Anybody Want a Cat? Or Three?

Free to good any home: Three moon-drunk felines weighing a total of thirty pounds. Can be separated, but extra vocalizations ensue when two youngest are apart. Special skills/talents: pitiful looks, persistence, precociousness, curiosity, ability to jump long distances, enthusiasm, admirable dedication to chasing computer cursors and wrestling each other. Disadvantages: same. If interested, please reply to keepmycats@takethemnow.net.

Background, in the name of disclosure: These cats are prone to the night-crazies, and have been known to keep household members awake long into the the early morning. Last night’s exhibitions were particularly severe, and have prompted this limited-time offer. For example: The Basil sat under the window and howled at the visible moon. He and Rosemary, both friendly sorts, set up a wrestling tournament on my prone body. Someone threw up. Someone ate it. Someone pooped on the master bathroom floor. Someone attempted to bury it with linoleum. Someone got locked out, and then pawed and meowed at the door until let back in. Someone sat on my head. Someone walked on it. Someone chewed the cat kibbles so loudly the breaking food echoed throughout the room.

And now three someones are in trouble.

This morning came way too early for forgiveness. If they let me sleep tonight, I might allow them to live. I may even keep them, in which case this offer is null and void. But I’m a little cranky, so you’re probably in luck. Anyone? Anyone???

41 Ways to Conquer Writer’s Block

For the past several years I have volunteered at the local high school, advising a number of very talented students in the creative writing club. This year I mentioned NaNoWriMo to several of them. Word spread, and now we have a large group of students who are all determined to write an entire novel this month. Only problem? Some of them had no idea where to start. Since I’ve dealt with this same issue, I made up the following list for them. Since many of you write — books, term papers, blog entries, thank-you notes — I figured I’d share the list with you as well. Have favorite ways to jump start your writing? Please share!

1. Go back to when everything last worked and to see if you went off-track.

2. Skip ahead to what you do know and write that. Sometimes you’ll find that the scene you agonized over really doesn’t need to be there, or in the meantime you – or your subconscious – could think of a good way to fix it.

3. Think of ways to make your characters’ lives worse, then implement them. It’s hard to have a book if you don’t have conflict.

4. Make a list of all the scenes that have to happen in your book. Good. Now you know where you’re going, and you have a goal. Start figuring out how to get from your current scene to the next one.

5. Read what you’ve already written to get back into the groove. Danger: Don’t let this lead you to edit too much; it’s possible to spend all your time polishing the first three chapters and never get anything else written. You’ll have a great beginning, but you won’t have a book.

6. Write with someone else. This can often be inspiring; when others around you are being creative and productive, it’s hard to keep your own pen off the page.

7. Writer’s block is often caused by fear. It may be fear of writing something imperfect, fear of what others will think, fear of rejection, or even fear of success. What are you afraid of? Sometimes just knowing will help you conquer it.

8.Remind yourself that this is only a first draft. Most books go through many, many revisions, so if it’s not perfect the first time around that’s normal. You don’t have to show anyone until you’re ready.

9. Perhaps you’ve lost sight of your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. What would your character would do next in order to reach his/her goal? Now prevent him/her from it.

10. Watch a movie or read a book for inspiration. Sometimes the creative well just plain runs dry.

11. Brainstorm with someone.

12. Or, the reverse could be an issue: Perhaps you’ve talked about your book too much and now it doesn’t seem fresh or fun anymore. If that’s the case, try going in a new direction to freshen it up a bit, and keep it all to yourself for now.

13. 90% of all people who begin a novel never finish it. 85% of all those who began NaNoWriMo last year never finished. Beat the odds no matter what, even if means writing utter crap. You can always revise later.

14. Reexamine why you’re doing this in the first place. Write your motivation(s) on a sticky note and post it next to your monitor.

15. Sometimes having too many options can cause a block. For example, should the character be an architect or a plumber? Should his/her parents be divorced or still together? It’s difficult, but make a choice and stick with it. If you still can’t decide, write each choice on a piece of paper, fold up the pieces, throw them in a hat or bowl and draw one.

