Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Organizational Paradise

For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, it'll come as no surprise that I have a small crush on organization. There's my love of outlines, first of all. I use them for every plot line, sub-plot line, mini-plot, and story device, ever. I also use them - or their simpler, but no less sexy cousin, the list - for groceries, packing for travel, task management, and everything else in my life.

With that in mind, I know no one will be the slightest bit shocked when I confess that I also love spreadsheets. Oh, the organizational options! The endless array of tables, charts, and graphs at my disposal! Is there a more satisfying way to track your life? I think not.

(Before you write me off as a total weirdo, let me just say that I run my own business as a massage therapist, and Microsoft Excel has saved my life. Seriously. I use it to manage my finances and keep my books and organize my tax info for my accountant, all of which you have to do when you are a sole practitioner and have no one to do it for you. So my love of Excel at least has a practical, real-world foundation.)

I started using Excel in my writing life last year, and believe it or not, it wasn't my own idea. I found this great guest post by Delilah S. Dawson on terribleminds (warning: utterly NSFW), which laid out in clear steps a great, easy way to organize and manage your querying process (scroll down to #10 on the list).

I know I'm biased, but if you're planning on querying, I highly recommend you take her advice to heart (all of it, but especially the spreadsheet stuff). Tracking who you've queried, what they said, or how long you've waited for a response, is a complicated and serious business - not to mention essential. Who wants to query their dream agent only to find that they already queried said agent two months ago and that this agent was reading a partial of their novel and now they've gone and humiliated thesmselves? Right. Nobody. So, take my word for it: use a spreadsheet. It'll help.

My recent forays into non-fiction have proved I also need to use spreadsheets there if I want to have any hope of getting published. As of today, when I created the second of these sheets, I now keep two running so that I can track what the hell I'm doing. The first one is a list of places to submit pieces to: journals, websites, blogs, etc. My column headers are: Publication, Tone/Style Sought, Topics Sought, Submission Guidelines, Deadline, Pieces Read?, Name of Piece To Submit, Date Submitted, and Response. Each row is a different publication.

Simple, really. If it seems too complicated, consider this: I've been researching places to submit to for a few days at most, and I already have over forty options - and that's only the tip of the iceberg. I can't remember which ones want flash non-fiction and which ones want subversive essays under 3000 words and which ones only accept poetry essays over 8000 words, so now I have a spreadsheet.

Today, as I was trying to figure out what I actually need to be writing, I also realized that I need a spreadsheet to track my pieces. Again, I know I'm anal and maybe a little bit crazy, but I'm used to dealing with one book. One. Now I have fourteen pieces at various stages, from brainstorming only all the way up to polished and ready to go. You try keeping track of all of those without a spreadsheet. I've been doing it for weeks, and it ain't pretty.

So I made a new one. The fact that I may have geeked out while making it is unimportant. What's important is that I know have a simple, easy way to track my pieces, too. This one is even easier. The column headers are: Title, Theme (so that I remember what the piece is actually about), Stage, Length, and Possible home.

And now I'm so organized. I love it. I'm in heaven.

What about you? How do you keep track of everything you're working on?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Not-Run Run

Ok folks, it's the dawning of the new blogging era I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, in which I write about stuff that's kind of about writing anything I want to. I enjoyed writing this; I hope you enjoy reading it, too. 

So last Wednesday, I didn't go for a run.

Perhaps this doesn't sound like news. I understand. For most people of varying fitness levels, it's probably not too unusual. We all have off days: days when the sky is too gray or it's raining too hard or the thermostat hovers around stupidly cold, or days after the nights we had a little too much to drink and got not-quite-enough sleep, and dragging ourselves from the warm, deep nest of our beds is just too damn hard. These are the days we don't make it to the gym, don't go for that run, skip that spin class.

Well, I say 'we', but it's not quite accurate. I have these days, but I go anyway.

This is not always a good thing. I am not an exercise saint. What I am is anxious. I lost a large amount of weight six years ago and while I've kept it off, I'm haunted by the fear that if I stop exercising for even one day it will all come rushing back, every last pound. The recognition that this fear is absurd, that skipping one day of exercise will not cause me to gain half a person's worth of weight, does nothing to lessen the brutal strength of it. So when I wake up on a Wednesday, which is my day off from my day job and therefore a day to both write and run, and I feel sluggish or lazy or just plain tired, I ignore my body's signals, shove my protesting feet into my sneakers, and head out. Every single time.

