A Good Story vs Good Writing

I learned to love books at a very young age. My mother and grandmother both read to me, and the time spent in their laps, following the words on the page, soon taught me how to interpret those words on my own. Growing up in a house full of books, I was never at a loss for something to read. By the time I was six, I was reading books on the sixth grade level. From loving books, it was only a short step to wanting to tell my own stories.

And I did. I wrote stories similar to those I’d read about things I loved, illustrating them with laboriously colored drawings as well. Well into my teens, going to a library was an exciting event. The Scholastic Book Fair was the best day of the school year. To this day, my idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon is to go to a bookstore.

But somewhere along the line, I gave up on my dream of becoming a writer as something impossible for the average storyteller to achieve. By the time I left college, I was focused first on my career, and later juggling a family with being a professional. I wrote short stories for fun every now and then, but they were few and far between.

Then one day, I discovered online fanfiction archives. Suddenly I realized there were thousands of people just like me who loved to tell stories about their favorite characters. I became obsessed with fandom, cranking out story after story. After a lifetime of suppressing my creativity, the stories poured out of me in a flood. I wrote for the sheer joy of it and the fun of interacting with like-minded fans. For years I read nothing but fanfic, completely immersed in the delights of finding stories that were tailor made for me.

I never let the fact I was a neophyte storyteller stop me. I wasn’t swayed by the fact there were far better writers in my fandoms. I was in love with my characters, and that joy carried me through any confidence of crisis.

The confidence I learned in fandom gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction after a lifetime of doubting it was possible to become a writer. It just so happened that this was about the same time when e-readers suddenly made publishing within the reach of a lot of people, and small presses were eager to take a chance on new authors. When I made the transition to writing original stories, I continued writing fanfiction at first, but gradually I began leaving fandom behind. My shows went off the air, and I had trouble finding other shows I wanted to write in. More importantly, however, I became invested in my original characters. I only had so much time to write and it seemed stupid to “waste” good ideas on fanfic when they lent themselves to the original stories bubbling inside of me.

But as I’ve said before, when you’re learning a skill set, every time you move up a level, the work gets harder. There’s less fun, especially when you know things should be done in a specific way and what you did before no longer passes muster. These days I’m working with critique partners and tough editors who push me to write cleaner prose and with more efficient style. Don’t get me wrong; I love the input from these sources. I’m a better writer now than when I started ten years ago.

But those same critical voices, the ones that tell me to eliminate adverbs and cut out unnecessary verbiage, and strive for active constructions in my writing are the same voices that often leave me staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time, struggling to create a sentence that won’t embarrass me. I find myself massaging the same text over and over again because my natural style is wordy and breezy and it needs a fair amount of editing to be presentable to the public at large.

It’s a bit like taking a pony out for a gallop across an open field once you know all the pitfalls and dangers of doing so. When you know about the rabbit holes, and you think about how breaking an arm will mess up your life, it makes it a bit harder to simply clap your heels against your pony’s flanks and let her take the bit in her teeth and run.

Back when I was learning to ride in group lessons at a barn, once a year when we trooped into the arena, we were told it was Broom Polo Day. Instead of trotting sedately around the ring, following one another in line as we popped over a little cross rail or practiced our equitation, we were handed brooms and directed to chase down a large rubber ball, smacking it between goal posts that had been arranged at either end of the arena.

It was insane. We became fiends as we clung to our ponies necks, throwing ourselves into a vicious melee, bouncing our ponies off each other as we crowded in for a hit. We chased the ball from one end of the arena to the other, howling like demons. The ponies got into it too, running flat out at our direction, spinning on a dime to make a course change, letting us hang off their sides as we swung down for a stinging hit. I suspect never in a million years would we be allowed to play Broom Polo these days, but back then we loved it. And the best part was we never knew when Broom Polo Day would appear. One day we were practicing our positions, remembering to keep our heels down and shoulders back, and the next, for one glorious hour a year, we rode like we were Centaurs–at one with the horse. It was a sneaky way of teaching us riding wasn’t always about looking pretty.

This past weekend, instead of struggling with the barely started WIP that already needed to have a plot hole fixed, I accepted the plea of a friend to pinch hit in a fandom fest. Though rusty as hell and not convinced I could even portray the characters I loved so that a fan would recognize them, I sat down at the laptop to pound out the required word count for the fest, only to end up with twelve times as many words as I needed. I won’t say it was effortless, but it might as well have been compared to the difficulty I’ve had writing lately.

What was the difference?

I was having fun. It was Broom Polo Day, but for writing.

