Month: March 2014

Re-organizing My Office, Again.

When we remodeled my office a couple of years ago, it was my intention to create a space that was both lovely and functional. It worked, mostly. But then we acquired a warehouse and the room which used to be my storage and shipping room became Kiki’s home-visiting-from-college bedroom. In the shift, a whole category of items became homeless, namely art to be sold and the small stash of inventory which we keep at the house. These things drifted for months, stacked on various flat surfaces in my office. Today I finally gave up and installed a utility shelf in my office. It is not at all lovely, but it returns all of the flat surfaces to being functional. In exchange for one ugly corner, the rest of the space can be lovely again. Perhaps I’ll hang a curtain to hide it.

The truth is that, after seven or eight stable years, the living spaces in our house are going to be fluctuating quite a bit in the years that are to come. Kiki will be home for the summer, but after that none of us is certain. This year there is no money to finish the storage room, but next year may be a different story. Two and a half years from now Link will likely depart the house for college. I’m going to be reconfiguring spaces every six months or so for the next several years. I’m okay with that, particularly if it means I only have to stare at these utility shelves for six months.

It may even be a shorter time than that. It is possible that when I finally spend twenty hours doing organization over at the warehouse, I’ll figure out that it makes more sense for the art and matting supplies to take up residence over there. In which case, the shelves and most of their contents will get moved.

Our family and business continue to evolve. It only makes sense that our spaces should too.

I Can See Vacation from Here

A week from tomorrow our family goes on vacation. Business and school needs dictate our schedule for fifty weeks out of the year. The week between Christmas and New Years is a lull for all business things and during that lull we curl up at home and do nothing in particular. For a very long time that lull was all we had. Then about five years ago I realized that if we wanted family time, we had to declare it and defend it from encroaching business and school. I claimed Spring break as our annual vacation. It was a fixed point on our calendar.

At first we thought we would go on various different adventures. I planned to scout out new locations each year. What happened instead was that we fell in love with a place and we keep going back. This means I barely have to plan in advance. We just pick up and go when the time comes. That is probably the biggest vacation of all. Our lives are heavily pre-planned. I know what we’re going to do next year in broad sketches, next month in defined sketches, and next week in detail. Some of this forward planning is necessity. Much of it is anxiety. Our particular bundles of anxieties mean that multiple members of the family go a little crazy if they don’t know what to expect. For vacation, we know. We know where we’re going. We know what options are generally available as activities. We know we’ll decide day to day how things actually go.

I’m very much looking forward to the vacation. I’ll leave 90% of the work behind (email follows me everywhere) and bring my writing. I’m hoping to treat the trip much like a writing retreat. Hours of typing while the kids swim and then later we’ll play games or watch movies together. I’m more prepared to take advantage of a writing retreat than I ever have been before. I’m nearing the halfway point in a novel which hopes to end at 60,000 words. I’m unlikely to have any other retreat this year. On the other hand, if writing starts to feel stressy, I’ll just embrace the vacation-ness of it.

In between now and vacation there are many things to do. I’m going to need every minute of the next week to make sure all the things get done.

Pondering the Sources of Errors

I was talking with my friend Mary the other day and she was telling me a tale of behind-the-scenes frustration in publishing. They happen frequently to many of my nationally published author friends. An example of the sort of snafu that occurs is Mary’s story about how one of her books was released without its first sentence. Mistakes happen and they can be terribly frustrating to the people they happen to.

I’ve never had someone else mess up one of my books. This does not mean that Cobble Stones, Hold on to Your Horses, Strength of Wild Horses, XDM X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, or the Schlock books are error free. Far from it. They all have errors. Every single book that I’ve helped to make has something about it that I would like to fix. Even the books that we’ve re-printed. You’d think that on a reprint we could fix all the errors. We try to, but we still miss some or accidentally introduce others. All books have flaws.

So as I listened and commiserated with Mary’s story, I wondered whether it was better to be frustrated and helpless, or to be frustrated and responsible. I don’t have an answer to that. Neither situation is enviable.

The Changing Parenting Equations.

This week the Writing Excuses team has been together to record episodes and to plan ahead for some mutual events. I spent considerable amounts of time looking ahead in the calendar for when things could be scheduled and then doing the parental math necessary to see if I can also absent myself to be at some of the events. The answer for this Fall is no. Writing Excuses is having a retreat (sold out) in September, but the logistics necessary to hand off all of the child care so that both Howard and I can attend are too complex. I will be staying home. I’m a little sad, because I love the house in Chattanooga, but I’m glad that someone else gets an opportunity to go and take the hostessing slot that I would have occupied.

