P is for Patience and Persistence (#AtoZChallenge)

P2020

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California, where every November and December, a layer of tule fog settles in. Sometimes it lifts during the day, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s so thick you can barely see the end of your car hood. That’s when you hope the road you’re on has those little raised bumps along the shoulder, so you can ride on them to guide you. We called that driving by Braille. 0/10 Do Not Recommend.

Dense Tule fog in Bakersfield
Dense Tule fog in Bakersfield is from Wikipedia and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

What I do recommend is walking in the fog, especially at night. There was something magical about a walk on a foggy night, when I could barely see 30 feet in front of me. But it was also easy to get disoriented, easy to lose my way. However, if I started in the right direction and put one foot in front of the other, my destination would emerge out of the fog like an apparition. It was difficult–and scary–to keep walking forward toward a destination I could not see, even though I knew it was there. I was always tempted to veer off to the side to see if I could find a familiar landmark, or to turn back and wait until my path was clearer. If I wanted to reach my destination, though, I needed to keep moving forward. Slowly. Carefully. But forward.

We all have dreams. We all have goals. We all have destinations we desperately want to reach but that seem so far distant, so shrouded in the fog of uncertainty, that we aren’t even sure they are there. I want to publish a novel. You might want to run a marathon or finish college or buy a house. None of those things are easy. None are short-term. All require setting yourself on a path and putting one foot in front of the other day after week after month after year, even when the destination seems hopelessly distant. Even when you’ve lost sight of it entirely.

And now we have a global pandemic that keeps us in our houses, keeps us afraid, and keeps us wondering if we’ll ever have a chance to do more than get up and get through. How long till marathons are a thing again? Till college classes can happen in person? Till we’ll recover economically enough to buy anything, let alone a house?

I don’t know. You don’t know. None of us knows. 

But here’s what I do know: those dreams, those destinations? They still exist. Never mind walking through fog. It feels like we are sailing through a hurricane, and many of us have been blown off-course.That professional editor I wanted to hire to help me prep my first novel for querying? Gonna have to wait on that, because I may get furloughed, and raises will be canceled, and…

But on the other side of the huge waves and hulking clouds and sheeting rain, our destinations await us.

For now, though, we exist in an in-between time, between the familiar, the old normal, and whatever will come after. And right now, that new normal is shrouded in some pretty thick fog.

That phrase, in-between time, reminds me of a lovely novella by Diana Gabaldon called The Space Between. It’s set in the Outlander world and tells the story of Michael Murray and Joan MacKimmie, Jamie Fraser’s nephew and stepdaughter. Michael is grieving the death of his wife and recounts the advice he got from his brother Ian:

“That’s how ye do it,” his brother Ian had told him, as they leant together on the rail of their mother’s sheep pen, the winter’s wind cold on their faces, waiting for their da to find his way through dying. “Ye find a way to live for that one more minute. And then another. And another.” Ian had lost a wife, too, and knew.

He’d wiped his face—he could weep before Ian, while he couldn’t with his elder brother or the girls, certainly not in front of his mother—and asked, “And it gets better after a time, is that what ye’re telling me?” His brother had looked at him straight on, the quiet in his eyes showing through the outlandish Mohawk tattoos. “No,” he’d said softly. “But after a time, ye find ye’re in a different place than ye were. A different person than ye were. And then ye look about and see what’s there with ye. Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself. That helps.”

“Ye look about and see what’s there with ye. Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself.”

That line has stuck with me since the first time I read this story, and it’s come back to me many times since the coronavirus lock-down started. And many times since it started, I’ve looked around to see what’s here with me, and usually I can find a use for myself. Each day I can take one step, however small, toward my dream. I hope you can, too.

G is for Gardening (#AtoZChallenge)

G2020 I guess that last post should have been named, F is for Failure, because after that post, I failed the A to Z Challenge. I am now a day behind, and judging by the number of items on my to-do list for this week (and it’s already Thursday–WTF??), I will be several days behind very soon. I’m going to come back to that thought in a moment.

