Almost All Systems Are GO…Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part series on the systems I have put or am attempting to put into place in pursuit of the goal to MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Part 1 dealt with Inspiration and Energy. Part 2, below, is all about how I manage my time. Enjoy!

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Time Management for Easily Distracted Creatives

I am not a natural at time management. In fact, I’m naturally pretty horrible at it. I get off track really easily, and have a bit of a reputation for spacing things like bill paying and clipping my own toenails. So a solid system for managing my time is a necessity for me.

The key here is redundancy. One system alone is not enough. I need several chances each day to keep myself on task and to keep tabs on what I’ve accomplished, or what I still have left to do. I’ve come up with five ways of doing this, and each of them motivates me in a different way, which is nice because I get bored easily.

Daily/Weekly Planner

The daily planner is pretty much a no-brainer. Everyone has one, either in analog or digital form; the key is to actually USE IT. I tried planning stuff on my iPhone for a year, using Google Calendars and some different apps, but I never found anything that really worked for me. For one thing, it is easier for me to write short memos by hand than to finger-tap on a touch screen. For another, I found that a good sized planner has a lot more space–I can see whole weeks at a time, with all the pertinent things written down instead of having to tap through to another screen or do that awkward thumb-and-forefinger expandy motion to embiggen the text. Plus, there is something super satisfying about physically crossing a to-do item off of my list.

My planner is spiral bound, about 4×7″, with a brightly colored cover that makes me happy when I look at it. It is divided into weekly sections, and each day of the week has a good ten lines or so to write all the things down on. There is a monthly view at the beginning of each month, and there are a lot of extra pages for note-taking and stuff. At the beginning of each week (usually on Sunday), I go through and write down all the tasks I intend to complete for the week, trying to space them out so that no one day is too hectic.

This is not the first time I’ve had a planner, but it’s the first time I’ve figured out the most optimal way to use it and really stuck with it. Of course, the planner space isn’t limited to just creative projects. My other day-to-day tasks go in there, too. Like the work I do for my virtual assistance clients, homeschool lessons with my daughter, and errands I need to run. When planning my week, I don’t slate out my schedule hour by hour, but I do try to weigh out how long things are going to take, and try to allow myself enough time each day to get some creative work done.

Habitica

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If there’s a pithy, but slightly chastising adage to express a universal truth, chances are Ben Franklin invented it.

So there is this RPG thingy called Habitica that helps you set goals, form habits, and motivate yourself to accomplish stuff. This game has been a wonderful help for me in keeping track of things I want to do on a daily basis, that would take up too much room if I wrote them down in the planner, as well as setting to-dos and projects that have multiple components that need checking off over time.

The game rewards you for getting things done, whether it’s flossing your teeth, sticking to your daily exercise regimen, or completing your novel. You get an avatar, and as you move up in levels, you earn points that can be used to buy your avatar new gear. Every once in awhile, you’ll get an egg drop. Eggs can be combined with potions to hatch pets, which, when fed, grow into mounts. I’m totally geeking out here. Please forgive me, but I love Habitica! Plus, if you get friends and family to join, you can do quests with them. Quests are challenges that make the whole team accountable to each other for staying on task. If one member skips their dailies, for instance, the whole team suffers. But if everyone stays on track until the quest ends, they all get rewarded with treasure and whatnot.

Days For Certain Things

I’ve designated certain days of the week for certain tasks, especially for things that I will often forget to do, or things that NEED TO BE DONE weekly, no matter what.

For instance, Saturday is “working on the property day”. I take two hours to do some kind of cleaning-up or fixing-up project outside. If the weather’s not good, I find an indoor project to work on. What does this have to do with making my life more about writing? Well, this is the kind of thing that I will forget to do or put off for months, and the fact that it’s not getting done will distract me from everything, including my creative projects. So it’s all about limiting distractions.

On Sundays, I do laundry. I used to do laundry whenever I happened to think of it throughout the week. But I never seemed to get through the laundry pile, and it was taking time away from other stuff I would rather have been doing. So now, I do all my laundry on one particular day of the week. While the washer and dryer are running, I work on writing or revision. Two birds with one stone. I haven’t scheduled toenail clipping yet, but it might not be a bad idea.

The Major Hurdle: Sleep Schedules

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Without my systems, this is me every day at noon.

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, since I’m, you know, a grown-up person with offspring of my own, and like, things that I do to make money and stuff. But for most of my adult life, I’ve generally slept in pretty late.

“Oh, that’s no big deal,” you might be thinking. “I often let myself sleep in til 9. Sometimes even 10.” Um. No, it was worse than that. On the average day, I used to get up around noon. My whole family did. My husband works late, I’m a night owl, and we homeschool our daughter, so we all kind of got into this pattern of going to bed in the wee hours of the morning and not rising until noon. I consider getting up at ten “early rising”. Serious. And, okay, I guess it worked out alright most of the time. Homeschool gets done. Client work gets done. Household chores get done. Bills get paid, etc. But what really nagged at me is the feeling that I could be doing MORE if I were getting up at normal-people time. It didn’t quite make sense logically, because either way you sliced it, I was getting the same number of sleeping and waking hours each day. But I had started to notice that, on the precious few occasions when I did get up early (early-early, not ten o’clock early), I FELT more productive and motivated to do stuff. So I started getting up earlier.

Going from late-riser to early-riser is not an easy change to make. Trust me. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do it before, and failed. So this time, I decided to go with a nice, slow, very gradual transition. For a week, I set my alarm clock for 11:30. The next week, 11:00, the next week, 10:30, and so on. Of course, the other half of waking up earlier is going to sleep earlier. My secret is to listen to audiobooks in bed. Knocks me right out.

