Getting into the habit of writing

 

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but even now that nothing stands in my way, I’m still struggling to get my current project finished. Can I use the power of habit to help me get where I want to go?

Gretchen Rubin would say yes. She wrote a whole book, Better than Before, about using habits to make your life better. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, would agree.

Here’s the thing about habit: it lets you make a decision once and be done with it. No dithering about whether or not to brush your teeth or make the bed; the decision is already made. No arguing with yourself about whether to order french fries or a salad at lunch. No choosing between writing and doing something else.

Once a habit’s established, all you have to do is go with the flow.  

Know yourself

Self-knowledge is key to establishing good habits. If you’re creative at midnight but a zombie before 10 a.m., maybe getting up extra-early to write isn’t going to work for you. If you enjoy starting new things more than finishing what you’ve started; if you like novelty more than familiarity; if you prefer simplicity to abundance – use that knowledge to figure out the best approaches and incentives.

If you’re one of Rubin’s “upholders” you follow through on whatever you expect of yourself, so it’s most important to design your new habit wisely. If you fit her “obliger” category you might need to set up external accountability to keep you on track till your habit’s ingrained. A “questioner” needs a good reason for doing anything, so clarifying your ‘why’ is critical. (Check out her newest book, The Four Tendencies, for more on applying her theory to your life.)

The structure of habit

Habits can be changed if we understand how they work, says Duhigg. It’s pretty simple: cue, routine, reward. When we encounter the cue, our brain checks out, our basal ganglia take over, and we execute the routine and get the reward. Once the habit is established, we anticipate the reward as soon as the cue shows up, creating a craving – this is why it’s hard not to check your phone when it buzzes; your brain is already salivating over the little boost it expects to get.

To form a new habit, choose a simple cue. Identify a reward that naturally flows from the new routine – maybe the satisfaction of seeing your word count climb, or the pleasure of reading what you’ve written, or the attaboy your accountability partner gives you – and allow yourself to anticipate the reward, really feel it, to help build that craving.

 You can’t extinguish an old habit, but you can change it: keep the cue and reward, change the routine. If the cue is opening the laptop and the routine is checking social media or reading email, figure out the reward you get out of those distracting activities and find a way to link that reward to writing instead.

(In The Power of Habit, Duhigg lays out the neuroscience behind understanding how the brain does this, as well as how habits apply to organizations and societies. I highly recommend reading his book.)

Strategies for habit formation

Better Than Before lays out concrete steps to improve the odds that you’ll succeed at forming good habits and changing bad ones.

Monitoring – It’s an axiom: what gets measured gets done. Track your behavior, as in WW where you track your food, or your results, as in NaNoWriMo where you track your word count, and you’re more likely to succeed. I started using a spreadsheet when I read Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA. She suggested doing it for a month or so to figure out what time of day, location, etc. made you the most productive, but I’ve kept it up because it gives me a little boost every time I get to say I met my goal for the day. I have columns for date, daily goal, whether I met the goal, start/end/elapsed time, start/end/total words added, location, mood, and notes about who I was with and what I worked on.

Foundation – Good habits related to sleep, exercise, nutrition, and clutter make it easier to do everything else. If you’re chronically exhausted, it’s harder to make good choices. The siren call of unwashed dishes can make it impossible to concentrate (when I was a student, my apartment was never cleaner than during finals week when my subconscious was actively seeking distraction). 

Scheduling – If you can do it anytime, you might never get around to it, but choosing a time and putting it on the calendar gets it done. At the moment, my only consistent writing times are Friday mornings, when I meet some people at a coffee house after my workout. I do much better with exercise, because the yoga class I like is at noon on Mondays, and my strength sessions with a trainer and a workout buddy are scheduled on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Accountability – Reporting to someone else, or even to something else like an app, helps reinforce good habit formation. My writing critique group meets every Thursday, and every three weeks I need to produce a chapter for them to comment on. The 10 Minute Novelist group on Facebook has a 365-day challenge every year that gently nudges you to keep up the good work.

First steps – Try taking it one day at a time. Take a deep breath and jump in.

Clean slate – Look for a new beginning on the calendar (New Year, first day of school) or in your circumstances (new house, new job) and start your new habit when everything else already feels new.

Lightning boltTake advantage of an aha moment, like a book that changes the way you think, to kick-start a new habit.

Abstaining – It might be easier to never yield to temptation than to do things in moderation. Uninstall the distracting game from your phone, for instance. 

Convenience – Make it easier (or make the bad habit harder). Turn off notifications, close your browser and email programs, maybe even use one of those productivity tools that forces you to jump through hoops to open a distracting app. End your writing session in the middle of a scene so when you start next time you’ll have a head start. 

