A Whirlwind of Inactivity

stressHurricane Harvey was bearing down on the Texas coast. I evacuated during Rita and Ike, so this would be my first time since moving here that I had to ride one out. I set about making preparations – I filled the car with gas, figured out how to start the generator, stocked up on bottled water and non-perishables. I had my Kindle charged, booklight batteries replaced, Scrivener on my iPad. I felt ready, especially since I’d been snowed in in Colorado plenty of times. If I got rained in for a week, I would just hunker down and write, write, write. Right?

Wrong. Oh, I got rained in, all right. Hours upon hours of isolated time, yet I didn’t put a pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard. What I hadn’t counted on was the creativity-killing stress from a storm like Harvey.

For more than a week, the local TV networks were all Harvey all the time. At first I watched for information. Safety. Watches and warnings. Soon it became an obsession. Social media was a lifeline, a way to stay in touch, find out which friends had water in their houses, lost power, been evacuated. Even when reading, the electronics were on…just in case. We had 148 tornado warnings in three days. The phone/TV-blasting, hide-in-the-center-of-your-house type of warnings. Stressful.

Water edged closer to my door, lightning turned the night sky into a constant strobe light, thunder shook the house, winds brought down tree branches – all stressful. Then evacuations by boats. Rescues by helicopters. Curfews. National Guard trucks cruising the streets at 3 a.m. Stress. Full.

Once the sky cleared and the waters began to recede, I took stock and was ashamed of myself for wasting a whole week of productivity. Especially as I’d been lucky enough to make it through Harvey unscathed. But after talking to my fellow writers, I found I hadn’t been the only one unable to write. The stress of the storm had sucked the creativity from all of us. Stress is distracting. It affects our ability to focus. Even if we weren’t worried about ourselves, our concern for those who lost everything didn’t leave us with enough mental energy to create.

Life will never be the same for thousands of people in Texas. But we’re working toward recovery. Like many other people and organizations, our RWA communities in Houston have donated money, furniture, clothing, and food. Those of us physically able to have helped friends clean up damaged homes. The sun is shining. And we’re finally starting to put words on paper again. It’s a start.

 

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Behold the Mighty Cog

cogsIf you’re reading this, you’re a member of at least one local or online chapter of Romance Writers of America. We’ve all joined RWA for a variety of reasons. Educational workshops and conferences. Access to industry information. Writers helping writers. Hanging with our peeps.

What makes a chapter run like a well-oiled machine? The volunteers within its ranks who act as cogs, turning the gears of the board and moving the chapter forward.

I was having lunch recently with four fellow Houston Bay Area members. We calculated that between the five of us, we’ve accumulated almost fifty years of service, either as officers or chairpersons. Our current board members have served a total of sixty-five years between us (and only two of us overlapped the lunch group). Neither of these totals includes the many years of unofficial volunteering for conferences, literacy luncheons and special workshops.

Chapters need board members to survive, and they can’t be the same people, rotating from position to position every two years. Boards need new blood, new enthusiasm, new ideas. And the members who have racked up ten or more years of service in various positions need a break. It’s not the responsibility of just a few people to keep our chapter’s wheels turning. We’re lucky that we have a lot of members in HBA who can contribute to our chapter’s excellence.

Not having the time to volunteer isn’t really a valid excuse. Being a board member doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. I’ve been on the board for six years in three different positions, contest coordinator for thirteen continuous years and newsletter editor for the past eight years (sentences running concurrently). Many other board members have volunteered even longer. We’ve done it while working full-time jobs, driving long commutes, raising children, burying loved ones. Oh, and writing.

Why do we do it? Partly because someone has to. But being on the board is as much a privilege as it is a commitment. It’s a way to have a voice in the direction the chapter is taking, the speakers being brought in, the activities being planned. It’s a way to become better acquainted with our chapter members as well as to network with those in other chapters. It keeps us connected when we might otherwise drift away while taking a break from writing.

If you’re taking advantage of your membership by coming to meetings, listening to speakers, socializing with chaptermates, you’re receiving something of great value. If you haven’t already, isn’t it time to consider giving something back? And if you already have, the entire chapter thanks you.

 

…And Then My Brain Explodes

brain explodesHow often do you see a Facebook post about a particular song an author listens to while writing? How many blog articles have you read that detail someone’s writing playlist?

