“It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Robert Benchley

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

looking for empowerment in an out-of-control world
Thu 2021-03-25 21:56:41 (single post)

So, my brain's a mess. It's a mess for a lot of reasons. At least one of them has made the national news--though I am fortunate to be only indirectly affected, which is to say, I live in Boulder, so it hit close to home, but I wasn't in or near the store at the time, and the only person who was there with whom I am acquainted got out unharmed. (Physically, at least. "Shaken up" doesn't begin to describe their state of mind.) So... I've been able to slowly piece my brain back together over the course of the week, enough to at least pretend to be an adult.

Part the brain-mess is more personal; I've had several medical appointments this week and they haven't yielded the uniform lack of news I'd been expected. There were several small unpleasant surprises I won't go into here. There was also one big discovery that has simultaneously shaken my concept of self and also explains quite a lot, which is this: my hips are out to get me. They have been plotting against me all my life, but the signs of their scheming only became impossible to ignore this week. (Honestly, the thing where my adductors were screaming at the end of roller derby practice late in 2019 was probably related. But I was led to believe by an unfortunately dismissive physical therapist that I just needed to do more leg lifts.)

Anyway. You know how we say "temporarily able-bodied"? Yeah, well, the end of that temporary period is suddenly looking a lot more real and tangible. It's still a ways off, but to keep it that way as much as possible I've got a new prescription to pick up and a new series of physical therapy to begin. (Not with the unfortunately dismissive PT, thank you very much. I want someone who'll take my aspirations to remain competitively athletic seriously, and not tell me, "Well, you are getting older, you have to realize it's normal to start losing some of your physical ability and mobility range..." The orthopedist I saw yesterday was very much not about that; nor, he assured me, are any of the PTs at the center he referred me to. He also told me to stop calling myself "an older athlete.")

Anyway, so, this week has been a mess and my brain has been a mess. Just as I started piecing my thoughts back together and wrestling myself through the motions, I had the ortho consult Wednesday and got super despondent about this whole deteriorating hips thing. Today's been OK. Slow, but OK. Still, it was important to remember that "write every day" isn't an ironclad rule, and for many of us isn't even a healthy aspiration.

My brain is also spattered with guilt over having submitted nothing whatsoever to Nightmare Magazine. After that defiant declaration last week, too! (That's the problem with keeping an actually writing blog for the sake of accountability. Sometimes I tell the world "I will do X!" and then I have to come back and tell the world, "I, er, didn't do X after all.")

I'd like to say it was because I looked soberly at my progress thus far and said to myself, "Self, if you're going to submit something to the Big Leagues, you need to be happy with where it's at, and you ain't happy about where these two pieces are at yet." I probably would have come to that conclusion, had I sat down to work on them Saturday. But I did not. I sat down to work on them Sunday afternoon instead, and discovered the point was moot because the submission period had closed at 12:01 AM.

Lesson learned: If you're going to work right up to the moment of deadline, it's vitally important to know when that moment is.

And, well, that's pretty much all I came here to say. This week has sucked on every level, and I am not feeling very accomplished. BUT. I have gotten some writing accomplished this week. It's not nothing. I am going to focus on that.

Also I have my first physical therapy appointment tomorrow morning bright and early, and that's almost sure to cheer me up. I mean, injuries both acute and chronic suck, but having an active role to play in the healing (or, in this case, the slowing of the inevitable deterioration) can feel remarkably empowering. So I'm looking forward to that.

the work goes slowly but nevertheless it goes
Thu 2021-03-18 21:11:51 (single post)
  • 2,810 words (if poetry, lines) long

Food content in today's blog post is going to be minimal because I'm in the middle of revisions, and revisions are hard, and I'm going to whine about that.

Also there isn't much to say about the food, beyond that 1. if you're going to substitute oysters for shrimp in this recipe, you probably need to account for the oysters being rather smaller than your average prawn to begin with and then shrinking as you fry them. Which is not to say they weren't delicious. I would happily eat a meal of nothing but those oysters in that fry prep and sauce, noodles optional. But that would be rather labor intensive what with the shucking and all, and I have kimchi plans for the rest of these oysters.

AND ALSO 2. if you are going to put the oyster brine into the dish, you have to subtract an equivalent amount of liquid from the recipe, or else you get a slightly soupier result. Unless you just cook it longer, in which case you might end up with overcooked noodles. One or the other. (Next time I think I'd sub the brine for the 2 tbl water in the cornstarch slurry.)

It was tasty, though. I ate it all. And that's all I have to say about that.

So. Revisions! I'm simultaneously revising two things, a poem and a short story, both of which I want to submit to Nightmare Magazine before their current open submission window closes on Sunday. And the work is going remarkably slowly.

In the case of the poem, it's mainly that I've got an image I am telling a very short story about in verse... and that's pretty much all I know. The rest is the problem of UNLIMITED CHOICE, and I'm having the darndest time deciding anything concrete. So I keep throwing words and phrases at the page, hoping that something will stick. There's a lot of uncertainty here. Today's session felt a bit more successful to the extent that I reduced the amount of uncertainty more than in previous sessions. Hooray. But sometimes poems come easily and sometimes they just suck, and this poem is definitely not an example of the former.

