A Taxing Time

Well, it’s that time of year again—tax time. Some people find it a very taxing time of year, but I find a bit of satisfaction in it, to be honest. Math has never been my favorite subject, but I enjoy it when all the numbers work out right—like that moment when your checkbook balances. There’s an instant gratification to it.

I had intended to get into the taxes last week, but my daughter was home all week with a stomach bug—another taxing time! However, she is back in school this week, so I dove into the tax season with gusto.

I have an account to do my taxes, and she very kindly sends out a Tax Organizer sheet every year. This details what paperwork you need to send her (such as W-2s and 1099s) and what other information she needs to have (such as expenses, donations, etc.). So my taxes are not so much about doing a great deal of math, but more about being organized enough that I can find everything she is looking for.

At tax time, I look at the big picture of my business. Going through the numbers always brings some surprises. The inventory numbers pleased me, even though I had not moved as many units as I had wanted. My income, although a paltry sum, also satisfied me. On the whole, my first full published year met my expectations. I broke no records, but I have something to build on, and writing is a long-term game.

Now that I’ve gotten everything together, I will deliver it into the hands of my tax guru. And then we will wait for the next surprise—whether we owe or get money back.

I’m hoping for another pleasant surprise there.

How about you? Do you find this a taxing time, or do you have it down to a science?

When Life Disrupts Your Revision Routine

Manuscript awaiting revisionI printed out my 100,000 word sci-fi manuscript last week, fully intending to start the final big revision this week. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you plan.

My daughter has been home from school for 2 days. She was sick enough to not go to school, but not sick enough to stop her wanting to play and run around. It’s been hard to get anything done, and forget about the concentration needed to edit! So the manuscript still sits on the table, untouched.

My daughter went back to school this morning, but did I jump into revision? No. Two nights of shattered sleep wiped me out. So I took a nap for 3 hours instead of the 1 hour I had intended! But it was just as well, because between the headache and the fuzzy brain, none of my edits would have been as sharp as I needed.

Tomorrow, assuming no relapse and a daughter in school, I will separate out the 3 points-of-view of my manuscript and begin the process of revising each one. I will sharpen conflict and tension in each scene, make sure I use enough sensory detail, and ensure that the character voice is consistent.

I am not a person who likes change. Routines help keep my anxiety in check, and keep me feeling productive. When life disrupts my plans, it makes me irritated and anxious. But life often has other plans for us. So instead of diving into the revision of my sci-fi novel, I spent the days reading to my daughter, playing games like Monopoly, Sleeping Queens, and Candyland, and helping her build a fort in the upstairs foyer.

And that’s not so bad.

How do you deal with detours in your writing process?

 

 

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Someday

Someday I will not have a beach in my living room.

Someday this beach will be gone

Someday I will not have a panda village in my family room.

Someday this panda village will be gone

Someday I will not have a spy fort in my bedroom.

Someday this spy fort will be gone

Someday I will not have a campfire next to my piano.

Someday this campfire will be gone

Someday I will not have a doll village next to the entertainment unit.

Someday this dollhouse will be gone

Someday I will not have an office fort in my office.

Someday this office fort will be gone

But…

Someday my daughter will no longer say “amn’t I?” instead of “aren’t I?”

Someday her front teeth will grow in.

Someday she will not hug me so tightly she hurts my neck.

Someday she will not glow with excitement when she finds Orion’s Belt in the stars.

Someday she will not pause with wonder at the first flower of spring.

Someday she will not tell me I am “the best mommy in the history of the Earth.”

So even though I long for the “someday” when my house is clean, when my days as a chauffeur are over, and when my daughter stops asking her incessant questions, most days I cuddle her ever-lengthening body as close to me as I can, and wish time would stop, because…

Someday there will be a fear I cannot abate.

Someday there will be a tear I cannot wipe away.

Someday there will be a hurt I cannot heal.

Someday there will be a situation I cannot protect her from.

Someday there will be a grief I cannot comfort.

Someday she will need me…and I will not be there.

So I wish for time to stop. And I whisper for her to not grow up so fast. Because she will soon enough.

Someday.

