Podcast Paradise Part Two

Last week, I shared some favorite podcasts for writers. Here are a few more podcasts I’ve been enjoying lately that, while not specifically geared toward writers, have given me tasty food for thought while I burn calories. Enjoy, and please share your own favorites!

  • The Minimalists Podcast. You might have seen their documentary Minimalism, a Documentary about the Important Things, recently released on Netflicks. Former corporate strivers Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus ramble on (and on and on) about their conversion to a minimalist lifestyle. Their podcasts often run over an hour, but I find these two young guys (both thirty-five) amusing and inspiring in their search for a more intentional life, which is my number one goal as well. Good stuff—I highly recommend this one.
  • The RobCast. I dipped my toes into this podcast because The Minimalists praised his podcast so highly. So far, I’ve been delighted with Bell’s non-preachy exploration of the good life and spirituality.
  • Optimal Living Daily. These are quickies, mostly ten minutes or less. Pleasant-voiced narrator Justin Malik reads the best blogs on personal growth. How cool is that? Think of the time it would take you to find and read all these blogs. Excellent idea.
  • Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin. I looooved his interview with Carol Burnett, and look forward to more.
  • 2 Boomer Broads: Life, Love, Laughs, and Unsolicited Advice. Giggly fun as Dr. Sharone Rosen (chiropractor) and Rebecca Forstadt-Okolski (health blogger) chat about issues facing women over 50. Warning: one of these ladies, a voice-over actress, has a squeaky voice, something I normally abhor. However, their chats are so entertaining I find it easy to overlook it in this case.
  • 10% Happier with Dan Harris. The author of a book by the same name, journalist Dan Harris interviews high achievers in many fields to discover whether one can be both successful and enlightened. Very thought-provoking.
  • Revisionist History. I love this one! Malcolm Gladwell, author and deep thinker, offers ten episodes from 2016 in which he takes a different view on issues ranging from education to food to the Vietnam War. Fascinating.
  • Call Your Girlfriend. While I reject, spit upon, and trample the idea that a mature woman like me must keep up with the latest trends in order to stay “relevant,” I do find it interesting to see what thoughtful younger people are up to. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, two young BFFs who live on opposite coasts, discuss current events both serious and frivolous. Very enjoyable.

Podcast Paradise Part One: Podcasts for Writers

I’m a latecomer to the podosphere–Is that a word?–but lately I’m getting lots of value from free podcasts I download from iTunes. Not only do they increase my motivation to take frequent exercise breaks, but they ease my commutes and keep me company at the gym. As a mostly-introverted writer, I enjoy these entertaining, informative, lively conversations that require nothing more than my attention. And they come with a pause button!

Here are some I’ve enjoyed in the past six months that relate at least tangentially to writing:

  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before and her sister, TV writer Elizabeth Craft, offer lively conversations about habits and attitudes that lead to a happier, more productive life—and isn’t that what it’s all about?
  • So You Want to Be a Writer. Australian writers Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait talk about all things writing and interview writers. Good stuff.
  • Self-Publishing Roundtable. Here’s another band of Aussies who, alas, published their last podcast in December of 2016, but I’m gobbling up all their good advice while it’s still relevant and topical. Very informative, and fun accents!
  • TED Radio Hour. TED talks in podcast! Who knew? There’s lots here of interest to writers.
  • Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert. The author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic interviews creative types, including many writers. Great inspiration here.
  • The New Yorker: The Writer’s Voice. New Fiction from the New Yorker. Short stories read by actors. Really good!
  • Kendall & Cooper Talk Mysteries, by Washington mystery authors Wendy Kendall and Julie Cooper. Great for mystery fans and writers.
  • Seated at the Writers’ Table. This one leans more toward screenwriting, but contains lots of useful info for all fiction writers.
  • The Literary Salon. Mostly under an hour, the last podcast was posted in October of last year. Host Damian Barr interviews writers, who then read from their work.
  • Writing Excuses. These are quickies, lively fifteen-minute snippets about writerly topics. Lots of humor.
  • Helping Writers Become Authors. Another quickie, all under twenty minutes, K.M. Weiland offers advice for writers on a wide variety of craft and publishing issues.
  • Literary Lunch. In 2016, RO Literary Agency put out seven podcasts about the publishing industry. I particularly like their discussions of query letters, the good and the bad. Very specific.
  • Dead Robots’ Society. “A gathering of aspiring writers podcasting to other aspiring writers.” This was the first writers’ podcast I tried. Although it’s aimed mostly at the self-pub sci-fi and fantasy set, I’ve found lots that useful here, and their discussions are entertaining too.

