Category Archives: Thoughts

SuperStars Writing Seminars: A Week of Unlearning

I didn’t figure out I was at SuperStars–not to learn, but to unlearn–until the morning of the second day. Sawing through an English muffin that I expected to have the consistency of a pumice stone, and eyeing the leathery ham under my eggs—I did not expect my eggs Benedict to meet the expectations James A. Owen had stoked. There were also potatoes that looked like usual hotel potatoes. I expected them to be as exciting as stale French fries—because that’s usually how hotel potatoes taste—like potatoes that could have been average, except they’ve sat under a heat lamp all morning and now they’ve become a thing to avoid, or face the wrath of reeking potato breath.

But I wanted to like it. For the first time someone had set me up to want to like something I was pretty sure I wouldn’t. See, James told us the story about the best eggs Benedict he’d ever eaten. How the waiter had sold him the meal by telling him it was the house specialty. How the chef baked a batch of English muffins every fifteen minutes, just so the bread would be fresh. How he raised the chickens and gathered the eggs just that morning. How the chef named the pig. How the chef used a family recipe that had been passed down for generations…yada, yada, yada. Passed down recipes? He had me. I’m in.

I tried the potatoes first. They were not stale, in fact, they were delicious—and I’m picky about potatoes. I ate two more and eyed the eggs Benedict, still unsure.

Eventually I hacked at the muffin again once the sauce had loosened the pumice-like bread. I released my earlier hunch that I’d be let down and lowered the barriers to allow for the possibility of a good experience.

Damn. I liked it. It was the best eggs Benedict I’d ever had. Pay no attention to the fact that this was the first eggs Benedict I’d ever had. Pay attention to the fact I hate ham, but was happily eating it as part of my meal anyway. I’m not crazy about poached eggs, but I’m pretty sure I chased around every last bite and swabbed my potatoes around the plate to be sure I got all the yoke. Yeah, it wasn’t the same eggs James had talked about in his story, but my brain didn’t care.

Thankfully I snapped a picture of my life changing Eggs Benedict. Actually, honestly, my first thought was boobs. After spending the week before with Meghan, that's all I could think about. Or, seriously, it does kinda look like a plate of boobs.

Thankfully I snapped a picture of my life-changing eggs Benedict. Actually, honestly, my first thought was boobs. After spending the week before with Meghan, that’s all I could think about. Or, seriously, it does kinda look like a plate of boobs. Delicious, tasty boobs.

James pointed out that he didn’t tell me he hoped we’d like it, or that he’d tried to instruct the staff to recreate it, but was limited to the resources at hand. Or that it wasn’t his best and he wished he had something better for us—any writers find these excuses familiar?

He’d set my expectations high even though it was possible I’d have reservations. He didn’t ask me if I had a ham aversion. He did pull my plate away because it didn’t have paprika like he’d promised it would. The hotel staff remade the eggs for us because they wanted them to be perfect after they’d heard the talk (we found out later we were the only group who had their entire meal re-made—so this was not a gimmick).

This was a lesson in positive psychology that I’d forgotten I knew. Instead I’d allowed myself to fall into the trap to expect less and be pleasantly surprised when I was given something more. I’d even done it with the breakfast. When I found out what eggs Benedict actually were, I thought, “crap, I’m going to hate it.” Then I was subjected to a talk about how I was going to love them. He set me up by making me want to love it, just by telling me the lengths the chef in his story had gone to make it great for me. And it changed the way I viewed it. Instead of focusing on the negative of the meal, eventually with each bite I only saw the positive.

As writers we’re taught to never say we love our work out loud. That we’re to remain humble and let others do the praising. Otherwise it looks like we’re boasting or too confident. Plus, if we set up expectations that a story is going to be awesome and it doesn’t meet that expectation we’ll be left looking foolish. Also not to confuse boasting with comparing or telling someone “my work is better than ____’s work” that’s called being a jerk and not the same thing. I think writers confuse the advice and somewhere along the way it became more common to downplay, even tear apart other’s or our own talent publicly.

