Archive for February, 2023

writing life

Thinking Retreats

One thing I’ve learned from this workshop about discovering and using my strengths is that since most of my strengths involve learning, getting information, and thinking, I get energy from doing those things. It’s not just procrastination when I do a lot more research than I probably need to write something. It’s part of what makes my brain happy so it can do better work. That also gives my brain more to work with in thinking about the story, and it gives me time to puzzle it all out.

It also seems that doing the things that you’re strong with is a good way to avoid burnout because it gives you energy. I’ve almost always started a book project with a kind of “retreat” in which I read and watch stuff related to that project or that reminds me of the project in some way, and it turns out this is good for giving me the energy I need to dive in. But I think it might be good to make time to do regular retreats like this to maintain that energy. It doesn’t even necessarily have to relate directly to the book I’m working on. Just taking time to watch documentaries, read books on history, and brainstorm is good for me.

I’ve hit the midpoint of this book, and after a bunch of false starts and rewrites I think I’m finally on the right track, so now it’s time to figure out the rest. Therefore, since it’s a cool, dreary day (my favorite kind of weather), I’m going to devote the rest of the day to a retreat of sorts. I have class material to work through, and otherwise I’m going to find some documentaries and do some brainstorming while huddled under the electric blanket and drinking tea. Then I can drive forward into the rest of the book starting next week. It’s a lot easier for me to write when I’m able to picture what happens next.


The Star Wars Dystopia

I’m getting close to wrapping up my epic Star Wars rewatch, and something that’s struck me is how much of a dystopia that universe is. It’s not just during the reign of the evil Empire. The whole time, it’s a pretty unpleasant place.

Even during the Republic, this was a place where people were owned as slaves, and this was apparently perfectly legal. The good guys who were the guardians of truth, justice, and peace took small children away from their families to train them as warriors and allowed them no contact with their families. “Bounty hunter” seems to have been a major career field. There were crime syndicates running drugs and slaves.

Some of that may have been in the more marginal areas that were under less control, but the capital planet is basically an urban hell, an entire world covered in a massive, multi-level city, so the only people who get daylight live on the upper levels and the actual surface of the world is a dark underworld. This is the “good” planet.

I wonder how intentional some of this was when it was first envisioned. I’m sure some of it comes down to storytelling, since you don’t get good stories in happy, nice places with no conflict. The whole urban planet thing seems to have been an effort to make something look really science fictiony and take advantage of special effects, but I wonder if Lucas thought this was a nice place or if he was saying something with it. This is, after all, the guy who established his own headquarters at a ranch in the country rather than in a major city.

The people creating Star Wars stuff now seem to be leaning into the dystopian elements, acknowledging where the problems were. I got the impression that the sequels were about to really try to examine that, particularly The Last Jedi, which was pointing out that there was rot, whoever was in charge, and questioning some of the premises of the Jedi order. That didn’t get followed up on much in the next movie, but it seems like some of those questions continue to be raised in the other shows.

In a way, it makes this universe a better place for telling stories when it’s flawed and those flaws are acknowledged, but I’ve gotta say, this isn’t a universe I’d particularly want to visit. I would love to tell stories there, though, especially if I were allowed to question some of the things that underlie that world, even when the “good guys” are in charge.

writing life

Strategic Thinking

I’m taking a seminar/workshop on finding and using your strengths. It starts with an assessment that’s usually used in corporate and career-development settings, and then they apply it specifically to writers. This week I did the assessment and got the general results. To the surprise of probably no one, I fall almost entirely into the strategic thinker category. I’m at my best learning things, gathering input, putting it all in context, and then thinking about it (or overthinking). I don’t yet have the information on how this applies specifically to me as a writer, but I see some patterns that fit into this.