Safeguards – Anticipate and minimize the temptations that will derail you. Put distractions where you won’t see them. Write at the library where you can’t stop to put another load of laundry in. (There’s something about housework that’s infinitely fascinating when I’m stuck.)

Recognize loophole-spotting – I surpassed my goal yesterday, so I can take today off. I had a hard day (I did the taxes, I dealt with the plumber) so I deserve a break. It’ll be easier to write if I take care of this email first. I’m traveling so it doesn’t really count. As Duhigg said, your old habits are lurking under the surface. Don’t give them a foothold.

Distraction  – Give yourself 15 minutes before getting up from your desk, and see if the urge to go do something else fades. At the very least, you’ve spent another 15 minutes on your writing.

Reward – Don’t link your habit to an unrelated reward. You risk teaching your brain that you wouldn’t do the activity without the reward, converting it to unpleasant drudgery. You also risk stopping when you reach the finish line and earn the reward. 

Instead, find the intrinsic motivation that works for you and for the habit you’re trying to form. These might include challenge, curiosity/learning something new, control/feeling of mastery, fantasy/using your imagination, cooperation/working with others, competition, or recognition.

Treats – Allow yourself small pleasures just because you want them. This helps you feel cared for and contented, and strengthens your ability to maintain good habits.

Pairing – Link your new habit to something you already do. I always have coffee as soon as I wake up; I’d write more consistently if I took the coffee into my home office and wrote while I drank it.

Clarity – Figure out why you want the new habit. I have to do this with writing a couple of times a year. Writing a novel is hard; why on earth would anyone put themselves through the agony? In addition to clarifying your why, clarify the specific actions in the new routine. My Friday writing habit is pretty loose – show up at the coffee house and spend a few hours planning, editing, drafting, and/or researching, plus a little mostly-writing-related chatting – but it clearly excludes social media and reading for fun, so it works.

Identity – Defining yourself as a writer makes it easier to maintain writing-related habits. We tend to believe what we hear ourselves say. 

For a quick take on 10 tips for habit formation, check out this video:

 Co-posted on my personal website, shanhays.com. Please visit me there for book reviews and more.

 

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Writing lessons from Salem’s Lot

I first read Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s vampire novel, in the 1970s, and a couple of scenes—a little boy floating outside a window asking to come in, and a priest confronting his doubts in a kitchen—have stuck with me ever since. This week, I reread it in a version with a new introduction and afterword and a bunch of deleted scenes and early versions of published scenes. 

Pantsers rule

From the 2005 Introduction:

Of course, the writer can impose control; it’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however…that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.

Obviously, Stephen King knows more about plotting a page-turner than anyone, but it’s nice to have the vindication for those of us who’ve tried plotting in advance and failed miserably.

Everyone starts somewhere

This was King’s second published novel, after Carrie, and he was still mastering his craft. He started writing it in 1972, when he was about 25.

The published version isn’t as tightly pulled together as his later works. You can see the seams, the places where he wrote something and liked it and left it in when he probably should have taken it out—as a fellow pantser, I have a hundred things like that in my current project. It’s both a caution and a reassurance to see it here.

Deleted and early-version scenes illustrate other lessons about writing. 

  • Don’t overexplain. In several of these, the narrator or a character in dialogue explicitly states the novel’s message. The published version leaves it to the reader, who can read it as a straightforward adventure about vampires or think about what the story says about ordinary people, small New England towns, and the post-Vietnam era.
  • Work on the reader’s emotions. Other scenes show how choices about the order of events, the way events are described—more or less detailed, more or less bloody—and the way characters respond to events affect the emotional impact of the story. That scene of the priest in the kitchen that’s stuck in my head for 40 years was different in an earllier version, for instance. As published, that scene kicks the hope right out from under you; the earlier version left some room for daylight.  
  • If you don’t need it, drop it. Some of the deleted scenes are just unnecessary, like the one that explains Ben’s financial situation: it’s something King needed to know as a writer, but it didn’t add anything to the story.

