I Spy

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

Miles run today: 5

Temperature at 3:45 p.m. (in January!): 63

Stars I give to Carrie Rubin’s novel, The Seneca Scourge: 5 (It was so good. I know, I’m late to the party.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m a little miffed I wasn’t recruited for the CIA.

Back when I was 10 or 11, my friends and I often wrote up elaborate spy missions. We devised long forms with official-sounding terms: Location. Description. Activity. Conversation. Action to Take.

We brainstormed about who we could shadow; someone who, when overheard, would provide scintillating tidbits for us to scribble in our notes.

My sister, four and a half years younger than we were, was often the quarry.

We would crouch in the guest room, the one next to hers, waiting for her to say something. Anything. But as she was usually alone, the espionage forms remained blank for long minutes, and our legs developed cramps.

Location: her room

Description: age 6 1/2, brown hair, brown eyes

Activity: combing her doll’s hair

Conversation: N/A (I learned that one from my mom filling out medical forms at the doctor’s office.)

Action to Take: Find a new subject. Who says stuff.

By high school, we were more mobile.

We drove to the MARTA station and took the train to the end of the line: the Atlanta airport, one of the busiest in America.

Back in the glory days of air travel, random teenagers from the ‘burbs wandering through the terminals weren’t considered a security threat. Out of sheer boredom, we watched families arriving from Europe, couples reuniting after long absences, and business travelers in rumpled suits retrieving their suitcases from baggage claim.

Sometimes we would play, “That’s Your Boyfriend,” a game that today seems horribly cruel but provided us with hours of free entertainment.

You would find the most unwashed, outdated, grizzly man at the airport and present him to your friend as a gift. “Hey, girl, That’s Your Boyfriend.”

To our credit, we never pointed.

When my dad found out about it, he was horrified. “You do know that those men are other people’s fathers, don’t you? A group of teenage girls looking in his direction, giggling? The poor men probably think their zipper is unzipped or something.”

Now at the ripe old age of many of our “That’s Your Boyfriend” subjects, I still watch people and wonder about their lives.

People are curious about other people. It’s in our nature. And if you are a writer, you’ll understand that we want to know why, and how, and what makes her tick.

A few months ago, I was standing in line at our local warehouse store. The man in front of me, age 50, brown hair, mustache, stubbly facial hair, jeans circa 1995, logo t-shirt, was fascinating. I wanted my old Spy forms back.

Here is what he bought:

One case of Corona

One 55-pound bag of dog food

Two 20-pound bags of Dixie Crystals sugar

I’m sure you can imagine what I wanted to ask him: what time is the margarita party, and how many limes will you need me to pick up first?

Was the dog food thing just to put me off the scent of the real story here? I imagined a Mel-Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon existence for him.

Or maybe he was lonely and baked homemade brownies for the homeless each Tuesday afternoon while sipping a beer.

Or maybe he and his dog filled up a plastic swimming pool with colored sugar water and splashed around on warm days in late fall.

Or maybe he baked large cakes for prisoners with nefarious tools hidden inside.

I kept my mouth shut.

But I am glad that I’ve found a career and vocation that allows me to ask a lot of questions and then write about the answers.

With each person I meet, with each person I interview, I find I gain no more insight into what makes people tick. But I do gain compassion: I never, ever play “That’s Your Boyfriend” anymore.

And I gain many more questions than I’m able to answer, which makes me happy.

Do you people-watch? Where is your favorite place to go to wonder about people’s lives? What was your biggest surprise while people-watching?

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Happy Blogiversary to Me!

You might have heard me mention the boots my BFF bought me for a penny. Ask and ye shall receive: here they are!

You might have heard me mention the boots my BFF bought me for a penny. You wanted a photo. Ask and ye shall receive: here they are!

Miles run yesterday: 4.5

Passwords computer programs expect us to remember:59

Chapters my writing group has critiqued in my novel: 19

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Shoot. Someone’s already done that.

Anyway, happy blogiversary to me! It’s been one year since I started posting at Writing by the Numbers, and I really appreciate everyone who has climbed aboard for the ride. Thank you for reading!

I never thought I would blog or share so many details about my life or get to know so many virtual people.

