Wednesday, September 25, 2013


As I stood in the shower this morning mentally piecing my day together, I realized that instead of looking for free chunks of time into which I could shoehorn some writing, I was looking for gaps in my writing time into which I could shoehorn everything else.

That’s all—sorry it’s not more profound, but it was a nice moment.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tip o' the Day

When doing a revision late in the game (i.e., not the first or even the second or probably even the third revision), Ive discovered that if I print out my manuscript to look as much like a book as possible and read it on paper, I catch global problems (contradictions, weak story arc, lack of character development, etc.) much better than if I read it on-screen yet again with it looking like a typescript: double-spaced with ragged right margins, etc. I figured out how to format like a book after some trial and error and am sharing this knowledge with you today. These instructions are for MS Word (from Office) on a Mac; if you have some other program, you're on your own.

1. Open your document (duh). Notice that at the top of the screen you have a row of words headed by the symbol of an apple, followed by “Word File Edit” etc. I have no idea what the technical term for this is but I refer to as the “Apple row.” Ignore this row until Step 11 below. Right above your document is another row headed by the symbol of a house, followed by “Home Layout Document Elements” etc. This will be referred to as the “Home” row.

2. Enter Command-A to highlight your entire manuscript, which will turn blue as soon as you do this. If at any point from here through step 11 the blue disappears, enter Command-A again so that the entire ms. is highlighted.

3. On the “Home” row, click on Layout. In the Page Setup section on the far left, click on Orientation and then on Landscape. Don’t exit the Layout menu. (If you do exit it, just click on Layout again.)

4. In the Margins section, change all the margins to 0.8.

5. In the Text Layout section click on the down-arrow next to the little box that has two columns outline in green. Click on the word “Two.”

6. Click on the word “Home.” A new set of choices will appear. In the bottom row of the Paragraph section, there are four buttons that show left-justified text, centered, right-justified, and full-justified. Click on the button on the far right of this group of four, the one that shows full-justified text.

7. In the font section, choose a typeface that looks like a standard book font but that isn’t what you’re currently using. Even a subtle change between what you currently use and something else will make a difference. I usually choose Book Antiqua.

8. In the font section, change the type size to 11 pt.

9. In the typography section, check the box next to the last option, the one that has AV with little arrows above and below the letters (sometimes it won’t let you check that box. I have no idea why, and it makes very little difference. This is just fancy-schmancy stuff known as “kerning”).

10. Click on “Home” to close the ribbon.

11. In the Apple row, click on Format and then on Paragraph. In Line Spacing, click on the box with the up and down arrows (it will probably say “Double”) and click on “Exactly.” Then move to the box to its right and enter 14 pt. While youre there, make sure there's a check in the box next to “Don't add space between paragraphs in the same style.” Click “OK.”

12. At this point it doesn’t matter if the text is highlighted in blue anymore. Click on Edit in the Apple row. Hover your cursor on “Find” and then click on “Replace.” A dialog box will open on the left. Click the cursor in the first box and type ^t (exactly like that, no spaces, no capitals). Click the cursor in the second box and hit the space bar five times. Click on “Replace all.” Click on the “X” near the top of the dialog box to close it.

13. If you want it to look even more like a book (and also save a piece of paper or two) make sure that there are no huge gaps between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next one. I do this by searching for the word “Chapter” and seeing if there’s a huge amount of white space above it. If there is, I backspace until the new chapter starts at the top of the previous page.

Now you’re ready to print. If you don’t want these changes to be permanent, don’t save the document. Leave the document up until you’ve finished printing and then exit without saving. It will revert to the shape it was in before you made all the formatting changes.

To print double-sided like a book, click on File in the home row. Click on Print. Click on Copies & Pages. Click on Duplex Printing & Margin. Click on Duplex Printing. Click on Short-side stapling (Top). Click on Print.

Et voilà!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tag—I'm It!

My friend Jody Casella writes one of my favorite blogs about writing and life and the writing life. Shes also days away from the launch of her debut novel, Thin Space. I'm dying to read this one, especially after its starred Kirkus review (seriously, read that review—doesnt it sound amazing?). Jody has tagged me in a Children’s Author Blog Hop, meaning that I answer the same four questions that she did in her post and then tag three more YA authors to do the same, kind of like a writerly chain mail.

The questions and my answers:

1. What are you working on right now?
I’m writing the first draft of Mirror, a retelling of Snow White, while revising The Stepsister’s Tale, a retelling of Cinderella (my twentieth book for young readers!). Harlequin Teen will publish Stepsister in July, 2014, and Mirror is due out a year later.

