WIP Wednesday 11/14/18

I don’t know why, but I can’t paint or draw animals in their natural colors. I could tell you some hooey like, “I see their true colors, so that’s what I must paint.” The truth is more like, “This is fun!” It’s fun to flip the palette from the natural colors as I see them and decide on what colors can be highlights and shadows once I eliminate white and black as options. Changing the colors eliminates the need for strict realism, and it helps me look more at the shapes. And it’s fun!

Don’t be afraid to play with new colors and ideas. Stretch your brain a bit and see where your imagination will run. It’ll be fun!

Be the Turtle

I make no secret of that fact that my current body status is officially fat and out of shape.  I have been working on building better habits for about a month now, but I’m not doing anything strict or steep or sudden.  I tend to go all-or-nothing into things, and diet and exercise have always been two of those things.  Like most people who need to lose weight, I start a plan, and it involves working out every day and eating on a strict regimen of counting calories and/or macros (the amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in one’s daily meal plan).  I can maintain it for a few weeks, but then I blow it and binge.  I’ve started to recognize that I tend to binge eat on occasions that my emotions are a wreck or my stress levels are off the charts, so when I combine the tendency to binge eat with the stress of maintaining a perfect diet and exercise program cold turkey, I’m going to be “clean” for a few weeks, eat my weight in chocolate and cheese for a month, and hate myself for all of it forever.

It’s a cycle I’m working hard to break this time.  Instead of plotting out my exercise plan and expected weight loss and then being disappointed when I don’t meet my goals, I’m working on a single habit at a time.  If I happen to do something I plan to build into a habit before I can add it to my habit tracker, fantastic, but I’m not going to push myself to cultivate all the good habits all at once.  I’ve really never done this kind of plan before – I guess because I feel like I will either do it all, or none of it matters.  So, my habit tracker currently has three daily items on it: drink at least 100 oz. of water, clean the kitchen, and write.  I need to add a whole lot more to that routine, but I’m actually doing a good job of eating well, exercising, and trying not to let the house explode.  I’m just not pressuring myself to do those things until I’m solid on these three things first.

It seems to be working in that I’ve lost nearly ten pounds since I started tracking my water intake, my kitchen has been clean most nights except for one week, and I’m writing regularly, with a solid chance of completing NaNoWriMo successfully for the first time.  It’s super tempting to let my excitement over those things spill over into adding all of the things onto the daily habit tracker so I can see the progress on each of those routines.  But I know I’ll fail the second I do.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Progress not perfection.  Be the turtle, not the hare.  This is my new mantra.  In fact, I think I’ll just shorten it to “Be the turtle.”

I may fail in this endeavor, too, but I can at least say that right now, this time feels different.  The slow start lets me celebrate what goes well, and I am quicker to offer myself grace on the things that aren’t on my list yet.  Didn’t exercise today?  No problem: it doesn’t require a check mark on the habit tracker, so I’ll worry about that next week.  For a list motivated person and a perfectionist (I NEED all those boxes checked!), this is actually working.  The reality of why it’s working is that those habits are building blocks for other things, so if I drink a gallon of water a day, I’m not drinking anything but water and coffee, and I’m not eating as much.  It’s slowed down the binge tendency because I’m too busy drinking water to eat a pint of ice cream.  If I set the generic goal of “write” every day, I’m not setting a word count goal.  Some days I really don’t have the capacity to do more than just add a sentence to a WIP, and occasionally all I have done is typed a title for future blog post and called it a day.  But most days, I sit down to type at least one sentence, and my writing brain kicks in, and I’m at nearly a thousand words before I stopped to take a sip of water.  With my kitchen clean at night, I walk into the kitchen in the morning without thinking, “Uggh.  That’s gross.  I’ll do it later,” so I’m starting with a clean slate and sometimes manage to pick up or clean up in another spot so it will match the kitchen.

I just won’t make myself accountable on the checklist for those things all at one time.  Once they are second nature, then I can start tracking laundry and exercise and drawing.  Be the turtle.

I know I’m not the only one who goes after things like a fanatic only to fall and give up after a few rounds of the fanatic-flop cycle.  What works for you?  Comment and share your best methods of slow and steady change.  It’s tempting to go full hare, but science is on the turtle’s side.  We make and keep new good habits when we don’t try to do too many at one time.  Be the turtle.  I promise you’ll get there!

