Wednesday, August 31, 2016

1,000 days and Counting: Don't Break the Chain!

A couple of months ago I hit a major milestone in my writing life: I hit my one-thousandth day in a row of writing. I've written before about the Magic Spreadsheet, back when I first started using it in 2013, and later that same year when I was clocking along at 500 words a day. Now that I'm more than 1,000 days and 1,000,000 words in, it seems like a good time to think about this tool and how/why it works so well for me.

In the history of my writing life, starting when I was a child and continuing until I was 42 years old, I started hundreds of projects and never finished a one. I'd write until I hit something that stopped me (either within the story, or in my life)…then I'd stop. When I came back, I always started something new.

That's fine, if you want to write just for the enjoyment of writing. But I wanted to *be* a writer, with books for sale in bookstores. Maybe even make my living at it someday. You can't do that on unfinished work.

People are motivated by different things. I honestly didn't expect the Magic Spreadsheet to be as effective for me as it has been. After all, I've tried point systems and gamifications of various sorts for other aspects of my life (exercise, chores, etc.) and it only works for a little while. They usually feel artificial and constricting to me--but this one was different.

I don't really care about my number of points or my rankings against other writers that much (Okay, maybe I do check to make sure that I'm ahead of Chad in points, since he'll always be ahead of me on number of days).

But I have a chain--a chain of 1,066 days as I write this. And it's maintaining that chain that has me writing every day, even when life is busy and even when I feel terrible, even when the children are sick and the Internet is down, even when I'm on vacation or have to do my writing on the mom couch at lessons. The longer the chain of days written in a row grows, the less likely it becomes that I will break it. I'll cut myself the slack to make a weaker link on some days (only writing 250 words, the minimum), but mostly I write somewhere between 800 and 4,000 words a day now, and that adds up fast.

Now, that explains why I write every day, but not why it helped me finish things. That, I think is physics: momentum in particular. Momentum fed by sheer stubbornness.

If I'm not allowed to drop a project (because that would break the chain!), then I have to find a way to move forward in it, thinking my way out of corners I'd trapped myself in, digging my way out of holes I'd fallen into. I have to find a way or I'll break the chain, you see.

It's been freeing in my writing process, too because I'll let myself write something I'm not sure is going to be right. Wanting to get it "right" was part of what would stop me in the past--I wouldn't write it until I was sure I knew where it was going. Now, I'll write a scene three different ways to see which is better. They all go into the word count, and I'll choose the right one (or combine them, or scrap them all and try again) in the final version. Once I got to "the end" for the first time, I was able to trust in the process in a way I never had before.

So, how about you? What works for you to keep moving forward when you hit blocks in your endeavors? Does tracking help? Or does it make you feel trapped? Would love to hear your stories in the comments.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What to Drink From in the Morning

My teaching life is about to step up into full gear again. I'm in teacher workdays this week. They are interesting days with a range of meetings (from rage-inducing and time-wasting to thoughtful and useful), intermixed with far too little time left unscheduled and usable for classroom organization and lesson planning. I miss the days when they just let teachers work on teacher work days.

On Monday, the kids are back.

Something I'm trying this year is getting up earlier and giving myself a positive, well-paced morning to lead into the hectic melee we call the school day. This is challenging. Even after twenty years of teaching, I am not a morning person. The husband and I are trying morning yoga practice and I am trying breakfast.

I'm not a breakfast eater, generally, though I know that it is generally considered a good thing to do for your health and wellbeing. Food is unappealing to me first thing when I wake. And traditional breakfast foods (cereal, milk, yogurt, toast, eggs, etc.) are even less so. It's a little better if I don't eat breakfast foods. Leftover supper warmed up is something I'm trying. Protein heavy. I'm giving it a go, but I'm not a fan.

I am a fan of the hot drink varieties of caffeine though: coffee and tea. Especially tea. And I know that the experience is enhanced when you have the right mug to drink it out of. So, I'm mug shopping--in my own cabinets because I'm a teacher in North Carolina (that means I'm chronically broke because they pay peanuts here).

There are a few different things that make a mug perfect.

