Category: | The Writing Life

Setting Ourselves Up To Eat Well

I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing, I find it damn near impossible to answer the question: what should I eat? For that matter, I’m not a big fan of salads, but I know they’re good for me. For years I would just eat what was convenient when my stomach started rumbling. It was usually leftovers, or crackers, or whatever would allow me to get back to work ASAP.

Then, a couple of years ago, I followed a link online to a short video about this health nut who pre-packed salads for herself every Sunday. At first it looked like a lot of work and I thought I’d never be able to make it a habit, but as I started to put on weight and feel sluggish all the time, I thought I’d give it a try. (Apologies to the health nut – I wish I could remember who she was so I could share the link.)

Right away I loved how I didn’t have to think about lunch. Back when I was working the day job I just grabbed one from the fridge on my way out the door (saving time and money every day), and now that I’m writing full time I love that I eat well without having to think about it. When my stomach gets to nagging me, I just wander into the kitchen and grab one. My head can stay in the clouds and I can get right back to writing. In fact, I usually eat it in front of the computer.

Eating a salad every day has changed my life. Truly. So much so that if I get lazy and don’t prep my salads on Sunday night, I start to feel yucky from eating junk food all week. And like I said, I don’t even particularly like salads. So I feel a special victory in getting myself to eat one every day.

So this week on the blog, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned over the years that make prepping salads easier. The first time I did it, it took two hours. Ug. Now I’ve got it down to thirty minutes (for 10 salads – I make them for my husband too), and they last a full week before they start to get soggy.

(Please forgive my crude kitchen photography – after writing this post I have a whole new appreciation for food bloggers.)

Step 1:
Buy yourself a collection of salad-sized plastic tubs with lids. I have found the Ziplock tubs to be really durable. Then, buy the pre-washed lettuce and pack it in. You’ll need a lot of it.

Step 2:
Prep the veggies you want to include. One thing I have learned is that you can’t include anything with too much water. I even go so far as to scrape the seeds out of my cucumbers. The more moisture you seal in with your salad, the faster it will go bad. Here’s what I use:
Cherry tomatoes (chopped tomatoes have too much moisture)
1 Can Chick Peas
Carrots
Celery
Cucumbers
Cabage
Cilantro
(Bell peppers would also work well, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

The tomatoes and chick peas I rinse separately and put in a big mixing bowl, usually with a paper towel underneath them to soak up some of the water while they wait. Everything else (except the cilantro) get’s trimmed and rinsed and put through the Cuisinart with the slicing blade in it.

Then I mix it all together in the big mixing bowl.

I chop the cilantro separately. It gives the salad a nice fresh taste and it’s so good for you. To save time, I slice the bushy top off a rinsed bunch and then just pick out the thickest stems before chopping.

Step 3:
Once it’s all stirred together I load it by handfuls (I actually use my hands here – it’s faster) into the bins of salad. They will start to feel full, but trust me, you can cram a lot of salad in there.

Step 4:
Fill small plastic containers with your favorite dressing and tuck them into the salads. I like olive oil and vinegar, but you can mix it up.

And for a little protein, I like to add an egg and a half to each salad. I also like how it looks, so inviting.

Step 5:
Make some room in the fridge and stack ’em up. (I’ll be honest, sometimes this is the trickiest part).

And there you have it. Healthy lunches for the whole week.

Sometimes I’ll toss some nuts on top when I eat them, or slice up an avocado, but if you add the nuts when you make the salads they get all rubbery and weird and avocado just turns brown after a couple of hours. So those have to be last minute additions.

I’m telling you, having good healthy food at the ready will change your life.

Do you have any ways you set yourself up to make good choices while you’re writing? I would love to hear them. Being a writer is so sedentary. It’s hard to stay healthy.

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Novels Are Marathons, Short Stories Are Sprints

When I was a kid, I HATED running. Hated it. Here in California, in middle school, we were forced to run with the goal of a ten-minute mile (which I never hit – not once) and every time I was pushed onto that hot, bleak track, I would spend the agonizing minutes imagining myself passing out so that the gym teacher would feel sorry. It never happened, but man, if thoughts could manifest…

Flash forward to me deciding to take up running after my son was born. I’m not sure why I thought I should run. Maybe because it was something I could do any time, right out the front door, pushing the stroller. Anyway, it took months for me to work up to a 5K, and I felt pretty good about that because it was hard. Then a friend of mine convinced me to do a Tough Mudder with her, so I started training for longer runs.