16. Set a timer and tell yourself you’ll write for this amount of time, no matter what – but that you’re allowed to stop after that if you want to. Anyone can write for 15, 30, or 60 minutes if they put their minds to it. Take a break to eat or do something fun, then set that timer again.

17. Develop a writing routine – light a candle, write at the same time each day, choose a special writing chair, etc. Just going through those motions can tell your brain that it’s time to write.

18. Shake up your writing routine. Write at a different time or place.

19. Allow yourself some awful first sentences each time you begin a new writing session. After all, quite often the hardest part is just getting started. Once you’ve warmed up, it usually becomes much easier.

20. Next time you write, try stopping in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or scene. This way you’ll know where to begin when you come back to it.

21. Write daily. Make it a habit. Often the longer you go between writing sessions, the harder it can be to get back into it, and the more time you’ll have to psych yourself out.

22. Tell everyone your goal so that you are held accountable. Then you have no choice but to get something down.

23. Start with success: Do something important but easy, such as finding a good last name for your character or doing some simple research. This gets you back into your story, and the success is often motivating.

24. Sometimes you just have to get yourself out of your own way. Take a shower, do the dishes, knit a scarf, take a long drive, play a computer game, hike, run, swim…Do something that keeps your hands and body occupied but your mind free. Then assign your brain the task of thinking about what to write next.

25. Disconnect your internet, so if you’re ever tempted to conduct another email check you have to get up and walk over to the modem to plug it back in. Quite often your willpower will return before you set aside your laptop or notebook.

26. Think of what you could be doing that you want to do even less – homework, cleaning house, writing that thank-you note to your Great Aunt Pearl, whatever.

27. Give yourself silly goals such as finding random words in the dictionary and having to use them, or starting the first sentence with the letter A, the next with B, the following with C, etc. The challenge can help get your mind off your fear and spark your creativity.

28. Open a new document or turn to a clean page in your notebook. Anything goes when you’re starting fresh. If you like what you come up with, you can always add it in later. Sounds silly, but it’s actually one of my favorite — and most effective — methods.

29. Type with your eyes closed. This can remove inhibitions.

30. Begin a free-write with, “I don’t know what to write,” and go from there, writing whatever comes to mind but slowly working your way into examining your book and then, perhaps, starting to write it again.

31. Interview your main character, or write a monologue from his/her P.O.V.

32. Keep a notebook by your bedside, in your car, in the bathroom – wherever you’re likely to get an idea. When one comes to you, take a moment to (safely!) write it down. Next time you’re stuck with your writing, look through your notebook for ideas.

33. Maybe you’ve gone the obvious route with your writing, and you’ve ended up boring yourself. Throw something big into the works to change things radically: someone new (dead or alive) turns up, your character finds out a devastating secret or is suddenly faced with what s/he most fears, the hero fails at an important task.

34. Make a list of 20 things that could happen next. Cross out the first 10-15 since those are often the more obvious choices, then consider implementing the last few.

35. Let your subconscious do the work. Long before you sit down to write, give yourself a problem that needs to be solved, anywhere from “What should I write next?” to “How should my protagonist react when s/he finds the dead body?” Think about it from time to time. By the time you write, a solution will often present itself with minimal effort.

36. Eat, go to the bathroom, and do any urgent business before writing. That way you have no reason to get up from the keyboard once you start. Just make sure you don’t put writing dead last, or you may never get to it.

37. Whatever you do, don’t delete! If you really don’t think it’s worthwhile, cut it from the manuscript and paste it in a new one so you can put it back in or use it in something else. Sometimes all you need is a little perspective, and that can take time and distance. If you’re stuck, go through your file of deleted scenes for inspiration.

38. What do you like about certain books/movies? How can you incorporate that into your own work in a creative way? What do you hate about particular books/movies? How can you write it better, and with your own creative twist?

39. Work on something else for a while. Ever have several books going at a time, reading whichever one interests you right then? The same can work with writing.

40. Remember that writing is hard. Just because it doesn’t always flow, it doesn’t mean you’re blocked. So realize that it might not be easy, and work through it. After all, things that are worth it rarely come easily.

41. Examine your attitude before you go into it. Are you expecting to have a fun, productive writing session, or are you expecting pain and blockage? Your brain often delivers what you expect.

