Thursday, February 22, 2018

Deep Work and A Digital Declutter by Caroline Starr Rose



In the fall of 2016, I read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In it author Cal Newport suggests that many of us are engaged in shallow work — putting out small fires and meaningless wheel-spinning — that keeps us from engaging in the focused, planned-for time that true work really needs.

It was the sort of book I couldn’t keep quiet about. I took notes in my bullet journal, posted about it on my blog a couple of times, talked it up with author friends and even my agent. I also signed up for Cal’s e-newsletter to keep his concepts fresh.

A the end of December, Cal mentioned a Digital Declutter experiment he wanted to conduct to collect information for his next book. The declutter would be about “confront[ing] life directly, without the dulling mediation of a screen, allowing you to rediscover which activities and behaviors really provide value in your life, and which are mindless distraction.”

Well. I love a challenge. I love the chance to try something hard in an attempt to learn something new. Add to this the opportunity to really put into practice the concepts in Deep Work, and I was all in.

The guidelines:

Though the break wasn’t spelled out specifically, participants were encouraged to “interpret [the Declutter] in a way that makes the most sense for both your personal and professional constraints.” However, Cal did suggest these things:

If possible

  • “Don’t log into any social media accounts.”
  • “Don’t read news online.”
  • “Don’t use the internet for entertainment. In more detail: Don’t web surf. Don’t browse YouTube videos. Ignore clever links lurking in email forwards. Though I hate to suggest it, take a break from blogs as well.”
  • “If you’re a heavy text message user, consider serious restrictions on when you read and respond to these messages.”
  • “It’s likely too prohibitive to ignore personal email accounts during this entire period, but you probably shouldn’t check them constantly.”

I figured a social media break wouldn’t be too hard. I do this already every July. To remind myself of this promise in down moments, I took Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram off my phone.

I rarely read news online, unless I catch sight of important breaking news. I thought this one would be easy.

I follow a handful of blogs via email. All in all, I assumed I’d be fine taking a break.

I really only text two friends (and the occasional family member who needs a ride or sends me ridiculous emojis [the second would be my husband]). I let everyone know I’d check in less often.

Email, I knew, would be a big challenge. I’ve never been good at limiting the number of times I check, and I’ve wanted to change this — have tried to change this often. My goal was to check in after the kids leave for school, before I head to the gym or out for a run. I’d take a quick peek before lunch and a final read before I shut down for the day. 

Book stats: This was the hard one. After a wonderful boost in sales last fall from the podcast I recorded at the Read Aloud Revival, I’d fallen back into the (bad) habit of habitually checking my Amazon and Penguin Random House Author Portal numbers. This is not helpful, whether the numbers are “good” or “bad”, and can affect the way I approach my work. I welcomed the break from this information.

Finally, I decided I wouldn’t listen to audiobooks while walking the dog, running, or cleaning. I love getting to read while doing mundane tasks, but I also know this can block out times to think and process. Last fall I took a break from audiobooks when I did my week without reading (as I said, I really like challenges) and had brought back the audiobook with gusto. Ideally I hoped to come away from this time with the desire for silent walks a few times a week.

My ultimate hope was to come out on the other side with new insight and a renewed desire for the focused, planned-for time that deep work (and rich living) need.

The results:

January was a good, good month. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was waiting for the Digital Declutter and just didn’t know it. My overall visceral response to the experiment was relief.

That alone is telling.

The guidelines “protected” me from wasting time and letting my mind feel scattered. My online sessions were quite brief without blogs, social media, or tracking book information. I deleted many more emails than I read (leading me to unsubscribe from a handful of industry reads and blogs I realized I didn’t miss). I had large pockets of time for thinking about my manuscript and life and for not thinking at all, for just being. I’m the sort of person who craves silence, but I discovered last month I’m often quick to drown it out. As much as I missed my audiobooks, the stillness felt like a reintroduction to an old friend.

