Cool! 50s Slang That Lingers On

I’m spending a lot of time doing research these days. I decided to set the WIP in the 1950s, and this has me scrambling to look up things such as when certain movies were released, and what songs were on the Top 40 in August of 1955.

When I write a story with a historical setting, I like to immerse myself in the culture of the time. Once I spent over a month reading books and watching documentaries on WW2 when I wrote a story partly set in 1940. So now I’ve been perusing sites that describe ladies undergarments, searching for real landmarks to use in the story, diving in to the fascinating world of nightclubs, and so on.

Somehow, I never expected slang to be a big part of the story. Mostly because one character is British–and I thought his style of speech wouldn’t lend itself to much American slang. The other character is a former society girl–ditto, right?

But not really. Slang is so pervasive in our culture, we don’t really recognize when we use it or not–see example above “ditto”. The society girl would also have a much greater tendency to use slang than I thought. But there are expressions and phrases that have only come into being in the last thirty to forty years or so–and while they may sound right at first, you can’t use the phrase “get the bugs out” if it didn’t come into popular use before the advent of widespread software design.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time checking out websites that serve as slang dictionaries. One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered is not how much things have changed but how much has stayed the same. Sure, 50s slang had a way of adding words instead of reducing them–for example, “Are you writing a book?” was used to tell someone they were asking too many questions and “agitate the gravel” was to leave in a hurry. Today, we’re far more likely to reduce our speech to acronyms, such as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and YOLO (You Only Live Once)–probably because texting is so popular, and these acronyms save time and characters when typing. Interestingly enough, I rarely use acronyms. I wasn’t much of a texter until I got a smart phone with a microphone–and now I dictate my texts, so acronyms don’t come into it very often. I can’t help but wonder if changes in technology will affect patterns of slang again in the future.

But one of the most fascinating things I discovered in my searches is how much has lingered on from previous popular turns of phrase. We still say “cool” to denote someone who is calm under pressure but also someone who is up-to-the-minute fashionable or impressive in some way–someone we’d like to emulate. The biggest difference between the use of “cool” in the 50s vs now seems to be the pronunciation, with the cool kids today stretching out the vowels.

Another holdover is “pad” to refer to someone’s home. Though perhaps not in use quite as much as cool, we still hear places referred to as bachelor pads from time to time. On occasion, I also still hear people refer to kids as ankle-biters, despite the fact the speaker wasn’t born until the 80s. And when someone wrecks their car beyond repair, we still say it’s been totaled.

Words seem to go in and out of fashion, and date us as writers, even though we may be writing in a different time period or our main character is of a different age than we are. If I were to write a story featuring teenagers, I’d have to do a study of slang much as I’m doing right now for my 50s characters.

Also, different groups have their own slang, which may or may not make it into the general lexicon. If you’re writing about hot-rodders, surfers, or Regency dandies, you must keep that in mind.

While this is by no means a complete compilation, here is a list of 50s slang posted by the Lincoln-Sudbury High School (compiled, no doubt, as a homework assignment):

Actor: show-off

Agitate the Gravel: to leave (hot-rodders)

Ankle Biter: a child

Ape: (used with “go”) to explode or be really mad

Baby: cute girls, term of address for either sex

Back seat bingo: necking in a car

Bad news: depressing person

Bash: great party

Big Daddy: an older person

Big tickle: really funny

Bit: an act

Blast: a good time

Blow off: to defeat in a race (hot-rodders)

Boss: great

Bread: money

Bug: “you bug me” – to bother

Burn rubber: to accelerate hard and fast

Cast an eyeball: to look

Cat: a hip person

Chariot: car

Chrome-plated: dressed up

Circled: married

Classy chassis: great body

Cloud 9:  really happy

Clutched: rejected

Clyde: term of address, usually for a normal person (Beats)

Cook, Cookin’: doing it well

Cooties: imaginary infestations of the truly un-cool

Cranked: excited (Beats)

Crazy: “Like crazy, man” implies an especially good thing

Cream: originally, to dent a car.  Later, to badly damage

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’: looking for trouble

Cut out: leave

Daddy-o: term of address (Beats)

