Seven years

WordPress just sent me a delightful canned anniversary notice. Congratulations! I’ve been blogging for seven years!

Dang.

That’s a lot of writing. 1,097 posts.

I started this blog to heal wounds. I had low writer-esteem. I was desperately lonely raising a baby in a strange land. And I had so much to say, but only a few poor souls to talk to.

And they needed a break from the details.

I wrote, and a few people read. And a small percentage said they liked what they read.

At that I was heartened. I felt connected and I felt heard. In fact, once or twice, someone told me that my writing really helped them.

Good gravy, isn’t that all anyone on this planet wants?

I talked to the Internet’s kindest people about homesickness and how hard it was to choose a miraculous and ridiculously confusing creature over the PhD I could have handled much more easily. I talked about deaths that rocked me over and over, friends who abandoned me, the relationship I completely failed at, and wonderful days of joy and light.

I wrote about books I loved and problems I couldn’t solve.

And I have so much more to write. I have a list in my phone that is, currently, nine posts desperate to be written. Those of you who’ve been to this little corner of the Internet before know most of my posts are 2,000 words or so, and that 18,000 words ready, in my head, must create quite a bit of intracranial pressure.

But as I struggled a few months ago with four part-time jobs, two bickering children, one divorce, and a blinding case of I Must Do Better on All These Fronts Even If I Never Sleep because I’m Nothing If I Don’t Excel, a wise friend told me that my to-do list is too long. That there’s enough time. That the stuff with real deadlines should come first, and then I should feed my soul. Do things to feel good, and put off the unreasonable 40+ “to do this week” things I genuinely rewrote on my list every week.

Because there’s enough time. The posts will still want to be written in a few weeks. And the words will come.

Later. Because as much as I love this community, and as much as I need to be on this space, I’ve been here for seven years. And there’s enough time to write a great post later.

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Finding Your Blog Voice: A Preview

I got caught up in federal grant proposal season and didn’t tell you that I’m going to be speaking at WordCamp San Francisco this weekend!

I’ll post highlights from my talk either here or on my business site, but for now I want to offer a few tidbits and ask what you think about, or want to know about, blog voice.

photo credit: Scott Robinson via creative commons attribute license

photo credit: Scott Robinson via creative commons attribute license

I believe that voice, for writers, photographers, artists, and bloggers, simmers when you cook a topic in style and passion. When you choose what you want to communicate, form it in the way you, a human with experiences and opinions, want to convey it, and inform that communication with the reasons that drive you to write/photograph/draw/blog…that concoction is your voice. And it’s repeatable when you focus on the how and the why of what you choose to talk about, as long as that style is your genuine voice, your impetus is honest, and your style gets out of the way of your truth.

Wordy, I know. I have a couple of days to make that more clear. Luckily, between my slides and my tendency to present in monosyllabic caveperson grunts, my experience with and ideas about voice should be clearer in the talk.

I have really cool examples, too.

So what do you want to hear about blog voice? If I can, I’ll add it to the talk before I present and subsequently post.

Requests?

What does your mom do for a living?

My three-year-old is sitting on my lap, typing into a blank Word doc. He pauses every now and then, puts his head in his hands and sighs, “damnit,” then deletes everything he’s typed.

I’m totally winning at this.

As soon as he puts his hands over his eyes, sighs, “dagnabbit,” and then goes to get a snack, my parenting is complete.

 

 

Writing Tips from the conference: BlogHer’13 Writes

I posted yesterday the six pieces of advice I heard over and over at BlogHer ’13.

Today I’ve posted on my other site the highlights from writing and publishing panels and workshops from the conference.

Take a look at both for ideas to help your writing and publishing projects.

 

 

Top Six Takeaways from BlogHer ’13

Tomorrow I’m posting a longer summary of all the sessions I attended at BlogHer ’13, intending to offer fellow writers some of the ideas I heard during my 68-hour foray into the world’s largest blogging conference.

