Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Annual Extra

From "Geoff Teall on Riding Hunters, Jumpers, and Equitation." P. 49
When I was helping hunter / jumper judge and trainer Geoff Teall write his book, he brought up the concept of the Annual Extra. The annual extra was one thing he determined to add over a year -- in addition to his regularly scheduled program -- thus making it part of his routine.

I love this idea. This year, I am going to implement an Annual Extra in several areas of my life.

* Professionally, I'm going to start sending out a newsletter.

I'll continue blogging, aiming for regular updates every Monday, because I like the longevity and permanence of a blog. I've met so many wonderful people through the magic of internet searches that bring them to my posts. (Of course, if net neutrality becomes a thing of the past, blogging probably will too. Guess we'll cross that rickety bridge when we come to it.)

Major, the MuseLetter Mascot
Blog posts are forever. But I want the opportunity to interact in a little more timely and personal way with people. Hence: the monthly MuseLetter. [You've signed up for it, right? If you're reading this on your phone, you may have to click "View Web Version" at the bottom, but there's a nifty MuseLetter signup form. It would be cool if you'd join me on this little adventure. I solemnly swear not to waste your time.]

I want a place to share cool things I've discovered while researching my latest projects, odd or quirky books and movies that lie far off the beaten path, portraits of fascinating people I wish I'd learned about before, and more. I figure if such things inspire me, they'll likely inspire others.

* Creatively, in addition to the two books I intend to write, I'm going to finish "ANTHEM," a concept musical honoring American women.

This is a big stretch for me. My songwriting has always been something I've pushed to the back burner. Writing the songs is one thing. That's fun. Letting other people hear them -- that's way out of my comfort zone. But it's something I'm going to tackle this year. Because: growth.

* Personally, I'm picking up the guitar. Again.

Telling myself I'm going to learn to play it. Again.

Last year, I did fair-to-middling with this decision. Until about March. Then, erm, well, let's just say my good intentions became paving blocks on the highway to Hell.

But I mean it this time! I've trimmed my fingernails ("too long; can't practice" is relegated to the trash-heap of 2017). I've loaded GuitarTuna on my phone to practice chords when I'm sans instrument. I've re-searched and re-found and re-bookmarked the YouTube tutorials I need. I'm gonna do this!

Why am I telling you this? Two reasons: 1.) Telling the world of my plans makes me more accountable. And 2.) perhaps you, too, would like to join me in my Annual Extra extravaganza.

What extra thing do you want to make a regular part of your life in the next twelve months? What additional skill would you like to have? Do you want to write a novel? Make a film? Learn a new language? Maybe you'd like to keep a neater house, have a container garden, or learn ballroom dancing. Your Annual Extra could be "write an actual letter to someone every week and send it" or "take up watercolor" or "become proficient in C++." Whatever it is, here's your official green light. Make it happen. Blessings to you as you put another wrinkle in your brain in 2018!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

10 Free Gifts for Everyone on Santa's "Nice" List: 2017 version

Happy Holidays!
"Watch me make this bone disappear..."

Merry Ho-Ho!

Two years ago, I posted the first "10 Free Gifts" list. This year, I thought the time was ripe for an update.

Feel free to dispense these gifts to those you know and love. Spread the holiday cheer!

1. 2017's Best Jokes for Dog Lovers
Q: What kind of dog does a magician have?
A: A Labracadabrador!

Q: Why did the poor dog chase his tail?
A: He was trying to make both ends meet.

Q: What do you call a dog in the snow?
A: A chili dog!

2. Best DIY Noisemaker For Kids Who Do Not Live in Your Home
The "Popsicle Stick Harmonica" is the gift that keeps on giving. It's simple to make, so you get to spend some quality time with the Little Ones. It requires no glue or glitter (HALLELUJAH!). It makes genuine noise which is neither digital nor accompanied by flashing lights. And it's *fun.*

You'll need:
*  Two popsicle sticks that are the same size. (Used popsicle sticks that once held Dreamsicles work just as well as anything else. Just sayin'.)
*  Two small rubber bands.
*  A strip of paper the same size as the popsicles.
*  A toothpick, broken in half.

