Goodbye UCLA

UCLA extension writing groupThis evening is my last UCLA Extension class for the foreseeable future. Over the past six months, I’ve taken two extension courses, Novel IV and Novel V, with Mark Sarvas, and they have both been great classes.

I have mixed feelings about being done. Sarvas is offering a revisions class over the summer, but I didn’t sign up. I would have to miss more than a couple sessions, due to travel for weddings and whatnot, and more than that, I just felt I needed a break.

Homework takes up a lot of time, and making it across town to campus once a week takes commitment. With the kids off school, my schedule isn’t going to get any easier. My biggest challenge over the next three months is going to be finding time to write at all, let alone read and give feedback on the writing of others.

Still, these UCLA Extension classes have been a real touchstone for me. It’s been good to have a group of writers to get together with once a week. As you know, my writing group isn’t what it used to be (more on that soon, as promised), and landing in a new town has left me without an immediate group of creative types to share ideas with.

I think that’s where I need to focus my efforts. I am coming up on the end of a new draft of my novel, and I want to find a group of writers on the east side (preferably in La Canada) to work with. It might be time to bite the bullet and try I suppose it couldn’t hurt.

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Automating Posts Without Being an Asshole

hootsuite automating postsThere are a lot of tools out there to help you be more consistent with social media by automating posts. If you’re looking for options, you need only type “social media scheduling” into Google. Sadly, it seems that a lot of people (and companies) are using these tools to bombard people.

If social media is like a cocktail party with many discussions going on, scheduling app abusers are like the asshole who barges into a conversation and starts talking about himself. Don’t be that guy.

I will admit to using schedulers. I’ve used a few different ones, and always come back to Hootsuite. For the money, I’ve found it to be the best option out there. The main benefit is consistency. I schedule posts for myself and for clients in Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

The goal in using a scheduling app should be to stay in touch with your online community while not alienating followers.

Here’s how I find the balance:

  1. Just because you can schedule a post for every five minute interval, doesn’t mean you should. Constant posting is a dead giveaway that a robot is doing your posting for you. Try to schedule posts to match the frequency with which you post when you’re having a spot-on social media day. For me that’s two or three times a day tops. (Unless I’m at a conference, in which case I tweet a lot more, but that’s a topic for another post.)
  2. Set up your phone to alert you when someone shares or comments on something you posted. For instance, if I schedule a post asking what people are planning to read this summer, then don’t respond for a week because I’m not paying attention, I kind of look like an asshole. So I set up my phone preferences to alert me when someone responds to my posts. When I get the alert I open my social media account and respond.
  3. Think of automating posts as a backup. For instance, I schedule a post or two a day for Twitter because I know I often get busy and forget to tweet. But just as often, I don’t forget. When I remember to, I tweet in real time, but if I do get swamped, I don’t have to stress because I know a tweet or two will go out on my behalf.
  4. Don’t schedule retweets to go live a week later. Social media, and Twitter in particular, moves fast. You can retweet hours, maybe even a day later, but retweeting content a week later screams robot and makes you look like an asshole.
  5. Make conversation. You can’t do this until you’re set up to do number 2, but it’s important. You can’t just go online and start telling everyone about what you’re selling. This goes double for the slut-bags who want to send me pictures of their punani. People will just stop following you, or worse, report you as spam (and if you’re hocking dick pics, they’re right to do so).

So there you have ’em, my top five rules for not being an asshole while making the most of the scheduling technology available to you.

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Reconsidering the Day Job

day jobWay back in September, I was feeling pretty low. I had just taken a day job I thought was perfect for me, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so miserable. My therapist at the time gave me an assignment. He told me to write, without thinking, my top seven jobs, putting all reality aside. I had to do it quickly, off the top of my head. I remember that first on the list was novelist, then SCUBA instructor, photo journalist, Indiana Jones, backpacking guide, and I can’t remember the last two.

The telling thing was that most of my dream jobs would take me outdoors, with people. After I described my job’s working environment – a lonely square room with no windows – my therapist told me what I already knew. I needed to quit my job.

