Credit Where It Isn’t Due

We haven’t had a (serious) New Mexico wildlife shot in a while.

But now that the weather is warming up, the critters are starting to emerge again. This is a coachwhip snake. The photo doesn’t quite capture his lovely reds and pinks.

I got credit for first live snake spotting, much to David’s chagrin because he’s the king of snakes. (Isn’t there something biblical about that?)
No, seriously, in his misspent youth, David used to collect rattlesnakes for Reptile Gardens in South Dakota. For those who’ve never had the pleasure, Reptile Gardens is part zoo, part sideshow, part tourist trap. Kind of the biggest ball of twine of snakes.

And they paid by the pound. Not a bad gig for a nice kid from northern Wyoming with a knack for wildlife.

At any rate, David’s been revved to see the snakes of our new home, but so far had seen only one dead snake. I don’t get a bunch of credit for this one, though – when I rolled out the garbage can to stuff it full yard detritus, he was under there. Turns out they’re nocturnal snakes and not terribly fond of sunlight. He just laid there, all sleepy while I called David and the snake was duly identified and photographed.

It works that way sometimes – you get credit for luck, for happenstance, for stumbling upon something cool. And sometimes the things you labor over, hunt for, craft lovingly with care, no one ever cares about but you. The universe’s way of putting us in our place, I suppose.

One way to interpret the Tao Te Ching says that only those things achieved without effort are one with the Tao. The implication is also that only those things that are one with the Tao are valuable.

I think both points are debatable.

Really it all depends on what value you assign to the thing. Both what kind and how much. There’s something to be said for both the stories that drop into your lap and the ones you wrestle out of the ground. Other people may read them and assign their own values, but only the writer knows what the story means to her.

The wise writer would be thankful for both the gifts and the stories bought with blood.

In Progress

And they said it wouldn’t get done…

(For the “before” picture, see here.)

Special bonus points if you can spot the New Mexican wildlife in the background. (And no, I didn’t notice she was there when I snapped the photo.)

I always liked the idea of Sundays as a day of rest. Or, rather, I like that concept, as in Orthodox Juadism of setting aside an entire 24-hour period away from the work and busyness of life. To contemplate the nature of God or the universe. To study. To rest and reflect.

I also like the idea of being cloistered for religious contemplation and I’m not about to do that either.

Sunday is almost always catch-up day for me. It certainly was yesterday. I cleaned both the house and the front and back gardens. Fortunately this also counts as exercise. But I did begin the day with writing. Writing only on my novel. I typically don’t post to the blog on Sundays. That’s one little rest I give myself as a matter of ritual.

Sundays are also different writing days, because my Progress Count spreadsheet resets itself. I begin by wordcounts anew for the following week. There’s this pristine quality to it because Sunday is the only day that progress for the day matches progress for the week. It would make more sense if I showed it to you and I’m not going to do that because people tend to freak out when I show them my spreadsheets.

My own little way of being anal.

On Saturday I went to a meeting of the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors (LERA) and this multi-published gal gave a presentation on her method of pre-plotting a novel. She does sticky notes. She does 3X5 cards. Then she types it all into a massive flow chart, scene by scene, prints out the pages and glue-sticks them together to make an accordion-fold map. It’s her process and it works for her.

I thought about what I would do, if someone asks me to present on my process. Since a lot of that process involves staring into space, I don’t think it would make for an interesting presentation. (Gardening, incidentally, is excellent for this kind of process.) I could, however, show people my spreadsheets.

This gal tartly noted that she gets checks in the mailbox for her work, as an argument to the folks who thought her technique seemed over the top. She feels this organization is key to her success. The pre-plotters have a knack for making those of us who dream our way through our books feel, well, like slackers.

That’s why I have my spreadsheets, I realized. I track my target finish date – yes, I use functions in Excel to calculate my projected wordcount and current rate of progress against today’s date. And I have the cells conditionally formatted to be yellow and say “not yet” or green for “yes!” depending on whether I’ve met the goal that cell represents.

Say what you will about rats pulling levers to get cheese cubes: I love to watch my cells turn green.

Is this a little bit nutty? Well sure, or people wouldn’t freak out to see it. Does it work for me?

I sure think so.

I mean, I’m not getting checks in the mailbox. Not yet. But someday that will be a Yes!

Besides, I prefer direct deposit.

Having It All

I know, I know.

A conscientious gardener woudl have long since cleaned this up. It’s on the To Do list for Sunday. Ask me next week where the picture is of the cleaned-up pretty.

Remember how I mentioned that last weekend I got involved with Sterling and didn’t do any of chores?

Well, this was one of them.

