Presentations and Panels

Panel Notes: Collaborating With A Family Member

I was already familiar with my co-panelists for this discussion. Michaelbrent Collings is an author with many projects both completed and in the works. Karen and Kevin Evans write together crafting stories for the Grantville Gazette. The panel had no declared moderator, so by mutual assent I was place in charge. This was fine. I enjoy moderating. The panel was tuned to discussing the particular difficulties that attend collaborating with a family member, but most of the information is applicable to any collaborative partnership. I wish you all could have been there. These notes are a mere skeleton of the useful information that was imparted. I don’t remember all the stories or how one thought connected to the next. It was a really good discussion.

We began the panel by compiling a quick list of the benefits and difficulties that attend a collaboration with a family member.

Benefits:
Additional eyes – most creative works involve some level of collaboration. When an editor reviews a work and makes suggestions, that is collaboration. Collaboration is necessary because no one set of eyes can detect everything. Alternate points of view strengthen a creative work.

Spending time with someone you like: Michaelbrent spoke eloquently about how much he enjoys collaborating with his father. Karen and Kevin spoke in the same strain. Creating something together can really strengthen a relationship.

Continuous creative conversation: This is a benefit that I definitely see every day. Howard and I have a dozen conversations a day where we talk about the various projects we have in process. We will never run out of things to talk about because we’ll never run out of projects.

Filling in the weaknesses: Karen is a writer who loves characterization. Kevin is a writer who loves plotting. So when Kevin is working on a story he’ll put in a note “Karen writes character stuff here.” Then Karen fills in those gaps. It works the other way as well with Karen writing “Kevin fixes plot.” Together they are able to finish projects, submit them, and succeed. Separately they were far less successful.

Difficulties:
Differences in timing and writing speeds: Sometimes Michaelbrent is really excited about a project, but his father’s schedule is too full. Other times a project is top priority for one collaborator, but not for the other. It can get really frustrating when one partner has to wait on the other.

Spillage: Project stress and conflict can spill over into the family relationship. Creative projects inevitably create both conflict and stress. The more passionately the creators feel about the project, the more true this becomes. It can take a careful touch to keep the collaborative relationship separated from the familial relationship.

Melding Multiple processes: Howard and I have different approaches to similar tasks. This was evidenced while getting ready for LTUE. My way of packing and planning left Howard feeling like everything was disorganized. The opposite also happens. It takes time, patience, and constant communication for the partners to figure out how to work together. We each have to take turns letting go of control and trusting our collaborative partner.

Criticism and Ego: A necessary part of collaboration is telling each other when part of the project is not working right. It can be quite difficult to do this so that only the project is under discussion and not the person who created. A solid knowledge of each other is necessary to be able to criticize constructively rather than destructively.

Jealousy: This one was not mentioned during the panel, but I think it belongs here. Equal contributors are not always given equal recognition. Even without recognition it is possible for one creator to feel jealous or resentful about the path that the project is taking. Careful attention is necessary to the emotional needs of your collaboration partner.

In the next part of the panel we focused on practical and structural ways to make a collaboration work healthily.

Michaelbrent started out this section by saying that if you’re approached by a family member who wants to collaborate and you have a sinking feeling about the project, don’t do it. You should never collaborate with someone if you feel like they can not help you produce a quality project. You must be excited to work with the person. I countered this idea by suggesting that it is critical to know your goal. If the goal is a high-quality sale-able project, then Michaelbrent is absolutely correct. If the goal is to spend time with grandpa, then a very different standard applies. Then the success of the project is measured by time spent. Someone else, I’m not sure who, gave the additional suggestion that it is critical for both collaborative partners to share the same goal in relationship to the project. If one is trying to write a story for the kids and the other wants to create a slick best-selling middle grade novel, then conflict is inevitable.

Additional practical advice:
Agree upon a method of working: Michaelbrent and his father wrote a book by alternating chapters. Karen and Kevin take turns doing the drafting and revision. Howard and I make up new work processes as the project demands. We actually had some stress over our current board game project because the process had to run differently from our usual book projects. We sorted it out and onward we went. The particular method of collaboration does not matter much, so long as it satisfies both partners and it smooths out the difficulties between them. Don’t be afraid to stop a project and adjust the process if necessary.

Avoid cross communication: I can say the exact same words to three different people and have them taken in very different ways. Even the same person can take my words differently depending on time of day, what other conversations we’ve had recently, or if they’re hungry. In a collaboration, especially with a deadline looming, miscommunication happens. Extra effort is necessary to prevent as much as possible.

Listen to your collaborator as a professional: No matter what other relationship you may have, you need to be able to respect them and their creative input. If you can’t, then this is not a person with whom you should collaborate. To accomplish this it is very helpful to picture the various roles you take on as hats that you wear. Sometimes I function as Howard’s business manager, art director, wife, accountant, or graphic designer. There are times where I will speak to all of those roles in the space of a very short conversation. But because we have the roles defined it is easier to see that when the artist is frustrated with his art director it does not mean that Howard and Sandra are angry with each other as husband and wife.