I’m naturally a positive person. I don’t like to focus on the negative for too long or I think I’ll shrivel up and spiral into depression. Writing is a difficult profession to avoid negativity. Daily rejections? Critiques? Reviews? Other jealous writers? The field is seeded with land mines of negativity. I’m full of positivity and when I realized the status quo is humility, I quickly shut up about my accomplishments and funneled all that energy into my friends’ work. When I come across writers I love who write stories I love, I become the biggest cheerleader for them. But never for myself. And when I hear them retelling the awesome way I got here, I do my part to downplay, to be humble, to shift focus. Because I don’t want to be a jerk, or set expectations too high.

While I ate my eggs Benedict and made “do not cry” “do not cry” my mantra for the rest of the weekend, I realized I was not there to learn or to continually mess up my mascara with the influx of overwhelming emotion. I’d heard every one of those lectures before. I’d probably heard most of them twice. I was at SuperStars to unlearn in the best way possible. I already feel like the stronger writer I was meant to be all along.

I’m a huge fan of unlearning. After I was diagnosed with dyslexia, I had to unlearn what I’d been taught and re-learn in a way that fit how my brain would process information more accurately. After I suffered extensive nerve damage and was paralyzed, I had to unlearn the way my muscles were taught to move and re-learn how to walk. And when my son was diagnosed with a medical condition, I had to unlearn that I’d done something to cause it, or that I could find some “natural” way to make him better, but accept and relearn to trust the medical professionals to fix the problem and prevent excessive hospital visits.

Every time I was not told I could do it, or that it was even possible. I had to grasp at my own belief that it could be done. If you think something isn’t possible then it isn’t. If you believe you’ve reached the top then you’ll never go any further. There is always, always an opportunity for improvement, even a very small one. Maybe not in the way you think, but some other way. Raise the bar.

This was exactly the best message to receive right now. For me, it was perfect. Actually, I guess I can tell the real story now. I didn’t ever sign up for the eggs Benedict. Around December I got a message from Nancy Greene (one of the SuperStars coordinators) telling me I’d gotten in. It was already booked up and people were waiting at the gate for an open seat. I checked with her several times to be sure there wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t sign up for it. I was sure. Because at the time I signed up I didn’t want to spend too much money, so I didn’t sign up for any of the “extras.” Nope, she said, no mistake. Before I would have given the spot to someone else (actually I was still considering doing that all up until that morning), but lately, since my parents house burned down and last week I’d just come back from a week of taking care of Meghan after her mastectomy—I’d learned to not ignore the universe telling me I needed to pay attention to something.

Should writers bother to go to SuperStars? What if the writer all ready knows it all? What if the workshop is a waste of money? Sure, that’s fair to ask. Since everyone always wants to know what’s at this workshop for them I’ll give a run down of options and reasons writers should go.

If you’re new to the business side of writing, go to SuperStars to learn about the basics: secrets of the writing world (copyediting mistakes to avoid, how to not be a jerk), how to be successful at a Con, what editors are looking for, common traps to avoid.

If you’ve been around for a while and been actively involved by sending stories out consistently, or shopping for an agent then go for the intermediate information: negotiating contracts, IP/trademark/copyright law, how to read a contract, what to ask for in a movie option or how to make money in Hollywood, what to look for in an agent or editor; do you even need one? How about an entire weekend of helping you weigh the options of traditional publishing vs. self or indie publishing? They’ll have that, too.

But if you feel jaded and/or depressed–maybe you’ve done it all and have nowhere to go except to continue to sell and convince people you’re here in the business to stay either until you die or they take out a restraining order on you–then go for the unlearning past negative thinking. Go for the positive energy. Go for the unexplainable feeling that you finally feel like you’ve found home carved from a rock in the middle of a desert, where there is an amazing supply of fresh water and food.

Feed your writing soul. Go to SuperStars. Seriously, just go. If not for the best eggs Benedict you’ll ever have, or the endless inside jokes on purple unicorn, then go because they’ve got people waiting to initiate you into the tribe. If you’ve been looking for a place to feel you belong, then stop. I found it for you.

I love comments! For every comment you leave a writer will think a positive thought, unlearn negative ones, and find their tribe.

