Writing Life

Wrestling with Resting

It is Friday and I am taking A Rest Day. They’re hard. I love them, and I need them, but settling into Rest Mode is like dealing with new sheets or a new pair of shoes. Every single damned time I have to fuss with things and poke at them until they feel comfortable.

I don’t do rest well. It was easier–emotionally–when I had a Full-time Traditional Job providing a framework for my daily life. Even when my hours commitment and shift times changed week to week, my days off were generally predictable. Work had a defined location and set hours. I was on, or I was off, and I earned PTO I had to use.

So when I was worn down from a Big Project, I felt good about taking extra recovery time. The downtime was distinct from worktime AND it felt earned.

Side note: I know predictable week-to-week schedules are unusual in retail, but even when Borders was being turned to the Dark Side by its vampiric Corporate Hedge Fund bloodsucking board, it was still an unusual retailer. Also, store-level staff dug in their heels and FOUGHT on the days-off point every time their Inefficiency Experts inflicted Traditional Retail Bullshit on management.

Such battles came at regular turns on the company’s spiral staircase trip down to bankruptcy hell. But until near the end, stores had leeway in how they met their ever-dwindling, “needs-based” algorithm-driven hours allotment. And good managers understood changing people’s days off led to more headaches than it solved.

And when the corporate office insisted on a company-wide shift to a gobsawful scheduling tool, my store staff informed our general manager we would quit on the spot if she used it to screw with people’s days off.

(That same manager also refused to post schedules until 1-2 days before they went live. We used to debate over whether that was retaliation losing the variable days off fight, general lack of empathy, bungling incompetence, or all three)

But I digress.

I’m coming up on the 11 year anniversary of Not Working For Borders and still haven’t mastered the Art Of Not Working. I haven’t worked full-time for an outside employer since then. The external demands on my time are more fluid and mainly unpaid. If it seems like that should make things easier, welp. It didn’t.

My boundaries between “work” and “not-work” washed away, and I never properly rebuilt them.

I do not miss having a 40-70 hour per week job. I do miss the clarity. Where once I had well-defined defense against Work Ethic Conditioning guilt, something like, “I have disengaged from Employment Mode, therefore Doing Nothing isn’t laziness,” now I have only my own resources to fall back on.

(In case you’re new to this blog, I am three hyperactive otters in a hoodie masquerading as a functional human. My own executive functioning resources are, um, limited.)

Once I was unemployed, I mainly I officially & voluntarily shouldered most of our home-related responsibilities. (not the doing, that part is an equitable split but the brain-sucking Managing part of it all.) Yes, there was job hunting, but there was also the satisfaction of finishing long-delayed personal and house projects, learning about the joy of EVENINGS AND WEEKENDS, and in general, having free time.

That part was amazing at first, but it also made me antsy. Busy brain likes to be busy. Once I got the hang of a new day-to-day routine, I had too much time on my hands.

I started on Controlled Descent six months into unemployment in large part because I was BORED, about the same time I took on two small regular outside responsibilities–volunteering at the Botanic Garden and working very part-time at the local library.

Through the completion of Flight Plan two and half years later, writing felt like my primary activity, and that was a great groove. But there was still time in my days, so I added in continuing education and upped my library hours. Post-publication, things started to snowball, with professional networking, indie-authoring business distractions like marketing, conventions, and sundry other things like being a caregiver, house-hunting, renovations…and so on.

Somewhere in there the difference between weekday and weekend blurred, I lost the knack of creative thinking first and everyday necessities second, and I lost the trick of taking time OFF.

That got exhausting & frustrating. I wasn’t enjoying writing. I was exhausted. Obviously something was wrong. There was too much going on.

Also, I have significantly less stamina than I had ten years ago. Wrapping my brain around that reality was the first clue. Energy and stamina are not the same. I still have brain energy. But channeling it is more difficult because things hurt more, and I get tired faster and so on. So I cut back on how many things I was trying to do, and I started defending the creative time in my schedule.

It didn’t work. For years I tried, but I felt like a kid at the beach with a bucket, scooping up waves in defense of a sand castle. More time didn’t translate into more writing or more life enjoyment.

