Goblins don’t buy groceries

When you cut a deal to get out of goblin jail, sometimes you end up on a secret pumpkin-snatching mission for the manipulative goblin wizard who busted you out. And it can an awkward situation when you’re with a squad of professional pumpkin-snatching goblins, and you’re just sort of… a kid.

This is the third preview of my upcoming middle-grade chapter book Pumpkin Goblins. The clip here is read not by me, but by my spouse (and number two fan*).

A part of this scene stemmed from writing anxiety. There was a self-flagellating voice in my head saying something like: “This story is really stupid. Why can’t you think of stories that aren’t stupid? Why would goblins snatch pumpkins from people’s doorsteps when they could just go to the store and buy a bunch of pumpkins?

Then a more helpful voice said: “Grocery stores don’t accept goblin money.”

And another helpful voice, one that sounded a bit more like a goblin, answered: “Also, we don’t have goblin money.”

I believe in brainstorming rather than waiting for inspiration to hit. When it does hit, it’s almost never out of nowhere. It happens because I’ve been thinking and asking questions, even if sometimes those questions are kind of whiny.

Here’s the transcript:

Korkor turned to Amber. “You’ll be doing my job. Keep the trick-or-treaters away while we take the pumpkins back in several trips.”
“How do I do that?”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe a bat-nexus grenade followed by a smoke shroud? Or a nice Spook’s Gambit followed by a Kirlik Maneuver?” He made an excited gesture of a swooping owl and handfuls of explosions. ”Do you have your own array of creeper-cell batteries and magic boosters, or do you need to borrow one?”
Amber said nothing in response.
“Here.” Korkor dumped a pile of pocket junk in Amber’s arms.
Torlik made an exasperated noise. “She doesn’t know how to use any of that stuff, and you know it’s not enough for a crowd.”
Amber wanted to help, though she really didn’t know how to use any of that stuff, and she hadn’t understood most of what Korkor had said. “I don’t get why you can’t just grow pumpkins yourselves. Or buy them.”
“Grow them?”
“Takes too long,” said the three goblins in overlapping bites of speech.
“Fine, buy them,” said Amber, suspecting that, somehow, this wouldn’t do either.
“Buy them?” With a dramatic arm thrown across his forehead, Torlik pretended to faint. “From a store?”
But Korkor’s eyes lit like jack-o-lanterns. “A store with aisles and aisles of pumpkins?”
“And a pot of stew?” Falkit added hopefully.
Amber shrugged “A grocery store.”
“Grocery stories don’t accept goblin money,” said Korkor
“Also, we don’t have goblin money,” added Torlik, turning out his pockets.
“Also, goblin money doesn’t exist.” Korkor turned to Torlik, and they nodded rapidly in unison.
There was a pause.
“Could you explain coupons?” asked Falkit.

I had been aiming to publish this on October 15, and I think it will be pushed back by just a few days. When it’s out, I’ll announce it on both this blog and my newsletter.

By the way, I just saw an in-progress version of the cover illustration as the color is being added. It’s going to look cool, and I’m excited to post it sometime next week!

*I may not have a lot of fans, but they are the most organized fans in the world: they numbered themselves.

The Quantum Nature of Blogging, Part I

I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.

When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.

"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your compostion of yourself is at stake." --E. L. Doctorow

Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”

Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.

Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)

Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.

But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.

*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.

Unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia

If you tell someone you have an animal phobia, there’s a good chance they will respond with unhelpful platitudes and alarming anecdotes. They may be completely well meaning, but plenty of well meaning people say uncomfortable things.

This has been on my mind because I had an incident the other day. It was a split-second ripple of silver as a snake fled under a shrub. Suffice it to say, the snake, who may not even live on the property, is now Lord and Master of my front yard. If I spend any amount of time standing there, a sense of panic starts to build until a voice starts yells in my brain, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN. GET OUT OF HERE.” Like when you watch a horror movie and someone goes up to the dark attic.