The first time I heard discussions about music to write by, I thought whaaaat? And the more this topic was discussed, the more I felt like some mutant freak. I can’t listen to lyrics without being distracted from my writing. I’ve tried, because it seemed to be one of those writerly things one was supposed to do. I spent a happy afternoon enjoying the music, listening to the lyrics of the songs, and accomplishing no forward progress on my word count.

In an attempt to research this issue, thus proving I’m not the mutant freak I seem to be, I did what I always do. I Googled. Apparently, playing music with lyrics while writing causes the brain to shift rapidly between listening and creating. But the brain works more efficiently when paying attention to just one thing. It has something to do with burning too much glucose and releasing too much cortisol and creating too much stress. In other words…and then my brain explodes.

Listening to repetitive sounds or background noise like rain or waves actually works to improve focus by blocking out other distractions. And there’s no denying that listening to music or songs you like can improve your mood. I have friends who play music before they begin writing to put them into the scene. Especially the bow-chicka-wow-wow scenes.

I’m impressed by those who can listen to lyrics and write at the same time, but I will never be a member of that camp. I prefer total silence, instrumental music, or ambient background noise (rain, waves, the clink of ice in a glass of tequila—whatever). And I realize now that I’ve always been this way. Even in college, I could rock out like nobody’s business, but not while studying. When I cracked the books, I cranked up the volume on the moog synthesizer version of Switched-On Bach.

Yes, electronic classical music. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer. And that’s okay. Synthesized Bach may not make my panties melt, but it keeps my brain from exploding.

 

Keep Your GPS, Just Give Me A Roadmap

RoadmapI used to be a hardcore plotter. I worked out every detail of my book in advance. I outlined. I knew what would happen, when it would happen and to whom it would happen.

Then I’d sit down to write and find myself bored stiff. It was like I’d already written the story. In a slightly different format, sure. But even so, there was nothing new, nothing exciting. I had shot my wad, so to speak.

So I took a break from the book and started writing and selling short stories. I’d begin with a vague idea, and twelve hours later I’d written an entire story. I just let it flow. And it flowed like a mountain waterfall during the spring melt.

I started to wonder why I liked writing shorts so much. Of course, there was the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing, submitting and selling something. But it was more than that.

I realized what had jump-started my passion was the more spontaneous process. I’d get an idea—a place to start. I’d figure out where I wanted to wind up when I was done—my final destination. And then I’d write. I’d stay on a straight course for a while, then maybe back up and make a turn, try a slightly different route. I was still headed in the same general direction, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d get there. Freeway all the way? Or blue highways and back roads?

For me, writing is a lot like taking a road trip. On road trips, I don’t need GPS. I don’t want a voice telling me how many feet before turning right, or that I missed my turn and need to recalculate. Especially if that missed turn was intentional. Maybe I’d seen a detour that looked more picturesque, a trail that seemed more exciting. However, I don’t want to get hopelessly lost either. So I never leave town without a map. I like adventure, but I want to get my bearings from time to time.

On my current WIP, I’m using a roadmap instead of GPS. Rather than plotting the book to death, I’ve jotted down possible plot points—like circling landmarks on a map. Now I simply figure out how to reach them while I’m writing. (Yes, “simply” was sarcastic.) Sometimes I pull over to study the map and consider my options. A new idea could steer me somewhere unexpected, and that’s okay. It’s not like I’m locked into nonrefundable hotel reservations in towns I don’t want to visit. I can go where the story takes me.

Like a road trip, writing isn’t necessarily about hauling ass from point A to point B. It’s about enjoying the journey and appreciating the scenery along the way.

Holy crap! Writing is fun again

 

Procrastination (or why I don’t have time to write)

ProcrastinateI really have a story
It’s living in my head
But getting it to paper
Is harder done than said

There’s the necessary day job
That, frankly, is a pain
And chapter volunteering
Sucks ideas from my brain

And then there are the errands
And the other household chores
Like shopping, cooking, dusting,
Doing laundry and the floors

By then, a little R & R
Is what I really need
Computer time, some e-mail,
Time to watch TV and read

And then, of course, the “health” thing
Working out and eating right
And on top of this I’m s’posed to
Get eight hours of sleep a night

I go to chapter meetings,
Join the chats and read the loops
Take lots of online classes
And hang out with writing groups

I glom on to great ideas
Other writers recommend
But the time I spend researching
Isn’t time I have to spend

With Prime, in just two days
Stacks of craft books are all mine
But now I need to read them
And I just can’t find the time

Suggested writing software
To help prioritize
But first I have to load it,
Find my notes and organize

I’ve got some great excuses
Why I don’t have time to write
The reasons vast and many
Some are wrong and some are right

I really have a story
And it’s one I want to write
Perhaps I’ll start tomorrow
‘Cause I’m writing this tonight

© 2017 Leslie Marshman

Shhhh. I’m Not Telling.

