Fiction Writing

How 15 Minutes Changed My Life

vacuum

Like most people, when it comes to housework, I do it when I have to. I vacuum when clouds of cat hair rise from the carpet as I walk on it, I dust and I put stuff away. I’m not, obviously, what you’d call a happy homemaker. I never was and probably never will be. But, of course, I like a clean and tidy house. Ah, the dilemma.

I read an article recently which suggested taking 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before bedtime to tidy the house – you know, pile the strewn papers, empty the bathroom trash, put away the ‘stuff’ that appears from nowhere on the kitchen counter. All of that. Morning and night.Cleaning supplies

Well, if you do that, only fifteen minutes, the first day you’ll see a whole lot of things you could put away, and feel overwhelmed, knowing it would take much longer than 15 minutes to do it. But stick to those fifteen minutes. Do it daily and soon – since you’re tidying before bedtime, too – by  morning, there’s not much to tidy. What then? Pick up a dust cloth. Spend the fifteen minutes doing that. No? Then organize a bookshelf. In the evening? Vacuum or pay the bills. I know, I know. I said those 15 minutes changed my life, how is that? By making me a happy homemaker after all?

Um. No.

By organizing and energizing me.

My routine used to be to get up at dawn, feed the cats and get to work (from home, writing). Before the rest of the house stirred, I’d take a break from working, get on the treadmill, shower make breakfast for all then head back to work… taking a serious break again only for lunch and dinner.

Each morning, my sleepy eyes would scan the mess that was my home. I knew I’d have to spend an entire day each week cleaning it and sorting the mail that had piled so high it was falling over. But I had work to do so I kept putting off that day of cleaning. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

By forcing those 15 minutes into my morning and evening routines, the mess was gone. Once everything was in its place after a couple of 15-minute tidy sessions, it was easier to clean – and the clean was more noticeable – and lasting. I could go to work and not worry if someone came to the door unexpectedly. 😳 My bills were paid on time and papers were filed where they were supposed to be. Knowing the chore would be limited to 15 minutes made it manageable. It also awakened the worker-bee in me. I might lag when it comes to home chores, but when I work, I work hard. I looked at it as a job and a challenge. How much can I accomplish in this 15 minute block?

Something about it was energizing. It also didn’t hurt that I could scan the house and see how pretty it actually was.

The added bonus? The life-changing effect? My mind feels clearer. As if that has been tidied, too. Decluttering my space decluttered my mind, seeming to clear a path for the muse to come out and play. I picture her now, as she had been, like a hoarder trapped in her own space, tripping and climbing over clutter so she could come to rest on my shoulder all day. The more clutter there was, the longer she struggled to get through. The harder it was for me to work.

Fifteen minutes in the morning. It takes ten for the coffee to brew. Five for it to get nice and hot on the warming plate. There’s my fifteen minutes. In the evening, on the way to the bedroom, make a quick stop here and there to pick up things in the way. The incentive? Waking early and seeing everything – mostly – in its place. Of course, no matter how diligent you are, there will always – always – be that one dirty dish in the sink that no one ever recalls placing there even though the dishwasher is two inches away.

Fifteen minutes. It made the air cleaner in my house – I have cats, you know.

My Pride

Fifteen minutes. It decluttered my space and, by extension, freed my muse. Fifteen minutes. It makes unexpected company less unwelcome (ha), clears the dust from the muse’s eyes, and has, honestly, changed my life.

Rent-a-Cart

photo-5It’s amazing what we get used to and assume is normal not just for us but for everyone.

I live in a rather populated section of the city, so there are several supermarkets/grocers in my neighborhood. Of the closest, three are on the smaller size and one is quite large. I usually go to the larger one. During my last visit there, as I was returning my shopping cart to the stall, an elderly couple was standing there grumbling about something and looking rather confused. photo-2

I greeted them and they watched me with interest as I slid the front of my cart into the back of one already in the stall. And then they watched me with more interest as I popped the ‘key’ from the cart in front of mine into the slot in my cart’s handle in order to retrieve the quarter I had to pay as a refundable rental fee for the cart.

Their expressions went from confused to completely aghast. It seems they had just returned from spending several years in Florida and had never seen the contraption our grocer had set up for the shopping carts and had never considered the notion of paying for one.

photo-4It’s normal here now but it wasn’t normal here about a decade ago.

I remember when I first saw the carts all chained together. I thought, for sure, we were not permitted to use them, but I couldn’t fathom why. Annoyance soon replaced confusion however when I realized I – and all shoppers – had to have quarters at the ready so we could borrow a shopping cart.