Did I hold to everything perfectly? Here are some specifics:

social media: Having the apps off my phone was hugely helpful. I’ve gone back to the Instagram app, but have only visited a couple of times. I have no need to reinstate Twitter and Facebook. Looking at them occasionally on my computer will be more than enough.

It was tricky when I got an email saying someone tagged me in a photo. I wanted to see! But I stayed away, logging into Facebook once to download something and another time just to see how many notifications I had. (It was a lot. Further confession: I checked my Twitter numbers once, too). Still, I received several FB group discussion emails, where I could read the discussion starter. I probably deleted 2/3s of these emails and read the rest.

Social media sites are very sly (read manipulative) when your visits slow down. I got numerous emails inviting me to see the notifications I’d missed or asking if I needed help logging back on.

online news: More than once I started reading a story only to realize what I was doing. That’s precisely the point of an experiment like this! I saw how quickly mindlessness can take over. I want to be able to consciously make my own choices online and not feel lured in. Being aware of the autopilot tendency is a good thing. I did allow myself to read a few articles that were industry / work related (like this exciting story!)

email: This was by far the hardest. I had committed to checking three times a day but rarely held to it. More typical was four or five times. Admittedly, this was far less often than usual. I really would like to continue aiming for the three-a-day check, even if I don’t hit the mark. Those messages can wait, and so can I.

audiobooks: I was shocked how little I missed these, as they make up a huge part of my day. Maybe it was knowing I could go back to them this month, but I’m pretty convinced it was the quiet that I needed and appreciated. It was brain rest and brain food. I’d like to keep one walk a day audiobook-free.

book stats: I checked my Amazon and Penguin Random House Author Portal numbers twice. It did nothing positive for me. I know (and have known for a while) how this information is the opposite of helpful most of the time. My goal is to check in once a month, just to get a sense of where things are. These numbers are never the full picture, anyway. They should have no place in my life other than as an occasional tidbit of information.

blogs: I let myself read 3-4 posts that were book / writing related. I really didn’t miss blogs I regularly read, apart from this one, which, I confess, I overindulged in during my first few days out of the declutter.

Moving forward

My biggest takeaway from this experiment is how much influence my digital activities have on my mental state. I have no desire to return to feeling scattered and harried, if I can help it — and I can help it, at least when it comes to my technological choices.

I also want to stay present while I’m online. Too many times I’ve found myself unsure how I’ve gotten to a particular site or why I’m even there.

Finally I want to be sure to allow myself time for quiet, even if I don’t feel I want or need it. This experiment has shown me I definitely do.

Deep work is most possible when I consciously make time and space for it. I’ve had the time, but what I didn’t fully realize was how mentally cluttered my space had become. 

Here’s to more purposeful digital choices — ones that enhance life, not hinder it.


Monday, February 19, 2018

IN SUPPORT OF THE OVER-50 WRITER, by Hilda Eunice Burgos


From March 1 to March 31, 2018, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) will be accepting submissions for its annual work-in-progress grants.  One of these grants is the Karen and Philip Cushman Late Bloomer Award, which is for authors over the age of fifty who have not been traditionally published in the children’s literature field.  The grant was established by author Karen Cushman and her husband, Philip Cushman, in conjunction with the SCBWI.  One winner will be chosen from the pool of those who have submitted material for the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grants, and will receive $500 and free tuition to any SCBWI conference.

I am in my fifties, and my first book, the middle grade novel Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, is scheduled for publication by Lee & Low Books this coming fall.  As an older writer, I was intrigued by this grant, and by Karen Cushman’s story.  She started writing at age 49, has published nine books so far, including a Newbery Award winner and a Newbery Honor Book, and she says she has no plans to stop writing until she’s at least a hundred.  She is an inspiration to those of us who started our writing journey a little later in life, and to those who are still waiting to be published, and she generously took the time to answer my questions about the grant and about writing in general.


No matter your age, and whether or not you decide to apply for one of SCBWI’s grants, I hope Karen Cushman’s words inspire you to keep writing.  After all, it’s never too late to realize your dreams.

