Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Optimism

A lot of the time, optimists and pessimists are the
same people on different days.

When asked if you are an optimist or a pessimist, what do you say?

Very few people will admit they are pessimists. Thanks to simplified explanations like the glass half full/half empty comparison, pessimists have been given a bad rap.

But the truth is, most of us are pessimistic from time to time, whether we call it being realistic, worrying, showing humility, or playing devil's advocate.

Most writers have to struggle to remain optimistic. As the Great Stephen King says, "a writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave".

If you spend half your time thinking up worst case scenarios for your characters, what makes you think you can turn that tendency off when it comes to real life? A lot of the time, you can't.

Like many writers, I excel at the Worrying Olympics. (Is there a prize for that? Someone please tell me there's a prize!)

Studies have shown that optimists live longer than pessimists. And no wonder: pessimism = worrying = stress = early death. As if we didn't have enough to worry about already!

I like to think of myself as an optimist with a sun-shiny outlook on life, but the truth is--sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's not. When I find my brain is cluttered with various worries, I like to write them all down or talk them out with a friend. Sometimes that's the only way to see how ridiculous my worst case scenarios are.

When I'm pessimistic, it's usually out of some misguided attempt to protect myself. If I enter a contest, for instance, I assume I won't win, because this assumption will somehow "protect" me from disappointment.

Mmm-hmm. You may well ask how that one is working for me.

In the rare moments that you feel pessimistic, what causes it? How do you get the glass half full again?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for No

It's really hard to say no.

But sometimes it's the kindest thing you can do. For others, and for yourself.

When you have big goals and you're working toward building an extraordinary life, you can't say yes to everything without burning yourself out.

I still struggle with this one, I admit. If someone asks me for help, I want to say yes--even if, realistically, I just don't have time or can't help them without derailing myself.

Why is it kinder to say no? Here's an example.

I once ruined a friendship because I always felt the need to say yes to everything.

A friend was getting married on the same day I was moving in with my boyfriend at the time. Our move date was set before my friend's wedding, and I couldn't change it. But I said yes to attending her wedding, because how could I not? She was a good friend.

The day of our move and her wedding came. I was exhausted. My boyfriend was exhausted. We couldn't find our fancy clothes, or most of our other belongings, for that matter--they were packed away like everything else. Where was the ironing board, or the iron? Who knew?

The last thing we felt like was dressing up and attending a wedding. We were bruised, battered, and sleep-deprived. Finally, my boyfriend suggested a compromise. Why didn't we go to the ceremony? We could pull ourselves together as much as possible, go to the ceremony, see my friend get married, and then come home and collapse. We'd miss the reception, but at least we'd be there to see her say "I do".

I still felt guilty about it, but agreed. We managed to find some presentable clothing, and stood in the back of the group. It was a beautiful ceremony. I tried to catch my friend's eye afterward, so she'd know I was there, but I wasn't sure that she'd seen me. When we got home, I forced myself to at least set up my computer so I could send her an email of apology. I told her how beautiful her wedding was, and how happy I was for her. Then I collapsed into bed, hoping she'd forgive me.

Well, she didn't. She was furious with me for missing her reception, and--as any bride knows--someone who sends in an RSVP to a wedding and then doesn't show up is a huge PITA, and an expensive one, because the happy couple has already paid for your meal. In her email, she also called me on the fact that I'd blown off other invitations--to parties, etc.--and she was tired of it. And that's when I realized--I had a problem with saying no.

Of course I couldn't move my entire household and attend a wedding on the same day! What was I thinking? Something had to give, but because I felt pressured to say yes to everything--the move date, the wedding, my boyfriend who didn't have the energy to go to the reception--I ended up destroying a friendship. It would have been kinder to explain to my friend in advance that I wouldn't be able to make it, and somehow find a way to compensate for my absence (perhaps with a really nice gift). By trying to make everyone happy, I made no one happy, least of all myself.