Today, I offer you the six pieces of advice I heard reiterated most often at BlogHer ’13. In the keynote, in discussions, from panels, in workshops, and during highlighted sessions, I noted the following over and over:

1. Find your difference. Write about it well, laugh at it, own it. What you have to offer is your perspective, experience, and knowledge. Nobody wants to hear (or read or see) the same voice with the same message. To be a successful brand you have to offer something different, sustainable, credible, and relevant. The only way to do that consistently is to sing the core of who you are. [Note: this year nobody seems pushedthe idea that an author must be a brand. Apparently we’ve all finally accepted that and moved on. You are a brand. Stipulated.]

2. Publish. Blog numbers mean very little if your goal is publishing. To ask publishers, editors, and readers to pay for your work you have to prove that other professionals think you’re worth publishing. Publish great pieces in books, magazines, newspapers, online spaces by finding the right audience for your message and selling the heck out of your words.

3. Someone aches for what you’re selling. Get it to them. Find the people who really need, want, or pay for exactly what you write or produce. Figure out what you’re really offering and bring it to those who need it. That goes for selling what you make, publishing what you write, or being elected for what you believe. Find the right customer and get your wares right in front of them.

4. Build your platform before you write your book. A lot of people must hear the announcement “I have something to sell!” If they don’t hear you, nobody will buy. And for them to hear you, they have to already know your work. People who don’t know you don’t care about you; they care about a compelling story impeccably told. So build a following of people who know that you’re compelling and can tell stories impeccably before the world hears that you’re selling/publishing/running for something.

5. Get used to feeling uncomfortable. I gleaned this from every writing seminar, keynote, editing workshop, advocacy panel, celebrity panel, and niche panel at BlogHer ’13. Five thousand attendees heard this over and over: Creatively and personally, if you’re going to do something that matters, get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Lean in. Engage. Query. Take the leap. Incorporate the criticism. Face the music. Do the work. Take the heat. Feeling uneasy is your new normal. Embrace it. It means you’re doing something important.

6. Content is king. The quality of your ideas, writing, music, food, products, message simply must be outstanding, and must say something new about that which is important to your audience. Content. Is. King.

[Note: focusing on content is consistent with the editing phase in which I continually remind authors that the reader is king. Making your writing work for readers is producing good content. So perhaps the content is co-king with the reader? No… content is the crown for the royal reader? No… the reader is the palace in which the king lives. Or vice versa? Or monarchy is so last millennium and we need new metaphors. Maintain an unwavering focus on your reader’s need for great content. There. No more kings. Just robust writing, great content, and engaged readers.]

6. (revised) Maintain an unwavering focus on your audience’s need for great content. 

Did I miss any? Did you hear anything repeatedly at BlogHer ’13 that we must remember as we charge off into the world and create great content?

 

Blog paralysis

After attending three days of workshops and lectures and panels on writing at the BlogHer conference last week in Chicago, I have a case of blog paralysis.

Not writer’s block. I’m writing plenty and have gobs and gobs to say.

But I can’t let the posts fly like I once did. I used to dash off my thoughts and post them, unedited, whenever something occurred to me. Silly bits of my day, desperate situations that need heroic efforts around the world…everything.

Now I have several drafts ping ponging around my laptop, all crammed full of thoughts but falling flat. Not good enough, not insightful enough, not powerful enough or fast enough to make a mark in the world. Flaccid, flabby writing several days late and several thousand dollars short, quite unworthy of the brilliant writing I read and dissected and aspired to while surrounded by thousands of bloggers in a convention center turned, for a weekend, into a giant writing seminar.

So I’m dashing off a thought, unedited, as it comes to me while I wade through the notes of finding a niche and writing unvarnished truth and publishing and knowing my audience and finding the right place for my voice and reading as much as possible and…breathlessly unpacking the weighted baggage of my post-trip brain, I’m just going to post this.

It’s Saturday night. Nobody reads posts Saturday night anyway, right? So an imperfect, unedited, unpolished, rambling post that doesn’t further my brand or my craft or my voice or my platform is just fine.

It has to be.

Baby steps, y’all. Baby steps.

 

Overwhelmed

I keep meaning to write, but I’ll be damned if I can catch my breath.

We’ve been riding a wave of birthdays and visitors while I try to manage client deadlines and intense sibling yuckiness.

If I had written last week it would have been a whine about being in over my head and forgetting to breathe and wondering whether to do law school or a doctorate to avoid having to make career choices about creativity versus finances.

