before I could stop him. So under the principle of better safe than sorry, I pull them up.

But their prolific nature has me paranoid now. Every afternoon I head out to the yard with a garbage bag and a set of plastic gloves to pull up mushrooms. They hide under leaf litter. They prefer shade and wet mulchy dirt. They love rotten logs and deep grass. And so I scan the area, digging them up as I go, trying to get as much of the root as possible. Just when I’m convinced I’ve located all the ones there are to find that day, I spy another one: sometimes a bright button of color mimicking the fallen leaves, sometimes a dull brown nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding soil.

I love autumn. October is my absolute favorite time of year. I love how the light changes in spectrum from white to gold as it slants through the trees on an autumn afternoon. I love how it lights up the grass from within, making it glow. I love the first hint of frost in the morning air, and that whiff of wood smoke, too. I love the sound of dead leaves scurrying across a sidewalk or crunching underfoot. Nothing makes me happier than pulling out my chunky sweaters in maroon and gold, or pulling on my favorite pair of boots. Give me a book, a blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa, and I’m a happy camper. Autumn is a gallop across fields of drying grass while the mountains all around burst into color. It’s watching the dogs frisk with glee on the morning walk because of the nip in the air. It’s smiling as you hear the honk of migrating geese, and look up to see them fly in V formation overhead.

But darn it, it’s also when the mushrooms proliferate like mad. And until we get a hard frost, I’m going to be removing them from the yard.

(T-Rex for scale…)

Celebrate ALL the Wins–Especially the Little Ones

Last year I planted a crepe myrtle tree in my yard. For those unfamiliar with them, this is what they look like in bloom, coming in a wide assortment of colors. I thought it would make a nice splash of color in the the spring.

It died.

Now, I’m not all that surprised. Not because my gardening skills are on par with my cooking skills, which is to say the smoke detector gets a workout in our house. Not because trees and bushes have a high mortality rate in the first year. Not because it was a hot,dry summer.

No. I wasn’t surprised because there was so much death in my life in 2017, I began to feel like a trainee for the Grim Reaper. I lost a lot: three human family members, three furry family members, and my very first horse–the one I bought as a teenager and hid his existence from my parents until I could prove I was capable of paying for him. The one I’d had for thirty years.

Most of these deaths were not unexpected. Old age and cancer both tend to give you lots of warning. It was just bad luck that the timing made all of them come together in the same year.

It was more than just the deaths, though that was bad enough. I also lost my belief that we as Americans were, for the most part, decent, honest people who stood up for the little guy and did the right thing. A belief fostered in part by such comics as this one, where Superman encourages students to embrace diversity. (There’s another, more modern image somewhere of Captain America supporting the same–only the crowd he’s depicted with is actually diverse–sadly, I can’t find it right now. I suspect it was fan art) I lost my faith in our government as an agent for the commonwealth. I lost hope that we’d ever have fair elections again, or that we’d be able to stop a breathtakingly corrupt administration from converting our democracy to an autocracy. Sure, corruption existed in politics before now. But the sheer scale of what’s happening now worldwide is all too reminiscent of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And we all know how that turned out.

Somewhere along the way, I lost myself to depression. I found it challenging to go on social media. I didn’t have the mental energy to comment on people’s posts. Every day, the news continues to be terrifying and disheartening, which didn’t help. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. I gained weight. I was still functional, but just barely. So no, losing one crepe myrtle among all of this wasn’t even a blip on the radar. The only reason I share any of this for background to the point of this post.

Recently, a thing has been going around my Twitter timeline in which someone posted something to the effect of “we’re nine months in to 2018–what have you accomplished?” People RT the original tweet, adding what they’ve achieved as part of the sharing.

I have very mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I am not trying to disparage the person who posted it–I just can’t help but feel on some level, subconsciously or not, by the very nature of social media, this kind of thing turns into a brag/competition thread. There is nothing wrong with bragging, mind you. Hell, I think far too often most of us diminish rather than celebrate our victories. But this kind of post falls into the the same category of year-end retrospective posts for me: a means of comparing yourself to others and finding, once again, you’ve fallen short.

In part because if you haven’t lost 50 pounds, gotten married, won the lottery, run a marathon, taken a dream vacation, landed an agent, had a NYT bestseller, won a major literary award, etc. etc. then you haven’t accomplished enough. And I have to tell you, when I look back over the past nine months and look at what I’ve achieved, compared to everyone else out there, I DO come up short.

