Sunday Smatterings

Hi, chickens! How's it going? Are you ready for April showers to give way to May flowers? 

This week, I'm getting ready to meet up with the brilliant Catherine Coulter to plot Nicholas & Mike's 5th (5th!!?!?) Brit adventure! Hanging out with CC is always a blast. We eat good things, we shop, we watch Harry Potter. Oh yeah, and we write. 😜 I couldn't ask for a better creative mind to partner with, let along hang out with. I always look forward to these weeks!

Anyway, without further ado...

 

Here's what happened on the Internets this week:

What are your mornings like? Are you running around, chasing kids who've transformed into banshees overnight, taking out the dog with a bursting bladder while burning the toast and praying, for the love of everything holy, that by some miracle you actually chose to put your keys in your purse instead of flinging them who knows where when you got home last night? Sounds like your morning routine may need a minimalist makeover. Here are 6 minimalist routines that will help you calm the morning chaos.

In the same vein: this woman has worn the same outfit every day for a year. Capsule wardrobe, uniform, whatever you want to call it: she's brilliant.

Book-to-TV lovers, this one's for you [spoiler police says to proceed with caution]: 4 things about HBO's BIG LITTLE LIES that need to be addressed.

If this isn't click bait, I don't know what is: this 75-year-old Harvard study found one secret to living a fulfilling life. Curiosity abounds...

I'm in the middle of remodeling/redecorating my house, and I'm on the hunt for a new way to arrange my bookshelves. There are tons of beautiful bookshelving ideas in this article from British Vogue (those classy Brits!).

Important: you can now purchase your very own Hobbit hole! (jury is out on whether second breakfast is included)

How good are you with synonyms? After this quiz, you might realize you're not as good as you think. (it's a tricky one!)

 

And closer to home:

This week on the Tao, I wrote about why it's important to finish what you start (I honed in on writers, but it's applicable to almost any task or career, really).

Also on the Tao: my intrepid A WORD ON WORDS co-host Mary Laura Philpott takes the reins and chats with literary wonder Yaa Gyasi about her brilliant debut novel, Homegoing.

Oh. And LIE TO ME got its first review, and it's glowing, and don't worry about me, I just have something in my eye... (spoiler alert: it's a detailed review, so steer clear if you want to be COMPLETELY surprised, but if you're hungry for a few details, by all means, go read!)

 

That's it from me! Welcome May with open arms, stop and smell a rose or two, and we'll talk again soon.


xo,
J.T.

On Finishing What We Start, and Other Writerly Myths

This first appeared on Women Writers. If you don't follow their awesomeness, go do it right now!


I often joke with friends that if you don’t finish what you start, you’ll end up with a trail of half-eaten sandwiches around the house.

I don’t remember where I first heard this analogy for unfinished work, but it’s such a vivid image that it’s stuck with me all these years. Can you imagine how messy your home would be if every discarded idea lay on the floor, cluttering up your space?

I know for me, it would mean trudging through mounds of detritus, some tiny specks of dust, some true dust bunnies. Others would be larger, mean and angry, like broken furniture, all sharp and crooked, just waiting to catch my leg and leave a deep gash.

We don’t want that.

So I’m careful with what I entertain. When I have what I think is a solid idea, I open a Scrivener file, give it a title, and create a book journal. This journal is important: I use it to explain what the thought is about and why I’m writing it down. Manifestation is a powerful thing—I don’t do this unless I feel like the idea has real legs. I save this new project to a folder called—quite originally, I might add—Ideas. Every once in a while, I run through them. A good 75% of the time, when revisited, the idea has faded away. Which tells me it wasn’t that good to start with. The ones that are still as vivid and exciting as the day I put them in the file, those are the ones that I think long and hard about starting.

Because if I start a story, I finish it. I refuse to allow myself to abandon a project once it’s underway.
 

That sounds harsh, I’m sure. That I’m lashing my Muse to the prow of the ship and heading into dark waters with hurricane warnings ahead. And yes, sometimes, that’s how starting feels to me. A journey into the heart of darkness, with no idea of whether what lies ahead will be good, bad, or something in between.

