Monday, October 23, 2017

The Writer's Armory, Part II: Long Live the AlphaSmart!

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd recently begun to use three tools that have revolutionized my writing and tripled my productivity. The first tool was the cheap, charming, and utterly indispensable Mini Smiley Diary.

My Neo2. I have named him Leo.
This week, I shall share the secret of how I broke my internet addiction, which was actively corroding my ability to stay focused and eating into my writing time. It was simple. Instantaneous. And inexpensive. I bought a NEO2.

(Though the Neo2 was made by Renaissance Learning, the original company that Renaissance Learning bought was named AlphaSmart. Hence, many writers who use these puppies call them "AlphaSmarts." Whatevs. I have named mine "Leo.")

The Neo2 is a word processor that is literally old school. Back in the 90's and early 2000's, school districts used to use them to teach keyboarding at a time when it became obvious that computers -- not typewriters -- were the wave of the future, yet schools didn't have the tech or the funds to bring in a computer lab. Enter the AlphaSmart, a self-contained word processor that (and this is key) does not get online.

Leo is a simple little powerhouse. Whatever you type is stored directly into its RAM. It stores up to 200 pages of text in up to 8 separate files. To download a file I connect the AlphaSmart to my computer via a common USB cable and hit send. Beginning wherever my cursor is, in whatever program I happen to be running (Microsoft Word, Final Draft, even Blogger -- it's all the same to Leo), the device from yesteryear downloads the draft of my file onto my tablet or computer.

Things I love about Leo:

1.) It is a WORKHORSE. It's tough. It's built to handle (::shudder::) schoolchildren, so it's very forgiving of the occasional danish crumb. With a full-sized keyboard and decent feel to the keys, it feels much like my computer. Yet because I'm not online, there are no distractions. I sits and I types. And, because of the old-school display, I'm not inclined to begin micro-editing. Instead, I simply focus on getting the words out of my head.

2.) It has a simple screen. What some might see as a drawback, I consider immensely useful. Leo's "screen" is simple, unformated, block text. I can see what I've typed -- and scrolling through a lengthy file is simply a matter of using the arrow keys -- but I'm not obsessed by it. I use Leo for drafting, which, for me, is the longest, most tedious part of writing a book. I do my editing on my computer; it's better suited for the task.

3.) It has no glaring backlight. When I write on Leo at night, or in the wee hours of the morning, when I'm done, I simply turn it off and go to sleep, with no residual "screen burn" flickering on my retinas. Aaaaahhhhhh.

4.) It has a battery that, after two months of regular use -- sometimes up to 5 hours a day -- shows no sign of weakening. I've heard some AlphaSmart users say their batteries last nearly a year. I'd be OK with three months. When batteries need replacing, all I need to do is provide 3 AAs.

5.) It's cute as anything. Seriously: it's adorable. Though my productivity has tripled since I've begun using Leo, every time I use him in a public place, people come and ask me What The Heck Is That?

I purchased Leo for around $30 on ebay. Am seriously thinking of getting another one and putting it aside... just in case Leo ever wears out.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Writer's Armory: In Praise of the Teeny-Tiny Notebook

"Slow and steady wins the race."
The Tortoise is my writing spirit animal.
True confession: I am not a fast writer. Not by any means. Which explains why my blog posts are often few and far between. If I'm working on a major project, since the good Lord has seen fit to only give me 24 hours in my day, I generally choose to spend my writing time slogging forward on the Thing that Needs Doing.

However, in the past four months, I have acquired three new tools in my Writer's Toolbox that have tripled my productivity.

Tripled. 

So I felt inspired to share.

Two are small, portable, inexpensive, and indispensable. (One is the subject of this post. The other I'll discuss next week.)

One is large and a bit pricey, but OH MY STARS how it helps ratchet up the productivity. [Patience, Grasshopper... I'll talk about that in two weeks. Promise.]