As a side note, someone in the SuperStars Writing Seminar Facebook group posted this great video on positive psychology and how people can use it to start being happier and healthier. It reminded me a lot of how I felt after the 100 Days of Good Karma project Meghan and I did (which was really a 100 plus days of posting the positive messages we’d learned each day). I think since then I’ve viewed the world in a more positive light.

A Recipe for Productivity

My title is a total lie. I just randomly typed a title and that’s not what this blog is about, but it’s related. I’ve discovered a really cool thing.

Noise-canceling headphones!!

*waits for recognition, gold star, wild screams of ecstasy from readers*

What? Not even a pat on the back? Okay, okay, I get it. You’ve all heard of noise-canceling headphones and this is not news for you, but I’m about to change all that.

Step down into the rabbit hole my friends.

I’ve made no secret that I’m dyslexic and I have to employ several different tricks to get my writing to a high level. High enough to be engaging, engrossing, interesting… you know, publishable. Aside from changing fonts for each editing pass, or setting my kindle on landscape mode with the lines more widely spaced, the noise-canceling thingy is a really huge discovery.

Because it has changed my writing habits and it can change yours too.

Since this is starting to sound like a multi-level marketing campaign, I’ll just get on with it:

Along with dyslexia I also have some problems with sensory integration, specifically auditory. I’m really sensitive to background noise; it pulls all my attention or makes it really difficult for me to listen or follow a conversation in a crowded room.

This whole journey started a few weeks ago when I decided to take my laptop out on a field trip to the great wild frontier (or more commonly known as a public place with really crappy WiFi so I wouldn’t be tempted to surf the internet while I was supposed to be writing).

I sat down, propped up my legs on a stool, did a little neck stretch, and in walks a group of riff raffs hell bent on the latest gossip. I swear they talked louder than a gaggle of cheerleaders strung out on pumpkin spice lattes—but the cheerleaders wouldn’t have been half as annoying. Steam came out my ears for a few minutes while I forced myself to concentrate on the project in front of me. At one point I completely gave up and started typing out how annoyed I was instead, in the hope that getting some words on the page would direct my focus back (although now I see that writing about it as it unfolded was not the best way to “refocus”).

Defeated, I packed up my things and moved inside to the café. And what do you know, about ten minutes later it got too cold for the group outside and they moved inside, too. I scrambled up my things again to move outside, except that I noticed a large group of over-stimulated children were on their way to sit out there.

I ended up going home instead.

Wishing that there were some way to block out the sound of background noise, I – wait—hold on–I DID have a way to cut out the sound of background noise. I remembered my husband had noise-canceling-headphones. I ran home and scoured through his things like a monkey thrashing through trash at a zoo.

With my new weapon in hand I brought it to the café the next day for another try. I found ocean sounds on YouTube and settled in. I won’t lie. It was pretty much awesome.

Then my husband showed me something that blew my mind: an app called Ambiance. It’s an app that allows me to download a variety of white noise type sounds. So I guess I’ll keep the husband around for a while. He’s proven he can be useful.

There are fire sounds, war sounds, train sounds, water sounds of every kind. Writing something creepy? Leaky faucet. Writing something mysterious? Creaking oak. Writing something in space? Outer space sounds…

Although, being a science fiction writer I was skeptical at that one.

Now when I’m writing a night scene I pull up my “country night” noise, which is crickets chirping, the occasional frog, even a distant car passing on the highway. Or I’m writing a scene on a busy street corner, I can find traffic noises that fit what I have in mind. Sometimes I just want to zone out and think about the plot and I have sounds set aside for that purpose. Overall, it’s just made me able to focus on what I’m writing much faster than I could before. I get into the zone more quickly and I write more.

But anyway, it’s a really neat tool and so far I’ve been digging it.

I love comments! Every time you comment a new sound will pop onto the Ambiance app for a writer to play with.