I’ve often joked about when it comes to the plotter vs. pantser continuum, I have the worst of both worlds. I can’t start writing without plotting the book, but then I don’t know what the book’s about until I start writing. But after looking at where my strengths are and how my mind works, I think it’s more accurate to call myself a thinker. I need to do a lot of thinking about the book before I can write, and the plotting process provides a framework to guide my thinking and make sure I’m thinking about the key things. Working through all the different story structures isn’t overkill. Each one asks different questions about the elements of the story, so each one gives me different input.

My plotting process isn’t really about creating an outline, and when I have an outline after distilling all that input and thinking, the outline is more of a guideline and a jumping off point than a clear roadmap. Each step in the outline gives me something to think about in visualizing what can happen. I replot so much as I go because actually writing the book gives me more input. I know more about the world and the characters, which naturally changes my plans.

And I’m this way in a lot of areas. This is pretty much how I plan vacations. I do a ton of research, looking up things I want to see and do and finding all the info I need about those things — operating days and hours, scheduled events, menus, reviews, etc. — and make a plan for the trip, but then once I get there and get new info, like seeing what things are actually like and stumbling across new things along the way, I may adjust my plans.

I’m not sure yet how this knowledge may change things, but being conscious of it does help. I know I need to think things through, so I give myself permission to stop and think. It does seem to have helped this week when I’ve hit points where I’m not sure what should happen, and instead of staring at the computer screen and getting frustrated, I go off and think about it, maybe while doing something else, until I have the answer. Knowing that this is all my process makes me feel better about it instead of beating myself up for not feeling productive. Thinking time is valuable working time for me, even if it doesn’t look like “work.”

I’m curious what I’ll learn once I get the info the teacher has on how these strengths are known to apply to writers and if I’m on the right track in guessing about how it affects my process.


E-books and Book Blurbs

I have to confess that I’m not a big e-book person. I’d far prefer to read a print book. I do love e-books for travel, when I can bring a whole library with me in my tablet. Otherwise, I mostly read e-books when I can’t get that book in print. One weird reason I like print books is having easy access to the jacket blurb. It’s easier to choose which book out of my library I want to read if I can look at the back cover or inside jacket flap to see what the book is about. When I’m scrolling through my e-book library, all I have are the front covers.

Then while I’m reading, I have a habit of flipping a paperback over or flipping back to the inside cover flap to reread the blurb. I guess it’s a way of reassuring myself about what might happen—is this character I just met likely to be a romantic possibility or maybe a villain? If the character is going to do something else big in the book, as mentioned in the blurb, that means they’ll survive this encounter. Or maybe this scene is going to be what launches them into the stuff mentioned in the blurb. I’ve caught myself a few times flipping my tablet over to look at the back when I’m reading an e-book, like I’m expecting to find the cover blurb there.

And that has had me thinking that it would be nice if the cover blurb was somehow in an e-book, so I could open a book in my library and see what it’s about when I’m deciding what to read or so I could flip back to it easily while I’m reading.

Is that something other readers might like? Because I’m considering adding that to the e-books I publish. Most of the e-reading platforms automatically open the book to the start of chapter one, so you’d have to know to go back to it or look for it. If it’s near the front, though, it affects the sample you can read before deciding to buy. You can see the blurb on the sales page, so that’s one less page of sample readers might get. If the book is automatically going to open to chapter one so that you’d have to look for the blurb, then maybe I could put it at the end, like a back cover blurb, but that seems weird to have the blurb be at the end of the book.

What do you think? Would it be helpful to have the book description somewhere in the e-book? Where would it make sense to have it? Or is there a way of getting to that in your Kindle library that I’m not aware of?


Seeing Ghosts

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a TV promo for a new show, and it caught my attention when it appeared that this show was about a journalist who talked to ghosts. Gee, where have I heard that before?