In all my scanning of calendars I noticed something. In the Fall of 2015, the parenting equations change. Suddenly I won’t have a kid in grade school anymore. I won’t have a kid in an intensive gifted program. My oldest at home kid will be eighteen and technically an adult. I can’t say yet what becomes possible because of those changes, but they will definitely have an effect. The equations will change again in 2016 when it is likely that I’ll only have two kids at home. I’m not going to rush ahead and plan anything. For now I’m glad to have a good year where things will remain about the same. We had so much transition last year that status quo is good for awhile. But change will come to us again. I can see it on the horizon.

504 Meeting at the Junior High

The meeting was sandwiched in between the end of the junior high school day and me needing to leave to pick up Patch from Elementary school. We had thirty minutes to determine whether Gleek qualified for a 504 plan and what the paperwork should say. It was a formality really. The school administrator and the counselor had both spent several hours with Gleek during an incident several weeks ago. They saw the need. The other three in the room were teachers, there to provide insights into how Gleek behaves in various classrooms. Everyone listened and agreed that some extra care is merited. For the most part the only challenge Gleek represents is that she is difficult to re-direct and often distracts herself with drawing or with a book. Ninety five percent of the time, she is absolutely fine, normal, charming. The other five percent she is really intense and requires special handling. We signed the papers with instructions for that five percent.

It was a pleasant meeting. I had a good rapport with everyone there and felt that they’re on my team to help my girl. So it puzzled me that I felt sad as I drove away. I pulled on the feeling to see if I could figure out where it comes from. It was attached to two things. First I remember the last time I had a meeting like this for Gleek. It was about this time last year when everything was so chaotic and she was in crisis. We had far more questions than answers. It made me sad to be reminded of that time even though this year is far different. The second thing was that this meeting crossed a threshold. I’ve made Gleek’s diagnoses official with the school. It is a positive step and necessary, but there is a little stab of sadness because I’ve acknowledged that my daughter needs something outside of what schools habitually supply. When I write it in a sentence like that, I’m puzzled why I feel sad. Almost every kid needs something that the school doesn’t usually supply. Why should having Gleek’s needs quantified on paper make it different. If anything I wish that all kids could have their needs so carefully considered. The sadness lies in the fact that situations which are not hard for most other kids are very difficult for Gleek. She works very hard to be the charming and kind person that her teachers see in their classrooms. Because all during the ninety five percent of the time when everything is fine, she needs to be prepared to handle the five percent when emotions rev out of control.

The trickiest part about having a child who is fine ninety five percent of the time, is that I begin to forget why we have all the structures in place. I begin to second guess. I am tempted to do away with the parts of the structure that are time or money consuming to maintain, things like therapy. Everything feels good, but then I have a 504 meeting where I have to list out the official diagnoses. Then I remember that these people in the room and the psychiatrist who signed the diagnosis paper, would have no hesitation in bumping me if they felt that Gleek did not need the resources they are providing. The fact that they recognized Gleek’s need helps me to know I’m not just making this up. I would like it to all be my imagination, because then I could just stop imagining it, problem solved. Instead I get to walk alongside my girl while she treks her way through a long and difficult growing process.

The good news is that Gleek is already amazing. She already manages things far better than one would expect from someone with her particular bag of challenges. The even better news, I can tell we’re aimed toward a good future where she is empowered to choose her own life and succeed at it. The path is likely to be winding and dark in places, but the 504 meeting means that Gleek has guides at school who have instructions for how to help her. This is good. I’m glad of it, even if the meeting itself tugged out some sadness.

Granite Flats Season 2 Premiere

The invitation to the Granite Flats season 2 premiere was something of a surprise. Our best guess is that Howard’s habit of posting movie reviews to his blog caught the eye of one of BYUtv’s marketing folks. (This was later confirmed) We walked up to the broadcasting building, not sure what to expect. I certainly did not expect to be greeted by a row of eager faces asking if we were press. Which we were, but it felt very strange to says so. Blogger, cartoonist, writer, podcaster, these are all titles we wave around quite comfortably. For this occasion we were press.