Intentions matter

In his 2005 introduction, King says his ambition was to write The Great American Novel by combining the overlord-vampire myth from Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the naturalistic fiction of Frank Norris and the EC horror comics. He might be shelved in horror, but you can see his literary origins in his precise choice of words and images:

  • “a straw-dry whistle of air slipping from his mouth” 
  • “as though a special small slice had been cut from the cake of time”
  • “The town hasn’t changed that much. Looking out on Jointner Avenue is like looking through a thin pane of ice—like the one you can pick off the top of the town cistern in November if you knock it around the edges first—looking through that at your childhood. It’s wavy and misty and in some places it trails off into nothing, but most of it is all still there.”
  • “he felt sixteen, a head-busting sixteen with everything in front of him six lanes wide and no hard traveling in sight”
  • “the older people to whom funerals grow nearly compulsive as old age knits their shrouds up around them”

 It’s okay to take your time

As always, the last page of the book shows when King finished it, and this time it also tells when he started. He wrote Salem’s Lot from October 1972 to June 1975. I plan to remind myself of this whenever I’m tempted to compare my writing speed to, say, my middle-grade writer friend who can have a draft finished in three months or less.

Co-posted on my personal website, shanhays.com. Please visit me there for book reviews and more.

 

The astronaut attitude

Not everything has to be geared towards achieving a specific future purpose to be worthwhile.

Let me rephrase that:

Don’t try to live in the future. Appreciate the present.

My dad was a storyteller. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and he had a great fund of stories featuring hard work, honesty, thrift, and generosity. The theme, in addition to whatever specific value was being imparted, was that living by that value would pay off in the end. Hard work pays off in a satisfying career. My dad’s thrift as a child enabled him to lend his parents money when times were tight in the Depression. His honesty in remembering all winter that he had to repay a penny as soon as the roads cleared earned him a whole bag of penny candy from the surprised storekeeper. His mother’s generosity to a band of traveling Cree people was repaid with moccasins for him and his brother every year.

The corollary my subconscious pulled out of Dad’s stories was that you shouldn’t waste time on things that don’t have a purpose.

Or, as that annoying student used to say (there’s one in every class): will this be on the test?

This isn’t fair to my dad, who was great at having fun for the pure joy of it. But – you know how it is with your subconscious. It thinks what it thinks.

Work hard. Enjoy it.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield proposes a different approach to thinking about what you’re doing. An astronaut who gets all his or her job satisfaction from space flight is going to be a miserable astronaut, because space flight is such a small and uncertain part of the job. For one thing, there are years of training for one day of space flight. For another, many factors outside your control determine whether you’ll actually go to space. When the U.S. space shuttles were retired, astronauts who were too tall to fit in Russian ships had no chance of space flight. Congressional budgets, disaster investigations, illness, family events – all can mean you miss your window of opportunity.

Your sense of self worth, identity, and happiness can’t be tied up in an ultimate goal that might never happen. The training and everything else that goes into the job is hard, fun, and stretches your mind. Space flight is a bonus. You don’t determine whether you arrive at the desired professional destination, but you can determine your own attitude. Work hard and enjoy the process.

Chris Hadfield is the astronaut who recorded David Bowie’s Space Oddity IN SPACE, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear him talking about learning Rocket Man before he met Elton John, just in case. He pictured the most demanding challenge he could imagine – being asked to perform on stage with Elton John – then determined what he’d have to do to be ready to meet the challenge, then practiced until he was ready. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t actually asked to perform on stage. The important thing is that he was ready.

You might learn things you’ll never use, but it’s better to know them and not need to than the reverse. You’re getting ahead if you learn, even if you stay on the same rung of your career ladder. Learning is the point.

What does this mean for writers?

A writer’s chance of getting a book published and having it succeed with readers, like the astronaut’s chance of spaceflight, is affected by a whole range of things that aren’t in the writer’s control. Writing, studying the craft, writing, researching, writing, connecting with other writers, and writing (not to mention querying, networking, developing an author platform, etc.) are hard, fun, and stretch your mind. Don’t base your sense of self-worth and satisfaction on the end result. Challenge yourself, work hard, and enjoy the process!

Watch this!

After you read the book, check out this little video that sums it up nicely. I’m listening to the audio version of the book, which is especially wonderful because it’s narrated by Colonel Hadfield himself.

 

 

The Whole Earth Catalog

Before we had the Internet, we had this:

IMG_1970

This copy was printed in 1971.

It’s where I learned about Buckminster Fuller, Gurney’s seed catalogs, and how a guitar is put together. I ordered the parts to build a clock from a supplier listed in the catalog. The “access to tools” subtitle gives you the original idea, which was to be a resource for  people in the back-to-the-land movement, but it’s more than that.

It’s a way of organizing knowledge.

I’m thinking about a website and the best way to organize various things I’d want to put on it, which made me think about the Catalog.

