I’m Glad I Failed: How Rejection Letters Gave Me Freedom to Write Again

I’m Glad I Failed: How Rejection Letters Gave Me Freedom to Write Again

In college, I studied English. This probably made sense to all the people around me, as I’d spent most of every day in High School reading and writing. I suspect that I was probably called by people who didn’t know my name, “That girl in the mom jeans who writes all the time”. I’d dreamed of publishing a book of my very own for years.

But honestly, I’d fallen into my major more by accident than any kind of plan. I thought about going pre-vet, but I signed up for classes so late in the spring before my Freshman year that none of the critical classes were open, and I would have no choice but to spend an extra semester on it. I took classes in Forestry, but the focus seemed to be mostly on cutting trees down rather than protecting them. I spent a lot of time taking Geology (so much that I almost snagged a minor in it) but eventually wandered away from it, terrified of all the math classes I’d have to take to earn a degree there.

I had taken AP English in High School, and had so many credit hours in English already completed when I started college, that I figured I might as well major in it. And so I graduated, a little bewildered, with an English degree that included a concentration in Creative Nonfiction – nonfiction being another area I’d stumbled into entirely by accident, because the Creative Fiction class was never, ever open by the time I signed up for classes.

I spent no time asking my creative writing professors how I might establish myself as a writer. This wasn’t, after all, my plan. I was just letting the currents swish me to whatever end they might. I regret that I didn’t do a little bit more, because it would have been so very, very simple, but I just didn’t have a plan.

So, I left college with my BA in English (with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction) and managed to snag a job at a company that claimed not to be a call center, and was mostly not a call center, but I also spent an enormous amount of time on the phone, calling people. It was at this point that I discovered that calling people who I don’t know on the phone gives me horrible anxiety.

I retreated, and at about the same time my husband commissioned as an Officer in the US Army. He received orders to go to Washington State, and I went along with him. A little piece of detritus swirling along in the stream.

It was time, I decided, to write a novel. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, I got to work.

That first draft was a really strange collision of the principles I’d learned in Creative Nonfiction classes, and the sci-fi action that I loved the most. I figured that I could apply my freshly formalized literary sensibilities with the science fiction genre, and boom. I’d be crazy successful.

I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood yet, much to my detriment

I crawled through that first draft, and by the time I finished it I knew it was utterly awful. Demoralized, I put it away. Not only had my English degree failed to get me a decent job, it had also let me down in the writing of novels.

Eventually, I came back to it, shook out the dust and the spiders, and tore half the novel out. The other half, I rewrote. I edited everything. And feeling I could do no more, I submitted it to some literary agents.

The rejection letters poured in, and rightfully so. Passive voice and adverbs riddled my sentences. I disobeyed the law of “show, don’t tell.” And in my query letters, I couldn’t state the central conflict of the story. The package I sent out wasn’t my best work, and I hadn’t learned the industry nearly well enough. I retreated, and evaluated how to fix the problems that had resulted in so many firm “no”s.

At first, I didn’t make much progress. I felt like I’d been cheated in a million different ways. No one ever told me it would be this hard. My education had failed me. My skills had failed me. After years of work, I’d taken my chance, and I’d fallen flat on my face. I was bruised, and the idea of writing for fun, some days of writing at all, seemed like something that would only happen to other people.

But of course, I kept going forward, and very slowly I realized that all the failures I’d encountered belonged to me. Not to my bachelor’s degree, or my instructors, or agents, or the industry.

I’d placed too much of my identity on getting published – not on being a writer, not on telling stories, but rather on getting a book on the shelves of bookstores. I hadn’t had fun writing anything in years. I’d stopped crafting scenes that I liked, and started crafting scenes that I thought others would see as intelligent, as skillful. I’d lost my perspective on why I had started writing in the first place.

I realized that I had to start all over again. That I had to approach my writing in a new way, like I was coming at it for the first time. I had to learn to find what it was about writing that had made me start, and that had made me commit so much time to it.

So, I pushed out of my head all my ideas of getting published. I established some time to write during my days, at the same time every day, and didn’t worry so much about writing outside of that time. I took the pressure off, and I started writing for my own enjoyment again.

It took a long time, I’ll admit, to get out of that “must-get-published” mindset. It’s a strange tight-rope to walk, to strive for enjoyment in what I write, knowing that if I don’t enjoy the process no one will enjoy the reading, while simultaneously striving for improvement in my craft. Some days I still lean too far one way or the other. Some days I grow anxious and annoyed if I don’t get enough work done. Some days I obsess a little too much over my e-mail, waiting to see if my next word from an agent will be a rejection letter, a request for manuscript, or that dreamed-of offer. And some days, I don’t work hard enough to make sure that the writing time happens.

And gradually, I started enjoying my writing time again. It wasn’t just something I did because I had to do it. It was something I did because I enjoyed it. I stopped feeling stress every minute of the day, and I started to feel like I had a life again.

My writing became a place where I explored my thoughts about the world around me, where I took off on the impossible adventures that I love experiencing in the books that I read. I’m still not quite where I used to be, but I’m getting closer all the time.

What helps is knowing that if I keep working, and I keep writing what I enjoy writing, then someday what I’ve written will speak to someone. Even if it’s just a tiny group of people, then that will be valuable. It’s for them, this imaginary, tiny following, for whom I keep to my schedule as much as possible. That I keep sending queries, that I keep working to improve.

It’s for myself that I keep writing. Because getting words on paper, telling stories, taking journeys with my characters, is what I love to do above almost anything else.

 

Personal Life Update: I recently started a class on JavaScript. This is a very new thing to me – I’ve never done any programming beyond a little bit of HTML when I was in High School, which feels like forever ago. I definitely won’t be having as much time to post here for a little while, which is sad, but I’ll be learning brand new things, which makes me very happy.

Hopefully, when I get back into my regular rhythm of writing and blogging, it will be full of new and helpful knowledge. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading.

