Thank you, Ms. Cleary

Beverly Cleary died yesterday and a part of my childhood died with her. 

Cleary was the author of some of the greatest books for children ever written. She wrote Socks, a book I used to read, finish, then start reading again. She wrote the Mouse and The Motorcycle trilogy, featuring Ralph. If you’ve never read them, they’re a fun time. 

Most importantly, though, for me, was Ramona. Beverly Cleary wrote Ramona, and in doing so she changed how I saw the world.

Ramona is a scrappy kid. She’s always done her own thing, and her thing isn’t always the best. She had stringy brown hair, like me. She had scuffed-up knees and stains on her school dresses. The worst thing in her life was having to wear ugly second-hand rain boots. When her dad lost his job and decides to go back to school, her mom goes to work.

Ramona wasn’t anything like the characters in other kids’ books and shows. But she was very much like me.

Much like Ramona, I was a stringy-haired little girl who didn’t always get the world. When Ramona draws cattails on her Q’s, I remember getting in trouble for doodling loops all along my practice papers. When she squeezes out all the toothpaste in the tube or takes just one bite out of every apple in a bin, I want to do those things. Even though as an adult who understands money, those things make me want to cringe. Wasting a whole tube of toothpaste, when they’re not cheap!

Ramona was awkward, messy, loud, selfish. She was a pain in the ass. But so was I as a kid. We all are. And too often as kids we’re left wondering what it was we did that has everyone so mad. 

There are a million real moments in these books. Some are awful but relatable. Like when Henry’s grandmother is fine taking the money to watch Ramona but doesn’t seem to care for actually watching her. These sorts of moments make the good times all the better. Like when Ramona finally learns to ride her bike, with the ribbon laced through the spokes to create a bright red circle when she rides.

One scene that comes back to me over and over is this. Ramona’s had a hard day. When she gets home, she finds that her mother’s had one too. Her mother says they should go out for burgers for dinner. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for Ramona. She has a vision of sitting in a snug booth with her family, enjoying hot fries and bubbly soda.

Then her dad comes home, and he’s been laid off. 

There’s no way the family can go out for burgers. So, instead, the parents make do and make pancakes.

And you know what? I’ve been there. I’ve been there as a kid who has to settle for pancakes after a hard day. And I’ve been there as the adult who’s just happy they were able to scrape together some kind of dinner after a hard day. It’s life. 

What Ramona did was tell me I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t bad, or wrong. I was just human. We’re all just humans. 

Thank you for that, Ms. Cleary. Thank you for giving me books full of struggles and joys that I could see myself reflected in. Thank you for brightening my childhood and giving me the tools to handle adulthood. Thank you for giving the world Ramona, Ralph, Socks, Henry Huggins and Ribsy. Thank you for every time I found one of your books in a second-hand store, battered but whole. Thank you for every moment I spent reading them laying out on the grass, or in my childhood bedrooms.

At over 100 years old, we couldn’t have asked you to stay. You’ve earned your rest. May we carry your torch. 

Bullet journal pages, weekly and monthly

A little while ago I shared a list of my favorite bullet journal collections to keep my sanity and my plants. When I did so, I also promised a list of my everyday pages. Pages that I set up for the month and week that allow me to keep track of my projects, due dates, house and everything else I need to keep track of. 

Well, folks, today is that day. We’re going to be looking at my monthly pages, what function they serve, and what sort of planning goes into them.

They’re not pretty, and most of them aren’t unique. But they are lifesavers. I know I lived before I had a bullet journal. I just don’t know how.

The first thing I put in is a cover page. It is 100% not necessary and serves no other purpose but designating the start of the month. I just happen to think they’re nice. And, since part of the reason I bullet journal is to have fun with drawing and scrapbooking, this is one place for it to shine. 

Next comes the calendar. Now, a lot of bullet journalers like to use a layout that resembles a full monthly calendar. I like the traditional vertical layout with one line per day. This gives me plenty of space to write down any appointments or events for the day. I can also put in big satisfying lines for things like vacations. Finally, I keep track of the days of the week on one side, and the moon cycles on the other. Everything I need to know about a month is in one place.

