Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What I Did During My Summer Vacation

Right now, I am in the middle of my vacation.  Like many people, I get two weeks of vacation every year.  That's it.  So, by necessity, I have to be very careful about how I spend this time so that I maximize my fun, the completion of long overdue personal errands, and relaxation.

How do I do all of these things?

Take a Staycation

I've been having 'staycations' since before there was a term for it.

By and large, I don't enjoy traveling as I find it stressful and uncomfortable.  Yes, I like seeing new places and experiencing different cultures but I also know myself.  I'm not interested in spending twelve days seeing ten different countries.  And I don't like 'roughing it', whether that's camping or in a budget hotel.

It boils down to this: to travel properly, I have to spend money.  A good bit of money.  And, right now, that's not in my budget.

Do Nothing

For the first few days of my vacation, I did very little.  I'm talking no productivity, no errands completed -- nothing.  I met up with some friends, I hung out with my family, I surfed the net, read and caught up on some television shows I'd missed.  I enjoyed it immensely.

Like most people, I have job that stresses me out on occasion.  My vacation is primarily a vacation away from my day job.  I'm not adept at switching back and forth between the two so I need a buffer period.  A piece of time where I can let the job slip away into the back of my mind (this means no checking work email or thinking about the latest irritation from my coworkers) and get into a more relaxed mindset.

Do Something

After the first few days of destressing, I am ready to get to work.  No, I don't go back to checking work email, other than a brief foray to make sure the office is still standing.  I start writing.

The main goal of my vacation is to write.  At any given time, I have several different projects (read: manuscripts) on the go so I hit the one I'm most in the mood to tackle.  After those few days of downtime, I'm really raring to go.  The time off from both work and writing has made me eager to write, which is part of the benefit of taking the few days off.

With my mind far from work and refreshed, I'm capable of producing some of my best writing.

Every day, once I've passed my creative limit, I switch to another writing-related task.  Either I write some posts for my blog to store away for when my day job gets too hectic, or I research some potential agents or publishers for my work, or I just spend time on Twitter connecting to other writers.

Because this is my vacation, I don't put too much pressure on myself.  Yes, I have a daily or weekly goal I want to reach for my writing (usually, a certain number of pages I want to have written).  Yes, I have a target for the number of queries I send out.  But if I don't make it, I don't stress about it.  After all, this is my vacation.

Oh, and that picture at the top of this post, I'm there -- in my head.

Photo courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, May 30, 2011

Finding Your Inspiration – Take a Writing Course

You’ve heard me brag before about my writing group, that awesome bunch of women who bear reading my work month after month with no complaints and much encouragement. How did I first get together with such a great group of writers?

I enrolled in a writing course.

Yes, it was as simple as that. A few minutes online. A few hundred bucks (ouch!). A little preparation in terms of sending my writing to the course coordinator in advance of the actual course starting and then showing up on the day of the first class (albeit, as a relatively new subway rider, I was a few minutes late).

Why did I take the course in the first place? For one thing, it fit into my schedule. I was in between jobs and I slotted the course into my first “free” week. For another, I was at loose ends as far as my writing was concerned (some would say, my career too, but that all turned out very well). I had written a lot of manuscripts and I didn’t know what to do with or even if I should continue on in that genre. The key was: I didn’t know much. I still don’t, but that’s another story.

The course I chose to take was a week-long intensive course offered at a local university. The students came from across the country but many were from the city (and some ended up forming my writing group, yay!). We were all working on different types of novels: from romance to historicals to mysteries. But what we all had in a common was a love of writing and a common courtesy towards others. Although much of our class time was spent critiquing each others’ works, we stayed polite, professional and constructive in our remarks. We praised each other but we also took issue with each other. Courteously, of course.

What were the results of this class, aside from the obvious reward of giving rise to my writing group?

At the time of this course, I was 70 pages into my manuscript, 30 of which I had presented in class as a stand-alone short story. Three months later, working more or less full-time on my book, I had completed it. It was a fantastic feeling. Even though I later spent months editing and polishing my manuscript, and have searched in vain for more than a year for a literary agent, I still credit the completion of that book to the writing class I took a few years ago.

Try taking a course yourself. I promise that you will find your own source of inspiration.

Photo courtesy of nuttakit at freedigitalphotos.net

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Day on the Links: Beginner Edition

This week, I start a new recurring series for this blog.  It consists of short descriptions of, and links to, interesting and information articles related to writing, the creative process, blogging, and other useful topics.

But then, while creating my first post in the series, I realized that I lack some of the basic knowledge required to start linking away to other people's blogs and websites. When should I link?  Do I need to ask permission of the website or blog owner first?  How much of the article I want to link to can I quote?  And so on.

So, before I start linking to the world of great blogs and websites out there, here is some preparatory information on how to do what I am starting out on.

I hope you enjoy...A Day on the Links.

Link Etiquette: You Do Not Need Permission To Link: I found this article as the very first Google find under the heading of 'how to link to another website and etiquette.  It's up there for a reason.  When do you need to ask permission to link?  Well, the answer is in the title of the post, although the author does suggest asking for permission when you expect to benefit (i.e. monetarily) from the link.  (From Lorelle on Wordpress)

Internet Etiquette: While we're on the subject, I think it's useful to get a refresher on all of the rules of the internet from making comments, email, and blogging for both owners and readers.  There aren't as many rules as you think and they all boil down to being respectful and considerate, and giving credit where credit is due.  Good credo for life, too.  (From My Affiliate Place)

How do I make a link to another webpage?: Of course, if you're having trouble creating links in the first place, you might want to check out the blogger How To and read up on the mechanical stuff.  Don't feel silly.  I've had to review all of the FAQs and tutorials myself at one point.  A list of all of Blogger's help topics can be found here.  (Start your own blog on Blogger!)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How to Balance Your Writing and Your Day Job – Part 5: Get Help

No man or woman, even a writer, is an island. To get through your day, you need a group of people, seen and unseen, who support you.

I take a train every morning that someone conducts for me. I purchase a coffee someone else has brewed and poured out. I accomplish the daily tasks at my work because my colleagues help and assist me.

Paid or unpaid, willing or indirectly conscripted, we depend on these offerings of assistance from other people every day. So why shouldn’t we need and want help in our writing careers?

Sources of assistance

Everyone around you should be viewed as a potential source of help, support, and even inspiration.

Books contain disclaimers, acknowledgements and thank yous for a reason. A novel might be created by a single person whose name appears on the front cover but it’s also a team effort involving all those who appear on the dedication page and even those alluded to (in the negative sense) in the usual disclaimer: “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead...”, etc.

The usual suspects are your friends and family. But you may also want to think about your colleagues and co-workers, your writing friends (both in person and online communities) and your idols or mentors.

If you’re in the process of paring down your time drains, you may be thinking about hiring someone to assist you in one of many ways, such as: performing a chore you spend time on (either daily tasks like cleaning or one offs like designing your website) thereby freeing up your time for writing, providing expert advice in a subject you aren’t versed on (accounting, legal, and editing come to mind), and providing emotional support (often gratis).

Getting help

The only way to receive help is to ask.

The people around you who love and care about you won’t know what they can do to support you unless you tell them. Don’t be afraid. It takes a few minute of conversation, as formal or informal as you want to make it.

If you want to get some time off from your day job to write, such as a leave of absence from your employer or a flex time arrangement, this will be a more formal process. First, look up your company’s policies and find out if you qualify for what you’re thinking about requesting. Next, put it in writing. Offer solutions. If the company’s needs may be negatively affected by your proposal, brainstorm solutions to mitigate these affects before you make your request. Plan out your finances and make sure you can afford the resulting decrease in your income.