But when I sit down to write a story, be it a short or a novel, I do so with a commitment to finish paramount in my mind.

Starting is hard. Finishing, though, is sometimes much, much more difficult.

I’ve been planning this blog for several days. I didn’t want to start it until I had a solid hour ahead in which I knew I could get it drafted. Today was the day. In one of those odd universe-timed moments, a friend wrote me right before I started with a question. She’s been balls to the wall on deadline for the biggest book of her career. All she’s wanted for weeks is to Get. It. Done. Already.

And today, the day she’s going to finish, she woke up and had the most jarring thought—that she didn’t want to let it go.

This, I believe, is why finishing is so hard.

Her emotion is one I am intimately familiar with. Every time I’m nearing the end of a story, I have the same sensation. For days, months, even years, in some cases, all I’ve wanted it to get the book done and off my plate. But when the moment presents itself, suddenly finishing doesn’t feel good. It feels too big. Too scary.

Finishing means your work will no longer be your own. To me, that’s a thousand times scarier than starting.

I believe this is why so many ideas are abandoned. Because when you finish, you have to let your work out into the world, where it will be judged. We’re writers, and this is a subjective industry. Some people will love your story. Some will hate it. That’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is to not let the beast slay you before you’ve even put the food in its maw.

All well and good, JT, you say. So tell me how to finish.

You just do.

You throw away your fear, you swallow the bile that rises at the thought of someone else reading your words, and you finish. And I don’t mean just putting an ending together and calling it done. You’ve spent all this time creating a brilliant story, why would you rush and throw something together so you can type The End? You won’t be happy, and neither will your Muse, and she won’t hesitate to let you know it.

No. Never that. You must be brave. You are a hunter. You must march deliberately into the darkness, your torch held high, and tap into your reckless abandon. That is the bait for the monster you must slay. Because all endings are monsters, and they do not like confidence, or excitement, or serenity.

When you find that perfect (or not so perfect) ending and wrestle it onto the page, crushing the biggest monster of all, two things will happen.

1 — You will have the incredible satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best (which is the psychological component you must overcome when finishing, because I heard the voice in the back of your mind say—But if this is my best, and people don’t like it, I will shrivel up and die in a corner—to which I say, bosh, no you won’t).

2 — You will experience something I like to call “creative satisfaction.”

Creative satisfaction is elusive and shy. She won’t come when called, and she will never show up willingly. She only pokes out her head when you’ve exhausted yourself, a balm for your wounds. She nestles next to you like a loving cat, tells you how fabulous you are for being brave, and gives you a sweet kiss on the forehead, one you’ll feel when the next new idea comes along. Real creative satisfaction fills you up, and gives you the strength to do it all over again.

But if you don’t finish, and finish strong, you’ll never find her.

Finish what you start. Find that ritual that tells the world you’re finishing (mine is donning my ragged old Harvard T-shirt. When I have it on, that’s a signal to the universe that today is finishing day—and I do it for every project!) and just get it done. Because I know you can do it, and do it well.

Write hard, my friends.

Prolific or Consistent?

1.17.17 - Prolific or Consistent?

*Warning: JT’s version of math ahead.
 

The other day, someone told me how prolific I was.

I countered that I am not prolific, I am consistent, and there’s a huge difference. 

I know in many ways, I could be called prolific. I’ve managed to average two full-length novels a year (and by full-length, I’m talking 100,000 words plus) since I began writing over a decade ago, and I’m writing #19 as we speak. I recognize some people don’t do that many books over the course of a career, so by it’s very nature, that number automatically equates to being prolific.

But I’d argue I’m not at all prolific. I have friends who started out the same time as I did who are 10, even 20 books ahead of me. Hell, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a million words of fiction last year, compared to my 217,000. A million words. That, my friends, is prolific.

What I am comfortable with is a label of consistent. Over the course of the past several years, I’ve been tracking my numbers. Here’s a quick and dirty snapshot.

