Paring it Down To Get it Done: How Much Writing Advice Do You Need?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The other day I opened my inbox and nearly had a heart attack.

I had over 600 unread emails.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been doing my best to keep up. I answer the important emails right away, but if there’s something I want to read later, I tend to skim the post and then mark it as unread so I can find it easily in the future.

I have six email accounts. At least five of them have over 500 unread emails sitting in the inbox now. (I know, six is ridiculous, but I have accounts for pen names, fandom names, work, personal, and the LLC…)

And my inbox is full. Emails on marketing. Publishing. Unread author newsletters. Notifications of posts on favorite blogs. Craft emails. Posts about advertising as an author. Emails from lists and organizations I participate in. I have a terrible habit of signing up for workshops and online courses I never finish taking, so my inbox is also filled with posts on coursework I plan to check out someday.

Only some day never arrives. I always have something else I need to do that’s more pressing, and before I know it, when I do have a spare moment, the sight of all those unread emails makes me shudder and close out the browser. I’ve been trying to take an unf*ck your habitat approach to this problem by reviewing as much material as I can in twenty minutes, and then walking away–a method recommended when the problem before you is so daunting you don’t know where to start–but unfortunately, so much material these days comes in a video format, which makes sticking to the 20 minute rule tough.

So this weekend, I took a Marie Kondo approach instead: if it doesn’t bring me joy, the email got deleted.

If the email has been sitting unread in my inbox for over six months, it got deleted. If I haven’t opened at least one newsletter in six months, I unsubscribed from the mailing list. Same for coursework I couldn’t connect with or didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Also, I don’t need ten different courses on “how to make it big as an indie author”.

Do I worry I might be missing out on that one tiny nugget of information that will transform all my writing dreams into a reality where I can quit the day job and write FT? Of course. But how is unread, unfinished coursework any different from deleted coursework? Narrator voice: it isn’t.

What did I decide to keep?

I’m keeping my membership in the Author Transformation Alliance. This community has been a valuable resource, not only with master classes on everything from making book trailers to beating impostor syndrome to building your social media followings (and everything in between) but it has been a font of support and interconnected services as  well. Need input on graphics or a blurb? Help with formatting? Help finding an editor? The ATA is there for me. Not to mention, they do a kick-ass Writer’s Retreat each year. This year the pandemic hit just a few weeks before the conference began, and they seamlessly switched to a virtual experience that was amazing. I highly recommend joining when enrollment is open again.

I’m keeping my Author’s Planner by Audrey Hughey. I’ll be honest, I’m much more a panster than a planner, but if you want to treat your writing like a business, this is the planner for you. It’s like having a coach, an accountant, a personal assistant, an accountability partner, and a motivational speaker all at your fingertips. Well worth it.

I’m keeping my coursework with Mark Dawson and the Self Publishing Formula. Okay, I already paid for the coursework, but the videos are bite-sized and come with written transcripts. I’ve run into a few issues where the presentation assumes a greater background knowledge than I have, but by far and large, these courses have been worth the investment for me in that I’m actually completing the coursework and I can do it on my own time. It still remains to be seen as to whether his methods will work for me or not, however.

I’m keeping my copy of the 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson. I’ve participated in BadRedhead Media‘s NaNoProMo held each May for the last two years, and it’s full of terrific tips, as well as opportunities to learn from the industry’s best and a chance to win valuable prizes from these professionals.

I’m also keeping Jami Albright’s Launch Plan. Okay, I haven’t dipped into this yet, and I’m already behind the 8-ball because I’m expecting to release a book later this summer and I should have ALREADY STARTED MARKETING IT BY NOW, but there you are. I think it will be useful in mapping out my plans for future releases, and hey! I have this handy planner to keep track of things!

I’m also keeping some of the craft-related emails/coursework I signed up to take. The rest is going in the trash bin, even if I paid money for the course work. If I haven’t taken advantage of the training offered by now, I’m not going to. It’s like keeping work-related articles I save but never read. After a few years, how relevant are they? Or all those exercise DVDs and programs you buy because you’re sure THIS one will be the magic bullet that helps you effortlessly shed those unwanted pounds.

Like any diet or exercise plan, you have to choose the one you think you can do (and won’t hurt you), and stick with it. Like the blank planner, you have to pick up a pen and start somewhere. By paring down my choices, I’m more likely to finish a program.

And I’ll start using my planner to block out a reasonable chunk of time each week to process this information. I’ll chip away at it a little at a time, while vowing not to add to the pile as it stands.

Now if I could just do the same for my TBR stack.

Nah, let’s not get carried away here…

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

 

 

McKenna Dean: Goat Hunter

Yes, you read that right. McKenna Dean, author of paranormal romance, is a goat hunter. Goat. Not ghost.

And not in the way you might think. I’m not out with a rifle tracking down goats to shoot them. I am stalking them, however.

With a camera.

See, earlier this year, I began walking the dogs in the evenings again. Soon it will be too hot, but we’ve had a long cool spring, and after struggling with plantar fasciitis for over a year, it was good to get back in the habit of daily walks. Our route takes us past some fields where people keep livestock, and I’ve become interested in their inhabitants, as one does.

The goats have proven to be the most entertaining. There used to be a television program in the 70’s called Hee Haw that featured country music and cone pone humor. Given endless life in syndication, it was the sort of show most people knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. I was never a fan (my tastes leaning more toward Saturday Night Live, even as a child), I occasionally watched an episode with my grandparents. One skit comes to mind: a school teacher presents a math problem to a student (let’s call him “Abner”) concerning goats:

Teacher: Abner, you have 20 goats in a field and 2 get out. How many goats are left in the field?

Abner: Zero.

Teacher: Abner! I said you have 20 goats and 2 got out. 20 minus 2 is 18, not zero!

Abner: Ma’am, if two goats got out, they all done got out.

While I’m not a fan of wince-inducing humor, this particular kernel (get it, I made a corny pun) has a lot of truth to it. Goats get out of any field you put them in.

