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A Unexpectedly Brilliant Tool for Organization

Resources

In previous posts, I’ve recommended the online task manager Todoist for Getting Things Done-style organization. All the key features are available for free (though I subscribe to get the advanced features, paying $29/year). In March 2013, they introduced a tool called “karma,” a sort of ongoing game or rating based on how well you do at tracking and completing tasks. At the time, I must have thought it sounded to hokey or decided that the idea of having a productivity “score” was lame, because I didn’t start using it until five or six months ago. Since then, I’ve been a little amazed that it actually seems to work: I’m more productive, more focused, and more diligent specifically because of Todoist karma.

How can what basically amounts to a simple counting game help get more work done? By setting reachable goals and inspiring involvement. (For a more thorough consideration of the connection between games and motivation, read A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games.)

Let’s look at how that works. Here’s a screen shot of my karma as of today (click to zoom):

My Todoist karma

 

See the gray vertical lines, one for the last 7 days and one for the last 4 weeks? Those are my targets. I’m trying to complete at least that many tasks to keep on track, which is to say at least 5 per weekday and at least 25 per week. These are the default settings, which are actually great for me, but you can change them to whatever you want.

If I keep to these targets, my karma keeps going up, and my daily and weekly streaks (shown at the bottom) accumulate. (For more on motivation and winning streaks, see “Harnessing a Winning Streak.”)

As you can see from my streaks, I wasn’t able to keep on top of tasks in the same way as usual over the holidays, so I missed my targets several times up through the New Year, resetting the impressive streaks I had built up before Thanksgiving. Karma does have an important “vacation” feature (you just tell it that you’re on vacation, and it won’t expect you to get much done until you turn vacation back off). It also doesn’t expect you to get anything done on weekends (though you can change it so that you’re “on duty” any days of the week you like).

Todoist karma levels

The rewards to attending to karma are minimal: your graph keeps going up, you build up your streaks, your score improves, and every once in a long while you “level up” to a new karma category. This may not sound like much inducement to get things done, but if you think about it, it’s very similar to a video game, and video games are notoriously addictive: you have a score, levels, goals, specific challenges … it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible … in a word, you’re engaged.

Another thing I like about karma that initially seemed like a drawback is that it mainly just tracks the number of tasks you get done rather than trying to deal with priority or importance or size. This makes it simple to use–pretty much automatic, in fact–but it also rewards breaking big goals down into small tasks, which is an excellent motivational and organizational technique. If you enter “redo flooring in dining room” in as a task, it’s a good bet you’ll never get it done. On the other hand, if you start with tasks like “Find out what kind of wood flooring options are out there” and “Measure dining room and write down dimensions,” then you’ve got a great basis for accomplishing something.

The way karma helps me the most is in setting a number of things to get done. My task list is probably thousands of items long, set up in many different categories with different priorities. To be productive, I have to get at least a few of those things done each day. Often what happens is that I’ll get to evening and have completed, say, three tasks (this is outside of my work task list, which I maintain separately). Being conscious of my Todoist karma, I’m aware that I can do two more to maintain my streaks and increase my score, or give up for the day, lose points and get my streaks reset. It’s nearly always possible to get two small tasks done, however, and so I generally do them, and this keeps my attention on what I have to do and also encourages me to do just a bit more each day. That’s exactly the level of quiet, private encouragement I need.

In short, if you’re in need of an elegant, easy-to-use, effective, and free task management system, you’ll have a hard time doing better than Todoist–and if you use Todoist, you should consider using the karma feature to engage more enthusiastically with all the tasks in your life.

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Does Chocolate Really Contain Caffeine, or Are People Just Confusing It with Theobromine?

I'm just sayin'

chocolate

There’s an assertion circulating on the Web that caffeine content in chocolate is an urban legend based on misunderstanding of a related compound, theobromine. From what information I’ve been able to turn up, it appears this assertion is false: that is, the urban legend is that chocolate doesn’t contain caffeine.