You can easily see why I’ve got 18 books under my belt— over the course of eight years, I averaged 628 fiction words a day. That’s approximately 229,220 words a year: about two novels and a couple of shorts.

Some years were better than others, clearly. When I started tracking in 2009, I was aghast at how little fiction I wrote, and swore to make up for it. Bu contrast, in 2014 I almost hit the 300,000 mark, and I ran myself ragged doing it. 

But I still don’t feel I’ve hit my potential as far as consistent daily word counts. I do shoot for 1000 words a day, five days a week. If I were to hit that goal consistently, I’d be able to churn out nearly three books a year with ease.

Of course, that’s not how life, and art, work. Everything can be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, yes. But does that capture what’s really happening? I think we’d all love to be machines who could crank out the same stuff day after day, but life gets in the way. 

Loved ones pass away. Children need tending. Pets need cuddles. Day jobs are priorities for many of us. It’s the rare few who can transcend the mundane daily issues to truly become prolific, writing huge amounts of QUALITY words. 

Oh, I’d love to be among them, trust me. But I think I’ll probably stick with being consistent instead.

Just a thought for today. I’d love to hear what prolific authors you like to read. And how prolific is too prolific?

 

2.25.16 - Imposter This

Imposter Syndrome

Long ago, when I was but a wee, ignorant lass, I worked for a boss who was, to put it politely, a complete and total arse.


He was a yeller, something I’d never experienced, and his bite was, sadly, as bad as his bark. He liked to make points, and when he did, inevitably with an audience, I always felt humiliated and embarrassed. As a grown up, I look back now and realize he was a deeply, deeply unhappy person who had zero communications skills (strange, considering the profession).

And he made himself, and everyone around him, miserable. 


This has always been a dark time for me to think about. I wanted that job so badly, and when I landed it, I was so proud. It was a coveted, enviable position, and at the time, I was on a pretty big tear, career-wise. My future looked bright. 

I realized I was in over my head pretty quickly.


After only a few months, unable to handle the constantly shifting sands, unreasonable hours, slightly shady things going on, and my total inability to do the job to his satisfaction, I left in a blaze of burnt bridge glory (go, me!). He did a great job of making sure I couldn’t find another position, too. Lovely, right?

No, it wasn’t fair. But it was a GREAT lesson.


It wasn’t my first big challenge in a job, but it was the first that I couldn’t find any way to resolve. And I tried. I consulted my mentors. I talked to other people in the field. Randy and I were dating at the time; I spent night after night complaining to him. It was a disastrous, unhappy few months, and I ended up getting out of the industry entirely because of it.

And truthfully: statistics? Dear God in heaven, what was I thinking?
 

Also, I now completely and totally understand the job, and know it is NOT FOR ME! So technically, by being a jerk, he saved me. Cue irony.

So you can understand the panoply of emotions that bombarded me when I ran into said former boss on a recent flight.

He was ahead of me in line, and, of course, seated in the window to my aisle. He’s somewhat well-known, so I’ve seen him from time to time on television, but it had been twenty-some odd years since I saw him in person. As I eavesdropped on his last minute phone call, I realized he was still up to his old tricks. 

I couldn’t help myself. I waited for the call to finish, and as I was stashing my carryon in the overhead, I greeted him, by full name. The conversation went a bit like this:
 

Me: “Hi. I used to work for you, for a few months, twenty-odd years ago.”

Him, somewhat taken aback: “Where was my office?”

Me, panicking slightly because I don’t remember the damn street and my defiant greeting is about to fail: “Northwest D.C.” 

Him, still confused: “I had a few offices up there.”

Me: “You probably don’t remember me. I’m [[First Name, Last Name]]”

Him, a slight delay, then complete, 100% abject horror crosses his face: . . .  (he is speechless)

(I didn’t leave well, remember.)

Me, quite saucily now, with a wide grin: “Save my seat, I’m going to the loo.”
 

I trotted off and when I got back, he was feigning sleep. He stayed that way through the whole flight (missing the drink service, which I’m sure, knowing what he’d just been dealing with, he needed), the landing, and disembarking. 

