Friday, November 21, 2014

Ten Day Sprint

One of the most useful tools I have for myself as a writer is the distinction between a sprint and a marathon. A sprint is the specialty of the hare: a fast, concentrated, full-on race toward a goal. A marathon is the specialty of the tortoise: an inch-by-inch plodding forward toward a distant horizon.

I'm definitely more of a tortoise. Anyone who calls her blog "An Hour a Day" is a tortoise. I treat writing as a marathon, where I succeed through slow, steady, sustained activity. My literary hero, Anthony Trollope, was a tortoise. He even describes himself in that way. In my favorite lines in his wonderful autobiography, he writes, "Nothing, surely, is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare. The hare has no chance. He loses more time in glorifying himself for a quick spurt than suffices for the tortoise to make half his journey."

But this month I'm a sprinter. I'm imitating my friends who are engaged in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and trying to get an entire novel written in 30 days. Well, maybe I'm both a marathoner and a sprinter. I'm trying to get a sprinter's amount of work done each day, but I'm trying to be a marathoner and do it every single day. Maybe this is the worst of both worlds: the sprinter's exhausting burst of speed repeated day after day after day. Or maybe it's the best?

Because I didn't exactly follow my own plan in the first part of November, I'm now in serious sprint mode. I need to write 2000 words a day for the next ten days. This doesn't sound so bad. I'm used to writing 1000 words a day. But my writing group friend Leslie pointed out that there is a HUGE difference between 1000 words and 2000 words. Especially if that volume of words needs to be produced every single day. In order to do it, I have to put in a good writing session in the morning and ANOTHER good writing session in the afternoon No self-glorifying rest upon laurels for me.

The beauty of the sprint, however, is that its duration is limited. I have to work hard, yes, but only for ten days. I couldn't sustain this pace for much longer. (Even as I write this, I know that the vast majority of people in the world work MUCH MUCH MUCH harder than this all the time. But we writers are a uniquely whiny bunch.) A person can work hard for ten days, right?

Even marathoners can enjoy the exhilaration of an occasional sprint. And then collapse in a little heap afterward before returning to the tortoise's less stressful pace. I'm hopping, leaping, and bounding off to race through my quota now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Last June I had a new furnace installed in my house.

Last night the new furnace stopped working.

Snow was falling, and the outside temperature was heading toward a low of 1 degrees.

I was not pleased.

The first thing I suspected was that we had forgotten to change the furnace filter. We (read: I) have forgotten to do this before. One summer, when I had been living in my little house for two or three years, my AC froze up completely on a hot day. I looked out at my deck and saw that the pipe/cable/line leading to the big round AC thing was completely coated with ice. I called a very expensive repairman. He kindly informed me that there was such a thing as a filter on the furnace/AC and that it was supposed to be changed once a month. Who knew?

So now I did know, and I started changing it, not once a month, but sometimes, or rather, making my son Christopher change it for me. Unless I forget. Then we don't change it. And bad things happen.

I sent a delegation of furnace-filter shoppers to Home Depot. They returned with the right-sized filter for the furnace and replaced the old horribly filthy one. Hooray!

Except: the furnace still wasn't working. The inside temperature of my house had reached 59 degrees, then 58, then 57.

I began making phone calls, starting with the 24/7 emergency service number of the guy who installed and warrantied the furnace. I got a recording saying that he was unable to take my call at this time but would get to me. As of this writing, he has never yet gotten back to me.

I called every emergency 24/7 furnace repair number I could find in the Boulder area. No luck: apparently 24/7 doesn't include 9 pm on a frigid Saturday night. Finally, I called Precision (the same folks who first told me about the existence of furnace filters). Friends had told me, on that occasion, that Precision is too pricey. But guess what? An actual human being answers their phone even on at 9 pm on a frigid Saturday night. She suggested some things we might try before we went to the expense of a service call. We couldn't figure out how to make them work. And so at 11:15 last night, a lovely young Precision repair guy showed up to fix our furnace.

The problem WAS the furnace filter. With the clogged filter, the furnace was running so hard and long on these last Arctic days that it overheated and shut itself down. So it was all my fault, as is so often the case with my life woes.

The heat came back on: blissful, blessed heat. How good to feel warm air blowing at last!

Friends: change your furnace filters, if not once a month, at least once a season. It will save you frantic late night phone calls and a pricey service visit (that was worth every single penny). Be happy that you have heat. Heat is such a good thing to have on a bitter cold night. All the other problems in your life recede for a while if you don't have it and seem inconsequential (for a few hours, at least) even after you get it back.

Hooray for heat!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NaNoWriMo Faux

As some of you know and others do not, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It's an official program, founded in 1999 and growing every year, where writers - both professional and amateur - commit to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch during the 30 days of November. Many of my friends are doing NaNoWriMo this year. They announce their daily word count on Facebook: 1571! 2383!

I've never signed up as a participant in NaNoWriMo, but I've been tempted by the writerly solidarity it fosters: all of these people all over the world writing frantically to meet this arbitrary-but-crucial deadline of 50,000 words by November 30. The genius of the program is that deadlines do matter; they so often make the difference between achieving our dreams versus never even taking the first step toward reaching them. Support and encouragement are crucial, too.

