The Power of HappyDayMoments

My friend Jama posts a #HappyDayMoment every day to her Facebook page.  She’s done so for over 2300 days to date.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s one of the most positive, up-beat people I’ve ever had the privilege to know.  This year I knew I wanted to be more positive.  I wanted to find the silver lining more and complain less.  On January 1st, I started posting a HappyDayMoment each day to my Facebook.  Some days I struggled to find something to share that I felt good about.  Some days I forgot until after I was in bed and had to grab my phone to get one posted.  A few days I forgot until the next morning and wound up posting a belated one (I’ve remedied this by putting an alarm on my phone to remind me).  But I’ve kept going – I’m into the 150s now – and I feel like I’m starting to feel a change in myself.

Back on May 7th (only a month ago but it feels so much longer than that) I ran the Indy Mini.  I signed up because it was a bucket-list sort of race, the kind of experience that would be one-of-a-kind.  I was excited and, by the time the start actually came, more than a little nervous.  There were a lot of things that did not go well with the race – I got sick a few days before and didn’t sleep much the night before due to congestion, I got a little freaked out by the size of the crowd (I knew it was the world’s largest half-marathon but I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like to be in that large of a field), I wasn’t as well trained as I wanted to be, and my time really sucked.  But, in spite of that, I came away feeling mostly good about the race.  I found myself all along the course noting things and thinking “I love that – I want to remember that!”  I was actively looking for the positives, determined not to forget them, and making the effort to not let the negative dominate my memories.  At the end of the day, I posted a list of the awesome, great, and not-so-awesome things from the race to my Facebook and I’m happy to say there were more in the first two categories than in the third.  The race itself may not have gone the way I wanted, but the overall experience was valuable not just for the things in my awesome list but for the way I was able to change my perspective and see more of the positives.

Me and Meb
One of the awesome: I got to meet Meb Keflezighi at the expo and get his autograph! He ran the race, starting last so he could run with everyone!

I am working hard now to use this skill again.  Over Memorial Day weekend my older dog, Maggie, started having trouble with her back legs.  Trips to an emergency vet clinic followed by a longer road-trip to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Purdue University ensued.  Maggie’s been diagnosed with IVDD.  There’s a swelling in one of the discs in her spine and it was delaying nerve signals reaching her back legs.  Her back feet will “knuckle” and sometimes one back leg will collapse.  She looks like she’s stumbling around drunk. If the swelling continues she could wind up with nerve damage and a ruptured disc, which would require surgery.  The treatment at this time is anti-inflammatory and pain meds for two weeks and strict crate rest for the next 6-8 weeks.  Strict rest means she is in the crate 24-7, except for when she’s being carried out to the yard to do her business (which is done while she’s on a 6 foot leash to keep her from walking too much or dashing after something).  Making matters more complicated is the fact that Maggie is high-strung and suffers from anxiety.  We are very concerned about how we can manage to keep her calm in the crate for that long.  Fortunately the neurologist at Purdue was able to consult with the behaviorist who’s seen Maggie before and together work on a medical plan to help us and so far she’s doing well with being confined.

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Maggie, giving me the look while I eat my dinner.

I’d originally scheduled to take the week of Memorial Day off work to do some yard work with my husband (we always take that week off and have what we call Mulchapalooza).  We cancelled our mulch order and, while hubs stayed home with Maggie, I went back to work.  I applied for Personal Leave and did triage on my job duties.  I did some crash training on those duties which would have to be handled while I was on leave, taking  care of Maggie.  Now I have seven weeks of being home with my dogs, trying to make sure Maggie stays calm and heals while trying not to stress out about having no income from my job while still having all of our bills to pay.

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My husband got a furniture mover so Maggie’s crate is on wheels, making it easier to move about the house.

