The Multi-tasking Blues

Hello, my name is Sherry, and I’m a multi-tasker.

It’s true–I love multi-tasking. I love having two monitors and a fairly fast computer, because it means I can have so many things on the go at once. Right now, for instance, I’m writing this post in one browser tab. Other open tabs hold Gmail, some affiliate link things I’m working on for The Scriptorium, a couple of articles I want to read later, and a map I used earlier today. (Okay, I can close that one now.)

In addition to the browser, Evernote is open, as is Photoshop, two twitter clients, Skype, and Outlook. I also have a widget for my four favorite RSS feeds.

Sure, I’m only looking at ONE of those things at a time, but it’s somehow comforting to me to know that I can pop over to any one of them at any time. I feel busy and productive and WOW, like I’m really getting a lot done.

Except.

Except that I’ve read a few things lately about how multi-tasking is really not that good for us. That it leads to less productivity overall, and shortened attention spans, among other things.

My first reaction to these claims was “pshaw!”. Well, I didn’t actually say “pshaw,” because who really does that these days? But my feelings were the equivalent of “pshaw!”. I mean, that couldn’t be true, could it?

And yet now that I’m thinking about it, I am beginning to wonder. It’s very easy, when one has so many options, to hop back and forth between them, tinkering a bit and then hopping off to something else when the first thing gets difficult. And even when things eventually get done, I’m starting to wonder if they’re suffering from my lack of focus. Are they actually somewhat diluted because I haven’t given them enough of my undivided attention?

I also notice that I skim/skip a lot more magazine articles. The only magazine I read with any diligence is New Scientist, and I used to devour almost every article, cover to cover. Now I tend to skim through, sampling first lines here, reading a paragraph or two there, and then moving on. That can’t be coincidence. Science news hasn’t gotten more boring, certainly.

While I wrote this post, I answered a tweet, looked at a notification, and checked a note in Evernote (that was not related to this task). That’s not too bad, I suppose, but would this post have been even better if I’d had nothing else open on my screens while I wrote it?

I’m seriously considering cutting back on my multi-tasking to see what effect it has, if any, on my concentration and focus. I’ll report back on this entirely unscientific investigation in due course. If I remember, that is!

Nests, Noise, & Vacuuming (or, Writing Rituals)

I wonder if one of these would help?

I recently ran across this article on writing rituals and found it really interesting. You should definitely go and have a look at it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Back? So wow, some folks have some interesting writing rituals, huh? And although a lot of (non-writing) folks would consider some of these behaviours odd, weird, or outright bizarre, apparently they are a good thing. Rituals for writers, the article says, help reduce anxiety, increase our sense of control over the writing process, and increase fluency.

Which made me think–what are my writing rituals? (And if I don’t have any, should I get some?)

So I’m sitting here thinking. And thinking. Do I have any writing rituals?

Do I require a tidy desk? (OOh, ouch, I actually hurt myself laughing there.) Okay, maybe I require a messy desk? No, not really, I can write in either of those two states. However, sometimes before beginning a big, new project, I do give my desk a good cleaning. It’s cathartic, and it makes me feel better. I’m not sure it’s a ritual, though.

Do I perform any ritualistic motions or tasks before writing? Hmmmm. I make a lot of coffee…I do like to have a fresh cup of java to start a writing session. It’s not necessary, though. The need to vacuum the house? (More painful laughter ensues.) And no lucky shirts or socks. Or pens. Rats.

Special music? Well, I do enjoy music when I write, although I don’t always put it on. When I do, it has to be instrumental only, no lyrics because they’re too distracting. All my characters would be spouting lines from the latest top ten if I wasn’t careful. I particularly like video game soundtracks. Assassin’s Creed II. Halo. Skate. Command and Conquer. And movie and tv soundtracks. You get a nice mix of moods and themes. But as a ritual…no.

Sigh. I’m starting to doubt that I’m a real writer!

