It’s Almost Over, Saying Goodbye to 2017

What many people may not realize about being a writer is that it can be nerve wracking. We writers pour our hearts and souls into what we do, and if there is a single misspelled word we feel failure. It is not an easy job, but one that we all feel crazily compelled to do. We can be an insecure bunch of people, but we are not in it alone.

I am a member of The Insecure Writers Support Group, and every month we are given a question that we can answer in our IWSG post. These questions may prompt us to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. This month, the last in a very long year, our question is:

As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

The only thing I would do differently is to wrap my entire family in bubble wrap. Without going into detail, let me just say that seeing the inside of nine emergency rooms in twelve months is more than anyone should have to go through. (No one died this year, so there’s that). To say the least, this put a huge crimp on my writing progress. Getting a story out has been the last thing on my to-do list.

It wasn’t all bad though. I did manage to complete a couple of short stories, several blog posts, and I wrote everyday for NaNoWriMo. My debut novel, The Manx, is shaping up with characters that are living and breathing entities in a brilliant world. I also attended two writing conferences (PPWC and RMFW) where I reconnected with writers across the country and re-energized my creative battery. I also had the pleasure to meet one of my favorite authors, Diane Gabaldon.

At book signing during RMFW2017

My advice to anyone who is in the thick of life’s challenges? Get through it anyway you can. Writing does not have to be at the top of your to-do list, but sometimes it should surface to the top just so you can have a few moments of sanity. It is okay to let the words fall by the side of the road while you are trying to maintain a straight direction with four flat tires.

Say goodbye to 2017 because 2018 will be a better year. It has to be.

Thanks to our awesome co-hosts for the December 6 posting of the IWSG, Julie Flanders, Shannon Lawrence, Fundy Blue, and Heather Gardner!

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J.T. Evans

jt-evans-headshot

J.T. Evans stopped by to chat with us about his writing life and how he gets it all done.

KJ ~~ Tell us a little bit about yourself.
J.T. ~~ My Day Job is working as a lead software engineer on a set of international web sites that facilitate the purchase of training courses for other technical people. The nitty-gritty details are somewhat boring, so I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to what “exciting” things I get to do. The upside is that work takes me to Paris for meetings every so often. I live just outside Monument, Colorado with my wife of 16 years and my seven-year-old son. I do my best to treat writing as a profession, so I rarely (if ever) list it under “hobbies” anymore. This means my hobbies are Cub Scouts with my son, playing card/board/role-playing games, and watching hockey (I used to play).

KJ ~~ What are you working on right now?
J.T. ~~ I’m currently working on writing an urban fantasy novel while submitting some short stories to various markets. The novel is about an immortal Roman Centurion living in modern San Antonio, Texas. He works for The Ancients as a bounty hunter while searching for clues into his father’s mysterious disappearance almost two-thousand years ago. I’m hoping to make it into a series, but I’m just now starting chapter 4 of the first book. I hope to be somewhere in the late-teens in chapter count by the end of the month, done with the book by the start of February, and edit it in time for the 2015 Pikes Peak Writers Conference. It’s a hectic schedule, but I think I can pull it off.

KJ ~~ I see on your website that you have published a number of flash fiction pieces along with several short stories. For you, how does this differ than writing a novel (besides the fact that a novel probably takes a boatload more time)?
J.T. ~~ Besides the time commitment, it’s a matter of accuracy with words. Basically, it goes like this. Novels are words. Short stories are the right words. Flash fiction (and poetry) pieces are the right words in the right place. This is all probably gross oversimplification, but that’s how I approach things. If I have a powerful word with depth of meaning, I’ll use it once in a flash piece, maybe twice in a short story, and no more than once per chapter in a novel. In flash fiction, I try to use as many “kick in the gut” words as possible to amp up the pressure of the story in such a short time, but I can’t repeat those words. I also only try to explore one character, one concept, and one setting. No more than one of each of those. In short stories, I’m allowed a few more characters, but no more than two (maybe three) main characters. I also try to keep my short stories down to one setting, and around two concepts. This keeps my word count down. With novels, I let it all fly! I love world building, so that’s where my novels come into play. I get to explore (in depth and breadth) many aspects of the world through the characters’ explorations of the world.