--> Place the paper between the two sticks. Wrap a rubber band tightly around one end.
--> Slide one half of the toothpick between the paper and the bottom popsicle stick, all the way to the rubber band.
--> Place the other half of the toothpick between the paper and the top popsicle stick at the free end and wrap with remaining rubber band.

Hold popsicle stick harmonica horizontally and blow through it. Voila!

3. A Real Classic for Lovers of Literature
During the month of December, the University of Chicago Press offers GALATEO as its free ebook. (This link will work through the end of 2017. After that, it will take you to a different, but still free, ebook. It's like freebook roulette!) Written in the early 1500's by Giovanni Della Casa, for the benefit of his nephew, "GALATEO, or The Rules of Polite Behavior," is both fascinating and funny. It's an acerbic look into the etiquette and customs of early Renaissance Italy.

4. Start a Painted Rock Craze
Painted Rock Hunting is a real thing, from Louisiana to Washington. Why not start your own hunt? First, find some rocks and paint them. (Yes, really.) If you've got a house full of family wondering what to do if they can't talk politics, set them to painting too.

Then, later, either go for a walk en masse and hide them (the rocks, not the family members) for strangers to find, or hide them yourself for the family to discover. Though especially intriguing for the little ones, this is a great way to get people off the couch and outside.

5. Make a Brown Sugar Mocha
Though the Clove Mocha recipe from the 2015 list is my favorite, this is a close second:

* In a drip coffeemaker, add 1/2 cup of good ground coffee or espresso, 1 Tbsp. quality ground cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg. Add 5 cups of water and brew the coffee.
* Meanwhile, mix 1/3 C hot water with 1/2 C unsweetened cocoa till smooth. (OR use 1/3 C dark chocolate syrup)
* In small saucepan, heat 1 C milk, 1/4 C dark brown sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla extract over low heat till sugar dissolves. Add chocolate syrup to pan and stir till heated through.
* Pour 3 to 4 Tbsp. of brown sugar syrup in the bottom of a coffee mug. Fill with hot coffee. Stir. Mmmm!

6. Best Math "Gotcha" for the Brainiacs
The Challenge: Add "+" or "-" to the first 9 digits in sequence to make a total of 100.
The Solution: 12 + 3 - 4 + 5 + 67 + 8 + 9 = 100

7. Get a Great Night's Sleep
Because it's good to give gifts to yourself on occasion, here's one I highly recommend: Issue a Screen Moratorium for at least an hour before you go to bed. I mean it. Remove the TV from your bedroom. Banish the computer to the office. Leave your phone on the kitchen counter.

Fill the now screen-free hour by reading a book -- a real one, not an ebook. Listen to music. Pet your dog or cat or bearded dragon. Do a little yoga. Take a bubble bath. Find a way to give your brain a welcome break from electronic bombardment. Nighty-night!

8. Use a Furoshiki Gift Wrap
This Japanese wrapping cloth, which has been around since at least the 8th century, is a great green way to reduce the 4 million tons of wrapping paper and gift-related crap that ends up in US landfills every year.

"It's just a piece of fabric, like a teatowel or a bandana, right?"

Well yes... and no. Check out this video as a jumping-off place for the versatile Furoshiki. (Caveat: guard your time well. Furoshiki videos are a massive rabbit hole of awesome ideas.)

9. Make a YouTube Playlist and Share it With Someone Special
It's the 2017 version of the mixtape. Maybe it's a compilation of the Top 20 songs the year your parents got married, or a "greatest hits" version of your dad's favorite old-school standup comics, or replays of the best football game finishes your brother has never seen. (If you don't know how to create a YouTube playlist, here's a simple tutorial.)

Then, share your creation with the one who inspired it. Ideally, you can do it in person. But if distance separates you, let the internet bridge the gap between you -- at least for awhile.