Here’s how it’s set up:

WHOLE SYSTEMS — cosmos, universe, earth, energy, geography, surface, clouds, laws, connections, form, general systems, human beings, being human, Jung, anthropology, thought, history, future, eastern future, Think Little, future biology, funky future, world game, world organism, evolution, human evolution, ecology, ecology issues, population, liferaft Earth, ecology action, ecology periodicals, more ecology, desperate ecology action, Four Changes
LAND USE – agricultural origins, land life, organic gardening, compost, biodynamic gardening, pests, soil, vegetable & flower seeds, trees & flowers, herbs, indoor gardening, exotic crops, wildlife, goats, livestock, rabbits, chickens & horses, energy, wind & sun, water & sanitation, wells, water, mining, tools, roads, surveying & blasting, trees & saws, land buying, Canada & Alaska, wild foods, mushrooms, land use, Soleri
SHELTER – natural structure, Gaudi & Wright, Japanese house, design considerations, architecture, mode, stained glass, dome geometry, domes, owner-built home, low-cost construction, carpentry, building, stoves, lanterns, tipis, cabins, adobe, stone buildings, concrete, Frei Otto, inflatables, plastic, materials
INDUSTRY – alloy, design, Chinese technology, inventory, engineering, inventions, village technology, knots, science, technology, handbooks, plastic, data, tips, modular materials, appliances, lab suppliers, plastic, welding & winching, nifty tools, government surplus, tools, surplus, precision tools, fine tools, tool use
CRAFT – woodcraft, wood, furniture, reed craft, frontier crafts, country crafts & antiques, craft design, philosophy & craft access, craft supplies, jewelry supplies, jewelry, glass, sculpture, candles & bonsai, pottery, kilns & throwing, potters & wheels, ceramic supplies, weaving, spinning, dyeing, looms, wool & yarn, knitting, sewing, embroidery & quilts, macrame, dye, leather
COMMUNITY – forebears, funk living, Japanese communes, schemes, the commune lie, consideration, organization, market, business, funds, food, cooking, kitchen, vegetables, woks & Dutch ovens, preserving, storing, grinders & juicers, gourmet equipment, gadgets, wine & beer making, sauna, massage, Go (the board game), stuff, dogs, animals, dope, mental health, health, emergency medicine, first aid, doctoring, drugs, country cures & medical stuff, home delivery, birth, baby stuff, sex, women, death, bargain living, bargain buying, Sears, Wards, shopping, shoes etc., Hong Kong, outlaw, time, justice, organization, politics, down home, country, kindred, the arts, kindred, New Mexico road
NOMADICS – the Great Bus Race, buses & campers, campers & trailers, Volkswagen, car repair, vehicle repair, off road, motorcycles, bicycles, The Way, walking, aloof, mountains, horses, boots, moccasins, camp clothing, tents, sleeping bags, packs, outdoor suppliers, snow equipment, north, camping, camp, survival, guns, knives, bow & arrow, bowhunting, fishing, canoeing, canoes, kayaks & inflatables, boats, scuba & surf, diving, sailing, seamanship, cruising, ocean, boatbuilding, boats, boat supplies, flying, airplanes, sky sports, exploration, trips, Nepal, travel
COMMUNICATIONS – diagram, image & control, silence, culture, style, language, universe, mind, sense, brain, information, math, organization, computer design, computers, electronics, radio, electronic equipment, high fidelity, managing rock, tape, electronic synthesizers, music, instrument making, guitars & banjos, dulcimers, exotic instruments, wind instruments, music, economics, non-profit, tokens, money, capitalism, video, theater, filmmaking, film, photography, photography supplies, art, image, art, painting, silk screen, printers supplies, writing, bookmaking, printing, books
LEARNING – parent, toys, children’s books, home school, children’s art, learning books, nature, astronomy, history, pioneer, wilderness, Indians, games, kites & paper airplanes, kid technology, science, teaching, schools, school methods, school things, free schools, correspondence schools, what to do, culture, The Game, dope, psychedelics, discorporate, paranormal, mysticism, psychology, mind, centering, self-hypnosis, meditation, yoga, calisthenics, myth, China & Tibet, excursions, Don Juan, mysticism, thinking, serendipity

It’s kind of like a random walk through sixties counterculture. You can see the interest in other cultures, the reaching back to the past for skills, and the hopeful looking upward, outward, and into the future.

Not very helpful for organizing my future website, though.

It’s a cautionary tale

1971 was two years after Woodstock and seven years after Ken Kesey’s psychedelic road trip that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. By the time this final catalog came out, people had experience with actually living in communes and trying to live a better life away from the repressive Establishment. The Community section is peppered with sad letters and essays, and this photo that says a lot about the reality of living with other people:

IMG_1972

It’s a historical artifact

The counterculture has moved on. Stewart Brand, the genius behind the Catalog, has moved on and rethought a lot of what he wrote in the sixties. For one thing, he’s now saying that the environmentally responsible thing is dense urban living, not dropping out to live on a tiny farm. Here’s a link to his current work with the Long Now Foundation, and here’s his Ted talk at the U.S. State Department.

