Monthly Archives: January 2014


sad dragon
Bummer, dude

I heard back from C.C. Finlay, who’s guest editing an issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (or F&SF, for short). Regular readers of this blog may remember when I posted about submitting a story for this issue. Charlie doesn’t plan to use my story this July/August. He liked it, but he didn’t love it. Actually, here’s his email, verbatim:

Thanks for submitting “Gathering for the Feast.” I enjoyed reading it — I like the setting, the history, the magic, and characters. But in the end it didn’t quite win me over — part of that was it felt just a bit too long to me for the amount of story in it. So I’m afraid I’m going to pass on it. Best of luck with finding another home for it, and thanks again for giving me a chance to read it. If I do this again I hope to see another story from you.

A friend of mine also submitted a story, and received a rejection. In the interests of ferreting out exactly how personal my rejection letter was, and how much it was  form letter, I can report that both our rejections began and ended pretty much the same way. “Thank you for submitting [title].” appeared in both letters. So did the ending part: “Best of luck to you placing this one elsewhere, and thanks again for giving me a chance to read it. If I do this again I hope to see more stories from you.

The part where I know he actually read my story, and my friend’s—or at least, he got decent evaluations of them from a careful reader—comes in between the form sections. My friend’s center section was different from mine. Not exactly a form letter, right? Anyway, I’ve decided to take it as encouragement. Why? Because I can!

So now I need to decide what to do next. There are two options I can see. The first would be to go back in and see if I can figure out where and how the story is too long. The second would be to just go ahead and submit it elsewhere.

Here’s the thing: if I didn’t have any other projects vying for my attention, I would probably go back in there. I might find something to improve, something that’s escaped me up to this point. However, I have at least two other works in need of revision. Also there’s the whole, “what if while I’m trying to fix it, I just make it worse?” question. You know how, when you’re having the beginnings of a bad hair day, and you keep futzing around with your hair, and by the time you’re done, it looks even worse than when you started? That’s my dilemma.

Here’s the way I’m leaning: decide in a day or two.

My plan for today is to revise a different short story. I marked it up yesterday. I want to get it in shape to put up on Critique Circle. Once they’ve had a go at it, I was going to run it by my other critique group. Then I was going to push the little darling out the door.

In the meantime, I have a hot mess of a novel which requires surgery and other doctoring. I plan to get back to work on that tomorrow.

Next week is Capricon. I can see doing a first draft of something, or even marking up a draft, while also attending a con. But to do revisions I really need to spread out. Unvisited marked-up pages go on the left, finished pages go on the right, my computer is in the middle, and my pulled-out hair is in the wastebasket. I’d rather deal with all that at home, thank you. So I won’t bring my novel along. I might take my rejected F&SF short story with me for markup, if I decide to have another look at it before sending it out again.

Anyone out there on the interwebs have an opinion? Do I just submit the story elsewhere, or do I try to fix it? I’d love to see your comments below. If it’s easier for you to respond using Twitter, Google+ or Facebook, feel free to comment that way instead.

Updated Scoreboard:
Year: 2014
Submissions: 2   Acceptances: 0   Rejections: 1

The Three-Legged Stool of Creativity – The Last Leg

Filling the Well -or- The Care and Feeding of Your Muse
Part Three of a three-part series on helping creativity flow

All three legs

You can only stare at your computer screen or scribble words on a page for so long before you start to go wacky. Ask Stephen King. Or his character, Jack Torrance.

Don’t let it get this bad, fellow writers!

There are a bunch of ways to fill the well/care for your muse (pick your metaphor). Julia Cameron, whose book, The Artist’s Way, was mentioned in the first post of this series, recommends Artist Dates. For an artist date, you set aside maybe an hour a week to do something fun, but you need to do it by yourself. No significant other, no kids, no pals. You explore some new, interesting thing without having to worry about what anyone thinks of you, or of the experience. It’s a great idea. It’s also more difficult than it sounds. It’s not usually hard to participate in your Artist Date once you get there. What’s difficult is committing to take the time to do it. It’s easier, as Cameron says, for most of us to work at our art than it is to play at it. I’m not that good at it myself, but I have actually tried this in the past. Some of my artist dates have included:

  • Sitting in a bookstore and looking at gorgeous art or travel books
  • Going to Naper Settlement, a local living history museum
  • Pulling out a kid’s set of watercolors and painting, even though I suck at it
  • Bird watching
  • Driving to Starved Rock State Park to hike and take photos
  • People-watching at Union Station while jotting notes about people and my surroundings

The Union Station trip was a particularly good idea. It was a week or so into NaNoWriMo, and I was hating every word I’d written. I couldn’t face the page anymore. After a few hours of writing about something other than my novel – something no one was going to read – I came back refreshed and ready to write on my novel again. It was like magic.

