The Revenge of AOL/Lessons I learned about my computer

By Joanna Campbell Slan

As with most crises, this one began simply enough. My AOL inbox showed 20,000+ messages. The number had built up over time. In a surge of energy, I decided to clean out the inbox. Four hours later, I’d winnowed the mess down to 3,000+ emails. Some of you might have even gotten an email from me, because if I had any questions about whether an email had been responded to, I sent a new email to double-check.

That night, I went to bed feeling incredibly organized. Yes, I was taming my email habit at last. My friend Marla had shown me how to use the rules function. Aaron, my computer guru, told me how to block offending domains. The number in my inbox had shrunken considerably. The leftovers could be dealt with the next morning. All was well in my soul.


The next day, I opened my computer to find…40,000+ emails. I called Aaron. He did a remote session (oh, the computer gods have ways of controlling our machines from afar!), and reset the AOL account. He deduced that AOL wanted to save all my emails for 30 days. When I tried to destroy them, AOL thoughtfully replaced all of them. We thought we had the problem fixed, although Aaron’s last pronouncement proved prescient, “I hate AOL.”

“You told me that.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll say it again. I hate AOL. You get what you pay for.”

“Right, but I still use that account. Mainly for sites that force me to sign up or for when I make purchases.”

“Yeah, but I’m just sayin’…I hate AOL.”

“Got it.”

Later that day, a warning popped up in the lower right hand corner of my screen. It told me that I was running out of disk space. I hit the Crap Cleaner button. I did the Malware cleaning. Usually that’s all I need to do. Of course, cleaning the disk space is a hassle because as you do, you clean out all the “cookies,” which are really bread crumbs that lead you back to places you’ve been. When the cookies are gone, you have to manually re-enter passwords. A pain in the backside. However, I was being a good little scout. I did it. And I kept writing on my newest Kiki book and a short story.

The next day…Armageddon. AOL decided I could NOT do without the emails I’d deleted and repopulated them AGAIN. I now had 220,000+ emails in my inbox. I also had 50,000+ emails in my trash folder. I couldn’t send or receive any emails. A big yellow caution sign covered my enterprise server, the site.

So I decided to take out the trash (in the computer). I needed to hurry because I was catching a plane up to DC. From there I was flying to Seattle, Washington, for a family wedding. I hit the right buttons. Hit them again. Nothing happened.

In a panic I called Aaron.

As it happened, between the emails in my inbox and the emails in my trash, I’d used up ALL the available space on my computer. In fact, between the manuscripts on my laptop, the photos, the covers, and everything else, I’d used up 60% of my disk space. My emails ate the rest, the remaining 30%.

Fortunately, there was a fix. I could physically drop off my computer with Aaron, and he could install a bigger hard drive. A much, much bigger hard drive. So I did.

Now my computer is slicker than owl snot. (As if I’d know how slick owl snot is!) And faster than a speeding bullet. (Ditto.) Aaron kindly worked overtime to get the machine back to me. Between his efforts and the wedding and traveling, I took a semi-forced vacation from my laptop. Yesterday I actually floated around in my son’s pool for an hour. It was heaven, watching the clouds float overhead in a blue, blue sky. Here in Winter Park, Florida, the temperature soared into the 90s, and the water was perfect! I actually fell asleep while drifting in the plastic doughnut.

And you know what? Despite the hassle, and the cost, and the exasperation…I’m kinda/sorta glad this happened. I now have more storage space. I feel refreshed. I really needed to take a break from technology. My mind feels much clearer, and I’m ready to get back to work.

What did I learn from all this?

  • I’m recommitted to cleaning my email inbox more frequently–and immediately dumping the “trash.”
  • I’m going to be more pro-active about using external back-up drives. I’ll keep one up in DC at our business and one in Florida.
  • I’ll be putting more of my finished manuscripts in the cloud from now on as a way to keep things organized and to better manage storage.
  • I’ll always get the largest hard drive I can afford. When we bought this new laptop, it never occurred to us to see if we could get a bigger hard drive. This one is four times the size I had.
  • I’m so glad I keep a little notebook with all my passwords written down. Another computer guru, not Aaron, told me that he spends a lot of his time working with people who put all their passwords on their computer only to have a computer problem and lose all access.
  • I need to take a break from my computer once in a while. It’s positively addicting. I need to clear my thinking and detach.
  • I really appreciate Aaron. He’s a girl’s best friend when it comes to my computer. Everyone needs a computer whiz as a pal.