As for the story--ye gods, this story. It's got a major pacing problem. The tension tightens and tightens like a good horror story do, and then all of a sudden we end up at the end without having hit the anticipated turning-point-of-no-return. I've suspected it will take a new scene to fix it, but without any clue what that scene will look like or where it should go. So I've been putting that decision off, or, to put it more generously, laying the groundwork for making that decision, by doing line-level edits to the rest of the story. And it's working! I have a much better idea of what the new scene will look like! It will look like several new scenes.

Did I mention this thing needs to be submitted by Sunday? Argh.

I console myself with the indisputable fact that I have managed to find time and energy for revision sessions four whole days in a row. Four! And each of those sessions has brought non-trivial improvements to the story. So while it's easy to think I've spent all this week circling around the real problem without actually landing--because I'm a writer, right, and writers are by and large very good at talking smack about ourselves, and devaluing our own accomplishments, and catastrophizing about what we perceive as our failures--in truth, I really have been making progress.

But progress is happening so slowly.

Look, I'm going to submit something by Sunday, OK? One poem, one story. But I might keep revising them afterward, right? Because odds are they're going to get rejected so I can submit them again. That's not self-smack-talk! That's just sheer numeric probability, given how prestigious the market is, how few open slots they've got, and the skill and talent and artistry of the authors competing for those slots. Hell, even if I am fortunate enough to make a sale here, there will likely be a revisions phase. So basically, what I'm saying is, deadlines happen but the work continues.

For how long? Until I've decided it's enough, dang it. At which point, back to the reprint rewrite. Woo.

Dinner is served. Well, appetizer, anyway.
Should last up to 10 days in the fridge.
Useful tools and a lovely note.
got a shucking knife, not afraid to use it
Tue 2021-03-16 19:29:34 (single post)
  • 2,810 words (if poetry, lines) long

Writing content in this blog post will be minimal. THE OYSTERS HAVE ARRIVED and I'm a little obsessed.

You remember, right? The mail-order oysters I mentioned splurging on? Yeah. They showed up today. And I have successfully shucked and eaten a few of them. Hooray!

There was a little anxiety at first, because I had no idea how to read a timestrip. The Real Oyster Cult FAQ says that if the temp sensor hasn't turned blue, you're cool. Great! So I open up the package, I pull out the two baggies of live oysters (Truro Pearls and Irish Point, 20 each), I find the temp sensor strip at the bottom of the box, I flip it open, and it is all blue. Oh shit! Panic! Needlessly. I was looking at the completely cosmetic faceplate color, rather than the actual temp sensor window--which was still empty and white, indicating that the oysters had spent no appreciable time above 50 degrees. To be fair, making the faceplate the same color as the temperature sensor dye was definitely a choice. Anyway, an email to ROC with a photo of the thing cleared up the whole misunderstanding without delaying my dinner one bit.

And I had been very good. I had put in my time and my wordcount by then. I'd got the beginnings of a new poem, a decent start on the February 19 Friday Fictionette (still a month overdue, but still uploading a new one every Friday or as soon afterward as possible), and real progress on revising the story I intend to submitting to Nightmare Magazine this week. (I've got until Sunday to submit it, so everything's fine.) I'd even done my bunny chores--I gave Holland his daily fresh veg, tidied up his habitat, refilled his various hay containers, and gave him treats.

I'd done my homework, is what I'm saying, so I was free to play with oysters.

They were a lot easier to shuck than I remember from when Dad taught me several years ago. But then they were a lot smaller than gulf south oysters and also a bit pointier around the hinge. I made myself up a lovely little plate with a half dozen on the half-shell, each with a dollop of that fantastic caramelized shallot spread on top, and then a couple pieces of crawfish bread. Crawfish bread is not as effective as plain French bread for sopping up oyster brine, being already fairly sopping with cheese and spices and crawfish tails, but that's OK. It's tastier. And I am not above tilting the plate up to my mouth and simply drinking whatever's left.

As I mentioned before, this splurge was in celebration of a rather special huge big deal of a story sale, so when I placed the order, I left myself a little gift message commemorating that. It sounds hokey, and it is hokey, but I still got such a happy thrill when I opened up the shipping box and found a hand-written gift card inside saying, "Dear Niki: Congratulations on your first sale of fiction to Apex! Love, Niki."

So now I have a very hard choice to make. Do I commit the sin of drowning the delicate briny flavor of these maritime gems in kimchi? Or do I give myself the joy of homemade kimchi flavored with fresh delicious oysters? That's a trick question, of course. The answer is yes, and also yes. Besides, I'm only going to make half the recipe anyway, so there will still be a few oysters left to do other things with. (I'm thinking of subbing a few in for the shrimp in this dragon & phoenix recipe.)