Do you have a problem with saying no? Have you managed to learn how to set limits? If so, please tell me how you do it. Lord knows I need all the help I can get.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Motivation (Or Lack Thereof)

What would make your life more extraordinary?

Do you want to run a marathon, eat healthier, write a novel, move to another country, go back to school, finish a degree, travel the world, apply for another job? Maybe all of the above.

Too often, we wait for motivation to strike before we take that first step to pursuing our dreams.

"I don't feel like exercising today. It's too cold out. I'll start tomorrow."

"I know I said I'd eat more vegetables, but work has been so busy. I'll just grab something quick, and start my healthy eating plan on Monday."

"I really want to write a book, but I don't have my character's motivation figured out yet. Or the plot. Or what genre this is supposed to be. I don't want this to suck, so I'll just wait until I get everything figured out."

How many times have you said or felt something similar?

The truth is, most of us are guilty of waiting for motivation at one time or another. We want that magical muse to show up and fill us with an inspiration so powerful that we simply have to take action.

But I'll tell you a secret.

If you want to be motivated, if you want that muse to show up, you have to do something first.

You have to start.

You have to go to the gym when you don't have time. You have to run your first mile when it's raining. You have to sit down to write even when you have no idea what to write about, when you're tired and the most painful thing in the world is sitting there and staring at that blank screen. You have to spend a little more time to make that salad instead of grabbing the grilled cheese sandwich.

One of the most powerful quotes I've ever heard about this came from Oprah Winfrey. Loosely paraphrased, she said, "Discipline does not come from doing what we want to do. It comes from doing what we know we should do, everyday, even when we don't feel like it--especially when we don't feel like it."

So you have to start, but you also have to keep going. Don't stop.

I love kickboxing. I love writing. But if I take enough time away from either one, it's hell to get back into the routine again. The reason why is simple. Kickboxing and writing both take a lot of time, and a considerable investment. I invest physical energy in my kickboxing, and mental energy in my writing. If I stop either one, it's not like that time and energy just stays there, waiting. It gets used up by other things. Usually things that don't make me feel as good, but are easier. That don't require me to expend as much energy.

How often have you been dedicated to something, fallen out of the routine, and then looked back and wondered how on earth you ever made time for it in the first place? Other things have rushed in to fill that void. You are now stuck in the comfort zone. You may be cozy and warm, but you're not moving. You're not growing. You probably feel guilty, because you know you're not working up to your full potential.

As Rita Golden Gelman says, "Your comfort zone is a trap."

The good news is, all you have to do to find your muse--to find that motivation again--is to start. Then wake up the next day and start all over again. Keep taking baby steps, and eventually you'll find it's not a struggle anymore.

And you'll wonder what the big deal was in the first place.

What would you like to start? Is there anything you could do to make your life less ordinary, one step at a time?

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Love

How can one live a life less ordinary without love?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Karma

Do you believe in karma?

I have a couple of issues with the concept that, good or bad, your actions in this world will come back to you tenfold.

Issue #1: I've seen terrible things happen to good people.

Issue #2: I've seen the lowest of human life forms succeed and thrive.

Issue #3: Are we supposed to do good in this world only because we're afraid of what will happen if we don't? What happened to being a good person because…well…it's the right thing to do?

That said, imagine how the world would change if everyone believed in karma. If people believed that every wrongful action would have an immediate consequence that was just as nasty.

If they knew that every good deed would earn them one in return.

How amazing the world would be!

What, if anything, would you do differently if you believed in karma?

If you have a story of karma in action, please share it with me.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Twenty-Six

Hello Dear Readers,

This chapter contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.

During the month of April I'll be double-posting on Fridays because of my participation in the A to Z Challenge. I decided it wouldn't be fair to my fellow challengers to plunk them in the middle of this story with no context. Each chapter of Lost will post on Friday at 7 a.m. Central, as always.