First, though, I want to say a few words about my other favorite activity besides writing: gardening. For those who don’t know, I live in a volcano field in a high desert, 7000′ above sea level. My soil is clay covered with about a foot of red cinders from the last volcanic eruption a few hundred years ago. Each May, we are invaded with swarms of locusts (a/k/a grasshoppers) that would make an Old Testament prophet proud. The wind howls all spring, and winter temps drop below 0 at least once a year. And I am crazy enough to try to grow plants here.

This exercise in frustration has taught me a few things:

Determination. Well, that didn’t work. What can we do differently when we try again? (This describes 6 years of trying to grow roses in this hellscape)

Tolerance for imperfection. Plants will not look like they did in the nursery catalog when they grow here. Apple blossoms will be frozen off long before fruit can set. The first tomato will ripen the day before the first frost. Etc.

Prioritization. Spring is wind season here in the San Francisco Volcano Field (look it up – it’s really called that. I live in a volcano field with an actual name). So when we have a few nanoseconds that are not windy–and I’m not at work–I drop everything to run outside and weed or plant something. (Digression alert! Have you ever realized that gardening is mostly about pulling out some plants and putting in others that grow less well than the ones you pulled out?) Whatever else I am doing can wait till the wind starts blowing, which it will do 5 minutes after I get outside. If it’s a calm spring day, nothing is more important than gardening. Nothing. Tie a tourniquet above that arterial bleed and wait till I’ve planted this rose bush that will get eaten by grasshoppers next month and freeze to death next winter. Can’t you see I’m busy?

Well, now, it so happens that determination, tolerance for imperfection, and prioritization are pretty dang good life lessons, especially for us writers. And I am demonstrating all three of them in my approach to the A-Z Challenge.

Yesterday I demonstrated prioritization. Work was hectic, I had writing to do, I had to pick up groceries, and I was exhausted. I inspected my to-do list, said something like, “Oh, hell no,” and started moving stuff to other days. One of the things that got moved was my daily A-Z Challenge post, because it was a lower priority than a) earning a living, b) feeding my family, c) editing my short story (it’s about a haunted ranch house that hasn’t been redecorated since the late 1980s. Mauve is terrifying. Terrifying, I tell you), and d) preserving my sanity. So I embraced my inner Def Leppard (or Elsa, for those of you with kids under 10) and Let It Go.

Today I’m demonstrating determination. So I missed a day? I can still do the challenge, still press on. And of course I’m demonstrating tolerance for imperfection. So I missed a day? BFD. Is it going to matter in a year? Is an agent going to decide not to sign me because I wrote about G on H day?

Nah.

We are all doing the best we can, struggling along with too much to do and not enough time–and now we’re doing it in quarantine, with the fear of a potentially-deadly illness looming over us. So today’s discovery in my A-Z coronazoic journey is this: prioritize ruthlessly to focus on what’s most important, and cut yourself some slack when you can’t do it all. And if the sun is shining and the wind ain’t blowing, get out in the garden!

Bonus for those of you who like plants and are willing to tolerate me showing off a bit: garden pictures!

Before – when we bought our house in 2014

2013-11-09 11.54.35

After – last spring

2019-05-11 14.25.51.jpg

2019-05-07 06.19.45.jpg

Fall 2018

2018-09-16 08.26.25.jpg

2018-09-23 10.53.48.jpg

If you want to see more garden pictures or read about my gardening adventures, you can stop by my other blog, Gardening With Altitude and Attitude. It’s on hiatus for now, so I can focus on my fiction writing and this blog (see? prioritization!) but you may find some of the old posts mildly entertaining.

Skip the resolutions – set goals instead

I don’t make New Years resolutions, and for the most part I never have. You can’t fail if you don’t try, right? Yeah, there’s your inspirational quote for 2020.

Seriously, I don’t make New Years resolutions, because I can only make major life changes successfully when I am truly ready, not when the calendar says it’s time for self-improvement. What I do set at the beginning of each year, though, are goals.

What’s the difference between a resolution and a goal? Glad you asked!

Resolutions vs. goals

A resolution is a commitment, usually broken by MLK Day, to start or stop a habit or make some other big change: start exercising, stop smoking, lose 10 pounds, start meditating, stop killing teenagers… (OK, who let Jason and Freddy into this party? Someone can’t read the, “No Slasher Movie Villains Allowed,” sign.)

