Friday, March 23, 2018

Couple of Freebies

Freeware caution: always scan free downloads of anything for bugs and other threats before dumping the programs into your hard drive.

The Hemingway Editor is an app to help improve the quality and clarity of your writing; it not only counts your words and grades their readibility, but highlights problem words or phrases that are difficult to read, are written in passive voice, contain adverbs, etc.

Still in development but very interesting, Manuskript writing freeware offers an outliner to help you organize your story ideas and elements, a mode where you can write without distractions, and a novel assistant that uses the Snowflake method of outlining and plotting to tackle story development.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pic Testing

Ignore me today. I'm playing again with Blogger's photo upload thing.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

Or not.

I'm finally getting the hang of it, I think. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, March 19, 2018


As I might have mentioned, I bought a Zen wall calendar for my home office. Each month it gives me a word that is supposed to remind me to do things like breathe, slow down, relax and enjoy life. Yeah, that was my first reaction, too. I can't slow down or relax. I already breathe and enjoy my life. I liked the monthly photos, though, so I invested.

Turns out the monthly word has been more inspiring to me than even the pretty pictures -- maybe because January's word was Inspire. I kept looking at that one word and thought a lot about what inspires me, how I might inspire others, the various sources of inspiration and so forth. I reached out to a few of my personal friends and tried to inspire them. It was interesting, in a guided spiritual kinda way. February's word was Love, so I tried to be more loving in various ways toward my family and friends. I'm aware of how much love I am blessed with in my life, too, and tried new ways to show my gratitude for it.

When I saw that March's word is Serenity I felt as if I might not have to do anything differently. I do practice meditation every day, and at that moment my life was very calm and quiet. Seemed like I might be able to skip a month of Zen . . . until a personal issue suddenly cropped up. I'm not going to get into details, but as I'm sure you all know it's not calming or quieting to have a big, unexpected problem drop in your lap.

This is the first quilt I finished this year, and it's been my go-to project when I've been upset, sad, nervous or feeling any other negative emotion. Working on it helped me cope by providing me with tasks I find soothing and calming. I always sleep better if I work on a quilt before I go to bed, but this particular project gave me something to think about besides my problem. Also, if I was too upset to write (and yeah, that happens to me now and then when I'm arm-wrestling the universe) I could quilt a couple of seams and get my head back into my work without a lot of fuss. Quilting for me is Serenity.

My resources for finding Serenity aren't limited to sewing. Cooking does the same thing for me. So does doing some housework, painting, going for a long walk or writing in my personal journal. I've worked through countless worries and problems by hauling out the vacuum, trying a new recipe, painting a terrible watercolor, taking the pups out for a stroll or composing a journal entry. I know what works for me, so March wasn't telling me anything new. I think it was more of a reminder to me, to give me a nudge toward doing the things to help me deal with what's ahead. Fortunately I just found out the solution will be pretty easy, so the big unexpected problem has dwindled down to a very manageable thing.

So what are you doing to find Serenity in your life? Let us know in comments.

Image Credit: dtolokonov

Friday, March 16, 2018

Other Than Fiction

Most of us write every day, but we writers tend not to count things other than fiction as writing. Writing for us = story. I admit, I'm guilty of that mindset.

I'm writing this blog post now. After it I have a couple of e-mails to answer, notes to type up for my novel notebook, and then my daily wordcount quota to nail. If I have time, I'll add an entry in my private journal. I don't text -- no smart phone -- but I will jot down a few more tasks on my to-do list. I also have to update the calendar for March with some upcoming events. After I finish my daily edit tonight, I'll probably work on some character sheets and a synopsis in progress.

The truth is most of us write constantly. We pour words into our phones and computers, and scrawl them on our notepads, grocery lists and chalkboards. Some of it may even be fiction, but it's all writing. Everything we write is an opportunity to be creative, too.

Now I feel your skepticism, so let me give you a couple of examples:

Regular e-mail: Sorry, I can't make it tonight. I've got a migraine.

Creative e-mail: Forgive me for not making it tonight. A balloon T-Rex is using a titanium sledgehammer to play Some Like It Hot on the inside of my skull.

They both say the same thing, but the second e-mail is wry and funny. It communicates the same information, but it also pokes a little fun at it. The recipient gets a smile out of the no-show notice. Meanwhile, you're exercising your imagination, never a bad thing.

Taking a little extra effort to be creative with your other-than-fiction writing provides additional benefits. Routine and boring suddenly becomes unique and clever. Sometimes I laugh out loud at the market after I read off a creative entry on my shopping list:

Rebecca Romainehead
Bananarama (4)
Truvia Pursuit
Don't go down the candy aisle
Seed for damn squirrels to steal
Handy Dandy Wipes
No, don't go down the candy aisle. Keeping walking.
Bacchus's favorite snack
Flour au naturale
Brutus's Squeeze
I am Ginger Root
You can't eat candy, you ditz.

