Juggling Act

Last week, Becky’s post made me think about how we writers have to juggle.  Sometimes we drop a ball or two, because there are so many of them to keep in the air.  Not only do we have different writing projects but also related tasks, such as research, editing, clerical, service, marketing, promotion, and…  What else am I forgetting?  

At the start of each new year, I like to assess how many balls have dropped, so that I can see where I need to focus more.  Last year I wrote about my goals as being more of a road map toward where I wanted to go, and that approach worked well for me.  Somehow, despite the unanticipated disruptions, and despite lots of dropped balls, I made it to the neighborhood of where I wanted to be.  Yay!  

So this year I’m designing another road map, tailored to my needs.  2019 will be the year of cleaning-unfinished-projects-off-my-desk.  

That means lots of juggling.  

How to keep all those balls in the air?  And then, keep them all straight?  Some folks use excel sheets, but I’m a hard-copy type.  I like to use paper calendars and ledgers.  I divide up my tasks on the calendar, working around other obligations already in place.  This way, I can visualize the bite-sized pieces that will take me in the right direction on my road map, and then I mark them off each day in the proper column of the ledger.  When I look at my columns, I see at a glance when I’m spending too much time on a certain project and neglecting something else.  

As for when I tend to those various tasks, I save the mindless ones for that time of the day when my mind slumps, and I need a cuppa tea.  I also like to alternate my physical position in my office for the type of task I’m doing.  If it’s creative, then I’m at my antique roll-top desk.  If it’s research, I’m in my comfy armchair.  If it’s editing, I’m on the laptop, anywhere there’s a quiet corner of the house.  If it requires technology, I’m at the worktable with my desktop.  

But still, it’s so easy to drop those balls, isn’t it?  

Do you have other tips for keeping on task with your different projects?  

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The Story behind My Molasses Cookies

When I was eleven years old, I’d just returned to the States for my Best Christmas Ever. For the greater part of my childhood, I’d been living in a Muslim country, where I hadn’t seen a lot of evidence of Christmas other than the inside of our own home.  That year, we were on homeleave (meaning we didn’t have a place to go), so we went to the ancestral home in a very small town in the hills of rural Ohio.  My extended family made up a significant percentage of the local population, and they offered their spare bedrooms to us.  I’d never before been surrounded by so much family.  I met cousins and some of the aunts and uncles for the first time.  The wonders of Christmas and the quintessential small-town setting in picturesque wooded hills made it idyllic.  

But family made it the best.  And traditions made it such fun!  One of our favorite traditions was food, of course, so we enjoyed gathering around various tables.  But the one that stands out the most was the table in my Aunt Rachel’s farm kitchen.  She was renowned in the valley for her cooking, and she pampered us with her skill.  Her oven had a window, where I could watch her little balls of dough magically spread into sugared, molasses cookies.  I’ve made it my tradition ever since to bake her cookies this time of year, and I want to share it with you:  

Aunt Rachel’s Molasses Cookies

(makes 5 1/2 dozen)

  • Melt 2/3 cup butter and mix with 2 cups brown sugar.  
  • Add 3 eggs and 1/2 cup molasses.  Mix thoroughly.

Sift together:

  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsps cinnamon
  • 2 tsps ginger
  • 4 tsps soda

Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture, shape into balls the size of a walnut, and roll in granulated sugar.  Bake 8 minutes at 375.  

Enjoy!  

Reading for Recovery

I’m very happy to report that my hip replacement surgery was successful, and now I am happily immersed in books!  I’m working on my list of 10 possible choices, but haven’t made it very far…yet.  The reality is that I’m a slow reader.  Speed reading is the only subject I failed in high school.  But I digress.  (The drugs are still working their way through my system.)  

 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.  This book wasn’t on my list of 10, but it was the book I was reading for book club at the time I went into surgery.  I had to finish it!  Not to give away the plot, it’s a book about a dysfunctional young woman who wrestles with her inability to socialize–and so much more.  It’s a very good book, but it has a really dark, dark side, which turned out not to be the best choice for reading in my situation.  After this, I wanted a book that was less realistic and less emotionally wrenching, so I grabbed…

Fer de Lance, by Rex Stout.  This is the first Nero Wolfe.  He’s such an eccentric, over-the-top character that it’s easy to fall into the story, letting it sweep away the reader, knowing how improbable the whole set-up is.  And I fell in.  I particularly admired the way Archie, the narrator, referred to previous cases, making it sound as if this book isn’t actually the first in a series.  I once had a writing instructor who said that stories need to have a life “off the page,” and I suspect this is what she meant.  Reading as a mystery writer, I admired the way the clues were laid out, and how they progressed, revealing information, layer by layer.  I was surprised that the snake, as promised in the title, wasn’t referenced until about 70 pages from the end.  And the end–the last couple of sentences–absolutely blew me away.  It was a fun read, just perfect for my mood.  

