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Category: writing

My life hacks

Lately I’ve seen a lot of authors sharing their own lists of personal tips and tricks for winning at life – or life hacks. This got me thinking about the things I do to keep my life on track with my goals, both personal and professional. Maybe some of these can work for you, too, whether you’re an author or not. Here are mine!

1) Keep a dry-erase marker in the car

I live in Austin, which has the 4th worst traffic in the US. Especially before I started my new day job 5 miles away from my home (which still takes 30-45 minutes some days), I spent a LOT of time in my car. Chances are, you probably do too, and if you’re an author, you sometimes get your best ideas while you’re stuck in traffic or flying down the highway, when it’s least convenient to pull out your Moleskine and jot the idea down before you forget. How I combat this is to keep a dry erase marker in the car and scribble the ideas on the window (usually in short hand). A nice bonus – you can also take down license plate numbers of law breakers instead of trying in vain to commit them to memory.

2) #AlwaysBeReading

Everyone benefits from being well read, but no one benefits more than authors do. Reading more makes you a better writer, but it’s hard to find time to read between career, family, and extracurricular duties. I’ve found that I read more when I make my reading complement these duties, not replace them. Spending an hour in your car every day? Putting away a week’s worth of laundry? (Doing anything you’d really rather not be doing?) Listen to an audiobook. Hitting the elliptical machine at the gym? Waiting for your doctor to show up for your scheduled appointment? Pull out your e-reader. Trying to sleep and instead letting your mind race? Open a paperback. When I started reading across these 3 platforms, I found I read twice as many books that year than I did the one before it.

3) Take care of yourself

Make time to exercise. Period. No excuses. Endorphins are nature’s anti-depressants and you can still do wasteful things like binge watching Breaking Bad while working out (but you can also read a book). Life is short, but it’s even shorter when you’re unhealthy, and it’s my experience that running a great writer’s block buster.

4) #DontReadTheComments

This is a tough one for me. I read something that pushes all my buttons and raises all my hackles, and I can’t just stop at the end of the article; I scroll on down and start reading the comments to see what other people think. Why do I do this? I don’t know that I can pinpoint a reason other than that I am a masochist. I don’t particularly care about the opinions of complete strangers, and I hate being reminded of how ignorant, hateful, and rude people can be behind the anonymity veil the internet provides. As such, I’m making a concerted effort to #dontreadthecomments (except those on my own posts and sites, of course).

5) Feed your muse with music

Right now I am writing a book that primarily takes place in the gym, so when I am writing, I put on the cheesy upbeat mashup music my cardio kickboxing instructor plays in class to get me in the right mindset. Whatever you’re writing about, pair some thematic music to go with it. If nothing really matches, I recommend Groove Salad on somafm.com. It’s a great downtempo station that will keep you in the zone while you crank up the word count.

6) #ScheduleYourTweets

Yes, you should also tweet in the moment when brilliantly witty things (or funny cat videos) come to you, but you should also use tools like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck (I use Tweetdeck) to space out some scheduled tweets throughout the week that keep you talking and visible. Remember that as an author, you market yourself, not necessarily your books, and silence is kin to invisibility. (I stole this life hack from @RachelintheOC. She’s kind of an author PR genius and you should listen to everything she says – especially the parts about Nutella.)

7) Schedule your blog posts

Any blogging software worth a damn includes functionality for saving drafts of posts and scheduling them to publish at the time of your choosing. So when you get inspired about a topic, go slap some words on a page, come back to it and refine the idea when you want, and post it when you want. In my better days, I’ve written blog posts for an entire month in one day and scheduled them to post once a week. I wrote this one yesterday; I don’t get up and write at 6 AM because I am not that productive of a person. There are lots of commercials in a football game…

8) Leave your work computer at work

I’ve been guilty of bringing my work home with me, usually because I was taking on too much and was already doing the work of two people. I don’t have those jobs anymore, because I place too much value on keeping my professional and personal lives separate. I’ve always had a work laptop specifically designed for portability, but that doesn’t mean you can’t leave it at the office. For me, having my work laptop at home in the evenings is too much of a temptation to work ahead when I should be working on something personal, spending time with my family, or joyfully wasting time. Now I only bring it home on the weekends in case something happens (like ebola) and I have to work from home.