But I came across one comment on the Twitter thread, which said, “I’m still alive.” And you know what? That is a mighty accomplishment indeed. It made me think about the things I’ve done in the last nine months a little differently.

So here’s my list of achievements for 2018:

  1. I’m still alive.
  2. I learned to make and like green smoothies, the thought of which used to make me gag.
  3. I’ve come to appreciate my body as is, with all its flaws, and know I need to take better care of it.
  4. I’m starting to reconnect with the things I love, things I’d shut out during my depression. I’d lost so much I was afraid to love anything else–and the scary thing is this wasn’t a conscious decision–I just withdrew my engagement. Even when I needed it the most.
  5. I recognize I probably need professional help to manage my depression. 
  6. I’ve started meditating.
  7. I’ve started playing brain games on Luminosity.
  8. I wrote and published a book. People are leaving enthusiastic reviews, which is nice.
  9. I’m playing around with fanfiction again because it makes me happy and life is too damn short not to take your happiness where you can find it.
  10. I’m still alive.

Some of these may not seem like very big accomplishments, but they are bigger than you know, especially the self-acceptance part. And I repeated “I’m still alive” twice because we don’t often give ourselves enough credit for toughing it out through bad times.

This past week, while preparing for some major renovations at the house, I discovered a small determined leafing of what I thought was a dead tree.

What do you know? That crepe myrtle is still alive.

I’m moving to a safer, better place so it can grow. Where I can keep a eye on it, and shelter it from bugs, storms, and the relentless heat. Where it can thrive. Perhaps that’s my biggest accomplishment for 2018 so far.

The Mature Writer: Accepting What You Don’t Want to Hear

There’s an adage for lawyers that goes something like this: Don’t ask a question in court you don’t already know the answer to.

The idea being that if you don’t know how the witness is likely to respond, you may have just opened up a whole can of worms you now have to deal with.

The same holds true for getting an opinion on your WIP. If you’re not prepared to deal with worms, perhaps you should refrain from seeking that opinion.

Last year I began a WIP (actually the origin story for the Redclaw series) and was writing gangbusters on it until a series of family tragedies derailed my writing for most of the last fifteen months. Before I’d abandoned the story, my critique group had loved it–they thought it was the best thing I’d written so far. I kind of liked it myself, and yet when I tried to go back to working on it again, I seemed to be stuck. Part of the problem was that my vision of the story had changed significantly from when I first began working on it–and the new beginning no longer fit well with older material. Part of the problem was that having just finished writing another story that had been difficult for me to complete for the same reasons as I mentioned before, I was having a hard time getting back into this older story. But I suspected I wasn’t being objective, so I asked my editor to read over what I had from a developmental standpoint.

Now mind you, I almost never let anyone read an unfinished draft. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of having my critique group read drafts as they were being written. So it was a great act of trust to turn over this fledgling story to my new editor, but she’d done such a great job helping me get the last book to market that I decided her input was worth potentially hurting my feelings.

Here’s the feedback I got–and my reaction–more or less… (Go to the link if you want to see the crying GIF).

Developmental Editor: I love your WIP! The characters, the dialogue, the pacing–all fantastic! There’s just one thing… a small plot point that will require you to rewrite the first third of the story to fix. No biggie.

Me: Okay. I think I’ll go clean litterboxes now. Thanks.

Generally speaking, I’m usually my own harshest critic. I’m the one who thinks the story sucks, that I’ll never be as good a writer as I want to be. It’s not that I don’t want to hear that something is wrong with a story in progress–it’s just that I’ve probably already realized it and am beating myself up about fixing it. It’s one of the reasons I rarely share WIPs with anyone–I have to make sure the story has a strong enough foundation before I begin tearing it down.

That said, I’m usually an adult about criticism. If the recommended changes are something I vehemently disagree with (on the lines of “Oh, hell no!”), I’m comfortable saying so and ignoring the advice. More often than not, the critique suggests altering something relatively minor–playing up one plot point over another, or doing away with an unnecessary subplot. I’m not so precious about my work that I dig my heels in when advised to cut out two pages of pretty-but-useless exposition because it is slowing down the story, and I have a pretty darn good grasp of who my characters are and what they want in that first draft. Most of my failings as a writer are more from lack of quality to the execution than a misunderstanding of what the story needs.

But I’ll admit a little shock of dismay when I got back my editor’s critique. 