For people you may not see on a regular basis (online friends, influences, mentors, etc.), this conversation will take effort and forethought. Think about how best to approach the issue. It may be as simple as starting an email off with “Can I ask you a favour? Feel free to decline you don’t have the time or interest. I won’t be offended :)!” And make sure you aren’t. When you’re asking someone to do something for you, their refusal should not make you grudging. It’s not personal. People have other time commitments and interests that take up their free time. Just as you’re trying to balance your life, they’re trying to balance theirs. Be understanding.

For formal arrangements like hiring someone to mow your lawn every week or file your tax return, look for referrals from the people mentioned above. If you can’t get a good local referral, try the Better Business Bureau and, of course, the internet. Up front research will save you trouble later.

What kind of help do you need? 

You want: an expert to tell you how to perform a task, more time to write without encroaching chores or commitments, daily reminders to keep at it and a cheerleading section for when you try and fail. Some of these kinds of help may be out of your reach for financial or other reasons.

Free types of help include: 
  • ask someone to discuss your goals with you on a regular basis (doesn’t have to be daily) – this will serve to keep you on track
  • ask someone to give you a daily reminder of when it’s time for you to write – this might work better for an online friend
  • tell your friends and family what times you’ve dedicated to your writing and ask them to leave you alone during this period (except for emergencies) – it may help you both to outline what matters you think qualify as ‘emergencies’
  • ask someone to trade time-consuming chores with you, such as cleaning, cooking, babysitting, so that you can write – you don’t have to trade the same chore as you can easily promise to watch your neighbours’ kids on Saturday night in exchange for having him cook you a week’s worth of dinners – remember to keep up your end of the bargain when the time comes
Remember that the ultimate goal of obtaining assistance is to further your writing career. Be flexible. You may not be able to have your mentor read through your entire manuscript but she may give you an introduction to a worthwhile contact such as a great editor. Take what you can use and be grateful, even if you have to decline.

Good luck on your writing goals!

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Balance Your Writing and Your Day Job – Part 4: Simplify

Your whole life is spent running from one commitment to the other. There’s barely enough time in the day to eat a real meal or sleep properly, much less write fiction. Never mind the time crunch – you can’t even find the energy to sit down in front of a computer and be creative.

Your writing career and your day job seem to be pitted against each other in a battle to the death. One of them must go. But it can’t be your job…you need it! So what’s the solution?

I don’t believe you have to give up on your dreams of being a published writer (or whatever your actual dream might be) just because you also have a day job that you need to go to every day in order to survive.

The solution to a hectic, overcrowded life is…take a breath, hold it for five seconds…three, two, one…let it out…

Simplify

Simplifying your life merely means taking out the unimportant and leaving the essential, important aspects.

What are the things (people, activities, even possessions) that are important to you? If you don’t know already, spend some time thinking about it. You can’t simplify, part of which involves eliminating the extraneous, without know what it important and what is extraneous.

If you’re like me, you balance your day job, your writing, your family, your friends, your partner, your community activities, your hobbies, your entertainment and a dozen other commitments on a daily basis. It’s exhausting. If you’ve decided your writing career is one of the most important aspects of your life (and frankly, why would you be engaging in this process if it wasn’t?), then you may need to trim the other categories.

Eliminate

The simple way to simplify is to cut out those categories that consume the most time. One of your hobbies is sailing but it involves many hours every weekend on the water. You like sailing but you like writing about sailing a little better nowadays. You cut out sailing. This may or may not be a good idea. But it has certainly freed up some of your precious time.

Automate

The better choice for simplifying your life is to automate it. Put your finances online and automate your regular bills. You’ve just saved yourself an hour or two every month when you sit down at the dining table, write checks, lick envelops, and give yourself a headache.

Online tools can be used to automate everything from your grocery shopping list to your work. Many of these are even free. Try some of these out and keep what works for you.

Organize

The most pointless time drains stems from a lack of organization. How many times have you spent an hour searching for an item that you could have found easily if you had a better system for your tools, your files, your clothes, or what have you?

A few practical storage mechanisms, a calendar and reminder system can save a ton of time and effort. This is one area where the investment of time up front (to create the organizational system) will save you time in the long run. Online tools are also available for keeping track of your time, possessions, etc.

Transform

I’m not saying stop spending time with your friends or stop volunteering but do these things in quality rather than quantity.

Instead of spending two hours every week with your friend at a movie theatre, where you can’t talk to each other anyway, why don’t you spend every other week catching up over a two hour dinner? Instead of volunteering every weekend to build houses, why don’t you try getting on the board of the agency that builds the houses, which meets every month? All of these options are just as valuable, the latter ones just don’t take as much time.

Come on, breathe with me. You can do it. Wait, I can simplify that. Do it.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How to Balance Your Writing and Your Day Job – Part 3: Find the Time

Sure, it’s great to have goals. And a plan is a lovely thing. But when do you find the time to work towards your goals and execute your plan? Indeed, you might not even have the time to work on creating your plan in the first place.

I have the same problem and the same underlying tension between the demands of my day job and my writing life. I want to write 24/7 but when push comes to shove, I have to eat, clothe myself and put a roof over my head. Like most people, I not only have to put in the requisite number of hours at my day job, I have to find the energy to complete my work during the day, leaving very little energy (not to mention time) to write and strive towards my goals for my writing self.

Interstitial time

Time doesn’t just come in increments of an hour or more. Don’t give up on writing for the day just because you won’t have an afternoon or a full hour to work on your writing.

Take time where you can find it. Actually, if you think about it, this is what we’re all doing already. We squeeze in a workout between home and work. We spend our break calling the credit card company and our lunch hour picking up a few items from the grocery store. Nowadays, that’s how we get by.

I call these increments interstitial time. It’s the time we find in between the bigger (usually already committed) blocks of time.

The big blocks are Work, Family, Sleep, etc. Every other minute in the day is essentially up for grabs.

Finding the time

I’ve created a list of likely categories of interstitial time which may exist in your life. By cobbling together a few of these short periods, you can find time to write – or at least plan to write, or research, or edit a few pages you’ve already written.

Commute: if you’re on a bus or train for longer than five or ten minutes, you can make use of this time to write.

Work Breaks and Lunch: Let your partner pick up the groceries today. Or instead of waiting on hold with the credit card company, drop them an email. Free up your fifteen and thirty minute breaks in the workday to do something for your writing career. Think about it like your second job; you just do it in between the first one.

Wake Up Early or Go to Sleep Late: Create some time by carving out a small slice of that big block called Sleep. You may not want to do it every day but a half hour on the weekends before the family gets up or at the end of the day after the kids are in bed can give you the time to write a page a day or even more. After a year, you’ve got a decent sized book!

These are just a few of the places where I’ve found interstitial time. If you look hard, you can find some slices of time in your own life. Put them to use.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Balance Your Writing and Your Day Job – Part 2: Break it Down

Given an unlimited time to write and study the craft of writing, there is no doubt that most people would achieve some success. Talent is great, but time and practice are also key.

We may all feel we have the talent to be a great writer, but what we lack is the time.

Eating up that time are the people and things that make life worthwhile: your family and friends, your enjoyment of a good meal or a summer day or a good book.

But also pressing on your precious daily hoard of twenty-four hours is your day job. It’s what you need to do five days out of seven, fifty weeks out of fifty-two, in order to keep body and soul together.

The Plan

Once you have a goal, you need to figure out how to achieve that goal. I call this The Plan.

The Plan can take considerable thought, preparation and research. Don’t let that deter you. A solid plan created up front can prevent a whole lot of frustration later.

Break it down

By this time, you know what you want to achieve in your writing career because you’ve written down this goal. Hopefully, you’ve kept it someplace prominent where you see it every day. This will keep your writing goal at the forefront of your mind.