10. Write a Letter
Not an email. Not a text. A letter. It doesn't have to be long. A short postcard or notecard will suffice. Say "Thank You" to someone who may not know the impact they've had in your life. Right an old wrong. Say "hello" to a new neighbor. Tell someone who is going through a rough time that you're thinking of them. Or reminisce with an old friend. Then -- and this is key -- mail that puppy.

It's true, it'll cost you the price of a stamp, so *technically* it's not "free." But it's a great, inexpensive way to spread some serious holiday cheer.

Here's hoping this season brings you warmth, wonder, and wishes that come true.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Widow for One Year

Just over a year ago, on December 3, 2016, I said "goodbye" to my WunderGuy.

I can't believe how quickly the time has gone. In addition to all the stuff that goes along with losing someone: planning a memorial service, spending interminable hours waiting at Social Security, and getting one's financial ducks in some sort of row, the year included a whole cycle of Normal Stuff. Christmas. New Year's. C's fourteenth birthday. Eighth grade graduation. Spring. Dad's birthday. Summer vacation. C started high school. Fall. My birthday. Thanksgiving. And here we are. Full circle.

The year included some memorably good things:

*  Thanks to the marvels of modern medical technology, and the blessing of the Affordable Care Act which allows me to have decent insurance, a routine test that showed some abnormalities turned out *not* to be cancer or anything else majorly devastating. *Whew.*

*  I finally signed with an amazing agent who gets what I write, who likes what I write, and who thinks we will be mutually good for each other's business. (The moral of that story: sometimes you've got to be bull-headed enough to plod forward, even in crisis. You can't get to "yes" if you quit.)

*  I spent a wonderful, carefree day in Chicago with some of my very favorite people, including my lovely daughter who is literally growing up in front of my eyes. We saw "Hamilton," which every single person should do at least once in the next 12 months, if you ask me.

*  My mother, who suffers from severe dementia and other physical and neurological issues, went on Hospice after dealing with pervasive pressure sores. Then -- in a move that stunned everyone -- she rallied! Her wounds healed, in direct contradiction to everything the medical pros expected. She even had a few good days where she knew my Dad and was able to communicate with him. We all know she is not long for this world. But her good days are a blessing.

Each of these events, in addition to other, smaller ones throughout the year, made me wish I could share them with Robert. For me, it's not the high holidays when I miss him most. It's lazy Sunday mornings, or hearing our daughter's handbell choir play his favorite song, or seeing something that references a family in-joke, or laughing at the antics of our dogs -- I miss him in all the little things that add up to make life richer, fuller.

Yet, I'm grateful. For friends. For family. For my daughter who graces me with drive-by "I love you's." For blue skies and orange leaves and fuzzy horses and fresh pumpkin pie and homemade sushi and YouTube videos of silly birds and political pundits. I'm grateful for the years we had together: though our time together was cut short, we had far more good years than many people do.

So, I marked the anniversary of losing Robert by doing the things I normally do. I directed the church choir. I wrote a little bit. Did some laundry. Made dinner. Watched a video with my kid. I was never one of those people who is defined by being married. Guess there's no point in being defined by what I've lost.

In case you needed it, here's your daily reminder to let the ones you love know it. Love may last forever, but people don't.

Friday, November 24, 2017

I'm Thankful For...

Happy Day After Thanksgiving!
Me: "I'm going to take a picture."
Dogs: "You're gonna kick us off the couch, aren't you?"

This was Cassandra’s and my first Thanksgiving without Robert. And even though it’s been nearly a year since he passed, every new day only underscores the importance of making the most of the moments we’re given.

Our Thanksgiving was a small, quiet one with just Dad, Cassandra, and me. We had several wonderful friends who invited us to share the day with them, but instead opted to stay home. I spent the greater part of the day hanging out with my dogs on the couch, watching videos when I should have been writing.