Yes. I have a tendency towards extremes. Moderation is something I'm working on.

But last week, I didn't go. I don't know why; some quiet, still instinct held me back. The fact that I could even hear this instinct, whispering like wind-blown leaves in my ear, is an achievement. Two years ago, the fear would have drowned it out. But not anymore. I listened, and I stayed in my pajamas and drank my coffee and worked, and when the sun became so bright around noon that I felt its presence like a physical hook around my spine, I went outside. But not for a run. For a walk.

It was one of those perfect, priceless September days, the sort the universe drops in our laps every now and then as if in apology for the coming New England winter. A warm, crisp day, a day washed clean, burning bright blue, with the kind of light, gentle breeze that lifts even the lowest spirits.

It was so beautiful and so precious that even though I intended to walk, I found myself running. Sprinting down narrow paths in the woods inside the park, kicking up fallen leaves; racing up small hills with the browning grass crackling beneath my feet. I ran like I haven't run since childhood, for the pure, simple joy of it. I ran because I could, because my body was strong and my legs could bend and spring and my lungs could take in great big gulps of that perfect, crisp air.

When I reached the top of a higher hill, I found I was laughing out loud. The sun kissed my cheeks and the wind caressed my hair and I laughed harder, not from the joy of running this time, but for recognition of what I'd been missing, all of those days and weeks and months and years when I forced myself to run out of fear. This. This is what I'd forgotten.

I stayed outside for a long, long time, returning home only when the sentences forming in my mind became too urgent, too pressing to ignore, and I had to go inside and put them onto paper. They came out of joy, out of space; they came because I didn't force them, and that is such a rare and precious thing that I knew I'd received two gifts that day.

All because I didn't run.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Insecure Writers: Inspiration

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! The IWSG is an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

Hey, IWSG-ers and other visitors! There's a very cool, very special IWSG theme today. The creators of the group are putting together a free ebook anthology called "The IWSG Guide to Publishing and Beyond," and the posts that many of us put up today will be included in that anthology. You can learn about it here and submit your own post for it here. not writing anything for the anthology. I know, I know, big lead up for a big let down! But the idea is so great that I had to share it. So go on, go check it out and then come back and read my non-IWSG-anthology-IWSG post.

All done? Pretty cool, right??

Anyway, not to worry, I might not be creating a piece for the anthology, but I have plenty of insecurity to share!!

But I'm going to restrain myself today, and share some inspiration instead. I've been devouring Cheryl Strayed's work these past few weeks. If you haven't read Wild, her best-selling memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, go read it!! AND while you're at it, read Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns, and which is so much more beautiful and inspiring and heart-breaking and vulnerable and funny and real than any advice column, ever. I had no idea I'd like it so much, but I've read it once through, tears spilling down my face the whole time, and as soon as I finished it I went back to the beginning and started reading it again. So.

That's not the inspiration I wanted to share, though. I mentioned Strayed because in Wild, she talks about the book The Dream of a Common Language. It's a collection of poetry by Adrienne Rich, who I discovered in college and who I knew, in the way of all egotistical, self-centered eighteen-year-olds, was writing those poems just for me. I haven't read her poetry in years, but the reminder in Wild made me pick up Rich's work and dive back into it, and I'm discovering all over again why I fell in love with it in the first place.

I wanted to share a few lines here, in part for their bare beauty, but mostly because I hope they'll inspire you the way that they inspired me:

From the poem Miracle Ice Cream in the book Dark Fields of the Republic:

"Miracle's truck comes down the little avenue,
Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls,
and, yes, you can feel happy
with one piece of your heart."

From the poem One: Comrade, also from Dark Fields of the Republic:

"Little as I knew you I know you:    little as you knew me you
      know me
- that's the light we stand under when we meet."