The essence of The Plan involves breaking down your writing goal into manageable steps or milestones. Yes, you want to publish a book-length work of fiction in five years. But that may not happen all at once on the last day of the fifth year. In fact, it can’t.

Publishing a book takes time and effort. You have to figure out what you want to write about. Then you actually have to write the book. Next comes editing. And more editing. These are all steps in the process.

So, if your goal is to publish a book in five years, your Plan may look something like this:

1. Figure out what to write about

2. Write an outline of your book

3. Write the first chapter

4. Write the second chapter, etc.

5. Seek critiques and then re-write all of the above chapters

6. Edit and polish your manuscript until it shines

7. Write a query letter

8. Write a synopsis

9. Research literary agents

10. Send your query package out to likely agents

As you can see, this is a one- or two- year portion of your ultimate plan. You haven’t gotten published yet. You haven’t even had a nibble. But part of breaking down your plan is to know which portions of the process you can control. In essence, you can control your writing. You can control the quality of your manuscript, query and synopsis. You can control the depth of your research into likely agents or publishers who might be interested in your manuscript.

You cannot control when or if your manuscript is accepted for representation and publication. All you can do is put forward your best case – and much of that will depend on how well you perform this step.

So, go on, break it down. Hammer time! Uh…I mean, writing time!

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Balance Your Writing and Your Day Job – Part 1: Set a Goal

Unless you’re independently wealthy, you have one.

Love or hate it, you do it every day. In fact, you spend the most time out of your life -- with the possible exception of sleep -- doing it.

It’s your day job.

Your day job is what keeps you (and your family) sheltered, clean, fed, and otherwise off of the streets.

But you also want to be a writer. Possibly, you already are. You just need someone to notice your writing and give you some money for doing it. That is your dream. So how do you achieve your dream, in the face of the time and energy commitment required by your job?

You need to do your day job. No two ways about it. Without this dedication of eight (or more) hours a day, you would not survive. So you are stuck with those eight hours, give a take a few, plus the time you spend getting to that job every day, called the dreaded commute.

Set a goal

In your day job, it’s easy to know what you’re striving towards. Often, your boss or supervisor tells you what your goals are in so many words. They may be measurable – so much the better – in a statistic, or a win in court, or just finishing the work day without any major problems.

When the subject is your writing career (or lack thereof), it’s much harder to measure that success, particularly if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what you want to ultimately achieve. Daydreaming about collecting the Pulitzer Prize for Literature may or may not count.

Without a definite goal in mind, it’s easy to drift. Trust me, I know. I spent a lot of time daydreaming (and, fortunately, writing too) but I didn’t take any time to find out what to do with my growing pile of manuscripts.

What is it you hope to achieve from your writing? In other words, what is your writing goal?

Come on, you must have one. Perhaps you want to win a big writing contest or prize. Maybe you just want to see your name on the cover of a book – your book.

It’s likely you’ve just never articulated that goal, even to yourself, much less taken the time to write it down.

Do that now.

It’ll take five minutes to do and you can even find the time to think about it on the train, or in the car while you’re stuck in traffic. It will take even less time to jot your goal down in a notebook.

Once you have it written down, make that goal visible and make it tangible. Inbed it into your brain. You will come back to it. Very soon.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Balance Your Writing and Your Day Job – Overview

Finding a sustainable work-life balance is one of the most difficult tasks of modern life. Add to that a demanding “hobby” like creative writing and we can all find ourselves making frantic introspective deals, such as, I’ll take a nap this afternoon and write fifty pages tomorrow to make up for it.

In spite of my good intentions, I often fail to keep such deals with myself and, as a result, my writing suffers.

Over the next few posts, I will provide some insight into how I’ve managed my “day job” and my “night job” – my writing. For now, I will just give a brief overview of my process. Keep in mind that this is my process. What works for me may not work for you (although I sincerely hope that it does!).

Set a Goal

The first step in my personal balancing act is to set a goal for myself. I dream big so my goal is a whopper: publish a book in the next five years.

Break it Down

The only way to reach a destination you haven’t been before is to follow the map. I will give you a run down of how to create that map by breaking down a big goal into manageable and (hopefully) achievable steps.

Find the Time

It’s all well and good to have a roadmap of where you want to go, but what if you don’t have the time to take the trip in the first place?

Carving out the time to write and to work on your writing goal isn’t necessarily about using all of your vacation time to sit in front of the computer screen. It’s about finding the time on the margins of your life to do what you can. Increasingly, our time is measured out in smaller and smaller increments. Let’s make use of some of those tiny slices of time.

Simplify

What is important to you? Is it keeping up with the latest television show or is it reaching your Big Writing Goal? I’m going to be presumptuous and answer with the latter.

Is your life too hectic? Caught up in gadgets and time-wasting activities? Stop taking all of those detours and get back on track. Simplify, man. And start moving ever closer to your goal.

Get Help

Sometimes you need an expert to navigate your way across unfamiliar territory. Other times, you just need to have someone riding shotgun to keep you focused and moving forward. Get the help you need in the one way possible – ask for it!

So let’s get going. What have we got to lose?

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Troubles with Technology, or Late to the Party

I have a confession to make: I’ve always been late. I am punctual, yes. I usually show up on time to work, meetings, and social events, but I have a hard time keeping abreast of changing technology.

I find it hard to adapt to the newest gadget or to assimilate the latest mode of communication, even after all my friends have switched over and even my office has upgraded (a sure sign of ‘lasting change’ is when the office embraces the newest thing). My first smartphone was work-issued and years behind most people. This is my first blog. Yes, in 2011! And my Twitter account was started on the same day. I never did get around to Myspace or Facebook…

Why did I make the leap? Sometimes, as with my smartphone, because I had to. The blog and the Twitter account weren't done for me. They were necessary steps in my progression to becoming a Professional Writer. I needed to reach out to my fellow writers and (hopefully) my potential audience in the event that I do ever get published. How better to do it than in an easy, instantaneous, way?

How did I do it? Below, I set out my small steps towards establishing my cyberspace (read: technological) presence in the world.

Step 1

I set up a Blogger account by going to http://www.blogger.com/ and signing up. It took a few minutes. No fuss, no muss. It was easy because I already had an email account I wanted to dedicate to my tech presence.

If you don’t have an email account to dedicate to blogging, tweeting, etc., as I would suggest you do, you can set one up in another few minutes with Gmail at mail.google.com/mail/

Now, Blogger allows you to manage more than one blog at a time. I suggest you start with one blog, dedicated to a fairly discreet topic, and take it from there.

Step 2

I set up a Twitter account by visiting twitter.com. Again, it was easy. For ease, I used the same username as I did for my email account and my Blogger account. The point is to generate some recognition, right? So be consistent. Once my Twitter account was ready, I sent out a couple of writing-related tweets and I got back a few followers on my first night. These were general followers who seem to be on the look out for new ‘twitterers’.

By searching for “writer”, “author” and “romance novels”, I was able to find some folks to follow, folks who shared my interests, and after responding to some of their tweets, I started getting back followers as well. Remember to keep tweeting every day or else you lose your followers. You also should have something interesting or thought-provoking to say. Word to the wise: Twitter thrives on wit and sarcasm, all under 140 characters (the maximum size of each tweet).

Step 3

I wrote a bunch of blog posts. Not nearly as many as I needed, so I am still catching up, but enough to cover me in case I can’t churn out a provoking post every day. I try to stay on topic: writing, writing romance, finding inspiration, etc. I suggest you consider the benefit of writing some posts before you take Step 1 and 2 above (or ‘go live’ with them), just so you have a cushion of posts to fall back on. One of the hardest parts of keeping up with technology is staying active and current.