When I Met Princess Leia

The first time I met Princess Leia, I was in fourth grade. My little sister’s third-grade class was on a huge Star Wars kick, so she picked up A New Hope at the local video rental shop. On a Friday night, she popped the cassette into our VCR, expertly fast-forwarded through commercials, and hit the ‘play’ button right at the opening scroll.

I don’t know at what point I got hooked. It might have been John Williams’ opening fanfare. Maybe it was just the fact that A New Hope threw me right into the action. There was no need to explain who The Galactic Empire was, or The Rebel Alliance. They were fighting, and look, there goes a spaceship! The film was filled with strange creatures, intriguing characters, terrifying enemies, and awe-inspiring weapons. That first viewing launched an obsession that has stood the test of time.

By the time I was in fourth grade, I was already pretty jaded about gender roles. I didn’t play with any of the girls in my class, because acting out real-life scenarios, like cooking dinner or sweeping floors, felt a whole lot like work. The boys might let me re-enact the most recent episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but Catwoman usually took a backseat to the fights between The Dark Knight and The Joker, and within minutes I was a forgotten figure, practicing cartwheels in the grass.

The first sight of Princess Leia in A New Hope didn’t inspire me. Ah. A pretty girl in a white dress. Other than her earmuffs-on-steroids hairstyle, she could have stepped right out of the type of movie where the ladies break out into song about how great it would be to find a nice prince and settle down on a planet with a good education system and live happily ever after.

I probably should have noticed that she was sneaking around on a ship that was under attack by the fearsomely dressed Darth Vader, but hey, I was a fourth grader.

I started to reevaluate my opinion when she shot her first stormtrooper.

Then she went toe-to-toe with the baddest bad guy I’d ever seen. Held captive, diminutive compared to the armored man towering over her, she stood defiant. She responded to his booming voice with courage, and even sass. Didn’t she know that he’d just strangled one of those guys in the funny white helmets? I was scared of Darth Vader, and I was separated from him by a TV screen. Princess Leia, though, seemed more irritated than anything else.

Over the course of A New Hope, Leia kept defying expectations. When threatened with Alderaan’s destruction, her fear was palpable. She mourned her people, her culture – everything that had once been her life.

Han Solo’s reaction to her, as she takes charge of her own rescue mission and orders him to jump down a garbage chute, is perhaps most fascinating. The self-assured, universe-weary rogue stares in wonder. A damsel, yes. In distress, not so much.

I think it’s really easy to forget how revolutionary Princess Leia was, how revolutionary she still is. How many other characters, male or female, dare to rage across the screen as she did in anything other than a moody drama? A million copies have been tried, and a million copies have failed to capture the spirit of the original. Princess Leia stands alone, driven by an inner fury, a singular purpose.

I’ll admit that I didn’t appreciate Princess Leia throughout my Star Wars drenched youth. I wanted too much to identify with the Jedi. The idea of The Force was intoxicating, the buzz of a lightsaber like music. That was what I wanted, and so Princess Leia fell into the background. It was Luke Skywalker I followed most closely, and later, as I delved deeper into the canon, Mara Jade. Anyone who didn’t wield a lightsaber or connect to the power that bound together the fabric of the universe seemed far less interesting to me.

And yet, always Leia was there, and as I got older, I came to appreciate her more and more. Of all the primary characters in the Star Wars universe, she has by far the greatest leadership skills. She commands armies that fight incredible odds against the encroaching darkness of the Empire. She never backs down when she is called on to lead. And she’s never afraid to make bold choices or take risky shots.

She calls upon a friend of her father’s, whom she has never met, to help combat a weapon capable of destroying planets. She jumps down garbage chutes, refuses to abandon the base on Hoth until the last possible moment, disguises herself as a bounty hunter to rescue Han Solo from Jabba’s Palace. She does everything with admirable courage, as well as cunning reason. Maybe Luke Skywalker wasn’t the best choice to be trained as the last Jedi Knight after all, though I suspect Yoda would have found a much more infuriating student in Leia.

These days, as excited as I am to see Rey on the movie screens, as thrilled as I am to see a Jedi Knight of my gender wielding a lightsaber and The Force, I am equally excited to see General Organa Solo. Still commanding armies in the fight for galactic freedom, still dealing with the drama of being a Skywalker with her head held high. It is Leia who, of all the characters in Star Wars, seems the least escapist, the most grounded in a life that looks familiar to me. Yes, she is a high-level politician, but she is also a decision-maker, someone who must face reality as it is, and find the best way through. This can’t be said for many of the characters in the galaxy, who constantly retreat for training, or to recover from massive mis-steps.

I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker.

 

I think it’s the rage, honestly. When I was younger, I was an idealist. Among my friends, I was the most likely to bewail, “But why can’t we all just get along?” I was most likely to quietly explain my Zen point of view when everyone else raged about the difficulty of one of our teacher’s quizzes.

Somewhere in the midst of my young adulthood, I lost my grip on that Zen, and when I did, I found a well of something hot and, to me, terrifying and uncomfortable. I found myself angry at the fact that things hadn’t worked out the way I’d thought they would. The universe, it seemed, had turned on me.

But I shoved that anger down, because it makes people uncomfortable. It didn’t take me long to recognize that. Yelling was not appropriate, was not cute, was a little bit scary. So, as much as I could, I swallowed it. I learned to work through it, to look at things differently, to adjust my expectations.

Now I wonder – would Princess Leia have done all that, or would she have fed her rage and used it to power through, until she set things back on the course she wanted? Probably a little bit of both.

Leia rises up above the title of Princess, and becomes something else. A woman willing to lead, willing to take risks, a woman who refuses to run or back down. More than perhaps anyone else in Star Wars, she fights, unceasingly, for what she believes in. And these days, it is Leia whom I admire most.

The Writing Habit Returns

The Writing Habit Returns

So, I might have mentioned how important it is to write every day about twenty times per post. That’s because I absolutely know from experience that consistency is the only real way to progress in your writing. When I’m writing regularly, I get more done, and my work is better. There is not just comfort in a scheduled window, in knowing that during a certain block of time I will be able to sit with a pen in my hand, but it also helps my brain know when to kick into creative mode.