“Icecapades” (Flash Fiction Friday)

This is my second challenge entry to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge.  I really love the challenge of getting a story down in 1,000 words or less, and flash fiction stories are a great exercise for developing tight plot points and conveying big meaning in a sparse word count.  For the foreseeable future, I think we’re going to have Flash Fiction Friday here on Mabbat.  If you like to write, join in.  I’ll e-mail some prompts over the weekend starting next week, and we can share our work on Friday.  If you don’t like to write fiction, you can use the prompts for poetry, longer work, shorter (micro) work, or visual art.  Stretch those creative muscles!  Ok, I’ll stop typing now.  Here is “Icecapades.”

 

“Dave, stop!  Digger Dave!”  I waved to catch his attention, but the excavator was too loud, and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.  He’s not going to stop; I’m going into that grave.  Seeing the inevitable outcome, I tried to loosen up – there was no way I would go in feet first, so the impact would be less damaging if I could fight every primal impulse in my body and relax.  Around swiveled the excavator arm, down I went, and surprise registered on Digger Dave’s face at my unscheduled arrival on scene and subsequent descent into an open grave.  In one fluid motion, the arm continued its arc, barely paused while its bucket load of dirt dropped, and swiveled back to the pile of fill dirt.  Already being partially covered, and knowing the next layer was imminent, I searched my pockets for some way to breathe.  Unbelievable.  I still had a collapsible snorkel in my pocket.  What had Jimmy said to the crew before we got started tonight?

“When we’re done, we’re all going snorkeling in the Caymans.  Here’s a little reminder of our reward.”  Jimmy handed each of us ridiculous looking collapsible snorkels in little plastic cases.  Right now it didn’t matter how stupid the snorkel looked if it meant I could breathe through the foot of dirt soon to be covering my body.  Digger Dave was supposed to backfill enough to cover the cases and smooth it out like a freshly dug grave.  Jimmy was right – there would be no police investigating, and no one would suspect the longtime caretaker of assisting in a heist.  The heist itself had been Digger Dave’s idea; when he met Jimmy on the grounds at a funeral, he knew he’d found the brains to pull the job together.

Looks like I’m going to be here all night.  It’ll be too risky for the guys pull me out until they come back for the diamonds tomorrow.

Digger Dave caught wind of an unimaginable score at the jewelry shop that bordered the cemetery’s front entrance.  He overheard the shop owner, Frank, and a nephew discussing a diamond smuggling operation that used “Icecapades” as a storage location.  The two had the balls to plan a shipment graveside during the interment of Frank’s centenarian aunt, supposing Dave was an idiot incapable of hearing.  Woodlawn Cemetery and Icecapades were located in a small Alabama town nestled between a river and a state highway – nowhere you’d expect to find a diamond smuggling operation.  Digger Dave used his post at the cemetery to case Icecapades, and he now possessed a wealth of knowledge about Frank’s habits and the shipment schedule.

Jimmy then formulated the diamond liberation plan.  Two outsiders (me and Mike) would come to town for a few days to “scout movie locations.”  The cover story made us glamorous to the small town residents, and Jimmy was sure they’d all be eager to show us everything.  We spent two days shooting “reference” photographs all over town.  We visited Icecapades, and Frank was more than happy to show us his store.  He told us more than once he considered it to be the “crown jewel – pun intended” of Linden Woods, Alabama and the perfect setting for a movie.

“Nothing else around here worth mentioning really,” Frank had said, frowning disdainfully out the window as he showed us his work room in the back.  There were no security measures besides the walk-in safe (“No one around here smart enough to rip me off anyway…”), nothing Mike couldn’t handle.  Jimmy was also right that Frank was an insufferable prick who deserved to be taken down a notch.

