Category Archives: Thoughts

This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) science fiction thriller or romance books. I’ll update this description when I’m clearer on what this category is about.

a small cat on a table with an open book on top of him, making a tent-shape

This Is Only a Test (Plus NaNoWriMo and Cat GIFs)

Since setting up my blog subscription list, emails to the “Thoughts” category subscribers have not been working. Each time I tinker with that email campaign, trying to fix it, I want to test it. So, this post is a test, but to avoid sending subscribers an empty post (assuming my tinkering worked), I thought I’d share some thoughts about NanoWriMo last month.

What Is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is the nickname of National Novel Writing Month, which occurs in November. At the website https://nanowrimo.org, writers can register (for free) and commit to writing 50,000 words in November. There’s a handy tracking tool that displays your word count and shows if you’re on track. There are also “write-ins” around the world where writers gather to work, an online forum and pep talks emailed out from successful writers, and a Twitter community where writers share their experience (using #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoCoach, and more) and support each other.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times now: In 2014 I wrote my science fiction thriller, The Knowledge Game. In 2016 I wrote a fairytale romance called Rose Fair. And this year I wrote a light-hearted contemporary romance called Kensington.

My NaNoWriMo Experience

This year, for the first time, I outlined the plot and character arcs of my novel in advance. Having an outline made the writing process easier. But I still went through some stages as the weeks passed. From what I’ve read online, these stages are universal among writers. In fact, Week 2 has earned the nickname “the muddy middle.”

Here is a representation of my NaNoWriMo experience using cat GIFs:

October: I outlined my plot and could not wait to get started.

November Week #1: I jumped right in and had no trouble writing. The opening scene seemed fabulous, and then one fabulous scene after another came tumbling out.

November Week #2: After a week, it became hard to write. I had to make myself keep typing, and everything that came out felt boring and terrible. I fell behind.

November Week #3: I’d wake up in the morning thinking, Oh God, I have to write AGAIN? I felt like the time-to-make-the-donuts man from TV when I was a kid. I managed to catch up in my word count, only to fall behind again.

November Week #4: In the home stretch, things eased up. I could see my word count getting closer to 50,000, word by word.

And suddenly I was there!

November 30: Theoretically, I wanted to keep writing. But I was so happy not to have it hanging over me! It was hard to be motivated to do much of anything for a few days.

Writing and Revising

I should add that the point of NaNoWriMo is to get a first draft out—not necessarily a GOOD first draft. It’s okay to leave a note-to-self in the manuscript, like “verify this” or “insert correct furniture style here.” I use an “xx” each place I need to fix, so that I can find them easily using the word processor’s search function.

Many rounds of revision will follow. A first step might be finding places where you “tell” something instead of showing it (e.g., “Jack looked sad” might change to “Jack stared after Aurora, his eyes misty, his smile fading”). You might read your dialogue out loud and make it sound more natural, or remove adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs (e.g., “He walked slowly” might become “He trudged”).

This year, I found myself writing more carefully, trying to avoid some of the mistakes I’d made in the past that led to heavy revisions. The outline helped a lot—while I did incorporate new ideas during November, I didn’t get wildly off track, writing scenes that I’ll just have to cut. I also avoided writing “knowledge dumps” that would take the reader out of the story. Still, I have lots of work to do now, turning the draft into a book.

cowboy riding horse holding American flag, with blurry stadium seats in back

Rethinking My Audience

Last weekend I participated in a Local Author Book Fair at the Orange County Library. The organizer signed me up for a ten-minute slot reading from my work. I picked what I call the “Go Cow” scene of my bicycle journey memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere.

Why I Picked “Go Cow”

Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming, with empty parking lot in front of it

Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming

I set the scene before beginning to read: Mary and I were two-thirds of the way through our cross-country bicycle trip and had stopped in Cody, Wyoming, the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” Of course we had to go to the rodeo. But I had never been to one, and I had some incorrect ideas about what it would be like. I pictured lassos flying and cowboys thundering around the arena, but not the tiny calves skittering across the dirt in terror.