Next, I have a three-month overview. This is nothing big. It’s just a mini calendar with a little list of appointments and events happening that month. On the far right of that page, I write down a rough idea of things I think I’ll be working on that month. This is in no way set in stone, just an estimate.

Next comes my social media tracker. If you’re not an online business person or content provider, you might not need these. But if you are, you do. I keep track of all the social media places I post and check off if I’ve posted that day. I use the same page to track when I’m posting anything anywhere. This includes blog posts here, on Patreon, on Haunted MTL, any episodes of Off The Bone, guest posts. If I have a piece coming out anytime that month, it’s on this page.

After that, I have a space for check-in dates. This is a half-page spread because it’s just a few questions. How much money did I make this week? How much did I spend? What’s my overall number for the month? Easy enough.

The other half of the page I use for blog post ideas. As I think of things I want to write about, I write them down. So when I’m making the next month’s social media page and I’m stuck for a post idea, I’ve got a well of them. 

Next comes my mood tracker. This is the same as any other mood tracker you’ve seen all over the internet. I have some bit of blank artwork that is slowly filled in as the month progresses. I think it helps to see how my emotions are fluctuating. And it makes me take a moment and think about them. I tend to be very in the moment and not contemplate how I felt about something. So this makes me question how I felt, overall, in a day.

After that comes the monthly goal page. Pretty self-explanatory. This is where I write down all my goals for the month. At the bottom, I like to write a little motivational quote. But that’s not necessary.

Now, here’s a fun one. I set up a best moments and wins page. This is where I’ll record moments or drawings that represent things that happened during the month that were just awesome. For instance, in March my mother-in-law got her covid vaccine, I sold two short stories, we went to Phipps Conservatory, and I made some personal tea blends. Below you can see how I memorialized each of these things. I love building this page every month. It also helps to remind me that even hard months have good moments.

Now, it’s time to talk about money. First up, we have the abundance tracker. I keep track of how much money I made in every way that I make money. It helps me see where my abundance is coming from. 

Now, let’s talk about where it’s going. The next spread is an envelope budget one. It’s not a pure envelope budget because I don’t take out cash. But I do separate my money into specific categories and try to keep spending to those categories within that budget. 

At the start of the month, I make a budget based on my paycheck and bill due dates. This helps me figure out what paycheck is going to be bill heavy, and which one I can save a little more from.

Finally, I track my savings goals. I like to do a good old-fashioned bar graph for each goal.

Once the month is set up, it’s time for a weekly spread. There are lots of ways to do this, but I like to keep it pretty simple. I just list out each day of the week, any events I have planned, and a to-do list. I also like to keep a list of things I can make for dinner with what’s in the house.

So that’s it. That’s all the pages I used in my monthly setup. What about you? Do you use any I didn’t have on the list? Let us know in the comments.

(A note about the graphics used in this post. I love making all my bullet journal pages look like a scrapbook. But you don’t need to do that for bullet journals to be a great tool. Please don’t let the artwork overshadow the planning. Also, all of these photos have been highly edited. )

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Writing to be read Vs. Writing to be heard

<a href="http://Image by <a href="">Marco Migorança Migorança</a> from <a href="">PixabayArtwork by Marco Migoranca

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but you’re not as old as you think you are and people older than you want you to shut the hell up.

This has been said with love, as someone who complains too often about being in her mid-thirties. 

(It’s my fault I feel old, by the way. I watch all these creators on YouTube who are in their twenties. They’re all great, inspiring women who make me feel like a crone.)

But I’m not old. And even if I was, I’m still not too old to learn new things.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I’m learning a new way to write. 

This year I launched a true-crime podcast called Off The Bone with the amazing Boxhuman. I’m getting ready to launch a fiction podcast sometime this year. In creating these new podcasts, I’ve learned to write a different way. I’ve learned to write content that’s meant to be heard instead of read.

