False Summits–and How to Get to the Top Anyway

harrybinghamToday’s guest is Harry Bingham, the (British) author of the Fiona Griffiths crime series, which has been critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. He also runs a couple of outfits, The Writers’ Workshop & Agent Hunter, that offer a variety of help and advice to new writers. Harry lives in Oxfordshire, England. He’s married and he and his wife are, this summer, expecting their second set of twins. They’re not terrified at all.

I’ve had over a dozen books published by some of the world’s biggest publishers. Some of those experiences have been wonderful, while others have been . . . not so great. I want to help other writers have the best possible experience of publication.

Connect with Harry on his blog and on Twitter.

False Summits–and How to Get to the Top Anyway

If you’ve ever hiked any distance in the mountains, you’ll know how elusive that final summit can feel. The loom of the mountain always shields your view, so your near horizon is filled with a crest which, as you approach, melts away into a new horizon, a new crest, another draining slog upwards. Never mind the actual ascent: that succession of false summits is wearying in itself. An inducement to despair.

If you know anything of what I’m talking about, you’ll also have a good sense of the life of an author. You want to write a novel? OK. That’s a tough gig, but you do what you have to do. You write away until you have a hundred thousand words of half-decent prose. Only then – whoops! – another summit looms. Gotta edit and correct and rewrite, till that half-decent prose becomes almost flawless.

Forewarned is forearmed. It’s important to realise that your job isn’t only about writing, and your job doesn’t finish once you get that book deal.

And then you have to get a literary agent. And then you have to get a publisher. And perhaps, just possibly, you win an advance large enough to mean you don’t also have to haul garbage, or wait tables, or (horrors!) do anything else which is, like, an actual job.

And that has to be it, right? Manuscript, check. Agent, check. Advance, check. Plus, in this fantasy of ours, a big publisher ready to blast you into the stratosphere. No more false summits, surely. This is, this has to be, the very top.

Grumbles in Paradise

Well, yes. In theory. Only it’s no secret that my own experiences with publishers have been somewhat mixed, and you don’t have to hang around with authors for long to realise that plenty of them feel likewise. Indeed, when Jane Friedman and I surveyed more than 800 authors to find out what they thought of the firms that published them, we got a true measure of what authors actually think. [Read more…]

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Lean Writer, Fat Word Count? Engineering Your Environment for Default Success

fruitIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.

On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down and Becoming a Stand-up Writer.) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.

In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.

Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions

We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.

Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:

1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.

So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?

If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.

Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?

Pretest

  1. The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
  2. Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
  3. What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
  4. True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
  5. In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
  6. My fridge should contain no more than ___  juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
  7. On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
  8. What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
  9. True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.

What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?

[Read more…]

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Take Five: Sarah McCoy and The Mapmaker’s Children

McCoy_TheMapmaker'sChildren_FinalCoverWe’re so happy to have frequent contributor Sarah McCoy here today. She’s the author of three novels, and has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She’s here to talk about her latest novel, The Mapmaker’s Children.

Q: What’s the premise of your new book?

The Mapmaker’s Children is the story of two dynamic women, Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson. Told through alternating POVs in a historical-contemporary dual narrative form, each chapter adds a story thread, weaving these two women together as they experience transformative love in the same house, 150 years apart.

When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.

Eden Anderson, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the DC suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.

Sarah and Eden’s lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to boldly define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.

 

Q: What would you like people to know about the story?

The Mapmaker’s Children is more than a historical account, more than an interesting mystery, more than a whimsical visit to small-town America. It’s all those things, yes, but moreover, my aim in writing this novel was to honor the legacy of Sarah Brown and her impact on all of us—the Edens and Jacks of today.

What do I want people to know about this story? Gosh, the answer is in the question. I want to people to simply know this story, to know Sarah Brown, to deeply feel the connection to her through Eden. I want her life remembered by the world. If that comes to pass, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller. Yeah, no pressure, right?

 

Q: What challenges do your characters have to overcome in this story?

While these characters have many external (war, social constraints) and internal (physical, emotional, spiritual) challenges, I’d say one of the driving concepts for me in writing was how we define ourselves as women, how we appraise our life worth, how we create families. Must we ascribe to the social precedents or can we make our own unique legacies?

My characters raised these questions and sought to find answers for themselves. I hope readers are open to doing the same. This isn’t a book singularly about Sarah Brown or Eden Anderson. The power of their worlds colliding is what catalyzes the author–character–reader conversation. The unconventional narrative form, continual chapter shifts from past to present, provides a counterbalance to each storyline. I believe this kind of hybrid book creates active reader participation. The imagination is continually being asked to question, to learn, to wonder alongside Sarah and Eden, and to help them puzzle together the mysteries—of the Underground Railroad doll, yes, but more significantly, their own belief systems.

 

Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you while writing?