So at first, we were disappointed by the violence and harsh treatment, and there were several rounds of “calf roping” to go before events like racing and bronco riding. But then, a child behind us started calling “Go cow!” We joined her, and cheered when a calf escaped the arena without being roped.

cowboys chasing calf across arena during calf roping event, mountains in background

Calf roping at the Cody Nite Rodeo

I usually read this scene because (1) it is free-standing, not entwined with events that happened previously, (2) it doesn’t include too much internal drama, and (3) it’s somewhat funny, and I can use voices. But I also feel a little uncomfortable, thinking the scene doesn’t represent the book accurately, because much of the books *is* about the internal drama, that is, how being on the road helped me see the thought patterns that were keeping me down, so I could start to overcome them.

What Was Different This Time

cowboy riding horse holding American flag, with blurry stadium seats in back

I pictured this… (photo by Melissa Newkirk on Unsplash)

I describe the theme of the books as, “It is better to live in the present moment.” This theme manifests in many ways: not being stuck in the past, not worrying about the future, not being lost in daydreams. I realized that the Go Cow scene actually has a deeper point, related to this theme. It was my daydream about rodeos that led me to have expectations, and to form misconceptions about what the rodeo would be like, which led to disappointment when the reality didn’t match. I might have still disliked the rodeo, but I wouldn’t have been as disappointed if I had gone in with no expectations, just waiting to see what it was all about

Three young cows looking peaceful, with tags in their ears

…not this (photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

This time when I introduced my memoir, I spent a little longer describing how I wrote it, before setting the scene for my reading. I described how a theme emerged that I wanted to share—the benefit of living in the present moment—and what this theme meant in my life. As I spoke about the theme, I saw audience members nodding along. Seeing that recognition on their faces gave me such a boost. I wanted to connect with people who might benefit from seeing my thought patterns exposed, by recognizing similar patterns in themselves. I felt happy that I had reached someone.

Rethinking My Audience

book coverWhen Somewhere and Nowhere first came out, I tried to brainstorm as many audiences as I could: people who’d benefit from the theme was on top, but also bicyclists, people interested in traveling cross-country, maybe fans of other introspective travel books like Becoming Odyssa or Wild, or readers of books about outdoor adventure. But I never felt comfortable with all those audiences.

After the talk at the library, though, I thought, the one audience I do feel comfortable trying to reach is the original one: people who might benefit from reading my book, because they struggle with over-thinking and avoiding the present.

Then I started reading This Is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). It’s a modern take on marketing, which is no longer about advertising but about solving a problem for your audience. Godin describes finding your audience not as a demographic but as a “psychographic” (p. 28–29), and about the value of marketing to the “smallest viable market” (p. 31), which will ironically lead to growth.

ticket for the Cody Nite Rodeo, $15The affirmation from an expert is just what I needed. I want to help solve a problem: people who’d like to be present and happier but struggle to change their mental patterns.
Those people are whom I wrote the book for. I’d be confident marketing it if I described it with that audience in mind. So I have some work to do rewriting my marketing materials!

Staying Calm in a Stressful World

The past six months, I participated in a health coaching program. I’m excited by the effects I’ve seen and wanted to do a post to share the process.

Panic Attacks Are Real!

two bikes leaning on a post by the road with grasslands behind them

Our bikes on the open road in South Dakota

Understanding my moods and working to make them more positive is something I’ve worked at a long time. In particular, and the end of my cross-country bicycle trip, when I returned to “normal life” after living outside, on the road, for several months, I started having anxiety attacks: my heart would skip, I’d think I was dying, and a tight feeling would settle in my chest. One time, my limbs went numb. It would take about two hours for the feelings to pass.

When the first doctor (in an ER in Colorado) told me I’d probably had a panic attack, I didn’t realize he was serious. As far as I knew, “panic attack” was a made-up term kids used on the playground when someone got over-excited, as in “don’t have a panic attack.” Finally, after I’d returned home and had a second trip to an ER, I thought to look up “panic attack” on the fledgling Internet. Turned out it was a real thing.

After I learned about panic (or anxiety) attacks, I was able to stop them from happening. I started telling people I’d had them. I often got a response like, “Oh, that happens to me.” I realized that attacks were common, but no one talked about them. But talking about them could only help other people, so I included them in the epilogue of my memoir of the bicycle trip, Somewhere and Nowhere.