And finally, the poem #9 in the section Calle Vision in Dark Fields of the Republic:

"In the black net
of her orange wing
the angry nightblown butterfly
hangs on a piece of lilac in the sun
carried overland like her
from a long way off
She has traveled hard and far
and her interrogation goes:
-Hands dripping with wet earth
head full of shocking dreams

O what have you buried all these years?
What have you dug up?

This place is alive with the dead and with the living
I have never been alone here
I wear my triple eye as I walk along the road
past, present, future all are at my side
Storm-beaten, tough-winged passenger
there is nothing I have buried that can die"

If you liked these, go read the whole book, and then all of her books. Really.

What's inspiring you these days?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What Blog Am I, Really?

I've recently been having a bit of a blogging identity crisis. You see, the purpose of this blog is to write about the process of writing a novel. It says so, in big black letters across the top of the page, right under the header photo. I know, because I put it there myself, to remind myself about what I'm supposed to be doing when I get off-track and start talking about the perceived evil of e-readers or blog-comment etiquette. I need these reminders, or I tend to forget what I'm doing. A lot.

Here's the thing, though. I've been writing this blog for over a year now, and in the process I've learned something:

Writing a novel isn't always terribly interesting.

Gasp. Shocking, right? Who would've thought that a process involving a single person alone at a computer plumbing his or her imagination for endless details for hours and days and weeks and months and years on end might not be interesting???

Yes, well. It might seem obvious now, but when I started on this bloggy-journey, naive and hopeful and wide-eyed, I thought it would prove to be fascinating. And I mean those italics, as only a naive, hopeful, wide-eyed novice can. How fascinating!!!

And yet, it's not really fascinating at all for long stretches of time. Funny that. Weeks go by where the only honest blog post about my process is "I'm still researching," or "I'm still developing characters" or, worse, "I'm bored by my own writing in this scene, and I don't know why I'm bored, but I'm certainly not going to subject you to it until I figure it out."

For a while I tried to ignore this problem. I wrote about "still researching" and tried to make it interesting, and then I wrote about lots of other things that had nothing to do with writing a novel, all the while with this niggling, annoying pin jabbing me in the back of the head, telling me what was really happening was an identity crisis and I had to do something about it.

Obviously, the pin finally won, because here I am, doing something about it. And even better, I've devised an entirely writerly way of dealing with this problem.

I'm going to play with words.

You see, I decided that I've been defining "process" way too narrowly, as in "the actual writer things I do while working on a novel." I'm going to widen that definition to "whatever is happening in my life while I try to write a novel, and which I want to talk about." The premise being that all of the happenings are happening to me, the writer, and so they are in some way affecting the way I am writing said novel. Plus, I'm the writer, so I get to change the definition when I want to.

Perhaps it sounds like I'm making excuses. That's because I am. But I don't care.

You might now be thinking, "OK, so what does this mean for me, reading this blog?" You also might not. I don't know; I'm not in your head.

Let's pretend you are, OK? Great. Fair question. Truthfully, not too much. I'll still write about my neurotic brain and weird habits. I'll still complain about having too much to research or being overwhelmed by research or intimidated by writing characters from other ethnic backgrounds or whatever else I'm perseverating about on any given day. BUT I'll also write about something that happened to me, or a non-fiction piece I'm working on, or a story from my life that I just happen to want to talk about.

AND I'll do it without getting all guilty about it. How about that.

What about you? Do you limit yourself to a defined topic when it comes to blogging? Or, as a reader, do you get annoyed when a blogger posts about something other than what the blog is supposed to be about?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Rush of Rushing

Hey, did you know I'm writing a novel??

You didn't? Well, I can't blame you. You wouldn't know it from my recent blog posts. What can I say? I've been caught up in the alluring world of creative non-fiction, where almost no research is required. What a beautiful place...

I know, it's been a while since I posted anything about my WIP. In my defense, I'm still working my way through this monster, which doesn't so much involve reading as it does navigating the research rabbit holes. You know, those places you stumble into when you're researching something, and quickly get lost in. The places that take you from the world of South American archaeology into the strange, sealed world of cliff tombs. For example.

I'm not disparaging these rabbit holes - they can provide surprising plot twists, fascinating tidbits of information, and lovely hours of procrastination - but I can't help but feel like a horse delicately picking its way through a field riddled with little rodent burrows. One wrong step...