Of course, this process of paying forced people to return those carts to the stalls rather than leave them scattered around the parking lot since the only way to get your quarter back was to chain your cart to another. It also prevented people from taking the carts home with them. And you might be surprised by how many people did just that. Some didn’t have cars so they walked their groceries home in the same cart in which they purchased them. Others used them as aides to deliver newspapers or collect nickel return recyclables from other people’s trash. And still others did it just to be wise guys and then they’d leave carts around the neighborhood in all sorts of places – like abused mutilated bodies or failed art exhibits. I guess the description depends on your point of view… photo-1

About the couple from Florida… I showed them how they, too, could gain the prize of a shopping cart, explaining how to use the key to plunge the quarter in fully in order to disengage the cart holding it in line. I laughed when the women muttered something I know I muttered when I first saw these things years ago, “What a stupid idea. Who thought of this?”

I just hope they remembered how to get their quarter back once they finished with the cart.

What about you? Do your grocers make you pay for a shopping cart? Are there other inconveniences or oddities in your area that you once thought were universal then learned were unique?

Beta Readers, Feedback, Pitch Sessions and Pride

My local writing chapter, Long Island Romance Writers, is hosting its 16th Annual Agent/Editor Luncheon this Friday, June 7th. Soon after, in July, RWA is holding its Annual Conference. Both will be a time for mingling, networking, connecting and reconnecting, and, most of all, pitching our work to interested editors and literary agents.

Often, simmering below the fear of the actual pitch is the fear of rejection. Rejections, however, are sewn into this business and no one has, as of yet, determined a workaround. The best thing to do is prepare. By that, I don’t mean we need to expect a rejection, but that we need to put rejections into perspective.

When I say rejections are sewn into this business, I not only refer to agents and editor rejections but also rejections from readers. Face it, not everyone will like our work. This is such a subjective business and we know negativity is out there – or if we don’t know, we find out soon enough.

Unfortunately, I think we tend to cling to the negative even if its dose is a tiny fraction of the positive.

I’m working on an erotic novella trilogy. Book 1 is finished, Book 2 is plotted and waiting for attention, and Book 3 is, at this point, merely a back-cover blurb. I’ve received great feedback from my beta readers. All honest, helpful and encouraging. Out of the seven people who read it, only one did not like it.

Notice, I didn’t say, six loved it.

Though six did love it, one did not. That one is the one that matters most to me. That one unhappy reader, the one negative review, tends to be the one that carries the most weight with us as artists. We pour so much of ourselves into our creations that one dissenting voice comes through as if on a bullhorn.

Alone, that’s not a bad thing. It’s what we do after we’ve digested the reason for the negativity constructive criticism (it’s all about perspective) that matters.

Do we agree? Do we see a way to make adjustments to mitigate some of the concerns raised without compromising our vision for our story? Can we take the concerns to the positive beta readers for additional feedback or perspective? Some of the most negative feedback, when applied properly, can take a rough patch of story and make it shine.

This type of refocusing attention also applies to pitching our stories to agents and editors. Some will latch onto the idea with enthusiasm while others might cringe, pleasantly say it’s simply not for them, or dismiss you – not just your story – outright. And yes, the latter has happened to people I know and love.

So what? Not everyone will love us. Not everyone will love our work. That’s fine. All is good. Criticism is criticism no matter how gently or cruelly delivered. Our job is to determine its value and our next move.

As I said, this business is subjective. It’s truly as simple as that. If we’ve studied craft, applied ourselves to the project, poured our heart, our tears and our sighs into our stories, and others have rewarded us with honest, unreserved feedback and we’ve applied common sense revisions, then we have done our job.

Someone will always be there to point out a flaw. Others will want what we have to offer because they will ‘get it’. They will get us. They will see the potential in our project and make us feel good about it.

So don’t let ‘no’ stop you. Absorb it. Understand the reason for it. Decide whether to give it weight, and if so, how much. Determine the best direction for it – additional consideration or dismissal – and move forward undeterred.

If you’re anything like me, your muse will have it no other way.   

Vanderbilt Motor Parkway – Revisited

Now, the NYC Greenway

There are bits of history everywhere. Too bad we’re often too busy to notice it, or too uninformed to be aware of it – even if it’s right under our feet.

There’s a bike path in Queens near Cunningham Park – the NYC Greenway. It’s a hidden gem not just for biking but for walking, if you’re so inclined. It’s approximately 3 miles and walking/biking from one end to the other will certainly give you a workout. I know because we walked this path yesterday morning – from one end to the other and back. So peaceful there in the woods… actually, there are no woods. Just clumps of trees on either side of the path, with homes beyond them. Continue along and beyond the trees there is the highway – Northern Parkway to be precise. So here you are strolling in what feels like a surround of nature when in reality you’re smack in the heart of the city. Ah, but the woodsy scent, bird songs and rustle of leaves as chipmunks and squirrels dart here and there make you forget about what’s going on beyond the trail.