And here’s the weird thing – I started noticing that, without fail, running got easier after the third mile.

If you had told my chubby 12-year-old self that running actually felt good once you’d been at it for forty minutes or so, I probably would have thrown up at your feet. I mean, who knew? Right around mile four I am flying. I’m floating. I’m in the zone. I feel like I could go forever.

And it struck me the other day that this is an awesome metaphor for my writing.

When I was in grad school there was this myth that we all bought into that we would publish a few short stories, then write our novel. Like short stories are all so easy to write. Like they are nothing more than warmups for novels.

I just want to say for the record: they are not.

Short stories are hard. They are an art form all their own, not to be confused with novels. Having written both, I feel like short stories are harder. They are like those first few miles of a run.

To extend the metaphor even further, I can acknowledge that sprints certainly do have their place. Even though I sometimes run shorter runs, and sometimes write short stories, I know enough now to say that these will never be the things at which I excel.

I need a nice long story to find my groove and I wish someone had told me that I didn’t have to master the art of short stories before jumping in to write a novel.

So if you want to write a novel but feel like you have to prove yourself by publishing some short stories first, allow me to be the one to tell you – it’s just not true.

Write what you love. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
There are no cardiovascular benefits to writing.

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Five Good Sentences – The Key To Getting Unstuck

I’ve been struggling with my new story. I just can’t seem to find my way into it. I have an instinct that having some kind of structure to work into might help, but I can’ seem to crack that nut. Yesterday, I spent two and half hours of precious writing time just staring at my computer.

This has never happened to me before.

Stuck

If you follow along, you know I have been working on this project, I’m calling it Novel 2, for a long time. Whenever I would get frustrated with Novel 1, I would stick it in a drawer and work on Novel 2. Then, in 2016, I took a month-long break from Novel 1 and did NaNoWriMo, so that was another 50,000 words there. Over the years, I have amassed a lot of pages. One might even say a first draft, but then… but then…

First drafts can only go so far. Then it’s time to start rewriting and I was effing stuck. I don’t believe in writers block, but getting stuck is real as a mo-fo. To try and get unstuck I had a little gripe session with my bestie, then took a step back. How can I be so stuck when I have so many pages of writing? I told myself (without considering if it was really true) that somewhere in those pages, there must be SOMETHING I can work with.

Getting Unstuck

And then I remembered something I heard Tom Barbash say while I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He said something about a writer who would read his first drafts hoping to find five good sentences he could work with.

As luck would have it, as I was googling Tom so I could share a link to his bio, I came across this video of discussing this very topic. Check it out:

I thought to myself: five good sentences is a pretty low bar.

Five Good Sentences

So I put aside all judgements and all worries about how and the hell I’m going to structure this story, what the POV will be or how our narrator knows what she knows, and I just read it.

And you know what? It’s not all bad. I mean, it’s pretty bad. It’s a crappy first draft, but there are way more than five sentences that I can work with. And that is really encouraging.

Just like that, I’m unstuck. I still don’t have answers to all those questions I mentioned, but I’m just going to keep writing and trust that the answers will come. Because writing is kind of magical like that. Our job, as writers, is just to show up, put our fingers on the keyboard, and make space for the magic.

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The Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Four writers I fell in love with (left to right): Kirstin Valdez Quade, Tom Barbash, Peter Orner and Elizabeth Tallent, with Zzyva editor Oscar Villalon

I am exhausted. In the past month I’ve slept at home, in my own bed for only four days. It’s my own fault. I planned this summer’s schedule, but honestly, when I did, I didn’t expect to get into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had applied before and not been invited, so I didn’t bother planning my summer around it. So when I did get in (high five!) I had to rearrange my plans and things got a little hectic. I regret nothing.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is a conference. Every day starts with writing workshops. After a lunch break, participants come together for craft talks, panels, and readings. Basically, as a participant, you start with your workshop group at 8:30am, eat, then get back to learning and absorbing until well after dark when the authors do readings under the stars. Then you race home to read and make notes for the next morning’s workshop. It’s a marathon of a week. Not for the faint at heart.

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Edan Lepucki reading early in the week.