So here’s my progress report on early rising: Currently, I’m stopped at ten o’clock for a few weeks because I couldn’t seem to wake up earlier than that. It must be a psychological thing, but if my alarm clock goes off at any time before ten, I’ll hit the snooze button in my sleep. But, even getting up at ten, I am getting clear and definite boosts to my productivity, especially in the writing realm. I may need to try transitioning by smaller increments of earlier-ness, now that I’m legitimately waking up in the actual morning. I could try going back fifteen minutes each week.  My goal is to wake up no later than 9:00 each morning, and it WILL happen. From there, I might even venture further into the mysterious morning realm. Who knows what treasures await me there?

Self-Imposed Deadlines

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This is how I used to deal with deadlines, before I started my own business three years ago. Now I need to apply what I’ve learned about keeping deadlines for clients to my own creative projects.

I am motivated by deadlines. I can’t stand the guilty feeling of failing to deliver on promises I’ve made to clients or friends in a timely manner. Since I know this about myself, I decided to try and use it to my advantage in the creative department. I’ve begun assigning self-imposed deadlines for creative projects.

Sometimes the deadline will be a project completion deadline, like “I will complete the first draft of this story by the end of next week.” I write down the deadline in my planner and add it as a to-do in Habitica. Then I try to space out the work in such a way that I can accomplish the task within the stated time period, without pulling an all-nighter on the last day.

Other times I’ll give myself what I like to refer to as “homework assignments”. These are small tasks that are designed to help me grow and evolve as a writer. For instance, I’ll re-read a favorite short story to analyze the plot or character arcs. Or I’ll assign myself a writing prompt–nothing major, just a few paragraphs utilizing a particular element of fiction for practice. I usually think up these homework assignments in the morning, after my regular writing session, and I’ll give myself between one and three days to complete it, depending on how involved and time-consuming I think it will be.

Both of these methods have proven useful to a certain extent, but I’m not completely sure yet whether this particular system is going to stand the test of continual application. Somehow the promises I make to myself don’t carry quite as much weight as the promises I make to clients and loved ones. So on good days, when everything is going well and nothing unexpected comes up to distract me, I do pretty well at following through, but on more difficult days, these self-imposed deadlines tend to be the first thing I put off until tomorrow. Three or four difficult days in a row, and the deadline is all but forgotten.

What I really need, I think, is more ACTUAL deadlines. Or better discipline. Hmm. This systems thing is a never ending uphill trek, it seems. But maybe that’s just how it looks from halfway up the mountain. Onward and upward!

 

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Almost All Systems Are GO… Part 1

***Note: When I finished this blog post, it was really loooooooong. So I’m splitting it up into several parts. This first part gives a brief introduction on the idea behind the series, and delves into the first of my productivity systems, which deals with inspiration and energy. Check back soon for more installments!***

Two months ago, on New Year’s Eve, I published a post about my 2016 Writing Plan and all of the creative goals I hope to achieve this year. Three weeks later I began to write this blog post, got over half of it written, got distracted, and didn’t come back to it until tonight. As you can see, my 2016 Writing Plan is hitting the requisite slumps and blocks. But good news! Despite random periods of slumpishness, I am well on my way to doing all the things! (I even was offered beard help.) I’m feeling productive. The words are flowing. The plots are coalescing. The ideas are being seized upon before they flit away. But none of it would be so, were it not for my SYSTEMS. As promised, I am writing this post to fill you in on the details of the 2016 Writing Plan’s logistics and behind the scenes operations.

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I started implementing my systems about five months ago, little by little. Some of them are still in the beta testing phase, and they are all still subject to refinement, but I think I have enough data to illustrate how they work.

The purpose of each of my systems is to get me to do four things:

  1. Stay inspired and energized on my creative projects.
  2. Manage my time, including work time, family time, down time and creative time, in such a way that I don’t end up TOTALLY SLACKING OFF.
  3. Strike a balance for my writing between the spine-tingling creative rush and the tick-tock production schedule.
  4. Most importantly, MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Otherwise known as Immersion.

So, what are these brilliant systems, you ask? I will tell you.

Inspiration and Energy

Here’s a scenario that has happened to me about a hundred too many times. I’m working on this awesome project–a short story or a novel or an article or a blog post, whatever–and I’m just chugging along, feeling super inspired, writing 5,000 words in one sitting, not being able to stop thinking about the project for days on end…and then, Something Happens. It might be a family emergency, or the sudden realization that I am behind on other things, or it might be that I suddenly get stuck in the plot of what I’m writing. In the past, I’ve responded to this sort of interruption by stopping. I can’t say how many times I’ve told myself, “I’ll just take a short break for a day or two, and then get right back to it”, but let’s just say if I had a dime for each one, I’d probably be a hundredaire.

So last year when I was evaluating the roadblocks on my path to being a better and more prolific writer, I identified this one as “easily losing inspiration/energy.” To avoid this roadblock, I needed a system for maintaining inspiration and energy. Here’s what I came up with.

  • Write every day. My current daily word count goal is 800 words of fresh drafting or one scene of revision, which is a good goal (challenging but reachable) for where I’m at in my life right now. But if my schedule tightens up, I’m not scared to reduce that goal to whatever I can tap out in ten minutes. Likewise, if ever there’s a lull in Things To Do, I can ramp up the daily wordcount to fill up all that free time.
  • Have multiple projects going at once. A novel and a short story is working well for me at the moment. This way, if I run into a quagmire in the novel that I’m not sure how to resolve, instead of losing interest and letting my energy wane on the project, I switch over to the short story for a few days. When I do this, I am refusing to let my ideas stop steeping (which is essential to working out plot problems), or my writing muscles atrophy. I’m keeping up with my daily writing, and while I get all stoked on project B, project A is still simmering in the back of my mind, hopefully working out its own kinks. This method has already helped me immensely.
  • Writerly fellowship and peer pressure. My writer friends keep me on track. I’m part of two writing groups, one virtual and one local. My Odyssey class meets weekly on Google Chat to brainstorm and commiserate, and we have a running competition for who can get the most story rejections. We also have a couple of in-person reunion events planned for 2016, because we love each other with a deep and passionate love that makes your marriage look like a last ditch prom date. I’m also part of a group that convenes in meat space near where I live, once a week to critique each other’s stories. After the critiquing, we gather in a circle to type at a feverish pace for about an hour. It’s surprising how effective peer pressure can be for your word count. I’m a busy person outside of writing, so I don’t make it to every meeting of either of these groups, but I try to do at least one of them each week, if not both. It really, really helps. These people understand me, and they encourage and inspire me in ways that no one else really can.
  • Write at a particular time each day. To be honest, I haven’t gotten this one down yet. The idea is that if you sit down to write at the same time each day, you will eventually have your brain trained to be in creative mode at that time. My life is so wacky, however, that it’s really difficult to carve out a specific block of time for anything that can be repeated daily. But I’m hoping that as I get my other activities and responsibilities shuffled into something approaching an orderly schedule, a consistent time for writing will emerge. UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have upgraded to a morning routine, and have been spending at least one hour on writing projects first thing after breakfast each day. The routine is working really well for me, and I’m getting my writing done each day when my mind is at its freshest and most creative!

