Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Working it Out in the New Economy

I saw it coming in 2005.  I was working at a small TV production company, not getting paid all that much, but it was a steady job with benefits—health insurance, vacation pay, retirement, sick days.  It was a job I enjoyed, in a field I had trained for and aspired to. 
Photo by Dan Holm
My boss had recently become a follower of Thomas Friedman and his “earth is flat” philosophy.  One day the boss told me he was going to start hiring on-line transcriptionists from overseas for a fraction of what he was paying now.  It was all part of this great new economy, where we sent all the low-skilled jobs nobody wanted to do overseas.  But, I asked, if those jobs go overseas, what about the people doing those jobs here?  Not to worry.  Outsourcing was going to free us all to become entrepreneurs.  Everybody would have the opportunity to be their own bosses. 
I was skeptical.  Not everybody is equipped, by training, natural talent or inclination, to be an entrepreneur.  But he assured me it would all work out.

Up until then, our transcriptions were sent to a local company that employed 8-10 people. They mostly did efficient, dependable work.  If there was a problem, you could pick up the phone and talk to them.  The people he hired on-line were definitely cheaper, but they were also unreliable and sometimes did shoddy work.  They didn’t always return emails or didn’t bother to finish assignments. 
Within the next couple of years, the local transcription place went out of business.  When the crash of 2008 hit, we lost a major client and our company, which for ten years had provided steady employment for 15-20 people, went under too.  I lost my benefit-paying job and was cast adrift with all the other free-lancers, independent contractors and day-laborers.  No benefits, no insurance, no sick days, no vacations.

As my former boss predicted, I’d become my own boss.
My experience is a microcosm of  what is happening all over America as our economy falters and spins out of control.  Workers make less today than they did 25 years ago.  The number of children living in poverty continues to rise.  People at the top are doing better than ever, while the people at the bottom see their savings shrink, their opportunities dwindle and their dreams die. Yet, people still listen to Friedman’s flat-earth clap-trap and keep pushing the idea that all we need is to get out of the hole is more individual achievement and freer markets, when really for most of us, it's all been a great big dud.  

The good news is that in a week, I’ll be eligible to sign up for Obamacare.  At least I’ll be able to see a doctor again. 

Also, Tom Friedman still has his job at the New York Times so somebody’s still working.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Stuck in a Good Book Blog Hop Gievaway

If you like good books (I do! I do!) and if you like YA (I LOVE YA!) check out the contest at Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's Literary Ramblings website. They've picked out a ton of great books and you get to choose which one you want to win. Contest ends September 25.

If you gotta be stuck somewhere, I can't think of a better place than in a good book.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My Writing Space

Everybody needs a place where they can work, be inspired and dream.  Doesn’t matter if you write in a mountain cabin, or a beach house on the ocean, or your bedroom in suburbia.  The important stuff’s going on in your head anyway.  All that fresh air and beautiful scenery would only be a distraction. 

Yeah, it's a mess, but when I'm "in the zone," I don't even notice.

My friend Chuy made me this sign so I won't forget what I'm supposed to do.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Clamp Down, Stand Firm or Move On?

Sometimes I feel like the Pete Rose of writers.  Not the most talented player on the team, but the one who’s willing to hustle and work her tail off to succeed.  I’ll keep working on a project for as long as it takes, sitting at my computer until my back aches and my butt goes numb.

Photo by Dan Photo
I won’t say how long I’ve been working on my current "work in progress."  Not even if you stick bamboo shoots under my fingernails or make me listen to Unchained Melody over and over. 

I’m tenacious when I get a manuscript between my teeth.  I won’t stop until it’s absolutely right.  I'm just a girl who can't let go.

I’m starting to think this is not such a good quality. 
Sometimes, I’m told, discretion is the better part of valor.  It might be smarter to give up on a project that’s sucking the life out of me and live to write another day. 
But it’s hard to let go when it’s a project I love.  It doesn’t seem right to leave the characters in a lurch.  How can I walk away until I know for sure how the story ends?
Writing a novel is complicated.  So many moving parts.  So much can go wrong.  So many ways to make it just a little bit better.  If I just add one more plot twist, or kill off one more character or change the wording of one more sentence, it will be perfect.  But of course, it never is. There’s no such thing as perfect. 
Perfect is the enemy of the good.  So I promise to get through this one last rewrite and then I’ll move on to other projects, other journeys, other dreams.

