Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spreading Out as a Writer

Starting to get back in the writing swing, which I have let trail off a bit the last couple of months. Between various family errands and day-job work, it's easy to let that slide. But a couple of things have popped up the last few days to give me that kick in the pants I need to keep going.

The first was this quote from a literary agent's blog. She was writing about how not to give your "power" away. This line rang true to me.

"Everyone, no matter their career or chosen field, must do the hard work of becoming good at what they do. That’s where a great deal of your power lies – in your ability to study, learn, research, practice, whatever it takes to become the best. Don’t give up this key element of control over your future." Rachel Gardner

And this one even more so. It came from The Writer magazine, in an interview with notoriously obsessive, nit-picky Broadway playwright Doug Wright.

"If the subject isn't sufficiently compelling to occupy your time and attention for the three to five year time span it takes to write and rewrite a good play, then why should an audience give you 120 minutes out of their lives?"

Three to five years. Did you see that? It's a rebuke to those who think, for some reason, that writing is or should be easy. We've all heard them say it. "Oh, when I leave this job I'm going to write." Like it's just something you decide to do. You wouldn't say, "Maybe I'll try my hand at brain surgery," or "I'll tear down my car's engine this weekend." Not if you have no experience at medicine or mechanics. But people think they can start writing, because how hard could it be?

Someone said that to me just last week. Seriously. "I'm retiring next year, and then I'm going to start writing." And maybe she will. But I always want to ask, "OK, but what are you doing RIGHT NOW to get ready for that?"

Because you don't just say, "Now I'm a writer" and money starts rolling in. Even if you're good, some savant with all this raw talent, it just doesn't work that way. From the day you decide to start writing a story, with luck and hard work, you might start to see some return three or four years down the road.

And that was where the third kick in the pants came in. Mystery writer James Scott Bell is one of a dozen mystery writers/editors who contribute to the Kill Zone blog, and he's far and away the most helpful. The blog is not specifically or only for mystery writers, although of course that's their forte, but 95 percent of it is generally applicable to writing.

In his column Sunday (which I highly recommend you read here) Bell looks at an article on the habits of wealthy people, and applies those habits to writing. I think they really are applicable to just about any endeavor, but he's a writer, I'm a writer. We're talking about writing.

What it boils down to is asking yourself, on a daily basis, "What am I doing today that will lead me to become better in my field, and improve my chances of success." What am I reading, what am I studying, what am I doing today that will help me ultimately succeed?

He also draws an important distinction between having dreams and having a plan. "I'm going to be a New York Times best-selling author" is a dream. So is, "I'm going to make enough money on my writing to buy a six-pack of beer every other week." It's nice to have dreams like that, but just having dreams doesn't get you very far.

It's your plan that gets you there. In an earlier post, Bell once wrote, "Plans are what put running shoes on your dreams." A dream is something you hope will happen. A plan is what you do to increase the odds in your favor.

And here's maybe the most important thing Bell said. (Seriously, read the column.) A plan has to be measurable. You have to be able to count the steps, you have to be able to gauge your progress. If you can't, it's just a dream, just wishful thinking.

And part of what Bell does to achieve that really opened my eyes.

"Since 2001 I have kept track of my writing on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote, and on what projects, day by week by month by year. I prioritize my projects and know each day which one I want to work on."

I hate spreadsheets. I can see how they're handy for accountants and people who need to count large numbers of things, but I hate when I have to use them. Still, I can see how this is a good idea.

I have a target when I sit down to write. I always aim for 1,000 words a day. If I go over, that's gravy, and I usually do (my best day I got on a roll and knocked out almost 5,000 words. It felt amazing.) But it's very easy to say, I've got to do this, that or the other thing today, and not get around to writing on my WIP (work in progress.) That's a dangerous. It's easy to get out of the swing. Which is what I did.

But now I've got a spread sheet going, and I will mark my progress every day – every day – not just for my WIP, but for all the writing I do for the Source and for this blog. It's harder to ignore. I know that if I skip a day, that blank space is going to be in my word-count log forever. Or until I die, whichever comes first. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Must He Be So Reasonable?