Oh… and Aaron still hates AOL.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things for the authors’ book club I belong to. The book was my choice. It’s almost guaranteed to spark a lively debate for many reasons. I find myself intrigued by the way that Alma, the main character, can find beauty and wonder in the world around her.

It is, I think, a talent well-worth having. To see past the broken, the ugly, and the dirty, and to find pockets of wonder. Perhaps it’s a form of gratitude. Instead of taking the world for granted, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the moment.

I try to do this in my books, leaving a trail of literary bread crumbs for the reader to follow. It’s my way of sharing what has given me joy.  Because owning a Great Dane is out of the question for me at this juncture, I gave one to Kiki Lowenstein. Because I love turning trash into treasure, I assigned that job to Cara Mia Delgatto. Because I like to look like a lady (even if I don’t behave like one!), I told Clancy that she has to be a Jackie Kennedy clone. The list goes on and on.

This morning, I was thinking about my favorite things, things that have or should become part of my books. What would you add to the list?

* blue patterned china
* sunrises
* miniatures
* ferns
* my Paris coffee mug
* my color printer
* my notebook computer
* our blue bedspreads
* Jax, my puppy
* Jax’s toy, Foxie
* Hibiscus
* the beach
* thunderstorms
* a good book
* peanut butter
* fresh cherries
* the walk to my mailbox
* tissue paper
* greeting cards
* my comfy pajamas
* lavender the fragrance
* sandalwood

Okay, it’s not all inclusive, but I think I’ll stop and work on Kicked to the Curb, a book I love writing, but one that’s been through TONS of rewriting!

Tell me about your favorite things!

Why do YOU read?

Tuesdays with Sally Lippert, Joanna’s Ace Assistant

Do you read for fun?
Do you read to escape?
Do you read to learn a new skill?
Or is it all of the above?
Currently, I am reading for all of the above.

As I am trying to assist Joanna in the self-publishing world, I have developed a whole new appreciation for what an author goes through to get a book into our hands.

When we are very young, our parents introduce us to the world of books.
School starts and we begin our education via books and teachers.
Choosing our professions, we go on to higher learning and study a field of interest.
Growing up, I read the Boxcar children, Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew.
My brothers read comic books.
Through adulthood, I have gone through all the genres of reading as I am sure most of you have done.

But I never had an appreciation for what it takes to write a novel until now. I didn’t know the “behind the scenes” work involved. The hours spent editing, checking facts, double-checking style for consistency, making decisions about cover copy, and reaching out to fans. As I go through Kiki Land, my admiration for Joanna has grown by leaps and bounds because of her growth as a writer.

Joanna curling up with a good book

Of course, I am reading lots of other authors and now respect the research that goes into writing a book.

I also have a new respect for the online world that authors must navigate, a world changing every day. As my own career as a nurse unfolded, I never stopped studying or learning, especially as critical care changed with all the new technology. That ability to stay mentally agile is definitely coming in handy, as I am learning new ways of publishing and marketing.

But even though so much of the delivery system has changed, in the end, it is still all about delivering a good story. Writers definitely have their work cut out for them as they help us to learn, entertain and escape.

Writing a Book In A Week–Can It Be Done?

Twice a year, my friends at RWA put together an experience that they call “BIAW.” That’s short for Book In A Week.

Last time I participated, I wrote more than 22,000 words that week. My friend Beverly Bateman was the word-wrangler, and bless her heart, she kept cheering me on. After the first day, she emailed me to say, “Can you keep up this pace?”

I sure did.

We’re all different. Our goals vary. We’re motivated by different needs. I love competition. I like challenges. So for me, BIAW is a wonderful synergy of all my motivators.

Are you up to the challenge of writing a book in a week?

Here are some tips:

1. Start by doing your rough outline. I had a good summary going in. That meant that each day I knew what I intended to write. Very helpful.

2. Check out your physical environment and get it ready. As you might imagine, writing that many words is tough on your backside. I bought a special seat cushion for my office chair. No lie, at $20 it was a GREAT investment!

3. Work out your kinks offline. At the end of each day, I’d jot down notes about what was upcoming. All through the evening, I’d revisit those notes and make adjustments. The next morning before I sat down to work, I’d also do a bit of rearranging. That meant that my keyboard time was optimal.