KJ ~~You are a father, a husband, a technoguru, President of Pikes Peak writers, and a writer. How do you squeeze it all in?
J.T. ~~ There are a few factors going into play here. I have a great amount of personal discipline. It’s rare for me to waste a minute while I’m awake on something that’s not productive, but I do still schedule downtime. This prevents me from burning out. My downtime usually involves a quick TV show, reading while eating lunch, or playing with my son. Another thing that works well for me is that my corpus callosum (the bridge between the two halves of the brain) did not form properly in utero. This doesn’t impair my ability to think or act, and it has gifted with ambidexterity, and the ability to quickly shift from logical thinking (my Day Job and running Pikes Peak Writers) to creative thinking (writing). Lastly, I’ve been diagnosed with a rare mental oddity called “hyperfocus.” It’s basically the opposite of ADHD. It’s incredibly useful to be able to focus solely on my work despite being in chaotic surroundings (like at a loud coffee shop). There are some downsides to the hyperfocus, though. When I’m on a strong roll of writing, it’ll last long enough that I’ll forget to eat or take care of my body.

KJ ~~ What does a typical writing day look like for you?
J.T. ~~ For me, writing tends to happen on weekends or late in the evening. I’ll tend to wait until my son goes down for the night. At that point, I’ll stay up late and crank out some words. My peak “brain activity” hours are generally from 8PM until about 4AM. I wish I could stay up until 4AM every day, but that pesky Day Job requires me to be out the door by around 8AM each day to make it on time. On the weekends, I tend to write quite a bit on Saturdays since that is “my day” to be kid-free and do as I please. My family is generally gone Sunday mornings as well, so I’ll continue my work on that day until they get home. At that point, my wife will run about town on “her day,” and I’ll spend some good time with my son.

KJ ~~ Do you have strategies for getting past those days that are hard to write?
J.T. ~~ I’ve never had “writer’s block.” I have had scenes that I didn’t want to tackle because they made me uncomfortable to write. It could be a tender moment, something incredibly emotional, something complex in the physical realm, and so on. At this point, I’ll flip from the creative side of things to the logical and look at it from the new viewpoint. I’ll ask, “Why am I uncomfortable with this?” Once I’ve dissected the problem, I find the nugget of truth in there somewhere. Then I approach the scene from that angle and it works out well.

KJ ~~ What books or authors have influenced you the most and why?
J.T. ~~ The list is lengthy, but I’ll stick to the high points. Terry Brooks, Dennis L. McKiernan, Raymond E. Feist, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Anne McCaffrey are high on my list because of their incredible world-building skills. However, they manage to drag out wonderful character moments from the world regardless of what is going on. This fine balance is why they make my list. I also love building new worlds in my own way, so learning lessons from these fine masters is something I strive to do.

Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brent Weeks, Roger Zelazny, Saladin Ahmed, Jane Yolen, and Robert Asprin also hit the high spots on my list because of the true, raw, emotional, powerful, and exciting characters they create. However, these characters do not exist in a vacuum, so there is some world building in there as well. I aspire to create fictional people that give the reader an emotional roller coaster ride, so these are always on my shelf.

KJ ~~What are your favorite books that you have read simply for pleasure?
J.T. ~~ Interestingly, the author of my favorite book didn’t make the above list. It could be that he has not produced as much as the others. My #1 book of all time is The Long Run by Daniel Keys Moran. The characters in this futuristic, broken world are true. Not only true to themselves, but true to the world. It’s just an amazing piece of fiction. The things I tend to read for pleasure fall firmly in the fantasy and urban fantasy realms. I do branch out and read a bit of science fiction and horror, though. I rarely pick up anything else because my time is so precious to me. I just don’t know if I’d enjoy other things. I might, but I don’t know. This leads me to stick to the things I know.

