Wednesday, November 26, 2014

10 things I'm grateful for this Thanksgiving

I've seen a lot of folks on the interwebz sharing lists of things they feel grateful for this holiday season. It's given me the urge to jump on the big, throbbing bandwagon, mostly because I wanted the excuse to type that phrase.

Kenny and Luna. Because we didn't already
have enough cats in our house.
In no particular order, here are 10 things for which I feel extremely grateful this Thanksgiving:

  1. Batteries (and devices in which to put them)
  2. Kittens. Especially the ones that fit in my purse.
  3. A nice, earthy Oregon Pinot Noir in a Riedel wineglass made just for Oregon Pinot (yeah, that's a thing).
  4. A new husband who decides the 44-monthaversary of our first date is not only cause for celebration, but a good reason to stage a one-man concert in our living room, complete with candles, flowers, wine, and a serenade of songs he performed just for me. OK, the dog got to listen, too. 
    My private concert celebrating 44-months of togetherness.
  5. Tall boots, fleece-lined leggings, and the fact that I never have to wear pants if I don't want to.
  6. The fact that 2014 will be the first year since 2007 (the date I made the choice to leave a well-paying corporate job with long hours, gradually moving down the ladder in terms of pay and time-commitment to the part-time job I've held for the last four years, all with the hope of furthering my writing career) that I will finally, finally make or exceed what I used to earn when I had a regular full-time job. The writers among you will understand that's kind of a big deal. The non-writers might scratch your heads and go, "wait, you mean authors aren't all killin' it with the big bucks?"
  7. Two amazing stepkids who seem genuinely impressed (or at least do a good imitation of being impressed) when they spot one of my books on the shelf at a local retailer.
  8. Cast iron skillets (my new culinary obsession)
  9. Parents, cousins, siblings, in-laws, out-laws, co-workers, publishing colleagues, friends, and random strangers who've been a constant source of love, laughter, and support throughout my life.
  10. Readers. Hell, even if you don't read my books, I'm grateful to everyone who routinely picks up a book and gets lost in the pages. You keep the publishing industry going and the human race functioning in a thoughtful, creative, connected fashion. 
Entangled Publishing loves readers, too, which is why
they're offering a killer Black Friday sale on a bunch
of their titles (including my book
Marine for Hire for only 99-cents.
Click here for details.
I'm probably forgetting a few things, which I'm just going to go ahead and blame on item #3 above. So what are you most grateful for this Thanksgiving? Please share!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why does this keep happening to us?

One of the most common questions I've fielded since my author career took off is when I plan to quit my day job.

After I stop laughing, I usually point out that my duties as the part-time PR and communications manager for my city's tourism bureau include taking journalists out for beer tours and snowshoeing, or sampling hamburgers all over town so I can write about the best ones. To get me to quit, they will need to drag me from the building by my hair.

Last spring, the marketing team at a nearby luxury resort invited me to bring my family for a weekend visit. They wanted to make sure I was knowledgeable enough about the resort's amenities to describe them to visiting journalists. As you might imagine, this was a great hardship.

To say this place was beyond my regular budget is akin to suggesting it might be outside my authorial comfort zone to write books about quantum chromodynamics and the interactions of subnuclear particles.

On our second night there, my gentleman friend and I were checking the kids in at the activity center when a well-dressed couple walked through the door. Gliding across the beautiful tiled lobby in a cloud of expensive perfume, the woman remarked to the concierge that they were headed to the poolside bar for a cocktail.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the concierge informed her grimly. "That bar closed thirty minutes ago, but both restaurants are open with fully-stocked bars and expansive mountain views."

The woman gaped at him. Then she turned to her husband with a plaintive wail. "Why does this keep happening to us?!"

There was a moment of silence while everyone in the lobby digested her words. Even the woman herself seemed to realize what a pungent cloud of  privileged melodrama she'd just released into the air.

She gave an uneasy laugh. "I mean, we came by last night and it wasn't open, and then–" she stopped, sensing she'd lost her audience. "We'll go try the lodge." They hurried away, her high heels clicking across the lobby. 