You know, I used to have a ritual. I used to play games before I started writing. Tetris. Mah-jongg. Solitaire. The problem was, I wouldn’t just play a game “to relax.” It might have started out that way. But then it changed. Suddenly I had to win a game before I could write. And you know what that meant–I’d hardly ever get to write, and spend all my time playing games. My brain tricked me that way for a while before I caught on (because, of course, playing games is so much easier than writing). Bad, lazy brain. I discarded that ritual, although it was difficult.

Okay, wait, I’ve got one. It’s small, but I think it really is a ritual. When I am starting a new project, I always set up the title page just as it will be when I’m submitting the final piece. For a short story, name and address in the top left corner. A line for “Approx. word count” although of course for now it will be blank. Space down to the middle of the page, center the title in all caps (fortunately I usually have a title by the time I start writing. If not, a placeholder will have to do, although it’s not as satisfying.) For a novel, a proper title page, too.

That’s it. That’s my ritual. Wow, so boring. Maybe there’s something I’m not even aware of…I know one thing–if I can’t think of something more interesting, I’ll have to invent one. Or risk being more anxious, less in control, and less fluent. There’s a lot at stake, here.

What about you? Do you have writing rituals? What are they?

Photo By MalcolmLidbury (aka Pinkpasty) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1901 Eaton’s Catalogue

One of the coolest finds in the saga of clearing out my grandparents’ house (for me, at least) was this: the 1901 catalogue from the T. Eaton Company Limited. It’s actually a reprint of that catalogue, produced in 1970, which accounts for its exceptionally good condition. However, it is a faithful reprint of that catalogue, and what I love about it is the wonderful window it opens into the past. I mean, historical/steampunk writer’s reference, anyone?

Browsing through the catalogue is a ton of fun. It’s also an eye-opener in many ways. Yes, we seem to have some weird ideas about what constitutes the ideal feminine form these days. However, this is obviously NOT the first time in history that that has been true. Wasp waists, and oddly low-hanging, ample bosoms seem to have been the ideal of the day. One would think, looking at the corsets in the catalogue, that everything north of the waist would have been pushed dramatically up…but perhaps it’s a function of artist’s license, as well. At any rate, I am prfoundly thankful that I was not shopping from this section.

It’s also kind of mind-boggling to think that almost everything in the catalogue had to be drawn by hand, from all of these household items, to flowers you might want to order.

But what really struck me as I thumbed through it today was this little section: “Paper-covered Books for Summer Reading.”

As you can see, it’s a minuscule selection, when you compare it to the sprawling websites offering books for us to order today (there are other pages to order books in the catalogue, but it’s still a pretty limited number). There’s also nothing to tell you what any of the books are about. You want to know what House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman or What Gold Cannot Buy by Mrs. Alexander are about? Pay your money and take your chance.

Which brings me to my real point. These books are “Printed on Heavy Paper” and cost “7 cents each; postage 2 cents extra.” When I read that, I can’t help thinking about all those .99 ebooks out there. Comparatively, that means that they cost about fourteen times the 1901 paperbacks. (Yes, yes, I know that some folks are going to accuse me of comparing apples to oranges because ebooks have no cost for physical materials, shipping, etc.–but bear in mind that those costs are a relatively small percentage of print book costs today.)

When I browse through the catalogue and see that most other items have increased in cost anywhere from twenty to fifty times (or more!)…I really wonder how we have come to this point. It seems such a devaluation of years of hard work on the part of the writer to say that the story is worth less than a dollar. When we’ll pay two to three times that without blinking for a cup of coffee, and ten to fifteen times that to watch a two-hour movie, it seems to me that something is severely skewed.

I think we need to think about this both as writers and as readers.

Summer Project

So, that Bare Knuckle Writer really knows how to pull the strings and make me dance, whether intentionally, or not. She’s got me blogging more often (almost, like, regularly), and yesterday she threw down a gauntlet. (Yeah, she’s a little confrontational, but in a very endearing way.)

