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An afternoon with @JudyBlume #MondayBlogs

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a talk and book signing with one of America’s most loved authors at BookPeople (I promise this will be the last time I mention the fact that Judy Blume and I have shared the exact same stage), pimping her newest book In The Unlikely Event, which I cannot wait to read. I don’t even remember the first Judy Blume book I read, but I remember that my mother forbade me–and by forbade I mean I picked it up as soon as I got the chance–from reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, not because of all the adult themed content it contained that my pre-teen brain could not possibly grasp, but because its title implied that it questioned the existence of God. Oh, Mom…

As a writer, I think I will always measure the honesty and authenticity of my own work against Judy Blume’s, not that I think I can ever even come close to her level. I remember after I wrote my first book, my mother was so unhappy with me for the things that I shared, and I had just finished reading Wifey, which exhibited a level of honesty that couldn’t even be classified in the same realm as what I portrayed in my book. I don’t know that I would ever have the courage to be half as honest as Judy Blume is in her books, especially the more adult-oriented ones. For that alone, I will always have undying respect and love for Blume’s work. Even Superfudge.

But back to the event! Blume is 77, but certainly doesn’t look it. I hope that when I am 77, I am A) still writing books and B) look as youthful as Judy. That Key West air must contain Retinol-A or something. I never knew how engaged she was/is with her fans. It never occurs to me to engage with an author I enjoy unless they share the same level of notoriety as me (so, very little); however, there were people in the audience who had been writing back and forth with Judy for YEARS, without ever losing touch. It’s now my life’s goal to keep in touch with all my fans, especially those who have been with me from my very first book, even after I write the career maker (which could very well be Community Klepto… who knows?).

She also talked in depth about censorship; in short, how fucking stupid it is. Just let your kids read. Let them be exposed to the world and form their own opinions of it. She also offered great advice for how to get your children to read something, saying “leave the book laying out and when they ask about, say ‘I don’t think you’re ready for that yet’.” It’s possible that’s what my mom was thinking when she made Are You There, God? verboten, but unlikely. To Mom’s credit, though, she never kept me from walking down the street or riding my bike to the public library, where I spent a lot of time and maxed out the balance on her library card. Nowadays, kids attempting to do the very same (and innocent) thing I did might draw the attention of Child Protective Services.

But my favorite moment of the event was when I was waiting in line for my brand new (and new book smelling) hardback copy of In The Unlikely Event to be signed. For the record, even though they have staff whose sole job is to take ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ at book signings, I decided I didn’t want to partake. It just seemed nice to have a private moment with her that I didn’t have to share with anyone else. The person in front of me was a mother with her young daughter (twelve or so), who told Blume that she (the daughter) was beginning to write short stories. To this, Judy replied, “You know, maybe my next thing will be to finally learn how to write short stories.” If I could say one thing in response to this, it would be, dearest Judy Blume, leave the impostor syndrome at the door. You’re one of this country’s most beloved storytellers of all time. You know how to write short stories; you just may not know it yet. Or maybe you were just trying to make a young writer feel better.

If you ever get a chance to see one of your favorite authors at a local bookstore event, take it. Even if it’s standing room only (which BookPeople was), the air conditioning doesn’t want to work (which it didn’t), or you can’t see (which I couldn’t–God bless the height challenged). It is SO worth it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to crack the spine of In The Unlikely Event.

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Portrait of Woman in Ink featured in Red City Review

Awhile back, you may recall, I entered a couple book award contests. I didn’t do well in either of them, so I was predictably sulky about it. One of them was the Red City Review 2014 Book Awards contest, which I entered even though the entry fee was enough to make me think twice (you know that old publishing mantra ‘money should always flow to the author – not the other way around’?). I didn’t win the contest; however, they did think enough of it to give it a very thoughtful 5-star review on their website.

Check it out their great review HERE!

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The Self, as Editor of Local Tech Mag

Lately, you may have noticed I have been unusually absent from regular blogging and tweeting. If you follow me on Twitter, you may also have noticed that my tweets have been abnormally comprised of baseball-related content, and thought “I didn’t even know she was a baseball fan…” Well, neither did I, not until the Kansas City Royals made it to the postseason for the first time since I was 3 years old, and then made it to the World Series. It was kind of a big deal, and also (as it turns out) played almost every single day, which made scheduling all things very difficult. Naturally, I was either slightly heartbroken or super butthurt (depending on whose version you hear) when we lost the World Series in game 7.  All this is to say, authors can be sports fans too, and I can dedicate myself far more fully to my craft with just one fall sport to focus on.