Do you have any podcast recommendations to share, especially those that pertain to writing?

How to Overcome Your Work Ethic in Retirement

My husband suggested this blog topic, which made me smile. We both struggle with this affliction, though I suspect I have a worse case.

I’ve always been an efficient multi-tasker—well, a multi-tasker, anyway. Like a juggler on a unicycle, for years I’ve kept multiple balls in the air as I lurched from crisis to near-disaster and back again. It helps to think of it that way, to visualize my former self peddling frantically while wearing a sparkly tutu and giant clown shoes, an exaggerated look of panic on my painted face. Makes it easier to set down the balls and step out of the center ring in search of a new role.

But now that I’m retired-ish, who’s checking to make sure I’m achieving adequate yearly progress? (Sorry—having worked in the public school system, certain odious phrases just come naturally to me. Add that to my to-do list: banish the buzzwords.) Bereft of job assignments from without, I’ve become my own worst boss.

Even though it’s going on three years since I left full-time paid employment, I have a full-time to-do list. I want to exercise for an hour each day, keep the house and garden clean, practice Spanish daily, write at least a thousand words of fiction each day, plus a weekly blog post, read and comment on the work of my critique partners, read fiction for fun, stay informed about current events (talk about your juggling clowns), travel, sew, cook healthy and creative meals, make new friends, keep the old, visit family, explore new places…

Holy cow, this is worse that before! And then, god help me, I took on a part-time job. Two, actually.

Enough! I retired with two goals in mind:   #1: write, and #2: enjoy myself.

So what if I waste an hour or two reading interesting stuff online? All my life, I’ve relaxed by reading magazines—and what is the internet but one big magazine?

So what if I don’t hold myself to a strict workout schedule? I move around pretty well most days and get to the gym often enough to justify the cost of membership.

So what if I still haven’t yet published a book? A quick glance at Amazon reminds me I could self-publish anytime. I prefer to plug away at my manuscripts in hopes of eventually achieving traditionally published status. If I don’t, readers await elsewhere.

Henceforth—a momentous-sounding word, right?—henceforth I shall remind myself that my number one obligation in retirement is to enjoy myself. I’ve earned a break for all this frenetic busy-bee-ness.

Besides, those clown shoes gave me blisters, the greasepaint gave me pimples, and that unicycle seat chafed. Time to relax.

Reworking an Old Story, or the Blob That Ate the Bully

Wow, February just flew by. Like, zoom! Once again, it’s time for the IWSG question o’ the month. IWSG is a great resource for writers. and hosts a monthly blog hop. Give them a look here and join the conversation:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

March 1 Question: Have you ever pulled out a really old story and reworked it? Did it work out?

Why, yes I have! There were a few months when I was deep into edits for my second novel and had no new material for my twice-monthly critique group, so I unearthed a few old short stories lurking in my hard drive. Their style and content was quite different from my usual MO: instead of women’s fiction and cozy mysteries, these were Twilight Zone-esque speculative fiction.

How did that work out? I got enthusiastic feedback from my group members, most of whom write sci-fi and fantasy. The experience was a good reminder that I am capable of writing in a variety of styles and genres, and that doing so is good exercise for my writing muscles. Here’s a sample from the middle of The Vengeance, the tale of a little girl whose fear and anger at a bully manifests in a surprising way.

Miss Craft kept her promise. She stood at the school yard gate and watched as Katie quick-stepped toward the bushes, a thick patch of scratchy junipers where generations of kids had burrowed tunnels and hidden from teachers. Kids talked about the ‘cave’ inside there, but Katie had never worked up the nerve to peer inside.

As she passed, she heard scrabbling and whispers.

“Katie!” a voice hissed from inside the thicket.

Katie jumped, then looked back over her shoulder. Mr. Cricks, the principal, was talking to Miss Craft. The teacher glanced at Katie and waved her on, then turned to her boss.

A strong hand clamped onto Katie’s arm, yanking her inside the bushes. Another hand, cold and clammy, pressed over her mouth. Sharp twigs scratched her face and bare legs, and her backpack caught fast on a branch. For a moment, there was a tug-of-war between the backpack and the hand, but eventually Big Joyce won, and Katie was pulled into the “cave.”