I pondered, and I ponderd, and pandemic gave me some time to unearth the answer.

My problem wasn’t a lack of time, but a lack of quality time coupled with a lack of rest. See, some people create to shut out the clamor of the everyday, some people get energy from creating. That isn’t me.

I can only nurse a creative spark to life when the ashes of the everyday hubbub are swept away and my brain is still & quiet.

In last year I’ve dropped not only activities, but responsibilities, clawing my way back to having less worldly stimulus so I can be BORED. (Spoiler alert: it’s working!)

Part of the quieting process is consciously scheduling myself rest days whenever I notice I am vaguely unsettled. Lack of focus & fretfulness is my early-warning system that I’m taking on Too Much.

My current peeve is that every time I think, “Hmm. I should step back and reel in my Busy Brain before it drags my body into the Deep End of Ugh-Malaise,” I get ambushed by the Work Ethic Conditioning. And when I spend my “time off” fighting The Attack Of The Giant Guilts, it isn’t so much restful.

Intellectually I know no one cares if I do nothing but eat bonbons for days at a time. (Well. I’m sure someone out on the Internets is Judging Me right this minute, but the internets hate so many things about me, what’s one more?) But for real, no one’s keeping score. Those who die with the biggest bibliographies, still dead, and all that.

There are tricks for getting around the guilt, and I’m slowly filling a bagful. One is publicly admitting I I do A Lot Of Nothing on social media. I do that so the world knows I want to feel good about it. it’s kinda like confession but with more affirmation and less penance.

And on days when I can’t convince myself, I appeal to my Generous Patron Of The Arts, who unfailingly convinces me that rest is GOOD when I’m jittery and my brain is foggy. Does he make that argument in self-defense, because his life is better if I’m happier? Possibly. I can live with that.

I spent yesterday dealing with dentistry, multiple masked-up errands, service people in the house, and an evening of online face-to-face talking. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much (and it doesn’t, to me) but it was enough to be Too Much.

Today, reading, napping, eating, and writing a blog post was just right. And tomorrow will be better.

Have a cute Pips picture. Until later!

Writing Advice

Gardners & Architects & Bugaboos, Oh, My

Are you an outliner or a plot-on-the-fly kinda person? Is one harder than the other?  Here’s one take:

GRRM makes pantsing (or gardening as he calls it) sound easy. Lazy, even.  This irks me. (He considers himself a gardener by the way.)

He is doing his own work a disservice by belittling the effort that goes into his creations. This comparison is nothing more than architectural snobbery. The implication that architects plan first and gardeners do not — it’s not even true. Worse, the comparison leads to the false impression that some writers work harder than others.

Gardeners are architects. Gardening is exactly like planning and constructing a beautiful  home that must last as long as any building, and more than that, it’s creating a work of art that must retain its beauty and complexity despite changing on its own year by year as everything in it grows and dies back in inherently unpredictable ways. Discovery writers — the more accepted label for the process GRRM compares to gardening — have to be as structured and as meticulous as any work done by those who follow the architectural Outlining tradition.

It’s all about where and how that structure occurs. The outliner puts all that rigor on the surface where it’s visible. A discovery writer is putting down deep roots long before the first seedling shows.

Also, a gardener who only puts something in a hole to see what comes up isn’t going to get results without fertilizing, watering, trimming, weeding, and pruning. The writer who sits down and starts writing to see what comes out onto the page is manipulating a million incredible concepts and issues all at once.  Discovery writing is messy and muddy, but under the surface it’s a hard discipline. It’s a process of waiting for ideas to mature and rise out of the deep subconscious and then capturing epiphanies as fragile as soap bubbles (or dandelion fluff, to hold the vegetative analogy) within cages of words. Then each idea must be weighed and trimmed to fit in with all the other existing words and ideas.

Downplaying the effort required to pull off discovery writing  plays into the myth that Real Art is all talent and no work. Not only is that myth insulting to all the people who spend thousands of hours perfecting their craft, but it’s also used to excuse devaluing the product of all that work.