Writing a dual narrative is a maniacal creative process. I’m sure my agent and editors wish to God I’d just go on and write a straight contemporary or straight historical novel but… alas, ’tis not my style. For The Baker’s Daughter, I wrote back and forth chapters as I pleased and in the end, had to tear the entire narrative apart and line up the plots to ensure the seams fit.

For The Mapmaker’s Children, I tried to be more methodical by first outlining each character’s narrative trajectory—their start-to-finish story. I sat down to write using that as my map (no pun intended). While the outline was my guide, I wanted to give the story the freedom to transform, meander, and lead me to new territory as the characters organically commanded.

While it was a more organized creative process from The Baker’s Daughter, it proved evermore daunting in my inclusion of historical information. At one point, I handed over an 800+ page manuscript to my agent (bless her heart) who lovingly read and helped me shave off some areas before giving it to my publisher. My editor was brilliant but ruthless. She told me to halve the book with whole sections highlighted in tracked red: “Lovely prose but extraneous. Cut.” And I did: down from 800 to under 400 pages over the course of six months. It was a page bloodbath to say the least.

 

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

The most rewarding aspect of writing The Mapmaker’s Children was meeting Sarah Brown, Eden Anderson, and all the residents of New Charlestown, past and present. Their voices filled my mind and bolstered me during the three, long years of in-the-trenches writing. I felt their spirits with me: equal parts encouragement and mighty weights of responsibility. It’s an entirely different beast to write a book that you feel called to act as the conduit of memory… the real-life spirit of a person hovering by your side saying, “Remember me. Help them remember me.”

The storyteller goals were different during the writing of The Mapmaker’s Children. It wasn’t about me, the author indulging in an entertaining fable-scape. For the first time in my career, I truly felt as if I were merely the hands and feet—the intermediary between the characters and readers. I pray I did them justice and honor. I pray I do you, friends, justice and honor as readers of the book. There is no greater reward than that.

 

You can learn more about The Mapmaker’s Children on Sarah’s website.

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No Time to Write? Maximize Your Minutes (Multitasking Series, part 3)

If you multitask because you feel you have to in order to stay on top of things; if you’re overwhelmed with too much information and an inability to sort though it all; if you’re losing momentum on your writing projects because there is just too much on your plate… This post is for you.

photo by Jordy Rossell
photo by Jordy Rossell

It may be that you have a 9-5 job and are writing for yourself whenever you can, juggling several projects. You might have a book about to launch and another in the works. Your inbox, your desk, and your mind are in a constant state of chaos. I often have people ask me how I stay on top of things–family, WU, my writing career. Well, sometimes I don’t. But I do use strategies to maximize my time as often as possible.

First Steps

Declutter your mind with a few basic but key steps every day.

  • Keep a to-do list. Keep your to-dos either on a physical piece of paper, a set of index cards (one task per card), or in a digital file. Keep your list in front of you, and add any stray thoughts that try to derail you as you work through your day. “Write down all the chatter, like ‘pick up milk on the way home’ and ‘don’t forget to call back your friend Alan’ and ‘property tax bill is due today,’ ” said Daniel Levitin, PhD, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and bestselling author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “That way, your creative time is pure creative time, not intruded upon by the necessities of life.”
  • Keep your writing and personal lives organized with a digital calendar.  iCal is a favorite among my author friends, while Dr. Levitin names Outlook calendar as his all-time favorite app. “Everything that is time-bound goes in there and it shows up automatically on all my devices,” he said.

Dictation technology has come a long way since even last year. The microphone feature on my iPhone translates my audio notes into actual words that make sense—even to other people! I use it for texts, emails, and digital notes.

  • Apply the two-minute rule to email and other small jobs. That means if you can do something in ~two minutes, go for it; you’ll ultimately save yourself time. Clumping these small tasks can be efficient, too. “If you’ve got a bunch of little things that only take 2 minutes each, do them all in a marathon block of 20 or 40 minutes,” said Dr. Levitin

Mono-Takes & Multiple Mediums

Smartphones, laptops, iPads… Just because they’re separate things doesn’t mean they can’t work together to create a streamlined experience for you via programs that sync across platforms. A few golden notables that work with multiple devices:

  • Meet Diigo: a powerhouse resource every author should try. If you’re anything like me, there’s always an article to read, either on the industry or for book research, but saving your thoughts on a resource can be a pain. Should you print out and highlight every article? Then what? Where will you keep them? With Diigo, you can highlight, tag, and annotate articles online; you can take screen shots or archive single photos; you can even bookmark articles to read later. Diigo stores all of that in a personal online library—a huge time-and-paper saver. And it’s free.
  • Digital note-taking programs like Evernote and OneNote can help you manage and organize your thoughts. Like Diigo, they can also save clippings found on the Internet and store photos.