You really should go and read her entire post, because it’s fun and quirky as usual, but here’s the gauntlet part:

Every writer’s got one. That project whose time never comes. All it needs is a little love, but somehow it keeps getting pushed back in favour of new things and shinier ideas…This is its time. Dig that thing out, take it out to the back deck or the beach or the patio with you, and get to work.

And…she’s right. Of course she’s right. Who doesn’t have one (or more) of those projects, whether it’s a half-finished story, a novel, or something else? Honestly, I have more than I care to admit, but I’m not going to think about that or I’ll start crying into my keyboard. Or start a new chocolate binge. Possibly both. But I digress.

After reading the challenge yesterday, I printed out the manuscript you see in the photo above. It’s so close to being done that you can almost smell the done-ness on it. One more line-edit pass, that’s all it needs. It’s already been rewritten, revised, substantively edited and mostly line-edited.

Why has it been lying around for so long in this state of almost-finished-ness? Because it’s a bit of a strange project. A bit unclassifiable. A mash-up of genres. In plain words, I have no idea who might want to publish it.

But that’s not really the point, is it? The problem of what to do with it is not a problem until it’s done. So I’ll finish it. And then I’ll worry about what to do with it.

Sounds like a plan. BKW, I hope you’re reading this.

Self-Editing For Dummies

By Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOh, calm down, I’m not really calling you dummies. But after thinking about my post the other day regarding the dearth of attention paid to editing lately, I realized that some portion of the blame must come to rest on the author, as well. The better we are at self-editing, the lesser our dependence on outside editors to catch all those little things that are dragging our stories down. Which, of course, puts us in a better light–both when editors and publishers read our submissions, and when our work (eventually, hopefully) finds its way into the hands of our readers.

So–how do you become a better self-editor?

1. Practice. Repeat after me: the first draft is not a finished work. Yes, you may complete your first draft in a rush of adrenaline and endorphins and think it’s the best thing anyone has ever written, anywhere. It’s not. Never send out something until that first fine rush has ebbed and you start to doubt. Once the doubt is there, you can start looking for all the things that are wrong, and begin to fix them. And fix them, and fix them, and when you think they’re fixed, see #2, below.

2. Other Eyes. My friend Steph has a great post over here about the necessity and value of first readers. The more eyes you can get on your work–knowledgeable, practiced eyes–the more chances you have of finding those things that editors will (or should) only fix later anyway. So those problems won’t be there to trip up your readers later.

3. Tools. Don’t underestimate the value of your word processor’s built-in spell-check and grammar-check; at the very least, they should make you slow down and look at possible problematic areas of your work. But they’re only the very minimal basics. One tool I love is Cliché Cleaner. Run your work through this handy little program to find clichés, overused expressions, and internal repetitions. It’s amazing how much one tool like this can help you clean up your work. You may have your own favorite cleanup tools–just don’t forget to use them.

4. Distance. Remember that first rush we talked about, that comes with completion of your first draft? One way to avoid falling victim to its siren song and sending your story out too soon is to get some distance from the work. Let it sit until it’s no longer totally fresh in your mind–a week, a month, even longer if you have the luxury. There’s nothing like coming back to it with some heightened objectivity to clear away the tint of those rose-coloured glasses.

5. Humility. No matter how competent or skilled a writer you are, you will always benefit from remembering that you are not perfect and neither are your early drafts. Expecting that your work will need polishing allows you to see its flaws more easily. Accepting that others will spot problems that you haven’t seen will make you more open to using their suggestions wisely.

For more advice on good self-editing, I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. Got your own self-editing favorites? Share them in the comments!

Image courtesy of Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Title Fight

This is not one of mine.

In a recent interview I (and a number of other authors) did over on the Third Person Press News Blog, one of the questions was about story titles–specifically the title of the story each of us had in the new anthology, Unearthed, and more generally, when and how we get our titles.