And it taught me something very important. Sometimes it’s okay just to play. To throw off the restrictions of rules and “this is what you should do” and just let ‘er rip. And no, I’m not going to go back to reading and writing fanfic the way I did at the height of my obsession. But I will remember sometimes you need to focus on telling the story first before you worry about how well you’re telling that story. That the first draft is galloping toward the ball and smacking it with glee across the arena. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts that let us look pretty while sending that ball through the goal posts.

So my advice to myself in these coming weeks? It’s okay to bang the story out sometimes without paying as much attention to the rules. Sometimes it’s the best way to get back in the groove when you’ve lost your mojo. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun and ride like a demon. You can always go back to sitting up and pretty when the time comes.

Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

Let me start off by saying first of all, this is not meant to be a whiny post about how I wish I could quit my Evil Day Job and spend all my time writing books (although I do). Nor is it a contest to see whose job sucks the most. Since I’m writing this post, chances are I’ll think it’s mine, no matter what you say. 🙂

It’s a post about walking that fine line between being able to do your job to the best of your ability and burnout–and what to do about it.

See, I think most of us are closer to burnout than we think. It’s almost a given these days. Who hasn’t heard of the newly minted lawyer or the medical resident who is worked to the bone as some sort of rite of passage, putting in over a hundred hours a week into a job that demands nothing less because they think that’s how it’s done. That’s how you advance, become partner, a senior staffer, move up in management. That one day you’ll have the corner office and the healthy paycheck and you’ll be able to catch up on sleep or your kid’s recitals or afford that really awesome vacation.

Only it’s never enough, is it? Because (at least in the US), our workplaces demand more and more from us every year, expecting us to get more done with less support staff, improve the bottom line with fewer rewards. Accept a “promotion” that is largely a title for doing the work we’re already performing. Forcing senior, experienced employees out because they can hire two new graduates for what they have to pay the veteran employee. I recently overheard employees at my local grocery discussing how everyone’s hours have been slashed to just under full time so the national chain can avoid paying benefits like health insurance. At the same time, the company is replacing cashiers with automated systems for checkout, and eating the cost of shoplifting instead of keeping the live people on staff.

And we accept it because we’re scared we’ll be the next on the chopping block.

I live in a rural area where work is hard to come by. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, which as I age, increasingly includes medical bills. I’m lucky to have a FT job which contributes significantly to the household economy. I know this. And at the same time, I resent the degree to which the job owns me.

I resent putting in 10 hour days and having that never be enough. I resent the advent of mobile technology making you accessible to your employer 24/7 with demands you fix something or take care of something on what should be your down time. Twenty years ago, my employer would have paid my health insurance in full as a perk of the job. Now I’m expected to contribute $400/month out of my paycheck every month to retain coverage.

I resent coming home at the end of a long day irritable and fried, unable to interact pleasantly with those I love. By the time I get to the house, I’m too tired to make reasonable decisions about what to have for dinner, let alone find the energy to work on the current story. I don’t like the person I am right now. And yet I scarcely know how to change.

It’s a little thing, but one of the dictates of my workplace is that management gives me the next day’s assignments before I’m finished the current day’s work so I can review them in advance. They take this one step further in that I receive the workload for the day after my day off as well. The end result is my inbox is never empty. I never get to check off the day’s assignments as complete because there is always more sitting in my inbox.

Small wonder I dream about work as though I’ve never left, nightmares in which I look out the office window to see long lines of people waiting to be seen, like the lines outside Best Buy before a Black Friday sale. I never get to say I’m done for the day.

For a while now, I’ve been saying I’m on the edge of burnout, because in my head, “burned out” is a state of non-functionality, where you are incapable of doing your job, one step away from a nervous breakdown. Not willing to declare myself a charred cinder, I admit to being close just the same. And I have to admit there are days when the idea of a nervous breakdown sounds good if it means weeks spent in an asylum with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling.

But I’m starting to think the gradient toward burnout is more subtle than you’d suspect. Whatever it is, I think I’m nearly there.

But if I am, then what? I still have bills to pay. I can’t just lie on the couch and read books all day, though I’d dearly love to give that a shot for a few weeks.

Which was why I was glad to stumble across Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Various people on my social media feeds had been talking about it, and though I didn’t want to admit to actual burnout, I felt I was close enough to consider reading it.

I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’m already of the opinion almost every woman I know could benefit from reading it. Not just those suffering from near burnout, either from work or their family lives, but also women struggling with PTSD, or relentless perfectionism, or just the demands that society seems to place on most of us. Men, too, with their struggle to meet society’s needs as well as those of their families, all while holding their emotions tightly in check.

According to the book, the biggest factors in burnout stem from never completing the cycle: as cavemen, if we were attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, we either survived the attack or we died. If we died, our stress was over. If we survived, there was a huge sense of relief and a celebration among our other cave-dwellers as  we shared our story of our exciting near-miss. The adrenaline spiked, our muscles expended the energy in our survival, and then it was over.