I learned so much, and met some amazing writers, but since I usually try to keep things focused on the practical here, I thought I would share a few things I learned (or learned again) about workshopping. These ideas apply to anyone giving or receiving feedback on their work, so don’t feel like you have to go to a conference to use them. Just grab a writing buddy and start helping each other out.

Here they are:

1. Before giving feedback, read the work at least twice. The first time through, just read. Don’t even hold your pen. If you can, take a break after the first read, then come back with your pen and set to work.

2. Aim for four comments/notes per page. I like to put check marks next to things that work for me, and sometimes that’s all I have on a page, but it can be hard to get feedback, so hearing about what works is just as important as hearing about what doesn’t.

3. Don’t push your own expectations onto the story. Pretend you’re reading the New Yorker. If you don’t understand it, consider that maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not getting what the author is going for. Maybe they are jumping POVs on purpose, or slipping around in time to represent a character’s state of mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.

4. If you get conflicting feedback from readers, see it as a sign that something isn’t landing on the page. The analogy, given by (the incisively thoughtful) Charmaine Craig, was that of a fever – it is just a symptom of infection. You have to be the doctor and get in there to diagnose and then cure.

5. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t figured something out (like theme or who the murder victim is). Your confusion will be your reader’s delight because the story won’t be telegraphed. As you discover the answers, so will your readers. Your story will be better for it.

Those are some of the highlights.

And with that I will simply close by encouraging everyone out there to apply to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And if you don’t get in, keep trying. It was such a great experience.

And one more photo from a little hike I took mid-week. So pretty:
Squaw Valley Community of Writers

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I Want to Be A Badass

I married into soccer the way other people marry into Catholicism. World Cup is like Lent – we don’t mess around. But in all seriousness, I’ve really come to appreciate the sport. It is a beautiful game, and I enjoy watching, but the thing I love most of all, the reason I keep coming back to sit next to my husband on the couch is this moment:

The moment right after a hard-won goal is scored and the striker loses his damn mind is absolutely captivating to me. I can almost feel that adrenaline pumping in my own veins, feel the exaltation so good it hurts. Almost.

As writers, we don’t really get that moment. When things are going really well we can slip into that magical zone where it doesn’t feel like work, but never have I ever been so overcome with my prose that I’ve slid across the floor on my knees, fists balled, screaming to the heavens.

Writing is like a sloth playing soccer. Though I’ve never actually played a game, and I’ve never (literally) been a sloth, it seems to me an apt metaphor. It’s not that we don’t struggle, or get tired, or sometimes put the ball right where we want it, it’s just that all the emotions of a ninety minute game are stretched out over years (sometimes a lot of years).

I crave that feeling. I wish I could cram the experience of writing a book into ninety minutes. I want to be a fucking badass, sliding across the grass knowing that, hell yes, that just happened. But it’s never going to happen at my laptop, and I don’t know how to manage my disappointment at that.

Am I alone in this? Any other writers out there get that craving for adrenaline and pressure and putting it all on the line? If so, how do you blow off steam? Have you found a way to bring that intensity to your writing? How can we balance the fact that our job is to sit quietly, alone, at a screen all day, when sometimes we want to run and yell and be a total badass? I’m not being rhetorical here, I really want to know…

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Taking a Vacation From Writing

Happy 4th of July everyone! My family and I are celebrating the country by being back in it. Yep, home sweet home. We just spent two weeks on vacation in South America doing a 10-day guided tour of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas, and then a stopover in Quito, Ecuador to visit my husband’s family for a few days.

It was an epic trip. We’ve been planning it for months. And one of the things I always wrestle with when we go on vacation is whether or not to bring my writing. The decision was made harder this year by the fact that the deadline to submit my pages for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers was about a week after we were scheduled to leave. So my choices were to bust my ass and get the work done before we left, or bring my lap top and work up until the last possible minute.

Well, there was no way I was going to be sitting in the hotel room in Cusco working while the family went exploring. I busted my ass. I carved out as much time as I could to polish up those pages and put as bright a shine on them as I could. Then, the day before we left, I sent the pages in, closed my laptop, and got to packing.

Then the anxiety set it. Partly it was anxiety about the pages I submitted. Imposter Syndrome is real, people. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could have made those pages better. But there was nothing to be done at that point. Except stress about it. Because, you know, that’s fun.

