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 Greatest Threat to Your Creativity Isn’t What You Think It Is

All my life, I’ve been a daydreamer. So much so, my parents despaired of my ever being functional in society. There were even times when I decided that daydreaming was bad for me, and counterproductive to my goals in life, and that I should do my darnedest to quit. To stop inserting myself into my favorite books, shows, and movies, having grand adventures throughout the day as I went about my daily tasks.

I was never successful at eradicating this behavior, and eventually I embraced it for what it was: a rich fermentation vat of ideas that would bubble and simmer until they produced a story of my own, something original and unique to me. I’ve always been a writer at heart.

The good news is I managed to be a productive member of society despite the relative ease with which I could drop into another universe. I discovered online fanfiction archives, wrote over a million words of fanfic, and then began writing my own original stories. In my fandom days, I wrote the equivalent of a novella a month. The words just flowed out of me. The transition to original fiction wasn’t without its bumps in the road, and my productivity slowed down as the stakes became higher. Without a built-in audience, world-building and character development had to be stronger. It wasn’t sufficient to have beta readers–you need betas, critique partners, and a good editor if you want to turn out quality work. You can’t just throw down words and have everyone applaud because they love your pairing and they’d leave kudos on a story where your characters read from the back of a cereal box. Writing for fun is lovely, but the more you write, the greater the drive becomes to do better than the last story. You begin seeing where you failed, and how your craft doesn’t measure up to your favorite artists. You can either quit at this point, or buckle down and do the hard work. But hard work takes time.

So I just assumed my new glacial pace of story production was pretty normal. After all, I have a stressful day job and a home life that’s heavy on commitments. Some of the people turning out a book every month are actually writing teams, which makes me feel a bit better about only getting out one or two stories a year. 

But the other day, a realization struck me like a bolt of lightning out of a cloudless blue sky.

I don’t daydream any more.

Could that be why my production is way down?

I used to play scenes from potential stories in my head at every free moment–outlandish, outrageous self-insert scenes to occupy my mind as I walked the dogs, or did some sort of mindless task (like the dishes, or folding clothes), or commuting to work, or just before I fell asleep at night. I’d replay the scenes over and over, polishing the dialog, perfecting the action, trimming the worst of the excesses, eventually removing myself as the heroine and replacing the lead with one of my characters. When I sat down to write, the scene was right there before me–I only had to smooth off the rough spots and blend it into the story I wanted to tell. Even better, if I was stuck on something, entering that day-dreamy state of mind often allowed me to untangle a thorny plot problem, causing me to suddenly shout “Eureka!” and grab the nearest pen.

But I don’t do that any more.

My daily commute, which used to be over an hour, is now less than 15 minutes most days. While I’m delighted to get two hours of my life back every day, I actually made good use of that time when I was driving by plotting and daydreaming about my stories. I rarely listen to music these days, as I mostly did so when driving. Music has the power to send me to that dreamer’s state more quickly than almost anything else, and without the pleasant background noise, I find it hard to get in the zone. But I rarely have the time to just sit and listen to music the way I did when commuting.

Getting a good night’s sleep is tough for me these days as well, so I usually read until I fall asleep instead of daydreaming. To be honest, I’m almost afraid to let my mind ‘go’ when I’m trying to fall asleep because instead of exciting adventures or romantic encounters, my brain is most likely to circle at the base of the Anxiety Tree, worrying at problems out of my control for the moment. So yeah, I’d rather lose myself in reading.

Worst, now when I’m walking the dogs, I’ve got the phone in my hand, checking my social media sites. That used to be a BIG source of my plotting time–I’d enter the theta brainwave zone and happily organize plots, scenes, and time lines while getting some much-needed exercise for both me and the dogs.

But now that phone is out and I’m checking to see what fresh outrage is occurring on Twitter.

I used to be the sort of person who carried a book with them everywhere, so if I had to wait somewhere, I could happily read. Reading served as fuel for my own story ideas, creating a lovely cycle of creativity. Now I scroll through timelines. An obsessive thumbing of bite sized pieces of information that frequently has a negative impact on my mental well-being.

The other night, my husband and I were out at dinner, and after we’d placed our orders and caught up with each other’s day, somehow we both drifted into scrolling on our phones. If this is something a middle-aged person that addictive to a middle-aged person, I fear for the minds of our kids. I really do.

I’m not saying don’t be informed. We need to be informed. We need to share information: about natural disasters, government atrocities, mass shootings, lost pets, you name it. We also need to share the good things: our wins, both big and small, the things that encourage us and make us smile, that give us hope when all hope is dying. But we shouldn’t let the constant NOISE of information drown out our creative voice.

We’re told we as creative types must maintain a presence on social media, and I believe this to be true. But I think our utter dependence on our phones to keep us occupied AT ALL TIMES is extremely detrimental to the creative mindset.

Blonde girl with retro camera

I recently read an article that said taking photos of a trip makes your brain forget the memories of the trip itself, and while that appalls me (because I love taking pictures), I can understand it too. Because you’re ‘capturing the moment’ on your device, your brain doesn’t feel the need to do so in the same detail. Think about it: do you remember phone numbers anymore? I don’t. I know where to find someone’s contact information on my cell phone, but I’d be out of luck if I had to call someone if my phone was damaged or the battery was dead. (NTS: make a list of important phone numbers and keep it in your car)

So while I see the need to keep feeding content to my audience, wouldn’t the better use of my time be to write actual, real content instead of snapshots of the boring life of a middle-aged woman? I can answer that one myself: yes.

And while I’m still going to take photographs, it won’t be the first thing I do when I arrive somewhere new. I’m going to take a deep breath and appreciate the scenery. I’m going to memorize what the air smells like, and what sounds I hear, and how I feel at that moment before I pull out my camera.

I can’t leave my phone at home when I am out and about because I need to be available 24/7. But I can choose not to take it out when I’m walking the dogs, or bringing the horses in from the pasture, or waiting in line at the DMV. I’ve deleted most of my social media. I’ve gone back to carrying a book or an e-reader. I’m making a point to listen to more music–turning off commercial radio and just playing the songs I want to hear. Because it doesn’t matter how much content I feed an audience if there isn’t a book to go with it eventually.

And you know what? I’ve started daydreaming again. Without any attempt on my part to make it happen. I just had to open the window to let it in.

 

Ten Things Writers Need to Stop Telling Themselves

More than any other group of people, writers should get the power of words.

Words move people to stand behind a leader. To willingly go into battle, knowing death is likely. To fight to protect the weak and innocent.

Words make us laugh, bring us to tears, and the best, the most powerful words, are engraved on our hearts. We quote them when we need strength, or to show love, or evoke sympathy.

So why do we as writers so often neglect the power of words when it comes to our own work, our own self–esteem?

It’s not just writers. I’d hazard to say it’s a widespread problem–perhaps a little more so among women than men. It’s not that men don’t internally belittle themselves, but I believe many more women are raised to verbally–and publicly–abuse themselves than not. Call it what you like. An appealing ‘humility’ or whatever. The truth of the matter is many of us constantly run ourselves down and we are scarcely aware that we’re doing it.

Lately, I’ve been running into all kinds of conversations, blog posts, and Twitter threads about the power of words and why in particular, we as writers shouldn’t denigrate our work and abilities, lest the repetition of our negative words becomes the truth. I understand this concept, but like knowing I should eat vegetables and choosing pizza instead, positive affirmations are difficult for me.

I grew up in a religious household. Many religions drum into you your lack of worthiness as part of your need to be redeemed. Most religions are patriarchal in nature, which adds an additional layer of unworthiness if you happen to be female. My family was also full of over-achievers. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, pastors… if you weren’t giving back to society in some way, you weren’t worthy. Standards were often impossibly out of reach. If I brought home less than straight A’s from school, I was under-performing to the family standard. If I got straight A’s, well, anyone could get straight A’s at a public school.