4. Turn off the phone and Internet. It’s too easy to be distracted! A five-minute phone call can destroy twenty minutes of available writing time.

5. Set goals for yourself. I wanted to write 10,000 a day. Yup. Ambitious, right? But I’d read an article by a woman who’d done that, so I thought, “Hey, I can, too.” I didn’t hit that number, but having it in mind was helpful.

6. Track your progress. Seeing the numbers grow is an incredibly motivating experience.

7. Be accountable. I told Bev that I’d dedicate the book I was writing to her. And I will. Knowing that I had to report to her added a bit more oomph to my enthusiasm.

BIAW starts on September 22. I’ll report my word count to you each day. Let’s see how I do!

What are your best tips for writing faster?

How Anyone Can Improve His or Her Writing Almost Instantly

By Joanna Campbell Slan

School has started, and your child may be one of many who struggles with written assignments. Or perhaps you, yourself, are going back to school. Or maybe now that your kids are off to classes, you’ve decided to get down to the business of writing that book you’ve been meaning to tackle for years.

I’ve been writing my whole life. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t putting words on paper. I’ve also taught writing to adults, both college students and professionals. There’s one tip I can share that will dramatically improve your writing–anyone’s writing–instantly.When I tell people this simple tip, they usually scoff. What a shame, because it’s so simple and so incredibly effective:

Read the work out loud.

Do NOT mumble the words. Don’t simply move your lips. Actually read it, as if presenting it to an audience. In fact, if you can find another person to listen, so much the better.

As you read, you’ll hear glitches in your work. You’ll catch the rough spots. You’ll notice where phrasing is awkward or where the transition needs help. Mostly, you’ll notice words you left out or misused, but duplicated words will also jump out at you.

If you find yourself pausing to “explain” what you wrote, that’s a huge red flag.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Huh. Right. Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.

But trust me on this, it’s the BEST tip I’ve ever gotten, and it’ll improve your work dramatically.

When I was writing Paper, Scissors, Death, I must have read the car chase scene to my son six times. I never made it through to the end. Not the first five times. I’d start reading and realize how wrong my phrasing sounded. Or how lame. Or whatever. So I’d say, “Never mind! Go back to your computer games!” and walk off, back to my own computer, to start over.

You’ll probably do the same with your work. But when you finish revising, you’ll have a much, much better piece of writing. Trust me on this.

How to Judge Whether Criticism Is Fair or Not

“Kaizen” is a wonderful Japanese word that means constant and neverending improvement. I’ve taken that idea to heart. I want every book I write to be better than the last. One way I can improve is by paying attention to criticism. But not all criticism is equally valuable. And some criticism should be promptly forgotten. How can you tell what’s what?

By considering the intent of your critic.

People share their criticisms for a myriad of reasons:

1. Because they really care. Yesterday I went to the website of my favorite local restaurant. There I discovered that they had misspelled “romantic.” I called them, made my reservation, and mentioned the misspelling. I said, “I love your place so much that I don’t want anyone to misjudge how perfect you are! Your place is awesome! And your food and service are superb!” Yes, I really, really love that place, so I told them what I noticed in the hopes that I might contribute to their wonderfulness.

2. Because they are jealous. This is the saddest form of criticism because it comes from a nasty place. How can you tell jealous criticism? By the level of emotion. When the criticism springs from a jealous place, it is almost always full of hyperbole. The tone is overwrought. Frantic. Excessive. Therefore, I am suspect of any review that’s full of clever stinging remarks, but no substance. The reviewer is saying, “See? I am smarter than the author whose work I’m reviewing. Look at me! Aren’t I clever?”

3. Because they are disappointed. That’s what happened to me the other day. The person reviewing my work expected me to take a certain approach. But I didn’t. So my reviewer was disappointed–and his criticism was colored accordingly. After nursing some bruised feelings, I tried to sort out which portions of his criticism were valid. Among the lumps of coal there were a few diamonds. Now I’m more excited than ever about my project.

4. Because they have experience and knowledge that leads them to believe you’ve gone astray. This is a variation of “they care,” but in this case, there’s a professional bias that underlines their suggestions. The reader has expertise to drawn on. However, the reader can still be wrong. For example, I approached another author about a pre-publication blurb (an endorsement) for Paper, Scissors, Death. She had some publication experience, but not a lot, and she was very confident in her work. So she read Paper, Scissors, Death and promptly called me to say it should never be published. Ever. Fortunately, my publisher did not agree. After Paper, Scissors, Death was nominated for an Agatha Award, the author sent me a lovely apology along the lines of “gee, maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about!” I don’t think she was being malicious. I think she honestly thought I was making a mistake.