This year I actually have a novel I need to write this month, so this would have been a near-perfect opportunity to plunge into the festive NaNoWriMo waters. I balked chiefly because I had already written the first four chapters of the novel six months ago, when I submitted them to my publisher for the contract, and the NaNoWriMo commitment is to write an entire novel from start to finish in that time frame, not to continue and extend a work in progress. So I thought I could sort of do NaNoWriMo Faux - my own knockoff NaNoWriMo, where I channel the energy and enthusiasm of my fellow writers while doing things my own way.

So far, I have to say, I do not have the word counts on my project that my friends are posting on Facebook. Fake NaNoWriMo is not working as well for me as Real NaNoWriMo is working for them (or at least for those who are heralding their daily word counts on social media). Here are some possible reasons why.

1. I have a lifelong habit of writing only around a page a day. Given that my handwriting is so tiny, this may add up to 1000 words, but probably more like 750.  So this would be a huge leap for me. Then again, that is the whole point of NaNoWriMo: to take a leap you've never taken before. Many of its participants have a lifelong habit of writing no words a day at all.

2. I write by hand, so I have the additional task every day of transcribing my words onto the computer. This takes a lot of time, though also occasions some very good revisions as I type. People who write directly onto the computer can skip this laborious extra step. Although I write directly onto the computer all the time for work, email, blogging, I've always written all my books by hand and I'm not willing to deviate even for NaNoWriMo.

3. Because I have an actual book contract on my project, I have the (very damaging!) thought as I write that it really ought to be good. That kind of thought works against NaNoWriMo's goal which is: Just get it done! Worry about how good it is later! So the nagging critical voice inside my head, which NaNoWriMo is supposed to silence, slows me down.

4. Finally, and most important, I didn't actually sign up for NaNoWriMo. Fake is never as good as real. I've become obsessed with walking because of my new little Fitbit pedometer which logs my daily steps and keeps a tally of them online. I forgot to take my Fitbit to Sheridan for my recent Wyoming trip; without it, I lost all interest in walking. What was the point if my Fitbit wasn't recording each step? Pitiful, but true. I know NaNoWriMo would have had the same motivating effect on me for writing as my Fitbit does for walking.

But the point of this post is not to convince myself why I can't do what others - many others who have full-time jobs and demanding family responsibilities - are doing. The point is to remind myself that if they are doing it, I can, too. If the real NaNoWriMo-ers are writing up a storm, this fake NaNoWriMo-er can, too.

Off to write!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wind City Books

I had the happiest possible stay in Sheridan, Wyoming, talking to terrific kids at three different schools, writing in the Java Moon Cafe, writing in the Cowboy Cafe, writing in the public library, walking along Goose Creek, and making new friends who are dear to me after just a few days, or even hours, together.

My travel plans had to change, so I ended up renting a car to drive home from Sheridan rather than returning by private plane. I started driving yesterday after my final assembly of the day, with a plan to spend the night in Casper and then drive the rest of the way home the next day. I am usually the world's pokiest, most timid driver, but it was so easy to sail along the deserted highway at well over the 80 mph posted speed limit. I felt like Mr. Toad, heading out on the open road in my gleaming new motor car.

When I arrived at Casper at dusk, I wasn't sure where to stay, where to eat, what to do. But as I turned off I-25 onto Central Street, what should I spy but a most inviting "clean, well lighted place": the Wind City Bookstore. It was open until 6. A parking space with no meter was right there in front of it. And so I went in.

Ten minutes later the co-owner, Vicki Burger, had called ahead to Glen Rock to see if there was a room for me in her favorite hotel (there wasn't, and she sounded as disappointed as I was); she had also given me a couple of restaurant recommendations. When I shyly pointed out to her that, although the store most commendably had not one but two copies of my friend Jeannie Mobley's fabulous book Katerina's Wish, they had none of mine, she ordered Kelsey Green, Reading Queen on the spot.

I asked her for a book recommendation, since how could I not buy something from the world's most helpful bookstore lady? "What kind of book do you like?" she said. "I like books about middle-aged women following their dreams,"I replied. She led me to a memoir, Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons by Mary Beth Baptiste. It's sitting beside me on my desk right now.

So if you are ever adrift in an unfamiliar city, hope they have an independent bookstore, and set out to find it. Right away you'll be home.

Oh, and buy a book while you're there, too.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

More Fun for the Same Effort

One of my projects for Act III of my life is to have a more efficient approach to fun. This sounds grim and actuarial, but it isn't. What I mean is that I want to see if I can have more fun in my life for the same amount of effort expended.

I first formulated this approach for myself when I spent last summer teaching at Hollins. One of my most beloved students, Amy, and I realized that for the same effort of meeting to discuss her chapter-book-in-progress we could meet while licking black-raspberry chocolate chip ice cream cones or while sitting in rocking chairs on the verandah. For the same effort of writing a chapter of my own book, I could write it in the Cups Cafe in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke, with a grilled cheese sandwich afterward at Pops.