After the mean streets of 1930’s New York City, I needed something cozier.  My next choice fell off my pile, seemingly shouting “read me!”  

Wicked Autumn, by G.M. Malliet.  This is the first of the Max Tudor series set in a small village in southwestern England.  Max is an ex-MI5 agent-turned-Anglican priest, but the book is all about the quaint little village.  The setting is described in exquisite detail, making me feel as if I were really there, sharing tea with the characters in their thatched-roof cottages.  The story gradually unravels through camera-eye viewpoint, roving through the idyllic village and pausing to dip into the heads of local residents.  This book gave me all the warm fuzzies that I needed, but now that I’m getting stronger, I wanted a change of pace for my next book.  

 Origin, by Dan Brown.  This is definitely a faster pace!  I’m still in progress with this book, carefully trying not to let this huge volume fall onto my lap.  It opens in Spain, one of my favorite places, so I’m a happy reader.   

I’ll keep plugging away at my list.  At least now I know what book to read next!  

The Legacy of the Flying Sidekick

Tomorrow I get a new hip.  I like to think it’s on account of many years of sports abuse, particularly those elusively troubling jump sidekicks that I’ve had to practice over and over in the martial arts.  The truth is much simpler and far less fun:  arthritis + an annoying injury (not from sidekicks).    

Still, it will be nice to regain some physical mobility, although probably the flying sidekicks will remain elusive.  

I’m completely inexperienced at anything surgical, but in my age group, everyone seems to be doing these hip replacements.  My sis just had hers done, and she tells me it’s an “easy” procedure.  

Right.  

Then she told me that while she was laid up, resting for a couple of weeks, she got to read five books.   

Five books??  Somehow, this doesn’t sound so bad anymore.  

Usually my book choices are ruled by book clubs, research, and staying as current as I can with my community.  Choosing five “wild card” books overwhelms me with giddy delight, but also uncertainty.  I can’t just grab the first five off the TBR pile.  I have to plan this carefully.  Which should I choose first?  

I started organizing the possibilities by categories, such as books that make me laugh, classics that I’ve missed, books that are old comfortable friends, whimsical books, comfy cozies, filling in unread books from a beloved series, suspense books that will keep me turning pages, books about places I plan to visit, bestsellers, and so on.  In no time at all, the books on my list were soaring well beyond thirty in number.  I’m not going to be laid up long enough to read all of them!  

Ruthlessly, I narrowed down my list to ten.  Some of them are doorstoppers that could be dangerous to hold in bed.  I know I’m missing a lot of other compelling choices, but here they are:    

The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye

or

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

 

Fer-de-lance, by Rex Stout

or

The Chill, by Ross MacDonald

 

Wicked Autumn, by G.M. Malliet

or

The Glamorous (Double) Life of Isabel Bookbinder, by Holly McQueen

 

The Winter Rose, by Jennifer Donnelly

or

The Return, by Victoria Hislop

 

The English Spy, by Daniel Silva

or

Origin, by Dan Brown

Help!  Any votes for one choice over another?  Anything else that I should consider adding to my list? 

Boating for Research

Hubby and I just returned from England, visiting our family who lives on a narrowboat.  A couple years ago we bought a boat, too, and ever since, we’ve enjoyed cruising the English canals.  

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I considered this trip as “research”–there’s a future book I want to write, even though it’s not next on my schedule.  Is it too soon to research, even though I only have the glimmer of an idea so far?  

Not for me.  It’s never too soon to explore.  

The idea began on a previous trip to England, when we were working a lock and briefly met a boat going the other way.  It had been turned into a bookstore, and that encounter set my imagination on fire.  So on this trip, I insisted we visit a floating bookstore moored in downtown London.  I wanted to feel the experience of the interior of such a boat.  

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We’ve also explored the Canal Museum several times.  It’s a fascinating place dedicated to the history of working boats on the canals, and to the people who lived on those boats.  Highly recommended!  

http://www.canalmuseum.org.uk

I’ve been collecting a variety of resources about practical life on a narrowboat.  The more I’ve learned, the more there is to learn, from water pumps to toilets to propellers.  For instance, we learned (yes, the hard way) that failing batteries release hydrogen gas, and that sets off carbon monoxide detectors.  