This is my beginner’s advice on technology for fellow beginners. As I pick up enough tips and tricks to become an intermediate tweeter and blogger, I hope to post some more in this area.

Good luck!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nan’s Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse

For those who may have missed the bulletin (I believe it was sent via Twitter), today, May 21, 2011, is predicted to be the end of the world. The Rapture. The Apocalypse. Doomsday. Just when the weather started getting good.

So, in honour of the occasion, I have decided to take a day off blogging about writing romance because, honestly, suddenly there seem to be issues more pressing than how to write a steamy sex scene (by a slim margin). Like, for instance, how to eat, shelter and protect your fragile human body when everything around you is going gaga. And, incidentally, how to stay sane while doing all of the above.

First of all, in homage to the late great Douglas Adams, my most important piece of advice is: DON’T PANIC. What’s the worst that can happen? You die. That’s it. Based on the predictions, today you’ll be in good company. A lot of good company.

So, what do you do about the apocalypse? Well, in the interests of democracy (soon to go down in history as a spectacular failure, along with leggings and everything else we hold dear right now), I’m presenting two possible scenarios for survival: the Hermit and the Pilgrim. Your choice between the two will depend on how badly you need to get out of your house today (in order to escape your bickering and/or panicking family members, for instance). I will cover of the basics for each scenario: food, shelter, entertainment, etc. Enjoy.

The Hermit

So, you’ve stuck your head outside, seen the world ending, and decided that the weather really wasn’t good enough for you to take a long trip today. Congratulations, you lazy hermit. I’m going to help you live.

Food and water: If you haven’t already, fill up every available container in your house with water. Fill the bathtub. Your water may stop running so be prepared. Hopefully, you’ve planned for this occasion (you were warned, after all), by stocking up on nonperishable food. Besides food, you will need other supplies like flashlights, batteries, matches and so on.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put out a list of what you need to be prepared, how many gallons of water, etc.  Sure, it's about the zombie apocalypse but I'm sure it relates to just about any apocalypse.  Check it out.

Shelter: This is an easy one. You’ve opted for the safe and comfortable – your own home. If you’re at a temperate time of the year, you can exist for the next few months without heat or air-conditioning. When it gets hot, stay in the basement. When it gets cold, put on more clothes and huddle under your blankets.

Protection: Unless you live in an underground bunker, the problem with your home sweet home is that it may not be terribly secure from the other unfortunates who've been...left below.  You will need to reinforce your windows.  Nail down shutters.  Lock the door and stack up all of your available furniture (preferably heavy) in front of it.  Hunker down, Hermit, you will be here for a while.

However, you will need an escape route in case of any further disaster requiring evacuation. Leave an accessible route to the outside world that can easily be secured.  Besides escape, you will also need to get rid of...ahem...waste.

Entertainment: It's just you and your family/ friends now.  Whoever is left with you in your house is now your chess/poker/monopoly/tiddlywinks opponent...for life! Don't play every game you know in that first night.  You should be saving your flashlight batteries and saving some element of surprise for that looming 100th day when everyone has sung all the songs they know and told all of their stories.  Prepare for boredom, people.  It will be inevitable.

The Pilgrim

You've decided to strike out into the newly devastated world in search of warmer climes, companionship or some remnants of civilization.  Congratulations, you are a pilgrim.  You know not for what you search but you're sure willing to make the journey.  Your voyage will be fraught with dangers and adventures but it will never be boring. Here's what you're facing.

Food and water: The keyword for you is mobility.  All of the food and water you are taking either needs to fight on your back (in which case I suggest water purification tablets, vitamins and energy bars) or in your vehicle.  I would suggest taking a vehicle.  You may not know how to drive but remember that there may not be any police officers to pull you over.  They will be busy with other things.

In addition to being nonperishable, your supplies must be portable.  Don't forget the supplies needed for the elements, if you're walking, or for your vehicle, if you're not.  A car will need food (gas) and water (oil etc.) so stock up.  If you don't know too much about cars or don't have access to a reliable one, be prepared for the possibility that you may eventually be walking.  Good shoes are a must.

Shelter: Unless you're in a car, you have no shelter.  Remember to pack a sleeping bag or collapsible tent/ tarp so that you can stay warm and dry while you sleep.  Find an out of the way place to sleep, you don't want to bunk down on a park bench only to find yourself at the mercy of another unfortunate pilgrim in the middle of the night. If you're sleeping in your car, park off of any roads and drive a little distance away so you can't be easily spotted by passing vehicles.  Remember to lock your doors.

Protection: On the road, a blunt object is a must.  If you're thinking about more deadly weapons, you'd better know how to handle them or else you will be in more danger of harming yourself than your target. While on the move, your best protection is going undetected.  Travel off of main roads.  Use a compass.  Where possible, have a map of the area with you.  Above all, be cautious.

Entertainment: The road trip will offer a lot of its own pleasures.  Navigating unfamiliar roads clogged with stalled cars, viewing scene fires, fending off enemies...the list goes on.  When you've stopped for the night, you may want a pack of cards to pass the time but really, what's more entertaining than listening for the sounds of wildlife or other intruders? Sleep tight.

If today is the day, I want to wish you all good luck.  I'll see you on the other side.

Photo courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at freedigitalphotos.net

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fav 5 – Sources of Inspiration

I am fortunate; I find my inspiration everywhere.

My everyday interactions, thoughts and sensations inform my writing, so much so that I will never have the time to follow up on all of my story ideas. For the excess, I jot down my idea (as best I can) in my writing journal with the hope that I will one day come back to it. My journal is my insurance. One day, if I ever reach Peak Idea, I can rely on this stockpile.

So, where do I find my ideas? Well, I compiled my five top sources of inspiration below.

Books

It seems counter-intuitive to find new ideas in a work that’s already been created and published. Think of it this way: sometimes a title of a book can lead you to expect another plot or story from the you one actually find inside. What were you expecting? Was it more interesting than what you found? Then write that book. Maybe other people will find it the more interesting story too.

Poetry

Poems may present you with a different kind of inspiration: the creative spark and the imagery to which that flows. Poetry may get you to think about words in a different way. A poetic turn of phrase can open up brand new vistas on the ordinary or humdrum.

If you haven’t read any poetry since high school, this is the time to start again. The world has gone on since Keats’ Grecian urns (although we still appreciate them).

Music

Listening to a great song can tap right into your emotions, bypassing all of the usually ocular channels. I listen to all kinds of music and I would recommend that you do too (or at least try them out). Different bands and genres can evoke different emotions. Have some music playing in the background and see how it affects your writing.

Song titles are also a good starting point to get your creative juices flowing.

Dreams

Your subconscious is always working, even when you’re not.

What are the reoccurring themes of your dreams? Go beyond falling or flying and think about that odd little dream you had the other day about pit mining and red mountain ranges. Create a story using that background: a fantasy set in a desolate red land, for instance.

If you can’t remember your dreams, try jotting them down right after you wake up. Keep a journal by your bed for this purpose.

In Real Life

Snatches of conversation, heard out of context on the train in the morning, can find their way into your story by the evening. A face you see in the elevator may fit the previously blurry features of your hero’s nemesis.

For sheer variety, nothing beats real life. Use what you see. Use what you experience. If it was a bad experience, write it out. If it was just a weird observation, so much the better.

Inspiration is all around you. Know where to find it. And, above all, use it!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Finding Your Inspiration - Start a Writing Group

My family likes to speculate on what goes on at meetings of my writing group. They joke that we sit silently together and write. “Ready…set…write!” is the catchphrase that greets me once a month on a Saturday as I set out across the city to my friend’s house.

Hold on a second…friend? You thought we were talking about a writing group, right? Fellow writers, colleagues, serious professionals (or, in our case, amateurs) in the craft. Where do friends come into it?

