Don’t break the chain!

Confession: I thrive on deadlines. In all the jobs I’ve ever held, I have never missed a single one. My first book owes its very existence to the publisher extending me a contract (with a deadline!) before I’d finished the manuscript.

But without a firm deadline, I flounder. By the time Fractured was published in November 2010, I had started on a couple new projects but wasn’t making much progress. I attempted to flesh one out for NaNoWriMo 2010, but quickly lost steam. In 2011, I was busy with wedding planning, and the most I managed was a short story (and only then because there was a submission deadline!). After the wedding, I took another shot at NaNoWriMo… but this time, I didn’t even last a week, and produced about a tenth of my 2010 effort: less than 2,000 words.

In January, I boldly dragged out my manuscripts from both NaNoWriMo attempts and proclaimed that I would, indeed, become a disciplined daily writer in 2012. That goal went the way of everyone else’s New Year’s resolutions: dead in four days. I continued to attend monthly Torkidlit meetups but was starting to feel like a fraud. To be a writer, you must write, after all.

And then in late February one of my friends posted this article on Facebook: “How Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret Fixed My Procrastination Problem.” The method it describes is not new: it’s called “don’t break the chain,” and it’s very simple:

  1. Print out a blank monthly calendar.
  2. Set a measurable goal.
  3. For each day you achieve your goal, place an X on that day of the calendar.
  4. Don’t break the chain of X’s.

I printed out calendars for March to December, and started on March 1st. My goal is 200 words a day (minimum) or half an hour of revising (though I consider that an “out,” and have only used it once–my priority is finishing the first draft). Here’s my calendar for March:

And here’s the rest of the year: looks a little daunting, but also exciting!

So far, I’ve written over 9,100 words in 26 days (an average of 350/day). Progress is slow but steady, and the word target has had the bonus side effect of shutting up my internal editor so I can focus on getting the first draft done and then going back and rewriting most of it. The biggest benefit, however, has been making writing a daily habit: something I’ve struggled with for far too long. It’s too early to declare success, but at least I feel like I’m finally on the right path.

If you’ve also tried the Don’t Break the Chain method or have your own productivity tip to share, leave a reply below!

"Yes, Sir William, I'm AWARE that this was a long post. No need to rub it in!"

It’s 2012!

Someone gently reminded me that I hadn’t updated since November (thanks, HEATHER) and what better time to update than the first week of a shiny new year, right?

A brilliant friend of mine eschews New Year’s resolutions in favour of retroactive resolutions, which is a lovely tradition. My retroactive resolutions for 2011 are:

  • Get married & have a great honeymoon
  • Start a regular exercise regime instead of cutting back on chocolate
  • Read a ton of books
  • Have my own Christmas tree for the very first time and keep the kittens from destroying it or themselves

Success! I rock.

You may notice that “finish my next book” or even “complete NaNoWriMo” did not make the retroactive resolutions list. Alas, that is no mistake. However, I dug out an unfinished manuscript from my NaNoWriMo 2010 attempt and discovered that parts of it were definitely salvageable, so I’m focusing on that for now.

In the meantime, here. Have a kitten.

"Me? I'M not upside down. YOU'RE upside down!"

NaNoWriMo 2011!

It’s that time again! National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo to those of us crazy enough to sign up for it. (My profile: jo_words.)

Last year was the first time I both signed up and tried to write daily for the entire month. I fell far short of the 50,000 word goal, coming in around 20,000 or so, but that’s still 20,000 words I didn’t have at the beginning of the month.

My goal for this year is 30,000 words: that’s 1,000 words per day. I’ve written 1,842 words in two days, so I figure that’s realistic. The novel I’m working on is one that I’ve had in my head for about a year and a half. I tried to produce a first draft at the beginning of last year’s NaNoWriMo, then gave up and started a totally new story instead. So perhaps this story is cursed? Oh well, doesn’t matter–I’m starting it again from scratch, and this time around it will get written. Or else.

Cat ownership tips for dog people

As a currently dogless dog person who happens to have two cats (still following?), I feel I’m in a good position to offer some advice to fellow dog people who, for whatever reason (don’t worry, I won’t judge… you poor bastards), find themselves adopting or wanting to adopt a cat.