Motor Parkway today To Alley Pond Park

The trail was not always so quiet. In fact, it was not always a trail but a high-speed motorway designed, financed and built in 1908 by and for one of the Vanderbilts. William K., to be exact.

William K. Vanderbilt was a car racing enthusiast who built this highway with the intention of using it to hold the Vanderbilt Cup. The road was graded just so for racing, the curves meant to challenge. This private motorway was the first in the nation to use bridges and overpasses to avoid intersections.

Two years of racing on this road, however, proved disappointing. Some spectators were injured and others killed during a race in 1910, and New York decided to disallow racing on anything but raceways – and that included private roads. No longer able to hold the Vanderbilt Cup, and with a need for help to pay back taxes, William K opened the road to the public – amazing that a Vanderbilt would need help paying for anything, yes? Twelve toll ‘lodges’ were built to collect a total of $2.00 in tolls. I guess you could say the road was opened to the privileged, not necessarily the public at large. These socialites traveled the road at high speed – 60mph! – in order to reach the gold-coast party circuit, then travel it back after the parties wound down. Clear sailing from Queens to Suffolk County, New York. Forty-five miles of scenic road.

Toll collectors lived in the toll lodges. Reminds me of the guards on the Great Wall of China who lived right there on the wall – their lives spent patrolling and nothing more.

This is the Meadow Brook toll/lodge

With the birth of Prohibition in the 1920’s, the road had new purpose. Rum-running. As a private road, there were no obstacles to this process, and rum-runners certainly had the funds for tolls. Ah, but William K. didn’t approve and so brought in state police to… well… police the road and run the rum-runners out.

Eventually, the road became obsolete. The need for high speed ways to get from here to there was met by the city and state. Northern Parkway was built – a FREE highway with bends and curves more conducive to leisurely driving than racing. Motor Parkway was eventually given to New York in exchange for back taxes still owed. Fourteen miles of the original road have been modified for today’s use, but sadly, other areas of it have become obscured by time, weeds, neglect and ignorance.

The three mile stretch that still exists in Queens contains some of the original cement guardrails – 100 years old.

Old and new combined

(Old and new together – Early 1900’s cement guard rails in foreground, with early 2000’s metal guard in back.)

They show age, they show neglect. They don’t come close to showing us the grandeur they once proudly guarded. And yet, they remind us to ask questions and seek answers of a past long forgotten, and truthfully, can we ask more than that?

Book-in-a-Week… in Two Months

I shouldn’t be blogging right now – I should be working on my story. However, I figured, I’ve given myself a goal and, as I’m known to do, wanted to put it out here for all to see. It’s a way of holding myself accountable when life gets in the way… or when I LET life get in the way.

So here’s the goal – finish my work-in-progress by June. Why? Because June is when I will be attending my first Romance Writers of America’s National Conference (more about that in a future post). I want to have something to pitch to the agents and editors who will be there eagerly seeking new stories.

So… according to my math, I have to write about 1-1/2 chapters per week from now until then. That’s not so bad (unless you’re a slow writer like me).  It’s only six pages per day, single space, and I know I can do it. I’ve reviewed my Book-in-a-Week workshop notes and and am ready to go.

I’ll see you here at the end of this week with an update.

Onward!  

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Query and Synopsis complete – and I’m still sane.

Of course, the ‘sane’ part is up for debate, but I’m happy to say there was minimal blood-loss as I completed my new query and synopsis.

The synopsis scared me even more than the query. I knew my characters so intimately that I couldn’t imagine breaking their stories down to the simplest terms – as required for a synopsis. What about all the ‘other stuff’ they endured throughout their story…?

However, with the help of a phenomenally efficient list of questions, I was able to zero in on what truly mattered and tell my story in under three double-spaced pages. THREE. Double-spaced. That is an amazing feat for me since the shortest synopsis I’ve ever written was four pages, single-spaced.

How did I do it? With help from a lot of people and places but especially from a brilliant article by Gina Ardito: The Top Ten Questions for a Successful Synopsis.

If you’re struggling with your synopsis, read Gina’s article. You’ll be amazed. I was.

And now I wait. I’ve submitted my baby to three more agents/publishers and, since responses can take months, I’m off on a new adventure. Plotting another story. As I mentioned in an earlier post – Creating the Mood – I’ve chosen a gorgeous new journal, a seductive soundtrack and a sultry frangrance. As for inspiration, I am in no way lacking.