KJ ~~ If you took a two-week vacation in any book or story, where would you go and who would you be?
J.T. ~~ Most of the places I read about in fiction are horrific places! Marauding orcs, horrible demons, power-hungry fae, and constant warfare tend to be the fare of what I read. I don’t want to visit any of those places at all. If I had to pick a place, it would be the multiverse that Skeeve and Aahz (and their troupe of friends) live in in the “Myth” series by Robert Asprin. There’s plenty of zany antics going on, and it all seems like so much fun.

Website: http://jtevans.net/
Twitter: @jtevans
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jtevans.writer

Chris Mandeville

Chris Mandeville

Author Chris Mandeville joins us today for a quick chat.

KJ ~Tell us a little bit about yourself.
CHRIS ~ I’m a UC Berkeley grad, wife of a retired Air Force officer, and mom of three boys. I grew up in California, moved around a bit with the military (including a stint in Canada), then settled in Colorado where I’m more than happy to stay. Once upon a time I worked in advertising (most notably on the Lexus launch and Iams Pet Food) and also taught preschool. Since leaving the paid workforce to raise my children, I’ve always kept busy doing some kind of volunteer work or other, including working with the Red Cross, Project Sanctuary (www.projectsanctuary.org), and Pikes Peak Writers (www.pikespeakwriters.com) where I served for more than ten years on their Board of Directors. Now I’m a full-time writer and president of Delve Writing, an online community providing boot camps for writers (www.delvewriting.com). I love to teach writing and spend time with other writers, so look for me at writing events in Colorado and online, or contact me if you’d like me to present a writing workshop for your group: Chris@delvewriting.com

KJ ~ What are you working on right now?
CHRIS ~ I write New Adult speculative fiction and currently have a post-apocalyptic under consideration at several publishers and literary agencies. While that manuscript is making the rounds, I’m trying my hand at something new: this week I began working on a mystery novel. I love reading mysteries but this is my first time writing one. I’m also putting together an ebook for writers: 52 Ways to Name a Character which is due out later this year.

KJ ~Of the books you have written, which one would you like to tell us about?
CHRIS ~ 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block
http://www.amazon.com/author/chrismandeville
This is a comprehensive guide to overcoming writer’s block, including suggestions for how to prevent it from occurring. It includes innovative exercises, anecdotes, and advice from dozens of authors.

KJ ~ What was the hardest part about getting this book from the first ideas to publication?
CHRIS ~ There was nothing hard about the project itself—it was a dream to write. The only slight difficulty was that occasionally during the writing process I missed working on fiction because the nonfiction process keeps me in my own life rather than transporting me to “somewhere else.”

KJ ~Where did you get your inspiration for this book?
CHRIS ~ Several years ago the Pikes Peak Writers Conference was in need of a workshop on writer’s block and asked if I could put together something on that topic. I did and “52 Ways to Get Unstuck” was born. The workshop was so well received, I immediately began making plans to put it into book form, but it took me awhile to wrap up some fiction projects before turning my focus to nonfiction.

KJ ~ What books or authors have influenced you the most and why?
CHRIS ~ In terms of nonfiction books for writers, several have been very influential in both my fiction and nonfiction writing. In particular, GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon and Writing the Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon have been invaluable. As far as fiction, I’ve been influenced, inspired, and instructed (as well as entertained) in countless ways by hundreds of books over the course of my life. If I had to choose just one, I’d say Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman stands out as being the most influential because it was only in reading this book that I learned to embrace my own voice as a writer.

KJ ~What are your favorite books that you have read simply for pleasure?
CHRIS ~ Iron House by John Hart, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldie the Caterer series, Faye Kellerman’s Decker series, everything by Jeffery Deaver, and I just finished –and loved– The Breakup Doctor by Phoebe Fox.