The first significant information I found on this is on the Hershey Company’s site, which has a page entitled “Caffeine and Theobromine“. On this page they discuss the two separately and state that “For example, a 1.55 ounce (43g) HERSHEY’S milk chocolate bar contains about 9 mg of caffeine.” They later say “a 1.55 ounce (43g) HERSHEY’S milk chocolate bar contains about 64mg of theobromine.” It does not seem possible that they could be confusing the two in this situation.

This next page also gives specific numbers for both caffeine and theobromine content of chocolate, though I don’t know how reliable the source is: http://www.food-info.net/uk/qa/qa-fp47.htm

Getting into slightly more authoritative stuff, here’s a Russian article through Medline called “Biologically active substances in grated cocoa and cocoa butter” that discusses both caffeine and theobromine content in chocolate, separately: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=17674523&ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum .

Here’s another article, this one from The Journal of Chromatographic Science, also speaks of both caffeine and theobromine content in chocolate: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=17555636&ordinalpos=3&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

Why does all this matter? Depending on who you are, it may not. After all, chocolate doesn’t contain a lot of caffeine. That Hershey’s bar mentioned above only has about 1/10 the amount of caffeine found in a cup of coffee, though dark chocolate has more. However, if you’re like me and have bad physiological reactions to caffeine (itching, headaches, etc.) under some circumstances, it’s pretty important to understand that chocolate–all chocolate–is going to have that effect.

On a related note, please remember too that decaffeinated coffee and tea aren’t devoid of caffeine, either–they both just have a lot less than their caffeinated counterparts.

All of the above is just based on online research, of course: I’m not a nutritionist, researcher, or medical professional.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

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10 Ways to Increase Happiness: The CliffsNotes Version

Techniques

laughter

There’s an excellent (if overenthusiastically titled) article on Inc.com called “10 Surprisingly Counterintuitive Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.” It lists 10 research-based insights into cultivating long-term happiness.

Here’s a summary of the approaches they recommend, which can also serve as a refresher to re-read once or twice over the next couple of days to a week after you read the original article (assuming you decide to read the original article), if you’d like a way to help ensure the ideas to stick.

  1. Allow feelings of happiness and disappointment to mix
  2. Keep happy friends close (or move near happy friends, or find happy friends nearby)
  3. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful
  4. Consider counseling, which the article describes as producing as much happiness as 32 times the money it costs
  5. Don’t be overeager to seize happiness
  6. Say “no” to almost everything and use “don’t” to stop yourself from unwanted behaviors*
  7. Be comfortable and realistic in recognizing your strengths and weaknesses
  8. Plan for the worst, both to create peace in the moment from knowing you’ve taken dangers into account and to be able to handle trouble more easily and effectively
  9. Give up things you love for short periods in order to appreciate and enjoy them more
  10. Picture realistic accomplishments instead of fantasizing**

*Item #6 strikes me as two separate points: the first is about not overcommitting yourself, which is huge and one of my own personal biggest stumbling blocks; the second is about how to talk to yourself about not doing something, e.g., not saying “I should work out” or “I have to work out” or “I can’t miss my workout,” but rather “I don’t miss workouts.”

**Item #10, for my money, was the least clearly presented, although in general I think the article is great. On this one, the key thing seems to be not giving up on visualizing wonderful things happening, but rather visualizing specific things it’s in your power to accomplish in the way that they might actually happen. For instance, fantasizing about becoming a basketball star may tend to sap your energy and undermine your success; picturing yourself making multiple baskets at an upcoming game and then practicing hard to make that more likely may well do the opposite.

Photo by Shindz

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The Hidden Nature of Wanting Things

Handling negative emotions

water

Here’s a realization that stopped me in my tracks recently: sometimes, when I crave something, what I really desire is not the thing itself, but for the need for it to go away.

Maybe that sounds like two versions of the same thing, but when I reflect that there are often a lot of ways to making a need for something go away without getting the thing itself, then the game begins to change.