So, that’s it for inspiration and energy. Look out for future installments of this series, which I will post as I finish revising them.

 

2016 Writing Productivity Plan

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I’ve never been a big fan of New Years’ resolutions. It has always seemed to me that if you really want to accomplish or change something in your life, there’s no good excuse to wait until January 1st to begin. I think the reason why people so often give up on their resolutions is because they don’t really want that change badly enough. They’re just making resolutions because, hey, that’s what you do on New Years, right? The resolutions are for changes that may very well be beneficial to implement, but the feeling or motivation behind them is too vague or wishy-washy to carry them through.

Speaking of changes, I decided in March of 2015 that I wanted to make a few. They’re all interrelated, but they all kind of fall under the umbrella of “Be more productive and do more with my life so that I don’t crumble under the weight of so many regrets that I can’t dig myself out of them.” Yeah. It was like that.

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Look, I’m not an expert on productivity. Far from it. I remember the first time I ever completed a major creative project, rather than abandoning it partway through when I got distracted by a new idea. It was four years ago. I’m thirty-three, and I only figured out how to complete a project four years ago. Also, I have a tendency to be super spacey about schedules, to-dos, and commitments, and I am NOT an early riser. My mental image of a Very Productive Person looks like this: gets up at 6:30, exercises for thirty minutes, makes a healthy breakfast and eats it sitting down, does profitable work for several hours without skipping lunch, completes all errands and housework in a timely manner, and is committed to devoting a certain amount of time each day to creative projects. Also never forgets to pay the phone bill. None of those qualities describe me. Or at least, some of them are only just beginning to. (There will be a blog post on how I’ve managed to up my general productivity over the past few months. Stay tuned.)

What I’m really shooting for here is to make my life more about doing something with my creative drive. More specifically, I want to write more and to do more with my writing. (And when I say writing, I mean the creatively fulfilling kind–mainly fiction. I clarify because I actually do write a lot, but it’s mostly blog posts for my business clients, and while they pay the bills, blog posts about “How to Find the Right Futon Cover” or “Ten Things You’re Probably Forgetting to Clean” aren’t really creatively fulfilling at all.) The thing I’ve realized is, there’s not much stopping me. There never has been. It’s just that I’ve always been too easily distracted or overwhelmed by ADULT STUFF that I ignore my passion. And if I ignore my passion, it will never take me anywhere.

So, in lieu of resolutions, I’ve decided to make a 2016 PRODUCTIVITY PLAN. Or, as I like to think of it: Starr’s Mission to Level Up (And Be More Awesome Than Last Year). It’s basically like what businesses do at the beginning of a fiscal year. A plan for the year is better, and more likely to succeed, than a list of resolutions. For one thing, a plan requires more thought and energy, getting you more pumped up and motivated. It also requires you to figure out HOW you’re going to make the changes you want to make. And, of course, it can serve as sort of a road map that you can refer to going forward to make sure you’re on track. Best of all, you don’t have to wait until New Year’s to implement your annual productivity plan. Any day of the year will do. Just check back with your plan periodically and make a new one around the same day next year.

I’ve been working over the past few months on putting in place systems that will help me progress with my goals, and with this blog post, I’m officially setting my intentions for 2016. (More about the systems in that upcoming blog post I mentioned.) I figure that posting this plan in a public place will have the added benefit of making me feel more accountable for actually doing it.

In developing my 2016 Productivity Plan, I took stock of the things I accomplished this year, and then considered whether I wanted to do more of them next year, and how much more.

To give you an idea…

Things I Accomplished in 2015:

  • 1 First Draft of a Novel Halfway Written (I started it during NaNoWriMo and am still plugging away at it. The first draft should be finished in January or February, 2016.)
  • Won NaNoWriMo for the Second Year Running (Yay!)
  • 6 Short Stories Written (This is better than any previous year, but I’d like to do more.)
  • 12 Posts Written for My Own Blog (Ideally, I’d like to do at least one blog post a week, but I’m trying to set reachable goals here, so I’ll settle for somewhere in the middle. Also, I don’t like how the 12 posts were spread out over the year. When I look at my blog stats, there’s a big gap in the middle of the year where I didn’t publish anything for four or five months.)
  • ~50 Posts Written for Clients’ Blogs (This will probably be about the same in 2016.)
  • 78 Critiques of Other Writers’ Stories (This is freaking AMAZING, and I entertain no delusions that I will match it next year, as most of these were written during my attendance at Odyssey Writing Workshop, where I had to write two to three critiques a day for six weeks. I don’t think I will come close to doing this many critiques again, but I do want to make time for critiquing other writers’ work, for two reasons. One, it is part of my ongoing education in What Makes A Good Story; and two, I will probably need critiques of my own work, so of course I will want to reciprocate.)
  • Estimated 95,000 Total Words of Fiction Written (This might sound like a lot, until you realize that over half of these were written in the month of November, during NaNoWriMo. If I can do 50,000 words in one month of mad activity, then I can certainly get in 20,000 in a regular month, don’t you think?)
  • Estimated 15,000 Total Words Revised (This is sloppy. Just sloppy. I have a pile of short stories sitting on my desk that need revising.)
  • 3 Months of Writing Statistics Recorded Daily (I began recording my daily writing stats on October first, and have fully implemented the habit now. This is awesome. I love being able to watch my words pile up on the spreadsheet. And I only missed 15 days of writing in three months. Which, for me, is very, very good. But I want to do better.)
  • 19 Short Story Submissions Made (Nowhere NEAR enough.)
  • 0 Novel Queries Sent (Which makes sense, because I haven’t got a completed novel…YET.)
  • 17 Books Read (4 science fiction, 4 fantasy, 4 writing guides, 2 literary fiction, 2 short story collections, 1 horror. You can see the titles here.)
  • 1 Con Attended (ReaderCon in Boston–it was a blast!)
  • 1 Workshops Attended (Odyssey Writing Workshop–life-changing! Should probably count as 52 workshops.)
  • 2 Science Fiction/Fantasy Magazines Subscribed To (Fantasy and Science Fiction Kindle edition, and Fireside Fiction. I love reading speculative short stories, and since I want magazines to continue making them available to me, I figured I should do my part to support my favorite ones. Next year, I’d like to support a couple more as well. I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford another subscription, but maybe a small donation here or there when I’m feeling flush.)
  • 0 Beard Progress (An epic beard makes you a better science fiction/fantasy author by giving you like eighty kazillion experience points. It is known.)

(In addition to my Writerly Pursuits, I also mom’d a bunch, did daily social media maintenance for several clients, narrated five audiobooks, ran a successfully funded IndieGoGo campaign, met a bunch of awesome new friends, and did some other stuff…)

Now, taking into account the above list of 2015 accomplishments, which, I have to say, I already feel rather good about, here are my goals for outdoing myself in 2016.

Things I Hope to Accomplish in 2016:

  • Revise 1 Novel (The one I’m currently writing, ideally.)
  • Write another Novel (In November, obviously.)
  • Write and Revise 10 Short Stories (Only four more than this year! I can totally do it!)
  • Write at Least 18 Blog Posts (On my OWN blog, of course.)
  • Write the Obligatory Number of Client Blog Posts (However many they’ll pay me to write.)
  • Write at Least 1 Salable Non-Fiction Article (NOT a blog post. Like a real article, for a magazine or something. Must be on a topic that actually interests me.)
  • Fiction Word Count Goal: 150,000 (This is quite a bit lower than I think I can do. Baby steps.)
  • Revise at Least 100,000 Words of Fiction (Yikes.)
  • 100 Short Story Submissions (Crazy, right? But I’m in this weird cultish blood pact with some of my writer friends. If I don’t submit 100 stories, I forfeit my soul or something. I don’t know, I haven’t read the fine print…)
  • 25 Queries (You know, once I get that novel up to scuff.)
  • Read 20 Books (As always, reading Harry Potter to my kid at before bed doesn’t count!)
  • Attend 1 Con (I’m going to WorldCon!!!)
  • Workshops? (I don’t know. We shall see if the opportunity presents itself. As always, I’m committed to continuing to deepen my knowledge of craft in other ways.)
  • Buy a Convincing Fake Beard

Think I can do it? I’m certainly going to give it my best shot. And I’ll keep you posted as the year progresses.

Do you have any resolutions this year? Or an ambitious Productivity Plan, like mine? Let me know in the comments. Maybe we can be motivation buddies!

A Time Travel Tale in Which I Attempt to Write a Poem in the Style of Robert Burns

Hot buttered banjo strings, Batman, it’s almost 2016! The year has whizzed by so fast, I think I have whiplash.

So that I can begin 2016 with a clean slate and a productive feeling, I’m spending the month of December in a mad dash to catch up on all of 2015’s projects in advance of the New Year. One of those projects is the Totally Fabricated Bios I owe to several contributors to my March IndieGoGo campaign, which was successfully funded, allowing me the opportunity to spend six weeks in New Hampshire for the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

So get comfortable and prepare yourself for a tale of complete and fantastic invention about my friend, Robert Lindsay Nathan, his time machine, and his exploits in history. Lovers of the poetry of Robert Burns will particularly enjoy this Totally Fabricated Bio.

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Robert Lindsay Nathan, Intrepid Time Traveler

Robert Lindsay Nathan and Time Travel in the Historical Record

Robert Lindsay Nathan is primarily known for his 1999 discovery of the principles of time travel, and his subsequent invention of the time machine in 2012. He was born September 24, 1952 in Sheffield Alabama, and soon grew to be a prolific collector of science fiction magazines. Thus it was that, inspired by the pulp stories of the day, young Robert began experimenting with the bending of the space-time continuum at the tender age of 7. Though he was not immediately successful, he never abandoned his dream of traveling through time, and when he achieved his invention, he wasted no time in setting off to explore history. Unfortunately, little else is known about Mr. Nathan, apart from the small hints and clues left to us in the historical record.

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It appears Nathan left Robert Burns with at least one memento from the future.

But some of these hints and clues are tantalizing, indeed. For instance, take this poem, written by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns, who received a visit from Mr. Nathan circa 1780 in his Dumfries home. The poem not only mentions Mr. Nathan by name, but also comments upon the appearance and function of Nathan’s time machine, to which Burns refers as “time’s auld horse cart”.

To a Man from Aft Me End

Wi’ gears aglow an’ wheels rotatin
Time’s auld horse cart stands awaitin
Sae stately grand an’ yet sae patient!
To tak thee in its draft
Dear Robert Lindsay Nathan
An’ return thee aft!

Wi’ nae horse, but needs na hae ane
Thy cart down paths of time be trav’lin!
Thou clamb wi’in its steely cabin
An’ in a hasty glimmer
Lang aft I lay auld, cauld an’ graven
Thou’s in the future, hae’n dinner!