Also, I’ve realized over the years that I get anxious when I don’t write for more than a day or two. In the past I’ve devised little writing exercises to take on vacation and keep my writer brain engaged while I’m away from a story, but this time I didn’t want to bring busy work. I wanted to relax and enjoy my vacation. I wanted to not work.

I compromised by journaling. I brought the notebook I use for morning pages and took the time to write about our experiences. Decidedly NOT work, but it was enough writing to keep the anxiety at bay. (Some day I’ll reflect on why I’m a mess when I don’t write, but for now, I’ll embrace it as motivation.)

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

How do you manage writing on vacation? Do you bring the laptop? Always or just sometimes? Do you enjoy stepping away from your work, or does it make you nervous like me? Do you have any advice for dealing with the nervous rash I get when I don’t write (wait, let me guess – therapy)?

 

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First Idea, Best Idea?

Back when I was in grad school studying all things writing, I had a professor who insisted that when you’re writing you should trust your instincts and always go with your first idea. He was really emphatic about it.

Well, I thought about that long and hard. Then I dropped his class.

Back then I couldn’t really articulate why I thought this was such bad advice. I only knew that my first ideas are, more often than not, my worst ideas. Cliché, predictable, boring.

But since then, I’ve had some time to think about it. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Instincts Have Their Place

As humans, we are pattern seeking animals. We are quick to categorize. This has served us well over the course of our evolution. For instance, if you see a red glob of color with little black dots all over it and a green leafy top, you think “strawberry” and eat it. If you see a bug buzzing around in black and yellow, you think “bee” and leave it alone.

But as writers, we have to dig deeper than those first instincts, those base impulses that have kept our species alive for so long.

As an example, lets say I want to show that my character is happy at receiving some very good news. I could show him smiling. Yes. Smiling. Everyone knows that smiling means happy. But it’s boring.

Dig Deeper

To create a more interesting character, and tell a more interesting story, I need to explore what happy is to this particular character. Does he sing when he’s happy? Whistle? Does he tuck his chin, like he’s afraid to show his happiness? Is he more likely to buy something or give money to a homeless person on the streets? That’s five more ideas.

Five isn’t a bad start, but really I’m just sorting through more of the placeholder images in my head for “happy.” The reason people usually stop there is that it’s a lot of work to come up with unique ideas.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

Another teacher I had in grad school (one whose class I didn’t drop) suggested making a list of at least thirty possibilities. You’ll find your best (most literary) options at the end of the list.

So here goes… Things my character might do after receiving good news:
6. push his hair back from his head
7. go outside
8. jump up and down
9. call a family member
10. run
11. write a note
12. drink alcohol
13. drink something else
14. smoke pot
15. dance around the room
16. lay down on his back and lace his fingers over his chest
17. jump up and dangle from a tree branch
18. cinnamon toast
19. make his bed
20. clap
21. talk to his cat
22. throw a rock
23. tell a stranger on the street the news
24. post it to social media
25. make a sign for the window of the house
26. sit back in his chair and just soak it up
27. polish his shoes
28. play an old favorite song
29. kiss his wife
30. handstand

You can probably tell I got a little stuck there around 19. Who makes their bed when they get good news? Nobody I know. And actually, it’s hard to say which of these is the right choice, since this is not a character I actually know, but I do think those last three are interesting. In fact, I really like 28. In my mind he’s putting on an old record of some Ramones song and rocking out, letting the excited energy fly. That could be a fun scene.

What do you think? Do you usually go with your first idea? If so, do you find it changes as you write it? Or do you, like me, have to dig to find the little gems that make a story fun?

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Arriving At The Truth with Salman Rushdie

I’m fascinated by the intersection of truth and fiction. It’s something I became interested in after seeing Reza Aslan talk about his book Zealot back in 2014. He talked about the difference between truth and fact. As Americans we tend to lump the two together, but when you tease them apart you find a really interesting place where some of the best stories are born.

So when I came across this video of Salman Rushdie talking about this very thing, I knew I had to share it. I haven’t read his new book yet, but apparently it has a flying carpet, so you know I’m going to have to check that out…

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Put Your Writing on the Calendar First


Some big news this week. I was accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers! It was not the first time I applied, and so I’m feeling particularly proud of myself for persevering through past rejections.

Now the Work Begins (eek!)

