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!

 

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.

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

Getting the Most out of NaNoWriMo for Non-Participants

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

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

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

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

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

NaNo feels a bit like that to me.

So why am I writing this post, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marvel Bows to Troll Pressure, Fires Chuck Wendig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrate ALL the Wins–Especially the Little Ones

Last year I planted a crepe myrtle tree in my yard. For those unfamiliar with them, this is what they look like in bloom, coming in a wide assortment of colors. I thought it would make a nice splash of color in the the spring.

It died.

Now, I’m not all that surprised. Not because my gardening skills are on par with my cooking skills, which is to say the smoke detector gets a workout in our house. Not because trees and bushes have a high mortality rate in the first year. Not because it was a hot,dry summer.

No. I wasn’t surprised because there was so much death in my life in 2017, I began to feel like a trainee for the Grim Reaper. I lost a lot: three human family members, three furry family members, and my very first horse–the one I bought as a teenager and hid his existence from my parents until I could prove I was capable of paying for him. The one I’d had for thirty years.

Most of these deaths were not unexpected. Old age and cancer both tend to give you lots of warning. It was just bad luck that the timing made all of them come together in the same year.

It was more than just the deaths, though that was bad enough. I also lost my belief that we as Americans were, for the most part, decent, honest people who stood up for the little guy and did the right thing. A belief fostered in part by such comics as this one, where Superman encourages students to embrace diversity. (There’s another, more modern image somewhere of Captain America supporting the same–only the crowd he’s depicted with is actually diverse–sadly, I can’t find it right now. I suspect it was fan art) I lost my faith in our government as an agent for the commonwealth. I lost hope that we’d ever have fair elections again, or that we’d be able to stop a breathtakingly corrupt administration from converting our democracy to an autocracy. Sure, corruption existed in politics before now. But the sheer scale of what’s happening now worldwide is all too reminiscent of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And we all know how that turned out.

Somewhere along the way, I lost myself to depression. I found it challenging to go on social media. I didn’t have the mental energy to comment on people’s posts. Every day, the news continues to be terrifying and disheartening, which didn’t help. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. I gained weight. I was still functional, but just barely. So no, losing one crepe myrtle among all of this wasn’t even a blip on the radar. The only reason I share any of this for background to the point of this post.

Recently, a thing has been going around my Twitter timeline in which someone posted something to the effect of “we’re nine months in to 2018–what have you accomplished?” People RT the original tweet, adding what they’ve achieved as part of the sharing.

I have very mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I am not trying to disparage the person who posted it–I just can’t help but feel on some level, subconsciously or not, by the very nature of social media, this kind of thing turns into a brag/competition thread. There is nothing wrong with bragging, mind you. Hell, I think far too often most of us diminish rather than celebrate our victories. But this kind of post falls into the the same category of year-end retrospective posts for me: a means of comparing yourself to others and finding, once again, you’ve fallen short.

In part because if you haven’t lost 50 pounds, gotten married, won the lottery, run a marathon, taken a dream vacation, landed an agent, had a NYT bestseller, won a major literary award, etc. etc. then you haven’t accomplished enough. And I have to tell you, when I look back over the past nine months and look at what I’ve achieved, compared to everyone else out there, I DO come up short.

But I came across one comment on the Twitter thread, which said, “I’m still alive.” And you know what? That is a mighty accomplishment indeed. It made me think about the things I’ve done in the last nine months a little differently.

So here’s my list of achievements for 2018:

  1. I’m still alive.
  2. I learned to make and like green smoothies, the thought of which used to make me gag.
  3. I’ve come to appreciate my body as is, with all its flaws, and know I need to take better care of it.
  4. I’m starting to reconnect with the things I love, things I’d shut out during my depression. I’d lost so much I was afraid to love anything else–and the scary thing is this wasn’t a conscious decision–I just withdrew my engagement. Even when I needed it the most.
  5. I recognize I probably need professional help to manage my depression. 
  6. I’ve started meditating.
  7. I’ve started playing brain games on Luminosity.
  8. I wrote and published a book. People are leaving enthusiastic reviews, which is nice.
  9. I’m playing around with fanfiction again because it makes me happy and life is too damn short not to take your happiness where you can find it.
  10. I’m still alive.

Some of these may not seem like very big accomplishments, but they are bigger than you know, especially the self-acceptance part. And I repeated “I’m still alive” twice because we don’t often give ourselves enough credit for toughing it out through bad times.

This past week, while preparing for some major renovations at the house, I discovered a small determined leafing of what I thought was a dead tree.

What do you know? That crepe myrtle is still alive.

I’m moving to a safer, better place so it can grow. Where I can keep a eye on it, and shelter it from bugs, storms, and the relentless heat. Where it can thrive. Perhaps that’s my biggest accomplishment for 2018 so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t daydream any more.

Could that be why my production is way down?

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

But I don’t do that any more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blonde girl with retro camera

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ten Things Writers Need to Stop Telling Themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See, I’m doing it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Managing Time–and Guilt–as a Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. This.