One of those videos included the great Thanksgiving PSA earworm of William Shatner “singing” about the dangers of deep frying turkeys. "Dingle dangle." You’re welcome...

Some things for which I am especially grateful this year:

  • My family. Dad lives just down the road and eats dinner with us every night. The other day he said, “I just realized how lucky we are that we all like each other. Not every family can say that.” True. True.
  • Caregivers. My mother is an elder care facility in the strange, gray purgatory of debilitation and dementia that requires Hospice care. She is surrounded by amazing people who make sure she gets three home-cooked meals a day and all the medical care she needs. Dad visits her every day for several hours. I am eternally thankful for those dear souls who are with her 24 / 7.
    Major: the Earred Wonder
  • Friends. After Robert passed away last December, my friends stepped up to the plate and did their best to fill the gaping hole in my life. We’re not guaranteed tomorrow. Today is all we’re given. Today, I am grateful for those who count me as their friend.
  • The animals that make up my extended furry family. This especially includes Major, of the tiny body and enormous ears, who was abandoned at Animal Control at the end of last year, and who came into our home in January for the sole purpose, I believe, of making me laugh.
  • Coffee. Pecan pie. Freshly laundered sheets. Thunderstorms. A hot fire on a cold day. And so much more...
Click to download the full-page .pdf file.
Last year, I had the amazing Karina Dale design a color-it-yourself mandala that I could share with my readers. It was such a huge hit, here it is again -- just click to download the full .pdf file. Enjoy!

Beginning in January of 2018, in addition to the blog, I’m going to send out a short monthly note.

(I don’t want to call it a “newsletter.” That sounds so... stuffy. I’m envisioning it as something more fluid, that shares some of the cool things I’ve run across, helping us stay better connected.)

If you'd like to join me in my monthly "Muse"letter, freshly delivered at no charge in your in-box, please fill in your information in the form provided. Let's stay in touch!

I'm especially thankful that there are things still unexplained and undiscovered. To illustrate: here’s my most recent favorite thing that makes me go “huh?”

May you find something every day to be thankful for.

(Updated 11/26/17: The newsletter sign-up is on the MuseInks blog homepage. If you have blog updates delivered via email, please click link at the bottom that says "You are subscribed to email updates from MuseInks." It will take you to the main page, with the aforementioned form. Thank you!)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Of "Characters," Composition, and Fierce Creativity

Lately, I've been bemoaning the loss of pre-political social media, when my feed was full of creativity and art rather than outrage. However, something happened recently that made me realize the creative community hasn't vanished.

Stan Stewart (), one of the creatives I connected with on Twitter, is a gifted improv musician.

A few years ago, I tried something new with my writing and created a blog in which I serialized a young adult novel, releasing it in pieces online throughout a school year. I didn't know if anyone would end up reading it.

Well, Stan did, and he liked it. He'd weigh in in the Comments sections from time to time and tell me how much he was enjoying the read. He even recommended the book blog to others.

He wasn't my target audience. I didn't care.

I eventually took the book offline and revised it. An editor for a new publisher read it, liked it, and offered to publish it. I contacted Stan shortly after signing the contract to ask if he'd be willing to do some improv pieces as a cross-promotional thing.

He agreed, then promptly *composed an entire freaking album* as a companion piece to my book. I was thrilled!

The pub date loomed. We planned promos. Then--


The publisher went through growing pains. My acquiring editor left. My book endured four editors, with each edit growing further removed from my original story.

Eventually, the publisher and I parted ways. It was 2015. We didn't yet know that Robert was terminally ill, but we knew he was having serious health issues. So I took care of him and shelved the YA project, which was in pieces.

I felt awful, because Stan got left in the lurch. Time passed. So did my husband. Then, earlier this year, Stan said he'd like to release the album.

In the meantime, I had signed with Agent Awesome. I toyed with self-publishing the YA novel to coincide with the album, but AA seems to think the book may have a future in traditional publishing. So we waits.

