BOOT CAMP | Productivity for the Wayward Writer

Industrious BeeLast month I had a dream, and in this dream a voice that sounded distressingly like Tom Cruise’s said, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

“…is to get your shit together…”

I woke up, panicked for a millesecond, rolled over, and fell back to sleep. Even though I forgot about the dream until I started writing this blog post, I found myself restarting this patient old blog of mine. Most of all, I found myself reading a book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.

I know — me, reading a personal productivity book. Those of you who know me can start laughing now. And those of you who don’t know me personally, well, imagine a woman who’s never composed a three-month plan never mind a five-year plan, who scribbles the latest important thought on her cable bill and then tosses it on top of a random paper pile, and who prides herself on her organizational skills when she jots down a dentist appointment in her At-A-Glance appointment book.

You can start laughing now.

Now roar: I bought a labeller. Yes, I now play at being anal retentive by sticking tidy labels to manila folders filled with scribbled-upon cable bills and other random stuff. For the first time in years, my kitchen pass-through counter is paper-free. It’s an amazing expanse of creamy counter top, and every time I look at it, I smile with self-satisfaction.

I have an in-box! I have a pending box! I can actually work at my desk!

All of this is prelude to the big thing, which as usual has to do with my writing life. My writing life has sucked lately. And when I’m not doing what’s in my heart to do, my life feels meaningless. And when it feels meaningless, I get depressed. Depression has been a huge part of my life. More than I like to admit, actually. So much so that I detest it when well-meaning but completely ignorant folks tell me to “just do it.” Those of you who deal with depression know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Those of you who don’t are probably wondering what the big deal is about saying “just do it.”

But this post isn’t about depression. It’s about productivity. Bzz-buzzing like a bee in my life. The big thing is on the horizon, and it’s all about my novel called A BONE-STREWN GROUND. No announcement yet, things pending, all that…but suffice to say that I need to have my shit together. I need to get my writing routines and habits back in sync with the writer I know myself to be. I need to maximize the very little time I have with the very little energy I seem to have these days…

So I signed up for an online boot camp workshop for writers. Six weeks of getting my arse kicked in the name of liberating myself from my worst habits and rationalizations, and working around (and accepting!) legit time suckers like earning a living. My drill sergeant and cheerleader, Lisa Romeo, will hold me accountable to my weekly writing goals, and if I don’t reach my goals, we’ll hash out why and what I can change. Every week offers lessons and ideas for improvement.

I’m ready for this. I really am. For awhile now I haven’t felt like a writer, specifically, a novelist. I feel good when I feel like a novelist. And life’s too short not to feel good, right?

Undercover Life

a-maskAt the last minute, I decided to attend the Sisters in Crime* meeting, and as soon as I arrived I grew testy. Not only did I have to cram into a table with eight other people, but I kept knocking elbows with the woman next to me, who whiffed an awful lot like she’d been drinking white wine for hours already.

I was just crabby is all. I didn’t mean to be. Really, I didn’t. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling gypped because the restaurant only served enough potstickers for one each, and then disgruntled because the garlic eggplant had been cooked to the consistency of worms.

I’m glad to say that all was not lost. I perked up as soon as the undercover cops began their talk. I’d never thought about undercover cops as role players–the ultimate role players. These guys have gotta know their stuff. They study everything about, say, the drug biz. If a cop plays the role of a drug buyer, he knows the four kinds of cocaine, and that the brownish-looking powder was processed with diesel rather than ether, making it the lowest grade cocaine and only worthy of freebasing. They have to assume benign, trustworthy, and honest businessmen facades when meeting up with drug suppliers. These guys know how to don their masks.

Besides knowing the drug business, the best undercovers are quick-witted and have the gift of the gab. Talk about the world’s worst career for me. At the first sign of the unexpected, my tongue would stick to the roof of my mouth. I’d start stuttering, and my darned Irish skin would turn red and blotchy.

Yet, it occurred to me while I was driving home that I do pretty well as an undercover Lisa. For example, no one at the meeting knew I was testy. I gabbed with the wine drinker and smiled every time she touched my arm or thigh with over-familiar bonhomie. I introduced myself to the writers on my other side and answered their questions about what I write. When I fell silent (as I often did), I maintained a benignly pleasant expression.