 

I’m going back to what I did in the Mini and trying to see the positive in the next seven weeks.  I get to be a stay-at-home dog momma.  My introvert-half will be happy for the time alone.  If I can only convince myself to stop worrying about it, I don’t have the stress of my job hanging over me.  I should have time to do more writing, and to help more with Midwest Writers Workshop.  We won’t be eating out but I do enjoy cooking – it will be fun to try some new recipes.  I’ve always wanted to keep my house cleaner but never felt I had the time – now I will.  Having little financial wiggle room will force my husband and I to do a better job sticking to a budget.  It only takes 30 days to build a new habit, and we have the next 7 weeks to create some new ones which will serve us well even after I return to work.  Most important of all, I am doing what Maggie needs and if all goes well, she will make a complete recovery without requiring surgery.  These are the things I need to focus on over the next seven weeks.

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The princess, snoozing.  She’s worth every bit of stress and struggle we may have!
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What Do You Want From Your Writing?

I was emailing back and forth with a friend earlier this month, and as frequently happens, our discussion turned to writing.  She teaches writing at a University and we both have aspirations to write mystery novels.  We’d talked about NaNoWriMo and she asked if she could see what I had for my project so far, so I sent off the first couple chapters.  She responded that my chapters seemed pretty polished, especially for a first draft, and wanted to know my secret.  Did I outline?  Had I planned out the story in great detail before I started writing?  I answered that no, there was not usually a great deal of advance planning for me.  I am a pantser.  I generally go in with an idea of who these people are, what the big problem is, and I have an idea (sometimes a fairly vague one) what the conclusion will be.  My secret, if I have one, is practice, and what I practiced on for several years was fanfiction.

Yes, I said fanfiction.  I spent several years writing fanfiction.  It was actually what got me back in to writing after several years hiatus.  I learned a lot doing it too.  Before I wrote fanfic, I didn’t know how to make chapters.  I just wrote one huge long narrative.  I learned how to put out a polished chapter in a short period of time (whether all those chapters always added up to a good story is another matter).  I got my first real feedback as a writer from my fanfic.  I made several online friends as well, and did my first NaNoWriMo with them.  Most of us are still in touch. Some of them are still writing fanfic.  One is a published author who continues to write fanfic on the side.  Another has pretty much stopped writing altogether.  A third blasted through NaNoWriMo this year, finishing an original fiction project in 20 days.

After I emailed my friend back, I started talking to my husband about my fanfic.  It’s still out there, and I still get reviews on it from time to time.  Reviews are generally something to enjoy, as most times readers who don’t care for the story just stop reading rather than commenting, but when I get these kinds words, I don’t feel happy.  I feel guilty.  My husband asked me why and the only answer I could come up with was that I felt that I should be focusing on my original fiction.  Fanfiction was fun, but it doesn’t help me pursue my ultimate goal of having an original novel published.  My husband, astute man that he is, asked me what I wanted to get out of my writing.  What am I trying to create when I write?  The answer, for me, is to write a story that will entertain a reader, something he or she can get lost in and enjoy.  Saying that out loud made me stop to think.  I did do that with my fanfiction.  I created a story which entertained, and people enjoyed reading it.  They enjoyed it enough to tell me so, which says something.  At least, I like to think it does.

The upshot of all this is that I think it’s time I stopped feeling guilty about having written fanfiction.  It was a wonderful learning experience.  I made new friends.  And I put out stories which entertained and gave enjoyment.  None of that is something to feel ashamed about.

Voices in My Head

I left Midwest Writers Workshop feeling, as always, eager and excited to write write write.  And then… I didn’t.  I got back to my running and biking (and even did some strength-training – owie).  But the writing thing didn’t happen for that whole week after.  In fact, it wasn’t until yesterday that I even opened my manuscript.  I wanted to write, but I cringed at the thought of opening the manuscript file.  There were so many things running through my head from MWW15 – changes to make, revision ideas, thoughts on theme and characters.  It was overwhelming.  Then I remembered one of the great panels from MWW15.  Julie Hyzy talked to us about the voices in our heads.