For the first -- the simplest; the easiest; the least expensive -- I credit Yi Shun Lai.

Earlier this year, when Yi Shun was a featured facilitator at a #Write2TheEnd writer's retreat I helped to produce and sponsor,  she gifted me with a Mini Smiley Diary (MSD, or "Misty," for short). Yi Shun has an affinity for quality paper, while I have a collection of vintage mini-notebooks. (As you may know, for writers, paper obsessions are very, very real.)

The little thing was similar in size to my phone, with an inane little proverb embossed on the cover ("If you laugh tomorrow will be fun"). It featured six sections, some lined, some blank, with different colored paper. It was saddle stitched, so the pages wouldn't fall out with use. It was so cute it bordered on twee. But its adorable appearance couldn't mask its power.

The Mini Smiley Diary costs under $5 on Amazon, and it is an absolute godsend. I bought a gross and started gifting other writers. After some trial and error, I've hit upon a system that makes my notes easy to take and easy to find. It works for me; perhaps it will work for you as well. Here's how I use mine:

In general: Each new project gets its own MSD. When a Work-In-Progress is my top creative priority, I carry its respective MSD with me everywhere. As in *everywhere.* It is as much a part of my personal detritus as my phone, my glasses, and my keys.

Footnote: Perhaps you're wondering why, if I exist in the 21st century and have the cell phone required for daily life, do I not just make my phone my notebook. To be honest, I have tried. I really have. But I haven't found an app that is as satisfyingly simple and userfriendly as Misty. See earlier paragraph re: my affinity for old notebooks. There's something wonderfully creatively energizing about paper.

1.) The first of the six divisions is lined. I use it as my constantly available note pad. It actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my writing project. Here's where I scribble my random notes, to-do lists, grocery needs, etc.

This serves several purposes. It obliterates the blank-book syndrome ("Oh, it's so cute! Much too cute to ever use.") It also allows me do what I'd do anyway -- because I know me. No matter what, if I need something to write on RIGHT NOW, I'm going to use the first thing I grab. If I tried to allot the first section to something critical for my project, I'd be setting myself up for failure the first time I ever needed to remember to buy toilet paper.

2.) The second section consists of blue blank sheets. This is my Big Picture section. On the first page, I write the one sentence "pitch" of my book. On the back of the first page, I list the themes of the work in progress.

At the top of the next blue pages, I write out the general story beats for the whole project. (For fiction, I use a modified Save the Cat story beat approach. I don't outline, but I don't begin a journey without knowing my destination.) As my project progresses, I use these pages to write notes on advancing themes and make sure major events happen when and where they should.

3.) The third section is lined. Here is where I write cool quotes, turns of phrase, snippets of dialogue that come to me, overheard conversations I'd like to revisit, and other things my characters might say.

4.) The fourth section is blank pink sheets. I use these for any illustrations or diagrams I need to draw out. House plans, maps, character descriptions & tics all go here.

5.) The last lined section I use for taking research notes about things that pertain to this project.

6.) And the final section -- green blank pages -- is reserved for the "don't forgets." Here I note the things that will need to be salted in, key connections, and loose ends that need to be paid off before the end.

That's it! Can you use any little notebook? Of course. But, for some reason, this system has helped me keep my notes more organized and be more productive than any I've used before. Thought I'd share.

Next week: the tool that helped me kick my Twitter habit, streamlined my drafting process, AND helps me sleep better...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Where's the Waldorf? -- Fascinating Vintage Advertisements for Toilet Tissue

I attended a lovely country wedding this weekend, held at the Michigan Flywheelers, a vintage tractor museum in South Haven. In addition to having lights nestled in antique tractor hoods, their Ladies' loo features an assortment of framed vintage bathroom-specific ads.

Here's the first one that caught my eye:

After I got past the "goshes and "goodnesses," I was left to ponder a world in which a woman had to literally show a man a piece of paper full of splinters in order for him to realize "no wonder it caused trouble." This was a world, evidently, in which providing an update on the amount of toilet paper remaining in the house was the most appropriate thing to say to someone who has recently received a raise.