When I get caught up in maelstroms of bickering and negotiating and working and not sleeping, I forget what’s important and focus in on tasks instead of flow. And when I neglect the things I need, the whirlwind feels faster and faster and bigger and…

Stop.

So I bought a copy of The Secrets of Happy Families. I’m less than a quarter of the way through, but I’m intrigued at how much breathing room new thinking creates.

And lo and behold, being intrigued by a book means I pick it up as often as I can (granted, that means a pathetic 15 minutes a day). A pressing desire to read a compelling book reintroduces one pillar of my core: reading. And it means the boys see me reading. I can sit in the same room with them, supervise without helicoptering, learn a few things, and model strong reading behaviors.

Even more breathing, even more engagement. Family time spent on the person who has been viewing family as work rather than a situation or a reality or a backdrop or a network of humanity.

And boy was I tired of family being work. I even texted a friend that I love being a mother but freaking hate parenting.

From a few ideas in the book and my increased mood borne of reading, the sibling fiasco is getting better bit by bit.

And as the siblings chill, I chill. And as I chill I do client work faster, which means more sleep.

More sleep means more chill-tastic moments, more reading, more creative work.

I’m still barely making it each day. But now the water is to my neck instead of my eyebrows. (Or eyebrow, singular, really, because the post-surgery side is still way higher than the other one. Stupid cancer. I hate you and I hate what you do to families.)

I’m not yet recommending The Secrets of Happy Families. I’ll read more and let you know. But I am highly recommending a little touchstone work for those of us who feel we can’t quite make it through the day.

I kept making lists of the things I needed to reconnect with: sleep, reading, writing, blogging, exercising, healthy eating, socializing, creating.

Turns out I just needed to boost one and the others got a wee trickle down. Which means my all-or-nothing philosophy of how to forcefully cram balance into my life took a big hit this week.

Don’t worry. I’ll build my black-and-white world back up once I once again stumble out of balance.

For now, I have to go read a paragraph.

 

 

Quick poll

What do you value most in the books you read?

I started a discussion on my other blog about Cloud Atlas and the new film version, in which we’re talking about physical descriptions of characters.

And it got me thinking: what do you like best in your reading material? Great dialogue, stunning plot, relatable characters, poetic descriptions, societal importance, genre? Are you willing to forgive bad writing for a breathtaking plot? Will you endure laborious descriptions for magical fantasy? Do you wade through anything for romance? Do you hate fiction and value nonfiction?

What’s your thing in the books you consider great? And while we’re at it, what do you loathe above all else in fiction?

Nobody Listens to Turtle

Criticism is a wonderful gift. If articulate and well timed, it can give us the bridge we need to make our lives better.

I really need to learn to hear criticism.

I listen to it. I do. And I acknowledge its inherent usefulness, even if mean-spirited or misguided. But genuinely constructive criticism is an opportunity I apparently miss. In trying not to wince in pain at the idea of needing improvement, I found out today, I effectively block out the actual useful bits of criticism.

I thought I was rather self-aware. But today I realized I need more often to listen to turtle*.

Back story: I’ve been working on a novel for a while. I wrote it as a screenplay more than a decade ago. Once it was done I put it away and forgot it until Peanut was cooking and I finished teaching. I needed a project, and thought the script would be a good book.

So I transformed it. And edited and polished and sent it to agents.

And some sent feedback. My memory of that feedback is “It’s fine, I like the characters. It’s just not the right project for me. By the way, the language at times is too showy, so watch that. And nothing good happens until page 300, so move the action up if you want to sell it.” My memory has served me for three years.

I got the feedback while pregnant with Butterbean. I spent nine months rearranging the scenes and cutting the showy language. Then the little guy was born and all work ceased.

Fast forward. Peanut is in school. Butter is in a home-based day care three mornings a week.

Work is proceeding apace. But I’m not sure how much of the action to move, nor how to juggle the characters. Five main characters. Hard to time the introduction so many since I don’t want to focus too long on anyone, nor jump around like a narrative ping pong game. I’ve been rearranging scenes on index cards and a corkboard for years. I need a new perspective.