I’m disappointed to see someone as prominent in the public eye as George R. R. Martin propagating the false image of discovery writing being imagination put to page as easily as digging a hole. Self-deprecation is all well and good, but it’s misplaced humility that harms everyone who chooses to dig for stories rather than build them on a scaffold.


Writing Advice

How to Know Someone Famous

Do you know J. K. Rowling? Neil Gaiman?

No? Me neither.

I know the settings they created as well as I know any place on the solid spinning world my body inhabits, but I’ve never met them. I know their characters with an intimacy I can’t claim of most living, breathing people, but I can’t claim to know more about the creators than their names. I’ve lived in their worlds, I have conversed about their stories and shared my love of their universes with hundreds of people over the years, but I know the writers not at all.

I don’t know those famous authors, but I’ve sold their books to friends, to family, to total strangers perusing cover blurbs near me in bookstores. When an author captures my imagination and holds it hostage, I ransom it back with my recommendations. Joy shared is joy multiplied beyond measure, and when a story brings me happiness, I want someone to hold my hands while I jump up and down making squeaky gleeful noises.

Nothing sells like satisfaction. I am an enthusiastic fan, and I share my passions. I sell Neil Gaiman’s books; American Gods in particular.  I sell Harry Potter like crazy.

“J. K. Rowling hardly needs your help,” some may say, scoffing in that snooty, sneering, internetty way, “nor does Neil Gaiman. Everyone knows them. They’re bestsellers. They’re award-winners.”

As usual, my strawman brings up a lovely point for me to knock down and flame to ashes. It’s true that J. K. Rowling needs no help now, but how did she get to be a bestseller? (Hint: not because her writing is good. It is, but that isn’t the secret.) I’ll give everyone a second to ponder the conundrum.

The answer is this:  J.K Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and hundreds like them became bestselling authors because people bought their books. Period. Not so long ago, no one knew who J. K. Rowling was. When HP1 came out there was no fanfare. NONE. Not even great reviews. Not bad ones, but not gushing raves, either. I was selling books for a living at the time. Crickets.

Best-selling authors become famous because enough readers discovered an unknown writer whose words spoke to them. Those readers recommended the work to other people who read and recommended it. And so on. When enough people noticed, it got onto lists where it was noticed by more people who picked it up from curiosity, and then it was famous, and being famous leads to being noticed for being famous…and the authors never looked back.
That’s how it works.

The enthusiasm of a trusted friend can make up for a bad cover, a dull blurb, and even a questionable first chapter or two. If someone I respect says, Yes, really, it’s worth a look, I will spend my precious time to puzzle out where that worthiness lies. Honestly, it’s the main way a lot of introverted readers like me socialize. Shared reading lists give us common experiences without all that pesky human interaction. All it takes to make book famous is enough people putting that power to use.

It’s fun, too. You earn bragging rights. I was pushing Jim Butcher from Dresden Files Book 2, and pointing people to Laurell K. Hamilton back in the days when some librarians put her books into the YA section. (Seriously.) I sold George R. R. Martin when Game of Thrones was in a plain silver wrapper.

I’m not saying I made them famous. I did not. No one person can accomplish that task. (Although someone with money to burn and an existing media platform can come close. See: Oprah Winfrey.) I didn’t do it alone, but it was the work of the people who took recommendations and made recommendations in turn, and the people who took their recommendations, and so on. Sharing is caring.

Word. Of. Mouth. Handselling. Pass it on. It’s that simple, not that simple means easy. Visibility in the arts doesn’t happen by magic. It only happens when people care enough to do work on behalf of the writers/musicians/artists they know and love.  You know that incredible artist who does napkin sketches at the bar. You know the singer who does the bar circuit? You know a writer who self-publishes? You knew ten of them? You do. I know you do. We all do. Never underestimate your power to start unstoppable momentum on their behalf.

See where I’m going with all this yet?

Maybe you don’t dish gossip with Neil Gaiman, maybe you don’t  hang out with J. K. Rowling, but you do know at least one author.

(Hint: you know me.)

Beyonce says, if you love it, put a ring on it. I say, if you love it, sell it.

Buy, love, share, repeat. You will know someone famous, someday.