It was then I signed up to volunteer at Descanso Gardens, with their horticulture department. I wanted was to get my hands dirty and watch things grow. We still lived in Silver Lake at that point, but we were house hunting in La Canada. As it turns out, we now live about a mile from the gardens. It’s my new favorite place.

I seriously could spend all day there. So far, my schedule only allows for me to volunteer two hours a week, but as soon as the kids are back in school for the fall I want to start going more often. Yesterday I spent two hours pinching chrysanthemums. Sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it? To get the plants to bloom with lots of big flowers later in the year, you have to carefully pinch off new growth. Everywhere you pinch off a stem bud, two new stems will grow in. I fucking love nature.

Anyhow, the whole experience has me seriously rethinking my day job. Right now I’m doing freelance website development and social media marketing consulting. I like the work, and my clients are pretty awesome, but working online is nothing like working out in the garden.

It’s the kind of work I would continue to do, even if my novel sold for millions of dollars and I never had to work again. That’s a far cry from where I was last fall.

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My Running Coach and Learning to Run All Over Again

running coachI met with Steve, the running coach, on Friday. You wouldn’t think that two hours spent learning to do something that you already do on a regular basis could fly by, but they did.

Basically, I am learning to run all over again. The method of running that Steve the running coach teaches is called Chi Running. It’s based in the principals of T’ai Chi, which I’ve actually never done, but the way Steve explained it, it teaches you to run while being mindful of your center of balance.

You lean forward, so that your center of gravity falls right over where your feet land. Then you focus on landing on your whole foot, and kicking back. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it actually takes a ton of concentration to maintain. Before we met Steve told me: “you’ll start a white belt and finish the session as a white belt.” He was right.

The good news is I’m running again and my knees are not screaming at me. The bad news, I feel like I’m back at square one. This new form uses different muscles, so all that endurance I built up for the half marathon isn’t helping me much. I’m going to have to bust my ass to get my distance back before the full marathon in August.

The other thing that has given me pause is the metronome. The way you hold your body when running like this lends itself to lots of small steps, and it is taught with a metronome. Literally. I now run with a metronome clicking in my ear. I’m at 170 steps per minute and will work up to 180 by race day.

While this helps me keep my pace up, it does not allow me to listen to my audio books while I run, which frankly might be a deal breaker. I love, love, love listening to stories as I run.

So I’m going to do another week with the metronome, to get a feel for it, and then I’m going to switch back to my books. Hopefully I can keep a focus on my form, while still listening to a story. If not, I will be forced to seriously reassess.

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After The Half Marathon

half marathon
As you know, I recently ran my first half marathon.

Turns out, I’m actually pretty good at distance running. I enjoy it. In fact, I don’t really start to enjoy running until about the third mile. If someone had told me, back in high school, when they made us run that terrible ten-minute mile bullshit, that I would always hate the first mile, but love the eighth, I would have thought they were crazy.

And yet, here I am.

The thing is, I think I’m doing it wrong. Maybe it’s my form, or maybe I need to cross-train to build up my support muscles or something. All I know is that right around mile 13 my knees started hurting. I kept running until the finish line, but two days after the half marathon I could barely walk, my knees hurt so bad. They’re still hurting ten days after the race.

This is simply unacceptable. I already signed up for a full marathon in August, which I fully intend to run, so I made an appointment with a running coach. It’s a two-hour thing on Friday, and it’s $150, which hurts a little all on its own, but I’m justifying it with the fact that I would spend more than that on a gym membership (over the next three months), so it balances out. Running is free.

In fact, by that logic, I’ve already saved that much by running the neighborhood instead of joining a gym.

Anyhow, the only way I can possibly tie this to my writing is that I haven’t had any time to listen to my books on tape over the last ten days. Usually I listen while I run (which is pretty much the perfect way to spend an hour or three).

I can’t wait to get back out there.

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Reading Like a Writer

Read like a writerFor a long time I thought reading like a writer meant simply reading a lot. That’s part of it. However, while reading is critical for writers, passively absorbing stories isn’t enough. To really read like a writer, you have to stop trusting writers.

Used to be that when people asked what I thought of a book, I would say “it was pretty good.” Sometimes it was “really good” or sometimes “meh,” but generally I was satisfied with anything that told a good story. I was reading like a reader.