A goal, on the other hand, is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound (see, OHSU HR Department? I did pay attention in that workshop on goal-setting!). A resolution is a wish. A goal is the first step in a plan. How about some (slasher-villain-free) examples?

Examples of resolutions vs. Goals

Example 1

Resolution: Write more short stories.
Goal: Write 4 short stories and submit them for publication by the end of 2020.
Difference: The resolution is not specific, measurable, or time-bound.

Example 2

Resolution: Finish my novel.
Goal: Finish the first draft of Delta Dawn by February 1. Finish the first round of revisions (fixing plot holes, reordering scenes, cutting out unnecessary scenes, filling in transitions between scenes) by June 1. Finish the second round of revisions (scene edits) by August 1. Finish line edits by November 1. Send to at least 2 beta readers by December 31.
Difference: The resolution is not specific (Which novel? And when is a novel really finished? When it wins the Pulitzer?), measurable (How will you know when you’re “finished?”), or time-bound (When are you going to do what?). I would also argue that it isn’t achievable, or at least will be much more difficult to achieve, because it isn’t specific and doesn’t break the process down into anything specific.

Anatomy of a SMART goal

Let’s take a closer look at the elements of a SMART goal:

  • Specific – I’m pretty clear in my goal about what, exactly, I hope to complete in 2020. The more specific you can be, the more likely it is you’ll actually achieve what you set out to do.
  • Measurable – It’s measurable if you can tell whether or not you’ve achieved it. Some goals have numeric measures (like write 50,000 words in November. Hmm… where have I heard that before?). Others, like mine above, are measurable in that you can tell whether or not the thing is done.
  • Achievable – or at least I hope so. It’s a bit ambitious, what HR types call a “stretch goal,” but it’s doable if I can reign in my addiction to r/amitheasshole on Reddit. A good goal is one that you can achieve with a bit of effort. If it’s too easy, you’ve sold yourself short (but you’ll have plenty of time for messing around on Reddit). If it’s too hard, you’ll probably fall short, and that can be really discouraging. So be honest with yourself but push yourself a little.
  • Relevant – I want the damn thing done, so it’s relevant to me. Make your goal something you care about.
  • Time-bound – For a goal this large, I need subgoals and deadlines for it to be truly time-bound. I mean, who doesn’t love deadlines? But seriously, a project the size of a novel needs to be broken down into manageable chunks. That’s the cornerstone of what the business types call, Project Management. I’m planning a future post on that topic, so don’t touch that browser!

I highly recommend SMART goals, at the beginning of the year or anytime, to help you clarify what, exactly, you want to achieve. They make it so much more likely that you’ll actually be successful.

My writing goals for 2020

And just in case you care (C’mon, pretend you do. It’s lonely back here behind this keyboard), here are my 2020 writing goals. Note: I’m not just having an ego-fest here. Sharing your goals with someone else is what the self-help types call “practicing accountability.” Telling someone else what you plan to do is supposed to make it more likely that you’ll actually do it, because it makes you accountable to whomever you told. So I guess some of y’all are supposed to come over here and break my legs if I don’t get these goals done. (Narrator: Don’t do that.)

Anyway, here’s what I hope to accomplish in 2020:

  • Goal 1: Finish the first draft of Delta Dawn by February 1. Finish the first round of revisions (fixing plot holes, reordering scenes, cutting out unnecessary scenes, filling in transitions between scenes) by June 1. Finish the second round of revisions (scene edits) by August 1. Finish line edits by November 1. Send to at least 2 beta readers by December 31. (This one should look really familiar. If it doesn’t, you’re probably one of those monsters who skips to the end of mysteries to see whodunit. Shame!)
  • Goal 2: Submit 4 short stories to contests or for publication: revise Collateral Damage and submit it to the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest; submit Proof Text for publication; write 2 new stories and submit those.
  • Goal 3: Polish Vanishing, Inc.: Continue submitting chapters to my critique group and revising based on their feedback (throughout the year as the group meets); send the entire manuscript to at least 3 beta readers by May 1 and revise based on their feedback by November 1.
  • Goal 4: Write a flash or short creative nonfiction piece about my mother’s dementia and submit to a contest or for publication by December 31.

How about you, dear reader? What are your goals for 2020?