9) Don’t put work email on your personal phone

Unless you have to or are expected to. If your day job doesn’t come with the expectation that you be available 24/7 and respond to every email immediately – don’t. Say it with me now – it can wait ’til morning (or Monday). Your evenings and weekends are yours, not your employer’s. If you’re anything like me, you check personal email on your phone obsessively enough as it is, you don’t need work email invading your personal life, especially when half the emails are auto-generated crap you batch delete on Monday morning anyway.

10) #CleanAsYouGo

Anyone who’s ever worked in the restaurant industry has had this mantra permanently etched into their being. As much as I hated hearing it from front of house managers who let the most infinitesimal amount of power go to their heads, it’s true. You’ll spend less time cleaning if you can fit in loading the dishwasher while you’re waiting for that water to boil, wiping down the bathroom counter while you’re waiting for the shower water to warm up, etc. Clean as you go, and you won’t have to go clean later. Or not as much, anyway.

That’s for my life hacks! What are yours?

Remember, time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted time.

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Help me pick my back cover text (and digital equivalent)

As the publication date (though still concretely undetermined) draws closer and closer for Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook, I am playing around with the back cover text, or product description in the digital world. Any writer will tell you that this is one of the hardest things to do, since it is so hard to persuasively and objectively write about your own work. So much so that it’s often outsourced on elance to the tune of $6.00 an hour. While I could certainly afford this (even though I find it insulting), I try to not to make a habit of paying people to do things I am – or at least should be – perfectly capable of doing myself.

That said, I’m certainly not above asking y’all if it’s total crap. Or more kindly, which description piques your interest the most. So have a gander, let me know what you think, and grow your impetus for getting Portrait of Woman in Ink at the first possible moment. I’m not sure that impetus is the right word for this situation, but I digress…

Product Description 1

Whether you’re an avid body art collector or a Luddite who believes tattooed women have thrust themselves into the clutches of Satan himself, there’s no denying tattoos have become a mainstay for Gen-Xers and the Millennials. Thirty years ago, women with tattoos were viewed through eyes that saw them as freaks, while today young women proudly sport ink, even if they sometimes have to wear long sleeves to maintain propriety in less-enlightened professional or family company.

Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook is a series of literary vignettes about real, everyday women and their tattoos that, while they may seem insignificant at the time, are a symbol of the larger struggles and triumphs that make them who they are (and aren’t freaks because of it). The collection also explores the idea of tattoos bringing together women from different worlds, and teaching them how their worlds might not be as far apart as they originally thought. Portrait of Woman in Ink will touch your heart, make you snicker under your breath, and make you rethink the next time you see a woman sporting a tattoo.

Product Description 2

Twelve women, twelve tattoos, and a narrative thread that weaves them all together, Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook is a collection of stories that answers the question in the back of your mind when you see an inked woman: what does your tattoo mean? (or sometimes – what were you thinking?) From a parent’s suicide to the birth of an unlikely child, the stories behind why women tattoo themselves are literally worn on their sleeves, and retold on these pages with a literary twist.

Complete with artwork from the original tattoo artists and a foreword by women’s studies professor Dr. Marta Vicente, Portrait of Woman in Ink is a literary celebration of a woman’s defiance of traditional norms, transforming their skin in a way that was once acceptable only for criminals and sailors. These stories will touch your heart, make you snicker under your breath, and make you rethink the next time you see a woman proudly sporting a tattoo.

Product Description 3

Who says tattoos are unladylike? (Besides your mother, your pastor, and your boss…) Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook is a collection of tales from women who so wanted the world to know their stories that they put the words into a picture and etched it permanently on their bodies. These stories are tragic, hilarious, absurd, and touching all at the same time, with a narrative thread that connects each story to the one before it.