So that's the story. It's Tuesday, I'm feeling accomplished, and life is delicious. I hope things are going just as well for you, whoever you are and wherever you may be.

there's such a thing as overdoing it
Wed 2021-03-10 12:57:17 (single post)
  • 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long
  • 2,540 words (if poetry, lines) long

Ha. So remember that "long and deeply satisfying skating session" last week? Well, it turns out that when I kick my own butt skating for three hours straight, including over less than hospitable terrain (the sidewalks! OMG, the sidewalks on the east side of 28th Street! Whyyyyy?), and then the very next day I take part in an exceedingly ambitious 40-minute HIIT workshop that's heavy on the same muscles I wore out skating the day before, the result is several days of being pretty much good for nothing but whining.

I have been a little more cautious in my daily workout since.

I mean, I'm still trying to have a daily workout. That has been my goal for March. A year of no roller derby has meant fewer hours of physical activity per week, and lower-quality exercise when I do exercise because I'm not a particularly strict self-coach. My endurance has suffered, and so has my strength, both in terms of both ability and muscle mass/definition. I am a pathetic noodle during the league's Thursday night Zoom workouts. I've put on weight, and though weight is a number that never meant much to me before, it says something when that number's the highest it's ever been in my adult life. (I've never paid much attention to BMI either, except to note that it, like one's credit score, is a metric that is notorious for being misused, with malice aforethought, to make people's lives measurably worse. But realizing that my current BMI might qualify me for the COVID vaccine a little earlier than I had hitherto expected is just weird.) And my blood pressure, which metric does mean quite a lot to me, has been up a titch. So! Daily exercise is my current goal.

Yesterday's exercise was going to be skating, but I left it for too late, and now it's going to be snowing through the weekend. Yuck. So yesterday's exercise was an extremely modest amount of squats, sit-ups, crunches, knee-lifts, and leg-lifts. Like, fifteen minutes, all told. Not an impressive session. Enough to say there was a non-zero amount of exercise in the day, which is the main thing. Today will be similar. Then tomorrow, being a Thursday, will kick my butt again, but because I won't come to Thursday's workout with a pre-kicked butt, I should be functional the next day.

Which is all very much the long way of saying "No, I haven't gotten back to the revision of 'Lambing Season' yet, sorry." I'm going to put that sucker to the side for now, though, because I would very much like to have a horror original to send to Nightmare Magazine when it opens to all demographics for the week of the 14th. And I know just the story. I think I can get it revised in time, but I need to start today.

(Oh, look! They'll take poetry that week, too!)

Meanwhile, I promised you a recipe. Or a method. Or a something involving chicken, mushrooms, asparagus, and cream. Here, then, is that something.

Step One: Read this. Then put it away. We're not so much following a recipe as improvising on an idea. This recipe is the idea. Also preheat the oven to 350.

Step Two: The big cast-iron pan. Bacon in little chunks. Medium heat until greasy.

Step Three: Chicken breasts, liberally coated on both sides in LOTS of fresh ground pepper (seriously, this makes the dish) and a little salt, on top of the bacon. While they sear, sliced onions and mushrooms on top of that. Eventually, when that first side has cooked enough, flip the chicken, let the other side cook a bit. Then slice it into slices. Introduce those slices more thoroughly to the onions and mushrooms and also the heat.

Step Four: Now what? You want to boil some pasta, but your chicken onion mushroom mess is taking up the burner you want to use! Guess you'd better just shove that whole cast iron pan into the oven along with the crawfish bread. (The crawfish bread was why we preheated the oven in the first place.) Problem solved! Now boil up that pasta.

Step Five: While the pasta's cooking, check on the pan in the oven. Add some cream to the liquid being released from the mushrooms. It'll look a bit like cream of mushroom soup. That's fine. Let it boil down. When convenient, return the pan to the stovetop and the heat to medium-high. Add more cream if you want. It's sort of a balancing act between "is it thick enough" (no? cook it longer) and "is it creamy enough" (no? add cream). The flow chart also includes "can you wait any longer?" (no? eat it).

We are not worrying about the chicken. The chicken isn't getting overcooked or dry in this mess. The chicken is getting braised.

Step Six: So the sauce is the right consistency, the pasta is waiting to be introduced to it, you're ready to eat. BUT WAIT! There's asparagus! Toss it into the sauce and leave it on the heat only as much longer as it takes to get the asparagus cooked to your taste. Then: remove from heat, sprinkle with parmesan, and toss it all about so the parmesan gets melty.

And now it's done. Serve it over that pasta. Eat it all. Lick the bowl. And save a little bread to mop up the pan. The sauce is really tasty.

a refreshing lack of direness and some surprise chicken
Wed 2021-03-03 23:03:03 (single post)
  • 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long

Dear Diary: Today is a Red Letter Day! I have got up on time and done all my writing (excepting this Very Important Missive) by four of the clock in the Afternoon. As you might Imagine, this has left me simply oodles of daylight and evening for all sorts of Pleasant Pastimes...

