Tag Archives: organization

Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

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A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

Leave a comment!

The Creative Process

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the current stage of my creative process: altering scenes and tracking goals

Last week via Twitter I came across an article called “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking.” While it goes into depth and gives examples of each, the list goes like this:

  1. You are creative.
  2. Creative thinking is work.
  3. You must go through the motions of being creative.
  4. Your brain is not a computer.
  5. There is no one right answer.
  6. Never stop with your first good idea.
  7. Expect the experts to be negative.
  8. Trust your instincts.
  9. There is no such thing as failure.
  10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
  11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.
  12. Learn to think unconventionally.

These are all so true that I would simply like to say, “Amen!”

But I’d also like to illustrate.

A few weeks ago Hubby and I were talking about my writing, and he mentioned how he feels as though, personality wise, I’m much more analytical than I am creative. Therefore, he said, shouldn’t I pursue analytical writing of some sort (haha, such as these blog posts?) rather than fiction writing?

I agreed with him to a point: I am naturally analytical, and creativity is hard work for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good at it once I get there. I noted that he hasn’t read my fiction yet and explained to him that though my characters and stories don’t come easily to me at first, I use my analytical skills to bring them to life one draft at a time.

The conversation made me realize that I’ve decided to be creative, decided to believe that I can be creative, and even decided to believe that I am good at creativity.

I think that’s why I loved the article. I experience those twelve concepts on a regular basis. I have to believe I’m creative; I have to work hard at wrapping my brain around my projects; I have to go through the motions and be open to all kinds of ideas; I have to trust my instincts and pursue the projects and designs I feel inclined toward, trusting that I can achieve the potential I imagine; I have to be willing to think outside the box all the time, questioning “rules” of writing and when to adhere to or break them.

What’s been especially phenomenal the past month and a half is experiencing the height of the creative process. I swore to Hubby and Twitter that I would aim for two goals: (a) to write every day, no matter what, and (b) to revise a chapter a week in order to finish this latest draft by April 1. As I’ve done those two things, I’ve been amazed at the creative output I’ve discovered. I’ve been completing each chapter early every week because the ideas have flowed so freely. I’m so excited to write every day that I can hardly wait to put everything else aside (especially children — since I have to wait for the toddler’s afternoon nap) and open my manuscript again.

Part of the credit goes to the place I am in the process. Since it’s a fifth draft, where I expect to be ready to submit to agents after this round, the characters and story are all in place and I’m simply monkeying with individual scenes, altering and moving and deleting them to enhance the telling of the story and the showing of the characters. It’s a fun stage, juggling and rearranging pieces and having new epiphanies all the time about how to improve them.

But I think most of the credit goes to pushing myself to write every day.

I used to let lesson plans and grading papers encroach on my writing time, but now I’ve decided not to. I’m an adjunct teacher, meaning that it’s a side job. Writing is my main job (besides motherhood), so the writing has to have its regular structured time. The side job has to fit in on the side, where it belongs. So when the toddler naps, I write — no exceptions. And so far I have fit in the planning and grading elsewhere, like when the kids are busy playing with toys.

Writing every day keeps the story and characters fresh in my head. I don’t waste time trying to catch myself up and figure out where I left off. I can dive right back in every day and keep the momentum of the story building as I revise. And my enthusiasm for it grows as well.

As it turns out, when I invest myself in the process I am creative!

What have your experiences with the creative process been like? What points on that list are particularly meaningful to you?

Leave a comment!

The Undoing of Things

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It’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I’ve been stuck dealing with a 2011 mess.

This is the view I’ve been tackling for the last hour:

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It might be hard to tell what exactly is going on thanks to that tangled mass of yarn, but the tangled mass is what’s going on. Or what’s going out.

I volunteered to crochet some hats for charity, and as I was working on the blue-and-brown one a few weeks ago, my toddler and preschooler had a little too much fun with the skein of yarn. I got to a point where I couldn’t even use the yarn anymore until I stopped to unravel it.

And the unravelling is taking forever.

20120101-143249.jpgSimilarly, on Friday I bought myself a desk out of the classifieds. It called to me the second I viewed it, after paging through hundreds of other desks, this one full of character and exactly the size and shape (and price range) I need to move my writing station off our kitchen table and into our basement.

But it wasn’t in much better shape than my skein of yarn. I spent all afternoon Friday sanding and staining until my right arm was so dead I couldn’t use it to even wipe my nose that night.

As I sanded, I thought about the undoing of things. I thought about how much I wanted to jump to the polishing stage, how ridiculous it felt to be taking the desk apart before I could put it together better than it was.