Complete with artwork from the original tattoo artists and a foreword by one of academia’s foremost voices in women’s studies, Portrait of Woman in Ink is a series of literary vignettes about real, everyday women and their tattoos that, while they may seem insignificant at the time, are a symbol of the larger struggles and triumphs that make them who they are. The collection explores the idea of tattoos bringing together women from different worlds, and teaching them how their worlds might not be as far apart as they originally thought.

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2012 is gone… what did I do?

It’s that goal-reflection and goal-setting time of year. The time when the whole world reflects on its activities completed in the year as it comes to a close, and determines what activities will transpire in the year to come. And buys a gym membership they use a lot in January, sparingly in February, and completely give up on by March.

I, for the record, spent far more days of 2012 in the gym than skipping it. So, what writerly activities did I complete in the last year?

I read 60 books.

Not to be all braggy, but that’s more than a book a week. The secret wasn’t having more time, although quitting my shockingly low-paying freelance gig did free up a little bit more time, the secret was having more access. I started volunteering for the library, which meant I could bring something home every week, download audiobooks to my iPod Touch, and borrow Kindle books. I had never really gotten into audiobooks before, but I found it to be a great reading addition for certain activities like lifting weights, putting away laundry, and walking to the bank.

I finished writing my second novel

It was a collaborative effort between an academic, eleven women with tattoos, and a handful of tattoo artists. The writing part was great; in fact I think it’s one of the best things I have ever written in my lifetime. Getting a publisher was a bjillion times easier than what I experienced with my first book, but boy howdy going through the hoops of the book deal process is hard. I’m not sure if it’s actually hard, or if it just feels that way, but stay tuned because it’s going to be hitting the shelves before you know it… I hope.

My first novel celebrated its first birthday

And in its first year, it got over 5,000 promotional downloads, and had significantly far less paid copies sold. It got 14 reviews on Amazon, only one of which was a 1-star-er,  3 reviews on Barnes and Noble, and 18 ratings on Goodreads. It made it to the semi-final round of The Kindle Book Review best independent book of 2011 contest. It also pissed off my mom.

I started writing my third novel

Full disclosure – it’s barely one chapter at this point, but it’s going to rock. It’ll also be my first novel-length work that uses true chapters instead of a series of short stories. We’ll see how the long form story works out for me.

I wrote other stuff

A handful of poems, a couple flash fiction pieces, nothing too crazy, and not nearly as much as I should have written. I only got a couple of things featured or published, which I again should have hit harder.

Yep, that was 2012. So what’s 2013 going to bring, besides more steady gym time (I do, after all, have to fit into a wedding dress)? Here are my goals, in no particular order.

  • Publish novel #2. This one’s at the top, because it will with any luck happen first. Stay tuned.
  • Finish writing novel #3. If I can write, edit, and publish novel #2 in a little over a year, I should really try to do that every year. Even with a full-time job.
  • ABQ. Always be querying. I need to keep all my poems, short stories, and other crap in constant rotation.
  • Start expanding my freelance portfolio, because I might not want to work for the man all my life.
  • Write more stuff.
  • Keep my workshop group going.
  • Show nothing but love for other authors (but still make fun of ridiculous library finds).

Authors – always be looking to improve your writing, your platform, and your abdominals. My New Year’s Resolution, for the record, is to schedule my tweets each week so I am consistently building my platform. And to floss more.

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Foreword, Introduction, or Preface?

For my forthcoming project, Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook, I thought it would be a good idea to enlist an academic who could speak to the history between women and tattoos. After reading this article in the Lawrence Journal-World, I knew I had found my academic in Women’s Studies professor Dr. Marta Vicente, and I asked her (and happily enough, she agreed) to write me a foreword.

But did I mean introduction? Or preface? No doubt you’ve seen all three in books you’ve read, but what makes a preface a preface, a foreword a foreword, or an introduction an introduction? I wasn’t really sure I knew the difference, since it wasn’t exactly something they covered in my undergraduate creative writing studies.

Besides, who needs book learnin’ when there’s Wikipedia? So I looked it up.