So I map the book. But then realize: most of what happens…really happens…is in flashbacks. Nothing much actually happens. Lots of feelings, minimal plot.

[Bear with me. The graphics below were penned without intention of making them public, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I’m redrawing this exercise just to look good for you lovely people.]

The emotional maps, overlaid, look like this.

Exciting, no?

But the actual character arcs, overlaid, look like this.

Cue sad panda music, ‘cuz that’s one pathetic book right there.

So I ask a dear, brilliant writer friend two questions:
1. does stuff that happens in the past just color how a reader sees a character, or does it actually count as action?
2. how do I introduce all these characters without lingering too long on any of them? Should I force them together more?

While I wait for a reply, I stumble upon the agents’ emails, which I haven’t opened since 2009.

More than half mentioned that
1.not enough happens
and
2.there are too many characters and we need to see them all together doing something.

D’oh!

The good news: I’m asking the right questions.
The bad news: I had the answer three years ago.
The good news: I now, finally, have time to do this work.
The great news: I still want to.

*Bonus points if you get the reference. Actually, genetic test if you get the reference because I think you and I might be family.

Plug for new blog

In my massive 2012 self-rewrite, I have decided to split my creative tasks a bit. The big piece of my reorganization involves more fiction and academics. Less client work. Less social media. Less of the stuff I don’t need.

I’m also honoring my split personality by giving each of the voices in my head a blog. (I’ll begin with just voice-amplifying blogs, because some of the people in my head are just horrible and don’t deserve to have any more power than they already do. In fact, drowning them out with productive, creative, awesome work is a damned fine reason for another blog.)

Check out my other side, the logophile who rarely mentions children. (Except for the fact that they inform who I am and what I write, research, and read. You know: the little things.)

Find my professional, less frazzled writing persona over at ChristineHarkin.com. Lots of glitches still, including evidence of the egregious mistake of having register.com handle my domain. That mistake will soon be remedied (and if you’re curious about who should register your URL, check out this review at LifeHack, which I found after hating register.com. Lesson learned, again: do not search Google for tech stuff. Search Google for reviews of tech stuff and trust only established experts.)

Anyway. Follow and comment and join the Me who is creating a space for Me now that I know more about Them and how wonderful and self-eroding They can be if I don’t force my way into some personal headspace.

Chick lit and Franzenfreude

I was unaware, as I began reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, that there exists a growing anger toward him because he’s male. The criticism doesn’t seem to be about his writing of female characters or his focus on male characters. The frustration, according to the media, is that the attention he’s receiving isn’t being given to female authors.

Maybe the media is getting the complaints wrong. Maybe the assertions that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner are mad about the media circus surrounding Freedom‘s release have to do with something more than a misplaced perception that “white male authors get all the attention.” Because there is certainly something to the criticism that there are NYTBR books and there are so-called chick lit books and ne’er the ‘twain shall meet. I don’t agree with that distinction, but I do believe in the distinction between literature and fiction.

I don’t agree with Time magazine that Franzen is The Great American Novelist. But I do agree that he’s writing something important and completely apart from that which most American authors write. Canonical lit? We’ll see. I don’t personally think so. But I really don’t think that Picoult or Weiner are writing literature.

Franzen’s maleness is hardly his fault. Yes, it’s frustrating that when critics and professors speak of American literature they tend to load the deck with male authors and hang on to alleged classics for the sake of tradition rather than taste (reference how many more people cite the infernal Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby over To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is precisely three thousand times better than either the Salinger or the Fitzgerald as a social critique and character-driven narrative. But Catcher and Gatsby are focused on different moments in time, different themes, different pieces of Americana and are still valid parts of the canon. Even though I can’t stand reading them.)

Some men write really well and deserve critical praise. Some women write really well and deserve critical praise—but do they deserve more praise than they get?

Certainly women writing today get more attention than women used to get. More female lead characters in the canon, more female authors. In my graduate program we read a lot of Walker and Morrison and Nin and Stein and Barnes and Atwood and Perkins-Gilman and Wharton; so I’m not sure that the drumbeat of “women are ignored” really holds true.