First, there's the weight. The mug should have some heft, so that you don't tip it over by just because you flicked your hand awkwardly reaching for the blueberries. But it can't be too heavy, where you end up settling it too heavily on the table and sloshing the liquid heaven onto your hand and tablecloth. Tea is much better INSIDE mama than OUTSIDE.

Then there's the shape of rim and how it feel against your lips. I like one that's curved inward, so that when I lift the cup, the warm nirvana is guided down my gullet like it's riding a slide into wonderland. I don't like the ones that feel thin and plastic-y when they bump against my teeth. I really don't like the ones that curve outward, so that the liquid flows into the upper palate and ends up dribbling on my blouse.

Feel in the hand is also important. I have arthritis, so my hands are often stiff and sore in the morning. I like a taller mug with enough surface area to wrap my fingers around and warm the swollen joints. I like a nice retention of heat that comes with thicker sides. Again, not the thin and delicate sort for me. They're pretty, but I don't like to hold them. I always feel like I will break them with my clumsiness (and often have done exactly that).

Retention of heat in the drink itself is also vital. Mugs that are too large, especially the ones that widen towards the top, have too much surface area and the drink can become cold while you are still staring blankly at the sunlight dappling the tabletop and noticing the dust motes it reveals. By the time you remember to pick it up and sip--ew! cold tea. (Oddly, I love iced tea, but cannot countenance hot tea that has become cold).

And lastly, there's the art. Whether it's caffeine humor, a picture of your kids, or just a nice pattern you like, the mug should lift your spirits when you look at it.

So, I found my perfect one. It's my Elmo's mug. It's a traditional diner mug, hefty but not heavy in my hands, large enough to warm my hands and shaped to keep my drink warm, too. It has that curve in the side that keeps my drink pouring in the right direction. And Elmo's is special. It's the first place my now-husband and I had breakfast together. It's the one restaurant choice guaranteed to please all four Bryants. Seeing the mug lifts my heart thinking about Sweetman's face smiling in the lovely morning sunlight through their long windows or my youngest giving me a chocolate chip pancake grin, or my eldest stealing my warm cinnamon apples and giving me a teasing look that says, "What? I'm completely innocent here."

In short, it makes me feel love and loved, and that, my friends, is the right thing to drink from in the morning.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Guest Post: C. Hope Clark on Life Balance

It's my pleasure to hand over my blog today to C. Hope Clark. Mystery readers know her for her Edisto Island Mysteries; writers of all genres know her for her Funds for Writers newsletter. I invited Hope to talk to us about balancing a writing life with the rest of life now that she's where some of us still aspire to be: working full-time as a writer. 

My fulltime job is that of a writer. At my appearances and signings, many people greet me with a wishful expression, and I know exactly what they are thinking. I wish I could stay home and write for a living. One twenty-something approached me not long ago and blurted, “Honey, you are living the dream. You are who I want to be.”
Admittedly, I am living the writer’s dream, but it’s one that comes with responsibilities and coordination. It doesn’t take much for an untended dream to slide into a nightmare.
My dream, however, isn’t self-sustaining. It requires maintenance. Every few months, I stop and analyze my schedule, goals, and purpose, because without attention to them, my dream takes off on tangents, even splintering into tasks that may or may not feed the dream, and can ultimately dismantle my days.
I wanted to leave nine-to-five to write, to pursue a deep personal satisfying quest. However, I made a plan before taking the leap. While writing fulfilled me, I had sense enough to know that it also had to take care of financial obligations. So I developed a three-year plan to pay off debt, save for emergencies, and develop a work ethic of income writing versus creative writing, then at the end of three years, I took an early retirement at age 46.
While I wanted to leave earlier, that three-year plan included qualifying for early retirement which gave me health insurance and a small pension that would always be there for a roof over my head. A necessary evil? Maybe. But in that three years, I also tested several writing avenues, weighing which would bring in the most income, which wouldn’t interfere with my novel-writing goals, and which would provide me with the best platform. I had an intense need to define a balance between responsibility and desire, getting everything I wanted out of my days without sabotaging my well-being.
Errantly, we often think of a balanced life as being one we have to think less about. A laissez-faire mindset that deters regimen or structure. In reality, without some definition we lose balance because there is no weighing in of need and purpose. Our balance goes awry because we aren’t focused.
I’ve been a fulltime writer for over a decade now, and I believe it’s worked because I periodically analyze my schedule, goals, and purpose, beginning with the last.