The show was Not Dead Yet, and it premiered this week, so I watched it. It turns out to have only a few things in common with my mystery series. It’s more of a chick-litty sitcom (though fortunately without the laugh track) rather than a mystery, and it is based on a book, just not mine. The premise is that a woman in her late 30s finds herself having to start her life over again after the boyfriend she dropped her whole life and career for to follow him to London dumps her. Now she’s back, hoping to pick up where she left off, only to find that her friends have married and started families and have moved up to editor positions in the newspaper where she used to work, while the only job she can get there is writing obituaries. Then she finds that she’s haunted by the people she’s assigned to write about. Each episode appears to be about her dealing with some issue in her life and the ghost trying to help by teaching some kind of life lesson. The ghost only goes away when she turns in the obituary, but then the next one arrives when she gets the next assignment.

In the two episodes that were on this week, she didn’t have to solve the murder of any of the ghosts, and she only sees that one ghost while she’s working on the obituary instead of seeing all ghosts, all the time. But since one of her goals is to get out of writing obituaries and become a “real” reporter again, I’m sure there’s bound to be an episode in which there’s a question about the person’s death and she uses the fact that she can interview the ghost to try to solve it so she can write the crime article.

Aside from the reporter who can talk to ghosts, the other similarities to my series are small. She does use pretending to talk on her cell phone as a way to cover up talking to a ghost in public. And there is a character named Lexi, but she’s not the heroine. She’s sort of the antagonist, the daughter of the newspaper owner who’s now running the paper. The heroine and her friends used to hate this woman, but when the heroine comes back to town, she finds that her friends have become friends with her. The heroine is still kind of at odds with her.

I’m honestly not entirely sure how much I like this series and if I want to watch it on an ongoing basis. I like the ghosts a lot more than I like the heroine, who’s a bit offputting. I know that the show is about her being a flawed person who has a lot of life lessons to learn, but she has a few Too Stupid to Live moments. I have a very low cringe tolerance and suffer from secondhand embarrassment, and there’s a lot of that in this show. But I’m still curious about how they handle the ghost stuff, and I’m worried about unintentionally copying something if I write another of my ghost mysteries, so I kind of feel like I have to watch so I know what to avoid.

If you like the idea of a journalist who can talk to ghosts and are okay with her not having to solve their murders, you might want to check this out. It’s on ABC on Wednesdays, and it looks like it streams on Hulu. If you want the journalist to be solving murders, read my Lucky Lexie mystery series.

writing life

Getting Things Done

I may have found the solution to my “getting things done” issue, and it came about because of my tea habit.

I’ve already found that I get more writing done when that’s the first thing I do when I get to my office in the morning. I leave Scrivener up on the screen when I put the laptop to sleep at night, and I don’t do anything else on the computer until I’ve written for about an hour. I was trying to do the same thing for after lunch, starting the afternoon with writing.

Except, I like to have tea while I’m writing. I do that in the morning because I just bring my last cup of tea from breakfast upstairs with me. Strangely, I feel weird about having my afternoon tea right after lunch. So I find that I just kind of goof around until it’s an appropriate tea time, and then I get to writing.

It occurred to me last week that I could use that time to do the admin stuff. Just because I start the day with writing, it doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing after lunch. My “get started before doing anything else” thing in the afternoon can be admin and promo work.

It hasn’t been a full week yet, and I’ve already powered through a bunch of stuff that’s been sitting on my to-do list for literally months. I get a slight mental gear shift from breaking for lunch, and I’m finishing the workday at about the same time because I’m putting a work task where time wasting would usually go. Then I get back to writing at about the same time I usually would start it.

This sounds kind of like a “duh,” but I had it in my head that I needed to be writing at that time, and for some weird reason that kept me from doing anything else until I’d hit my writing quota. We’ll see how the habit holds up. And we’ll see if actually doing all these little tasks makes any difference. I’m doing stuff like updating the older e-books to add new releases to the “also by” list so people will know there are more books in the series and in some cases even new series.

The new habit is that I leave open whatever software I need for my admin tasks when I put the laptop to sleep before lunch, or I go to the website I need, so there won’t be any temptation to do anything else before I get through that day’s to-do list items.