*Ahem.* No, seriously, it's been great. I had a long and deeply satisfying skating session outside, taking advantage of this single perfect day between snowstorms when enough of the previous storm's accumulations of ice have melted away to allow for rolling, but the next storm hasn't yet started. Then I came home and logged into Story Hour to hear Meg Elison and Gabriela Santiago read their glorious and heartwrenching tales. (I was very good and did not get any tears on my cross-stitching.) And now I am pleasantly ensconced in the bath with a beer, writing this blog post and letting my poor abused adductor muscles relax.

You may recall my announcing an upcoming appearance on Story Hour. That is scheduled for May 5. I suggest you make this Zoom or Facebook livestream part of your weekly routine, so that by the time that date rolls around it'll simply be habit and you'll be able to catch it easily. Story Hour airs each Wednesday at 7:00 PM Pacific Time and runs for an hour, with two authors reading for half an hour each. I know that's pretty darn late for y'all in the Eastern time zone; if you can't catch it live--or even if you can!--you'll be able to watch the archived video on Facebook whenever you like.

Today was also weird and surprising in that we got some windfall groceries. Some chicken breasts, mushrooms, asparagus, and heavy cream that no one at this address asked for are in the fridge now, and there's a packet of sliced almonds and some shallots in the pantry. John ordered his usual game night snack food supplies from Safeway, and they brought him the wrong order. Unfortunately, this means John doesn't get chocolate and potato chips during tonight's Apex Legends session. On the other hand, I'm now plotting a creamy pasta dish for after tomorrow evening's BCB workout. Of course I will share the details with you. Probably in tomorrow night's blog post.

(I'll probably save the shallots to do the caramelized shallot, anchovy, and tomato paste sauce/spread again. That stuff was excellent. I finished off the leftovers by spreading it on the toast I made an open-face green onion omelet with.)

"But what about the story?" I hear you cry. "The one that was tying you up into guilt-ridden knots and revision angst?" Yes, well, never fear, I did not shirk my duty. Avoidance came calling, but I said "Not today, avoidance!" and got right to it. I read the manuscript through carefully and left myself nearly a thousand words of margin notes. That sounds kind of daunting, but I'm honestly not sure I'm going to act on the majority of those notes. It is an extremely imperfect story in many ways, and in many ways it will remain imperfect. I don't want to set myself the task of making an entirely new story out of it except at dire need.

And the need may not be so dire. The themes of dehumanization are more evenly balanced than I remembered; it's the (presumed white) townspeople who have the first episode of inhuman aggression. (That would be the scene where the stranger rolls through town and is careless at a 4-way stop.) And I think that once I fix the beginning, and of course those bits directly affected by the change in the beginning, certain resonances will emerge to shift the balance away from the "white neighbors friendly, brown shepherds scary" dynamic, and more towards "Oh, shit, another group of people I came to trust that I suddenly can't trust. Maybe I can't trust myself, either."

All right, I'm not happy about Bob making the racist joke about worshipping cows in India. If I leave it in, it's gonna need some pushback. I think I know how to do that, but I'll have to see how the fix looks on the page.

Anyway. Not saying I'm perfectly satisfied that the limited changes I'm now planning will fix everything. But I am willing to start out with just those changes, and then to see where things stand.

So that's the state of the rerprint revisions. Thank you for joining me on this journey, and I hope to give you more good news (and possibly a recipe) tomorrow.

an occasion to rethink and revise before reprinting
Tue 2021-03-02 22:46:47 (single post)
  • 3,453 words (if poetry, lines) long
  • 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long

So, just to remind y'all that the author is a New Orleanian author, lemme tell you what happened this week. So yesterday, OK, the payment for the short story I sold to Apex Magazine arrived via PayPal. Hooray! So today I decided to celebrate the sale, as I had not tangibly celebrated it yet, by splurging on mail-order oysters. In fact, I ordered the gift bundle (it's a gift for me! From me!) on the strength of it including a free shucking knife and gloves, reason being, I don't own any yet and I probably should, and I don't want to make a special trip to--where would I even buy an oyster shucking knife in Boulder, Colorado? A restaurant supply store, I suppose. Or I'd have to mail order it from somewhere and try to get the two separate shipments to coincide. Hell with that. This is easier.

Anyway. Oysters coming mid-March. Forty of 'em. I'm gonna slurp up a dozen on arrival, then chop up the rest for kimchi. (That link there, that's the recipe that got Dad's whole hunting club asking, "Niki's coming home next week, you say? Will she make us kimchi again? Tell her to make it spicier this time.")

All right, yes, I could have been responsible and left the money in my PayPal account against actual household necessities. But it's not like we're relying on my story sales to make household ends meet. (Hoo, girls-n-boys, would we be in trouble if we were!) Besides--a sale to Apex Magazine! The hell to the yes that deserves celebrating!

(Don't worry, it only cost about half the check. I'm sure I can find something responsible to do with the rest.)