However, this ad, visible as you walk through the Ladies' door, may be my favorite. >>>

It begins with pure 1930's clickbait:

WOMEN ARE ESPECIALLY SUSCEPTIBLE, Doctors say.

Then it hits you with the lede:

"There is no form of human illness quite so humiliating as rectal trouble."

Mmm-kay.

Now, I grew up on ads featuring the hapless, slightly skeevy Mr. Whippley, who is forever telling customers not to squeeze the Charmin, even though he can't help himself from doing the same thing.

Mr. Whippley never talked about splinters. Or used the phrase "rectal trouble." Or suggested that not using his precious Charmin could cost you your job or your health.

Mr. W. was derpy, sure, but those earlier ads meant BIZNESS! And HOW!

With T.P. on the mind, I came home and mucked around on the interwebs looking at vintage loo-roll ads. As one does.

Some of my favorites include this 1940's terror-inducing PSA which puts using the wrong toilet paper on a par with an invasion or act of war:


There's this gem, which makes me realize that today's advertisers don't use the word "inflamed" nearly as often as they used to:


And then there's the nightmare-inducing "Mr. Thirsty Fibre" of the 1920's -- a sort of potty paper Slender Man who, inexplicably, appears to be spoiling for a fight:


Remember Tim, who Almost Lost His Job?

Well, Waldorf ran a whole series of those comicstrip-like ads with headings such as "He Blamed Himself After She'd Gone," "Joe's Temper Almost Broke Up Their Home," "Her Mother-In-Law's Visit Saved the Day," and "Ruth was Left Out of Everything." Each one is every bit as cringeworthy as you might expect.

But "They Used to Call Bobby 'Crybaby'" takes the ever loving cake. From "It hurts Daddy, it hurts bad," to a man who calls his wife 'Mother' -- (Gosh, Dad!) -- to the payoff of a kid who beats up bullies, thanks to the healing powers of toidy roll, it's a freaking cornucopia of WTF-ery. [A lifetime ago, I once worked for an advertising agency. I would *love* to see the statistics on the effectiveness of this particular gem.]


In case you were wondering, in 1890, the Scott company was the first to come up with the idea of putting TP on a roll. Before then, the product was sold stacked, much as today's tissues are sold.

In 1391, the first toilet paper ever was used -- reportedly used by the Chinese emperor. Created in sheets measuring two-feet by three-feet, the paper intended for this purpose was only available to royalty. (For more fascinating TP Trivia, check out this rather exhaustive Toilet Paper Timeline.)

These days, toilet paper ads abound. But one could argue that TP is no longer a novelty as it was at the turn of the 20th century. Nor is it full of slivers, splinters, or hemorrhoid-inducing-chemicals. It's a staple. A necessity. Which really begs the question:



Friday, July 14, 2017

How to Respond When Someone Asks You To Write for Free

or: Don't Say "No," Ask for Dough

"You're a doctor?" says the person you've just met. "That's great! I thought about practicing medicine, but I just didn't have the time, you know? Hey--"

Here, they lift up their shirt, baring more than you wanted to see, especially at the grocery check-out / wedding reception / gas pump.

"I've got this pus-filled invasive weeping sore. How about you remove it for me?"

You tell them you'd be happy to do the job -- just call your office and make an appointment.

The shirt comes down. The scowl comes out. "An appointment? Pay you! You should be honored I asked. It would be good exposure for your practice. Hey -- I'll tell ya what. Do it for free, and when I make modern medical history, I'll split whatever money I get from the AMA."

Mmmm-hmmm...

No.

If you have difficulty imagining that scenario, then you are probably not a writer. Because we writers live countless versions of this Every Dang Day.