KJ ~What does a typical writing day look like for you?
CHRIS ~ I like to write in “binges” rather than for a set amount each day, so a typical writing day for me is to tank up on coffee at breakfast, then write all day until something forces me to stop (sometimes that’s making dinner or sometimes I’ll write into the evening). It’s not uncommon for me to put in 8-10 hours on a good writing day. If I’m on a deadline I’ll sneak an hour or two of writing into a busy non-writing day, but I usually plan my week so that I have the opportunity for a couple of binges. The only essentials—besides time—are coffee and my laptop. I can write anywhere, but my usual spot is in a comfy leather chair in the pub at my house. There I have a great view of the woods, it’s quiet except for the wind in the trees, and I have an espresso maker within reach. Heaven.

KJ ~Do you have strategies for getting past those days that are hard to write?
CHRIS ~ Yes! The specific strategy depends on the type of difficulty I’m having. Often when it’s “hard to write” that simply means I’m having trouble getting my butt in the chair and I need to clear the decks and put my nose to the grindstone. I seldom have difficulty being productive once my butt is in the chair and my hands are on the keyboard. If I’m stuck on something related to story/character, or if I’m having difficulty turning my focus away from my non-writing life, I turn to one of the strategies in my book, 52 Ways to Get Unstuck. My top strategies are to take a shower or take a drive.

KJ ~If you took a two-week vacation in any book or story, where would you go and who would you be?
CHRIS ~ Most of what I read is mystery/suspense/thriller, and I don’t want to take a vacation amidst killers, corpses, and danger! So I think I’d choose to go to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and I’d want to be myself. I’ve already seen how the characters in the Narnia stories interact with their world; I’d want to experience that magical place for myself as myself.

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Coming July 31: Anthonette Klinkerman (2 time winner of the Reader’s Choice Award) is the author of “Battle of the Grandmas” and she shares some of her thoughts about writing this children’s book.

52 Ways to Get Unstuck

52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer's Block (52-Ways Book #1)52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block by Chris Mandeville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fun, easy, and non-frustrating way to get un-stuck! I purchased Mandeville’s book only a month ago and it has already helped me out of several sticky spots. It is filled with tips and tricks that will help authors through those dry spells. Mandeville utilizes simple exercises that fit the needs of the novice to the seasoned writer. With chapter headings like, “Write Crap”, “Group Dating”, Nick a Name” and “Road Trip!” it is easy to see how fun can be put into a frustrating situation that many writers face. 52 Ways really gets the creative juices flowing again. It is a must for every writer’s toolbox.

View all my reviews

28 Days of Writing

Many of my friends (who are gluttons for punishment) participated in NaNoWriMo back in November (that’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you who are smart enough not to be writers). I, as smart a person as I am (and not smart enough to not be a writer), chose not to participate. November has to be the absolute worst month of the year (right after December) for me to write anything. So, I watched from the sidelines as all of those crazy writers pounded out 50,000+ words in the course of a single month. This number is another reason I chose to sit on the sidelines. To achieve the unachievable mark of 50,000+ words I would have had to have written at least one thousand six hundred and sixty six words per day from the first day of the month to the last. I’m lucky to get one thousand one hundred and two words whipped out on a frenzied day of writing. Therefore, I watched everyone else write.

I did feel a little left out of the whole madness like when Alice fell down the rabbit hole and everyone else was left behind. She had all the fun of shrinking and growing going to tea and keeping company with smiling cats while everyone else sat by and watched. What’s the fun in that? Recently I got a email from someone inviting me to a 28 day writing spree where participants sign up to win amazing prizes ranging from a huge “Atta boy!” to priceless webpage badges that can be proudly displayed with all of the other amazing writing awards. This I might be able to do, I thought to myself, until I opened the page and read the fine print. I would have to write a blog post everyday so that by the end of the month I would have 28 blog posts (29 if it were a Leap Year, but alas it is not so we are stuck with a mere 28). Folks, I’m a realist and I know my limitations, and there is no way under the sun, clouds, moon, or forecasted snow that I will get a blog post done 28 days in a row.

With my head hanging low I left that website and promptly forgot about it until yesterday, and when I thought about that webpage again I realized that it was the first day of the shortest month of the year that only lasts 28 days. In my usual state of elderly forgetfulness I couldn’t locate the email, the website, nor remember what the 28 Days of Writing was really called so in a rush to make myself feel just a tiny bit better I made one up. It is called (can you guess?) 28 Days of Writing and it is filled with only one requirement and one reward.