Had my follow up visit with the doctor Thursday. It went fine, but it would probably have been more helpful if he hadn't kept being all reasonable.

We went over the results of all the tests and it was all pretty much what I'd told him six weeks ago – high cholesterol, a little too much weight. Turns out I don't have gout, just a sore toe. And my heart is fine, that's always good news.

So I'll be going back to see him in six months – and in the meantime I'll have lost some weight and lowered my cholesterol. I'll do the latter in part through a statin drug he's prescribed – which means no more grapefruit juice for me! Damn! I love grapefruit juice. There's half a bottle in the refrigerator. Ah well. The things we do simply to live longer.

As to the former, lose weight. Well, there ain't no secrets or surprises there. Eat less, and eat smarter, and exercise more. The plan is, I'll take the statin and restructure my eating and workout habits. Then at the end of the six months we'll check the cholesterol level again. If it's down enough (and by "enough" I mean roughly in half) then I'll go off the statins and see if the new, smart-eating me can keep it down.

I've already dropped six pounds since my first meeting with the doc Feb. 2, so I'm on my way but have a ways to go. It is a not inconsequential percentage of my current body mass. Biggest thing I've done is stop drinking milk. I was raised with milk, to me it doesn't feel like a meal without a glass of milk, or two. But milk, of course, is a liquid devised by mother nature to turn calves into 500 pound steers quickly and efficiently. So now my only milk comes on my morning Cheerios.

The doctor gave me – not a diet, but a sheet on how to eat more sensibly. First, do most of your own cooking. People who prepare their own meals tend to be healthier and have less weight problems than people who eat out a lot. Check. Already do that. I probably do 70 percent of the cooking in the house. Second, do the bulk of your shopping on the periphery of the supermarket – shop the outer walls first. That's where the produce, meat, seafood departments tend to be. As the doc said, "Buy food that looks like food." As much as possible, refrain from stuff in boxes or cans.

(Of course, the bakery often also is on the store's periphery, but I didn't point that out. It'll be our little secret.)  

Again - check. I already buy very little of the processed foods. I don't understand why, for instance, a person would buy a jar of spaghetti sauce loaded with sugar, dyes and preservatives, when it's so easy to make, and tastes so much better.

So as we talked about healthy choices (At dinner the contents of plate should be half plant – salad, vegetables, fruit, that kind of thing.) Starch – rice or potatoes – should be the smallest portion.

And this is where his reasonableness became a problem. I'd heave a sigh and say something like, "Goodbye red meat," and he'd say, "Oh no, a little red meat is fine, in fact ..." and he'd reel off several reasons why a little beef – grass fed, not corn fed – would be just fine. Or how I have to have a regular "cheat day" when I'm allowed to break the rules. We even had a spirited discussion about the awesomeness of bacon! How is that supposed to help me?

That's not what I need. I need a task master. I need someone to get all in my face and shout, "No more white rice! Step away from the cookies! Eat this quinoa, then drop and give me 10!"

No, I've gotta be the grownup here. Any yelling at me will have to be done by me. The grown up.

Speaking of quinoa, I have now tried it and don't plan to again. When we were at the Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago we picked some up. As the girl at the register rang us up we mentioned we didn't know how to cook it yet. She gave us some tips.

"So you eat it?"


"Is it any good?"

"Oh no," she said without hesitation. "But I eat it."

Well, good for her. We tried it. It's supposed to be very good for you, but cooking it made kind of a mess and it tasted sort of vile. In fairness maybe if we were better at cooking it, it might not have been completely vile. But I don't care.

It's no longer on our diet. I don't eat quinoa. You may quote me.

And I don't think that's being unreasonable.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Our Biggest Challenge Yet on the Kitten Front

We have a new kitten in the house, and this one will be a challenge.