As a bonus, I tend to be a much happier person when I write regularly. There is just something about writing a really engaging story that makes me feel like a real human being.

The problem is, I haven’t had a good, consistent writing habit recently. Not even close. I’ve been shoving writing into random places in my day, here and there, and that means that sometimes I get it done, and sometimes I get into bed without having scratched down a single word. Basically, at the rate I’m going I’ll finish the first draft of my next novel in, oh, about two years.

That is no way for a writer to behave.

I’ve had a lot of very good reasons (and a few not-so-great reasons, I’m looking at you Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) for why my writing habit has fallen to the side. I learned a few years ago that I’m the kind of person who simply cannot go without decent sleep. With Little Dude and Little Miss going through one cold after another all winter, I stopped waking up early to make up for all the times I got up at night to wipe drippy noses and administer Baby Tylenol. Sleep, and by extension my mental sanity, take precedence over the early morning writing. I know my limits, and that’s a good thing.

And then of course there has been the new job that I may or may not start at any moment, and which I spent several weeks preparing for. Getting together a wardrobe for a job in a real office, that I actually have to drive to, required a shocking amount of my brain power.

But my itch to write has been growing all this time, and now seems like a good opportunity to get back on track with my writing habit. A real, scheduled, planned into my day, happens no matter what kind of habit.

Bright Ink Writes
Yes, I need this hour of time, where it is just me and my notebook.

As long as no one gets any more colds, of course.

I started this morning by getting up at 6:30. Little Dude woke up about five minutes later, so it turns out that’s not quite early enough. I’m thinking, and I quake to write this, that my alarm will have to be set for 5:30. An hour is actually a lot of time, especially if I can get better at writing in the evenings, too.

But oh, 5:30 is obscenely early.

I also added a little habit tracker back into my monthly bullet-journal setup. I’ve found that sort of thing both encouraging and helpful for establishing a daily habit. I just love shading in a box on the days I accomplish my goals. I feel like Hermione Granger would appreciate this about me, although she and I would probably spend way too much time trying to outsmart one another to really get along well. Maybe just swapping planning methods would have to suffice.

The biggest hurdle in establishing a habit like this, though, is building up the mental fortitude. I am not a morning person – not at all, not even a little bit. Having kids has forced me to get out of bed at times I’d much rather be sleeping, and to get up before they bounce awake, ready to spread chaos everywhere they go, is even more of a challenge. I love nothing more than staying buried under my covers as long as possible. So it’s going to take some serious will-power to drive myself out of bed in the mornings.

It helps that I know how important a daily writing session is, and getting the work done first thing in the morning is such a satisfying thing. I’m counting on that to keep me going.

Because really, who can write any kind of book while their toddler is on their lap, driving a little plastic red motorcycle over their notebook? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tried that, of course, but it’s definitely not the right condition for amazing work. Especially when the writing is totally illegible when it’s time to revise.

This is perhaps the trickiest thing about juggling a writing habit and parenting: the constant change. I’m sure this is at least partly my fault, because I’m pretty terrible at creating a daily schedule for the family. It’s difficult to plan for writing when one morning I take the kids out on a walk, and the next we read books and do crafts. When some days Little Dude takes his nap at 11:30 and the next he doesn’t sleep until 1:30, if he ever takes his nap at all.

We do have mealtimes very regularly. I do not miss breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, or supper. Not ever.

But there is a problem of not always quite knowing where writing time gets in there. Last autumn, I fit in a couple of hours every day during nap time, no problem. But as Little Dude’s naps get more unpredictable, so does my word count.

Rather than fight to lock everyone into a specific schedule, I’m more inclined to stay flexible and work out a new method. So, trying for an hour of writing time in the morning is going to be my first salvo in the battle to reclaim a higher word count. I’m reminding myself that even though it will mean sacrificing some sleep, it will also mean that I can get a lot of words done before anyone in the house even wakes up. To a writer who is also the parent of small children, distraction-free writing is a miraculous thing.

I can already imagine the satisfaction of getting Little Dude out of bed, and making breakfast knowing that I already have three or four pages done. Of watching whole chapters pile up around me at a steady rate, rather than in little spurts. It will so be worth getting out of bed that early.

Although you might need to remind me of that at 5:30 am a week from now.

Here is the thing that gives me confidence going into developing this new schedule: I’ve done it before. I have found ways to fit in my writing, even when everything around me is chaos. Even though things have changed recently (again) I know that I can find a way, and I can make it stick. And when things change again about a week from now, then I will figure that out, too. It’s one of the great challenges of being a writer, finding that secret, personal time when the words can get on the page.

If it means getting up super early, then so be it. I’ll make some extra coffee, and it will keep me company in that quiet morning hour.

So, when do you write? And what have you done to establish a writing habit in your life? I’d love to hear all your tips for making it happen. In the meantime, I’ll keep you updated on how I’m doing at getting up early.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Love & Anxiety at the Library

Love & Anxiety at the Library

I, personally, love libraries. So many books, all in one place, for anyone with a library card to read as they like. I love the shelves, the tables, the chairs. I love the way books seem to huddle all together, like friendly little knowledge storage devices.

There is magic in so many books in one place, which so many authors have tried to capture in their works. Everywhere I read, from Terry Pratchett to Jasper Fforde, libraries are places where space and time warp. Where books create pathways, where they speak to one another and change the very fabric of reality.

Of course, if you think about it, this is more than just a metaphor. Books don’t exist in a vacuum. Writers are inspired by other writers, by the world around them, and they send out messages in the works they create. Many books have had an impact on all of society. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair permanently changed food processing in the United States. Silent Spring may have led to the banning of some of the most harmful pesticides, saving many species of wildlife. Some books have an entire culture associated with them, like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

And in a library, all these books live together. If there are places of magic in the world where we live, I’m sure they are in libraries.