So for my next trick, I'd like to see if I can get "Lambing Season" reprinted again. It initially appeared in NAMELESS Magazine #3 in March of 2014. (You can still purchase the issue as an ebook from that link for $3.99. I recommend it; there's a lot of good stuff in there, including a haunting story by my friend and colleague Nicole Cushing.) It's been reprint only once so far, as episode 413 of Tales to Terrify, narrated beautifully by Summer Brooks, on December 19, 2019. (You can listen to it there for free, along with a retrospective of the horror of the two-thousand-teens.)

...And that's probably a good thing. The only having been reprinted once, I mean. Because... Wow there's some problematic bits in the story. Which I completely overlooked when I wrote the story because Hi there, white privilege! Without even having laid eyes or ears on it since the Tales to Terrify outing, I knew I'd need to revise the opening a titch. Here's the second paragraph so you can see what I mean:

I'd so badly needed to escape. Months had passed since I'd last been able to relax. In my mind, I was always on duty, no matter what the clock said. Then my partner went to the hospital on a bullet fired by a twelve-year-old girl, and I started suspecting everyone I met of being armed and dangerous. The chief suggested I take off the uniform and badge for a while before I wound up shooting someone for startling me.

Wow. Just... wow. That sounds like nothing so much as a "Blue Lives Matter" defense of the cop who murdered Tamir Rice. "How was he supposed to know it was only a toy gun? Some of those urban kids out there, those little monsters'd shoot you soon as look at you. You try taking time in one of those neighborhoods to verify if the gun is real, you're dead."

Eeeuuurgh. No. So much no. There is no way I'm submitting that story to be reprinted with that opening. Should be simple enough to fix, though. Instead of a crisis of paranoia, the main character can have a crisis of conscience over her partner having shot a child, and the rest of the department rallying around to defend him, and maybe the protagonist's reluctance to join in the defense is why the chief suggests she take a temporary unpaid leave. Much more believable of a scenario (except for the crisis of conscience part, I fear), and a lot more defensible then what's there now. Because, face it, what's there now is doing white supremacy's work of upholding the narrative of cops who are more wronged than wrong-doing even when they've just fired a bullet into a Black child's body, or knelt on a Black man's neck until he suffocated. As though that had anything to do with justice and keeping the peace. My God. No. I will have no part of even appearing to support those abominations. Not if I can help it. Not any more than I already have, Gods forgive me.

(Virtue signaling? Damn straight I am, and what's wrong with that? The bigots are out there signaling to each other all the time with their dog-whistles and bullhorns everywhere from the corner store to the Capitol. The rest of us are gonna damn well "signal" that we stand four-square against that shit. Got it? Good.)

Except it's not going to be as simple as fixing the opening, turns out.

The manuscript was still in one long LibreOffice RTF, so the first thing I did tonight was pull the manuscript into a Scrivener project and break it up into scenes. There were hard-coded tab-indents, too, so I had to remove those by hand because Scrivener for Windows still doesn't have find-and-replace for special characters. So that required traveling paragraph by paragraph through the whole story. Which meant I was lightly skimming the text as I went along. Which resulted in my realizing the racism kinda permeates the whole story.

I'm not going to get into the details at this time. It's not that I'm worried about spoiling the story for you; you can go read or listen to it right now if you haven't already. No, it's that I know, with a sinking, that I have yet to uncover all the details. Right now I just have a general impression of the dehumanization of non-white people in this story. And you could argue that it's not just the shepherds but all the townspeople too who are under Maud Shempf's sway, they're all going to wind up fleeced and turned into mutton eventually. But the predominately (implied) white townspeople get to act like human beings, even so, while the predominately (heavily implied) black and brown shepherds get to have "dead shark stares" while they menace the protagonist (including with a gun!). And yeah, that could stand as a metaphor for the way systems of authority regularly dehumanize non-white people--but that's not how it looks on the page at this time. At this time, it looks hella racist, and it makes me cringe.

So I'll be taking my time the rest of this week going over the story with a fine-toothed comb, trying my damnedest to blunt its capacity to do harm. It may take more than a week, in which case I'll put it aside temporarily, because the next story in the revision queue has a deadline. But then I'll come back to it, because this is job that needs to be done right more than it needs to be done in a hurry.

Whew. I warned y'all a while back this blog was gonna get political from time to time. Because the alternative is to be silently oblivious, and all that does is prop up the status quo. And the status quo has really gotta go.

Cover art incorporates and modifies glacier and dinosaur images from Pixabay
a strange but workable (for now) definition of On Time
Fri 2021-02-26 22:38:27 (single post)
  • 946 words (if poetry, lines) long
  • 1,073 words (if poetry, lines) long
  • 1,115 words (if poetry, lines) long
  • 1,120 words (if poetry, lines) long

Not so much whining today, as it turns out. What was that I said about external systems of structure and accountability? Today's external accountability mechanisms were my Boulder Food Rescue shift and my various curbside shopping errands, for getting me out of bed on time; and Cat Rambo's afternoon co-writing session, for getting me back to work by 2 PM rather than collapsing into a nap that would eat up the rest of my productive day.

(And what with having been up from early (for me) and not napped, maybe I'll sleep better tonight.)

