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The best bad grade I ever got

Dgrade

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During the second quarter of my freshman year of high school, I got a “D” in a class I easily could have aced: physical education (PE).

Why? Because I let myself be swayed by a friend.

She was perpetually late for class, and begged me to wait for her while she finished dressing out. So we were both late. Even though I liked running, I walked with her when our class did laps because she didn’t want to be alone.

Peer pressure, especially in those teen years, is a bitch.

But that poor grade was a gift. A wake-up call.

Sad as it is, the “D” gave me an excuse to be myself again without losing a friend. (Whether I should call her a friend or not is a discussion for another day.) Now when she was running late, I just told her I couldn’t risk another bad grade and left the locker room. And I could play the grade card when it was time to run laps.

I actually liked PE. Never a star at any particular sport, I was a decent general athlete, and I enjoyed playing sports. I even dove into third base during a PE softball game at the cost of half the skin on my lower leg. But I made it. 😉

The fact that I liked the class makes it even worse that I needed any kind of excuse to do what I really wanted. But as teenagers—and sometimes as adults—we often need a reason to justify why we won’t “be cool” or go with the crowd.

You should see the looks I sometimes get when people find out I don't like to drink alcohol or that I don't eat food from that comes from animals. They're the kind of looks that have me conjuring up excuses in my head to defend myself. It's a struggle not to use them. I don't want to care about the opinions of people who don't have my best interests at heart. And really, does anyone but me?

Ever since that I received that poor grade, I’ve tried to be more true to myself, without excuses.

There’s been a lot of talk in some of my writing groups lately about the reaction of friends and family to our stories. Romance writers often include—gasp!—sex in their books. If it’s done well, it’s not gratuitous, but enhances the emotional connection and increases the conflict between the characters. It raises the stakes and gives the reader an intimate glimpse into the hero and heroine’s changing attitudes toward each other during an act where they're emotionally and physically vulnerable.

Every writer needs to stick with their own comfort level, but I don’t believe you can write stories that really resonate if you’re worrying about what your mother, brother, sister-in-law, or kids will think of your writing. As if our inner critic isn't harsh enough, now we need to add the voices of the people around us?

Whether they dislike the sex, swearing, graphic violence, or your character’s political views, they’re not your target reader. Their opinions really shouldn’t matter.

Easier said than done, I know.

And for now, if you need an excuse—your own “D” to wave around when someone tries to push you down a path you don’t want to go—make something up. (I tell my kids I’ll be their excuse any time.)

Tell the naysayers you’ll never sell a book in your genre if it doesn’t have X in it. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent or editor, use them the way kids use parents. “Well, my agent advised…”

And maybe, eventually, you’ll be strong enough to own what you write, embrace it, and be bold enough that everybody’s talking about it. Personally, I'm still working on it.

Like a friend and bestselling author recently told me with regard to her writing, “You want people to love it or hate it, not say, ‘Eh.’”

Is there something in your life you need a “D” for?

Lessons from my son

unicycleMy 14-year-old son—I call him Taz online—is learning to ride a unicycle. Yes, really. After a few weekends of practice, he’s already pretty good at it.

I’ve spent his whole life trying to teach him what I think he needs to know before he leaves home in just a few years—sniff, sniff—but I think there are some lessons I could learn from him too.

1. Be yourself. It’s okay to defy convention.

Taz started his freshman year with atomic turquoise hair. It’s currently faded royal blue, and it’s been through iterations of purple and green in the last year or so. Teachers probably cringed when they saw him coming in his skinny jeans and Vans. But they were in for a pleasant surprise, because he’s a smarty. And his look doesn’t scream athlete either, but he’s that too.

When he first told me he’d like to dye his hair, I said, “Go for it!” Hey, hair grows out, and you’re only a kid once. If not now, then when?

When I was his age, I wanted to dye the ends of my hair blue, but never had the guts. I was too worried about what my friends and classmates would think. In my experience, when you let the opinion of others rule your actions, a little part of you dies. But when you overcome your fears and dare to be yourself, your self-confidence soars.

I've seen that confidence in him, and what better way to start high school?

It took me almost a year before I was willing to tell people outright that I was not only a writer, but—gasp!—I write romance, the best-selling, yet most maligned genre of fiction out there. But now that I’ve owned it, I’m much happier.

Not quite ready to dye my hair blue, though. 😉

2. Stick with it.

Taz is a typical teenager who hates to clean his room, leaves little messes (dishes, food wrappers, school supplies, shoes) everywhere he goes, and loves video games. But he’s not a slacker by any means.

Take the unicycle for example. He decided he wanted one, used a Christmas gift card to buy it, and has spent hours every weekend for the past several weeks mastering it. When he wants something, he goes after it, whether it’s a better grade, a faster race time, or a certain video game score.

