WFMAD Day 30 – your time is your currency

My friend Susan Campbell Bartoletti has a new book out: They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.

You should buy it and read it. Five reviewing publications have given it stars (so far). Sue has written a fascinating account of her research trip to Arkansas to attend a KKK Congress. (They don’t call them rallies anymore.) She wrote four blog entries from 8/23 – 26 with details of the trip.

Thank you all for the questions you’ve been sending in. I will keep answering them in the coming weeks.

I’m impressed by all you accomplish: your writing, gardening, running, and family time. Could you discuss what you give up to make this happen -or- perhaps share your typical schedule?

This is an awesome question. And it has a partial connection to Sue.

Sue Bartoletti is one of the friends with whom I’ve had ongoing conversations (for years) about how to balance writing with life. And how to balance life with life.

If I do – occasionally – have my life in balance, it is because of friends like Susan, and Betsy Partridge, and Deb Heiligman, fellows writers and travelers on the creative journey who share my values. Lesson One: Seeking out kindred spirits is one of the most important things you can do for your own spirit and for your writing.

The second piece of my balancing act happened on September 21, 1981. That was the day that Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed as the first female Supreme Court Justice in the history of the United States. If you are younger than 40, this probably does not seem like a big deal. It was HUGE.

I heard the news when I was driving home from my community college classes. I was 18 years old. The news was so shocking and amazing and world-changing, I pulled my car over to the side of the road and cried. In an interview later, Justice O’Connor said (paraphrasing here) that women can do everything, they just can’t do it all at the same time. I think that applies to both men and women and I think it is advice that applies throughout our adult lives. Lesson Two: Most of the time you can’t do everything that you want. So you have to be really clear on what your true priorities are.

The third piece of my balance started on a very scary night in a hospital about 12 years ago. My life was completely out of balance at that point and (not surprisingly) I was sick. A lot. One lung infection got out of hand and landed me in the hospital, jacked up on meds that made breathing easier and sleeping impossible.

The old woman in the bed next to me couldn’t sleep either. She spent the entire night talking to the very patient nurse’s assistant who held her hand. The old woman talked about how she regretted all the mistakes she made in her life that had brought her to that point. She was dying and none of her children or grandchildren would visit her.

I kept watching the second hand whirring around the clock on the wall. By dawn, I decided to change the way I’d been living. Because, Lesson Three: You’re going to die. So you might as well take charge of your life while you can.

It did not happen overnight. I was very good at taking one step backwards for every two steps I took forward. But I started to write more. To read more. To vent in my journal. To think about the kind of life I really wanted to live. I exercised. I explored art. I made peace with some broken relationships.

What did I give up? I gave up the bullshit. I stopped volunteering for causes I did not truly believe in. I stopped watching most television. I stopped trying to mold my life into the plastic suburban dream that I had deluded myself into believing would fit me.

And somehow I wound up here.

How you spend your time tells you as much (if not more) about your life than how you spend your money. If you have to dedicate 40 or 50 hours a week to a job that pays the bills, or to the care of people who depend on you, or to your education… or a combination of those three things, then I hope you have the integrity to pour the right amount of energy into those tasks.

Most of us squeeze our writing into the cracks of time that appear around the edges of our major responsibilities. Your time for your writing is precious and rare. How can you protect it?

I promise I’ll post about my daily schedule soon. Right now, you need to get to work.

Ready… “I’m a rewriter. That’s the part I like best…once I have a pile of paper to work with, it’s like having the pieces of a puzzle. I just have to put the pieces together to make a picture.” Judy Blume

Set… find a quiet place. If you keep a calendar, pull it out. Just for the month of August. After you read the prompt, turn off the Internet so you can ponder in peace.

Today’s prompt: Answer the following questions:

In the last month:

1. How much time, on average, did you write every day? Every week?

2. What did you have to give up to do that writing?

3. Do you wish you wrote more? What could you have done to make that happen?

Looking forward…

4. Who are your kindred spirits? How often can you get together with them?

5. What are the essential priorities in your life?

6. What habits steal time from your priorities?

7. In anther ten years, which of those habits will have brought you a deeper sense of satisfaction in your life?

8. What do you need to change to create time and space for writing (and other art) in your life?

9. What is holding you back from making those changes?

10. How do you feel about that?


WFMAD Day 15 – Better Late Than Never

I’m late. I know. I should probably hang my head in shame. But I’m not going to.

Our weekend was filled with camping with friends and then today we had some family stuff that took up most of the day, which was way longer than I thought it would.

I don’t regret one second.

There are some things that you probably don’t want to allow to interfere with your writing. Like game shows. Volunteering for things you don’t believe in. Hanging out at the mall because you’re bored.

But in my book, making time for family and friends is of the highest priority. And if you are fortunate enough to have great relationships with your family and friends, they’ll understand how important writing is to you and they’ll cut you a lot of slack when you need it.