Unfortunately, she was right. The things she pointed out as flaws definitely need to be addressed–and I can’t move forward with the story until I do. She was also wrong–in that to her, this would be a relatively simple thing to fix. I don’t think so. I think it will require rewriting nearly every line from the beginning to where I am now. The changes she’s suggested can’t just be slapped on top of the existing story. Threads must be pulled, traced back to the source, and rewoven along the way. The recommended changes will alter the very fabric of the story by fundamentally altering the heroine herself.

And I really regretted opening that can of worms.

I resisted her recommendations. I made excuses as to why it couldn’t be done. I was on a deadline–granted, self-imposed, but on one just the same. This was the third time I’d started this story–did I really want to re-write it again from the beginning? Could I do it without irrevocably changing the tone of the story? Did I have enough room to tell the new and improved story within the scope of one book? 

Ultimately, my decision to capitulate was based on the irrefutable fact that she was right–and also on a scene between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane in Have His Carcase. I’m going to have to paraphrase, as all my books are packed for the upcoming renovations, but the gist of it is this: Harriet, struggling with the current mystery she’s writing, complains to Peter about the motives of her murderer. Peter tosses out a couple of suggestions, making Harriet realize that while he is right, changing the murderer’s motivations will be a painful process for her, both personally and as a writer, and she says so.

Peter’s reaction is somewhat brutal. “What difference does that make, if it makes for a better story?”

Ultimately, Lord Peter is right. And so is my editor. And whether it takes me another six months or a year to make things right with my current story, I need to do so. Because bottom line, what matters most to me is telling the best story I possibly can.

Some Things are Worth Saving…

I got back from a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime vacation at the beginning of the month, only to fall into the excitement and busyness of promoting a new book release. Somehow, the days have flown by and August is halfway over.

Normally this would fill me with cheer because I loathe summer, August is one of the hottest and muggiest months around here, and September usually contains at least a hint of autumn in the air. But the rapidity with which August is passing serves only to remind me that our major house renovations are due to start soon–and that means putting most of the house in storage and living out of boxes for the months the house is torn apart.

I’m both looking forward to it and dreading it as well.

I thought I was ready, but was caught off guard when the tree guys called to say they were coming two weeks early. That meant I had to catch the feral cats and put them in their cat condos right away, no easy task. I can pet these guys, and medicate them if they’ll eat it in food, but that’s about it. There’s no picking them up. My vet comes to the house and jabs them with rabies while they’re eating tuna. So I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to catch them. It took about an hour with me tempting them with tuna and tossing it into open cat carriers. I finally stuffed them in and got them safely installed in their cat condos–four by six foot enclosures that we built complete with hiding boxes. There’s a little door I can open to put food and water inside, and scoop litter boxes. It’s going to be their home for the next four months or longer–you know how renovations go.

Two of the cats have settled in very nicely. They are eating, drinking, napping on their little beds, and using the litterboxes. The third is totally freaked out. Barely eating, peeing in the floor instead of the litter box, hiding all the time. I feel terrible, and yet I  know that if I hadn’t caught him, as soon as we began cutting the trees down around the house (where the cats hang out and sleep all day in the summer), he’d have taken off into the woods and started crossing the road again. I only hope he’ll settle in soon.

All of which made me realize I had to get cracking on the house–sorting what clothes we’d need for the rest of the summer, fall, and well into winter–as well as packing up as much as possible to go into storage.

I’ve written about my plans to ‘clean up my act’ before, and it’s always easy to announce plans–the follow-through is harder. Especially when most of us work ridiculous hours and come home practically weeping with exhaustion to another whole list of Things That Must Get Done. I fully intended to do the Marie Kondo method of tidying up, of sorting my belongings into what I love and what I don’t–and being ruthless about ridding myself of what I don’t love–but I’ve run out of time. I started out dumping clothing, DVDS, and books that I’m never going to use at again wholesale into boxes to take to Goodwill–but somehow, no matter how much I threw out, there was always more left. More and more when I asked myself, “Do I really love this?” the answer was no. And yet my will to rid myself of it grew weaker. Was it because of the extra step of taking it to Goodwill? Or because I wasn’t 100% sure if I loved it enough to keep it or not. I’m not sure. I think it’s mostly that I ran out of time to be so precise.