So reading books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was encouraged. But even as I read it, a burning resentment smoldered inside. Thinking positively wouldn’t get you out of a bad situation. It wasn’t going to cure chronic illness, or make you smarter, prettier, more talented. I read the book and rejected the message.

Same with the body positivity movement. No, I’m not saying the movement is wrong. I think it’s high time we rejected the fashion industry’s standard of beauty (artfully enhanced by Photoshop, which means not even their own standard-bearers live up to the hype). We should all embrace the notion that women come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and physical ability–and not erase the less-than-impossibly perfect because they somehow don’t measure up.

But that concept of equality that I will grant to everyone else comes harder to me. Why? Because I don’t believe it. Not as it applies to me.

I’ve been hearing negative commentary about my looks, my intelligence, and my abilities my entire life. It’s still ongoing today: from my family, my co-workers, the man on the street, society as a whole. I have a book of ‘positive affirmations’ that is practically empty because I can’t think of anything to put in it that won’t make me roll my eyes and snort.

I get up in the morning and note the dark circles under my eyes and how my hair is thinning. I curl a lip at the roll of fat around my waist. I point out how unattractive I am, and how I should do something about it when I’m not so flat-out exhausted. I frequently say things like “I’m too old for this crap”, meaning “I’m at a point in my life where I should be treated better than this” but all my brain hears is I’m too old.

So I join a body positivity group, but drop out because I can’t complete the exercises. I routinely say things to myself I’d never say to a friend–not even a stranger, for that matter. I know better. But like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I’ve perfected the art of running myself down so well, I take the wind out of anyone else’s ability to do so.

When Katie Masters (are you following Katie? If not, you should) posted on Twitter about not belittling your own work because doing so would make it true, I tried very hard to internalize her advice. I’m really struggling with that right now–on top of the never-ending loop of negativity that tells me I’m too old, too fat, unattractive, not sexy enough, not smart enough–I also bemoan the fact my writing is Not Good Enough. It’s not terrible. But it’s no where near where I’d like it to be. When I read stories by people who are hitting it out of the park, even as I clutch them to my chest because of the magic they evoke, I’m crushed because I’m not in the same league. Hell, I’m not even in the same country.

See, I’m doing it again.

And likewise, Neil Gaiman has said some wonderful things about writing, impostor syndrome, and comparing yourself to others. But when I went looking for a specific quote to share here, I fell down a rabbit hole of impossibly excellent quotes, which might just turn out to be a blog post all of its own. But suffice to say, enough people out there that I like and respect have been telling me to stop undermining my work. There’s a difference between self-deprecation and self-denigration and I think too many of us choose the latter thinking it’s the former.

Ironically, what finally made me see what I was doing was harmful was the far right. Um, yes. You heard me correctly.

See, they get the power of words. Make them illegal aliens, not people seeking asylum through legitimate channels. Call them rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, animals. Make them less than human, something you don’t want in your neighborhood, and you will turn a blind eye when they are rounded up and placed in concentration camps. 

It works because on some level, the people who believe these things want to believe them. It fits their internal narrative.

But one thing I’ve learned as a writer is we have the power to change our own stories.

So here are some things I’m going to stop telling myself. I hope you’ll stop saying them to yourself as well.

  1. I’m Not Good Enough. Here’s the thing, everyone has someone they look up to as better than them. Better parents, better writer, better friend, lover, person. There are people who are prettier, smarter, and more talented. All you can do is be the best you there is. That’s all that’s required of you. And it is a heckuva lot easier to do that if you stop beating yourself up at the same time. You may not be as good as “them”, but everyone is at a different point on the same path and no one else walked it the same way you’ve done. Cut yourself some slack–and keep walking.
  2. I’m not productive enough. What the hell does that even mean? Productive enough for what? To build a following? To make a killing on KU? Are you a writer? Do you put words down in the format of your choice? Then you’re productive enough.
  3. I’m not successful enough. Frankly, this is garbage thinking. If you go into writing because you want to be rich and famous, honey, there are easier ways of doing that. What are your criteria for success? A bestseller ribbon? Winning awards? Being featured in Oprah’s book club? Making a gazillion dollars? Your definition of success should be dependent on the stage where you are right now. Sometimes that means simply putting words–any words–to paper. Sometimes that means self-publishing a story that got rejected. Sometimes it means putting the rejected story in a drawer and coming back to it in a year or so to see what it needs to fix it. Sure, you’re going to keep moving the bar higher. Just don’t place it at unrealistic heights that discourage you from even trying.
  4. My writing sucks. Does it really? No, seriously, is it the worst thing you’ve ever read or are you just being hard on yourself? Have you eaten today? Taken a shower? Walked the dog? STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Take a break and do something else. Because you know this isn’t really true. You may not be as good as you’d like to be, but there are people out there who like your work, who (oddly enough) think you’re a good writer and they wish they could write like you do. I know, there’s no accounting for taste, but if you truly sucked, no one would like your stories. So just don’t even go there.
  5. I’ll never _____________. It doesn’t matter what you put here. Top the bestseller list? Win a prestigious award? Make enough money writing to quit the Evil Day Job? It’s both easy and true to say, “Not with that attitude you won’t” but the question you should be asking yourself is “Does it matter if I don’t?” If you have none of those things now, how will your life materially change if you never achieve those goals? Spoiler alert: it won’t. So are you going to let that stop you from writing?
  6. That one bad review is somehow more accurate than the fifty glowing ones I received. Ouch. Bad reviews hurt. But if the comments in a snarky review are outliers, then let it go. If you’re hearing the same things over and over again from beta readers, critique groups, editors (all of which should have assessed your work before you publish it), and readers, then that should be a heads up that you’ve done something wrong and you need to change it. But when you get that nasty gif-laden review that seems to come out of nowhere, keep this in mind: there are only two reasons why someone leaves that kind of review. Either they have a following because they are the Simon Cowell of reviewers–and therefore their fans hang on every gif with glee to see someone else be destroyed–or they want to make you feel so bad you quit writing. Are you going to let some soul-sucking vampire make you give up on your dream of telling stories? No? Then ignore this kind of review. Don’t read it. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t let it have any power over you.
  7. My stories will never change the world. Oh cupcake, you don’t know that. Sure, on the whole, I would hazard to say most stories don’t change the world–at least, not in ways that we can see. Maybe there will never be theme-parks where kids of all ages dress up as characters from your stories and buy story-themed items, but I wouldn’t let that get you down. The vast majority of stories written won’t be read thirty, forty, fifty years or more down the line either. But your story can change the life of the one person reading it today. Maybe you gave them hope or laughter on a day they needed it most. Maybe you snuck in a little enlightenment and made them see things in a different manner than they had before. Maybe you represented ‘self’ to the reader who’d never before recognized themselves in a story. Don’t discount that. Most world changing events–for good or bad–happen in incremental steps over time.
  8. Everyone on social media seems to be doing so much better than me. Ugh. If you’re going to sit around comparing yourself to others on SM, just turn it off for a while. Keep in mind, SM is where people either tend to post about the best, the worst, or the most mundane in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I seldom feel envy at seeing pictures of what someone had for dinner–so let’s cross those out. That leaves the I won the lottery-went to the Bahamas-became a bestseller-lost thirty pounds without trying crowd vs the my life is SO bad you’ll never be able to top it crowd. Remember, those people going through stuff both good and bad are merely at different points on the path as you. You’re seeing a snapshot into their lives that doesn’t reflect anything else that might be going on. And the person with the new cover art/new release/award-winning story might be YOU next week, month, or year. Celebrate wins with your friends. Comfort if there are losses. But if you can’t stop comparing yourself, then walk away from SM for a while–put that time into writing the next story.
  9. My stories don’t matter. This is another version of ‘won’t change the world’ but on a smaller level. So I ask you, is it necessary for them to matter? There is nothing wrong with telling a story for the sheer entertainment value of telling a story. Don’t sell that short. It’s worth more than you think it is. 
  10. I’ll never be as good as so-and-so. This may well be true. On the other hand, I bet that author has someone they feel the same way about as well. Recently someone listed one of my couples among their top favorite pairing–along with my ALL TIME FAVORITE pairing in the same genre. No joke. I’d never been as flattered in my entire life. Never in a million years would I have put my characters on the same page–but someone else did. So maybe we aren’t the best judge of our work.