So on any given afternoon, I might turn the corner on my path to find goats everywhere. Tall Nubians with their floppy ears. Stubby little Pygmies and sturdy little Alpines. Goats with spots, goats with horns, goats without horns. Goats with beards, goats with blue eyes, goats with attitude.

It takes you back a bit when confronted with a herd of goats, some of them shaking their horns at you and your dogs. The lovely thing about herd animals, however, is their sense of flight distance. This is the zone you enter that will trigger the herd to collectively move away from you. If you come into slowly and quietly, without taking a threatening posture, you can pressure the herd to gradually move in the direction you wish.

So after attempting without success to locate the owners of the field and tell them their goats were getting out, whenever I’d come across the loose goats, the dogs and I would carefully approach the herd until they zipped back through the opening in the fence they were squeezing through. There was always one holdout: a big horned goat that would give us the stink eye while all his or her buddies ran back to the safety of their field.

It made for an interesting interlude in our evenings walks, that’s for sure. Then one day last week, I noticed a new addition to the field! OMG, a BABY GOAT. Yes, I know they are called kids, but c’mon, it’s like saying Baby Yoda even when you know it’s not really Yoda (or is it?)

As you can see, this is a crappy pic taken with my cell phone on zoom because it was the closest I could get with the dogs. But I decided I’d come back the next day without the dogs and with my Real Camera to take a decent pic.

That’s when the stalking began.

Because the next day, there was no baby goat to be seen. Mama was there, walking about the field, bleating in the most pathetic way, but no Baby Goat. I have to say, this upset me more than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic that I’m so emotionally sensitive right now. I’m an empath, and the degree to which the world is hurting is hard to bear many days. I couldn’t believe how invested I’d become in these goats and how the absence of one little newborn could hurt so much. I thought it possible the goats had left the field again (though I hadn’t seen any recent evidence of that) and perhaps the baby had gotten lost. Or maybe it had just been too cold for it (we’ve had frost the past couple of nights). Or maybe the mother didn’t have enough milk. Unfortunately, because of the thicket that surrounds most of the field, I could only scan so much for the missing baby.

But I was determined to keep looking.

The next day was cold and rainy. No sign of the baby. In fact, most of the goats were huddled a distance away from the fence line. That wasn’t good. I realized the kid probably didn’t make it. Depressed, I continued my walk.

The day after that was sunny and breezy. The dogs frisked along in front of me as we approached the field. I gave the goats a passing glance, when what did I see? THE BABY GOAT! Only as before, I only had my cell phone, and the excited dogs made Mama goat lead the baby further away from the fence. Fine. I’d be back in the morning with the Real Camera.

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is I’ve been forced to slow down. I can’t rush here and there like I used to. I have to give some thought about when and how to go to the store. I spend the evenings at home alone with the animals. Days off are spent at home as well, and I’m doing more reading, more cleaning, more baking. This forced–I don’t want to use the word inactivity because I’m not sitting around doing nothing–it’s more of quietness that has had a chance to flourish–anyway, this forced quietness has resulted in a willingness to be patient, to allow things to come to fruition in their own time.

It’s been good for my writing. After months of barely scribbling a word, I’m okay with letting the story simmer on the back burner for a bit if it needs to. When I do write, it’s with the knowledge that what I’m committing to paper isn’t forced, but has come into its growth on its own. My crit group has noticed, commenting that what I’m turning out now is more complete on the first draft and needs less polishing. I think it’s because I’m no longer spinning my wheels in an endless effort to get out of the muddy pit I’ve been mired in for so long. I know where I want to go with this story now and I’m okay with how long it takes to get there.

And this quietness has taught me patience in other areas as well.

So when last Sunday, I took my camera and went up to the field to try to capture an image of the baby goat with a high quality camera, I was able to sit on the hood of my car soaking in the sunshine and listening to the birdsong while I scanned the field, camera in hand, waiting for a baby goat sighting. I didn’t feel as though I had to be somewhere else. It was just me, the brisk morning breeze, the trilling calls of the redwing blackbirds, and the milling about of goats in the field. I never saw the baby goat that morning, but I did identify the daddy. And a handsome fellow he is, too.

I must have sat for over thirty minutes hoping to spot the baby, to no avail. And yet it did not feel at all like wasted time. Now that I knew the baby was still alive, it was just a matter of time before I photographed it. I kept looking for it on dog walks, but I also randomly drove out to the field at different times of day to see if I could get a picture. I began to get a feel for the goats’ pattern of movement now. How they hugged the far fence line in the heat of the day, where the thicket provided shade. How they slept piled around the large bale of hay in the mornings, enjoying the warm sunshine. How they’d flock to the gate when I pulled up in my car (as opposed to when I came on foot with the dogs), indicating they were used to being fed by someone in a vehicle.

Yesterday, I woke to a porch slick with frost and the occasional flake of snow coming down! In May! The afternoon was brisk and chilly, so I decided to take the dogs out while it was still sunny and reasonably pleasant. And what did I see when I reached the field? Not only the baby goat I’d been seeking, sleeping beside Mama in the sun, but MORE BABY GOATS!

Four new ones, to be exact. I don’t know why this surprised me, after all, I knew there was a billy in the group and that he’d bred at least one doe. So yeah, more kids were kind of to be expected. But I felt as though I’d won the jackpot. Because now there were FIVE baby goats to stalk, er… photograph. I finished my dog walk and returned with the Real Camera.

The goats were still pretty far away, but I got some decent pictures…

Are they not adorable or what? You can see they take after their daddy.

The mamas seemed pretty chill about who nursed whom as well. These babies seemed to belong to this doe…

But then they turned around to nurse on this one as well! Yay for the village to raise some baby goats!

And in case you’re wondering, I did get a photo of the original baby goat–now astonishingly bigger than the newborns, with just one week between them!

I don’t know why goat-watching has brought me such joy this spring. Perhaps because it’s brought me uncomplicated peace. Perhaps because emerald-green grass and sunlight fields were made for baby goats to skip across while golden melodies pour out of nearby songbirds and a breeze ruffles my hair.

