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!

 

 

We’re All a Little Bit Weird, and That’s Okay

I came very close to deleting this post. I’d gotten 3/4 of the way through it, only to have a lightning strike take out the transformer near our home. By the time the power came back, not only was it quite late (and I’d pretty much missed the #MondayBlogs window) but I also had second thoughts about the content. But then I read something online about the Us vs Them mentality, and it made me decide to finish the blog and publish it anyway.

You see, for some time now, I’ve suspected the need to categorize people into Us and Them is something deeply ingrained in human nature. When you think about it, survival pressure has probably selected for those of us who have the ability to organize ourselves in communities, since those who live in groups have increased survival rates. But the flip side of this benefit is the tendency to see everyone that is not Us as Them. It’s as though we’re constantly playing a game of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” only the consequences of saying “You don’t belong” has gone far beyond kids sorting themselves into Jocks and Nerds. That process itself is not innocuous either: there are real consequences to bullying and being ostracized. But that’s just one end of a spectrum that includes racism, homophobia, misogyny, sports team rivalry, and more.

In the past, not being part of a tribe could get you killed–but the process of sorting you into a tribe can be an anxious one. I think J.K. Rowling got it right when she depicted the competition and tension between Houses at Hogwarts, and the concern Harry had about being sorted into the ‘right’ house.

More than ever, politics has become a polarizing issue here in the US, especially given the fact that people’s lives are at stake. It’s gone far beyond “this is what I believe” and entered into the “You want to kill me and mine” category. People are drawing lines in the sand and standing by their candidate no matter what. In fact, at a recent gathering of friends, we had to declare a ‘no politics’ rule. Not because I don’t think we could have discussed the current issues without coming to blows, but mostly because we’re all so sick of it and we were there to get away for a few days. But the subject of Us against Them came up, and it struck me that this mindset was so deeply rooted in all of us that probably the ONLY thing that would unite us as one people on this planet would be the threat of an alien invasion or the threat of another pandemic–which is a nightmare for another day.

Sometimes, in my fear of the hatred and hostility I see out there, I forget the value of having tribes. The importance of finding *your* tribe, the place where the people get you. The people with whom you can be your real self.

Last month I had the chance to attend a big sci-fi convention. It was the first time I’ve been able to go to one of these in at least ten years. My husband had to back out for work-related reasons, which almost made me cancel the trip myself. I rarely travel, and for me, a trip to the Big City means going into Raleigh. I tend to get overwhelmed by large crowds, too. But the tickets had been purchased and I was going to meet up with friends, so I decided to go after all. Most of my friends are as introverted as I am, so if I said I needed to take a break and go to my room, everyone would likely understand.

Most of the friends I was meeting were people I’d met before, but each of them brought friends of their own. Initially, I found myself somewhat nervous about meeting so many new people. Under those circumstances, I tend to talk too much, and then later, kick myself for things I said at the time. I replay my conversations, wincing at things I said, wishing I’d just kept my mouth shut.

But as the days went on, I noticed something–all of my friends had their own individual quirks. The truth is, we’re all a little bit weird, but in a good way. I started to relax. Lest you think I was congratulating myself for being the ‘normal’ person in a room full of odd ducks, that wasn’t the case at all. I was reassured that everyone there was as weird as I was–and this was okay. It made me realize my particular brand of weirdness would be recognized and accepted by my tribe.

The convention was held at a 4 star hotel–and the contrast between convention goers and the regular guests was noticeable. At one point I got into an elevator with a woman about my age–but we couldn’t have been more different. I was dressed in jeans and a fandom T shirt, my short blonde hair tipped with temporary purple dye. In contrast, the other guest wore a conservative suit and had her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. She made a point of fixing her gaze on the elevator doors, ignoring my presence until she got out.

My con badge identified me as a convention-goer, but truthfully, the badge wasn’t necessary–my whole outfit screamed “FAN!” But for other convention attendees, the badge was an open invitation to start a conversation.

I followed an older gentleman down the corridor one morning. He was using a cane and moving slowly. I didn’t want to be rude and blow past him, so I adjusted my pace accordingly. When we got in the elevator, I noticed he was wearing a con badge. He turned to me and asked if this was my first con. I smiled and told him it was the first in many years. He said he was a new fan, having only recently discovered Stargate streaming on Amazon. He then told me he’d lost his wife the year before, and his son had taken it hard. My heart plummeted at his words. But then he shared that they’d begun watching the show together, and enjoyed it so much that he decided to see if there was a sci-fi convention they could attend. There were tears in my eyes when he confided his son was having a great time, and so was he.