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As writers, part of our job is to listen to the voices.  However, that doesn’t mean we want to listen to every voice.  We don’t, for instance, need to listen to the nagging voice of the inner critic when we’re working on that first draft (and this goes double if, like mine, your inner critic sounds like your mother).  We don’t need to hear the voice of our critique partner, because as much as that person might intend to help, she doesn’t necessarily share the vision for your story that you have (Julie recommended not sharing your work with a CP until that first draft is finished).  We don’t need to listen to our inner procrastinator, nagging us to wash the dishes or mop the floors or do the laundry.

not listening

We do need to listen to our characters.  We’ve got to let them talk to us, tell us what it is that they want to do and, sometimes more importantly, what they won’t do.  We need to hear them and if we can’t, it could be a sign that we’re trying to force them into something that doesn’t fit them.

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The point here (yes, I do have one) is this.  I heard a lot of advice at MWW15.  It was great.  It gave me a lot to think about.  It also gave me a lot of voices in my head.  I mean, A LOT.  All those voices were drowning out my characters.  They were drowning out my voice.

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I heard a lot of tips and tricks at the conference.  Julie Hyzy talked about locking yourself away from everyone with a timer and giving yourself 30 minutes to just write.  Finding that 30 minutes wasn’t working for me this time.  What did work was letting those voices shout themselves out.  I didn’t fuss about not writing (much).  I went on my runs and my bike rides.  I started reading a new book.  I gave myself some space and finally I am back to a place where I can listen to my characters and move forward again.  And this is, I think, the ultimate lesson of Midwest Writers Workshop.  You can (and will) hear a lot of writing advice but in the end, you have to do what works for you.  If you don’t know where to start then yes, by all means, give someone else’s method a try and see if it works for you.  But don’t be surprised or upset if it doesn’t.  We’re all wired differently and there’s no one-size-fits-all writing process.

Road Maps

Would you start a journey without a road map?  Well, in this day and age you might, because you’d rely on a GPS or the mapping software on your smart phone.  But I’m old enough to remember using road maps to find my way to places, and I still have a bunch of them in one of my cars.  Many of my road maps are tattered and worn.  They got quite a lot of work during the many years I spent traveling to Civil War reenactments.  I hold on to them, partly out of sentiment and partly because paper maps never need recharging or lose signal.

The other week our cabin leader for Camp NaNoWriMo asked everyone to share their synopsis for their story.  Many of my bunk-mates did, and I was really impressed with what they shared!  Then I was really upset, because I don’t have a synopsis for my current project.  I’m sure I had something in mind when I started, some key ideas and some plot points I knew I’d want to hit, but I had nothing in writing.  That’s usually how I operate.  I am a pantser, not a plotter.  But I forget – when you have a road map you are not limited to taking one route to your destination.  A good map shows you multiple routes.  You can figure out your own detour or, if you make a wrong turn, you can find a way to get back on track.  I went into this writing journey with no road map, relying on the GPS of my brain, but it seems like my brain has lost signal.  I’m feeling a bit lost and I really could use that road map right now.

So I’m creating the road map now, even though I’m a bit late.  I’m hoping it will help me get back on course so I can finish this first draft AND complete Camp NaNoWriMo successfully.  And stop being the slacker in my cabin.  So here we go – here’s my synopsis:

After an investigation at a local community theater, ghost-hunters Kate and Alex must work with their team to determine if the threats directed at them have a paranormal source, or if the danger they are facing comes from someone living. 

There we are.  It’s written down now.  And typed on a blog.  Now to see if I can get myself back on course.

Writing: It’s Not a Race

Registration for Midwest Writers Workshop opened last week (register here).  I knew I wanted to do the Intensive session on Thursday and that those fill fast, so I wasted no time heading over to register.  After debating with myself about which session to take, I made my choice and click-click-click, I was signing up.  It was exciting.  It was thrilling.  It was… a bit disappointing.