Unfortunately, my time in these sacred buildings is limited these days. I often dash in for a terse visit, full of jangling nerves and whispered warnings. I don’t even dare tread into the adult section. Little Miss and Little Dude are not ideal library companions.

Fortunately, most of the libraries we visit these days are built with the smallest guests in mind. Not only does our haunt have a large children’s section with many comfy chairs and tables, it also has puzzles and craft tables, tablets and computers, and even bags of toys. Best of all, outside the library doors stands a playground, a huge lawn, trees, and even a pond with a fountain. Practically a paradise for those of us with high energy little ones.

Little Miss and Little Dude love books. It’s one of my favorite parenting activities, sitting with them for an hour or more, flipping through the pages of Go Dog, Go!, or The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation. But at the library, they are too distracted to sit and listen. They want to run up and down the shelves, pulling out volume after volume, while I try to carefully re-shelve them, during which time they’ve pulled down four more. I take pity on the librarians, and our visits only last ten minutes or so.

I like to imagine that it’s the power of all those books that makes them a little wild. Maybe seeing shelves crammed with stories, which they know can be pulled down and read, every one of them, turns them into little bundles of energy. Whatever it is that happens to them, I’ve learned the hard way what our limits are.

 

I used to take Little Miss to story-time at our old library, thinking that it would be a nice change from our usual outdoor activities. I hoped that the structure and activity would be enough to prevent the fearsome meltdowns that plagued our indoor forays. The first few times, it worked.

My daughter, not-quite-toddler, not-quite-preschooler, somberly walked up to the librarians at the front desk, and selected a name tag in the shape of a storybook character. Half-hidden behind my legs, she whispered her name. Then, her wide eyes trying to absorb the enormous wall mural – which represented the beasts from Where the Wild Things Are, swinging through trees – she followed me to the little tables where we could wile away the minutes until the story time began.

Her favorite puzzle at the time was a fairy surrounded by outfit options. She loved matching the fairy’s skirts and tops. She sometimes found it frustrating that the fairy had to wear one of the outfits at all times, because it meant when she was swapping in a new outfit, for a few seconds the pieces that were on the fairy didn’t match.

Working on the coloring pages that matched up with the day’s theme was entirely out of the question.

When the doors to the separate reading room opened, Little Miss rushed inside. This was always where the trouble began. The room was not a square, or even a rectangle. It was triangular, and for some reason the far back corner called to my daughter. As the other kids crowded around the front of the room where the books stood on display, my child ran to the back corner, slammed her hands against the wall, sprinted back to me, and then ran back to the corner.

I coaxed her back to the front of the room, using every trick I knew to keep her interested. I participated in all the songs with the enthusiasm of an actor in a musical. I pointed out animals in the books the librarian read.

For three or four of these tense reading sessions, once the books and songs started, she at least refrained from sprinting to the corner and back. She didn’t exactly participate in the songs, and she didn’t exactly listen to the books, but she at least deigned to sit beside me, with an expression as if she was being very tolerant of a tiresome activity.

Then the day came when she decided to tolerate it no more. The librarian began to read, and she began her sprints, from the front of the room to that magnificent back corner. Following her example, two other kids joined in, giggling and squealing. I felt the stares of the other moms on me, on my child. We were disrupting the peace, interrupting their otherwise wholesome outing. They had come here for songs and stories, not the shouting and raucous sprinting. Those things belonged on the playground.

My face burning, I hissed at my daughter that if she did not stop running, then we were going home. She sprinted away from me, grinning mischievously. So, we left the reading room, Little Miss glad to get away.

Out in the main part of the children’s section, the mischief continued. Rather than settle down as I’d hoped, my daughter grew even more rambunctious. She did not want to do the fairy puzzle, or color on a worksheet. She wanted to run through the Young Adult shelves, ripping volumes off and handing them to me.

Ashamed and overwhelmed, I took her from the library, quite literally kicking and screaming.

We never went back to that branch again. Contained to smaller libraries without enormous murals and without the constraint of a storytime, she stopped engaging in noisy sprinting sessions. I’ve also learned how to make trips to the library work for my kids. We keep them short and casual.

 

I’ve learned to tolerate the looks from other parents who frequent libraries. The adults with two-year-olds who can name every letter on the rug, while my five-year-old asks, “which one is this?” The grandparents with quiet toddlers who will gladly sit on the floor doing puzzles from the shelves while my kids play hide-and-seek in the aisles.

I’ve also learned to cherish those moments when they will both sit on a chair with me and listen as I read a story to them. I don’t even mind if it’s about a princess who loves to dance and twirl, or about trucks driving up and down country roads, topics for which I once held disdain. My standards are a little different these days.

I don’t try to take the kids into the adult section. If there’s a book I want, I check it out on my Kindle, and am grateful that’s even an option.

I don’t freak out if they make a little noise, or if they’re a bit rowdier than some of the other kids. And if things start to get out of hand, we grab our stack of books and transition to the playground. Little Miss can check out the books these days without help, plopping them onto the scanner, then into our library bags while I keep Little Dude from running in the midst of the adult patrons.

The library is a lot different for me these days. It used to be a place of peace, where I hung out between my classes in college, reading textbooks and enjoying the presence of thousands more tomes. I remember savoring the puffy chairs and the quiet corners, where I felt very much at home, where I always felt a sense of mild disbelief that there could be so many books, all in one place. Shelf after shelf of them, with high, grand windows and long tables and gentle lights. In libraries, the whole world made sense.

I even liked wandering through the deeper parts of the library, where older books were stored on metal shelves, away from windows and people studying. On one rare occasion, one of my classes took place in my college library’s rare books room. There, we all donned white gloves and breathed carefully in the presence of magazines hundreds of years old, containing Charles Dickens’s novels in their original serial form. I was the student who, after class was done, asked what the oldest book in the room was, apparently with enough enthusiasm that the librarians didn’t just tell me about it, they brought it out to show me.

