Friday, July 3, 2015

Eh-email

Who remembers Homestar Runner? I'm probably dating myself and/or categorizing myself as a particular sort of geek with that reference. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, Homestar Runner was one of the few entertaining sites on the internet a decade ago. (Along with the singing horses. Were those ever good times.) The highlight of Homestar Runner was, of course, the email, and to this day I can't think of the word email without hearing Homestar say it. Go on. Click over to the site and hover over the email button.

Now you know what I'm hearing every time I see that word.

I have seven email addresses. Se. Ven. That's insane, right? What could possibly have possessed me to sign up for so many accounts? Well, let's see. There's...

1. The junk mail. My very first email account. My one and only hotmail. Ah, the days when hotmail was still hot. Now I use it to sign up for things that require an email address when really, they can have no good reason for emailing me ever. Also, for some incongruous reason, that's where I get the Tor.com newsletter. Which is about the only reason I ever check that account.

2. The NOT junk sign-up account. For those few retailers I actually want to hear from. And also the library.

3. The "friends and family" account. You know, from back before I realized that having a cutesy email address was unprofessional.

4. The more professional account. Ie, the one I actually use regularly.

5. The joint account. Which I share with my husband for when we both need access.

6. The "for some reason I'm going to sign up for all writing-related promotions and social media with a whole NEW account" account. Yeah, this is probably where I started going off the deep end.

And finally...

7. The account that came with my website. Which will one day be my "this is where my legions of adoring fans can reach me" account. One day... And also that's where I send out my newsletter.

So I may be crazy, but there it is.

The really crazy part though, is that I do not like email. (Unless you are my lovely agent, in which case I always love getting email from you.) So why do I burden myself with so much of it?

Well, the thing is, I didn't always feel that way. I remember the days when email was a new and wonderful thing, and it meant that instead of waiting two weeks for my letter to arrive at its destination, a response to be written, and said response to arrive back, I had to wait only as long as it took my long-distance friends to compose a new email. For a girl whose social life revolved around friendships made at summer camps, that was a big deal.

But then things changed. Email became a place of bills, of advertising, of bombardment by things that maybe only mattered a little. I know a LOT of people who only check their email once a week or so now, and I can't say I blame them. (Except really, who are you people? I always have to know when I get new email.) The very convenience of email is precisely what makes it such a nuisance, especially now that the personal side of communication has moved to texting and social media.

So how do we manage it? How do we make email more effective?

1. Stop sending so much of it! If there is *any* other way to communicate, use it.

2. If you're typing more than a paragraph, reconsider. I have a former team leader who will be absolutely shocked that I'm saying this seeing as I used to send him entire essays over email, complete with complex questions. (His replies were usually a one word "Yes" or "No," and I had to figure out which of the many questions he was answering.) Should I really have spent so much time on an email? No way! If you have that much to say, say it in person. Or, if you have to say it to a lot of different people, print it out and mail it. The process of having to do that will tell you one way or the other whether the information was actually important enough to disperse.

3. Clean up what you do send. I saw an article today about eliminating the word "just" from emails. It was a good reminder. Be clean and direct. Don't hedge. Get to the point. And make the header of the email relevant. I've even seen recommendations that one put ALL relevant information in the header line if possible.

4. Don't expect a reply. If you really need a reply, ask in person. If there's simply no other way to ask aside from email, then make sure the question is clear and up front and not nestled in a bunch of other text.

Maybe one day we will live in a world where email will not be such a nuisance. In the meantime, how do you use email?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cats, Kids and Passion

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel accomplished! Today I successfully took both the cat AND the toddler to the vet and made it home again without my hair standing on end from stress. This is all the more worthy of note seeing as the cat, who needed to be there, most certainly did not want to be, and the boy, who did not need to be there for any reason beyond not being able to stay home alone, was very much interested in getting into everything. Plus, I think I should get bonus points for doing this while seven months pregnant.

