Sep 23

Writing Full Time: Day 1

"Today I will write because I want to be Maggie Stiefvater." Why yes, that is a TARDIS USB hub in the background.I can’t believe I’m actually here.

I’ve been dreaming about writing full-time since I was in high school (which might be longer ago than I care to admit!). I did the responsible thing in college and got a “useful” degree—Computer Science, a field I do actually love—which led me to a programming job at a big tech company in Seattle. I met amazing people there and found a passion for Agile software development that made every day meaningful (though sometimes frustrating). I always said that one day I’d retire and write, but it always seemed like “someday” was still far away (especially since the millions of dollars in stock options I aspired to earn in 2000 never materialized 😉 ). Twelve years flew by before I knew it!

But finally, my circumstances, means and motivation aligned. I let go of my lucrative tech job (and, much harder, my beloved colleagues) and leapt into the exhilarating, uncertain world of being an author.

I know there will be hard days, where my motivation flags and the bank account balance makes me wish I’d kept programming. I know that I will sometimes love what I write and other times believe that I’m a total hack who should never show her work to anyone. I know there will be highs of hope and lows of despair as I query and then go on submission and then, I hope, publish. When life feels bleak, I will look at the mug that my dear friend got me, which reminds me of my goal (if you don’t know who Maggie is, you should definitely follow her on Twitter), and then I will drink the strong black tea that will no doubt be in that mug and buckle down again to work.

Even if I change my mind later, I know I’ll never be sorry I gave this ride a try. Right now, here’s no roller coaster I’d rather be on.

Jul 15

Proven Strategies for Actually Achieving Your Goals

It’s been my “goal” to be a published author for a long time. I say “goal” in quotes because really it’s been more like a dream, not something I can control. I could make a goal to actually finish the book, but I haven’t been successful at that, either. (Not a draft that I like, anyway.) So I set an achievable goal of writing 8 hours a week. I haven’t quite been hitting it, but I have been putting stars on the calendar, and that has actually been a great tool for showing me how close I’m getting to really putting in the time I need.

Now I’m reading a book called The ONE Thing. I picked it up after watching a highly motivating session (no longer free) about it by its coauthor, Jay Papasan. In chapter 14 of the book, the authors mention research that asked one group of students to visualize an outcome (e.g., getting an A on an exam), while “the others were asked to visualize the process needed to achieve a desired outcome (like all of the study sessions needed to earn that ‘A’ on the exam)” (their emphasis, p. 152 according to my eBook). Students in the second group were far more successful; in fact, the paper’s abstract states, “Envisioning successful completion of a goal or resolution of a stressor–recommendations derived from the self-help literature–did not” produce meaningful progress.

So basically, all this time I’ve been spending dreaming about my life as an author hasn’t helped me at all. I mean, I could have told you that, but now I know why and I have a tool to help me.

But wait, there’s more! Gail Matthews did further research that illuminates additional ways to tilt the odds in your favor. The most effective things you can do are (in order, cumulatively):

  1. Write down your goal
  2. “Formulate action commitments” and write them down (e.g., “at this time in this place I will <your goal> for this long”)
  3. Send your goals and action commitments to a supportive friend
  4. Send your friend weekly progress reports

The study has a total of only 149 participants who completed it, but the positive effect of doing all four things was noteworthy! The ONE Thing recommends starting with your “someday” goal and doubling it (dream big), then working backward to your five-year goal, this year, this month, this week, and today (although if you plan weekly you probably can figure out your daily goal). I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to start that process!

Jul 03

Free Writing

Posting a grammar quip right before July 4, with fireworks exploding outside, just didn’t seem right. Instead this is a post about writing and freedom.

I’m very grateful that I have the freedom to write, and write what I want. I don’t have to worry about criminal charges for insulting my president. I don’t live in daily fear for my safety. I’m even fortunate enough to have the financial freedom to get a few hours to myself each week to pursue my writing dreams.

Therefore, I want to use my freedom responsibly. I write fiction, so I owe it to my future readers to write the best book I can, to tell the story only I can tell. I have the freedom to say anything I want on social media, so I should say things that are responsible and informed to the best of my ability.

Though I often disagree with the way American leaders have used the American military, I still believe that those who served and their families sacrificed for the truly noble ideal of protecting our country. I owe it to all those who died for this country to live as fully as I can — to write because it’s my dream, to barbecue with friends because I can (and it’s what those vets would be doing if they could), and to help my fellow human beings because they need it.

Because freedom isn’t free.