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A Safe Place to Recharge

Anyone creative knows that stress can bring your creativity grinding to a halt. My January was an avalanche of physical and emotional stress: family illnesses pretty much every week, an arm injury that is not healing, Donald Trump’s inauguration and the chaos that followed, and the anniversary of my best friend’s death, which always knocks me sideways. My creativity bombed big time. I needed a safe place to recharge.

My tailspin seemed unshakeable. I could still churn out the non-fiction blog posts and query letters, but my fiction vanished. Something outside myself had to bring my focus back. I found that something at Kathryn Craft’s Craftwriting sessions.

My anxiety disorder niggles at me in the best of times, and this January exacerbated it to the limit. I cannot write in that frame of mind, and it is exceedingly hard to “snap out of it” when you are in the depths of the spiral. When I told Kathryn how my anxiety was acting up, she said, “You know you have a safe place here.”

Yes, the term “safe place” has been politicized of late (what hasn’t been?), but we all need some places in life where we feel physically and emotionally safe. Ideally, home is one of those places. If we are lucky, we find other places outside the home where we feel safe. Without that safety net, being creative can be too frightening.

This is especially true at Craftwriting, where we end each session practicing a craft element by writing a scene, and then share it with the group. It can be terrifying to share your first-draft word vomit with a group of people, some of whom you may never have met before that day. Yet we do it, because Kathryn has created a safe place for us to share even the rockiest of writing.

Don’t get me wrong, we do not indulge in the pats-on-the-back, participation trophy type of false praise. We are professional writers, we are there to learn, and we cannot learn without honest feedback. However, we don’t couch the feedback negatively. We talk about what is good about the writing. We offer suggestions of what might be done in future revisions to improve the technique we were studying. But because we are all equally vulnerable (we all had the same 25 minutes to write something—anything—after all), we choose to uplift rather than tear down. I have been taking Kathryn’s Craftwriting workshops for years, and I have never had a negative experience. This is a testament to the atmosphere and expectations Kathryn sets, and the character of the people who come to the workshops.

This round of Craftwriting has done more than (hopefully) improve my craft. It has shaken me out of my daze, and forced the creative flow back to the surface. I’m writing again, and the writing itself is helping me find the stability I had lost in my tumultuous January. I feel more like me again.

And it’s all because I had a safe place to recharge my battery and refocus my mind. Many thanks to Kathryn and the wonderful participants of the workshops for providing me with exactly what I needed reconnect to my writing.

Do you have a special place to recharge or to reground yourself when you lose your writing mojo?

Research, Balance, and Fish

Research could have made this easierAs regular readers of the blog know, we got a small fish tank over Christmas. Fish were supposed to be easy pets. How hard could they be? Throw some water in a tank, plop in some fish, feed them, they’re good. Very few things in life are as easy as they appear. If we had done a little more research, we would have been more prepared for what happened next.

We’ve had a total of 5 fish, but are down to 3. We lost one (quite literally lost him) the first night, while the second leaped from the tank about a week later and never recovered. How they got out of the tank through a skinny opening in the dead of night we don’t know. But we have fixed this issue with a new cover. A little research may have saved their lives, but who knows?

Research might have saved Seashell 1

RIP Seashell 1

Research might have saved Sparkleshine

RIP Sparkleshine

 

 

 

 

 

What more research WOULD have prepared us for is the difficulty of maintaining the proper chemical balance in our tank. We let the water sit and percolate for a week before adding the first 2 fish. Turns out we should have let it “cycle” for at least a month, maybe more, before adding the fish. Now we are trying to control the ammonia and nitrite cycle while fish are in the tank, which is very stressful, because a spike in either ammonia or nitrite can kill the fish in a mass extinction event (we very nearly had one a week ago).

So here we are with fish and struggling to keep them alive through this natural aquarium cycling process, when a little more research would have saved us the headache. And the same can happen when writing. A little research in the beginning can keep your manuscript from going off the rails.

Research may keep Seashell 2 alive

Seashell 2

Some people do extensive research before writing. Some research as they go along. I am in the middle. I do broad-stroke research before I write, and fill in the details as I need them. But by doing basic research first, I know the broad restrictions I need to work within. This saves me from writing the whole book, then finding out I had a fundamental flaw which now requires me to rewrite an entire plotline. So a little research can save a lot of angst later on.