20120101-143157.jpgIn many ways the original desk seemed closer to being done than the sanded desk I spent hours on, as you can see in the picture of the not-yet-sanded drawer next to the sanded one.

And I thought how it feels that way with writing too. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, undoing things in my story by deleting scenes and rewriting sentences. It’s hard to feel like that’s actually progress when I want to be at the polished stage.

I just have to remind myself that unraveling the story is essential. I have to sand it down until I’ve got everything in place, every piece ready to proceed.

Sometimes the undoing of things is the first step toward creating something better.

Soon I’ll have a ball of untangled yarn ready to become another hat. And as of yesterday I have a polished desk ready to hold a laptop, a printer, a manuscript binder, pens and scratch paper and all the other essentials, so that I can start 2012 off right, ready to be the year that I send off a polished novel to be published.

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The desk will still be the site of more undoing as I cut more scenes and trim more lines. But it’s all in the name of progress.

Sometimes undoing is what has to be done.

Pin Your Interests

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I have a new obsession, which is a dangerous thing for a writer. Anything that eats time, unless it’s one of the five necessities (family, church, food, work, sleep) leaves less time for writing. Email is often the culprit when I’m on my computer, but this week it’s something far more addicting.

Pinterest. It’s an electronic bulletin board, basically. And you get to have as many boards as you want. And pin up as many photos on those boards as you want. And look at everybody else’s boards and copy their photos to your boards. And rearrange them. And rename them. And feel this absolutely glee in compiling and organizing all these awesome ideas.

Until you realize how much time has now been sucked away when you should have been writing.

But. I like to think I’m pretty good at justifying my non-writing time when I want to. I turn my side hobbies into writing analogies all the time, right? Reading is obvious (you cannot be a good writer unless you read!). Then there was the crocheting post, the appliqued crib set, the gardening analogies.

And I quickly realized Pinterest had more to offer my writing than just an analogy.

Pinterest could hold my writing ideas for me!

I’ve only just gotten started, doing quick searches for setting details that I need to describe better in my manuscript, like the ocean caves they visit, the tide pool, the sea-lion Wendy meets. And now instead of having to copy and paste it into a Word document or save a big file folder of pictures, it’s all in one spot online that also keeps track of where I found it and mandates captions (so I’ll remember what it is and why I pinned it there — a definite problem in my file folder version). Fantastic!

At some point I’ll probably need different boards for different novels, and I’m sure my followers on Pinterest will wonder a little at the randomness of what I’m pinning, but I’m thrilled. Photos can make a big difference for helping me create descriptions that ring true. And now I’ll have a whole collection to draw from that is one step easier than my previous attempts.

(So long as I can pull myself away from the home, garden, crafting, quoting, travel, fashion, etc, boards that distract me a little too easily.)

Have you tried Pinterest yet? What would you use an online bulletin board to keep track of?

Leave a comment!

Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

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I’m deep into revising my second novel — five full drafts deep, with multiple “sub-drafts” in between each full one. And it’s a great feeling, but at times it’s like I’m at all stages of the writing process at once — because every scene in my manuscript is at a different level.

As I started thinking about it, I can pretty much lump them into three categories:

  • scenes that aren’t working at all, and so need to be revised on the conceptual level (which often means scrapped and replaced completely);
  • scenes that are working conceptually but read either too slow or too fast, and so need pacing adjustment;
  • and scenes that are working well in both concept and pacing but are still “off” at the word or sentence level, and so need to be re-phrased.

At the risk of boring you, I want to offer a sample of each. I love to see how other writers revise, so I’m hoping this demonstration will be helpful to those who feel the same way — or even just those who might be curious to peek at what an unfinished novel looks like. Enjoy!

Concept Revision

Sometimes a scene might seem to work on the pacing and phrasing level but not with the big picture of the novel. If you don’t revise for concept first, you get stuck in a rut: polishing and polishing the pacing and phrasing but unable to figure out why the scene is “off.”

Conceptual revision is a matter of stepping back and asking what needs to happen in the scene as far as character and plot development. How does it need to build off the scene before it? Where is it leading for the next scene?

This is a sample of a scene like that for me — that seems okay when you read it but didn’t fit the arc of the novel:

Draft 5c

“You’re here!” The interruption came from up on the balcony, from a girl with designer clothes and long blond waves of hair. She hurried down the steps to the parking lot, talking the whole way.

“I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you guys in person! Isn’t this crazy? Did you see my note on your blog? I tried to talk my friend Cami into coming with me, but she’s totally into her boyfriend right now. They’re at that disgusting PDA stage. I can’t take them anywhere together. So believe me, it’s better I came alone.”