To take an easy example: if I want a glass of water, what I really probably want more than the sensation of the water going down my throat is the cessation of my thirst.

In that example, of course, drinking the water is probably the best thing I can do, but what if the thing I want to do is to eat something unhealthy or do something I’ll later regret or act in anger because of negative feelings? In these cases, it would be ideal to stop feeling the need for the thing by some means other than getting what I think I want.

The good news is that there are alternatives that will often make a need or craving go away: for example, meditation or a frank discussion with a supportive friend or family member can often settle an angry or frightened mood, focusing attention on something else can often distract us from an unhealthy or unhelpful activity, and there are at least a couple of dozen of ways to get around being hungry.

The problem I run into, myself, is that I often get caught up in wanting the thing and don’t realize that I just want the need for it to stop. When this happens, anything that may make the need diminish seems like self-denial. Although I may be actually accomplishing what will make me most happy (making the craving go away), my internal commentary insists I’m preventing myself from getting what I want, from getting the object of my craving. This makes me think of a healthy redirection as a fight with myself, and instead of gravitating toward the best choice, I struggle.

I don’t think it’s the case that we always just want the cessation of a need, though I guess somebody could make a case for that. For instance, when I want to listen to music, it doesn’t seem to me that I’d usually be just as happy if the desire for hearing music went away. To use this idea, I’ll have to distinguish between times it applies and times it doesn’t.

Whether the insight will actually prove valuable for me or not, I don’t know, but I’d like to think that it will help me from time to time when I’m having trouble deciding between an appealing option and a healthier but less flashy one, to understand what that decision is really about and act accordingly.

Photo by Bart.

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Codexians Sweep Original 4 Nebula Awards

eBooks and Publishing

I have the great fortune to rub virtual elbows with any number of exceptional writers in Codex Writers’ Group, which I founded back in 2004 by creating an online forum and inviting fellow writers from Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp and the Writers of the Future workshop. This week the four original categories (Best Novel, Best Novelette, Best Novella, and Best Short Stories) of the Nebula Award, one of the most important awards in science fiction, were all won by members of Codex. (Two additional categories added more recently were not won by Codexians–this time!)

Ann Leckie is the first Codexian ever to win the Nebula for best novel, for her Ancillary Justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vylar Kaftan won the novella category with “The Weight of the Sunrise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Best Novelette award went to Aliette de Bodard for “The Waiting Stars.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Best Short Story went to Rachel Swirsky for “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”

 

 

 

 

Ann, Vy, Aliette, Rachel: way to kick some genre!

Congratulations too to Nalo Hopkinson, who won the Andre Norton YA award, and the writers of Gravity, who won the Bradbury for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation. (Neither Ms. Hopkinson nor the Gravity folks are associated with Codex in any way.)

A variety of other Codexians were nominated for the Nebula this year, including Kenneth Schneyer, Alethea Kontis (now a two-time nominee for the Andre Norton award), Ken Liu (the only person ever to have won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award for a single work), Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, Sarah Pinsker, Henry Lien, and Lawrence M. Schoen.

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James Maxey: Mere Excitement is Vastly Overrated

Writing

Maxey superhero novels

James Maxey is the most unrelentingly quotable person I’ve ever met. I complained about this to him the other day in the course of asking permission to post the below. He gave me his blessing to post and mentioned he’d be likely to expand on what he said soon on his own site (see link, below).

“Even I find myself quotable,” he said. The bastard.

Anyway, in a recent writing group discussion, we were talking about why we chose our current projects. There were a variety of answers, but the word “excitement” came up a lot, and James  had this to say on the subject.