This spring will forever be the spring of the 2020 pandemic. But for me, it will also be the spring of the baby goats. I hope you can find peace and joy in your lives right now. Be safe. Be well.

 

 

 

The New Normal in Pandemic Times: Are You Still Writing?

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time finding my balance these days.

As an essential worker, I spend most days dealing with the usual difficulties of a demanding job while at the same time, I’m in a constant state of vigilance regarding the coronavirus and whether I am doing everything possible to limit my exposure. That means wearing a mask for ten plus hours day, washing my hands after touching anything in a public space and before I touch anything else. Using my sleeves, shirttails, and elbows to open doors, turn off faucets, punch in keycodes. Wearing long sleeves specifically for this purpose, despite the fact external temperatures are beginning to soar. Disinfecting my hands to the point the skin is glassy and taut from the chemicals, and worrying about how I will manage one month, two months, three months from now if hand sanitizer and wipes are no longer available. Recognizing what a privilege it is to have access to soap and water.

Just prior to the stay-at-home orders, I’d begun watching Monk on Amazon Prime. As the pandemic spread, I went from enjoying the quirky show to being annoyed with it in rapid order, to finally accept that I had to be Monk in my daily routine now, with the exception of compulsively touching things. As a matter of fact, this pandemic broke me of a weird habit of my own: the need to place shopping carts in the correct order at grocery stores. Prior to the pandemic, I used to re-order the carts when I put my own up: putting the small carts on one side and the large on the other. It started out as the result of mild annoyance at certain shoppers who couldn’t be bothered to put the carts away properly, and morphed into a desire to make things easier for the kids who had to come out and collect the carts to bring them back into the store. But all that changed with the advent of COVID-19. Now I walk past disordered carts with scarcely a flinch. I’m not touching anything someone else has handled if I don’t have to.

This post started to be about the pros and cons of various masks I’ve tested. As someone who is a non-medical essential, I’ve tried a LOT of different masks. This morning I spent a hour taking selfies of me in various masks, and then another hour playing with filters to give myself different hair and eye colors. I can tell you that flimsy cotton fabric masks without filters probably aren’t doing you much good, but thick fabric masks with filters make it difficult to speak while wearing them because you can’t move enough air and they muffle your voice. And while N95 masks are probably the best thing to wear when you MUST go out in public (mine is one left over from when I was cleaning a mouse-infested garage last year), they suck down to your face like a facehugger from Alien, and though it doesn’t hamper speaking, within minutes of putting one on, I feel as though I’m standing outside in the middle of July in the deep South, where the air is warm and thick and hard to breathe. And this is from someone working in a temperature-controlled environment. Also, even the best fitted mask will fog your glasses at times, but a piece of tape on the top of the mask over the bridge of your nose can help with that. Like I said, originally I’d intended to write about masks, but I realized the selfies and the photoshopping are symptomatic of my pandemic brain right now. It’s easier to make bread, or watch TV, or take photographs (and play around with filters), than to do almost anything I used to do.

One thing I’m not doing much of is writing.

I know many of my fellow authors who say the same. They are finding comfort in other creative activities but not writing. Coloring in books, doing puzzles, decoupaging old bottles, felting, planting a garden. They speak of writing as something that may never come back for them, but I suspect, like me, they will circle back when the time is right. A recent conversation in an indie author Facebook forum seemed to indicate most people are falling into two distinct camps: those that are able to take advantage of the stay-at-home orders to write more and those finding it impossible to muster the energy to do the same, regardless of the demands of their day jobs. Would I be writing more if I could stay-at-home? I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect I’d need at least two weeks to recalibrate my brain and rediscover my balance before I could sit down to write. To get used to the new normal.

It’s not just writing that is affecting me like this. I normally read 2-3 books a week. These days I DNF more books than I finish. It finally dawned on me it’s not the fault of the book itself–I’m just having a hard time concentrating that hard on anything. I’m avoiding my usual comfort reads. Contemporary romances make me want to smack the MCs when they can’t seem to overcome the slight obstacles to their love. Cozy mysteries make me snarl when the amateur detective can leave her own business for hours on end to go sleuthing and yet conveniently fails to share any information gleaned with the police. Science fiction, a lifelong love, has been thrust aside as being too potentially painful. I can watch an old TV show (one that I’m not that emotionally invested in) but I suspect if new episodes of The Mandalorian aired today, I’d have a hard time watching. I stopped watching Picard because I couldn’t bear to be hurt by my entertainment right now and I felt the risk of that show wounding me was high.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my inability to focus right now. There was a recent opinion post in the New York Times about this titled: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving. Makes sense to me. It’s a good post. You should read it. It makes me understand that even if I could stay home, I probably wouldn’t crank out forty-one novels.

Lack of focus means hour long television shows also easier for me to commit to than a movie. I paid the hefty fee to stream the new Emma and despite the apparent delight of my fellow Jane Austen fans out there for this version, I loathed it. Seriously. I. Hated. It. Would I have enjoyed it had it not landed at the same time as the pandemic? I don’t know. Don’t ask me to explain COVID-19 anxiety. It takes different forms for different people.

 

My characters are currently languishing in the 1950s suburban neighborhood where I left them. Instead of solving the mystery they are there to investigate, they are being appallingly domestic. In fanfic, this kind of story is referred to as “curtain fic.” A story essentially about making curtains for the home, if you get my drift. It’s Hurt/Comfort without the Hurt. All Comfort, all the time. I don’t read curtain fic as a rule, and I certainly don’t write it. I’m watching in a kind of horrified fascination as my characters bake bread, wash the dog, mow the lawn, attend cocktail parties, and play tennis at the country club.

That’s not to say stories that center around these kinds of activities are without interest. English author E. F. Benson wrote a lovely series set among the upper middle class in the 1920s and 1930s. The two main ladies of the series, Lucia and Miss Mapp, battle for social prestige with a deadly intensity that is delightful to behold. Like the other members of the community, we watch with avid interest to see which of these two formidable women will get the upper-hand this time.