I’m also revising a totally different kind of book with the working title The Icarus Complex. It’s about Clancy Edwards, a teenage girl who’s being smothered by her overprotective father and boyfriend. Her mother died in a skydiving accident when the main character was six, and her father owns a skydiving center. Clancy busts out of this smothering in a dramatic way.

This idea came to me when I was pondering how to use skydiving in a story, preferably a Greek myth retelling set in the present, and Icarus seemed a natural. I wrote the draft for NaNoWriMo last year.
That's me!

2. How does it differ from other works in the genre?
In both of my fairy-tale retellings, things aren’t quite the way we’ve been led to believe in the traditional stories. Cinderella isn’t as good and virtuous and put-upon as her supporters have claimed—she’s the typical kid in a blended family who finds it hard to fit in with her new step-family and thinks that she’s being mistreated. In Mirror, the stepmother isn’t a witch and is actually Snow White’s ally. I'm having lots of fun with Mirror, weaving in Crusades and druids and all sorts of cool stuff.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Like many people, Ive always wanted to travel to the past, but until someone invents a time machine, historical fiction is the best way to do that. An author who does careful research and writes compellingly can transport a reader to a different time.

I also love examining familiar stories from an unfamiliar point of view. My first experience of this genre was Grendel (John Gardner) and I love The Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard) and other. Recent favorites are March (Geraldine Brooks) and The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood), which gave me the seed of an idea for King of Ithaka, the story of Homers Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseuss son, Telemachos. Dark of the Moon is the tale of the Minotaur as told by the Minotaurs sister, Ariadne, and his killer, Theseus.

4. What is the hardest part about writing?
Middles! E. L. Doctorow famously said that just as when you take a drive at night you need to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’re going when you’re writing, but that in both cases you don’t need to know every tiny turn in the road. The farthest you need to see ahead of you is as much as you can make out in your headlights.

My headlights sometimes dim and sometimes lead me down dead-end streets, and then I have to turn around and figure out where I am and how to get back on track. I have a lousy sense of direction, and when I get lost while driving I panic with the irrational fear that I’ll never reach my goal and will drive around in circles until my car runs out of gas, and I get that same feeling in the middle of every book. I just have to remind myself that so far I’ve always made it, and this time won’t be any different.

I hope. 

Update: Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of wonderful fiction and nonfiction set in the ancient world, has responded to her tag! Read her post here.

Ive tagged three authors to continue the chain—Ill let you know next week if any of them have the time to participate!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tweaking the Treadmill Desk

I've been using my treadmill desk for a while and have been very happy with it. I don't know if it unleashes creativity, as some have claimed, but it sure doesn't hamper it, and it feels good not to sit all day.

I had thought that I wouldn't want to move my laptop from desk to treadmill desk and back again every time I switched workspaces, so I bought a remote keyboard and mouse and hung a monitor in front of the treadmill. There's no such thing--yet--as a remote monitor, so I attached it by a long cable to the laptop, which I left on the regular (non-treadmill) desk across the room. (You should probably look at the photos here to see what I'm talking about.)

For a while, all was well.

Then a few weeks ago I started having problems with the remote keyboard and mouse. The cursor would freeze up occasionally, and when I typed, sometimes nothing would appear on the screen for a long time and when it did, the text was garbled and full of repeated letters. I thought maybe the signal was weak this far from the laptop, so I moved them right next to each other and tried again. Same problem.

This is a highly rated and reasonably priced system, and when it started doing this I re-checked its reviews on Amazon. There aren't many 1-star reviews, but almost every one of them references this issue.

Plus the monitor has never been satisfactory. It isn't the monitor's fault; it's the fault of being connected to the laptop by fifteen feet of cable. This made it fuzzy, and while the text was perfectly legible, the lack of clarity was irritating.

And while I had carefully figured out how high the keyboard should be, I must have miscalculated, and it's too low. I've avoided carpal tunnel syndrome and similar ailments despite years of marathon typing and marathon knitting, and I don't want to risk messing up my wrists.

The upshot: I ditched the remote hardware, found a shorter cable that eliminates the screen fuzz, and moved the laptop over to the treadmill. I set in on a book to raise it to the correct height, which took a few tries. The Oxford Classical Dictionary is a wee bit too high. The Chicago Manual of Style (I know it's available on-line; I prefer the print edition, okay?) is a wee bit too low. The Sansoni Italian-English dictionary is just right. And to think that I almost left it behind in the office-book culling!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

One year! What did I learn?