  • Foreword: Typically written by someone other than the primary author of the work, it often tells of some interaction between the writer of the foreword and the book’s primary author or the story the book tells.
  • Preface: Generally covers the story of how the book came into beginning, or how the idea for the book was developed; this is often followed by thanks and acknowledgments to people who were helpful to the author during the time of writing.
  • Introduction: Typically describes the scope of the document and gives the brief explanation or summary of the document. It may also explain certain elements that are important to the essay if explanations are not part of the main text.

Since the piece she wrote summarizes some of the book, but also goes into some of the historical significance of women and tattoos, I’m not really sure which of these it falls into. The summary part of it screams introduction, but the academic references indicate foreword. I could even argue for preface, since you might say women throughout history set the stage for the women in the book to tell their stories through body art.

Or maybe I should just call it a unicorn and be done with it. What do y’all think?

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What’s In A (Pen) Name?

I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately. For one thing, I recently got engaged, and my fiance isn’t super keen on the idea of me keeping my maiden name. As Kelly Hitchcock, I’ve published one novel (and hopefully one more), a few short stories, and several poems. Still, he maintains that he wants me to take his last name, which is four syllables… not exactly hyphen-friendly. And anyone who has read my work knows I am a big fan of the hyphen; almost as much as I would be a semicolon superfan if it didn’t make me look like a pretentious a-hole.

It also came up in my writer’s group the other day – when is it appropriate to use a pen name? I imagine that if your given name at birth is Brad Pitt or James Cameron and you plan on making a serious living as an author, you might want to use a pen name to distance yourself from the celebrity namesakes (then again, you might want to invite the connection). Then there’s the case of writers who cross over into writing in another genre – like erotica – and use a pen name to maintain the separation between the two genre’s writings.  Or maybe your name just sucks, like Dentenia Zickafoose.

What I wonder is:

  • It’s common practice for doctors and lawyers to keep their maiden names based on public professional accomplishments. Income disparity notwithstanding, does the same expectation exist for authors?
  • Is it icky to take on a pen name for no apparent reason? No evidence of genre-switching, crappy namesake, or celebrity doppelhood?

What do you think?

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The End. No wait… The End. No wait…

For my money, the hardest part of writing a book is figuring out where to end it. With my first book, The Redheaded Stepchild, it took me nearly two years to figure out an ending. The book was chiefly about the complicated relationship I had with my ex-stepmother, and even when that relationship was over, it wasn’t really over in my mind, so pinning down an ending was difficult. Even though I could pinpoint our last interaction, it still didn’t feel like “the end” in my mind. So I did what any writer does when they don’t know how to end a story: I picked an ending, and I went with it.

I’m working diligently on the last chapter of my current work in progress, Portrait of Woman in Ink: A Tattoo Storybook, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to end it. Why? Because this last chapter is the chapter about me, and I don’t know this particular story of my life ends. For those of us who write autobiographically, or semi-autobiographically, as my case may be, endings are unbelievably hard to write. What’s keeping from finishing my book is the decision to either wait to see how my story shakes out, or just make something up.

What do you think? Is making up an ending cheating? Or do I pick an ending and go with it?

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You Don’t Know Everything: Manuscript Strength in Numbers

If you’re a writer, and you’re not a part of a writer’s workshop group, I want you to go ahead and kick yourself in the gut. And if you’re capable of this feat, maybe you should consider a new line of work. Those of you who are regular followers of my mostly mundane author news know that I am the de facto leader of a writer’s group (via Meetup) here in town (on Twitter at @WeirdATXWriters), and I have to say, their feedback is priceless. Typically, I bring my first drafts of short stories, chapters, and poems to my workshop meetups, and my first drafts are usually pretty clean. But if it weren’t for my writer’s group, I wouldn’t have known the following about my next novel (which now has a title, btw… PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN IN INK: A TATTOO STORYBOOK).