This year, I have blogged about:

how to make the best chocolate chip cookies,

how lightning struck our TV,

how my son was starting middle school,

how my daughter persuaded me to wear dresses,

how I surprised my mom when I was 5,

how I touched a strange woman’s bathing suit,

how I got all ninja on an imagined carjacker,

how ennui and pee go together,

how we should write real letters more often,

how the world could end, and

how I managed to lock myself both out of and into a variety of places.

I also turned 40, wrote a draft of a novel, started looking for a full-time job and ran many, many miles. (I should have kept a better account of that.)

I have enjoyed getting to know those of you whose blogs I visit regularly, and I appreciate the comments and support you have shown to my blog. If there is something you would like for me to write about more (or less), feel free to drop me a line.

And if you are reading this, give yourself a pat on the back. You are an awesome individual.

Reading is Sexy

My husband went out in the windy cold this weekend to take some awesome photos for my blog. I love this one.

Miles run yesterday: 3 (icky, rainy, didn’t-wanna-be-out-in-it run)

Book club meeting I attended last night: 1 (We discussed 2030.)

Words I have written in my novel today: 0

Sometimes you have to hear things over and over and over for the words to sink in.

Sometimes when you hear the words over and over and over, you say words without thinking about them.

Sometimes this is a problem.

When I went on the field trip to Old Salem with my daughter’s fourth grade class recently, I embarrassed her beyond imagination. (A very, very easy thing to do.)

Every single restored home had large signs throughout the building; signs that the girls in my group were able to overlook with daunting regularity.

“Second Floor for Staff Only” placed on a stair riser became: “Oooh! Let’s go upstairs!” And “Private Residence: Do Not Knock” became “Hey! Let’s go in this house! Let me knock!”

I was beginning to wonder whether I was chaperoning juvenile delinquents or illiterates.

Finally, as five girls started to lounge against a stair rail that said, “Do Not Touch,” I yelled out:

“Reading is Sexy!”

My daughter wanted to crawl under an 1800s-era rock.

A few years ago, my husband had seen a bumper sticker–Reading is Sexy–and every time our kids now disregard the printed word, one of us laughs and says, “Reading is Sexy.”

Sexy is apparently a bad word among the fourth grade set.

Blurting out inappropriate words made me realize that all of the things we repeat in our daily lives sink in somewhere in the crevices of our gray matter.

Last weekend, when I was at the writing conference I attend each year, I walked into a “Slushfest” with two friends. Slushfest, for the uninitiated, is where two anonymous, laminated first pages of someone’s novel are thrown up on a screen, and agents riff on why the passage would be something they would consider reading further or not.

After four years at the conference, I was starting to get that apathetic, senioritis feeling. I was tired; I felt I had heard it all before.

An agent we had sat at dinner with the night before then said something that felt like he was talking directly to me: “We have all heard these things before. At times, you may think you don’t need to hear them anymore. But I think it takes many times and ways of hearing things for wisdom to set in.”

I perked up. If only a teacher had said those very same words to me years ago, maybe I would have sat up straighter in my seat; maybe I would be sitting in a swank office somewhere, contemplating string theory.

Or maybe not.

I’ll leave you with words of wisdom gleaned from these experiences:

1. Reading is Sexy.

2. We need to hear important information over and over for it to sink in.

3. Be careful what you tell yourself over and over. You may start to believe it.

What is a helpful mantra for you that has led to success? What have you needed to hear over and over that eventually worked its way into your psyche? Have you ever embarrassed your child beyond belief?

The Misplacements

Imperfect perfection.

Miles run today: 4.5

Words written in my novel over the weekend: 0

Fun days I had at the SCWW writing conference: 3

I have so much to report back about writing. I don’t yet have 20,000 blog followers or 50,000 people ready to laugh uproariously at my nonexistent Tweets. I am, however, writing a novel that has a rocking query letter and a bunch of revisions left to do.

But I’m not going to write about that today.

Today, I am going to write about how people who have it all together can get distracted and misplace things all over South Carolina. And then, my son, who was here in North Carolina, managed to “misplace” both an Aeropostale sweatshirt and an entire bag of gym clothes within five days.

Also, I wanted to report that there is a lot of good in the world, and we experienced it this weekend.

Observations:

1. When you write something, by yourself, for a very long time, and someone, someone like a real literary agent, says something encouraging about it, you are lucky that you remember how to walk.