We could have kept talking for a very long time, but the room was scheduled for another panel. I asked everyone to finish up by giving one quick note of caution and then telling a story about something wonderful which happened as a result of collaboration.

Cautions:
Michaelbrent made the point that it is critical to have creative projects that you are not doing together. There are natural emotional ups and downs attendant to any creative project. Those can be tempered if each partner has other projects in different stages.

Karen reminded us all that relationships always matter more than projects. Never get so involved with creative projects that your life disappears.

Kevin pointed out that most things are not actually life or death situations. Slowing down or missing an opportunity is not the end of the world. Other opportunities will come, and they may even be better for you because they arrive at a time when you can accept them gracefully instead of in a mad scramble.

My caution was to trust wisely. When a collaboration with a family member goes bad, it goes horribly bad. This is particularly true when there is money involved. It is a good idea to sit down at the beginning of a project to outline general responsibilities and benefits. Michaelbrent, who has been a contract lawyer, pointed out that anything written on paper and signed is a contract. He also said that complicated contracts are actually less useful than simple ones because all they do is carefully define loopholes.

The happy stories:
When Karen was a little girl she stood in a bookstore and put her finger between two books on the shelf and knew that when she wrote a book, that is where her book would be. Now she has a book and she credits her collaboration with Kevin for giving that to her.

The best way to get to know someone is to work with them on a project. Michaelbrent is endlessly grateful for the opportunities that he has had to work with both his father and his wife.

I was so busy moderating that I didn’t really have time to think through what my happy thought was until it was my chance to speak. So I started semi-at-random talking about the amazing people I’ve had the chance to meet as a result of Schlock Mercenary. Just as I wrapped up the thought, I glanced down at the table in front of me where several of our books sat and I realized that I’d just said the wrong thing.

So I stopped myself and said “But that isn’t the best part.” I held up the books and said “These are dreams made real. They could not exist without the collaboration that Howard and I share.” The moment I finished the words, I realized I was wrong again. Because the books are nice, wonderful even, but they pale in comparison to something else.

I put the books down and said “But that isn’t the best part either. The best part is standing in my kitchen with Howard and talking, swapping out hats as we talk about things and make plans for the day. It is how we collaborate on business, family, parenting, and everything else.”

That is definitely the best part, even though I’m still not sure that I’ve said it right.

Preparing for a Local Convention

The other day Howard was talking to me and interrupted himself mid-sentence three times in a row to change the subject. It was amusing and fascinating to listen to him close off these nesting topics one by one. My day today is going to be a lot like that. I have lots of tasks ahead. Many of them are going to interrupt each other and I’ll just have to hope that I’ve placed enough memory triggers either in my house or in my brain so that I can come back and complete the interrupted tasks. A day like today requires lists.

Most of today’s work can be summed up in a single sentence: I am preparing for LTUE. That statement can be broken down into three basic categories: arranging for the kids, booth preparation, and preparation for a professional appearance. From there the tasks fracture into dozens of small details, which I am now going to list so that at 2 o’clock this afternoon when I’m standing in my front room with the feeling that there is something important I should be doing, I will be able to look at the list and think “Oh yeah, right, THAT.”

Arranging for the Kids:

  • Most important here is arranging for adequate supervision. This used to mean negotiation with friends, relatives, or neighbors for babysitting. Now it means sitting my children down and reviewing exactly how we treat each other when mom is unavailable to mediate conflicts. House rules will also be reviewed.
  • Planning their travel to and from school when I can’t help carpool — Done
  • Food. I need to buy microwavable food so that they don’t go hungry in the mid afternoon. I’ll actually be here for most of the dinner times. However I will also be brain dead, so I will be grateful to be able to shove frozen things in the microwave and push a button.
  • Bedtime. This only matters on Thursday. The other nights they can stay up late. I just need to plan incentives and review normal procedures with the kids so that they are prepared for things to be a little different than usual. It saves us from upsets when everyone knows the plan.

Booth Preparation:

  • In theory LTUE is the convention when we test out new booth set ups and displays. Every fall we say “we should do A, B, C next year. We’ll test that at LTUE.” Then every February I realize that it is time to prep for LTUE and I don’t have A, B, C ready to go. sigh.
  • Making bundles — We sell our books in discounted bundles. These must be assembled and shrink wrapped. Fortunately Kiki was in need of funds and happily took the job for me. — Done
  • Packing merchandise — The first and hardest step of this is deciding how much to bring. Fortunately we’re coming home every night so I can re-stock as necessary, but we still don’t want to run out of anything when a customer is standing right there. Everything we decide to bring must be packed into boxes for easy hauling by dolly. Loose merchandise gets lost or damaged.
  • Display stands and booth dressing — These are the A, B, C which I never get around to until almost show time. Today it means buying a foam core board so that I can make a vertical display for our t-shirt, grocery bags, and magnets. We also need to get our book stands and table cloths out of the storage unit. Also our table leg extenders so that we can raise the tables.
  • Planning where to park for easiest hauling of stuff into and out of the dealer’s room. It never works exactly as we expect.
  • Cash for change — means a trip to the bank.
  • Post-convention accounting, inventory counting, and unpacking — none of this happens today, but for everything I prepare today, part of my brain is sadly looking ahead to when I’ll have to clean up after it.