I'm definitely getting to the point at which leaving the house requires having a very good reason. It's hot, and I'm carrying around a space heater in my belly. If the toddler breaks away and dashes off, I will look like a penguin scuttling across ice if I try to run after him. In order to get me out of the house, one of three things has to happen:

1. An appointment I really shouldn't miss. I admit it was rather tempting not to worry about getting the cat her shots, but then, this is the most high maintenance cat ever, and if I didn't then something catastrophic would be bound to happen. (Seriously, this cat does not seem to understand that part of being a cat is being easy to manage. She's allergic to poultry, and recently had enough issue with the non-poultry food we were giving her that we were on the verge of having to go home made!)

2. We've played with all the toys, read all the books, have nobody available for a play date, and I can't justify letting the boy watch yet another half hour of Jonathan Bird's Blue World. And even then, sometimes it's easier just to let him throw the dirt in the potted plants onto the floor than bother to leave the house.

3. There's something I'm actually passionate about doing. But let me tell you, the threshold is pretty high. I love going swimming, for example--it's so amazing to feel weightless at this particular stage of pregnancy. And yet the hassle of putting on the swim diaper and the bathing suits and the sunscreen and packing the bag and driving to the pool and making sure the boy doesn't swallow too much pool water and getting showered and dressed in a humid changing room with a boy who doesn't realize the floor is disgustingly dirty and then getting into the hot car and undoing all the feeling of refreshment granted by the pool is really a bit too much to handle sometimes.

It's crazy how many worthwhile things in life require actually having passion before we're willing to do them.

Back in college I joined a group of aspiring game developers. We called ourselves GeeQ, and each of us, over time, earned nicknames. One day I brought a bottle of Passion Fruit drink to the group, and when I finished it a friend of mine asked "So are you full of... passion now?" (Cue eyebrow wiggle.) And from then on I was Passion GeeQ.

A while later my then boyfriend (now husband) and I went on a trip to Haiti to help with some medical work there. We had a lot to do and needed to stay focused, so the team made it clear this was not a romantic getaway. One night toward the end of the trip we were asked to talk about our experience there. The first thing out of my mouth was, "The theme for us this trip has been passion." Of course, I meant it as passion for what we were doing and compassion for the people who came to the clinic, but everyone else chose a rather different interpretation of my words.

So "passion" has been following me around for a good while now.

Lately it's come back again. At the beginning of the year I gave myself two major writing goals to complete before the new baby comes: to write the first draft of a new book and to finish a polished draft of another. I've done both, and with some time to spare.

I didn't count on having yet another book idea spring up on me and beg to be written.

It doesn't make sense to start a whole new book right now. I'm two months from my due date. What with all the appointments and general weariness that come with pregnancy, chances are not good that I would be able to finish this book before baby.

And yet, I feel so passionate about the idea. I simply can't stop myself from writing it.

That's how it is with passion--even if the thing we're doing doesn't make sense, we feel compelled to do it.

So I am. I've started writing. I don't know what will happen or when the book will be done, but I'm going for it.

What are you passionate about?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Research Book Recommendations: Poor Economics and The Bottom Billion

I don't know how I would write without having research materials right at my fingertips.

Actually, no, I take that back. I remember when I used to write without doing research. I remember how awful, how terrible, how truly dreadful those early manuscripts used to be. They were like playing pin the tail on the donkey--I had a vague idea that there was a donkey somewhere ahead, but I had no idea where or how to reach it. So I made things up and pretended that what I made up was a fair substitute for how reality actually worked.

Ha!

Well, I know better now, though it is still so very difficult to get all the details right.

How do you know when you've done enough research? Someone told me once that you know you're finished when the information you're discovering is all something you've seen before in another context.

Of course, if that's true, there are some topics that would take years to research properly. Sometimes we don't have that much time.

I think I've stumbled upon one of those topics myself lately. I've been interested in the idea of a story set in a very poor environment. But what does that level of poverty actually look like in the day-to-day? I honestly had no idea.