Why did you establish this grant?

Karen: I want to encourage older potential writers to “write it down,” to put their thoughts and stories and ideas into words,  Over 50 is not too late to begin a writing journey--I was over 50 when my first book was published.   

What do you look for in a manuscript when judging applications for the award?

Karen: Selfishly, I look for a manuscript that makes me want more, a manuscript with writing and characters and a story that leave me yearning to read the rest of the book.

Are there any common mistakes that you see often in the manuscripts that are submitted?

Karen: The manuscripts that reach me have already been selected by SCBWI so they are quite polished and good.  Sometimes, though, writers tell us interesting things without building them into a story.  Or offer us characters that are unbelievable or unrelatable.  Or talk down to young readers.

In addition to the money and the opportunity to attend an SCBWI conference, what other benefits are there from receiving this award?

Karen: I hope that the the recognition the award brings leaves the writer more confident and committed to her writing.  Appreciation, respect, and encouragement are good motivators and soothing to the spirit.

Would you share a little about your own writing journey?

Karen: I wrote a lot as a child but as I grew up and married and had a child, I wrote nothing.  I still had stories in my head that I shared with my husband but nothing on paper until he challenged me to write it down   So I did, and so I encourage others to do so.

What advice would you give to older writers who are beginning to get discouraged because they haven’t been published yet?

Karen: A lot of writers haven’t been published yet.  The act of writing, of being immersed in a world you are creating on a page, can bring great joy and pride.

If publishing is your goal, keep trying.  Learn how to write a query letter.  Make your manuscript as near perfect as you can.  Get feedback from others.  Submit only to publishers who specify that they’re interested in the type of writing you do.  Pay close attention to what agents or editors say in their rejection letters.  Be kind to yourself and find pleasure in the writing itself.  

What, in your opinion, are the pros and cons to being an older writer?

Karen: Con:  I’d say the largest con is the decline in energy that we older folks often feel.  I can no longer write all day but eventually what I accomplish in chunks of time adds up.

Pro:  Well, in my case, being older has made me wiser, more tolerant, more self aware, and more accepting of imitations.  I hope these are reflected in my writing.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Week in KidLit by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

It's been quite a week in the KidLit world. First, the good news: the American Library Association awards (among them the Newbery, the Printz, and the Pura Belpré) were awarded. It's always an exciting event, made even more thrilling by live-tweeting. I guess that the winners are contacted on THE MORNING itself--so their reactions are always fun to read about. ("I was making my bed when...")

The big prize is the Newbery. This year it went to Erin Entrada Kelly for Hello, Universe. I have to admit I have yet to read it, although I did read her debut, Blackbird Fly, when I was a Cybils judge in 2016. (And you can read my thoughts here.)

Erin Entrada Kelly is of Filipino origin, and it is great to see the number of diverse voices being featured in MG and YA. In fact, the Newbery winner and all the Newbery Honor books were by writers of color. Another star in the firmament is Angie Thomas, author of The Hate You Give, which is rightly being touted as a great and important book. Angie won the William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens; Odyssey Award for best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States; and was an Honor book winner for both the Coretta Scott King Book Awards recognizing African American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults; and the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults.

I mentioned the Cybils Awards above. This is an award given by book bloggers, so it's more meat and potatoes than foie gras, but I can attest that it's fun to be part of a judging panel, and that the books chosen, though maybe not as high profile as the ALA's, are always tremendous reads. As luck would have it, the awards are announced on Valentine's Day. This year's Middle Grade Fiction award went to Alan Gratz for his novel Refugee, which is very timely.

The dark part of the week has been taken up with the reports of sexual harassment and abuse in the kidlit world. On February 7th Anne Ursu, best known as the author of Breadcrumbs, wrote a piece on Medium titled "Sexual Harassment in the Children's Book Industry," which was a call to action to combat such abuses. (Required reading, in my view.) The piece was picked up by the School Library Journal, which wrote a companion piece, and in the comments names were named--several high-profile male writers and illustrators were called-out for their treatment of women. As of this writing, Jay Asher and David Diaz have been banned from the SCBWI, and several have lost agent representation. I hope this means that our industry does mean business in rooting out this abuse and preventing it from happening again.