As soon as I take care of that hinky paragraph on page 173.

Are you the type of writer who moves easily from project to project?  Or do you clamp down on a story with the jaws of death and hold on until you reach the end?

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Other Side of the Story: Real Life Diagnostics

Janice Hardy's awesome blog The Other Side of the Story is one of my favorite writing resources. I love that her lucid explanations and vivid examples make difficult concepts easy to grasp. Sometimes she answers my writing questions before I even realize they need answering.

On her weekly column, Real Life Diagnostics, she takes a snippet of a work in progress and diagnoses it on her blog. Usually it's a weekend feature, but starting today, she's diagnosing all week.

Today it's my turn!

Click on the link below to check out what she said about this version of the first page of my novel, The Fatal Crown.

The Other Side of the Story: Real Life Diagnostics Week: Developing Conflict and Character in an Opening Scene

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Vanquishing Self-Doubt

It's that ugly little voice that whispers nasty lies in your ear when you’re most vulnerable. 

     You’re not good enough.

     Everyone else is better than you.

     Your writing is uninspiring and cliché. 

     You’re delusional to think you can do this. 

     You can’t even type.

The negative feelings feed on themselves growing bigger and scarier until they threaten to gobble you up. 
Photo by Dan Holm
When self-doubt engulfs me like a dark cloud, my gut freezes.  My brain hardens like concrete.  Writing the simplest sentence feels like climbing an insurmountable mountain.  One that’s covered with sink holes.  And sticker bushes.  And flesh-eating bacteria.  Self-doubt cramps my view of what’s possible and obscures the road behind, blotting out the memory of how far I’ve already come.  

For writers, it’s a pretty common complaint.  Writing can be lonely.  It’s just you and your keyboard and that blinking cursor you’re supposed to be pushing across a white page. 
To deal with self-doubt, I have to make myself ignore the toxic voices and keep writing.  I have to convince myself my goal is possible, and remember that, no matter how difficult if feels right now, I’ve done it before and can do it again. 
Writing buddies and critique groups help in this regard.  They keep me grounded and provide encouragement when the bridges fall away.  And the ogres won’t let me pass.

Sometimes it only takes a little break in the gloom to get moving again—finding an inspiring quote, coming up with a fresh idea, gaining a small insight into a difficult plot twist, receiving a kind word from a friend.  Then I’m back on road, writing stories that I hope will someday carry my readers on their own magical journey.

“If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
                                                              ― Vincent van Gogh

That’s how I cope. And it works.

Most of the time.

How about you? What do you do when the self-doubt beasties start nibbling at your heels?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kidlit Writers Gather at WriteOnCon.com

One of my favorite times of the year is finally here! It's WriteonCon.com time!

 --if you write for children,

--if you've always wanted to attend a writer's conference but never had the chance,

--if you want to be part of the hottest on-line happening, check it out.

Keynote addresses, agent panels, and lectures are presented as blogs, vlogs, moderated chats, webinars, podcasts, and livestreaming.

And yeah, it's all on-line and it's free!

Sign up and post your work on the critique forums where real life ninja agents will be sneaking around to pop in and do some critiques and maybe even request to see your work.  (Yes, last year, it happened to me!)

So check out the schedule of awesome events.  Maybe we'll run into each other at the virtual snack bar.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things I Do When I Should Be Writing

Procrastination.  I know should be writing, but when I hit a wall, it becomes easier to occupy my mind with something else.  The harder I try to focus, the worse it gets.  I'll look for any excuse to get away from the keyboard.  If I just stick with it and keep my fingers typing, I can usually work through my writer's block. But instead I find ways to distract myself from the task at hand...

Like I might get the urge to play a little ball.


Go out for a bite.

Have a long soak in the tub.

Try on snazzy new outfit.

Go for long walks in the park.


Or spend time with a friend.

Then suddenly, I'll be dog tired.

How do you procrastinate and what strategies do you use to get back to work?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It's a Weird, Wonderful, Fruity World

My trip to my local market turned into a journey of discovery. I've never seen fruits and vegetables like this.

Jackfruit, from Asia.  A staple in much of the world.  To me, they look more like Jack the Giant Slayer Fruit.

Daikon Radishes from East Asia.  Used in variety of dishes, like Ponzu or Oden. They're as long as my arm and that's a lot of radish.

Black Radishes. A winter variety.  Okay, they're not the prettiest vegetable in the store.