Another encounter occurred when I was waiting in line. A gorgeous woman struck up a conversation with me. She’d noticed me waiting in the same lines, and began telling me how she and her boyfriend (who smiled and nodded as she spoke) had met over a shared love of geeky things. She said no one else understood her passion the way he did, and neither of them had been able to talk about their fandoms until they’d met. They’d traveled a great distance to come to the convention, and despite coming from widely divergent backgrounds, their bond over sci-fi was solid gold. While we were chatting, we broke off to admire a woman passing us who’d dyed her cornrows in the colors of the rainbow.

The last day of the con, I got up early and posed some action figures in front of a little fountain in the hotel lobby so i could take photographs of them. I sensed someone behind me watching, and I looked up with an apologetic “sorry.”

I needn’t have bothered. The guy was dressed in a military uniform from one of the TV shows. He grinned. “No, that’s so cool. Do you have any others at home?”

Er, yes. From Stargate. Doctor Who. Captain America. Wonder Woman. Even Jem and the Holograms. Sometimes I stage huge scenes mixing characters from various shows and movies…

Okay, I admit, it’s a little weird. But it’s fun, and I believe that play is good for all of us, but especially those of us who create. Play fuels imagination, and imagination begets creativity. You should try it sometime. The important part of the story here is that this random stranger didn’t think I was a total freak for carrying action figures with me and taking photos of them because he recognized me on some level as being part of his tribe.

I’ll be travelling to an even bigger convention in a bigger city soon:The Romance Writers Association Conference. It’s my first time attending. I’ll go, swallowing my nervousness, with the hopes of experiencing terrific conversations, meeting in person people I only know from online interactions, and soaking up knowledge and experience. I’ll exchange my Doctor Who T-shirt for my Romancelandia one, my Agent Carter tote for the one that says, “I love Mr. Darcy”, and decorate my bag with buttons that say things like “Writer’s Block: When Your Imaginary Friends Stop Talking to You.” I’ll wear the trappings of my tribe with pride because I want my tribe to recognize me.

It’s a big tribe, and I don’t imagine my presence or absence there will make much of a difference either way. I hope I don’t embarrass myself, the Country Mouse in the Big City. Either way, I’m going with the knowledge we’re all a little bit weird in our own ways, and that’s okay.

 

 

The Art of Loving Yourself

(TW for fatphobia and internalized hate)

 

I have a couple of special events coming up this summer and fall, and these days, that seems to send me into a flurry of self-evaluation and determination–once more–to lose that extra twenty pounds or so. Invariably, I decide on some program–be it keto, or Weight Watchers, or what have you, that I can manage for a few days before the reality of my chaotic life comes crashing down.

Between my recent birthday, shopping for a dress to wear to an awards banquet (in which I’m a finalist, so more pressure), and planning to go to the Romance Writer’s Association Conference for the first time at the end of this month, my drive to lose weight before X date is at an all-time high. Especially since I had a recent photo shoot, and the PT for my knee takes place in a room full of mirrors. Both left me depressed at the frumpy middle-aged woman I’ve become.

Growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. In fact, I was so underweight that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. My dad referred to me as “a bag of bones and a hank of hair”, which felt like a bit of a nasty gibe. It wasn’t until after he passed that I discovered these were the lyrics to an old song, and meant in affection. Though I didn’t have weight issues, I had self-esteem issues just the same. Wild masses of untamed hair rioted over my head like kudzu growing out of control. Coke-bottle thick lenses in heavy glasses since I was eight years old (and I could never successfully wear contacts). A mouth like a gargoyle with teeth jutting out in all directions. I ended up having eight teeth pulled to make room for them all, but this wasn’t done until I was an adult, so for years, I refused to smile and talked behind my hand.

But I never thought twice about my weight. I didn’t even know what cellulite looked like until I hit my forties.

I was a bright kid, too. I never had to study in high school, and graduated with honors only to discover college was a very different deal altogether. College came as a rude awakening for me when I discovered I could no longer coast my way to A’s based on a good memory and a thirst for reading. I was forced to develop good study habits in order to get my degree. But I didn’t gain the ‘freshman twenty’, nor did I have to change my eating habits. In fact, I never gained an ounce until I became my parents’ caretakers, all while working FT, and caring for my own family. All of the sudden, the increased stress and the decreased physical activity caused my weight to balloon up.  And like the high school honors student, I didn’t have the skill set to deal with the changes.