This summer, a writer friend whose novel is currently shortlisted for a veddy prestigious prize had an exchange that went something like this:

Movie Maker Acquaintance: I'm looking for my next project. Thought I'd do your book. What do you say?

Whoa, Tiger! All this talk of fundage harshes my creative mellow.
Writer: Sounds interesting. What option terms did you have in mind? Send me a contract and I'll consider it.

MMA: Whoa, Tiger! Who said anything about contracts or money? Sheesh! I thought it might be nice for you to work with a friend on a fun project. I'm not a mercenary like some people.

Whoa, Tiger indeed. For reasons that escape me, people who would never dream of asking an electrician friend to re-wire their house have no such qualms about asking a writer to make her skills available gratis.

Too often when writers suggest that they expect to be compensated for their time and expertise, they hear: "I can't pay you, but it'll be great exposure."

Exposure: not what it's cracked up to be.
No.

Writers know: Money pays the heating bills. A person can die of exposure.

I know writers who refuse to tell other people what they do because of the inevitable "OmiGod! You should totally write my story. I don't know the first thing about publishing, but it's a great story, sure to be a bestseller. OmiGOD! I just had the best idea ever! You should totally write it for me and we can split the money it'll be great! It all started with a dream I had in 1987--"

We don't want to be rude. We don't want to say, "That is the worst story I've ever heard" or "Pleasepleaseplease don't tell me about your horrible childhood" or "You lost me at 'the day the aliens abducted me.'" But believe me when I say -- and this is important -- NO MATTER WHAT THE STORY IS, NO WRITER WANTS TO WRITE IT FOR FREE.

So.

If, as a writer, you ever find yourself accosted by the equivalent of a pus-filled sore asking a doctor for freebie surgery, there is no need to get offended, nor are you obliged to listen to the entire "write my story" pitch. There is a way out. Act like the professional you are. Here is a handy script to help:

Thanks for thinking of me. If you're serious, I would be happy to talk to you more in-depth about this project at a later time. Expect a project of this magnitude to take 6 to 9 months for completion. For work of this nature, I charge $60,000*. One-third is payable up front. One-third is due when the first draft is completed. The final installment is due me upon delivery of the completed manuscript. I make no guarantees that the work will be published when it's complete: it's your story; that's up to you. Would you like me to draw up a contract and we'll get to work?

* Here in the Midwest, 60 K is a nice tidy sum of money that makes most projects worth a writer's while, should someone decide to retain their services. In areas of the country where living expenses are more aggressive, make it $160,000. The point is: don't be in a hurry to say "no." Remember that not writing someone's story for free isn't personal -- it's business.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

America's First National Anthem?

With Independence Day on Tuesday, many people are celebrating with fireworks and family this weekend. I've been doing quite a bit of research lately on America at the time of the Revolution.

(Said research was sparked in part because of my current Hamilton obsession, which is fed daily by the realization that in two short weeks I'll see it in Chicago. Be. Still. My. Heart. Since the heroine of my current work-in-progress is a teenage slave in Georgia in 1783, this research is all useful, as opposed to merely interesting...)

One of the things I came across is "Chester."

Though sounding like a fluffy orange tabby lying on someone's favorite cushion, "Chester" is, in fact, a song by prolific Colonial composer William Billings, a self-taught musician. It's the unofficial Anthem of the American Revolution.



"Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns."


The song is bright, grand, and memorable. Though written for four-part harmony, the tenors have the melody, rather than (as is more often the case) the sopranos.

Billings was an odd duck: he only had one eye, walked with a pronounced limp because one leg was shorter than the other, had a withered arm, and was addicted to snuff. By all accounts his voice was a hearty, booming bass. Uneducated and a shabby dresser, he worked in a tannery where, it is said, he wrote his first pieces of music on the sides of leather in the shop. Never wealthy, he still hung out with the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.
Frontispiece to New England Psalm-Singer, engraved by Revere.

