Cara Langston


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Learning to take a break without guilt

For the past 5 years, I’ve been writing. Not every day and sometimes not even every week, but since then I’ve always had imaginary characters and a plot line stewing in my brain. I’d go through periods of writers’ block, but they’d only last a few weeks before I forced myself to get back into the groove. And it worked. During that time I rewrote, edited, and published Battle Hymns, and building on that momentum, I outlined and drafted my second novel. Then life threw me a curve ball. Although it was technically a planned curve ball, I didn’t know how much it would impact everything in my life.

We’re having a baby, due in May. Yes, we’re thrilled. Yes, we’ve started on the nursery. Yes, we know the sex (it’s a boy). No, we haven’t picked out a name and even if we did, we’re not telling you because someone is bound to have had a bad experience with someone with the same name and we don’t want to hear it.

I had such high standards going into pregnancy. There was no reason to change my routine yet. For example: I’d continue to eat well and go to the gym because being pregnant isn’t an excuse to sit on the couch and eat carbs all the time. Ha! The next month, I spent every day after work laying on the couch, watching Netflix, and eating crackers and granola bars because carbs were the only thing that would ease my nausea. I didn’t have the energy to do anything else. I certainly wasn’t writing. I counted down the days until the second trimester would arrive because surely then I could get back into my routine . . .

I’m now in the second half of my second trimester and I feel much better. But how do I spend my free time? Researching daycare and pediatricians. Reading parenting books. Shopping for and decorating the nursery. Reorganizing every pantry and closet in the house. Sitting on the couch and watching Netflix because my back hurts all the time. I spent one afternoon last month editing a chapter of my novel and I thought, “Yes! I’m getting back into it!” The next day I returned my focus to baby-related tasks and haven’t opened my manuscript since.

I suppose I’m writing this post in an attempt to shake off the gnawing guilt that I need to be working on my novel. I’ve read too many posts about how “successful” writers wake up a 4 A.M. to write before going to work, how they don’t go a day without writing, and how they balance all of that with a day job and a family. They’ve stuck with me and make me feel lazy for choosing Pinterest and 202 episodes of “The X-Files” over a novel that I love and want to see traditionally published.

Then again, why not take a break right now?

  1. I’m still in my 20s. There should be plenty of time in the future to achieve my lofty dreams of literary success.
  2. I don’t have an agent or a publishing deal. No one but my mother is asking when the next book will be finished.
  3. I assume newborns, postpartum recovery, and writing also don’t mesh well together, so a break was inevitable. I might as well extend it by nine months.

I’m sure there’s at least one pregnant writer out there who’s plowing through her novel, staying active, eating her vegetables, and dominating her day job all at the same time. But that’s not me. I should learn to accept that.

 


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Evernote for Writers

evernoteforwriters

Today I’m going to talk about my love affair with Evernote, the note-taking application. Outside of Safari/Chrome, Microsoft Office, and Dropbox, it’s one of my most frequently used programs. I have notes for personal use, such as my vintage china pattern names, my Macbook serial number, adjusted recipes, and genealogy notes. But for the most part, I use Evernote as a complement to my writing.

Here’s why I think Evernote is a great tool for writers:

1.  Brainstorming notes, research, and to-do lists are in one place

In Evernote, you create notebooks which hold notes. I have a notebook for each novel I’m working on, as well as an overall “Publishing” notebook. My novel-related notebooks include notes for:

  • Brainstorms and outlines–this is where I talk myself through difficult chapters and outline any upcoming scenes
  • Research–notes on each research topic, links, any creative liberties I’ve made to historical fact, etc.
  • Character profiles–background, dates, relationships, inspiration photos
  • To-do lists–mainly, things to change in the next draft
  • Outtakes–where large swaths of deleted paragraphs reside

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On the publishing end of the spectrum, I track blog posts, facial/body expression lists, writing expenses, editing lists, my author biography, weird grammar rules I never remember, and any interviews I’ve done.

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And all of it is in one place, backed up by the cloud!

2.  Access across various devices

I have Evernote installed on my iPhone, my work laptop, my Macbook, and my iPad.

You know that moment when you’re just about to fall asleep and suddenly a plot point pops into your head and there’s no way you’ll remember it tomorrow if you don’t write it down? We’ve all been there. If you have Evernote installed on your phone, you only need to open the app, type your a-ha! moment, and snooze peacefully. The next day, it’ll be accessible anywhere, whether you’re writing during your lunch break at work or all Saturday at home.