Not to mention, the information out there was often inaccurate, frequently depended on a level of exercise and deprivation no one can maintain, and completely discounted a society that demands we do more on less time. Yes, I know there are people who successfully manage busy, stressful lives while maintaining good food choices and healthy activity, but face it, many of us are forced to choose between taking care of ourselves and the other demands in our lives. And even though logic dictates you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, that’s not what happens for most women. We’re running around seeing that everyone else in our lives gets their oxygen mask safely in place first before we pass out from lack of O2.

I grew up in a house with a mother who had some very odd ideas about food. She didn’t believe in seasoning, and our meals consisted of a very narrow list of ingredients. It turns out she had acne rosacea, which can be triggered by certain foods and spices. I’ve since developed it as well, which has forced me to eliminate several things from a diet that leaned toward picky in the first place.

I think changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Giving up caffeine felt as challenging as how I think giving up heroin or opioids would be–complete with the withdrawal symptoms and the sudden, intense cravings years after you’ve kicked the habit. On a hot summer day, I can walk past a vending machine and visualize putting coins in the unit, hearing the rumble and clunk of the drink hitting the bottom drawer, and picture myself opening an ice-cold Pepsi with condensation running down the side of the can. I can still taste that first sip, even though I haven’t had a Pepsi in over five years now. I have to remind myself caffeine will kill me in order to prevent me from snagging a can. I’m fully convinced one day we’ll discover the soda companies have manipulated the caffeine to make them more addictive, much like the cigarette companies did.

I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but recently a torn meniscus has greatly curtailed my ability to do the things I used to do. I feel fragile. Useless. Old.

Worse, I’m pissed with my body for letting me down. I never used to have to think about it. I took it for granted. And now I can’t anymore. I’ve absolutely hated my body for the last five or so years now, and let me tell you, no one should have to live with that toxic energy aimed at them all the time. Not to mention all that hate has been focused on a body still giving me nearly everything I ask of it. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been so ungrateful for so long.

I’m embarrassed that I’ve been just as demanding, unforgiving, and toxic as some of my former bosses and family members when my body has done its best no matter what. I realize that just being able to say I never gave a thought to my weight or health before means I started at a privileged position at the beginning of the race. I’m ashamed I’ve been so angry at so little for so long.

I’ve tried positive affirmations in the past, but always, with each attempt, a snarky inner voice sneered at the things I told myself because I knew they weren’t true. My husband frequently calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and I roll my eyes at him, or snap, “I don’t feel beautiful.”

But all that’s changed now.

A couple of revelations came one by one over the last few weeks, which led to my little epiphany.

  1. I can look at other people who have much higher BMIs than I do, and think how beautiful they are, or how great that cute outfit looks on them. Why can’t I do that with myself? Why am I so unforgiving and unkind to myself?
  2. I wouldn’t treat anyone or anything I care about with the level of animosity I routinely aim at myself. I’d intervene if I saw someone being treated the way I treat myself each and every day. I would not tolerate this level of abuse from anyone I knew, either. It must stop.
  3. The demand for perfection has never helped me achieve any of my goals. I’ve been punishing myself for not being “enough” my entire life and it hasn’t made my life better, either. If anything, it’s held me back. This applies to so much more than meeting society’s rigid (and impossible) standards of beauty. The desire for perfection in everything has hamstrung me from attempting so many things in life. It’s sucked the joy out of the things I have accomplished. Last summer I hiked up into the Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. The scenery was breath-taking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. But what I remember most about that day was the photo someone took of me and my husband with the majestic mountains as a backdrop. I was wearing a blue top and shorts and I recall thinking when I saw the photo that I looked like a Giant Blueberry. It came close to spoiling not only the day but the entire trip for me. And yet that body that I disrespect so much carried me up that canyon trail. You’d think I’d give it a little credit for that.
  4. It’s hard for me to view a meal that is packed with veggies, nuts, cheese, and an egg as “bad” or “wrong” because it’s the wrong point count or contains too much fat, or it’s not what my caveman ancestors would have eaten. You should see what I usually eat for lunch! A snack pack such as I’ve described above beats the hell out of a hot dog and a packet of chips. With all my dietary restrictions, I’m going to have to find my own path to a healthier diet. And that’s okay. I might not lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks. I might not lose any weight at all. But if I’m healthier for cutting back on the sugar and carbs, or feel better because I’m not eating the foods that disagree with me or trigger reactions, that’s good enough.
  5. This thread on Courtney Milan’s Twitter account. It made me rethink the whole sneering-as-I-attempt-affirmations thing. Go read it, and take it to heart. So much truth there, including the myth of being ‘lazy’ and the risk of over-exercising, and how changes don’t always lead to weight loss but they lead to better mental health, and that is the best reason for making them. 