The title of my story in Unearthed is pretty simple: “The Cache.” It’s a story about what happens to two characters who go geocaching and find more than they bargained for, so the title seemed a no-brainer. However, it’s probably one of the least interesting ways to get a title that I’ve used, so I thought I’d elaborate a little here.

My two favourite ways to get titles are: 1) have the title come to me before I even know there’s a story to go with it, and 2) find a pre-existing line of verse and take the title from it (either directly or slightly twisted). The first way is a product of serendipity, so it can’t really be planned. It can be coaxed, to some extent–by thinking maybe in very general terms about a theme or setting and just letting the words dance and mix and float around until they coalesce into something. But most of the time it just…happens.

The second way, I go about very methodically. I surf over to Bartleby.net (although I’m sure there are other searchable verse or literary databases out there) and start running searches on keywords that have something to do with the story or story idea. I jot down everything that speaks to me, and then usually at some point I know I’ve got the one I need. Some of the titles I like the best have come out of this process: One’s Aspect to The Sun, Spaces Sharp and Bare, and To Where the Aether Failed. (I see, looking over my list of stories and novels, that this method seems to work best for novels. Huh. I never noticed that before.)

Other titles have come from the subject line in a spam email (Operant Moon), online generators (The Murder Prophet), and song titles (The Light of the Silvery Moon). And then the rest…I guess mostly from a word or phrase that comes out of the story or story idea itself. Sometimes I don’t even know how the title ties in to the story for sure until I’ve written more of it.

I rarely change a title. Maybe it’s a holdover from the old superstition that it’s bad luck to change the name of a horse or a boat, but once a story has a title, that’s usually it for me. In truth, I can think of only one that I changed on the suggestion of an editor. So thus far I guess I’ve been lucky.

Writers, what’s your favourite way to get a title? Readers, do titles ever turn you off before you even read the back cover blurb?

Tales of Tales ~ Part 6: On The Road With Fiamong’s Rule

Writing some stories is an uphill slog from start to finish, while others are so much fun to write that they practically seem to write themselves. “On The Road With Fiamong’s Rule” was one of those pure-fun stories for me.

Yet another of my stories that was idea-sparked by an anthology call, this one was originally written for an anthology looking for road trip stories–with, of course, an element of the speculative thrown in. The idea of a human-alien partnership in that road trip materialized quite quickly, as I recall, and as I said, the story seemed to write itself. This was one that I actually finished before the anthology’s deadline date, submitted and had accepted. Alas, something went wrong with the project, the anthology itself never made it to print, and I had to send the story out looking for another home. Such are the vagaries of the writing life.

The good news is that it did find another home, in the premiere issue of the Canadian Neo-Opsis magazine. If you look carefully, you can actually see my name on the cover. That was a first for me. Cool!

This story doesn’t follow a strict chronological timeline–there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between the “present” of the story and flashbacks to the past and the events leading up to the story’s “present.” I think I was experimenting a bit when I wrote this one, and I’d probably just been reading something that recommended starting a story “in medias res”–in the middle of the action. To illustrate what I mean by that, here’s the opening:

The worst moment of the whole trip came just before three a.m. on Friday. I stood in the driving rain, mud seeping insidiously into my shoes. The alien’s outline looked enormous in the dark, and the tire iron in his hand even more so, silhouetted against the probing glare of the police car’s headlights. When the cruiser had driven past a moment ago I thought we might be in the clear, but no, it had turned and was coming back.

My credit card was still being held hostage by the jerk at the service station and I had lost the rest of my ID in the motel fire. We had to make it to Ottawa by noon the next day or the entire mission could fail. I had about thirty seconds to think of something to tell the police, and if I didn’t get rid of them quickly, the alien would give himself away and we’d both be in the soup.

What was I, a previously normal at-home-mom of two, doing here? Tim was going to be furious when he found out.