I stared in wonder at a prayer book, bound in leather, written in French, every letter and illustration drawn by the hand of a monk dead for centuries. But here the work still remained, somehow alive, propped on a wooden stand, handled only by white-gloved hands.

Perhaps this instilled in me too much reverence for libraries. Perhaps, when my messy, noisy, sometimes destructive little offspring enter a building which I know holds so much that is sacred and valuable, my tension rises to unbearable levels, and sensing this, they too become tense. Maybe that is why I must keep our visits so short. But I know that later, as they grow, these trips will become easier. They both love to have books read, and will sit for over an hour while I go through half the books on our shelf. Their love is already there, and as they come to understand the importance of the library, as they learn to read and the titles on every spine become legible to them, our experiences there will grow and change.

In spite of the trouble that we’ve had in libraries, I still love going. And my children, even though they spend only a few minutes inside, love coming home with new books. I know that someday their love of books will become a love of the library, and then we will go without breaking the magic.

Someday, I might even visit the adult section again.

How I Used My Bullet Journal to Set and Keep Writing Goals

How I Used My Bullet Journal to Set and Keep Writing Goals

 

I’m the kind of person who is full of plans for monumental projects. Just in the last few months I have started my third novel, scoured the internet for land to buy so I could become a farmer, and wrote up a plan for a wedding photography business. I am full of things that I think I can and should do. And when I’m working on those things, I work really hard.

The problem is that I tend to run out of momentum, and then I leap to something new before I ever finish something. Or, I have so many tasks to complete that I lose track and don’t accomplish any of them. I am a fountain of ideas sitting in the middle of a desert of finish-lines.

My loved ones have tried to help me. My husband tried to show me how to use several different digital calendars, but I found them inflexible and dull. My mother gave me planners and journals, but again – I craved flexibility. I wanted more space in some areas, less in others. A few summers ago my father remarked on a little book I’d started writing about my summer – a project he often assigned to his sixth grade class – by saying, “And as usual, Megan’s is beautiful, but unfinished.”

Ouch, Dad.

In this way, I have floundered towards my goals in haphazard, uncertain ways. To write a book, I knew I had to write, and so I did. And then I knew I had to edit it, so I did. But what about building a platform? Querying agents? Keeping up with reading in my genre? So many tasks necessary to becoming a successful writer went undone. And sometimes my random ideas intruded on my writing time, because I lost sight of  my ultimate goal, or simply got lost.

I needed to be able to check of tasks as I completed them. I needed to write down my goals on real paper, and break them down. I also needed lots of room to scribble down ideas as they popped into my head.

After many abandoned attempts at organizing, I gave up. It seemed that staying on task just wasn’t for me.

Until about nine months ago, when I discovered the Bullet Journal.

I’d seen so many people touting the benefits of their beautiful journals on Pinterest and Instagram, but I dismissed the concept as not for me. They looked so fancy and time-consuming, and I didn’t have room for all that nonsense in my life.

Then people in my Yoga group started talking about them, and intrigued by their conversations, I did some Google searches. As I looked around, I saw examples that were both elaborate and simple. And many of the bullet journals brought to mind the planners that I used in high school. Summer was wrapping up, and it was just the right time for some back-to-school nostalgia. I decided to give the Bullet Journal a try.

Now my little notebook is my constant companion, and my guide when I’m wondering what to do next. It hasn’t made me a different person, but it certainly has helped me become a more organized. I can confidently move from one task to the next, simultaneously working on a manuscript, social media, a blog, and querying agents, in addition to my normal life, without getting confused. I have the satisfaction of marking off very small tasks as I complete them, which helps me stay motivated when working on projects that won’t be finished for months, even years.

This is how I’ve done it.

Bullet Journal title

 

The Goal

One of the first things I did, after putting in my journal’s index and monthly calendar, was define my goals. Normally, I’m not very ambitious or specific about what I’d like to achieve with my writing, but on this page I went all out. I established that in the next ten years I want to become a profitable writer. Written out on paper, it looked a little scary and laughable, but there it was.

Goals
My goals page, spots, strange lettering, and all.

I was careful to pick a goal that I have some control over. I could have written out that I would like to become a New York Times best-selling author within ten years, but I have no control over whether or not that actually happens. That’s up to lots of other people, not me. I do have control over publishing my work, however, since self-publishing is increasingly an option.

Then I broke down all the things I needed to do in order to make that goal a reality. I included the tasks that I needed to tackle to get from where I was to where I wanted to be, like finishing edits and sending query letters. I also included building skills and creating a community.

When I’d made that list, I could move on to creating a more detailed break-down of my timeline. I set a five-year goal, a one-year goal, a half-year goal, one-month, one-week, and one-day goals. That gave me something to accomplish right away, as well as markers that I could check back with at different points to see how I was getting along.

Then I used my journal to make sure I was accomplishing all this.

 

The Days

For those unfamiliar with the bullet journal system, it allows for breaking down increments of time pretty much however you like. I keep daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly logs. Some people go for hourly – but that’s a bit much for me.

The daily logs are super simple. At the end of every day, I create a to-do list for the next day. And I like to include a lot of things, like making dinner, doing yoga, and writing. Filling in the little box beside a task is gratifying, so I try to include as many little things as possible.

Daily Page
That is my real life, there on paper.

This helps me stick to my routines when my days get hectic and unpredictable. Sometimes I don’t have time to write when I schedule it, but I can still give myself credit for doing it later in the day.

Because I make each part of the journal as I go, rather than having a layout all set up before I get started, I’m also able to include actual journal entries in my pages. I even have space to sketch and doodle if I feel like it. Best of all, my bullet journal doesn’t have a ton of wasted space, either. A day can take up as much or as little room as it needs to – or if I’m lacking in diligence, I can even skip a day without leaving empty boxes the way I would with a regular planner.

 

The Weeks

Every week on Sunday, I lay out my plan for the next seven days. This is where I’ll assign myself goals like querying, or make my editing and blogging schedule. I also have spaces on this page for getting down my blogging and general writing ideas, so that they don’t land on random pieces of paper that inevitably get lost.