But that’s not the kind of story I’m supposed to be writing, more’s the pity.

Teaching myself survival skills (such as baking, or making masks, or planting a garden) gives me a constructive outlet for my fears, but at the same time, I’m starting to recognize there are some things I’ll never be good at, and I should farm them out accordingly. I’ve survived the first few weeks of sheer panic and rising anxiety: now I have to figure out what the long haul looks like. Eating my weight in carbs every day is neither healthy nor sustainable. I’m feeling the pull to make better food choices, to get outside and get moving again. I probably will plant a garden (I fully expect it to fail hilariously and catastrophically, with everything being consumed by groundhogs). I probably won’t start making my own clothes, despite the brand new sewing machine mocking me from where it still sits in its packaging.

And I will write again. I haven’t quit entirely, but my output is very low. For now, I’m letting my characters do their thing. If I have to cut out 15 K of curtain fic out of my romantic paranormal suspense story, so be it. But for now, I’m going to leave them alone.

Eventually the novelty of playing house will pall and the mystery will call Bishop and Knight back to their assigned duties. But right now, I have to let them practice self-care too.

Do Writers Need to Attend Major Conferences to Network?

Last summer I attended my first Romance Writers of America National Conference. As a relatively new member, I’d thought about going to a big conference before, and had often looked on with envy as my fellow romance writers spoke of their anticipation and experiences during the conference each year. But I’d look at the price tag of attending a major meeting and realize that I simply couldn’t justify spending the money, not at my current level in my writing career. Instead, I signed up for a lot of online courses and workshops that I never seemed to find the time to complete, and I looked around for smaller meetings where I could still learn about writing, publishing, and marketing, as well as meet fellow writers and well… network.

But two things changed my mind about going to RWA’s national conference last year: first, Ghost of a Chance was a finalist in the Bookseller’s Best Awards, and the winners were going to be announced at the conference. And then, out of the blue, I won a seat a at brunch being hosted by Carina Press Editors–and since I’d tried subbing to Carina during their open submission calls, I thought it was an opportunity to learn more about the process (as well as get a little face time with the editors) that I couldn’t turn down.

And I was right. Attending the conference in NYC was an amazing experience.

I attended all kinds of panels and meetings. I learned I need to manage my newsletter differently and how you can use cover art to rebrand yourself. I made a pitch to a publisher at an open submission thingy (it could have gone better), and took copious notes at various lectures. I caught up with people I only knew from social media, met new people at the various events, and managed to squeeze in some touristy things too, like eating a hot dog from a street vendor (man, that was good!) and taking the ferry out to Staten Island. I had a delightful brunch with Carina’s editors Stephanie Doig and Kerri Buckley, and the rest of the lucky winners in the group. I wrote about my RWA experience here.

And I made plans to go again this coming summer. One of my crit partners lives out west and was planning to attend, and it would have been a wonderful excuse to catch up with her.

But then came the fallout from the special ethics committee report on Courtney Milan and the ruling to censure her, as well as ban her from holding office within RWA. If you’re not part of the romance world, I wrote about this debacle shortly after it occurred, linking to all the relevant parts of the story at the time (The Bodies in the Backyard: Can RWA be Saved?). Since then, multiple major publishers, as well as scads of agents and editors alike have withdrawn their support of RWA, refusing to host events or maintain any support to the upcoming conference this summer. Members have resigned in protest; more are not planning to renew their membership when it comes due again. Chapters have dissolved rather than maintain affiliation with the organization as it now stands. President-elect Damon Suede and Executive Director Carol Ritter, as well as the entire Board, have resigned. The RITA awards for this year have been canceled. Several major papers have written articles trying to get to the bottom of this mess, and an independent audit was released siting numerous serious issues with how the whole thing was handled. Although the audit didn’t conclude there was any malicious intent, it did conclude that conflicting rules cobbled together ad hoc contributed to the poor handling of the situation. Several things came out of the audit that were disturbing, to say the least. The pushback from some authors who want to maintain the status quo is even more upsetting. I’m finding out belatedly that the standard which some people want RWA to uphold is romance should exist primarily between cis het white able-bodied Christian couples. Oh, and preferably excluding books written by digital-only, indie authors.

As a cis het white able bodied Christian woman, I believe everyone is deserving of their HEA. I think it’s past time that we acknowledge the publishing industry as a whole has artificially maintained a kind of romance standard that is exclusionary to many marginalized groups.

Some people are attempting to pick up the pieces in the hopes of salvaging RWA and making it what it should have been all along: a place for all romance authors (and their characters), regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical and mental status to network about writing, publishing, and marketing. I think they have a nearly impossible task ahead of them, based on what I’ve been reading and hearing.

I canceled my plans to attend this summer’s conference. I have mixed feelings about maintaining membership in RWA. I’d just renewed my membership when all this came down, and I decided to let it ride in the hopes of retaining the right to vote in any upcoming elections. But as time passed and more and more things came to light, I’m no longer certain I want to be a member of RWA. I’m definitely certain I don’t need to be a member–at least not at this juncture in my writing career.

See, one of the extremely valuable things RWA allowed was access to agents and publishers. While it would be lovely to think of snagging a big contract and quitting the day job, that’s not likely to happen to me. It would be akin to winning the lottery: a wonderful, but unrealistic dream. What I really need is more individualized instruction, in a setting where I can ask my newbie questions without being made to feel like an idiot, especially if I’m not as tech-savvy as the rest of the audience. I need to learn what I can do to promote my work on a limited budget, finish, polish and publish my work as an indie author without the Big Dream of a major publishing contract some day. Sure, I can work toward that dream, but I need something more geared to delivering information in a manner in which I can digest it and utilize now. A smaller venue where I can have conversations with fellow authors one night and continue the association the next day without having lost them in the convention crowd.