Note: Also useful for brilliant realizations while drinking with friends.

3.  No need for pen and paper

I know many writers prefer pen and paper, and if that’s you, you can keep on doing what you’re doing. But there are some of us in the world who aren’t great writers (in the physical sense of the word). I have decent handwriting, but scrawling words on paper hurts my hand after a while. Plus, as a millennial, I’ve been typing since I was in middle school. I’m excellent at typing, not as much at writing, so Evernote works better for me than a real notebook.

Additionally, I like the freedom an electronic notebook gives me. Do I want to switch the order of my chapters? I only need to cut and paste my outline into a new position and voila–it’s in order. Do I want to change a character name halfway through the first draft? Replace it in the notes instead of scratching it out on paper. Easy peasy.

 

Evernote is a freemium product, so the basic functionality costs nothing. I pay $24.95 a year for the Plus version, mainly so I have offline access–perfect for brainstorming on airplanes!

Now that I’ve gushed about Evernote (for free, since this is definitely not a sponsored post), I will say there could be some improvements. I wish they had advanced formatting options, like table shading and different highlight colors. To be fair, I’m one of those Microsoft Office geeks who uses Excel spreadsheets, formulas, and conditional formatting on a daily basis. Evernote doesn’t quite get there, and perhaps that’s for the best. But for it’s primary note-taking purpose, it’s a very useful tool I don’t know how I could live without.

So tell me: Am I missing any other amazing writing applications?

I’ve heard a lot about Scrivener, but haven’t tried it because I sometimes write at work, and MS Word is best in that environment, where I can make it look like I’m doing something work-related. 🙂


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Why I’m writing under a pen name

PenNames

The above photo is a modification of this work

If you read Freakonomics back in the day (because 2005 was ten years ago and at the threshold for being considered “back in the day”), you’ll remember there was a chapter on nominative determinism–that is (quoting Wikipedia), “the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character.” The study focused mainly on racial and socioeconomic factors, but at an aggregate level, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of a person’s name. People judge us based on what we are called–employers, colleagues, readers.

Our legal names are generally chosen by our parents. Mine was a last-minute choice after I was born, because the doctors assured my parents that they were going to have a baby boy. I guess they could’ve jumped onto the androgynous name train and called me Craig (I’m personally glad they didn’t).

But whereas my parents had the responsibility of choosing my legal name, I had the sole responsibility of choosing my pen name. Cara Langston is not my real name. It’s a pen name I chose to use for my writing endeavors.

Why did I choose to use a pen name? And out of all the names in the universe, how did I pick this one? Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ll share mine.

Part I:  Do you need a pen name?

Short answer: Of course you don’t need one. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

However, here are the reasons I chose to use a pen name:

1. I have a successful career outside of my writing — I pay the bills working as a senior strategy analyst at a large healthcare organization. I doubt I’ll be able to quit that career for a writing career anytime soon, so in the interim, I’d rather not have my name associated with my writing while I’m still climbing the corporate ladder. For example, I don’t want potential employers to be concerned that I may be writing on company time (of which I’m . . . ahem . . . guilty).

2. Everyone misspells my name — Both first and last names. Coworkers, friends, family members. Maybe (hopefully!) it’s their spell check, but every time someone spells my name incorrectly, I think, “Seriously? The correct spelling was in my email address just above this greeting.” And if by chance I’m one day successful enough that someone is actively looking for my books, I’d rather they be able to spell it correctly in Google or Amazon searches. On the flip side, there are plenty of successful authors with crazy last names–Chuck Palahniuk, anyone? So it could be a differentiating factor.

3. It’s a cushion for failure — I almost didn’t include this, but it’s the ugly truth. There’s some relief in knowing that if I’m really bad at writing or have some kind of terrible experience, I can shed the name and put it all behind me. That’s a really pessimistic view, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Part II: How do you pick a pen name?

Now once you’ve decided that a pen name is for you, you can go through the process of picking your name. There’s so much riding on this decision! Your pen name will be emblazoned on the cover of that bestseller you’ll eventually write, so choose wisely. 🙂

If you do a quick Google search on this process, you’ll find plenty of articles about strategic positioning on bookshelves, the use of acronyms if you’re a woman trying to cater toward a male audience (*rolls eyes that it needs to be a consideration at all*), and fashioning a name to match your genre.

