Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Writing Life: My Highlight Reel, 2016

2016 was a rough year in a lot of ways. In the news, at work, in my personal life. The winds of change can be cold and harsh. Here at the end of it, I feel a little wind burnt.

So, I thought I'd take a minute to remember the good things, the blessings, the progress.

2016 was a good one for writing life.

Publications: My second novel (Change of Life) was published, a novella was published in an anthology (Indomitable Ten), two short stories came out in other anthologies (The Seven Story House and Theme-Thology: Mad Science).  Going Through the Change, my debut novel, won an award!

There's some good lead in to 2017 with the third novel and two anthologies already on the docket, with talk of another novella, too. Seeing a line of books that you actual have to scroll across on my Amazon page never fails to thrill me. I'm doing this for reals, y'all!

Appearances: I was accepted as a guest at a few Southern cons: Illogicon, Con-Gregate, and Atomacon; I'll be back at Illogicon in 2017, and will get to attend Mysticon and Ravencon as well. I don't know about my year beyond April yet, but I've got some applications in and hope to be busy during the summer cons, too. Attending cons is one of the things that makes this all very real. Plus, participating in panels is a great way to connect with other authors and just get to talk geeky bookish fun!

Productivity: Readers of this blog will already know that I am big fan of the Magic Spreadsheet for tracking my word count and motivating myself to keep on keeping on, even when I don't feel like writing. I've written about it a few times on this blog. It's a gamification system that rewards you with points and levels for having written consistently. The part that really works for me is the idea of the chain. My chain of days written in a row is 1,186 days long as I write this. Even when I'm sick or exhausted, that keeps me motivated. I *always* write at least the minimum of 250 words now, and, as a result, I see steady and consistent progress on my projects. I don't lose the thread and have to flounder for hours finding it. When I sit down to write, I fall back into my projects easily because it's only been a day since I was last there. Best. Thing. Ever. (for me, anyway)

This year, I began using Jamie Raintree's Writing and Revision Tracker. It doesn't award me points, but it does let me categorize my writing, set monthly goals, and track both writing and revision (on Magic Spreadsheet, I play math games to credit myself with revision time, counting in pomodoros or giving myself 10% of wordcount edited). It's been a really good tool for me, letting me make sure that, not only am I writing, but I am writing the right things, in order to finish in time for deadlines. Now that I have multiple irons in the fire all the time, staying on track means more than just writing. It means keeping focus and not getting distracted by side projects while the main one languishes.

Whether these tools or my own determination deserve credit, I don't know, but either way I'm proud of these numbers. As of December 26, I wrote 248,529 new words in 2016 and revised 584,267. Especially when you consider that I do this while holding down a demanding day job (middle school teaching) and keeping a household of five (hubby, two daughters, and a dog) going, I think I'm amaze-balls!

So, there you go: my year in words. And it was a good one! Lots to celebrate and lots to look forward to. It's a wonderful thing, doing what you love. May 2017 bring all of you the chance to do the same.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What I Read in 2016

Each year, I do a reading challenge on Goodreads. I usually set a goal of 52 books a year, one per week and most recent years I haven't been able to make it. There have been times in my life when I've read more than that, but here in the middle of what my mom calls "the busy years" (careers, kids, house, etc.), one a week is more than I can do sometimes. Reading is a sanity saver for me, a solace, a balm, inspiration, escape. When I don't get enough story time, I'm a serious cranky pants.

In 2016, I read seventy-one books!

That number is slightly inflated because I counted books I read out loud with my fourth grader (in past years I haven't counted those), but I still feel proud of myself.

So, what did I read?

I read eleven indie books. My favorites of those I read this year were The Cogsmith's Daughter by Kate Colby and Ithaka Rising by LJ Cohen. But several others were really good as well. Indie books are the Rodney Dangerfields of the publishing industry in a lot of ways in that they "get no respect." But indie authors are passionate, hardworking, and often creative and risk-taking in ways that more traditionally published authors aren't. If you're feeling in a rut in your reading life, I recommend indie books. Take time to read some reviews to weed out the unprofessional books and you'll find some real gems!

I read twenty-eight audio books. Audiobooks were a big part of why I managed to read so much this year. I can listen to an audiobook while hanging laundry, cooking dinner, driving my car, or many other mundane things that suck up my daylight. A good reading can make a good book even better. I loved Behemoth by Scott Westerfield and West With the Night by Beryl Markham, The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon and Doc by Mary Doria Russell, and I think all four of those were enhanced by the audio experience.