But I thank ye for callin me friend
An’ shewin me a’ that lies round the bend
An’ for singin a sang of things unken’d
Forward tho’ I canna see
Now I’ve met a man from aft me end
And thou’rt curs’d, compar’d wi’ me!

Dozens of other bits of evidence of Nathan’s time travel lie strewn across the historical record, from a Paleolithic cave painting in Lascaux that clearly depicts Nathan standing next to his time machine; to a brief but perplexing Biblical reference in which he is accused of absconding the Battle of Jericho with the Ark of the Covenant; to an ancient Chinese text that lists him as trusted adviser to Zhu Yuanzhuang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. There are entire schools of historic research devoted to finding Robert Lindsay Nathan’s path through the timeline.

But, while new branches of history may have opened up due to Nathan’s discovery, the same can sadly not be said for science. Because Nathan left no notes, diagrams or plans behind when he ventured into the past, our modern scientists and inventors have no way of learning from his designs. Furthermore, he has not been seen or heard from since his disappearance in 2012, apart from the historical clues. And, if he has made it to the future, modernity has yet to learn of it.

My Second NaNoWriMo Win, YAY!!

I invite you all to join me in congratulating myself for winning NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row.

Here it is, all the proof you need that I spent all of November holed up in a dark corner of a coffee shop, alternately typing in a mad fury and mumbling to myself in a mad fury.

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If you are one of the two people who follow this blog’s irregular postings, you may recall that after last year’s NaNo, I felt so self-satisfied at finishing my 50,000 words that I just decided to go right ahead and take a break for a couple of days. A couple of days that stretched on into a couple of weeks and then a couple of months. (If you’re not one of the two people who follow this blog, you can read all about it here.)

Well, I can assure you I will NOT be making that mistake again this year. I have 50,000 words of a first draft of a novel sitting on my laptop right now (with, yes, two backups, one on a jump drive and one on the cloud, just in case my computer gets sucked into a cyclone or something), but 50,000 words does not a novel make. At least, not a Starr novel. I estimate that I’m roughly halfway through the story at this point. So instead of giving myself a nice, well-deserved break, I’m going to continue locking myself in my room for three to five hours a day UNTIL THE DAMN THING IS DONE.

So don’t expect a Christmas card this year, guys.

You have been warned.

Early Writing Memories: The Rock That Would Not Be a Plant

In third grade we had writing journals. Each day Mrs. Coley would announce a topic and ask the class to write about it in our journals for fifteen minutes. At the end of the fifteen minutes, she would collect the journals for review and we’d get them back the next day with a check, a check plus or a check minus. Then she would ask a few of the check-plus recipients to read their entry aloud for the class. I pretty much always got check-plusses, and it was a point of pride for me. Even in third grade I loved to write, and to please people with my writing.

One day the topic was “If I lived in the ground, I would be a…”

I really liked this topic. I got right to work. I decided I’d like to be a rock. But not just any rock. A beautiful rose quartz with a name and dreams and aspirations and magical powers. I wrote furiously and filled up a page and a half in the allotted fifteen minutes.

The next day when Mrs. Coley handed the journals back, I opened mine to see the dreaded check-minus! I almost started crying right then and there. I put my head down on the desk and pretended to be very, very tired so no one would see my red face.

Mrs. Coley asked three of my classmates to read their entries. I listened closely, hoping for some indication of where I’d gone wrong. Turns out, all of the check-plus entries did have one thing in common: they were all about being PLANTS. Daffodils, rose bushes, oak trees and the like. Of course! The topic was “If I lived in the ground,” not “If I were an inanimate object in the ground”. Plus, we’d been studying the life cycles of plants that week, so it would only make sense for the journal topic to be a non-specific curricular comprehension trap. Geez. I felt like such a dunce.

But now that I’ve had twenty-eight years to think about it, I’m inclined to conclude that my journal entry was actually the brilliant one, and that those other kids were just stifling their creative impulses, doing their part to uphold the elementary school status quo. Because I mean, plants don’t live IN the ground. Not entirely. And sentient rocks with magic powers are totally awesome. So take that, Mrs. Coley!

IndieGoGo Update and a Totally Fabricated Bio

So remember that IndieGoGo campaign I blogged about earlier this month? The one where I was raising money to go to Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer? Yeah? Well, the campaign is almost, ALMOST at its end, and it’s been pretty darn successful thus far, thanks to a bunch of amazing, possibly geekier than average people out there in cyberspace who believe in me and my fiction.

As of this moment, there are four days left in the campaign and $2606 has been raised of the $3500 goal. It is officially ON. I am definitely, with all certitude and nary a doubt, making my way to Odyssey this summer. Can I just say how fluttery this makes me? Really, super, fluttery. Like a whipped concoction of eyelashes and heart murmurs and butterfly wings.

So… I am now in Perk Fulfillment Mode. That means that all those retro sci fi posters are fixing to ship out, the ebooks are about to be formatted, and the lucky recipients of character naming rights have been contacted for names. And today I have been working on the Totally Fabricated Bios. This is a perk where, for $100, I write the claimant a 500 word biographical sketch made entirely of bologna and smoke. The owner of the new bio can use it however he or she sees fit- like for social media profiles, resumes, etc. And I admit I’ve been cheating a little. These bios are so much fun that I can’t limit them to just 500 words. I wrapped this one up today, and it topped out at 860 even after revisions. With the subject’s permission, I am posting this first Totally Fabricated Bio on the blog to give you all a taste of what’s to come. If you’re interested, there are still 4 of these babies left on the campaign. So, without further ado, I give you…

This is Venus EnVie. She's my cousin, and she's a total badass.

This is Venus EnVie. She’s my cousin, and she’s a total badass.

The Implausible Adventures of Venus EnVie

Venus EnVie was born at dusk in the back of a wood paneled station wagon on the side of a dusty road in Oklahoma. She crawled at 2 months, took her first step at 6 months, could roller-skate like nobody’s business at 2 years, and taught herself to drive the station wagon at 7. From that point on, there was no stopping her. Maybe it was her fateful birth, or the gypsy blood in her veins. She had to keep moving.

