Of the Atrophy of Brains and Brawn

(Oops. I have family visiting and we stayed up until one playing dice last night and I completely forgot to post this thing. Sorry!)

Summer always seems to hit me like a golf club. Smack! And we’re off!

I never seem to transition well between the quiet lethargy of winter to the frenetic busy-ness of summer. In particular, my physical activity goes zero to sixty once summer starts. I do basically no exercise during the winter, but in summer, I bike commute and play rugby and generally cavort around with my family- canoeing, hiking, minor home construction projects, the works. These first few weeks of summer can be pretty rough until my body adjusts. Soooo much soreness…

Getting back into writing again after a break can feel a lot like that too. I mean, I never completely stop writing- like I never totally stop walking around and lifting things during winter- but there’s definitely a difference in pace between when I’m actively pursuing writing with a love-of-my-life passion and when I’m doing it just because I know I should be. Take this summer for instance. As I mentioned last week, I’m not doing much fiction writing. And by “not much,” I mean hardly any at all. I’ve also been known to take breaks like while vacationing for weeks or months on end, or after having a kid or going through some other massive life changer. These breaks aren’t always avoidable, and you might not always want to avoid them completely. Sometimes breaks can be a good thing (more on that later).

But to go back to the exercise example, just like I always tell myself all through winter, I shouldn’t just stop everything. Yeah, cutting back might be a good idea for a variety of really good reasons, but I always plan on getting back on the wagon, and it really would be better for me to just do some exercise throughout winter. And so I usually talk myself into doing an ab workout here and there, or maybe a few squats- just enough to make sure I realize how pathetic I’ve become. But as pathetic as these efforts are, they are really truly better than nothing. Every little bit is going to make the summer transition that much easier (and my overall health that much better).

There are little writing things you can do even during a writing break that will help make the transition back into full-steam-ahead writing a little smoother. Here are a few things that I like to do even when I’m technically on a fiction writing break.

Write Blog Posts I don’t know why I am so do-until-I-die dedicated to blog posts, but I really like them. I love the steady schedule and the public accountability of them. I like that they force me to constantly come up with fresh content. Even if they’re not fictional and sometimes not even fun, they keep my writing muscles limbered up.

Jot Down Story Ideas It’s true that you get more ideas as you work on the ones you already have, but that doesn’t mean that all ideas completely stop when you’re taking a break. And some of these ideas are really great ones that should be revisited later. Keep writing down all your cool ideas, and then you’ll have plenty of material to play with at the end of your break.

Read Books Nothing keeps the brain fed and well nourished quite like a full and varied diet of good literature. Whether or not you’re on a writing break, you should always have a ready answer when someone asks you what you’re reading right now.

Tell Stories Even if you’re not writing them down, keep telling people stories. Tell folks about your day, about that funny lady at work last week, about when you lost your phone and where you finally found it. Tell them about something you’re proud of, or something super cool you saw someone else do. A pause in writing does not mean a pause in storytelling.

Learn New Things Some of the funnest stories I’ve written have come about because I was learning about some wacky little nonfiction slice of life (human or otherwise) and I thought, “Huh! What if this, but with that?” My brain is not happy unless I’m constantly learning new things. And when it’s happy, it poops out little story ideas (that I of course write down). So nourishing!

There are tons of things that I could share about keeping your writing brain in shape, and I’m sure you fair readers have a bunch that you like to lean on in those hard times when, for whatever reason, you can’t write as much as you’d like to. None of these things (except maybe the blog post writing) take up that much time. They’re simple and easy and fit neatly around the rest of my day. That makes it easy to keep doing all these things with all due diligence! And if you have any writing brain limbering tips you’d like to share in the comments, I’d love to give those a try too!

Until next week, happy writing (or not)!

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Seasonal Work

Hi, friends! Boy, summer is a busy time around here. I’ve started my full time work for the summer, hot on the heels of wrapping up a crazy school year. Sadly, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for working on my fiction projects, or even for doing submissions. (Less sad about that second part, honestly, because submissions, ugh.) But some exciting new writing opportunities have cropped up to suck up what little time and brain power I have left at the end of the day.

It’s a change of pace, but it’s interesting to be working on different things. I’ve never done work like this before, and golly, it’s downright refreshing to be getting paid for writing. I am not used to that. Here are a few of my shorter term writing projects that will be keeping me busy this summer!