For what it’s worth, I think mere excitement is a vastly overrated reason to commit to a novel. Excitement is sufficient grounds to take part in a one night stand, but committing to a novel is more like choosing someone to marry. There needs to be that initial passion, but there has to be something stronger beneath it. The novel has to share your values and your long term goals. You have to be willing to stand by it in sickness and health, through riches and poverty. You’re going to see this novel without its makeup on. You’ll have to be there to comfort it when it gets the flu and has bad things pouring out of every orifice. You’ll have to keep believing in it when it hits low points, when it’s lost its way and no longer moves you to passion. You’re going to have to keep going home and sharing a bed with it even though other younger, better looking, more clever novels flirt with you. 

The long term rewards of such a relationship make it all worth it. You write the novel, edit it, polish it, and all the time it edits and polishes you. At the very least, you should emerge from a finished novel as a better writer, but I also think it’s possible to emerge from a novel as a better person.

That resonated with me, and James, a prolific and popular writer, is speaking from a lot of personal experience.  He’s the author of award-winning short storties and a pair of read-at-a-gulp superhero novels, as well as the Dragon Age trilogy and the very different Dragon Apocalypse series. If you’re curious, check him out at dragonprophet.blogspot.com .

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A Strange Subculture Term Every Day on Twitter

Luc's writing projects

To celebrate the publishing of the second, expanded, newly illustrated edition of my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 67 American Subcultures, I’m following through with something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: showcasing some of the oddest and most entertaining subculture slang terms from the thousands and thousands I covered in the book, including “meat actor,” “feghoot,” “monster heel,” “ringmaster” (it doesn’t mean what most of us think it does!), “whuffo,” and (one of my all-time favorites) “nerd gate.”

Talk the Talk

You can follow me on Twitter @lucreid, or find out more about the book (including where to get it in paperback or for Kindle) right here.

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Lon Prater reviews the Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software

Writing

Lon Prater kindly agreed to guest post about Marshall Plan novel writing software. Lon is a friend through the online writers’ group Codex. You can find out a bit more about him and jump to his Web site at the bottom of this post.

marshallsoftware

Near the end of October 2013, I was given a free copy of the Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software (Mac version) to review. After tinkering with it about 10 weeks, I’m ready to share my thoughts on it.

Some Background
I was first exposed to The Marshall Plan as a set of extremely helpful books by agent and author Evan Marshall. One book focuses on writing your novel, the second on selling it. There are also some workbooks, but I have no background with them. The two main books have a lot of meaty, useful stuff packed inside. Though geared for planners over “pantsers” there’s still a lot of valuable technique to be learned in these books, as well as crunchy good info on the business and career side of selling what you write. There are sections of these books I have gone back to reread no less than eight or nine times over the years.

One of the most specifically structured aspects of the Marshall Plan is a breakdown of how many scenes a book of a given length should have, with some additional consideration for genre, and how the viewpoints should be distributed across those scenes. As you can imagine, this can get incredibly fidgety.

As an example: a 70K Suspense/Crime novel would be broken up into 56 sections, with so many from the point of view of the Lead, the Opposition, and the Romantic Involvement—each happening in a specific (but not confiningly rigid) order. Pivotal turning points and other standout scenes have specific requirements, and there are certain elements that every Action or Reaction Section should have.

Laying out a plot using these strictures will probably suffocate the dedicated discovery writer (much the way Randy Ingermanson’s fractal-based and mostly helpful Snowflake Method has been known to do to unsuspecting pantsers) but don’t let this sway you from the value of the Marshall Plan when it is telescoped out from the scene by scene structuring. There is just as much valuable information in the Plan when it comes to the overall arc of your story, subplot, etc.

The Software
For those who enjoy the level of detail employed in the Marshall Plan, the software is probably going to be very appealing. I know that I personally jumped at the chance to review the program based simply on how much I adore the main book. I had expectations that this software would be on par with Scrivener or WriteWay Pro (both of which I have used over the years).

When I say “on par” let me spell out my expectation: a program that would help me organize key information, plan and outline my novel, and provide a native word processing function that would allow me to write the novel in sections tied to my outline. I get all of those and more with WriteWay Pro and Scrivener. (Much more in some cases) Those programs generally cost about $50.00, less when you catch a sale.