"Chester" was first published in 1770, when Billings was only 24, in his book The New England Psalm Singer (which, incidentally, was the first published book of American music -- and Billings is widely considered to be America's first choral composer). The song and tune went through a few revisions, the best known of which was published in Billings' book The Singing Master's Assistant in 1778.

What does "Chester" mean, since the word does not appear in the song's text?

It's probably a reference to the city where Billings composed it -- a common practice at the time. It's a name derived from Old English and Latin meaning "camp of soldiers." There is no real evidence, however, that the song's name refers to any particular person, location, or battlefield. Why did Billings choose that title for his song? History isn't entirely sure.

Billings married Lucy Swan, a singer, in 1774, and they had six children. Lucy preceded Billings in death, leaving him with six kids under the age of 18.

At one point, "Chester" was as universally known as "Yankee Doodle." A variety of lyrics, both patriotic and religious, existed for the song, so it was as popular in church as in the barracks and on the battlefield.

An example of Billings' beautiful, though confusing, sheet music.
Sadly, Billings was a victim of our young country's lax copyright laws. Though he composed well over 100 works and published six volumes, when he died in 1800, two weeks before his fifty-fourth birthday, he was penniless and practically forgotten. (His friends were responsible for printing the sixth and last volume of his work, in an effort to help with Billings' financial situation. However, his four-part choral style had fallen out of fashion.)

In 1970, Billings was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which is great -- really. But, like any artist, I suspect he'd have been happier with being able to make a living from his art while he was still alive, rather than being recognized for his talents long after he was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common Cemetery.

Now it's your turn:
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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Julius Caesar in Under 50 Words

Because Shakespeare's play, written in 1599, about events that happened in 44 B.C., continues to be relevant, provocative, and news-making (every writer should be so lucky)...

And because it is clear to me that a staggering number of people are discussing Julius Caesar without having the foggiest idea what the play is actually about...

And because every once in awhile I like to take a break from writing and dabble in drawing, if only to prove to myself that my talents lie elsewhere...

I present: The Illustrated, Annotated, and Abridged Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR, in less than 50 words, with additional Cliff's Notes-like salient points after the text:



Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day Redux

Dad in Fort Knox, 1957 B.C. - Before Child.
Last Sunday, I took my dad out to the Mason Jar, the tastiest eatery in Berrien County. The place was packed, as we expected, so we browsed the adjacent artists' shops while we waited for our table.

When our time came, we took our time as we enjoyed a wonderful meal. When I picked up the tab, I said, "Happy Father's Day, Dad."

"Thanks," he said. "It's a good one."

We headed back to the car and came back to our homes.

I thought about my daughter, who has no father to celebrate this year. Also, since two of my uncles have passed away in the past three months, many of my cousins are newly fatherless.

I thought about how fortunate I have been to have a great dad -- one who may not share my political views, but who shares my odd sense of humor (and, really, that's often more important).

Dad and me. I'm 2 months old.
 When I was growing up, he always made sure to schedule his time off so we could all take a family vacation, spending solid amounts of quality time together as we traveled North America.

He and Mom welcomed WunderGuy with open arms when we got married. I think he misses Robert nearly as much as I do.

My dad has been married to my mom for 53 years. For the past 3 years, Mom's dementia has grown increasingly pervasive. She is now locked in her own unreachable waking dream, whimpering to herself and barely able to interact with the real world. Yet, every day, Dad goes and visits with her, spending hours by her side, making sure she eats a good lunch, listening to the radio, and doing crossword puzzles while keeping her company. Dad lives his love.

Eatin' oranges. Mmmmm!
Later last Sunday, when I got on Twitter, I was mildly surprised that Father's Day wasn't trending. The world is changing, my inner curmudgeon grumbled. Nobody makes much of a fuss over parents anymore.

And then... Because not a single person on my timeline had anything dad-oriented to say, the teensiest suspicion began to niggle at me.