Well, three years ago, these three women I meet up with every month were strangers. None of us knew each in the slightest when we first met up at a week-long summer course on creative writing. We were all different, with varied histories, demographics, and careers (one doctor, one editor, and two lawyers – one practicing and one retired) but we were all interested in writing a novel.

The course provided us with the chance to meet, to click and to exchange email addresses. At first, almost half of our small writing class wanted to meet in a group setting. Many even came out to the first meeting at a local restaurant to share our work, but it was largely geography that left us with the four city-based women who first started our group. We were fortunate that it ended up that way. I can honestly say that the ladies I meet with every month are those whose writing first impressed me years ago in our class. And I continue to be impressed with their writing and dedication every month.

I work hard every month to make the deadline to submit my work so that these ladies can read and critique it. We’re not brutal with each other but we do criticize. As we’ve gotten to be friends, we have started to know how good our work is from the lack of reaction. When copious praise is replaced by reticence, we know that it’s back to the editing chopping block.

A member has since come and gone in our little group but the group continues. We all write, urge each other to write, celebrate each others’ successes and commiserate over rejections. Since joining, I have published two short stories but none of us have reached our ultimate goal: publishing a book-length work of fiction.

Still, after every meeting, I leave inspired to do more. To write more. To submit my work for publication. To keep going.

That’s the real benefit of a writing group. Aside from having a community of people with your same interest, it’s great to have a safe setting from which you can draw encouragement and inspiration.

So, come on, reach out and connect with your fellow writers. Take a course. Attend a meeting of the local writer’s guild. Get online to find your group (meeting in public at first until you’re comfortable with a more private venue). Just get out there!

Now, repeat after me. Ready…set…write!

Photo courtesy of graur codrin at freedigitalphotos.net

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Naming the Unnamable – Villains of the Piece

I present to you the following proposition: villains need thoughtful, interesting names too. Why? So you can exact one of the precious rewards of writing: putting your childhood bully, unfavourite cousin, and mean boss into your writing. Or, at the very least, have fun with it.

Villains

We all have a nemesis. Whether it was that ‘friend’ that told all of your secrets in high school or the girl who ultimately married the ex-boyfriend you weren’t quite over, you have someone whose name makes you pause, remember, and grimace.

Why not put this person into your book? Make her the rival to your heroine, the one who will show her true (wicked) colours at the end and lose the hero. Or the colleague your heroine must avoid while she tries to navigate her work days, the one who will make up vicious lies about her behind her back.

But…(and this is a big but), Do not use real names. As with any work of fiction, we don’t want to use someone who is recognizable as themselves. While every writer will take inspiration from the people around them, it is not allowed for you to simply tweak a few character traits, make the person largely anonymous, and plunk them down into your story. Doing that is a surefire way to run the risk of litigation. When in doubt, talk to your editor and/or publisher. Consult a lawyer. You can still get your revenge while avoiding those pesky defamation lawsuits.

So how do you put your nemesis into your book if, legally, you can’t?

You use a version of their name on an otherwise unrelated and unrecognizable character. This is easier when your nemesis has a common name. You can simply turn Amy Angel into Amy Gelinas (but not Amy Devlin – too obvious). Again, don’t make the character look like or talk like the real person.

If your nemesis has a name like Elizanne Judson-Laforest, you may still not be out of luck. Try initials in that case as a source of inspiration. Edna Jane Lorrimer may be the evil boss your character butts heads with every day, although the “Jane” may never actually be mentioned in the book.

Try it. It’s cathartic. And much cheaper than therapy.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Finding Names for your Minor Characters

How minor is your minor character? That’s the first question you will have to ask yourself as you ponder a name for the hero’s autocratic late father or the heroine’s funky best friend. The best friend may be pivotal to the story and require a name that suits her importance. However, the late father may answer to ‘John Smith’ – or at least he would if he weren’t dead!

To avoid the use of the blasphemous phrases such as “major-minor” or “minor-minor”, I’ve divided up minor characters into two categories: haute, or high, and bas, or low. I’m using these terms simply because I like to show off my knowledge of high school French J.

Haute Minor Characters

How big a role does this character play in the plot of your novel? If the best friend shows up repeatedly, both at the party where the hero and heroine first meet, as well as at the wedding where they get into a very public showdown, then she may need a memorable name that requires the same amount of effort you would put into your heroine. See my post titled Naming your Main Characters, or Nom d’un nom d’un nom ed to add link] for help with giving your major characters monikers.

As with main characters, the names of your ‘Haute Minor’ Characters should reflect their personality. Have fun with it. Here, there’s less of a chance of major scrutiny/ criticism about your choice of monikers so go wild. Be humourous. A quirky best friend (are there any other kind in fiction?) can be a Starla or a Cadence, depending on whether she likes astrology or music. Or, in keeping with our Gallic theme today, your character can be from France and be named Francois.

For surnames, refer to the post I linked to above to choose an authentic-sounding last name for your character.

Bas Minor Characters

Truly minor characters appear once or twice on the page. Think the irritating coworker, the ditzy assistant, or the sympathetic doctor. These characters may advance the plot by giving your heroine a reason to play hooky and swan about at the beach that day, or lending your hero a listening ear as he tells the tale of how his niece’s parents recently ran off and left her in his care.

Perhaps the character doesn’t appear at all but is just mentioned in passing. For example, the mean boss, the agreeable landlord, and the childhood bully can all be “off page” characters. They add detail to your main characters’ lives but the reader isn’t invested in these individuals. They are part of the background scenery and you want them to fade gracefully into it.

Choosing the names for your ‘Bas Minor’ characters is fairly straightforward. First, you decide how old the character would be, roughly. Counting backwards, figure out when your character would have been born. Exact year is not necessary at this stage, just a decade. Next, pick your character’s gender. Then you look up “most popular baby names” and the decade or year you’ve identified. Google is most helpful in this respect. No, I don’t work for them.

Hmm, my male doctor born in 1970 could be a Michael, a James, or a David. But I’m a rebel and I like to choose from near the middle or even the bottom of the field of 100. So, #88, this is your lucky day. Hello, Dr. Curtis. But, wait, unless he’s a talk show host, this use of first name as surname is unacceptable. My doctor needs a last name!

Back to the drawing board (read: Google or other search engine). Type in “popular surnames in [add country where your book is set]”. Some websites will offer the ability to refine your search for surnames based on popularity, ethnicity/ race, and alphabetically. You can fine tune to make sure that the last name sounds good with the first name you’ve chosen.

Ta da!

Dr. Curtis Cooper. Has a nice ring to it. I think I’ll use him in my next story. He goes by Curt.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, May 16, 2011

Naming your Main Characters, or Nom d’un nom d’un nom

Naming my characters is one of my favourite writing-related activities. But it’s also a chore I obsess about. Names have to be perfect. Who wants to read about a romance between Silas Twingletoe and Kezia Birtwhistle? I didn’t even make those names up. They’re from a Lucy Maud Montgomery book called Magic for Marigold. The beginning chapters of the novel focus around finding a name for a newly fatherless infant. Needless to say, it is my most read part of the book.

Main Characters

It goes without saying that the hero and heroine are the most important characters in your novel. They get to do all of the fun stuff, like argue, misunderstand each other, have sex, and fall in love (not necessarily in that order).

I spend a lot of time finding the right names for my main characters. My own peculiarity is that I prefer names that sound good as well as have an interesting meaning. For instance, I search out names that are from different cultures and see if I can produce a name that means something. For my hero, I want a name that means ‘brave’, ‘loyal’, or ‘stalwart warrior’. Or all three. I also have personal preferences.