He’s learning over and over that the time he puts in pays off in the end.

Writing is like that. Hell, life is like that. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort, whether it be a writing career, a new job, a degree, a good relationship, or a trim physique.

3. Sometimes it’s okay to quit.

Okay, tenacity is good, but there’s something to be said for knowing when to hang it up too. Taz was a good swimmer. Maybe not future Olympian quality, but definitely competitive. He worked hard at practice and swam hard at meets.

But the last year or so, he realized it wasn’t what he really wanted to be doing. Not only was he burned out by the schedule and expectations, but he had his heart set on running.

We made him finish the season, because, well, we’d paid for it for one thing. And we wanted to make sure he wouldn’t regret quitting something he’d spent five years doing. But in the end, he decided to trade in his flippers for running shoes.

And he’s never been happier.

So, don’t just stubbornly stick with something because you’re afraid of giving up. Spend time on those things that are truly your dream, and shed those that you’re doing out of a sense of obligation.

Those are just a few things I’ve picked up from my son.

As parents, we’re always thinking about how much we have to impart on our progeny, but both of my boys have taught me a lot about myself and the world.

What lessons have you learned from a child?

Plotting my day

ScheduleI’m most productive if I get my writing done before the rest of the day starts. Once it gets to nine or nine-thirty, I feel compelled to check and respond to email, comment on and promo my group blogs, and stop by Facebook and Twitter.

If I sleep until eight, eat breakfast, and deal with the dog, then by the time I sit down to write, the precious early hours are gone. I’m a night owl by nature, and while I get up to kiss my teens goodbye before they head to school, it’s hard to resist the call of the warm, cozy bed once they’re out the door.

But the lure of more sleep leaves me frustrated with myself by the end of the day. The word counts don't stack up the way I want, and other “urgent” tasks get in the way. When I let my body rule my day, I work, but don't produce what matters to me on a consistent basis.

I decided I needed a boss to keep me in line, and since I work for myself, I had to step up.

SampleDayPlan

A sample day plan

The answer—at least for me—was simple. I had to go back to the practices I’d used when I worked full time, back when I worshipped time management gurus like Brian Tracy and Franklin Covey. I had to determine my priorities and plot my next day in advance. I had to plan it out the night before so I'd have a reason to get up the next morning.

Once I could see in writing how my day needed to play out, I was motivated to get up to make it happen.

Rather than clutter up my digital calendar with things like “write”, “check email” and “work out”, I’m using a small white board. Easy to see from my chair and easy to modify if my schedule changes.

I’ve fallen into a schedule where I get up to see my kids off to school—or sometimes earlier—and then stay up. I make my oatmeal, feed and let out the dog, and then write for about 90 minutes. I don’t always produce as many words as I’d like, but I’m doing much better than before.

The key is putting in the time.

Once the writing is done, I don’t have to feel guilty about working on all the other stuff that I want/need to do, some of it writing-related, some of it not (I didn’t originally quit my full time job to write, after all). The number one goal is met, and if I write again that day, great. If not, no biggie.

Less stress and guilt, more productivity. That’s a win.

Oh, and here are some numbers to prove it.

Last week, getting up early (for me) to write before doing anything else on the computer, I kicked out 7528 words between Monday and Friday (I’ve been taking weekends off for family time). That’s an average of 1505 words per day. Near NaNoWriMo levels of words without the NaNo—or rather, mega—levels of stress.

Sure, it helps to have a manuscript idea that won’t let me go right now, but if I weren’t producing words, I’d be outlining or editing, and by 9:30 I know that even if I blow the rest of the day, the thing that matters most to me professionally is done.

And productivity is contagious. Now that I schedule my email/social media time, the guilt is gone, but I also have a reason not to get lost in the Internet for hours. I’m on a schedule, dammit. I’m a professional.

I’m putting my needs first. Following through on my promises to myself. It feels good, and that’s addictive. Like the runner’s high, it’ll keep me coming back for more.

I’m plotting to make this my most productive year yet.

What about you? How do you keep yourself on track?

Image credit: By Gentaur (Gentaur) , via Wikimedia Commons

2012 hits and misses

As_janus_rostrum_okretu_ciachNo matter what plans might have fallen by the wayside in 2012, I can’t be too disappointed since it’s the year I became a published author. Hard to beat that.

Well, except by becoming a published romantic suspense author with a fat advance, awesome covers, a multi-book deal, and a gazillion sales. 😉

Hey, I need something to strive for in 2013, right?

I’m not much on resolutions, and my goals tend to morph a little as the year goes on, but I like to start the new year by evaluating the previous year’s performance and set goals for the next 12 months. It’s become a tradition for me to share with you how I did, what I learned, and my plans going forward.