So while I’m still stressed about what I’m going to wear to the RWA conference, I’m not going to stress about losing ‘enough weight’ before I go shopping. There isn’t time anyway, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is I go and have a great time, hopefully making some new friends and meeting in person friends I know online.

I’ve started thanking my body for giving me its best despite my neglect and abuse, and promising to do better by it.

And this morning, when my husband said, “Hey, Gorgeous”, instead of rolling my eyes, I gave him a hug and said,”Thank you.”

I think I’m finally understanding it when people say one of the great things about getting older is letting go of so many negative thoughts and feelings you believed to be true in the past. It’s very liberating.

 

The Law of Attraction: Be Careful What You Put Out There

I had a weird conversation with my sister the other day. I’d just been about to call her to let her know I’d be in NYC next month for the RWA Conference, as I have a book that’s a finalist in the 2019 Booksellers’ Best Awards. It was an unexpected honor, and I hadn’t planned on attending RWA this year, but that all changed when I got the call from the BBA. It’s been years since I’ve been to NYC, so after I booked my hotel and flight, I’d planned to call my sister and arrange to meet up with her.

Before I could contact her, however, she called me. She’d just gotten word she’s been transferred to her company’s office in Milan! She’s been studying Italian with the hope of getting this promotion and she was calling to let me know she’d just purchased a one-way ticket to Italy for the end of this month. She’ll no longer be living in NYC when I arrive.

We were both excited about our respective news. I’m delighted for her–she sounds so positive about this change in her life and more upbeat than I’ve heard her be in a long time. But when she offered her congratulations to me, I did my usual self-deprecation tap dance. It truly is an honor to be a finalist–in fact, I’m gobsmacked that I am! But I don’t anticipate winning this award. I’ve seen the competition, and it’s fierce.That in and of itself makes being a top three finalist even more of a big deal.

But my sister chastised me for saying so. “Don’t put that out there,” she said. To my surprise, she went on to say that good things were coming to both of us this year, something that had been confirmed by an astrologist.

My cynical, frequently bitter sister had consulted an astrologist? And believed what this person had told her? Apparently so. More than that, she appeared to be practicing the tenants of the Law of Attraction.

I’ve always had a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the concepts of the Law of Attraction. I read Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking as a teenager, and remember thinking at the time there was an element of hokum to it. At the same time, I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe I could change my life merely by envisioning the life I wanted.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, in a nutshell, the Law of Attraction borrows a little here and there from various religions and philosophies to state if you think very hard about what you want and infuse those thoughts with all the emotion you can generate for this desire, your will for this thing to happen will make it so. More or less.

So yeah, the notion I could bring everything I ever wanted into my life by fervently wishing it were so held great appeal.

But taken one step farther: I was terrified to believe in it. Because the flip side of the Law of Attraction and other tenants along those lines is that your negative thoughts bring negative energy into your life. Follow the logic to its completion and you get the implication that everything bad that happens to you, from a health crisis to a terrible car accident to losing a family member to cancer is your own fault. That takes no account of things beyond your control before you were even born, such as family genetics or being born in a certain country or into poverty.

Whenever bad things happen, you brought it into existence with your negative energy.

I’m a big believer in vision boards. I also believe in positive affirmations, once I get past the tendency to sneer at what feels like patting myself on the back with pretty compliments I don’t believe.That’s always been the sticking point between me and positive affirmations. If I’m rolling my eyes as I say them, do they really count?

The thing is, I know this works in reverse. See, most of us spend our lives playing a negative self-talk soundtrack on an endless loop–repeating things our parents, teachers, or friends told us about our personalities, character, or abilities. What society tells us about our appearance, our self-worth, and our place in this world. We do it without even being conscious of it, not realizing how it shapes our internal image of ourselves, or how it influences our choices. We’re not thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, and all throughout our lives we play this mean little soundtrack as a constant reminder of our failings, as if we could ever forget them.

So if the negative affirmations work, why wouldn’t the positive ones?

Unfortunately, I have issues with books such as The Secret, or movies like What the Bleep Do We Know!? I have a problem with the implication that you can just pray your way into wealth (which really seems against the teachings of nearly every religion I can think of) or that through quantum mysticism you can alter the molecules in a glass of water, create world peace, or toss your antidepressant medication in the trash–something I’d never recommend doing without medical consultation and supervision.