It's fun inventing new names for things I need from the market (for those of you who aren't Popeye fans, Brutus's Squeeze = olive oil). It livens up a pretty boring chore, too. More than anything, it's writing practice. I constantly have to think up new ways to describe things in the stories I work on; I think writing a shopping list this way helps me keep my imagination limber and nimble.

Other ways you can practice your creative skills while writing things other than fiction:

If you have a chalkboard or whiteboard in your home, start writing a thought for the day on it.

Put funny or encouraging notes in your kids' lunchboxes.

Buy blank cards and personalize them for every occasion with a hand-written message.

Label storage containers creatively, i.e. Future Blackmail (kids' pictures or schoolwork), Not Lost Library (old manuscripts), and When I Feel Wretched Reads (keeper books).

Take an old white t-shirt (you can buy them cheap at Goodwill) and every day write in indelible ink a meaningful-to-you word or phrase on it. To prevent bleed-through, first place a piece of sturdy cardboard under the area where you want to write. When the t-shirt is completely covered, wash and wear it.

What are some of the ways you get creative with writing other than fiction? Give us some tips in comments.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Off to Finale

The bird and I are locking ourselves in the office today to nail a deadline. See you on Friday.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Sleep Strategies

Last night I slept for seven hours straight. This was deep sleep, too, with dreams that I vaguely remember (something about trying on clothes. I haven't bought anything new since I began my weight-loss quest.) I woke up feeling a bit fuzzy but otherwise great. I've been sleeping like this most nights for the last six months.

Why even write about it? For one thing, I'm a lifelong insomniac who generally averaged only 4-5 hours of light, often-interrupted sleep most nights. When my insomnia was really cranked up, or my arthritis was flaring, that decreased to 2-3 hours. For a long time I thought I had no other option than to live with it, but meditative studies led me to some new ideas. As with writing, I absorbed everything and let it percolate, and tried new approaches to treating my insomnia. Many writers I know have similar sleep problems, so I thought I'd share what's worked for me.

Happiness and Gratitude: Toward the end of the day I herd my thoughts into two corrals: things that make me happy, and things for which I'm grateful. This is recommended by many sleep-help sources. I also try not to think about things that rile me, depress me, or make me anxious. Before bed I meditate lightly on my next day, and what I can do to be a more productive person. I know, it sounds corny, but when it comes to sleep I believe mood is a big influence.

Negative Mindset: To expand on the mood thing: because my sleep has been so poor, I've always resented it. I never went to bed feeling happy about the prospect of sleep; it always felt like an exercise in futility and a waste of my time. I think behind that resentment was a lot of dread. Anyway, I worked on my attitude and developed a mental mantra for bed time. Sleep = good. Sleep = healthy. Sleep = better day tomorrow.

No Napping: Getting up and going to bed earlier have helped a lot, but so has avoiding naps. I try not to let myself sleep anywhere unless it's in my bed at night. I stay away from the sofa and comfortable chairs where I might nod off. If I feel tired enough to nap, I get up and do some chores or take the pups out for a walk.

Positioning: I've always slept curled up on my right side, up until I started developing arthritis in that shoulder a couple of years ago. Then I went into a period of trying to sleep on my right side, having a pain flare-up, then tossing, turning, hating the bed, hating my arthritis, lather, rinse, repeat. I finally forced myself to accept that I'm never going to be able to sleep on my right side again. I then started trying different positions each night until I found the one that was most comfortable (as it happens, flat on my back.)

Sleeping Aids: I've tried a number of products that are supposed to help improve sleep time and quality, including the OTC stuff. The most success I've had with the pill form is with Alteril, although it gives me a bit of a hangover the next day (note: your mileage may vary, and always check with your doctor before you try any new medication.) These last six months I've been using more natural solutions. I have a nature-sounds device by the bed that plays the sound of rain in a continuous loop, which knocks me out. I don't know why, but it does. So does the sound of distant thunder. Chamomile tea, long soaks in the bath tub, and avoiding anything with caffeine have also helped.

Wind-down Routine: I do the same things every night as I unplug, settle, and get myself relaxed (usually by shutting off the computer and quilting, reading or journaling.) I also make sure that I've tidied the kitchen, washed the dishes, folded the laundry etc. Leaving housework unfinished makes me antsy and unhappy, two states that contribute to my insomnia.

Sleep still feels a little like a waste of my time, but I can't deny that the benefits of getting more sleep are pretty amazing. I'm writing with more focus, my moods are better and I'm getting more work done every day. I'm less inclined to lose my temper, too.

Have you found anything that has improved your sleep? Let us know in comments.