What it boils down to is this: words matter. The words we tell ourselves on a regular basis matter a lot. If we’ve spent a lifetime running ourselves down, we’re not going to change that soundtrack easily–the grooves have worn deep. But in order to change we MUST stop playing the old soundtrack. We must challenge lies whenever we hear them–be it from ourselves, our families, or people in positions of power over us. We must stop accepting negative feedback as being the only right message simply because it’s the message we believe.

I really struggle even saying things like, “that’s not so bad.” Believe me, I know how hard it is to reprogram your thinking. But I’m going to give myself a month of NOT running myself down. Of stopping the negative feedback loop whenever I hear it playing and countering the conditioning by telling myself positive things about myself that I believe every day. I think if I start with things that won’t make me snort coffee out of my nose, then I can progress to things I want to believe.

I challenge everyone reading this to do the same–and come back here in a month and let me know what changes you are seeing in your life. Let’s do this together.

 

Managing Time–and Guilt–as a Writer

I’ve definitely been struggling lately. Work stuff, home stuff, world stuff–it feels like it’s all piling on at once. Time management is definitely an issue. So is feeling guilty when I can’t do everything on my list. The guilt worsens when I see myself making the same mistakes over and over again. When I waste a day in terms of productivity because I’m so burned out I can’t muster the strength do anything–not even something I enjoy. Everything is a choice between things that must or should get done. If I take the dogs for a long hike, then I can’t go horseback riding. If I try to do both, I can kissing writing goodbye for the day. But the dogs need a daily walk and the horse must be ridden regularly or it’s not safe. Decisions, decisions.

Likewise, I’m feeling guilty right now because I won a terrific marketing package while participating in NaNoProMo this past May–a $300 value–as I won an all-access pass to a marketing group. But I’m already working with another service that I’m struggling to find the time to participate in. I know that videos are all the rage now, but I don’t have 45 minutes to absorb information I could process faster in a post. It’s a fantastic opportunity to gain valuable marketing tips that I’m freaking out over because I don’t have the time to participate.

So I can watch a marketing video or blow off steam watching a little TV. Giving up TV isn’t that big a deal–I rarely watch more than 3-4 hours a week as it is now. But watching a marketing video every day versus writing? It’s a no-brainer. The writing takes precedence. It is, after all, the reason why marketing is even necessary. I’m learning I need to have a bigger back list before I sink much more into marketing and advertising.

Marketing versus social media? Aren’t they the same? Not really. Social media is where you make connections, not the place where you constantly toot your own horn. When you have the connections, people naturally want to share your news about a book release or a sale. But too often social media becomes my way to ‘unwind’ after a stressful day at work. I can spend hours circling from one platform to another reading and commenting. Is it a waste of time? Yes and no. I’m probably making some connections. But when the husband and I are both sitting in a restaurant checking out social media instead of talking to each other–there’s a problem with this picture.

So I’ve narrowed it down: writing should be the priority when I have available time. Marketing is important, but I’m not going to allow myself to feel guilty about prioritizing writing the next story over doing coursework. It will still be waiting for me when I get to it. Maybe my route to success will be slower as a result, but I can’t make myself crazy over this. I refuse to feel guilty for not making the most of this opportunity.

But the real crux of the issue is when I choose writing over being with my family. Over walking the dogs. Over riding the horse. Because as important as the writing is, these other things are not only time-sensitive (in that time is passing at a rapid rate whether I like it or not) but they are what makes life worth living.

These past few years I’ve struggled with depression, but also a growing sense of disconnectedness with the things that are most important to me. I think in part this was a natural reaction to having had so much personal loss–I’m the kind of person who will emotionally cocoon in situations like that. But I was doing it before all that loss too. Again and again, I was choosing time at the keyboard over time with the living, breathing things in my life. And I don’t want to keep making those mistakes.

So what’s a writer with a serious time crunch to do? It might not work for you, but I give myself two hours. If I can’t write something productive in that time frame, I stop and do something different. I walk the dogs, or read a book, or watch a movie with the family. I don’t keep staring at the keyboard–only to take a ‘quick peek’ at what’s going on at Facebook or Twitter that turns into a two-hour time sink.

I’m de-listing. I’m dropping newsletters I never open, and all those diet/exercise/informational updates I never implement. I’m bowing out of groups and cutting back on all my online activity except those platforms I actually enjoy.

I spend less time on social media in general. I exercise. I meditate. I do what it takes to get my brain focused on the here and now and not worrying about what might happen at work, or with the family, or with my country, or the world. Finding that inner peace unlocks the writing mojo for me–suddenly gnarly plot problems unravel and I can see where the story should go next. I’ve developed an idea for a new series with a new set of characters and I’m more excited about this than anything since my fandom days. Yes. That excited!

The hard part it is carving out time to write when you have so many other demands on your time. And not feeling guilty about it when you do. But as Yoda would say, “Do it you must.” Carve out that two hours or ten minutes or whatever works best for you. Give that moment utterly and completely to writing 100%. But if you’re not making progress–quit. Today I read a great quote by Steven Hawking and it’s applicable to writers too: “It’s no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else.”

Yes. This.

I’m going to continue learning what it takes to bring my stories to the notice of the reading public. But not at the expense of the writing itself. And yes, I’m going to continue writing. But not to the exclusion of living. Because I’m already looking at the last ten years with regret as to how I spent my time. I don’t want to compound that problem further.

Because we only have so much time to spend with those we love. Take joy where you can find it. That’s what fills our wells of creativity.

 

 

Reclaiming Your Time as a Writer

Representative Maxine Waters has made the phrase ‘reclaiming my time’ a viral meme for her refusal to allow Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to squander her floor time with a meandering, meaningless response designed to avoid answering her question about Trump’s ties to Russia in the time allowed. For every woman who has been ignored during a meeting, spoken over, had their own work mansplained to them and endlessly interrupted, this cool invocation of House rules was a delight to behold.

But for writers, there are other time-sinks besides someone deliberately wasting your time. Many of these activities are actually good things, activities we’re encouraged to do. Networking, participating in Facebook groups, interacting on social media, marketing, etc–all things we’re told we must do and must do daily. All part of creating and promoting our brand.

I see friends doing cool hashtag things like #FirstLineFriday or #TeaserTuesday and I think, wow, I should be doing that. I participate in weekly Twitter conversations such as #RWChat  and #TipsyChat and I’ve met new people and been introduced to some new books as well. I’ve joined some busy, organized Facebook groups that cross-promote each other. I’m writing this post now for #MondayBlogs, something I try to do each week.

But frankly, I’m finding it hard to do anything else but keep up with these activities.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy doing most of these things. I get a lot out of participating in the chats or batting ideas around on Facebook. More than just putting myself out there and making my name recognizable–I’m making real connections. Sometimes brainstorming too. There are times putting my thoughts into words crystallize them for me and make my own goals easier for me to understand.

