Book Thoughts

Book Thoughts: Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

A year or so ago I read Austin Kleon‘s book Steal Like an Artist, and found it interesting but not as inspiring as I’d hoped. To be fair, I’d also just read The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and that book had struck me with its actionable methods for generating and developing ideas. Not all of it was pertinent to my needs (Henry’s book is geared towards professional and marketing business creatives, less so to writers), but a lot of the advice and suggestions were applicable to creative writing, too.

Show Your Work, however, felt fresh and invigorating to me. It tackles a subject I loathe personally, which is how to network and share your work without seeming spammy or self-obsessed. Let’s be honest, self promotion STINKS. I hate it. But what I liked about Show Your Work is that it seems to be exactly what some of my favorite artists online already do: share their processes, their WIP, and their loves and inspirations. Show Your Work did a great job of reminding me that being online and sharing what I do and what I love can be fun, too.

For the last month or so, I’ve been really pulled back from the internet. I read the ah-maz-ing Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, which deserves its own blog post entirely, because it blew my mind in the best of ways, but it kicked off a desperate desire to slow things down and focus on the physical life around me. It was great. I then topped off the tanks with Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (which also deserves its own post, because while some of it I found very interesting, some of it directly contradicted what felt most helpful in Four Thousand Weeks, particularly in the area of how you *should* spend your free time), which just made me even less interested in reconnecting online.

Yet in the midst of all that, I got a chance to evaluate what online activities I actually enjoyed and found most useful personally. This blog is definitely one of them, and I found I enjoy sharing things on Instagram too (though I finally figured out how turn off the “Like” counters so I can’t see how many people liked (or didn’t!) a post, which helps me focus on the sharing aspect, and less on the “earning likes” side, which I hate). This was a great book to help me get back on the horse, while making sure I was sharing only what I *actually* wanted to share, and that I was having fun doing it.

Notable Thoughts:

Over the years, you will be tempted to abandon [your website] for the newest, shiniest social network. Don’t give in. Don’t let it fall into neglect. Think about it in the long term. Stick with it, maintain it, and let it change with you over time.”

Show Your Work, Austen Kleon (69)

^ ^ ^

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about.”

Show Your Work, Austen Kleon (129)

^ ^ ^

Add all this together and you get a way of working I call chain-smoking. You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.”

Show Your Work, Austen Kleon (189)

^ ^ ^

The designer Stefan Sagmeister swears by the power of the sabbatical–every seven years, he shuts down his studio and takes a year off. His thinking is that we dedicate the first 25 years or so of our lives to learning, the next 40 to work, and the last 15 to retirement, so why not take 5 years off retirement and use them to break up the work years?”

Austen Kleon, Show Your Work (191)

A Five Sentence Story

I’ve been wanting to use up some ideas I’ve had kicking around for months (*cough* years *cough*) and just play with them a bit. I really enjoyed the Twitter challenge of writing a tweet-length microfiction per day in October (I only managed about four or five, I think, but they were fun all the same!), so I thought it might be a fun personal challenge to make myself write a five-sentence short story every Friday, just to practice.

Primarily, I’m trying to really lock in the short story structural requirements: a character, in a situation, with a problem, which they try to solve, until the highest tension/emotional moment/climax where they either succeed or fail. I’m hoping I’ll get better at this as time goes on, but also it’s just fun to play sometimes. Also I get to play with formatting like I used to when I did book formatting for Apex Book Company, which is delightfully fun!

So here’s my first one, called “Driftwood Grey & Sea Foam White”:


Process Notations – The Novel Edit Begins

As March kicks off in its usual snowstorm-y way here in New England, I’ve turned my gaze towards the next draft of Dirty Bone. Other projects with other eyes on them have delayed my progress on it, bumping me back a couple of months from where I’d hoped I’d be at this time of year, but I’m still optimistic I can get it into shape and (hopefully) submitted by the end of 2023. 

Placeholder Cover for my project notebook: “I Do” by Chris Peters – I found this initially on Pinterest via BienArt and Beautiful Bizarre Magazine’s posts, but his work, found here, is AMAZING.

It’s been a while since I last edited a long project, so I thought it might be worthwhile for me to document some of this process for my own reference, and why not do that here? I’m using the method outlined in the book Refuse to Be Done by Matt Bell, and so far, I’ve printed and reread the first draft and started generating an outline of what’s currently there. 

As I went through, I marked every place where something I wrote made my heart do a little backflip, because I figure those are the resonant core of the story. Sometimes I’d jot down notes about what could change, how a scene could be approached differently, but for the most part, I tried to just read swiftly and without “editing” too much. 