Now here’s the part where this review gets painfully honest.

The Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software fulfills all my novel planning and outlining needs, but lacks a function for writing and saving sections within the program itself, and also lacks a dedicated place to stow your research and scratch pad ideas. For so much less functionality than similar writing-based programs, you’d think this would cost a lot less than Scrivener or WriteWay Pro.

You’d be wrong. I checked for sales during NaNoWriMo and Christmas and again in mid-January. The current and constant price for this software has been $149.00.

Most aspiring writers just made their buying decision at the end of the last paragraph. But some of you are no doubt wondering “Is the part that’s there so awesome it makes it worth paying triple the money for 1/3 the functionality?”

What You Get For The Money
Again with the expectation/reality game. I thought, surely for that much money this will be one hell of a polished machine, a sleek German-engineered novel planning joyride. I mean, the sales literature even says, “It practically writes your novel for you!” and who wouldn’t want that kind of efficiency? No one, that’s who.

I searched for signs of that luxury app feel, some clue as to what would make this program worth that kind of scratch, and the only thing I can muster up as a reason is, as the cool kids say today: “because proprietary”. True to its promises, the software automates the difficult sectioning and outlining functions, in the specific proportions of The Marshall Plan. This would have otherwise been a laborious project, even if you had purchased the Workbook to help you. It also repeats key concepts from the books in scrollable windows of advice. Though the entire book is not included, just summary passages on structure, character building, editing, and careers. (To me they left the best part of the book out of the program, the parts covering techniques for clarity and how to handle exposition, dialogue, etc.) There is also an extensive list of Character Names and meanings.

Minor Complaints
The software feels unfinished to me for several small reasons, and one large one.  The small ones first:

  • There are numerous typos and artifacts of earlier builds hiding in the sparse help text and directions. For $150 this thing better be as typo-free as a query letter. Examples: 1) The text says click the Genre List above, but actually it’s a drop down menu on the left side of the screen. 2) “Or use a Reaction Section, as explained above” but the explanation is below. 3) There are an awful lot of doubled quotation marks “” scattered throughout the documentation.
  • Arrowheads used to open and close parts of the program felt stingy and smallish; they required concentration to click them reliably.
  • Minor Character support is not robust at all. You get to put in a Name and a Role, but if you want to keep any other info straight about them, you better go buy a notebook. Also, there does not appear to be a way to export Minor Character data.
  • The List of Names is very long. Which would be just ducky if there was a search function, or you were allowed to jump to a certain letter. Nope. Start scrolling at A on either the Male list or the Female list. 7,000 names between them…

The Worst Offender
One of the earliest, and most important steps of planning your novel with this software is when you pick the overall length you are going to aim for. The program gives a lot of valuable information about averages for genres and so on, in perhaps a bit more granularity than that handy 2010 post from Colleen Lindsay’s The Swivet everyone likes to go by.

But where it gets dicey is when you decide on that length and then enter it into the form field directly under this, in red: (Warning: Reducing your novel’s word length removes and/or resets sections, so data may be lost.)

To be fair, the software does provide a warning. What does this mean in practice?  It means that once you set a word length, the program will create a list of Action and Reaction Scenes and tell you which ones need to be from a certain viewpoint character and which you can choose the point of view. It will also dedicate space for you to write notes about what will happen in each of those sections.

But if in the course of writing—or even outlining—you discover that this is really panning out to be more of a 70K novel than the 90K novel you thought your idea would support, you have two choices:

  • You can start a brand new outline file (because remember, this program doesn’t actually have a word processor built in) in the software and laboriously cut and paste all your notes for each section into the new outline file.
  • You can change the existing file, knowing that you will lose what you have saved as notes for several sections. Print a copy before you change the length and then retype your notes back in.

To me, either option seems like a lot of wasted time that would be better spent writing that first draft. To me, this would be a dealkiller even if the program cost less than a Happy Meal.