It kind of astounds me how different it is to write this way. I don’t know why this should be so shocking. It’s a totally different medium. But I think if I’d realized how different it was going to be, how alien it would feel, I might have chickened out.

If you’re considering starting a podcast, let me share with you what I’ve learned. Here are four things to consider when writing to be heard. 

Are you talking over people’s heads?

I’m not a big fan of talking down to people or thinking I’m smarter than others. I’m not. That being said, sometimes my word choice is, well, unusual. 

If I’m writing a blog post or book that doesn’t matter so much. If a reader doesn’t know the word I used, they can look it up. But if someone’s listening to a podcast, they don’t have as much time to stop and look up some archaic weird word I used. The same can be said for concepts or references unless I’m going to take the time to stop and explain them.

Now, I’m not saying you should assume people won’t know what you’re talking about. I’m also not suggesting that challenging people with new concepts is a bad idea. But we all have topics and theories that we know a stupid amount about. Like, more than most people do and anyone needs to. Maybe that’s why you’re doing a podcast to start with. Maybe the whole point is to explain more about the life cycle of kiwi birds. But if you’re just quickly referencing some obscure thing like everyone knows what you mean, that’s going to throw some people off. You’re going to lose listeners. So don’t go over people’s heads. If you’re talking about something complex or not commonly understood, take a few seconds to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Or at least in the same book.

How do your sentences sound?

Sentence structure is one of the real nut and bolts parts of grammar that I don’t always pay as much attention to as I should. Usually when I’m writing it’s to tell a story or entertainingly convey information. The smaller the piece, the more I pay attention to sentence structure, though. I also pay more attention to word usage and flow to convey an emotion.

When you’re writing a script to read out loud, though, you want to keep in mind that you are going to have to actually read it out loud. And it needs to sound a certain way.

Do yourself a favor, and read your entire script out loud as part of your editing process. Some sentences look and feel just fine on the page, but sound clunky and soulless when spoken. 

Are you droning on?

Remember earlier when we talked about not talking over people’s heads? Please, for the love of Benji don’t use this as an excuse to drone on.

Yes, the point of most podcasts is to talk at length about a certain topic. But that doesn’t mean you need to over-explain.

Let’s say I’m writing a podcast about HH Holmes. (Which I did). Do I want to talk about how he put people down a body chute to his basement to ‘play’ with the corpses? (Not like that, you pervert.) Oh yeah, that’s the kind of content a listener is there for. Do I need to go into a lengthy explanation of how the chute was built? Probably not. Maybe I want to toss in a little bit of info, but a ton is not needed. 

How’s your pacing?

Honestly, a lot of this advice comes down to this one factor. Is your pacing entertaining? Are you giving information in an informative way without bludgeoning someone with facts they can’t absorb?

This goes for fiction, too. Info dumping isn’t a great idea in a book. It’s even worse in a podcast. If you go into an info dump on the page, at least the reader can go back over it a couple of times if they need to soak it all in. But people listen to podcasts most often when they’re doing other things. I listen to them while I edit, wash dishes, schedule social media, or any of the other less glamorous parts of writing. (It’s not all prancing through a mental playground, folks. Writing is work. Work worth doing, the best work there is, but still work.)

The point is, if someone’s listening to your podcast while driving to the grocery store and you info dump on them, they’re not going to retain half of what you just said. And if they didn’t retain it, you might as well have not wasted anyone’s time by saying it. 

So what do you think? What should writers keep in mind while writing a script to be read? And, as a bonus, what’s your favorite podcast? Let us know in the comments below. 

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Why Gods of Jade and Shadow works

Last year I talked about why a book called Mexican Gothic worked. It turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2020. It was good enough to convince me I needed to lay hands on every other book Sylvia Moreno-Garcia ever wrote or will write. On the off chance she reads this review, I am a fan for life, girl. 

Fan for life.