The girl planted herself right in front of the boys, holding her hand out to Zander. “I’m Brianna, and you must be Zander. I recognize you from your picture. And wait, let me guess everybody. Phil, right? And Topher? Drew?”

Wendy coughed. “We were just about to take a picture.”

“Oh!” Brianna exclaimed. “Sorry about that. Here.” She turned to face Wendy, backed up so she was in the middle of the guys, and put a huge smile on her face.

This scene just never worked for the story I’m trying to tell. I didn’t like it, readers didn’t like it, but for several drafts I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Then it occurred to me that it doesn’t even make sense on a technical level. Brianna couldn’t have gotten there before them. So I cut it completely, and replaced it with a scene that instead puts focus where I need it more: on Dee’s confrontations with her dad. When they arrive at the hostel, Dee’s phone rings and she goes off into the trees to answer it without the guys seeing her get teary-eyed.

Conceptually, the new scene is way better than the Brianna one. It deals with the character arcs I need to address and simply makes more sense in the story line with the scenes before and after it. (As far as pacing and phrasing, however, it’s so terrible that I’m too embarrassed to give a sample of it yet.)

In order to introduce Brianna, I added a few lines to the next chapter:

STATUS UPDATE: Out on the deck watching the sunset, hanging with new comrade Brianna of the Goldilocks ringlets. ~Drew 10 minutes ago

Zander huffed his usual noise from over on one of the deck’s low wooden chairs.  He shoved his chin into his fists.  “Brianna, tell me there’s something to do around here.  Anything but sitting around.”

The blond invader laughed, and Topher thought how glad he was Brianna sounded nothing like Gina.  In the two hours they’d known her, it hadn’t taken long for Brianna to fix her attentions on Zander, and Topher was more than happy not to have her superficial, flirty laugh directed at him.  If she’d had an ounce of Gina’s perceptiveness . . .

Well, no.  He wouldn’t want Brianna’s attention then either. 

He only wanted Gina.

Brianna is a very minor character, and this introduction keeps her in her place while also allowing me to explore Topher’s character a little more. The pacing and phrasing will still need adjusting, but conceptually I’ve now dumped a scene that didn’t work and replaced it with pieces that do.

Pacing Revision

For me, pacing has to do with fleshing out a scene once I’ve cemented the concept. I have to imagine it more deeply and picture every detail: facial expressions, tone of voice, mood, clothes, props, actions, setting. I can tell that a scene is ready for this when the idea is working well but feels bare, like this one:

Draft 5c

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Wendy stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

“Yes,” Wendy said. “I’m so okay that I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

“Sorry.”

She sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

It’s like Maggie Stiefvater points out in her post “How to Turn a Novel into a Textbook,” how you have to pace a scene by filling in between the dialogue. We need clues about how the characters are feeling, clues about what’s happening in their physical surroundings, clues about where the story’s headed. A few drafts ago I thought short beats like “she sighed and tilted her head back” were enough; this revision below shows how the potential goes way beyond short beats.

After Drew says, “Sorry,” there needed to be a long pause. He’s not good at conversation. He’s not good at driving her car. It would be awkward. Plus, he is so hypersensitive about Wendy that he would be thinking about her, noticing things about her.

I’ve marked the changes in blue:

Draft 5d

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Dee stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

Dee did a half-reach, like she’d wanted to grab the wheel and then thought better of it. “I’m so okay I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

Letting her down dropped a sour pit in his stomach. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and then had no idea what to add to it.

Traffic had congealed, moving like rubber cement from all the high school students on the road. First and second gear were not going to prove his driving skills well. He’d only driven stick a handful of times. But in between shifts he managed to glance over at her and see her eyes squint shut and her fingers dart up to her temples.

She was not okay. But if she wanted to pretend she was, he wouldn’t say otherwise. He focused instead on the essentials: getting her home without stalling her car or rear-ending the one in front of them.

Dee sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

The lines still aren’t quite right: the half-reach and the sour pit and the part about first and second gear definitely need to be tweaked as far as phrasing. But the pacing feels right to me now. It needed those extra sentences to slow down the dialogue and round out the scene.

Phrasing Revision

To be honest, the phrasing of my novel still makes me cringe. That’s the revision stage I always want to skip to even though I know it’s a waste of time until concept and pacing are in place. But once I get to play with phrasing, I love the way these changes finally sync everything else together and make the scene feel right.

