Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A labyrinth of ruts

Yesterday, I made my usual round of phone calls to various CVBs as part of my article work. I didn't want to get into anything in-depth so I could be prepared to do an interview on the spot if needed (which often happens). I stayed online, and soon I noticed a pattern: check AW boards, check NaNoWriMo forums, check About.com sites, check blogs, check new stories on Digg, read TMZ. I did this for hours before realizing it, like a mouse in a maze looking for new cheese.

I know I'm a creature of habit, but if I don't make specific to-do lists, I glaze over in front of the monitor and just hit every link in my bookmarks until something takes my attention elsewhere. When I sat and thought about it, I realized that I had an elaborate labyrinth of ruts threading through my daily life, from out-and-about chores (grocery store, discount store, home) to days off (lunch out, thrift shops, lottery tickets). My life lately has been wash, rinse, repeat, but I don't mind the lack of drama. Drama queens have no reign here. I just have to remember occasionally to get off the treadmill and hop out of the rut. And try to quit TMZ, that site is killing my brain cells.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Loosening my grip on reality

I attended the Ozarks Creative Writers conference this month, and while a lot of the sessions don't apply to a magazine writer, I occasionally sit in on the fiction seminars. I've attended this conference every year for at least ten years, and I've seen a LOT of speakers, some good, some bad, some informative, some not so much. So you can take it to the bank when I say that author Jodi Thomas is one of the best speakers I've seen in years. She's funny, helpful, has lots of tips for writers of all stripes, and knows how to keep an audience's attention.

She started out with a great icebreaker, telling everyone to just accept the fact that if they're a writer, they're not normal. Never will be normal. This was met with lots of laughs, and a few sighs of relief. She went on to tell the crowd that because they're writers, they have a loose grip on reality, and that's not only okay, it's essential. I won't give away the whole talk, so people can be delightfully surprised when they hear it for the first time. She's also interactive, going beyond a usual Q & A to giving little assignments and getting people involved (and keeping them awake, not always easy in a keynote).

I've never read any of her books, but I did pick one up after the conference because she intrigued me. Haven't started it yet, but it's near the top of my swaying stack of next reads.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Nano cometh

Only a week until NaNoWriMo starts! Eeek! I've sorta plotted out my novel about young zombies in love, but it could use some more outlining. The novel is called 'Working Stiffs,' and it's a tale of twentysomethings working, unliving, and loving in a mixed-life world. Imagine 'Shaun of the Dead' meets 'Friends,' with a dash of Kevin Smith films thrown in for good measure. In addition to that, I've got a kick-off party to plan, plus write-ins, so, no, I'm not stressed at all.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The end of the all-nighter

Your deadline looms, yet you are still playing phone tag with an interviewee, and the fact-checking is going painfully slow. Sometimes, you're just exhausted, and forcing together coherent sentences. Either way, to make your deadline, you rely on the time-tested method of caffeine and late night work. It's hard, but you feel a twisted sense of accomplishment at 5 a.m. as you run the spellchecker and get the file ready to go.


Years ago, I could pull an all-nighter with nothing more than an upbeat CD and some green tea. Not any more. After suffering enough misunderstandings and coincidences with sources, information, and the general universe to satisfy both Shakespeare and Three's Company, I found myself trying to just get the work done, push it through, and discover that little 5 a.m. rush.

Didn't happen.

At 2 a.m., I gave up, tired, crabby, and unable to communicate even with the cat. I must face the fact that, at 39, I'm getting too old to pull an all-nighter to finish an article. Years ago, no problem, and after a few hours sleep, I could bounce up bright-eyed. Those days are long gone. The only bouncing that happens is if I doze off in my chair, then fall out of it. I must accept the fact that my eyelids start to fall during the Daily Show, and the work has to wait. Oh, the humanity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Dis (and dat) organized

Yesterday I was looking at one of those car organizers conveniently shaped like the cupholder; it had little spaces for a cellphone, a few pens, and a notepad, if one was so inclined. It was irresistible, and my hand stretched out for it, paying no attention to my brain. Like a crow and a shiny object, we were drawn together, until my husband came past.