Preparing for a professional appearance:

  • I write notes out for all the panels in which I participate. Often I don’t even use the notes, but the process jiggles loose thoughts and stories which could be relevant to the topic. It means that my brain is primed to say useful things when I’m up in front of a room full of people. I list things I feel strongly need to be said about the topic. I list things which might be relevant or reminders of amusing anecdotes which fit the topic. I bring the notes to the panel and then I take notes as the panel progresses. My panel notes form the basis of a blog post later. Taking notes mid-panel means that when someone says a thing that triggers a thought, I am less likely to lose track of that thought before it is my turn to speak again. I’m pretty sure that I over-think this. Most professionals I know just show up with the knowledge in their heads and do fine. I just enjoy the advance planning. It is part of the fun for me.
  • I plan clothes and hairstyles. I don’t do this in detail, but I think generally about what I want to wear. Then I make sure that I do laundry so that those things are actually clean and ready for me.

There’s my list. Ready. Set. Go.

Life the Universe and Everything Symposium at UVU

Life the Universe and Everything Symposium (LTUE) at UVU has released a schedule and opened registration. This is an amazing local event for people who want to be writers or who love discussing or learning about Science Fiction and Fantasy. If you’re free February 9-11 then you should register. Prices will go up on Monday.

I always love LTUE and come away feeling energized. This year I’m particularly excited. I have four panels and presentations, all of which are topics which excite me.

Thurs Noon
Collaborating With a Family Member
Howard and I collaborate to get the work done every day. There are some specific challenges involved with being both business partners and spouses. Sometimes stress and conflict from one role can spill into the other. The other panelists are also very familiar with both the benefits and challenges of working with family members. I expect us to have a fascinating discussion. (Panelists: Sandra Tayler, Karen Evans, Kevin Evans, and Michaelbrent Collings.)

Thurs 2pm
Feeling Fake: What to do about that pervasive feeling that everyone belongs in the publishing world except you
This feeling of being fake is called Imposter Syndrome and every creator I have known feels it at one time or another. We’ll talk about the causes of this feeling and some things you can do to quell it or at least not let it hurt your professional life. Again I’m with excellent co-panelists. (Panelists: Sandra Tayler, Jason Alexander, Ami Chopine, Stacy Whitman)

Saturday 11am
Little Stories Everywhere: using blogging as practice for writing fiction
I’ve been wanting the chance to talk about blogging at LTUE for years. I’m thrilled to finally get the chance. I love blogging. I love it for itself and not just as a means to an end. I’ll be talking about that and how I blog in ways that are directly relevant to the writing of fiction. A blog can be more than just a promotional tool. (Panelists: Sandra Tayler, Jessica Harmon, Peggy Edelman, Robin Weeks)

Saturday 3pm- 5pm (2 hours)
The Author’s Toolbox: Learning skills for networking, blogging, social media, and self-promotion.
I’m thrilled that this workshop made the schedule. Mary and I plan to pack the two hours full of useful information and specific skill acquisition tools. Self-promotion does not have to be awkward and uncomfortable. Instead it can flow naturally from who you are and what you do. We’re going to talk in detail about how that works. We may even outline exercises and concrete skills that you can practice on your own. Seating is limited to 140 people. Come ready to learn and be prepared to stay for both hours. (Presenters: Mary Robinette Kowal, Sandra Tayler)

For those of you not in Utah, I’ll try to keep good notes and write them up after LTUE is over. I don’t know if there will be any official recordings.

In addition to my events, there are lots of other amazing panels and presentations. E-publishing is featured in discussions and how-to presentations, Writing Excuses will be recording, Topics such as cultural sensitivity, creating dynamic characters, analyzing symbolism in extant works, promoting on Amazon.com, and laying out pages of graphic novels will all be discussed. Click here to see the full schedule. LTUE is a fantastic event. I’m hopeful that the move to UVU will allow it to grow and thrive so that some of you who do live far away will be able to plan ahead and make pilgrimages here for another year.

Budgeting 101

The basic concept of budgeting is this: Dividing your estimated earnings into assigned categories for spending. If you are on a fixed salary this process is fairly simple. I’ll cover some basics, and then talk about some more difficult cases. I am addressing this primarily to people who are not in dire financial need or poverty. People in those situations need to seek out local resources for help in finding solutions which are tailored to their particular situation. This post focuses on budgeting on particular. I’ve got a more general post about financial management that might be helpful to read first. Onward we go.