On her tenth birthday, the station wagon broke down on the side of Rt. 66, forty miles outside of Flagstaff. She abandoned it, continuing her journey on skates, and became the first non-adult in the USA to roller skate cross-country. It was a strangely satisfying life- sleeping in old barns and abandoned warehouses, relying on the kindness of rollerskating enthusiasts for her meals, racing souped up Fords and Chevys for pocket money. Times oscillated from flush to rough and back again, but Venus persevered. Thrived. Flourished.

But after so many years out there on the road with only loneliness for company, Venus knew she needed a change, and it became her mission to find a likely traveling companion.

One cheerless Arkansas night, when the moon hung bright and close to the earth, Venus heard a sound that was full of longing and portent. It was something between a warble and a closed-mouth throat roar, and she knew she must investigate. Following the noise to its source, she found herself nose to chest feathers with the meanest, orneriest ostrich east of Texas: a 14 ft tall beast of a bird named Bernie. This was the one. A traveling companion of the highest quality. An alliance must be made. Bernie was not taken with her supplications at first, but after 7 hours of back and forth negotiations, Venus finally impressed him with her rollerskating prowess and he conceded to join her in her travels.

And so the two set out on their adventures. Years passed. Their friendship blossomed and the miles flew by in a cloud of downy feathers. By age 19, Venus had crisscrossed the North American continent on Bernie’s back.

But somewhere in the wilds of Alaska, the pair met their match in the form of a fierce and hungry polar bear who had wandered too far from his northerly home. Venus almost didn’t make it out alive, and Bernie fully didn’t. The bear wrangled the stately bird by his long, graceful neck and crunched. Venus, who sat straddled atop Bernie’s back at the time, managed to get two hands in the polar bear’s mouth and pried his jaws apart, slashing her arms to the shoulder in the process. But it was too late for poor Bernie. Needless to say, the polar bear was mad as spitfire about Venus’s meddling around in his mouth, and attempted to pursue her. He overcame her at the precipice of a deep, icy gorge, but in one swift (some might say godly) motion, Venus extracted the sharpest tooth in his mouth and stabbed him in the jugular with it. During the scuffle, her rollerskates tumbled down into the gorge and could not be recovered.

Venus cleaned her wounds with her own copious tears and bound them in moss and lichen. Then she walked, making her slow, plodding way through Canada and down into Montana, stopping only to eat scraps of the bear meat she’d salvaged from the battle. She mourned for forty days and nights over the loss of her best friend, and then she wondered if perhaps the Gods of the Road were telling her something. Was it time to settle down? She had a little money from performing feats of strength and courage at urban intersections with her trusty ostrich. Maybe it was time to put that to good use.

She wandered into a Greyhound station in Belgrade, Montana one morning along about 4:00 and bought a ticket on the next bus leaving.

About four days later, she found herself in the moist and flamboyant city of New Orleans. She walked along the muggy sidewalk, bitter and exhausted, until she spied a sign that said “ROLLER DEATH MATCH”, and inquired within. Five minutes later, she had a new pair of rollerskates. And a job.

The roller gladiators of New Orleans, Louisiana may have been accomplished warriors, but none of them had ever fought a polar bear with their bare hands and lived to tell the tale. With the fearsome bear’s tooth as her only weapon, Venus made quick work of them. The Roller Death Match eventually had to shut down due to an unexpected lack of contestants.

It was alright, though. She may have been the wildest, fiercest gypsy-blooded vagabond-warrior in Louisiana, but in her heart, Venus longed for peace and the feel of asphalt beneath her wheels. When the Roller Death Match closed its doors, Venus took one last look upon the city of New Orleans and skated off into the sunset. She still coasts up and down the dusty back roads of North America to this day, in no hurry at all.

New Audiobook Release! “Arrow of the Mist” by Christina Mercer

The audiobook version of Arrow of the Mist, by Christina Mercer (narrated by ME!!) will be available on Audible.com later this month.

My most recent audiobook narration project has just been released on Audible.com! Check out Arrow of the Mist, by Christina Mercer. It’s a great, Celtic-inspired fantasy for middle grade and YA listeners, following the adventures of a Lia, brave young woman gifted in the art of herb lore, who must travel into a dangerous, magical realm on a quest to save her family and village from a murderous, enchanted vine. She meets a succession of magical beings and creatures and must use her wits and the knowledge left behind by her grandmother to make it home with the cure for the vine’s poison.

I really enjoyed narrating this book. I got to use a lot of cool accents, and I fell in love with Lia and her world. I definitely recommend this one for fantasy-lovers of any age.

Arrow of the Mist is available now on Audible, and it should be added to iTunes in the next couple of weeks. If you don’t already have an Audible subscription, what are you waiting for? Your first month is free with their 30 day trial period, so you can get this audiobook or any other for free if you join now. Happy listening! I’d love to hear your feedback!

How to Kill a Spider in 14 Steps (If You Must)

Spider with fly

WARNING: THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS ONLY A TEASER. THE ACTUAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR HOW TO KILL A SPIDER APPEAR WAY, WAY DOWN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POST, AFTER A BUNCH OF REALLY INTERESTING SPIDER COMMENTARY. IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING A SPIDER EMERGENCY, PLEASE SCROLL TO THE END OF THE POST NOW.

Otherwise, read on.

I’ve never really been scared of spiders. This may be due to the fact that the house I was raised in was nestled deep, deep in the middle of the woods, where spiders were such a common sight that to be afraid of them would have meant living in a constant state of fear. In fact, I was far more likely to encounter a spider than another kid. Come to think of it, this may account for a number of my idiosyncrasies. But I digress.