You don’t need to fill the well all by yourself. Hanging out with other, like-minded people can be energizing, too. There’s no way I would have stayed as committed to writing if I hadn’t found my writing group, The Journey. We support each other as a group. In addition to working on our craft together and commiserating, we also find ways to have fun. Various activities have included visiting The Art Institute or Morton Arboretum, seeing live theatre, starting our own reader’s theatre group to read Shakespeare plays together, learning archery, going out for drinks, and playing games. And when possible, we try to find ways to organize a potluck lunch or go out to dinner.

So there are at least two ways to go – solitary or social. I recommend both. If you haven’t already started a muse-feeding, well-filling practice, try the one that’s easier to manage, and try to do it at least once a week if you possibly can.

The Three-legged Stool of Creativity – Part Deux

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano:
Part Two of a three-part series on helping creativity flow

Adding the second leg

I’m sure I heard the phrase “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano” long before I had any notion what it meant. Then I started reading the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. Amelia is fond of using that phrase, from the poem by Juvenal whenever extolling the value of exercise.

Elizabeth Peters – photo from website

I would like to say that after reading the first Amelia book, I started exercising. I cannot say it with a straight face. I’ve only paid attention to fitness and nutrition sporadically. However, around 2005 my doctor diagnosed me as prediabetic. Since I was already having trouble with my blood pressure, and sometimes with cholesterol and triglyceride levels, it was clear something had to change. When you have this combination, doctors may also refer to your condition as metabolic syndrome, and warn you you’re at risk for all kinds of horrible health issues.

Honestly, I wasn’t as afraid of having a stroke or heart attack as I was about becoming demented. There’s a lot of dementia on my father’s side of the family. We all figured it was Alzheimer’s Disease, but after my dad was thoroughly evaluated, it turned out that his dementia was most likely due to metabolic causes – the combination of diabetes, high BMI, high blood pressure, and unsatisfactory cholesterol and triglyceride numbers. Having seen more than enough dementia in the family,  I had a come-to-Jesus moment and determined that I’d get my BMI into the normal range.

Maintaining a healthy weight continues to be a struggle, but I’ve managed to keep about ninety pounds of the excess off for a couple of years now. I still have blood pressure issues, but my glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride numbers are good.

I also still have food issues. However – and this is something you don’t think about too much when you’re lying around on the couch in front of the TV with an enormous ice cream sundae – exercise can actually be fun. It can be an adventure, the way it is when:

Cookie & I go for a long bike ride


I take a hike at Starved Rock


it just feels good. e.g., belly dancing

Day to day, I just exercise enough to make sure I’m ready for the good stuff. A hike is a lot more fun if you’ve got the wind and the strength for it, so I do something cardiovascular three to five days a week (maybe six when the weather is good), and do strength training two to three days a week.  I could stand to do some more mind-body work, like yoga, tai chi or meditation, but I fit that in sometimes.

So that’s the second leg on my stool of creativity – taking care of my body. There’s all kinds of evidence that your mind functions better if your body is in good shape. Well… I’m still pretty flaky. However, regular exercise has given me more energy to do all kinds of things, and that includes writing.

The Three-Legged Stool of Creativity


Daily Writing
Part One of a three-part series on helping creativity flow

Leg One – Daily Writing

The way to be any kind of writer is to write, and to write regularly. Just ask Stephen King, who writes about 2000 words a day, sun or rain, winter or summer. I think he might have missed a few days when he was hit by a minivan, but otherwise, he writes.

This blog is what you call a case in point. I started it largely because I need the practice, and vowing to post at least twice a week up gives me regular deadlines to meet outside of November (aka National Novel Writing Month).

Actually, though, I’ve been writing daily since shortly after my first NaNoWriMo. I write at least 750 words a day, thanks to the web site called, funnily enough, guy who started it, Buster Benson, read a book called The Artist’s Way.

From Julia Cameron’s website

In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, the author, Julia Cameron, recommends that anyone who is having any sort of trouble with their creativity should make a practice of rolling out of bed (or not; you could just as easily do this in bed) and making a three page journal entry first thing in the morning. You needed to write, as fast as you could, making no judgment at all about what you were writing.

There’s something stress-relieving about writing pretty much any old crap that spills out of your mind. I tried this practice myself, back somewhere around 1995 or so. What I found was that once I was done writing those 3 pages, I was done writing for the rest of the day. Maybe that’s because it takes so long to write by hand and my penmanship is so gruesome that I could never make any sense of it later. I quit doing it for quite a while, but a few years back I heard about 750 Words which was started as a way to do your morning pages online, and it changed my life.