The mechanics of budgeting can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. If you never overspend and always have money waiting for emergency expenses, then the system you’re using is working for you. Stick with it. If otherwise, here are some places to start in putting together a budget.

Pick some categories and assign dollar amounts to them, making sure that the totals don’t add up to more than your salary income. We have categories for groceries, gas/electric, water/garbage, auto insurance, life insurance, medical, auto repair, auto fuel, clothing, dining, entertainment, savings, and assorted other categories which are more particular to us. What you name your categories is not as important as making sure that you have one to cover every way in which you spend money. I use a lot of categories because my financial program (Quicken) makes them easy to track, and then I can run reports to tell me exactly how much we spent on comics in the last year. If you’re new to budgeting, fewer categories might feel less overwhelming. However it is best to make sure that your fixed expenses, like utility bills, are not in the same category as discretionary expenses like eating out at restaurants. One of the most important things that a budget can do for you is to make sure that you don’t spend your rent money on going out to see a movie, but it can only do so if rent and movies are not in the same category.

A useful way to visualize budgeting: When I’m teaching my kids about budgeting, I use the envelope method to help them visualize. They divide their allowance into several envelopes or jars. This lets them plan ahead for how much they want to spend on the various things in their lives. If the Candy envelope becomes empty, the only way to spend more money on candy is to borrow from another envelope, or wait for a new influx of income. The kids borrow money from envelope to envelope all the time, but the act of pulling it from another envelope helps the kids see that if they spend all their money on candy, then they will not have any left for books or for what ever cool toy they’ve been coveting. In my budget, I loan money across my discretionary categories all the time. I do not pull money from the fixed expense categories like Mortgage Payment.

Pick a tracking method. We keep all our money in one checking account and just track the categories in our financial program. When money is really tight, I keep a little tally in a notepad that I carry with me. Then I can refer to it at a moment’s notice when making buying decisions. If I buy socks I subtract it from the Clothing category on my tally. I know a friend who issues himself a cash allowance for fun spending, essentially applying the envelope method for everything except bills. What ever method you choose for tracking, always refer to your budget tracking method before spending money. If you don’t have money in an appropriate budget category for those lovely new curtains, don’t buy them. Not even if they are on sale.

Knowing how much to put in each budget category can be tricky if you have never done a budget before. Start by looking at bank statements, bills, and receipts from the last few months. This can teach you a lot about where your money is going. Add up the amounts you spent in the various categories. I’m usually shocked by some category of spending that I did not realize was adding up to so much. Use whatever information you have to make some guesses and then get started. It is more important to start training your brain to think about how you spend, and whether you should spend, than it is to get the numbers right. The numbers are your measurement tools, not something which will be graded by others. You will goof up. That’s okay, learn something from it and do things differently next time.

Some good practices for budgeting:

  • Pay your bills first, as soon as you can. That way you’re less likely to use the money for something else.
  • Don’t use your checking account balance or your credit card balance as a measure for whether you can afford something. Use your budget.
  • Build savings into your budget. Keep an “in case of emergencies” fund. But also, pick something you want and save for it. It can be anything: college, retirement, a trip, a car, being debt free. It needs to be something you’re willing to sacrifice for. Put that money aside until you have enough to pay cash for your dream. This fund will probably be raided in times of emergency, but then you’ve made your emergency less financially catastrophic.
  • Pay down your debts as fast as you can. Debts weigh on you and limit your financial possibilities. The interest you pay on debt does not add anything to your life except stress.
    Be extremely cautious about acquiring debt. See above.

Some questions and answers about difficult cases:
What if your income is irregular? Not everyone has a bi-weekly paycheck, which can make budgeting seem difficult. However most bills are on a monthly billing cycle. If you set up your budget on a monthly basis, then having a budget can help even out the bumps. Average out your expected income over the course of four months, then divide that by four. I would recommend low-balling your estimated income per month. Some months you will have more than this, others less. Sticking to your budget in times of financial plenty will help you fill in the times when money is scarce. If your income is irregular, stashing money into savings is crucial.

What if money is always scarce? If the total of your estimated expenses by budget category is greater than your estimate income, you are in financial crisis mode. It is time to sit down and seriously look at all all your financial commitments to see what can be eliminated. Being able to eat is more important than having 300 channels. Find every way you can to reduce expenses: cancel subscriptions, pick less expensive foods, sell a car. There are a lot more than you might think. I recommend reading books like The Complete Tightwad Gazette many of the methods inside won’t apply, but the mindset of “I can do this cheaper” is important when money is tight. If you can’t bring yourself out of financial crisis mode within a couple of months, look up local debt management resources. There are often free resources out there to help people get control of their finances.

What if you get hit by an unexpected expense? This happens all the time. Medical bills and car repairs are the biggest culprits. In a solid budget there is some planning ahead for these things. Create a budget category for “in case of emergency” and stick money into it each month. This is what savings accounts are for. Planning ahead means that the unexpected expense is merely annoying instead of an emergency.

