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Running on empty, not on fleek #MondayBlogs

On top of finishing my third novel, working a full time job, and taking care of two 10-month-olds, I have also recently been training for the Austin half-marathon, which I ran last weekend. By ran, sadly, I mean I injured a muscle in my back in the lamest way possible a couple days before the race, got to run about 5 minutes before my body compelled me to wuss out, and got to walk my gimpy ass back to the car. Not my finest moment. In fact, it was even worse than the day during training that I needed to complete a 7-mile run…

Unlike my protagonist in COMMUNITY KLEPTO, I much prefer running trails to running on pavement or even worse, surrounded by four walls and digital beeps. There is a relatively new trail (it’s been there for quite some time, but the city only recently made it official) that I’d been wanting to try out so I decided to drive to the trailhead and do my long run for the week there. I was curious to explore it A) because the trail connects to the one that leads to my office B) to see if it was a stroller friendly trail I could take the girls on sometime. (I’ll spare you the suspense. It’s not, and that will not happen for many years, if ever.) I parked the car with my full set of keys inside and took my spare car key with me, tucked securely in my flipbelt along with my phone, ID and – in case of emergency – my medical insurance card.

As soon as I finished stretching out and started jogging on the trail, it started raining. It had rained the day before, too, but I’ve always found running in the rain to be masochistically exhilarating so I just kept going. Within two minutes, I hit my first “low-water crossing,” where the creek was running over the trail. I managed to hop over some rocks sticking up out of the creek and got right back to running. It was about a minute before I hit another one. Then another. Then another. About this time, I said screw it and just decided to start running through the water. After all, it might pour rain the day of the half marathon (it didn’t) and I needed to train for every possibility. Plus if I tried to pussyfoot around every low-water crossing, all of which were completely submerged by the creek, I’d be running for half the day. I splashed through a couple more sections of trail covered by the creek when I hit a crossing so low that water was rushing right up around my knees. I was determined to stay undeterred, so I started jogging through it.

And that’s when I fell in the creek. I didn’t go completely under, but got everything below the waist and the entire right side of my upper body submerged. As I trudged myself up out of the water, my first instinct was to pull out my phone and make sure it was okay. Plus I needed to check my GPS tracker. It hadn’t told me I’d gone a full mile yet, and I definitely felt like I’d done at least a mile. My phone was fine, and it informed me I’d almost gone one mile. Just 6 more to go! About this time, I was feeling dejected from falling in the creek and continuing to get rained on, and I started to consider taking a mulligan and trying again next week. But then, just as I turned around to go back to the car, the opening lines of Beyonce’s Halo started playing in my ears, and it was as though Queen Bey herself was lifting me up out of the creek, cheering me on to keep going.

So I pressed on, running through a few more low-water crossings like an excited toddler before I finally reached the part of the trail on higher ground and hit my stride (meaning a faster than 16-minute mile, which is how long that first one took). Things were going great right up until I hit the section of the trail where I believe the intention was to become Spider-Man to get across…

I later discovered that there used to be a bridge here but it got washed out by a freak storm. Of course the knowledge did not help me at the time, and I was forced to find another way to cross the water. This is when I started to veer wildly off the trail. I found myself dodging vines and trying to avoid tripping over fallen tree branches, but I was 3 or so miles in and I wasn’t getting rained on anymore, so I counted it as an adventure. Or I did right up until one of the vines ripped a hole in the ass of my brand new running pants.

This was where I had to pull out my phone again, see how hopelessly lost I was, and backtrack my way to the broken bridge. That super squiggly part on the map? That’s me, post-butt-hole.

The trip back to the car was far less eventful, having familiarized myself with the trail. It also went a lot quicker than I expected, so when I reached the trailhead where I entered, I realized I was still a mile short of my goal. Since I still had Beyonce as my ear-cheerleader, I was not motivated to cut my run short. That loop on the opposite end of the map? That’s me running laps around a liquor store. Classy.