ShhhhAfter punching and scrunching my pillow for what seemed like hours, I untangle my legs from the twisted sheets and crawl out of bed. I force my feet to shuffle down the hall to my office, toes burrowing into the plush carpet with each step. I flip the switch and am blinded by the sudden glare from a bulb coiled like a cobra and guaranteed to last at least five more years. Feeling my way to my desk, I drop into the scuffed leather chair, my butt settling into its permanent indentation that’s sadly only grown larger.

A quick tap on my mouse starts the computer fan whirring quietly and the monitor awakens to the white glow of the still blank document I had stomped away from earlier. My fingers rest on the keyboard, waiting for neural impulses from the primary motor cortex. My toes tap dance between cables and cords. My knee jiggles. Unfortunately, other things jiggle along with it.

The wall calendar that summarizes my entire life (abbreviated to fit neatly within two-inch square boxes) catches my attention. Usually delighted by its pictures of adorable baby sloths hanging upside down yet smiling right-side up, tonight my amusement is tempered by the large red circle drawn around the tenth of the month.

I spin my chair ninety degrees and eye a wall of books. An entire shelf of writing craft tomes taunts me. I spin the remaining 270 degrees, then repeat the full circle several times, stomach growing queasy, sweat beading on my brow. Each time the sloths whoosh past, the red circle below them gapes like the ravenous maw of Hell.

I skid to a stop, minimize the concept-challenged document and click the e icon. That proprietary gateway to everything and nothing. So help me, I will web-surf until my fingertips bleed if that’s what it takes. But first, a quick check of my email. Junk and ads and blogs, oh my.

I click on one. The topic: Show, Don’t Tell.

Holy crap! Why can’t I ever think of something like that to write about?

 

Just a Little Thing Called JABBIC

JABBICIn 2005, when I was still a relative newbie to RWA and the local Houston Bay Area chapter, a board member asked if I’d be contest coordinator for a new endeavor they were considering – a little contest for published books called Judge A Book By Its Cover. Most, if not all, RWA contests back then focused on the writing. We wanted to do something unique. We wanted to be the first chapter to emphasize the importance of a good cover. Booksellers would judge and the first place winner in each category would be featured in an ad in RWA’s magazine, Romance Writers Report.

First, I was flattered that the board thought I’d be the right person for the job.

Second, I was excited because I’d get to be part of “them,” the illustrious Board.

Third, I was freaking out because I had no idea what to do or how to do it.

Luckily, author Sandra K. Moore would be the wizard behind the curtain, running the computer end of things (the heavy lifting, in other words). So I figured, what the heck. I’ll do it for a couple years. I contacted booksellers around the world, asking them to judge. I designed certificates for the winners. I sent out posts on chapter loops to announce the contest. And Sandra coded her fingers to the bone.

Twelve years later, JABBIC is bigger and better than ever. I’m still the coordinator and Sandra is still the computer wizard. (We have a secret pact – if one goes, we both go.) We’ve tweaked things along the way. We added categories and renamed others. Several years ago we added the Readers’ Choice portion, allowing the entire world to judge all the entries separately from the booksellers. Even if a cover doesn’t win, thousands upon thousands of people see it. (That is a lot of publicity!) We spread the word on Facebook and Twitter as well as chapter loops. Authors and artists mention us in blogs and posts and tweets. Beginning with JABBIC 2016, all of our winners receive cool badges to post proudly on their web sites.

When JABBIC began, traditional publishing was pretty much the only game in town. The authors entered and noted their publishers. Since indie publishing took off, we’ve honored not only the authors but the artists who design the covers (for indie and traditionally published books).   Writers who scroll through the gallery discover artists for future books. Bookseller-judges place orders for books to restock their shelves. Readers discover new authors for their to-be-read stacks.

Each November I dread the start of another four months of hard work. But each February I’m delighted when the winners let me know how thrilled they are to have their covers appreciated by so many. And each April I love opening my RWR to our beautiful Winners’ Ad on the inside front cover. As contest coordinator, I’ve become friends with authors I might never have met otherwise. I’ve developed lasting relationships with booksellers from down the street to Down Under.

And it all started with an idea for a little book cover contest. Holy crap! Who’da thunk it?