First, and most important, I must write each and every day of the month. It doesn’t matter if 5 words are written on Facebook or 20,000 in any one of the novels or short stories that I have in the pipeline. I just have to write every single day during the month of February. The reward? Well, this is the best part and, of course, my favorite. After all why do all of this work over the course of 28 days (remember 29 in a Leap Year) without some kind of reward? So, after much thought, pondering, and pacing around in a quick circle I decided not to decide what the reward will be other than it will be something fabulously custom designed.

“What?” you say, “What if I want to play your game too? If I can’t have a reward why should I play?”

My dear reader, I can only say in reply, “I hope you do play my little game. You will have a reward and it will be like nothing you have ever experienced in any contest you have ever entered.”

Your reward is whatever you want it to be. Give yourself a massage, a cup of hot chocolate, a steak dinner, or even a million dollars. Just spend 28 days writing and dreaming about what it is you are going to give yourself at the end. Will it be a new car, a new snow shovel, or a new pair of gloves? Consider a cigar, a top hat, or new shoes. Anything you want is the reward to you. No cheating on the fun. At the end of each day ask yourself, “Have I written today?” and if the answer is a “Yes!” then give yourself a gold star for the day.  When February 28th comes to an end take a look at your calendar and when you see each and every day shining with a golden star you will know that you have accomplished something that few can say they have, “I have written for 28 straight days, and I deserve something for that.” Then, on the very first day of March be sure to give yourself that “pat on your back” and place a golden star on your own shining reward. WELL DONE!

The Great Balancing Act

You have a blog, you’re writing a book, you own your own business, you have kids, you have a home, you have a life, and they all seem to run like a well rusted machine.  How do you do it? What is the secret to keeping a balance between all of life’s obligations?  The crank shaft in life is seizing up and you don’t know how to get the oil between the gears.  I have asked many professionals throughout my career, “How do I find a balance that keeps everyone happy?”  The answer is simple: set your priorities, make a schedule, and learn to say “no”.

Yeah, right.  It might be so simple for all of “them” but for me?  My life changes hour to hour moment to moment.  How the heck am I going to do a schedule of any kind when I can’t even get a shower every morning?  My three year old went dancing through the house one day singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiitttt!” to music she composed in her head on her way through the room, and you think I’m going to put any priority higher than my daughter?  HA!  You were crazier than I thought.

This is how I went through business and family life for more than twenty years.  Bouncing from one fire to the next and never really getting anything done.  The gears just got rustier.  Over and over I asked the same question, “How do I balance everything and still keep my sanity?”  Over and over I heard that same answer, “Set priorities, make a calendar, and learn to say no.”  Then one day I actually did it.

I had to take a look at balancing my children, my business, my social life, and my creative self (which is writing).  I found a simple grid to be the key for success, and it takes the lowest amount of brain power to produce.  You can even do it as you read along.  First get a sheet of blank printer paper and a pencil (no pens for this exercise).  Draw three or four columns and head each column with the things you are trying to balance.  Some of you may only be balancing three aspects of life and some four, and there are even those balancing eight or ten.  For the sake of simplicity, keep it at four for now. Examples of the types of headings could be: Writing, Family, Business, Social.   Be sure one of those headings is: ME.  You (that’s who the “me” heading is for) need to take care of yourself as much as you need to take care of the rest of your life’s obligations.

The next step requires you to have part of your brain turned off.  As they say in the writing business, “Just puke this part out.” Don’t pass judgement on anything you write, and don’t quantify anything at this point either.  Under each heading list every aspect that is important to that part of your life.  Let’s say you want to write everyday, call on customers for your glow in the dark paper clip business, play bingo with your buddies, and go ice skating with your kids.  List each of these under their appropriate heading.  Keep listing everything until you can’t think of any more.  Remember, no judgements no quantifying. Now, for each of the items listed under each heading, decide what is the number one most important aspect of that area, the second, and the third, until all of the items are numbered.  Take the first five items under each category and consider these the top priorities in your life at the moment.  Of course these priorities change second to second, but these are at the top of the list right now.  Cross everything else off your list until next week.