You see, at last year’s MWW I talked to so many people who were making pitches to agents, getting asked for pages, who had completed manuscripts which they were ready to send out into the world.  I wasn’t there but I wanted to be.  I was going to be.  This year was going to be the year that I pitched.  I was all fired up!

Alas, I’m not there.  I don’t have a manuscript that’s ready yet.  I’m disappointed by that.  I was beating myself up about it pretty thoroughly too.  Fortunately, I had an epiphany.  I’m just not at the same place that those other writers were, and that’s ok.  This is not a race.  Even if it was, I’d still need to go at my own pace.  This is about me doing my best, not me comparing myself with someone else.  In that sense, it is just like my running –  my goal has to be to do my personal best and not worry about where I place.  This year isn’t my year for pitching.  Maybe, if I can put in the work this year, next year will be.  And that will be awesome.

Considering Changes

As the year winds down, I have started thinking of goals for the coming year.  For instance, I’ve learned this year that a reading goal of 100 books is not necessarily realistic (certainly not this year).  I’ve been reminded that having the best of intentions does not translate into success (see item 1, for just one example).

So, as I look toward 2015, I know there are some changes I want to make.  I’m working on creating a better writing space for myself, rather than using a tv tray in the living room with my laptop on it.  I can write there (and I have written a lot there) but I think having a space which is set aside may be helpful – kind of like putting on a uniform before going to work can help get you into the work mindset.  At least, I’m going to give it a shot.  Currently I write around tv, online games, minding my dogs, and talking with my husband.  Could I be more productive if I took some time to go to a space just for writing without all of those (admittedly pleasant) distractions?

I’m considering what my next Goodreads reading goal should be, but along with that I’m thinking about how I review books.  I go in with those great intentions – ooh, I want to remember THAT because it was well-done or really neat or whatever and I should mention it in my review.  And then I finish the book and I just go with my gut on the star-count and rarely remember to mention those little things that struck me as I was reading.  I’d like to put more thought into my reviews rather than just going with my gut (not that my gut doesn’t serve me well in many areas; I just feel like I’m cheating the authors who wrote great stuff when I can’t do more than write “I really liked this”).

Which brings me to the last thing that’s been on my mind (at least, the last one I’m sharing here).  I’m not a big fan of the title of this blog.  Reflective Writer.  It sounds like there are going to be deep thoughts and analysis and what-not here and I’ll admit, that was what I hoped to create initially, but there’s just one problem.  That’s not ME.  I’m not saying I don’t have deep thoughts, because I do.  But I tend to have them at inconvenient (for blogging purposes) times, like when I’m in the shower or trying to get to sleep or stuck in a boring meeting at work.  By the time I come here to write something, they’re shelved somewhere hard to reach in my brain.  And, if I’m honest, when I’m talking with people, sharing deep thoughts is not what I tend to do.  I’m the one figuring out how to say something which will make everyone laugh (and usually succeeding by accident rather than design).  So I’m trying to think about what I would call this blog, and just what I really want to make it all about.  I attended a social media workshop not long ago and one piece of advice really resonated with me:  Be yourself online.  It doesn’t necessarily mean spew your every thought and share every detail of your life out there, but don’t put on a persona.  Let your own personality shine through.  I’m thinking about that – about the messy, sarcastic, sometimes-easily-distracted-by-shiny-things (especially if they’re pens) person I am and about letting more of that come through here.

I’m closing with a random thought which hit me the other day.  I have this fun coffee mug which says “Do not annoy the writer, for she may put you in her book and kill you.”  I love that mug.  I love that saying.  But it hit me the other day, as I was sitting in my office at work fuming about some stupidity or other, that the problem with basing all your fictional murder victims on real-life people who piss you off is that you really don’t want to see their killer caught.  🙂

Magna Cum Murder XX

The twentieth Magna Cum Murder conference took place this past weekend, October 24-26th.  I was fortunate enough to be there, and I had a great time.  If you’re a fan of crime fiction or think you want to write your own, I can’t recommend this conference highly enough.  It is a wonderful gathering of authors, fans, and writers.