I won't go into excruciating detail, because, well, it's excruciatingly dull, but I will explain the basics: I am attempting to place my South American lifetime in a specific set of locations and a specific time period, so that I can then attempt to figure out how the people of those locations and periods lived and interacted, so that I can then figure out who the hell my characters are and what the hell they're doing.

This process is of course not linear. I start with a vague set of parameters: one character probably lived in the dry Andean highlands, and the other in the semi-temperate edges of the Amazon basin. So I look in my giant archaeology book for articles about peoples who lived in the altiplano, or the high Andean plateau. That leads me to a variety of dense, academic treatises on the Early, Middle, and Late Periods of Pre-Incan civilization, so then I have to go look up when each of these periods occurred and what occurred in them.

The problem, though, is that it's very hard to find general information on early South American peoples, which is fair, because there were many of them living all over the continent in vastly different climates.

So then I start researching actual tribes who lived in the altiplano, which leads me to that BBC show on the Chachapoya people and their cliff tombs, which, although fascinating, is not what I need to know, because the Chachapoya lived in the Peruvian cloud forest, which is not at all arid and therefore not at all what I'm looking for.

I dig myself out of that particular rabbit hole, and dive into another.

I know it sounds a lot like I'm complaining. I'm not. The research is difficult, sometimes boring, but generally fascinating and rich with gorgeous ideas and images, and I need to know all of this. I just...well, to be honest, I just want to be getting this done faster. I'm constantly fighting that urge to rush, to finish my book as fast as possible and get it out there in the world. It's a totally self-manufactured rush - I have no deadline - and it's making me feel like I'm never getting enough done. Which means, really, that it's not helping me at all.

I know I'm not alone in this - Anne Allen had a great post about it a couple of weeks ago - but that doesn't make it easier to handle. It's so hard to fight that inner voice that screams for more, faster, now - and to not feel defeated when you know that less, slower, later, is better.

Send along some good vibes, and let me know how you fight the voices that tell you to rush.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sorting Through the Data on Comments

Last week, I ran a highly technical and scientific poll about comments, so of course that means that this week, I'll reveal the results that I have carefully sorted and analyzed. Rest assured, the results are just as technical and scientific as the poll itself.

Which is to say that I went through and counted the responses by hand, and tallied up some numbers in my head and used those to come up with some rough estimates (calculator? Who needs a calculator?) to share with you today.

Granted, I had about 35 responses, and there are about 5,467,872,536 blogs out there (that's a real number based on my imagination), so that represents 0.00000001% of the blogosphere...but it's my 0.00000001%, the people who come and comment and whose blogs I read, so that counts for something, I think. I'm not sure what, exactly, but it's something

I know, I know, I'm not getting any points for technical prowess. But I did read everyone's responses carefully - and I have to say, I really appreciate the thoughtfulness displayed in most of the answers. Thank you again to everyone who weighed in.

Now, on to the results. I asked:

Question 1: Do you think it's important for a blogger to respond to all comments on a post?

Result: Almost everyone replied 'No' on this one. The clear majority - like 98% ish - thinks that unless the comment asked a question, raised an issue, or was very thoughtful, there's no need to leave a response if the blogger doesn't have time. If the comment doesn't meet those criteria, replies are nice, but it's better to use your time to visit that commenter's blog instead.

A couple of you did note that you like to see lively blogs, and bloggers who are invested in and care about their readers, and so you do try to respond to everyone who comments. To you I say thank you, and I admire you, and where on earth do you find the time?

Question 2. Do you check back to see if the blogger has responded to your comment?

Result: This one was almost unanimous, except for those of us who have an insatiable curiosity (and I love you for it! :) ). None of us go back to see responses to our comments - unless our comments met those criteria I noted in the first question. If we asked a question, raised an issue, or left a long and thoughtful response, we do check back. Otherwise, we wish we could, but we just don't have time.