You are allowed pass judgement and quantify each of these items now. As you do, be honest with yourself as to how much time you really need to spend on each activity.  If you think you need to spend ten hours a day on building a better paperclip then you better expect only fourteen left to sleep, ice skate, and play bingo.  Be realistic with your time.  You need to sleep at least 8 hours which leaves only 16 hours to divide up between everything that is left on your list. There are, obviously, only 7 days in a week so, again, be realistic with your time.  If your top five priorities need to be done this week then choose a day and put it on your calendar doing the number one most important thing first.  If that number one thing needs two days to complete then be sure to allow enough days for the rest.  Continue this process until you either run out of time, or you run out of tasks.  If you have spare time then pull in something you left on the list that fell lower on the priorities.  If you get everything done early then reward yourself with a day of ice skating.

So, what kind of calendar?  I experimented with every type of calendar under the sun from the most complex, (complete with a rainbow of highlighters) to the most basic, (sticky notes were all over my desk).  After this not so scientific experiment, I found that my my favorite calendar wasn’t very complex (I hate to think too hard on this stuff), and each day did need enough room for notes and alternative plans.  I am also proud to say that I have graduated from sticky notes into the computer age, my Smartphone is attached to my Gmail that has my main calendar.  This is the heart of everything in my life. It makes sure that I’m not meeting with my publisher at the same time that my son has a guitar performance.  It also makes sure that I am spending the time I need (and want) for myself and my Bingo parties.

When setting time limits for each task you may want to question whether the time you have allotted is on the best day and time.  Do you really need to spend ten hours a day developing a clip color, or is it more that you think you should be doing this because you are trying to develope the best red clip before the other clip builders out there?  Yes or No?  There are only two answers and the easiest choice is yes, but the right one might be no.

“No? Really? Are you crazy? They really want an awesome red clip and I have to get it done now. I can’t say NO to my number one paperclip customer!” Oh, yes you can!    If you are serious about making a calendar and setting priorities, and getting your life under control, then you better be serious about saying “No” right to the bitter/sweet end.  “No” is a very difficult word to cultivate into our business life.  Many of us were raised to believe the customer is always right and whatever they need we try to make happen whether it interferes with our private life or not.  “No” is also the first, and most hated word we learn as a child.  “No” is the term that denies us of something we want and as adults we don’t want to deny a want to others so we just say yes.  It’s easier.

Let’s say your best paperclip customer calls you and asks to meet at the last minute.  Your knee jerk reaction might be to say, “YES, I’d love to meet you for a drink tonight to go over the launch of the red mini clip line.”  Yet, on your calendar you scheduled writing. By accepting this last minute invitation for drinks, you are actually saying to yourself, “YES, I can put off my writing time so I can have drinks with him even though I have 20,000 words to finish in two days.”  Stay in control of your time and your calendar.  Keep your priorities set so that you are doing the things you need to do, when you need to do them.  Consider saying, “I’m sorry I can’t make drinks tonight, but I have time on Tuesday at 3 pm to meet with you for about an hour.  Does that work for you?”  Re-read that.  Even though you have said “no” to your customer, you have also given them (and you) a solution by giving an alternative plan.

I have spewed over fifteen hundred words at you about balancing your life and your writing profession, and you might be feeling overwhelmed.  RELAX.  It takes time to get into the swing of setting priorities, keeping a calendar, and getting comfortable with saying “no”.  When I first started I kept track of every minute just so I could figure out where my time was going.  Funny, I found I spent more time on Facebook then I imagined.  No wonder I had no time for Bingo!  After months of practice and honing in on what my calendar and my priorities, I found my life running more like a well oiled machine. I chipped away at the rusty spots on a regular basis and, as a result, my writing machine started humming along without the loss of my sanity.  I’m happier, my family is happier, my business gets the attention it needs and I now write everyday.  Without fail.