Developing a Game Narrative I stumbled upon this one entirely on accident. A couple I know runs a design company in Washington. One of their clients made a game but wanted some kind of narrative overlay for it before pitching it to game companies or self producing and didn’t feel equipped to do it himself. They thought of me, and next thing I knew, I had a writing gig! This job is perfect for me because I love writing and I love games, and I basically get to do the fun ‘flavor’ stuff while the game designer does all the hard work. I’ve had a lot of fun pitching different narrative ideas and the client has picked his favorite. Now I get to work on fleshing it out into a full game manual. Whee!

Updating and Rewriting a Manual Honestly, this one is… less fun. That said, I believe the information in the manual is important and I like the people I’m working on it for. The manual is for one of the local nonprofits here in Fairbanks and it’s for the volunteers in their program, but the “current” manual is mega outdated. It’s like ten years old, predating like half of what the program currently does and referencing a bunch of things that it doesn’t do anymore. So it’s definitely due for a refresher. I’m going through it with the program head to figure out exactly what he needs done, and then I’ll go at it. Not the most exciting work, but rewarding in other ways.

Writing a Cookbook! Yaaaay! I’ve been wanting to write a cookbook for years and I’m finally working on one! I’ve spent the last few months getting more and more deeply enmeshed in another local nonprofit, this one all about kids’ education and sustainability and citizen science and art and basically all things that I love. I got involved through my husband’s cousin, who got me mixed up in the springtime birch sap cooperative, and I’ve been weaseling my way in further ever since. When I pitched the idea of a cookbook using the birch syrups that the nonprofit makes and sells to help fund their program, the program director loved it and send me off with a couple bottles of syrup. Guys, I am having a blast experimenting with recipes and bothering local producers about food. Putting together the proposal packet isn’t the funnest, but for real- THE FOOD. Why did I not get into this sooner???

In addition to these three big projects, I wrote up a couple little mini articles last week for the sports shop that I work at, but I haven’t heard back on those yet. We’ll see how it goes. Mostly, they’re just fun to write, haha. They’re pretty much about the ways I goof up my adventures and hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes before getting lost in the mountains in winter or going on a sea kayaking trip without a rain jacket. You know, really complicated things anyone could get wrong.

I feel like everything is so seasonal here in Alaska. The summer world and the winter world are so wildly different, and that profound different-ness (which is def a word, yep) seems to seep into every aspect of my life, including writing. But this year definitely takes the cake on seasonal shifting between projects. Who knows what July’s Camp NaNo project will be? I sure don’t!

How about you fine readers? Any exciting new projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Hiding Bodies (and the Terrible Things I Don’t-Do for Love)

Jasper

This is not Jasper. I can’t bear to look at pictures of Jasper right now.

Trigger warning/disclaimer: This post includes senseless chicken deaths and dog hate. It should also be said that, yes, I feel crass heavy-handedly bringing my writing into serious situations like these. It is not my intention to make light of any death whatsoever, no matter how small. But this is my life. If I cannot draw from my experiences- the good, the mundane, the spectacular, the awful- then I wouldn’t have much to write about. If you read this post and feel the need to tell me I’m horrible, please know that I agree with you and feel horrible enough already.

 

In the midst of my desperate brain-wracking, I rediscovered this from a month ago:

“Well I just had an absolute nightmare of a weekend. Literal blood and mayhem, and me running around the yard in a bathrobe screaming murder. And then I thought for sure I was going to get kicked to death by a moose while trying to rescue my stupid dog who was obliviously hiding bodies at the time.

“But my birds! My beautiful, sweet, egg-pooping, I-raised-you-from-chicks birds. My birds are gone. Maybe it’s stupid to be so heartbroken over livestock, but I loved them anyway and this was not what I wanted for them.

“I’m going to start bawling again if I think about it too much. I’m so glad my husband’s home. If I’d been on burial duty, I don’t think I would have made it out quite the same.”

And then a much shorter note two weeks later:

“The only thing more depressing than digging a grave is digging a grave in the rain.”

So it looks like I got to be on burial duty after all. Just think of all the character I must be building.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with my dog. I know this is probably the worst thing I could confess on the internet, but he drives me absolutely nuts. He stalks me with his eyes everywhere and freaks out any time anything moves within like three miles of him. He’s disgusting and annoying and, despite being pretty smart on the doggy scale, mindbogglingly stupid about some things. Despite all this, I love him. I don’t like him most days, but I certainly love him.