Here is just the briefest example of tiny changes I make at the word and sentence level:

Draft 5c

But she felt reckless with the success she’d already had. Wendy was falling for him and glowing stronger than ever. That had to make it easier for Caprice to borrow a slice of it soon—so long as she could keep the selkie himself from stealing all of it. Having Phil on guard duty had reassured her a bit, but there was still so much at stake.

Draft 5d

But she felt reckless with the so-far success. Wendy was falling for him, glowing stronger. Surely Caprice could skim a slice of magic soon—so long as she kept the selkie himself from swiping it clean away. Having Phil on guard duty reassured her only a smidge with so much at stake.

In this case, the concept and pacing were fine, but the earlier draft didn’t sound anything like Caprice. I needed to alter the phrasing to fit her character better. The changes were minor, just tiny cuts and changes within each sentence, but it makes a difference.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t tweak it more, or even decide to cut these lines altogether down the road, but it’s a decent example of how I revise for phrasing — trying to hone in not just on the idea and the details but on how that character would express it all.

Once all three levels of revision are perfected, that’s when each scene comes alive.

Do you differentiate what kinds of revisions you need to make when you write? What helps you break a novel down and see what changes it needs?

Leave a comment!

Power of a Picture to Persuade

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Last week something pretty insane happened.

I began cleaning my kitchen as I cook.

It’s insane because I am a tornado in the kitchen. Hubby will get the whole thing sparkling clean before we go to bed at night, and by the time he comes home (after I’ve cooked two meals and am in the middle of the third), the poor guy’s effort has been all undone.

Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating for him. I can see exactly why, even when I’m in the middle of cooking and still using the measuring cups around me, he sometimes swipes my cooking utensils and throws them into the sink, just for the sake of making more of the counter top visible.

Cleaning house is not my strength, and yet the constant state of disorganization frazzles me almost as much as it frazzles my poor husband. So when a blog I subscribe to mentioned the e-book One Bite at a Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler, which only costs $5 and would give me amazing tips like “Eat your frog first,” let’s just say it’s the first time I’ve bought an e-book without hesitating.

The author’s recommendation is to choose where you want to start, and after reading through a dozen or more of the projects, I knew “Clean your kitchen as you cook” was the winner for me. I read it while nursing the baby upstairs for his nap and then came down and announced my intentions to Hubby, expecting him to be thrilled.

“What?!” he choked. “I’ve been begging you to do that for nine years.”

Poor guy.

But it made me think about persuasion. How had these couple of pages in an e-book succeeded where the man I love had not?

Sadly, Hubby’s main point didn’t work well enough for me. Yes, crusty, dried-up food takes five times as long to clean off as it would before the food cakes. But I figured I didn’t have time to deal with it while cooking. Cooking is not a leisurely activity around here. It’s a stressful effort, accentuated by cries of “Mom! I’m hungry!” So I always dealt with tossing dishes in the sink once the food was in the oven, etc.

That’s where the e-book spoke my language by showing me how cleaning as I cook would actually simplify my life. And it did that by using an image that gave me an instant association: what a professional kitchen looks like. The author of the project says she learned to clean as she cooks in her first day of cooking school.

That was when it started to click for me. Oh! Of course! A professional cook would quickly wash and put away a cutting board before moving on to the next step. I could picture that, and then could visualize myself doing the same.

And thanks to that effective analogy, everything else clicked into place for me.

I could see how important that would be in a professional kitchen, how they need the cutting board and other kitchen tools to be always ready for the next thing. How many meals have been delayed at our house when I discovered that the needed bowl/knife/measuring cup/chopper/blender/etc I needed was buried in the sink?

I could see how washing those things immediately and putting them away would also save me time trying to push things aside to create enough counter space.

I could see how other tips like having a bowl for scraps next to me while chopping veggies would mean my veggie chopping wouldn’t create a mess.

I could suddenly picture myself cleaning as I cook, and that allowed me to begin doing it.

It’s ironic that in the e-book the “Clean as you cook” project doesn’t come with a photo (other than the author’s portrait). What I mean here is simply the pictures created with words. When someone is trying to persuade us to change, I think that helping us visualize that change is essential to the transformation. We need the right details, like the “garbage bowl” and the analogy of the professional kitchen, to catch the enthusiasm of the idea and adopt it in our lives. And we need to see how the change will actually overcome the obstacles we thought prohibited it in the first place — like not having time to clean while cooking.

Yes, it might take me several weeks to fully master this first project and conquer my tornado habits, but visualizing the change has already made a huge difference.

Are you as visually dependent as I am? What does it take to persuade you to start a new project or transform a habit?

Leave a comment!