What if you have an expense which is not monthly? My auto insurance comes due twice per year. Property taxes on our house are due once per year. I take the amount I’ll need to spend on these bills and divide it by the number of months between payments. Then I put that amount aside each month. To use some made up numbers: if $100 per month is allotted to Car Insurance, then when the $600 bill comes due I have money waiting. If the $600 insurance bill was an annual bill, I would only need to set aside $50 per month. Put this set aside money where you can not accidentally spend it. I routinely put this into my savings account and then transfer it back out when time comes to pay the bill.

What if I goof up and forget to track my budgeting? I do this all the time. This past year I hardly checked my spending against budget categories at all. I was too busy and distracted. The result is that we over extended a little bit, but not much. The reason we did not over extend is because all the years of practice I’ve had in tracking a budget trained my brain to think about money in ways which kept me in check. The act of tracking your budget is training your brain to be financially responsible. Like any sort of training, it takes practice. Just start up again and keep going if you forget for awhile.

What if it is just too overwhelming and stressful to track all those numbers? Then your budget needs revision. Simplify it. Break down to something that is one step more organized than you were before. Adding little pieces of financial organization to your life can make a huge difference over the years. I revise my budget about once per year to make sure that my categories and tracking methods are still working. Systems fall apart, just use the good pieces from the old system to build a new and better system.

And that is enough for now. There are lots of good books on budgeting and financial management that you can get from your local library for free. Your librarian will be happy to help you find them.

When I get Financial Management for Creative People 102 and 201 written up, I’ll link them here.

Take time to read the comments below. Lots of additional good ideas there.

Financial Management for Creative People 101

The first thing any creative person needs to know about managing finances, whether you’re an artist, a writer, a musician, a film maker, or anything else: Good financial management is a skill. It can be learned by anyone no matter how good or bad they are with numbers. Granted, if numbers are not your friends, there may be struggling and swearing involved, but learning and practice will gain you the skills you need. You will get things wrong, sort them out, and then get them right. More than once. The key is to not give up, because if you are a creative person who wants to make a living doing creative things, you’re going to need to manage your finances effectively. Even if you don’t want to make a creative living, you can still make your finances more organized and less stressful. I graduated with a major in Humanities. I picked that major in part because it did not require me to do any math. Numbers were not my friends, and yet I learned this. You can too. Here are some places to start:

1. Create physical space for financial things. This can be anything from a basket to an uber-organized filing cabinet. The key is to have a place to drop all those bills and receipts before they have a chance to get lost. I have a file basket on the end of my kitchen counter. It contains file for the school papers of each kid, and a file for bills and other To Do papers. When mail arrives, I throw away the junk and drop the bills, checks, and other business papers into my accounting folder. Howard empties his wallet and dumps receipts into the folder as well. Then I ignore them until it is time to go through the folder.

2. Pick a method for tracking your money. I use Quicken for family finances and Quickbooks for the business accounting. Both of these are solid programs which will require a learning curve, but I’ve found them invaluable. I know people who use spread sheets or even hand-written ledgers. Pick something that feels most comfortable for you. The key is to start keeping track of where your money comes from and where it goes. If you’ve never done it before, this process can be very instructive about your spending habits. It is vital information which you can use to make your life better.

3. Make an appointment to do your accounting. Put that appointment on your calendar and keep it. I do this weekly. Every Monday I grab that accounting folder and go through everything in it. I pay the bills, enter the receipts, cash the checks, and file important papers. Once per week gets me the good news quickly and prevents the bad news from getting out of control before I handle it. When I’m pretty sure the accounting holds bad news, I do it anyway. The bad news I imagine is always worse than the bad news in the papers. I know people who do their accounting every other week or once per month. I found that it was easier to procrastinate on the longer schedule, so now I account every Monday morning.

4. Outline clear responsibilities for all people associated with the accounts/bills. If you’re a single person who manages your own money, this is not yet relevant to you. If you share your bills or finances with any other person, it is important to know who is responsible for the accounting and bill paying. Early in our marriage, Howard and I split the accounting. These days I do it all and just give him financial reports. How exactly you do it doesn’t matter as much as the fact that everyone involved knows their responsibilities.

5. Create a budget. A budget is a plan for how much money you will spend on the various expenses in your life. This topic is big enough for it’s own blog. I wrote up some basic budgeting in my post budgeting 101. For now, let this suffice. If you have never budgeted or planned your spending, start by keeping track of what you earn and what you spend. When you have several months of information you are ready to make a budget. The power of a budget is that it lets you see when you should not buy that shiny toy even if you still have money in your checking account because that money will be needed next month for car insurance. A budget helps remove the surprise from your bills and can lower your levels of stress.