Because today went so well, I can give you the January 2021 Friday Fictionette Round-up on time, which is to say, no more than the same month I've been late for quite a few months now. Huzzah!

January 1: "My Sister Draws Things" (ebook, audio) In which sisters have each other's backs, and imagination is queen.

January 8: "What the Desert Dreams" (ebook, audio) In which creation and destruction walk hand in hand, no matter what any nearby creator gods have to say about it.

January 15: "How It Begins" (ebook, audio) In which pet sphinxes are a comfort to a lonely old woman.

January 22: "What Is Not Prohibited" (ebook, audio) In which we are not the first nor yet the cleverest to question the three laws of robotics.

The Fictionette Freebie for January 2021 is "My Sister Draws Things", so you can download and enjoy that one regardless of whether you're a paid subscriber.

Also, dinner tonight is pasta with sausage and cream, only I used penne instead of shells, ground breakfast sausage instead of sweet Italian, and a whole lot of fennel seeds, hot pepper flakes, white and pink peppercorns, and nutmeg.

And that is all.

whining my way toward a better way of ordering my day
Thu 2021-02-25 22:35:54 (single post)

Today's post is going to be a whining post. Be warned now. Or be happy, I dunno. I get a lot of comfort out of reading the whining of experienced and successful writers; it tells me that even they have off-days with avoidance issues and difficulty getting the butt in the chair. Which means my having days or even weeks like that doesn't mean I'll never be an experienced and successful writer myself. Indeed, I am now a somewhat experienced writer who is at least more successful than she was two years ago, so you may wish to take my whining in that spirit yourself.

Here is the whine: lately I've been having trouble getting up on time to make the morning co-writing session, or indeed getting any writing done in the morning at all. The lure of hot tea and a Morning Pages session with a backdrop of Rewarded Play usage points, it seems, can't compete with the temptation of staying in bed just a little longer, especially now that I've actually reached a state of solid sleep and technicolor dreams (which I often don't reach nearly as soon as I ought). So I wind up failing to drag my butt to the home office until something like noon.

This is a problem in so many ways.

It throws me off my routine, for one thing. You'd think it wouldn't matter--that no matter what time I get up, all I have to do is hit START on the established process. But no. The later I get up, the more slowly I move through the next steps, and the more time I lose.

And by then I've already lost the prime morning hours when writing comes more easily. Rachel Aaron, in her book 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, talks about the importance of figuring out when and where you're most productive--she is all about tracking your data and looking for patterns--and it turns out I am most productive in the morning at my desk in the home office. It also turns out I am the laziest night owl ever to attempt to pose as a morning bird.

So now I'm relying on the afternoon to get my writing started at all, which is never a safe bet. And I'll be relying on the evening to finish up the day's tasks. And that's even more of a problem, because by evening time I'm tired, I'd rather play, and, pandemic notwithstanding, I might just have something scheduled for the evening. Tonight, for example, was BCB Workout night. Whipsie Daisy led us in yoga, which was awesome! Convincing myself to complete the last items on my to-do list after I'd worn myself out with surprisingly difficult balance-and-strength poses was less awesome. And I've still got a half hour of reading to record for AINC before I sleep.

Eventually I wind up with this dilemma: fail to get certain things done, or stay up late getting them done? Staying up late is going to happen anyway, it turns out, which then makes getting up on time the next morning more difficult. And so the cycle is complete, the snake is biting its own tail, the downward spiral continues another round down the turning screw, etc., etc.,

All of which is quite sad and also pathetic. But there is one more stupidity hiding in this morass of foolishness, and that has to do with how I find myself approaching the afternoon co-writing session.

The afternoon co-writing session is great. (I may have mentioned.) It may in fact be a write-saver. For as long as I've separated my writing day into the Morning Shift and the Afternoon Shift, I've found it extremely difficult to come off of lunch break and get started on the Afternoon Shift. Knowing that I damn well have to get started right at 2:00 PM because that's when the co-writing session starts--that's been fantastic motivation.

But today, while I was considering the day's schedule, I found myself reasoning thusly: "Oh, dear. Once again I'll be pulling my first shift of the day during afternoon co-writing. When it's my turn to share with the group what I'm working on, do I really want to say, 'freewriting and fictionette' again? Maybe I should reverse the order of operations. It'll sound a lot more impressive to say 'I'm working on a brand new poem which I think I'll be able to submit tonight.'"

Now, there are valid reasons to reverse my usual order of operations. But wanting to sound more impressive to my co-writing colleagues isn't one of them.

(This, by the way, would be reason #375 that Morning Pages are good for me. I'm more likely to catch my really specious reasoning and correct it if I take the time to consciously discover it lurking in my brain.)

So, yeah. This failure to get out of bed on time is a problem. I have some ideas out of which I might cobble a solution, but those will be the subject of a different blog post.

A different blog post also full of whining.

You have been warned.

not too proud to need to hack my own brain
Wed 2021-02-24 23:45:22 (single post)

I actually feel good about posting to the actually writing blog today, because today I actually wrote. I got stuff done! I submitted a whole bunch of things! I wrote a whole bunch of words! I wrote down this morning's dreams, which were 1500 words of detail right there. I hit every item on today's timesheet, and that's not an everyday occurrence! ("It's OK, to-do lists are aspirational" is my latest affirmation.)