Friday, March 09, 2018

If at First You Don't Succeed, Avoid Sky Diving

The Woman Left Behind, Linda Howard's latest release, is out now, and the promo got me interested enough to pre-order. For anyone like me who has had actual military training, the story may make you chuckle a bit. But the effort by the author to portray an ordinary-citizen heroine undergoing the intense convert operative team training was certainly enthusiastic.

If you don't want to read any spoilers, stop here. Do not pass Go. Do not collect -- you get the picture.

In the novel, Jina Modell already works in a classified communications position for the government. Without warning she's ordered to take on a new position as a drone operator for a covert paramilitary team. Or a lookout. Or a scout. Oddity#1: I was never quite clear on what Jina's team job is. The order she's given is basically a join or lose your job situation, which I'm pretty sure is illegal, but this is fiction so okay. She then undergoes the absolutely brutal physical training required to get her on the team, which takes about a third of the book. I felt like this, and gradually bonding with her all-male team, was the main story.

Oddity #2: Jina is brought on to be some kind of computer geek for the team, so why all the physical training? When she's finally shown doing her job, she sits in front of a laptop and talks into a mic. Oddly enough, I do that all day, and yet never once had to run ten miles as prep.

Onto the romance, oddity #3: The reciprocated attraction Jina feels to Ace, the team's leader, should come into play, yes? No. Aside from one passionate kiss and lots of lust and self-loathing on both sides, not much happens there until page 321. Oddity #3a: The story is only 351 pages long. The romance commences with a marathon 26 pages of romance and sex -- which are fine, btw -- but after that we get the requistite HEA like immediately. At most the romance is about 20% of the story, so not exactly substantial.

Oddity #4: In the background there are a handful of small, vague scenes in which a traitorous yet heartbroken antagonist plots to stick it to the guy in charge of this paramilitary program via ambushing and killing Jina's team. These scenes were very disjointed and confusing, as I was never quite clear on what's going on there. I tried to fill in the blanks myself, and expected someone on Jina's team to be part of this blurry conspiracy, but that didn't happen, either. You could delete the antagonist entirely and it really wouldn't hurt the book.

The training Jina receives is pure fantasy, but it does help to quickly gain the reader's sympathy. Oddity #5: There was a bit too much focus on the boots Jina wears throughout the story. It reminded me of another author's book, when all the new-diver protagonist seemed to do was spit in her mask to keep it from fogging up. One mention of an insider detail like that is great. Two mentions, fine. Three mentions, tedious. Four or more become seriously annoying. Training-wise, the novel would have benefited from some input from a female soldier who has gone through similar conditioning. I was still okay with it, except for the sky diving chapter (oddity #6), which I thought was over the top and ridiculous. I liked Jina, but I'd have absolutely kicked her off the team after the first jump, no hesitation.

Oddity #7, which was the biggest and most puzzling: the book's title in relation to what happens in the story. For about the length of a single chapter it's applicable; the actual woman being left behind event stretches to maybe twenty pages. It was such a blip that I went back and read it again, just to be sure I hadn't inadvertently skipped a big chunk of story. I was expecting three, maybe four chapters of Jina having to survive by her wits behind enemy lines. Didn't happen. Aside from running and following a map, none of her strengths and intelligence as a protagonist come into play. So if you're looking for that, nope. "The Woman Who Trains Her Ass Off" or "The Woman Who Should Never, Ever Sky Dive" or even "The Right Boots Are Your Best Friends" would have been more title-appropriate.

Final verdict: Odd book. Very odd. So odd I decided to write it up on the blog, and you know how lazy I am when it comes to that. If you're a rabid Linda Howard fan, you probably can't be disappointed, so by all means invest. Maybe you'll get it by default. The rest of you might want to wait for the paperback, or just skip it altogether -- unless you like lots of oddities.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Journey

One of the many books I read while on hiatus was Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesey-Smith. For a while now I've been studying various methods of art quilting to learn more about it, but also to navigate where I'm going with my own needle work. Last summer for the first time I made an improvisational art quilt with eco-friendly, sustainable fabrics and threads that really challenged me, and put me on a different path with my quilt work. This book added a lot to that shift in my thinking as well.

Claire is a textile artist from Yorkshire, UK who doesn't churn out perfect quilts from patterns that a thousand other quilters use. She dyes her own fabrics and threads using seasonal plants that she sources locally. She has an enduring emotional connection with her work and materials, and hand stitches her projects, two things I also feel strongly about as a quilter. She supports using traditional methods in quilting and patchwork, like Kantha and Japanese boro, which are sustainable. The one thing she doesn't do is hurry.