Have you tried any of these fruits and vegetables? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Coffee Laced with Plant Food and Other Writing Hazards

The other morning, I was stumbling around the kitchen with my head wrapped around a plot twist that needed unraveling, as I made a pot of coffee. It wasn’t until water was already dripping through the filter that I realized I’d just used the jug with “tap water” scrawled on its side--the one I use to water my plants. Needless to say, I had to throw it all out.  It didn’t make me feel any better to know the water I’d been sipping since the previous night came from the same jug.  I don’t know if plant food is harmful to humans, but I'll let you know if I suddenly have the nagging urge to dig my toes in the sand and follow the sun across the sky.

Photo by Dan Holm
This isn’t the first time my breakfast has suffered because of my inattention.  While busy contemplating a character motivation, I once plopped a raw egg into my coffee mug instead of the frying pan.  I won’t even mention the time I stuck my cell phone in the refrigerator or drove three exits past my destination before I noticed. 
I’ve done all kinds of crazy things while my head was busy someplace else.  It’s one of the hazards of being a writer.  I spend a lot of time in my head and for much of the time, that's exactly where I want to be. 



When I’m in my head, I might be exploring worlds that never existed, or walking beside a character who's about to take the wrong path or puzzling about the best way to describe an oak tree’s gentle sway or the color of the sky after a storm.  No matter that I’m supposed to be vacuuming, or washing the car or chatting with friends at a dinner party, I can’t resist the temptation to spin tales or mull over possibilities.  No matter how much it annoys my family and friends, daydreaming is an unavoidable part my writing process. 

Unfortunately this tendency conflicts with another trait important to writers: paying attention.   



It’s a paradox that we who most want to escape into the space between our synapses, are also the ones who most need to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around us.  Writers need to be observant of details and to bring those details into their writing.  We need to interact with the world and to understand the people who populate it.  Only then can we bring this insight to the page and infuse our made up stories with relevant kernels of truth and authenticity.
We must listen, observe, and drink deep of our lives if our stories are to resonate for the people who read them.  That's all the harder for me since, like so many writers, I'm an introvert. Unlike my more extroverted friends, I'm perfectly happy submerged in the pages of a best-seller or hiding behind walls made up of my own thoughts and musings.  Instead of eating chips and guacamole and trading barbs with friends at a Superbowl party, I’d rather be hunched at my desk tinkering with yet another edit of my Work in Progress.

But somehow, I know a gentle balance must be struck.

‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. 

Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh



Being present is a zen concept.  For writers, it means stepping outside of our heads and taking the time to focus only on what’s in front of us.  It means concentrating on the scenery we pass when we walk in the woods.  It means making the effort to really get to know the people we interact with everyday.  It means striving for an effective balance between being part of the world and just writing about it.  Between truly living a life instead of just daydreaming about one.  

It’s tough for me to do these things, but I know sometimes it’s what I need most.  And it would make preparing breakfast a lot easier too.

Do you find yourself neglecting other facets of your life to focus on writing or reading?  How do you strike the gentle balance and keep yourself present?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fiction: Bringing Order to Chaos

Real life is random.  It’s boring, chaotic, imperfect.  Dangerous. That’s why it’s so temping to retreat into the comfort of a good book.  A story gives shape to the disorder of human experience.  It means something.

To create stories that capture and intrigue us, a fiction writer takes a series of events and gives them context.  She puts them in a frame and tells us what to focus on, which details are important.  Which are not.  
Photo by Dan Holm

In his book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: HOW STORIES MAKE US HUMAN, Jonathan Gottschall says our storytelling mind “allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly and meaningful.”  Randomness makes us so comfortable, our minds look for patterns in everything. This capacity isn’t without its drawbacks, because the tendency for us to crave pattern also makes us vulnerable to getting it wrong.  Gottschall says our brain is “a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

That's why I mostly find most "reality" TV shows unwatchable. In order to connect with the viewer, a reality show needs to tell us a coherent story.  But since a series of events by themselves don't make a story, no matter much action is packed in, it's up to the producers to create one.  To achieve this, they pump up the conflict between the participants, take events out of context, and warp the meaning of unimportant details.  Participants are steered in directions they might not ordinarily go, act in ways they wouldn’t normally, act and say things they’ve been told to say.  Yeah, OK, it's compelling, it's interesting, but it's not reality.

Fiction is made up, but at least you know that going in.  If you look at it that way, and a novel is way more honest than any reality TV show.