I was all over the genre map this year. I read classic science fiction like Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin. I read superhero novels (including my own book!), graphic novels, literary fiction, women's fiction, steampunk, nonfiction, memoir, historical fiction, paranormal fantasy, and horror. Looking back on my year in books is like making a list of friends I've made or journeys I've taken. I am the richer for the experiences.

2016 was rough in a lot of ways. But it was a good year for reading at least! What did you read this year? What do you want to read next year?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Deja Vu: How Being a Teacher Makes Me a Better Writer

DL Hammond has brought together a few blogging friends for the Déja Vu Blogfest. The idea is to revisit a blogpost you made at some point during the year. So here's one I wrote at the beginning of 2016. I still like it, and I hope you do, too.

I've been a teacher for twenty years. That's a wonderful and horrifying statistic in itself. In fact, I've not done much of anything else in the way of paid work. I had a brief run as librarian and a secretary in small town Alaska. Otherwise, I've spent my entire working life in the classroom.
There are occupational hazards in being a teacher. You tend to take over in group settings, trying to organize everyone (which is not always appreciated by your adult family and friends). You tend to over-explain, assuming that the listener will need to hear it multiple ways to get it. You correct people's errors, even when it would be more polite not to do so. You're chronically busy, stressed, and under-slept, which can make you a cranky-pants.

But as I've moved to being a teacher and an author, I've found out that there's a lot I've learned from my teaching life that serves me well in my writing life.

Comfort with public speaking. A roomful of people who voluntarily walked into your panel or book talk or reading is a far easier audience than a roomful of middle school children who are required to be there. But that doesn't mean they aren't intimidating. I'm grateful that stage fright is not an issue for me.

A lack of dignity. Sometimes you really have to be a clown to engage children. I've worn crazy hats, let people put pies in my face or dunk me in a booth, and done some pretty amazing role plays as a teacher. So far, I haven't been asked to go to those extremes as an author, but it does make it easier to put myself out there as part of an event. I'm difficult to embarrass.

Diplomacy. I deal with a lot of stupidity as a teacher, and I've learned to do so with kindness. It won't help most situations to make someone (a student, another teacher, a parent, an administrator) feel bad about whatever way they've just put their foot in it. As a writer, I have had to deflect weird responses and questions from interviewers or readers, too, and defend my artistic choices to beta readers and editors who seemed to just not get it. Not to mention participating in a critique group, where I need to kindly point out the flaws in someone's heart's work. Good thing I've got a lot of practice.

Ability to Work Alone, Unsupervised. As a teacher, I have a supervisor in the for of a school principal.
But she or he sees very little of what I actually do. In some cases, I could probably have read a book or shown movies for weeks at a time without my supervisor finding out. Luckily for my students, I have high standards for myself and a strong personal work ethic. As a writer, I am even less well-supervised. In fact, I often don't even have a clear deadline to finish by or any directions at all about what I'm supposed to be creating. Without that self-starter attitude, I could easily just play solitaire and watch Firefly again instead of actually ever writing anything.

Able to Think on My Feet: No plan survives contact with the enemy. That includes lesson plans. No matter how well I think I've planned, I always have to adjust on the fly. And I'm good at that after all these years. Turns out, that happens on the page, too. No matter how well I've planned out my story, change will come. Characters will surprise me. A plot twist will blindside me. And I can roll with it, follow it where it goes and trust to revision to smooth it out for the end product. In the classroom and on the page, I've built more than one silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Listening: Any teacher will tell you how important it is to listen to your students. As much as state legislators and pundits want to make education into a nice, clean, easily measured objective process, it really isn't. It's a very messy, human process, as much about relationships as it is about expertise and technique. And you build relationships by listening. You also get a lot of writing material that way.

So, who knew I'd been in training all these years. Too bad teaching didn't make me insightful about marketing. Then I could afford to give up teaching!

Want more deja vu? Check out the linky for more second chances:

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Why I'm a Book Club Girl

I love reading for lots of reasons. But top of the list might be: because it's a solo activity.

I don't need to make arrangements with anyone else to get to read. I don't need a partner. Given how much reading material is already in my house, I don't even need money. I can do it anywhere, any time. Especially in the twenty-first century, where my kindle app coordinates across devices and even syncs up with the audiobook version in some cases.

But once I've read something, especially something I loved, I long to share it with someone. I want to find the other people that read the book, too and gush over it for a while, sharing favorite lines or talking about great character moments. For that, I do need a partner, or even a group.

That's why I'm a bookclub girl.

Book clubs aren't for everyone, not even for everyone who loves to read. I get that. Some people don't want to have to read something they didn't choose. Some people worry about conflict and disagreement, when others have a different view of a book. Maybe others just want to savor the book privately.