The other thing about the aquarium is that the ammonia and nitrite need to be kept at 0 ppm, or you end up with stressed and perhaps dead fish. Bacteria are supposed to eat the ammonia and the nitrite, keeping the whole thing in balance. But little things can throw the cycle off and suddenly your water is testing in the danger zone.

Research may keep Gem alive

Gem

The writing life is like that, too—a delicate balance. Writers juggle writing and daily life, often including family and a day job. It’s not easy to keep the water balanced right. One little thing can send one part of your life spiraling into the danger zone. All we can do is keep testing the water and try to head off any problems we see. One way to do that in an aquarium is partial water changes. We can do that in life, too. If one issue is causing undue stress, can we change it up, change it out? Sometimes a small change can make a huge difference.

Research will save you headaches. Balance will save you heartaches. And fish…well, fish are cool when they’re not jumping out of the tank in the dead of night.

When do you research your manuscript? How do you maintain a healthy balance in your life?

Research may keep Flower alive

Flower

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In The Query Trenches

One of the goals I am hoping to achieve this year is getting an agent. I know that goal is not completely dependent on me, but my goal is to take the query steps I can to make that happen.

So, since I have a manuscript ready to submit, I started the process in December. After many hours exploring agents, I discovered the top ones in my genre. I created a database of 50 agents, and prepared to contact them in January.

I worked on my query both with my 2 co-authors for this manuscript and with “outside” eyes for objectivity. After we had the skeleton, I wrote all the query letters, personalized them and formatted them as the agent specified in their submission guidelines. I pasted the appropriate number of manuscript pages and any other requested material (such as synopsis) after the letter. Also, I made sure my contact info and links to my website and other social media were included after the signature of the letter.

Every Monday I sent out 10. If I got a rejection back, I would send out another immediately. By January 23rd all the queries but 2 who were closed to queries until February were sent. I had ended up with a total of 51 queries because one agent referred me to a fellow agent as a better fit.

So how’s it going? With 49 queries out, I got 11 rejections, 2 full requests, and the rest are still pending. Eventually I will have to start marking the “no response means no interest” people off my list, but I usually wait at least 2 months for that.

Now that the queries are out, it’s a waiting game. I am moving my attention back to another manuscript that I hope to have ready to query sometime this year. So if the current one on submission doesn’t land me an agent, maybe the next one will!

Anyone else on the query-go-round? How are you holding up?

The Fish Mafia: Something’s Fishy Here

I wrote about our newly acquired Fish Mafia a little while ago—including cannibalism and a war for leadership. At the time of that writing, we had 4 surviving fish. The most aggressive fish was Sparkleshine, the one who we believed cannibalized his tankmate on his first night (Jan 7th). But no other fish had mysteriously vanished, so we hoped things would settle down.

Then two things happened:

RIP SPARKLESHINE. Sometime between 10 PM Monday (Jan 16th) and 1 AM Tuesday (Jan 17th), the guppy Sparkleshine passed away in his tank. He was a pioneer, first populating this tank with Seashell. He ate his first tankmate in the dead of night, and waged a constant battle for dominance with his 3 new tankmates. An unexplained midnight leap from his tank left him mostly dead, and he survived only a couple of days thereafter. His young owner found him expired half-hidden under a seashell decoration this morning, and he has received the proper burial at sea. Young owner has agreed to stick with the three surviving fish for the time being, as they seem to get along without the fights and harassment seen with cannibal fish Sparkleshine.

Sparkleshine of the Fish Mafia

RIP Sparkleshine

We closed off the 1/8th inch gap around the top of the aquarium with some mesh. The remaining 3 fish—Seashell 2, Flower, and Gem—live peaceably together under the leadership of Seashell 2.

And then this happened:

FISH NEWS FLASH: SPARKLESHINE EXONERATED! Yesterday (Jan 21st), Young Owner’s Father noticed something by the back leg of the aquarium table. Further investigation found it to be the remains of Seashell 1, who vanished under mysterious circumstances on his first night in the aquarium. Young Owner’s Parents feel bad they did not discover this earlier, because immediate anti-leaping deterrents would have saved Sparkleshine, who leapt to his own death just last weekend. This discovery clears Sparkleshine of the suspicion of cannibalism which had clouded his short life since Seashell 1’s unexplained disappearance. While this clears Sparkelshine’s name and puts Seashell 1 to rest, the mystery of how both these fish managed to leap through a 1/8th inch opening in the top of the aquarium in almost total darkness in the middle of the night remains open. RIP Seashell 1. RIP Sparkleshine–no longer known as the cannibal fish.