But frequently I find myself spending more and more time in these activities when I could be writing. Sometimes I choose to do the social media thing because it’s easier in a fatigued state to do something like catch up on social media duties than it is to write new material. But I suspect there is a more insidious reason I rotate from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and back again.

I think it’s an addiction.

Most of us have read articles stating sites such as Facebook and Instagram make us dissatisfied with our lives, or that Twitter is a source of outrage. We know that people tend to post about the biggest events in their lives, making our own lives seem paltry and boring in comparison. And yet we check our timelines obsessively, making our own posts, and hoping we’ll get likes and comments. We live for that hit, whether we realize it or not. In some ways, that worries me the most.

I check my social media first thing in the morning and last thing at night, even if doing so starts or ends my day unhappily. I check my feeds during every free moment–when I used to read a book or listen to the radio. I check it at night while sitting on the couch, catching up with my comments and sharing other people’s book releases. To the exclusion of doing anything else. Of paying attention to what’s on TV, or chatting with the family. From interacting with the pets, and yes, writing. I’ve been known to take social media breaks for my mental health before, but this is different. I think we all need to take a step back from our need to be connected, our need to post Instagram-worthy images, our inability to put our phones down.

I’ve been taking a lot of online classes and workshops. I’ve been reading books on marketing and promotion. I read a lot of articles on writing, branding, you name it. I’ve joined a LOT of groups. Due to the changing algorithms on Facebook, I’m thinking about starting my own group. But the truth is, I’m feeling the pressure to keep up.

And I’m starting to question my need to do so.

One of the things that has been pounded into me from classes and workshops is that a lot of what I’m doing now would be to greater purpose if I had a bigger backlist. I’ve been going at it with both barrels when I only have one book out. While making connections and interacting with readers is important, I’m rushing the gun. Most of advice boils down to this: your best advertisement, your best marketing ploy, is writing and releasing the next book.

And it is slowly dawning on me that everything I’m reading is aimed at the writer who hopes to Go Big. That, as far as I can tell, means being prolific on a scale I can’t match at this time.

So I’ve decided to reclaim my time.

I’m going to drop my participation in Facebook groups to the three I think the most useful–one genre group and two author support groups. I’m going to scale back on workshops and classes. No more money on ads or promotion for now. I’m also going to put the phone down. Take long walks. Photograph things for the joy of taking the image and not with an eye as to how it will look on Instagram. Appreciate my animals. Interact with friends and family.

And write. As I sit here watching the Olympics, I find myself comparing daily writing to the work these athletes put in toward reaching their goals. I’m never going to be an Olympic caliber author, so I’d better enjoy the process. I also want to be happy with the end product–even if it takes me a year between books. It’s okay to watch the Olympics, or spend time with your family, or do any of the other things you enjoy.

That means while all the things I’m learning are valuable, I don’t need to do everything all at once or right now. We talk about writing being a marathon vs a sprint–but that holds true for the rest of it too–the networking, the marketing, the branding–all of it. 

So reclaim your time as an author. Or an artist. A crafter. An actor. A singer. A photographer. Put the phone down. Your validation isn’t online. Remember the things that were important to you before social media consumed your life. Take pleasure in the act of creating. You don’t have to do it all every day. Don’t fall victim to the feeling you’re falling behind. The most important thing you can do is write the next story. The best story you know how to tell.

And if that takes you a month, great. If it takes you one, two, or seven years, that’s okay too.

Reclaim your time.

 

To Review or Not to Review: That is the Question

For some time now,  I’ve been torn about whether or not to leave book reviews.

If you’re familiar with the show The Good Place, you know the character Chidi, an ethics scholar who ties himself up in knots every time he has to make a decision about anything, including where to have dinner. I’m not that bad, but when it comes to this particular dilemma, I go back and forth on it.

It’s only since the explosion of social media, and the encouragement of such sites as Amazon and Goodreads that the average person has been able to leave reviews–it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to that, the only way to get reviews was from major literary magazines, and that sort of thing didn’t happen unless you were already a Big Name. Amazon has been one of the great equalizers when it comes to leaving reviews, and their algorithms have shifted the balance of power to the ‘little guy’ reviewer in mass numbers.

Before that, the only time I ‘left a review’ was when I enthusiastically pushed a favorite book onto friends. The only time I knew a favorite author had published a new story was by haunting the bookstores and libraries.

I’m glad I have ways of following favorite artists now, and can keep up with new releases as they occur. But I stumble over the review process.

There are a lot of reasons for this. I’m not in the habit of leaving reviews in general. I intensely dislike the way I now get hounded with automatic emails to leave a review every time I purchase a product or use a service. Come on, I don’t need to leave a review every time I go to the dentist, peeps! Leaving thoughtful, well-written reviews is time-consuming–something that I have in short supply. Then too, if I can’t leave a glowing review, I don’t want to leave anything at all. Partly because I was raised that way, and partly for fear of backlash. I’ve seen fans go after an author who left a less-than-stellar review for another writer’s work.

But then there’s the Big Brother aspect of leaving reviews as well. I know several people who’ve had their reviewing rights revoked at Amazon because of perceived improprieties. They are mostly bloggers and people on ARC lists, so they are getting a complimentary copy of the book in question. Amazon gets snitty about non-verified purchase reviews. Okay, I get that. But sometimes it is mandatory you state how you received the copy and sometimes the review gets pulled if you state you received a free copy. Even if you received that free copy as part of an Amazon-sponsored giveaway! The rules keep changing.

Amazon also doesn’t like authors leaving reviews for other authors, despite the fact almost every author I know is a reader too. They cite conflict of interest, and pull the review. The flip side of this is if you follow an author’s social media, Amazon might deem you a ‘friend’ of the author, and your review is also treated as suspect and pulled. It’s almost like Amazon doesn’t understand how social media works outside its own algorithms. 

Then there are the authors themselves. I’ve heard Big Name Authors state they never leave reviews, and other BNA point out the importance of reviews and ask fans leave one if they enjoyed a story. And face it, we all want reviews. It’s not just about Amazon’s algorithms, either. Getting that little bit of positive feedback is like crack to a writer. We naturally want more. But it can also encourage a writer who feels their current WIP is hopeless, or bring someone back to work on a project they thought no one was interested in. Feedback like this is vital.

Which brings me back to the eternal dilemma. I recently picked the brains of fellow authors as to what they do, and I found many people feel as conflicted about this as I do. Some have stopped leaving reviews, or only leave reviews if they can rate a story with five stars. (I really, really wish the ‘star’ system would go away and people would just leave written feedback. I know Amazon uses it to rank stories, but when people 1-star a story because they misread the blurb or the book was damaged in transit, it makes me want to pull out my hair. Ditto when people low-rate a story they’ve never even read because they don’t like the subject matter…)

Because of the restrictions Amazon places on reviews, many of the authors I spoke with who do leave reviews, do so under their real name on a separate account not connected with their pen names. I’m not sure that is distant enough to satisfy Amazon, but it does solve the ‘verified purchase’ issue for the most part.

Some authors said they didn’t leave reviews at the main sites but instead wrote them on their websites and boosted them on their social media. I like this idea but I’m not sure how much that helps the author in terms of visibility on Amazon.

Then again, perhaps it’s time we stopped letting the ‘Zon dictate everything.

 

My Grown Up Christmas List

Christmas Day is now only a week away. I have all my shopping done–most of it was competed weeks ago. We don’t go crazy at Christmas in our house anymore. We tend to get 1-2 gifts for each family member, gifts that don’t break the bank. We’ve scaled back on the food and festivities too. In part because our families are smaller now but also because no one seems to have the time, energy, or money to go whole hog for the holidays.