In modern society, it is never over. The saber-toothed tigers are always with us, snapping at our heels, demanding we run faster, jump higher to escape–only we never do. We nap fitfully on the ledge outside our caves, always ready to leap up and run again.

Small wonder we struggle with weight issues here in the US. Our adrenal glands are on maximum overload all the time. And how do we handle stress? We eat. It’s a physiologic drive for survival because we always feel under threat.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can change things given I have so little say so in how management tells me to do my job. But change I must. I can’t keep dozing on the edge of my ledge, longing for the day when I’ll be able to rest knowing I am in a saber-toothed tiger-free zone.

So while I take most self-help books with a grain of salt, this one is resonating with me.

Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

TW for frightening world news events and the despair they cause. (I promise I’ll make it better, though)

 

 

I have a new book coming out this week, and I gotta tell you.

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

I’m not the only one. I think when you take the natural reticence many authors have about self-promotion and add it to the fact most days, the world news is a dumpster fire, it’s difficult to feel right about promoting something as trivial as a new book, or celebrating any event in your life. What if you line up a bunch of timed social media releases, and they hit your timeline on the same day of some horrific event? I don’t know about you, but something like that makes me cringe inside. If that happened, I’d rush off and delete the rest of any planned posts and downplay my book news.

And yet, as of the first of this month, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days in the year. It’s fair to say it’s nigh unto impossible to avoid releasing your doves of happy news on a day when nothing bad has happened. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn of fresh horror: be it rampant, unchecked government corruption (honestly, there are too many stories to link here), the acceleration of climate change, the news that the same insecticides killing the bees are also affecting songbirds, another dozen stories on racial injustice, or whatever hits the news that day. With today’s social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to world events, whether or not the reporting is accurate.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a reporter who attended a romance conference under false pretenses in order to blast the industry and those who work in it. A point this so-called journalist kept making was that these authors came together to “peddle their soft porn” while “the Amazon burns.” Essentially, she compared romance authors to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (another case of history being written by the victors).

The article by this journalist seeking a free weekend away from her kids enraged many romance readers and writers alike. And for me, it pointed out one glaring hole in her argument about the frivolousness and uselessness of romance stories: as long as the Amazon burns, ANYTHING someone takes pleasure in counts as a selfish waste of time. That includes taking your kids to Little League, being excited about a new job, sharing your vacation pictures online, or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. By this standard, there should be no sports fans, no knitting groups, no book clubs. Why bother getting a new puppy or kitten; we’re all going to die.

Problem is, that holds true regardless if the end is 20 minutes or 200 years from now. Sneering at romance is simply more acceptable than belittling diehard football fans.

Face it, “the Amazon burns” is the perfect metaphor for human civilization as a whole right now. Moderating climate change should be our greatest priority, but that requires a whole chain of events, including putting people in power who believe in science and prioritize global concerns instead of lining their pockets. To take pleasure in the little things in life isn’t a repudiation of making things better in the world.

It helps.

It reminds us the world is worth saving, that people are worth saving. That there are good things in this world, worth sharing with others.

On a more practical level, our social media interconnectedness, while great for sharing things, can also make us more anxious and depressed. And for many, reading is a stress-reducing activity as powerful, if not more so, than meditation. I know this to be true. Without even realizing it, I stumbled upon this a few years ago. I work long hours at a high-stress job, and while I’ve always been a big reader, I desperately needed to spend my 20 minute lunch break with a book each day. If I’m behind my book, don’t talk to me. Don’t expect me to answer work-related questions. I’m the taxi driver sitting at the wheel with the OFF DUTY sign engaged. That twenty minutes absorbed in a story is twenty minutes in which my brain has disengaged from a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety. And I can take a deep breath and come back to slog through the rest of the day’s problems.

The truth is, regardless of whether the world is on fire, we still have to go to work, raise our kids, take care of our elderly parents, deal with relationship issues or that cancer diagnosis, decide if we should take the promotion that moves us across country, and mow the lawn. We still have to live our lives and living without joy is no way to live at all.

So I say, revel in your vacation photos to the Grand Tetons. Celebrate your daughter’s win at the science fair or your son’s award in the local talent contest. Post your puppy pictures and make someone smile. Learn to crochet. Share images of that crafting project you finally completed. Go out to that anniversary dinner. Laugh with friends over a movie. Live-Tweet your favorite TV show or the book you’re reading.

And don’t be afraid to promote your art. It might be exactly the thing that helps someone get through their day.

Social Media Do’s and Don’ts: Sometimes You Should Just Shut Up

This past weekend, I made a bone-headed move.

A Big Name Author I follow on Twitter bravely shared the fact she was starting new medication and that she had a lot of anxiety about doing so.