6. Save save save. If you get extra money, squirrel it away into a savings account. This money is what helps you reach your dreams. The only reason Howard was able to become a full time cartoonist was because we spent the prior decade of salaried employment saving up money and paying down bills. A solid savings account is also your shield against disaster. Everyone ends up with unexpected bills. These are easier to handle if you have money in your hands instead of lots of take out pizza. It is easier to save money if you know what you are saving it for, so keep your dream in view and save for that. This year I’m saving money because there is a trip I want to take next summer.

That’s enough to get started. Changes and learning are easier to incorporate in your life if you don’t try to change too much at once. Other financial posts which may interest you:
Budgeting 101
Financial Management for Creative People 102: Structuring your finances to support a creative business. (Forthcoming)
Financial Management for Creative people 201: Taxes, incorporation, and business plans, Oh My! (Forthcoming)

You can learn this. Good luck!

Notes from LTUE panel: The Writing Life

My final panel of today was The Writing Life. On the panel with me were Julie Wright, Berin Stevens, and Angie Lofthouse. It was one of those panels where I scribble down notes, not only to help me remember what I wanted to say, but also because other panelists said things I want to remember. It was also one of those panels where I say things which I then have to write down because somehow the act of talking about living a writing life reshaped my thoughts in new ways, then the new thoughts spilled out of my mouth.

I knew before the panel began that I wanted to mention the inevitable break down of systems. Creative people get very excited and enthusiastic about their goals and plans for achieving those goals. When the plans fall apart three days later, they get very discouraged and are inclined to give up. The thing is to pick up the pieces and make a new system based on what you learn from the old one. Through iterations of this process a writer can find what works for her. Then life changes and iterations begin again.

The other panelists made excellent points about finding your priorities, setting goals, and scheduling time. I particularly liked the statement that writers need to not wait around for writing to be convenient. Time is made, not found laying around. Several panelists discussed getting up early, writing on work breaks, or staying up late. There was also much discussion of sacrifice, specifically giving up things like television and video games in order to make time for writing. We also touched on the importance of community. I loved all these thoughts and nodded agreement while scribbling notes.

Then I found myself thinking of fractals. The defining attribute of a fractal is that the large pattern is repeated when you zoom close to any particular part of the fractal. As you get closer and closer you see the same pattern ever smaller. Our lives are fractal. We don’t have to make our whole lives meaningful, but if we make each day balanced and good then the larger pattern will reflect that. I seized a microphone to share this insight and ended up talking about the five things I am still trying to put into my life daily. Every person will have different things, but the point is to try to balance each day so that priority items are front and center.

Since this was a symposium at a religious university, the authors on the panel with me shared that they often begin their writing sessions with prayer. They talked about how this calmed them and that they felt it inspired their writing sessions. I think this is a marvelous idea and I intend to try it.

A question was asked about specific practicalities of making time for writing. The truth is that I don’t always make time for it. There is a level of guilt attached to writing because sometimes I have to sacrifice things which are more important than television or video games. Sometimes it is a choice between writing and doing the laundry. It seems like a no-brainer, who likes laundry. But I know that if the laundry does not get done, then the next morning’s school scramble will be awful which will lead to a cascading failure of day. There are times when laundry is more important than writing and I choose it. Or I choose some other thing in my life. Other times I choose writing. Each day has its own answer and the only way I can find the right answer for today is to be in touch with my own priorities and inspiration. This is where my five daily things are so critically important. They center me in the priorities of my life. Often I discover that, contrary to what guilt would have me believe, writing first makes the laundry easier.

The panel wrapped up on the thought that sometimes what we have to sacrifice for writing are our own neuroses. We have to relinquish control of some things. We have to be willing to let kids do jobs poorly or to let them struggle and fail. We have to be willing to emotionally untangle ourselves from dramas which we can’t really solve, but which sap our energy. We have to find ways to allow ourselves to not be perfect. This can be very hard.

It was a really good discussion and I am glad I got to participate.

Finance for Freelancers

While at Penguicon I moderated a panel called “Finance for Freelancers” with co-panelists Tobias Buckell and Catherine Shaffer. I wasn’t intending to moderate, but I was foolish enough to be the first one to ask who would be the moderator. Having everyone introduce themselves and tell why they became freelancers gave me just enough time to scribble a few notes so I could direct the discussion.

I feel like the whole thing went very well, due in large part to the wealth of experience that Toby and Catherine were able to share. It is a joy to moderate a panel of competent people who know how to make their points concisely. I learned some things and I felt like we shared useful information with the audience. I wish I had a transcript to post, but I can remember a few highlights. What follows is loosely connected notes from the panel:

The insecurity of not having a paycheck: All three of us agreed that the idea of freelancing sounded really scary when we were at the beginning of it, but that after doing it for a few years we all feel more secure in our incomes than we did before. This security comes as the result of having many different sources for income. When one contract dries up, the others carry you until you can pick up another contract to fill the financial gap. Both Catherine and Toby talked about having the ability to stop working for people who are difficult and how that contributes to contentment.

