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.

Dear Nietzsche: I’m Strong Enough Now, Thanks

I’d originally intended to title this post: Nietzsche Can Bite Me. It would have been catchy and clever, no? It also would have clearly stated how I feel at the moment. Nietzsche, of course, is known for the statement “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

I thought that title, paired with this image, would perfectly highlight what I was about to say.

So I Googled Nietzsche to get the exact wording of the quote, only to discover he began suffering from health issues that forced his early retirement, and at the age of 44, suffered an acute collapse that destroyed his mental abilities. He lived in the care of relatives the rest of his life.

Oh dear.

I think Karma was being a serious bitch there.

So I re-titled my post, though my basic feelings haven’t changed. I’d very much like it if the universe could lay off me for a while. But that’s not how it works, is it?

2017 has been an incredibly difficult year for me. I’m not going to bore you with the tally of losses, but suffice to say if I put them all in one story, no one would believe it. It’s the equivalent of living inside a country music song, the kind where the singer prefers the ‘bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’. Imagine if you will, a heroine who, while trying to outrun a tornado on her way home from her daddy’s funeral, flipped the car, killing a child/spouse/pet. And then she staggered home, bloodied and grief-stricken, only to discover a foreclosure notice on the front door and a wildfire raging toward the house from the back forty. While she is trying to put the fire out, she gets a text message that she’s been laid off and her health insurance has been canceled. And then the doctor’s office calls to tell her she has cancer.

Okay, things aren’t that dire for me here, but it has been bang-bang-bang, one loss after another with more on the way and scarcely any time to recover my breath. And certainly no time to grieve. ‘Take all the time you need’ in reality means ‘you can take Friday afternoon off before the funeral if you must.’ The demands of work are such that even if you do take time off, you end up paying for it before and after your return in terms of additional work.

I tend to be a ‘put it on the back burner’ kind of person. I’m the sort of person of whom people say, ‘She’s really managing quite well, all things considering.’ I don’t cry at funerals or family gatherings. I’m the one who organizes and sees that the appropriate things get done. I’m good at my job and I work hard at it. I walk out of a funeral and right back into the office.

But the stress fractures are starting to show. I’ve become a real weenie when it comes to my entertainment, avoiding anything that might be too sad or violent. Recently, the unexpected turn of events in La-La-Land left me unsuccessfully trying to smother sobs on the couch so no one else would notice–something that wouldn’t have affected me six months ago. I’m losing my temper over things that normally wouldn’t bother me–or at least, not openly. Health issues that had been dormant are becoming active again.

The thing is, even for those of us who set aside grief to be dealt with at some future date, that date always arrives. My problem is I haven’t allowed myself to deal with the first loss before the others began piling up. Now I’m walking on a thin crust of barely cooled lava, hoping it will support my weight as I go about my day, trusting that no one will notice the ominous glow shining through the cracks, the sulfurous odor, or the smoke coming off my shoes.

We’re not a very forgiving society when it comes to grief. Hell, we’re not a forgiving society when it comes to anything at the moment, if the current state of affairs in the US is any indication. Stiff upper lip, and all that. It was the way I was raised and I know no other way of behaving, to be honest. But I strongly suspect this time, this year, it’s not going to be enough.

I’ve been collecting–but not reading–links to articles on grief. I intend to read them. You know, when I get the time. Today, I did click on one–an article about a letter of consolation Seneca wrote to his mother.

One passage in particular struck me: It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.

It occurs to me that I’m not going to get the kind of time I need to process all my grief right now. Not in one block of time. I certainly won’t be able to package all grieving into a specific time frame, after which I will declare myself done and move on. But if I don’t do something, it will lie beneath the surface like a festering wound, unable to heal and with the potential of becoming truly toxic with time.

The only solutions I can see at the moment are to take little mini-breaks. To say no to things I don’t want to do. Stop filling up every free minute with commitments and promises. Turn off social media. Play more music. Walk outside barefoot. Appreciate what I have, let go of what I’ve lost, and fight for what I want in the future. Honor grief by being quiet enough to listen to it.

But Nietzsche can still bite me.

 

June Recommended Links on Writing

Hah. I need to find a better image for these ‘links’ posts! This is the first of what I hope to be monthly posts where I share useful links to posts on writing, marketing, and any aspect of the business I found useful.

Starting right off the bat, the first article I wanted to share dealt with impostor syndrome. It was written from the viewpoint of a photographer, but everything the author said applied to writing as well. Unfortunately, the link I’d saved no longer works, but I found another one: 5 Tips for When You Feel Inadequate.

If you’re not already following Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com, you should be. He has one of the best blogs out there on writing. This post is a gem: Wrestling with Writer’s Block by Maurice Broaddus.

Thinking about creating an audiobook? This post by Isobel Starling walks you through the process on ACX: Indie Authors: Using ACX to Find a Narrator.

One of the terrific things about indie publishing is the ability to make your own rules. Kristen Ashley shares her success story here: The Secret to This Romance Author’s Success? Breaking All the Rules.

Jane Friedman is another author who posts excellent advice on writing. This one here about How to Spot Toxic Feedback is something we all should read and understand.

The Write Practice also had some words to say on How to Give and Take Better Writing Feedback.

I have a confession to make here: despite the fact I’m a romance writer, I sometimes struggle to write kissing scenes! Face it, when you write a lot of such scenes, you have to find new ways of keeping it fresh! Ride the Pen has a nice little post here about How to Write a Kissing Scene.

Molly Wetta posts about the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which is a handy reference guide, as I write both! Urban Fantasy for Paranormal Romance Readers.

Kristen Lamb is another writer with a fantastic blog on writing, marketing, and social media. I’ve said before, I don’t always agree with everything she says, and this post is an example. Her post: Shame, Shame, We Know Your Name. Or Do We? Shame and Fiction had some interesting things to say about shame as a driving force in all great stories. I quibbled a bit with the argument that all great literature had shame as a central impetus for character behavior, but I was hard-pressed to think of stories that did not… 

And last but not least, Lit Hub posted an essay constructed out of quotes from Jamaica Kincaid on How to Love and How to Write. I wasn’t familiar with the author when I read the post, but I found the quotes to be pithy, amusing, and thought-provoking.

I wish I had time to read all the posts I bookmark for future reference! Ah, some day. In the meantime, I’ll share the ones that resonated with me. And I’ll keep searching for a better link image!!