I think there is great value in things such as vision boards (in fact, I shared a Tweet about them today). I like some of the things touted in The Secret, as long as you leave the mysticism out of it. Expressing daily gratitude for things has a way of making you realize you have more than you think you do. Vision boards are an excellent way of making you focus on what you really want. Positive affirmations can help offset a lifetime of negative self-talk. Trust me–you’re not going to turn into an ego-driven narcissist if you look in a mirror and say kind things to your body or give yourself a little credit for an achievement made or a milestone reached! I think it might be beneficial to envision a better working relationship between you and a toxic boss, or a difficult child, or a life partner, too.

Just leave out the whoo-whoo. Having negative thoughts isn’t going to bring misery crashing down on you. Nor is being realistic about life. You’re not going to visualize your way into a better job, successful writing career, better health, or whatever you most desire without putting the work in as well. I can sit at my desk and envision hitting the NYT Bestseller List, selling the movie rights, and retiring with my millions all I want–if I don’t park my butt in the chair and write, it can never happen.

But does that mean I’m going to rain on my sister’s parade?

No.

For the first time in a long time, I see her in a place of hope, looking forward to a better future. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt to keep a little hope for myself, either.

Betty Crocker: The Dear Abby of Cooking

Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.

Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.

For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me. 

I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.

In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.

Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest  customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.

The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.

By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.

Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.

Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.

That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.

 

The Power of Re-inventing Self

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a new set of characters. My heroine has been through some tough times and has come out the other side not liking herself very much and looking to rewrite her story from this point out. I’ve started a notebook just for these characters and this new series, but it’s still mostly blank. I’m in the homestretch of a WIP with a June-July deadline and I can’t allow myself to get distracted by the new-shiny right now. But her story seems more interesting to me than the one I’m working on and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why.

I’m in the same process myself.

Yesterday, I did something highly unusual for me. I went shopping.

I dislike shopping in general. I tend to get sensory overload fairly easily, so an hour in a large shopping mall has me screaming for the exits. I also resent the time-sink. I have so little free time on a given day that to waste hours in a department store is just mind-boggling to me. I’d much rather shop online, which can be done at my convenience. The biggest downside to online shopping is returning something that doesn’t fit, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay so that I can pick out a pair of boots at midnight. Truth be told, I don’t do much shopping no matter what. I tend to make do with utilitarian clothing that suits my lifestyle.

Only I’m not so sure what that lifestyle is anymore.

For years, my life has been dominated by my work–both professionally and at home on the farm. I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans. I wear a lot of graphic T’s. I have jewelry, makeup, and dresses I rarely wear. I don’t really need to shop.

But like the first shoots of green breaking through the ground in spring, I find myself after several years of heartache contemplating change. I’m also realizing that colors and styles that worked for a young brunette with long hair no longer work as well for an older woman with a blonde pixie cut.

And yesterday, instead of coming home from work and starting in on the endless list of chores to do around the house, I remembered I have This Thing at the end of the month and decided to go shopping instead.

I didn’t have any expectations of finding anything I liked. To be honest, the mustard and olive green colors that seem to be in fashion this year don’t do a thing for me. Part of the reason I’ve always disliked shopping was because my Inner Critic has always been so mean on these outings. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. No sense of style.

Well, the last one is a fair assessment. I don’t have a good sense of style. I’ve always chosen value over fashion, which means sturdy materials, doesn’t show the dirt, and can be worn at the barn without changing clothes first. A quick view of my closet looks as though I shop at yard sales. I’ve thought about trying one of those box set things where someone sends you a ready-made outfit, including accessories, each month. Kind of like meal plans, but for clothes. Given the lack of success I’ve had with the meal plan kits, however, I decided the clothing kits would be wasted on me.

But yesterday, not having any expectations going into it, I didn’t restrict myself when it came to trying on things. I tried on outfits I wouldn’t normally consider and found myself buying something that unexpectedly pleased me. I also bought clothing because it was comfortable and looked nice, not caring or stressing about the size on the label, which is pretty remarkable, considering a couple of hours in front of a full-length mirror usually reduces me to tears. Even more remarkable is that I’m significantly heavier and older than that young, critical version of my self used to be, and that alone should have been enough to make me despise the process. It didn’t. This new me didn’t give a rat’s ass. Remaking myself held more power than destroying myself, it would seem.