We keep a lot of things out of inertia. It’s just too much effort to get rid of them. And sometimes we keep things out of guilt at the notion of throwing them out. I have boxes of old photographs of people I don’t know that I inherited from my mother, who inherited them from my grandmother. No one alive is left to tell me who these people are and what their stories were. If I had the time, I might digitize them and throw out the originals. But I don’t even have time to digitize my own photos. I find myself quite capable of dumping them all in a trash bag with scarcely a wince.

Clothing has been a little easier. Once I was late for work and out of clean clothes, and I grabbed a pair of black slacks out of the drawer. They went up as far as my knees and no further–and then I couldn’t get them off. I flopped around on the floor like a fish, cursing and wrenching fabric in an attempt to shed myself of the Saran Wrap clinging to my legs. Ripping the pants off, I huffed angrily as I peered at the label. It read size four. “Who the hell put size four pants in my drawer?” The answer, of course, was me. Sometime in my impossibly slim youth. So yeah, it’s easier to look at clothing and know I’ll never get into that item again, or that it’s so ugly, I have no qualms dropping it into the Goodwill stack. But there are graphic T shirts, with frayed collars and fading print, that I can’t bear to part with. Bleach stained, chewed on by the puppy, barely legible–and yet I still hang onto them because of the memories associated with them. The Fab Five Guys from Queer Eye would not be happy.

Same thing when I start to examine the pictures I have hanging on my walls. Some are family images–easy call to keep those. Others are paintings and drawings I’ve collected over the years, moving them with me from one house to another for decades. I find myself questioning do I really want to put the water color of the Shetland sheepdog (found in an antique store in Maine many moons ago) back up in the newly remodeled house? But if I dump it at a thrift store, will it just end up in the trash? It’s hard looking at things that had meaning for you at one time, and wondering if they still hold meaning for you today. Perhaps it’s time for new things to hang on my walls. I suspect there will be some purging, but there will be some retention out of sheer sentimentality as well.

At first, I was pretty good when it came to the books. We have over a thousand print books in the house (I stopped counting at that point, and we easily have double that amount). Spilling out of the available book cases, they’re stacked on nearly every available surface. Clearly there are some we’ll never read again. And the joy of giving away books is not only that someone else will have the pleasure of reading them, but you will have room for MORE BOOKS. It’s a win-win all around!

But after stripping out the majority of the ‘I’ll never read this again’ stuff, I found myself struggling to purge beyond that. While I might never read The Complete Works of Saki again, I probably will want to read the one about the person being reincarnated as an otter, and I share The Brogue with all my horse-loving friends. Ditto Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and those nature books by my heroine, Jane Goodall. Photography books that I seldom open, but might want to some day. And honestly, am I ever going to read beloved favorites from my childhood again?

The answer is probably not. But there was never any question of keeping or purging these books. They definitely fall into the category of things I love. And that’s the interesting thing about Marie Kondo’s tidying up method. It doesn’t matter if you use the things you keep–you just have to love them.

Easy-peasy. They are keepers.

 

Lessons Learned on a Mountain Trail

Recently, I had the opportunity to join my husband for a trip out to the Grand Tetons. He had to fly out West for a conference, and decided since he was out there to meander through the desert and up to Jackson Hole. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see a part of the country I’d never visited before, so I begged for time off work and flew out to join him.

The week I spent out there was fabulous. No matter where we turned, we were faced with jaw-dropping scenery like this:

I mean, seriously. We found ourselves laughing at times because of the sheer beauty of what was before us. Honestly, after coming back from a tough couple of years of loss, any time away would have been good for my mental health, but this? Just breathtaking.

As the week went on, I began taking note of my feelings, determined to hang on to the lessons I learned and bring them home with me as a buffer against the weariness that has weighed me down for so long.

Slow down. Tune out. Reconnect with nature.

Before life got so crazy, I used to go hiking every week. Spending time in the woods was vital to my well-being. But somewhere along the way, I replaced walking in the woods with the dogs with walking around the neighborhood or just throwing a ball in the yard. Yes, it is time-consuming to pack everyone up in the car and drive to one of the local hiking trails. And yes, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” really is a thing. While in Wyoming, we noticed that almost no one ran air-conditioning, even though the day time temps were almost as hot as back home. The difference is in the Appalachian mountains in the summer time, it can be in the upper sixties at 9 am, but you’re still drenched in sweat because it is so humid. So, if I want to be outside here at home, I’m either going to have to get up early or wait until the fall to pick up my hiking habit again. But pick it up, I will.