Definitely the worst moment of the whole experience. Well, except for what happened later.

“In medias res,” indeed. I think I might have been testing to see just how far into the action one could really start a story. :)

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 5: The Ambassador’s Staff

Keeping to the SF side of the equation, I thought I’d take a look today at “The Ambassador’s Staff.” This story was originally published in the anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments. There’s a lot of interesting data on the website, compiled by the editors during and after the process. If you’ve ever thought about putting together an anthology, it makes a very interesting read. You can also read the entire anthology there.

Funnily enough, what I didn’t realize when I submitted the story to this anthology, was that they were particularly looking for stories that had been previously rejected by other markets. I don’t know how I missed that, but I did. This was actually the first place I’d submitted the story, and it was accepted. Oops!

The editors liked it, but wanted me to rewrite the ending to some extent. They gave very clear suggestions, but my first reaction was panic—they wanted it done over the weekend! At first I honestly didn’t know how to tackle it. But after some calming breaths and a hot drink, I got to work, and the editors were happy with the result.

Where I live, there’s talk from time to time of building a launch base for boosting things up into orbit—apparently our geographical location makes it a prime spot for this. It has never materialized (and I somehow doubt that it will, although I would love to be wrong about that), but I did start thinking…what might it look like here in a hundred years or so, if such a thing were built? The result was Cape City, a spaceport town. The other big idea in this story came from—spam! The subject line of a spam email made me imagine a drug called Level…and once again, two ideas clicked and decided they needed to be together.

I followed him to the door and he headed into the street. I watched him through the window, weaving his way through the folks milling around the spaceport, a few going to or from jobs, more just wandering—the street vendors, the homeless, the dealers and the Levelers.

One of those was sprawled in the doorway of Kugar’s video shop across the walklane, and I could tell the way he just stared, not moving, not blinking, that he was Leveled ‘way up. Kugar wouldn’t like that, but if he wanted the Leveler moved, he’d have to pick the guy up and carry him away. Once that white liquid finds its way down their throat or into a vein, they’re living in an alternate reality, and they don’t see, hear, feel or care anything about this one until they come back down.

I sighed and turned away from the window. The joke is that Leveling is the furthest you can get from Earth without actually boarding a ship. If I’d gone off-planet when I’d had the opportunity—well, who knows what would have happened. But chances are I wouldn’t be living in a tiny apartment above my office in a place like Cape City. Even if it was my own office.

“The Ambassador’s Staff” mixes genres, something I’ve realized I really like to do. This one puts a sort of hard-boiled female detective character on the streets of a spaceport town. I’d like to do more with this character as well, and I have a couple of ideas percolating. When she’s ready, I’m sure she’ll tell me how they turn out.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 4: Signs & Portents

So far I’ve been talking about some of the fantasy stories in the collection, so today I thought I’d move over to one of the science fiction stories.

“Signs & Portents” first appeared in Oceans of the Mind, which was a professionally-paying, .pdf-format magazine that published quarterly issues from 2001 to 2006. They were one of the first, as far as I know, to really make a strong attempt at an entirely electronic-based publishing format, and they published some great stories from wonderful writers around the world.

As writers, we’re often asked where we get our ideas. I don’t always have an answer for a particular story, but I do remember this one. Have you ever had the experience of glancing at a note or sign, and reading something quite different than what is actually there? Then you look again and realize that what you thought you saw wasn’t right. Well, there was a period when that seemed to be happening to me a lot.

At about the same time, there was a story going around about a fellow in the nearest city to where I live, who appeared regularly on a street corner, bearing a sign protesting this or that. I don’t know that I ever saw him myself, but an image of him had built itself up in my mind.

So, somewhere in my brain, these two ideas collided (hey, just like in a particle accelerator, which figures largely in the story), and “Signs & Portents” was born. This is the way a lot of my stories seem to happen—two unrelated ideas that meet, shake hands, and decide that they would work well together.