We didn’t know anyone. We didn’t even know much about the show, just that it was shot locally and possibly had a scifi tinge to it somewhere. (We were wrong about that. It is a cold war drama full of spying and conspiracy, lots of historical accuracy and intrigue.) The reception area was lined with banners, each with a cast member featured on it. I looked at all the faces, trying to figure out what we were in for with this show. I could tell it was set in the sixties, there were scientists and nurses, a sheriff, and some military men. There were also at least four featured pre-teens. Howard and I spoke for a bit with the man who’d sent us the invitation to come. As we spoke the actors came parading in. I say parading, but this was not because they intended a parade or because they sought to make an attention-grabbing entrance. It just seemed parade-like because they all arrived together on a bus from the shoot location.

Even if they had not arrived en masse, I would have guessed who they were, partly because the faces matched the posters, but also because the actors were the ones with professionally tailored make up and clothing. This doesn’t mean they were dressed to the nines, but even their hoodies fit perfectly. Actors are people for whom image matters tremendously. Their appearance is an integral part of their jobs and it was fascinating to get to witness that up close. It was even more fascinating to see that underneath the make up and clothes, they were just as happy to be part of this evening as Howard and I were. More so, probably, since they’d already emotionally invested in the show. It amused me to see the actors react to themselves on the banners. They photographed them and themselves with them. Somehow I thought they’d be blase about being on banners. They were actors in a show on TV, surely this was normal to them. But it wasn’t, and I realized that I was witnessing in the actors the same emotions I see in my writer friends when they have a book launch party or hold their book for the first time. You work hard to create something and then one day it is real in a way that it was not before. That is a marvelous day and I got to witness it.

People mingled and hugged each other, while Howard and I stood on the edges and watched. Then the doors opened and we all filed into Studio C, where we sat in the nicest bleachers I’ve ever seen. They were folding theater seats, but could obviously be pushed back against the wall just as most school bleachers can be. There were a few press people, like us (Press, yup still feels strange), but when the director, Scott Swofford, spoke, he was mostly speaking to everyone as family, part of the production. This is because most of those in attendance at this showing were related to cast members in some way. We were visitors at their party, but they made us welcome.

Then the showing began. I was impressed. Then I was impressed again. Then I laughed out loud, which I do not do for shows unless they’ve earned my trust in some way. Granite Flats is heavily serialized. We only had a two minute recap, which should have meant that I felt lost. But I didn’t. Instead I was engaged with the various plights of the characters. I connected to them emotionally and found them believable. I found myself fascinated by the editorial choices, the sets, and the casting. I truly enjoyed it.

Then the showing ended and everyone filed out into the reception area. Where before Howard and I hovered on the edges, this time we dived in. We complimented the excellent performances and then one of the actors, Maia Guest, pulled us through the crowd to introduce us to her husband, John Plummer, who wrote many of the episodes.

“How do you solve the Truth is Stranger than Fiction problem?” Howard asked. Which made both John and Scott (the director) laugh and say that they haven’t, because all their research keeps turning up factual accounts of the period and the MK Ultra experiments that would be unbelievable on the screen. I listened to them talk, praise their set designers, praise the actors, gush about this show that they helped to create, and it was beautiful to see. I love being around people who do creative work and are passionate about it. I love hearing them talk about the things they create. Howard and I would have happily monopolized the director and writer for hours, but we excused ourselves because they had other people who needed to speak to them.

We circulated some more and found ourselves talking to Taryn O’Neill who plays the part of June Sanders in the show. She was not featured in the episode we saw, but talking to her made me realize how many amazing people that the show has acquired. In addition to her acting, Taryn is a writer, contributing to and writing fiction. Of all the people we met during the evening, she was the only one who had even vaguely heard of Howard, and only then because she follows our friend Myke Cole on twitter. The world of creative people is far more vast than it sometimes seems when Howard and I are circulating among our regular crowd of con-going genre fiction writers. I hope I get more chances to meet people like I met last night. It is a wonderful experience to go where we’re completely unknown and yet feel welcomed and included.

Granite Flats is a show with really high production quality, excellent writing, solid acting, all of which is put together mostly with Salt Lake City local talent. It is funded by BYUtv, even though a scripted drama is usually far outside the scope of a college-based broadcasting station.I’m frankly amazed that it exists and feel very privileged that Howard and I got to attend their party. It is definitely worth your time. You can view season 1 on their website Season 2 will begin airing April 6 on BYUtv. I got the impression that Season 1 may be a bit rougher than Season 2, but I look forward to seeing all of it.