Politics have shifted. The page on guns includes an affectionate note about the NRA, its useful magazine with tips on things like storing and preparing game, and the help it provides to any member who has a question. The writer says there are a lot of “flag-freaks and super-patriots” involved in the organization, but it hadn’t yet taken on the boundless power it seems to have today.

And I think this page on computers is a perfect illustration of how technology has grown since the year I took Fortran in college. Check out the features of the $4,400 and $4,700 desktop calculators, compared in the bottom left corner of the page.

IMG_1971

It’s hope and confidence

One thing that comes through loud and clear is the idea that people can do anything they put their minds to. Want to raise goats and churn your own butter? You can learn how from this book, and buy the supplies you need from these sources. Want to build a camera and create your own movies? The resources are here. Same for raising wool, spinning yarn, and knitting sweaters. There’s a pitch for the USDA Agricultural Extension Services, with free help and information on all kinds of things.

And bigger problems, like overpopulation, pollution, and poverty, aren’t insurmountable. Read this book, and think about these ideas, and use your ingenuity to invent solutions using these tips.

Well, this trip down memory lane didn’t help me much with the website organization question I came in with, but it gave me a lot to think about. And it led me to the Long Now and its optimistic podcast series. Just what I need in 2018.

If you also remember the Whole Earth Catalog, or if you’re from a different generation and have something else that brings your era to vivid life the way this did for me, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

 

 

 

Tucson Festival of Books 2018

I’m lucky to live a couple of hours’ drive from Tucson, home of the country’s second largest book festival. This year was the 10th annual event, which comes around on the second weekend in March while the University of Arizona students are away on spring break. Over a hundred thousand people show up to honor authors as rock stars – literally this year, when the Rock Bottom Remainders (Amy Tan, Dave Barry, R.L. Stine, and Scott Turow, among others) performed on Saturday night.

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The festival takes over the U of A campus, with hundreds of tents on the grass, and a wonderful Science City at one end. (Check out this video to get a flavor of it.) For me, though, the juicy part is the array of panels and speakers in the classrooms. I try to get to as many writing craft sessions as I can.

Choice quotes

  • Write what you want to read but can’t find. (Fonda Lee, author of Jade City)
  • “Hard fantasy” in which magic follows rigid rules is just science under a different name. (Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and translator of The Three Body Problem)
  • Every book is different. It’s like raising children: you only learn how to write that book. What keeps you going is knowing you did it before. (K Arsenault Rivera, author of The Tiger’s Daughter)
  • I’m a collector of life stories (Katayoun Medhat, author of The Quality of Mercy)
  • I channeled the simmering rage from my own life into my 20-year-old female character, so she’s closer to me than any of my other characters. (Riley Sager, 40-year-old male author of Final Girls)
  • People who make notes of their ideas as they come up have ideas they can work with when they’re ready to work. (Windy Harris, author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays)
  • Reading can be a way of avoiding writing, escaping the difficulty of finding and listening to your own voice. (Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com)
  • We become authors by authorizing ourselves. (Stuart Horowitz, founder of Book Architecture)

World Building from Ken Liu

The hands-down best session I attended this year was Ken Liu’s presentation, in which he shared ten tips for compelling world building. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or historical novels, you need to construct a sense of place so the reader feels immersed in your story. Ken’s own website describes the talk, and incidentally serves as a great example of an effective author website.

Some favorite pieces of wisdom:

  • Read outside your comfort zone and pay attention to movies, tv, video games, and even cosplay and larping (it means live-action role playing – who knew?), and learn how others evoke a sense of place.
  • If you only read secondary sources, like a science journalist’s summary of a research paper or a historian’s account of events, you’re getting someone else’s narrative. Go to primary sources, and go in person to see physical artifacts. Tour a battleship, look at original art.
  • Use “incluing” – Jo Walton’s term – instead of explaining everything. Readers can figure out more than you might think, and figuring things out makes reading more fun.
  • Study nonfiction to see how to make infodumps compelling to read.
  • Make your prose more dense. Each sentence can do more than one thing – show character, advance the plot, describe the world.
  • Think through all the implications of your ideas. If your world has flying cars, it’s not going to be just like our world but with flying cars added.
  • Give your world a history and different cultures, with all the complexity and inconsistency that comes from the way things evolve. Who knew that samurai culture in Japan came after gunpowder and firearms were available? Technology doesn’t determine everything, and stories told in other cultures are very different from the ones you grew up reading.
  • Technology is invented by tinkerers trying to solve a problem. It doesn’t come from higher level scientific principles in an orderly manner. Read The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur to understand how technology creates our world. And technology isn’t just mechanical things – bureaucracy, organizations, and laws are also technologies.
  • The one thing you care about, that excites you, will lead you to the rest of your world. It isn’t photorealism, but impressionist painting. What you’re doing is world conjuring in collaboration with the reader.
  • Think through your own assumptions. Someone asked whether you have to include realistic elements like violence in your imaginary world, and Ken Liu pointed out that the question implies assumptions about what reality is like.