I find that I gravitate towards names that start with A, C, and L. Don’t ask me why…there isn’t even an L in my name! I just find that names that start with those letters sound strong or forceful. Hard sounds also help. Short names that end with ‘n’ or ‘m’ sound tough and masculine (but sweet and sensitive inside, of course!).

For my heroines, I want a name that rolls lyrically off the tongue. My preference is for feminine names that start with A, L, S and V. Again, that’s just my personal tastes. However, for female names, the endings are often what give the name its ‘feminine’ character. Names that end with ‘a’, ‘l’ or ‘y’ are easier on the ear and distinguishably feminine, even when you get creative with the name itself.

Which leads us to my method of choosing names for my main characters.

To find these names, I pour over baby name websites. Cheesy, I know. But where else are you going to find thousands and thousands of names, arranged by gender, first letter, meaning and language of origin? All of these aspects play a part in my ultimate choice. This blond hero needs to have a strong Teutonic name? This brunette needs a softer Arabic name? I know just where to look!

Last names work the same way, although these are often found on different websites, usually dealing with genealogy. Just Google the language/ culture you want, with “surnames” and you’ve got more choices than you can handle! To filter, try a specific country of origin.

With all of these names, I like to experiment. Adding an ‘a’ at the end of a masculine name might give me a suitable name for my heroine. Changing the first letter of a name might reward me with an appropriately tough-sounding hero.

Experiment. Try these tips and make your own tweaks to them.

Photo courtesy of Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Forcing Yourself to Write

By making some hard choices and enlisting the help of the people around you, you've finally managed to carve out a regular writing time.  You've shoved your family out the door, earning yourself a few grumbles and some precious quietude.

The only problem is that this writing time, at its inception, is merely a block of time put down on paper.  To actually use the time to write, that's another thing.

If you're like me, this quiet time may just serve to remind you of how messy the house actually is when its usual occupants aren't physically blocking the piles of dirty dishes and unwashed clothes.  I might even find myself using my infrequent hours of having the house to myself to clean it up.

Don't do it!

Your sudden urge to clean may just be another procrastination tactic.  If you make yourself too busy for your muse to find you -- you'll get to your writing later, you promise her -- you may never find the time.

Now you have the time.  Use it productively.

If you wait for the mood to strike, you will never finish your manuscript.  Writing according to mood leaves you completely at the mercy of your muse, who may be moody, fickle or simply lazy.  In fact, you may have to choke the dear lady into submission, as I have had occasion to do.

My muse is fairly tame.  Most times, she listens to me and I don't have to resort to violent acts against her.  But everyone has those days when they can't, just can't write.  The problem is when those days fall within your writing times.  You have the opportunity to write but you just can't utilize it.

Below are some tactics I've used to force myself to write.

  • Set a timer: Big blocks of time can be intimidating.  You're supposed to spend how much time writing?  If you have two hours for writing today, break that time up into blocks where you want to only be writing, hands on keyboard.  Try setting aside that smaller block by using an egg timer or your smartphone alarm for fifteen or twenty minutes.  Keep your head down for that time.  Put your fingers on the keys.  Write.  Write something, anything.  You may find that time slipping by.  At the end of the allotted small block, take a short break.  Then go back to the timer and set yourself another writing period.
  • Close the door: Even in an empty house, the distractions loom.  Try physically cutting yourself off from that pile of dirty dishes or that phone that may be bound to ring.  It's easier to ignore something when you've given yourself the permission to do so and that closed door is a physical reminder of that permission you've given yourself.
  • Close the windows:  Sitting down in front of your computer may not be enough.  Your computer is full of distractions.  The internet.  Twitter.  Facebook.  They all want your attention and you must push them all aside.  This is your writing time.  Social media can wait.  Make sure that the only window that's up on your screen is the piece of writing you're working on.  Leaving that little tab you can easily click on may be too much of a temptation.  Tell your Facebook and Twitter friends that you will be writing today or for the next few hours.  They may urge you on or even call you out if you log back on.
Yes, my muse may not be in her best shape when I make her do my bidding.  She may be slow to start and lethargic even when she gets going but my theory has always been that writing feeds writing.  Bad writing at the beginning of your writing session may turn into perfectly good first draft pages by the end of your hour, your afternoon or your day.

Do what you must to preserve your writing time and when it comes around, make sure you are actually writing!

Photo courtesy of Felixco, Inc. at freedigitalphotos.net

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Submissions: How Not To Give In

I've written before about the agonies of waiting for a response to a writing submission.  It's been more than a week (nearly two) since I sent in my first romance manuscript to Carina Press.

Although I received the auto-response saying that they received my submission, the submission guidelines on the Carina Press website say that I should wait twelve to sixteen weeks for an editorial response.

Twelve to sixteen weeks!?!

I know that's not long in the grand scheme of things, and certainly much shorter than the response times I've grown accustomed to from literary journals, but it's three or four months of waiting when the stakes are personally very high.  Therein lies the agony.

Writing a book is like, well, you've heard all of the analogies.  Most often, you hear "giving birth to a child".  I wouldn't have any firsthand knowledge of that one but just let me say "oh no" and "ouch!".

So, other than twiddling my spacebar-pressers endlessly, what do I do?

Well, in the meantime, I lessen the agony with worrying to my friends and family, my writing group, and taking occasional forays into the Harlequin forums, which are filled with people in the same position as me.  It helps to see others suffering the same agony (there must be a long German word for the phenomenon) but mostly it helps to commiserate and know that I'm not alone.

We're all in the same boat, sink or swim.  The few of us who are thrown a life jacket in the form of a R & R (revise and resubmit) or a request for the full manuscript (full request) are celebrated by the whole community.  It's a great feeling of fellowship and sympathy, even when you lurk around the forums as I often do.

The best advice I've read on the Submission Care forums is also the most frequent: keep at it.  Keep submitting your manuscripts even if you receive the dreaded R -- a rejection without any feedback.  I've had those.  They smart.

And, most important of all, keep writing.  While I'm waiting on the response to my first Carina Press submission, I will be writing my second -- and while I'm waiting for the reply on that one, I'll be writing my third.  Because (I think) each one gets a little (or a lot) better and each one takes me closer to my goal of a published romance novel.

For all of you out there in the same situation, good luck!  You're not alone.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Procrastination – How to Deal with It, NOW!

Know when you are procrastinating

Keep track of what you do when you put important tasks off. Are you surfing the internet, checking email or cleaning the house? When you find yourself engaging in these chores, as yourself if this is important in its own right, important to do right now, or simply a way to avoid doing something else.

Another sign of avoidance may be a shortened attention span. If you can’t actually sit down to the task you need to accomplish for more than a few minutes at a time, you may be engaging in procrastination.

Learn why you are procrastinating

You may be putting off a task simply because it is unpleasant, boring or difficult.

You may feel you lack the skills to tackle the chore, leading to your putting if off day after day.

Or you may not have an action plan to work on a task that looks monumental at the onset.

These are just some of the reasons why you put off doing something you need to do. The key word is “need”. You have to do it. You just don’t want to, or feel capable of doing it, or simply don’t know how to go about it.

Try these ways of beating procrastination

Ask for help: If you find you don’t have the resources to do the chore you’re facing, ask someone who might – a colleague, a friend or an expert. You’d be surprised at how much you can learn just by asking. If you don’t understand the task, this is the only way to make sure you are using your time and energy effectively. Nothing is worse than thinking you’ve finished an item on your To Do list, only to realize that you got the instructions wrong and have to start over.

Get organized: Set up a To Do list. Break your larger tasks into smaller goals that you can accomplish in a day or an hour. You will feel better ticking off these smaller items from your list and, in the meantime, understand the larger project better by forcing yourself to think of the process for completing it. One caveat: don’t spend more than an hour organizing yourself every day as this activity of ‘organizing’ can itself become a delay tactic. After you’ve implemented your organizational system, you should be able to whittle down the time you spend ‘organizing yourself’ every day into a few minutes.