Because of the remoteness of our hikes, we frequently didn’t have cell service. I have to say, being forced offline was one of the best things that could have happened to me this past week, despite the fact I have a new book release this coming Tuesday. I spent a few minutes each evening online to catch up with emails and things related to the book launch, and then I walked out the door and left all of that behind.

I realize I’m speaking from a place of privilege here. To shut out the news of world events for a week is a luxury not everyone can afford. Finding the balance between staying informed (which usually means staying angry) and being able to do something about it is something I struggle with. Because I can seldom actively participate in things, I tend to share information and donate to causes when I can. But staying connected with social media means I’m frequently in a state of upset and anxiety. After spending a hour watching a moose and her calf feeding in the marshes surrounding a river, calmness draped around me like a warm blanket on a chilly night. I realized then I don’t need to be constantly bombarded with bad news. It doesn’t make me a more effective activist. Just a stressed one.

So I’m going to spend less time online. Hopefully, I’ll spend more time doing the things I enjoy, such a photography, hiking with the dogs, and yes, writing. I’m going to concentrate on changing the things that are within my power to affect, and let the rest go.

You don’t have to see everything.

This was another big lesson learned. We only had a week–there was SO much we wanted to see and do. We stopped at various visitor centers and asked people where we should go and what we should make a point of seeing, and it quickly became apparent we couldn’t take it all in. Not even if we had more than the 6 days allotted to us. We were so close to Yellowstone, we decided to spend a couple of days there as well, only after the first day of driving from geyser to geyser, stopping at overlooks and waterfalls for the view, we decided not to go back to Yellowstone a second day. There was so much to see and do in the Grand Teton National Park that we didn’t need the extra driving. We also wanted to spend more time with each place we visited, instead of pulling up to an overlook, admiring the view for thirty seconds or so, and then jumping back in the car to drive to the next landmark. We wanted to get in the forest, not just view it from the car in passing.

Seeing less allowed us to see more.

Plan, but don’t be wedded to it.

We wanted to see wildlife, and after talking to the park rangers and volunteers (all of whom were so friendly and helpful) we realized we were going to have to get up early to beat the heat or else go back out just before dark. But we were successful! On this trip, we saw elk, bison, moose, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, whistling marmots, ground squirrels galore, pika, foxes, coyotes, a black bear, and even a weasel carrying dinner across the road.

Birds too! Magpies, crested jays, trumpeter swans, merganzers, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a golden eagle, the tiniest hummingbird ever, sandpipers, redwing blackbirds, sage grouse, and more. The mountain bluebirds are such an intense color, much like the bluebirds back home–and yet they were different too. It was fun seeing species in the wild that I’d only ever read about before. But if we hadn’t planned for it, I doubt we would have seen nearly as much. We saw moose almost every day–and some people we spoke to never saw any.

But we didn’t always stick to the plan. Sometimes we had a destination picked out for the day, and a conversation with a fellow tourist changed our minds. We’d originally planned to spend two days in Yellowstone, but at the last minute decided to stay in the Grand Tetons instead, where we ended up taking a ferry across Jenny Lake and hiking up to an alpine meadow in the middle of Cascade Canyon. I wouldn’t have missed this view for the world.

As we were hiking this trail, it seemed to go up and up with no end in sight. We knew the trail made a big loop, one farther than we had time to do that day, so we asked someone coming down if there was a natural turning point somewhere.

Our fellow hiker shrugged. “You turn around when you feel like it.”

That seemed like the quintessential Jackson Hole answer. 🙂

Communication is everything.

I’m fortunate that my husband and I see eye to eye on many things (including what movies to watch, which is a blessing, let me tell you!). But when you’re hiking several thousand feet higher in altitude than you’re used to doing and you’re not exactly in shape, you need to be able to tell your partner when you need a break. We began listening to our bodies–able to hear them for first time in a long time in the vast silence around us. We knew we needed food and water when we began developing headaches.We took breaks in the shade and watched streams burble at our feet until we felt rested. We were upfront with each other about what we could manage and what we didn’t want to do–and that made bailing on Yellowstone a second day much easier. I can’t tell you how important it is to have the kind of relationship where you can be so open and honest with each other. I probably would have found joy on this trip no matter who I went with–but taking it with my husband made it one of the best vacations in my life.

Change your priorities.

This one was a bit of a rude wake-up call, to be honest. I don’t normally wear shorts, but after a day of wearing jeans when it was nearly 90 degrees, I pulled out the dark navy pair I’d brought with me, to wear with a blue t-shirt. At one point, I asked a couple on the trail to take a pic of my husband and I–and I was shocked when I saw myself looking like giant blueberry.