Cats are furry four-legged companions, but their resemblance to dogs often ends there. So here’s what you should be prepared for when you bring kitty home…

How to Love Your Cat Without Sustaining Personal Injury

Dogs want to please you, but cats want to be pleased by you. Hint: cats find inconveniencing you to be incredibly pleasurable. For example, Sir William wants attention only when I’m otherwise occupied. As I started this post, he started meowing and looking intently at the top of the entertainment unit, threatening to jump up there (and possibly knock over the TV). This was my cue to get up and pay some attention to him (“Sir William! Don’t you dare jump up there, don’t you even think about it!”). Satisfied, he sauntered off.

Another tip: beware a cat who innocently exposes his tummy to you. You might think, “Aw, he wants tummy rubs, just like a puppy!” But there are two options: either he wants tummy rubs, or he wants to attack your hand. You won’t know which it is until your hand reaches his belly, and by then it could be too late. You’ve got a 50/50 chance in our house: one enjoys tummy rubs; one enjoys hand-ambushes (complete with fangs and claws).

Can you tell which of these kitties wants tummy rubs and which wants to sink his teeth into your soft, fleshy hand?

Sir William wants tummy rubs... OR DOES HE?

Is Comma sleeping... or PSYCHING YOU OUT?

Oh, and remember: both dogs and cats have teeth and claws, but cats are far more willing to use them on you. And not by accident.


Some cats are just like dogs and will wolf down their food right away, but many cats will nibble throughout the day instead. As a former dog owner, it was fascinating to give the cats their kibble and watch them eat for a while, then saunter off while there was still kibble left. Trust me, that did NOT happen with my yellow lab. His policy was “eat first, determine whether it was edible later.”

On the other hand, if you drop food on the floor, a cat will sniff it, then give it a little taste, then spit it out, then repeat until they decide whether they like it or not. So unlike a dog, a cat makes a poor vacuum cleaner replacement.

Exercise is for Suckers

Dogs need to run around outside or they will drive you absolutely nuts. Cats can go either way–some (especially as kittens) need exercise and will love chasing a laser pointer or a bit of string. Others are lazy and think exercise is for suckers. Our cats enjoy a rousing game of catch-the-laser-dot or mouse-on-a-string, and they also enjoy tearing through the house around midnight or one a.m. (I think they give themselves bonus points for keeping us up at night). At least we don’t have to go out in the cold or rain just so they can pee. Advantage: cats.

Toys, Toys, Toys

Don’t waste your money. Cats like boxes, paper (seriously, shred a few sheets of paper and watch them go nuts), bags, empty toilet paper rolls, pens (or anything that they can roll, like chapstick and USB sticks), laser pointers, string/ribbon*, tinfoil balls*, and attacking anything that moves under a blanket. (Confession: I buy my cats toys all the time. Especially little stuffed mice with catnip in them, and little balls they can chase.) *Note: do not leave your cats alone all day with string, ribbon, or tinfoil balls–they may eat them, and that could means a pricey vet bill.

Sometimes, my kittens even play fetch. It’s all on their terms, though: they bring the toy, drop it at my feet, and stare at me until I throw it. They only bring it back until they lose interest (usually two to seven times).

Sir William waiting to fetch the tinfoil ball.

Training Your Feline


No, really. You can train a dog because they want to please you. Good luck with cats. The best you can hope for is that you’ll be able to get them to behave when you’re around. They’ll still wreck your shit the moment you leave.

We prevent our cats from jumping up on the counters by yelling, “NO!” but I’ve heard some people find spray bottles (with plain water) to be effective. The trick is to catch the cat in the act so that they associate their asshole behaviour with the punishment. Anyway, just keep in mind that your cat’s desire to do something is often stronger than your patience to prevent him from doing it. Pick your battles.

Protecting Your Stuff

Dogs may be able to get up on couches and beds, but cats can go ANYWHERE. Have you seen how high some of them can jump? It’s insane. You will quickly learn to cat-proof your house as if you were baby-proofing for a toddler Spiderman. They can climb anywhere and squeeze into the smallest spaces (behind the refrigerator, for example). Anything light enough to be pushed over will be pushed over. Anything that dangles will be batted at and possibly severed. Anything on a ledge or shelf will end up pushed off said surface.