Military graves with flags

May 28

Confessions of an Inveterate Pantser

Or, “How I learned to stop bumbling and love the outline.”

On the spectrum from “write by the seat of your pants and see where it goes” [whence “pantser”] to “plan every scene before you write a first draft” [“plotter”], I’m naturally a lot closer to the former. I like to wait for inspiration and just write what comes. I wanted to plan ahead, but I didn’t have any better luck figuring out what should come next, and then I also didn’t have any words written.

Unfortunately, after two abandoned novels and too many anguished hours staring at that blinking, taunting cursor, I realized that discovering the story by drafting wasn’t working for me. I spent too much time polishing words in stories that meandered and fizzled out, and I learned the hard way that pretty words can’t make a boring story more interesting.

The big problem with “outlining” was, as I said, that I didn’t know what should come next. Enter Story Engineering. It’s positioned as the answer to “what comes next.” Unbelievably, in all the books on craft that I’d read and all the creative writing courses I took in college, no one had ever mentioned that stories follow a structure. Stories have common elements, just as houses do, and the architectural answer to “What comes next?” is known! It was a literally life-changing revelation. Delivered in Larry Brooks’s occasionally obnoxious but totally spot-on style, it was a swift kick in the pants for this pantser. (It turns that screenwriters have known about this for ages, but I really appreciated someone making the mapping to novels for me. If you want a kinder, gentler introduction to story structure, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s site and book.)

Now when I’m “outlining” (which certainly does not involve Roman numerals for me), I’m no longer staring at a blank page. Instead, I’m solving a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, and I have criteria by which to judge whether a plot or character decision is working. If I’m stuck, I can pick a direction and plan in it and realize whether or not it works without any wasted prose. (It still takes time, of course, but not nearly the same kind of time it takes to draft in pretty words and without the temptation to polish them.)

Most importantly, I’ve found that for me, the joy of discovering my story isn’t diminished at all by planning it ahead. I get just as much thrill out of nailing plot points as I did when drafting. I still have pages and pages and pages of brainstorming notes, in both spiral notebooks and OneNote, but since I’m not intending those words to ever be seen by anyone else, I don’t put any pressure on myself to make them beautiful, which means I can crank them out much faster. I can brainstorm with friends and critique partners (CPs) and try out and discard ideas so much faster when I’m dealing with a few-hundred- or few-thousand-word plot plan than with an unwieldy 100,000-word draft. When my CPs discovered a serious plot hole in the middle of the outline, I was a tiny bit demoralized but could just wade in and fix the outline without losing any drafted words.

The best part of story structure is that you can still be a pantser if you want. You can do as much outlining as you want and then dive in. I knew by feel when I had reached a detailed-enough outline that I needed to start drafting. You can outline down to the scene level before you write a word of prose, or you can totally pants your whole first draft, then apply structure to it ex post facto in the editing process.

Of course, this revelation means that all of us will have stronger plots now, which means we’ll all be more competitive in getting published… but as a reader, I say, hooray to all the fantastic books I’ll soon have available to me!

May 06

Keeping up appearances

I’ve been working on my novel on and off for more years than I care to admit. Since I first had the idea, I’ve gone to college, gotten married, and had two children. This past year, I’ve gotten really serious about making the book good enough to sell, but there were some plot holes that caused me to go back to what felt like square one on multiple occasions. I feel like I’m no closer to getting published than I was a year ago.

So what do I say when people ask, “How’s your book going?”

They’re just trying to be nice and make conversation, but they have no idea the fountain of emotions that such a question brings forth. “I wrote a thousand words yesterday, but I today changed the plot and will have to toss all of those. I have notebooks filled with ideas, dozens of versions of my outline, and whole folders with the obsolete history of these characters, but I still don’t have a draft I’m happy with.” If I said that, people would be like, “Uhhh… sorry for asking.”

My day job is code monkey. Over the years, I’ve developed a strong resistance to being asked about my work, “When will it be done?” The honest answer: I don’t know. (Many would insert colorful language to punctuate that answer.) Time estimates in software development are essentially useless except under some pretty specific circumstances that don’t apply to most teams. The same is true of writing. You might have deadlines, but that doesn’t make the estimates accurate.

At least in software, you can usually say how much of the feature is finished (although there are whole debates just about what the definition of “finished” is). With writing, you never know when a plot twist — a good one that makes the story better! — will end up invalidating some non-negligible percentage of existing book. At some point you just decide it’s good enough and start trying to sell it. If it doesn’t sell, you keep improving it. (And if you do find an agent and then a publisher, you’re looking at a of minimum two more rounds of serious editing.)