So I've started doing some research, and I began with two books that have each turned out to be quite a revelation.

The first:

Poor Economics

The intent of this book is to explore what sorts of aid (if any) are actually helpful to the poorest populations. What do they need? Food? Chlorinated water? Bed nets? Will they actually use these things? Should the items be free or subsidized or what?

Some great questions, and I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't. So as a side note, if you give regularly to charity, you might consider reading this book to get a better idea of where best to send your money. The book doesn't come right out and list particular charities it recommends, but it does give some insight that you might use to come to your own conclusions.

Where Poor Economics really excels is in detailing how the poor make decisions and why they do things that might seem (to us) to be illogical. After finishing this book I feel so much more aware of how daily life actually works for those who live in extreme poverty.

The second:

The Bottom Billion

This book takes much more of a top-down approach. The major questions asked are: 1) What traps are keeping poor nations poor? and 2) What can we do to help them?

So far I've read only the first part of the book, which attempts to answer question 1 (and which is certainly the more relevant to my research). Whereas Poor Economics gives a good look at the perspective of the individual, The Bottom Billion has a lot of great information on a larger scale. For example, why is it that having one major rich resource can be detrimental for a poor nation? I would have found that idea completely mind-boggling until seeing the data laid out in this book.

So this too is good information for me, because it helps me to think about the setting of the story. (It helps that a lot of the details also fit very well with ideas I already had!)

Together these two books have gone a long way to getting me started on this research path. I probably still have a ways to go, but now at least the framework is laid out for me and I can see more clearly the areas where I might need more information.

So, if any of you similarly find yourselves in a place where you need to do research on poverty, these are an excellent place to start!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Fair Chocolate

I love chocolate. I think about it all the time. (No really. All through lunch all I can think about is the chocolate square I'm going to have for dessert.) I talk about it. I bake with it. And, of course, I eat it.

There is really nothing like good chocolate. So rich. So smooth. So delicious.

It's easy to forget that chocolate is a luxury.

After all, it's everywhere. Just this morning I was at the grocery store picking up food for the week, and I noticed a display with cheap chocolate candy on sale. It's so easy to find. Days that I don't have some kind of chocolate in my house are rare.

But for a lot of people, chocolate is far from common. It may not even be something they've tasted before. And you know who doesn't typically get to eat chocolate?

The people who harvest cocoa.

In fact, the chocolate industry is one (of several, unfortunately) that frequently relies on child and slave labor. Cocoa farming practices aren't often monitored, and workers' rights are usually neglected.

In other words, my chocolate habit has reinforced slavery.

That revelation isn't something I should just say "*gulp* Oops!" to and move on. It makes me angry! I want to do something about it.

The good news is that I can. By choosing what I buy, I can support fair practices around the world. How? Here are two great resources:

Free2Work grades companies based on their policies, transparency, monitoring and worker rights. You can see at a glance which companies score high, and which score abysmally low. It's eye-opening to skim through the chocolate companies and see just how few have good scores.

Fair Trade is a certification that tells you with a simple label that the goods are produced using fair, sustainable practices. More on what Fair Trade means here.

If I'm really serious about caring for the global community, I need to make some changes with how I buy chocolate. It's a luxury. If I can't afford the more expensive fair trade, then I don't need to buy it. When I do buy it, I need to be conscious of which companies I support.

This will be a challenge for me. As I said above, chocolate is everywhere. I need to be mindful of where my money goes. But this is a step that is important to me to take.

Today chocolate. Tomorrow... one of the many other industries listed at Free2Work. It'll be a process, and it might be hard at times, but these are choices I can live with.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Turtles, Possums and a Call for Readers

We've had a good long run of health here in our household these past few months, but we knew it would inevitably come to an end. Sure enough, the boy is down with a fever and stuffy nose this week. Fortunately (and fingers crossed that it stays this way), the germs haven't brought down either my husband or me. (Lack of sleep, on the other hand, just might.)