I’m telling you, if I were the undercover cop and my table mates the drug suppliers, they’d have been vying to sell me their crappy cocaine. I swear. That’s how good I was.

*P.S. For those who don’t know, Sisters in Crime is an association of female crime writers. The monthly meetings feature cool speakers.

The Resurrection Season

The first daffodils
The first daffodils

Wow, this is a strange feeling. Me sitting before a blank WordPress page, attempting a resurrection of sorts. My life as a blogger went down hill around 2009, when I hit the skids with my fiction and my livelihood and my attitude. The blog archive tells a sad story of a blogger who had spurts of activity in 2010, 2011, and 2012, only to fizzle out repeatedly.

Shite happens, most definitely.

I watch my mom grow dim with dementia. I work a day-job that pays the bills and provides health benefits, but doesn’t fulfill me. I plug away too slowly at my fiction, trying to rally my optimism and faith back to their pre-economic-downturn heights.

But it’s spring, right? The first daffodils are blooming, and a Northern flicker returned to tippity-tap against the wall outside my bedroom. The cat carouses outside all night, and the dog takes her time sniffing every new leaf and blade of grass.

Best of all, even though I knew we were still in for crap-cold and dismally wet weather, there was that one evening last week when the air smelled green and my skin tasted warmth. I breathed, and breathed again.

Spring like a soul’s sigh.

It may be that the long winter of my discontent is lifting. Or maybe not. Not sure. Never am sure.

The daffodils are blooming, and I’m writing this blog post. That’s all that matters.

Author Ann Littlewood’s Advice on Fear

After Ann’s book party, a bunch of us local writers (including Ann) convened for literary libations.

I’m going through, let’s call it, a phase with my writing. I call it my fear phase. It’s not writer’s block. Writer’s block I could handle. Last week I read the perfect explanation for my funkitude on Nova Ren Suma’s blog. As quoted from her guest blogger, debuting YA novelist Meagan Spooner: But sometimes the fear is all too possible—what if I send this out and it gets rejected, and the experience is so terrible that it kills my love of writing? What if by trying to reach for this dream, I destroy it?

I’ve been getting rejected for years, right? Right. Handling rejection is a job requirement for writers. Somehow, though, the agent rejections of the past year have been breathtaking, spectacular, crushing. Perhaps my ego isn’t as strong as it used to be — I don’t know — but it feels like something has withered. Picture a dessicated corpse, a tender fledgling that crash-landed during its maiden voyage from the nest. That’s why the quote above caught my attention: I’ve been grasping so hard that I fear I’ve destroyed my writing dream.

Last weekend I was pondering this fear crap as I drove to author Ann Littlewood’s book launch. She’s touring with the third novel in her zoo-dunnit mystery series. It’s called ENDANGERED. If you’re an animal lover and you care about conservancy, check out her books. Even if animals aren’t your thing, check out her books because you’ll dig her zoo-keeper protagonist, Iris. She’s just the right amount of feisty without being annoying.

I had a chance to ask Ann about fear, and here’s what she had to say:

Winston Churchill defined success as “the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” That’s hard to pull off. Failure is debilitating, sucking out energy and leaving nothing much behind. But it can be thwarted if you see the possibility of non-success. Here’s some strategies I’ve used, with varying results.

1. Acknowledge that only a certain percentage of new ventures will succeed, whether they are possible friendships, sales calls, new plants in the garden, or whatever. And that’s OK. To paraphrase what a friend once said, “Of course I fail more than other people. I do more than other people.”  This leads to ….

2. Have more than one growth point to your life. If one wilts, focus on another for awhile. Then maybe come back to the first with renewed energy. And…

3. Have the next step in mind. If this round of agents all reject the manuscript, my next step will be to…write a different book, try short stories, submit directly to publishers, self-publish, and so on. Always know what you will do next if the current strategy does not pan out.

I was one of the last to leave…:-)

4. Look for benefits that you weren’t expecting, that aren’t your primary goal, and savor them. Met new people? Learned something interesting? Had to try something scary and felt good about that?

This stuff isn’t easy. It takes all your self-knowledge and self-discipline to decide whether and how to stay in the game. The alternative of inaction and depression is, however, not the least appealing.