Okay, it changed my habits, but that’s a first step, right? Since September of 2011, I’ve written 842,346 words on the site. I never thought I’d keep up the habit, but the site lets you earn badges for writing streaks of varying lengths, as well as other behaviors like writing quickly or making a donation to the site.

My Latest Badge

I’m a sucker for swag, even the virtual variety. I have my eye on the Space Bird badge, which you earn for a 500-day streak. I should have it already, but I missed posting one day a year or so back. It was during NaNoWriMo, so I actually wrote that day; I just forgot to paste the words into the 750 words site so I could get credit for them. I had to start over again from the beginning. Boy, did I feel like a doofus!

750 Words also provides a lot of interesting metrics about what you’ve written; that’s how I know about the 842,346 words I’ve written there so far.

I’m sure there are other ways to help yourself get into the habit of the writing. One of my writing friends is trying the “Don’t Break the Chain” method, and other swear by HabitRPG. I haven’t tried either site, but they sound useful and/or fun. I never underestimate the power of fun little rewards, even if they’re as silly as badges, just to keep me going.

The point is: I write daily. I recommend it to anyone who’s trying to be both creative and productive.

Maintaining my mojo with Lt. Kijé

Winter’s okay when it looks like this

So, winter. I’m kind of ready for it to be over. It would be one thing if we still had enough snow to ski, but we don’t. The one week which contained enough snow was inconveniently full of other distractions, like work and shoveling. Besides, Cookie’s mom was in the hospital (she’s okay now) and Cookie needed to deal with that, so we couldn’t get together to ski.

All my exercise since about January 2nd has taken place inside my cozy gym, on machines or the indoor track. I try to vary it. One thing you can say for elliptical trainers and stationary bikes: it’s easy to read while using them. That may be where I get most of my reading done. One thing you can’t say for either of those options: they’re not weight-bearing. I need to do some weight-bearing exercise to keep my bones strong. So the other thing I do is “running.”

I don’t love running. When I do it, it’s called slogging – a cross between slow and jogging. I got that term from my son-in-law (thanks, Danny!) and it’s quite descriptive of what I look like while doing it. I’d rather walk, but I can’t get my heart rate up enough that way, so slogging it is. I plan to slog later today, and while there isn’t enough snow to ski on, there’s still enough out there to make sidewalks and roads slippery and/or impassable and generally to cramp my style. So I’ll head to the indoor track at my gym.

To make indoor running – okay, any kind of running – tolerable, I listen to music. It’s too much work to put together a hip, happening playlist of current music that goes at exactly the right speed to help me keep my heart rate in the zone. I have a few tried-and-true things I use while slogging. I rotate playlists so as not to get too bored. In the winter, I’m particularly fond of Prokofiev’s Lt. Kijé suite.

The sections have evocative titles: “Naissance” (Birth), “Romance”, “Noces” (Wedding), “Troika”, and “Enterrement” (Burial). I’ve done almost no research on this bit of music, but here’s what I know: Prokofiev wrote the suite for a movie score. In the movie, there’s no actual Lt. Kijé, but I like to pretend that there really was such a person.

It’s fun to imagine what might be happening in an imaginary movie while you’re slogging. “Naissance” starts with this sad trumpet part, reminiscent of “Taps”. I figure little Kijé’s dad died in combat and his mom is giving birth to him while in mourning for her late husband. Then the music gets into some perky flutes, like a little boy discovering the world. Then the theme turns martial, but in kind of a playful way. At that point, I imagine little Kijé playing with toy soldiers and then his friends, fighting mock battles the way kids do, or used to, before their parents quit buying toy guns and made them cut that out.

Some sections – I’m looking at you,  “Romance” and “Enterrement” – are too poky for running, even the way I do it, but the other three work just fine.

A troika – Wikipedia Commons Image

“Troika” (which sounds like this) is the best section, you ask me. Especially in the winter. I imagine I’m the lead horse, and even in horse form, I’m aware that this isn’t your ordinary rodeo (or sleigh ride). We’re carrying the noble Lt. Kijé and his bride off to their honeymoon and I’m very proud to be in the lead for this auspicious occasion. This makes my slogging adventurous and fun – much more than just huffing along an indoor track would be.

There’s not enough of Lt. Kijé to fill out all my running time, so I’ve added some other pieces, but it’s always fun to rotate him into my exercise music this time of year.

Getting Things Done, one Pomodoro at a time

My writing space

I’ve been working on my productivity. Preliminary results are encouraging.

