Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My writing lesson for the week

Another lesson learned this week on the trail of writing a good book: make sure your facts check out so your story is believable to everyone who reads it.  As with most things in life, this can be accomplished one of two ways: either knowing something or knowing someone.

One of my writing buddies is in the alpha-reader stage of one of her manuscripts.  About a year ago she asked me some questions about small airplanes because I used to be a pilot, sort of.  I gave her some general details and forgot about it - generalities like how crashing a single engine would be much easier that a multi-engine, etc.  And then I read "Chapter Six" last weekend and realized I should have given her way different and more specific details because what she had taken from our discussion had been used to create a very tension filled and exciting plane crash - that had little resemblance to how it would really happen.  The best thing about it is that when I text her and said "we need to talk about Chapter six" she knew exactly which part I was referring to and had been waiting patiently for me to get to that part so I could tell her exactly how to fix it.  See, she knew I would know and thus didn't waste a lot of time researching.  Smart girl, that one!

I had a ton of fun stewing about how it could be fixed without changing anything fundamental about how the characters got to that point or how they walked away from it (aka, keeping the storyline intact) and trying to remember my pilot training that I never actually finished twenty years ago.  Luckily I have a buddy who IS a pilot who helped fill in the details.  What we came up with resulted in some very minor changes but that will make a huge difference in a reader's perception - because now it will be authentic.

I learned several lessons from this small encounter.

1) any writer needs a trusted few who they can count on for alpha-reading.  That group of people who can read as writers not readers; those who can overlook the grammar and punctuation errors that still exist in the early stages of revision and just point out the plot holes and elements of the story and characters that could be tweaked for a better overall story.  The punctuation and grammar come later after revising to death and then "readers" (beta at that point) can have a crack at it.

2) details must be authentic regardless of the genre you're writing in.  You never know when a reader will pick up your book and have a basic understanding of the part of your story you've written happening to and around your characters.  Even though it is a plane crash in a sci-fi book, it is still a plane crash and it must look realistic or you lose the trust of your readers.  I still remember when I read a book by a very well-renowned best-selling author (*cough* Richard Sparks) and found he hadn't bothered to fact check that the ruins around a certain city in Mexico are Mayan, not Inca.  I will probably never pick up another book by him almost solely for that reason.

What this means for me and writers everywhere is that if you aren't lucky enough to know someone who knows something about what you're writing, you better do at least basic research.  Your book can be made or broken in the details and if you haven't done your homework, some reader some where out there will know that you slacked off - even if you get it past your publisher - and will tell their friends how much you suck.  And hopefully you have a well-rounded writer's group or other such potential alpha readers to make the revision process less painful.  Thank god for MY writer's group who are chomping at the bit for me to get to alpha-reader mode already!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is there really a perfect job?

Lately this question has plagued me.  I've always worked since I was sixteen and I have a super, over-achiever work ethic.  Even through two babies and their resulting maternity leaves I have never wished to be a stay-at-home mom.  But how do you find the perfect job?  Mine is nothing I have said "I want to do {that} when I grow up".  Because have you ever heard a child say 'Mommy, when I grow up I want to sit on my ass in a row of cubicles, surrounded by other worker bees who are a constant form of irritation in one way or another, basically typing all day - for forty hours a week'?  No, me neither.

Which is why I'm writing a book.  So I can be my own boss and make my own hours and be the one who financially benefits as a direct result of all my hard work and labor and have a glorious life away from this crappy nine-to-five world.  Only now I'm seeing, through my fellow writing buddy and her publishing deal, exactly how much work will be required once I finish and sell a manuscript.  None of it sounds too fun or exciting - it sounds like, well, work.  And that's only IF I finish and sell a manuscript, the hardest part of the whole process being breaking into the publishing world.  (My first novel I've been at for so many years it's almost embarrassing.  Yes, yes, I know I've learned the craft of writing in that time so it isn't like wasted time.  But still, we are talking years!)  Plus I'm not naive enough to think that selling one book to a publisher will mean I can pack up everything and buy a remote cabin in the Montana mountains where I can go and live and write in bliss.  It will remain work, and almost harder work once I've "made it".  Then comes deadlines for new books and book tours and all the other stuff that comes with being a successful author.  I'll just be trading one kind of hard work for another and not really setting myself free.