[Read more…]

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Snakes on a Brain (Multitasking Series, Pt 2)

snakes on the brain
Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s rotating snakes, featured on the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience

 

Last month I began a series on multitasking with a post called Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP. Since then, I’ve continued my study of time and mind management (because that’s really what we’re talking about here) and interviewed multitasking expert Dr. David Meyer, Professor and Chair of Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience, at the University of Michigan. I spoke with Dr. Meyer for over an hour, and we covered a lot of ground, some of which I’ll share with you here today. One of my first questions was simple on the surface but a little knotty in reality:

What, exactly, qualifies as multitasking?

Does multitasking mean complex multitasking? Simple multitasking? What about these words from the world of business: switchtasking and background tasking and continuous partial attention? James Scott Bell referred to present-moment multitasking, then serial monotasking in comments last month. Bob Bois mentioned Monkey Mind.  For our purposes it doesn’t really matter what you call it. If you’re trying to do more than one thing at the same time for much of your day, this is for you. (Serial monotasking is safe, James. That’s actually an ideal way to work.)

When I asked for your feedback last month, for you to reveal your primary reason for multitasking, most of you said you multitask because you can’t seem to shut it down; it is like a compulsion. Only a few of you said you multitask because you’re good at it. Others said they had to multitask to stay on top of things. I’m going to leave that latter group for later, and not just because it’s alliterative. This month let’s talk about what might be behind the compulsion. Right after we talk about Keith.

The Curious Case of Keith Cronin

Our very own Keith wrote in comments last month:

I’ve earned a living for decades as a true multitasker – playing drums professionally. Drumming requires each of your four limbs to do something different – usually directly related, but sometimes not. And many drummers also sing while they play: task number five. It’s essentially like rubbing your belly while patting your head – while riding a unicycle and whistling.

Jealous of this skilland especially of the unicycleI was eager to bring up Keith’s situation with Dr. Meyer. Here’s what he had to say about it.

First of all, [Keith] might just be performing one task—the task of music production. I would suggest that for this drummer, learning came into play, and he essentially learned to perform the overall task of music production through a lot of practice. If you practice enough with certain kinds of tasks you can combine them so you just wind up with one task; these things become integrated. The tasks for which this is possible are the ones that don’t conflict with each other physically or mentally.

Makes sense, no? There are plenty of tasks that you can do concurrently without effecting the outcome because they don’t conflict with each other physically or mentally. Writing while walking on the treadmill. Listening to an audio book while driving or running. Cleaning the kitchen and talking on the telephone. And on and on.

Natalie Hart had something wise to add about Keith’s situation, too:

As a drummer, you may have limbs moving in different ways while often singing, but you are so incredibly in the present, which is the thing that multitasking attacks: the present moment. You’ve got to be locked in with the bass player, listening for cues from the other musicians, keeping that beat steady, but all flowing with that present moment — you lose the present moment and you lose the beat. Ooh, that’d be a good mono-tasking slogan…

Lose the present moment and you lose the beat. I like that, Natalie. Keith’s very much present when he’s making music, or to use one of our oft-used writerly phrases, he’s in the zone. Wouldn’t it be nice if each of our limbs could help us further along in our manuscript, each taking care of a scene or chapter? But alas. Language is tricky territory, becauseas Dr. Meyer stressedthere’s really only one language channel in the brain. This is why we can’t read articles while writing (unless our task is to copy), or type scenes for two novels at once, or draft emails and talk on the phone at the same time–at least not efficiently. And how often have you “lost the moment” in a scene, lost a perfect phrase, lost the direction of the plot, all because you were pulled away by…something.

Snake!!! Or maybe it’s just Twitter. 

I mentioned last month that when I first fell into an obsession over this subject, I collected pages upon pages of research. One of the articles I read highlighted differences between voluntary and involuntary attention. It’s fairly obvious, I’ll grant you. Voluntary attention is intended action along the lines of “I’m going to read the news now/walk the dog/make dinner/write a book.” Involuntary attention is attention we can’t help but give.

It is the swerving car in front of us. It is the crying child. It is the snake on a plane.

A vivid illustration of the power of involuntary attention is provided by watching a young child experience his/her first snake in the wild. It is as if everything else in the world has disappeared. For this very reason, the strength of an innately fascinating stimulus constitutes a potential source of severe distraction such that an accident could readily occur. (- Stephen Kaplan and Marc G. Berman)

These distinctions have been around for a long time; they were mentioned in contemplative texts several thousand years ago. “The point of a lot of meditation practices is to get control over your attention and direct it, as opposed to letting it be captured by external forces,” said Dr. Meyer.

The more forces there are trying to pull at our attention the more likely we’ll experience Directed Attention Fatigue–what happens when the system in place to help protect our ability to FOCUS-JUST-FOCUS is worn down and even fails.

We are no longer in control. Game, snakes.

And by now you’ve guessed that I’m not alluding to real snakes. I’m talking about other things that are attention grabbers, in a 21st-century-at-a-writer’s-desk kind of way: [Read more…]

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