Dibs: a claim – as in “got dibs” on that seat

Dig: to understand; to approve

Dolly: cute girl

Don’t have a cow: don’t get so excited

Drag: (hot-rodders) a short car race (Beats); a bore

Eyeball: look around

Fake out: a bad date

Fast: someone who was sexually active

Fat city: a great thing or place; happy

Fire up: start your engine

Flat out: fast as you can

Flat-top: men’s hairstyle (a crewcut which is flat across the top)

Flick: a movie

Flip: to get very excited

Floor it: push the accelerator to the floor

Fracture: to amuse

Fream: someone who doesn’t fit in

Frosted: angry

Get bent!: disparaging remark as in “drop dead”

Gig: work, job (Beats)

Go for pinks: a drag race where the stakes are the car’s pink slip

Goof: someone who makes mistakes

Goose it: accelerate the car fully

Greaser: a guy with tons of grease in his hair

Grody: sloppy or messy

Hang: as in “hang out” which means to do very little

Haul ass: drive very fast

Heat: police (Beats)

Hep: with it, cool

Hip: someone who is cool, in the know

Hopped up: a car modified for speed

Horn: telephone

Hottie: a very fast car

Illuminations: good ideas, thoughts

In orbit: in the know

Jacked up: car with a raised rear end

Jacketed: going steady

Jelly Roll: men’s hair combed up and forward on both sides, brought together in the middle of the forehead

Kick: a fun or good thing; a fad

Kill: to really impress

Knuckle sandwich: a fist in the face

Later: goodbye

Lay a patch: to accelerate so rapidly that you leave a patch of rubber on the road

Make out: a kissing session

Make the scene: to attend a party or activity

Mirror warmer: a piece of pastel fabric (often cashmere) tied around the rear view mirror. (A 1950s version of the Medieval wearing your lady’s colors.)

Most: a in “the most” – high praise usually of the opposite sex

Nerd: same as now

Nest: a hair-do

Nod: drift off to sleep

Nosebleed: stupid

No sweat: no problem

Nowhere: opposite of cool (Beats)

Nuggets: loose change

Odd ball: someone a bit off the norm

On the stick: pulled together. Bright, prepared…

Pad: home

Paper shaker: cheerleader or Pom Pom girl

Party pooper: no fun at all

Passion pit: Drive-in movie theater

Peepers: glasses

Pile up Z’s: get some sleep

Pound: beat up

Punch it: release the clutch quickly do as to get a fast start

Put down: to say bad things about someone

Radioactive: very popular

Rag top: a convertible car

Rap: to tattle on someone (Beats)

Rattle your cage: get upset

Raunchy: messy or gross in some way

Razz my berries: excite or impress me

Real gone: very much in love. Also unstable.

Reds: the Communists

Right-o: okay

Rock: a diamond

Rocket: a car

Rod: a car

Royal shaft: badly or unfairly treated

Scream: go fast

Shot down: failed

Shucks, shuckster: a deceiver, liar or cheat

Sides: vinyl records

Sing: to tattle or inform on someone (Beats)

Souped up: a car modified to go fast

Spaz: someone who is uncoordinated, a clutz

Split: leave

Square: a regular, normal person.  A conformist.

Stacked: a well-endowed woman

Subterranean: a hipster (used by both Ginsberg and Kerouac – Beats)

Tank: a large sedan (usually driven by parents)

Tear ass: drive (or go) very fast

Threads: clothes

Tight: good friends

Total: to completely destroy, most often in reference to a car

Unreal: exceptional

Wail: go fast

Wazoo: your rear end

Weed: a cigarette

Wet rag: someone who’s just no fun

Word from the bird: the truth (Beats)

What’s your tale, nightingale?: What’s the story?

Wheelie: lift the car’s front wheels off the ground by rapid acceleration

I also found the following lists useful:

1950s slang by fiftiesweb.com

20 Slang Terms from the 1950s No One Uses Anymore

Your Guide to 1950s Slang

You’ll find a lot of overlap in the lists–presumably because they all relied on the same source material. If you come across a different and more complete list, I’d love to hear about it!