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

~ Chapter Twenty-six ~

Since the attack on the Starks’ trailer three nights before, Jake found it difficult to sleep. Rather than waste more time, he decided to cut his tossing and turning short and head to the office at five in the morning.
Settled behind his desk, he rubbed sleep out of his eyes and tried to focus on the Martin case file. By now, hundreds of young people had been interviewed, but no one had provided anything that would help solve the mystery of Tessie Martin’s death.
He had the DNA test results back. As Ebata had suspected, there were two distinct profiles, but no suspects to compare them with. He could arrange to get a sample of Matthew’s DNA with no one being the wiser, but he knew in his heart that it would be a waste of time.
All the dental results told them was that whoever bit Tessie had nice, even teeth, which kyboshed the vagrant theory but didn’t help them find the killer. Frustrated, Jake paged through the file. There has to be something useful somewhere in here.
            “Chief! Glad to find you in.” A loud voice startled Jake from his reading. Without looking up, he knew that Mayor Buck Edwards had decided to pay him a visit. First last night with the Starks and now this. I must have done something real bad in a past life.
            Resigned, Jake rose from his desk and stuck out his hand. Buck seized it and pumped it heartily, crushing Jake’s hand with his enthusiasm.
            “Hey Buck. How’s things?”
            “None too good, son, none too good at all.” Buck plopped his considerable bulk into the nearest chair. He favored wide-brimmed Stetsons, and he dropped his latest purchase—a black ten-gallon—on Jake’s desk, scattering the papers. “That’s why I’m here.”
            Jake braced himself for a long visit. Buck wasn’t known for brief courtesy calls. “What can I do for you?”
            “Well, I mean to tell you, these last two weeks have been pure hell for me,” the mayor began. He crossed one leg over the other as he struggled to get comfortable in the small chair. “Since that Martin girl died, I’ve been under constant pressure.”
            “I’m sure Tessie didn’t mean to inconvenience you, Buck.” Jake cursed himself for the sarcasm. Edwards could be a formidable enemy. He was in a position to make things very unpleasant for anyone who landed on his shit list. Thankfully, he didn’t notice he was being mocked.
            “Hey, I’m not blaming the girl at all. Although if my own kid was running around at night like that, I’d tan his hide for him.”
            “I’m sure you would.” Jake privately thought that it would be good for Clayton to crash a few beer blasts. That kid was way too tightly wound. The one act of defiance Jake had seen Clayton perform was getting a tattoo, and even ten-year-old girls seemed to have them these days.
            “You know what’s wrong with the world, Chief? Kids have no respect for nothing. But it’s not their fault—it’s ours.” Buck pounded a meaty fist on Jake’s desk. “All this soft love parenting philosophy crap, trying to be pals with our kids instead of disciplinarians. It’s all bullshit. We thought we could do it so much better than our own parents, and look what we’ve done—raised a bunch of disrespectful, foul-mouthed brats who think they can do whatever the hell they want. Someone says something you don’t like? Shoot `em. Your parents think they should have a say in what you do? Take their money and then shoot `em. It’s a travesty, Chief, a real shame. Now, our folks from the old country, they had it right.”
            Jake fought to keep his exasperation from showing. When Buck got on a roll, there was no stopping him.
            “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” Buck roared, clearly enjoying himself. “Children should be seen and not heard.”
            He collapsed back in the chair, which creaked threateningly under his weight. “Now those were words to live by. You lay a hand on your kid these days, and they can send you to friggin’ prison. Where’s the justice in that? Where’s the payback for that love, peace, and friendship? Bullshit. It’s all bullshit, Chief. I tell ya, we’ve created monsters. Monsters with teeth.”
            “Troubles with Clayton, Buck?” Jake asked, unable to hide his amusement.
            “Nah. Clay’s a good boy, but I ain’t going to lie to you. He’s a useless tit. There’s no way he’s ever going to amount to nothing. I know it, he knows it, and even his mother would know it if she took her head outta her ass. He’s like all the useless scum from his generation—he has no respect. He looks like a friggin’ hippie. He slumps around in ragged jeans, looking like he lives on the streets, for Christ’s sake. Doesn’t he know how that reflects upon me? The mayor’s son should have some class.”