A Post About Repairs — Now With Photos!

Seems everything needed repairs this week. First there was an elderly but sturdy machine at work, which required my second-favorite set of instructions ever: the now-infamous page 36 from the vintage manual I keep in a nearby cupboard.

Raise your hand if you had to stifle a juvenile snicker when you read the title above. Raise both if you were unsuccessful. Very good. You get three points if you’re the first to spot the spelling error, and ten if you can identify the machine in question.

Page 36 also requires a trip to the following diagram, which I would argue makes their assurance that it’s only “7 easy steps” a giant lie. Like the photo above, click if you need more detail, but do so with care lest your brain explode.

Despite my near-uselessness when it comes to anything mechanical, I managed to muddle through and get the mystery machine up and running again — just in time to go home and spend another evening trying to fix my book. Alas, that task doesn’t come with an instruction manual.

Aren’t they pretty? Good thing I don’t use red ink, or these pages would look like they’d been murdered, and that would ruin the tone of the whole book.

Then, of all the luck, I needed repairs, too. Yes, the flu visited again, just a month and a half after it last stopped by. So much for my weekend plans. Instead of going into the mountains to take photos like the one below, which I snapped a few years ago…

…I got to photograph things around home. This is not nearly as exciting — or as pretty.

Unfortunately, alien creatures kept popping into the frame at the last minute. The blobby heads and tails were so big that even Photoshop couldn’t help me fix the results. Too bad. I do hate to leave things unrepaired.

How to Look Like a Local in Six Easy Steps

I live in a tourist town, which means that in certain seasons we are overrun by camera-toting sightseers intent on packing in as much adventure as their credit cards and cranky kids will allow. From early spring to late fall work hours increase as many businesses close later, grocery stores morph into scary places filled with clots of vacationers and their cockeyed carts, and our favorite restaurants are inundated by sun-stunned visitors escaping the heat. Shortly thereafter I begin to have nightmares in which our house is taken over by unwelcome tourists who feel that we are unreasonable for not letting them wash their Hummers in our backyard.

Whenever possible during these crazy months, hubs and I escape our personal half-acre of paradise to take pictures of other wonders and spend time with someone else’s tourists for a while. Although the scenery’s different, many of the tourists look exactly the same, as we’ve discovered by traveling widely. This year it will be California. Last year it was South Carolina. In August. In record heat.

After growing up in a Midwestern city that attracted many businesses and college students but nary a tourist, living in a place like this has been an experience. When your daily life is someone else’s vacation, you learn a lot. For example, I’ve learned when to visit the grocery store, which streets and restaurants to avoid and, most importantly, how to dress like a local. The last skill has netted me requests for directions in several neighboring states, Philadelphia, Boston, and Madrid. It may not be handy if you don’t know your way around the town you’re visiting, but it can help you avoid getting scammed by people who take advantage of clueless travelers, and it can net you better service in restaurants, bars, and grocery stores.

Giving the appearance that you’re at home isn’t that difficult. The number one rule is: Avoid wearing fanny packs. Locals and attentive tourists alike have beheld the horrors of such adornments in large concentrations, and so they do not use them. This is not to say that fanny packs don’t have their perks; if your butt is too flat, for example, they provide the illusion of bulk. Since I’ll never have that problem, I eschew them altogether. Rule number two: Be nice to wait staff and other service people. Also, drive like you have at least a passing familiarity with traffic laws. Walk with confidence, even if you don’t know where you’re going, and learn to look but not gawk. And finally, for the love of God, do not take video footage of buildings, mountains, trees, or other unmoving objects.

See? It’s not too tough. For bonus points, don’t use a local’s garden hose to wash your car without their permission. They don’t like that sort of thing.

A Good Model Is Hard to Find

Last time around I promised a few updates, and I’m here to deliver. But first, I’d like to welcome those who never unsubscribed from my earlier blog, Novelist in Training, and have now found themselves mysteriously transported here. This weekend, after six months at my new blog home, I finally figured out how to change my old feed so that it would pick up these posts. If you showed up here after all this time and are still feeling lost, take a stroll around the archives for a bit with a special detour at this post, which describes what befell my last blog.