As part of the program, I am supposed to submit 5000 words for workshopping, and another 5000 words for an individual conference with one of the mentors there.

For my application I used the first chapter of my novel (the one currently being shopped to editors in New York). And I’m certainly not looking to workshop those pages.

And yet, what I’ve written so far on my second novel is so rough I would never show it to anyone. What’s more, I don’t have a ton of time to work on it. Though the pages aren’t due until the end of June, I’m shooting to have the work done by June 15th so that family obligations in the second half of the month don’t derail me.

Then I had to account for the fact that the kids are out of school on May 31st, and that the last week of school is a joke anyway with wall-to-wall school parties and early dismissals. Life is getting hectic, and I really want to put my best work forward on this thing.

Prioritize the Writing

As I was thinking about all of this, I was reminded of something I learned a while back but have since forgotten: you have to put your writing on the calendar first.

So I pulled out my bullet journal and looked at the coming weeks. I looked at every day and blocked out at LEAST one hour a day to work on my writing. Most days I was able to block out two hours, though some of those “two hour” blocks will probably be as long as whatever movie I put on for the kids. A quick google search tells me Pirate of the Caribbean is 2 hours and 20 minutes, and so is Mary Poppins, and every one of those Marvel movies is super long…

Then Honor It

The task now is to honor those blocks of time. No laundry, no dishes, no cooking dinner. If the calendar says I’m writing from 8-10, then damn it, come 8, I put aside everything else, load up an Avengers movie, and get to writing. I will order pizza – again. The kids can get dressed from the pile of laundry that still needs to be folded. Dishes can go ahead and pile up.

It can be challenging to not let things get it the way, but you know what? If you don’t block out writing time on your calendar you’re setting yourself up for defeat. Time will slip away, day by day, week by week, and another year will tick past without you “finding” the time to write. Don’t find time. Make it.

Put your writing on the calendar first, then work everything else around it.

Because you’re a writer.

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Use GoodReads to Avoid the Mistakes that Other Authors Make

GoodReads reviewsI had lunch with a writer friend of mine recently. We were talking about the projects that we’re working on, and the challenges we’re facing, when the conversation turned to GoodReads. My friend told me that she’s been using GoodReads to see where other writers have pissed off their readers.

To which I said: “say more.”

And she did. It’s freaking brilliant.

Determine Your Comps

First, she said, she made a list of comparable novels (“comps”). Her WIP has some specific, historical elements that she feels a little nervous about writing, so she chose comps that specifically address the same or similar elements.

For instance, say you’re working on a story about vampires (and I’m totally making this up – my friend’s story is NOT about vampires). You might add Twilight to your list. Maybe. If you’re writing a book about vampires, you probably know more about the topic than I do, and can probably name more than one book. So do that. Make the list as long as you can.

Then investigate.

Do Some Sleuthing on GoodReads

Go to goodreads.com and type in the name of one of your comps. Then, where the website lists the star ratings for the book, click to view the one-star reviews and dig in.

What did people hate about the book? Was there something that haters consistently complained about? Once you feel like you’ve got a sense for the gripes people had, switch to the four- and five-star reviews and see if any of those complaints pop up among readers who loved the book.

For instance, you might find a hater complaining that the story didn’t have enough details to make the lineage of the vampires believable. Then you might find someone who gave the story four stars, but dinged it because they didn’t totally understand the history of the vampires. That my friend, is a trend.

As a writer, you would be smart to take note that readers really need to understand the extended background/history of your vampires.

A Word of Warning

Opinions are like assholes though, right? Everybody’s got one. This little trick my friend was telling me about can go south REAL quick if you get sucked into trying to write something everybody will like. You can’t do it. Writing is art. There is not a single piece of art in the world that everyone agrees on. Let it go.

Do not read “sparkling vampires are lame,” and then decide that your vampires can’t sparkle. If your vision for vampires includes sparkles, you go on with your bad self and make them sparkle. (Except, that’s not a good example, because everyone will know you stole that detail from Stephenie Meyer.)

POINT IS – don’t let other people’s opinions shape your story. Instead, consider that we can all learn from other people’s mistakes. Even if we can’t sit down with our favorite authors for a one-on-one coaching sessions, we might be able to glean, through the feedback of readers, where a story fell a little flat, then turn that knowledge to our own writing and see if we can do better.

Good luck and happy writing!

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