While my main purpose is to write, I learned early on that an equal purpose is to be financially safe. A writer is not successful without both. So instead of saying my dream is to write fulltime, I understand that my dream is maintaining the ability to write fulltime.
Every month I study the time spent on writing for short-term income (freelancing), writing for long-term income (novels), appearances, and self-promotion. They must balance to sustain my fulltime passion, and yes, that means sometimes I write less creative work to bring in dollars in order to buy me time to delve into my novels. Without dissecting this balance regularly, the scales quickly tip in the wrong direction. Too much income writing robs me of my creativity. Too much creative writing robs me of income. My writing is a career, so it takes leveling both left-brain and right-brain tasks to allow me to maintain a fulltime dream.


Novels have multiple deadlines prior to publication, and so while they do not bring in income, they have needs. A novelist also plans several books ahead, meaning a multi-year, long-range plan, and until those novels are published and bringing in income, a certain number of short-term goals must be met to pay bills. This analysis of long-term and short-term goals takes place monthly so I do not stray.


While goal-tending is great, day-to-day activity isn’t so precise or easy to monitor. But I left the nine-to-five partly because of a suffocating regimen, and I do not want to replace one rigid structure with another. So I go out of my way not to force-feed myself a daily schedule.
Monthly reviews of my work, covering creativity and entrepreneurialship, are sufficient for me. In the day to day, I allow a more relaxed environment.
I rise when my clock tells me to, and I go to sleep when my clock beckons. My work may make for five-hour days, or fifteen, depending upon my energy and enthusiasm, but my work week is a forty-hour minimum. The greatness about being a stay-at-home writer is that I can deem what makes for a satisfying day without worrying about a clock or overseer.
To avoid burn-out, I take breaks to walk the dogs, tend the chickens, and garden. I can make doctor appointments in the day without missing work, and I can take a break and visit the zoo with a grandson in the middle of the afternoon before it gets crowded.
I can work until three AM knowing I can sleep in. I can stop and cook dinner, watch a mystery on television, then return to the job because it’s just down the hall. While I give myself Saturday as a day off, I’ve learned that I love my work so much that I rarely reach the end of the day without checking for replies from publishers, editors, and readers.

Balance can’t be too loose or too strict, but it’s critical to feed the passion and the self-sustainability of a writing career and find that perfect level. Give yourself enough of a structure that you feel focused, but enough detachment to feel you’re not tied down.
Without a doubt I’m living the dream, and with the balance I’ve achieved, that dream will take me as long as I wish.

BIO: C. Hope Clark loves living her writing dream and will continue to the end of her days. She just released Echoes of Edisto, book three in The Edisto Island Mysteries, and has many books planned in her long-term goals.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fangirling: Flash, Season 1, Episode 17

Summer is media time for me. I can't really watch TV much during the school year, not and keep up with teaching, mothering and writing. So, I binge in the summer. Netflix is my bud.

I watched all of Stranger Things, two seasons of Penny Dreadful, most of season 6 of The Walking Dead, and half of a season of Jane the Virgin so far this summer. I've also watched a few episodes of The Flash (I'm still in season 1 because the husband and I are trying to watch it together--and he's not got the summer off).

I really want to love The Flash. It's my kind of show. There's so much that is right about it.

Barry Allen (played by Grant Gustin) is perfect. He's youthful without being a child, romantic without being sappy, idealistic without being an idiot, funny without being a clown, and vulnerable without being a wimp. Even when the writing goes all emo on me and Barry is handed loser lines to speak and weak plots, Gustin makes a silk purse out of that sow's ear because he gets the heart of the character.