To arm me with the knowledge necessary to protect myself in the fierce wilds of Franklinton, North Carolina, my mom bought me a poster with images of all of the poisonous snakes and spiders that are native to my home state. That poster hung over my bed for years. In the arachnid category, there were only two species: the black widow and the brown recluse. Black widows are pretty easy to spot; they’re black and kind of scary looking, and the female (the only one with a poisonous bite) has distinctive red markings on her undercarriage. The markings are usually shaped like an hourglass; which is meant to remind us that our time is running out. (Just kidding. A black widow bite, while not exactly pleasant, is rarely fatal.)

Whoever designed the Black Widow should receive a promotion. Her sinister appearance serves as an ingenious early warning system to would-be prey.

Whoever designed the Black Widow should receive a promotion. Her sinister appearance serves as an ingenious early warning system to would-be prey.

Brown recluses are a little harder. First of all, they’re kind of, well… reclusive. Even more so than spiders in general, which is saying something. Secondly, they kind of look like your average small, brown, unassuming spider. They are supposed to have a “fiddle shape” on their backs, but it doesn’t look very fiddle-ish to me. More like a nondescript, curvy thing. And many small, brown, unassuming spiders seem to have some sort of nondescript curvy shape on their backs. So even after many years of staring at this photograph of a brown recluse in the morning while I was waking up, I still can’t confidently identify one.

The brown recluse spider is also called the "fiddleback spider", due to what some delusional scientists insist is a distinct violin shape on its dorsal (back) side. Do you see it? No? Me neither. The designer of the brown recluse ought to have his pay docked.

The brown recluse spider is also called the “fiddleback spider”, due to what some delusional scientists insist is a distinct violin shape on its dorsal (back) side. Do you see it? No? Me neither. The designer of the brown recluse ought to have his pay docked.

Anyway, I’ve always just viewed spiders as basically non-threatening entities that kind of hang out on the periphery of everything. Innocent until proven guilty. In the case of an alleged brown recluse, the adjudication entails lots of indecision and referencing of the National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, which, if the verdict is guilty, nicely doubles as an instrument of execution. Luckily, brown recluses are typically not aggressive and will wait patiently for you to decide, as long as you don’t make any threatening movements, in which case they will scurry under the nearest piece of furniture, never to be seen again.

There is one other type of spider that you need to watch out for in North Carolina, according to the old timers. Not because of a poisonous bite, but because it is reputed to be psychic. I am referring, of course, to the writing spider.

If you see your name woven in this spider's web, don't operate any heavy machinery for at least 48 hours.

If you see your name woven in this spider’s web, don’t operate any heavy machinery for at least 48 hours.

She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Well, traditional wisdom dictates that she’s also a killer. If you see a person’s name written in the writing spider’s web, that person is soon to die. I have met some individuals who claim to have witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. I can’t testify to their level of sanity, though. I don’t personally hold with this theory, but if you’re the superstitious type, you might want to consider legally changing your name to something really long and hard to spell, like “Mahershalalhashbaz”.

It can’t be denied that there are some seriously scary spiders in the world. Spiders that make the three previously mentioned in this post look like fluffy kittens in comparison. For instance, there are those spiders that lay eggs under your skin while you’re sleeping. Ew! You wake up with an itchy bite that gradually turns into a big, purplish boil, and a few weeks later, baby spiders hatch out of it. And then there’s this guy:

image

Two words: Muscle Paralysis. Yep, pretty scary. But even a bite from the dread Brazilian Wandering Spider, the deadliest spider in the world, is rarely fatal, due to the fact that modern medicine has discovered an effective antivenom. Also, the toxin causes long-lasting erection in men, so, take that, Viagra!

Irrational fears in general are not on my to-do list, and it sort of irks me when people have them. But this is especially true of arachnophobia. I mean, come on! Spiders are really pretty awesome. They enjoy lurking in dark, out of the way places. They kill all kinds of insects that can prove to be much more annoying or even dangerous. They are often pretty to look at. And they’re just all-around badasses. They make sticky thread that comes out of their butts and is as strong as alloy steel, yet flexible enough to withstand hurricane force winds. They paralyze their prey before wrapping them up in the arachnid version of duct tape and draining their blood for sustenance. They have eight legs and eight eyes. How awesome is that!? And they are possibly the most accomplished artists of the animal kingdom. Sure, it kind of sucks when you accidentally walk through a spiderweb, but think how the spider must feel!

image

Ok, as promised, I will now offer advice on how to kill a spider.

How To Kill A Spider In 14 Steps (If You Must)

  1. Don’t kill the spider.
  2. Seriously. What did that spider ever do to you?
  3. Still want to kill the spider? Ok. But first, do the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants a favor and determine if it is, in fact, a poisonous specimen. Here’s what you do. Place an overturned cup or jar on top of the spider
  4. Slide a piece of paper under the jar and quickly flip it right side up.
  5. If you have performed steps 1-5 properly, you should now have a spider in a jar.
  6. Now. Get on the internet and try to identify the spider. Go ahead. Google it. We’ll wait.
  7. Is the spider poisonous? No? Refer back to step 1.
  8. Yes? Ok. Now take a moment to think about how unlikely this spider is to hurt you or your loved ones. Seriously unlikely. Let that sink in for a minute.
  9. Isn’t the primary objective to Not Have Poisonous Spiders in the House? You’ve already got the spider trapped in a jar. Why not take it outside in the back yard, or across the street, or on your least favorite person’s porch, or you know, whatever distance is most comfortable for you, and release it?
  10. Step 9 too humane for you? Ok. I suppose you may kill the spider.
  11. Here’s what you do: get a newspaper.
  12. Roll up the newspaper.
  13. Release the spider from the jar.
  14. Smack the spider with the newspaper.

All done! Enjoy your spider-free existence, you murderous fiend! Have fun fending off all those extra house flies.

Minimalism for the Modern Woman

The other day I was standing in a long line at the grocery store, and to entertain myself while the lady in front decided which half of the contents of her shopping cart she no longer wished to purchase, I picked up an interior decorating magazine and flipped to a random page. It was a picture of a gorgeous room. A blindingly clean, practically empty room. The kind of room my overwhelmed, stressed-out mind yearns to own, so that I can sit serenely on the solid-color sofa, staring off into blank space.