Get a push: Friends and colleagues are there to help you. If you find yourself putting off a task that needs to be done, set yourself a reminder system. Automatic it into your calendar or smartphone. Find someone else to remind you a few days ahead of time. Ask them not to take “no” for an answer. You know yourself best. Anticipate your excuses and give them to your friend or colleague so that they can tell you, in all honesty, “you said you’d use that excuse…just do it already!”.

Reward yourself: I know myself and I know that I am susceptible to bribery J. Give yourself a reward for accomplishing a task you want to put off. Buy yourself a chocolate bar. Set aside some quiet time to read for pleasure or soak in a warm bath. You can even try paying yourself. Five bucks per completed task, tucked away in a shoebox, can equal a nice pair of shoes at the end of the year.

Some of these strategies may work for you and some will not. For me, To Do lists and calendar alarms are my best friends. The only way you will know what works for you is if you try it out for yourself.

Good luck!

Photo courtesy of graur razvan ionut at freedigitalphotos.net

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Procrastination – How it Affects our Daily Lives

Stress is good for us and perfectly normal, just as a little procrastination is normal and expected of us. Who doesn’t put off a task we find difficult, tedious or unpleasant?

However, once procrastination becomes a pattern, it can affect our lives in an unhealthy way. One of the most obvious affects of regular procrastination is increased stress levels. Stress has been linked many major illnesses and diseases. Too much stress, over the long term, can literally kill you.

Procrastination is something we can control. Failing to control it leads to feelings of guilt and anxiety which grows greater as the task we are putting off becomes more urgent. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. We may find ourselves asking What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just get myself together and do this?

Part of the problem is that the longer we put off a task, and the more ingrained the habit of procrastination becomes, the more difficult it is to ‘get yourself together’. Procrastination behaviours have become your norm.

Putting off the inevitable can cost you money, friends, and opportunities. Your personal relationships suffer as your self-esteem declines. Prolonged stress and anxiety do not make us pleasant people to be around. Our friends get tired of being encouraging (particularly when they don’t see us helping ourselves out of our morass) and become dismissive – or disappear altogether.

At its most extreme, procrastination can cost you significant time and money. Procrastinate enough at work and you could be out of a job. Put off writing that Great American Novel long enough and you will never even get close to completing it. Your masterpiece could die with you.

So, what do we do to break the cycle? In my next post in this series, I will deal with how to address and manage the problem of Procrastination NOW!

Hey, why put it off? I’ll have the post for you tomorrow. I promise.

Photo courtesy of graur razvan ionut at freedigitalphotos.net

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Procrastination – What We Let Slip

I’ll be the first to admit it…I’m a world class procrastinator. (Although, based on my amateur research, I may not technically meet the psychological criteria to be a “real” procrastinator.)

Like so many aspiring writers, I have a day job and my day job is stressful. My job requires long days and sometimes evening and weekend work. Occasionally, I have to travel and hole up at luxurious hotels. Poor me, I know. But it’s still my job. It’s what I do to earn money, no more, no less. If I had limitless resources and leisure time, my job is not what I would choose to do every day.

My writing is big part of how I would spend my time, even if I had all of the money, time and energy in the world.

At work, I am hyper-organized and meticulous. Outside of work, not so much. I’ve always justified this inconsistency as being the necessary balance I need to stay alert and on top of my job. These chores weigh on my mind but I know I don’t have to do them. The tasks I let wait – meet ups with friends, haircuts, shopping trips – may not seem like life and death but they all have something in common. They affect my personal well-being.

So, I have to ask myself, why am I choosing to sacrifice my personal pleasures, daily conveniences and even my appearance? Because they don’t truly matter to me? No. Because my job is more important than my well-being? No!

The answer is: because I can.

I let my personal affairs slip because I have control over these tasks. If I drop the ball at work, there are repercussions. Someone’s life is negatively affected. My professional reputation suffers. I may even be sued.

But when I let myself down, I don’t have to worry about any of those consequences. The only one who suffers is me. And I let myself suffer (and, by extension, my friends and family who go without seeing me for long stretches of time or who have to see me with my hair all long and wild. (Scary time). How sad is that?

Put down in black and white like this, it doesn’t make sense. The point is, it never made sense. But I did it, and I keep doing it (although I have gotten better).

So, how do you avoid this kind of behaviour and the negative affects it has on you? Well, I’ve researched that too. But I also have some tips that have helped me break the cycle. Tune in tomorrow. Dat dat daaaaah…!

Photo courtesy of graur razvan ionut at freedigitalphotos.net

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Procrastination – What Is Procrastination?

It’s human nature to put off non-urgent chores until tomorrow. I can do the dishes in the morning. I’ll get to those bills later (and preferably before they become overdue, at which time they will become urgent). I’ll finish that blog post tomorrow. If a trivial task can wait, then why shouldn’t it?

Procrastination, however, according to the psychological field, is the act of putting off more important tasks in favour of less important ones. Doesn’t really make sense, does it? Of course, you and I don’t do that. No way.

But, wait a minute, when was the last time you flipped on the television or took a long “surfing” trip to your favourite bookmarks, when you knew some pressing deadline was looming? Or maybe you cleaned the house instead of doing something you should. I know, I know, you needed to relax before you tackled that heavy task. By cleaning? Sounds a little like the P-word.

According to the experts, to qualify as procrastination, your behaviour has to be: needless, delaying and counterproductive. Sound familiar?

The reasons why people procrastinate can be stress or anxiety related yet the act of procrastinating can result in more stress, guilt, and decline in personal/ social esteem. Oddly enough, procrastination has also been linked with perfectionism. We delay starting or finishing a task because we feel that it will fail to meet our own or someone else’s exacting standards (which may not be as exacting as we believe in the first place). Hence the quotation, “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. And “the done”.

We’ve all been caught up in that cycle. We put off something we need to do, we feel bad, we put it off even longer because we feel bad and want to cheer ourselves up. Eventually, we may even become known as that person who can’t be counted on to meet goals and deadlines. You can become…The Procrastinator, with no attendant superhero powers apart from the ability to feel superhuman guilt.

Now, come on, I wrote this post (eventually). Get out there and write something!

Photo courtesy of graur razvan ionut at freedigitalphotos.net

Procrastination…Oh, I’ll Write this Post Later

Monday, May 09, 2011

Romance Novel Submission, or Waiting for Success

I try to be positive.  Generally speaking (and my family and friends will vouch for this), I am an optimist.  I typically believe that everything will work out, at some point, in some way.  The situation may not turn out exactly the way I wanted but I tend to believe that it was for the best anyway.

The same attitude applies to adversity.  I forge through, I employ all of my experience/ skills/ knowledge, and usually everything is roses.  Or crabgrass.  But the point is, I get through it.

Why, then, do I find it so unbearable to wait for the response to my romance novel submission?

Well, for one thing, it's been more than six months since my first chapter was rejected in the Mills & Boon New Voices competition.  I felt really badly about my writing for a really long time.

But the New Voices contest was not my first tango.

Years ago, I wrote a series of terrible historical romances which I deemed too terrible to see the light of day.

Then, more recently, I spent a good chunk of the past decade writing nearly a dozen contemporary romances.  I sent many of these out to Harlequin and was rejected, again and again, in increasingly terse letters.

I am a many time loser.  So why do I keep trying?  Why am I still so optimistic about the chance that I will one day become...dat dat duuuuuh...a published romance novelist?  There are a few reasons.

Keep learning

Every time I sit down to produce a romance manuscript (not an easy process, despite my numerous completed mss), I'm more knowledgeable about my writing and the romance genre.  I've read more articles on the subject.  I have used the internet to learn about romance novel writing and my subscription to writing magazines to think about the craft in general.