But that connecting over a book moment is an experience I crave. And I'll give up things like complete freedom of choice in my reading material and take on a little time pressure stress for the guaranteed chance to talk with other passionate readers regularly.

Over the years, I've been in a lot of kinds of book clubs. Neighborhood ones. Groups of colleagues. Book studies. Library sponsored. Online. Asynchronous. Even one where we didn't all read the same book, but just got together and told each other about what we've been reading lately.

Every one of them fed a hunger in me. Not just for books, but for thoughtful conversation, divergent thinking, and challenge. In short, for book people.

I'm in two book clubs right now.

First Monday Classics at my local library meets once a month to talk about a classic novel. We've been together as a group for two years now, and just settled our 2017 reading list. Besides the great books (we're reading Vonnegut, du Maurier, Baldwin and Eliot, among others in the upcoming months), I also get to interact with a group of people I might not have encountered otherwise through this group. The group was started by a writer friend (James Maxey, speculative fiction writer and former Piedmont Laureate) because he wanted to read some classics himself and was looking for company on that journey. Now, I count several of the members among my personal friends.

My other reading group is a very small one. Just four of us, all liberal leaning women who live in the
same neighborhood. We take turns choosing the books and meet at a local food co-op (Weaver Street) for treats and talk roughly once a month. We probably talk about our lives as much as the books, but it was books that brought us together and books that we turn to for solace, distraction, and ideas.

Both groups feed my soul in different ways, and I'm grateful for their place in my life.

How about you? Are you a book club person? Or a solitary reader? What kinds of book clubs have you enjoyed or hated? Would love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

#IWSG: Getting There From Here

This week IWSG asks: In terms of your writing career, where do you see yourself five years from now, and what’s your plan to get there?

So, here's what I see:

That's me: the woman standing in a patch of sunlight just in front of the dark cave she just traversed. She's alone, but in a self-reliant rather than lonely way, because even if you are lucky enough to have support (which I am), in the end you have to rely on yourself and take the walk yourself. Your cheerleaders can't walk it for you.

I like this picture because of the darkness opening into light and because there's still so much that you can't yet see. The as-yet unseen possibilities.

Right now, I am firmly on my journey towards my end goal of making my living as a writer only. I've had some success: finished things, had some work accepted, got some kudos and gushy reviews, won an award. I've learned a lot. I've been touched by the light, and enjoyed the warmth on my skin and I covet more of that. But I haven't arrived yet. (I suspect I'll never feel like I've "arrived" . . .that's the way of epic journeys and life quests; they just lead to other journeys).

So, before you make a face like Queen Gertrude annoyed with Polonius, here's the "more matter, less art version."

In 2013, I committed to a daily writing habit, which was a complete gamechanger for me. I took myself seriously as a writer, and finally started to get somewhere after playing around for most of my life.

In 2013, I made it to the end of a novel for the first time (an under the bed book, which may or may not ever get revised and published), and in 2014, a second time (it turned out to be my debut: Going Through the Change).

In 2014, I got my first book contract, and in 2015 my first book came out.  2016 saw my second book on the shelves and a few anthology stories under my belt. 2017 looks promising so far, with two anthologies and one novel already expected and scheduled.

Somewhere along the line, I latched onto the number FIVE as a magic and talismanic number. It's a number that seems to come up a lot when people talk about making a career as a writer. More than one writer on a panel I've attended or in an essay I've read has said that they didn't start to make a living at it until their fifth book.

I'm sure it's not that simple, but that's been my target: five books. One a year. So, if I can keep up that pace, I'll have my fifth book out in 2019. Right now, I'm pushing my menopausal superheroes series, because it's what I've gotten traction with, but I'm trying to get the wheels spinning on some other projects, too.

So, in five years? Wishes/hopes/goals: By 2021:

  • My Menopausal Superheroes series is finished, published and selling well. In fact, someone in TV or movies is looking at it. 
  • I've finished my heart's project that keeps getting back-burnered right now, a historical fiction trilogy that's really a love story to my great grandmother, Lena and have seen it to publication.
  • I've made enough money from writing three months in a row to pay the mortgage with. 
  • I've been the literary guest of honor at at least one con. 
  • I've been able to drop to a part time day job
  • I'm a member of SFWA, having gotten several of my short stories published in the markets that garner you that honor
How will I get there? The same way I've gotten this far: doggedness, hard work, and remaining open to what there is to learn. 

So how about you, fellow IWSGers (and other readers)? Where can I find you in five years? What's your pie-in-the-sky version and your more practical one? I'd love to hear your stories. 

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.