Per the plan, Mike and I stopped by Icecapades late the second afternoon to tell Frank we were headed back to Hollywood.  Frank insisted on taking us out for drinks – we played the con well enough to know he was dying to leave one last good impression on his new Hollywood connections.  Frank never noticed we spiked his drink.  Mike made a grand show to the bar patrons of helping him outside to wait for a cab.  Instead of a cab, we loaded him into his own car, and drove it through the Icecapades window, planting Frank at the wheel.  A thing of beauty, framing Frank for the Icecapades destruction to cover the break in.  Mike and I made short work of the safe and were headed out to the cemetery, when Frank surprised us by the back door.  I told Mike to make the drop while I handled Frank.  Knocking him out in the show room was easy enough, but it put me off schedule – and in the path of the excavator.

I knew the other guys would carry on as planned, so my fate now rested in the hands of Digger Dave and a collapsible snorkel.  Unbelievable.  I’d covered my face with my hands and done my best to protect the impromptu snorkel airway, but I could feel myself drifting off.  What a way to go – holding on to a snorkel in an unmarked grave on top of the biggest score of my now ended life.  At least I thought it was ended.  Something was yanking the snorkel from my hands.

“NOOO!”  I couldn’t stop screaming, so Digger Dave slapped my face.  I breathed deeply and focused; it was still dark outside.

“Now look son, you gotta stop that yelling or I’m going to have to leave you buried here.”

“I’m not dead?”

“That can be arranged.”

“Wait, how long was I down here?”

“Eh… Maybe 24 hours.”  Digger Dave helped me to my feet and handed me a case.

“How did you know I was okay?”

“I didn’t.  Until I saw the tip of that ridiculous snorkel sticking out when I finished leveling out the bottom.”

We climbed up the ladder out of the grave, where Jimmy was waiting for the cases.

“Ready for the Caymans?”

“Yeah, boss, but I think I’m going to need a new snorkel.”

WIP Wednesday 11/7/18

The art of the scribble. I’m always afraid to commit to a line when I draw, so laying down sketch lines on a canvas to paint is pretty stressful. I practice in my sketchbook with mostly pen to fight my perfectionist tendency to erase whatever isn’t perfect, and doodle/scribble/whatever-you-want-to-call-this-pen-marking exercises help to loosen up my fingers and my brain.

This was also an excellent object lesson for the tiny human. She gets upset whenever someone doesn’t see exactly what she sees when she makes a picture, and some other tiny human had dismissed her work as “scribble-scrabble.” Scribble-scrabble is still art when you are marking the paper with your imagination. It doesn’t matter if anyone else sees what you see; even if they guess at the shapes, they still won’t see exactly what you see. But then, that’s what art is all about isn’t it?

Go make your mark!

What Are You So Afraid of?

I was asked to video myself giving a minute or so “Why you should attend…” talk a while ago.  I’m old enough that selfies are generally something my peer group mocks mercilessly, and I’m extremely unlikely to take a selfie unless it’s with a good friend or my daughter because I feel so self-conscious selfie-ing.  In spite of years on stage doing crazy things, that video was one of the scariest things I’d ever done.  The wild part about that is, if you put me on a stage to say the exact same thing to a room full of people, I would have felt completely at ease.  But to send a video out into the interwebs means that the bit was filmed without any live feedback, and I had to wait to see if anyone liked the post.  A live audience offers subtle clues before they throw rotten tomatoes, so that’s a gig I can handle.

The same thing happens when I write.  I feel fairly confident when I sit down to publish a blog post; it’s a short work, it’s easy enough to take down or edit if it bombed once I publish it, and there are really only a few opinions I worry about.  Blog work feels a lot like stage work.  It’s a fairly quick feedback loop.  Not too scary – just enough nerves to keep me frosty.  I feel a bit of terror for a few seconds after I click on “publish,” and some days I stalk the stats page when I’m searching for approval, but the anxiety vanishes pretty quickly.

I thought the selfie video was terrifying until I decided to ask about a dozen people for feedback on a book project I’ve been working on for several years now.  At that point, I had the entire thing roughed out as an outline, and the first chapter was pretty polished.  (As of Saturday, the first draft is officially complete!)  I’ve told a few people what I’m working on, but I haven’t been excitedly announcing that I’m working on a book.  Someone may ask to see it if I tell them what I’m doing.  If they see it, they may read it.  And if they read it, they may not like it.  If they don’t like it, they may not like me…  It’s the horrid adult introvert version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie!”

