Category: Personal

Nov 01

Words for a Cause

candy hangoverHappy November, everyone! For writers, the day after Halloween brings not just a candy hangover but the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. Those who sign up attempt to write a whole novel during the month of November. (The target of 50,000 words is technically a little shorter than most novels, but still a lofty goal for 30 days.) “Wrimos” who participate in “Nano” get pep talks from published authors, organize community “write-ins” where authors gather to motivate (and sometimes distract) one another, and provide plenty of accountability and camaraderie to keep going to the finish line.

I wasn’t planning to join this year, but then author Susan Dennard announced The Mighty Pens, a team of writers who want to use their words for good. That got me thinking. My book is in a slower editing/querying phase, plus I’ve never tried working on multiple projects at once, a skill that I’ll need if I make a career out of this writing thing. “Just to see,” I started to brainstorm an idea that’s been percolating in my head since May, and that multiplied into many ideas that seem almost novel-shaped.

So I decided to throw my hat into the ring! (more like the three-ring circus…) We’re raising money for the Malala Fund to support girls’ education. You sponsor me, I get motivated to keep going, the Mighty Pens authors (including me) qualify to to win prizes, the and the Malala Fund helps girls all over the world get the education they need to secure a better future. It’s win-win-win-win! Winning all around!

You can make a one-time donation now or follow my progress (I’ll be posting it on Twitter, my Wrimo page, and Facebook, in descending order of likely frequency) and donate anytime in November, such as when I reach word-count milestones. A pledge of 0.1¢/word would be just $50 if I reach my Nano goal. My fundraising goal is $500, or 10 people pledging less than a penny a word! (To be fair, these are cheap first-draft words, but it’s a “real” story with structure and everything.)

I’ll also share story-related bonuses with you as I reach fundraising milestones, like a novel aesthetic or snippets of prose. Stay tuned for surveys on what people want. For now, here’s my inspirational book “cover.”

The Magic of Movement and Light

This is what happens when someone with no design skills uses Photoshop. (Photo credit.)

Sep 22

A Year of Writing Dangerously

Cup-of-teaOK, I don’t know that my writing qualifies as dangerous, but it has been a year since I started this crazy experiment of being a full-time author. It’s been a while since I did a retrospective, so now seems like a good time!

When I quit my day job, my counselor warned me that for every year that I was in the old job, it could take a month to adjust to a new routine. Since I was in my old job for twelve years, that means I needed to give myself permission to take up to a year to get into a new groove. I’m happy to report that I have a pretty good groove going now, a year later. Of course, my routine has to be flexible because what I’m writing and the life around my writing is always changing (first kid started elementary school!), but overall I’m more confident now that I’ll get everything done if I stick to my plan.

Things I’ve learned in the past year:

  1. My addiction to tea has not diminished. The opposite, actually.
  2. Ergonomics are really important. Ignore at your peril. Back spasms and stiff necks will hamper my productivity.
  3. Rituals and routines are more important than I realized. As it turns out, it’s well-documented that creative people benefit greatly from habitual triggers that put them into the creative mood (e.g., a specific kind of pen or notebook; a specific playlist; a specific place to sit; or a ritual like starting with a hot cup of tea). At first, I did it subconsciously, but now I try to do it intentionally.
  4. I can’t actually write for eight hours a day. Besides the obvious necessary breaks, the concentration required to focus on my own writing is too intense to sustain all day; generally, I get only about four hours of really productive writing time. The good news is that knowing that helps me stress out less, because I can remind myself that if I don’t write a lot in the morning, I can still have a good afternoon, and conversely, if I do have a good morning, I shouldn’t feel bad when I run out of steam mid-afternoon.
  5. There’s still plenty I can do in my writing time besides writing: read work from critique partners; read published books; cultivate my social media presence (got to be careful not to let that become a black hole, though…); and take care of my physical and mental health (yoga, counseling, etc.). It’s surprising how hard it is to remember that those are furthering my career.
  6. That said, I am very deadline-motivated if it’s a real deadline. I can and will make a heroic effort to meet a deadline, including working way more than 8 hours a day, though I’ll need some recovery afterward to catch up with everything else. Fortunately, publishing has a lot of “hurry up and wait.” But it’s useful to know that about myself for the future!
  7. Seriously, all the tea.