The Last Day

Today is it. The last day of 100 Days Of Good Karma. There’s some Internet science quote. I don’t know if it’s right and I’m too lazy to look it up to be exact, but it’s something about it taking only thirty days to create a habit. If we do something over and over it will eventually sink in. I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if finding a silver lining to each day helped me think more positively. I don’t think this experience has made me more enlightened or elevated me to the next stage of self-awareness.

But I do know this:

There were a few things I noticed about trying think of a positive anecdote every day. One, some days it was hard and I was tempted to phone it in. Nobody would notice if I sneaked tacos in as my silver lining for another day….although tacos are amazing and so worthy. But I worked hard to come up with things that were real. It was hard because most days I have a routine and I work through the day and don’t stop to really analyze it much. Other days are just blah, normal, same. Nothing special. But coming up with a silver lining forced me to be present in the day, it gave me permission to stop and evaluate the blah with a different lens.

Good news! My parents can finally park in their garage!

Good news! My parents can finally park in their garage!

Another thing I know is that I was very concerned with being real. I have training as a counselor and I became very self-conscious of the image I was projecting out. I’m not a pretender. I like to be honest with how I feel, so it was important to me to not have the Karma for the day be a sugar coated version of my life. Being positive does not mean being fake. Early on in the project I confessed to Meghan (Getting the Words Wrong) that I had some guilt over coming up with positive things when there were so many things going wrong for other people. Was I being a Pollyanna? Was I inadvertently taking away someone’s validation to express pain? By showing I wanted to remain positive each day, would that send the right message? In the end I decided to take points from the best example of someone doing it right. For example, Meghan’s ability to share the realness and horror of cancer mixed with humor and grace. Her blog is amazing and everyone should check it out.

The last thing I learned was that looking for the biggest thing was like chasing a rainbow. It’s beautiful to aspire to, but in reality the “best” thing or “something better” would always move. Things became “not big enough to mention” or “boring.” At some point, I stopped caring about the big deal things. In the beginning of the project I was doing small acts of kindness. I left coupons on items at stores, I bought a random person’s coffee, I gave money to a guy downtown in a wheel chair that had a sign saying he survived cancer and had fallen on hard times, I left tips at places I don’t usually think to leave a tip. But sharing those things became too hard. I didn’t do them to get a pat on the back, so I didn’t post it on Facebook. It took away the joy of the activity. I also think I was doing them because I had survivors guilt. *MY* house didn’t burn down. *I* didn’t have cancer. I thought I needed to make up for that slight, or accept eventual punishment coming my way. Funny how we talk ourselves out of grief.

In the end the simplest parts of the day became the most cherished and most interesting. I didn’t have to ride a Pegasus, or go on a cross county journey planting non-GMO corn across America Johnny Appleseed style—the most fulfilling part of my day became a simple conversation with my kids or spending time with family.

(although random acts of kindness sounds like an awesome project for another time).

Chica, my parent's dog, surveys the property

Chica, my parent’s dog, surveys the property

And so what did I do on my last day? Ironically I ended it where it all began. I stayed with my parents in their trailer. The place where the house once stood is roughly a 2,000 square-foot hole in the ground. From the view out of the trailer I could see the room where my husband, kids, and I would stay when we came for holidays or just a quick weekend to hang out with family. There are steps that lead to nothing and are stained with the smoky reminder of what happened 100 days ago.

The house debris is gone, but the trees and bricks around the area are still holding the scars.

The house debris is gone, but the trees and bricks around the area are still holding the scars.

It doesn’t look like much now, but I’ve seen the plans for what’s going to be put in its place and if I close my eyes I can see the front porch that will extend much farther than the one that was there before. I see the outline of my parent’s new room where they’ll have more space. I see a kitchen that will be open to the living room and where my kids will eat never ending pancakes, which my dad sometimes calls dot cakes because he makes them super small to make the kids laugh. There are a lot of things that my parent’s can’t get back, but those things were not important. We will make a new measuring wall. We’ll make new family heirlooms; we’ll cherish the ones we still have and talk more about the people who left them to us. We don’t need things to help us remember the people we loved.