But I recognize that while I’m good at over-committing to online workshops, I’m not good at staying the course. I also desperately need to get away from work and home to avoid getting sucked into other responsibilities that force my writing to the back burner. I began looking at other conferences to attend instead of RWA Nationals, and the vast majority of them were either already sold out, offered at a time of year I couldn’t attend, or were primarily reader events with a few headline speakers. While sorely tempted by MurderCon, (I haven’t ruled it out, but it may be sold out already), it’s geared toward the technical aspects of writing mysteries, with heavy emphasis on police procedurals. Fun, but probably not exactly what I need right now.

Which is why I’m so pleased to be going to the ATA 2020 Spring Writing Retreat. Audrey Knapp Hughey is the founder of The Write Services, LLC and the Author Transformation Alliance, specializing in teaching online marketing for writers. This is the aspect of being a published author I struggle the most with–and Audrey gives me the kind of hands-on coaching I need to wade through setting up my newsletter or maximizing my ROI with Amazon ads. This is my third year attending, and each time I’m impressed with not only the professionalism and expertise Audrey and her speakers bring to the retreat, but I’m charmed by the “whole picture” experience, too. In addition to gift bags for participants, there have been morning and evening yoga sessions, photographers to take author headshots, engaging, encouraging, and sometimes emotional workshops, and plenty of time to–gasp–actually write.

I find that I am desperately looking forward to the retreat this year because I know it will be just that: an affordable, informative getaway where I will come back renewed and enthusiastic about tackling my writing and publishing goals for the year. I’ll spend a lovely weekend getting to know my fellow authors while reconnecting with those I’ve met online or in previous years, and will have peaceful hours to write without interruption. (I’ll even have the luxury of a quiet hotel room with a comfy bed free of pet hair for a change! 🙂 ) I won’t come home thinking, “Man, I’m doing everything wrong and I’ll never make it as a writer.” I’ll come home energized about the things within my power to achieve.

And that’s the feeling a good conference should instill. So the next time you’re looking at conferences and trying to decide how to get the biggest bang for your buck, think smaller and more focused than huge and splashy. Think about the ATA Spring Retreat.

I hope you’ll join me sometime!

Why I’m taking time from my WIP to write fanfic…

I cut my writing chops in fandom. Before I even knew what fanfic was, I wrote it. Back then, there were no online archives, no message boards. I wrote stories about the continuing adventures of my favorite characters because books were magic and there was nothing more I wanted to do than to spend time with the characters that brought joy to my life. I wrote for an audience of one because I had to. It didn’t matter to me if anyone ever read the stories or not. In fact, in some cases, I preferred they remain all mine.

Fast forward many years to my adulthood: I’d put aside writing stories as something children did and boxed up my creative self to move on with the business of life. Becoming a writer was an impractical fantasy and I needed to earn a living. I thought losing your passion, that creative spark, was simply part of growing up. It wasn’t until I went through a major transition in my life that I discovered online fanfiction archives. I’d been searching for something to be passionate about, having taken a new job in a new city where I knew no one. I had things I did for fun, but nothing that drove me with the kind of dedication I saw in others. Then I fell in love with a new television show and found out there were thousands of stories about the characters I loved! I completely immersed myself in fandom, and after months of reading everything I could get my hands on, tentatively, I began writing my own fic again.

Oh man, it was bad. I was so out of practice. And at first, I thought I had to write an entire story from start to finish in one setting. I know, weird, right? I mean, intellectually, I understood War and Peace wasn’t written in a single evening, but without understanding the basic mechanics of outlining, I’d sit down at the keyboard and start pounding out words until I had a finished story. I didn’t get much sleep those days, and I wrote nothing over 5-7 K words.

Then one day I realized not only did I not have to write the entire story in one sitting, I also didn’t have to write the story in a linear fashion, either! What a liberation that was! I could write the scene I pictured the most strongly at the time it was freshest in my mind and worry about how all the scenes tied together in the end. Out of sequence writing allowed me to write my first 50 K story, and after that, I was hard-pressed to write anything shorter. It also freed me from writing boring filler scenes that got the characters from one place to another–now I was a movie director shooting only the most relevant scenes. I was a pantser, only I didn’t know it. Writing in this fashion was natural for me,  and I wrote the equivalent of a novella a month for years.

A million words of fanfic later, I began writing original stories for publication. My writing style changed again, in part because I couldn’t take the writing shortcuts with world building and characterization that fanfic allows. I had to do more plotting, and my writing became more linear again. My productivity also slowed down tremendously. Comments are the currency of fanfic, but when you’re producing original works and asking people to pay for them, your standards are much higher. My output slowed dramatically as I pushed myself to write better stories, and it was harder for me to meet these new standards. My Inner Critic grew stronger and more discouraging as I put more and more pressure on myself to succeed.

One of the first decisions I made when I began publishing my own fiction was to stop writing fanfic. In part because the challenges of original fiction were more fascinating to me now, but it was also simply a matter of time. I only had so much time to devote to writing–I couldn’t afford to “waste” it.

So when I recently came across an unfinished fanfic sitting on my hard drive, it surprised me when I began tinkering with it again. I’m at the halfway point on my WIP. If I push through, I can finish it in a month or two, and polish it into a finalized form by late spring/early summer. The last thing I should do is leave it and go off to play in an old sandbox like a little kid, right?

Wrong.

I think that’s exactly what I need to do.

Lately, I’ve been struggling a bit to find the joy in life. To find purpose in a world increasingly depressing and terrifying to me. To feel that it matters if I tell my stories or not. And I think this is the right time to set aside my WIP, to let it simmer on a back burner for a bit, while I take my shovel and pail and go build sandcastles on the beach. Yes, a terrible mixing of metaphors, I know, but I don’t care.