As for publishing, my take on it is that success requires a good manuscript, a ton of persistence, and a surprising amount of luck–a big random factor. The longer you stand out in the field, the better the chance that lightening will strike you. (And I really need to come up with a less  lethal metaphor!)

I’ll take some of that lightening, please. Thanks, Ann!

Toenails and Mindfulness

Pretty good for a first timer.

I promised myself I’d blog every week. So now I’m here, online, writing, and the only topic that pops up is the pedicure I gave myself last night. My toes look mighty pretty painted a Jordan-almond lilac, but so what?


I’m not sure, so I’m just going to write, right here and now, and see what my preening is really all about.

First off, it occurs to me that last night was my very first DIY, full-on pedicure. Make no mistakes, I’ve paid for pedicures, and I’ve slapped on the quick, last-minute coat of paint. Last night though, I soaked my feet, scraped my callouses, excavated the gunk around my nail beds, pushed back my cuticles, clipped and filed the nails, slathered on the foot creme, AND THEN applied the bottom coat and two coats of the childish lilac. (Forgot the top coat though…next time.)

I was proud of myself when I woke up this morning. I might as well have been a bride-to-be holding out her hand to gaze at her engagement ring. Admiring herself, admiring myself.

I’m astounded that I’d never given myself a pedicure before. And, even more astoundingly, I sat around with Angie, a fellow writer, watching old BBC episodes of “Absolutely Fabulous” and drinking red wine while I did it. I’d never before engaged in a girly evening like that either. I’m serious, never, not even as a teenager. My best girlfriend and I used to play chess. Either that, or we were drinking with our neer-do-well friends. Call us bad girls with nasty toenails.

Angie was surprised by my cluelessness. I had a mom, I had sisters, I had many best girlfriends growing up. How did I miss this girly right of passage (sans the red wine–or maybe not)? How could I not know why we use a bottom coat? No clue. For most of my life, I’ve treated my feet, well, like feet. I need them to transport myself, and to hopefully maintain my balance.

Here’s the thing: DIY pedicures require a quiet mind. Otherwise, what’s the point? To rush through the process, thinking ahead to the many other tasks I must cross off the to-do list, fretting about aspects of my life over which I have no control…Perhaps this is why I’ve never indulged in the DIY pedi before now: I tend to inhabit the land of the future, and this land is fraught with imagined obstacles and turmoil and conflict.

It’s quite exhausting.

So maybe I keep gazing at my confectionary toes because they return me to mindfulness. Simple pleasures in the here and now, you know? I could get used to girly frivolity; it might even be good for me. And even better, doing it with a friend! Angie taught me, for example, that two thin coats of paint are less likely to chip than one thick coat.

Who knew? (I certainly didn’t.)

The Fine Art of Letting Go

Sometimes there’s no answer but to breath deep.

Last time I wrote a blog post, over six months ago, the ramifications of my mother’s dementia hadn’t sunk in. My sisters and I thought she’d maintain her then level of dottiness for at least a few years. Talk about ignorance being bliss! There’s nothing like senile dementia to make me–the daughter who didn’t sail into adulthood gracefully, the daughter who longed to remain forever a pseudo-adult–to…well…grow up. I’ve had to let go of the notion that I’m fancy-free, that I can succumb to my wanderlust at anytime.

Might as well have told me that I’d have to chop off a leg.

In the last six months, I’ve also let go of the notion that I can continue on with no health insurance, working as little as I can get away with so that I can write fiction. Full-time job, here I come, and, believe me, I’m ambivalent.

And, last but not least, I’ve let go of the notion that I’ll land the perfect agent and land a fabulous publishing contract. Not saying that it couldn’t happen, only that it’s not a slam-dunk, and that given the new indie world of small presses and self-publishing, I can now do what I want. I know so many established novelists who are self-publishing, yet, it’s like cutting off the other leg to let go of my dream of the fancy New York agent and editor.

Make decisions about Mom’s care…Make decisions about my financial and physical wellbeing…Make decisions about how to achieve readership. Sounds like full-fledged adulthood to me.

Truth: I’ve been holding on so tight to my cherished notions about myself, my lifestyle, and my dreams that I’ve squeezed the life out of them.