My phobia is bad enough that I felt sort of icky and unhappy writing the last paragraph. This is why, from here on out, I will be using Miniature Schnauzers for all my examples*. Thanks to wikipedia, I just learned that ophidiophobia is something I have in common with one third of all adults. I couldn’t even find a specific term for a phobia of Miniature Schnauzers (though I apologize to any general sort of cynophobes reading), so I hope this is a less alarming way to put things.

And so, here is my list of unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia:

You’re bigger than it.

Size has nothing to do with it.  Of course I should be more afraid of the Giant Schnauzer, which can wrap itself around its prey and suffocate it. But a Miniature Schnauzer is small enough that you might not see it slithering along in the grass until you’ve almost stepped on it, and that freaks me out more.

It’s more afraid of you than you are of it.

No, no it isn’t. It’s a reptile small canine, with an itty bitty reptile canine brain. It doesn’t have the mental capacity for a severe, activity-restricting phobia. Also, the degree of the animal’s fear has nothing to do with the degree of my own fear.

We don’t really have poisonous Miniature Schnauzers around here.

Doesn’t matter. Phobias aren’t about logic. The amount of actual danger isn’t always a factor in how strong the fear is. Even when it is a factor, it’s usually exaggerated. Eventually, this kind of knowledge can help dispel a phobia. Eventually. But having someone tell me—just as an offhand comment—that I shouldn’t be afraid comes across more as blowing off fears that are very real to me.

empty pantry shelves

A tidy pantry is less attractive to Miniature Schnauzers.

Except for this one type of poisonous Miniature Schnauzer you see now and then.

Yes, this is a legitimate concern. Now, because I have a severe phobia, I ‘ll be freaking out about the small possibility that I’ll one of the rare poisonous types.

That’s ok. A lot of people are afraid of them.

I don’t care. That sucks for those other people, and I feel for them. But other people sharing my phobia doesn’t change its negative impact on my life.

The most shocking story you can think of.

“You’re afraid of miniature schnauzers? Oh man, my Aunt Dolorothy used to have one. Poppy was so friendly, and she used to lick everybody’s hands. Then one day my Uncle Freddington found my aunt in a bathtub of ice water and no kidneys and Poppy had the kidneys in her food dish.”

ALL the horror stories you can think of involving that animal.

“You’re afraid of Miniature Schnauzers?”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her mailbox and it bit her.”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her tent, and she still can’t go camping.”

“One time I saw a Miniature Schnauzer eat a frog and it was so disgusting but I couldn’t look away.”

“One time a Miniature Schnauzer came at me when I was swimming, and let me tell you I never swam so fast in my life.”

“One time I was doing laundry in the basement—we live in an old house–and a Miniature Schnauzer came out of a crack in the wall and I dropped my hand towels that have a picture of a sweet little cottage on them.”

“Remember the restaurant that used to be on the corner of Main Street and MadeUp Road? Yeah, they had to shut that place down because the kitchen was infested with Miniature Schnauzers.”

I used to know someone who was aware of my phobia, and would come to me with any Miniature Schnauzer story she heard. I guess it was a way of bonding, a topic she figured we could talk about. A lot of these stories took place near where I lived, like at the trail where I went running. It became harder and harder for me to use that trail.

Exposure therapy is an effective way of dealing with a phobia, and learning to cope with this kind of story would be an eventual goal. However, one key to exposure therapy is that it be voluntary.

You probably shouldn’t watch…

Actually, some of the more helpful comments I’ve gotten are about movies to avoid. Sometimes I can handle them, and sometimes I can’t. But if someone goes on to describe the scene in question, it goes right back to being unhelpful. On the other hand, I could probably make a nice list of movies to watch if I want a mental challenge. Movies to watch when I’m a braver person.

Mostly, I’ve learned that if I tell anyone about my phobia, I must be clear. I’m not a little scared; I have an irrational fear to the point that I don’t want to see or hear anything at all. No stories, no pictures, no movies.

*A therapist told me that it’s better in the long run not to use code names like this. It’s another avoidant behavior, and it only gives the phobia more power. But it was funnier to me this way, because Schnauzer is a funny word.