Idea to novel

Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King, led a workshop on turning your idea into a novel. She gave us lots of opportunities to practice developing our what-ifs, and shared a bit of her own wisdom along the way, like:

  • Plot doesn’t just happen to your characters, but because of them.
  • Different characters relate to the theme in different ways. If the theme of The Hunger Games is “how does a person navigate a world in which cruelty is necessary for survival,” the answers are different for Katniss, Haymitch, and President Snow.
  • Visualize the end. The end is where the reader sees that you’ve made your argument and something’s been settled, and it will help you along the way as you’re writing if you feel you’re writing towards something.
  • If you get stuck, think about the chapter questions to get back on track:
    • Summary
    • Central conflict
    • Decision
    • Plot purpose, character purpose, and theme purpose
  • Start on an unsteady equilibrium (the cliche is “start as late as you can get away with”).
  • Her own process is iterative. She writes the important events, a high level summary, and a few chapter questions, then writes as fast as she can till she hits a wall, then goes back and does more outlining and thinks about the three questions: what the character wants, what they need to do (what’s their primary malfunction), and what’s standing in their way.

Finding and pitching an agent

In an information-packed session, two agents (Claire Gerus and Katharine Sands) and a developmental editor (Ron Hogan) shared their sometimes-contradictory wisdom on getting an agent. Sands followed up with a whirlwind solo presentation on perfecting your pitch. In addition to common sense advice like “don’t be bridezilla, even though you’ve been dreaming of this since you were seven,” a few highlights were:

  • You’re looking for someone who believes in your work.
  • Seduce agents by showing them something that makes them want to see more, and that you can deliver.
  • Do your research, i.e. in Publishers Marketplace, look carefully at the contract, and talk to their other authors.
  • You have to kiss a lot of frogs. Don’t limit yourself too much. Bigger agencies hire new people all the time, so even if they don’t specialize in your genre, their new agent might love your work.
  • Publishers are looking to minimize financial risk; agents are looking out for your interests. In self-publishing you keep all your rights but you’re probably not putting the best version of your book out there.
  • Have a social media presence. Publishers want to know if you already have a following. Develop a relationship with your readers online. Don’t post too much in your blog – your contract will stipulate how much of your book has to be original.
  • Rehearse your pitch. Think of it like gossip, when you tell your best friend about the crazy thing that happened today: you’re animated, with drama, charm, and humor. Practice till you always have it ready to go.
  • Your pitch needs place, person, and pivot so the agent knows who the character is and what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t need backstory, theme, or how the story ends. You’re not telling the whole story, just enough to spark interest.

Tucson is for foodies

I stayed with my friend Kat, who lives walking distance from the university, and we had lunch on Saturday at the wonderful B Line on 4th Avenue. If you’re familiar with Tucson, you already know 4th Avenue is the hub of all kinds of independent shops and restaurants. I’m a vegetarian so I never get a chance to order tortilla soup, which is usually made with beef stock. The B Line had a delicious version that’s all vegetarian, and can even be made vegan if you ask them to. Yum!

If you don’t want to leave the festival, you don’t have to. You can get anything from tamales to gelato in the food tent area.

This was my fourth time at the Tucson book festival, and I’m grateful to young adult author Tom Leveen for mentioning it in a class. I’m slowly getting the hang of it – the festival is FREE and with so many book loving attendees, it can be a challenge to get into some of the sessions. If you have any tips on successfully navigating a big book festival, or if you went to this one and care to share some of the insights you gained, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

Scrivener update

I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years now. I wrote a post about it in July 2016, in which I raved about some of the basic features that I love about the software. Literature and Latte came out with a new version for Mac a few months ago, and it’s even more awesome now. It’s called Scrivener 3, and they haven’t released a PC version yet.

Bookmarks

There are 5 little icons at the top of the inspector column: synopsis/notes, bookmarks, metadata/keywords, snapshots, and comments/footnotes. If you click on the bookmarks icon, it opens a little panel and you can drag other documents from your binder into it, so you can refer back to other documents without losing your place in your current document!