I got to volunteer at the Critique Room at this weekend’s conference. For the uninitiated, the Critique Room is completely unlike the Champagne Room but involves some of the same elements: sweat, adrenalin, performance anxiety.

Everything that happens in the Critique Room happens behind closed doors.

And when the wrung-out writers emerged from the Critique Room with encouraging words to hash out over and over and over and over in their minds, they often did uncharacteristic things. Things like walking up the stairs in a zigzag line with noodle legs like one of my friends (no alcohol was involved).

Or another one of my friends, who kept misplacing her makeup, jacket, shoes, bag and other possessions at various locales around the hotel, condo or car. It was almost like she was saying to the universe, “I’m about to have a book published! I divest myself of all worldly possessions!”

2. When you have spent lots of time alone, talking to your own characters and world building in your spare time, you get a little giddy around other people.

Either it is a myth that most writers are introverts, or everyone went against type this weekend. After spending hours by myself in my desk chair like I’m supposed to be doing, people, it was like a wild festival of the senses to see and speak to so many other people who do the same thing.

I am not kidding, y’all. These people talk. They talk a lot. Not that I did, of course, but you know, other people had a lot to say.

And not in writing. Like, in real life.

3. When I meet other writers, it makes me proud to be a writer.

Writers, as a group, are funny. Even the ones who write about death and violence and murder and mayhem and vampires and sometimes fireflies made my stomach hurt with their wit and wisdom.

The keynote speaker was hilarious; the volunteers were funny; my dear writer friends, whose numbers keep increasing with each conference, made me double over with stories about mules and body parts (separately, of course).

4. Most people are mostly good.

I stand by my opinion.

Yesterday, my friend and I were driving home from the writing conference when nature called. We stopped at a rest area in North Carolina just off I-95. I took my purse into the rest area; my friend took nothing but her keys.

Fifteen minutes later, I got a call from another writing friend, who was driving home and was a few minutes behind us on the road.

She sounded as if she was notifying me of someone’s death.

A kind stranger had found my friend’s phone at the rest area, where it had apparently fallen out of her jeans pocket onto the floor.

We pulled over to the nearest exit and waited for the sweet family to pull up in their white horse SUV. They were so excited to drop off my friend’s cell phone. Excited and happy. To do something good.

In other Misplaced Things News, someone had put my son’s sweatshirt in the Lost & Found, and when he left his gym bag on the bus, the bus driver saved it for him and returned it, intact.

(He probably should have had to completely lose his things and learn his lesson. But sometimes, as a parent, you hope they will learn their lessons without it costing you a lot of money… a kind of free-to-the-parents kind of lesson.)

What about you? Where have you witnessed kindness and compassion lately? Does getting a positive critique make you act like you’re drunk? Do you like bunnies?

I Am A Work-In-Progress

Keep working, Mr. Bee.

Miles run today: 10

Words written in my novel so far: 53,592

Times I have been wrong: 4.5

You may ask my husband and family: I am never wrong. Well, I mean… mostly never.

Memorable times in history when I have been mistaken:

1. “Pluto and Yugoslavia will always exist as they are today.”– Anne, circa 1987.

2. “I don’t get the big deal about the Information Superhighway. It isn’t going to affect my life in any major way.” –Anne, circa 1992.

3. “I am completely uninterested in sharing my life in a blog.” –Anne, circa 2009.

(The .5 is to encompass any slight oversight in my recollections.)

Please control your gasps, but a sea change occurred recently in my writing life, and I need to confess:

4. I was wrong about being a pantser. Plotting and outlining my novel might be a good idea.

I know. It’s huge.

Much has been made about the plotting vs. pantsing divide in the writing world: some writers prefer to construct detailed outlines of their novels, while other writers write “by the seat of their pants.”

I read an excellent blog post by a published author recently, though I can’t find it now to save my life. She said that she had many reservations about outlining… until she got very pressed for time: between caring for young children and rigid deadlines from publishers, something had to give.

She found that by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to write out, longhand, the gist of the next couple of chapters, she increased her word count by thousands of words. The result was dramatic and life-changing.

I was resistant to the outlining/plotting process. Like this author, I was afraid that specific, Roman-numeral, English-class-style outlines would stunt my writing, essentially locking me in a 10×10 cell wrapped in blank pages.