Like puppies, they also tend to chew stuff. Bitter apple spray may deter wire-chewing, but unless you want to coat your entire wardrobe in the stuff, just keep your clothes out of reach. (Some favourite chew toys: tank top straps, headphones, drawstrings.)

 Moody Little Buggers

What can I say… cats can be assholes. With time, you’ll learn to recognize what kind of mood your cat is in, and that will probably save you from a few bites and scratches. But still: expect cats to be unpredictable. They can go from purring as you stroke them to biting your hand.

If your cat seems pretty focused on you and his eyes are dilated, he’s probably all amped up and ready to Attack The Shit Out Of Anything That Moves. Exhibit A:

Comma demonstrates Crazy Kitten Eyes. Beware!

Some cats also hold grudges. I’ve heard of cats who display their displeasure with their owners by ignoring them or pooping in their shoes or on their bed. What jerks.

Sweet Dreams

Your cat will be at his most adorable when he’s exhausted from terrorizing you and passes out. Take pictures.

Don’t bother buying an expensive cat bed. Your cat will curl up in your laundry hamper amidst your dirty clothes instead, just to spite you.

Oh, and cats are nocturnal. So expect to be woken up at three a.m. by your cat doing one or more of the following: jumping on you, sitting on your chest, sitting on your head and chewing your hair, scratching you “by mistake” as he tears across the bed in pursuit of your other cat or one of his toys (or because he’s possessed), scratching your legs on purpose because they moved while he was stalking them, or meowing loudly about something.

Really, considering how long they’ve been domesticated, why aren’t there any diurnal cats? Get on that, cat breeders!

The Holy Grail: Dog-Like Cats

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a dog-like cat that runs to greet you when you come home, like tummy rubs and fetch, and doesn’t hold grudges. The best way to do this is to adopt an older cat so you can get a better sense of his personality (because it’s hard to really get a sense of a kitten’s personality beyond “hyper,” “insane,” and “sickeningly cute”). Or choose by breed–some breeds are more easy-going than others (I don’t know which… ask a cat person).

Any other dog people out there with cat-ownership tips to share? TELL ME. Or I will sic my cats on you at three a.m.

Author interview up at Get Lost In A Story

The talented Maureen McGowan (author of such hilarious fairytale mashups as Cinderella: Ninja Warrior), has interviewed me over at Get Lost In A Story. If you’ve been burning to know which stereotypical clique I belonged to in high school (hint: I wasn’t a jock), or whether I prefer salsa or guacamole, head on over!

Tell me about your bookmarks

Today the kittens watched me take a bath for the first time (er, it was their first time watching, not the first time I ever took a bath). They were fascinated (and a little apprehensive) about all the water, but they stayed as close as possible. By the time I was ready to get out, Sir William had progressed from observing the water at a distance to dipping a paw in the tub and splashing around. He’s also been fascinated by the toilet lately, so I should probably keep an eye on him.

Anyway, if you read the title of this post, it’s obviously not about kittens and baths. No, I’m posting because I need to know–readers, what is your relationship with bookmarks?

As an author and an avid reader, I’ve accumulated more than my fair share of bookmarks over the years. And yet, if you asked me to produce one for you right this moment, I don’t know if I could. Nor can I remember the last time I used one. I’m not anti-bookmark or anything–I think they’re wonderful book-accessories, and I’ve seen (and owned) some great ones. I just never use them, and I never seem to be able to find a good place to store them, and therefore they disappear. I’ve probably left a trail of hidden bookmark burial grounds in every place I’ve ever lived.

So what do I do to pick up where I left off? Either I use whatever’s closest at hand–usually a receipt or an empty envelope–or I just remember, somehow. It probably helps that I go through books quickly, so it’s not that difficult to flip through and reach the part that looks familiar. Sometimes, if the book has a dust jacket, I’ll use one of the flaps to mark my place (front cover flap at the beginning; back cover flap as I reach the end). However, I refuse to dog-ear pages. I’m more comfortable writing on a book (in PEN, even!) than bending the corner of a page.

So. Is this common, or do you have a trusty bookmark (or several trusty bookmarks) that are always close at hand? Tell me about your bookmarks. I don’t think I’ll ever use bookmarks regularly, but I’ll always admire them as little bookish treats.

Wedding update

I got engaged on New Year’s Eve last year, and was married in August. We had a book-themed wedding, with books as centrepieces, origami flowers made from book pages, and cupcakes topped with fondant books. You can check out all the details on Flickr.