I titled this post “The Fine Art of Letting Go,” but I don’t know if there’s a fine art to letting go. It’s effing demoralizing and frustrating and depressing. In my case, there’s been a lot of screaming while I drive (cathartic) and crying into my pillow (not so cathartic).

What I do know is this: holding tight is all about the ego, and my ego is the ultimate harridan. She’s a beady-eyed, shriveled thing who points her finger at me, sneers, and says, Choke down that humble pie, oh unpublished novelist. You’re a failure at the one dream you’ve ever had and now what will everyone on Facebook think of you?

Hard to ignore the ego sometimes, but the truth is that I’ve got to deal with what I’ve got to deal with: family, finances, health care…All that boring, unspecial stuff. I’m just like everyone else, after all.

I may not know squat about the fine art of letting go, but I gotta hope that there’s a fine art of letting IN new possibilities. That’s what I’m working on now.

Early Thanksgiving

My mother’s been calling more than usual. This morning she set aside her chirpy voice as she told me about another memory lapse, this time on the way to the Honda dealership. She’d started off in the right direction and then forgotten exactly where the dealership was located.

I’m thankful that she knew enough to turn around, go home, and call me. I tried to ease her anxiety by reminding her that she hadn’t taken the car to the dealership in years. Really, why would she remember that the dealership is located on the other side of the freeway?

Last week, I drove her to her CAT scan appointment. She hesitated with pen poised over the intake questionaire, her hand wavering as if she didn’t know how to fill in the blanks. She handed it over to me, and I walked her through the form. She couldn’t remember when she had her breast cancer lumpectomy, so I left a question mark.

I’m thankful her CAT scan returned normal for an 80-year-old woman. Whatever that means. Is there a bell curve for age-related brain atrophy?

After the CAT scan we went grocery shopping. She’d lost her appetite because of anxiety. In less than a week she gone from frail to barely there. “I go to the grocery store and just don’t know what to buy,” she said. So I walked the aisles with her. She forgot where to find the yogurt.

I’m thankful that with her usual depression-child obsessiveness, she nickeled and dimed every item she put in her grocery cart. For once, I wasn’t annoyed.

I’m also thankful that my mother doesn’t insist that she’s fine. She knows her mind is faltering. She can’t hide the desperation from her voice when she talks about it, which saddens me to no end. And scares me. But I’m glad she’s talking about it.

Most of all, I’m thankful for her sense of humor. On the way home from the grocery store, Mom mentioned a show she likes, “The Ghost Whisperer,” which is now rerunning over and over in syndication. “I think I’ve seen all the episodes,” she said. Pause. She laughed. “Well, with this short-term memory loss, I guess I’ll always enjoy them, won’t I?”

Stupid Human Trick of the Week

Oh how cute

Oh this is sweet, you think. Ms. Squirrel arriving for her almond bright and early on a Monday morning. You’ve got your coffee, and you’re ready to begin your work week with WIP development work. For once, the sun’s out, casting a burnished glow through turning leaves.

Ms. Squirrel takes her nut as usual, departs to store the nut for winter, reappears for another, departs, reappears, eats the third nut, and then sidles to the open screen door. What’s this, you think. You’re becoming quite friendly and tame indeed, Ms. Squirrel.

She’s just inside the house, standing up on her back legs, sniffing you. For a moment, sweet images of pet squirrels flit through your head.

The squirrel is insistent, and you’re thinking, how cute. And then you hear a crinkle of leaves, a scrabble, and a soft chitter. A head pops into view from the roof, checking you out. Then a second squirrel drops onto the balcony rail, and you realize that you have been feeding not one squirrel, but two.

Squirrelapalooza on my balcony

Double the fun, you think. What’s a few extra almonds?

But then, a strange thing happens: mother nature in action. How bizarre, you think. On MY balcony? You’re in denial as you watch the insistent squirrel chase away the newcomer. You realize that the newcomer is Ms. Squirrel, for real, and that the other one sports a big ol’ nut sack. You’re still holding out your hand, almond in place, when the nasty little effer bypasses the nut in favor of your finger.