I was effectively paralyzed for the better part of a year because I’m afraid if I finish and publish a book, it won’t be good and no one will like it; therefore no one will like me.  It’s better to just say, “I’m working on a book,” and you’ll all think I sound very authorly, even though I’m not being the author God called me to be.  The most miserable part about that is that I’m telling God I don’t trust him to fulfill what he called me to do.  I know I’m supposed to be writing; he’s given me a wellspring of creativity for ideas; I have three things right now that are bigger works I know I am called to finish.  When I avoid working on the book, I feel pressure to work on it.  Sometimes I feel guilty, and I know it’s a guilty feeling from God because it comes with the desire to correct it and focus on the work he’s given me.  (Theologically speaking, that classifies this feeling as conviction rather than just guilt.  Guilt without a prompt to put yourself back under God’s direction is not from God.)

And so we come to a late hour, wherein I had decided to choose a group of people I trusted and whose opinions I highly valued and set up a Facebook message.  I had the group listed, and I was under the false impression that attachments in Messenger would operate like e-mail attachments.  I clicked on the attachment and prepared to write my message, then ponder whether or not to send it (and probably chicken out…).  Except Messenger doesn’t work at all like e-mail, so when I clicked on the attachment, it sent it.  I was not ready for that.  I may have panicked a little – enough that I couldn’t breathe for at least a minute.  And then I realized I sent a random attachment to a dozen or so people with zero explanation.  All my plans to carefully craft a request for feedback were out the window.  I furiously typed an explanation and went in search of chocolate to assuage my heart palpitations.

But nothing horrible happened.  I didn’t die.  No one ridiculed me or ended our friendship, no matter what they thought of my work.  I had let my fear control me until my Facebook Messenger ineptitude forced me to confront it.  That in itself was freeing.  Receiving several words of encouragement was incredible.

I’m always going to struggle with criticism because it’s in my perfectionist nature to take it personally, but if I’m writing from the ideas God gives me, I only need to worry about what he thinks; no other audience matters.

What about you?  What are you afraid to do but know you should be doing?  What’s stopping you from taking action and facing the fear?  How likely is it that the horrible scenario in your head will actually happen if you act?  What can you do to help you move closer to facing that fear?

“Child’s Play” (A Flash Fiction Work)

Several months ago, I entered NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge on a lark (Link to contest information: http://www.nycmidnight.com/Competitions/FFC/Challenge.htm ).  Contestants are assigned to a group, and each group is given a set of prompts consisting of genre, location, and an object that must all be part of the story.  And your story can only be 1,000 words or less.  And you have 48 hours to complete it.   As a writer who has neglected fiction for a few years because it’s hard work to create compelling characters and stories, it was fun to have such a short assignment to chew on.  You get to tell a story without all the daunting character and plot arcs necessary for longer works, but then you also only have 1,000 words to spin a yarn readers will enjoy.  You have to be really tight on plot and exposition.

“Child’s Play” was my first round entry.  I feel like my second round was weaker work than my first round entry, but I hope it’s good enough to put me through to Round 3.  It’s probably a frivolous thing to hope for because this writing contest has very little bearing on the direction of my writing at the moment, but I’d love to make it to the final round.  Rankings for Round 2 come out on November 6, which feels like a hundred years away.  I ranked 4th in my group in Round 1, so I’m hoping that if I am ranked at all in Round 2 it will be enough to advance.  (That’s surely more information than you ever wanted to know, but now you know what pops into my head at 4:00 a.m. when I can’t go to sleep…)

Without further expository information you never wanted to know but were forced to read through anyway, here is “Child’s Play.”  I’d love to hear what you think if you want to leave a comment.

 

“Child’s Play”

The McWane Center had been the perfect location. Birmingham was big enough that cartel members could come and go without suspicion and small enough that the police weren’t looking for smuggling operations. The food truck display at the McWane provided cover for the dead drops, and a small, gaunt man was waiting impatiently for the children’s museum to open so he could complete his assigned drop.