Back when I was single, I had to work hard to get into the Christmas spirit. Why decorate when there was only you to enjoy it? (Especially when you were the only one there to put them up and take them down). I baked cookies just to give them away. I watched hours of Christmas movies and specials because they helped me enjoy my most favorite of seasons, as well as feel a little less sorry for myself when work inevitably decided since I was single and without kids, I needed the least time off. For at least a decade, I worked every major holiday so others could have time off.

Now that I have my own family and get a little more time off, somehow it is harder than ever to find that Christmas joy. Especially since I’ve declared a moratorium on baking because I’m trying to lose some damn weight. Especially because this year has been personally tough on so many levels, I don’t even know where to begin. If I put everything that has happened to me and my family this year in a single story, readers would howl about how unrealistic it was. There is no reason to travel anymore. The kids have their own plans. It’s just us.

Last night, my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I didn’t remind him pointedly that Christmas is now only seven days away and anything he ordered was unlikely to arrive on time. Instead, I sort of panicked and said the first thing that came to mind.

Because I’ve been trying to get in better shape, I started wearing my Fitbit again, but it’s an older model, it only counts steps. What I’d really like is one that also functions as a watch. I’ve worn a watch most of my life. Yes I know they are considered passe, but I love watches, especially pretty ones. Also, fewer places have clocks on the walls anymore. I hate pulling out my phone to see what time it is, and new office policy is we must leave our phones in our cubicles during the workday–an effort to curb relentless internet surfing by some staff members, I’m sure. But that means when I wear my Fitbit, I never know what time it is anymore.

So, placed on the spot (because OMG, what can he get with only a week to go??), I said I’d like a Fitbit with a watch function. It’s true, I would like one. But I’ve been eyeing them for a while now and it’s hard to justify the price.

I woke up this morning wondering why I said what I did. Yes, I want to lose weight and get in better shape. Yes, I need to fix or replace my current watch and I can’t wear both a watch and a Fitbit, so my request makes some sense. But honestly, I’d rather have a watch of my choosing than a digital readout on an expensive piece of tech I don’t really need.

But that isn’t why I tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep for very long.

You want to know what my favorite Christmas song is? It’s Grown Up Christmas List by Amy Grant. It’s a beautiful song originally done by Natalie Cole, but the Amy Grant version is the one I heard first, so naturally, it’s the one that feels familiar and right to me.

When she gets to this part, and the melody soars, tears come to my eyes every time.

So here’s my lifelong wish
My grown up Christmas list
Not for myself but for a world in need
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list

The truth of the matter is I don’t want a Fibit with a watch function.

I have a more grown up Christmas List:

I want to stop losing loved ones for a while. Seriously. Between pets and relatives, I’m facing seven deaths in the family this year. Some were expected. All were devastating. But coming one upon the other as they have, I’m starting to go numb at the wrong times and inappropriately emotional at others.

I want to stop waking up in fear of checking the news. Threats of war, riots, out of control fires, destructive hurricanes, climate change, the threat of the next pandemic, rise of Nazism, the loss of net neutrality, a government determined to cut Medicare, social security, and strip health care from millions while filling the coffers of the rich. My mental health suggests just stop checking the news, but then I am part of the problem, the part that does nothing while our government slides into a totalitarian regime.

I want our government to stop sliding into a totalitarian regime. I want to believe that our checks and balances work, that not all our leaders are complicit in the current mess that passes for government at this time. I want to believe if our president decides to start a nuclear war because he’s cornered like a trapped rat, that someone will prevent him from doing so.

I want our regulations for clean air and water to stay in place. I don’t want companies to have more autonomy and greater rights than individual humans. I want to protect our public lands from destructive strip mining and sacred lands from pipelines. I want to not live in dread of a summer that starts sooner each year and lasts longer each time, reaching new heights on temperature charts. I want an open internet, where traffic to all sites is weighted evenly, and internet providers aren’t allowed to block sites or slow down sites owned by competitors. Where marginalized voices can have their say. Where artists and creators can all be visible, regardless if they are famous or working out of their garage.

I want all of us to be able to go to work, to school, to church, the movies, a concert, or any place where people might gather without fear of being mowed down by a single angry man armed with assault weapons that no citizen needs. That’s not crazy or unreasonable. I’m not saying eliminate all guns. I’m saying eliminate those weapons that belong in the hands of trained military personnel in a war zone. When the Bill of Rights was written, a trained military man could load and fire a musket thee, maybe four times within a minute. It had a range of 50 meters. It was not an accurate weapon–you pointed it at the general direction of the enemy and kept shooting until you got close enough to stab him with a bayonet. Also, when the 2nd amendment was written, there was no standing army and no grocery stores.

When Stephen Paddock opened fire on the concert crowd in Las Vegas from the 32nd floor of his hotel, he fired more than 1,100 rounds in ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring 546 over a distance of 550 meters. Repeat after me: these weapons are not the same. No private citizen should own one of these weapons. No one.

I want our news to stop treating politics like a sports game. Stop giving airtime to the white supremacists because it makes people click on your links. Stop biasing the news based on ratings and financial gain. Oh sure, I realize FOX News isn’t actually a news organization–it’s an entertainment site (check the fine print, you’ll see I’m right), and with the Sinclair corporation buying up TV stations and dictating what reporters have to say on air, this is a faint hope indeed. But hey, it’s my Christmas list. I can put anything on it I want.

Along those lines, I want to lose 20, maybe 25 (Okay, let’s be honest, 30–but that’s never going to happen) pounds this year. I want to get fit again. I want to be passionate about life again. I want to write my stories and love my family and find my bliss once more. Of all the things on my Christmas list, these are the only ones under my control. The only things I can get for myself.

And maybe, given the other stresses in my life, I need to look at overall balance. Maybe I need to spend less time online fretting about things I can’t control and more time writing. Less time marketing and more time writing. Less time writing and more time with the dogs and the family.

Christmas is a week away. There are rumors we’ll be in the midst of a Constitutional crisis by then. People talk of taking to the streets and others boast of how well-armed they are. If I’m having a little trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, forgive me. It kind of feels like our world is going into free-fall. I think our leaders have forgotten the meaning of Christmas. I think a good portion of the far-right would be astonished to discover they have eschewed the basics of Christianity itself and have become the Pharisees.

Maybe a Christmas movie and an afternoon baking cookies isn’t such a bad thing. I can always go for a run afterward.

I suspect I’m getting a Fitbit for Christmas. That’s okay. I know my husband is trying to help me cope with everything we’re going through right now, and like me grabbing onto something I can change, he’s grabbing onto a gift choice to help support that change. It won’t be a surprise. It might not be the most original or romantic gift. It doesn’t have to be those things because it is given with love.

You Don’t Have to Wear All The Hats: The Indie Author’s Secret to Staying Sane

I’ve worked with publishers and I’ve published on my own. One of the biggest differences between the two is how much work the publisher does on your behalf: cover art, editing, sending your book out to review sites and so on. There’s also the advantage of the built-in audience your publisher already has, the value of a larger group newsletter, as well as networking opportunities with other authors in the same publishing house. Sure, when you go indie, you retain more control over every little detail of your work. You get to set your production schedule, retain complete control over cover art, have the last word on editing, and get a bigger share of the royalties. But there’s a reason publishers take the lion’s share of sales earned. 

You have to wear a lot of hats to be an indie author.