I knew I’d gained weight. The scale and the clothes don’t lie. The past couple of years have been emotionally and mentally challenging, with a great deal of personal loss. I’ve been battling depression and anxiety–and I don’t tolerate medications well. But I seldom look in a full-length mirror at home and I’d half-convinced myself it wasn’t so bad.

Until I saw the picture. For a split-second, a horrible wave of self-disgust rolled over me. No more photos! OMG, how could I have let myself go like that? I almost let it affect my enjoyment of the moment–until I reminded myself that, giant blueberry or not, I’d climbed three miles to reach that canyon. That was no small achievement. And while I definitely need to lose weight and get back in shape again, it’s no longer because I want to look ‘attractive’. It’s because I want to keep doing the things I love when I’m an old lady. 

A few years ago, seeing that picture might well have destroyed my entire vacation. Well, I’ve lived through worse, and being 25 pounds overweight isn’t the end of the world. Neither is getting wrinkles, or thinning hair, or any of the other signs of aging that I’ve long hated. This is the body acceptance I can get behind: accept what is without hate, but don’t accept what you can and should change.

For me, that means cleaning up my diet. To find better coping mechanisms for my stress besides a bowl of ice cream. To reward myself with other things besides food. As I jump back into the work week tomorrow, I know this will be a tough lesson to hang onto–but I think it’s the most important one of all.

Editor vs Writer: Adversaries or Critical Partnership?

Eight years ago, when I first got the bright idea to submit a story for publishing, I was extremely lucky. 

The Kindle was taking off, making e-books easy to produce, and small digital publishers were popping up everywhere. I submitted a story on a whim, and not only did a publisher snap it up, but they wanted everything else I wrote too.

In the beginning, my only job was to write stories as fast as possible. Everything else, including cover art, editing, and marketing was handled by the publisher. I was so thrilled to be published, I didn’t question anything either–not when the cover didn’t meet my expectations, or when the editing didn’t seem as rigorous as it should.

As time passed, I became more savvy about these aspects of publishing–and the audience demanded more as well. The successful publishers were the ones who developed house guidelines and standards, but as self-publishing became easier, more and more small presses caved under the inability to compete with Amazon. It’s no wonder many authors chose indie publishing. Some writers prefer the greater creative control over their work. For me, it’s a matter of scheduling: as a self-publisher, I’m my biggest client–and I can alter deadlines based on my work demands. For others, there wasn’t a choice in the matter. It was self-publish or stop writing.

Which means many of us have had to learn the ins and outs of what makes a good cover, and how best to promote our own stories–particularly on a tight budget. One of the hardest aspects of going indie for me, however, was finding an editor to work with.

Toward the end of my working with a small press, I was assigned a new editor. When I got back my first round of edits, barely legible for all the suggested corrections, I was stunned. Not because I thought my story so precious any suggested cuts or alterations had to be wrong. Not because I was getting a far more rigorous edit than I’d previously received.

Because it felt like someone had run my story through an editing program without even reading it.

There are a lot of great editing programs out there now: Grammarly, Hemmingway, and ProWritingAid come to mind. Depending on the program, they’re going to catch spelling and punctuation errors, but may also point out passive voice, how many times you use adverbs, and so on. But these programs should never take the place of actual eyes on the draft. Many of these programs aren’t specifically designed with fiction in mind. Over-use of these kinds of programs can strip the author voice out of the story. My beef with my new editor was that her suggested changes seemed utterly arbitrary. Across the board recommendations to exchange one type of phrasing for another doesn’t enhance the story. It merely scrubs individualism from the prose.

In the end, I wrote a three page email to my publisher giving examples of the recommended changes and why I disagreed with them. After review, the publisher decided to assign a new editor to me. She took the same story that the previous editor had shredded, and came back with recommendations I could work with–and we continued to work together on subsequent stories.

Did the press accept that I was right and my previous editor wrong? Probably not. What they did was realize we weren’t a good fit and assigned me to someone else in the hopes we’d get along better. I’m okay with that, to be honest. You shouldn’t expect every editor to mesh with you. It’s important that they see your work the way you do and be willing to help you polish it until it shines. If they don’t, then you need a new editor.