            “He’s a kid. They have to find their own way. We did.”
            Buck fumbled in his shirt pocket for a pack of Colts. “Don’t give me that independence bullshit. I was never nothin’ like Clay. He hangs around with lowlifes and can’t manage to get his hair cut. All he does is lay around on his ass, doesn’t help his mother around the house, nothin’. You’re lucky you don’t have kids.”
            How did it feel to have your own father disgusted with you? His own dad hadn’t been without his faults, but Jake never had cause to doubt his father’s love, and knew his sister hadn’t, either. Until his death, Duke Glover was his children’s biggest fan. Jake strongly believed that this was the least every kid deserved.
            “No offense, but I’ve got a busy day ahead of me. What can I help you with?”
            “Well, for starters, you can lock up that retard who murdered Tessie Martin,” Buck replied, sucking on his cigarillo.
            “Come again?”
            “You heard me. Matthew Stark. We all know he was behind this, so why is he still walking around?”
            It took all of Jake’s willpower to keep from slamming a fist into the mayor’s fat face. He took what he hoped would be a calming breath before responding. “Do you know something I don’t? Because I’ve been investigating this case full time, and I haven’t found a single thing that suggests Matthew had anything to do with Tessie’s murder. He wasn’t even at the party. According to his mother, he was home asleep at the time Tessie went missing.”
            “Oh, come on.” Buck roared with laughter. “Do I have to paint you a fucking picture? Matthew Stark’s a freak. He’s been bullied. He laughed at the girl’s funeral, and started screaming ‘I did it.’ What more do you need?”
            Evidence, for starters. And, incidentally, what Matthew said at the funeral was ‘it’s my fault,’ not ‘I did it,’ and he could have been referring to anything. I don’t see what being bullied has to do with it.”
            “Don’t you watch the news? All of those kids—the crazy ones who do stuff like this, who go out and kill other kids, they’re always losers like Stark,” Buck explained as if the connection were obvious. “They get tired of being picked on, so they go postal and kill other students for revenge.”
            “That’s a flimsy reason to charge Matthew with the crime, don’t you think? Not all kids who were picked on turn violent. Look at me, for example.” Jake smiled in an attempt to lighten the mood, but Buck refused to be dissuaded.
            “Who else could have done it, if not the Stark kid? Who else in Rapture is that fucking crazy?”
            “I don’t think it’s that easy. People who are crazy like this don’t wear it on their sleeves, like Matthew Stark does. Later on, you can say they were outcasts or that they acted odd from time to time. But mostly, they look and act like you and me. That’s why they can be successful for so long. Think of Ted Bundy, raping and murdering young women at the same time he was answering calls for a crisis line. These people don’t look like freaks on the outside. It’s their insides that are rotten.”
             “You don’t think that whoever killed Tessie was one of those serial killer fellas, do ya, Chief?”
            “I don’t know. I certainly hope not, but some of the things that were done to Tessie are consistent with serial killer behavior.”
            “Like what?”
            “One of Tessie’s personal items was taken. Often serial killers like to take something from their victims to keep as a memento or trophy. Plus, the guys who killed Tessie were especially brutal, like they had a real joy for the job. People who get off on inflicting pain usually don’t stop with one murder.”         
            Buck’s eyebrows drew together in a frown. He was all seriousness now, his cigarillo long forgotten. “Why do you know all this sick shit?”
            Jake shrugged. “I got interested in it during college. I wanted to know what made people tick, even toyed with the idea of becoming an FBI profiler. I wish that I’d gone further with it. If I had, maybe we’d be closer to knowing who killed Tessie.”
            “So you don’t think Stark is capable of this?”
            “No, I really don’t. Matthew has some mental problems. He’s not well, and if his mother had the means, I’m sure she would have gotten him some professional help. What I do think is that people are afraid. And when people are afraid, they do stupid things. Right now they’re using this poor kid as a scapegoat, thinking that if he’s locked up, they’ll feel better. But it’s a band-aid solution, because the real killers will still be out there.”