Onward.

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The Query – or Taking a Story Down to it’s Core

So, you know what comes after edits and revisions of a manuscript? Edits and revisions of the synopsis and query.

Whether Plotter or Pantser

I’ve been told, several times, that the synopsis should be written before the story. If you can do that, I highly suggest it. However, since I’m not a plotter, but a pantser, writing the synopsis ahead of time would be like plotting the abduction of my muse. The fun part of writing, the creative part – for me at least – is in the discovery. When I start to write, I have an idea of where I’m going. Blips of scenes flicker in my mind, in flip-book form. From there, I develop the meat of the story.

Months later, when the story is complete – and polished – I try to write a two-paragraph query and both a short and long synopsis but find myself overwhelmed by all of the intricate plot twists, emotional discoveries and settings. The query and the synopsis are supposed to ‘tell’ (not “show”) your story in a compelling yet succinct way. A way that clearly showcases your voice and your story’s tone. You can think of the query and synopsis as relaying an event to a friend. You’d hit the high points, string out the suspense of it, keep them interested without bogging them down with details. That’s what you want in your query and in your synopsis. You want to hook an agent or editor with the high points, showing them the entire work without showing them the ENTIRE work.

What’s your story about?

It seems like such a simple question to answer. And no doubt you can. But can you do it in twenty seconds or less? I couldn’t. I found even my own eyes glazed over when I tried to tell my story.

We must be creative artists when we write the story but marketing pros when we sell it. It’s hard to switch hats like that.

I approached my first – hundred or so – attempts at this backwards. I had just finished revisions and figured I’d never know the story better and so writing the 1-page query and short-ish  (2-3 page synopsis) should be easy. Or should I say, ‘easier’?

For the Synopsis and Query – Tell Don’t Show

I started at the beginning and wrote. Soon, I was caught in the story’s rhythm. Writing the query and synopsis in glorious detail, only to remember that wasn’t the place for it. My poor muse slumped. She’d been giddy. Guiding me through, reminding me of ‘moments’ so compelling, to me, that they just had to be included in this selling tool.

I resorted to bribery and promised my muse a new story. I tossed a thought out there and she ran off with it, trying to figure out how to work that idea into 300 pages of colorful language and gripping scenes.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

I also did the dishes, the laundry, the vacuuming and grocery shopping. And then I sat down to write. My goal? One sentence. From the “Snowflake Method” to “Pitch University“, I’ve always heard about breaking the story down to one sentence. I could not imagine how to do it then found help in the form of examples from Nathan Bransford‘s fantastic site.

Using his examples as a guide, I went through several drafts of my ‘one-line’ pitch until, finally, hours later, I had it. If you can break your story down to it’s raw form – which, for me ,turned out to be the idea that prompted the story in the first place – you can find your one-sentence pitch. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not easy. Maybe, though, it’ll get easier with time and practice.

Meanwhile, that one sentence grew into one paragraph. That paragraph being the way I’d tell friends and strangers about my story. Just enough detail to cover the main plot and leave them wanting more.  From there, came two-paragraphs, with more emotion, more mood and a touch more detail. Those paragraphs are for the query.

It took hours to write those lines. You’d think after hours of work you’d have more to show than that, yes? But if it took months, maybe a year or more, to write the story, shouldn’t it take a decent amount of time to market it properly? I rushed through my original query, thinking I just had to give a basic idea of what my story was about. Now, I realize it’s not simply what it’s about, but specifically and succinctly what happens, why and what’s at stake for your characters.

I’ll repeat – it wasn’t easy. I’m sure I’ll be banging my head on the keyboard next go-round. But now that I’ve invested the time the query needs and deserves, the process finally makes sense.

What’s next now that the query is finished? The synopsis. Let the head-banging begin. 🙂

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QUEEN and Live Aid

Freddie Mercury - Live Aid - Is This The World We CreatedThose who know me know I am an avid QUEEN fan – more specifically, I’m a Freddie Mercury fan. Now, what kind of fan would I be if I let today pass without acknowledging what just might have been Queen’s (and Freddie’s) finest moment? Yes, that would be their performance at Live Aid.

Twenty-five years ago today, Queen took the stage as one of many acts to help stave off famine in Africa. To this day, discussions about Live Aid include some reference to the quality of Queen’s performance. I, as a fan, can’t help but do the same. Their set was tight, high-energy and packed with some of their greatest songs. Freddie’s enthusiasm and connection to the crowd was undeniable and his voice, spot on. He wooed the audience and easily managed to have everyone clapping in unique rhythm to Radio Ga-Ga as if they were all there to see Queen and only Queen.