tea2

Aug 07

Getting to know me

Facts about me

  • I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be an author. I wrote my first story in Kindergarten, and I still have it (thanks, Mom!). It was about a princess, a dragon, and a knight, so… not much has changed.
  • pimpmybioI graduated from the University of Michigan. (Go Blue!)
  • My favorite Doctor is Ten (with Rose Tyler, as it should be—FIGHT ME), but Nine was my first, and you never forget your first Doctor.
  • I love ballroom dancing (that’s how I met my husband! See pic at right).
  • I have two boys, and the oldest just started Kindergarten. I’m more worried about how the teachers will react to me than about his success (he’ll be fine; I’m…assertive).
  • Costumes I’ve worn in public: Jem, She-Ra, Wonder Woman (before everyone knew she was cool!), Princess Peach, Princess Buttercup, Agent Lucy Wilde (my son really wanted to be a Minion), Galadriel
  • I carry teabags in my purse because you never know when you might want tea, like airplanes that carry only Lipton, fancy dinners that don’t have decaffeinated black tea for drinking with dessert—you know, the usual. My writing ritual requires tea and I drink unhealthy quantities of it.
  • If I could be anywhere right now, it would be on a tropical beach with a drink that has a little umbrella in it.
  • Chocolate is life and you can’t persuade me otherwise. I’ve now trained myself to like dark chocolate, and the best chocolate bar I’ve ever tasted is Divine Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle. If you bribe me with that I will do almost anything for you.
  • I’m a Ravenpuff. When asked whether I’d rather be right or kind, the former wins but the latter is what I try to do.
  • When I have to choose a favorite book, it’s always The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. (Corlath! *swoon*)

About My Book

My manuscript aesthetic collage will reveal to you that I’m no graphic designer, though I wish I were. (There must be an online tool somewhere that converts Pinterest boards to pretty pics, but I did this manually.)

An ugly alchemist makes a magic mirror, only to discover that beauty doesn’t fix her problems and magic always has a price. In the tradition of Wicked and The Forbidden Wish, my YA fantasy novel The Alchemist’s Mirror brings to life the backstory of Snow White’s stepmother in a 14th century that never was.

Alchemist's Mirror aesthetic

May 15

How to finish the draft: maybe you need a deadline

I did it! It’s done! I wrote a decent draft of a whole novel! I would have celebrated, but I was too tired.

You see, I was writing to a deadline—an honest-to-goodness deadline with money on the line and someone waiting to receive my manuscript. I almost didn’t make it, but, as it turns out, I am very motivated by deadlines.

In this case, I had hired a freelance developmental editor to look at the draft and make sure the plot and character arcs were solid. Some agents recommend doing this, others don’t. It costs a lot, but I found a good deal, so I decided to give it a try. That was in late January, when May 1st seemed far away.

Then…with my draft approaching 75,000 (!) words but nowhere near the 75% mark of my outline, I fell out of love with my love interest. I spent a week or so in March trying to fix it before finally admitting that trying to shoehorn him in, after the story had drastically changed around him, just wasn’t going to work. I noticed that something I’d invented while trying to make the love interest interesting would work perfectly with this other way more intriguing character who’d been hovering at the edges of the story since I first envisioned it (well over a decade ago…). It was brilliant to the point of serendipitous.

Unfortunately, I was approaching the end of March. I had just invalidated nearly half of my existing draft and the other half would have to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I hadn’t left any dangling references to the now non-existent character. Moreover, the entire ending had to be written from scratch! And did I mention I’d started a diet, too, so that I could look good at the wedding I was in, which occasioned an international trip the week before the deadline? So I did what any self-respecting author would do: panic.

This is the perfect time to panic!

The editor was willing and able to flex on the deadline, but my friends assured me I could get the story done and that, moreover, delaying the deadline would only extend how long I was panicking. So I stuck with May 1 and buckled down to write. At first I just wrote with a little extra fire under my tush. Then I added writing in the evenings after the kids went to bed. As the deadline came ever closer, I canceled social activities and skipped yoga (which is usually not how to feel better). One day I was so panicked that it took me half an hour to calm down enough even to write. (To reward myself for recovering, I went to Starbucks for a breve lightly sweet chai latte. That drink might just save the world.) On a few nights, I hired babysitters to put the kids to bed so I could squeeze in an extra hour or two of writing. I spent a few of the days I was in London writing in the (admittedly posh and beautiful) hotel lobby instead of sightseeing.