Gods of Jade and Shadows was next on my list from her. Published in 2019, it’s not a new book. Nor is it very old. It was impossible to put down.

Let’s break down why Gods of Jade and Shadow works. Because boy, does it work. And I think we’d all like to see more books like this on the shelves. 

If you haven’t read it yet, the story is about a god of death named Hun-Kame. Well, really the story is about a young woman named Casiopea. Her family is horrible to her. She and her mother are treated as poor relations. She wants nothing more than to run away and never have to see them again. Then she finds the bones of Hun-Kame in a box in her grandfather’s room.

The story is like a modern-day fairy tale. Like a greek fable, but with gods most people haven’t heard of. Hun-Kame has to battle his brother to regain his throne. But as they are gods, they can’t battle themselves. So they have to choose champions to battle for them. Hun-Kame choses Casiopea. His brother chooses her cousin. They have to race through the land of the dead to decide who will sit on the throne.

One thing you don’t see a lot of in fables is character growth if the character happens to be a god. But that’s not the case here. I don’t want to ruin anything, but Hun-Kame is forced to look at his past actions. He’s forced to grow. Which is something I think we need to see more of.

It should surprise no one that there’s a lot of heat between the two main characters. Like smoldering heat. It has some sexy, sexy parts.

But there’s no sex! There’s nothing I’d be worried about if my grandmother caught me reading. I wish we had more ghost pepper hot scenes in fantasy stories that aren’t cringy sexy.

Finally, let’s talk about the ending. I’m going to do this carefully, as I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s not a perfect fairy tale ending. The thing I wanted to happen didn’t happen. But it is so satisfying. It’s everything that needed to happen, and it couldn’t be happier. 

All in all, Gods of Jade and Shadow is a great read. And other authors would do well to learn why it works. 

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My favorite Skillshare classes for writers

If you spend any time online, you’ve seen an ad for Skillshare. Every Youtuber I watch is working with them. And all that pitching got to me. I’ve had a subscription to Skillshare for almost a year now.

I’m not working with them. I’m not an affiliate, and I’m getting no money for this post. But I know that I’ve found myself subscribed to one service or another with little to no idea what I was supposed to do to it. 

If you as well have subscribed to Skillshare and are now a little daunted by the selections, I’ve got you. I’ve done a lot of the classes on the platform. So today I want to share with you the five best Skillshare classes that I’ve taken. 

Write an Irresistible Query Letter, Blair Thornburgh

I’ve struggled with query letters. I think all professional writers have that one part of the submission process that they just hate. It’s a toss-up for me, whether it’s query letters or blurbs.

Now that I’ve taken this class, blurbs are my least favorite. It made me think about my novel in a different way. And, even better, it gave me an easy-to-follow template to create a query letter that doesn’t feel like it was written from a template.

Writing Suspense: How to write stories that thrill in any genre, Benjamin Percy

Suspense isn’t a genre I write. But it’s an aspect of every well-written story. And this class, man, was so good. The exercises and explanations are just so helpful. I learned so much about story structure and giving clues through a story.

5 Techniques to Generate Creative Writing Ideas, Alison Stein

This class, my goodness. I wrote out so many pages of ideas for this class. And if I need new ideas, I go back to it. The class was entertaining, inspiring, and left me with a ton of blog posts. At least one of which I recently sold. 

Writing Flash Fiction, Hannah Lee Kidder

I love writing little flash pieces. They take little time and are easy to share on social media. Plus, they can be an emotional gut-punch when done well.

This class helped me do them well. If you’ve read a flash piece of mine and you liked it, thank this class. If you want to write flash pieces, take this class. 

Instagram Poetry, Alison Malee

Finally, this class was a ton of fun. I’m always looking for interesting new ways to show my art. And blending poetry with visual art is rewarding. It’s something that I like doing on a day off or in the evening while watching tv. Again, this class inspired me to do more of it. It also, I hope, helped me do it better.

So those are my top five Skillshare classes. What do you think? What’s the best class you’ve taken? Let us know in the comments below.

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