I disregarded those opinions. Instead, I based my name choice on the following:

1. Availability of website & social media handles — It’s so much easier if http://www.yourchosenpenname.com or @yourchosenpenname is available. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a specific name, you may want to do a search to see if anyone else already owns the website address and Twitter handle. Checking to see if your pen name is already claimed by a semi-famous author or other celebrity falls into this category as well.

2. Ability to write the name — Think of those future book signings! Unless your real name is Elizabeth Jingleheimer Schmidt and you’re already used to writing it, it might be long name to jot down over and over again. I chose “Cara” because I can get away with a “C” and a short squiggle. Yes, I’m lazy.

3. Association to your real name / heritage — The initials I was born with are CL, so I came up with a name that had those same initials. My maiden name is Italian, so I chose a slightly Italian first name. I picked my last name from the “L” last names on my Ancestry.com family tree. “Langston” was my third choice, as the first two were already widely used by two authors.

So there it is. Why I chose to write under a pen name and how I chose the one I have. Mom, I hope this answers all the questions you’ve been asked by friends and family. Thanks for fielding those questions for me!


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Why I don’t read my reviews

A few years ago, I found an amazing Twitter account called Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments). It was a great reminder of what reading the comments section of blogs, news articles, etc. can do to your psyche. Surely we’ve all been there: A certain politician says something controversial. A certain celebrity makes anti-vaccination claims. A certain bill goes to the House floor. You read the article and suddenly find yourself scrolling down to the comments section. What are other people thinking? Is my stance in the majority or the minority? This almost always ends badly, especially for more controversial issues. I get angry by what I feel to be an ignorant comment, and the outrage fuels me to keep reading other people’s opinions until my once good mood has been obliterated.

I feel the same way about reading reviews of my writing.

Right before I published Battle Hymns last year, I was so excited! My novel that took over five years to complete was finally going to debut. Then I sent it to reviewers for my blog tour, and that excitement transformed into anxiety (I’m an anxious person already, so Spring 2014 was an interesting time for me). What if it was terrible? What if no one else ever wanted to read it? I forced myself to read the reviews from professional reviewers, and by and large, they were positive, 3-4 stars. It eased some of my concerns over whether or not I was an awful writer.

Since then, though, I’ve read my reviews only a couple of times. I haven’t checked Goodreads in 7+ months. If I have to go into my Author Dashboard for whatever reason, I literally cover the rating with the palm of my hand. My mother asked me to buy a couple of my books on Amazon and sign them for her friends, and I almost refused because I didn’t want to see what my Amazon reviews looked like (I did it in the end, and it hasn’t changed–a few 4-star reviews, which I’m more than happy with right now). I also will not Google myself.

Advantages to reading your reviews:

  • If any criticism is constructive, you can obviously try to fix whatever didn’t work
  • If you prepare yourself, you can note your physical symptoms upon first viewing bad reviews and use them in your writing. My palms grow sweaty. My stomach plunges. My head begins to spin a bit. So I definitely know how to write anxiety into my fictional characters

Disadvantages to reading your reviews:

  • Your self-confidence can plummet, which makes writing difficult when you doubt yourself
  • You’ll never be able to change what people think
  • Not everyone will like what you write; tastes will always differ
  • If you ever become a popular writer, you won’t be able to read all your reviews anyway; why start now?

To me, the disadvantages win out over the advantages, especially when I’m writing something new. It’s more important right now that I get through the second draft of my WIP without self-doubt than it is to know what strangers think of my first novel. And when I do finally check those reviews, I’ll be halfway through a bottle of wine 🙂


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Writing Weaknesses & Editing Checklist

writingweaknesseschecklist

I have favorite words and phrases I tend to use over and over again–a recent overused description involves a lump growing in my character’s throat when she’s feeling emotional. And then there are weird grammar rules I can never remember while I’m writing–is it backwards or backward when you’re writing as an American?

So about a year and a half ago, when I was editing Battle Hymns, I started a checklist in Evernote called “Writing Weaknesses” that includes grammar rules, some of my writing quirks, and other things to look for while I’m editing. Since I’m in the midst of the complicated process of editing my WIP, I figured I’d share my list with the hope that it will help others who are in the same stages of editing/writing as me.