But you know what? Aside from the one or two actual panic attacks, the whole experience was amazing. Unbelievably invigorating. I was so immersed in the story that I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I would daydream about it when I was trying to fall asleep at night. I took so much time to write that I found it easier to get “into the zone” and enjoyed some transcendant hours embodying the characters I was torturing. I got really good at making playlists for the mood of the scene I was writing. My best friend/alpha reader was incredibly supportive and ensured that I didn’t have any incomplete sentences or totally dangling plot threads. And when I got to the end, I was really, really proud of it!

Of course it still needs work, but I’m actually looking forward to editing so that I can give these characters the best possible story.

Mar 08

How cheap do you need “Cars as a Service” to be?

So this is off my usual topic, but I found it interesting! I wrote a thing for my friend’s technology blog on how much I could afford to pay for Cars as a Service and still break even with my current spending. You should go read it! (Takes less than 5 minutes).

Here’s a public version of the calculator I used (which I unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to embed in the article itself). Fill in the green cells. You can either fill in the amortized cost section or put a year’s worth of car payments in the “Vehicle” cost cell. The commute calculator is just to help you guess your annual total miles.

Dec 17

Like a Boss: Writing a Book is (and isn’t) Like Writing Software

The other day, I was feeling bad about not getting enough writing done. Despite having written more than 45,000 words in just over two months, I wanted to have written more.

Contrast that feeling to when I worked at a big tech company. As I grew in my career, I could put in a hard day’s work and feel good about my code, knowing that three layers of management above me (sometimes more) were responsible for making sure the product shipped. Much to the chagrin of the people whose job it was to ship, I would have conversations like this:

Boss: I need your estimates for how long it will take to finish this feature.
Me: I don’t give estimates. Here’s the list of tasks I expect to do.
Boss: But if you don’t give me estimates, how can I know when the feature will be done?
Me: Even if I gave you estimates, you still wouldn’t know when the feature will be done, because human beings are generally terrible at estimating complicated, creative tasks.

Suit-up-Like-a-bossI realized that I am now both the boss and the employee of Abigail Welborn, Inc. (not a real thing). As it turns out, not only do I not like being the boss, I don’t like working for me, either. As the boss, I can see the end goal so clearly — the beautiful, finished book. At the end of a work day, when the writer (also me) tries to feel good about hitting the goal of 2,000 words written, the boss in me sees only how far I have to go and wishes I could’ve worked just a little bit harder.

But at least I figured out why I’m such an awful boss. I hate not knowing when my book will be done. I can’t look forward to it or plan for it. Even tracking my progress doesn’t make me feel like I’m getting closer, because I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to edit this thing into shape.

So, former bosses (and others who were tracking my work), while I can’t say I’m sorry for refusing to give you estimates, I can now say that I feel your pain. I’ll try to be as nice to me as you were.

Oct 20

The More I Write…

goofy runner

This is how I would look if I tried to run.

…the more I want to write! That’s not a unique observation, but it’s definitely a new experience in my writing life.

I’ve heard that when people first start a training regimen, running can be painful and a drudgery, but eventually they experience a “runner’s high.” Supposedly, they then start running because they like it! I personally cannot imagine looking forward to running (physical activity is not, let’s say, my favorite), but it must exist because I’ve seen it happen to people I know.

When I first started writing full time, I missed all the social interaction I’d gotten in my day job. I had planned to schedule all my social activities for three mornings a week, leaving the rest of the days for writing. For this extrovert, that was hard to do. The writing-only days felt long, and I tended to get drowsy mid-afternoon. Plus, when I was stuck on my story, the brainstorming, mind-mapping, and figuring out what to write felt like a waste of time that wasn’t going anywhere.

But a funny thing happened this week. After I had something scheduled almost every morning last week, I was glad I hadn’t scheduled this week as full. I couldn’t wait to start writing each day. Instead of feeling bad about “having to” turn down social engagements so that I could keep to my writing schedule, I’m jealously guarding the time I have to write. Apparently I’ve found the “writer’s high.” (Now if only it would help me lose weight and get into shape like running does…)

A big caveat: I’m sure that the high comes and goes. Having a good outline for the story definitely helps me power through right now. But when busy weeks inevitably come up, knowing how the “writer’s high” feels will help me get back here.