With all the best intentions in the world, I jumped into her Twitter stream to share my experiences with the same medication. My hope was to prepare her for potential side effects. See, a few years back, before I figured out that even a small amount of caffeine would send my blood pressure skyrocketing into the stratosphere, an urgent care doctor decided I was having panic attacks and put me on Ativan.

Unfamiliar with the medication, I asked if there were any restrictions taking it. I was told it might make me sleepy and it may be better to take it at night. On Wednesday evening, I took my first dose. On Thursday, I went to work as usual, taking another dose that night. On Friday, one of my co-workers called me at home–highly unusual. She called because she thought I seemed strange and out of it at work the day before. We talked on the phone for a half hour.

To this day, I don’t remember any of the conversation we had.

Also on Friday, I drove through a red light. When I realized what I’d done, I merely shrugged. And took the next dose.

Saturday evening, my husband and I watched a movie with a slightly sad scene in it. I burst into hiccupping, stuttering sobs, and punched him in the shoulder as I told him he was never allowed to pick the movies again. I also took the next dose. On Sunday, I could not find the barrettes I used to pull back my hair, and I came THIS CLOSE to chopping off all my hair with a pair of pinking shears. I’m not joking. A few minutes later, the young cat picked a fight with the old cat and I came THIS CLOSE to booting him outside–and we lived close to a busy interstate at the time.

My desire to kick my 100% indoor cat that I’d raised from a kitten out of the house into traffic finally brought me up short. Only then did it occur to me to wonder if the medication could possibly be affecting me. I stopped taking it, and the next day contacted my regular doctor, who had a fit when she heard the milligram strength of the dose I’d been taking. 

“That’s four times the starting dose I would have put you on!”

Needless to say, not only did I stop taking the Ativan, but I also figured out that caffeine was the culprit, and though cutting out coffee and soda cold turkey was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, my BP went back to normal when I did.

I still refer to that time as my “Britney Spears Weekend,” and I don’t mean that unkindly. Medications can have powerful, unforeseen effects.

Recently, due to a ridiculous series of tragic events, the subject of putting me back on Ativan came up again. Naturally, I resisted the idea. But it turned out that a quarter of the original dose works quite well for me when I occasionally need it.

And that was the point I’d intended to make to the Big Name Author, namely, work with your doctor, make sure you get the dose right, and trust your gut if something seems wrong. So, while I’m out walking the dogs, I typed in a shortened version of what I shared here. When I finished the third tweet, I suddenly realized what an awful thing I’d done. For someone anxious about trying a new medication, my story was the WORST thing they could possibly hear! Dope slapping myself all the while, I deleted my thread.

Sometimes you just have to know when to shut up.

I think that’s harder these days than it used to be. We’re so connected now via social media, and so many sites request our input I believe we’ve all been groomed to think our opinions are of paramount value, right or wrong. From Amazon to Yelp, from our dentists to the local hardware store, we’re constantly bombarded with messages reminding us to leave a comment, a review, our input. I don’t think this is a bad thing overall, but I  do think it makes it hard to remember sometimes we haven’t been asked. That our experience isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all of someone else’s existence.

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind as I interact online these days. Sometimes I get it wrong. What helps is if I keep my mouth shut and listen for a change.

But hey, when I ask you for your opinion at the end of this post here, I mean it. I really want to hear what your experience has been!

 

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

A Hint of Fall

Anyone who knows me knows I hate summer.

I’m an autumn girl all the way. Give me the crackle of dead leaves scuffling along the sidewalk underfoot. The morning air as cool and crisp as that first bite of a juicy red apple. A touch of frost rimming the blades of grass. Boots, sweaters, and cups of frothy hot chocolate. Long walks in the woods as the trees drape the mountains in shades of red, orange, and gold. Autumn is all things pumpkin, and baking pies, and galloping your horse across an open field surrounded by the glorious change of leaves all around.

But I get ahead of myself.

I come by my dislike of summer honestly. Growing up in the South, summer means mosquitoes the size of tractors, which all seem to know the instant I step outside the house. Ticks. Copperheads. Air too thick to breathe. Sunburn. Poison ivy. Clothes that become damp the moment you exit an air-conditioned room. My mother hated air conditioning and relegated it to one room only–I used to lie in the hallway at the edge of the closed door and whimper at the small draft of relief that wafted out from beneath it.

At night, my sister and I shared a room with an oscillating fan. The huge metal fan swung slowly from side to side as we lay panting for breath in our twin beds, holding out for the blissful 20 seconds when the air passed over us. I had asthma and allergies as a child, so breathing at night was an issue. I remember once my sister crawling out of bed to sneak to my side. Leaning down, she whispered, “If you don’t stop breathing so loud, I will kill you.”

Yeah. Yay for summer.