Learning Month

My focus for February appears to be education because there are a lot of things going on in that space for me this month.

I’m going to be taking an online seminar later this month, and I think this one even has homework. It’s a look at figuring out processes and productivity.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite features about Prime Video is that in their “shows to sample this month” feature, they usually offer at least one of the Great Courses programs. They have professors who are known for a particular topic and who have been recognized as good teachers essentially present their classes. It’s a semester’s worth of lectures, usually about 24 half-hour lectures per course. What’s offered on Prime is meant as a teaser preview so you’ll subscribe to the whole Great Courses channel and get all the courses you want, all the time. I enjoy watching these when I get one of the free ones, but not enough to want to subscribe, and I can get some of them through my library, so I just plow through the preview course that’s offered each month. It’s fun to get to hear the lectures without having to worry about taking tests or writing papers, like auditing a university class. Most of the ones I watch are history-related. So far, I’ve studied things like the Black Death, England between the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest, ancient civilizations in North America, the history of pirates, and Norse mythology. This month, they have two interesting courses, one on Charlemagne and the other on the history of anti-slavery movements. So I’ve got a lot of lectures to watch before the end of the shortest month of the year. I often use these as background noise, just absorbing the information rather than intently taking notes, unless there’s something that gives me an idea for a book I’m working on or a story idea. I keep a notebook handy in case something strikes me while I’m listening. I also jot down any references when a book they mention sounds interesting.

At the same time, I’ve been doing Neil Gaiman’s Master Class on writing, which is available through one of the streaming services my library offers. I can only get so many videos per month, though, so it’s taken me a few months to get through all the videos. I should finish that this month.

And that’s not counting all the books and other online lectures on writing and publishing. I should emerge from this month a lot smarter, or at least somewhat better informed.


Snow Day!

We’re getting our annual dose of winter weather this week. We had a severe cold snap just before Christmas, but it was mostly dry. There were just a few minutes of light snow flurries that didn’t stick, which is the best kind of snow. You can watch it fall and feel like you’re in a snow globe, but it doesn’t affect the roads.

This week, we have ice and sleet. The world looks white and pretty, but it’s solid ice, not fluffy snow. There’s sleet that rattles on the roof mixed with freezing rain. The white on the ground is from the sleet, and then the freezing rain coats it. We did have some snow “needles.” That’s apparently what happens when the snow forms at a different temperature in a different layer of the atmosphere, so instead of getting the six-sided crystals in a snowflake shape, you get these weird needle formations.

At any rate, there’s not really any going out and going anywhere because the roads are a mess. You can drive on snow, but there’s not much you can do on ice, in spite of what the Texans with four-wheel-drive trucks seem to think. Schools and a lot of businesses are closed. This shouldn’t affect me, since I work at home, but there’s definitely a snow day mentality. I find myself watching the list of school closings that runs across the bottom of the screen during the news, and I get excited when the district I live in is closed, even though I don’t go to school, don’t teach, and don’t have kids. It’s like getting some kind of cosmic permission to not go anywhere. I get a double hit of that thrill, since my house is the border between two school districts, so I also look at the adjacent one that’s across the streets next to me and behind me (I live on a corner, but on an inward-facing cul-de-sac).

I’ve been trying to write (well, revise, since I’m fixing the beginning before I can write the end), but it’s so easy to get distracted by checking the weather status, looking out the window, or giving in to the baking urges. So far, I haven’t lost power, but that’s a constant worry after what happened a couple of years ago. I’ve been waking up a lot during the night because every time my heater cuts on and then cuts off, I don’t know if it’s cutting off because it’s cycling off or because the power has failed. I then have to look at my alarm clock to see if the numbers are still showing (when it’s on battery backup, the numbers don’t light up).

But there’s a strong temptation to declare it a snow day and just curl up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa and a book. Maybe if I finish my work early I’ll give myself a little break.