The fun of fanfic is the lack of limitations. As long as you are true to the characters (and if you are writing an AU, you don’t even have to be that true), anything goes. I want to bang out my story without my Inner Critic hanging over my shoulder telling me I can’t do this or I shouldn’t do that. I want to post my sandcastle story as an offering to the fandom I love, knowing it will most likely be accepted with joy even if it is the most lopsided sandcastle you could ever see. And even if it is completely ignored, it will have still brought me great pleasure to have written it in the first place, just like it did for my fifteen-year-old self when I ran out of Star Trek stories to read.

I want to do it for the sheer fun of it, and Lord knows, there is a great lack of fun in the world right now.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn something about having fun with my stories that I can bring back to the WIP again. It’s a win-win, either way.

So what are you doing that brings you joy today?

My Mantra for 2020: Be Bold

It’s common for people to do a introspective analysis at this time of year. Given that we’re also starting a new decade, (depending on who you ask, that is), there has been a lot of discussion about the last ten years as well. Memes abound on social media: including the “what three things have you accomplished in 2019” as well as the 2009 vs 2019 photo meme, and people tallying their achievements for the decade.

I eluded to my frustration with this mindset in a previous post, and knew I’d come back to my thoughts about such analysis when I sat down to write this one. As I’ve said in other end-of-year posts, I dislike the year-end retrospectives. Guess what, you’re about to turn another year older. Here’s who died in the past year. Here’s what happened in the world. Here’s what I accomplished in 2019. Cheers to 2020. Rah, rah.

I guess I dislike these kinds of posts because they place such emphasis on the posts we’re already making: trips we’ve taken, achievements in our careers, heck, what we had for lunch today. The end-of-year period is usually disappointing to me because I didn’t lose 30 pounds, win the lottery, travel extensively, get nominated for a major award or hit the bestseller list. Somehow, sitting down to figure out what I did achieve stresses how little I got done besides get up, work ten hours, and come home. Day after day.

I wrote a pretty kick-ass New Year post last January, and I still enjoy it for the encouragement and hope it brought to the page. Granted, I was under the influence of large doses of Nyquil at the time, but that doesn’t negate the power of the words. Here we are nearly a year later, and the weight of “what did I achieve?” carries with it not only the chains and lockboxes of 2019, but the whole damn decade before it too. I’m Marley’s Ghost, but with mediocrity rather than money.

One of the things I usually do at the end of the year is decide what my word of phrase of power will be for the upcoming year. In the past, I’ve chosen words such as passion or joy, and I’ve held those words in my heart during the following year as reminders of how I want to live each day. The last time I chose a word, it was persistence, born out of a weary pattern of loss and a desire to attain certain goals. I had a bracelet made from My Intent.org to embody the spirit of the word and have a visible reminder in front of me.

This past year, I bought a metal stamping kit. I’ve made some ‘intention’ bracelets for friends, and want to make one for myself. Only I can’t decide on my word this year. I’m exhausted, not energized, and it’s hard to bring the right energy to the word selection as a result. “Hope” seems too passive, too fraught with the potential for disappointment. “Determined” too gritty. “Courage” and “Brave” don’t quite fit the bill either, as though I’m trying to prod myself in the right direction instead of imbuing myself with the power to get there. I’m not great with the metal stamping, but I like the idea of making my own talisman for 2020.

For the Me in 2009 vs 2019 meme, I posted pictures of Baby Yoda and Old Yoda. It seemed funny, timely, and appropriate.Then there was the thing going around Twitter where someone stated, “There is only one month left in the decade. What have YOU accomplished?” While I’m sure the OP meant for it to be an uplifting experience, I know many people found this tweet circulating on their timeline very stressful. There were calls for a different conversation, as well as people reminding others that if surviving the last decade is all you’ve managed by way of achievement, that’s accomplishment enough. 

I did look back over the last ten years, which have been a journey of heartbreak and sorrow for me, and realize there were a couple of major achievements I overlooked because the losses came more recently. I became a published author and have written and sold nearly one million words in this past decade. Not too shabby, eh?

But the best thing along these lines I’ve seen was from Andie J. Christopher (author of Not the Girl You Marry). She decided not to do the 2019  review thing as much as discuss what she was bringing to 2020 in this great Twitter thread. What I loved about it was the boldness with which she put her wildest dreams out there in the universe. I’ve done that myself in the past on super-rare occasions, and only the kind of thing I thought might be attainable, but it worked. Maybe the answer is to be bold. Tell the universe what you desire. Want more. Expect more.

I can only think of one thing to put out there for the universe to hear right now. I want to be able to make a living writing, so I can quit the day job that no longer brings me joy. In some ways, it’s not a big demand, but it would mean everything to me. It would change my life.

Christopher finishes her thread with this great statement:

Oh wait, wait. I have my word for 2020!!

 

AUDACIOUS.

I love it!

What energy are you bringing to 2020 and beyond?

Gifts for the Writer on Your Holiday Shopping List!

I know, this list is a bit late, right? I mean, how much time do you have left to order something and have it arrive on time for the holidays? Christmas is ten days away at this posting. Well, let me tell you, not all the items on this list need to be shipped, and since writers are usually masters of procrastination (as well as terribly appreciative for any recognition or validation of themselves as writers), they gladly accept IOUs for gifts that haven’t yet arrived. We are a frightfully pathetic, er, grateful bunch.

Be sure to check out Chuck Wendig’s Gift for Writers 2019 thread. Apparently he does this every year and his post lists recommendations of previous years as well. If you like gritty, heart-pumping sci-fi, you should check out his stories. He’s also written some terrific books on writing (perfect for the writer on your list!) I can personally recommend Damn Fine Story and The Kick-Ass Writer. If you happen to be a writer, you should follow his blog, terribleminds. It’s irreverent, pithy, enlightening, and encouraging.

I can also recommend Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books were given to me when I first began publishing stories, and believe me, nothing could have been more supportive than these gifts. They spoke of the faith my friends and family had in my ability to be a storyteller, and that was heartening indeed. Not to mention they are terrific books on craft!