One thing I really hope is that our conversations remain respectful, even when they are difficult. And may we have many more wonderful books to celebrate in the future. Keep the faith and keep on writing, friends!


Monday, February 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: TRAIN I RIDE by Paul Mosier



I never really thought much about books labeled “powerful” until the first time someone described my book, MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, as such. Even then, I basically googled “What is a powerful book?” in order to try to figure out exactly what that meant. It should be common sense, right? One dictionary definition of the word “power” is: The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others….
 
Still, how does that apply to a book? Well, you can’t really define it. You have to feel it. And that’s exactly what happened to me as I read TRAIN I RIDE by Paul Mosier. A powerful novel has the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others…particularly while reading and even for days after. (This is called a Book Hangover.) While reading TRAIN I RIDE, I paused; I shuddered; I laughed (a lot); I cried; I sighed; I gasped; and, many times, I held my breath. Friends, that’s powerful.
Even though I loved EVERY character, TRAIN I RIDE is about a girl named Rydr who is traveling via Amtrak from California to Chicago to live with a great uncle whom she has never met. The uncle is the only family member left who can care for her, hopefully, until she turns eighteen. So right from the beginning this story starts to tug at the heart strings. It’s hard to describe the book without giving away parts that are meant to surprise the reader, but everything about it is utterly profound (in my opinion). It is WALK TWO MOONS, DICEY’S SONG, PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS, and THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY all rolled into one. With that being said, and with today being the big Mid-Winter ALA children’s book awards announcements, I would not be surprised to see TRAIN I RIDE earn some kind of sticker. I will be disappointed if it doesn’t.
Award-winner or not, if you want to read a powerful, poignant, and very beautiful story, read TRAIN I RIDE by Paul Mosier. Have a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, everyone!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Awards? A Letter About Being Kind To Yourselves, Oh You Lovely Longlisters, by Anne Nesbet

Dear friends who have ever hoped-against-hope for something wonderful to happen,

Yes, it's true: another awards season is upon us! Not just for children's book writers, but oh definitely for us, too: The "Youth Media Awards" (which include the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal and a number of other lovely honors) will be presented at 8 a.m. Mountain Time next Monday, February 12th. 
Many of us set our alarm clocks early every year so we can follow the livestreaming event--it's so exciting! A morning when children's books get to be cheered and adored! A morning when a few talented and hard-working and creative and fortunate writers get phone calls that mean their lives will change. Their books will live (approximately) forever. They will be allowed to write more stories for more children. It's that moment when hungry Charlie Bucket peels the wrapper back on his chocolate and there, unbelievably, is the golden ticket, after all: his life is going to be magical now. He will not be hungry, ever again.


[NOTE: In the real world, we know, even a golden ticket does not actually guarantee happiness forever; Newbery medalists--being lovely, vulnerable human beings like the rest of us--still have all the ups and downs of life to wade through; we send them love and fortitude.]

But right now I want to hold a hand out to a pretty large crowd: the future also-rans. You do not have to 'fess up to being in this demographic, but I know you are out there in surprisingly large numbers, and perhaps feeling surprisingly Alone.

Let's start with the people who have had the uncomfortable spotlight on them for a while. These are the writers whose books have benefited from all sorts of buzz, who have the curse of being called "frontrunners" by people with clout--I'm sending courage and compassion to you, dear frontrunners. It's wonderful to have created books so powerful and eloquent and beautiful that many readers are willing to say out loud: THIS ONE SHOULD WIN! But expectations are a jacket with a very scratchy lining, because here's the thing: even most "frontrunners" don't actually win. Those beloved books will still be as absolutely marvelous on February 13th as they were on February 11th, but it's hard to come that close to awards glory and miss. Yikes! Of course it is.