There are some people who love this. They relish having all the control. But there are others who are overwhelmed with spinning all the plates at once: finding a good cover artist and editor. Scouring the review sites to find ones that will accept your story. Lining up beta readers and ARC readers. Designing eye-catching graphics and running Facebook groups. Scheduling posts across the board to all your social media sites. Holding giveaways and writing guest blog posts. All the while working on the next release because we all know the next story is your best advertisement.

Where does anyone find the time to do all of this? Especially if you haven’t a freaking clue how to set up a newsletter or your attempts at  website design or graphics look as though a second grader created them.

The good news is you don’t have to wear all the hats. (Do you like my image above? It was from a Peggy Carter cosplay photo session I did last month 🙂 ) You are allowed to delegate.

The bad news is you might have to pay for that delegation.

Here’s my take on where you can and cannot skimp.

  1. Pay for an outstanding cover. No, seriously, you can’t let your BFF with Photoshop make your book cover unless he or she is a graphic artist and is looking to expand their portfolio. For one thing, you can get in a lot of trouble if your cover artist isn’t using royalty-free images (or images they purchased) that have been licensed for cover art. But even more importantly, if your cover art looks like it’s been done by an amateur, if it doesn’t match genre expectations, then readers will give your story a hard pass. People DO judge a book by its cover. And a crappy cover will sink even the most amazing story. You have a nano-second to catch a reader’s eye and make them take a second look with your story. Don’t blow it with a crappy cover.
  2. Pay for quality editing. Yes, good editing is expensive. There’s a reason for that. An editor doesn’t just correct your grammar and punctuation, though that is important. A good editor tells you when you use repetitive phrases or actions. When your story has continuity errors or plot holes you could drive a truck through. When you are writing outside genre expectations. A good editor meets deadlines and does more than give your story a cursory read. It may take time to find an editor that’s a good match for you, but when you find him or her, cling to them for all they are worth because they are worth their weight in gold. Readers will notice crappy editing and comment on it in their reviews.
  3. Formatting: if you can’t figure it out, pay someone to do it. There are lots of people out there who offer formatting for all the major outlets for reasonable fees. Nothing pisses a reader off more than weird formatting on their e-readers. Yes, there’s software out there like Calibre that will put your book in the different formats, but if you want elegant formatting–pretty chapter headers or reliable reading across the different file formats–pay someone. If you have to cut costs (and believe me, I’ve been there) teach yourself how to do it.
  4. Graphics: Social Media Posts and Teasers. This is a tough one for me because there are some great options out there for creating your own, like Canva. However, I simply don’t have the time right now to learn how to make sophisticated graphics. I can make a serviceable image, but an elegant one? Not so much. If I have to chose between spending 3 hours messing around with Canva to produce an image that looks cheesy or write 3 K on the WIP, I’m going to choose the WIP every time. Eventually, my skills will improve. But in the meantime, I’ll pay someone to give me this:It doesn’t have to be expensive. Talk to your friends. You probably have friends who would love to make something like this for you without charging you an arm and a leg. Or again, find that graphic artist looking to expand their portfolio.
  5. Marketing: You have to do it. You can’t simply launch your book like Noah releasing a dove from the deck of the Ark, hoping it will eventually return with evidence of dry land. I wasn’t able to nail down exact numbers but read that in 2014, Amazon reported at least 5 K new releases each day. You might think that’s insane, but what’s really crazy is expecting your book to get singled out among the pack for notice if you make no effort to call it to anyone’s attention. I highly recommend Bad Red Head Media’s 30 Day Book Marketing Challenge. Get it. Read it. Do it. If you want to pay someone to promote your book you can, but this is one area if you’re willing to do the legwork yourself, it will pay off.
  6. Create a Book Bub account for yourself. If someone follows you, boom. They get notified every time you have a new release. Post that link on your website so people can find and follow it. Easy. Free.
  7. If you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, consider hiring someone to teach you the ropes at first. Yeah, you hear me say ‘hire someone’ a lot, and believe me, I know what it’s like not to have the funds to do that. But you only have a couple of options: Teach yourself or pay someone to do it for you or pay someone to teach you to do it yourself. I’m a big believer in hiring the right help to teach you how to do it for yourself.
  8. Don’t have the discretionary funds to pay for the right help? I get that. Then join groups/lists/sites where you can learn what you need to know for free. Consider offering your services to another newbie needing to learn the ropes. I like the ‘watch one, do one, teach one’ philosophy because I think (aside from being a cool thing to do) sharing what you’ve learned helps you retain those lessons. Face it, if you only ever set up a newsletter once every few years, you’re going to forget how to do it.
  9. Decide what’s really important to you and what works best. Don’t waste your time on things that frustrate or annoy you. If participating in every Facebook group or wasting hours on Tumblr is not your thing, don’t do it. You only have so much time and most of it should be spent working on the next story. Because even though it isn’t sexy or cool to say it, THE NEXT STORY IS YOUR BEST ADVERTISEMENT. Sure, there are lots of people out there willing to take your money to teach you how to make your next book a bestseller but if you aren’t writing and releasing on a regular basis, it’s all for naught. Readers are like stray cats: feed them and they will come. Stop feeding them, and they will drift off in search of food elsewhere.
  10. Check out the time-saving options for scheduling posts across various sites. Crosspost whenever you can. This post will automatically appear on my Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr pages. When I use Hootsuite to schedule a post, I can set it to post to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook simultaneously. Simplify your life whenever you can. But pick a schedule and post regularly. Your audience, like stray cats, will expect you at certain times once you establish your schedule. Don’t disappoint them.

One other thing I would add: be authentic. I confess, I struggle sometimes to balance the author side of me with the part that is enraged about world events or just wants to post pictures of my pets. Don’t work so hard at presenting your brand that you show your readers someone who doesn’t actually exist. Yeah, there’s a risk in revealing your real self. You might lose readers. But truthfully, your real self is revealed in every word you write. So what do you really have to lose?

Bottom line: if you have the time, energy, and skills to teach yourself what you need to know to be a successful indie author, go for it. But in those areas where you have doubts, where your skills are subpar, hire the right help until you can master those skills. There are some things I believe should always be left to the experts–cover art and editing being the biggies–but be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’ve been skimping on services because you can’t afford them, consider saving up to give your story the best launch possible before releasing it into the world. After all, you want that dove to bring back an olive branch.

My Me Too Story

It wasn’t my intention to go into details about my experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I’d seen the #MeToo hashtags on social media and shared them, in part because I believe there is value in victims realizing they are far from alone. I understood that many people who have experienced such negative situations might not be in a place where they felt like they could share, and I was okay with that too.

I also felt that though I’d been harassed and assaulted too many times to count, my experiences didn’t count on some level because I’d managed to avoid the ultimate assault: rape. So perhaps it was best that I simply shared the hashtag and otherwise remained silent on the subject. What did I know anyway?

But here’s the thing. The Harvey Weinstein revelations opened some real dialog, and had the potential to provide healing across a large scale. In the course of some of the fallout from these discussions, Twitter has promised to invoke stricter rules with the intent of protecting people from online harassment. We’ll see if they follow through, but at least it’s a step.

People from all walks of life shared the hashtag. Sometimes that was all they could share, and they typed those words with shaking hands. Sometimes seeing those words on someone else’s timeline led people to share more deeply, and in doing so, bring a measure of comfort to those who have suffered in silence so many years.

But then Mayim Bialik posted her opinion piece in the NYT. I have to say, as one of those, ‘Gosh, if you just obey the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to you’ opinion pieces, this is one of the worst. Because the whole thing reads like one long ‘n’yah, n’yah, n’yah’ to every woman who intentionally or otherwise made Ms.Bialik feel bad about her appearance while working in an industry where the roles are largely assigned based on appearance. Whereas the post pretends to be a ‘guide’ on how to avoid sexual assault by dressing modestly, not saying anything that could be misconstrued as flirting, and by all means, go get a degree in neuroscience because everyone knows brains aren’t sexy, the piece is really a giant FUCK YOU to beautiful women everywhere and the popular girls in high school.