The mystery of Seashell 1’s disappearance is solved, Sparkleshine’s name is cleared, and peace reigns in the Fish Mafia. But for how long? The aquarium experiment continues.

Seashell 1 of the Fish Mafia

RIP Seashell 1

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Thoughts Inspired by Writers Resist Philadelphia

Writers Resist PhiladelphiaLast Sunday, at the Writers Resist Philadelphia event, I was reminded of the power of words to create  history. Where would the American Revolution have been without the pamphlets of Thomas Paine? Where would the Civil Rights Movement have been without the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where would the larger cultural movement of the 1960s have been without the protest songs that still resonate today?

I was reminded of the power that writers have to encapsulate their time. To take a snapshot of history. To speak of hidden truths. To remake the world.

On Sunday in Philadelphia, we remembered and relived the past so that we could envision the future. We came together, writers and freedom lovers—men and women and children, people who are white and black and Hispanic and Asian and somewhere in between. Our gathering felt not so much like a protest but—if I may coin the term—a Remembrance. A day to remind ourselves what our country is, a reminder of the freedoms that we are all guaranteed, a reminder that there is an America worth fighting for that has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and has everything to do with the rights of every one of us to enjoy the promises listed in the Constitution.

We heard words from men and women, black and white, Jewish and Arabic, disabled and gay, Native and immigrant—all the voices blending together to tell a story that is uniquely American. The voices were many and varied, yet they all spoke of the one thing that unites us all—our  Humanity.

We in America have been blessed for the last 240 years to have freedoms not often seen anywhere else in the world, to have them written into our Constitution and given to us as a birthright. On Sunday, we remembered how lucky we are, and we reminded everyone who heard those words that we have come far—but we still have such a long way to go.

Writers Resist PhiladelphiaWe reminded ourselves why we speak, why the words of these people still matter—because these are precious rights, and we in America have often taken them for granted. We cannot be complacent, because there are always those who would take those rights from us if we let them—and we must not let them.

On Sunday, we marked the progress of our journey toward equality, but it has taken such a long, long time to get here. We have traveled a great distance, but we are nowhere near the end of the road. We cannot—we will not—sit back and lose the progress we’ve made.

We were reminded that We The People are the power in America—and that means all people. We must not allow political demagogues and media pundits to define who we are as Americans. Anyone who lived through the horror of 9/11will remember what it meant to be American first—without party, without ethnicity, without race. On that day, we were Americans—united in spirit, in purpose. Together we rose from the ashes of the Twin Towers.

Throughout history, writers have spoken truth to power. On Sunday in Philadelphia, we reaffirmed our commitment to continue to do just that. On that day we reminded America how hard the road to this mile marker in time has been—and  how unforgivable it would be to betray all the blood, tears, and suffering it took to get here.

On Sunday, Writers Resist Philadelphia made a promise to all Americans:

The voice of America will not be shouted down in a press conference or kicked out of the White House. The writers of America are watching. We will speak. We will not be silenced.

And we are legion.

Writers Resist Philadelphia

 

 

 

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Inspiration: From Fish Tank to Think Tank

People are always asking writers where they get their ideas. Truth is, inspiration can come from anywhere. A song, a person, a place, even just mashing two disparate ideas together. Anywhere you look in the world, you can find inspiration.

Even in a fish tank.

My daughter has been begging for a pet for years. She finally realized we were not getting a dog, or a cat, so she settled on fish. She wanted fish. We acquired a free fish tank, so we decided to give it to her for Christmas. Glee!

On January 7th, we got two fish to start with. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I cannot do something as simple as buy fish without it becoming an anxiety-producing drama. So we got two fish, which my daughter named Sparkleshine and Seashell.

Sparkleshine, the inspiration for the fish Mafia

Sparkleshine

Seashell, victim of Sparkleshine

Seashell

 

 

 

 

 

She fell in love. Even ate dinner in her room so she could watch them in the tank. Went on and on about how they were friends and seemed happy in the tank. She went to bed glowing.