I get back to my car, proud of myself for completing the full run despite the many adventurous obstacles thrown at me along the way, and go to pull my spare car key out of my Flipbelt only to discover it isn’t there. No worries, I think, knowing that the other set is in the car and whenever the key is in range, the hatchback can be opened. There must be a time limit on that convenience feature (that’s less than 1:33), because that didn’t work either. I ended up calling AAA and waiting in the parking lot of a liquor store with part of my butt poking out until the guy showed up to rescue me.

So, I ended my run 7 miles richer and one car key poorer, and I didn’t even get to run the damn half-marathon anyway. So much for my glorious post-pregnancy comeback! I wouldn’t even be able to write this kind of scenario up for my Community Klepto character because it would be completely unbelievable as fiction, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount it for y’all. Like Beyonce said, a little sweat ain’t never hurt nobody. I guess my glorious comeback will just have to come in the form of my next novel…

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Are academia’s literary journals worth saving? #MondayBlogs

Yesterday, I received a rejection letter for four poems I sent as a manuscript submission to a literary journal. It had been a while since I had submitted anything – I’ve been heads down focused on getting my third novel ready for primetime – so I went and checked the submission record. Turns out there was a reason memory of this poetry submission had receded to the dark depths of brain nothingness; I had submitted it all the way back in February. For those counting, that’s nine months (and one day, to be exact).

By comparison, it only took Bank of America seven months to issue me the escrow refund from my refinance, but I digress…

I won’t name names or anything, but it’s a literary journal run by the graduate creative writing program at a college you would probably not know by name. They do have a couple things in their favor: they allow simultaneous submissions (so I didn’t have to have the poem under their sole consideration for the same length of time as a human pregnancy) and they do online submissions (so I didn’t have to send in a self-addressed stamped envelope in the frigidness of February). But looking at the auto-response I received when I submitted my poems way back during the last winter, it read: We’ll consider your work carefully and get back to you in as timely a manner as we can. Apparently the better part of a year is the timeliest a manner they can muster.

Not 2 minutes before I received this email, I also got one from another academia-run literary journal I have submitted to in the past (since once you submit, you receive their spam forever), asking me to donate so that the journal can be saved. It’s not the first journal to ask for “save us” donations, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it did make me stop and ask the question – are these types of literary journals really worth saving anymore?

No one reads them anymore.
Content in all forms has moved online and the departments still putting out annually published print journals are relying on smaller and smaller audiences of circulation. Even the journals I have been published in, I rarely read the other works that are included alongside mine. Everyone will say that if you’re going to submit to a journal you should also subscribe to it, but who really does that? I certainly don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does. Besides, if I subscribed to every journal I submitted to, I would go broke.

There is no money in it anymore.
In fact, many journals have taken to charging writers to submit to their journals, sometimes calling these “maintenance fees” to defray the cost of taking submissions online. Some journals say they will pay writers with copies, but (like I said) no one reads these copies and last time I checked, the self-checkout lane at my grocery store doesn’t have a slot that accepts literary journals as payment. Few of the journals that once paid writers for their work are still doing this, if they are even still in existence.

There is zero incentive for the writer.
Why would anyone spend the better part of a year trying to find a literary journal to publish his or her work for zero dollars’ worth of reward? Especially when they can publish a piece or a collection of their work on any number of online publishing platforms in minutes, not months, and sell it for more than zero dollars. For prestige? Of the literary journals I have been published in, very few of them are around anymore, and apart from the academic creative writing elite, no one has heard of them anyway.

Maybe you disagree with me and think we as writers need to do everything in our power to save the grand old institution that is the Clever Name Review, courtesy of the MFA program in creative writing at Nowheresville University. Or maybe I’m right, and we need be thinking about what we can do to usher in the next technology that will replace these outdated mediums. What do you think?