And I was on top of the world. Which pretty much makes me as big of a jerk as he was.

I didn’t tell him what I do now. I didn’t tell him anything. I didn’t have to, I know what I’ve accomplished since I left his employ. He treated me horribly, blackballed me so I couldn’t get another job in the field, and his petty nonsense used to have me in tears daily. Leaving was the smartest thing I could have done. Clearly, I managed to rise above that position. I succeeded in following my dreams. I succeeded despite him. 

But over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if I succeeded to spite him.
 

That brief moment on the plane, being able to remind him of a moment in time when he was a jerk to a kid starting out felt like absolutely fucking vindication, twenty years in the making.

And then, of course, I felt obnoxious for even having that thought. It is NOT how I approach my life. Ever. I am a big believer in everything happens for a reason. I value negative experiences because they teach me how I don’t want to live my life. It’s too short to be caught up in stupid stuff that happened in the past.  

I’m weird. I admit this freely. 

And thank you for hanging in, because all of this is an elaborate prelude to my real point. I tell you the story so you can understand where I’m coming from. 
 

I think everyone has had that jerk of a boss, that person who treated you unfairly. For many people, it is the impetus to leave an unhappy situation, and for some, to strike out into an artistic field. It didn’t work that way for me, not immediately. It took marriage, a few more jobs, a new city, and a sick cat for me to finally allow myself to become a writer, though I’d known all along that’s the dream I wanted to follow. 

Writing, for me, was like falling into cool water on a hot, steamy day. It saved me, in more ways than one. It gave me the identity I’d long been searching for. It gave me hope. I found new friends, new freedoms, and basically started my life over again. I was 37 when my first book came out. Happily, I got to find my bliss earlier than some.

There’s a buzzphrase on everyone’s lips, a concept that’s being passed around, called Imposter Syndrome.
 

And I want to call bullshit on it.
 

This is not going to be a popular concept. I know a lot of people are fully convinced that their strange feeling of dislocation when it comes to having success in a creative field is due to this label. I’m willing to bet most creatives have these thoughts in their head (like I do):

I’m so lucky. I’m doing something fun, creative, exciting, getting to work in my pajamas and make my own hours and make money at it. People read my books and blog and say nice things and ask me to do more, and hurry up already . . . but someone’s going to figure out I’m a total fraud, and then I’ll be exposed, homeless, left to eat out of trashcans and wander aimlessly, talking to the squirrels.

This, according to the definition, is rather classic Imposter Syndrome.

So here’s where I call BS. 

We ALL feel that way.


Everyone feels that way. You are not alone, special, or any sort of martyr because you feel like a fraud at what you do, and that you don’t deserve your success.

WORSE, by buying into this, you’re letting yourself be treated like I let myself be treated by my horrible boss. Only it’s your OWN BRAIN doing it.
 

Here’s the official Wikipedia explanation of Imposter Syndrome:

Impostor syndrome (also spelled imposter syndrome, also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, while others indicate that men and women are equally affected.

So basically, a bunch of women’s brains got together without proper invitations and RSVPs and decided, “Hey, you super suave, spectacularly smart chick — we’re going to pull the rug out from under you and make you feel like you’re not worth anything because there’s a SYNDROME that explains why you feel a sense of dislocation at being rewarded for following your heart, your dreams and succeeding at what you love.”

We are such masochists.
 

Please don’t fall into this trap.

The whole idea of Imposter Syndrome is flawed, and it sucks. No one thinks they're excellent at their jobs except brain surgeons and heart surgeons, who can’t afford to be anything but cocky and arrogant because they are playing with the very organs that makes you human. Okay, maybe fighter pilots. But the rest of us are left out here trying to feel like we've done the best we can, and no one can live up to their own expectations of themselves.

No one is perfect. No one is always awesome. Everyone has doubts. Everyone feels like they don’t deserve the accolades, the compliments, the money. Everyone gets a 1-star review. IT DOES NOT MAKE YOU AN IMPOSTER. 