And the first thing I heard the next morning was, “Mom, Seashell is missing!”

Great. The fish WAS missing. Not floating at the top, not out of the tank (we have a cover, but I looked anyway). I picked up and wiggled all the in-tank decorations in case she was stuck. Nothing. Could only reach one conclusion:

Sparkleshine ate Seashell.

To my daughter’s credit, she didn’t get that upset. She fake-cried a little bit—you know that cry when you think you should cry but can’t really work up to it. Then she seemed to take it in stride. “Well, Sparkleshine does look a little fatter than yesterday.”

She took it well, but I didn’t, because I could picture exactly what had happened in the morning. My daughter woke up, remembered she had fish, hopped out of bed beaming her smile of joy that illuminates her whole face, ran eagerly to her tank…and found only one fish. The smile wiped away. The joy doused.

I hated that stupid cannibal fish.

But, after losing sleep obsessing over this hurt to my daughter, I carried on. My friends and I joked about it on Facebook. One suggested that Sparkleshine had always secretly hated Seashell, but didn’t have an opportunity to off her until she had her alone in my daughter’s tank. Too many witnesses before. A fish assassination.

My husband bought 3 more fish to add to the one remaining. So we welcomed Seashell 2, Flower, and Gem. Sparkleshine did not seem happy with the new company, although my daughter’s face lit up and she hugged her dad over and over. I went to bed that night expecting to wake up to a bloodbath.

Seashell 2, replacement for the first victim

Seashell 2

Flower, a new fish

Flower

Gem, a new fish

Gem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thankfully, four fish still inhabited the tank the next day. But now I watch as Sparkleshine and Seashell 2 seem at odds, constantly harassing each other. Is this how fish play? Do fish play? I don’t know. But as I watch them scuffle, I now hear a dialogue in my head. Two Mafia members joust for top position in the fish Mafia. Back and forth. A battle of wills. Who will win? And will any byswimmers become casualties?

“If you cross me, you’ll sleep with the humans.”

Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Even a fish tank.

 

* While I know the fish we have are male, my daughter insists she wants them to be female, so they are all “her”.

** As of this posting, all four fish are still alive.

***Sparkleshine leaped out of the tank and died about a week after this posting.

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Productivity: Checking in with 2016

Some of you may remember that at this time last year, I created a new work schedule to boost my productivity. So, how did it go? Let’s look at the numbers and find out.

I had some hope of hitting 500,000 words this year, but I fell short. My grand total was 417,914. Not bad at all. Now, I didn’t write all those words from scratch—those are how many words passed through my brain in some form or another this year.

I break my word count into 3 categories: Drafting (words from scratch), Revise/Rewrite (major reworking of already existing words), and Copyedit/Polish (nitty-gritty editing in the final stage of writing). The breakdown looked like this:

Productivity word count breakdown

Not surprisingly, the Drafting was the lowest number (25.3%) since it takes the most time and effort. Revision/Rewrite (also a lot of thinking involved) came in at 27.1%. Copyediting/Proofreading (when the manuscript should be fairly clean) topped out at 47.5%.

Here’s what my monthly word totals came to:

Productivity word count monthly break down

You may recall that in August I bemoaned the low total for July. So you are probably wondering if I also lost my mind when I saw the abysmal 8,586 for December. No, I did not.

Part of my reason for not getting down on myself for December’s low productivity is that I had adjusted my expectations. The Thanksgiving-New Year’s timeframe is always a very hectic time, with lots of traveling, visiting, and special events to attend. Even hitting my monthly average of 35,000 words would have been unrealistic.

The other reason the number didn’t upset me was because I had a very important project that I simply could not quantify via word count. I finished a new book with my co-authors, and by December it was ready to be sent to agents. So I spent a great deal of time in December researching agents. Once I compiled a list of 50, I put together the query letters and their accompanying pages/synopses.

So, I begin 2017 content that my work schedule has increased my productivity, and hopeful that the queries I send out in January will move my career ahead by getting me an agent.

Have you re-evaluated your current work routine? Is it still working for you? Will you be making changes in 2017?

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