My mother also had strong feelings about the amount of skin her children were allowed to expose–sensible, given we all burned and blistered at the drop of a hat. But that meant long sleeves, long pants, and large floppy hats even when it was 100 degrees out. Wearing T-shirts over our swim suits because they didn’t make sunscreen strong enough to protect us back then. Add to that my poor vision, and summers by the lake or pool weren’t all the fun for me, as I had to leave my glasses on my towel. As an adult, between the mosquitoes and the sunburn risk, I still avoid tank tops, shorts, and sandals. It’s too ingrained at this point.

So believe me when I say that I live for that first day–usually in September–when the temperatures dip 20 degrees F. That day when the humidity breaks and it’s actually pleasant to be outside. The dogs stop panting in the shade and become playful again. It doesn’t last, this brief promise of cooler weather to come. It’s a tease, a reminder that eventually summer ends. Most times, the temperatures shoot back up again, and sadly, “summer” is lasting longer and longer, outstaying its welcome, as far as I’m concerned. Autumn, the time I jokingly refer to as my Holy Season, is scarcely more than a few weeks now. October, my favorite month, starts out hot more often than not, as the leaves turn brown and the light spectrum shifts from gold to winter white. November’s rains, with gloomy skies and naked trees, comes all to quickly.

This past weekend, we had a glimpse of the change of seasons to come. A break in the 90 degree F+ heat and humidity, a breath of fresh air. I rode the horse, and thought about taking the dogs for a run in the woods, but the day got away from me. I regret that now. Part of the problem with having so little free time is I have to pick and choose how to spend it. I’ve got a book on deadline I’m trying to finish, and I managed to complete 1500 words on a new story. But that meant skipping the hike with the dogs in the woods and doing something closer to home. The nice weather is supposed to linger another day or so.

I plan to enjoy it.

What’s your favorite time of the year and why? I want to know!

Sometimes Less is More

Except for a few short breaks, I’ve been at the keyboard for the last 12 hours now.

I fed the animals and took the dogs out for potty breaks. I fixed a series of healthy snacks–if you count cheese and crackers, cookies, buttered toast, and apple pie as ‘healthy’. There was an intense break when I stormed around the yelling that the ziplock bag with all the chargers HAD to be in the house because I’d used the phone charger since my return from RWA (I found it under a pile of clean clothes from the trip). But starting at 8 am, I had my butt in the chair, determined to finish the edits I’d been working on for the last week. I had to get them done—I have a deadline.

I also wanted to get them done by 3 pm because that’s when the online writing course I’m taking had its next session. I haven’t been keeping up with either of the online courses I’m currently taking because, yeah, edits, but I had high hopes of  getting caught up if I just worked hard enough.

At 3:05 pm, I discovered the document I’d been working on all morning had phrases in it I thought I’d deleted the day before. That’s when it hit me: that little glitch I’d experienced the night before, when the elderly laptop suddenly closed the file I was working on? Yeah, when I recovered the file, it was an old version. I’d lost all my edits and there was no way to recover them.

Bad words were said. Tears were shed. And I came this close to chucking the whole thing. Not just the draft, but the whole shebang. The writing, the marketing, the constant push to do better, the entire demoralizing, nerve-wracking, frustrating process. I was ready to quit.

I felt as though I’d wasted the entire week, the evenings clacking away at the keyboard after work, the hours not walking the dogs, or riding the horse. The house uncleaned, the laundry undone. Heck, I still haven’t finished unpacking from our remodel and it’s been nearly six months. I could have been doing that instead of working on a book that only a handful of people will ever read. (Yeah, I was that down)

The good news is I didn’t chuck the draft, though I was sorely tempted. I had too much invested in it. I’ve been working on this story since before my mother died over a year ago. I have a cover I adore. And I like these characters a lot. They deserve to have their story told. I want to share their story with you.

So instead of participating in my online class, I went back to the keyboard and worked on restoring as much of the edits as I could remember. I worked for another five hours before deciding to stop for the evening. I tried to get as much done as I could today because working piecemeal around my day job makes everything harder. The edits went better than I’d expected, and with luck, I can get them done in the next few days.

But I learned a few things along the way.

First: I don’t really need to take any online courses right now. I’m up to my eyeballs in courses, books, articles, and videos I don’t have time to read or watch. They’re lined up on my shelves, stuffed in my inbox, and languishing on my hard drive. I’ve been shelling out money to learn more about the business of writing in all its forms, hoping against hope I’ll somehow find the magic formula that will make me an awesome writer AND bring my stories to international attention at the same time… while I think this is all important and necessary if I want this ever to be more than an expensive (exasperating, frustrating, and depressing) hobby, I also have to write the stories in the first place. So maybe the smartest thing for me to do right now is contact the class moderators and explain I need to drop out.