Now for the promised updates, along with piles of gratuitous cat photos for no additional charge. (You’re welcome.) I hereby vow not to turn this into a blog about photography — especially since I already have one — but my new camera arrived on Monday, and boy is it scary. Um, pretty. That’s what I actually meant to write. It’s pretty. Shiny and black and covered in buttons and dials that do God-knows-what, but I’m finding out, and by this time next decade I’ll be an expert.

Our friendly local UPS guy dropped off my new toy on Monday afternoon. Hubs and I both happened to be home, and he’s still laughing at how quickly I sprang from the couch, bounded over two cats, dodged the dining room table, and sprinted to the front door on the off-chance that the delivery guy would give up waiting for me to sign for it and take off, camera still in tow.

Opening the box revealed the usual camera essentials, along with one industrial strength instruction manual (weighing in at just under 200 pages, all in English), a quick-start guide, and two instructional DVDs. Since I’m a good, rule-abiding citizen I waited the requisite 90 minutes for the battery to charge, sifting through the directions and viewing one of the DVDs while I waited. I then loaded the Nikon, turned it on, swallowed the terror that the display screen induced, removed the lens cap, and searched for a subject. I didn’t have to go far: The Basil was lounging on his side only a few feet from me. I aimed, focused, and caught him as he spontaneously decided to lick himself. Yes, the very first shot with my new camera caught my cat licking his crotch. My life is so glamorous.

It was about a thousand degrees outside, so a trip around the block was not an option. Hubs had left to run errands, so my cats were the obvious choice for models. Since it did not involve petting or food, however, they found the attention boring and much yawning ensued.

I’ll spare you the illustrious first photograph, as well as the next several, which were of the back of Echo‘s head (being a cat, he refused to look my way simply because I wanted him to do so) and give you Rosie. Click on the picture for a larger photo, in case you need a little more tongue action or just want to see what sort of resolution my camera gets. Clearly this cat is not meant to model, since I focused on her eyes and she promptly yawned, baring her none-too-impressive fangs and pushing the top of her head entirely out of the picture.

And, since one cat photo is never enough, here’s The Basil, post crotch-lick. He’s one hick kitty, is he not?

When hubs came back from his errands, we got out of the house for a while and went on a hike. Here’s a picture of the sunset. Other than cropping and a few minor adjustments, it’s pretty much straight out of the camera. Like the photos above, click on this one for an enlargement.

And, finally, for the other update I promised, a recap of Friday night’s birthday celebration. Despite a history of hazardous birthdays, my father and I both survived my mother’s surprise with no more harm than a lack of sleep due to a later-than-usual bedtime. The activity? A trip to watch our local theater company perform Steel Magnolias. Since the movie version always makes me cry, I haven’t seen it lately, so I’d forgotten how many good lines there were. It was very well-done, and we watched avidly, laughing and, yes, crying in all the right places.

All in all, it was a good birthday.

Of Rocks and Heights and Alibis

Quick-Stepping

I’m married to a crazy person. I’m sure he’d say I drove him to it, but the truth is he’s always been this way. A hike is never finished until he has explored every available square inch of the terrain we’re crossing — especially the ledges and the high spots. For some inexplicable reason, his motto seems to be “When in doubt, go higher. Actually, whenever possible, go higher.” The good news is that this only applies to elevation and not to drugs. The bad news is that elevation has its own dangers. In contrast, my motto is “If I pause to take a picture here, no one can tell that I really just want an excuse to stop and catch my breath.” Which is why this picture is so typical of our relationship. We were in Canyonlands National Park on the winter solstice a few years ago. He’d just dragged me all over creation in search of God knows what, and I’d let him because I needed the exercise. While I stopped to take a picture of more rocks, he decided to go out onto them. I didn’t realize he was crossing onto the boulders until it was too late — to get a picture of him in mid-air, that is. If you thought I was going to write “too late to stop him” up there, you were incorrect . That would never work, so I barely bother anymore. I just cross my fingers and take a picture in case I need an alibi. “Really, Your Honor. I didn’t push him. See? I was over here the whole time, taking a picture.” By the way, if this photo looks familiar, that’s probably because I originally posted it on Playing with Pixels quite a while ago. I ran across it yesterday and thought I’d share, since I’ve been yearning for another trip to Canyonlands, despite the summertime heat. Click here or on the picture for a larger version with abbreviated text.