Health insurance: Toby gets insurance through his wife. Catherine has been getting it through her husband, but is considering cutting free of that. Like freelancing, the idea of searching for health insurance is scary, but once you get into it the fear goes away and it is merely expensive. Toby made the point that the price of health care needs to be calculated on top of what you need to pay your bills. This is part of the calculation you make to figure out how much money you need to bring in as a freelancer to make ends meet.

Organization: I spoke a little about organizing time. I have an assigned accounting day once per week where I look at my accounts. During the early years there were some weeks when I merely glanced because there wasn’t anything else to do, but I still kept the accounting appointment. We all talked about how it is important to keep the business accounts separate from the personal accounts. There was some variance about when a freelancer should incorporate, but Catherine quoted a $40,000 per year figure after which it is really to your financial advantage to be incorporated. Catherine uses a free financial management program to track her money (I can’t remember the name.) I use Quicken/Quickbooks. Toby uses Excel. All of us stated the importance of being able to do reports based on the financial numbers so that the freelancer can see where money is coming from and make good predictions for the next few months or years.

An additional note on organization: I think this point was made in a different panel, but it fits here. Creative people often have a learned helplessness when it comes to business organization. They don’t like thinking about numbers and they tell themselves that they can’t do it. Business thinking and financial organization can be learned. I taught it to myself. Over years of practice I got pretty good at it. Organization can be learned. Good financial record keeping can be learned. These things can be just as much a habit as putting on pants in the morning.

I know there was other good information in the panel. I may add it as I think about it. I’ll reiterate what I said in the panel, if you’re considering being a freelancer, you should check out Toby’s blog. He talks about this stuff and does seriously useful number crunching.

Notes from a presentation on journaling/blogging

I gave a 20 minute presentation on blogging and journaling this evening. It was a really enjoyable experience. I love getting to talk about the writing that I love to do. It was nice to share that love with people who were considering picking it up. What follows here is notes from my presentation. This is mostly for my benefit. I may have to give a similar presentation some time in the future and this way I can start from the notes I already have. It also allows me to point people to this entry instead of creating a piece of paper to hand out. Perhaps it will even be useful to someone who was not at tonight’s event. Keep in mind that these notes only served as a jumping off point for discussions which were much more nuanced and specific.

The difference between blogging and journaling: Journaling is primarily private, the only intended audience is yourself. Blogging has an audience in mind even if that audience is only one other person. Both blogs and journals can contain personal thoughts, events, experiences, or commentary.

Costs and Benefits:
Both cost time, energy and brain space. Some of the tools require practice to use.
Writing thoughts down helps them be clearer and more focused. It slows them down so they can be examined.
That slow down provides a conduit for inspiration and seeing things in a new way.
In a public blog, sometimes you get comments. That can be either a cost or a benefit depending upon the nature of the comments.
Can be a wonderful way to connect with family, friends, or even meet new people.

Tools:
Paper and pencil- journals don’t have to be elaborate. I’ve grabbed scraps of paper before. But I recommend a method where the bits of paper won’t get lost.
Bound book- this can be anything from a special tome purchased for the purpose to a ten cent spiral notebook. At times I have found the spiral notebook to be very nice because it is so relaxed. I scribble all my notes, math calculations, lists, etc in the same place and it becomes a record of my life at the time.
Online- Lots of options. I’ll only list the three I know personally
Livejournal – An online community which has friends lists similar to facebook. People can lock their entries according to who they want seeing the entries. Read their site for more details.
Blogger – A journal or blog here can be completely password protected, or open to the public. Read their site for more details.
Own Domain name – This takes a lot more effort to set up, but can be very flexible and useful.

Stumbling Blocks:
“My life is boring” – No it isn’t. All of our lives are full of things that would be fascinating to someone who lives differently. Find the little stories in your life. The odd conversation in the grocery store line. The child’s lost tooth. Think of the stuff you would tell to a friend you haven’t spoken to for a day or a week. You can carry a little notebook to scribble notes about things as they happen so that you don’t come up blank when the time comes to write.

“It is a burden” The blog or journal is yours. You own it, it should not own you. You make the rules. You don’t need to apologize if you haven’t written in a while. The journal or blog is not going to get upset. It will wait for you.

“I always forget” Like any other habit, practice is required to make it a regular part of your life. Practice also makes figuring out what to write easier. You’re training your brain.

“People are watching” This one is blog specific, particularly if you post publicly. It is easy to become self conscious. Make sure you set some clear guidelines for yourself about what parts of your life are private and which are public. Everyone will put their line in a different place when deciding whether to pose photos, names of children, location, etc. Do your own research. Think through the risks and pick what is comfortable for you.

Note: In private journals, be sure to include full names, dates, locations and details. In five years you won’t remember what “lunch with friends” was about unless you put in the details. It is not polite to post such specific information about other people on the internet unless you have their prior permission.