It was the first time I’d read the thing in whole, because I wrote it like a dog with the zoomies, racing forward and then backwards and then chasing my own tail for a while. So reading it chronologically was a very different experience. I’m pleased to say that while there are a few time-glitches, plot-wise, it actually held together better than I expected, and there was a lot I liked. There are bits that won’t make the cut, of course, but I’m kind of looking forward to pruning it back to its bones. (Ooo, see what I did there?)

But we’re not quite there yet. Right now, I’m compiling an outline of all the scenes as the book currently stands, and I’ll be focusing my editing on that until I’m confident in what the rewrite will be. I’ll also start making a list of all the problem areas, things that need clarification, characters who need more complexity, and gaps where there should be scenes. 

Finding the time to work has been a major challenge, with the puppers hitting his teenage months and the three year old going through an incredibly clingy phase (which is both endearing and cuddly, but also really volatile and involves a lot of yelling). The eight year old, at least, is pretty easy right now, so I’ll take it. But what that’s meant is that most of my work is done in fits and spurts when a spare moment allows. I’ve had to essentially give up my goal of 500 words or twenty minutes a day, because by the time I can sit down to work without interruptions (aka: 10:30pm…) I’m flipping exhausted and my brain is done. 

Instead, I’ve started putting “write” on my to-do list, and anything at all I do—open the document, write a sentence, change the title, think on it for a concentrated moment—counts to check that box. Sometimes I open my laptop in a seemingly quiet moment and am almost immediately interrupted by one crisis or another. Other times, it seems like entropy is about to win the war and life will fall into chaos, but when I open my laptop to look at the document—assuming that’s all I’ll get to do today—I wind up having a forty minute quiet session where I get a lot done. Making the bar to check “write” off my list incredibly easy has also taken all the pressure off to “get things done,” and—by the delightful madness that is life—I often end up getting a LOT more done than I would have if I’d been trying to isolate a twenty minute session during the day. I end up dipping in and out several times throughout the day, and that makes the whole process lot more fun. 

So that’s where things stand as of today. If I can get the current-version outline wrapped up by the end of the week, I’ll plunge into the restructuring, editing process. I have no idea what that’ll look like yet, so bear with me. It’s going to be a…strange ride. 


Reading, Writing, and Garden Thoughts!

I’ve been taking an extended break from social media lately, prompted by reading Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. I adored this book. It reminded me of Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee, but taking it farther into a whole-life philosophy. While I got it initially from the time-management angle, it’s really more a treatise for slowing down and appreciating what you have and who you are, not what you do, or how successful you are, or how well you optimize yourself or your time. It makes a powerful argument to take life as it is, joyously, and I found it a wonderful breath of fresh air amidst the smog of our self-improvement/hustle culture/productivity-obsessed culture. It also made me take a good, hard look at my social media lifestyle to determine whether or not it was doing what I’d set out for it to do, or if it was just another “should” distraction (as in, “I should be on Instagram/Twitter/etc. to support my writing”). The ultimate answer, at least for now, was: Nope. It was taking away precious time from what I actually do, and I find I don’t miss it or even think about it much now that I’ve disconnected. Call it a “Dry January” from social media. Except, I’ve lasted longer not checking or posting on Instagram than I did avoiding half a pilsner on actual Dry January. 

If you’ve been struggling with feelings of inadequacy, or feeling like you’re not as successful as you’d like to be, or feeling overwhelmed by all of life’s demands and challenges and problems, I cannot highly recommend Four Thousand Weeks enough. When I put it down, I felt so much lighter, and my inner critic now has a strong counter-argument, which is a huge relief. I don’t know how else to describe it besides freeing. 

Writing-wise, I’ve been chipping away at two projects. The first is a short story rewrite request, which has gone through two iterations so far, and may be going through a third. I’m struggling with it at this point, though, and I’m not sure if I’ve taken it too far from the original idea the editor liked or not. I need to fill out a few gaps and then do probably a whole retype for clarity, and it’s getting harder to keep my focus on it. 

The other project is my weird lit novel, working titled Dirty Bone, about a man having an affair with a skeleton who lives in a dirt apartment attached to his basement. It’s such an odd, odd story about life and death and the unfair expectations and demands we put on others, but I’m relieved as I reread the first draft that there are still a LOT of parts I love about it. It needs fleshing out, it needs further development, and it’ll be plenty of work to get it to draft two, but I’m actually just really excited about it! My goal is to get this beta-read, edited, polished, and submitted to agents by the end of the year. The only issue I’m hitting right now is the short story is taking up a lot of my sparse writing time, and I really, really, really just want to focus on the book. BUT. I’m going to give it one more really good shot on the rewrite. If the editor likes it but has a few tweaks, I can definitely manage that. If it’s needing another huge reworking, I’ll have to give it some serious thought as to whether it’s worth it to delay working on the book longer. 