What I love about the character in this iteration is that, in spite of tragedy and bad luck in his past, he still has heart. He hasn't become bitter or vengeful. Even as he struggles to deal with the mystery of what happened to his mother, he doesn't turn a Batman sort of dark.

I also love Joe West (played by Jesse L. Martin). He's a rare creation in television history: a good father. There's no sign of Mrs. West so far in the story, so he appears to have been doing this alone, at least for a while, and raising an extra foster son with love as well as his own biological daughter. So, a good, black, single dad. Are there any more of those anywhere on television? Even rarer, he seems to have a clue when it comes to parenting adult children.

Harrison Wells (played by Tom Cavanagh) is a complex villain and I love how his contradictory motivations are coming into play. The man who does good things, but has a dark over-riding purpose--and this particular episode (season 1, episode 17) furthers that story and gives us an explanation we've long been lacking, while still leaving mystery.

Cisco (Carolos Valdes) has way more personality than the science guy is usually allowed. And he's a male character allowed to be emotional!

I wish I could love the other characters as much. But the women in this show. Gah! Have these writers ever met a real woman?

Caitlin Snow, science girl (played by Danielle Panabaker) isn't outright offensive, but she's also not very interesting. When it's time for the science support team to act, it's always Cisco's skills that save the day. She's supposed to be a brilliant scientist in her own right, but we never get to see her be one. She's just monitoring and communicating, supporting, but not actively problem solving. She might as well be the secretary in a 1950s show. The best she gets is a little heart to heart talk with Barry from time to time. Even when we brought her long lost back-from-the-dead beau in, they still only gave her an emotional range of "bravely not crying" to "crying."

And Iris. Good G-d, I can't stand Iris West (played by Candice Patton). The writers have done women the world over a disservice in making the object of Barry's affection a selfish woman who toys with the emotions of others. I think I'd like her better if she was aware of her manipulations and doing it on purpose, but no, they don't even give her that. She's not manipulative because she enjoys it or as some kind of power play. It's supposed to be unconscious.

She's so blind to the inner workings of her own heart, that she seems TSTL (too stupid to live). She reminds me a lot of Bella from the shiny vampire series…and I hated her, too. Good people just don't string other people along like that--they confront the feelings or they cut off contact. If I were writing this show, Barry would realize that any number of women would be better for him than Iris and move past his little boy crush for good.

And the way the men in the show (Dad, Barry, and Boyfriend) condescend to her by lying to her and misleading her under the guise of protecting her because they love her…what year is this again? They might as well pat her on the butt and tell her her not to worry her pretty little head about man stuff.

The portrayal of women isn't the only flaw in the show, unfortunately. There are also huge plot holes, all the time. Like, if the Flash just "flashed" he could win the day, but for some reason, he just…doesn't. As a superhero writer myself, I recognize that it must be difficult to write good challenges for a speedster character, but there have been many cases where it felt like the writers phoned in the plot when they were on a bender on a fraternity reunion weekend, ignoring completely obvious solutions to the problem and hoping you wouldn't notice through the haze of relationship drama.

That's why I was so thrilled with Season 1, Episode 17: Tricksters. For once, it felt all right. It was so good! In a show that's all about the breaking of the fourth wall and meta-moment Easter eggs, this episode was amazeballs.

So, first off, we've got Barry's dad, Henry, played by John Wesley Shipp who played the Flash in the 1990s series. He's been there the whole series, but he gets more screen time in this episode to enjoy that meta-goodness. Then, we've got special guest Mark Hamill as The Trickster. Mark Hamill played the Trickster in the 1990s show, too. They even work in footage from that 1990s performance in some stills and showing his costume.

And the very very very best part?

Mark Hamill, in his best villainous whisper, honed from years of voice work in superhero cartoons, references his Star Wars history at the same time by announcing, "I am your father!" I thought my geek heart would burst with joy!

If only all the episodes could be this good! So much potential…so not fully realized.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

#IWSG: The Ups and Downs of Anthologies

I had a strange experience this month. I got published and didn't know it had happened. I only found out the book was out three weeks after its release, and even then, it was kind of by accident.