Here’s my favourite detail: a custom cake topper we commissioned from the talented Sophia’s Workshop. As you can see, it includes our kittens, Sir William Purrington III (on his back, asking for tummy rubs as always) and Comma (don’t be fooled by his calm expression: he’s totally about to bite our feet if we move!).

Spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam!

Bonus nerd points if you know where I got the title from.

This website gets a lot of spam. 767 pieces in 11 months, in fact, which means I get about 70 pieces each month.  Thankfully, it doesn’t get posted, but it’s still annoying to delete. The only upshot is that many of the spammers try to slip under the radar by posting generic praise. Here are some of the lovely things that the nice people wanting to sell real Rolex watches, generic Viagra, and insurance have said about my website:

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So normally I just smile, pretend they really are talking about me for a second, and click “Mark as spam.”

But yesterday, I received a chilling comment:

  • naturally like your web site but you have to test the spelling on several of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I in finding it very troublesome to inform the truth however I’ll surely come again again.

What? So now along with all the yes-men I have a rogue critic? I don’t think so, spammer. I’m an editor and  an author, and I take great offense at your libelous comment. I dare you to find a typo in any of my posts (well, except this one, which is filled with spammers’ typos). For shame! Now go back to telling me how wonderful I am, and I just might let one of your comments slip by.

But probably not.

Anyone else out there reading a little too much into spam? Let me know in the comments!

Book vs. movie: which do you tackle first?

I’m about to go watch The Help, and for once, I haven’t read the book first. I was discussing books vs. movies with a coworker yesterday, and while we both agreed that a book is usually better than the movie based on it, I was having trouble putting my finger on why I prefer to read the book first. Either way, the ending will be ruined for me in one of the mediums, right? So why should it matter which comes first?

And yet it does. So without further ado, here are my top reasons to read the book first:

You get to imagine the characters and situations for yourself, without the actors from the movie overwriting your imagination. And you don’t have to worry about your imagined version of the story overpowering what you’ll see on screen, since film is a visual medium. Just try to remember how you pictured Harry Potter before you saw the movies!

It takes longer to read a book than to watch a movie. For example, The Help is 530 pages. I read about a page a minute, so the book will take me nine hours to finish. By contrast, the movie is only two hours and seventeen minutes. I don’t mind already knowing the ending if I’m only investing two hours, but I do mind if I’m investing more than four times that. Knowing the ending prevents me from getting lost in a book, but it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a movie. Your mileage may vary, of course.

How about you? Do you prefer reading the book first, or watching the movie? Or do you choose one over the other? Let me know in the comments!

A confession about fan letters

Well, actually, my title is misleading. This post contains two confessions about fan letters.

Confession the first:

I have never sent a fan letter to an author, even though I often compose them in my head while reading. The closest I ever got was about fifteen years ago, after reading one of Amy Tan‘s books (I think it was either The Hundred Secret Senses or The Kitchen God’s Wife). I got as far as typing out a few paragraphs, but that was it. I abandoned the effort because (a) I was so saturated with her delicious words that I’d begun channeling her writing style, which was embarrassing, and (b) that was back before you could easily track down an email address for an author, or contact them through their website. I probably would have had to print off the letter and mail it. With a stamp and everything!

Anyway, the point is: I have never completed a fan letter to an author. Which is a shame because…

Confession the second:

Even though I am a barely-known author with one slim book to my name, I have received fan letters, and they make my day. Some of them make my entire week. I’ve also had the pleasure of reading enthusiastic reviews of my book, and those make my day/week/month too.

If my book had come out ten years ago, the same amount of people may have enjoyed it, but I probably wouldn’t have heard from them. Now there are tons of excellent book blogs–many of which are devoted to young adult lit–and communities like GoodReads where the book addicts hang out, and authors and readers coming together on Twitter to do neat things like #YAlitchat. People have always been excited about books, but now it’s easier than ever for those people to find each other.

So even as independent bookstores close and publishers struggle to figure out what an ebook-dominated future will mean for them, all is not lost. Today, writers can be closer than ever to their readers, and vice versa. So whether you’re a reader or a writer or both, get out there and tell your favourite authors how much you love their books.

And Amy Tan? I’m a huge fan.