Cara’s Writing Weaknesses & Editing Checklist:

  • Overuse of “that” between clauses
  • Check dialogue tags that aren’t “said”–warned, admitted, insisted, and suggested are NOT dialogue tags!
  • Too many sentences start with “But” or “Before”
  • “Smirk” does not mean what I think it means
  • Avoid “going to” instead of “will”
  • Avoid “at which” instead of “where”
  • Too much detail into minutia, such as walking down hallways, dressing, etc. And per my copy editor: “We don’t need an accounting of every move they make to get from point A to point B.”
  • Don’t reach out a hand to do something–just do it!
  • “Good-bye” is always hyphenated; “Good-night” is hyphenated when used as a noun or adjective; Use “good night” for a parting used at night; “Goodnight” is always incorrect
  • American English typically drops the s on toward, backward, and forward. Afterwards is the exception to this rule.
  • Check for overuse of useless words, including: about, just, really, started, began, all, again, very, that, so, then, rather, some, only, almost, like, close, even, somehow, sort, pretty, well, back, up, down, anyway, real, already, own, over, ever, be able to, still, bit, -ly
  • Check for emotional telling (v. showing) words, including: anger, angry, relieved, relief, felt, despair, anxious, doubt, fear, nervous, panic, scared, shock, upset, worry, worried, uncertain, excited, excitement, confident, sure, certain, happy, glad, mirth, joy, elated, elation, pleased, satisfied, concern, depressed, dread, sorrow, distress, hope

A list of weaknesses can vary from writer to writer. These are some of mine. What are yours?

P.S. Happy new year!


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WIP Update!

I FINISHED MY FIRST DRAFT YESTERDAY!

I went into the weekend with four chapters partially written. On Saturday, I finished the first two pretty easily. And then on Sunday, with only two chapters and ~2,000 words left, a weird (or not so weird) thing happened: I didn’t want to finish my first draft.

For the past 13 months, I’ve pushed off certain problems with the story. “Cara, don’t worry about it now. This is a first draft. You can figure it out later.” And now later has arrived. It’s terrifying.

I procrastinated. I did four loads of laundry, finished my Christmas shopping, wrapped all the gifts and put them under the tree. But eventually I forced myself back in front of my laptop because I needed to finish the first draft over the weekend, before the holidays and before my parents come into town for a full week (no writing will get done then). So with great reluctance I eked out the final two chapters.

Now what?

  1. Second draft, focusing on inconsistencies, plot changes, and expanding emotion/description. I’ll also take a first pass at going through my writing weaknesses checklist
  2. Send second draft to my fabulous beta reader and hope she doesn’t think it’s awful
  3. Think about themes, etc.
  4. Re-write blurb
  5. Try writing a synopsis (there’s a first time for everything)
  6. See what my beta reader says and make any necessary adjustments

I’ll stop the list there. If I get too far ahead of myself, I may have a panic attack.

Happy holidays to those celebrating!

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 7.15.06 PM


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WIP Wednesday: 11/26/14

Happy Thanksgiving Eve to my fellow Americans, and Happy Wednesday to everyone else!

Including today's date means I need to post today

It’s been three weeks since my last WIP Wednesday post. I meant to post on Nov. 12th and then on Nov. 19th but I kept pushing it off, telling myself that I hadn’t made enough progress on my writing to warrant an update. What can I say? I’m a fantastic procrastinator! So I got into work this morning (I’m one of very few who haven’t taken the day off) and sketched a turkey with today’s date. I will write and post an update today . . . because I don’t want to redraw that turkey and let this one go to waste. Now for the update:

I have FINALLY hit my stride on finishing the first draft of this novel. I have 7 more chapters to finish, but the remainder is starting to seem manageable and not overwhelming. For example, I know how the story will end and I think I’ve managed to create enough tension throughout the last part to drive the plot home. There are still, however, some loose ends I’ll have to figure out before I can call the first draft complete, like figuring out what the hell I want to do for an epilogue. I briefly considered ending it without an epilogue in an attempt to be edgy or something. Then I remembered that if I were the reader, I’d be really pissed off without some sort of closure. There are also some subplots I haven’t fleshed out enough, but I’ll leave those for the 2nd draft.

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The graph above depicts my writing progress over the past month, the line being the cumulative word count and the bars each day’s addition. Have I mentioned I’m an Excel dork yet? I think I have.

With the upcoming holiday, I’m hoping to have the time and inspiration to add to this even more. No Black Friday shopping for me–I’ll be writing! There’s also no incentive grand enough to force me into that craziness . . .