Re-Considering the Covers of the Cobble Stones Books

I’ve been increasingly aware over the last year that there is something lacking in the covers of my Cobble Stones books. I was pleased with the covers when I made them, but even then I thought they could probably be better. I didn’t know how to make them better using the skills I already possessed. I couldn’t even see why they were wrong, I just had a vague sense that they could be better somehow. I called it good enough and put the covers on the books. Then they didn’t sell. Not only that, but I watched during conventions when all the other covers on the table got perused or picked up and examined. The Cobble Stones covers did not. Ever. The only time those books sold was when someone who reads this blog came to the table specifically looking for them, or when people listened to me read out loud from one of them.

I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what to do differently, particularly as I’m contemplating releasing a new book in the series this year. I’m going to need another cover and I didn’t want to replicate the mistakes I made with the first two. So I did what I should have done before designing covers. I went out and found several books that are very like mine in tone and content. Then I stared hard at the covers. I found they all were mostly plain with a single image and then text. In comparison the cover of Cobble Stones 2011 is busy and confusing.

I chose to photograph photographs because that was within my skill set. I chose images that had actually featured on the blog, because that seemed appropriate to me. I thought that having lots of images reflected the episodic nature of the book’s contents. I tried to make sure the images had an implied journey. Up close you can see all those things. From more than two feet away, or at thumbnail size, the book just looks…brown with something jumbly going on.

In contrast, Kennison’s book grabbed me from across the room. The blue drew me in and the title captured me. In fact, that is how I found Kennison’s book. A teacher had it on her desk during a parent teacher conference. I kept sneaking glances at the cover and scribbled down the title at a moment when the teacher thought I was taking notes on my student.
Here is another stark comparison.

For the Cobble Stones 2012 book I was in a tearing hurry. It is even less cohesive than the first Cobble Stones cover. With the first cover I refined it multiple times and engaged the help of a friend with an artistic eye. We shot all sorts of arrangements and selected the best one. For the second cover, I did it all myself in the space of an afternoon. It shows. None of the images match to any of the essays that are inside it. All they share in common is the fact that they appeared on this blog during 2012. I suppose that is fine for a sampler book, but the cover image is supposed to be an advertisement for the contents, not an extension of them.

The cover for My Grandfather’s Blessings demonstrates to me the importance of a good subtitle. In creative non-fiction, memoir, and essay books the title catches the reader, the subtitle elaborates and sells the book. I need better titles than: Cobble Stones with a year appended. I need to make clear that these are books in the Cobble Stones series, but each book should have its own title and subtitle. I suspect the first two will always retain the titles they currently have. I intended them as samplers, and they’ve served that purpose. Incidentally this will also solve a problem I’ve had when packing and shipping orders. The titles of the books are so similar that I have to pay special attention to which book was ordered. In fact I put the words “snow” and “sand” into the item description just to help me differentiate. This is manageable with two books, but could get very problematic with more.

For the print editions of the first two books, I’m stuck with these covers for awhile. I have over a hundred copies of each book and it doesn’t make sense to spend money re-printing them when they still haven’t broken even. I’ll continue to sell them at conventions and use them for promotional purposes. The next Cobble Stones book will be different. I may try to do a more thematic arrangement of essays. I’ll definitely see if I can work with a cover designer who has the necessary skills to produce the right cover.

Of course the other reason the Cobble Stones books haven’t sold is because I’ve put so very little energy into marketing them. People can’t buy books if they don’t know the books exist. With both books, I kicked them out into the world with very little support because there were so many other things going on at the time. I hope I can do better for future books.

By the way, I highly recommend The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kennison and My Grandfather’s Blessings by Naomi Remen. They are both excellent.

Strength of Wild Horses Advance Copies

With all the other things going on, I forgot to share the joyous news that I’ve received my advance copies of Strength of Wild Horses. They are beautiful. They match the original Hold on to Your Horses books in all the ways that I hoped they would. I am really excited for the rest of the books to arrive so that I can send them out into the world. Naturally the Kickstarter backers have already had a chance to read the book. I sent them all a PDF, as I promised. I really like fulfilling promises. So happy.

Looking Back to Last Year

Sometimes I play the “one year ago today” game. This is when I look back in my blog to see what I was doing during the prior year. Playing the game has taught me much about the patterns of my life, I can see the tendencies and often find myself saying the same sorts of things over again. This afternoon, as I was contemplating what to write, I opened up the entries from March 2013. That was when I discovered that the game is no fun at all this month. A year ago Gleek was in crisis with full-blown panic attacks at school. Her teacher was at a loss for how to help her. We were in the process of getting a school evaluation, psychological evaluation from a private source, and setting up therapy. I was scrambling to try to make things better, to shift and help. Then (a year ago next week) it all crashed into much worse. Just glancing over the entries brought back lots of emotion, because I remember vividly all the details that I did not write.