It’s not always easy, balancing home life with writing life with career life. I remember growing up in the 70s amid the extensive conversations about “Superwoman” – the liberated woman’s answer to having it all and whether it really could be done. Women were trying to be mothers, housewives and career women, all while never letting him forget he’s a man. Of course, much of the pain came from the stretching of traditional roles – the obvious answer to women was for the men to do more with the kids and the house. Which many of them started to do. Some don’t, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

When a person is a writer, until you’re paid enough to write full-time, you essentially have a second unpaid career. Or a second career that pays beans. It’s like moonlighting at some crummy job with lousy hours, but not for the extra money. Okay, not a crummy job, a fabulous job. But the hours still suck, you’re forever interviewing and you don’t even get minimum wage.

A writer friend of mine was “outed” at her day job yesterday. It took her by surprise.

She writes romance novels, sexy ones. Turns out someone at her old job mentioned it to someone at her new job (manly gossip?) and the older male manager at the new job did a little bit of internet searching and found her ebooks…

He told her he thought it was just fine.

Yeah, it’s weird and uncomfortable. She feels exposed in a way she didn’t expect. And no, she doesn’t use a pen name, so she wasn’t trying to hide her superhero novelist identity. Somehow she thought the two worlds would never mix. Now they are.

I should also mention that she’s a single mom (though she’s now engaged a terrific new guy). She’s been handling all of it very well for a very long time. She’s still working at breaking into the mainstream publishers, where she could maybe make enough money that she’d have only one career to balance with all of the other jobs.

It doesn’t help that romance is a snicker-generating genre. If she’d been outed as a mystery writer, she’d have more cache. I can see why she’s bothered – it’s like she’s now a dirty girl.

Hopefully, that was the last of it. The manager told her he knew (bum dum dum!) and that he’s fine with it. Maybe she can get away with just doing the job she’s really good at and won’t get any grief for the work she loves to do on the side.

Maybe I’ll get my house and garden cleaned up this weekend.

Love and Sunsets

I love it when the ridges look like this, all two-dimensional, like stage props to hint at landscape.

I remember coming down to Santa Fe with my folks when I was a kid — right around this time of year, too. We’d often come down for Spring Break, sometimes staying, sometimes continuing farther south. I loved this look then, too. I’m pretty sure I even wrote an abysmal poem at some point about cardboard mountains propped against the western sky. It undoubtedly included something about my state of angst and wretched loneliness, which was, naturally, nonexistent.

But if there’s angst to be found, an adolescent girl will dig it out.

Last evening I gazed at this view and thought how amazing that I get to see this every day now. Instead of wretched loneliness, I felt a rush of overwhelming gratitude. I took a moment to offer my thanks for all the blessings.

One of my favorite professors from college, David Hadas, who described himself as a non-practicing Orthodox Jew, had a favorite saying. It might have been from Martin Buber. He said that when terrible things happen to us, we raise our eyes to the sky and say why? Why me? But when wonderful things happen, we never ask “why me?”

Perhaps we are like favored children that way – we never question that we are loved, that we have a beautiful world to enjoy, that we have plenty. We might be just slightly spoilt that we throw tantrums when we don’t get what we want, exactly the way we want it. But we mature and grow wiser, realizing that the bad comes with the good. How we decide to handle that defines who we become.

It’s something for me to remember, that I’m incredibly lucky to have so many blessings in my life. Wanting more means that I’m alive and growing. In the meantime, I get to enjoy what I have.

Love and sunsets.

Why me?

Art and Twitter

How do you like where I hung our cow skull? I’m feeling very Georgia O’Keeffe.

It’s hard to say if I’m imitating her, or Santa Fe design in general. Sometimes you do something just because it looks good. We happened to have this cow skull – which is kind of a long story. Suffice to say that David and I are both biologists and we have a lot of different bones and skulls. In this landscape they become less eccentric and more fashion statement.

RoseMarie sent me this article about a “new writer” giving up Facebook and Twitter. I kind of hate to give it the dignity of a link, because it’s really very silly. “Article” is really a strong word. It’s only 434 words long (yeah, I checked), which is comparable to my shorter blog posts. Really it reads like “Hey, this one friend of mine, who got an MFA? Well she gave up Twitter and Facebook, even though she was really good at it, you know? And she thought it totally worked for her.”

I don’t think I exaggerate there.

The “premise” was the “new writer” who’s been published in Narrative Magazine, which is respectable but hardly earth-shattering, and is, um, exactly one publication credit, cut herself off from the social media to concentrate on her writing. (By the way, the phrase that she’s “hoping to publish her first book soon” can be translated as anything from “it’s not done yet” to “she’s pitching to agents” to “she’s working her way through the university presses. In short, we have no idea where she stands on it.)