Be prepared

I have put more energy into crafting the plot, characters and structure of my novel before I even sit down in front of the computer.  Because this isn't my first manuscript, I've thought through the old tropes and come up with ways to make the storyline more interesting and captivating (I hope) for my mythical reader.

In addition, my preparing extends to the post-production process.  I've learned to edit myself carefully and have others (usually in my writing group) to review my work and offer constructive criticism.  I've also researched the possible markets and publishers for my work and polished my query letter.

Turn rejection into motivation

Every time one of my manuscripts is rejected, this spurs me to create something better the next time.  If I receive actual advice, I scour my work to see where I can apply it.  Basically, I am always trying to improve my book.  Not just for myself, so that I can be a better writer, but because I have a goal in mind.

I will be published.  Aside from everything else I'm doing to better my writing, I will continue to stay positive.

Photo courtesy of Sayan Samana at freedigitalphotos.net

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Lady – Part 2

I spent the years from ages sixteen to thirty writing for myself. But what had I accomplished in my writing career?

I had gone from burying my scribbled pages in plastic binders to hiding them away behind computer passwords but my audience hadn’t changed; it was still just myself and the occasional close friend.

Two years ago, I bit the bullet and enrolled in a weeklong summer writing course at a local university. For the first time in almost a decade, I put aside my genre fixation and created some ‘serious’ literary works. I submitted one to the ‘come all who can afford the course fee’ program and arrived (late) to my first day of classes. The course was mainly based on reading each other’s work and then providing feedback to one or two or three people each day. By the second day, I was engaged.

My work didn’t come up for review until the fourth day and the first person in my group to provide feedback kept saying she didn’t understand it. After that, however, it was mostly pretty positive stuff…and at the end of the class, my piece was chosen by my class to be read out to the whole writing school—a hundred plus people!

I came out of that course with an amazing writing group who has met regularly ever since, sharing our work, critiques, triumphs and rejections.

I’ve spent the last two years since that writing course piling up rejection letters and often just going by the lack of responses. And, finally, in January of last year, I received an acceptance from UK magazine wanting to publish my short story! Another acceptance and publication came earlier this year as well.

Nearly two decades of writing and two short stories published to day. Not worth it, right? Maybe I should just stick to my day job…

No way!

Fortunately, my family, friends and writing group all accept my need to write and they seem to think I’m pretty good at it. I’ve learned that it is a need. I would write even knowing beforehand that there was no avenue for publication—ever—in my future.

So why keep writing?

Because I am a writer. I have never questioned that fact.

Photo courtesy of Keattikorn at freedigitalphotos.net

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Lady

When I was sixteen, I wrote stories for my friends sitting in the school cafeteria during lunch, half-attuned to their bubbling conversations but mostly immersed in my own freshly created worlds. I was the world’s happiest writer. I had time, an enthusiastic (and largely uncritical) audience and a tumultuous environ—high school—filled with a vast set of new ideas to constantly draw on.

I thought that if I wanted to become a writer (whatever that meant) as all of my teachers encouraged me to do, I would simply do it. Granted, I defined the occupation of ‘writer’ very generously. If I wrote, I was a writer. So what if only my closest friends saw what I had produced? I was able to entertain them, to while away the lengthy lunch periods the school board granted us and I got great grades in English.

Like I said, I was a very contented writer.

For nearly a decade afterwards, I was happy to write for my own amusement—my audience having slipped away to careers and cities far from our suburban hometown—and I did so, churning out a dizzying amount of trash. Writing mainly in one specific genre, I never strove for originality. I never edited my work but I did re-read it frequently, the way I re-read my favourite authors in that same category. In my head, I was equal to those best-selling published authors. Hey, I enjoyed reading my own work, didn’t I?

Occasionally, I would enter a writing contest, most frequently the one put out by my local newspaper, which offered a fantastic cash prize. At sixteen, I had won a local arts award as an ‘emerging writer’. I got to meet the mayor and June Callwood handed me my award. Aside from the plastic trophy, which I kept on my bedside table until I knocked it over one night and my mother had to perform sloppy glue-based surgery, I won a writing course by correspondence. This package sat in my closet for several years until it grew old and dusty enough to throw away.

What did I need courses for? I was a writer already. A young, unpublished, unknown writer. But the adjectives were only qualifiers. All that was needed to erase them was time.

Over the years I acquired a degree and a day job exciting enough to hold my interest and weighty enough to impress strangers. It should have been enough. It was enough for long stretches of time. But I was still furtively constructing stories and churning out genre novels—I completed at least ten while I was at school and then working. I was still a writer.

But what was I doing about my writing career?

Photo courtesy of Keattikorn at freedigitalphotos.net

Friday, May 06, 2011

Romance IRL – In Public and On Display

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude (at least, I don’t think I am), but some public displays of affection (PDAs) gross me out. Maybe I’ve got puritan values. Or maybe people aren’t doing it right.

Witnessing lovers in public should make you go “awww”, not “ewww”.

Seeing couples who are sharing their love in a public way can inspire me to think about love and romance in general, to reflect on my own experiences, and, yes, even to write. And anything that inspires me to write is good in my books.

The line shifts between what is an acceptable PDA and what makes me cringe. It depends on the place, the degree of affection, and, sadly, the people involved. Kissing that might be sweet and romantic on a park bench can seem repulsive in a crowded restaurant (a recent example is still fresh in my mind, where the kissing was mainly taking place after the meal was long since devoured). Similarly, an older couple with their hands around each other might be adorable while a prepubescent couple might draw some unwanted stares and glares.

Handholding almost always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That could be because I’m a fan of handholding myself. Nothing is better than that warm safe feeling holding a man’s big strong hand gives you. Plus, I’m a klutz, so having an extra steadying force beside me is never a bad thing.

Loving couples are the backbone of romantic literature and seeing them IRL (in real life) can inspire us to write convincingly about them. Our experiences shouldn’t be faithfully copied down into our fiction. We need to see real life examples, not just rely on other works of fiction. And in real life, the variety of couples is broad, illuminating and beautiful. Use them, be inspired. Just don’t use the ones that make you say “ewww”.

Photo courtesy of luigi diamanti at freedigitalphotos.net

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Music as the Food of Writing

Music inspires us all.

Okay, that might be a sweeping statement but I believe it to be true.

There’s a reason they give out awards for movie soundtracks. Although the music may be the background to the visual spectacle onscreen, it plays on our emotions to heighten what we are seeing.

A pounding movie soundtrack makes us feel uplifted, adventurous, or brave. Creepy background sounds can also make us gasp and shut our eyes shut as we wait for the impending onscreen fright.
Music goes straight through the circuits to the emotional core of us. That is why writers use music for inspiration and vice versa (Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights comes to mind in the vice versa category). We try to capture the emotion music gives us and translate it down onto the page. Whether the song makes us feel brave (Eye of the Tiger by Survivor), sexy (Wicked Game by Chris Isaak) or righteously angry (just about anything from the aptly named Rage Against the Machine), we can harness that feeling into a words, and a story.

I once wrote a song while listening endlessly to Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon. It was a sexy story, but also a dark one. I picked up in the song a subtext that made me enjoy both the act of writing my story more and also gave me a different perspective on a song I liked.

Try playing a song you know makes you feel a certain way and use it for inspiration for a story you want to write, which is based on that same emotion. Or just listen to a favourite song and try to make up a poem or a story that builds on how that song makes you feel. There’s no right or wrong answer. For all I know, Survivor makes you feel sexy and Chris Isaak enrages you. But the point is, try it. Engage another of your senses the next time you write and see where it takes you.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn at freedigitalphotos.net