Another source of distraction lately has been my new volunteer gig – I’m part of the editorial staff for Velma Magazine, a local online publication dedicated to Austin women in tech. It’s been many a year since I worked for any sort of journalism outfit, so there’s been an acquainting phase not unlike when I first started using a fork. Or a Mac. Still, for all the craziness that comes with a new publication, it’s been incredibly rewarding and the women I work with are fantastic and sassy and super smart.

One of the most refreshing things that I’ve encountered in my short time as volunteer editor is that it’s okay to make mistakes and that it’s okay to feel stupid. This pretty much flies in the face of everything I was taught growing up, but it means I am actually learning something. As an author, I find this feeling very freeing. I don’t know everything, especially about how to sell my own work (hell, I’m jut now figuring out how to talk about my own work), but I can keep trying new things and growing and learning, even if the things I do are complete and total mistakes. Besides, who’s going to notice except, you know, the whole internet?

So in the words of my genius female developer friend: “Feeling stupid is good, it means you are learning. Now repeat until you believe it.”

Oh, and check out the magazine. Even if you’re not a lady, not in tech, or hate words. I write for it, so it’s therefore superior.

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In Which I Reflect on Christmases Past…

It’s a week before Christmas, it’s 80 degrees outside, and I’m enjoying a nice cup of spiked hot cider with a real cinnamon stick. It doesn’t sound like that reflective of a moment, but it is for me. When I was a kid, I thought both liquor and real cinnamon sticks were something only rich people buy. My fiance picked up a couple baggies of cinnamon sticks last night for a hot buttered rum recipe we decided to try. I have never bought cinnamon sticks before because I always assumed they were a luxury item for fancy people. Turns out, they are less than 99 cents.

It’s odd to think of something that costs 99 cents as a luxury item, but Crayolas are only a couple bucks more expensive than less-than-crayola crayons, and I never go to have those as a kid, either. Christmas time was always a very tense occasion in my family. They usually involved my parents getting payday loans and putting things on layaway, things that because I went to college and worked hard to get a good writing job I could stroll into the store and buy even on the last day before payday. There was always more fighting around Christmas as money got tighter, and I got more and more complacent about the holidays as the years went on.

But that’s Christmas past, not Christmas future. I don’t buy Christmas presents with payday loans or nearly-maxed out credit cards. My fiance has revived the Christmas spirit that I thought died in me a long time ago. We make Christmas our own – with liquor and Nutella-stuffed cookies and our wall of Christmas lights, Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and silly Texas Christmas cards.

And this might just be the best Christmas ever.

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SXSW panel in review: The Accidental Writer

The first panel I attended at South By Southwest this year was not the first one I intended to see… as per tradition. Still, it was a great one to start out with. It was called “The Accidental Writer: Great Web Copy for Everyone” and was not really geared toward writers, but more toward web designers and others who end up writing copy as an afterthought. Melanie Seibert (@melanie_seibert on Twitter) was the speaker.

The first thing the speaker stressed was that copy and content strategy in general cannot be an afterthought. If it IS, then it’s probably going to be boring, crappy copy. She gave some examples of companies that have great design AND great copy, like woot.com and Groupon (which I’ll admit though that wound’s still fresh). She also pointed out that content doesn’t come cheap… it’s expensive to write, especially if you’re not a native speaker, so sometimes it works out much better to hire someone to do it for you.

She then pointed out something that’s been in the back of my mind for awhile… SEO training. As a writer, a lot of the freelance jobs I see out there want writers with some SEO training, and it makes sense – if you’re going to pay for great copy, you want people to be able to find it. She threw out some SEO certification courses that I’m hoping I can talk my boss into paying for. After all, it’ll help me in my day job a lot, too. Our help documentation is ridiculously difficult to search.

She offered the following tips for everyone who needs to write web copy but may not be an expert at it (and a good refresher for those of us who are):

  • Don’t just describe things. You’ve got to tell a story to keep your reader engaged.
  • Break up text. No one wants to read a paragraph that’s a page long.
  • Give people something to do by using actionable language.
  • Web copy needs to integrate with the site design, and you have to design around the content.
  • Don’t overuse memes and cliches. No one’s got milk anymore.
  • Don’t be afraid to write a horrible first draft (sadly, this is something I’m just now embracing).
  • Revise and proof. Get rid of half the words on the page, then get rid of another half.
  • Never use passive voice
  • Make your copy fun and friendly.