The number of male-crafted texts revered in NYT circles still outnumbers the number of female-crafted texts, sure. But are we asking the wrong question?

Is the author the real issue or is the content the more important place to focus our feminist demand for equal time? The “pros versus readers” list of best millennial fiction from The Millions cites 20 books (including duplicates), 10 of which are by women. So? Should we be counting? Or should we be reading carefully to see if women and men exist, fully formed in these texts?

A decent Salon article points out that women tend to write bestsellers and men tend to receive accolades for their brilliance. And thus begins the age-old popular culture versus high culture nonsense, a debate that is false in its pretenses and its conclusions. Because women write brilliant literature. And men write throwaway novels. Gender is not the issue.

Look, it would be nice to see as many female author names as male names on a list, because we tend to write about different things from different perspectives. But despite what I believe about the importance of womanist fiction, authorial gender is not the point. I’d like to read good books and, later, when recommending them, notice that they’re by women. Or men. I don’t care about who writes them. I care what they write about and how they craft their novels.

I care that the characters are three-dimensional, believable, deeply felt proto-humans. I want well crafted male characters and female characters. Make the situations in which they operate real or surreal, but make the characters seem viable, possible, and believable. My absolute favorite contemporary novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has some pretty serious gaps in the “fully realized female characters” department. I believe it suffers because the women have almost no voice. Franzen gives me less impressive language, less humor, fewer arrestingly painful moments, but bigger, bolder, more solidly credible female voices. And so few books written by either men or women do that. No, he’s not Walker or Stein or Hurston, but he’s also not Joyce or James or Wallace. I’m not in the mood to bash Franzen for being something he’s not.

Just wondering

How is the child abuse rate in this country not higher?

(Seriously, no depressing replies from my social worker friends and family or law enforcement readers on how desperately high even a 0.00000001% rate is. I know that. But the question does not value a higher rate. It marvels at the <100% rate.)

Why can I not watch a film, show, or commercial without composing a critical theory response that involves footnotes and dreams of a research grant? What the hell is wrong with me? Am I missing enjoyment centers in my brain or something?

Where is that box of books I labeled to be first on the shelf after the three moves of a year-plus ago? I need two of those books, man. Where are they?

How does, "you may cut paper and only paper" translate into "try to cut your shirt, the rug, your chin, a bracelet, and the baby toys while I’m right here watching“? Seriously. Taking the whole ‘looking for negative attention’ thing to a whole new level.

No wonder I’m pissed I have absolutely no time to write…the voices in my head are better companions than small children. Why does nobody say how completely not ideal the companionship of young children is?

what about your weekend, punk?

You’re all talk, Naptime, about how much work you have and the things you need to accomplish on the weekend when Spouse, the only child care option you have, is available to weather the 4-year-old storm for a bit. So what’d you accomplish, punk?

Finish your articles?
Not really. One is 98% there and if I’d only proofread and double check my sources I’d be done. But then there’s the submission process and that seems daunting enough to put the thing off another year. The other, half-done article, is such a mess on paper and so freaking genius in my head that I just don’t know if I can reconcile the two before baby brain takes over. Again, I just need a solid weekend. But my sitting and thinking skills ain’t what they used to be.

Did you revise your book?
Yup. Last weekend. Total overhaul. Need a new title, though, so the new and improved version can go out to agents who might notice it’s just rearranged. Any suggestions are welcome, even though you haven’t read the danged thing. Seems that’s the way they name most novels, anyway.

Well, okay. Did you finish Peanut’s art project that you started a year ago?
Nope.

Edit any of the 34 hours of Peanut footage you keep swearing to send grandparents?
Nope.

Did you do anything of use, now that you mention it?
Well, snarky-pants, it just so happens I did. You read about the nightmare with the cat worms that included a day of steam cleaning the house in scratch-the-skin-off-my-body-and-buy-all-new-furniture horror. Well this weekend was two hours at the incompetent vet (yes, again) for a condescending variety of friendly ramblings, concluded by her asking whether, if we have a boy, we will circumscribe him. I guess she meant drawing the circle around him in the co-sleeper, so I said no. I might write circles around him in the crib when he or she moves to Peanut’s room, but I left it at “no; there’s no reason to.” Didn’t see the need to draw out a discussion about circumscription, since it’s so fraught with emotion.

