Do Writers Need to Attend Major Conferences to Network?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll join me sometime!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

So what are you doing that brings you joy today?

My Mantra for 2020: Be Bold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher finishes her thread with this great statement:

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

 

AUDACIOUS.

I love it!

What energy are you bringing to 2020 and beyond?

Gifts for the Writer on Your Holiday Shopping List!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing and reading, Keta

Good reasons to eat healthy snacks:

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

 

Yogurt (add milled flaxseed)

Individually-sized packages of cottage cheese

Fresh mozzarella cheese or string cheese

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

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

Nuts

Protein Bar, Fruit & Nut Bar, or Energy Bar

Jerky

Granola

Nut Butter

Mini dill pickles

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

 Calorie serving sizes of lite fruit cocktail

Cinnamon-spiced baked apples

Goat cheese bruschetta. …

Bagel with ricotta and strawberries. …

Anytime edamame. …

Banana oatmeal walnut cookies. …

Avocado rice cakes.

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

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

Kale chips (Trader Joe’s)

Keta’s newest release is I Spy a Demon:

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

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

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

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

.99 cents or read for FREE on Kindle Unlimited
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is participating and then failing to meet your goals.

It’s all okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Team Shifter! 

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

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Good Story vs Good Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the difference?

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

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

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

Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

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

 

 

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

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It helps.

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

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

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

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

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