Perhaps they hadn’t arrived as Queen fans, per se, but certainly they left feeling that way.

And so, for your viewing pleasure, I bring you QUEEN at LIVE AID –

My thanks to Astrolux777 for posting this for all of us to enjoy.

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World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day

On July 13th, 1985, the music world made history with a multi-continental concert aired live on televisions around the world. Famous and beloved musicians from that time entertained us with hours of music in the hope of bringing us together for one vital cause – to end starvation in Ethiopia. A valiant cause, a cause we still need to tend to today.

The musicians were at the top of their game that day and the world was enthralled. The concert, LIVE AID, is still discussed with admiration and nostalgia. Of all the amazing talent on stage that day, one band’s performance has been called “bloody brilliant”, “a one-off”, “the greatest live show of all time”. That band is Queen, with Freddie Mercury’s high energy and enthusiasm leading the way.

Announced to a huge live audience of not-only Queen fans, the band took the stage, with Freddie prancing directly front and center to soak in the adulation. His high-energy performance was amusing, entertaining and inspiring. His wide vocal range, playfulness, and timeless hit songs showed the world just what this man was made of, how deep his drive was and how versatile he could be.

It’s hard to look at his performance from that day and realize the man was dying.

Infected with HIV at a time when HIV and AIDS had not yet revealed their horrible secrets, Freddie Mercury started to wither away. A super-charged musical genius with the determination to go on, recorded songs until just weeks before his death. Between takes, he’d down shots of vodka to dull the unbearable pain. He’d have to rest several times during one song. And soon, at home, this man who energetically covered every inch of stage during every live performance had to be carried up a flight of stairs so he could rest in bed.

On November 23rd, 1991, Freddie announced to the world that rumors were correct. He had AIDS. The next day, well after having made a decision to stop taking medication that merely kept him alive but did not help ease the pain or subdue the devastating disease ravaging his body, Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related pneumonia.

Seventeen years later, this dreadful disease is still destroying lives. The lives of the famous, the lives of the everyday folk, men, women, and children from all nations, of all religions, of all races are being infected and dying.

Yes. We’ve made advances. But the disease is still active. The disease is still being spread. The disease is still strong enough to fight off all attempts to kill it.

Today is World AIDS Day. A day for the world to join together and face the fact this disease is not going away on it’s own. It’s up to us to raise awareness. It’s up to us to show tolerance. It’s up to us to educate those who are still confused as to how this disease is spread.

In 1985, the year of Live Aid, the very first HIV antibody test became available. Since then, we’ve been able to extend the lives of those living with HIV. Medicine has been able to keep ‘full-blown AIDS’ at bay for many. But, in 1991, the year Freddie Mercury died, 10 million people worldwide were living with HIV. Today, despite all efforts to educate and eradicate, an estimated 33 million people now are living with the disease.

It’s time to stop the madness. It’s time to practice safe-sex. It’s time to talk to your kids. It’s time to get real and face this epidemic head-on.

It’s time to learn more.

Facing AIDS - World AIDS day 2008

It’s time to raise our voices, silence this disease and be proud of the world we created.

Days 1&2 Colorado

We only have a short time here in Colorado. My entire family lives out here and so it gives us the perfect excuse to pack up and head west. We’ve spent much of the last two days just catching up and planning this weekend. But we’ve also strolled through town to soak up the scenery. 

It’s beautiful here, open space and mountains so high and majestic they give a sense of strength and permanence. There’s a slower pace to the day here. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems people here actually make a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy their time. 

Many of the people take off early on Friday so they can make the most of their weekend. Traffic starts around 3. But you know what? Compared to traffic in New York, the traffic here is like a sneeze. A slight aside and then back to normal. I could get used to this. 

Wherever you look is a breathtaking view. My parents’ house is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Late in the afternoon, a pair of horses and a pair of cows come down from one of the mountains and graze practically in my parents’ backyard. In the wee hours of the morning, elk and deer stroll the gardens. Yes, they damage plants and leave… unwanted ‘gifts’ in unexpected places, but they’re magnificent animals and I’d rather that type of visitor than a raccoon taking over my attic crawl space. :-/

Before I leave here I WILL get a photo of some of these animals. I MUST. If I don’t see them before I leave, I will… just have to come back again. 🙂

Meanwhile, here is the everyday view my parents have from their lovely new home out here in the west – 

And, I have to say, the view from my own little abode in NY is quite different – neighbor’s laundry on the line, phone and electrical wires, etc. – there is nothing quite so unique as what we saw when we left our hotel…

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