On Friday my husband and I gave a panel on ghost hunting in real life.  We had a great turn-out for what was the first panel of the conference and we had some great questions at the end.  We were approached by people all weekend who wanted to share their own ghost stories with us, which was great fun.  This was my thirteenth year volunteering at Magna and my fourth or fifth year doing a panel.  I still get geeked out when an author comes up to tell me he or she enjoyed our panel!

There were many great panels to attend at Magna, as there are every year.  I can’t do them justice in a re-cap here, but there was one comment made by one of the authors which really stuck with me and that I want to share.  He was on a panel called “The Clark Kents” and each of the writers had a “day job.”  They were discussing how they balanced that day job with their writing.  Several authors were early morning writers, another tries to use his lunch hour (but can’t get his boss to leave him alone – oh how I can relate!), and others worked later in the day.  One of the authors, a morning person, jumped in to point out that there is no magical formula for a writing schedule – we each need to pick out what works for us. That really struck me.  So often it feels like we are asking authors about their writing schedule because we are hoping to find a magic formula for writing.  This author I admire works on this schedule so if I imitate him, I’ll be able to succeed too.  But the fact is, there is no magic formula.  Morning work might work great for several of the authors I admire, but that doesn’t mean it will for me.  I am not a morning person and I never have been (from birth, folks – I was born at 3 in the afternoon).  Instead of trying to imitate someone else’s writing schedule, I need to find one which works for me.  We all do.  So by all means, ask the authors you admire about the schedule you use, maybe even give it a try, but don’t feel like you’ll never make it if you don’t follow their schedule.  In the end the goal of your asking and experimenting should be to find what works best for you.

Writing Chapter 2, Magna Cum Murder, and to NaNo or not to NaNo

Got a lot on my mind, if the title of this post doesn’t give that away!

First, after my lovely chapter 1 of my current ms, I’ve sputtered and faltered and am still struggling with chapter 2.  I was feeling uber-frustrated about it all, until it just hit me that chapter 1 was kind of that way too.  I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote that thing, trying to make it awesome before turning it in for critiquing.  And guess what then?  I re-re-re-wrote the blasted thing, using the critique information to make it better.  I’m really pleased with it now, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I had a similar experience with that first chapter.  Lots of reworking of things, lots of re-writing, lots of stuff moved to the scratch pad file.  I have a couple of options here.  I can charge forward with stuff I’m less than pleased about or I can accept that there may be a good deal of struggle with this particular manuscript.  I think a good deal of the struggle comes from the fact that I’ve had this story in my head and heart for so many years, waiting for me to be “ready” to write it out.  I’m hugely psyched out about wanting to do it justice and about finally getting it written.  I need to learn to take a deep breath, let off the pressure, and just see where the writing goes (and silence the history major in me who says “but events have to be in sequence because one impacts the next”).

Magna Cum Murder begins on Friday, October 24th, in Indianapolis.  It has been my privilege to volunteer at this conference for the past 12 years or so.  A few years ago my husband joined me as a volunteer, and not long after that we started giving a panel each year.  Our first was discussing local haunts.  After that year we evolved to giving one on ghost-hunting in real life.  We’ve had a good reception for that each year.  I’m very excited about doing the panel again this year because we have some new stuff to share with people from some recent investigations.  It’s exciting stuff and it opens up good avenues for discussion and education as well.

I am also anticipating November and NaNoWriMo.  I don’t have a solid idea for a NaNo project yet, but that’s one thing I’m not worrying over.  If no new project idea springs forth, I can be a NaNo rebel and use the month to get 50,000 words down on an existing project.  In fact, I’m strongly inclined in that direction.  Maybe it will be the kick in the pants I need to stop sweating every word in the current project and just get something down.  After all, you can’t do a second draft until you’ve completed a first draft.