On top of all the good writing stuff that went on today, John and I succeeded in finishing off Holland's bi-monthly "bunny tune-up" checklist (which is not aspirational but obligatory). This involved John holding him while I cleaned out his scent folds, and, I tell you what, Holland is not nearly as cooperative as the bunny in this instructional video. Holland bore a bit of a grudge for, like, a whole hour, but after that he was back to bounding around the living room and nudging my ankle for treats.

I'm almost feeling too good. I'm a little suspicious of the feeling. So how about I sabotage it by making a shameful confession? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Well, OK, let's put this a bit more positively. Since I'm feeling so good, I've got a bit of resilience stored up, so now's a good time to confess to something that would normally make me feel a little ashamed of myself. Irrationally, I will add. Without provocation. But it's so easy to get down on oneself about so many things that, when you really get right down to it, don't matter in the least. Right, writers? Y'all know what I'm talking about here. But I've stored up a lot of Good Feels today, so let's reveal some of the shameful underbelly of the beast we call Niki's Process.

First, though, let's provide some context. As a writer, I live or die--well, write or don't write--by my mind-hacks. That's enough of a confession right there. As a Baby Writer, I heard enough Wise Elders proclaiming that if you need mind-hacks, you are obviously not a "real" writer. Real writers write because they just! can't! not! If it's ever hard to get started, if you ever find yourself in the throes of avoidance or so-called writer's block, such that you need to trick yourself to get the writing done--well, the Wise Elders said, that's a sign you should give up and go do something easier, like web programming or accountancy.

Thankfully, I've gotten very good at calling bullshit on that particular bit of gatekeeping nonsense. I suspect such Wise Elders as being akin to that Twitter Pundit who tweeted (and then de-tweeted) the following crock-o-feces: "HARSH WRITING ADVICE: Your writer friends are also your competition. Sorry." I'm happy to say that a bunch of my writer acquaintances, colleagues, and, yes, friends, pounced on this ill-informed bit of hogwash and turned it into fun and games, and also actual good advice.

Point is, I think it must be the sort of writer who sees other writers as primarily their competition who also thinks it must be a good thing to expose Baby Writers in their infancy. Y'know, so as to have fewer writers competing with them for eyeballs and dollars.

So! It is therefore decided: Mind-hacks are fine. Whatever it takes to get you writing and, hopefully, feeling good about yourself, hey, an it harm none, do what ye will.

Mur Lafferty talks about mind-hacks in her podcast I Should Be Writing. In Season 17, Episode 13, around about timestamp 7:25, she warms to the subject...

"There are lots and lots of tricks that you can do to fool your head into thinking it's enjoying itself.... The thing I'm learning about habits, and making new habits that you may not want to do, is, attach it to something you do like."

Which is great advice. She talks about eating an M&M candy for every 200 words, or how one of her listeners might use a visit to their horse as incentive to get some edits done. Heck, I did a thing today that's right along those lines--I got myself and my squad of Pikmin poised to descend to the next level of Hole of Heroes that I hadn't visited yet, then hit pause, telling myself, "You get to continue after you've done your freewriting and your Friday Fictionette work for the day." And so I did!

But there's another "attach it to something you do like" trick I do, darn near daily, which feels less defensible. I, er...

*ahem*

...I use Rewarded Play to earn Barnes & Nobles gift cards. And I use that as an incentive to do my Morning Pages.

Argh. It's so stupid! Just when I get less cringey about admitting that I do Morning Pages (from reading too many Wise Elder Writers poo-poo'ing The Artist's Way as so much woo, I suppose), now I get to confess that I have a hard time making myself do them sometimes (at which confession the Wise Elders pounce: "A-ha, that's because you know deep down that it's a stupid waste of time!" No, you jerk, it's because Morning Pages force me to confront the contents of my brain, and my brain is not always a happy place), and that I get around this by indulging in a petty exercise of "Yay I got free stuff I could have just paid for because it's not like we're not well-off enough to buy books."

I suppose it's not that weird. Some people like gambling in casinos; I like doing stupid clicky things to earn gift cards. I have a Swagbucks account, too. It's a meta-game, OK? It is possible this is an offshoot of the benign family tradition of Ha Ha I'm Clever I Got Away With Something. I don't know. But then you add Rewarded Play's daily streak bonus, and BOOM, you're just playing into my obsessive completist side that begins instinctively to treat making the daily 5K points as an obligation. Like, gotta do my Morning Pages, gotta do my freewriting, gotta make 5,000 points on Rewarded Play.

So at some point I got into the habit of running the app during Morning Pages. I start up one of the rewarded apps, set the timer on my flip-phone for 4 minutes, then scribble in my notebook until the timer goes off. Pause the scribbling. Close the app. Confirm that Rewarded Play awarded me my daily usage points. Then start the next app up and another 4-minute timer.