I’ve never been fond of formal outlines. They represent everything about school that I disliked, all rules-y and authoritative, judgmental and blocky.

But if you can find a way to make a chapter summary-style outline work for you, it just might change your life. I am finding, not that I’m writing wildly productive, 10,000 word sessions, but that the chapters I am writing have more of a focus.

And if you struggle with maintaining tension and keeping conflict alive in your writing, as I do, a scene/chapter loose outline may help you hone in on the nugget that each chapter needs to push your story forward.

I am fortunate to be in an excellent critique group, and if you have critiqued other writers’ work as I have, you will find that sussing out lack of tension in other writers’ work is SO EASY. Why, how simple it is to see what someone else is lacking! You, there–your story is getting dull! Your characters are talking about nothing that helps the story move forward! I just read a chapter that didn’t even need to be in your novel!

But it’s not so easy to see in your own work. At least not during the initital writing process.

You can become so enamoured of your characters, of the setting, of your snappy dialogue, that you forget the very essence of why you are writing: to make the reader want to find out what happens next!

I’m still muddling through on my WIP. I am no speed writer or novel goddess. I have not yet placed in the time trials of Olympic Novel Writing. I, myself, am a Work-In-Progress.

But I’d love to hear back from you about what you have changed about your writing process. What were you wrong about? What has made your job as a novelist easier? What nugget of wisdom can you pass along to make the world a better place?

Tag!

My son took this at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Miles driven yesterday: 547

Times I heard the song “Wide Awake” come on the radio before I switched stations: 52

Words written in my novel so far: 28,101

When I was four years old, I liked to swing out on my Candyland-painted swingset and sing songs of my own making.

One day, when I came inside, my mom was not happy with me about something or other. I cried and said they should make a movie about my life.

“Well, it would be a really boring movie,” my mom said.

My first novel, now sitting in a drawer (shelf) in my office, shows how oddly prescient my mother is. When I follow that oft-repeated advice, “Write what you know,” agents tend to fall asleep.

Hence, the second novel… the one that will knock their socks off. Or something.

Thank you to JM McDowell, who offered me the opportunity to talk about My Novel That Does Not Yet Exist in its Entirety. Here are the interview questions she doled out and my somewhat evasive answers.

1. Which genre best describes your current WIP (work-in-progress)? Women’s fiction.

2. Who do you consider the audience to be for your work? With women’s fiction, clearly I am writing for women of any age. But as with any writer, my goal is to capture universal truths, something men or women, young or old, will find relatable.

3. How did the idea for the work come to you? I learned my lesson with the first novel. Agents want something fresh, different, something they haven’t heard before. I mulled over many different concepts before I dug into this one because I realize now how important the concept itself is… agents aren’t interested in how well you write if the concept itself isn’t AMAZING. BAM!

4. Are you an organized outliner or a “pantser” when  you write? I am somewhere in between, but closer to a pantser. I find that if I outline, I try to fit things into a very pat outcome. To avoid that, I like to start with a concept, have an idea of the major plot points, and let the characters start to tell their stories without forcing the issue. I’m afraid I would miss something wonderful if I had everything all figured out already.

5. Is this book part of a series or a stand-alone? I think this concept would do best on its own.

6. Did your research for the book lead you to new twists or scenes for the story? Okay, see, I’m still researching. One thing I can say is that part of the book takes place in Santa Barbara, California, and I am starting to think that only vampires, hobgoblins and surfers live in Santa Barbara. Do any real people live in Santa Barbara? I am highly doubtful. Please discuss.

7. Some agents suggest comparing your work to that of a published author. Can you think of a good comparison for yours? I was able to do this with my last novel. I think I will have to be finished with this one before I know for sure. I started out thinking it was going to be very funny, and it seems to have a darker undertone than I’d imagined. So the author comparison will have to wait.

[I am skipping a couple of questions here about my agent “pitch” because my novel is “high concept.” This is a snooty, high-falutin way of saying, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Are you intrigued or just disgusted?]

8. When the book is published, how will you celebrate? I plan to take my husband on a two-week spa vacation to Tahiti. Oh. Writers don’t make enough money to go on vacations to Tahiti? OK. I will buy a photo of a beach in Tahiti and post it in my kitchen. Then we’ll go to dinner and split an entree. I get my own glass of wine, though.