Let me say for the record, I belong to neither of those groups.

I take exception to Ms. Bialik’s post on many levels. For one thing, sexual assault is not about sex. It is about POWER. It is about someone saying they own you and they have the right to do things to you without your consent, and the assaulter gets his (or her) jollies out of degrading you to the point you feel helpless to report them. It is a power trip. Your personal attractiveness has nothing to do with it. I would hazard a guess that the greater the disparity between power bases, the more pleasure the perpetrator takes in his or her actions.

The other thing that pisses me off about pieces like this is the implication that if you just followed the Good Girl Rules, then nothing bad will happen to you. The flipside of this implication is if something bad HAS happened to you, it must somehow be your fault for not obeying the rules. And crap like this shuts down any possible healing that might be taking place with the Me Too hashtag, as it turns into a finger-pointing game.

Case in point: me.

I’m going to leave out all the times I was catcalled and harassed on the street. Ditto the times I’ve been flashed, or the times old men have said lewd things to me in passing. I’m not even going to recount the time I was followed on the interstate for over 150 miles (I didn’t notice at first, but once I did, I couldn’t shake the guy until I pulled a dangerous stunt to exit the interstate at high speed as he was passing me) or the time I was run off the road at night by someone who’d been tailgating me with the high beams on. Fortunately, I had no hesitation about putting the car in reverse and backing up the interstate at 70 mph…  I’m not even going to include the letter I received from the father of one of my high school friends six months after his wife died, professing his long-standing desire to date me.

The main reason for not telling all these stories is they are simply too numerous to count, and honestly, after a certain point, it starts to feel like the normal cost of being female. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just stating a fact. I’d be hard pressed to name a woman who doesn’t have stories like these to tell.

But let’s look at the more serious infractions. I should point out that all of my high school year book pictures were so bad, I never bought any, nor did I buy any of the yearbooks themselves. In high school, I had mountains of frizzy hair, glasses with Coke-Bottle-thick lenses, and teeth only a gargoyle could love. I graduated early, and wound up in college at seventeen, wearing braces. Seriously, as unsexy as you could get, and by Ms. Bialik’s reasoning, should have been utterly safe.

Only I wasn’t.

My first experience with sexual assault came when I was flunking organic chemistry. I approached the TA for help; he recommended a tutor and gave me a name. At the very first session, my male tutor said the only place in his dorm with enough room for us both to look at the books at the same time was on his bed. I spent 40 minutes trying to get him to keep his hands to himself and refocus back on the material, but it was no use. I could have insisted on future meetings at the library or a study room, but I was too freaked out by the experience. I could have reported him, but I didn’t know to whom, and beside, who would believe me? They would take one look at me–gargoyle in glasses–and one look at him, your average clean-cut All-American rich boy–and said it was wishful thinking on my part. Or worse, an attempt to extort money or something. At the time, I bought into the myth that rape and assault were about sex. I must have done something wrong. So I did what most teenagers would do. I said nothing and dropped the class.

The next time I got assaulted, it was by a professor. I was in the lab working on my project by myself. It was 2 pm on a sunny afternoon in a building full of people. I was working at a point where the two counter tops came to a right angle, and standing with my back to the door when this professor entered the room, came up behind me, and pressed his erection into my backside. He pinned me in the corner without escape.

I stomped down on his instep while at the same time driving my elbow into his gut and shoving him backward. Then I turned in all innocence, blinking at him wide-eyed as he bent over double, and said, “Golly! You surprised me! You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

He never came near me again. I found out later he had a reputation for hitting on college girls, but again, I said nothing. I’d taken care of the problem and because he wasn’t my professor, he wasn’t in a position to give me a failing grade. I know now I should have reported him. At the very least, that report would have given ammunition to the next girl who filed a complaint.

The third time was more serious. I was trying to get into grad school and studying hard, no time for a social life. But I met a guy, and he was cute and made me laugh, so when he asked me out, I said yes. On our first date, we somehow never made it to the movie we’d intended to see, and spend most of the evening talking. He wanted to go out again that weekend, and we made tentative plans, but when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I had to finish a project and suggested we meet with my friends for dinner that night instead of going out that afternoon.

When he came over that evening, he took me aside privately and castigated me for ‘canceling our plans’, letting me know he didn’t appreciate that. I honestly couldn’t see what the fuss was about, as we were having dinner that very evening, nor did I appreciate his attitude, but what was I to do? Kick him out? Tell him he was being a jerk and I wasn’t going to put up with that? These days, that’s exactly what I would do. But of course, at the time, I didn’t. I was 21 and raised to be polite.

After dinner my friends wanted to go out, and we went as a group to hear a band play at one of the local bars. I was uneasy about my date, but felt safe because I had company. Then, while the guys got drinks, my roommate informed me that earlier in the day, she’d caught my date going through my car. When she questioned him as to what he was doing, he said he was looking for my schedule. This creeped me out, but again, I thought I was safe because I was surrounded by friends. Only later when I went to the restroom, I came back to find my friends had left without me–and I was alone with my date.

In retrospect, I was very close to being a dating statistic that evening. Probably the only reason I’m not is because I instinctively knew not to let him in the apartment–and because I did some pretty fast talking when he dropped me off. Even so, I shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him, and I never should have told him I didn’t think dating was a good idea on my doorstep. At the time, I was certain he was going to hit me. I realize now I was in far more danger than that. But I made myself the bad guy–it was me, not him, I was trying to get into grad school, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted, he needed a girl friend who could treat him with the respect he deserved. When he brought up the fact that people got married and went to grad school all the time, all the alarm bells went off, but I kept it cool. It had nothing to do with him being the Conductor on the Wackadoodle Train. It was all my fault.

He eventually left–and immediately sought out my friends, telling them he’d ‘lost’ me and begging to know what to do to get me back. My roommate, clueless as to what had happened (no cell phones in these days) suggested he write me a letter telling me how he felt. So he did. A letter so full of misspellings and poor grammar that I knew everything he’d told me about himself and his career was a lie.

And then the stalking began. I ended up cutting off all my hair and relinquishing my contacts for glasses again. I took an unlisted number. I got a big dog. I moved. Eventually, he no longer knew how to find me, and the harassment ended. Several years later, I ran into him in public and I swear, I saw murder in his eyes. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but you had to be there. He would have killed me if he could. I pretended not to recognize him, all the while my heart pounded hard enough to burst through my chest any second. Only when I saw the doubt cross his face as to who I was did I make my excuses and leave the party.

So when I say I Mayim Bialiked myself big time, it’s true. For years I went about in defensive coloration mode, and I’m telling you, it’s no protection. Years later, I was working at my new job in a new town, and stopped for groceries after work on the way home. I was in hurry, so I dashed across the parking lot into the store, grabbed a few things, and ran back out again. As I exited the store, a truck at the far end of the parking lot turned its headlights on. I thought nothing of it. It was on the other side of the parking lot. Probably someone headed home, just like me.

But by the time I’d opened my car door and tossed the groceries inside, the truck had pulled up in the parking space next to mine. As I closed my door and pressed the automatic locks, a man appeared at my driver’s side window. And the look on his face was that of a predator that had missed its kill. I’ve never been so unnerved in my entire life.

Again, before cell phones. And I wasn’t sticking around to confront the guy. I peeled out of the parking lot as though pursued by the hounds of hell. No, I didn’t report it. What would I have said? Some middle-aged white man with dark hair pulled up beside me in the parking lot. Big whoop. Or if I’d been taken seriously, the police may have watched the lot for a few days, but that’s all.