The publication was a short story in an anthology. I love anthologies, both as a reader and a writer. They are like sampler platters and gateway drugs into other books and authors. You can try a lot of different things for a low investment of time and money, since the pieces are shorter. I've discovered more than one writer I love to read this way.

But anthologies, I'm learning now that I've been published in a few, are complex critters, even more so than novels, because they require the cooperation and coordination of so many different people. To publish a novel, there's just the one writer to worry about and whatever team of professionals gets brought in (editors, artists, publishers, proofreaders, etc.). An anthology has all those folks, plus several different authors to work with.

So, I thought it might be fun to share my adventures in anthologies so far. It's an uncertain process that can definitely bring out all your insecurities.

The very first anthologies I was ever in were compilations. Those were quite painless. Basically, the publisher had already acquired the rights to publish the piece in a magazine AND in a compilation anthology at the same time. My work was included in a couple of poetry anthologies this way including Bearing Witness, a collection of poetry by teachers about teaching. For these, I had to submit my work, but getting into the book was a bonus publication, nothing that required additional effort on my part. 

I've also been in a couple of group-produced anthologies. What I mean by that: collections produced by the members of an already existing group. IWSG has done a couple of these (I had an essay in the The Insecure Writer's Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond). My critique group worked together to put out a collection with one short story from each of us: The Seven Story House. Classes I've been a part of have sometimes put together a book as well. The amount of effort those have taken for me depended on the project and what level I was in charge at. 

As I seek to gain more publication credits, I've been watching for open call anthologies. Here, I've had mixed experiences. A lot of times, these anthologies are really small productions--like a one-person or one family small publisher. So, while it's easier for an unknown writer to get a piece accepted into them, it's also really easy for the projects to fall apart. All it takes is one life crisis to take down a project when the team working on it is so small. One that I was super excited about ended up being abandoned all together. Another one that I thought was a longshot ended up being produced and is selling well. Just goes to show you never can tell, I guess. 

For these, I submit my work, sign the contract and take the payment (if there was one--sometimes you're paid in a share of the profits, if there are any, or you're participating for exposure or charity) and hope for the best on the book coming out. There can be long communication gaps and delays that can leave you doubting that the editors liked your work. That's the story of the Theme-Thology: Mad Science, the one that came out without my knowing it had. HDWP is a one-family kind of small press, and, given the troubles that descended upon them, I'm pleasantly surprised that the book actually came out, and don't really blame the editors for failing to get it out with fanfare and trumpets. It was an act of love and devotion that they pulled the project together in the end.

Now I'm working on a novella for an invitation call. These are pretty awesome because there's little doubt that my work will be accepted and published. After all, the publisher/organizer contacted me and asked me to contribute something. They must already like my work. My first one of these was put out by the same publisher who does my novels. Curiosity Quills put out Indomitable Ten to showcase all the superhero and super-villain writers in their stable and give us a chance to get some cross promotion by attracting each other's audiences. The one I'm working on now is for a charity anthology and I've got one more on my writing schedule for August. 

So, there you go: my writing life in anthologies. It's a varied landscape. What experience have you had with anthologies? Do you like reading them? 
For #IWSG this month, we were asked to respond to this prompt:  What was your very first piece of writing as an aspiring writer? Where is it now? Collecting dust or has it been published?

Defining my "very first" piece of writing as an aspiring writer would mean digging through childhood crates at my mom's house, so I think I'll talk about my first novel. I "finished" His Other Mother in 2012. It was the first book-length work I ever completed. It's been around submission land off and on ever since, with some interest but no contract. I still believe in the book and its potential for finding a readership, but I'm not investing that much energy in it right now because my superhero stuff is selling and has my passion right now. After its most recent rejection, I've shelved His Other Mother for a bit. I think I've learned a lot about writing since 2012 and I plan to give the book another revision before I send it out again. But, that's low on my priority list for right now, so it may be a while until it happens. 

If you're not already following #IWSG (Insecure Writer's Support Group), you should really check it out. The monthly blog hop is a panoply of insight into the writing life at all stages of hobby and career. Search the hashtag in your favorite social media venue and you'll find something interesting on the first Wednesday of every month.