28 September 2011

An update from the road

I'm still happily working from vacation. It's been harder than I thought to stay on top of things while away from home. It's so tempting to leave work until later when you're spending time with family you haven't seen in more than six months!

I'll be working from the road for another week or so, and then I'll be back to my normal office with a brand new schedule (more on that when it's established).

How's your September winding down?

13 September 2011

Vacation-ready office

[ETA: I'll be leaving tomorrow (Wednesday) morning instead. A family member is in the hospital, so I need to move my vacation up a few days.]

On Saturday morning (very early), Bean, Bunny and I will load up in the car and drive about 20 hours to visit my family in Illinois.

This week, in addition to getting my house ready to be a quasi-bachelor pad for a few weeks (Hubby is staying home) and packing, I'm getting ready to work from the road.

Since my office is paperless, and all my work is online articles/posts right now, it's pretty easy to pack up my office for vacation. In fact, all I'll have to do is put my laptop, calendar, notebook and a couple of books in my bag and it'll be ready.

I have to make sure I won't have any deadlines on my driving days this weekend, but other than that, the work itself is ready.

I will be letting my clients know I'm working from the road, though. I'll still be working while I'm on vacation, but I want them to know I'll technically be out of my office, and unreachable during the days I'll be driving.

I wish I could leave my work behind for the few weeks I'll be gone, but I'm just thankful I get to go at all, so I'll gladly make it a working vacation.

What do you do in the office to get ready for vacation?

11 September 2011

What I will tell my children

On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at Eastern Illinois University. That morning I had an Intro to Theatre class. I went, learned about some concepts about drama and stage performance, and went back to my dorm room with the intention of doing my English 101 homework before class in the afternoon.

Sometime after ten--I don't know what time it was--my roommate came in our room and changed the channel. I'd been watching some rerun of something on TNT. She switched to a network channel. "Don't you know what's going on?" she asked. I told her no. Another girl, who lived on our floor, was with her and glared at me. "This is why people leave their dorm rooms open," she snapped.

I thought something had happened on campus. I thought it was something local. But the news coverage told a different story.

By the time the news was turned on in our dorm room, the first tower had fallen. It didn't seem real. I didn't understand what was happening. It had to be some kind of accident, right? But one word burned into my ears and on my heart as I watched chaotic news coverage of what no one fully understood: attack.

It didn't register at first. Attack? What did that mean? As in, someone did it on purpose? Who would do that? Why would someone do that?

I'd grown up in a world in which mass attacks like this simply didn't happen. Violence was one person against another person, sometimes a small group of people. Events like Columbine were a rarity, but a special circumstance. When Timothy McVeigh attacked the federal building in Oklahoma City, it was 1995. I was only 12. That kind of violence was beyond my comprehension. And, again, it seemed a special circumstance. But the attacks on September 11th were different. These were the kinds of things that happened in war-torn nations on the other side of the world.

I watched the news all day. I didn't go English that afternoon. I went to lunch with my roommate, and we ate in silence, our swollen, teary eyes watching CNN in the dining hall.

I went to bed that night feeling like a different person.

That was my experience ten years ago. And when my children are old enough, I'll tell them where I was on that day, how I felt, what I did. And maybe they'll write an essay for school about it. But I hope, instead, they'll use what their father tells them for school assignments.

My husband was still in high school on September 11, 2001. He was in school.

After the first plane hit, the teachers turned on the TV in the cafeteria. The first thing Gamer Dad saw was smoke billowing from the first tower; he thought it was a fire. Then he watched as the second plane hit.

He and the students went to their classes, but spent them watching the news and talking about what they saw. Being so close to Washington, D.C., there was worry about invasions, and the city being a target. And then the Pentagon was hit.

My husband's father is a retired Air Force colonel. Ten years ago, he was working at the Pentagon. Gamer Dad said that when he heard about the Pentagon, he froze. The only thing he could think about was that his dad had gone to work that morning, and Gamer Dad didn't tell him he loved him before he left because he was tired.

Students tried to make phone calls from their cell phones, but no one could get through to anyone. Gamer Dad went to the office to use the phone, and one of the counselors let him use hers; she knew his dad worked at the Pentagon. He called his mom, and he said it was one of the scariest phone calls he'd ever made because he didn't know if she knew what was happening. She did, but hadn't heard from his dad.

Gamer Dad knew people who had family members who should have been working in one of the towers, but weren't there that day. And both the parents of one girl worked at the World Trade Center. He never found out if her parents were all right.