"You want to turn the car into an office, don't you?" he asked. "I swear, your DNA string has paper clips in it."

It's true. I get the same look on my face walking into an office supply store that my cat has when presented with a fresh catnip toy: incredibly pleased, and perhaps a little rabid. Notebooks and pens of all sizes, shapes and colors beckon, designer file folders and leopard-patterned computer mice do a little come-hither dance in their sealed plastic slips. I love it all, and I'm not the only one: an addict can always recognize another addict in Staples or Office Depot. We shuffle along with an armload of stuff, putting something down when we find a new gadget, doing that cash register math in our heads. Now, the stores take unfair advantage of us, coming out with accessories in bright, toddler-friendly colors. Binders have MP3 player plugs now, and backpacks have enough pockets to store a squirrel's stash of highlighters, USB drives, and other must-have trinkets of the trade. The best thing? It's all deductible, bwa-ha-ha-ha.

Yes, I have file folders, binders, hanging folders, Trapper Keepers (for those retro moods) ledger books, plastic see-through document keepers, index cards and boxes, plus two kinds of software that records every contact, query, date of submission, when I received the rejection or assignment, how much time I spent on the project, and what the weather was doing that day.

And the most updated piece of record-keeping in my home office is a small, battered, teal notebook with Scooby-Doo stickers on it.

It's a little hardcover, spiral notebook with 100 pages at best, and I spent a whole dollar on it the year I began freelancing. The notebook is filled with lots of essential stuff, like passwords for websites that no longer exist, the start of a family tree, Christmas gift lists, and detailed pages showing my queries and submissions. Each query page is headed by the year, and every publication or website that I hoped to sell to has notes written across it. There were a lot of 'no responses' and 'rejected' notes that first year, as well as a few mournful 'let go' scribbles for publications that I really wanted to land, but never heard from again. There are a couple of 'Accepted!' notes listed, hard to miss with the party balloons and confetti drawn in the margin. And as the pages go past, there are more assignments than rejections. I still keep recording my submissions in it today, because that silly little notebook feels like an old friend who stuck by me during the lessons learned: the editors who ordered rewrites, didn't pay me, or didn't publish the piece (sometimes all three).

Someday I'll have to replace that notebook, but I've never found another one just like it. With every organizational tool, tip and system at my disposal, it's that dollar investment keeping me on track, and reminding me of how far I've come.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Coming back into the light

For more than a year, I lived in some dark times creatively. The fire that fueled my writing had petered out to little more than a weak ember, something that wouldn't even burn your foot if you accidentally stepped on it. I kept writing, I had regular gigs, but the fun was gone. Getting up and heading to the computer in the morning had that same, dungeon-y feel as waking up for my old day job, trudging into the office. After a lifetime of writing for business and pleasure, I started to seriously worry that all my ideas were used up, the words fading away, and it was time to fill out an application at Wal-Mart.

I tried to rally, I really did. 'C'mon,' I'd say to myself (and drawing oh-so-strange-looks from passerby) 'You can beat this, and then you can write an article about it.' But my muse wasn't tempted; she had dried up, resembling those pitiful sea monkeys kids used to order from comic books. I isolated myself this summer, reading tons of books, and taking walks. It resulted in a few book ideas, but nothing spurred me to get up and actually start writing.

Then, a few weeks ago, the universe tilted. My neighbor's son, who is 13, started writing stories. They weren't too bad, and I wanted to encourage him to keep going, keep striving for success. I told him that if he wanted to keep writing, I would help him find markets. Problem was, what he really loved to write was scary stuff, horror for the YA set. I took my quest to the folks at Absolute Write horror board, and they were so kind in their responses, ideas, and suggestions. Basically, there wasn't much between writing kid stuff, and writing for regular horror publications. It got me thinking.