If you really want to show the writer in your life you believe in them and take their work seriously, show them how to take their work seriously too. I was fortunate enough to win one of Audrey Hughey’s The Ultimate Authorship Planner, and I can’t wait to get started with it, having decided to start off fresh in 2020 with it. It’s more than just another notebook or calendar. SO MUCH MORE. You can track your daily and weekly goals, your expenditures (to make doing your taxes so much easier!), plan your marketing and social media campaigns, newsletters, you name it! What I love about it is it’s large enough for me to work in without cramming tiny notes everywhere, and the coil-bound cover allows it to lay flat while you’re working on it. It’s a bit like having an organizer, an accountability partner, a cheerleader, and a coach all rolled up into one.

Author Keta Diablo has some good points to make about the care and feeding of writers: at this time of year, most of us are over-indulging a bit. I for one have been looking ahead to the New Year and realizing I need to stop sabotaging my health once and for all. Why will I make a point of making change now when I’ve failed in the past? Because I don’t write when I feel bad, and that’s got to change!

Eat healthy snacks to keep up your energy for your grueling (writing/reading) schedule. (Sound familiar writers and readers?)

We all know certain foods contribute positively to your physical health, and some foods contribute positively (in inches) to your waistline. But did you know that some foods can support brain function—and maybe even make you a better writer? It’s true! Here’s a list of snacks that will not only make you feel better physically but keep help your creative brain function better

Happy writing and reading, Keta

Good reasons to eat healthy snacks:

  • Fruits and vegetables add vitamins A and C, both of which are important 
  • Snacking during the day will encourage you to eat less at meals
  • Snacking will curb your sugar cravings
  • Help you maintain a healthy weight
  • Healthy snacking will increase your productivity
  • Healthy snacks are jam-packed with good nutrients
  • Choosing the right snacks can improve your mood
  • Healthy snacking can increase your life longevity
  • Avoid extreme hunger by choosing a healthy snack rather than reaching for that donut.

 

Yogurt (add milled flaxseed)

Individually-sized packages of cottage cheese

Fresh mozzarella cheese or string cheese

Pistachios, macadamias, pecans, walnuts, and other nuts (either lightly salted or raw)

Natural fruit rolls / fruit leathers (for when I really want a sugar kick)

Nuts

Protein Bar, Fruit & Nut Bar, or Energy Bar

Jerky

Granola

Nut Butter

Mini dill pickles

Berries and grapes (although you could keep almost any fruit around)

 Calorie serving sizes of lite fruit cocktail

Cinnamon-spiced baked apples

Goat cheese bruschetta. …

Bagel with ricotta and strawberries. …

Anytime edamame. …

Banana oatmeal walnut cookies. …

Avocado rice cakes.

Mini whole grain bagels (and a light cream cheese or no sugar added fruit preserves)

Whole grain tortilla chips and salsa for when you need a saltier snack and want to avoid things like potato chips

Kale chips (Trader Joe’s)

Keta’s newest release is I Spy a Demon:

When twins Cecily and Calder Sizemore’s parents are killed in a car accident, they’re adopted by the Frost family—Gus, Mae and their sons, Marcel and Elliott. Over the years, Cecily’s love for Marcel evolves into anything but sisterly.

Cecily always knew something was amiss in the Frost household. Little things belied the calm, peaceful ambiance Mae did her best to portray. Calder tried to warn her things were not as they appeared, but she didn’t want to believe him. When Calder begs her to leave Des Moines, start a new life away from the secrets, away from the Frosts and away from Marcel, she takes his advice and her shattered heart and moves to Minnesota.

Now she’s been called home for her beloved brother’s funeral. There’s more to the story than meets the eye. Discrepancies in how her twin died lead her back to Des Moines, and back to Marcel―the boy who stole her heart, the man whose very presence turns her blood to liquid fire. Marcel has always kept dangerous secrets, but this time, Cecily is determined to uncover the truth about the Frosts… and the truth about how Calder really died.

She’ll find out what really happened to her brother, even if it’s her last act in life.

.99 cents or read for FREE on Kindle Unlimited
 

Author Chris Eboch/Kris Bock has some cool ideas for the writer in your life–which might even be you as you create something special for your kids this year:

Maybe you have a NaNoWriMo manuscript to edit and polish. Or perhaps you have other projects that could use a boost before you send them out. Consider giving yourself the gift of improved writing knowledge, so you can reach your goals for the new year!

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. If you struggle with plot or suspect your plotting needs work, this book can help. Use the Plot Outline Exercise to identify and fix plot weaknesses. Learn how to get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve your pacing, and more.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

Learn more at Chris’s website: https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page (universal link): https://geni.us/ChrisEboch

If you’re shopping for kids ages 8 to 12 (or anyone who enjoys middle grade novels, stop by Chris Eboch’s #Holiday Gift Guide – Great Books for Middle Grade Readers: https://chriseboch.blogspot.com/2019/12/GiftKids.html

You’ll find a mystery set in ancient Egypt, an exciting adventure that introduces kids to Mayan culture, and a fantasy set in the fifteenth-century Middle East that draws on the mythology of The Arabian Nights – all with inspiring girl main characters. You’ll also find stories about runner Jessie Owens and chocolatier Milton Hershey, whose challenging lives show how young people can succeed even if they struggle in school or with poor health.

Kris Bock writes novels of romance, mystery, and suspense. Her Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the employees and customers at a cat café. Watch as they fall in love with each other and with shelter cats. The series begins with Coffee and Crushes at the Cat Café.

Kris also writes romantic suspense set in the Southwestern U.S. If you love Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels, try Kris Bock’s stories of treasure hunting, archaeology, and intrigue in the Southwest. Learn more at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter  for announcements of new books, sales, and more: https://tracking.krisbock.com/form?lid=MuD2mEpyR0_1Lvd27mi1sA2

Last but not least: if you’ve run out of time to buy a gift for your favorite author, you can always buy and review their books! Leave a review on Amazon or the bookseller site where you purchased it, but also on Goodreads and Bookbub. Tell your friends why you enjoyed it and recommend it to others. You’ll put a big smile on your author’s face and make their day!