 

 

 

Getting the Most out of NaNoWriMo for Non-Participants

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried in the past, and found the pressure of writing a set amount daily intimidating. Even though you were allowed to have “makeup days” and nothing mattered as long as you met the end goal: 50 K in 30 days, that constant questioning as to whether or not I’d made my daily word count was so unnerving, it sent me into a tailspin of paralysis on the very first day from which I never recovered. And it left me with a lasting case of writer’s block it took me months to get over. Even now, watching the vast proportion of my social media interactions center around this fact can make me hyperventilate a bit.

Then there’s the fact that the NaNo guidelines are the antithesis of how I normally write. Not that I could find any specific guidelines when I searched this morning. So perhaps it’s my own understanding of NaNo that is flawed. For the most part, it seems people planning to participate may or may not make a sketchy outline in September, then sign up and begin tracking their word counts while they bang out their story in 30 days. No editing. No going back and changing things. Just write.

While this appeals to the pantser in me, I’m a big fan of going back and re-reading my WIP, editing as I go. Yes, on some levels this slows me down (and I’ve been known to bog down polishing the same scene over and over again) but this process works for me. Typically when I do this, I can see underlying themes I want to expand upon and weave into future scenes–something that’s far easier for me to do the first time than to go back and add later.

There’s also the fact that I don’t really need the act of completing NaNo to validate my ability to write a complete story in 30 days. When I was heavily invested in fandom, I wrote the equivalent of a novella every month. For four years straight. No, the mechanics of NaNo aren’t beyond me.

I suspect that one of the reasons I find NaNo so stressful is that when I was a child, we used to have timed multiplication tests in school. The teacher would put a recording on, and a flat voice would drone, “Eight times four is—beep!” A tone would sound, and the speaker would move on to the next problem. I’d begin hyperventilating at the sound of the incessant, relentless beeping, and the fact the test was progressing on without me being able to keep up.

NaNo feels a bit like that to me.

So why am I writing this post, then?

Because there is still a lot to be gained from unofficially participating in NaNo. 

For starters, there is the accountability factor. Though you may not be trying to get to that daily word count, perhaps you have other goals. The plethora of articles on writing, on making the best use of your time, and the number of groups outside of NaNo itself, can all be used to your advantage during the month of November. On any given day, you can Google “NaNo” or some variation of such, and come up with a wealth of useful information. Not to mention the Twitter hashtags and chats–some fun, some inspiring, most supportive.

The fact so many people out there are buckling down to their keyboards and making a hard push to complete a novel (or at least a novella) in 30 days means there’s a lot of support out there. Can’t find a group that welcomes non-participants? Start your own! There’s a wealth of collective creative energy out there. Don’t cut yourself off from it.

Maybe you aren’t officially participating–but there’s no reason you can’t set your own goals. Challenge yourself to read a set number of articles on marketing, or take a course on improving your craft. The principles are the same: if you tell yourself you don’t have the time, you’ll never make the time.

My plans for NaNo are to finish a stalled WIP. It was going like gangbusters until my mother died last year, and it has been languishing ever since. I want to push through to the end now–and a NaNo-style approach seems to be the best way to break through this block. I’m hoping to get it into a semi-decent form for a December submission.

Which means, I need to go get cracking on it. What are you doing for November?

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

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

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

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

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marvel Bows to Troll Pressure, Fires Chuck Wendig

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Last week at the New York ComicCon, author Chuck Wendig announced he’d be working on a new Marvel comic book project. Today, Marvel fired him, citing his online presence as being “too vulgar, too political, and too negative.”

I’ve been following Wendig’s blog for years now–you want pithy insights and masterful writing tips? His is the blog for you. I highly recommend his book on writing, Damn Fine Story.

At no point has Wendig ever hidden his thoughts or viewpoints. Marvel knew who they were hiring when they made the original decision to do so.

So why the big back pedal? Why would Marvel suddenly decide Wendig is too hot to handle after the big ComicCon announcement last week?