Yes, I’ve lost a lot of really good ideas by putting them down on spare scraps of paper, or on random pages of a notebook holding a manuscript in progress.

I have the option, with the type of layout I use, of assigning a task to a certain day, or making it a more vague, “as I have time” kind of goal. For me, this kind of flexibility is really important.

WEekly Page
An example of a weekly layout when I used a ruler to make the boxes. I’ve had more productive weeks, but I wasn’t showing you one where I drew the lines by hand. I have some pride.

I also have a little box for notes, which is where I write down the bigger-picture tasks that I achieve throughout the week. Here, I put down the chapters that I finish, how much I revised, how many blog posts I made. It’s also a good space for capturing those “ah-hah” moments when things came together, and I realized how to make things work.

As someone who isn’t always very good at acknowledging my own progress and successes, recording these small steps towards my goal is important to keeping my momentum and motivation.

 

The Months

A lot of things happen in my journal when I move from one month to the next. At the end of a month, I use a page to analyze everything that has worked well in my bullet journal, as well as the things that aren’t working. Then I take that information to draw up a plan for the next month. I set small goals that will move me closer to my main goals.

Monthly Pages
I love this layout, so much!

I take that evaluation, and use it to set up my calendar for the month ahead.

As with my weekly log, I make goals that I can work on as I have time, and also write tasks that I want to accomplish on specific days. I used to keep a habit log, but I found that time-consuming – also, I frequently forgot to fill it in, so I let it go for now. Maybe someday it will come back when it’s needed.

 

The Year

The monthly logs are probably the part of my bullet journal where I do the most work and analysis. At the level of the year, things move slowly. But this is also where the large view of things becomes clear.

With the information that I collect in my weekly and monthly logs, I’m able to do a thorough analysis at the end of the year of what I’ve accomplished, and how that has moved me closer to my ultimate goals. This is an opportunity to celebrate the things that normally would get lost or appear insignificant in the midst of what I do every day. When I feel discouraged, it’s great to be able to turn to the page where I record all these things, and see just how much I’m getting done that I might not be able to see in the daily logs.

Then, as I do with my monthly log, I am able to establish goals for the year ahead. I can determine what I still need to learn and the tasks I need to tackle in order to get closer to my big goals. This year, for example, I’ve set a goal for querying fifty agents, and another goal of finishing the first draft of a new novel. These are tasks that seem completely overwhelming, but broken down into monthly, weekly, and daily tasks, they become very manageable, and I’m well on my way to completing them, in spite of the some unpredictable changes in my life and daily schedule.

 

Random Pages

I’ve mentioned that I love the flexibility of the bullet journal several times. It will probably come as no surprise, then, that my favorite, and probably my most useful pages in my journal are the ones that stand apart from the established layout. Because the journal has an index, I can use space anywhere in my journal to break down an idea or a problem that I’ve encountered.

Some of my random pages include fleshing out characters, analyzing problems with the narrative arc, describing what I want to accomplish with a manuscript edit, and ideas for posts on this very blog. My bullet journal allows me to step outside the march of the days and the weeks, without ever leaving those pages. This is a system that works very well for me: I’m not the kind of person who is able to keep track of multiple journals at a time, so I need everything contained in a single book.

When I’ve worked through a problem by writing down all its bits and pieces, I can then add the action steps to solving it in my daily, weekly, or monthly pages.

The Writer Considers the Journal
My journal, keeping me on track.

 

I imagine that if you don’t have much experience with bullet journals, all of this sounds way too complicated and unwieldy. I thought so too, once, but I’ve found in practice that a bullet journal actually simplifies things. That’s because it is taking all these complicated tasks, that often overlap with other complicated tasks, and breaks them down, makes them specific, tangible things.

If, like me, you find that there are times when you aren’t sure what to do next, and you find most scheduling systems don’t give you enough flexibility, then I encourage you to try a bullet journal. You don’t need anything fancy – when I started, all I had was an index, a calendar, and daily task logs. As I became comfortable with those, I added in my weekly pages, and then monthly as well.

For more information about bullet journals, check out the original bullet journal website here. And then, if you’re like me and you want some more visual examples, then check out Pretty Practical’s discussion on setting up here. Or this article at Buzzfeed. Or this very detailed guide on Tiny Ray of Sunshine.

Then give it a try! If it helps you get closer to your goals, then its well worth the effort. Or, if you have a different system of staying on track, I’d love to hear about it.

 

 

Green Goddess Sandwiches & Musings on Writing

Some people like to get a manicure now and then. Some people go to Yoga class a few nights a week. Some like to buy really nice shoes, and some fly remote-control quad-coptors. There are, I’m sure, a million other little luxuries that people indulge in that I know nothing about.

As for me, I like to cook. It’s chopping, stirring, baking, and the drizzling of olive oil that soothes me, that feels like a special treat. And then, of course, the eating! I have always loved to eat delicious food, and then I learned how to make food, and I became obsessed.

Cooking is such a strange thing to consider a luxury. After all, anyone who has to eat must prepare food, or find someone willing to prepare it for them. And yet, there’s a certain type of meal preparation that seems to be gaining value and appreciation. Creating meals from raw ingredients, from scratch, is a cultural movement, and one that I gladly consider myself a part of.

Whole Sandwich
Food – I’m pretty sure this is as close to magic as most of us get.

 

I found this recipe for Green Goddess Sandwiches. Not only are the photos gorgeous, the ingredients are also just the sort of thing I like. Crunchy cucumbers, smooth avocado, crisp lettuce, and wheat bread – I’m sold. I added the ingredients to my grocery list, knowing that the sandwich would take a lot of extra time to make, but knowing that it would be worth it.