The job was simple, “So simple a child could do it,” as his boss put it. Tito rolled his eyes as he thought of that day in the back office. He knew the rest of the crew resented his superstitions, but why would anyone jinx an op like that? The boss was inviting trouble by taunting fate. The Saint Nicholas medal between his fingers assuaged his misgivings, and he shifted his backpack and looked at the McWane Center doors. A group of children rumbled past him, chattering with excitement about the day. A universe of new ideas lay before them, but Tito kept his face lowered; his world was already limited by a lifetime of bad choices.

Swap the cans and get out. It’s a children’s museum, not the Louvre. Kids will be touching everything, so no one will notice a can of tomato sauce. His pep talk continued the length of the sidewalk and up the front stairs. When he lifted his gaze, he froze for a split second. Why is there a security checkpoint? That’s new. Tito forced himself to continue moving and even mustered a smile for the security guard who pointed to the backpack.

“I just need to take a quick look, sir, so if you don’t mind opening that bag for me, we’ll get you on your way.”

But I do mind. “Sure. Here you go. What’s with this?” Tito waved at the metal detector and security search paraphernalia.

“There’s been some threats, so they added some extra safety precautions.” The guard motioned Tito through the metal detector as he searched the backpack. “Is this a can of tomato sauce?” Tito’s face blanched.

Relax. Breathe. There’s no way he could know. He took a quick breath and wrenched his face back into a smile. “It is. You never know when you’ll feel like whipping up some spaghetti Bolognese.” Not even Saint Nicholas can salvage that line. I am going to die here. No. Stop. Breathe.

“Ha! That’s my favorite! I don’t guess you’ll be using this can of sauce as a weapon, will you?”

“Of course not.” But my boss would.

The guard handed Tito the backpack and moved on to the next patron. Tito shook his head to clear the unexpected altercation from his mind and moved to the elevator. He tried to blend in and look interested in the lobby exhibits; focusing on his act kept the nerves in check. Tito knew he was overthinking the job – all he had to do was swap a can of tomato sauce in the food truck display – but he was afraid to let his guard down even for a second. If I get sloppy, I get caught. If I get caught, I die. The cartel did not tolerate loose ends; it eradicated them mercilessly. And this was his last chance.

The elevator stopped on the third floor, and Tito entered the main exhibit hall. There were a few mothers chasing after wild children and a class assembling in front of their teacher. He decided to wander through the atrium before entering the food truck display in the main hall. The class would soon disperse, and the swarming children would provide cover. The atrium display was musical instruments from around the world, and his thoughts were swept into distant memories of summer nights spent playing guitar by a bonfire. Stop it. That’s all gone now. This is your life now. Focus. He moved out of the atrium and toward the food truck display, constantly scanning the room.

Why is that guard up here? He does know. No, that’s impossible. He slowed his breathing and meandered around the miniature food trucks, feigning interest in the food styles represented. He eased toward the prep table to locate his target. Where is it? Tito knew from his boss that the tomato sauce always started out at the prep table. He came early in the day so it wouldn’t be out of place after children jumbled everything up. Am I really going to die because some brat moved a can? It’s here somewhere. It has to be. His search became more frantic as his chest constricted.

Breathe. No panic attack on the job. Not again. The cartel will kill you. His hands were cold and his palms tingled, so he sat at the bench nearest the prep table and compelled his fingers to work the zipper of his pack, then grasp the can of tomato sauce. All you have to do is find the can. He set his can down on the table and again searched furiously for his target. With each empty drawer and basket his field of vision narrowed and his lungs shrank. Tito’s pace grew frenzied as he raced his anxiety. Cans, boxes, whisks, bowls, all flew around him, but no tomato sauce. Now his hands and feet were lead, and his lungs uselessly gasped for air. His heart was racing to stop the meltdown, but he knew it was futile.

Tito barely registered the guard’s presence as a firm hand propelled him away.

“That was a nice try, buddy. The boss didn’t think you’d even make it that far. ‘Spaghetti Bolognese,’ ha! That was a little lame. Look, I’m sorry I have to take you out. It’s not personal, but you know the rules.” They stopped outside.

“So this… was all… a setup?” wheezed Tito.

“’Fraid so, buddy.  The boss couldn’t risk you getting caught again.” The pistol glinted in the sun.

“So simple… a child… could do it. Shit.” Saint Nicholas jangled onto the pavement.