            “It’s getting bad, Chief. People don’t want to let their kids go anywhere on their own. They’re afraid that what happened to the Martins is going to happen to them. They call my office constantly, demanding some resolution to this thing.”
            “I know. We get calls if a kid is five minutes late coming home from school, so I can sympathize with you. But pinning the blame on Matthew isn’t going to solve anything. I’d appreciate it if you’d help take the heat off the Starks any way you can. The boy’s been getting death threats, and three nights ago, some fool took a gun to his bedroom window. Almost killed Rosemary.”
              Buck raised himself out of the chair with a grunt. Giving his Stetson a sharp slap, he settled it back on his head and prepared to leave. “I’ll do what I can, but you go and catch me a killer.”
            “I’m trying, Buck,” Jake said. “Lord knows I’m trying.”
* * * *
Clayton had been unable to sleep since his nightmare. After three restless nights, he felt like the walking dead.
            He tried to ignore the throbbing pain behind his eyes as he shuffled to his locker. He couldn’t seem to shake it, no matter how many Aspirin he choked down. Leaning his head against the welcome cool of the locker’s metal, he began to fumble with the combination. He’d always had trouble with the temperamental lock, but these days just getting the combination right was an ordeal.
            “Hey.” Ash crashed into the locker beside him.
Clayton jumped. “Would you knock it off?”  He gave up on the lock for the time being and it fell against his locker with a clang. “You scared the shit out of me.”
            “Touchy, touchy.” Ash turned to Gregg, who stood behind him. “Look how sensitive our friend is today, Mr. Myers. Perhaps our dear companion is on the rag.”
            Gregg snickered.
            “Leave me alone, okay, Ash? I haven’t been sleeping, and I still feel sick.” 
            “Wow, Clay, you look like shit,” Ash said. “I mean, you’ve always been ugly, but now you’re a really hideous motherfucker.”
            Clayton’s inherently slim physique had crossed the threshold into gaunt. His cheekbones were clearly visible through his sallow skin, and dark circles surrounded his eyes.
            “Jesus, Clay, what the fuck is up with you?” Gregg asked. “You look like a crack whore.”
            “I told you, I haven’t been sleeping.” Clayton attempted to push past them. His locker could wait.
            “Hey, where you going? Don’t have time for your friends now?” Ash’s demeanor was lighthearted, but Clayton could detect the threatening undercurrent beneath. “We’re the bearers of good news.”
            “Oh yeah?  And what’s that?”
            “Weenie roast at the Stark place tonight. Bring your marshmallows.”
            Ash laughed maniacally. Gregg joined in the hilarity, holding his sides as if they hurt.
            Clayton stared at them, uncomprehending. “What the fuck are you jokers talking about?”
            “We’re going to torch their trailer tonight. We’ll show that white trash what Rapture’s response is to lowlife freaks who kill children,” Ash growled, his voice so low that Clayton had to strain in order to hear him.
            In his sleep-deprived state, it took Clayton a few minutes to understand what Ash was saying. “You’re going to set Matt’s trailer on fire?”
 “Not me, you idiot. I’m not going to do anything. Well,” he amended, “I might watch from a distance, but that’s it.”
            “Whose bright idea was this?”
            “Tubbs Mahoney’s,” Gregg blurted, then lowered his voice when Ash glared at him. “He says it’s our ‘civic duty’ to rid this town of vermin.”
            “Tubbs? Tubbs? The guy who sells drugs over at the elementary school thinks he should rid the town of vermin?”
            “Hey, what is this hard-on you have for the Stark family, anyways?” Ash said. “You’re supposed to be happy about this.”
            “Happy that some kid’s house is going to be torched? Who agreed to this?”
            Gregg started to answer, but Ash stopped him with a look. “Don’t tell our friend anything else, Mr. Myers. I don’t think our dear companion is feeling well today. He’s not acting like himself. This is good news, Clayton, and if you can’t be happy about it, we’ll share it with someone else.”
            “I can’t believe you, Pembrooke. You know Matthew had nothing to do with what happened, but you’re going along with this? That trailer is everything the Starks have.”
            Now both Gregg and Ash were staring at him like he was insane.
            “Who cares if the trailer trash lose their garbage heap?” Ash said. “Nobody cares, and you shouldn’t either. It’s not like they’re high-quality people, Edwards, so stop your whining.”
            “Yeah, shut the fuck up, will ya, Clay?” Gregg said. It was probably meant as a threat, but it sounded like a plea.
            “Be careful, Edwards,” Ash warned.