Conclusion: So, what does this all mean? Well, I can't come to a definitive conclusion, because the blogosphere is too big and I am one little blog inside it, but I can share what I've decided. Based on the majority consensus that responses aren't essential, I'm no longer going to respond to every comment on my blog - but I am going to read and enjoy and appreciate every single one, so don't doubt that your words have been seen. I love comments, and I gobble them up, and I get hungry if there aren't any. If you happen to ask a question or raise an issue, I definitely will respond. I will probably also respond to other comments that tickle my fancy or make me smile, and still others for no discernible reason, because I'm the blogger and I say so.

I also will not expect any of you to respond to a comment I leave on your blog, unless, again, I ask a question or raise an issue or say something incredibly insightful and interesting and thoughtful, which of course I do All. The. Time. I am like an Insightful Comment machine.

Ahem. Anyway, don't worry about responding to me if I happen to have an off-day and say something that doesn't require any kind of response. It happens. Rarely, of course, but I'm human. Or I'm a machine. Wait, I seem to be contradicting myself.


The thing that won't change? I'll always return your visit.

Hey - look at that! I wrote two whole blog posts just about commenting. Pretty cool, huh? See how I managed to not talk at all about how my writing is going? A sure-fire sign that I am likely feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at my own perceived lack of productivity? I know, I'm a sneaky one. Suffice it to say that I have too many pots boiling and I'm worried I'm going to forget about one or more, and then the water will evaporate and before I know it I'll have a gross, ruined pot. And then what will I cook with?

Not to worry. I'm sure I'll vent talk about that next week.

So, what about you? What do you make of the poll results? Are you horrified and offended by my conclusion? (I hope not.) Will you change your own responding habits, or keep them as they are? If you didn't weigh in last week, feel free to do so now. That's the joy of nontechnical, unscientific polls. I knew I did it that way for a reason...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Commenters, Unite

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! The IWSG is an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

Hello IWSG-ers and honored guests! It's that time of the year, when kids and teachers are heading back to school, summer is turning to autumn (hypothetically, anyway; here in New England someone forgot to tell summer that it's over), and, in my house at least, vacation-time is really over. I always feel like this is the real New Year, when everything starts again; I guess I was in school too long for that feeling to ever really wear off.

So, in honor of this new beginning, I'm going to finally run a little poll I've been meaning to run for months, which has to do with comments. So many of us spend a lot of time reading other blogs and commenting, sometimes to ask a question or contribute to a discussion, and sometimes just as a way of saying, "Hi! I was here and I enjoyed this!" I thought we all might benefit from knowing the general consensus on responding to comments. Not returning visits, but responding to comments left on our posts.

The only issue is that I cannot for my life find a way to embed a simple poll in this post without a) signing up for a service I don't want, b) making all of you scroll around the page and search for it until you get frustrated and give up, c) sending you to a results page full of ads, or d) breaking my blog.

Yes, I'm sure there's an easy way, but I can't find it. I am feeling insecure about this. Moving on.

SO, I'm going to ask all of you lovely people to please go ahead and answer two easy questions in your comments, and we'll call that a poll and move on with life and pretend that I am a very tech-savvy blogger.

Before I ask the questions, let me explain: as I've mentioned, I'm struggling a bit with time. I read a lot of blogs and leave comments, and I love writing, and then there's my day job and my family and my friends...and I'm looking for something to give a little. I'm wondering if responding to comments is something I might be able to give up. I often feel like I'm just responding to let people know that I read their comments, instead of responding to an actual debate or question. And that's starting to feel like something I might not need to do. However, I will always, always respond if you ask a question or raise an important idea or even just leave a long and thoughtful response.

Here are the questions I'd love for you to answer (and please, be honest!! I will not be offended!):

1. Do you think it's important for a blogger to respond to all comments on a post?
2. Do you check back to see if the blogger has responded to your comment?

My own answers:

1. No, I don't think it's important for a blogger to always respond to comments. I know we're all busy and we all have a lot going on, and I don't take it personally if a blogger doesn't respond to my comment - unless I asked a question or raised a new idea, or left a very long, unusually thoughtful comment.
2. I'm sorry!! I used to subscribe to comments on every blog I visited, but now I visit too many and my inbox got so clogged that I had to delete everything. Now, I only check back if I did one of the things I mentioned in my first answer: asked a question, raised an issue, or left a long and thoughtful response.

Please leave a comment and tell me what you think! I'll report back on the overall results next week. Thank you!