Deep-green junipers arched overhead, leaving just enough room for the shorter kids to stand. Big Joyce had to hunch over, which only made her look more menacing. Katie whimpered and wrapped her arms around her shivering little body. Snarky Kelly and the other toadies grinned at her like hungry dogs waiting for a treat.

Big Joyce glowered. “Thought you could just walk on by, huh? Told you I’d be waiting for you, bitch.”

Katie could only stammer. She’d never heard a third grader say the B word. But that didn’t matter now, because she was going to die here, in the bushes.

Big Joyce yanked off Katie’s pink headband. “Nice bandage,” she sneered. “Want another one?”

“Naw, she wants more. Lots more bandages,” Snarky Kelly yapped.

“Yeah, cover up her ugly face,” Skinny Wanda crowed.

“Stupid little …Katie,” Dumb Laura chimed in.

The pack of toadies and their queen encircled Katie, blocking any chance of escape. Everything seemed to slow down, and Katie’s vision became watery as she swayed on rubbery knees. The cave smelt cool, and damp, and earthy–and a little bit rotten…

Joyce twirled Katie’s pink headband around her thick finger. “Think I could choke her with this?”

The toadies snorted and cackled.

Just behind Joyce, Katie saw a movement on the ground, as if water were flowing from the wall to pool around Joyce’s feet. Katie shivered, feeling colder and colder.

“Look at her shaking. She’s gonna pass out.”

“Hey,” Kelly asked the others, “can you really die of fright?”

“Let’s find out,” said Joyce, and lurched toward Katie. But her feet didn’t follow. They were stuck fast in the clear, thick goo oozing up her scabby legs.

“What the hell?” Joyce looked down, screamed, and toppled forward, taking Katie down with her. The toadies scattered, scrabbling out of the bushes like rats. Kicking hard, Katie managed to wriggle free.

The goo thickened as it expanded, sucking Joyce in. It reached her waist, then her chest, then her shoulders, making slurping sounds as it swallowed the squirming child. Joyce bucked and thrashed, her clawed hands scrabbling in the dirt, her eyes wild. The goo flowed up to her neck. Joyce gasped, her face purple, her mouth wide–but no sound emerged, for now the goo had filmed her face, stopping her screams.

Joyce fought a long time, her motions jerky, then sporadic, and then she was still, floating twisted inside the blob. The thing shivered, slid like a great slug back toward the wall, and then extended a thread of clear slime toward Katie. She scrabbled backward like a crab, “No! No please!”

The thing paused, then slowly extended its—what?—tentacle?—and gently brushed Katie’s leg. She braced herself for pain, but it felt cool, gentle. And though it made no noise, somehow she heard it say, “You’re welcome.”

It slithered back under the wall and was gone.

 

The Wisdom of Walt Whitman

Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy.
–Walt Whitman

A brave soul brought a free-verse poem to today’s critique group. I’m seldom moved to write poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but I do enjoy reading it when it crosses my path. The purpose of poetry, after all, is to communicate a profound meaning in a compact package. Fiction tells a story, but poetry paints in colors of emotion. The poet slams you with a fist of truth, or slices into your heart with painful beauty, or distracts you with a charming image before ambushing you with a weighty understanding.

Some of today’s group members declared themselves uncomfortable critiquing poetry, or averse to poetry without a regular rhyme or meter. Of course, this made me think of my favorite poet, Walt Whitman.

We need you today, Mr. Whitman. Supremely democratic, proudly American, and a wonderful proto-hippie, you (mostly) eschewed the accepted poetic forms of your day to write sprawling, untamed poems that echoed the power and beauty of our (then) new nation. You celebrated the beauty and perfection of the common man—not as one looking down from his lofty tower, but as one who walked among them.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I think both my red and blue friends would find echoes of their varied conceptions of America in Whitman’s poetry. The bigots, of course, would not. Whitman was very inclusive.

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me.

And Whitman would not shrink from today’s debate and contention, I think. Nor would he admonish anyone to shut up, calling them “snowflakes.”

Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?

Whitman would not discourage marchers, and would probably wear a pink hat.

There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country,
if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.

So here’s to Papa Walt Whitman, a devoted American and wise poet who broke the accepted rules to create something wise and precious. In these contentious times, may we be inspired by his all-encompassing, inclusive love for America.