The linked articles explain a lot, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version: when Wendig wrote his bestselling Star Wars trilogy, he included GLBTQ characters. This set off a certain small but vocal group of trolls in the sci-fi community that howled over the fact Wendig had ‘ruined’ SW for them, and they began a targeted harassment campaign to trash the ratings. Lucasfilms was behind Wendig 100%, stating the franchise has always been about diversity. (I suggest you read up on the Rabid/Sad Puppies and their attempts to manipulate the Hugo Awards, as well as Gamergate to give you an idea of the organization and object of these trolls, if you are somehow unfamiliar with them). This harassment has been incredibly vicious and ongoing, in part (according to the Screen Rant article linked above) “because Wendig wears his politics on his sleeve.”

Since the ComicCon announcement, Wendig has been the subject of increased harassment, leading to the temporary suspension of his Twitter account recently. Today’s news is frankly gobsmacking, as well as disheartening and disturbing. Marvel has also recently fired feminist Chelsea Cain and dropped the planned Vision comic two months before its release. And, I might point out, it was Marvel Comics who recently decided to go with the horrendous (and utterly insulting) story line that Captain America was actually a HYDRA agent all along. (Spoiler: Not.)

Apparently the furor (and subsequent response from Wendig) was too much for one editor, who pulled the plug on the projects. Wendig believes this decision was made independently from Lucasfilms.

So what is the takeaway from this? We as creators are frequently told we should not be openly political on social media, that we should avoid controversial positions and attitudes. I believe this is a bit of a cop-out. I don’t think it’s possible to create anything in a political vacuum. The very act of not allowing any sort of political slant on something created, be it artwork, music, movies, or stories, is a statement in and of itself–and usually comes from a place of privilege that ignores the reality we live in.

I have to tell you, if you’re reading one of my stories, you’re going to find all kinds of political commentary in them. Oh, perhaps not directly. I write paranormal romance, after all. But one of the reasons I enjoy paranormal romance is the genre allows much scope for observing and commenting on the politics of the day. MUCH LIKE COMIC BOOKS DO. 

I also think in our current environment, we have to speak our beliefs. We must stand up for what’s right and resist what is morally, ethically, and criminally wrong. To stay silent is to be complicit.

Another take home lesson is this: Wendig points out that the arbitrary and capricious manner in which Twitter chooses to silence someone while letting someone else far more abusive and threatening get a free pass is a harsh reminder that social media platforms are not your friend. Hell, they aren’t even your tools. At best, they should be the means to direct people to a platform you control. Don’t give up on your websites and blogs, people.

I was asked while writing this how what happened to Wendig differs from mounting a campaign to boycott sponsors of a FOX television program. Pressure is pressure, correct? The difference is that the trolls went after Wendig directly, dog-piling him with truly hateful attacks. The calls for boycotting sponsors asks a company directly to alter their hiring decisions based on their wallets. And I think that’s what we should be doing now with Marvel Comics.

Another bit of advice from Wendig in his post today was to vote in November as though your life depended on it. Because it does.

I have to say, I admire Wendig’s integrity in remaining true to who he is, and not caving in to the company line–but I also respect his decision to share his experience rather than sit tight on it in the hopes Marvel will change their minds or to limit further damage to future projects. That’s real courage. And we need more of that in this country right now. 

And you should go buy some of Wendig’s books. Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I really regretted opening that can of worms.

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

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

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

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

Editor vs Writer: Adversaries or Critical Partnership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t daydream any more.

Could that be why my production is way down?

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

But I don’t do that any more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blonde girl with retro camera

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ten Things Writers Need to Stop Telling Themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See, I’m doing it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Managing Time–and Guilt–as a Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. This.

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

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

 

 

I Should Be Better at This By Now

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the key to success was persistence, likening improving as a writer to my experiences as a competitive rider–and how moving up through the ranks resulted in plummeting to the bottom of the heap until you mastered the new skill set at your current level.

I believe in persistence. I do. My favorite quote on the subject is by Calvin Coolidge:

But that having been said, sometimes it’s hard to battle through discouragement.