2012 was an abysmal failure from a fiction writing standpoint. But professionally speaking it was a great year in other ways. I got the contract for and wrote Scrivener For Dummies, and it released in August. What a whirlwind!

So here’s my look back, and forward.

2012 Stats

I wrote 113,384 total words, not including blog posts (regardless of purpose/site). June and July were busy spent on revisions and attending conference, so I have hours there, but no words.

2012WordCounts

I worked 768 hours, not including blogging (except promotional blogs), reading/answering email, networking on Twitter or Facebook, reading craft blogs, or volunteer hours for my writing chapters. I count hours for long stretches of research or craft reading, but not the little snippets I sometimes take here and there.

2012WritingHours

Hits

– Completed and polished a manuscript, though it wasn’t the one that I’d anticipated. Not that I’m complaining. 😉

– Taught two Scrivener courses for both Mac and Windows, and moved to running them myself.

– Researched, tested, and paid for new online class platform.

– Attended RWA National Conference and my local chapter retreat.

– Read several craft and research books.

– Blogged weekly.

Misses

– No completed fiction manuscripts. I got one about half finished, another about half edited, and a new one outlined.

– I didn’t come close to my word count or revision goals.

– No NaNoWriMo three-peat this year.

Goals for 2013

In an effort to focus on putting in the time instead of just words, I’m changing things up a little. I’ll talk next week in more detail about what I’m doing to make these goals more likely to happen.

– 60-90 minutes of writing or revisions every non-holiday weekday. Striving for at least 1000 words during writing sessions.

– Teach two Scrivener online classes for both Mac and Windows on new WizIQ platform.

– Check/respond to email, Facebook, Twitter, or other blogs after morning writing is done, but by 9:30am.

– Set more boundaries between my personal and professional life by limiting my “work” (writing, business emails, chapter volunteer duties) to weekday hours as much as possible.

– Continue to blog weekly.

So that’s how I did and what I’m looking forward to. How was 2012 for you? What plans do you have for 2013?

Image credit: By Ultima Thule, 1927 (Ultima Thule, 1927) , via Wikimedia Commons

NaNo OhNo

wrong way signThere's a lot to learn from participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Usually it teaches me that I can do more than I ever thought possible. It rejuvenates my writing soul and builds my confidence. Plus, I love winning! 😉

But there's something to be learned from failure too, which made this year's NaNo a different kind of learning experience for me.

At the end of October I talked about how I need a better outline before I begin writing. And I had a good start on one before November 1st hit, but I hadn't finished it. Still, I thought it was enough to take the plunge.

Wrong!

So I ended up with about 16,000 words before I realized I had no idea where I was going with the book and that I could spend all of November stressing out while writing a bunch of crap to make a goal, or I could relax and work on my outline.

I chose the second option. Which was hard. I’m really competitive, and one of the reasons NaNo works so well for me is the specter of public humiliation if I don’t meet my goal.

But if you’re working on the wrong goal, completing it doesn’t help you, it only wastes time and energy. It’s like driving 70 miles per hour toward New York when you’re supposed to be heading to San Francisco.

Outlining takes so much longer than I expect to do it right, but I’m amazed at how much the story idea changed—for the better—when I sat down to work on it further. In fact, at some point I had a brilliant (I reserve the right to change my mind about that later) idea, and my hero’s entire story arc and background just fell into place.

So, no three-peat for me this year, but I think I gained something more valuable than 50K. Namely, a better understanding of the process I need to go through, and a growing outline of what I hope will be my next finished novel.

And next year, I’ll make sure I have a solid understanding of my story before I dive into NaNo for win number three.

I’d love to hear your NaNoWriMo stories. What did you learn this year?

Photo credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WrongWaySign.jpg

Patience, grasshopper

Martial arts are a lesson in patience. It took me two years to reach First Brown (the second level of brown belt, just before black) when I was in Tae Kwon Do, and that was with an intensive practice schedule for the last six months.

Then I injured my shoulder, my husband got his black belt without me, and we moved out of town.

After moving back to Virginia, we signed up for Kung Fu with a former instructor who’d opened his own school. Two years later, we’ve graduated to red sash. It’ll probably take at least another year or two to reach black.

You cannot rush the skills.

Writing is the same way. When I first started writing, I wanted to get published with my second manuscript, less than a year after I’d started writing. I was ready.

Not!

I would have been like a white belt trying to spar with black belts. The likely result: a sound pummeling.

The more I learn about the writing business, the more relieved I am that I didn’t get published back then. I’m choosing to be grateful for the extra time to hone my craft; find my best method for planning/writing a manuscript; form a support network of other writers; and learn about agents, publishers, and the industry.

And when I earn my writing black belt (pubbed in fiction), I’ll understand that it merely means I’ve mastered the basics. There’s always more to learn, more to master. Another level to reach for.

I just need the patience to work and wait for it.