Things I Won’t Blog About Today

I’ve decided not to blog today. I thought I’d announce this decision, so you’d know that you were being neglected, instead of just suspecting it. It’s a beautiful May morning, and I plan to enjoy it. But just so you know what you’re missing, I’ll fill you in on a few things you will won’t learn on here today.

I won’t share my new secret knowledge: ring-billed gulls (commonly — though incorrectly — known as “seagulls”) practice kung fu when we’re not looking. Maybe I’ll mention it another time instead. If it comes up.

If only I were blogging today, I could mention in passing that hubs requested a pie in the face for his birthday and a rutabaga for Christmas, and now I’m terrified and intrigued — what will he ask for next? But since I’m busy elsewhere, I will be forced to disclose that tidbit another time.

On this fine morning, I will not share my suspicions that Echo the Cat looks like an Olsen Twin. This is especially clear in the link I would post if I were posting a photo to back up this information which I will not share today. Which I’m not. Or something. Now I’m all confused…

I hereby refuse to admit that our other two cats are unusually close. Often.

On a day like today, when many of you are probably hard at work on your novels, it would be far too embarrassing to reveal that I take pictures of random objects when I have writer’s block. Much better for you to suspect that I dedicate 100% of my attention to my book whenever I’m not at work or blogging.

And, because I’m afraid of public humiliation, I will never — today or any other day — reveal that I refer to this picture as “Cactus Itt” and am desperate to take scissors to the plant’s shagginess. I fear you might disagree or, worse, laugh at me.

So there you go. I bet you feel as if you’re really missing out, with scintillating topics like these available if only I were willing to take the time. Maybe on a day when there aren’t flowers to enjoy and books to write,  and cats to tease, I will go more in-depth. Or perhaps not. In the meantime, if you’re feeling bereft of bloggie tidbits, I suppose you could always stop by my photoblog, Playing with Pixels. To navigate through the album, just click the right or left side of each picture to go backwards or forward, respectively, or use the arrows beneath. Or, if you haven’t done so already, read the post below and then enter to win an autographed and personalized copy of Jess Riley‘s hilarious and poignant debut novel Driving Sideways. Or find some other way to entertain yourself. You’re resourceful; I can tell that about you.

Springtime Meets the Couch of Death

It has come to my attention that I am now allergic to our couch. This is not wholly unexpected. Spring is in the air, which means if you look at me wrong, I sneeze. With pollens already irritating my sensitivities, it doesn’t take much for anything else to send me over the edge into a reaction — in this case, a couch I purchased for fifty bucks from my ex-boyfriend’s ex-roommate’s ex-girlfriend (really) twelve years ago when she moved to another apartment and didn’t want to take it with her. In addition to a fold-out bed so treacherous it could mangle the strongest back, it houses an assortment of writing implements, several handfuls of change, and enough fur to make a full-grown cat.

Adding another allergen to my repertoire was not one of my goals for this year, no matter how worthy the specimen may be. To be honest, I’m still trying to get used to having allergies in the first place. Thanks to good luck in the lottery we call genetics, penicillin, strawberries, bees, and even poison ivy have never given me so much as a rash, sneeze, cough, or itch.

And then by chance I moved to the desert — the climate that physicians in Ohio (where I grew up) recommended for those sensitive to pollens and the like. Now I gleefully spend every spring sneezing. Which is where the couch comes in (again). When springtime rolls around, and the pollens are at their worst, something in or on the couch, knowing that I am temporarily weak, joins in and gives me hives. Since my husband’s not moving back east, and I won’t move without him, the couch has to be the one to go, because I can handle spring in the desert or I can handle ancient upholstery, but it turns out that I can’t handle both.