So yesterday the boy and I spent the majority of the day watching Disney movies. He particularly likes Cars, and I certainly don't mind watching with him. But eventually, enough is enough. Seeing as I couldn't bear to spend another day lounging on the couch, particularly when the weather is as lovely as I could ask for (and might not be this beautiful again until fall) I decided we ought to go out for a stroll in one of our local parks.

You would think this would be a great idea...

And as it turned out, it was! The walk in the park was wonderful, and it is not at all the point of this story. The point is what happened on the way there.

As I was driving down the curvy road to the park I noticed a turtle ahead of me in the middle of my lane. I did the only thing I could think of: I stopped, got out and helped the little fellow several feet into the grass. Hopefully he had the good sense to stay there.

Not my turtle. I was too worried about blocking traffic to pause for photos.

The experience was not what I would have expected. First of all, once the turtle noticed my presence, he was quite eager to move himself along under his own power. And he wasn't as slow about it as I would have thought, either. He bustled--as much as a turtle can bustle--to get himself away from me.

But after a moment I realized he was drifting a little too much in the wrong direction, and I attempted to steer him the other way by moving my hand into his path to discourage him. Apparently this was too much for the little guy. He stopped and pulled himself tightly into his shell.

So there I was with little other choice but to pick him up myself and carry him over to the grass. And suddenly I realized... I wasn't entirely sure I was comfortable doing so. What sort of turtle was he anyway? Would he bite my hand if I brought it too close? And how close was too close? Just how long was his neck exactly, and could he reach my fingers if they were on his back?

But despite my doubts, I mustered up the courage and picked him up, keeping my fingers as far back as I could while still maintaining a decent grip. He remained tightly in his shell, and a few seconds later he was safely in the grass.

There are two things I took away from this experience. First: the unfamiliar can be unexpectedly scary. I didn't know until I bent down to grab the turtle that I would feel a bit of trepidation in doing so. Even though I grew up in a very rural environment, there are a lot of nature-type things I've never done before, and first experiences with nature can be intimidating sometimes.

[Once when I was a very little girl, an opossum showed up at the sliding glass doors of my house. My mom and dad called me over to come see it, but I had no interest whatsoever. I didn't know what an opossum was! How did I know it wasn't going to eat me? For all I knew this could be some intelligent boogeyman creature that could break through glass and gobble me up.]

Books can be that way too--writing the unfamiliar can be scary. We can have a really exciting idea, but when we go to write it down, we suddenly realize we're a little bit nervous about writing what we don't know. What if it doesn't turn out the way we imagine? What if the end result is terrible and people laugh at us? What if we get it all wrong because we simply haven't had the right experiences?

That brings me to the second point: some things are really hard to get right if you've never experienced them yourself. If I had decided to write a story about a turtle rescue before this morning, I may have been able to write a relatively convincing scene, but I wouldn't have had the same details that I do now. I wouldn't know how quickly the turtle would try to escape or how I would feel about having to pick it up. Those are the sorts of details that add authenticity to a story.

So where am I going with this?

Well, I've been working on a book for a while now about magical worlds and the people responsible for keeping them nice and tidy and safe. (Spoiler: they don't always succeed.) I would very much like for one of the characters to be a bi-racial girl (with a white mother and a Kenyan-American father). I feel that a) girls like her need more representation in novels, and particularly in fantasy and b) her background could be a big asset to the story.

The problem for me, of course, is that I don't have the relevant experience. Because of that, I'm looking for a few expert readers--people who have the experiences I lack and can comment on aspects of the character's background that I wouldn't think of myself. So! If that sounds like you and you love to read and would be willing to help me make this character feel authentic, please contact me! You can reach me at audrey (at) alockwoodbooks (dot) com.

And if you don't have the background I need but still want to help, please share.

Many thanks to all of you!