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In search of a genre

I’m always impressed by how specific writers in certain genre and non-fiction can be with pinpointing their sub-genres: paranormal romance, slipstream mystery, speculative post-cyberpunk, satirical basketweaving history. For me though, this is an area that I’ve always struggled with. As I get closer and closer to finishing Community Klepto, I’ve been challenged by people both inside and outside the literary community to be more specific about how I classify my own genre; trouble is, the genres I’ve always considered myself to most closely identify with aren’t at all specific

Literary fiction

Thanks to the infallibility of Wikipedia, I can actually give a definition of what this means for people who don’t know what this means, which is most people. Now when people ask me “What type of books do you write?” and react with confused puppy dog faces when I say “literary fiction,” I can tell them that I write:

“…fictional works that possess commonly held qualities to readers outside genre fiction. Literary fiction has been defined as any fiction that attempts to engage with one or more truths or questions, hence relevant to a broad scope of humanity as a form of expression.”

Clear as mud, right? And sadly, those who do know what literary fiction is typically have a negative opinion of it. They see it as plotless drivel that only university professors to teach grad students to write more literary fiction could appreciate.

Women’s fiction

In the past when I’ve described my work as “women’s fiction,” I’ve been met with “Oh, so romance?” Why, if a book is written with strong female characters and a female audience in mind, do people jump to the conclusion that it’s a romance novel capable of hosting a male Fabio and a scantily clad lady in a heaving bodice on the cover? It’s not as though all women read nothing but stories about sexual tension and romantic entanglements. Nothing I write could be further from this; for one thing, I have far too immature a sense of humor to write sexytime scenes.

Still, this seems like such a broad label to apply to works that can be so different in nature. At least I have Wikipedia to back me up on this one:

“These stories may have romance. Or they may not. They could be contemporary. Or historical. But what binds them together is the focus on a woman’s emotional journey.”

Contemporary fiction

Again, a genre I feel fits my work but is so vague it’s useless in classifying it. Any work of fiction that’s happening in contemporary times could be classified as “contemporary fiction,” even if it’s got a woman in a heaving bodice frenching a cyborg on the cover.

True or not, I don’t know that any reader ever sets out to pick out something with the contemporary fiction label on it.

Literary humor

My latest book is meant to be a humor work that riffs on the tropes people find at the gym, but it’s told through a literary lens with elevated prose. You know, fart jokes told by painfully introspective fuddy-duddies. Humor can be smart and raunchy at the same time, right?

But is this a genre that’s specific enough for readers, something they actually seek out? Will they stop reading if they’re not bursting at the seams with laughter after the first page?

Chick lit

If none of my female characters have their storylines driven by male love interests or shopping for designer clothes, can my work still be considered part of this genre? After all, my books do fit the bill according to our friend Wikipedia:

“Chick lit is genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly.”

My problem with labeling my work this way is that I don’t see shoe shopping as a real issue of modern womanhood (although I do have a $10 credit at DSW burning a hole in my pocket).

 

Maybe I could just create my own hybrid genre label from a combination of all of these. Does Contempowomen’s Lithumor sound like something you’d go looking for in a bookstore?

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Cause I’ve got a bad habit…

January is the month where two things are certain – everyone is focusing on New Year’s Resolutions, and everyone’s crowding the hell out of the gym (but more on that later). I’ve never really been one for resolutions; I’m more one to focus on something more tangible: goals and habits.

Everyone knows that habits are hard to form, and even more difficult to break. For all the habits I have around writing, I don’t make a habit of actually sitting down to write, which was by far my biggest cause of falling short of my writing goals last year. So it goes without saying that creating this habit is one of my primary goals for the year.

It’s amazing how powerful habits can be. Years ago, my writing routine looked something like this:

– Shut off all the lights in the house

– Find a playlist of music I can write to (this was the era before Pandora and SomaFM.com)

– Pull up the manuscript document

– Grab an ash tray, because I was about to chain smoke a lot of cigarettes

Then I decided to break a bad habit and quit smoking. I beat the habit, even overcoming the overwhelming desire to smoke after meals, while drinking, and in the car. But then a weird thing happened; I’d sit down to write, and become completely paralyzed without a cigarette in one hand. My brain wouldn’t let the words flow onto the page without a steady stream of nicotine to help them along.

I traded in one bad habit for another (no one’s ever done that, right?); I stopped smoking and I stopped writing. I was convinced that I’d never be able to write another word without smoking, until one day I realized just how ri-goddamned-diculous I sounded to myself. Like forming any habit, I just needed to put on my big girl panties, stop making excuses, and keep writing without smoking until it felt natural. Did I do it? You’re damned right I did.