This is not a decision to be made lightly, however. I’ve had my sofa over a third of my life — longer than I’ve owned any item of clothing, three times longer than my husband and I have been married, and twenty-four times longer than I’ve had my car. Shabbiness and reaction-inducing upholstery aside, there are some serious attachment issues here. Which means I must a) learn to hate the thing so much I must be rid of it or b) find a replacement I like even better. Since the latter has turned out to be nigh unto impossible, it looks like I’m fully relying on choice number one. Once the Couch of Death (See? I’m trying.) is properly vilified in my mind, maybe it will be easier to send it to the great furniture warehouse in the sky and invite a younger, prettier model into our family room. I’ll even try not to feel too guilty about it, but I’m making no guarantees.

Couch of Death + Minion
Closeup: Couch of Death + Minion (for scale)
Click on photo for enlarged villainy. It’s probably worth it.

No One Should Walk in on a Scene Like This

We’re leaving for the weekend in an hour, and I’m in that post-packed, pre-leave limbo. My laptop’s open, and I have three options: touring the blogosphere, surfing the internet, and writing. Although blogs are tempting and mindless surfing has its merits, I am electing to be good and add a few pages to my book, since I probably won’t get to it at all tomorrow, and I’d like to see if this morning’s roll continues. But before I go behave myself, and then drive off to escape the madness that descends upon our tourist town every weekend throughout the spring, I will leave you with one more picture:

Basil & Rosemary - Kitty Love
The Basil (left) and Rosie

Yes, they’re siblings. What of it?

I realize I’m flirting with cat obsession, but I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. I already have that reputation among my offline friends, anyway. And they, in turn dutifully ask after the cats each time we talk on the phone, address cards and e-mails to them, and sometimes even include a cat toy or two with Christmas presents. This is what happens when you are over thirty and don’t yet have kids; your friends begin to anthropomorphize your pets.

Okay! I’m off to work on my book. I won’t be able to respond to comments right away because we’ll be camping (and, yes, the forecast is calling for temps in the twenties), but I adore comments so please don’t let that stop you. Here’s an idea: If you were giving this photo a caption, what would it be? I promise to respond when I get back, probably by e-mail unless I find out you prefer otherwise. Have a great weekend!

Lords of the Laptop

Sometimes it seems as if everybody wants to be a novelist. I’m sitting in my local coffee shop, where I retreated in order to — what else? — work on my own novel. The place is not crowded, but I count three others hiding behind their laptop screens. At the table beside mine, a man is explaining his screenplay’s entire backstory to a red-haired woman who cannot ask questions because of his rapid-fired explanations. He is in love with his flawed characters, his unique setting, his intricate plot. He pauses only to glance suspiciously over his shoulder at me as if afraid I will steal his ideas, despite the headphones firmly planted on my head.

I love to write in cafes, especially those, such as this one, that charge for internet access, thus removing the temptation to go online. (Which is why this entry will be posted after I am home — if I survive a return trip to my house. But more on that later.) Conveniently enough, relocating to a coffee shop also removes the temptation to clean house, talk on the phone, or admire my cats instead of work on my book — although I admit that it takes a special kind of writers’ block to encourage me to clean house instead of write.

Beyond those temptations, however, I have another reason for my change of venue: sheer terror. I’ve been sitting on the futon in my living room all morning, double-fisting mugs of tea and pretending to write, which means that I actually thought about my plot for a while and even wrote ninety-eight words. Then I updated my Facebook profile, read a few blogs, and played Jigsawdoku until my eyes glazed over. (I console myself with the knowledge that I’m really more of an afternoon writer, and I’m ahead of schedule anyway, but it doesn’t help much.)

And then around an hour ago I slipped into the kitchen to brew another cup of tea, and found the following sight waiting for me upon my return. Please pardon the fuzziness of the picture; there are limits to both my camera’s zoom lens and my willingness to risk my life for a clearer shot. As is wise, since shortly after I sneaked in a photograph, they lasered the UPS guy with their eyes. Then they ate him. I feared I may be next, so I grabbed a notebook and went into hiding. Another thing it turns out coffee shops are good for: covert operations. Just ask Mr. Movie Script, who still seems convinced I’m a spy.

Lords of the Laptop
The Basil (left) and Echo. They have jealousy issues. Also, they’ll mess you up.