Usually, a goal like increased productivity or time management is someone’s New Year’s resolution. For me, it’s just an ongoing struggle.

I started on it (again) last summer when Tim  and I were talking about finding time to complete projects. He asked if I had a good, organized working space. Hm. Well, I kind of do. My working space is organized approximately once—maybe twice—a year, when I look around me and decide that I need to get organized. Again. Or I need to set goals. Again. Or I need to revise my goals in light of what has happened recently in my life. You get the drift.

Anyway, Tim thought it might be easier for me to get more done if I were more organized. Doubtless he is correct, and he has pointed out various tools to me at one time or another, but last summer, with what I had going on, his advice seemed even more timely than usual. I needed to clear the decks (and my mind) in order to get more writing and editing done.

So I tried a few things. Here’s what’s working for me right now. I realize we’re past January 1st, but there’s no rule that says you absolutely must use New Year’s day to improve yourself. Organization and productivity are two areas of my life that I continue to tweak as time allows—or when I get desperate, whichever comes first.

Book cover from David Allen’s website

One boon to my recent productivity/organizational uptick is David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Here’s the thing: I’m certainly not his star pupil. The main thing I realized after implementing some of his methods is that I’m not as good at the everyday discipline of remaining organized as I ought to be.

Just as an example, I reorganized my filing system and bought all the requisite file folders and other foofaraw so that I could keep it up. I was really good about filing (or tossing) papers for a few weeks, but then I got more caught up in the cherry of the book (the “getting things done” part) that I let the ongoing cleanup and evaluation slide. Like so many other organizational tools, it was hard for me to keep implementing it the way the author/instigator intended.

But…I’ve actually accomplished numerous new tasks that had just been languishing in my wishful thinking pile, like attending conferences, participating in workshops, submitting short stories to paying markets, and starting this blog. So thanks, David Allen . If I start feeling stuck again, I know I need to revisit some of the strategies gleaned from your book.

Logo from Pomodoro website

Where Getting Things Done feels macro, my more recent productivity aid tends toward the micro. It’s all about the Pomodoros, baby. And I’m not talking about the delicious sauce.

I’d kind of heard about Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique sometime a while back (probably from Tim) but I didn’t explore it at all until just recently.

What I’ve done so far: I’ve started using a timer while engaged in a task. There’s more to it than what I’m about to describe, but the basic unit of this technique is what the author calls a “Pomodoro”. You set a kitchen timer (or the one on your smart phone, or whatever) for 25 minutes, and work your ass off on one task for that length of time. For those 25 minutes you don’t surf the internet, answer emails or phone calls, get more coffee, vacuum the cat, or succumb to any of the other myriad distractions that can keep you from doing what you need to do. When the timer goes off, you set it again, for 5 minutes. This is a break, and you can surrender to some manner of distraction for 5 minutes before setting your timer for another 25 minutes and returning to your previous task or moving on to a new one.

I’ve tried this technique for just above a week. For my main focus, revising my NaNoWriMo novel. it’s worked surprisingly well so far. I dreaded starting that task. I imagined the revision process stretching out for months, all the while in the back of my head I’d be thinking that I really ought to be farther along. Full disclosure: right now I’m just scanning my printout and marking up the crap that needs to be dumped, researched further, or rewritten. Judging by my progress so far, I should be done marking up the manuscript in another 22 Pomodoros, or early next week.

When I actually sit at my computer to actually rewrite those sections, I’ll need to find out how many Pomodoros it takes to rewrite, as opposed to just flagging boo-boos. But I’m looking forward to that part of the process. I think it makes it easier to face an enormous task when I have a realistic clue how long it might take me.

On a related topic, one of my goals has been to start submitting my fiction. Getting Things Done and the Pomodoro Technique have both helped me on that front.

Here’s a scoreboard update.
Year: 2014
Submissions: 2   Acceptances: 0   Rejections: 0

Hunting Shadows Review

Once again Medusa’s Library shares an intriguing author (in this case, author team) to check out!

Medusa's Library

shadowsCharles Todd is one of my favorite authors right now.  (Yes, I know it’s actually a mother/son writing team, but that’s complicated to explain, so I’m just going with author.)  He writes in the circa WWI period that I’m so dreadfully fond of.  The Bess Crawford series is set during the war.  Bess is a nurse and the first book opens with the sinking of the Britannic, so the series isn’t pulling any punches.  For all that, it’s actually the more hopeful of the two series.  Bess is strong, young, and, despite the horrors she witnesses, she still has faith in justice and human decency.  Beth solves crimes because she can and because she cannot abide for them to go unsolved.