The day when I made them was warm, and the sun shone on our back porch. The kids spent most of their time out on the back porch, or down in the yard. There is nothing like a day nice enough for Little Dude and Little Miss to go out and get dirty, maybe sample a few insects, move rocks around, and stomp all over the strawberries. All the extra space minimizes fighting, and pulling up grass can entertain them for a good thirty minutes. That morning I particularly needed the mental rest this provided, since I’d had a job interview the day before, and I was preoccupied with wondering whether or not I’d get it, as well as what all our lives would be like if I did.

Definitely not so many mornings of drinking coffee and writing in my notebook when my household tasks allowed.

Just before lunch, I pulled out the ingredients. I’ll admit, I hadn’t bought quite everything, and I wasn’t going to make up the excellent-looking aioli used in the recipe. The kids wouldn’t eat it, and I didn’t want to have to wash out the blender after I made aioli for one person’s sandwich.

So, I made my sandwiches with cucumbers, avocado, mayo, a crunchy lettuce mix, and fresh basil leaves.

I made thin, thin slices of cucumber. I just love the way light shines through them when their cut, that magical pale green jelly around the seeds. Plus, the kids love cucumber. Little Miss always calls them pickles, even when they’re fresh.

Ingredients
Food in bowls makes me weirdly happy. Just look at all that potential!

It always amazes me how many different things my knife can do. It’s taken years to learn how to cut up different types of veggies for different types of recipes. But this one thing, depending on how I use it, can slice cucumber, and also break down an avocado. A slice around that giant seed in the middle, a twist to separate the halves, and then a whack to drive the edge into the seed. Another twist to pull it out.

I scooped the fatty innards of the avocado out with a spoon, and then sliced it. It was just ripe enough, which is such a tricky thing with avocados. I’ve learned how to pick them, for the most part, but sometimes I cut one open before it’s quite ready, and the flesh is the texture of watery plastic.

I sliced some circles of mozzarella, too, knowing that would probably be the kids’ favorite part. Little Miss and Little Dude can eat their body-weight in cheese, especially fresh mozzarella.

I love the part of cooking where all the ingredients are ready, and then it’s time to assemble the food. Ah, look, here before me is all this stuff. Now, watch as I turn it into a thing!

For the kids, I put mozzarella and cucumber slices between two pieces of bread. Even that seemed like it might not go over great, so I made it even more attractive by cutting it into a heart shape with a giant cookie-cutter. Then I hoped Little Dude wouldn’t throw all the cucumbers on the floor.

For my sandwich, I added everything, piled up in all these lovely green layers between some lovely, hearty wheat.

The kids, amazingly, ate their whole sandwiches. Not a single cucumber fell on the ground.

And I consider myself very fortunate that I could sit and eat my sandwich with a book in my hand. It was as tasty as it looks, and the textures were just exactly right. I felt like, for a few minutes, I sat in a little cafe, with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris in my hand.

I’ll take some time with a perfect sandwich and a book over a manicure any day, but that’s just me.

Cut Sandwich
Perfect lunch.

 

Speaking of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris, what a great book! I don’t understand how I didn’t know about this novel before, because it is everything that I like. It’s as if Jane Austen had decided to write a book about wizards.

It is also a gigantic book, rivalling even the last few Harry Potter books in thickness, and with dense paragraphs. It might take me weeks to read it, and then I probably ought to get back to modern-day science fiction.

I’m still looking for a published book that I can use as comparison to the book I’ve written. Supposedly the industry very much likes when an author can do this, because it helps narrow down the market where the book will succeed, and it also indicates that the author has read a lot and knows what he or she is talking about. Either I’ve written a really oddball book, or I just haven’t read enough yet to be able to find its place in the literary world.

***

Last week, I didn’t write much, but I cooked a lot. It doesn’t satisfy my need to make things in exactly the same way, but it’s sufficient, and it has the bonus of being something necessary. The family has to eat, and I can make them food.

Little Miss and Little Dude don’t get much from the writing I do, except perhaps a calmer, more centered parent.

In all the preparations for my new job, writing was definitely pushed clear off the stove. There was paperwork to fill out, meetings to attend, and clothing to buy. And if there’s one thing that crushes all the energy out of me, it’s shopping for clothes. Trying on twenty different pairs of pants, none of which fit, and none of which I even like, drains the inspiration right out of my body. Several days this week I returned home from the stores exhausted, and unable to write a word.

Those days, I was glad to make dinner. I savored the roasting of chicken and the rising of pizza dough. After a few good meals, I found my energies recharged. Today, I’ve been able to write again, to further my story while crunching on granola and drinking coffee.

I still haven’t found a pair of pants, though.

Sandwich and book
Can’t complain.

Anticipation: Things on the Horizon

Anticipation: Things on the Horizon

Happy Friday! I know this is a day most people look forward to, so in that spirit I’m going to talk about some things things that I’m excited about.

Friday is not one of those things. When you’re a stay-at-home-parent, Friday actually doesn’t mean much. I am not going out tonight, you will find me home cooking dinner and bathing children. There will be no sleeping late in the days to come, no reduction in responsibilities. If anything, I’ll probably pile on some extra projects.

My special treat on the weekends is the chance to go on an extra-long walk while The Hubs stays home with Little Dude and Little Miss. There might be a Starbucks run and a trip to the bookstore. This weekend in particular, I’m going to get soil to fill my garden beds, so I guess that is something to be excited about, even if I won’t be sleeping in.

So here they are, some other things I’m looking forward to, and why.

 

Rogue One

The whole world conspired against me getting to the movie theatre to see this. There was an ice-storm, travelling for Christmas, and then a nasty stomach bug, followed by a string of colds that kept me tied up at home for weeks. Before I knew it, Rogue One was out of theatres, and spoilers flooded Pinterest.

So for months now I’ve been just about the only die-hard Star Wars fan who hasn’t seen this film. I’ve been over here losing nerd-creds on a daily basis. I think I might be in the negative now, and that’s pretty bad for someone who would willingly participate in a lightsaber duel to make Mara Jade canon again.

Seriously, Mara Jade is my hero, and I will always be in denial that she’s not flying around the universe, regularly calling Luke Skywalker to tease him about being a farm boy.