My current project has dozens of documents in it, including text, character sheets, places, and research notes. Plus, I have a memory like a steel sieve, meaning I’m constantly going back and forth to remind myself of what I said last time I wrote about a particular character, or whatever.

The screenshot below shows the bookmark panel at the right. I’ve just put a couple of the character sheets in there as an illustration.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.08.16 AM

The screenshot also illustrates another awesome new feature:

Linguistic focus

This feature is under the EDIT/WRITING TOOLS menu. It grays out everything except the kind of text you ask for. You can just look at your verbs, to see if maybe you’re overusing passive voice; you can look at adjectives or nouns to see if maybe you can inject a little more variety or elegance into your writing; and you can even look at dialogue to see if your character voices are consistent and distinct (the direct speech option highlights everything that’s inside quotation marks).

Tabs

I usually have multiple Scrivener documents open at the same time. There’s my current project, of course. I also have a catch-all called “how to write” which has my notes on everything from the 3-act structure to how to take a screen clipping, and I usually leave that one open. I keep a copy of my blog posts in a Scrivener project, which helps when I want to look up something I wrote a long time ago but am not sure when; that’s also usually open somewhere in the background. In the past, I’d have to shuffle the documents around to find the one I wanted somewhere buried behind everything else.

The new WINDOW/MERGE ALL WINDOWS feature creates tabs in your header bar, one per open project, so you can see them all nicely laid out and switch between them with ease. You can see it in my screenshot above.

Along the same lines, if you have projects you might not open very often but want to find them easily, you can add them to your favorite projects list (FILE/ADD PROJECT TO FAVORITES). I don’t know if this is a new feature, but I just learned about it.

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.41.42 AM

Arrange by label

This is a feature I think has huge potential for helping to see the flow of your story, or figure out if you have the right balance of different points of view, or identify what stage of drafting and revision your pieces are in.

When you’re looking at your document in group mode (the cork board with index cards), there’s a group of icons at the bottom of your document that looks like this:

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If you click on the one that looks like little tadpoles, it shows you a diagram like this:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.55.12 AM

The way it works will depend on how you set up your labels. In the illustration, mine are set up for where the scene takes place. You can zoom out to see more of the diagram at a time (VIEW/ZOOM/ZOOM OUT). A neat thing about this is you can move the cards from one line to another and it will automatically change the label.

There are lots and lots of other cool features in Scrivener, but I’m most excited about these right now.

Happy writing, everyone! If you use Scrivener and have found other neat things to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing clearly

I have new glasses, and I’m seeing the world in a whole different way. Colors are more intense. There’s a bright prism-like outline of light around far-away objects. My laptop screen looks twice as tall as usual, with two copies of my header one on top of the other. Same with my little dogs – they look like elongated dachshunds. But if I move my head a certain way, everything is half its normal size. If I turn my head from side to side without paying attention, furniture comes to life and threatens to fall on me. And if I look into the distance, I see two versions of reality side by side.

Don’t worry, I’m not driving with these yet. The roads are safe.

Life with amblyopia

I have the insultingly named condition “lazy eye”. My left eye is extremely nearsighted, and what I see through it wriggles, and vanishes if I try to focus on it. An eye doctor once told me the reason for the latter problem was that at birth, your brain learns to interpret the information coming in from your eyes, and if there’s too much variation between your eyes, it might decide to ignore one of them. My right eye is fine, so apparently my brain made the efficient decision to only pay attention to it. It’s called suppression.

All this means that all my life, I’ve used my right eye to see, and my left eye just goes along for the ride. My 3-D vision is pitiful. They used to show me a holographic picture of a butterfly and ask me to try to grab it. I figured out the right answer was somewhere above the page, but my pediatric eye doctor wasn’t fooled. The old-style 3-D movies, where you’d wear cardboard glasses with one red lens, never worked for me, and when those magic-eye pictures were a fad back in the 1990s, I could never see the hidden image. My eyes just don’t work together that way.  (Here’s a fun article about those magic eye pictures.)

Treatment…and not

When I was a kid, I had eye surgery twice, at age 5 to correct a cross-eyed look and then at 15 to reverse a trend towards being wall-eyed. What they actually did was cut muscles, first on the inside (nose side) and then on the outside (ear side) of my eye. (I also had a stainless steel front tooth, thanks to a mishap with a swing set in sixth grade. It’s a wonder I survived middle school.)