What did I get out of this panel? I definitely want to get SEO training so I know how to be more search-savvy with my writing. It’ll be a great resume builder too, right? It’s also good to know that writers still have value in the eyes of our more back-end savvy counterparts. I’ll be looking into Heather Lloyd Martin’s material on SEO certification very soon.

And I’ll let you know how it goes!

For audio of this panel: http://schedule.sxsw.com/events/event_IAP6933

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SXSW: Days 2 and 3

So, I was too drunk to blog on Saturday, too tired to blog on Sunday, and left my ID in my pants and got turned away at a party tonight so I finally have time to talk about all the cool stuff I saw over the last couple days.

Saturday was a crazy busy day for panels, but I learned SO much about what I need to do to get my book going for realsies.

I was just in time for the So Long and Thanks for all the Babelfish panel with Tim Holden, who will forever be impregnated in my mind as the person who called copywriters “fuddy-duddies”. It was a panel about the costs and trends with content translation, a topic I don’t care a whole lot about, but one that I have to deal with, and one I figured I could learn a little bit about.

The next panel I attended was the one I was most excited about for the year, and it did not disappoint. The Self-Publishing Novel: Report from the Trenches panel featured self-published writers from all corners of the spectrum, including Carolyn McCray of the Indie Book Collective. I came away with the following takeaways for things I need to do to get my book ready for self-publishing, because it’s a route that I really should take:

  • First and foremost, when I get home, I need to solicit a beta reader group to get valuable readership feedback to figure out if my book is a complete piece of crap.
  • I need to step up my Twitter game. I don’t think I can (or want to) realistically follow 50 people a day, as McCray recommended, but I can reach out more for sure.
  • When you are an independent author, you are your own marketing department, so I need to approach every day as “do I want to go to work or not?”.

It was a great panel, and one that you should watch when it’s available.

Next was Tell & Sell Your Story with Stephanie Klein and company. They billed it as a panel about writing a book proposal, finding an agent, and maintaining balance as a writer. They didn’t get to the proposal information until the end,  but Stephanie Klein took the reins on outlining in great detail all the elements you need a book proposal:

  1. An overview, written in your own voice, that is like an ad for your book.
  2. An analysis of the books that are like yours, but includes why your book is unique.
  3. A chapter-by-chapter summary
  4. 2 sample chapters that show your range as a writer

Klein also gave great advice about not holding back as a writer based on a worry about a specific person reading your work. One of my favorite lines from the conference so far: “the minute you start censoring yourself is the minute you become inauthentic.”

Every year it seems I find a panel that I completely misinterpret. Last year, it was a panel on editing that turned about to be a panel about film editing. This year, it was a panel called Semantically Yours: Dating Tips for the Semantic Web, which I thought was about using word nerdery in online dating (a topic that recently became relevant to me that I’ll have to talk about in an upcoming post) but turned out to be about creating semantic data. I still don’t know what that is, but I know it’s not relevant to me at all. Another lesson in why you always read the description. I did cut out in time to make the Q&A for the bloggers vs journalists panel, which was a spirited and timely debate.

That ended day 2 for me, but not until after some sweet parties and far too much alcohol. Sunday morning started surprisingly on time and on task:

The first panel was a very interesting one… there were 12 slides with 12 concepts of the writing lifestyle on them, and 3 writers each to give their take on each of the concepts. I got both affirmation that some of the crazy rituals we have as writers aren’t crazy and some tips on how better to approach the writing process.

After that, I hit up a transmedia storytelling panel that thankfully was more about creating a great story through character development, plot advancement, and rich world creation and less about the crazy buzzword that is transmedia. It was a little bit story 101, but it was a wonderful reminder/affirmation for writing a great narrative first and focusing on the medium second.

The next panel I hit up actually WAS about the future of online dating, and while it didn’t have anything to do with writing in an online dating context, it did apprise me to the fact that there are services out there that will easily make my freelance job obsolete.

The final panel of day 3 was Gavin St. Ours’ Why New Authors Should Think Like Indie  Bands, and was all about the practice and promotion that unknown authors need to follow to get their names out there and build a readership base. There was heavy talk about the different forms of publishing beyond traditional New York publishing house dead tree methods, not all of them revolving around self-publishing, which was comforting. After all, they can’t be the only 2 options out there.

I’ll be delving into the meat and potatoes of all these panels after I get home from South by Southwest, but that’ll have to wait until I am done partying it up here in Austin.

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New Essay: Christmas with Just Dad

I’ve posted a new manuscript that is somewhere between a flash fiction piece and an essay. I’m not sure which fits more, so I put it in essays because it starts out most like an essay. It’s called Christmas with Just Dad and you can read all about it here.

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