Wrapup
I started evaluating this program from a very positive and hopeful place. I like The Marshall Plan books and I was excited about getting a copy of the software to try.

In the end, I wanted to give a better review than I was able to.

Until the software has more features, more polish, allows changing novel’s length without losing data, and doesn’t bite so deep into the wallet, I cannot recommend it for anyone without money to burn (a rare descriptor for novelists) and extraordinary confidence that they can make any story idea take X amount of words to tell it. There are just too many better values currently available in the marketplace, at a fraction of the cost.

That said, if you haven’t read The Marshall Plan for Writing Your Novel, I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

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About the Reviewer: Lon Prater has worked in the Reactor Compartments of USS Enterprise, edited the military’s textbook on arms deals, and kept things safe in the produce and laundry industries. His fiction has appeared in the Stoker-winning anthology Borderlands 5, Origins Award finalist Frontier Cthulhu, and dozens of other publications. Visit www.LonPrater.com to find out more.

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Guest Post: The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Authors

Guest posts

Evan Marshall and Martha JewettThis guest post is a contribution from author/agent Evan Marshall and Martha Jewett, who together have created The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software. You can find out a bit more about them in the biographical notes at the end of this piece.

Over the course of our careers working with authors, we have observed that the most successful ones share certain habits and attitudes.

  1. They work hard to keep their lives balanced. Balance between writing and promoting, because if you don’t write, you have nothing to promote. Balance between their writing career and their families and friends, because having a happy life fuels good writing and keeps you refreshed.
  2. They’re careful about building their “career dream team.” This includes their agent, their editor(s), their attorney, their accountant. Once a quality team is built, the writers have the peace of mind of knowing they are in good hands and can relax and do their best writing.
  3. They never stop learning and improving their craft. They strive always to come up with fresh new story ideas. They try new techniques. They’re not afraid to try new genres.
  4. They promote themselves, knowing it’s not enough to leave this to their publishers. However, they are selective about how they promote, knowing that a few highly effective promotional techniques have far more impact than doing it all helter-skelter. (See also #1.)
  5. They adapt. Trends in publishing are constantly changing, and these writers make it their business to know what’s popular at a given time and give this to their readers. Adapting also means being willing to try writing other kinds of books when necessary, and even to consider a pseudonym when a fresh new name is in order.
  6. They keep reading! That’s how they know what’s popular. Reading also enables them to know what other authors are doing in terms of story ideas, in order to avoid copying.
  7. They’re realistic. They don’t expect overnight success and are willing to work hard over a long period to achieve success. Being realistic also includes not watching constantly to see what other authors are getting—advances, bestseller placements, promotion, and so on. Every career is different, authors are each on their own path, and career envy is childish and fruitless.
  8. They’re professional. Sounds obvious, but many authors are so good at shooting themselves in the foot that you would think they do it on purpose. Being professional includes treating your agent, editors and other publishing staff with the same courtesy and respect you expect from them; delivering your manuscripts on time (or giving fair warning when you don’t); expressing gratitude when appropriate; and never whining.

The most successful authors we have worked with over our more than 30 years in the business have possessed all of these habits and qualities. Work to cultivate them in yourself and you will enjoy a long and satisfying writing career.

Evan Marshall is a fiction expert, mystery author, and former editor. For 30 years he has been a literary agent specializing in fiction. The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, co-authored with Martha Jewett, is based on his bestseller The Marshall Plan® for Novel Writing. 

Martha Jewett is a memoir advocate, editorial expert, and co-author of The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software. She has worked as an editor, editorial consultant, ghost writer, and literary agent.

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When Writing Fiction is a Disturbing Occupation

Writing

CCTA bus

Most of my novel writing recently has been happening on the #86 commuter bus from Richmond to Montpelier and back. The wonderful thing about this is that when I ride, I almost always sit down and start writing immediately, no need for excuses or delays. Sometimes the writing is actual passages of the book, while sometimes it’s story notes, outlining, character exploration, and that kind of thing. Regardless, it’s always building the novel.