IWSG February 2107: Reading as a Writer, and Vice Versa

Can you believe how quickly another month has whizzed by? It’s time once again for our monthly question from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a great resource for all us scribblers, and I’ve really enjoyed meeting other writers via this blog exchange. Give them a look here and join the conversation:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Our question for February: How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

  1. Being a writer has reduced the amount of fiction I read, because I’m busy writing, or reading about writing. I’m working to change that, because reading widely makes me a better writer. It also teaches me about publishing trends, as well as changing tastes in fiction. And it’s fun. With all the dire news landing with juicy splats all around me, I find myself reaching for love stories, comedy, and other light-hearted literary diversions.
  2. Being a writer has made me a more critical reader. Having gobbled so many workshops, books, blogs, and magazines about the craft of writing fiction, I’m now much quicker to notice craft elements that, if mishandled, dampen a story’s impact. During my many years of teaching high school English classes, I looked at stories primarily from a reader’s point of view. If a story didn’t grab me, I just set it aside without much thought as to why it left me flat. But having studied the craft of writing from a writer’s point of view, I’m much more aware of issues like:
  • Characters who talk alike
  • Stories knitted together out of boring, predictable clichés
  • Protagonists I just can’t relate to, or whose actions don’t make sense
  • Lengthy flashbacks that don’t move the story forward
  • Long pauses in the narrative to insert info-dumps
  • Formulaic writing, such as ending every scene with a breath-taking cliffhanger
  • Purple prose and thesaurus abuse: writing that distracts me from the story rather than enhancing its impact

The good news is that because I notice these issues in others’ writing, I’m less likely to commit these crimes in my own work. So I hope, anyway.

So, what have you been reading lately, and has it helped your writing?

On Minimalism, Adding Value, and Ten Thousand Steps

During this dark, drizzly, cold time of year,  walking at least 10 K steps per day can be a challenge. Picture, if you will, a middle-aged woman in gym clothes, pacing from front door to back door while listening to podcasts. That’s me. Just 1000 steps to go. Those recorded conversations really help pass the time while I walk.

Lately I’ve been gobbling podcasts about voluntary simplicity, “minimalism” being the more popular term these days. Of course I read Thoreau as an undergrad, and have been known to mutter “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” while searching my overstuffed closet for something to wear to work. The book that really opened my eyes to the beauty and wisdom of simplicity was Elaine St. James’ 1994 volume Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter.

Trends run in 20-year cycles, don’t they? It seems voluntary simplicity is in again. So far, my favorite podcast so far on this subject is The Minimalists, in which Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, both thirty-five, discuss how they came to and maintain a simpler lifestyle. They also have a documentary out, and a website, http://www.theminimalists.com/, in which they explore and celebrate an alternative to our destructive, mindless consumerism.

A phrase these two young minimalists frequently use is “Adding value to your life.” What a great guiding question to keep in mind as I weed through superfluous belongings or contemplate a purchase. Does this object add value to my life? Does this pastime? This habit?

During these dark days of the year, here are a few things that are adding value to my life:

  • Blogs by writers, for writers
  • Upbeat novels with a much-needed HEA ending, like Ann Garvin’s I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around.
  • Remembering to turn on the music while I cook, clean, or bathe. It’s harder to gnaw on that worry bone while dancing.
  • Rose-scented perfume
  • Trevor Noah’s commentary on our crazy times
  • My favorite fuzzy sweaters
  • Playing my ukulele
  • Singing with children. I don’t sing all that well, but they don’t care.

What’s adding value to your life these days?

On Insomnia and Internet-Induced Nightmares

Has the news been keeping you up nights?

I did it again last night. I’ll bet you’ve done it too.

Sleep evaded me, and so I lay in bed for hours with a twitching body and a racing mind. Every time I started to drift off, foul tendrils of worry wrapped around my brain. What’s to come under Cheetohlini the Terrible? Like giant dominos falling in slow motion, each potential disaster landed with an ominous thunk: no more Social Security, no more health insurance for my daughter, no more pension check. No more natural gas to heat our house. No electricity, no running water. War with Russia. Nuclear devastation.

And then the zombies came shambling over the horizon.

OK—by the light of day, I can see that all this spinning of dark doom-dreams is a waste of time. There are currently no reports of zombies in Tacoma, except perhaps for druggies on 6th Avenue. Our furnace still works. Our savings have not been wiped out by a stock market collapse or government confiscation.

I went hunting online for a quote I vaguely recall—was it by Mark Twain? Something about how none of us is truly sane in the wee hours of the morning. I couldn’t find it, but I did find this one by Calvin Coolidge.

“If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

Since the election, I spend far too much time on social media and news sites, testing the limits of how much bad news I can tolerate. The needle is definitely in the red zone, and I need to release some pressure before my worry-tank explodes.