I was sold on Rogue One as soon as I saw that clip of AT-ATs stomping down palm trees. Jyn Erso and friends all look like a classic Star Wars crew of improbably heroes. So yes, I’m getting this movie today, and I’m finally going to settle in and watch it. I will probably squeal when I hear that classic TIE fighter scream.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

The TV show, or the book? It turns out, both.

So, I might have mentioned before that I went this really long stretch of time without reading any science fiction. I had Margaret Atwood on my to-read list, but never touched any of her books. I have no good reason for this, I was just very comfortably making my way through every single Terry Pratchett book.

Yesterday, I finally bought A Handmaid’s Tale, and I’ve already started.

Handmaid's Tale and Jonathan Strange
Also in my bookstore haul is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

By the way – it took me forever to find this book in the store, because it was in the fiction section. I know it’s dystopian science-fiction, just from the little bits I’ve gleaned of the plot, but like a lot of really excellent science-fiction it’s not hanging out with the robots and space ships. I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing, which maybe I’ll discuss later.

I’m a couple of chapters in, and I’m already hooked. As I’m sure the entire universe already knows, Margaret Atwood’s writing is amazing. She’s one of those writers who has that way of hinting at things, who can build a feeling of oppression and fear without direct images of violence. I know the kind of world her character is living in from just a few, carefully-crafted images.

Then, the advertisements for the show, coming out April 26 on Hulu, have me intrigued. Elisabeth Moss will be playing Offred, and I love her acting. We will see if I make it very far into the show, because it looks intense, and I’m known to cover my face during fraught scenes in shows and movies. I have skipped more than one episode of Game of Thrones entirely.

 

My Garden

I’ve tried to grow food in the past. One year, I even had a little four-foot square raised bed, with carrots and radishes planted, when all of a sudden we moved and I had to leave it all behind. The next summer, we had just moved into a different house, and I didn’t have time to plant anything in the middle of the kitchen renovation. This summer, though, it is on.

Bright Ink Gardens
Grow, my little plants, grow!

Every day, I go down into the basement to water my seedlings. There are Johnny-Jump-Ups, lettuce, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and flowers sprouting under a long grow light. As soon as I have my soil, I’ll be planting carrots, radishes, beets, peas, and beans. I’m so looking forward to summer sun warming my garden, crunching peas right off the vine with Little Dude and Little Miss, and having home-grown heirloom tomatoes.

As long as the squirrels don’t steal everything I grow. That has happened. But even one tomato from my own garden will be worth it.

 

Wonder Woman

So, I’ve been a geek for a long time. When I was in the first grade, Batman: The Animated Series was by far my favorite show. In fourth grade I picked up all things Star Wars. In Junior High I discovered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

And everywhere I looked in the things that I loved, I found women and girls in short supply. I had Catwoman, and the aforementioned Mara Jade. And even though they stood toe-to-toe with the men in their universes, they were still mostly love-interests and side-kicks. They certainly weren’t the leads in the books or shows in which they appeared.

To say the very least, I’m grateful that Little Miss is growing up in a world where a woman can be a superhero, and get her own movie, too. I have high hopes for Wonder Woman, even though DC so far hasn’t blown me away with their last few superhero movies. Come on, people, make this one worth my time, please!

Wonder Woman Funko
You can’t get Wonder Woman wrong, because she will get you with that Lasso of Truth.

Other geeky places where females are finally getting a chance to lead: Star Wars, Supergirl now on CW, and the upcoming Captain Marvel. It’s happening in more books than I can name. In fiction, these are good times to be a woman.

Hopefully, the real world catches up eventually.

 

Applesauce Granola

Earlier this week, I was just chilling at the doctor’s office, waiting for Little Miss’s five-year checkup. I picked up a Better Homes & Gardens to flip through, and I just happened to find, between a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey and an article about what to do with leftovers, a photo of some amazing-looking granola.

If you know me, you will know that I have a thing for homemade granola. I make a batch almost weekly.

And this granola looked magical. I scribbled the recipe down into my bullet journal, because I’m not the kind of person who tears pages out of waiting room magazines. That’s just cruel. Especially when you can take a picture with your phone.

I wrote it down, though, because it looks that good.

When I have my next grocery-store run, I’m picking up the ingredients, and I’m making a batch. It might become as coveted as that ginger-peach granola recipe. I have no idea. That’s the exciting thing about new recipes. It could be a dud, or it could be your new favorite.

 

A New Book

I started on a new project this week. It began, as it usually does for me, with the characters. Stephen King says this is wrong, but his advice that writers should start with a compelling idea, and then build the characters in later, is one that I ignore. If I’m not interested in the people I’m following around over the course of the story, then I won’t get very far. My interest will dry up about two chapters in, and then I’m left with this beautiful skeleton that has no flesh.

So, the characters come first. In this case, it was two people with a complicated and interesting relationship. I wrote the first two pages, and then stopped to find the core conflict of the book. I think I landed on a pretty compelling idea – I’ll only know a few months from now when I finish the first draft what it’s really about, though. I do know for sure that I’m excited to spend a few years with the characters I’m following. And the setting leans further into science-fiction than anything I’ve written in a while, so I’m getting to invent about five things a page, which is equal parts fun and terrifying.

I definitely plan things a little bit more than I used to. Once upon a time, I started into a novel with no idea what the end would look like. I spent years wandering in the wilderness of the narrative trying to find the central conflict, the thing that was happening beyond the character relationships. It was a mess. I’m still a pantser, but now I pick a goal before I begin my journey.

It’s good to know where you want to go, even if you don’t know how you’re going to get there.

 

So there you have it, my list of random things I’m excited about, in lieu of Fridays. Do you have any projects you’re working on that are especially compelling? Movies coming up that you can’t wait to see? I’d love to hear more about it – especially if it’s something geeky that’s not on my radar yet!

Or food. I will always get excited about food.

I hope you have a great weekend, and thanks for reading Bright Ink.