With ALL of these incidents listed here, my dress was the same, my standard uniform: jeans, T-shirt, and hiking boots. It’s how I dress 97% of the time. Tell me how that is being provocative or flirtatious.

So yeah, when I read Mayim Bialik’s opinion piece, it pissed me off. I said as much on the Twitter feed of someone with a LOT more followers than me, and someone else jumped in to MANSPLAIN my reaction, saying I shouldn’t twist Ms. Bialilk’s words. Um, go read the post yourself. No twisting necessary.

This mansplainer did have some good points in the cascade of Tweets he sent in response to me. He (and I assume male because his Twitter account was in a male name) stated (and I paraphrase here) that seat belts don’t guarantee you will survive a car crash, but to ignore the advice to wear seat belts is foolish and dangerous. That though the drunk driver is still the cause of the accident, don’t negate the importance of seat belts in improving survivability. That because seat belts don’t convey 100% safety, I shouldn’t act as though being ‘safer’ isn’t a valid reason to use them.

Now this is the point at which I stopped responding to the guy. A) He had his own axe to grind and I wasn’t going to let it be at my expense. B) He wasn’t listening to me when I said I that every decision I made was with my personal safety in mind and that I only took exception to people who implied the lack of ‘seat belts’ must have factored into someone’s victimization.

As neat as this little seat belt analogy is, it still points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be asking, “Was she wearing a seat belt?”

We should be asking, “Why was he driving drunk?”

Discouraged as a Writer: You’re Not Alone

Yesterday, someone posted in one of my Facebook groups a comment I’m seeing more and more lately: a statement of how discouraged they are as a writer.

Truth be told, I understand that all too well. Recently, I decided to leave my previous genre and pen name to start over again. I knew it would be tough, starting over from scratch, but I seriously underestimated how hard to would be to gain traction in today’s market, despite all the lessons I’ve learned about marketing, networking, and how to use social media effectively.

So this post could be a long wail about how tough the industry is, and how hard it is to get noticed when 4500 new books are published on Amazon every day.

But it’s not.

Instead, I’m reminded of the horse-mad girl I used to be, and how I would do anything to ride horses–bike five miles a day to the barn to muck stalls, just to be allowed to ride the school ponies. Volunteer to get on the ‘crazy’ horses, to find out how bad they were before letting students on them. Save my pennies for riding lessons when friends were taking ballet or learning to play the piano.

Once, I’d bargained hard for a riding lesson with a new instructor, only to fall ill on the day of the lesson. I begged to be allowed to reschedule, but the instructor said no. Instead, I attempted to follow her coaching while sick as a dog, barely able to sit upright in the saddle. At the end of the lesson, she told me I had no business being on a horse and I should never bother getting on a horse again.

At the time, I was crushed. Mortified, it was a year before I got up the nerve to approach someone about riding lessons again.

But I did it because I loved horses so much, I couldn’t imagine not riding.

The same holds true for writing.

Several years ago, I was warming up my horse for a dressage clinic when one of the women in the class asked, “Does he always just go on the bit like that?” Her tone was clearly one of admiring envy.

I had to laugh. ‘Going on the bit’ requires the horse to round his back and be compliant to the rider’s hands, the impulsion of movement coming from the hind end. It is a measure of the communication between horse and rider, and in certain disciplines, it is highly prized. It is impossible to do if the horse has his head flung up high and his back hollowed out.

I’d bought my horse as a three-year-old from a slaughterhouse, at meat prices. He was the last horse anyone would expect to become a dressage champion. When I first began appearing at the local shows, people shook their heads and wondered what I was doing there. Over a period of nearly a decade (and many hours of diligent training), we went from being the horse and rider that made people snicker to the team that came home with the ribbons.

The woman at the riding clinic was stunned when I told her of my horse’s background and how much work it had taken to make coming on the bit look natural for him. In the world of competitive riding, most people buy the right horse for the job. The right horse, the right saddle, the right boots, the best equipment money can buy: these can make a huge difference in where you place in the show ring. It doesn’t eliminate the need for disciplined training, but your starting point on the podium is higher simply by virtue of having an athletic horse, and a saddle that prevents you from making a wrong move. That being said, I’ve seen sheer hard work and determination overcome genetics and natural ability. I competed with my meat-market nag because he was the only horse I had, and the hours I put in riding him were a labor of love. Winning ribbons wasn’t the goal. The horse shows just gave me a structure for the time we spent together.

So I have to laugh when people ask me if I’ve always been a writer, in that same sort of wondering, envious tone. As though having a natural gift for something is more valuable than working your butt off to achieve the same results. The truth is, I wrote passionately as a child, only to give it up entirely as a teenager because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a ‘real’ writer. I thought it was time to put away childish dreams and get on with the business of making a career for myself. I wasn’t a natural.

It wasn’t until I discovered online fanfiction archives as an adult that I rediscovered my love for writing. My creative self, having been ruthlessly starved and repressed for several decades, woke with a vengeance. I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding my favorite show, and then tentatively, I began writing my own stories. Not because I thought I was any good. Not because I ever thought I’d be any good. Because I loved the characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them. Because I felt compelled to tell stories about them and share them with like-minded souls. While I was active in fandom, I wrote over a million words of fanfic. The enthusiastic support of friends gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction, and eventually go on to submit my stories for publication. Making the transition to original fiction was tougher than I’d imagined, but in the end it was no different from moving up a level in dressage: everything that was once seemed effortless becomes hard work as you increase the challenge and have to master a whole new skill set.

Being a natural is over-rated. It tends to teach poor work habits because everything is easy for you at first, and then when it gets harder, as it always does, you get discouraged and frustrated because you’ve never learned how to put in the hours to reach a specific goal. If you want to get better at anything, you have to put your hours in: under saddle, swimming laps, on the dance floor, at the keyboard. You ‘train’ when you don’t feel like it, when it’s raining, when you’ve had a bad day.

One of my favorite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

They are words to live by—but especially if you’re a writer. You don’t wait until the muse strikes you. You don’t let reviews sink your confidence. You don’t compare yourself to others. You write, pure and simple. Every day, without fail. You hone your skills by practicing. Your creativity is a muscle you exercise. The more you write, the stronger you get. The better your sentences become. Sure, you can sigh and wish you had more talent, but in the end, it is the person who puts the words to paper who is the winner. It is the person who persists who achieves their dream. That person can be you.

Had I been older and more confident, I would have told that instructor if she’d been any kind of decent trainer, she could teach even someone like me. That’s what you need to do when someone tells you that you can never achieve “X”. Decide then and there who you intend to listen to, and keep plugging away. Am I an Olympic level horsewoman? Of course not. But there will ALWAYS be someone who is a better writer than you are at this stage of the game–and someone who is worse.

Keep at your craft. Practice. Take classes. Work with critique groups. If multiple people say the exact same thing is a weakness in your story, they’re probably right. Listen to them. In the end, however, it’s your story, your voice, your vision. No one else can tell your story the same way you can.

Are other people going to be more successful than you are? Hell, yes. But if you are comparing yourself to some Big Name Author who’s been writing for the last 15 years, you’ve done the equivalent of putting your nag in an upper level dressage test when you haven’t done the training for it. 

And once the level at which you’re competing becomes too easy, you’ll find yourself raising the bar. Just remember, every time you do, it will feel as though you’re starting over again. You’re not. You are at a specific point in the path. Everyone else is either ahead of you or behind you–but it’s still the same path.

So take heart. It just means you’re a writer, that’s all.