Oct 16

Motivation I Didn’t Know I Had

I’m starting my fourth week of writing full-time. Fourth! Wow. As expected, I’ve had some days where it’s hard to get into the “groove” of writing, and some days where I didn’t manage my time well. I’ve also had some amazing days where I don’t want to stop writing.

Scotland lifts your spirits

(c) Moyan Brenn CC-BY-2.0 license

One benefit of writing full-time that I didn’t expect has come at the end of my writing days. Around 4:30 I have to start winding down whatever I’m doing so that the nanny can go home at 5. I have to rejoin the real world, take over wrangling the kids, and start prepping dinner. Before, I knew it would be days before I got to write again — I’ve tried to write in the evenings and sometimes it works, but usually I was just too exhausted. But now! I had no idea how much lighter I would feel when, four out of five afternoons, I can lay the work aside and know that I’ll be back the next morning, or at least in less than 18 hours. Hardly even enough time to lose my train of thought. 😉

Of course, there are downsides, too. I realized the first Monday that all the people I used to talk football with were at my old job. :-\  I knew I would miss the people, but I hadn’t realized how specifically I would miss them. I’ve resorted to tweeting random strangers about football now. 😛

I also figured I would miss having someone who cared about my progress (after more than a year of reporting it at daily standups). However, after such an amazing send-off from my coworkers, many of whom came to my farewell party and even more of whom sent me encouraging emails, I realized I wasn’t quite as bereft of accountability as I feared. Now that so many people knew I was setting out to get published, there were suddenly dozens of people counting on me to finish the book and let them know about it!

So! Partly because I love metrics and watching myself get closer to achieving goals, here’s my status report! I’ve finished the outline for The Alchemist’s Mirror, and while it’s not perfect, so far none of my critique partners has found a glaring problem that would require me to retool the outline before I start drafting. (That did happen with last February’s “finished” outline! 😉 ) Therefore, I’m keeping my current goal of finishing the first draft before the end of this calendar year! I’m more likely to post my progress on Twitter or Facebook directly, but for posterity, here’s my current status.

image

Sep 30

Being a Full-Time Author: First Week Retrospective

Looking back over the past week is a habit widely recommended for evaluating progress and productivity. In my past life as a software developer, we called them “retrospectives,” and along with listing successes and problems (or “opportunities,” as my husband says), we would come up with one experiment we wanted to try for the upcoming week. Fridays are my best day for looking back, even though Mondays would be my best day for designing an experiment, so Friday wins.

My first 5+ days of being a full-time author were, on the whole, amazing.

Positive:

  • Seattle is experiencing some Indian summer (sunny, if not terribly warm, days).
  • Working in the morning has been more productive than I expected, and I look forward to the days where I can start first thing after breakfast.
  • I hit a good point in my outlining on Day 1, so I was able to make huge progress on Monday and Tuesday, expanding my outline up to the 50% mark. I start drafting from an “expanded outline,” which doesn’t go down to the scene level but is a little more detailed than just bulleted plot points — so that meant I was halfway toward starting the draft in just two days!source: http://ournutritionkitchen.com/happy-people-healthier-hearts/
  • Knowing that when I stopped writing for the day, I could pick it up again the next morning was incredibly uplifting. I hadn’t realized before how much of a psychic burden I was feeling when I had to stop writing and know I wouldn’t get to it again for several days.

Negative:

  • Boooo flu shot today. (I’m a good mom and I get my flu shot every year, but I hate shots and the soreness afterward.)
  • Progress was much slower through the third quarter of the outline. I’d gotten feedback that helped me improve it, but that meant I spent a lot of time brainstorming and solving plot problems instead of just writing the outline.
  • Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that I am much more prone to distraction and procrastination when things aren’t “smooth sailing” — so I definitely noticed a greater temptation to surf the web, eat chocolate, talk with friends, etc., during the second half of the week.
  • I am getting neck and shoulder aches in the afternoon, which is making it hard to concentrate. My tread-desk is still great, but my sitting workstation, a.k.a. my laptop, is not as ergonomic as my programming workstation was.
  • I seem to hit the post-lunch doldrums (i.e., food coma) most every day. Supposedly, giving up sugar would help prevent this, but I am addicted to sugar.

Experiment: need a way to make brainstorming more fun.

I promise not to bore you guys with my whole retrospective every week, but I felt like I should mark the occasion of the first one somehow.

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.

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