A couple of hours later, a note came to Gamer Dad from the office. It said "Dad is ok." He still has that note in his wallet.

Gamer Dad didn't get to see his dad until two or three in the morning. He was busy helping transport people here and there, and was part of the emergency command team that stepped in to run things after the attacks. But Gamer Dad stayed up until his dad got home.

When I asked Gamer Dad to tell me his story for this post, he told me that as he was riding the bus home from school, he realized it was the first time that he felt like he was part of a country because everyone was sharing some level of pain in this tragedy together. Everyone knew someone who was affected by the attacks. It was unifying, and he felt that.

Ten years later, I am encouraged that the focus of our memorials is those who tragically lost their lives on that day. We tell stories of heroes--in and out of uniform--who sacrificed their own safety (and, in some cases, lives) so others could live. We pray for the survivors, the families of the victims, each other, as we still try to make sense of what happened.

2753 empty chairs sit in Bryant Park to honor
the memories of those lost on September 11, 2001.
Most importantly, we remember.

We don't let what happened become just another tragedy. We acknowledge that this was different from other violence we have known in our lives and in our society.

Across the nation today, there are memorial services. Flags are at half mast. People are going about their lives, yes, but when they write the date on a check or see the calendar on the kitchen wall, they stop for just a moment and remember.

They think about where they were ten years ago. They think about those they know who were there, the families of those who didn't come home.

Ten years from now my son will be 12. My daughter will be 10. They'll be in school and, very likely, this day will be the focus of a social studies lesson. They might come home and ask me, "Mom, do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001?" And I will say yes. I remember vividly.

And I will never forget.

09 September 2011

Fiction Friday: getting into your characters' heads

I write a lot about characters and characterization. It's probably because the characters are such an important part of the coffee house book (and the other books in the collection). In fact, the characters tell the stories. The characters are the stories.

When characters are that important to a story, you have to understand them. You have to know everything about your characters, even the stuff that never makes it into the story. You have to be in your characters' heads in a way only a writer can be. But it's more than simply knowing your characters because you created them. You kind of have to stalk them. And there are writerly ways to do it.

Extensive character biographies

I've written on the topic of character biographies in the past. (Here, here, and here, for just a few.) I think they're useful tools for writers in developing your story. Finding a good biography template and using it for your major characters (and sometimes your minor ones*) can help you understand your characters. You can use it to develop and know your characters before you start writing, and you can refer back to the biographies to refresh your memory as you write. (Is Vivi's favorite color teal or orange? Is Colin allergic to macadamia nuts or peanuts?)

When you have a character-driven story, the biographies are even more important. I've mentioned before that I use the life story interview in Atkinson's The Gift of Stories, and I'm very happy with it. Sure, there are aspects of it I skip for different characters (for example, Vivi isn't married, so I skipped the section about marriage), but it gives you a really good foundation for your characters. And, life story interview aside, it's a great resource for story-crafting. (In fact, I'll be ordering myself a new copy soon since mine is just about worn out.)

Put your characters in real situations

Of course, this can apply to your stories, but I'm thinking more in the "writers think about their stories/characters all.the.time" realm. You know what I'm talking about. You have a strange encounter with a cashier or find yourself lost on one-way streets downtown, and you wonder, "What would [CHARACTER NAME] do in this situation?" Answering those types of questions can help you get to know your characters. And the more you answer, the better you know your characters.

After all, your stories aren't going to simply be talking-head stories (I hope), so you're going to need to know how to incorporate your characters into real situations, and have the unfolding conversation/situation read as realistic. Even with willing suspension of disbelief, there have to be facts. Just ask Dana. Because even in the most fantastical story, there are elements of realism. There are people and situations and conflicts that are recognizable to readers. So think about those people and situations and conflicts. Put your characters in them.

Yes, it's a lot of work to get in your characters' heads. But in character-driven stories, it's necessary. Just as you know your plot inside out in a plot-driven story, you have to know your characters inside out in a character-driven story. The better you know them, the stronger your story will be.

How do you get in your characters' heads?

*I have a character I thought was minor who was to be in all the books in the collection in some capacity. After writing his biography, he's turned into a major character. But still doesn't speak for himself.

05 September 2011

Federal holidays and working from home

nixxphotography / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Today is Labor Day. My husband is home from work today, glad to be sleeping in and lounging around in his "dad shorts." Across the nation people are going to parades, having barbecues with friends and family, and taking advantage of furniture sales.

In the days leading up to today, I debated how I'd spend my Labor Day. On one hand, it's a federal holiday, and it would be nice to have the day off to spend with the family. On the other hand, having Hubby home to watch the kids would mean I could get a lot accomplished in the office.