Now my writing routine looks something more like this:

– Put the teakettle on

– Open all the windows to let the natural light in

– Turn on a Pandora or SomaFM.com station

– Pull up the manuscript document

Next step? Make it a habit to bring daily writing into my routine, even if it’s just to sit down in front of the screen and derp some words around only to delete them minutes later. That is, until I have to kick the caffeine habit, at which time I’ll have to revisit my routine all over again…

How about you? What bad habit do you have when it comes to your writing that you’d like to break? What bad habits have you broken? What good habits have you put into place?

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On Karma (and other celestialisms)

We’re told from the time we’re in kindergarten to obey the golden rule and treat others like we’d want to be treated. Sometime later, we learn the concept of karma, that if we do right by other people, the universe will do right by us and that the opposite is true also.

If there’s ever a karmic area where I’ve gotten my comeuppance, it’s smoking. I smoked many years ago, for many years, and I did all the annoying things smokers do. I smoked right outside the doorways of buildings. I smoked in large crowds with children in them at concerts. I smoked in places where no smoking signs were posted. I tossed cigarette butts out my car window. I once even had a neighbor kindly ask if I would stop smoking in my bedroom, which was across the wall from his closet and made his clothes stink. Instead of being nice and cease-desisting, I did it more, because asshole.

Now that I’m 7 years removed from my smoking habit, it’s like everywhere I go, I am surrounded by smokers. Being in Austin, we go to a lot of concerts, and it never fails that once I stake out a spot, the person next to me starts blowing smoke in my face. Every time I walk from my car to the office, there is someone smoking (in the same non-designated smoking area I would have previously occupied) in my path. Outdoor patio? You can guarantee the person who comes along and occupies the table next to me will light up. And having done it in a past life, I’m so revolted by it now that for the life of me I can’t imagine how I ever did it. I also feel bad for every guy who ever made out with me, but some of that is for other reasons…

My point – karma is real. As a writer, every time I review a fellow author’s work, I try to remember the rules of karma. After all, there’s a real person on the end of that review–a real person who put their heart and soul into writing the book I’m reviewing. When I read something especially terrible, I admit that there are times I want to personally attack the author for writing something so abysmally bad, but that’s only after I want to punch myself for reading the entire thing. Still, I don’t. I don’t because that’s no way to treat people and I would cry a lot if someone did that to me. I also don’t punch myself, because I bruise easily.

At the same time, I am honest about my reviews, because I would want a reader to do the same for me. If I don’t like something, I’ll say it (and try to focus on the plot elements or characters that didn’t work for me). If I really enjoy something, I’ll say that too. There’s a way to be substantive in literary criticism without resorting to nasty speech or personal attacks (but yeah, it’s hard sometimes).

So the next time you’re getting ready to write a review of a book, think about karma and do the right thing. Be the bigger person. You see that, Universe? I’m being the bigger goddamned person. Now please seat me in the non-smoking section.

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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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New poem up: Home

I’m still finding it difficult to accept the truth of the Julian calendar, but it tells me that it is, in fact, November. Part of the reason I find this so shocking is because the month of September was such a whirlwind for me. We took a road trip to my hometown for a camping trip on Labor Day weekend, and a couple weekends later, I found myself flying to the town where I was born for my grandmother’s funeral. Being to three of the places you’ve called “home” in your life in less than 30 days can really mess with your head and stir up a lot of emotions, and that’s what inspired my latest poem.

It’s called Home, and you can read it HERE.

 

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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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New flash fiction piece up

When I started my Wednesday Wrants, I said that part of the reason I wanted to do them was to have some avenue for my ranting frustrations, but also a record of something I could write about later. My newest flash fiction piece, Johnson County Mr. Coffee, is just that.

I ranted a few weeks ago about our fancypants coffeemaker a few weeks ago in this post, and it inspired the following story.

http://kellyhitchcock.com/flash-fiction/#joco

Go check it out, and tell me what you think 🙂

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