Unfortunately for Jasper, I love my chickens more, and I like them too, and they’re actually useful. So when Jasper kills my chickens, he’s not winning in this equation. And when he kills them again, and then again, he’s paving the road right back to the shelter. But I don’t, don’t, don’t want to do that. I brought that dumb dog home with every intention of keeping him forever. He went for years without killing any of the chickens. They wandered around the property together without trouble. The chicks ran around his yard hunting bugs while he napped. His yard shared a fence line with the chicken yard and he kept the ravens and the foxes away. It was perfect.

And then it suddenly wasn’t.

The first time was an accident. The second time a slaughter. And this most recent one, despite my best attempts at prevention, was an act of single-minded determination.

So what do I do now? I have a helpless flock of birds that I lavishly adore, and a horrible slaughter-beast that I inexplicably love who is determined to kill them. Getting rid of the chickens would break my heart. Getting rid of the dog would break it too, and my kids’ as well. But keeping both seems to mean accepting that my sweet chickies are going to die horrible, painful, terrified deaths, and then I don’t even get to make any use of their bodies afterward, making their deaths pointless as well. And even if I do give up my birds to keep the dog, he’ll only go after my neighbors’ chickens. There are four flocks that I know of just on my block, and probably more besides. If all my birds were gone, Jasper would only go hunting further the next time he escapes.

But I just can’t get rid of him.

I don’t know what to do, and I feel like each night I go to bed without having made a decision is going to lead to the day that I wake up to find him with another bird in his jaws again. I feel like I’m breaking a little more with each dead bird. A cloud of awful inevitability haunts me all the time, and all the outcomes are terrible.

I’m too emotionally exhausted for graceful crafting here, so let me just draw the parallel. I am a miserable, distraught mess hurtling inexorably toward the breaking point; when you’re writing, your characters should be too. If your characters don’t have to make choices about things that matter to them, there’s no way those choices are going to matter to your readers. So make it matter.

Force your characters make the choices that make them sob violently and pull their hair and call everyone in their phone for advice and still be paralyzed with indecision because every outcome sucks. Force them back into corners with no good way out and take away all their ideal options, and then force them to make a decision with a time bomb ticking in the background.

Which is exactly where I am standing right now. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet. I’m still paralyzed. But I know I have to figure it out soon. Until next time, keep hitting that keyboard, and wish me luck.

 

Postproduction Update: It happened, just two days after I wrote up this post. Jasper managed to get loose again. The poults got away, but all my chicks are dead. I cleaned the blood off his muzzle, held him, and sobbed for hours. I wept on the phone, and then all the way to the shelter. I sobbed in the lobby as I filled out the papers to make my “smelly puppers” available for adoption. Then I held him some more and cried and cried and finally handed his leash over to someone else. I could hear him crying for me all the way out to the parking lot.

The deus ex machina I was hoping for never came.

Wrangling Up the Posse

Howdy friends! A happy late Mother’s Day to all you maternal types. Today’s going to be a little short today, as I find myself working through some unpleasantness that you’ll probably have the joy of reading about later.

M Elizabeth Tait pointed out last week that I had forgotten to add a mentioned link and then she kindly helped me comb through the archives to find it. During the hunt, it became apparent that I had skipped over some information in my post that I had thought were written up in a previous post, but didn’t seem to have been. (Gosh, what tense is that sentence in?) And some of that missing information is finding those writing pals in the first place- pretty important stuff!

So as a quick follow up/stop gag to last week’s post, here are some of my favorite places where aspiring posse-ists can look for fellow creatives.

Formal Writing Organizations– A lot of towns and even regions have their own writing groups, like my very own Alaska Writers Guild, particularly our chapter right here in Fairbanks. You can also check and see if your age category or genre has a writing organization, such as SCBWI, RWA, SFWA, or HWA; these groups also often have local chapters as well where you can meet up with your writerly neighbors and keep up with each other and your projects. If there aren’t any local chapters, forums can help you to keep in touch with fellow members.

Writers Conferences, Workshops, etc.– When attending writing events, be sure to take a bundle of business cards with you (or at the very least, a pad of paper and a writing utensil) so you can give out your info- and be sure to plug any new pals’ info into your phone or laptop as soon as possible just in case you lose that slip of paper later. Swapping contact information with other writers at these events can be a great way to build up your writing support group.

Social Media– I found a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter. Maybe Instagram is your thing- writers are there. Pinterest? Writers are there too! Facebook? There. Anywhere you are, other writers are too.