But there’s a light at the end of summer! Thing #2 is officially signed up for preschool, which means at least three days a week, come Fall, I’ll get dedicated writing time! I’m SO EXCITED. I can’t believe he’s gotten so big already, and of course, there’s some Mom hand-wringing about how my baby’s already going to school, but it’ll be such a huge step forward towards getting more time to focus on writing again. Naturally, after touring the facilities, he’s gotten a cold, so HAHAHAHA, oh yeah, preschool is a petri dish, how did I not remember that? Ah well, we’ll manage. 

Otherwise, it’s been a quiet month. The pup’s started his next training class, which is good, and we’re working on his slight territorial behavior in the hopes of curbing that early. He does seem to be doing better, so I’ve got some hopes that part of it was just a fear regression when he turned 6 months old. We’ll see, though, and we’re not hedging on that alone. Still, he’s such a smart boy, I’ll bet I can teach him to pick up laundry for me and put it in the bin… Hmmm… #traininggoals

As I get deeper into the edit process, I’ll probably post a bit more often, just to help me keep tabs on the process for future reference. I’ve got a pile of writing skill books that I’m tucking into (just finished Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes, which was very interesting on the romantic storyline front (and helps distinguish beats my own plot will need that mirror and differ from a standard romance plot. I think it’d be interesting for anybody who likes a bit of romance in their work, regardless of whether the romance is the central feature or just a little flush on the side.) Now I’m digging into The Emotional Craft of Writing by Donald Maas, which has already provided some very intriguing thoughts to chew on. On my pile is also: Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland, and The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier, and Mastering Supsense, Structure, & Plot by Jane K. Cleland. 

And then it’s Garden-Obsessing Season! So there’s that as a distraction, too! Flowering shrubs! Pampas grass! Boxwoods! Tree trimming! Forest paths and ferns and shade gardens and decorative rocks, OH MY!


An Interview & Notes

If you missed it (and I almost did myself! Whoops!), I did an interview with Apex Magazine Editor Lesley Conner via Zoom yesterday, along with authors Elana Gomel and Beth Dawkins. It was a great conversation about writing, process, how the pandemic has impacted productivity, balancing kids and writing, and the kinds of books we’re drawn to. I had a blast! If for nothing else, watch it for Beth’s hair, because she looked FANTASTIC.

I don’t know how much of a “year in review” post I’ll be doing this year, but I read 21 books this year. Of those, these are the ones I enjoyed the most:

Sayaka Murata is one of my new favorite writers. While I haven’t yet read her novel, Earthlings, I immensely enjoyed Convenience Store Woman. Lately, I’ve found I have an absolute craving for the mundane life portrayed in fiction. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. But Convenience Store Woman hits my other love, too: weird. This book may not be for everyone, but if you want a quiet but strange little story about a woman trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t quite understand her lack of ambition, you’ll find this one wildly satisfying. I loved the hell out of it, and it made me laugh, too.

I read a lot of non-fiction this year (I find it’s much easier when constantly interrupted by wee ones to read non-fiction rather than fiction), but this is hands down my absolute favorite, and may just have changed my entire perspective on writing. Beyond it’s scary-sounding title (spoken like a true recovering perfectionist), Refuse to Be Done by Matt Bell is a deeply heartfelt, encouraging read. Beyond the last chapters which provide some great methods for editing, Bell spends a lot of time on the first two chapters: how to write the draft, and how to rewrite a draft. It changed my entire process for writing long-length work, and reminded me why I write in the first place. I’ve been recommending this book to every writer I know since I finished it. Short but packed with thought and generosity, definitely check this one out.

Sometimes I read an ebook on vacation and just realize I’m going to need a physical copy of it someday. Anna Quindlen’s Write for Your Life is one of them. A short, sweet treatise on why journaling and letter writing is so incredibly vital for the average person and humanity as a whole, this book will definitely give you permission to document your everyday life, even when it feels dull as hell. Her thoughts on handwriting as a tool both for capturing someone’s authentic voice and the moment in time in which they wrote it (that letter from Great Aunt Clara was touched by her, crafted by her, and sounds like her, even long after she’s gone) were deeply moving. Definitely gift yourself the ideas in this book. It’s deeply encouraging.