But I digress.

The result of the grand experiment? Even in the full essay, she never mentions if she gets any more writing done. Of course, she comes from an MFA frame and one of the amusing things about that mindset is three months of “focusing on your writing” isn’t really expected to produce anything in the way of wordcount. Deep thoughts can be enough. Her conclusion was she felt she “detoxed” from Twitter and maybe she needed to. Most of her musing is about whether she’s abandoning her social media platform when she needs it most.

There’s this guy on Twitter I followed recently. He followed me first, for a reference I made, so I followed back – he looked reasonably amusing and I usually give anyone who’s not only posting links a shot. He’s looking for a job. So he takes other people’s posts and mentions that he wants a job. For example, someone will say “I’m a writer – I have the papercuts to prove it” and he’ll reply “I need a job – I have a ‘hire me!’ sign to prove it.”

He’s clever and makes me smile, which is what it’s all about. So, I bit.

I asked him where he is and what kind of work he’s looking for. This is the opening he’s looking for, right? If I could, I’d be willing to point him in some directions.

So what does he do? He replies, twice, about how he needs a job and how sad it is that millions of people don’t have jobs. He tells me a state and a vague kind of work and gives me absolutely nothing to go on. Oh, and he tells me he got on Twitter because he’d heard it was a great place to connect with people.

And yet – he completely failed in his opportunity to connect with me.

I think that’s the part people miss: if you’re going to do the social media thing, you have to do it because you enjoy it, to really connect with people, not to manipulate the medium to get what you want. It’s fascinating, really, how invulnerable the system is to insincerity.

I suppose that’s the difference, too, between imitation for the sake of status and repeating an idea because of the image it creates.

Can I help it Georgia had a brilliant eye? Maybe the cow skull is just my little way of connecting with her, in a cosmic non-Twittery way.

Second Wind

On these windy days, Isabel sits on the lee side of that big yucca and tries to tough it out.

Sometimes she lasts through most of the morning or even a lot of the day, prowling around under the bird feeder. Other times it’s only for a few minutes. Still it’s nothing like our old Wyoming wind. The high desert winds of Spring here gust in tumultuous waves, but they lack the icy knife’s edge of the Wyoming winds.

We were warned that Spring here would be windy and so it is. I think of it like lake turnover – all of those layer of air warming up, rising and sinking. It’s worth a little tumult to get the warmth.

I suppose that’s the way of things – you can’t get change without stirring things up.

Please don’t nod and add “you can’t get an omelet without breaking some eggs.” I always thought that analogy was stupid. Who cares if the eggs get broken? You’re eating an omelet! No, the analogy cries out for enduring something really unpleasant to get what you want.

(Incidentally, Blogger told me I spelled “omelet” wrong. I spelled it “omelette” – apparently I’m feeling very French this morning – but it doesn’t offer correct spellings. So I typed it into Sterling as the beginning of the next chapter so Word would tell me. Now Chapter 12 starts with “Rowan made an omelet.” This amuses me no end. I’d love to find a way to keep it. And you wonder where writers get their ideas…)

Sometimes the unpleasant things we endure aren’t dramatic or glamorous. In fact, more often it’s the humdrum, the grind that has to be overcome. David has less than three weeks left of school in this semester and he’s grumbling about not wanting to go to class. I’m about 25% of the way into Sterling, nearing the Act I climax, which is a nice goal to be reaching, but there’s a lot of novel left to write.

(Especially if my heroine is going to spend a chunk of the next chapter preparing breakfast. I really think she has more important things to deal with…)

Ah, now Isabel has had enough. She leaps up onto the table outside my window and meows as if the hounds of hell are chasing her. I let her in, for a bite of breakfast, maybe a little nap. After a break she’ll try it again.

Just like the rest of us.

Holidays at Home

I like how Facebook and Twitter give me these little windows into peoples’ lives and what they’re doing.

Quite a few people have been doing “staycations” and commenting how much they’re enjoying them. One family is staying in Chicago and rediscovering all the fun things there are to do there. Another family went the short distance from their small town in Arkansas to St. Louis, to shop and see the sights. My friend was particularly excited to have the opportunity to dispose of her #5 recyclables.

Not at all glamorous.

And yet, that’s what people used to do all the time, right? Go to the village for market days. Travel to the city for provisions. Somewhere along the way, the stakes got raised.

I was supposed to clean the house this weekend and never got around to it. I try to clean it every other weekend. I’m far from being a fabulous housekeeper, so stretching the cleaning to three weeks means it’ll really show by next weekend.