In the interim, "Characters," Stan's beautiful, haunting album inspired by my book, is now available. Thirteen gorgeous tracks, each providing the score for a particular character or scene in "Dear Alderone."

Thanks to Stan, I am reminded anew how much I love the vibrant, creative people I meet online. Their generosity, their talent, and their fierce creativity never cease to inspire me.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Kudos to an Early Childhood Heroine: Sesame Street's Joan Ganz Cooney

A note from Ami: My friend, Denise Fournier, is getting her certification in Early Childhood Education. One of her class requirements was to write about one of her heroes in early childhood education. She chose Joan Ganz Cooney. 

Today, as Sesame Street celebrates its 48th birthday, I got Denise's permission to post her paper here:

My early childhood heroine is Joan Ganz Cooney.  She is the primary founder of Sesame Street and is a true early childhood heroine in my eyes.

Joan was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1929. She was the youngest of three siblings and was born in an upper middle class family. Her parents were Sylvan, a banker, and Pauline, a homemaker.  She attended Dominican College before transferring to University of Arizona.  She wanted to major in acting but her father did not think this was an acceptable major so instead she studied education because being a teacher was considered an acceptable career for women in those days. She graduated in 1951 and began working as a typist for the state department.

She worked here for a few years before taking a job as a reporter and later a job as a publicist.  While doing this she became involved with educational television.  This topic really interested her and she was surprised to learn it existed.  She later became a producer and produced a number of educational programs.  In the winter of 1966 while hosting a dinner party, Joan and some friends discussed the possibility of creating an educational television program for preschool aged children.

Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969 and took the nation by storm.  Children’s television existed at this time but never before had their been a show like this that not only entertained children but also set out to educate them and to help children be prepared for school.  Studies done over the last 35 plus years have shown that children ages 3-5 who watch Sesame Street come to school ready to learn and already knowing many skills that they had not previously knew before Sesame Street premiered.  Teachers have actually had to change how they approach teaching young children due to Sesame Street.
I really feel that Joan Ganz Cooney is an early childhood heroine.  She pioneered something that didn’t exist at her time during a time when women were often not taken seriously.  She saw a need and was not afraid to speak up and point out that need to people who were in control of television and its programs. She revolutionized the way young children view television. Sesame Street prepares children, especially low-income children, for school in a way that no show ever had before. Of course we have educational programs galore now but nothing will ever compare to Sesame Street.
Sesame Street is a show that recognizes that the world is full of all sorts of types of people and these people are featured on the show at any given time.  There are people with special needs, people with various different ethnicities and cultures and families of all different kinds on Sesame Street. Children can always find someone that they can relate to.  When children feel they can relate they are more likely to be receptive to the lessons that are being presented to them.  This and many other things makes Sesame Street an awesome show and makes Joan Ganz Cooney a true early childhood education heroine.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Musings on a Movie Biz 'Do at the French Consulate in Beverly Hills

Last night I attended
What those in the movie business
Call a "party"
At the French Consulate in Beverly Hills.
I, and the other clients of my agency,
Which is hosting a writer's retreat at the Beverly Hilton,
Were invited so that empty seats might be filled
While major French publishers
Touted their wares --
Often in labored English --
To Hollywood, hoping for a movie deal.
Or at least a TV series.

Mingle, we were told.
This is a golden opportunity to meet people.

So --
Though what I really wanted to do
Was return to the hotel
(Hosting its own limo-encrusted extravaganza)
And hole up in my overpriced room,
Lacking both coffeemaker and refrigerator,
And maybe soak my tired feet
In the thimble of a tub
In its pocket-sized bathroom --
I mingled.

I sipped Perrier,
Listening for those fluent enough in English
To be able to strike up a conversation
Without making things more awkward
Than they already were.
I spoke with one producer who was happy to chat with me
Until someone more famous happened along.
But I always ended up being drawn like iron
Back to the magnet of the people I already knew --
Friends of a few hours:
Fellow agency clients.