I’m also learning a bit about the folk art that decorates traditional boats, such as roses and castles.  A castle design is supposed to include a castle, a mountain, a body of water, a bridge, and a tree.  Not sure why.  There are also geometric designs and a heart on the hatch, indicating that’s where home is.  Art was traditionally painted fast, giving it a certain style.  Fast is just the way I like to paint!  

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I have no idea yet how this hodge-podge of research will come together one day and play out in this future, still unknown book.  I don’t even know when the muses will dictate that I write it, but meanwhile, it’s fun to research many possibilities.  

Does research sometimes sidetrack you and take you to unanticipated, interesting places?  

 

What’s My Genre?

I just finished my Work in Progress–again.  This makes the umpteenth draft, and there will probably be a couple more before the editing and publishing teams are done with it.  Meanwhile, they are asking for information, anticipating things like cover art and other publishy promotion stuff, wanting to know how to position the book in the market.    

I don’t know what to tell them.  

Because this isn’t the book I set out to write.  Yeah, sometimes characters do that to us.   

My original concept, back in the zero draft stage, was to write a crime novel.  That would’ve been straightforward, as I had an idea for my detective in a contemporary setting.  

Somewhere along the way to writing that book, another story emerged.  

Digging more into the backstory and the crime, and how this crime impacted my detective, the first change became clear.  The book turned into a historical mystery.  

In the next draft, one of my side characters took over the story, which demoted my detective into a secondary character.  With the new character in charge, the book became an expat mystery (I never knew that subgenre existed until I started poking around online).  

The more I got to know this new, bossy character and her relationships with the people around her, the more I thought I was really writing women’s fiction.  Well, okay, I guess.  But it’s still a crime story, and it includes both mystery and suspense.  

In the next draft, whatever number that one was, I followed the character on her arc and noticed all the romance elements.  Had they been there before?  (Yes, they had.)  Gosh, could I possibly be writing romantic suspense?  Maybe, but not by today’s expectations.  Which brings me back to my first question:  

What’s my genre?  

Best as I can tell, it’s a historical expat women’s mystery suspense.  With a touch of romance.  

Oh, and did I mention there’s a touch of the woo-woo in it, too?  Not exactly supernatural, but something close.  

Each draft brings the author closer to understanding the story.  The author is just the vehicle for capturing the story on paper and fine-tuning it.  Authors write the story; publishers figure out what it is (thank goodness).  As I understand it, they look at the strongest element, and that’s what they say it is.  Sometimes one genre trumps another, at least for its main category.  Maybe my book just boils down to the comfortable umbrella of crime fiction after all. 

What’s your guess as to how a cross-genre book like this will shake out?  

Book Clubs

When I was a child and hadn’t yet learned how to read, I always envied my older siblings with their books.  We had no television where we lived, so we used to keep up with our favorite stories by “reading” comic books together.  Except, I was looking at the pictures while they were actually reading the words–and reacting with giggles or gasps.  I so much wanted to know exactly what had entertained them.  It was a story that the pictures didn’t completely show.  

Ever since, I’ve loved to talk books with others and share our reactions.  I want to know if others react the same as I do, or if they react in places where I don’t.  I want to relive my own enjoyment of a book through theirs.  I want to know why others love books that don’t especially thrill me, or why they dislike books that I love.  

Thank goodness for book clubs!  I’ve belonged to many different types, and each one is as different as the books they select for discussion.  But despite their differences, they all have reasons in common why I love them.  Here are just a few:  

 Wine.  Seriously!  What goes better with reading a book?  Sharing favorite snacks and/or beverages helps us relax and enjoy the company of good friends.  

Staying current.  When I pick out my own books to read, I always tend to stay within my comfortably favorite genres.  This produces a sort of tunnel vision that keeps me from seeing all the other books out there, begging to be read.  Since I don’t always stay current on the latest buzz about books, book clubs keep me informed about the books I should know about.  

Lightbulb moments.  I don’t always love the books my clubs choose for me, but I do love figuring out why I don’t when others do, and vice versa.  Some of our most interesting discussions are about books I actually dislike.  It’s like taking a dose of medicine–it’s healthy for me, even though my taste buds might complain.  

Education.  For a writer, attending book club is like going to school.  Someone always brings some information I wouldn’t have found otherwise.  And best of all, I get to find out what fans, not just writers, like and dislike in their reading material.  I get to analyze the reasons behind their reactions.  

“So many books, so little time!”  I’ll never read them all, but my book clubs keep me hacking away at the TBR mountain.  In the last twenty-odd years of my two current book clubs, we’ve read approximately 457 books.  Only several million more to go!  

Do you belong to a book club?  How is it working for you?