Lather, rinse, repeat until three pages of longhand scribbling are done.

The whole process sort of soothes that one particular set of brain weasels that's like MUST! ALWAYS! BE! MULTITASKING! Which, fair. Four minutes multiplied by twenty-three apps equals a lot of time; if I can get some of it done at the same as another must-do-daily thing, well, cool! And despite it being such a mechanical, brainless, non-essential task, it still results in a vague sense of accomplishment...

Which could be dangerous, actually. Non-essential playtime tasks that result in a sense of accomplishment run a real risk of checking off the mental "I got stuff done today!" to-do list. Like little cuckoo nestlings, they can eat up all the sense of urgency and obligation that ought to have pushed me to do my writing. But that's the other good reason for attaching fun things to the (hopefully also fun but not always) writing things. If I don't do the playtime thing before the writing thing, then I don't risk getting my daily done of sense-o-accomplishment exclusively off the playtime things.

So I wake up, and I don't wanna get out of bed, and I definitely don't wanna do Morning Pages. "But if you start Morning Pages, you get to start the Rewarded Play daily usage points too," Smart Me wheedles. "Also, you get your cup of tea. You want that cup of tea, don't you?"

Lazy Me allows as how yes, now that Smart Me mentions it, a cup of tea sounds very, very nice right now. A cup of tea might even make up for this whole worthless getting out of bed shinola.

"Splendid," says Smart Me. "Let's get to it."

And so we do.

stealth foodie blog strikes again: mardi gras edition
Tue 2021-02-16 22:52:54 (single post)

Welp, all that crowing about the Zoom co-writing structure-and-motivation for the day, and what happens? I utterly fail this week to 1. get to bed on time, 2. get up on time, 3. make the morning co-writing session. Alas! Counterpoint: A. "This week" refers to two whole days, let's not panic here; B. I've still gotten a metric ton of stuff done, because after the afternoon co-writing session ends there's still a lot of afternoon and evening left. So it's all cool.

But that is not what I came to blog about. I came to blog about winning at dinner. Yes, again. I get very excited about this sort of thing. This is nominally a blog about actually writing, but it is also a stealth foodie blog. (You're welcome.)

A friend of mine tweeted approvingly about this recipe here, Caramelized Shallot Pasta, and I got all interested. I mean, I like anchovies. I like pasta. I like absolutely everything about what I see here. Let's try it.

What follows are step-by-step instructions to wind up with precisely, or more or less, what I wound up with for dinner on Lundi Gras (and lots of leftovers for Mardi Gras).

One. About three business days before you want to do this, maybe five days if catastrophic winter storms are forecast for the weekend, order you a 3-pack of crawfish bread. Yes, it's expensive, but if you can budget for it once a year, I say go for it. Mardi Gras is a great time of year for this, but so is your birthday, or in fact any of your 364 unbirthdays. (Obviously you should only do this if crawfish, cheese, and bread of the gluten variety are things you eat. And if you like spicy things. This is a spicy thing.)

Two. About two and a half hours before you want to eat, start you thawing a loaf of the crawfish bread, if crawfish bread you are doing. I only allowed two hours, and it wasn't quite enough. Also, start defrosting a pound of boneless chicken breasts.

Three. Go get that pasta recipe and follow Steps 1 through 3, ending with the bit where you squirrel away half of the resulting paste for future enjoyment. I did not use a dutch oven, but rather my largest cast-iron pan. That turned out to be pretty much ideal.

Around now is a good time to preheat the oven to 350 F.

Four. This is where the multitasking starts. I got the pasta started in the usual stainless steel pot on the front burner on the left. I returned the cast-iron pan to the front burner on the right, removed the anchovy-shallot-tomato paste to a plate (to which I added another big teaspoon of hot pepper flakes because YOLO), and started the now empty-ish pan going over medium-high. Into the goodness remaining from the pan's previous activities I tossed two diced tomatoes as a sort of deglazing agent and also the chicken breasts. Salt and pepper on the chicken breasts to your taste; if you're me, that's a few twists on a salt grinder and about a tablespoon of black peppercorns rough-ground in a mortar and pestle. Pan fry the chicken until it is almost but not quite done through, slicing it up into strips whenever convenient.

Somewhere around here is when you shove the crawfish bread into the oven.

Five. Pick up again with Step 4 of the pasta recipe: Add the cup of pasta water, the very al dente pasta, and the anchovy-shallot-tomato paste to chicken and tomatoes in the pan, and let 'em thicken and coat just like the directions say. The chicken will finish cooking during this stage; so will the pasta. Follow through with Step 5 and the garlic-parsley mixture. By the time all this is done, the crawfish bread should also be fully heated, though you may still have to wait for it to cool a few minutes so you're not slicing into lava.

Plate it all up, optionally serving with a bottle of Abita's Mardi Gras Bock or other favorite carbonated beverage. Either resist the urge to have seconds or resign yourself to groaning and gently rolling uselessly around the house for the rest of the night.

And that is the process that led to this picture I tweeted. You're welcome!

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