So how do you pick the right job that will take you through to retirement with your wits still about you and not so burned out that you can still enjoy life?  And what part of your life right now, in the present, do you have to sacrifice to get to that pie-in-the-sky end result?  Unfortunately I don't have any of these answers.  Could it be that the uncertainty awaiting me in the life of an author is the real reason I haven't done much on my manuscript the last month?  Forget the two vacations and running Ragnar I've been up to lately, what if THIS is the real reason I'm dragging my feet and filling my evenings with things that are not writing?  I mean, the outline is basically done - even detailed for most of the book - with the ending all summed up with room for my characters to form their own path to the finish as they flesh themselves out.  The perfect balance for me, the discovery writer who needs a little direction to keep her characters reined in.

Bottom line, I'm not going to know if the life of an author is right for me until I become one who has finished a manuscript and done all the hard work - just like I didn't know what I really wanted to do when I grew up before spending fifteen years getting to where I am in the working world I am currently in.  Being a writer is the one thing I'm doing now that I remember saying I wanted to do way back then.  That's got to mean something, right?

I guess the real reason I'm dragging my feet with getting started - again - on the novel, now that I've turned my reflection glass all the way to internal and taken a good hard look, is that I know it's going to be like having two jobs.  Which means it will be hard and there won't be much sleep involved.  Picture it: work forty hours a week away from home so we can keep paying the bills; feel like a single mom at night with hubby working a ton of late hours while juggling Big Sister's dance schedule and spending enough quality time with Baby Sister that she likes me more than the nanny; be on-call for the day job for twenty additional hours of nights and weekends; write every day for several hours to keep the momentum up and finish the first draft this year; oh, and don't forget to run and stay in shape so I stay sane through it all.  I guess my love affair with coffee will be good and the one with my bed not so for a while.  In a way it feels like the dread and anticipation I feel when approaching a race day.  You wonder if you've trained enough yet are excited to see how it all goes.  I need to put on my big girl panties and suck it up if I expect to get to the end, no matter what race I'm entered in.

If I'm being honest, and when have you known me not to be, I feel like I'm standing at the edge of my future afraid to take the next step in case I fail.  Remember the scene in the Indiana Jones movie when they are after the Holy Grail and Indy has to take a leap of faith not knowing what will happen?  That's how I feel - standing at the edge of a cliff where I have to stop talking about how amazing it's going to be when I get to the other side and find what I really want in life waiting for me.  (In other words, start writing this novel again and this time finish the damn thing!)  I may not know exactly how it will look but until I get there to see it I'll never know!  So here's to officially embarking on the journey from writer to author, may it not kill me...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Let's talk food

It's been twelve weeks - and then some - since I started working with my nutritionist and it is still the best money I've ever spent on my path to wellness... well, if you don't count my running shoes!  I learned so much that I thought I'd share some of the journey.

It started off with a test to see what my resting metabolic rate was so I would know exactly what kinds of calorie requirements I personally need.  Sitting in a chair, doing absolutely nothing, my body burns fifteen hundred calories a day.  Wow, so that means the twelve hundred calories I'd been thinking was a target - IF I counted calories - was way too low.  Plus, the frightening dose of reality was that according to the metabolic test I was super close to being pre-diabetic.  My body burned more sugar than fat even when I was at rest.  This was not good, and the main reason I decided the money would be worth it to educate myself.  I'd been a hard core runner for over a year and to see these numbers proved I was missing a very important piece of the puzzle.  (I guess my trainer I wanted to blame was right after all...)