This past January, I wrote a post on making resolutions. I came to the conclusion that the only thing I could control about the process was how many hours I put in. I think that’s the same response I have for the book question. “I’m still working on it!” Not with a sigh and a defeated look, but like an athlete who’s still in training. “I’m still putting in the hours!”

At least I don’t have to wait for the next Olympics to look for an agent.

Apr 18

Tenet or Tenant? Grammar help you can remember!

A basic tenet of owning a rental:
Your tenant quality is fundamental!

Bonus! I’ll give you pictures.

Tenet: a belief (not necessarily religious) or principle

Tenant: someone who rents a space

Tennant: To me, always the Tenth Doctor

Okay, yes, I was basically just looking for an excuse to have a Tenth Doctor picture.

Apr 08

Why my site is secured even though I’m not a shop

The short version: you’ll notice that when you navigate to my website now, you will automatically get the https version (in your browser you’ll see something like the green locked padlock below). I don’t sell anything (directly!); the only reason for the secured connection is to keep any Nation State Actors from tracking what you do on this site. 🙂image

The longer version can be found in the DreamHost blog post about how they enabled free security certificates for all their hosting customers! https://www.dreamhost.com/blog/2016/01/20/free-ssltls-certificates-at-dreamhost-with-lets-encrypt/ Like the history in that link mentions, the security certificate doesn’t guarantee anything other than that you are actually connecting with my site, but since the original kerfuffle about trusted authorities happened, it has come to light that there is actually an organization that might be sniffing your browsing history. Now at least they’ll only know you came to my page and not which of my nefarious grammar posts you might have been reading. 🙂

Mar 22

Affect vs. Effect: Grammar Help You Can Remember

These two words, affect and effect, cause a great deal of consternation in English, no doubt because they sound similar and each can be either a noun or a verb. The quickest rule of thumb is that, in most cases, you affect something (verb) and cause an effect (noun).

Side note: the noun affect is pronounced AFFect, as opposed to all the other instances of both words, which put the emphasis on the second syllable.

Second side note: the less common meaning of the verb affect is to pretend or feign something (as in the example in the link where one can “affect a Southern accent”). I couldn’t fit that into the rhyme. 🙂

Finally, here’s your hopefully memorable quip:

From a cause, an effect, about that there’s no doubt;
And you’re effecting a change if you bring it about.
Affect as a noun is likely not what you meant,
So affect others’ grammar and send this to them.

Mar 16

How to Lower Your Expectations Without Giving Up: A Reframing Exercise

Buttercup and Westley in the Fire SwampSince having my second baby, I’ve constantly struggled with my frustration at not getting enough done. I’m have more resources than many moms, but I also have overly demanding expectations of myself. When I ran out of resources to throw at the “no time” problem, there was only one thing left to change.

You might have noticed that I’m a tad “all or nothing,” which means that when I have little margin in my life (like now), I am always close to falling into the pit of self-pity. “My life is over, I’ll never have free time again, what was I thinking having kids, when will this get better??” But I didn’t want to allow myself to lower my expectations, because it felt like giving up and admitting that my life was going to be miserable forever.

Of course, it wasn’t true that my whole life was miserable. I was experiencing a moment of misery, as everyone does, but I was letting it derail me. This insight from my counselor helped me believe that my act of acknowledging that every life will occasionally be difficult (in some seasons perhaps more frequently than others) is not “giving up.” It’s just setting an expectation that is more realistic—without being nihilistic.

The trick for me is to notice when I’m about to fall over the cliff of despair so that I can interrupt my pity-party with a reminder: this too shall pass. I need to agree with myself that this minute/hour/day sucks—the emotional validation is critical—but then remind myself to just get through it. Not only does that keep me away from the cliff, but it actually helps me get closer to the next good moment because I’m turning my attention toward the future good. I won’t say I’m actually good at doing that yet, but at least I have now decided, in the light of day, what to do when I next notice that I’ve ended up in the fire swamp.

Feb 26

Loose or lose? Grammar help you can remember!

(The second in a series.)

Like many similar words, loose and lose are easy to confuse because they look and sound similar. Also, because English is confusing, loose can be an adjective or a verb. So here’s a little quip to help you out:

You can loose a goose that’s caught in a trap,
But you lose a lover, a game, a hat.

Especially if the hat (or the lover?) was loose.

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