I also bought new makeup, refreshing my color palette and replacing products that should have been tossed years ago. I topped off the shopping trip with a stop by the ice cream parlor, walking out the door with a cone. To my surprise, I’d spent hours at the mall and didn’t begrudge a single minute of it. In fact, I came home in a good mood, better than it’s been in a long while at the end of a work week. Finally, I understand the phrase ‘retail therapy.’

This morning I spent an hour or so going through my closet and pulling out everything I knew I’d no longer wear, no matter how much I’d liked it when I bought it *cough* twenty -some-odd years ago. Or worse, the clothing mistakes: items with tags still in place that never quite made it off the hanger. Off with the old. Bring on the new.

It took me time to reach this point. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “I love shopping!” and want to be a fashion plate after years of being a tomboy. I’m not convinced I do love shopping or that I’ll wear my new clothing more than once or twice a year, only that I had a lovely afternoon focusing on doing exactly what I wanted without having to answer to anyone else. I suspect it could have been any activity that I chose solely for myself.

But the fact it was part of a re-imaging of myself was a scoop of ice cream on a hot spring day. No regrets.

Sharing Traits with Your Characters

Most writers are familiar with the saying, “Everything is grist for the mill.”

Our life experiences, especially those that brought us pain or had to be overcome, have a way of ending up in our stories. Perhaps not in the same form, but transmogrified to convey the same elements within the structure of our stories: the way it feels to sit beside a family member in the hospital, or to know your nemesis is waiting to beat you up after school. It’s there when we imbue our characters with the knowledge of what it feels like to be other, and when we give them the joy of knowing home and family aren’t necessarily the standard experiences.

Sometimes we base our characters themselves on people we know. Not directly, and certainly never such that the people in our lives could recognize themselves. It may be a prototype: a frenemy from your past, an encouraging mentor, a domineering parent, a supportive lover. What prevents these depictions from being two-dimensional characterizations are the little quirks we give them. On any given day, we human beings are a complex mix of conflicting emotions, drives, and desires. It’s what makes us interesting as people, and it’s what gives life to our fictional characters.

I’m not a girly-girl. I live on a farm with dogs, cats, and horses. My footwear tends toward hiking boots, usually covered in mud. I live in blue jeans and graphic T-shirts. I rarely wear any jewelry, makeup, or perfume.

But I love these things.

I have a major weakness for nail polish. Growing up, nail polish was one of my main identifiers of my not so readily apparent feminine state. Blessed with the ability to grow thick, strong hair and nails, I took these things for granted. My nails rarely chipped or broke. Hair clips frequently trembled and sprang open under the weight of my hair. People stopped me on the street and asked if my nails were real and what I did to make them grow so long and strong, and hair stylists joked about how I should stop putting Miracle-Gro on my hair.

Once, when I was opening a can of soda with my nails, someone asked me if anything ever broke them. I smirked and replied, “Kryptonite.”

When I was in theater, I had the best of both worlds–the ability to be my tomboy self 90% of the time and yet indulge in my desire to go all-out in costume, complete with makeup, hair, and nails. When we had our full dress rehearsals, the act of putting on the outfit, whether it was a period piece or something modern, transformed me into that character. Putting together all the outward trappings of my character was like slipping into a suit of power and I became the person I was portraying. It was a very heady feeling.

Recently, I’ve discovered the joys of having my nails professionally done. I tend to be a bit on the conventional side when it comes to polish. I like strong colors, and I adore temperature sensitive polish like the one depicted in the picture above. But I don’t have the patience for nail art. Durability is the key for me now, and while getting manicures is a pure indulgence, it’s one of the few things I do indulge in. With the advent of SNS powder, a manicure can last me 3-4 weeks now, a far cry over something that needs to be touched up every few days.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I gave this love of nail polish, makeup and vintage clothing to one of my characters. Another loves horses and rode competitively as a teenager. Still another has a secret girly side at war with her no-nonsense professional image for work. Another is a sci-fi fan, while yet another can sing along with every Disney Princess.

But while these traits come from me, those characters aren’t me. They’re weaker in some respects, stronger in others. They have a different story arc. Sometimes they’re more selfish, frequently they are braver. They react when I probably wouldn’t, and I’m pretty sure I can’t turn into a panther or a dragon (though I’d dearly love to!) So while I put a little of myself into every character I write, when you see one of my characters, you’re not seeing me. Just a sliver.

But the next time you read one of my stories and I’m describing nail polish, you’ll smile and know where that came from.