Walleye_Male_Sander_vitreus_3-2017
Walleye

 

 

I also had glasses, starting at about age 4. For a few years, there was a serious effort to force me to use my left eye. This was accomplished by putting a bandaid-colored patch over my right eye, or painting the right lens of my glasses with clear nail polish.

Here’s the thing. I’m a reader. I learned to read when I was four, and I liked it. Those patches and the nail polish meant that books were a frustrating blur of squirmy spots surrounded by bright prisms, with blotches of nothing in the middle. So I got really good at pulling off just enough of the patch to see under it, and learned to tilt my head so the fuzzy glasses didn’t get in my way.

Finally, about the same time as that second surgery, the adults in my life decided that if my vision was fine in the eye I actually used, I didn’t need glasses. I saw the world without a smeary plastic filter for the next three decades, until I was old enough to start having trouble with small print.

After a few years of buying readers at the drugstore, I got tired of putting them on and taking them off and spending half my time looking for them, no matter how many pairs I stashed around the house, car, and office. I went to the eye doctor for the first time as an adult, and got a prescription. Because I wasn’t using my left eye anyway, the prescription was just for my right eye, and the optician who made the glasses made a matching lens for my left eye so I’d look more or less symmetrical.

 

New hope

Because my left eye’s so useless, I’ve always had a little undercurrent of anxiety about my right eye. The anxiety level increased a few years ago when my eye doctor told me I had cataracts developing. Cataract surgery is pretty commonplace now, and they seem to have it down, but they still only do one eye at a time – just in case.

As it turns out, there’s new research going on about treating amblyopia in adults. I’m not the only kid who didn’t comply with the patching-and-nail-polish routine. A doctor at McGill University in Canada has been experimenting with using a stereoscopic device and video games to help adults with amblyopia improve their vision – see this easy-to-read article, or this example of Dr. Robert Hess’s peer-reviewed articles about it.

And when I had to switch eye doctors because my insurance changed, my new eye doctor suggested trying a new prescription. She showed me that my left eye vision can be partially corrected, so even if I still can’t read small print with it I can read, say, 24-point font. Which might not sound like a big deal but given that uncorrected I can only read the very top line of the eye chart with that eye, it’s pretty astonishing.

Hence the new glasses. The left lens is made with some space-age plastic that keeps the thickness down, but it still has a bit of that old Coke-bottle effect. The right lens is downright weird, though. It has a line across like the one in the picture on the left below, which is the source of my up-and-down double vision. It’s called slab-off, and it’s kind of a reverse prism to make light from the thinner right lens hit the back of the eye at the same distance as the thicker left lens. The picture on the right illustrates the different angles. Physics.

When I picked up the new glasses, the optician said to try them for two or three weeks and see if they drove me crazy. I’ve had them for a little over two days, and the jury’s definitely still out. I’m happy to have better distance vision than I’ve had with my old glasses, but I’m not a fan of the bifocal-type line. I expect I’ll get used to it, as I got used to my old progressives. The real questions are whether I’ll adapt to using both eyes, whether those bright lines will disappear, and whether (heaven forfend) my left eye will start drifting inward or outward again.

I’m hopeful. I’m wondering whether my binocular vision will improve. Even my posture could potentially get better – I hold my head and shoulders a bit crooked, which is probably partly from years of carrying bags on my left shoulder but might also have something to do with subtly turning my head so my right eye faces front and center.

On the other hand – before I had that second surgery, when my left eye tended to wander outward, sometimes people would try to make eye contact with it. It’s really disconcerting when someone’s staring off towards your left ear. I haven’t had that experience in years, until yesterday: the guy in Costco handing out $2-off produce coupons stared at my left eye the whole time he was talking to me. My left eye looks a little bigger through that Coke-bottle lens, so maybe that’s what attracted him to it.

My gift to you

I did a bit of poking around on the web to see if anyone else had any advice on adjusting to new glasses with the slab-off feature. Dr. Hess says 5% of people have amblyopia, so you’d think someone else would have posted something. I couldn’t find much of anything besides articles written for people in the business. For example, here’s a good article that explains the slab-off technique. I did find a few items about adjusting to new glasses in general. In a nutshell, the advice is to wear the new glasses, don’t keep switching back to your old glasses, expect that for a minor change it will take a couple of days but for a big change it could take a couple of weeks, and be prepared to go back to the doctor if you still haven’t adjusted after a couple of weeks. I also found some YouTube videos of eye exercises for lazy eye, and a weird one about using something called eccentric circles to train your eyes, which seems to be aimed at people with wall-eyes.

If you found this because you’re struggling with a similar problem, I’d love to hear about how you’ve managed to overcome it in the comments below. I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks and add anything I think might be useful to other amblyopic adults.