I also want to put in a pitch for the South Carolina Writers Workshop fall conference. My writer friends and I have attended the past few years, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ll be volunteering this year, and I would love to see any blogging friends who are out pitching their books, learning more about writing or meeting with agents.

The Five Stages of Self-Promotion

Our son got second place in the adults’ portion of the mini-triathlon! Do you hear me bragging about it? Heck, yeah.

Miles run today: 4

Words written in my novel in the past four days: 0

Hours driven yesterday: 9 1/2

My mom didn’t believe in bragging about her kids.

I begged her to brag about us, just a little. As a Leo, I didn’t mind the extra attention.

I mention this in order to show that she did the best she could in encouraging humility and modesty. In some ways, maybe it took. In others, not so much.

Now that I’m older, I struggle with the need for self-promotion and the inevitable eye-roll from other people when you try to promote yourself in any way. How arrogant is it to write lots of things on a blog and then think they are so good that other people might want to read them? Pretty darn arrogant, I think.

And if you’re writing a book, you may not believe that your book is the next To Kill a Mockingbird, but you have to have a certain belief that someone, somewhere, is going to enjoy reading your stuff.

For those of you who want to promote yourselves to land that new job, conquer that big mountain or market that new book, I have prepared a self-help-style primer for you to remind you that you are not alone:

The Five Stages of Self-Promotion

1. Denial. If you are trying to get word out about how wonderful you are, about your amazing accomplishment or your super new blog, you may sit in your office and think to yourself: “My book is wonderful. I am sure that because I have written something so good, everyone will simply find this gem without any work on my part. Oprah may find my work on Amazon for 99 cents and go back to her old talk show just to promote my book.”

This is called denial.

Sometimes people have these same feelings about something big that you have to train for, like a marathon. They don’t train and think they’ll be just fine running for 4+ hours. We call these people stupid naive.

2. Anger. Rail against the universe. Stand outside in the rain and cry and scream. Sometimes, if your spouse is in a cooperative mood, you can yell at him or her because he/she made the bad choice to get married to a writer.

Just like in the creepy Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about the little girl and The Red Shoes and she kept dancing and dancing and couldn’t take them off… Sometimes writing feels like that, doesn’t it? Don’t lie. I can feel your lies through the computer screen.

Get mad all you want. But your word count is still stuck at the same place. Move on.

3. Bargaining. If you are a seriously introverted writer, a.) you are not alone and b.) you probably don’t relish the social events necessary for self-promotion.

“If I write more things, maybe more people will stumble upon my writing.” “If I sit in front of the computer a lot, maybe my friends, family and co-workers will get the hint that I’m writing my tail off and take pity on me.”

Don’t count on it, my friend.

This attitude is akin to reading a whole lot about running. But not running. The marathon itself requires running. And self-promotion, unfortunately, requires self-promotion. Some might call it bragging. But in today’s world of reality TV and blogs, we call it self-promotion.

4. Depression. By the depression stage of the game, you may be lolling around, playing computer solitaire or Angry Birds Space or reading unrelated blogs and telling yourself that it constitutes “research.”

Did you tell one person today that you’re writing a novel or have finished a novel? No? Then your work here is not done.

Remember, 92 percent of self-promotion is convincing yourself that you have something to promote.

Did you get dressed today? Really look at yourself. Be honest. Pajama pants and a tank top don’t count.

5. Acceptance. Now you are fully self-actualized, whatever the heck that means.

You are in the stage where you tell everyone you know that you are writing a novel. This is mostly so they will ask you the next time you meet, and you will be too embarrassed to admit that the last time you wrote ten words was at your Aunt Esther’s house for the family reunion five weeks ago.

Shout your self-promoting words to the rooftops! Someday, you will have fans and people who can’t wait to read your next words. Until then, become the person you yourself most want to read.

And find someone other than your mom to help you spread the word about your writing. She remembers, in vivid detail, all the years you made her wash your clothes and then got mad at her when the burgundy dye ran on your favorite sweater. And you got annoyed with her.

Sorry, Mom…. did I tell you that I’m writing a novel? Let me tell you about it…