I would dearly love to have such a room. And it wouldn’t be only for staring into space. I would also use it for writing. And reading. And thinking about writing and reading. And doing research on topics about which I intend to write. You know, just a place that is dedicated to feeling inspiration and acting on it.

My dream writing studio looks like this, but with more books. And maybe a solid colored sofa for staring off into space.

My dream writing studio looks like this, but with more books. And maybe a solid colored sofa for staring off into space.

Ha! Fat chance!

There are several factors that contribute to the extreme unlikelihood of my ever having such a room. They are as follows:

  1. My Humble Abode: I live in a three bedroom home. It has about 1450 square feet. In addition to the three bedrooms there are two bathrooms, a living room, a dining/kitchen area, and NO storage areas apart from the small clothes closets in two of the bedrooms. As you will see in the points to follow, this setup is not conducive to the outlandish “minimalist writing studio” dream.
  2. My Husband: My husband is a musician/audio engineer/collector of various types of cables and gadgetry. He has claimed the third bedroom for his own. This is where he composes music fit for choirs of Hell’s Angels (not in a bad way!) and sometimes does profitable work that entails playing the same snare sound thirty six times in succession at a fairly loud volume. This is also where he keeps his assortment of noisy things, broken guitar strings and pieces of paper with cryptic messages written on them. Because my husband’s art requires so much more STUFF than mine (All of my writing accoutrements will fit neatly in a case the size of a placemat), it only makes sense for him to claim the one extra room in the house. It’s fine, really. I’m not bitter. I actually enjoy doing my creative work in bed. The ensuing stiff neck and sleeping legs are just the sort of privations that drive the soul of my craft.  
  3. My Daughter: A packrat if there ever was one, my daughter’s bedroom is filled to the brim with headless Barbies, mateless shoes, real estate circulars (don’t ask) and rocks from every place she has ever been, including the laundromat and that place on the side of the highway where the car broke down a few months ago. Oh, and toilet paper tube sculptures. And she refuses to throw anything out or give it to Goodwill. Last year we somehow persuaded her to get rid of about half of her stuff, but only when Grandma allowed that she could bag it all up and keep it in her storage unit. You know, just in case she ever has need of three giant stuffed rabbits or a baby doll with a mustache drawn on its face in Sharpie. But even after trucking all the stuff over to Grandma’s, there was still a sea of stuff in there, and it overflows into the rest of the house like some kind of alien slime invasion.

    image

    My kid’s rock collection is like this, x 10.

  4. My Dog: The reason we don’t have a couch in our living room.
  5. Myself: If you asked my family members and friends to list my positive personality traits, no one would mention “domestic goddess”. Or even “pretty neat and organized”. That’s because I’m not. I’ve got that mad scientist thing going on. There is a stack of books on the desk in the living room that has been waiting to be moved to the empty space on the bookshelf for about two months. Every time I think to myself, “I am going to put those books away now”, I start leafing through them instead. Three hours later, I’ve learned several things I did not previously know about the tribal culture of the British Isles prior to Romanization, but the books go right back where they were on the desk. Albeit in a different order. I’ve gotten better over the years since I formed a hive. I am usually on top of the laundry situation, and I make extra effort to wash dishes daily and keep the floor swept. My husband helps a lot, and our little worker bee enjoys scrubbing toilets, of all things, but becomes petulent when asked to pick her alien slime off the floor. Suffice it to say, I accept my share of the blame here. But I’m just saying, if I lived by myself, I would have a blindingly clean room with a solid colored sofa, and I’d hire a maid to clean it.

    I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if this lady and I had a kitchen cleaning showdown, she would win and I would end up in the hospital.

    I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if this lady and I had a kitchen cleaning showdown, she would win and I would end up in the hospital.

Anyway, as you can see, my home can not physically contain a minimalist room, and even if its proportions were increased through some sort of magic embiggening charm or perhaps one of these high tech “additions” I keep hearing about, a minimalist room would soon become a wormhole of dog hair and missing socks. I’ve thought of obtaining a tiny house (I love them) to use as my own office space.

It would look something like this.

It would look something like this.

In fact, I’ve more than thought about it. I plan to do it even if I have to build it myself out of woven grasses and bricks of compressed dryer lint. I would hang a sign on the door that said “DO NOT DISTURB… UNLESS I’VE WON THE LOTTERY. OR IF YOU INTEND TO CLEAN.”

But lately, it occurs to me that perhaps minimalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, there are a lot of extra little things that significantly improve my day to day life. Like ice. And my iPad. And retractable pens. These things don’t impact my ability to survive. I could probably even live comfortably without any of them. But darn it, they make me happy! And realizing that helps me to relate to my husband’s compulsion to stack coils of cable from the floor to the ceiling, organized by circumference. And it gives me a little insight into my kid’s thing with rocks. I mean, rocks aren’t particularly useful, and, at least to me, the ones you find on the side of the road don’t tend to be beautiful, but to her, there’s something special about having several boxes of rocks under the bed. Ok, who am I to judge? I like to always be within ten feet of a stack of random books.

There is something to be said for a comfortable, distraction free space that can be entirely dedicated to the practice and development of a craft. “A room of her own”, and all of that. But isn’t it an even worthier goal to learn to overlook the small distractions, the imperfections, and all the ways in which things “aren’t quite right”? Because a room of your own is still a thing. It can burn to the ground. It can be infested by hornets. It could conceivably be zapped to another dimension, never to be seen again except as a sliver of something the color of dryer-lint that disappears when you walk past it. But the ability to focus on a project, to allow yourself to be consumed with it, to love it and nurture it to completion and then destroy it and build something even better out of the tear soaked shreds; now THAT is something to strive for.

What do you think? D0 you have trouble finding the space to work on your art? Or are you a domestic goddess who always finds the time and space for everything? (If so, would you be interested in taking on a second domestic environment?) Let me know in the comments!