Authoring Writing Advice

Electronic Publishing For Smartypants

Today’s installment of Inside Karen’s Head is about ebook production. I refuse to call it “For Dummies,” and not because I’m afraid of copyright infringement. I don’t like the phrase’s implicit judgment that people who want to learn are stupid. Ignorance is not stupidity. Stupid people don’t seek out knowledge. /mini-rant.

I don’t sell much, but I have collected a lot of experience on the make-and-sell side of ebook publishing.  I’ve decided to throw some knowledge up here before I forget it all. I have a memory like a steel sieve, and months pass between completing projects. Details disappear. Notes disappear. Memory fades. My computer implodes. The internet is the one thing I can’t quite manage to lose or destroy.

This isn’t a how-to. Other people have done those, much more concisely than I will ever do. Exercise your Google-fu if you need specific assistance. I’m providing an overview and a healthy dose of my opinions about the three systems I’ve used. My main point: you don’t have to be a techhead to self-publish. You do need to be patient with yourself and develop your ability to meticulously follow instructions. That’s not a snark comment. It’s hard to follow step-by-step directions. It’s even harder to write good ones.

My process, such as it is, is set in a solid foundation of miserly laziness and errant curiosity. I’m too much of a cheapskate to pay for someone or some program to convert my manuscript for me. Thus, I learned to format and upload my own manuscript files directly to sales channels. I’m too slothful to keep track of more than two channels, so I picked Smashwords as a Davidly alternative to the Goliath of Kindle Direct Publishing. And then, because I like to fuss and play and learn, I’ve also learned to format ebooks directly using a conversion program .

Let’s look at that last one first. Calibre is a free computer program marketed as a way to “manage your ebook library.” This means, “I bought a Kindle book, but I want to read it on my Nook.”  It converts things from one format to another. From Calibre’s  excellent instruction manual, I learned an interesting trivia tidbit: all ebook formats are basically HTML files like a web page, only dressed up in a lot of fancy clothes. Who knew, right?  Calibre lets you create a new wardrobe, so to speak.

You import a document file saved as HTML and then…well, it is a bit techie, I guess. I poked around  until I got a consistent output I liked, and now I follow a rote routine. The instructions are clear, there is a help feature,  are plenty of online tutorials, and every little option in the program is tagged with immensely useful help icons that list directions and suggest actions. I’ve rarely seen such a complex program so well designed.

Second, let’s talk about Kindle Direct Publishing. This is the 600 lb gorilla of ebook publishing. Theoretically you can upload doc, rtf, docx, or PDFs straight to to their formatter, and it’s fairly forgiving about accepting whatever you upload.   THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING. The burden is on the author to make sure the results are readable. Your beautiful manuscript may become a thoroughly mangled ebook. KDP does not care. I use Word for Mac. Don’t judge. (You did read the words laziness and cheapskate, right? It was free.) I’ve been using Word for decades. I could switch to Pages or OpenOffice, which are also free, but they are just as twitchy in their own ways as Word, and I’m used to the the devil I know. I would have to learn new things that aren’t interesting and forget all my Word-related tricks. Nope.

But I digress. My point is this: my edition of Word for Mac and KDP do not play well together.  Mac PDFs are ridiculous huge and give KDP fits. It ignores my docx files and turns my doc files into gibberish. Soooo…..I use Calibre to turn my docs into .mobi files and upload those to KDP instead. So far, that’s worked fine. I strongly suggest checking your KDP results on every version of Kindle you can test. Enlist friends to help. Your work is judged by its appearance. Make sure your hair is combed and your fly is zipped. So to speak. The formatting and set-up instructions on KDP are recursive, obscure, and so maddening that I suspect deliberate gaslighting.  Luckily for authorial sanity, advice and step-by-step instructions are available from the Amazon author community and a half million blogs. Search engines are the author’s lifeline.