But on Saturday I got really caught up in Sterling and spend most of the day on it. Then on Sunday we went out to breakfast with friends and ended up tooling around seeing the sights. After that, I worked on the novel just a little bit more and the day was over.

I did get the laundry done.

It used to be that I’d procrastinate forever on writing. I’d do every chore imaginable, plus some I made up on the spot, to avoid sitting down at my writing desk. I had to trick myself, or force myself, to sit down and write. Now I eye the dust bunnies collecting in the corners and think I should probably get after them one of these days, maybe after this next scene.

I think it’s healthy.

Sometimes people ask us how we stay entertained, both when we lived back in our small Wyoming town and even now in the “small” city of Santa Fe. It’s hard for me to explain that I never run out of things to do. I write and David studies. We read and talk and sit in the sun. We take long walks.

I’ve come to think that, if you set your life up the way you want it, every day becomes a staycation. It’s all about enjoying the place you’re in and indulging in the things you enjoy.

Sometimes what makes you happiest is to get rid of that pile of recyclables. Other times, you just need to skip the chores.

Joyful Narcissus

I love how Ho Tai looks like he’s celebrating the daffodils here.

Of course, the lovely thing about Ho Tai is he looks like he’s always celebrating everything. I suppose it says something that we have him in our garden. It tells you what I worship most. What I strive for.

Is it silly to say joy?

There are so many opportunities to read and watch the awful, the hateful, the depressing. People are angry and afraid and feel more free than ever before, it seems, to vent that to the world.

Heather Armstrong, better known as Dooce, and a blogger I admire, was recently invited to D.C. to participate in a forum on workplace flexibility. She’s kind of a poster child for it, because she was famously fired from her job back in the early 2000s for something(s) she wrote in her blog. So much so that being “dooced” means having that happen to you. A phenomenon of the new era. Now she supports her family from her blog and works from home.

But apparently, people were angry that she was chosen. It doesn’t surprise me, I suppose, though I didn’t read any of the comments. Heather elicits a lot of strong emotions from people, largely because she lays it all out there and doesn’t mince words. She also, like many people who are very good at what they do, makes it look effortless. So, she seems to be succeeding for doing nothing more than taking pictures of her dog and yakking about her children.

I’ve been going back and reading through her archives from the beginning. It’s like a long, real-time memoir. I’m fascinated by the window she’s allowed us into her life. That’s the best kind of memoir-writing, in my opinion.

What people don’t understand about writing memoir, or personal essays, which is what many blogs truly are, is that you’re still making artistic choices.

In short: you don’t tell every damn thing.

Even if it seems like you do.

There have been a number of discussions lately about how much of yourself to put on the internet and how much to keep private. Authors are encouraged by their agents and publishers to blog, but not everyone is good at it. Some authors are so concerned with their privacy that their blogs end up being little more than updates on books and appearances. Good information, but not interesting reading. Others go too far the other way and use their blogs as a dumping ground to vent about what makes them unhappy. Which, while it can be a way to connect with other people, runs the risk of being, well, not entertaining.

Kev warned me early on not to yield to the temptation to turn my blog into a rant, which annoyed me at the time. Most likely because he was right.

It’s hard to predict, of course, how people will react to what you write. I’m still surprised by which of my posts get attention and which don’t. I always enjoy seeing which elicit the most comments, both here and through other venues. It’s fun, because no other kind of writing garners immediate feedback like blogging does. But then, I rarely get negative comments.

I find myself moving to shield myself from the negative these days. I stay away from most “news.” I unfollow people who say things that depress me. I don’t read the nasty things that people say about Dooce.

Am I burying my head in the sand? I don’t think so. There’s plenty of pain out there. I know what’s going on politically – though my philosophy is to find out what I need to about candidates, elect the ones who stand for what I do and then I let them handle it. I feel like I hire them to worry about it so I don’t have to.

Sometimes I share my pain here – mostly if I feel like it helps to tell the story. That’s what it’s all about, telling the story. Sometimes I even have a point.

Maybe that’s why talking about joy seems silly sometimes. There’s not much of a moral there.

Except, oh look! Pretty daffodils!

Yin, Yang and Yahoo

It’s amazing to me to see the flowers pushing up through the gravel of our desert rock garden. All through the hot days of last summer, the warm fall and sere winter, there was no sign that there could be tulips.

Suddenly, there they are!

Lots of writing pushes going on right now for some reason. Maybe everyone is realizing we’re already through the first quarter of 2010 and wondering what they have to show for it. Now the sun is warming, the flowers blooming and all that work you figured you’d get done in the dark days of winter? Not so much?