Second: I don’t run well on a steady diet of sugar and carbs. Seriously. I need more green things in my diet. Ditto with getting up and moving around from time to time.

Third: I was on fire to assimilate and implement the knowledge I received at RWA, but like Rome, my writing career won’t be built in a day. A lot of what I learned at RWA simply isn’t applicable to me at my current stage of my career. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever use that information, or that I won’t even begin using some of it now. But I can’t start putting up walls if I haven’t laid the foundation yet.

Fourth: I wasn’t a very nice person today. I hissed and struck like an irritable rattlesnake, blowing up over stupid things and then losing my cool when I discovered the glitch. I know I’m stressed by my work, the state of the world, and all the personal things I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, but the writing is supposed to be the fun part. The part that brings joy into my life I can then share with others.

I don’t want to be this person. The person snarling and snapping at everyone around them because I don’t have enough time or energy to do the things I think need to be done.

Fifth: I have to let some things go. I can’t do everything I want or need to do in a given 24 hours. I need to re-evaluate and prioritize, making way for the stuff I really want to do. Do a Marie Kondo on my life, but the mental and emotional aspects of it. If it doesn’t bring me joy, let it go.

So I will drop out of the coursework. I’ve got enough material to keep me occupied for a very long time, so no more new stuff until I’ve made a dent in what I already have. I’ll finish the edits. I’ll go back to doing self-care stuff—meditation, listening to music, taking the dogs for long walks in the woods (okay, when it’s cooler…). I will spend LESS TIME ON SOCIAL MEDIA. I will go back to the heart of why I do this: the writing itself.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover my better self again. The one who is kind, compassionate, and fun to be around. Not just the person my dogs think I am, but the one they deserve. Let’s hope so, at any rate.

Why Editors are like Riding Instructors

Recently, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, I wound up with a story with an incomplete edit. Anyone in the writing business knows how hard it is to find a good editor at the best of times. When you’re in the middle of fording the river, it’s a terrible time to switch horses. But it couldn’t be helped.

I tried to explain the difficulties to a friend of mine. “It’s like trying to find a new hairdresser right before a major event. You don’t know if you’ll get a genius or a disaster.”

I could see I hadn’t convinced her. And then it came to me. The perfect analogy. “It’s like finding another riding instructor.”

As a horsewoman herself, she instantly got it.

I’ve written in the past about the similarities to writing and riding horses, so it should come as no surprise I find editing and riding instruction comparable activities, too. There is a lot of commonality between the two roles.

A good riding instructor assesses your skill level and does her best to make sure you understand the basics of horsemanship before putting you in a situation where you might get hurt. (What you do on your own time without her knowledge is on you) Good riding instructors are skilled at reading their students. They are firm because making mistakes could kill you. They know when someone needs encouragement and praise. They are quick to dole out correction when someone makes a bone-headed move. They know when to push a student to the next level and when to stop someone before they jeopardize themselves and the horses they ride. The best instructors can do this without demoralizing or belittling their students, all while pointing out bad habits and little errors that will keep you from winning in the show ring. They also realistically assess your level of talent, dedication, and the ability of your mount, and try not to over-face you. The goal is to keep you safe, and make you and your horse the best possible team you can be.

Likewise, a good editor will pick up on those habitual phrases you use and correct your SPAG. They’ll praise your writing’s strengths and point out its weaknesses. They’ll drill the basics into until you can perform them in your sleep—until you automatically correct your own draft before sending it in to them for editing. And if you’re not ready for “competition”, they’ll tell you. They’ll also tell you when it’s time to move up in the ranks and push yourself harder. The goal is to help you make your story the best possible story it can be.

The relationship between a writer and editor, or student and riding instructor, is a special one. The person giving the expert advice is in a position of power. A thoughtless or overly harsh criticism can to do great harm. What works for one paired team might not work for another. Sometimes the only thing that keeps a person plugging away after crushing criticism is a deep abiding love for the thing they desire: be it riding horses or writing stories.

I’ve had riding instructors tell me I had no business being on a horse—and for a while, I believed them. I’ve ridden with an Olympic coach—and had him consider me and my backyard nag beneath his notice. I’ve also successfully competed with my slaughter-house mount and won reserve champion with the highest test score of the event. It took me many years and many instructors to find the right one for me. It wasn’t easy. Just because you find the right person doesn’t mean that relationship is all rainbows and flowers, either. There are times when I get deeply frustrated with my instructor, but you know what? Most of the time she’s right.

There are a lot of reasons why you might need a new editor. Maybe you’ve outgrown the one you started with, or their life circumstances have changed and they can no longer work with you. Maybe you tried someone’s services and recognize they aren’t a good fit for you. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are to train a horse. Trust your instincts and do what is best for you. Find the person whose advice resonates for you. If you disagree, ask yourself why? Are you resisting sound advice because it’s hard taking your writing to the next level or because that advice is wrong for you and your story?