Last weekend, at the NC Writer’s Conference, I discovered a new symptom: I was scheduled to meet with an agent to learn about pitching and get feedback on my novel. About an hour before the meeting, I started getting dizzy; I left my conference session early and found a place to stand in the hallway, taking deep breaths. I didn’t recognize the symptom, but it seemed likely to be anxiety. My conference friend Fran said I should write about it, which inspired this post.

Strategies Developed via Health Coaching

silhouette of person meditating, surrounded by words like Notice, Listen, and BreatheOver the years, I’ve tried a lot of strategies to manage anxiety, which can get worse during stressful times. A main strategy is getting enough sleep. Everything looks worse when I am tired. I’ve become an early morning person, shifting my schedule to have more good hours before work, and less hours in the evening, when everything seems bad. I’ve never succeeded at officially meditating, but have had a regular practice of forced sitting still and doing nothing for several months at a time.

But I’ve never managed to practice all my strategies at once, or to do them in the long term.

This year, my health insurance included health coaching, so I signed up, with the goal of managing stress and enjoying every day more. I shared the ideas I’d tried through the years with the health coach. She helped me implement a few new ideas each month, and to get back on track when I got off. By the end of six months, I was regularly practicing all my strategies. Here they are:

  • Step outside or walk at lunchtime (4x per week); as winter darkness comes, do 15 minutes to get some sunshine
  • Sit still after work for 15 minutes (5x per week); try to do a longer period of 30 minutes 2x per week
  • Do something nice for myself (2x per week)
  • Spend some time outside (2x per week)
  • When something upsets me, try to recognize it as soon as possible and turn the situation around, letting go of whatever happened and not continuing to think about it
  • Stop checking email at 3 PM (every day); since everything seems worse later in the day, looking at email can easily result in becoming upset or worried
  • Stop working at 5 PM (Friday)

Lessons Learned

blank calendar with icons for health activitiesWhen I’m tempted to skip an activity—like I get home from work and it seems like there is no time to spend sitting for 15 minutes—I remind myself of how much better I feel in the long term when I maintain my practice. Also, sitting still seems to slow time, and the whole evening will be more productive if I do it.

The health coach helped me understand that it’s not the end of the world if I “mess up” and miss a few days of taking care of myself. There’s no reason why I cannot immediately start up again.

I use a calendar to keep track of how I do each day. I created one I can easily print that has icons for each of my activities across the top. At one point, my calendar ran out and I had not printed a new one. Not having the calendar made me realize how much it helps me stay on track. (A PDF of my calendar is here.)

woman at laptop holds face in hands while cartoon images of money, work, and social media swirl overhead

What Are My Goals for Writing?

At the NC Writer’s Network fall conference, my new friend Fran asked me how I felt about the need to tailor my writing to match what sells, in order to interest an agent and sell to a publisher. I know I’m supposed to hate the idea: selling out, diminishing a literary work to make it marketable. But I didn’t really hate it.

I’m Not Aiming To Win a Pulitzer

I’m relatively new as a fiction writer, so I see my writing as somewhat simple. I hope that as I learn more about the craft, my writing will evolve: deeper characters, better world-building, more intricate plots. But that’s not where I’m at, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy to write a simple love story.

two images, one is a desk with a book with grass, a dog, and a child popping out of it, versus a desk with a cartoon book and financial spreadsheetsFran’s question made me think about my goals for my writing. I’d like to make part of my living as a writer, so that I can spend time writing more books. I’d like to write books that are fun to read—the kind where the reader can’t put it down and breezes right through it. At lunch during the conference, the organizers announced the winner of an annual essay contest. The winner got up to read part of her essay. I could see that it was probably very good, with lots of description, a wide vocabulary, and deep themes. But I couldn’t follow it; it didn’t resonate with me. I found myself thinking, that’s not me. I’m never going to be the one who wins the award. But I might be okay with that.

Kim Wright, the teacher of my Scene Sequencing session at the conference, stated that you never hear people say “It took me a while to get into it” with new books, because those books no longer get published. This comment really brought home to me how much a new writer has to fit in to get anywhere in traditional publishing.