I also spent the day at my grandma’s house at Sunday dinner. My great-grandmother started the tradition. She’d have her whole family over every Sunday and my family still does this today. We annoy each other with jokes, we eat too many carbs, we horde the gravy boat….okay, maybe only I horde the gravy boat. And there is always a seat for one more person who happens to stop by on their way to town.

So maybe it’s hard to think of a silver lining each day, let alone a hundred days. In Megan’s post this morning she talks about her cure for a bad day. And it’s really simple: going for a walk (she says run. I don’t run), thinking of something positive for the next day, and a good night’s sleep. When I’m in a spiral of negative thinking I have a go-to plan that I pull out, too. Just like some people have a survival pack that they can grab on the go for an emergency, I have an emotional survival pack. Hint: it’s pretty much the same as Meghan’s (there must be something to that).

If you’re one of those people who can’t find that positive nugget for the day then maybe stop looking for the obvious rainbow, and start looking for it in the dirt that you grow your own vegetables in, or the smile on your child’s face. Look for a sliver lining in the simple things.

Redefining Victory

My son is taking Karate classes. I really wanted him to finish all his levels in swimming first and he had one more level to go, but:

  1. He’s an excellent swimmer now and,
  2. He’s wanted Karate for a very long time.

The deal was for him to learn how to swim with confidence and then he would get to pick the next activity. He’s a good sport and learned to swim. He enjoyed it, and even though he started out unsure, even though he had a challenge at every step, he kept practicing. He never gave up (or at this young age, it’s more like we wouldn’t let him. Of course, we never gave it as an option.) Oh, he was sure at times he’d never make it to the next level, but he’d always hit a breakthrough eventually.

Back to Karate. I really love watching the lessons. There are little nuggets of wisdom each week. Aside from me taking notes on the types of kicks and defense moves (I can use them in stories), I also take some of the principles to heart. This week the instructor asked the kids: “When we talk about the tenets of black belt, the last one is victory. It’s important. Focus is important, integrity is important, but victory is also equally important and misunderstood. Do you know what victory is?”

To be honest I was a little annoyed. Victory is not that important. Winning is not a wonderful thing to focus on all the time at this stage of development. I was surprised that the instructor chose to focus on this lesson at this age level.

There was a long pause.

The teacher prompted them to answer.

One kid raised his hand. He was fairly brawny, obviously an athletic build for his age. “Winning.”

“I’m glad you said that. That is why we’re talking about it.”

I got a little more flustered. My daughter had even stopped her coloring to watch, she’d picked up on the tension in the room. I was not the only parent waiting to see where this discussion was going. A lot of us had signed our kids up to avoid the baseball parent mentality of competition. Not all parents are this way, but too often we’d take the kids to sports events and see parents screaming at kids to “get it right”, or coaches screaming—taking the sport too seriously. Below the age of ten that’s really counter-productive. There’s room in life for competition, but at this age the foundation has to be built first, so kids understand what they’re working for, at what cost, how to handle winning/losing, and why.

“Winning is a really cool thing,” the teacher started. “It makes us feel good to know we’re good at something. That usually rewards us, and we want to keep going, and keep trying.”

These were all true. I could tell now by the inflection in his voice that he had an important point to make. I just hoped we were on the same page.

“But victory is not winning.” He waited a beat, because he could see the confused looks on their faces. If he’d looked at the parents, he’d see we were all confused, too.”

“Victory is setting a goal and achieving it.

It was an important distinction and he went on to explain more. It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I’d done this before, we all have. Setting a goal and meeting it, but to have it described as victory in the context he’d proposed it really made a difference in mindset.

Winning is not a goal. It really can’t be when set this way. In writing I’ve learned that publishing contracts, story sales, having people like my writing, or even getting reviews are not goals.

I’d learned this lesson in my profession as a psychologist, too. When working on changing behavior (setting a goal), it had to meet several criteria.

A goal is:

  1. Something you can measure,
  2. Not dependent on anyone but the person working to attain it, and,
  3. Achievable within the current skillset.

So with those criteria in mind, I learned to set more realistic goals.