This book is not about utter perfection, over-productivity, or finish line races. There aren't endless pages of complicated projects that you'll never master. In fact, I doubt there's a single straight line of stitching in the whole book. What Claire does is steer textile artists toward taking more time and thought with their work, going green by using recycled materials, and finding inspiration from some lovely traditional methods. She does so with a quiet, elegant honesty that really spoke to me. The slow stitch mindset is very natural, and more grounded in what quilting is for me. Her goal is not to help you finish ten projects in a month, but to find the pleasure in the making of one -- however long it takes.

I highly recommend this book as a wonderful guide and companion for any textile artist who wants to get more out of the journey.

Monday, March 05, 2018


To practice what I preach, one of the new habits my guy and I are trying to get into is taking long nature walks. I'm bringing the camera with me so I can grab some interesting shots, which are helping me pay more attention to the little details around me.

Being outdoors, and away from the internet and the computer, always unravels my internal mental knots. Obviously the exercise is beneficial, but I also sleep better. My creativity skyrockets, too. More than anything I soak up all the natural beauty out there, just waiting to be discovered, and let it inspire me in new ways.

Here are some pics I took on our last walk:

Over the last couple years I've gotten away from using my camera for anything but my quilting and family-related events. So now, even when we're just out for the day running errands, I'm looking for new opportunities to take some interesting pics:

There's always something around the house or in the back yard that catches my eye, too:

While I don't have time to start another photoblog, and I'm not inclined to sign up with another photo-hosting service (shudder) I might put up a gallery page on PBW with some of the interesting pics I take this year. That will prod me to keep taking the camera with me on my little adventures.

Got any interesting (and PG-rated) photos you've taken lately? Share your links in comments.

Friday, March 02, 2018


As promised (or threatened, depending on your POV) I'm back. The much-needed break jump-started my muse, and also let me properly prepare for the very busy year ahead. In addition to the work I caught up on I finished up some old projects from 2017, and got my home office cleaned out and tidied up. I hate working in a mess, and not being able to find anything, so having a neat work space really feels great.

I spent a lot of time thinking about and planning for the big changes that are coming this year, too. My guy and I have some major shifts ahead in our work dynamic. Now that we're empty nesters we'll also have more time to do the things that we've always put off while the kids were at home. After we get some necessary repairs done (our 22-year-old fridge and A/C unit both decided to start failing at the same time) we're planning to renovate some stuff we've never liked about this house. The bathroom prefab shower stalls and too-slick tile floors will likely be at the top of the list. Once all the dire needs are seen to, I personally intend to get rid of the old white bathroom tile counters in my kitchen -- the guy who built this place made some really weird choices -- and get proper counter tops to go with my still-lovely cabinets.

My daughter's pet bird and rat moved into the office with me, so we all have some company during the day. The rat likes me well enough, but then I bribe her with fresh banana and carrot bits and let her out to play regularly. The cockatiel is still on the fence, pardon the pun. We're settling into a comfortably antagonistic relationship since I started letting her out of her cage for an hour every morning. I think she's noisy but still adorable. She evidently thinks she should not have to live in the big cage. I think she'd be happy only if I ditched the cage altogether, fed her sunflower seeds nonstop, rubbed her neck and head for hours, and let her fly around the house like the bird of prey she imagines she is. Oh, and birds? Poop everywhere.

Since we're trying to cut our spending I've been cooking at home almost every night. Another challenge that comes with the empty nest is cooking for just two, which I've never done before now. We're tackling it by planning ahead with leftovers, freezing what we can, and trimming down our meals. I'm also searching for smaller recipes online, which has led to some delicious discoveries.

This year I'm slowing down and putting more thought into my quilting. I'm working on a lap quilt now, but I hope to get more into art quilting and work on smaller-scale quilts after this project. To keep everything tidier I've organized the notions and tools I use regularly in arty containers on a recycled bookcase. As with my home office having a neat sewing space makes me happier and more productive. If you want to see what I'm working on this year, you can follow my projects on my Tumblr blog.

I definitely don't want to harp on the negative, but the ongoing stress of just being a human being in these times of late has been especially frightening. We're all finding ways to cope, which is why I'm trying to be supportive of my family and friends in any way I can (and quilting every night, to work out my own stress.) I don't have any answers, except to fight it, and to fight for the people we love, by being part of the light however we can.

I'm learning at last that finding new ways to connect can make a big difference. I'm having such fun with my little writer's group; once a week I have a chance to spend a couple hours with my fellow scribes. They're all terrific people. To combat the empty nest blues my guy and I are trying to get out of the house and be more social as a couple. too. The last two weekends we've gone on outings that we usually never made time for, which we should have before now. The other night we went out to dinner at our favorite restaurant with friends (this is something we've not done in years), and we had such a great time. We also planned to get together for a cookout. Life is not over, turns out, once the nestlings fly off.

So what's up with you all? Any news from your corner of the planet? How is your 2018 going so far? Let us know in comments.