So the RWA PRO group is having a 50K challenge this month. And there’s this Thor’s Challenge of 25K in 25 days. Another gal announced she’s 200 days into writing at least 100 words per day. Everyone wants to beef up those wordcounts.

Speaking of which, I discovered this week that my scene break set of symbols “* * *” actually count as three whole words in MS Word. When the clock is ticking and the words aren’t flowing and you’re struggling to hit your 1K for the day, it’s really tempting to stick in a few extra scene breaks. Everyone loves a scene break, right? Maybe I should develop a fancier scene break indicator, like

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Isn’t that pretty? And it would be SEVEN words!

Of course, that’s not really the point. Which is the thing to bear in mind. Wordcount goals and challenges can be great to motivate a writer to keep her butt in the chair and put the words on the screen, but what truly matters is what words they are. Even if you do fast draft and edit later, eventually quality trumps quantity. The NaNoWriMo folks are all about pushing you to finish a novel, which can be a valuable exercise. (Of course, they count 50K as a complete novel, which it isn’t — you need at least 80K, really — but I’ve complained about that before, so I’ll shut up about it now.) So, one thing the NaNoWriMo folks say is that, if you’re stuck, you can have your characters sing something like American Pie. I haven’t heard how many words that ends up adding to the story, but it’s a considerably long song.

What, that’s cheating?

Depends on what you’re trying to do. If you want to prove to yourself that you can put down 50,000 words to form a storyish type thing, then sure. Is it a novel when you’re done? Well, I can tell you right now that you’re going to have to cut out the song lyrics, since the royalties to directly quote songs are off the charts, so to speak.

Yeah, in the editing phase.

My point being, why put something in to pad the wordcount if you *know* you’re going to take it out in the final product? That’s just indulging yourself as a writer and not really working for it.

This has been a slow writing week for me, wordcount-wise, largely because I’ve been going back and reworking. KAK has been giving me great feedback on the Sterling New Novel.

(Did I mention that one of the agents who read the full of Obsidian and was *this* close on it loves the concept of the New Novel? She called it a “sterling idea.” So I think the new code phrase for it is Sterling. Even though that has nothing to do with the story. It makes me happy to look at it.)

So I’m working it up, hitting plot snags because this world is complex and – oops, I violated my on physical laws already in Chapter 8 – so I had to fix that thread. I’m shifting a few scenes around and adding in important information. I’ve made a lot of progress this week, just in a way that can’t be measured by rising wordcount.

It’s easy to value yang over yin. You know the concept I mean: the Taoist symbol of balance. Yang is active, male, thrusting out and growing; Yin is resting, female, drawing in and nurturing.

Accumulating wordcount is yang, then. Editing, the trimming back, in yin.

Those dark days of winter when you didn’t do much but eat and sleep? That’s a restorative time. The resting and rebuilding allows for the explosion of Spring yang.

The tulip bulbs hid under the rock for nine months or more, then burst through in a blaze of red.

Both phases are equally valuable.

No Foolin’

Here’s a Happy Spring image for you from this morning.

Never mind that I really need to clean out the iris bed behind them — aren’t the hyacinths pretty? (This is one of those glass half-empty/half-full tests.)

I’ve never been much of one for April Fool’s Day. And, though I’m a certifiable smart-ass and very fond of laughing, I’m not much of a prankster. Pranks that rely on duping someone else are rarely funny to me. Maybe that’s my Sensitive Soul aspect – I usually feel too bad for the person made to be a fool to dredge up much humor.

I remember one Christmas, a man my mom was seeing convinced her to play a joke on her sister and brother-in-law. The brother-in-law had a rep for being a prankster, so my mom’s guy was intent on winning that little contest. They went and bought a lottery ticket using the winning numbers from the day before. Then my mom pretended to check her ticket against the newspaper. When they all matched, my aunt started going crazy with excitement. Her eyes lit up with all the possibilities that lay before them. A huge jackpot!

My mom blew it by starting to cry. I have a sick feeling about it still. Seeing that hope and joy and all along it was just a dirty trick…

Maybe I feel like we all spend enough time being foolish. In our day to day lives, we suffer disappointments great and small. We pin our hopes on perhaps getting that something on sale, to landing that lucrative multi-book contract or winning the lottery (same thing). We hope for love, for comfort, for joy. We pray that disappointment won’t smack us in the back of the head.

It happens enough without us doing it to each other in the name of fun.

But then, perhaps the intent is to lighten all that. Perhaps, in a way, we’re making fun of how the world punishes us. It’s a way of practicing disappointment, without it being real.

However you spend the day, I wish you honest laughter, a bundle of Spring flowers and a minimal amount of foolishness