Sometimes if a goal does not meet the criteria it becomes difficult to achieve. So I’ve always set a goal and then analyzed it to be sure I could meet it. I don’t like to make them too easy either. I want it to be a victory. I want that euphoria of winning at something, even though the competition is against myself. I’ve always been self-motivated. I like working on a team, but I’ve never worked well in a competitive environment.

Usually when I get the feeling someone is comparing themselves against me or trying to win against me, I’ll go into hiding until they feel they’ve won and go away. I just don’t like the feeling of being responsible for someone else’s achievement. That part about your happiness (or achieving a goal) being dependent on someone else? I take it really seriously. If I need someone to achieve a goal then I know it’s not a goal. It’s not the same as finding help, or finding a team to get to a goal. What I mean is that “I have to find readers” is not a goal. I’m depending on a someone else to reach happiness at that victory.

“I want Captain Picard to like me.” Also not a goal.

I could dress it up and make steps to get there, like “I know he likes Earl Grey tea. I shall drink Earl Grey tea three times a week until I like it, too.” Or, “To become more likable I will take charm school classes. And join the military, because Picard likes disciplined people.” I can trick myself into thinking I’m achieving goals that will eventually lead to my dream of having Capt. Picard like me, but in the end my dream is dependent on someone else reacting a certain way.

Just like selling a novel is a really cool thing that might happen someday, it’s not a goal. Writing the best novel I can is a goal. And having victory at that goal, could lead to eventually winning at selling a novel. Just like practicing swimming can give us victory at a better backstroke, which might lead to winning a race.

Sometimes I think by having dyslexia I cheated at being a successful writer. For one thing, publishing in a professional market was so far beyond possibility in the beginning, I didn’t have a chance to make it a “goal.” I worked on gaining a skillset. My dream had always been to be good enough to publish eventually, but I was more focused on the skillset I knew was not there. I went slowly and had a few things to work on at a time. I started with proper sentence structure. I narrowed in on basic things. When I got confidence and feedback that I’d mastered them enough to move on I did. That part was somewhat dependent on other people to help me, but my goal did not depend on it because the skillset I was working on was always measurable. Like creating a descriptive sentence without using an adjective or adverb.

Maybe I understood the idea early on and didn’t realize it. I hadn’t redefined it yet, but deep down I knew the path to winning was through victory.

I see a lot of people in professions get discouraged quickly, especially if they’ve had some success early on. I sometimes wonder if it’s because they’ve confused victory and winning like all of us sitting watching our kids at that karate lesson.

I love comments! Every time you comment someone will achieve victory.

Time to Write


Time to Write

I want to learn French. I want to learn to play violin and visit Tibet and New Zealand. I want to learn to fly a plane and I want to run a marathon. I want to become a karate expert. I also want to become a published novelist.

So many things I want to do but I have responsibilities, a seventeen-year-old, a black and white dog and cat, a house to maintain, and a job that is slightly better than bamboo under my fingernails. I have to make cash to survive and take care of the said responsibilities. So what free time I have, I cherish.

I use most of it to write.

I meet a lot of people who say they want to have some great adventure or learn or do something grand.

If only they had time.

If only they won the lotto. If only they were retired. If only they could take a year off. If only, if only, if only.

There is no tomorrow, there is no special perfect time to do something, there will never be enough free time, or money, and after you retire you are usually too tired to chase a dream. I’ve found the only way to have time, is to make time. Writing is a priority. It comes before fun vacations. It comes before I even think of getting a job with a pension. It comes before putting in new floors or shopping for clothes. It comes before reading for fun. It comes before buying a new car or even looking for a new relationship. If I want to really purse my dreams, I have to sacrifice.

Those who make it to the New York Times Bestseller list, or get to sing on Broadway, or get to visit the Dali Lama, or fly a plane. They give up something else. It’s a trade. Ben Franklin said, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

I look at my list. I still want to go to Tibet and New Zealand, maybe learn some phrases in another language. I still run a lot in the summers (may do a half marathon) and I sneak a great book in quite often. In the end, what I really want, what I dream of, what I’m willing to trade my one and only life for is that important to me. What’s that important to you? What are you willing to sacrifice your time for?

For every comment you leave someone sells their stuff and runs off to Tahiti…