Books that can help ADD kids and their parents

I’ve long held the opinion that homo sapiens became human, not with the development of language, but when that language was first used to tell a story. We use stories to define who we are and what is acceptable in our societies. In my own life I have frequently used stories written by others to illuminate my experiences and explain them to me. I love when I read a story and find my emotional experiences within it, even if the circumstances are different in my life than in the lives of the characters. But I have not found stories to match all of my experiences, and so I sometimes write my own stories to make theses things clear to myself and to others. This is why I wrote Hold on to Your Horses. My daughter needed a story that explained impulsive behaviors and then provided a framework for managing those behaviors. She is not diagnosed with ADHD at this time, but it would not surprise me if the diagnosis will become necessary later. She does have a brother who is diagnosed with ADD. Having one helpful book was good, but I wanted more books to explain and show what the experience of ADD is like. Fortunately I did not have to go any further than my shelf of picture books. None of the following books were intended as “help for parents of ADD children,” but all can be extremely useful. Each of the titles is linked to Amazon.com.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff Illustrated by Felcia Bond
The first time I read this book I thought that the mouse was classic for ADD. The little mouse in this story runs from one huge idea to the next without any pause. Some of the projects are completed, others get abandoned before they are done. Throughout the book the little boy follows after the mouse, cleaning up messes, providing materials, and generally trying to keep up. I have great sympathy for the little boy. I’ve been in his position often. This book is a great way to talk to ADD kids about how running from one project to the next can be exhausting for those who have to keep up. The child can see how the little boy struggles to keep up with the mouse. It is also good for explaining ADD behavior to siblings because they can see how each of the mouse’s projects sparks and idea that leads to another project. The chain of causality is visible in the book while in real life the projects of an ADD child may seem random or capricious. If You Give a Pig a Pancake by the same author and illustrator is also very good.

Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London Illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz
In this book a little frog is so excited to get outside and play in the snow that he acts before thinking through all the steps that he needs to take to get dressed. He is repeatedly called back into the house to get things that he forgot. Finally he is ready to play, but discovers that he is too tired. My kids have all loved this book. It was particularly resonant for my son that is diagnosed with ADD. He knows how easy it is to forget important things when he is excited about something else. This book helped him feel like he was not alone. It also gave me a framework to explain to siblings why things were forgotten again.

Hold on to Your Horses by Sandra Tayler Illustrated by Angela Call
This is the book I wrote for my daughter to help her visualize and control her impulsive ideas. There are other children’s books out there with characters that act impulsively, but my daughter was young enough that she needed the message to be the focus of the story rather than a small thread within it. This book can be downloaded and read for free via the Hold on to Your Horses website www.holdontoyourhorses.com

The Bouncy Baby Bunny by Joan Bowden Illustrated by Patience Brewster
This book was given to us when my daughter was three years old. At that time, my daughter was in constant motion and I spent a lot of energy redirecting her. Reading this book was cathartic for both me and my little girl. She got a chance to see how constant bouncing causes problems for everyone in the book, but then in the end the bunny’s bounciness saves the day. This book manages to affirm the value of being energetic, while still teaching lessons about finding the right times and places. When I read the book to my daughter’s siblings, they could totally see how she was like the baby bunny and they were more sympathetic to her bouncing after that.

Dawdle Duckling by Toni Buzzeo Illustrated by Margaret Spengler
This book was given to my son when he was in first grade. I think it was a message from his teacher. She wanted him to hurry up. The little duck is supposed to be following his mama duck, but instead he finds lots of other delightful things to do. In classic morality tale style, the dawdling almost lands him in trouble. The message seems to be “don’t dawdle.” We took the book and adopted it. The book gave us a chance to discuss my son’s tendency to get distracted from the task at hand. With the book in hand, my son could see how the little duck’s side tracks were all delightful and worthwhile, but that there came a time to hurry. It gave us a chance to discuss when focusing is necessary and when we can dawdle.

Three Cheers for Tacky By Helen Lester Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
Tacky is a penguin who just doesn’t quite fit with the other penguins. They are all the same and Tacky is…different. Tacky is different in the way that lots of ADD or Asperger kids are different. He’s loud, and clumsy, and can’t seem to do things that everyone else does easily. But in the end Tacky’s differentness is exactly what is needed to win the prize. There are other books about Tacky, but this one is the favorite for me and my kids. It teaches a powerful message that being different can be good and that you don’t have to conform to find acceptance.

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
This is not a picture book, but it was exactly the book that my daughter needed during her difficult kindergarten year. She was greatly relieved to find out that Ramona also got sent to time out during her first few days of Kindergarten. She sympathized greatly with Ramona’s desire to be good that is continually foiled by impulsive behaviors. Reading about Ramona opened the door to discussing my daughter’s experiences with school and made the whole experience much easier.

I know that there are other wonderful, helpful books out there. If you can think of one please comment below and tell everyone why you like it. I’d love to be able to add to this list.