Once I started writing, I grew more a little more critical. I started noticing loose ends of a story line, or particularly beautiful prose. But it wasn’t until I started reading unpublished work that I actually developed the ability to read like a writer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading submissions for a literary journal was a great way to get started, but I have read my share of stories for workshops as well. Preparing to give informed feedback meant being diligent, looking for all the little things I had learned in school, from split infinitives all the way up to story structure.

After years of reading unpublished work with this mindset, the practice has started to spill over into all the reading I do. After countless seminars and panels, I’ve started to realize that authors are (gasp) just people, and they don’t always get it right.

In some ways this sucks, because my threshold for a good read has gone way up. These days, to get lost in a book, it has to have everything right. So nowadays, when I say a book was great, what I mean is: it was so good that I forgot all about being a writer and just fell into it. Very few books hit that mark.

The next challenge is to bring that kind of eye to my own work. My understanding is that it’s not really possible unless you take some time away from your work, so step one is to finish the draft. Step two will be to put it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. Then I can come back to it and attempt to bring my most critical eye.

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Books, Books, and 13.1 Miles

13.1 milesIt was a big weekend for me.

Saturday was my birthday. Then Sunday I got up really, (stupidly) early to run my first 13.1 miles at the Disneyland Tinkerbell half marathon. After that it was nap time, and Mother’s Day celebrations. How lucky am I?

The last week also brought an influx of books.

First off, I like to listen to audio books when I run. About three miles into my 13.1 miles on Sunday I finished “State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett, and started “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. If you listen to audio books (and if you live in LA, you really should – it will totally change your outlook on traffic), check out the free app called Hoopla. It’s like Audible, but supported by public libraries. It can be a tad unreliable on the playback unless you download the book to your device. So do that. It’s great. And it’s saving me a ton of money.

Second, everyone knows I love books, so I got a couple of great ones as gifts. One I’m almost done with already. It’s called “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall. If you’re a runner, you’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t, check it out – absolutely fascinating. The other is called “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. It’s next up.

Third, I ordered myself 16 books from Amazon as a birthday gift to myself. If you follow along, you know I’m working on a novel with a biracial main character. She’s half-black in an all-white town. So I need to know a lot more about what it means to be the only girl of color. I intend to dive into the research on this one. I’m going to read everything I can get my hands on about what it’s like to be a young black woman. I did a bunch of googling, reading reviews and chat boards about books that capture the black experience in America today. I’m feeling pretty intimidated about getting it right, and I may yet bail if I don’t think I can do it justice, but a good friend of mine has encouraged me to “be brave,” and write the story as it has evolved. I have a lot of reading to do.

And today is a good day to start, since my knees are wrecked from running 13.1 miles, and I’m laid up. I’m alternating between ice packs and epsom salts baths, but one thing is clear, if I’m going to make my goal of running a marathon before I turn 40, I need to start doing some cross training.

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How to Handle Rejection

This is what I used to look like when I got a rejection letter.


But it has gotten better.

These days, every time I get a rejection letter, I also get a high-five from my husband.

Last week, at the dinner table, I shared with the family that I got two rejection letters in one day. My husband held up his hand and I gave it a slap.

My daughter, who is old enough now to understand that rejection is supposed to be a bad thing, asked why we were celebrating. We told her what we always tell each other: if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not putting yourself out there enough.

It’s not that I’m happy about being rejected. Not at all. What I celebrate is that fact that I’m still in the game. I high-five because the minute I got each of those rejections I sent out my story to another journal. My husband is cheering me on in my relentless pursuit of publication.

So if you hate rejection (because who doesn’t) I invite you to make use of my two-step response.

  1. Send your story/query to the next journal/agent on your list immediately. (If you don’t already know who is next on your list, check out my Submission Spreadsheet. You should always know what’s next.)
  2. Find someone to give you a high-five. This can be via text, over the phone, or at dinner that night, but find someone to tell you that you’re doing an awesome job. Because you are. You’re fighting the fight. This is what it is to be a writer.

These two steps won’t do anything to mute the pain of rejection, but they will hopefully keep you from quitting. As a teacher of mine once said, “There are two kinds of writers: those who get published, and those who quit.”

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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