Because in the end, it’s just you and that half-ton beast galloping down to that double oxer. The instructor might have given you the tools to get to the obstacle, but you’re the one jumping it.

Surviving the Daily News: Comfort Reads

At this year’s Romance Writer’s Association conference, keynote speaker Jennifer L. Armentrout made a powerful statement regarding our work as storytellers with an emphasis on happy endings: “Your stories save lives.”

On the surface, that may seem to some like a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think so. I can look back at cycles in my life where things were so bad, where every day was a struggle to get out of bed and go to work, where I found little joy in the things I cared about most, and I needed help to get through my day–again and again I can point to certain books that got me through those dark times. I tend to plunge into a series during these times, devouring at least a book a day. The story must engage and MUST end well. Surprisingly, mysteries often fit this bill, as long as they aren’t too grim or realistic. Mysteries that come to a satisfying conclusion can be just as good as romances for pulling me out of a dark news cycle or a life full of stress. The most important thing is that this form of entertainment not stress me further. That’s why romances reliably deliver the HEA I need when the world is a dumpster fire.

When things are really bad, I reach even farther back. I pull out the books of my youth: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or The Blue Castle. I dig out the horse (or dog) books I read as a child: Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, or the Black Stallion by Walter Farley, or Silver Chief: Dog of the North by Jack O’Brien.

Most of the time, I’m looking to recapture that joy experienced when I first read these books–the total immersion into another world. I can look to how many times I’ve re-read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters and recall the happiness it brings me instead of the circumstances which made me read it again.

So when I woke to another news cycle of horror, of people spouting useless platitudes instead of taking definitive action to end a cycle of unspeakable violence in our country, like many people, I furiously made my opinion known. I lent my voice to others saying ENOUGH. I magnified the voices of others calling for change. I wasn’t the only one.

But as the day went on, I noticed other voices quietly begging for recommendations for comfort reads and shows to watch to shut off the anxiety and depression these news cycles bring. I saw fellow authors express guilt for announcing new releases or cover art and heard other creators beg the collective community to keep celebrating their works. It’s not wrong to want relief from horrific world events, especially when we’re all more connected than ever, especially when it feels as though we’re hurtling toward a battlefield from which we can’t turn back.

We have a long battle in front of us. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop and rest along the way. That we shouldn’t eat or sleep until we win the war. That path leads to madness and a level of grief and depression we can’t overcome. It’s okay to curl up with a book and shut out the world for a while. To turn off social media and watch four or five episodes of Due South. To remember what it was like to immerse yourself in the Secret Garden or journey to Narnia.

It’s also okay for us as creators to keep creating. More than okay–it’s vital. Not only to our own mental health but to anyone who reads our story (or hangs our paintings, listens to our music, watches our films) and finds a measure of peace there.

So if you as an artist are feeling despair right now, remember, someone needs your work. And if you feel guilty for promoting your latest work, it’s okay to take pleasure in something positive we’ve created. There’s a lot of negative energy in this world. It’s not only okay to put back some pleasure, it’s part of the battle.

So tell me, what are your comfort reads/comfort watches? I want to know.

What I learned from my first RWA Conference

Last week I attended the Romance Writers Association Conference for the first time. It was very much out of my comfort zone on many levels, and yet I learned so very much. I’m enriched for the experience and I have so much to process and assimilate now!

Obviously I can’t begin to list all the things I learned. I wish I could–it would go a long way to helping me retain and utilize all the wonderful tips and advice I received. And maybe if I get my act together, I can do some blog posts on some of the workshops I attended–though truth be told, by the end of the second day, my poor little brain was on information-overload. I’m not sure I could do justice to the seminars I attended.

So this is more of a bullet-points post about the things I experienced and what I got out of it:

  • You don’t need as many clothes as you think you do. Pack a set of clothes for each day of the conference, something for the parties, and a couple of T-shirts if you decide to be a tourist.
  • SAVE SPACE IN YOUR LUGGAGE FOR BOOKS. You will be given a crap-ton of books, and the last thing you want to do is leave them behind for lack of space!
  • COMFORTABLE SHOES ARE MANDATORY. Yes, bring something pretty for party-wear, but try to plan your outfits so one pair of heels works for all the dressy events–back to saving space in your luggage!
  • The hotel elevators often suck–so build in time to get from one session to the next. However, don’t hate on the slow transportation too much–some of my best meetings occurred on escalators and in elevators!
  • Wear your FIRST TIMER ribbon. This opens the door for people to talk to you and ask you about your con experience. I saw this advice posted on Twitter and I’m so glad I did! Everyone was really nice. 🙂
  • The Goody Room is awesome! Clever, inventive swag, free stuff–including books! Paper swag, such as bookmarks and cards, are easy to make and easy to pick up–but it’s also the easiest for someone to discard, too. I got some great ideas about things to try out next, though, including nail polish and hand-held fans! With my own swag, hardly anyone took any buttons, but ALL of my books went, as well as all of my pens. I noticed a lot of other people with pens who had no takers–but mine were really decent pens, if I do say so myself. I doubt anyone will be tossing those away!
  • Carry business cards with you at all times–it goes without saying, right? But I got a fantastic tip from Aimee Easterling (one of the speakers I met at the keynote breakfast): jot down notes on the back of the card to help you remember the conversation you had with the person or the context in which you met–terrific idea!
  • They don’t feed you at the RITA awards ceremony. I made the mistake of assuming they did, and my husband and I ended up chowing down on hard lemon candies and then bolting to the bar when it was over to grab something to eat. We were starving!
  • Most events are cash bars only. Which is puzzling to me–they can’t use a Square? But yeah, carry cash to most of your after-hours events if you want drinks. This includes non-alcoholic beverages as well–including *water* at the RITAs.

Some other useful tidbits I discovered:

  • Harlequin throws a pretty awesome party. Massages, manicures, appetizers, temporary tattoos, a prize wheel, and an open bar–all at their party to launch their new ReadBliss website.
  • The Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Romance Writers (a chapter of RWA) throw a pretty wicked party too. We were encouraged to come in costume, and everyone had a blast. I even danced–something I don’t normally do. If you write in these genres, I highly recommend you join this chapter.
  • Being up for an award is terrific–but winning isn’t everything. I had some fantastic, interesting, and enlightening conversations hanging out with the hosts after my awards event, and it was utterly delightful. I highly recommend submitting your next romance story to the Greater Detroit Romance Writers Association Booksellers Best Award
  • I learned this from watching my husband (who didn’t have a horse in this race) chat with people: Be a conversation starter by asking questions of fellow attendees. Let other people talk about their books. Ask about their convention experience and what sessions they’ve found the most useful so far. Don’t just “wait your turn” so you can jump in with your own information.

If you’re like me and from a small town (population 15,000) then 48 hours in NYC can leave you in a meltdown from sensory overload. By the evening of the second day, I was certain I was doing everything about writing and marketing wrong, and I wanted nothing more than to hide out in my room with a pint of ice cream. Most of us writers are introverts–yet at the same time, we seldom have a set of people to talk craft with–so there’s a push-me pull-you about socializing, attending meetings, and needing time to recharge. If you find yourself getting weepy and depressed, chances are you need a break from the activities. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to take it! You’ll get more out of the rest of the conference if you do!

The speeches were amazing. I don’t just mean the acceptance speeches–a high proportion of those were given by writers rendered speechless by their unexpected wins–but some came eloquently prepared. No, I mean the emcee, Sarah MacLean, and the various presenters, the nod to trailblazers in the industry, and keynote speech by Jennifer L. Armentrout, who reminded us that “I’m here to tell you, 100%, you have saved someone’s life. And for all of you…who are publishing soon–you are going to save someone’s life.” and with that profound reminder, this: “Romance books save lives. Maybe it’s not changing the world but it’s changing the individual who can then change the world. Which is why it’s so important for romance to mirror the reader.”

Along those lines, I was privileged to see history in the making. Up until this year, despite the fact the RWA was co-founded by a black woman, no black author has ever won a RITA award. This year’s RITA award winners included two black authors, as well as a South-Asian author. Kennedy Ryan won Best Long Contemporary with Long Shot. M. Malone won the Romance Novella category with Bad Blood, and My So-called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma won the YA Romance division. I don’t single out these winners to diminish the other winners of this year’s awards by any means. I mention them because, as Courtney Milan noted on Twitter today, they were brilliant enough to get over a bar set higher for them.

It was also an utter delight to watch J.R. Ward receive a RITA for Best Paranormal Romance with Dearest Ivie, in part because she looked amazing, but also because she herself seemed utterly astonished and delighted to have won. And I cheered when I heard them announce Susannah Nix‘s name for Best Mid-Length Contemporary Romance with Advanced Physical Chemistry–I love her science-based books! As well as Elia Winters for Three-Way Split in the Erotic Romance category–I only began following her a few days before the conference, so how cool is that?

You know what else I love? I love the fact so many of these authors were self-published. It gives me hope that one day I might be sitting in that audience as a finalist, and not just an enthusiastic guest.

So to sum it up: the RWA conference was an amazing experience that I feel lucky to have been able to attend. I have a lot of information to absorb, process, and act upon, and I hope that I’ll be able to go again in the future. Next time, I won’t be so green, and hopefully I’ll pace myself a bit better too!