I am working on creating a new horror writing contest for kids, with the help and guidance of other writers. I plan to have it all worked out by early next year, so winners can be announced on Halloween 2008. It's been a blast, I'm putting up the prize money myself, and it has inspired me to do more for young writers, like contact area schools and get them interested in the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo (I'm an ML for my region) and also sponsor a local youth writing contest in conjunction with a local festival for next year. I want every young writer to have the opportunity to see their work in print, or win a contest, or be critiqued, or just be recognized. I want them to hear, 'that's great, keep going!' because those opportunities just weren't around when I was their age.

After I started working on the horror contest, I felt something. At first I thought it was heartburn, or acid reflux, or just the previous night's pizza catching up to me.

Then it dawned on me.

The muse was back.

I was back.

Ideas were bouncing around in my head like mutant jumping beans, demanding to be written down. (Write catchy slogans! Write about thrifty gift-giving! Start a blog!) Every time I look at a market newsletter, I'm filled with query ideas. Every end of the spectrum interests me (but can I really write quizzes for kids' magazines and light erotica for lingerie websites?). It's like having no appetite, then suddenly, you're hungry again, and there's yummy food all around you.

I had tried all the advice in the magazines to get my mojo back: write somewhere different, don't write at all, make deals with yourself, set a timer, just do it, etc., etc., etc. Now I realize that all those bits were about me; once I focused on someone else, helping others, the writer's depression lifted. It wasn't about me, it was about everyone else.

Helping others ended up helping me the most, a very happy byproduct of the process. I recommend it to anyone who's in the dark, struggling. Get out of your own head, and make a difference in another's life.

BTW, watch for the 2008 FangMuse Horror Contest for Young Writers next spring.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Obsessions: now? How about now? and now?

Before computers, I wrote in longhand, then typed it up, cursing whenever the small god of typos popped in. Back then, the biggest tech innovation was the electric typewriter that had auto correction. Writing was a sllllloooooooooow job, and my only obsession was the driving speed of the mailman. And pens and notebooks.

Ah, how quaint.

Today, the writing world has speeded up considerably. I rarely use paper envelopes or postage now; I get my assignments through e-mail, I turn them in through e-mail, I download photos from CVB websites, I upload them to the magazine's server, I even conduct some interviews through e-mail. I also check my email constantly as I work. That 'no new mail' icon is the bane of my existence as I juggle correspondence with editors, sources, my Nanowrimo group, and occasionally, friends. Do I have mail now? How about now? Now? And now? Is it there now? The internet has made it possible for me to turn around a 3,000-word article in a week, complete with five interviews and a folder full of research. It's also made it possible for me to get crazy quicker, so it's efficient all the way around.

The mailman's not off the hook just yet, though. Those checks still come the sloooooooow way.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Pining for the Insta-Brain

If I could create any technology in the world, it would be a device to record my thoughts when my hands are busy, like when I'm driving or jogging. One of the ironies of writing is that everything sounds great when its in your head; another is that cool ideas will always pop into your head when you can't stop to write them down. If I'm driving along, the perfect opening line for my article will zip past the inside of my eyeballs, and unless I repeat it over and over like some pleading mantra until I can get to a stoplight and pull out a pen and the back of the phone bill. When I do this, the pen will, by order of Murphy's Law, refuse to work, and I end up chiseling the faint outline in the paper, hoping it will be enough to remind me later.

But if I could invent the Insta-Brain 2000, I could just push the tiny 'record' button hidden behind my ear, catch all those thoughts, and transcribe them later, or even better, hook it up to a USB cable and let the computer transcribe it (a feature for the Insta-Brain 3000, perhaps). There could be drawbacks, of course, like forgetting to turn it off and it records the inner dialog while watching George Clooney, but any great invention will have a few bugs to work through. Just have to encrypt the transcript file, that's all.