At the moment I’m moving scene by scene through a part of the book that is very emotionally draining. Yesterday I wrote a scene where one of my characters is screaming at another in the ruins of their apartment after a terrible tragedy. By the time the bus driver announced “Next stop: Richmond Park and Ride” and slowed down onto the exit ramp, I was practically shaking. I closed the laptop, shoved it in my backpack, and retrieved my lunch bag. As I silently went down the steps to exit the bus, the painful scene still echoing through my brain, and the driver said “Have a great night!”

Writing in public can just be emotionally weird.

Then I went home, where a rabid raccoon was hunched by our back door, near the clothes line. Our neighbors, a very nice couple who both come from farm families and for whom sick animals hold no novelty, had called the police, who in Williston I gather also are responsible for animal control. I first realized the police had arrived when I heard two sharp gunshots from the back yard. I went to the window and saw the officer and my neighbor chasing after the raccoon. It ran out into the middle of our yard, and the police officer shot it again, twice more. It stopped running, but flailed in place, clawing at the places it had been hit. By now, I believe, there were four bullets in the poor thing. After each shot, a faint spray of reddish brown had blown out just past the animal. Regardless, it was still moving.

At the time I thought about turning away, but I’ve gotten in the habit of facing things that scare me. (I’m much worse at facing things that inconvenience me, so I’ve got that to work on.) My son asked me later why I didn’t turn away, and I told him what I just told you. He was shocked and disturbed by it all, but later said he wished he had watched as well, even though I think it would have affected him even more than it did me. Ethan is looking at colleges where he can study animal science. He wants to get a graduate degree in Zoology and eventually work at a zoo.

I remember that back when my son and I volunteered at a raptor rescue center (birds, not dinosaurs) in nearby Shelburne, at first we both had a hard time with the chest freezers full of dead mice, chicks, and rats. We soon became acclimated to it, though, since we had to if we were going to feed the birds. Sometimes we even narrated what the rodents seemed to be saying, frozen in positions that resembled dancing, conversing, or casting an evil spell. I think that might have been a little too acclimated.

Anyway, the raccoon was still not dead. The police officer had to shoot it a fifth time, and again there was the spray in the grass behind it. It still moved, but it seemed weaker now. After another minute or two, it finally stopped moving. While they waited for it to die, my neighbor and the policeman laughed at something one of them had said. I thought about being offended, but the experience was no more novel for either of them than the frozen mice had been for me. At least they weren’t doing funny voices like we had done with the mice.

After the raccoon died, my neighbor got a pitchfork and a plastic bag to take care of the body.

There’s another reason I didn’t look away while the raccoon died, and I didn’t mention it to my son because I was a little embarrassed about it: it’s because I write. I can’t tell you how many deaths I’ve written, but it’s probably hundreds. Meanwhile, I’ve witnessed very few deaths, and I was aware that I might learn something from watching. I took note of the places where the animal looked like it had chewed out some of its fur, of the motions it made after being shot, of the sound of the gun, of how many bullets such a small animal seemed to be able to take. It’s a kind of recycling, taking in old experiences and creating new experiences from them. Does it honor the raccoon more to attentively watch its death and then write about it? Or is it taking advantage, trying to gain something from the animal’s painful and undignified end?

Of course, the raccoon’s real death started when it caught rabies. The policeman was just cutting things short before they got even worse for the creature, not to mention anyone or anything else it might come in contact with. And even if the raccoon knew I was watching, I seriously doubt it cared. Yet I take it as a reminder that writing is a serious business, even when the story is not a serious story. We’re shaping worlds and letting readers into them. What we do to our readers should have a point and a meaning and a purpose. When they come away from watching what it is we give them to see, they should have found a gift hidden in the narrative, something worth having no matter how painful or whimsical or unreal the events in the story may have been.

There’s so much meaningless suffering in the world, a little meaningful suffering–or joy–can go a long way.

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