On the one hand, when dealing with adversity and worry, my default mode is to do something. Social media alerts me to opportunities to take action, such as calling my elected officials when they’re on the verge of voting away yet another batch of our rights. Public outcry had a lot to do with the reversal of sneaky, destructive doings by Republican congressmen and women recently, and public outcry may be key in limiting the injustices perpetrated by the new kakocracy.

On the other hand, much of the online news is pure speculation about what the neon-orange man-baby might do next. I’ve been watching friends both real and virtual work themselves up into a lather. And I’ll bet they’re not sleeping well.

Where is that perfect balance point between involvement and self-protection? I haven’t found it yet.

For now, I’m limiting my time on social media, and giving my skimming skills a good workout. It’s so tempting to read the latest flare-up of righteous indignation, but too much of that stuff will leave me singed–and it will eat up all my writing time to boot.

On the plus side, cutting back on social media leaves more time for reading fiction. What are you reading these days?

On Writing Rules We’d Rather Forget

Can it really be the first Wednesday of the month already? With each passing year, the time seems to fly by more swiftly. That may be good news, considering what the next four years may hold.

In any case, it’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

January 2017 Question: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

I’m bolder than I was when younger, but I’m still quite conflict-averse. This is not a good trait in a writer. When creating a story, I resent the pressure to inject every scene with conflict. But all the craft books, all the writing teachers, all my critique partners remind me that I must. We’ve all heard the adage: “Put your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her, then get her back down.”

Whether on the page or on the screen, a narrative with too much constant conflict tires me out. All that strife can feel phony, contrived. Must I really throw that many rocks? And then drop my protag over a cliff and leave her clutching at slippery tree roots by her fingernails?

Why can’t I intersperse high-conflict scenes with cozy, funny scenes in which nothing goes wrong for my poor protag? I know I’ve enjoyed books in which there were plenty of low-conflict scenes. Alas, I wasn’t yet writing “for reals” and didn’t take notes on those writers’ technique and structure.

OK, here’s one: J.A. Jance is one of my favorite mystery writers. Her stories include many low-key scenes in which the protag interacts with friends and family. These scenes provide backstory, comic relief, or just a breather. Of course, Jance’s stories never lack for adequate conflict—we’re trying to solve a murder, for goodness’ sake.

I get it—my job as a writer I to show a big change in my character. But I enjoy just spending with my protag, getting to know the colorful characters she meets. I’ve created a fictional town for her which incorporates aspects of my favorite places. Most of us don’t live in coastal artists’ colonies like my protag does—most of us live in overcrowded cities or boring suburbs or out in the country where nothing much happens. Do I really have to chase poor Lola down the streets of this lovely town, threatening her with the loss of all she holds dear?

I know, for a story to sell, the stakes must be high. But I wish that weren’t so; I wish readers, editors, publishers had a little more patience, were more inclined to stop and smell the coastal breeze as it wafts over my protag and her wise, funny friends.

Connecting in the New Year

I got this marvelous idea from Gretchen Rubin’s excellent podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. If you haven’t already, you should check it out on iTunes. Rubin and her sister, Elizabeth Craft, discuss ideas from her book Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. Rather than create the usual list of (ignored by February) new year’s resolutions, Rubin suggests picking a one-word theme to focus on in the coming year.

Choosing my theme for 2017 was surprisingly easy: CONNECT.

Both my vocation and my avocation require lots of solitary office time, and that suits my mostly-introverted nature. I could easily spend a whole day writing and reading—until I find myself feeling lonely and itchy for actual human contact, an itch that social media doesn’t quite scratch. And yet, when I’m with others, I sometimes find it hard to give them my full attention. I could do much better here, and would be happier for it.

And then there’s the news. Oh my, how recent events tug on my worry strings. How they stretch their tendrils of gloom through my dreams. I sit at my desk, picking at the virtual scabs and retweeting dismay, which only magnifies the miasma of impending doom. I don’t want to waste four years huddled under a rain cloud like Eeyore.

And so, in 2017 I’ll focus on connecting—with other writers, with my students and colleagues, with activists who are doing something other than moan, with not-so-likeminded people, to remind them of our shared humanity, with loved ones I see too seldom, and with the fascinating people who cross my path each day. Keeping this one-word mantra in mind will help focus my efforts: connect. There’s no warmer comfort than knowing, deep down in your bones, that you’re not alone.

What’s your focus for the coming year? Can you boil it down to just one word?