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

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

 

 

Reclaiming Your Time as a Writer

Representative Maxine Waters has made the phrase ‘reclaiming my time’ a viral meme for her refusal to allow Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to squander her floor time with a meandering, meaningless response designed to avoid answering her question about Trump’s ties to Russia in the time allowed. For every woman who has been ignored during a meeting, spoken over, had their own work mansplained to them and endlessly interrupted, this cool invocation of House rules was a delight to behold.

But for writers, there are other time-sinks besides someone deliberately wasting your time. Many of these activities are actually good things, activities we’re encouraged to do. Networking, participating in Facebook groups, interacting on social media, marketing, etc–all things we’re told we must do and must do daily. All part of creating and promoting our brand.

I see friends doing cool hashtag things like #FirstLineFriday or #TeaserTuesday and I think, wow, I should be doing that. I participate in weekly Twitter conversations such as #RWChat  and #TipsyChat and I’ve met new people and been introduced to some new books as well. I’ve joined some busy, organized Facebook groups that cross-promote each other. I’m writing this post now for #MondayBlogs, something I try to do each week.

But frankly, I’m finding it hard to do anything else but keep up with these activities.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy doing most of these things. I get a lot out of participating in the chats or batting ideas around on Facebook. More than just putting myself out there and making my name recognizable–I’m making real connections. Sometimes brainstorming too. There are times putting my thoughts into words crystallize them for me and make my own goals easier for me to understand.

But frequently I find myself spending more and more time in these activities when I could be writing. Sometimes I choose to do the social media thing because it’s easier in a fatigued state to do something like catch up on social media duties than it is to write new material. But I suspect there is a more insidious reason I rotate from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and back again.

I think it’s an addiction.

Most of us have read articles stating sites such as Facebook and Instagram make us dissatisfied with our lives, or that Twitter is a source of outrage. We know that people tend to post about the biggest events in their lives, making our own lives seem paltry and boring in comparison. And yet we check our timelines obsessively, making our own posts, and hoping we’ll get likes and comments. We live for that hit, whether we realize it or not. In some ways, that worries me the most.

I check my social media first thing in the morning and last thing at night, even if doing so starts or ends my day unhappily. I check my feeds during every free moment–when I used to read a book or listen to the radio. I check it at night while sitting on the couch, catching up with my comments and sharing other people’s book releases. To the exclusion of doing anything else. Of paying attention to what’s on TV, or chatting with the family. From interacting with the pets, and yes, writing. I’ve been known to take social media breaks for my mental health before, but this is different. I think we all need to take a step back from our need to be connected, our need to post Instagram-worthy images, our inability to put our phones down.

I’ve been taking a lot of online classes and workshops. I’ve been reading books on marketing and promotion. I read a lot of articles on writing, branding, you name it. I’ve joined a LOT of groups. Due to the changing algorithms on Facebook, I’m thinking about starting my own group. But the truth is, I’m feeling the pressure to keep up.

And I’m starting to question my need to do so.

One of the things that has been pounded into me from classes and workshops is that a lot of what I’m doing now would be to greater purpose if I had a bigger backlist. I’ve been going at it with both barrels when I only have one book out. While making connections and interacting with readers is important, I’m rushing the gun. Most of advice boils down to this: your best advertisement, your best marketing ploy, is writing and releasing the next book.

And it is slowly dawning on me that everything I’m reading is aimed at the writer who hopes to Go Big. That, as far as I can tell, means being prolific on a scale I can’t match at this time.

So I’ve decided to reclaim my time.

I’m going to drop my participation in Facebook groups to the three I think the most useful–one genre group and two author support groups. I’m going to scale back on workshops and classes. No more money on ads or promotion for now. I’m also going to put the phone down. Take long walks. Photograph things for the joy of taking the image and not with an eye as to how it will look on Instagram. Appreciate my animals. Interact with friends and family.

And write. As I sit here watching the Olympics, I find myself comparing daily writing to the work these athletes put in toward reaching their goals. I’m never going to be an Olympic caliber author, so I’d better enjoy the process. I also want to be happy with the end product–even if it takes me a year between books. It’s okay to watch the Olympics, or spend time with your family, or do any of the other things you enjoy.

That means while all the things I’m learning are valuable, I don’t need to do everything all at once or right now. We talk about writing being a marathon vs a sprint–but that holds true for the rest of it too–the networking, the marketing, the branding–all of it. 

So reclaim your time as an author. Or an artist. A crafter. An actor. A singer. A photographer. Put the phone down. Your validation isn’t online. Remember the things that were important to you before social media consumed your life. Take pleasure in the act of creating. You don’t have to do it all every day. Don’t fall victim to the feeling you’re falling behind. The most important thing you can do is write the next story. The best story you know how to tell.

And if that takes you a month, great. If it takes you one, two, or seven years, that’s okay too.

Reclaim your time.