And guess what? I will share a secret truth: It's not only frontrunners who find themselves putting on that Scratchy Jacket of Hope. Human beings being what human beings are, there are many other people suffering right now from unreasonable hopes that (believe me) they are trying very hard to ignore or to repress.

My heart really truly goes out to you, too, whoever you secretly are:

Maybe your book made it onto some long "awards prediction" lists--or a couple of schools put your book on their Mock Newbery bookshelves--or someone mentioned your novel in the comments somewhere as "a book I wish had a chance, even though I know it probably doesn't." My friends, it doesn't take much to infect us with hope.

And if you have ever been infected with hope for something unlikely but life-transformingly amazing--you know how much pain is involved.

Let's say you are an utterly rational person (or mostly so). Let's say that you figure, in your utterly rational way, that you have a 1% to 5% chance of being called with good news in the wee Monday hours. Let's say that you are rather proud of how rationally you calculated those odds, and how well your rational brain did the follow-up subtraction sum that tells you that in 95% or 99% of possible timelines in the multiverse, your book does not win a thing.

Odds are, my dear, rational friends, that more than half of you will still find yourselves awake at four in the morning, listening to the silence--

and perhaps you will even be *despising yourself* for being awake--

because perhaps then you will find yourself not merely feeling the ordinary, understandable disappointment of not winning something that really would have changed your life, but also feeling the extra pain that we can inflict on ourselves, as punishment for hoping. It was so STUPID and UNCOOL to have hoped for a moment (we think)! And then we beat ourselves up! And then we suffer more!

And to whom are you going to confess that you're in pain? The people who love you but aren't in the writing world won't entirely understand what this thing that didn't happen would have meant--and it's downright embarrassing to confess to people in the writing world that you hoped for.....--no, aaaaaaaaargh, you're ashamed even to say it! THE OTHER BOOKS WERE ALL SO WONDERFUL! You know that! You read them all! You don't want a single one of them dethroned! You just wish the list could have magically expanded an extra inch to include--oh, ugh, you can't say it----------and so you writhe on your own.

Dear involuntarily hopeful friends! This is what I promised myself exactly a year ago that I would come here today to say: It is not your fault. Also: you are not alone.

It is not your fault. You are a good person, despite accidentally hoping for something unreasonably wonderful to happen.

And you are not alone. The reason this unreasonable hope took hold of you so hard (despite your trying SO valiantly not to let that happen--I know you really tried) is because this whole business of writing books is deeply unreasonable, in certain respects. You dream of a sticker on your book, because then your book will live! And you will be able to treat this writing career as an actual career, which is probably something you long for.

Why, after all, should it take having your book officially termed the Best (or one of the three or four or five Best), for you to have a career as a writer? I actually had an argument with someone in a dream the other night about this problem. I said, in my dream, "The children's books business is so weird! Let's think of it in terms of Mechanical Engineering! Wouldn't it be absurd if only FIVE or TEN Mechanical Engineers in this country could actually make a living doing Mechanical Engineering, and all the rest of the Mechanical Engineers had to have other careers (or sources of support) to pay the bills, while they do full-time Engineering on the side for almost no money???"

(When I woke up, I thought that was actually surprisingly logical, for a dream argument.)

I'm saying, dear longlisters: your unreasonable longing for something wonderful to happen for your book and your writing life is actually completely reasonable and understandable.

Don't beat yourself up for hoping.

We're people, and hope is one of those things people do.

Your hope is a symptom of loving the work you do and loving the children who need books to read, books that can reach out to them and comfort them and challenge them and show them new worlds or reflect their own wonderful, sometimes difficult world back at them in a new and loving light.

You are not alone, and your stories help others feel less alone.

Thank you for what you do, brave writers.  You weather so much, and you work so hard. Even when despair or hope get their claws into you, you keep plowing on and keep writing.

What can I say? You're all winners in my book--whether or not your books are officially "winners."

your fan,

Anne