Local Libraries, Bookshops, Schools, etc.– These spaces love supporting local writers and often have groups you can join, or at least contacts for writing groups in town. If your local college/university/high school has a creative writing department, get it touch with those teachers specifically and see if they can introduce you to other writers as well. The same holds true for librarians and shop owners. These folks know people. These folks know everything.

So the hunt is on! Just remember as you put together your writing group that this is a collaboration to benefit all members. Be sure you give as much as you take and you will soon have a healthy, thriving writing group to support you in all your literary goals.

Happy writing!

Cultivating a Writing Posse

posseWant to know a secret? When left to my own devices, I’m not a very productive writer. I can easily type over seventy words per minute, but I generally don’t write more than a couple paragraphs in a day

That is, unless I’m writing with pals. On those nights, I can clock in and have nearly two thousand words an hour later. Of course, I’m not always that productive. We do like to chitchat between sprints, and we can sometimes lose track of how much chatting we’re doing (and how little writing). But I definitely write more when I have others working with me.

I think it comes down to pride. I am a very competitive person (just ask my longsuffering husband). And as any kid who has ever done like any sport ever knows, you’re really only supposed to compete against yourself, but- yeah. I run faster when I have other people running with me, and I got better grades when I took the same classes as my brother, and I write more when there are others writing with me. None of this is to say that I excel at any of these things. Just that I try harder than when I am on my own. (There are probably all kinds of psych to unpack here.)

Whether this is good or bad, I know me and I know what gets me moving. So while some people work better in seclusion, I work better when I know that in fifteen minutes I’m going to be comparing my word count and the last sentence I wrote to some very talented friends, and darn it all, I don’t want to embarrass myself.

I’ve written in the past about where to find writing pals (but never did it better than Grandmaster Evrard in A Beta, a Beta, My Kingdom for a Beta-Reader), but once you have a group of people together, what can you do to make that group the best it can be? Here are three things that I’ve found help our group shine.

STAY POSITIVE Okay, yes, everybody loves a little trash talk, but in the end, we are all there for encouragement. So even when someone gets a stinky word count or has to miss a session or drops off the planet for months at a time, stay positive- this is a zero guilt zone! Everyone is stronger when we support one another.

BE FLEXIBLE Whenever you get groups of people together, there must be give and take. For example, I write best at night, but that time doesn’t work for my group because one of us lives on the east coast and I live out west. My ideal writing time is like one or two in the morning for her and that’s no good. We work together to make the group the best possible for the most of us, most of the time, which is basically like trying to hit a moving target. It will never be perfect for everyone, but we try to roll with it.

KEEP IT SMALL Try to keep your group small and close knit. This will make hitting that aforementioned moving target a little easier. Also, don’t make huge plans to meet every other day for three hours at a time; make it manageable. (For example, there are three of us in my group that meets online for one hour twice per week while kids are napping/at school.) Likewise, populate your group with others that are at about your own skill level, which will help assure that everyone benefits from the group.

And that’s it! I’m sure there are other things that we could be doing Writing Crest Simpleto improve group cohesion, but honestly, I don’t think we need much more than that. We’re basically like the same demographic copied three times and we adore each other; doesn’t get much more cohesive than that. Some groups prefer having group agreements laid out at the beginning for newcomers to sign. Others like to keep it local and meet face to face. Some groups are only for writing, which others like to throw in beta reading as well. What works for one group might not work for the next. You do you.

If you have some eager authors ready to write but aren’t sure how you want the group to look in the end, just set a meeting and get started. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t, so don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. If everyone treats the group like a first draft and understands that you’ll shift and settle into your best group over time, that’s fine. If you’d rather have the bylaws and election ballots ready to go on day one, that’s fine too. Just do whatever works for your group.

However, if you start a group, or join an already established one, and find that it isn’t working for you, do not feel obligated to stay. I’m not telling you to get everyone to edit your work and then drop them when they ask the same of you (because that would make you a turd), but don’t stick with something that isn’t good for your writing career. Our group briefly had a fourth member; she was only with us for a couple months before she realized that she works more effectively on her own. And good for her for standing up for her career! Remember, zero guilt zone!

Building your career as a successful author begins with building your process. If you want that process to include others, great! If that process is best done alone, great! Know what works best for you and do that. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. The only ‘should’ is to write, whatever form that takes. That’s it.

Happy writing!