The year from February 2013 until now, mid-March 2014 was transitional in dozens of ways. It included the challenge coin Kickstarter which meant that we were able to focus on all of the emotional arcs without fretting over the cost. During that year Howard began treatment for his depression. Gleek collapsed into an anxiety disorder which we then treated, brought under control, and continue to manage. Kiki transitioned from her senior year in high school into a thriving college student. Our family transitioned from four kids at home to three. We acquired a warehouse and the business moved out of our basement. Link started high school and took half the school year to figure out how to handle that. Patch had to deal with the fact that life changes, friends move away, older sister leave home, and these changes do not destroy everything good about life. I helped everyone with all of the above and because I was overwhelmed, I plunged into a low-level depression for about six months.

I knew, even as we went through it all, that the transitions were necessary and that we’d come out the other side in good places. We did. Life has found a new normal and we’re happy here. We’re back to watching money, but not terrified about it. Gleek has horseback riding. Patch has his cello. Link has programming. Kiki is building a life for herself that is beginning to have the shape that she wants. None of these things were true a year ago. It was a hard thirteen months. In some cases it was gut-wrenchingly hard, but they were also good months. Even the hardest bits taught us things we needed.

In the months to come, I will be taking a closer look at all the blog entries I wrote in 2013. I do that because I like to have a print on demand copy of my blogging for each year. In that paper copy I also include the private blog entries that do not get posted. There were quite a lot of them last year and I expect many of them to be painful to read. I’ve had a similar experience before when I wrote about my radiation therapy and then read it later. The emotion was packed away in my brain and only by opening up the boxes was I able to let go of the emotions. I’m not looking forward to processing all of the emotion left over from last year, but I’ll be very glad to have done it.

Thoughts on Some Things That Happen Inside Heads

I’m not good enough, that is the background music playing in my head this afternoon. It colors my writing, colors my work, and brings me to near tears when poor Link had to wait a long time for me to come and pick him up because I miscalculated a timing issue. The music plays, but I find myself turning to the conductor and confronting him. So I’m not good enough, what does that have to do with anything. Also, good enough for what? Some weird warped standard in my head? Who, exactly, is keeping score here? I’d like it if the confrontation stopped the music and made the conductor slink away, but the music stays like a song stuck in my head which I can mostly ignore.

A young mother came and sat next to me at church. She is my visiting teacher and wants to know when she can come see me, as she is assigned to do. This is one of the programs of my church that I love. The women of the congregation are paired up and asked to go visit a third sister once per month. It builds friendships and community connections in some really good ways. It also adds things to my schedule. I pulled out my phone so that I could look at the calendar. After tapping through the next few days the young mother said “Wow, you’re really busy.” For a moment I pondered her life. She lives in a stay-at-home-mom world with one toddler to her charge. I suspect her hours are every bit as busy as mine, but her tasks are not the sort that get written on calendars. Mine are. I have calendars and lists. I have appointments and carpools. I wonder how my life appears to her. I had a life like hers a decade ago. I enjoyed it, but I don’t want to go back. I’m enjoying this life too. Funny how I can write that and mean it, so soon after writing about not feeling good enough. My head holds paradoxes all the time.

Kiki called yesterday. The minute I saw her name on my phone, I knew something was wrong or at least urgent. When she reaches out for social reasons she uses computer based communication methods rather than calling. She’d lost her stylus for her wacom tablet. She knew it was somewhere in her dorm room, could I please help her find it. The room, Kiki, and stylus were all over two hundred miles away from me. My ability to help was limited, so I walked her through the logic behind trying to find something that has been misplaced. Finding things is less about moving physical objects and more about tracing the thought processes that led to the item being put in an odd place. I know Kiki pretty well. Five minutes into our conversation, she found the stylus. I don’t know if I actually deserve credit for the find, but I’m going to claim it, because the story is fun.

We’ve reached the point in Patch’s cello playing where he does not always immediately drop what he’s doing and go practice when I ask him to. This has more to do with his natural disinclination to switch activities than a dislike for music practice. So I sat down with Patch and we agreed on a fixed time for cello. It comes right after dinner and right before homework. This is a good placement because dinner already interrupts and he can slide into practicing without any trouble. Of course it means that I now have yet another reason why I should be better about supplying dinner on a regular schedule.