The twelve week program started with my nutritionist extraordinaire interviewing me about how I eat and giving me a plan of how healthy people eat which, turns out, were completely opposite.  I wasn't eating enough of anything and I wasn't eating them in the proper ratios.  Remember my fifteen hundred calorie metabolism at rest?  I was only eating about eight hundred a day when we broke down what I ate into calories.  No wonder I wasn't losing weight!  I wasn't even meeting my minimum caloric requirements for being sedentary and then was running five days a week and lifting weights three times a week.  All these factors combined to my poor body being in starvation mode and holding on dearly to every last fat cell I had left thinking we'd never have enough ever again.  I needed tons more protein - which luckily I can get from things OTHER than meat since I'm not a huge fan.  I needed less dairy, okay, no dairy; and no sugar.  I needed to eat different fruits that weren't so high in natural sugars - bye bye bananas and pineapple.  And I needed way more vegetables, which I already knew going into it.  Three weeks later I had dropped five pounds and felt better than I ever have in memory.  I had so much more energy and my running was better and I was sleeping better and my skin looked better.  Everything was better.

After the first visit where we laid out the eating plan, the meetings with him were more like therapy.  Not that I've ever had therapy before but it was like how it looks in the movies.  We talked about how I was feeling, about what I was eating, if I was missing anything that I couldn't eat and all the emotions around food that most people have.  About halfway through the whole program the aha moment came where I realized this wasn't some diet I was on with an ending date - like HCG - but how I would eat the rest of my life.  If I stuck to "the plan" ninety percent of the time, I could lose weight.  If I stuck to it eighty percent of the time I could maintain.  It didn't mean I could never have a glass of milk or a sugary treat, just that I needed to make conscious choices about when I ate them and know going into it rather than just eating and giving no thought to what I would feel like afterward. 

The most memorable conversation was when he told me I was pretty much over all the emotional ties I had with food and that I could now add in two "free" meals a week instead of sticking rigidly to the plan, but within reason.  He asked me what my favorite meal was - where I would go and what I would eat if I didn't care about nutrition.  That's easy: I'd go to Olive Garden and have a pasta dish with cream sauce, bread sticks dipped in Alfredo sauce, wine, and of course dessert. And then he told me it would take ten HOURS - TEN - running on a treadmill to burn off the calories in that one meal.  Ouch!

It is amazing the transformation my relationship with food has taken since that conversation.  Yes, I still go out but I make sure I have a dish that has mostly protein and I usually skip the bread basket before dinner and the dessert after unless someone will share so I only eat a few bites.  I eat a lot of balanced meal replacement shakes and tons of fresh veggies.  We eat mostly whole foods rather than processed; and veggies, not starch, are the main components.  I don't miss milk or cheese - which was a total surprise since I LOVED milk.  I eat a ton of eggs because they are my preferred choice of protein.  And, when my daughter asked me the other day what my favorite food was, I couldn't answer her.  Food isn't that important to me anymore to even have a favorite.  It is a means to an end.  A way to fuel my body for the activities I want to do.  Nothing more.  This from an Italian girl who was obsessed with food a mere year ago.

It amazes me the amount of money that is spent in marketing and creating foods that have been processed so much that it isn't really food anymore.  By leaving all of that behind I've gone back to food the way nature intended and evolved to nourish the human body.  The difference is amazing in both how I feel and how I will look when I'm finally rid of the last stubborn fat cells my body no longer needs to hold onto instinctively because I am properly fueling it for everything I am doing. 

After three months of eating well and not dieting - which means not sticking to the eating plan formula more than about 75% of the time, I have maintained my weight and still lost a few inches from toning and building muscle mass.  I was so thrilled and am now committed to my own personal twelve week challenge to stick with the plan 90% of the time.  I know I already look amazingly better than I did when I started this whole fitness fad back in 2008 but until I am completely happy with how I look in a swimsuit the journey cannot be considered finished.  Of course, do you actually know a single woman who can't find something to scrutinize about her body in a swimsuit?  Could be a long time before I'm completely satisfied but at least I'll be happy and healthy getting there!