 

I Didn’t Meet My Goal, and That’s Okay

As we approach the end of the year–and the end of the decade–I’m starting to see a lot of posts where people are assessing what they’ve accomplished over the past year, as well as the last ten years.

I have to confess, I hate the year-end introspection and feeling the need to look back at my year and assess my accomplishments, or lack thereof. I always have. But I guess with the close of the decade, the introspection has started earlier and seems a bit more brutal this time around.

There’s the 2009 vs 2019 meme, where people post photos of themselves ten years apart. Most of the images I see are practically indistinguishable from each other. My 2019 image, however, is as different from my 2009 photo as Old Yoda vs Baby Yoda. In fact, I posted those images instead of my own. The past decade has been a little rough on me, and the mileage is visible on my face.

Then there’s the thing going around Twitter where someone has stated, “There is only one month left in the decade. What have YOU accomplished?” While I’m sure the OP meant for it to be an uplifting experience (judging by the response to their own Tweet), I know many people have found this tweet circulating on their timeline to be very stressful. I’ve seen calls for a different conversation, as well as people reminding others that if surviving the last decade is all you’ve managed by way of achievement, that’s accomplishment enough. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this when I write my own introspective year-end, decade-end post at the end of this month. Suffice to say, however, this particular Twitter discussion has left many people feeling like they don’t have enough to show for the last decade.

Not to mention, November has just ended, and as such, there are lot of people out there talking about their NaNo projects. Some are sharing their shiny “Winner!” buttons. Others are disappointed in themselves for falling short of their target. I’m hearing a lot of people saying they ‘failed NaNo’ and it is for this very reason I no longer officially participate in NaNo myself. Remember that challenge I mentioned hosting by Silence Your Inner Critic? We divided ourselves into Genre Teams and logged in our group word counts each week. I was going gangbusters until I hit a plot snag and I knew I had to work it out before moving forward. Doing so caused me to revise four major scenes, reducing my word count up to that point. I ended up offering only a measly thousand or so words to the final count. Now, was it better than not participating at all? Probably, but I felt as though I’d let my team down. And yet I still clocked in 30 K words this month, a tidy amount for someone who has struggled to write more than 2 K a week for a while now.

Today on Facebook, I ran into more than one post where the OP bewailed the fact they hadn’t met target goals on the number of books to read within the month (or year). And that’s when it hit me: why does everything have to be a competition?

Goals are all fine and well. Nice targets to shoot for, but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t hit them. I used to compete my horses, not because I had dreams of being a local champion, but because competing at a horse show gave me some structure and guidelines for the riding I did at home. I wanted to learn how to do more things with my horses, and showing them was a way to do that. But if all I’d wanted to do was putz around the farm at a walk, that would have been okay, too. What matters is why you set the goal and what you learned from aiming at it.

We’ve gotten in a bad habit of thinking that if we don’t come in first place, our efforts are meaningless. Believe me, if I’d made it to the Olympics with my mare, I wouldn’t have hung my head in shame because we came in 33rd or something. But it’s only the winners that get the endorsement contracts, it’s only the winners whose names we remember. And sadly, at least in this country, there seems to be a tendency to belittle anyone who doesn’t win gold.

The thing is, everyone at the Olympics worked their asses off to be there. They gave it their best to be there. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

So I’m celebrating the fact I wrote 30 K in November, even though I didn’t hit the NaNo 50 K mark. I don’t care if you read one book in 2019 or 1,000 books, at least you read something. And maybe I don’t have the cute adorableness of a Baby Yoda anymore, but Old Yoda was pretty kick-ass too. As for the decade, and 2019, we survived it, baby.

Don’t let anyone make you feel as though you aren’t a winner because you didn’t hit the bullseye.

As long as you’re a survivor, you can take another crack at that target again.

To NaNo or Not NaNo: Either Way, It’s Okay

Before I began writing this post, I checked my blog for previous mentions of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Turns out, I have a lot to say on the subject–every November since I started this blog! Most of my posts lean toward why NaNo isn’t a good fit for me. That hasn’t changed, but I’m becoming more comfortable with my decision NOT to do NaNo. 

Most writers are introverts, loving the time we spend alone with our creations, but even the most introverted creator is likely to feel the tug of wanting to participate when there is SO MUCH chatter about NaNoWriMo. People discussing their progress, posting their word counts, sharing their journey and expertise… November abounds with excellent writing information and it’s hard not to feel left out if you decide not to participate in NaNo.

I’m here to tell you not participating is okay.

So is participating and meeting the goal of 50 K words in 30 days.

So is participating and then failing to meet your goals.

It’s all okay.

Because writing is hard work, and the process isn’t the same for everyone, and you shouldn’t force yourself to meet an arbitrary goal if the process doesn’t work for you or if life gets in the way.

Chuck Wendig recently wrote a fabulous post, For National Novel Writing Month, Two Vital Reminders, which reminded me why participation isn’t a good fit for me, yet inspired others to go for it.

For me, it boils down to two things: the NaNo format is inherently contradictory to how I write and the pressure of meeting a specific daily word count is paralyzing to me.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to take advantage of all the workshops, advice, and information flowing out there.

Here’s an excellent Twitter thread by C.L. Polk, the author of Witchmark (2019 finalist for a Nebula, Aurora, and Lambda Award) on where you should be at certain points in your story. It’s terrific NaNo advice but applicable to any story regardless of how quickly you’re writing it.

That’s the kind of thing I enjoy finding during NaNo time.

This year, I’ve decided to join in the Future, Fantasy, and Paranormal’s Silence Your Inner Critic challenge. This is a low-key challenge in which we’re divided into teams based on what kind of story we’re working on and each week we post our word counts to the team. I figure this will keep me working toward my goals without putting too much pressure on me to write. As any participation in the challenge is better than no participation, it’s a win-win for everyone!

I’m Team Shifter! 

What are you doing for November? NaNo? Nothing? Or some different challenge, even one of your own making? I want to know!

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. 🙂

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.