Third, I’ll mention They’re an online ebook distributor. Authors open accounts, set up a profile page and upload manuscript files to be converted by Smashwords into as many output formats as the author likes. I use them for every retailer outlet except Amazon. When discussing their ebook converter, the word idiosyncratic springs to mind. Also, obsolete, irritating and inflexible. You can upload a few different word processor-friendly formats like rtf or doc, but the converter is called the “Meatgrinder” for a reason.  My opinion? They aren’t keeping up with advances in ebook production technology– any formatter that won’t even look at docx files is behind the times.

I’ve had no success uploading any Word file that’s been revised more than once.   If you follow their extensive step-by-step instructions precisely, you’ll be fine, but I cannot fathom spending the time to strip my files of ALL formatting and reformatting from scratch merely to please their archaic system. I cheat and upload epubs I make with Calibre. Their troubleshooting and support are timely and effective. Mileage may vary, of course

Once you get your file past the automated formatter,  Smashwords then offers your work for downloading directly on the site, but far more importantly, it handles all aspects of distribution to a ton of outlets like Scribd & Oyster. Uploading is free, profits from direct sales & distribution are priced on percentage. I like it for the additional exposure, and as venue for getting my free short works to readers. I don’t think it’s generating sales, though, and I doubt I will use it in the future for anything that I want to sell strictly as an ebook.

Lastly, I know several writers who swear by Scrivener, which is a hybrid animal of a Writing Program. Word processor. Outline generator. Mind map maker. Formatter.  I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, so its many organizational bells & whistles aren’t worth the cost for me. It’s reputed to make the ebook conversion process easy (so say those I know who use it and swear by it.)  I think its screen is cluttered with daunting, distracting, extraneous crap, but again, that’s me. If you don’t want to muck about with the minutiae of formatting, I’m told Scrivener is a good option there as well, producing clean copies of all kinds of upload-ready formats.

Choose your toys and play wisely with them, so that your writing can be enjoyed by others. That’s the point, in the long run.



Writing Advice

Writing & Self-Publishing: Lessons Learned

Flight Plan hits print-on-page September 30. Trees will once again die for my imperfect art. Yes, I know, I published an ebook edition in December 2013, but that was then, and this is now. This is paperback. I incorporated reader suggestions, revised details and re-edited. I doubt most people would notice the changes (other than the typo fixes) but I know they’re there. My second-born brainbaby will become be a Real Book at last. Pinocchio, eat your heart out.
What’s that? That’s the wrong way to go about self-publishing a book? All that revision work should have been done before publication?  Oh, and I should have put out print and ebook simultaneously, not to mention promoting the release for months beforehand, after building up a fanbase through social media? Well, yes. You’re right. Over the last 9 months, I’ve learned that I do pretty much everything wrong that possibly can be done wrong when it comes to self-publishing, according to The Experts.
For some inexplicable reason, this makes me feel proud, rather than ashamed of my failure. Live and learn, to me means Do it, and see what happens. My inner toddler and I, we’re on excellent terms. She is fearless. I am not. Sometimes, I am wise enough to let the toddler lead. I never would have learned how publishing works if I hadn’t gone ahead and done it, stumbling my way through the process and learning how to stand by falling. By e-publishing first,  only pixels were punished for my sins. 

Plus, let’s be honest, my books wouldn’t leap off the shelves even if I aced every aspect of their presentation. I am indescribably proud of my brainbabies, but I am not blind to their flaws. My stories were not designed for commercial or literary success. They aren’t instantly appealing. They’re not catchy, pithy, erotic, or action-packed. They’re possibly stories that only their mother will love. 

I may never sell another copy of either book. Having them run free in the world is still better than forcing them to live out their lives in the lonely splendor of my computer. They’re out there to be discovered. That’s something. It may be everything. It’s enough.

I am grateful to everyone who’s stuck with me through this amazing learning experience, and humbled by the encouragement I’ve received from those who discovered me through my work. I do hope to reach one or two more readers for my quirky optimistic take on a gritty, downbeat dystopian future. I’ll keep plugging away at writing and sharing in my own exploratory, erratic, eccentric, stubborn way. 

And hey, you know what? You know a Real Author. You have bragging rights. Tell friends, enemies and total strangers about my fabulous books and your favorite characters. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: readers are the ones who make the magic. I can bring words to life, but readers are the reason they live and breathe.