And then,
Standing around a table,
Backlit by the glow of the swimming pool that
Vainly beckoned for someone --
Anyone --
To make a splash by falling in,
I met a wonderful woman,
Charming. Graceful. Authentic. And real.
She owns a flower shop --
Has owned a flower shop in Beverly Hills
For decades.
We fell into conversation and instantly felt
As if we had known each other

She wore earrings of silver angels
Which had been made in Oxaca
And bestowed upon her by a dear friend,
Now long gone.
We paid homage to loved ones who have left us too soon,
Sang the praises of children we loved who loved to read,
And sampled delicate pastries presented on silver platters.

The world, with its forced minglings, fell away
As she captivated me with photos of the floral art she creates
For clients, well-known and unknown, who love her designs.
And for the first time in all my visits to this part of the country,
I thought, "I love it here."
Because of this lovely soul
Who beautifies the world every day
And who agrees with me that the strawberry-topped lemon cookie wedges
Are just divine.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Writer's Armory: In Praise of the FitDesk!

For the past few weeks, I've been spilling the beans about some tools that I've recently begun using that have revved up my writing and tripled my productivity.

The first was the "MSD," an amazing low-tech boon for under $5, that helps me keep every project fresh, in front of me, organized, and on-track.

Last week, I confessed my love for Leo, my Neo2 Alphasmart old-school wordprocessor. Using Leo keeps me from the distractions of being online and helps me produce usable first drafts in record time.

The final tool that has been a real writing revolution is my FitDesk. A bit pricier than the other two tools I told you about -- but I'd rather spend money on something like the FitDesk than an HDTV. This was my to-me / from-me birthday gift this year, and I couldn't be happier with how it's working out.

The FitDesk is a combination desk and stationary bike. Yes, I know it sounds rather Rube Goldberg-esque. Well, don't laugh till you've tried it. As you probably know, writing has two major drawbacks:

One is in the lifestyle choice of sitting on a couch or in a chair for long quantities of time (often stuffing one's pie-hole without much thought to actual nutritional content).

The other is the creative's dilemma of having the exact answer to your plot problem drop in the moment you leave the couch and decide to get some exercise -- with nowhere to record your brainstorm.

I got the FitDesk 3.0, though there are other brands of desk / bikes out there. I strongly suggest that if you're interested, you shop around and see what features you like the most.

Things I love about my FitDesk:

It has a small footprint. My house isn't big, so I couldn't have some enormous piece of machinery taking up a ton of space. My FitDesk fits perfectly in a sort of dead-end hallway that has always been a place to throw laundry baskets and accumulate cat fur. If I wanted to, I could close up the FitDesk -- it folds up to roughly the size of a large upright vacuum cleaner. But I leave it set up so it's ready to use when I want it.

It's comfortable. My FitDesk has an ergonomic seat with a back, comfortable pedals (if I pedal in my slippers, rather than putting on shoes, as one does), and nifty, nubbly roller things for me to rest my forearms on while I type. At first, I thought the roller-deals were the dumbest things ever. But it didn't take me long to see the error of my ways. Anyone who spends a lot of time typing knows about repetitive stress. Voila! Nubbly rollers help keep that stress to a minimum.

I use it. Ok -- this might sound stupid, but it's true. I dithered about getting the thing because I didn't want to be one of Those People who acquire a piece of fitness equipment and the only exercise they get from it is when they dust it. But, for some reason, that is not the case. I have my notes, my coffee, and my computer or Leo (see last week's post) -- and I'm off! My FitDesk is positioned in front of a window, so I can look outside and see what's going on. I just sit at my desk and start writing. The pedaling comes naturally; I never miss my couch.

So that's what works for me at the moment. Thanks to my MSD, Leo, and FitDesk, I have streamlined my writing process, getting far more done now than I did before I used them as part of my daily routine.

Now it's your turn. What writing tools would you be lost without? Do tell!

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.


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:


Then it hits you with the lede:

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


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."



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.

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.


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.