On the subject of NaNo, a snarky piece from a website I won’t name (because they disgust me and I won’t drive traffic to them) was going around last week.  I’d seen it before but it still made me angry.  Basically the writer felt that we NaNoers should skip attempting to write a novel and spend our time reading because a) we’d only wind up creating crap anyway and b) apparently anyone ambitious enough to attempt to write a novel is not someone who reads.  I really wanted to go slap this sour grapes person.  Clearly she’s never been brave enough to attempt NaNoWriMo.  She doesn’t create – she criticizes.  So here’s what I say to anyone who’s thinking of trying NaNoWriMo:
Maybe your manuscript will suck.  Maybe you’ll hate it and chuck it in the bin as soon as the month is over.  But you will gain something from the experience of creating it.  You will learn something about yourself (even if it’s only how much caffeine you can handle at one time) and that will be valuable to you, whether you continue writing or not.  Don’t let the negative Nancys of the world (even those in your head) chase you off.  Give it a chance, give yourself a chance.  It is worth it and so are you.

MidWest Writers Workshop & Writer’s Village University

The workshop was incredible!  The intensive session I attended on Thursday alone was worth the price of the whole event, and there were sessions after that and two more days of activities as well!

The intensive session was led by Kent Krueger.  It was “Writing the Novel:  The Essentials.”  We worked on writing a blurb to use as a guide for our story, then moved on to talk about the importance of first lines.  We drafted first lines and many people (me included) were bold enough to share.  There were so many terrific lines!

From blurbs and first lines, we went on to drafting opening paragraphs.  Again, there were a lot of great ones to share.  I wound up with a whole new first line and first paragraph for my manuscript, and confirmed my thought that I should switch to first-person.

We played around with redrafting famous first lines to change the tone.  We talked about narration and plot and the importance of having a writing routine.  It was an amazing workshop.

And then the rest of the conference went on.  We heard from agents about writing good queries.  We learned a lot about the publishing industry from Jane Friedman (subscribe to her blog if you are thinking of trying to publish – she has great information).  Brave people (not me) made pitches to agents.  Some folks (me included) submitted 5 pages of a manuscript for evaluation by an author.  Kent Krueger was gracious and kind and supportive and gave me good feedback on my five pages.  I’ve already worked with my new opening line and paragraph, along with his suggestions, and have a much stronger first chapter of the manuscript.

Along with all the great advice from Krueger, the thing I took away from this conference was the feeling.  The atmosphere was wonderfully creative and supportive and exciting!  I loved that feeling.  I found myself missing it and anticipating returning next year (and being brave enough to make a pitch).

That craving led me back to F2K at Writer’s Village University.  I hope to find a creative atmosphere online while learning more and practicing my craft more.  I’ve done F2K once before and enjoyed it (though I wasn’t able to complete the final assignment).  I hope to finish all the assignments this time around, and then I hope to look into some other courses on the site.  I need a writers fix!

Proactive versus Reactive Language

I started reading the Stephen Covey classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a few days ago.  Today I was reading about the differences between what Covey calls proactive language and reactive language.  It was eye-opening, not just for how I view my life but also for how I might illustrate the nature of my characters.  Are they proactive people, taking charge of their lives, or are they reactive people, blaming everything outside themselves for the situations they find themselves in?

I want to take this idea and look at my NaNo manuscript with it in mind.  I think my narrator should start out reactive, and at some point when she realizes she can cope with the challenges she faces, she’ll turn more proactive in her language.  I’m kind of excited about playing with this idea, and seeing how it will translate to fiction writing.

It’s interesting to me that there’s at least one common goal between my writing and my reading of “self-help.”  I am fascinated by figuring out what makes people tick.  Sometimes I explore that through writing, and other times through reading.  The two processes definitely inform each other, making both experiences richer and more interesting.