            Clayton watched them go, his plan of retrieving his books and going home early long forgotten. His mind raced with this new information. He thought again of Mrs. Stark, remembered her sad eyes as she picked up Matthew’s clothes from the playground. There was no way he was going to let her lose her home. But there was only one person he knew who could stop it from happening.

This is my guitar case. Support the arts. Give generously. 

J is for Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret

He's earned the right to look that smug.

I must be one of the only people on the planet who hated the Seinfeld show. (Which was really uncomfortable when I worked in an office where everyone else insisted on dissecting each episode and quoting it ad nauseam.) So while I'm not a fan of Jerry himself, I do recognize that he was extraordinarily successful at whatever he was supposed to be good at. (I think he was supposed to be funny.)

If you haven't heard of Jerry's productivity secret yet, I am delighted to be the one to share it with you. It has quite literally changed my life.

This so-called "secret" was blogged about quite widely in 2007, so I fully acknowledge that this can rightly be considered old news. But I hadn't heard of it until a week ago, and maybe you're in the same boat.

Here is Seinfeld's Secret for Success:

Jerry wanted to be a successful comedian. How does one become a great comedian? By writing jokes. Lots and lots of jokes.

The problem was, Jerry wasn't so different from a lot of us. While he said he wanted to be a great comedian, his priorities seemed to be aligned elsewhere. Day after day went by with no new jokes.

He made a deal with himself. He decided he would spend a certain amount of time each day writing new material, no matter what. He bought himself a calendar, hung it in a prominent place, and every time he'd finished his writing for the day, he marked that day with a big red X.

If you stick with this for a few days, you will have a nice row of Xs on your calendar. And something in your mind will start to shift. Once you see how awesome those Xs look, you won't want to break the chain--for anything.

Why is this important? Remember that old saying, "slow and steady wins the race"? It's a proverb for a reason. The people who are most successful are consistent--they may take small steps, but they take those small steps everyday, and eventually they get a hell of a lot farther than those of us who sprint and rest, rest and sprint.

People have used this trick in a number of different ways. One excellent article suggests choosing three things you'd like to be successful at, and deciding how long you'll spend working on them each day. Because I am woefully behind in so many things, I chose four. I decided I wanted to write fiction (one hour), market my writing to larger magazines, agents and editors (one hour), clean (thirty minutes) and exercise (at least 30 minutes) every day.

You're allowed to take weekends off if you want to. You can even take holidays and sick time. I decided to opt for the weekends off because I figured I'd need the break.

I've followed the Seinfeld Secret since I learned about it five days ago, and in that time I have:

- written almost 10,000 words and nearly finished a novel that has been hanging over my head since NaNoWriMo ended;

- pitched articles to two international magazines, rewrote my query letter, researched markets and editors, and worked on my novel synopsis. I also found an experienced writer who is willing to look at my synopsis once I'm finished;

- fully cleaned our main living area, reorganized a bathroom cabinet that was so full it wasn't closing properly, and almost finished cleaning my office. When I started this plan five days ago, I couldn't even see the floor in there for all the piles of stuff lying around; and

- walked almost 19 miles and burned 2,345 calories.

Before I started this plan, I never seemed to find time for my marketing. I did all right at the writing and exercise components, but I was never consistent. And cleaning? Fuggedaboutit!

Have you heard of the Jerry Seinfeld Productivity Secret? Do you think it could work for you?