Yesterday was the day of Vanderbilt University’s commencement, 364 days after the same event in 2012 that I count as my last day working at a day job, and one year + 364 days after I started this blog. We live close enough to campus that a lot of families park on our street, and all morning I watched young people in robes, carrying their mortarboards, striding down the sidewalk in the drizzle. I know how most of them were feeling—excited, eager to see what’s waiting for them, hoping they’re prepared for the next phase.

In my first, awkward post here, I wrote, “I know I’ll feel a sense of loss” when I’m no longer teaching. Well, I was wrong there. Maybe if I hadn’t been so busy, that sense of loss would have crept in, but . . . no.

So what else did I get wrong?

I think I underestimated the sense of isolation I’d feel. My husband the sailor goes away for weeks or a month at a time (note to burglars: large son, yappy dog, and alarm system are still here), since the sailing isn’t so great in Nashville. So I go a little squirrelly. I’m more sociable than I realized, I guess. I need to have face-to-face human contact every day; a friendly supermarket checker is fine, but lunch with a friend is better.

And the trials of being in business for myself have thrown me for a loop. I can’t go into details, but I’m having a little, um, payment issue. I’ve hired a lawyer, but they’re ignoring him as much as they’re ignoring me. I’m starting to think that I’ll never see the money that’s owed me. This burns me up, but I have to remind myself that these things happen in business.

I discovered, to my surprise, that I don’t have to be as regimented as I thought was necessary. If I don’t take Tuesday off, I can trust that I’ll take another day. If I don’t walk on the treadmill for the amount of time I set for myself, it won't break the habit to the point where I'll suddenly stop using it at all.

I’m still feeling out how to make myself and my writing more visible. Luckily, my new publisher is very proactive with publicity, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be doing more conferences and school visits when the pub date for that book is close.

I haven’t done many of the extra-curricular activities I had lined up. I did take a short photography course, but it was a dud. I’ve traveled a bit more than usual, and next fall will take a non-working vacation during the school year—a first since I was in kindergarten!

Everything else is working out just about as planned. And that’s the important thing—planning. If you’re contemplating leaving your day job, the best advice I can give you is to start a new file on your computer and every time you think of something that you wish you had time for—whether it’s associated with your writing or a new activity you’d like to try—and periodically update it. I bet you’ll find, as I did, that a pattern will emerge, and you’ll see a form and direction of your new life. You’ll be able to step out of the nine-to-five world and into being your own boss with a minimum of fuss.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Finding a Rhythm

It’s hard to break the habit of thinking in the pattern of the academic year, whose calendar ruled my life from when I was five years old until last May. When someone says “year,” my first thought will probably always be “August through May,” and although TGIF shouldn’t mean anything to me now, its still a relief when the weekend rolls around.

I have to get adjusted to a more fluid rhythm, one where neither the academic nor the solar calendar rules. Right now I’m in limbo on a few projects. My agents have sent out a manuscript, but so recently that there’s very little chance of hearing back about it any time soon. I’ve completed and revised (several times!) a nonfiction project, and now I have to leave it alone and try not even to think about it for as long as I can stand it, until I read it over one last time before declaring it ready to be read by someone I'm not related to. So I'm twiddling my thumbs.

This period of waiting isn't marked on my calendar. It's not a spring break I knew was coming and could plan for. Next year it might happen earlier or later, or not at all. And this is something to adjust to.

So I’ve written and scheduled a few posts for the blogs that I contribute to regularly. I’ve caught up on articles that looked interesting enough for me to bookmark them, but that I didn’t have time to read until now. I’ve read the most recent Newbery winner (meh) and skimmed some books about fairy tales, looking for nuggets I can use. I’ve started putting together PowerPoints and handouts for presentations I'm doing next month and this summer.

All of it is productive work, and I know I'll be glad to have those blog posts in the "bank" when their due dates roll around, not to mention the presentation materials. I just have to get used to grabbing these opportunities when I can and not think of them as time that I should have spent writing.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It Worked!

I’ve been itching to post this for a while, but couldn’t until it became official. This is from the deal section of today’s Publishers Marketplace:

Author of ANNA OF BYZANTIUM Tracy Barrett’s THE STEPSISTER’S TALE, a retelling of the classic Cinderella from the stepsister’s perspective, in which beauty, romance, and happily ever after aren’t quite what they seem, to Annie Stone at Harlequin Teen, in a two-book deal, by Lara Perkins and Laura Rennert at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

(Yes, I have two agents—the Laura and Lara mentioned above. And they have an intern named Laura.)

I’ve been working on both The Stepsister’s Tale and the novel that went out on Friday for a long time. Both were basically complete but in serious need of revision, but what with the day job and my position at SCBWI, I couldn’t hunker down and do what was needed in any kind of concentrated fashion. Nor did I have the time to start anything new.