He’s grabbed on good and tight, and at first you don’t know what’s happening. Then, the telltale jab of pain. Mother-effing-little-effer! You shake him loose, thinking, What is it about testosterone anyhow? Thinking, Dude, there’s plenty of almonds; you don’t need to go all Hannibal on my ass, and with a little bit of Cujo thrown in for good measure.

Bad squirrel

Finger throbbing, blood welling from the wound, you run to the sink. You’ve got the tap turned on high, and the water hits the blood, splattering it all over the sink and even onto your bathrobe. In your shock, you squeeze your index finger over and over in what you think is a snake-bite strategy — to squeeze out the squirrely toxins before they shoot through your bloodstream, latch onto your healthy blood cells, multiply, and turn into a nasty, infectious, frothy outbreak of something.

You can’t help but think of a few Stephen-King-esque story ideas. For example: What if Mr. Nut Sack liked the taste of human blood?

Mr. Nut Sack — that would be squirrel non grata to you, buddy.

Hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin, and a Band-Aid later, I’m fine. I’m wondering what the week has in store for me though. As I write this the female — doublecheck, yes, no nut sack — just ventured back and picked up the almond the male so rudely shunned.

Isn’t that typical — the female tidying up after the male!

View From the Writer’s Desk

I didn't stare out the window too much today.

Getting out of the house helped today. I’ve been moldering within the first 50 pages of a revision for a few weeks now.

Let me clear: This isn’t a revision of the genteel sort. This is a massive overhaul. This is a rewrite, a restructuring, an upheaval.

Just now I cleared my way through the first 50, and through the next ten pages. I realized that I was stuck-ish (I never admit to writer’s block) because I’d softened my protagonist too much. We’re irrational creatures, we humans, with contradictory impulses and emotions that coexist especially in times of stress and grief. Anger and sadness, resentment and guilt. Inner conflict, need I say more?

Over on Murderati, Stephen Jay Schwartz discussed writing tight. Because, officially, the manuscript isn’t a first draft, I’ve been caught up in writing as lean as possible. Oddly enough, his post got me thinking that I need to liberate the manuscript, which is to say, treat it as a first draft all over again. The truth is that I still don’t feel sure enough about the upheaval to spend the extra time it takes to write tight.

I’ll write in all my wordy and expansive glory, and revise tight later.

Cover Art and Costco

Which book shall I buy?

Entering Costco, I felt like a real American, a bonafide overspending, gluttonous, credit-card-maxing member of my birth country, ready to pledge my allegiance to all that promises to raise my self-esteem and my sense of entitlement.

Be honest, doesn’t your common sense and fiscal rectitude recede when you enter a Costco warehouse? If you’re like me, a neural ball of me-wantsa-everything starts to pulse, and you find yourself strolling up and down the aisles with your oversized shopping cart, itching to oversize your life with five years worth of trash bags and enough wrapping paper to cover your walls. I often peruse other people’s carts, wondering what fabulous object I’ve missed. Could be the latest Keurig coffeemaker, or the fake-Ugg boots, or the cutesy tabbed-style chopping boards. I kid you not. Check them out right here.

After awhile the florescent lights coupled with quantitudinous excess send me into the consumer’s equivalent of insulin shock. Today was a prime example. Last night my nifty space heater almost fried the house down. Since I’d bought it at Costco many moons ago, I decided, Yes, I need this one thing, this is legit, this is okay. To further my needy resolve to partake of the — eh hem — American dream, I invited my 80-year-old mother to accompany me. This may seem strange, but getting her out of the house and walking around was a good deed. Really. (I am serious about that if nothing else in this post.) She doesn’t eat much anymore, so I also insisted that we stop at every, and mean every, food sampling.

I found a space heater, all right, but I also found a light box, a pound of shrimp (with cocktail sauce), a Brita water pitcher, a mongo-sized bottle of Neutrogena body bath, a — never mind — needless to say, I also found a book. While my mom jotted down the titles of books to check out of the library, I found my eye drawn to one book. This was a case of cover art successfully sucking me in. I’d never heard of CEMETERY GIRL’s author, but that stark white cover with the creepy, creeping branches about to take over the face? Love it! And the title too.

So hats off to the cover artist who managed to catch my glazed and by-then-headachy attention.