As for me, I just hope I can stick with it! It's doing wonders so far.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I is for Invest In Yourself

When you have a big dream that you're trying to turn into reality, you need support. And support--the really effective, professional kind--often costs money.

It can cost a lot of money.

While you're taking baby steps, wondering when or if all this hard work is going to pay off, it can be tempting to cut costs. Maybe you don't need that Mont Blanc pen.

But when it comes to the things you do need, never be afraid to invest in yourself.

Here are the five best investments I've ever made for my career. I'm a writer, but this list can be tweaked to suit any business. (And I easily could have made this a list of ten.)

1) Travel. I love to travel for its own sake, but there's something about a change of scenery that is incredibly inspiring. I've come away from my last three trips with solid ideas for novels.

2) Computer. For over thirteen years I plugged away on the same desktop computer, until it was so glutted with knowledge that it took over a minute to open a single page. The day I sprang for a MacBook Pro was the day that changed my professional life forever. The only thing I regret is that I waited so long.

3) Trek Desk. Unless you've been living under a rock these past few years, you've heard how awful it is for your health to spend most of your day sitting on your ass. Well, I've yet to meet a writer who did her best work while skydiving. Of course we're sitting down! Until now. The lovely trek desk lets me walk while I work. The learning curve was minuscule, and the results are already worth it. A few hundred dollars for more years on this planet? Priceless.

4) A life coach (or two). Are you self-destructive? Prone to procrastinate? Great at setting goals, but not so good at meeting them? A life coach can help. There are many different styles of life coaches out there, but you'll know you've got a good one when she pinpoints what's been holding you back and gives you suggestions on how you can work around it.

5) Conferences. I don't go to many conferences--I stick with the very best. My experience with conferences has been invaluable--I've learned how to pitch my work with three well-honed sentences, I've made friends for life, and I've been able to escape the slush fund and place my submission at the top of the heap. Add in tons of workshops and panel discussions and editing sessions, and you have the most valuable weekend you'll ever spend.

How are you investing in yourself?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

H is for Hawaiian Writer: Thoughts from Author Toby Neal

Toby Neal seems like the luckiest woman on earth. Not only does she get to live in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places on the planet, she is a successful mystery writer with a thriving private counselling practice. Happily married for 28 years, she has two awesome children and is talented, smart, friendly and beautiful. Seriously, if she wasn't so damn nice, I would hate her. ;)

So what is it really like to live and write in a place where most people only get to go on vacation? Here's what she had to say…

"It corrupts you. In a way, everything else pales in comparison. Literally. I lived for seven years in the midwest during college, and could never afford to visit Hawaii even once during that time, and it was like being in exile. I learned to see the beauty in the seasons, in the lake, in the snow, in my first experience with you-pick apricots, a fruitgasm beyond compare…but it was shocking to be so humidly hot and plagued by mosquitoes in the summer, and so cold spit froze before it hit the ground in winter. To live somewhere where six months of the year you were indoors and your skin forgot what the air felt like. I wondered how people did it, and kept doing it, and knew it was because they'd never lived in Hawaii.

There were times I wished I'd never know anything different, so I wouldn't long for the turquoise sea and the green tapestry of jungle, and the massage of coral sand on my feet. But the damage was done early on. Literally. I had my first skin cancers at age twenty-six in Michigan, when I hadn't been in the sun in a year. 'Early exposure,' they said. Yep, I've even had melanoma now. There was no sunscreen when I was growing up. It hadn't been invented yet, and I'm a natural redhead. Not good. But I wouldn't trade my sun-struck days growing up on the beaches of Kauai for better skin now, at fifty, because really, who cares? I swam, and surfed, and fished and played and I still do, and I try to be sensible without giving up the joys of being here.