This idea that we need to be cuddled and soothed every time we take a chance is silly. We try. Some times we succeed, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we fall down and people have to pick us up. Sometimes we don’t succeed, and we have to start over. Sometimes, we get our dreams. 

Humility is great up to a point. The idea of humility so blown out of proportion that we’ve convinced ourselves we are frauds who don’t deserve the respect we have earned by working our asses off is unhealthy, to say the least.

I know our brains are weird places. Dear God, I of all people know this. (Hellooo OCD, anxiety, fear of public speaking, etcetera.) 

But please, I beg you, please stop this Imposter Syndrome crap. You are gorgeous. You are smart. You work so hard for what you have. You are an artist, a mother, a wife, a sister. A husband, a brother, a creator. You deserve all the good things in this world. Don’t hold yourself back from them because it’s cool to be humble.

There’s a difference between humility and deciding you have a pathological disorder, and using it to hide from your gifts.

Rant over. 

Oh, and old boss?
 

I forgive you for being a jack off. Cause look what running into you all these years later did for me. I am NOT an imposter, thank you very much. I am a writer, and I love my job.

And that’s good enough for me.  

Do you consider yourself a success?

This question, among others, was posed to me a few weeks ago by social activist and researcher Haegwan Kim, who interviewed me as part of the ongoing project for his blog, The Law of Success 2.0.

Here is a transcript of the interview. Feel free to add your own feelings in the comments. Such a subjective topic, this could be interesting...

Do you consider yourself successful and why?

I absolutely do, but it has nothing to do with how many books I sell. I’ve been married for fifteen years, which is my greatest accomplishment by far. We’re happy, both pursuing our dreams, both self-employed and finding out what’s really important in our lives. It’s not money, it’s not success, it’s not fame. It’s love, and joy, and laughter every day. With that as a base, everything seems to fall into place for me. Plus my husband supports my career 100%, always has, and that makes my life easier. He understands when I need to hermit, or when I blurt out unimaginable scenarios in the middle of dinner, or that moment in conversations when I drift away because I’ve just had a great idea…

I’m also rather disciplined, which is helpful. I have an innate sense of guilt when I’m not working, so I tend to just go ahead and get the work done so I can play. And I’ve been careful to check my ego at the door, not get bogged down in things outside of my control. I have a great team around me, my publishers and editors and agent, plus my close friends, and they all keep me very grounded.

What is the most important element to be a good author?


Being a dutiful observer, first and foremost. I tend to see things that other people gloss over. Truth be told, I look at people and situations in a completely different way from most people. One of the things I hear in conversation over and over is “I didn’t notice that.” So paying special attention to your surroundings, to the faces, the eyes, the lips of people, is a great start. Stare. You’ll see so much. Actually make eye contact. Smile. It’s amazing what you can read off people when they respond to a smile.

Second to that is being a reader. I don’t know any successful authors who aren’t voracious readers.

How and where do you find your creativity for your masterpieces?

Everywhere, but dreams most of all. The entire plot of my debut novel came from a dream. I wish that would happen more often. But creativity, writing, is a job. I don’t wait for inspiration to strike me, I harness it and ride it to the ground. You can’t wait for the Muse to delight you, you’ll never make your deadlines!

What is your goal as a best-seller author?

To entertain as many people as I can, to write books that are fun, can touch people, scare people and make them think. It’s such a capricious industry, I focus on what I can control, which is writing the best book I possibly can every time around, and hope for the best with the rest.

Could you please give us your advice for being successful, not as an author but as general life?

Be true to yourself. You can’t be in life what your parents want you to be, or your spouse, or your friends. You must follow your heart, your gut and your soul to your rightful place. I know that sounds a big touchy feely, but it is so true. Happiness creates success. Contentment allows the creative process to bloom. Be happy with yourself and your success will follow. People think they need so much – new cars, bigger houses, better clothes, thinner thighs. If you stop and focus on what really matters, your true self will emerge, and you’ll be shocked at what you don’t need, and how creative and successful you’ll be as a result.