The Value of Marketable Work

When I was a kid, my grandpa had the TV channels you paid extra for: HBO and Showtime. Each week I’d scan TV Guide, looking at the movies listed beside HBO and SHO. (This was before the days when everything was available online.) When I’d see a movie that I wanted to watch, I’d call Grandpa and he’d record it for me on his VCR.

a cartoon person holding a book with money floating out of itOne time I had him record Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn. After, he left the tape recording and I got a movie called Sullivan’s Travels. It was about a commercially successful comedy film-maker who wants to learn about the plight of poor people so that he can make a deeper film. He disguises himself and sets out, only to be (eventually) attacked, robbed, and arrested. Without his identification or money, and dressed like a vagrant, he cannot convince anyone that he’s a famous film-maker, and he gets the experience he set out to have: he’s treated like a poor person. While in prison, he sees how much joy the inmates get from a comedy movie, and realizes the importance of those movies and his place in creating them.

Even though I like “deep” movies, the theme of Sullivan’s Travels always stuck with me. Maybe my role as a writer is simply to write entertaining books.

There’s More than One Way To Do Good

a book with a money bill sticking out of itBut I also think that so-called commercial, entertaining books CAN do good, particularly if they reach large audiences. I’ve read young adult books for a long time because reading about the characters’ experiences helps me navigate my own. Books can show people experiences other than their own, to help them see a different perspective. Political issues can be woven into an entertaining book, to get readers thinking. This is a way to help the world, one reader at a time. Maybe this is what I’m being called to do.

Why It’s Hard to Learn New Things

I’ve always thought I hate learning new things. I know it’s important to do it, and it feels really good when I DO learn something new. But I avoid it until it’s necessary. Why does it feel so hard?

Learning Can Be Hard

person wearing glasses at laptop, looking frustrated and biting pencilWhen I learned calculus in school, I also learned a lesson about learning. I would listen to the teacher’s lecture and feel completely lost. The words made no sense. Then I’d go home and read the matching text, and it wouldn’t be so hopeless. By the time I did the homework, the material would make sense. Learning calculus made me feel like my brain was a very tough balloon that I was forcing to stretch with my weak little lungs.

So I learned that discomfort is part of the process, as it is in so many other situations. Later, I often remembered learning calculus when I was struggling to understand something. You don’t always get it on the first try. When I have to read an academic paper, for example, it’s often incomprehensible on the first read, and then it starts to make sense on subsequent readings.

Another secret I’ve found is that I can use my love of sharing material I’ve learned. That’s why I started blogging for writers, editors, and self-publishers: once I learned something new, I wanted to share it, possibly in an easier to understand format. I use the “carrot” of getting to write a blog post as motivation to learn the material. Sometimes I even draft a post as I learn.

Don’t Make It Worse

Recently, I’ve been trying to learn more about e-books. I want to improve my own e-books, for example by adding alt text to the images, and formatting the bold words so they carry over into the e-book. Also I suspect that cleaning up my files (so there are less fonts and styles) will make my e-book files smaller.

laptop on desk in library; the screen looks like a chalkboard and says "never stop learning"Learning tech stuff is one of the hardest things for me. After one e-book webinar, I felt completely discouraged. I went outside to mow the lawn, and continued thinking about how frustrated I felt. I’ve been trying to actively “turn over” unhappy situations, so I dragged myself up from the frustration and tried to think something positive. I told myself, “I will learn how e-books work eventually. This is just the frustration of having made a first attempt.”

The attempt to be positive worked far better than I had expected—I felt not just less frustrated but actually hopeful. And I think I figured out why: I didn’t just add positive thoughts; maybe I displaced negative ones.

I had not recognized that I was perpetuating my own frustration. But knowing my propensity to become bogged down in a negative thought, I wondered: Had I been telling myself something negative? Like maybe, “I’m too stupid to learn about e-books” or “I’ll never get the hang of this”? Maybe the negative feeling I get when trying to learn something new isn’t just about the inherent frustration of learning, but about the story I tell myself, making it worse.

Dane, Emily, and Brittany sitting in a row, each holding a frame over his or her face; Emily is wearing an old-fashioned hat, and Dane as a Picasso-like third eye pasted on his face

Halloween for Adults

This is my first attempt at a post in the “Thoughts” category. I’m a little nervous about posting it but I have to start sometime!