Living in Hawaii is like normal life: you get up and go to work, bitch about the rain, let out the dog--but behind every 'normal' activity is an ever-changing glorious backdrop of dancing clouds, spectacular sunsets, waving palms, roses blooming in December, ocean silky as a scarf on naked skin even when it's raining…and you'll happily pay five dollars a gallon for gas and live in a termite-ridden old house with seventies-itis that's supposedly worth half a million dollars, just to wake up to dawns like this morning, when curls of golden cloud like angel feathers drifted across the purple face of Haleakala and the sword of new light lay across the shoulder of the volcano, announcing day was here. All the mynahs, doves, cardinals, and even roosters chattered and sang that this was a new day, and wasn't it glorious? Because, dear friend, it was. Even better than the advertising.

Hawaii is a complex place socially. You earn a place here over time, with effort, and not easily. People here are friendly but not hospitable, like in the midwest where we were invited for meals and football games after just going to a Boy Scout meeting. No, there are layers here, and many races, and unwritten rules…but mostly, we wait to see if the Islands accept you. Because many come, and try to settle, and land on their proverbial asses and leave within two years. My personal rule of thumb, after cycling through too many newcomer friends to count, is five years of making it here and owning your home. Show me the deed and a five-year track record, and maybe we'll have lunch. Sounds bad, but my heart's been broken too many times.

It's different if you do what my sister and brother-in-law are doing. They're retiring here on Maui with other "haole" retirees. Built-in friend group! They play cards together, and have Taco Tuesday, and drink mai tais by the pool. They have their own canoe club! They have a different experience of life on the island than Mike and I do, because I worked in the public schools for eleven years, belonged to Rotary, go to church, and volunteer, and in general have paid my dues to be a part of this unique slice of paradise called Maui.

Every island has its special charms and beautiful secrets that it only gives up to the patient and committed. If my in-laws get involved with island life, they'll be 'kama'aina' too."

If you'd like to learn more about Toby, you can read her blog here. She writes the very popular Lei Crime series, which I highly recommend. Her books are much fun, and such a beautiful setting. Thanks, Toby!

Photo by Toby's husband Mike Neal

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

G is for Gratitude

It's difficult to remain grateful for the good things in your life when something bad happens.

However, gratitude is one of the most awesome emotions on earth. When you get busy being grateful, there isn't much room for negativity.

I went through a pretty dark time recently. Still reeling over a dear friend's suicide, I returned home from a vacation to the worst winter in almost 70 years. It was brutal, and as a self-employed writer, I didn't have to leave the house, so I didn't.

I'm an extrovert--I need the company of other people to stay sane and happy. I also live in a city where people habitually overbook and over commit themselves. When you're sitting alone at home during a dreary winter with only your computer and your cats for company, it can be easy to think your friends don't care about you. That they've abandoned you. When really they're just preoccupied with other things.

My productivity was in the toilet. I'd abandoned my work in progress. I procrastinated by surfing the web, searching for some sense of connection that eluded me. I had a migraine almost everyday, while the winter raged on, freezing water mains and and burying us in snow.

And then…

I heard about this contest. It couldn't have come at a better time, because the prize was an opportunity to spend two months in Tobago, having a grand adventure and reporting back to the folks at home. This beautiful island would be appealing at any time of year, but in the middle of the winter from hell it was irresistible.

Still, I was tempted to pass it by. A video application? Too much work. How would I muster up the energy when I could barely leave the house?

A voice inside me said that I should give it a try. I emailed a friend to see if he could help me, fully expecting that he would say no and I'd be off the hook. To my surprise, he said yes. And he was super excited about it.

Again and again, the people I asked for help were incredibly generous in their support. Because I'd heard about the contest at the 11th hour, the video shoot had to come together quickly. My friends dropped what was going on in their own lives to help me. I was humbled and completely overwhelmed with gratitude at their generosity.

The amazing location, the wicked production value, and the kickboxing action shots could never have happened without my friends.

So, as much as I'd love to win the contest, it was the process of entering that gave me what I really needed…a reminder to be grateful for everything that is wonderful in my life. My friends are definitely at the top of that list.

What are you grateful for today?

If you're interested in seeing the final result of our epic video shoot, click here.

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge. If you'd like to see the list of participants, please click here.