These past few years have been fraught with discouragement and loss. One of the many things I’ve had to accept is that my old competition horse had to be retired because she was no longer sound enough to ride. As such, I’ve been riding a friend’s mare so I can keep my hand in the game and she has a quiet horse to ride on the rare occasions she has the time to spend an afternoon at the barn. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, except that we ride in different disciplines, with completely different training styles, and at twenty years of age, Robin isn’t going to learn how to accept my commands. I’m going to have to learn how to communicate with her instead.

Riding a horse is riding a horse, right? Um, no. There are as many different ways to ride a horse as there are to drive a car, and just because you’re competent on the highway in a four-door sedan doesn’t mean you can go off-road in a four-wheel drive pickup, or drive through the streets of Milan in a Formula One racer, or take an eighteen-wheeler out on the interstate.

I used to compete in eventing. The mare I’m riding now is a hunter. While eventing includes show jumping, the training styles for the two sports is very different. I’m used to riding with contact–my hands in close communication with the bit at all times. Robin, the mare I’m riding now, is used to being given her head and only loosely guided around a course of fences. So when I ride her the way I’ve ridden every other horse for the last twenty years–with close contact with the bit–she gets pissy and hot. The more I try to rein her in, the more annoyed she becomes. She picks up speed, shakes her head, and threatens to buck. My instinctive reactions only make things worse. It’s like trying to drive as though I have an automatic when I should be manually shifting gears. The end results are ugly.

And frustrating. There are times when I feel like tossing my hands up in the air and calling it quits. This particular day, Robin had been gradually ramping up during the course of our ride. It felt like I was riding a powder keg and the fuse was lit and growing closer. The things I would normally do to balance and check a horse careening around the ring out of control were the wrong move for Robin, succeeding in winding her up even more. Letting go of her mouth and allowing her to run full tilt at obstacles was just counter-intuitive. 

I confess, I was completely discouraged. That’s when that deadly phrase entered my mind:  I should be better at this by now.

How many years have I been riding horses? Too long to share without revealing my advanced age. The very fact I’ve been riding since I was eleven years old weighed heavily in my self-disappointment. I should know how to correct this horse. I should instinctively know how to work with my current issues, understanding that I’m not going to teach an old horse new tricks. My failure was a double-whammy in the face of my experience.

At the same time, I was reminded of a scene from Young Sherlock Holmes–a 1985 Steven Spielberg movie that asked “What if Holmes and Watson had met as schoolboys?”

There’s a terrific scene in which Holmes and Watson are meeting for the first time, as Holmes is massacring a violin. As Watson enters, Holmes lifts the violin up to smash it on a chair. Watson stops him, and Holmes snarls, “I should be better at this by now.”

Watson asks, “How long have you been playing?”

“Three days!” Holmes snaps.

I think many of us are Holmes in this situation. Through the promise of instant gratification (“Lose 20 pounds in 14 days!”) we’ve been taught that if we can’t master something in 48 hours, we’re a failure. Likewise, success should come to us in a similar time frame.

We know that’s not the case, but we get suckered into believing it might be different for us just the same.

In my situation, having been riding horses for over 25 years, the notion I should be better at it seems valid. And yet I discount the fact the horse I’m riding has been trained to do things almost diametrically opposite from the way I’d normally ride.

I was nearly in tears that day I was trying to canter Robin safely around the arena. I was ready to give up. Not just riding Robin, but riding in general. For a horsewoman, that’s a bid deal. But I took a deep breath and decided to give riding counter-intuitively a go. I dropped the reins as I asked her to canter, freeing her head when that was the last thing I felt like I should do, and she went around the ring far more quietly than she’d done before.

When it comes to writing, we have to be willing to do the same thing. Give up our expectations. Take chances. Do something that goes against everything we’ve been taught or believe about the process. Every story is different. Every set of characters is different. We might think we should be better at this by now but complacency is the death of creativity. Instead of railing against the knowledge that what you’re doing isn’t working and becoming frustrated because you should ‘know better’, take this for what it is: a sharpening instinct that what you’re doing is wrong and needs to be fixed. And then fix it.

You’ll be glad you did.