The Sign Man in “Signs & Portents” was one of my favorite characters to write, although he’s not the narrator nor the main character of the story. But I enjoyed figuring out who he was and what he was doing on that street corner, and why his signs were so—well, if I say too much I’ll give things away.

Three days later, my head still bandaged, I walked toward the Sign Man’s corner. He was quiet today. The army fatigues were gone, replaced by a wrinkled blue plaid jacket and paint-speckled olive polyester pants. The ever-present placard read “SPACE SHUTTLES—AS IF!”.

I walked right up to him and just stood for a minute. He fixed me with a placid stare. His eyes weren’t mad at all today. They were quiescent spheres of polished granite.

“How did you know?” I said finally.

“Spare some change?” he asked.

“How did you do it?”

“The space shuttles aren’t real, you know,” he confided. “It’s all just entertainment. Hollywood jerking us.”

“Your sign,” I said. “I saw something on it the other day. A warning, maybe.”

“I’ll sell you the sign,” he offered, tapping today’s placard, “for a dollar.”

I steadied my voice. “No, not this sign. Another sign. A few days ago. It said, ‘Near miss on 24’. I was nearly killed on route 24 on my way home.”

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 3: Winter Bewitched

Today I’m thinking about the story, “Winter Bewitched,” another tale in my collection To Unimagined Shores. This one was described by a colleague who critiqued it as a genre noir story in disguise. It’s set in an unusual fantasy setting, but it is a detective story at heart.

In a chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum, I can’t recall whether I saw this piece of fantasy art first and that inspired the characters of the scribe Jalia and her shapechanging companion, Gemmel, or if I had the characters in mind and went looking for a piece of art to help me visualize them. In any case, this is how they exist in my mind (except that Jalia has no magical abilities, though they are depicted here). The art is by Kay Allen, a wonderful artist who had a gallery at epilogue.net for many years but who seems to have disappeared from there. The only place I can find some of her art now is at artwanted.com, and this picture isn’t there, so I’m very grateful that I saved a copy of it for my reference.

I initially wrote this story for a winter-themed anthology (themed anthologies again!), which did not pan out, but it was included in the first Third Person Press anthology, Undercurrents. The original title was slightly different, but one of my editors suggested that perhaps it gave away the end of the story, so I followed her wise advice and changed it. However, now I always have to stop and think to remember which is the actual title.

We were six days out of Salabad when we crossed the sudden border into winter. One moment the air was warm and dry blowing down from the steppes, and then a frigid breeze sprang up, a rime of frost appeared on the trail ahead, and the sky darkened to the colour of yesterday’s gruel.

I reined in the mare to slip my warm Surcyian cloak over my head, and Gemmin scampered ahead. When his paws hit the frost he turned back, a look of unmistakable dismay on his feline face. Three leaps took him from the ground to my shoulder. He kneaded his long toes into the collar of my cloak as a lock of my hair blew over the crown of his head, giving him a comical auburn topknot.

Enchantments, Jalia, he nuzzled into my ear, in a tongue few mortals would have understood. Gemmin was most comfortable conversing in the words he’d taught me, the language of the strange, inaccessible place of his birth.

I nodded. “A witch, a curse, the usual sort of thing,” I told him. “If you can believe tavern tales told by a half-drunk barkeep.” We were still in the steppes, and at least another fortnight’s travel from the higher altitudes where snow might normally be expected.

Jalia wrote it down? Gemmin asked.

“Of course I did. What kind of scribe lets a good tale go to waste? At any rate, a frosty ground means we’ll have to find lodgings for tonight, whether we can afford it or not. I doubt we’re still being pursued. It was only the price of a meal, after all.”

Jalia beckons trouble always, Gemmin chided me, his whiskers and hot breath tickling my ear.

I’d like to write more stories about these characters; their relationship is complex and is a lot of fun to write. Perhaps someday soon one of them will come knocking on my brain with a problem they need to solve…

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.