It's a common dilemma for the work-at-home mom. Having your husband home an extra day makes it very tempting to get caught up (or ahead) in work. But you don't want to be one of those moms who's always working. After all, isn't one of the reasons you work at home to spend more time with the family?

Of course, depending on your industry it may be easier to take federal holidays off. If you work from home because you telecommute for a company and that company is closed for the day, chances are you aren't going to work. On the other hand, if you work in, say, phone sales, working on federal holidays might be a good idea.

Only you know if working on federal holidays is a good option for you or not. However, it's important to remember that if you do, you should make time here and there to not work. Everyone needs time off to recharge and get away from the office, even if it's only briefly. Don't let yourself get burnt out because you're trying to maximize your time.

Ultimately, I decided to split the difference and work in the morning, then spend the afternoon and evening with the family. (I know. Everything in moderation, eh?)

Are you working today? Why or why not?

02 September 2011

Fiction Friday: trust your writing gut

I very recently asked my heart sister for writing advice about the collection of books I'm working on. Basically, I have a list of books I've been thinking of including in this collection with the coffee house book, but I know it's likely that not all of them will work. So I was seeking her advice about which ones she thought sounded compelling.

She gave me her opinion based on the poorly-written synopses I gave her, and said,
All of these are ideas you can do something wonderful with, mind - it's just the ones I've highlighted, I see the most potential in. I could be wrong. You could take the concept on the list I think is the most dull (no, I'm not telling you which it is!) and turn it into the most extraordinary one of all.
She's right.

She always is.

As much advice as I ask, as much feedback as I get, only I know what these stories have to offer and what I can do with them. Only I know what the best course is for this collection.

I have to trust myself as I write these stories. I have feelings about which stories will work and which should probably be included only in my journal. And I have those feelings for a reason. My writer's gut is telling me which direction to go. I just have to trust it.

As writers, it's sometimes easy to trust other people's opinions more than our own. After all, writers are seeking approval of fellow writers, agents and publishers and, ultimately, readers. We want to know that what we're doing is going to be read and enjoyed by people.

But only you know the best way to do your characters justice. Only you know how to write your stories. You have to trust yourself.

It may not be easy, and I know writers who have self-confidence...issues (like myself) may think it's impossible, but it's what you have to do. After all, if you're going to trust everyone else's opinions about your story, why not just save time and let them write the story from beginning to end?

It can be good to get opinions and feedback, but don't take others' opinions as the only answer about your writing. Your opinion is the most important when you're writing.

Trust yourself! And happy scribbling!

01 September 2011

Preparation Procrastination

I've been doing a lot of background work for the coffee house. Outlines, character biographies, charts, and pages and pages of random background information. It's been necessary, but I've felt I have to do this background stuff before I can actually start writing, since everything is so interrelated in this collection of books.

But I know I have a tendency to use preparation and organization as a procrastination tool. I decide everything has to be organized and laid out before I can start writing, so I get caught up in all the background "stuff" instead of actually writing a story.

Have you ever done that? You spend hours making beautiful outlines (and tweaking them), you organize your pages so every page has the page number and your last name at the top, and after a day of "writing," you haven't actually written anything....

It's an understandable response for writers. Many of us (and I do say us because I include myself in this) believe we're not great writers. Maybe we're not any good at all. So the thought of actually writing the words for these stories we talk about is a little intimidating. So we use background work as an excuse to not write.

Let me tell you something. It's okay to actually write!

You don't have to focus on the background stuff. You don't have to be intimidated. If you write something and don't like it, no one else has to read it. You can stick it away between the pages of a journal or in some password-protected hidden file on your hard drive and chalk it up to a writing exercise. If you decide it's not done, then take time to finish it before others see it.

Because here's the thing: you're not going to improve as a writer unless you (hello!) write. I know. It's shocking, isn't it? But it's true.

Every time you write a story or scribble a character sketch or journal about that weird guy who looks like an android that's always at Walgreen's when you pick up diapers late at night (true story--character sketch coming soon), you learn and grow as a writer. You improve. You change.

And it's true that you may not ever be totally confident in your writing. That's okay. But the more you write, the more you'll be a writer, and the more you'll feel like a writer. And eventually, you'll get an idea, and you'll just....sit down and write it.

Outline if you must. Write character bios if you have to. But remember that outlines and character bios are not stories (unless you're experimenting with a new style, which could be cool.... hmmm......). So for all your outlining and background work, make sure you also take time to write.

Happy scribbling!