I was a little on the fence about recommending this one. There are some things I just…didn’t quite love about how he presented his subject. If you’re a woman, you’ll know it when you see it. BUT–BUT–it did leave quite the impression on me in terms of organizing time and being more deliberate about what one chooses to take on. I do recommend it, though it is undoubtedly skewed Western and Male, but if you can look past that, there are some compelling ideas for anyone wanting to be less “busy” and more “productive.” It definitely gave me a lot to chew on.


The NANO Diaries 2022 – All’s Well that Ends Well

Well, folks, 16 days is my limit on NANO this year. It’s getting to that point where not having the time to think properly about what I’m doing is severely slowing my word production, in addition to the realization that having a new puppy and a two and a half year old at home may not be the most conducive “productivity” time. I think I’m also just at a point right now where speed is my lowest priority when it comes to writing. I don’t want to just pound out words. I want to take my time and think, and because the thinking takes so long to get done, it just isn’t an effective system for me at this moment.

Maybe I’ll try again next year, but for now, I’m just going to focus on re-establishing a daily writing habit of any kind, and pick away at the stories I’ve got started. At least I did finish one story I’d been dying to get done, so I’m feeling pretty good, all things considered. I’ve certainly written more this month than I otherwise would have.

In the meantime, for those of you still charging along, YOU GO GET ‘EM! YOU’RE HALF-WAY DONE! YOU’VE GOT THIS!


The NANO Diaries 2022 – Day 11 & 12

Welp, I have a cold. It’s not COVID, according to the test I took this morning, but the boys have both been sneezy and drippy for the past couple days, so it was bound to happen. But that meant I didn’t get any writing done yesterday, and anticipate not getting any done today. (Could happen, if I perk up, but right now, I’m sticking it to the production-obsessed work-at-all-costs economy and giving myself the time to recuperate.)

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to jump back in feet first. Finger crossed.


The NANO Diaries – Days 5-8

Sometimes I forget why I don’t always participate in NANOWRIMO. It’s such a cool idea, such an energy-inspiring thought: punch out 50k in a month! Think how much you’ll get done! HOLY CRAP, that’s like 10 5k short stories! YEAH! Let’s DO IT!

And then the first week passes, and I realize that one of the challenges I struggle with during NANO with small children, is that my brain is half-dead, and finding quiet time to actually think about what I need to do, what words need to be written, is HARDER than getting words down. I’m pretty good at being wordy. Meaningful words, though? Or even just intentional words, rather than deliberate overwriting? That’s hard.

All this to say, I’m still chugging along. I’m at 8695 words so far this month, though whether I’ll be able to plow much beyond that is something I’m leaving up in the air. I need more thinking time, more filling-the-well time. With a kiddo under 3, and a new puppy, that’s just becoming very difficult. Was it a good year to attempt NANO? Uh, probably not? But I’ve still got 8.7k more than I otherwise would have, so that’s something. Right now, my primary goal is to reestablish a daily writing routine, even if it’s just 500 words. I’d prefer to do time-based work rather than word count-based work, but for this month, I’ll stick to word count.


The NANO Diaries 2022 – Day 4

I wasn’t anticipating getting any work done today, but I managed to scrape out 1019 words! Miracle of miracle! They were interrupted words, and not done in the most creatively conducive environments, but words are words, at least for NANO.

That’s the one issue I find myself running up against with NANO each time I attempt it: it really hangs on the idea of words-for-words sake, quantity over quality. While I support this and found it quite useful early on in my writing career, I’m starting to find that I can easily manufacture a lot more words than a scene actually needs in order to hit (arbitrary) word count requirements. I much prefer in my non-NANO time, to track time spent on a work. Sometimes you need to just sit with a work. Sometimes more words don’t mean you’re moving in the right direction.

But NANO is a time for words, so words I write! If you’re interested in books to help you learn how to prune your (possibly bloated, as mine will be) work whether from NANO or just ordinarily, I highly recommend The 10% Solution by Ken Rand and Refuse to be Done by Matt Bell (this one is my new personal editing favorite). Brilliant insights in both. Bell’s book largely encapuslates Rand’s in his Word Weasel sections, but if you need to ease into cutting back words, I’d consider starting with Rand’s book as a great intro, and when you’re comfortable with that, dive deep into Bell’s to find all the amazing things you don’t need to keep. While Rand’s book helped me level up my prose and start selling fiction professionally, I feel like Bell’s book helped me to understand what being a writer really means.