Ian Rutledge, on the other hand, is a Scotland Yard detective in the 1920’s.  He was an officer during the war and has returned home with a…

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January/February Issue

One of the great people who was in the Short Story Intensive workshop I took last November (hi, Sara!) clued the rest of us into an unusual opportunity. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is having a guest editor, C.C. Finlay, for their July/August issue. He’s written a bucket load of short stories and several novels, including the Traitor to the Crown series, and has become interested in the editing process. He was offered a chance to check it out by F&SF’s editor in chief, Gordon Van Gelder.

Now, I have submitted to F&SF in the past, and I expect that I will in the future, but I rather capriciously decided I needed to submit to this issue, and I can tell you the reasons, if you want to know. At least, I can tell you two of them.

1- C.C. Finlay is accepting electronic submissions. I loves me that process. I don’t have to go to find a manila envelope, go to the post office, get the manuscript weighed, make sure there’s a SASE in with the manuscript, and all of that. So, yay for electronic submissions.

2- I am trying to be braver about submitting in general. The wallpaper on my laptop is a smooshing-together of various people’s rules on writing, and Heinlein #3 and #4 just seemed to leap out at me when I heard about this contest.

In case you don’t happen to have Robert Heinlein’s rules memorized, rule #4 is “You must put your story on the market.” Right. I’ve been trying to get better at that, but I’m afraid I will embarrass myself in multiple ways. Like, you know, writing stories that aren’t any good and then letting professionals read them. But I had this story I really liked. It’s an odd story for a number of reasons, but what can I say? I like it, I’ve shown it to a few people, some of them liked it (and some didn’t – what are you gonna do?) but I wasn’t sure how much more work I could do on it without mucking it up and taking out the things that made the story interesting to me. So then I fell back on Heinlein #3: you must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Honestly, if I hadn’t already put a lot of work into this story, I might have figured Robert didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Easy for you to say, I imagine myself saying to him. You’re Robert Freaking Heinlein. What about the rest of us, who aren’t as brilliant as you? How do we know what we’ve written is any good at all?

The answer is, of course, we don’t. Any story is as good as it can be, given whatever stage you’re at, in your development as a writer.  There is no such thing as a perfect writer, and there’s always the opportunity to improve. Okay, I could be completely wrong about that, but if I didn’t believe it, why keep trying? So C. C. Finlay is getting my short story. Most likely I’ll get a form letter back, but you never know, I may even get a personalized rejection. Thoughts like that keep me going.

I wonder if I should keep track of my submissions in a public manner this year. Post a scoreboard occasionally. Today my scoreboard looks like this:
Year: 2014
Submissions: 1   Acceptances: 0   Rejections: 0

We’ll see how it goes.

Merry Wives of Windsor at Chicago Shakespeare

CST photo – theater interior

My sister Liz, who is the best sister in the world – or at least the best sister I’ve ever had – gets me a subscription to Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier as a combination birthday/Christmas gift every year. We usually see four plays, unless the season doesn’t excite us that much, in which case we choose the three-play subscription. This year, we were excited. Of the productions available, we chose Cyrano de Bergerac (with Harry Groener in the title role-loves me some Harry Groener!), Merry Wives of Windsor, Gypsy, and Henry V.

Some readers are probably scratching their heads right now, thinking not all the plays mentioned are Shakespeare. These readers are right to wonder. Usually Chicago Shakespeare tosses in plays by other authors. I think their reasoning goes like this: if we want to keep subscribers, we can’t only repeat Shakespeare ad infinitum. Even when you dress Shakespeare up in different periods, people only want to see Midsummer Nights Dream or Macbeth so many times before they’ve had enough and start subscribing to the Goodman or Steppenwolf instead.

So, yes. Cyrano de Bergerac is by Edmond Rostand. It kind of goes with Shakespeare on account of all the swashbuckling and the poetical language. Gypsy has a book by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It doesn’t exactly go with Shakespeare in any way, but it’s a great musical. Chicago Shakespeare has been exploring Sondheim’s work for several years now. We were late adopters on the musical front, but since starting to attend them, we’ve enjoyed these productions.

Husbands and Merry Wives – Official CST photo by Liz Lauren

Anyway: Merry Wives of Windsor. This version was set in post WWII Britain. We liked it. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect production. It was a laugh riot, though. Some of our favorite actors were featured, the music was often fun, and the dogs were a huge hit. I was looking forward to Merry Wives (and Henry V, which starts in April) because I’ve totally been into the Harry-related history plays lately. Of course, Merry Wives is a comedy rather than a history, but it does borrow Falstaff and some of his cronies, so there’s a tangential link. If you’re interested, this production runs through January 19, and you may still be able to snag some tickets.