Well, as of May 11, I’ve had the time to do both. My agents sent out another manuscript on a submission round last Friday, and I have a non-fiction manuscript and another novel (my NaNoWriMo project) nearing completion.

Laura had given me some excellent editorial comments on an earlier draft of Stepsister, and before it went out on submission Lara went through it page by page with comments, suggestions, and queries that made all the difference. I dug in and revised over and over. I lost track of how many drafts I did—drafts that I would have loved to do before, if only I’d been able. And it has paid off.

Do I wish I’d gone to full-time writing earlier? Honestly, no. For most of my time at Vanderbilt, I loved my job. For the last few years, I liked it. I never hated it—never even disliked it. But when the time came, it was the right decision both personally and professionally.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Treadmill Desk Benefits

So I’ve been using my treadmill desk for about a week now (I’m typing this while walking). Here are some unexpected benefits, in addition to the ones I was expecting:
  • It chains me to the computer, because it’s enough of a pain to get it stopped and started again that I’ll say, “Whatever, I’ll just go another 15 minutes before I quit for the morning.”
  • It’s making me stick to a schedule. I decided that on the days I go to the gym (three days a week, when I can), I’ll do a two-hour session on the treadmill. On the days that I don’t—two two-hour sessions. There’s no way I’m going to do it in the evening, so I get it done early. At least so far.
  • I get pleasantly tired but not exhausted, so I sleep better.

Am I being more productive? Yes, but I don’t know if that’s because of the aforementioned chaining to the computer, or to the neuroscience that seems to indicate that sitting clamps down the creative side of your brain. Think about it—lots or people pace when they think, right? Lecturers stand, and often move, when lecturing. Good teachers move around the room as they teach. OK, some of that is to make sure their students aren’t on Facebook, but it also seems to liberate the brain.

One scientist pointed out that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be creative the whole time they were moving in order to survive: “If the mastodon goes that way, Urk should go this way and head it off,” “Hey, this rotten milk tastes pretty good with that spoiled grape juice!” “The seeds under the bird’s nest grew better than the others—I’ll try putting bird poop on all of them next spring.” Once they could finally sit down at the campfire, their brains took the opportunity to grab some much-needed rest.

So it’s possible that we’re hard-wired to think better when we walk. It couldn’t hurt, anyway, so I’ll keep on doing it and let you know what happens.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Walking to Work

I’m writing this while walking at .5 mph. It’s taking a bit of getting used to, but after all, it’s my first attempt at using my brand-new treadmill desk.

This is something that’s intrigued me for a while. Over the space of a few months I downloaded various sets of instructions, wrote to people who used treadmill desks, and kept up with the research, the most recent of which (by the first promoter of the concept, Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic) concludes that you shouldn’t try to do more than two hours on, two hours off. Phew.

(Hey, I just took my sweater off! Must be doing something, even at this speed!)

I wound up tossing out the plans I had downloaded since they were all based on desktop computers, and I no longer had one, a casualty of leaving the day job.

Not much room here
As I contemplated where the treadmill would fit in my already crowded study, I realized that no matter what configuration I came up with, it was going to be a pain to move the laptop and its cables and wires from one spot to another, and I'd probably find lots of excuses not to do it, so I decided to go remote instead. I purchased a wireless keyboard and mouse and resurrected a flat-screen monitor from the attic.

(I already forgot I was walking. According to the timer on the treadmill, that took nine minutes and twenty seconds.)

I bought a plain-vanilla treadmill at Play It Again Sports, which we brought home with a small trailer rented at U-Haul. A passing neighbor helped us get it in the house and we set it up next to the twin bed that serves as the emergency sleeping space for those escaping a snoring spouse.
Good help is hard to find

Then a trip to Home Depot, and we returned with a white shelf and some metal brackets. We (by which I mean Greg) attached the brackets to the shelf, which then rested on the handles of the treadmill, and we (by which I mean me) ran tie-wraps through the holes in the brackets to strap it down, inserted some shims to level it, and voilà—step one was complete.

(Just upped the speed to .6 mph without noticing any difference in ease of writing.)

Next came the monitor, which we hung on the bookcase I had purchased for practically nothing when Borders went out of business.

The last item was a book holder so if I’m not working on the computer I can walk and read.

Total cost: under $300.

If it works out, I might upgrade the monitor, and given what I paid for the treadmill, I imagine I might have to replace it at some point when it quits working. But for now, this is just fine.

(Now .7 mph.)