Spouse and I also made huge headway on our organic garden by building a raised bed—6×6 extravaganza of…well, for now just wood and protective mesh screening. Soon it will have dirt and our awesome compost. Then it will have spinach and basil and carrots and strawberries and squash and cukes and such things. But for now it’s prepped. The best part was building in the rain, while Peanut played in the huge teepee we just built him. (Building semi-permanent forts sounds really good but takes way more time and energy that I believe my child is worth, but really tall bamboo teepees are freaking easy enough to finish in about 20 minutes. 8′ diameter, 6′ tall. $20. 20 minutes. My kind of building.)

I also read 2666 (next post) for the bolanobolano.com group read and got frighteningly far ahead. Must go write my assessment of The Part about Fate, which I freaking loathed. Suffice it to say that even brilliant writers need to know their limits, and Chilean/Mexican/Spaniard novelists need not try to capture the creakily-aged Black Panther movement in Detroit. Even if they succeed in making some of it funny, relevant, and thoughtful. It was like reading from inside a cubist painting. A very well done cubist painting. But still.

I wiped the hard drive of the computer that crashed AGAIN (shakes fist and grouses incoherently at Microsoft, the voodoo doll for which is coming soon) and have almost got all the backup docs and software restored. Once my software finishes updating I will have all the preschool fundraiser stuff for this week done.

Got a haircut. Completed several towers and puzzles with Peanut. Cleaned out the freezer. Wrote another novel. (Kidding. I rearranged the freezer. Big difference.)

So. I made inroads on changing the world by growing food at home, and am done preparing the house for babe. I just didn’t make any progress on the stuff that will win me fortune and fame. And that reminds me, I need to submit my game show application soon so I can win and actually afford to live here. Unless people figure out there’s as much profit in killing game show winners as there is in killing lottery winners.

Neither here nor there

Some updates, rather than the interpretive dance I had planned. What can I say? Cold day, no leg warmers. Somehow I successfully purged all Flashdance clothing from my wardrobe. Sigh.

Hazelnut update: nausea has abated and I haven’t yakked in 5 days. I can now, maybe, enjoy Week 18 in digestive peace, wailed upon only from without for a change.

Novel update: another agent sent a “no thanks.” Must send out the next round, but it might be a while with my other deadlines. Rough count: two dozen submissions, maybe half a dozen read the first few pages, four requested more pages, none is going to reap the outrageous profits from the book’s eventual sale. The next agent wants an exclusive, so it’ll just be her and the manuscript for the next two months.

Geography update: we’re gonna be here for a while. But if houses still keep getting 8 and 9 bids, going for 8% over asking for much longer, we’re gonna reconsider the greatest place on earth and think about moving to number 4 or 5.

Peanut update: hardcore into flashlights. We often have to go “into the deep dark woods” in the garage to look for spiders and tigers. Thanks so much, Kipper.
Also popular: filling baskets and bags with household and toy detritus and carrying them around until just the perfect resting place is found.
Word of the day, uttered at least once per sentence: dammit!

Lit update: trying Delillo. Trying hard, but it shouldn’t be this much work to like books. Gonna keep at it for a day or two and if he doesn’t hook me, I’m off to something new.

Conference update: my paper is in critical care, with a thready pulse, threatening to code. But we’re giving it our best and we’ll see if it pulls through. We’re only scholars here; not wizards.

Bullet points

All I can manage today is a list.
Agents responding to the most recent round of submission: three
Days since most recent round: one
Agents requesting a full: one
Agents requesting a partial: two
Agents saying “no thanks” last month: ten
This month: none

Average number of times PER DAY I’ve lost the contents of my stomach, last week: six
This week: three
Yay! Improvement! At this rate, I will actually process recently overwhelming and nauseating news and maybe think good thoughts by about Halloween…maybe.

And on that note:
Hours needed to finish rewrite and actually polish this book: 20+
Hours I can offer each day: 0.0000000002
Eleven orders of magnitude between what I need and what I have. Maybe this, too, will be done by Halloween. Just hope nobody requests a full…Oh crap. They just did.