My gentleman friend turned to his offspring. "See that, kids? That's what entitlement looks like."

The teachable moment extended beyond the children. In the six months since then, it's become a catch phrase in our household. Whenever one of us is poised to descend into a pit of pointless, hand-wringing, self-despair, someone will break out the histrionic wail.

"Why does this keep happening to us?!"

It's a reminder to keep things in perspective. To remember that whether you've burned dinner or stubbed your toe or mistakenly deleted the sex scene you spent all afternoon writing, at least you have dinner or toes or sex scenes.

Not everyone is so lucky.

It reminds me of this video campaign that circulated a year ago featuring impoverished, third-world citizens reading a variety of first-world woes. If you want a little perspective about the difficulties in your own life, take one minute to check it out.

Is there anything that routinely helps you to take a step back and gain a new perspective on the things you might perceive as major problems? Please share! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

The magical secret to writing productivity

In the years since my romantic comedies started hitting bookstore shelves, I’ve had a lot of people ask my secret.

When I confessed my preferred sex lube or the location of each tattoo on my body, they realized they needed to ask more specifically about my writing secrets. Do I follow a strict schedule? Use special software? Sacrifice virgins by throwing them into an active volcano?

The answer is yes, no, and where the hell am I going to find virgins?

Bindi, the magical plot dog.
But I do have a secret tool that makes me a stronger, more competent writer, and I'm going to share it with you now: I have a magical plot dog.

I know, I know....some of you are skeptical such a beast exists, but I can prove it's true.

The way my aforementioned writing schedule works, I have a couple full days each week devoted strictly to writing. I have specific word count goals for those days, and I can get pretty testy if lunchtime rolls around and I'm nowhere near the mid-point on the day's goal. So testy, in fact, that I've been known to turn to my dog, Bindi, with an apology.

"I know I said we'd go for a w-a-l-k at lunch, but I'm stuck on a sticky plot point and I'm way behind and I've gotta meet this deadline," I'll tell her. "Can we skip it today?"

And my dog will look at me, shake her head, and reply. "You idiot. First of all, I learned to spell walk about five years ago. And second of all, don't you know that taking me for a walk is exactly what you need to get unstuck right now?"

The thing is, she's right. She can spell walk, though she can't actually talk. Well, not unless I've had too many glasses of wine.

But she also has a point about the writing. Just last week, I was tangled up in a plot snarl I thought I might never escape. I'm on deadline with a book that absolutely, positively must be finished by the Monday before Thanksgiving or my editor will cut off my thumbs and sew them to my forehead. Despite what you might imagine, that sort of stress is not conducive to good writing.

When lunchtime rolled around with no solution in in sight, I did something dumb. I didn't skip the walk – hey, I'm not that dumb – but I did decide to multi-task by calling my mom for a quick chat. And as much as I enjoyed our visit, I came back to my writing desk, sat down, and stared at the screen.

Nothing happened.

I turned to my magical plot dog. "What the hell? I still don't know how to write this scene."

Bindi sighed and shook her head. "You're a moron."

"Oh yeah?" I fumed. "Well you lick your butt."

"You're just jealous."

Again, she probably had a point. Not about the butt-licking, but the fact that I should know better by now. A walk with the magical plot dog is a sacred thing. You can't spend the time chatting with a friend or fiddling with your phone. You have to let your mind wander freely while the fresh air and nature have their way with your fumbling author brain.

There's real science behind this concept. According to a study titled Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings, "Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes.... Consistent with ART, research indicates that exposure to natural settings seems to replenish some, lower-level modules of the executive attentional system."

Or you can just say you've got a magical plot dog. Whatever.

I shut down my laptop that evening with no solution to the plot snarl and a word count that was lower than what I'd hoped for. The next morning, I got up early to walk the dog. I left my phone at home, and by the time I reached the end of my street, I'd figured out the whole damn scene.

For the record, the dog might not be a mandatory part of the process. If you don't have your own canine companion, it's possible a mere walk around the block could have the same effect. Just a few minutes of fresh air and escape from the tethers of technology can work wonders on your brain. It's the solitude and the change of scenery that makes the magic happen.