Okay, it takes a little more effort to transport myself to the ice cream shop or the cafe, but for a tiny bit more effort I can transform an ordinary day into an unforgettable one.

I'm writing this from my motel in Sheridan, Wyoming, where I'll be doing two days of author visits on Monday and Tuesday. When librarian Jennifer wrote to invite me, she told me that I had three options for getting from Boulder to Sheridan (on the northern edge of Wyoming, just a few miles from the Montana border): I could drive (seven hours each way); I could fly to Billings, Montana, and rent a car to drive to Sheridan; or her father-in-law, who is a pilot, could fly down and get me in his little plane.

Hmm. Get more fun in my life for the same amount of effort expended....

As the weather was predicted to be a bit iffy for Sunday, Jennifer and I agreed that Pilot Billy would fly down to get me on Saturday, and I'd have an extra day in Sheridan to write (have I mentioned that extra days to write are my favorite thing in the world?). So mid-morning yesterday, Jennifer, Billy, and Jennifer's fabulously sweet, bright, and dear eight-year-old daughter, Paige, flew down to collect me at the little Rocky Mountain Airport around 10 miles from my house.

I admit I was a tad nervous about the flight, nervous enough that I did say a special goodbye to my family, assuring them that I've already lived a full and happy life, so they didn't have to mourn me too much if anything happened. But of course, nothing did. We flew on air as smooth as silk, in serene silence (courtesy of our headsets), looking down upon the Wyoming wilderness spread out beneath us.

Now I'm at my motel - not a motel chain, but the Mill Inn, cheaper and funkier than the higher-end alternatives. I already used my clock-change hour to write a chapter on my novel-in-progress. Shortly I'll write another chapter and then head out to wander around the charming town of Sheridan.

So many of my days, sweet as they are, blend into one another, no day much different from the next. They are days to savor, but not days to remember. Yesterday, for the same effort as an unmemorable day, I had a day to remember always.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why I Do Author Visits at Schools

In the mail this week came a fat envelope full of letters from second graders at Sampson Elementary, which I visited during my week of school visits in Houston. I've read them over and over again. Here are some of my favorite lines, with the original spelling reproduced as best I can.

Adam, liking my titles Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and Izzy Barr, Running Star, suggested I write Jackson Baxter, Writing Master. Thomas, hearing that I was stuck on a rhyming title for my work-in-progress about know-it-all Simon Ellis, suggested Simon Ellis, King of Jealous. Great titles, you two!

The kids always like best the ape dance I perform at the end of my assemblies (don't ask!). One of them wrote, "I was laughing so hard I couldn't see or breathe." Another wrote, "I almost did my scream laugh."

Blake told me, "You are one of the best athers I know. I have not read one of your book's but I just know they are reily good. I hope a lot more of your books get publisht. Try to get 20 book's or more publisht in a row that would be awsom." Blake, I couldn't agree more! I'll pass this on to my editor.

Jillian asked, "How many scools have you been to? I think you have bean to a lot! I mean, watt athor rites great books and do's not go to a lot of scools?"

Maria: "I think you are vary prity and nice." Aw, shucks, Maria!

Ava: "War do you git your story idews? I git min from my dog."

Sophie: "What year were you born in. You look like your thert five." I'll take it!

A different Sophie already has a main character for her new story: "Billy the Bad. He is vary bad."

Emily, a "shy arther" herself, sympathized with my report of all the criticism I get on my drafts from my writing group: "I feel like you in your book club my older sister reads my books and she herst my feelings a lot of times."

A third Sophie told me her reading goals: "I want to read more chapter books to impress my teacher Mrs. Hopper."

And finally, Madison told me: "When I get home I'm  going to write a book." Yes, yes, yes!

And this is why I love to do author visits at schools.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Yay for Cats and Dogs

I know the secret of happiness. Well, at least the secret of happiness for me:

1) Get up early and write on the couch with my mug of Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate beside me.
2) Go for a long walk in the beautiful mountains by my house.

Every day that I do this is a good day.

Every day that I do not do this is not a good day.

It is completely within my power to do both of these things, barring the occasional broken foot or other looming emergency.

So why do I ever not do them? Why do I look at the clock at 5:00 or 5:30, and say, oh, I can write later? Then tell myself, when I finally do roll out of bed at the ridiculously late hour of 6:30 or 7, I can take my walk later, too? The whole day drifts by in an unproductive stupor, filled with who-knows-what, and then at the end of it, no page has been written, no walk has been taken. Oh, the sad shame of it!

Luckily, such days are rare for two reasons:

1) Snickers the cat

2) Tank the dog

It's Snickers who meows to be fed breakfast at 5:30 a.m. It's Tank who writhes with joy at the sight of the leash in my hand at 7:00. Once I force myself out of bed to feed Snickers, I might as well fix myself some hot chocolate and settle down to write. After an hour of writing, I don't feel like leaving my cozy couch to walk, but I can hear Tank waiting hopefully at the bottom of the stairs.

So I write, and I walk, and life is good.

Yay for cats and dogs!