The partnership between editor and writer is a special one. A good editor is like someone who helps you set the table at an elaborate dinner. You’ve cooked the 12 course meal. You’re impatient to serve it to your guests. A good editor is going to taste the food and suggest additional seasonings, look at the table and suggest alternative china or flowers, and check the seating arrangements and suggest moving some of the guests.

But you are the one who cooked the meal. The editor shouldn’t scrap your meal and produce one more to their own liking. Remember that.

Finding the right editor has been one of my biggest challenges since going indie. There are two areas of indie publishing where it doesn’t pay to skimp: cover art and editing. Cover art is crucial to catching a reader’s eye and getting them to check out your story. But no matter how good your cover is or how intriguing your story, if your book is riddled with typos and basic mistakes, readers will notice. If you have plot holes big enough to drive a truck through–readers will notice. If your story drags, if there is too much exposition, your readers will notice. And they probably won’t pick up another one of your stories.

Editors are expensive, which is why many indie authors choose to skip professional editing. I get it, really, I do. If you have to pay anywhere between $500-1200 for editing, you have to sell a LOT of books to recoup that. (Something I like to point out to those people who argue it doesn’t cost anything to produce an e-book, so therefore, they have no problem accepting an illegal download–but I digress…)

But you really shouldn’t use that as an excuse to skip professional editing. 

I make sure I send the cleanest possible copy to an editor. That means it’s been through a critique group during the writing process and beta readers before editing. If there are big, glaring problems, I want them caught before going to editing. I also run the draft through an editing program, knowing the limitations of said programs.

I’d never assume that was sufficient to publish without professional editing. That human screening and input is invaluable, in my opinion. If you want to produce the best story possible, that is.

But finding the right editor can be difficult. When I went indie, I did all the right things: I sought the recommendations of fellow authors. I submitted test chapters to editors to audition them. Price wasn’t my only consideration, but it was a factor. I simply cannot afford to spend $1200 on a book edit with no guarantee of recouping that in sales. But even after doing all my homework, I struggled to find a good fit for me.

On the advice of a fellow author, I hired an editor that worked with my old publisher but freelanced on the side. This seemed like a win-win for many reasons, not the least of which was that we’d have a familiarity of what to expect from each other. But this proved not to be the case. Despite being on a deadline to publish by a specific date to tie in with a specific event, this editor missed the deadline by EIGHT WEEKS, and produced a shoddy edit to boot. The edit was so late I ended up accepting it with only a cursory read-through–my bad–and it wasn’t until I began the process of creating an audiobook that I realized how rife with errors the manuscript was. To this day I’m still embarrassed at releasing it in that form.

After submitting chapters to numerous editors by way of auditioning them for the next book, I found an editor I thought would be a good fit for me. I booked his services, spelling out what I was looking for in advance. As he’d done a great job on the sample chapter, I was prepared to receive a decent edit. Instead, I received an edit that I could have done myself with Grammarly.

Grammarly is going to catch some things, but only what it is programmed to catch. It won’t, for example, point out repetitive actions (like the fact that far too many of my characters shrug or raise an eyebrow), or note when the action drags. That’s what a real, live editor does.

I have to say, I was beginning to think I’d never find affordable editing that was a good match for me when a former beta reader offered her assistance. I was skeptical, I admit. I’d been burned by too many freelance editors. I was concerned that as a beta reader, she wouldn’t be firm enough, that too many things would slide.

I was wrong.

She provided exactly the kind of edit I was looking for: encouraging without being unwilling to suggest changes, ruthlessly cutting unnecessary exposition while not trampling on author voice, catching continuity errors and questioning possible plot holes without making me feel like an idiot, nailing the SPAG that is critical to a polished, finished work and yet at the same time tossing out accolades in the form of the kinds of comments that are like crack to an author.

I can’t sing her praises enough. She truly gets the author-editor relationship, and though she is new to freelance editing, she has an excellent grasp on what it entails. You’d be wise to get in on the ground floor, so to speak. She’s working on her website and creating a Facebook page, but you can email her now at CAPSediting@gmail.com

You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

The Danger of Self-Deprecation

The other night, we were watching the new Queer Eye on Netflix when the episode about the stand-up comic came on.

I think stand-up comedy is incredibly difficult, and I admire anyone who can do it. It takes a special kind of courage to get up in front of an audience of strangers and attempt to make them laugh. But I found myself a little uncomfortable with the Fab 5 helping this adult man who was still living in his childhood bedroom in his parents’ house pursue his dream of being a comic. 