  • One of my stories takes place on Thanksgiving, and there’s a reference to football playing on the television. If not for my writer’s group, I wouldn’t have known that the teams that play on Turkey Day are Detroit and Dallas, every year. And I LOVE football. (Yes, it was a Texan who corrected me.)
  • The correct height and weight of a 4-year-old boy. Also, the age at which boys are fully potty-trained. Sure, I can guess, but my guesses proved inaccurate.
  • That not everyone remembers 1984 (the book, not the year – I was two) with the same level of recall as me, and the term “proles” is lost on most.

Bottom line? I’m a pretty smart cookie, but I don’t know everything. No one’s life experiences can make them an expert on everything, and it’s only by having a few fresh sets of eyes on a manuscript that you can resolve little misgivings in the prose that hurt your credibility with the reader.

If you’re not part of a group, there is no excuse for that. There’s Meetup, where you can probably find about 5 writers groups in your area. If there isn’t one, you can start one, and it’ll cost you about $100 a year. I joined one when I moved to Austin, and ended up running the same group when the organizer moved out of town, and we typically have about 5 or 6 people in a workshop meetup. That’s 5 different people with different life experiences (parent, engineer, sports fan, etc.) reading my manuscripts and pointing out these little issues that never would have crossed my mind. Is that worth the $100 a year I’m spending on meetup dues (that I could be getting from sponsors or my group members if I were that concerned about the cash)? You bet your sweet ass it is.

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Help me pick a title for my next masterpiece!

Greetings, loyal fanbase of fans! Today I sent the drafts of the short stories that are going in my newest collection to the people they were about. If you’re unfamiliar, I’m working on a collection of short stories about women and their tattoos. The stories are chained, meaning you meet characters in a previous story and learn more about them in the next.

I’ve been struggling to come up with a title, but I have a few ideas I’ve been throwing arond, so I want to crowdsource this one… tell me in the comments: which one do you like best?

  1. Vodka Chicken Soup for the Tattooed Soul
  2. Written in Ink
  3. The Girls with the Draggin’ Tattoos

Or, choose your own!

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2011 in Writer Review

I just got done reading my 2010 review, and now I’m ready to do the same for 2011. It’s been quite a year, and was way different from 2010.

  • I had two manuscripts published in 2011. It was less than 2010, but I’ll still call it a win because I spent more energy on getting The Redheaded Stepchild published and writing my next novel. I also spent more time writing new manuscripts in general than I did in 2010.
  • 2011 came and went, and the two poems that were accepted for publication in February 2010 are still waiting to go to print. And people wonder why print is dead…
  • I forwent the book deal and decided to publish The Redheaded Stepchild myself. I’m still experimenting to figure out what works as far as sales and marketing go, but I’m not in this for the money. I’m in it because I love it and I want to try new things.
  • I tripled my Twitter followers.
  • I once again pimped my writing at South by Southwest. I also submitted a panel proposal for SXSW 2012 which is still under review. Fingers crossed!
  • I used my Kindle to check out works by other Kindle authors. I’m hoping that it’ll be great for you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours kind of sales.
  • I joined a writer’s group, and I’m now leading that group. I look forward to Weird Austin Writers meetings every single time.
  • I began volunteering at my local library. I’m hoping this will help me reach out to readers once I get more established.

Goals for 2012

  • Sell 1,000 copies of The Redheaded Stepchild. I’ll have to figure out what works marketing-wise to make that happen, but it’d be nice to know that my book is in 1,000 new hands!
  • Publish my next novel. I’ve got a lot of rewriting and editing to do, but I’m really excited about the project and I think it’ll be my best work yet. Now if I can just think of a title…
  • Build relationships with readers and other authors. This means I need to keep up with my other author blogs all year round. (Compound goal.)
  • Publish The Other Dentenia Zickafoose. I’ve been shopping this guy around for almost 2 years now. It’s time.
  • Become a contributor on other author blogs. Guest posting, book reviews, whatever I can do. I need to put myself out there.
  • Write 15 new manuscripts. I’ll have the new novel, but I also want to write 10 poems and 5 short stories to add to my repertiore. Can’t be myopic with my manuscripts.

On the whole, I’ll call 2011 a win. I think 2012 is gonna rock.

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