We have fostered three kittens (here and here about halfway down) for the Spaymart, kittens that have undergone some kind of trauma and had trouble learning to socialize. And in each case we've been able to help them calm down and get adopted into homes where they're now loved and loving members of the family.

Kitten in the Closet
The new one is about eight weeks, but that's a guess. She was part of a litter of four found int he wild and brought to the Spaymart. Two were adopted. This one and the third got sick and were at a vet's office that – well, let's say care for the animals seemed to be secondary to the vet's convenience. The third died. And the one with us now was pretty badly traumatized.

We were told going in that, if we can't make any headway with her, they have a feral cat colony, so no pressure. That's not a great image to start with. And she sure showed no sign of wanting to be part of a family. She's scared.

Tori opened the cat carrier and she dashed behind the couch, where she spent most of her first day. We knew she used the cat box – which was kind of a miracle since it's in the laundry room and we never had a chance to show it to her – but we never saw her. Shame too, she's a very pretty cat.

Unlike the other three kittens we've fostered, this one didn't even have a name. She does now, but she had to earn it.

The second day she ran into our bedroom, burrowed into the closet, and spent the next two days there. We'd peek in, pushing aside the hanging clothes, talking to her the whole time and never reaching for her. All we could see was her eyes staring out. She didn't hiss, didn't strike out. Just stared.

Tori has spent hours, sitting outside the closet just talking and waving cat toys at her, the kind on the long flexible rod with a bunch of stuff fluttering around. And the cat started responding, tracking the beguiling objects and batting at them.

It's just a matter of patience. Lots and lots of that. We can't force anything. We haven't even tried to touch her yet. Just keep talking to her, keep playing with her, keep letting her know we're here and aren't going to hurt her. No sudden movements.

Ellen the Explorer
She mostly stayed in our closet for two days. We never saw her leave, but she did because the cat box was being used and the food disappearing.

She finally came out yesterday. And that's how she earned her name. We call her Ellen, because she came out of the closet.

She's spending most of her time behind the furniture in the living room. Right now I see she's very tentatively slipped around the corner, alert for any movement, ready to run. She's been at the food and water bowls, which are kind of out int he open, for about ten minutes. She's aware we're here, Tori at the kitchen table, me at my work station in the living room, and she's very cautious. Now she's exploring the living room. She's keeping her distance, but she's out.

Time. It's just a matter of time, I guess.

Friday, March 13, 2015

No News Is Good News

It's been two weeks since I took my cardiac stress test, and still no word on the results.

That's gotta be a classic case of "no news is good news," right. I mean, I've been imagining a phone call that starts with, "This is the hospital. Are you still alive?" I say "Yes," and they say, "Whew. That's great. Don't move. An ambulance is coming to get you."

But that hasn't happened, so I figure whatever the news eventually turns out to be, it can't be too bad, and it might even be good. So hooray for me.

By the way, for something called a "stress test," it was pretty boring. Took all morning, and it mostly involved sitting around waiting while the various things they gave me intravenously got circulated. Then they'd take some pictures of my innards, take some EKGs, pump in something else and make me wait more. Poor Tori, who came with me, missed all the "action," because there wasn't any, and because she couldn't come in the areas where they did the actual testing. Fortunately, she brought a book.

The only really difficult part was just getting from the place in the hospital where they did the IV to the place where they took the pictures, to the place where they did the EKG. It seemed as if they intentionally placed them at the farthest points away from each other in the hospital.

Since then I haven't really given it much thought. Just waiting for the results so I can get on with the next step – whatever that turns out to be – of making me healthy, or at least healthy-ish.

Catching up

Been a while since I posted. Lot of stuff going on, lot of it work, family stuff. Stuff I should be blogging about but I'm too busy doing it to take the time out to write much.

The family is good. Max is driving – I know, scary, but he's actually getting pretty good. Doesn't have a license yet, probably not until this summer. Louisiana, which is so backward in so many way, has some really strict laws about the process for kids getting licenses and what they can do when the first get them. But he's going through the hurdles.