Not for the reasons you might think. Not because the goal was unrealistic or that I thought he should give up on his dreams and get a ‘real job’. But because his brand of humor was self-deprecation.

The episode ended with the comic getting a bachelor pad makeover of his parents’ basement as his own apartment and a well-received set at a comedy club. Even better, he wound up with a woman he was interested in and said all the right things. A very satisfying show.

Only I turned to my husband to voice my concerns. “His whole routine is about him being a loser. How will he ever be anything else if that’s what he keeps telling himself?”

I probably would have forgotten all about this except the next night we watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, “Nanette.” I don’t want to steal her thunder, so I’m not going to say what it was about, but Variety describes the show as “Startlingly frank and personal, it blends stand-up with art history and incisive commentary on the very nature of what comedy is. It also features the Tasmania native declaring she is quitting comedy, something her legions of new fans are sure to take issue with.”

And one of the reasons she gave for quitting was that telling her story over and over again in comedic form over-wrote the true version of what happened to her. It trapped her in time and prevented her from being able to move on and to heal. It’s a powerful special. You should watch it if you can. Yes, it’s comedy, but it’s so much more than that. It’s angry and it’s painful. It’s raw.

And I completely understand why she feels she must give up comedy as a result.

See, I’m the queen of self-deprecation. I learned at an early age that if I cut myself down with wit and humor, beating anyone else to the punch, I would deflate and diminish the impact of whatever derogatory statement someone else might make. As a coping mechanism, this is highly effective. The problem is, after years of playing that same song over and over, the groove is dug so deep the needle skips if you try to play a different track.

I struggle with the concept of positive affirmation. I can write down my ‘wishful thinking’ affirmations, no problem. I just don’t believe them. The more outlandish I think the affirmation is, the more I roll my eyes and snort. 

“I will be a USA Today Bestselling Author.”

Yeah, right. Okay, I’ve read the stories about people like Meryl Streep and Jim Carey who believed in themselves when no one else did, and became mega-successes as a result. I just don’t know how they did it. Because if I don’t believe something, I can’t tell myself it’s the truth.

Recently, I received an age positivity workbook. I have a hard time with aging. I grew up hearing how getting old was horrible and that I just shouldn’t do it. (Um, the alternative doesn’t sound so hot, either…) For years I thought my mother was simply vain–she’d had multiple cosmetic procedures and refused to tell anyone her age–but then I found out she kept her age a secret to avoid mandatory retirement which was age-based. That added another whole level of fear and distrust to the mix, which only worsened when I became a caretaker to my parents during their final years.

So yeah, time to work on my negativity toward aging, hence the workbook. Only on the second page, I was faced with the first exercise: list three positive things about your belly.

WHAT THE HELL? No, seriously, this was my reaction. It felt as though I’d been sucker-punched. You’re just going to throw me off the deep end like that, workbook? No swimming lessons? No life jacket? Sink or swim?

I literally could only come up with one positive thing to say about the roll of fat overhanging my belt: At least I won’t be the first to die in the coming apocalypse.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the chipper response the workbook designers were hoping for.

More and more I hear people advising that we need to stop self-deprecation, that the danger is we’ll believe that part of the story and sabotage anything that doesn’t fit that narrative. Especially we as authors, should understand the power of words, and telling ourselves that our stories suck and we’ll never make it as a writer is one of the worst things we can do. I’ve written about this before. I know this to be true. I find it less easy to resolve. 

I say terrible things to myself all the time. I avoid looking in mirrors because I see a fat, frumpy, middle-aged woman who has nothing to show for her time on this planet. See, that part of this paragraph rolled out without any thought whatsoever. It’s the song I know by heart.

When I attempt to say nice things to myself, they usually come out with as, “Huh, not bad for an old broad.” I mean, I can’t even tell myself something positive without adding the negative qualifier.

But if I want to change the playback, I have to learn new songs. Part of me wants to suggest that I not start with something too big to accept–that instead of telling myself I’m going to hit the bestseller list, I should remind myself that everything I’ve ever envisioned about myself has come true–and that I should start with smaller goals. The negative soundtrack is too loud. I can’t drown it out with songs I don’t believe.

But the funny thing about the subconscious is it doesn’t know the difference between lies and the truth. I’ve been lying to myself for years–that I’m not smart, or pretty, or intelligent, or worthy. That song plays 24/7 without my even being aware of it.

Maybe it’s time to belt out a new song. I don’t have to believe it–not completely. I just have to sing it over and over again.