Just don't tell my magical plot dog, okay? She'll get pissed. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The pleasure lesson I learned on my honeymoon

Things are a bit different when you marry at 40 and it's not the first rodeo for either of you. You may not spend the honeymoon having sex while swinging from the chandelier, but that's only because you've already learned you get better traction from a fully-adjustable door-mounted pleasure swing with padded back support and optional bondage cuffs.

My gentleman friend and I were lucky enough to honeymoon in Belize for ten days following our September wedding. While I make no comment about how we spent our time in the boudoir, there's one important life lesson I brought home to savor long after I'd shaken the sand out of my bikini bottoms.

I developed a taste for English-style tea with milk and sugar back when I was a wee lass who got her thrills looking up "penis" and "intercourse" in the grade school encyclopedia. My mom would take me out for "lady time" to an English café in Salem, Oregon where we'd sip tea and nibble cucumber and salmon sandwiches while pretending to be refined and dignified.

My fondness for black tea laced with milk and sugar continued into adulthood, but something got lost along the way. Over time, I transitioned from sugar to an artificial sweetener, followed by a switch to some sort of all-natural sweetener that tastes vaguely like rotting fruit. The milk, too, fell by the wayside after an allergy test revealed I had a mild intolerance to it. While I still savored my tea every morning, it was a watered-down version of what I loved as a kid.

That all changed on my honeymoon. Our oceanfront suite was stocked with black tea and an electric kettle, but the only sweetener to be found was real sugar. There was an array of powdered creamer, but a quick trip to the corner store saw it replaced with a pint of whole milk.

How I drank my tea (and did some writing)
every morning of my Belize honeymoon.
Since I'm an early riser in contrast to my gentleman friend's night-owl habits, the morning hours became a treasured little pocket of time I used to work on the book I'd recently been contracted to write on a fairly tight deadline.

(Sidenote: Yes, I know it's f**ked up to bring a laptop on your honeymoon so you can work. It's even more f**ked up when the book you're working on was partly inspired by the divorces you and your new spouse experienced prior to your union. In my defense, I love what I write, and I love this book in particular, so getting up and working on it each morning was almost as enjoyable as crawling back into bed afterward to wake my other half).

So back to the tea.

Every morning, I rose early and pulled on a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top. I brewed a mug of tea, added milk and sugar, and padded barefoot out to the balcony where I'd spend the next hour sipping my brew and hammering out a new scene with the backdrop of turquoise waves lapping at the shore. Everything about it – the writing, the tea, the scenery, the fact that I didn't have to wear shoes or a bra – was exactly what I always fantasized about when I imagined becoming a romance writer.
I wasn't kidding about the jellyfish. Here's the mark to prove it.

Of course, reality beckoned in the not-so-distant future. There were day jobs and pets and power bills and all the trappings of real life waiting at the end of our ten days in paradise. We headed home with fresh tans and fresh knowledge of what happens when you're twined together in the ocean with your legs wrapped around your new husband's hips and you happen to brush up against a jellyfish.

But the most important lesson of all was in the tea. Or rather, the fact that I enjoy my tea so much more without the gritty dollop of almond milk I added because I worried a tablespoon of milk might upset my stomach, or the nasty-tasting fake sweetener I used because somewhere along the line, I decided I didn't deserve those extra couple calories each morning.

Tea with milk, sugar, and my favorite mug
(courtesy of author Chuck Wendig)
These days, I drink my tea with real milk and real sugar. I wake up in the morning thinking about it, and I savor the ritual of steeping that teabag and blending in just the right amount of sweetness and light.

The lesson goes beyond a mere fondness for better tasting tea. It's a reminder not to stray too far from the roots of what made me love something in the first place. It's a kick-in-the butt that let me know it's okay to enjoy little indulgences that might add a calorie or a pound, but also add flavor and substance and pleasure.

So here's to honeymoon lessons. I raise my mug in a toast to all of them – the big ones, the small ones, and the ones that leave you breathless and smiling two months later.