I wanted to write about Halloween, in the hopes of figuring out where it went wrong. Last year I gave up on Halloween for the first time ever. I did go to my usual party, but only because it was less distressing than sitting at home in the dark, dreading the ring of the doorbell should any trick-or-treaters suspect I was home. I didn’t even try to come up with a costume. Maybe I’m just too busy, or maybe it was the failure of my 2016 costume, which I spent hours on and no one seemed to appreciate: Abraspam Lincoln.

I wore duct tape on my face, and no one cared! Maybe Abraspam Lincoln was just too bizarre.

Friends with kids seem to have a focus, but I’m adrift. Halloween was always the one day of the year I could wear whatever I wanted, I could make myself conspicuous and force myself to leave the house, knowing the self-consciousness would quickly fade. But now it seems like just another party to avoid.

Looking Back

Emily with bright red hair, dressed like Lola and making fists and yelling

Lola enacting the scene in the casino

Sure Halloween was great when I was a kid, even if we weren’t allowed to eat all the candy,* but it peaked when I reached graduate school in Chapel Hill. The town closes off Franklin Street and it becomes a giant Halloween party. In the old days, it was a parade of costumes. My best year, I dyed my hair red and dressed as the title character from the movie Run Lola Run, and I ran up and down the street all night. (I actually trained for a month, since I’d never been good at running.) I didn’t think anyone would know who I was, but people were calling, “Run Lola, run!” after me all night.

Emily inside a box painted like an oven, with a small pot glued on top and a pot lid on her head; she is holding a tray of cookies out the door with potholders on her hands

But Franklin Street Halloween degenerated into a drunken crowd (or maybe I outgrew it). The last year I attended, I dressed as an oven (there was a plan to go as appliances, and everyone backed out but me); I had a tray of cookies inside that I’d use to push open my door, offering them to people.

For some reason, everyone on the street wanted to take the lid off the little pot and ask, “You got Oodles of Noodles in there?” By the end of the night I was over it.

So I started attending a neighborhood party. It was fun, and over the years we had some good group costumes. There was the year we went as a s’more:

(We’d stand apart, and when people would ask what we were, our marshmallow would say, “I’m starting to feel warm,” and we’d squish ourselves together into a s’more.)

There was the Monopoly game: I was the Chance cards.

(The cards were Velcro-ed onto me in a stack, and you could peel one off.)

And there was the creepy historical portrait gallery:

Dane, Emily, and Brittany sitting in a row, each holding a frame over his or her face; Emily is wearing an old-fashioned hat, and Dane as a Picasso-like third eye pasted on his face

(This blog post might just be an excuse to share Halloween pictures.)

So now, I keep going to the party, but then I wish I were home, and wonder how late I should stay out. And should I be out if I want to get up and write at 5 AM?

What Next?

One of the main themes of my bicycling memoir (and of life since writing it) is staying present, and the idea that one can become “stuck” in life by trying to hang on to a moment. I wondered if this were happening: should I stop going to the Halloween party? Had its time passed? I considered alternatives:

  • I could visit my parents and pass out candy to the 800+ kids who trick-or-treat in their high density neighborhood.
  • I could find a friend with kids and tag along trick-or-treating as a chaperone.
  • I could find a new event, like Bynum’s annual jack o’lantern celebration on the old bridge.

Emily wearing a flowered 1900 hat and fancy shirt, holding a picture frameThen I wrote this blog post, and looking at all the old photos made me remember how fun it is to dress up. And I still have an adult party to go to! How lucky is that? Another theme of life lately is turning things around instead of accepting it when I get down. Maybe that’s what I need to do here. Maybe I don’t want to give up on Halloween or to be so busy that I can’t participate.

I’ve got three weeks left to come up with a costume.


* We were allowed to collect candy, but then were required to play a trading game with Mom, who would swap our candy for non-sugary treats and other gifts, like crayons and trinkets. This was actually a lot of fun, and all of the chocolate candy became chocolate pudding, which we did get to eat. Where the plan fell apart was that the confiscated candy would go into a grocery bag for Dad to take to work, and the bag would sit on the counter until Dad remembered, so we’d have to see our former candy, just sitting there, day after day.