Balance always sounds simpler than it is, I know, but it’s worth aiming for.

Housekeeping – We’ve made it halfway through the WFMAD Challenge (congratulations, btw!) and I imagine that a few of you have questions for me. Please post them in the Comments section and I will try to get to them in the next two weeks. Thank you!

Ready… “The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising.” Stephen King

Set… After you send me a question, you can turn off the Internet and phone

Today’s prompt:

1) Make a list of the five things that you or your character are most afraid of.

2) Circle the one that makes your heart race and palms sweat.

3) Write a scene in which you or your character has to confront the scary thing in a very public place – filled with people – so you (or the character) can’t freak out and run away screaming. You have to interact or avoid the scary thing, but in such a way that no one else will notice you are afraid.

4) Do all of the above without using the word “afraid,” “fear,” or “scared.” Show the emotion instead of telling the reader about it.


WFMAD Day 9 – gunpowder and sunscreen

I spent the weekend in a haze of gunpowder and sunscreen, visiting the largest American Revolution reenactment in New England at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.


I visited this reenactment a couple of years ago when I was scouting out scenes for FORGE. In some ways, writing historical fiction might be easier than writing contemporary fiction. OK, not easier, exactly. Definitely more time consuming. And more maddening.

But you can make no assumptions when writing historical fiction; no assumptions about, say, how people pulled on their socks, or when they ate their breakfast, or how they greeted old friends.

In an early draft I’ll sketch a scene like “Curzon is seen by Trumbull. Tries to run. Is caught. Confrontation. Officer intervenes. Enlistment scene.” At first I picture this in a modern context. Once I have the actions and motivations of my characters, I do the primary source research that will enable me to write the scene in a manner that is as historically accurate as possible.

Visiting reenactments helps, but is not the key to all my problems. Because I can’t assume that the reenactors are getting it right. (If you allow other people to do your research, I can guarantee you’ll get burned.) But watching the reenactors has helped spark my imagination and set me on the path to some great scenes.


Here is a poem for you, written by Emily Dickinson. Read it out loud a couple of times.

"Luck is not chance --
It's Toil --
Fortune's expensive smile
Is earned --
The Father of the Mine
Is that old-fashioned Coin
We spurned --"

Set… turn off the phone, step away from the internet, and the tell the world you’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Or an hour.

Today’s prompt: Think of a scene or a story that you want to write, but that requires a lot of research. Jot down the central idea in a sentance or two. (If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, consult the list you made yesterday.)

If you had all of the time and the money that you needed, how would you research this story? Be as detailed and specific as you can.

Bonus prompt: When your fifteen minutes is up, hop on the internet and see if you can find affordable and time-reasonable alternatives to your research ideas. For example, you may not be able to spend a week hiking in the Abruzzo region of Italy, but you can track down people who lived there, seek out Italian documentaries, contact photographers who have been there. I find that if I write a rough draft of a scene, then write the specific questions I need answered (What was the procedure for enlisting Continental soldiers in the fall of 1777? What was the promised pay? Term of enlistment? What evidence is there that these rules were broken? Where can I find actual enlistment documents? Who has studied enlistments in the period surrounding the Battles of Saratoga?) it motivates me to actually do the research. And then I can write.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble!!!



I need a math geek who likes books

We are still slogging through all of last year’s math. (In addition to doing our taxes – always fun for two self-employed people – we are doing one of those Analyze Ever Blasted Penny We Spent Last Year things, in the hopes that maybe we won’t have to live in our grandchildren’s tree house in forty years.)

Oh, yeah. Party time in the Forest. ::serious sarcasm::

But I know it will eventually be all good, because I am something of a fiend for details and I like it when things add up properly on both sides of a balance sheet. It just takes me longer than other people because numbers are a bit of a problem for me. And yes, I do have an accountant. The thing is, if I show up with a suitcase worth of receipts and pay him to sort it out, I will have to go back to milking cows to pay that bill. So I try to do as much of the tallying as possible, then I sent the numbers to him (with the receipts to back them up) to properly crunch.

::sends sympathy to all the math teachers who turned to drink in despair when I was their student::

I have written a fair number of books in the past ten years and a couple of them have actually earned out their advances (for those of you who care about these things, the real number is three), so I am a delighted novice in this esoteric practice known as "having sold enough books to actually make it worthwhile to develop a royalty-tracking spreadsheet."

Only I don’t know how to make a spreadsheet. And Numbers does not have a template called "Lame Author Royalty Accounting."

Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Specifically, I am looking for a way to track advances, returns, royalties that comes in at different percentages ::shakes fist at the obscene deep-discount clause::, gross sales, and net sales.

I am hoping that one of you guys out there has already done this.

Second best scenario: someone directs me to a spreadsheet design and formula tutorial that will spell it out at the complexity level of a fourth grader, so I can have a little kid at the library explain it to me.

Can you help me?