Less than three seconds later, Google was kindly explaining that while Mother's Day was the second Sunday of May, Father's Day was the third -- not the second -- Sunday in June.

Oh dopey me!

"Hey Dad," I said, when I called him later. "Did you know it's not Father's Day?"

He started laughing. "You're kidding!"

As I related this story to my friend Stacey, she snorted. "You and my dad are in the same time warp. He gave me grief for forgetting him today. Didn't believe me when I told him it was next week..."

Well, now it IS next week. Now it IS Father's Day. I shall celebrate again with my father. We shall go to Dairy Queen and indulge in the wonder that is hot fudgey delightful dairy goodness.

We might do the same thing next week, too. 'Cause some dads deserve more than one Father's Day. And I'm lucky to have one of those dads.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Blog Reboot: The Next Post

I've been meaning to post an update for what feels like a lifetime. Some days I'll even log on -- then I'll see my last post, my final tribute to WunderGuy, and I'll feel all the energy drain out of me.

Nothing I want to write seems appropriate for The Next Post. Compared to losing Robert, everything seems trite. Unimportant. Frivolous.

I thought of closing up shop -- shutting the blog down and calling it quits. Some days I could muster no answer to the question of "What's the point?"

But there is an answer: Life goes on.

I can't be blog blocked forever. Robert may be gone, but the world continues to spin. So I'm going to take Robert's fix-all tech-guy advice. Whenever I would get stuck and grumble with frustration (I can grump with the best of them, let me tell ya), he would ask: "Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?"



For the past 6 months, this blog has been turned off. Now it's time to turn it back on.

This summer, God willing, I've got plans to launch another blog. And maybe a newsletter (further bulletins as events warrant). This will remain up and running, but it's going to go through a makeover.

By my estimate, there are roughly 13 bazillion blogs and websites out there that dispense writing advice. More power to them. In the near future, I'm going to spend some time archiving and culling a lot of the posts from the past 12 years. I'll leave some of the most popular ones up. (This post on "How to Write a Foreword," for instance, is one of the first things you see if you Google the question. It'll stay.) I'll also continue to help new and struggling writers in my workshops and at Write2TheEnd. But I'm going to blog less about the writing process and more about the way-cool stuff I keep running across in my research for various writing projects.

Eighth grade graduation. It's a thing.
[Lately, I'm all about runaway slaves in eighteenth century America and Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Oh, and historical UFO sightings. Research FTW!]

So this post kicks off life post-WunderGuy. It's greyer. Lonelier. Some days feel like they are encased in fog, cloying, thick, and heavy. But there are good things, too. A partial list of Things That Make My World a Better Place:

* My kid. She is awesome and funny and lovely; she laughs at my jokes and joins in on loud, word-tripping renditions of the "Hamilton" soundtrack. Plus, she rocks the tiny kitty headband like no one's business.

* Dogs. Mine (I've got four -- all essential for my health and well-being) as well as others'. Kestrel's dignity, River's enthusiasm, Zephyr's devotion, and Major's pure silliness make every day worthwhile.

Friends. Friends who brunch, breakfast, and lunch are invaluable. So are the friends who share their cool artistic talents, who shame me into going to the gym, and who indulge in over-eating sugar-based foodstuffs to counteract that whole gym nonsense.

Sunshine. Do not mock me. I live in Michigan. We do not take the Golden Orb for granted. Rather, we celebrate it when it makes an appearance.

Chocolate. And raspberry sherbet. And Hot Tamales. And anything salted caramel or toffee.

Coffee. Some days all it takes is a hot cuppa to make life worth living.

Creativity. No one lives forever. But when we're gone, the work remains. Plus, nothing matches the creative high. Nothing.

Maybe you're in a place that could use a little life rebooting too. Maybe you feel like you've been turned off and are ready to power back up. If so, why not try making a list of things that make your world better? See if it helps you. And feel free to add to my list. We're all in this together.

Keep on keeping on. Here's to reboots...