5. Because they’re having a bad day. Or a bad month. Or a bad life. Let’s face it: On any given day, some readers would have told Will Shakespeare to chuck his work into the fire. Call it the “bad hair day” syndrome. You know how it goes. Everything looks awful when you’re having a bad hair day. And so, dear author, when a “bad hair day” reader reviews your work, you are sunk. They can’t see the true merit of your project because misery has colored their lenses.

Once you realize that criticism can be leveled for a myriad of reasons, you can sift through the suggestions of your readers and decide whether these points are valid. More often than not, you’ll be left holding a mixed bag. It certainly is tempting to toss out the whole mess. But if you do, you’ll cheat yourself.

Here’s my thinking… If there’s even ONE helpful idea in a critique, I am eager to put that idea to good use. Never mind that my feelings are hurt. Never mind the reviewer’s intention. Those are transitory things. My work is what matters.

Okay, your turn. Why do you think people offer criticism? How can you tell if the critic is being fair or not? Have you ever had to apologize because you misjudged something?

The Nine of Wands: Safeguarding My Energy

Every year my sister and I host a New Year’s Day party at my house. We invite Karen, a local psychic, to come and tell people’s fortunes. Karen is completing her dissertation in biology. She’s whip-smart and very, very talented. Although she has many psychic talents, Karen prefers to use Tarot cards when working with clients.

This year, while Karen was doing my reading, the Nine of Wands showed up.

At first glance, it’s easy to misunderstand what the card means, because it looks like the man is imprisoned by the wands. But on closer inspection, you can see that he’s built a fortress of them. They safeguard him. He is not a prisoner.

Karen told me, “You need to protect your energy. Too many demands on it are sapping you. For you to continue the success you’ve got going with your career, you need to do a better job of keeping people at bay–and saying no.”

I knew that. I felt that. The run-up to the holidays was very busy for me. I’ve had a house full of people, people I love. But I’ve also felt drained and been unable to concentrate on my work. I do my best thinking when I’m alone in my house. I also need to refuse to answer the phone. Well-meaning people say, “Oh, I’ll only talk a minute,” but that minute has cost me an hour of momentum or more.

It’s difficult for others to understand, but my job is not nine-to-five. I don’t start and stop at obvious times. When I’m on a roll, I work around the clock. Even if it looks like I’m doing laundry, I’m thinking. I’m plotting. I’m planning. A phone call seems innocent enough, but it’s like being dragged through one of those black holes they had on Star Trek. I’m yanked out of my reality and into the real world.

I told Karen that I understood what she was saying. She continued the reading, but as she did, I had this urge to get up and pull out my own set of Tarot cards. I mean, I could NOT sit still. Since we were in my office, it wasn’t hard for me to locate my deck.

I handed the case over to Karen, and as I did, all my cards fell out. Face down. She helped me retrieve them.

“One of them is vibrating,” she said calmly, as she plucked it from the pile.

It was this card, the Nine of Wands.

Okay! I get the message!

It's Hump Day!

When I worked in a cubicle, this was my favorite day of the week! (Next to Friday, that is.) I also breathed a little easier knowing the majority of the week, and nasty Monday, was behind me. Back then, I worked faster than my boss did, so I often found myself with nothing to do. It wasn’t like I didn’t ask for chores. I did. But often, I sat at my desk and twiddled my thumbs.

When I got REALLY bored, inevitably, I also became sleepy. I would wait as long as possible to go to the ladies room. There I would fall asleep on the toilet with my head resting on the toilet paper roll. I never slept very long, because as I relaxed I would sink a little. And a little more. And when my tushy hit the water, I’d wake up with a start–and go back to work.

The other day my sister complained that I was working around the clock. I explained that when you are an author, you are essentially self-employed, and you work the hours you need to work, regardless of the day or the week or the length or your workday. That’s fine by me. I’d rather be busy. But it can be frustrating to work from home because your neighbors and family rely on nine-to-five hours. My work life is anything but nine-to-five.

So here’s to HUMP Day. I’m wishing you flowers, happiness, and fulfilling work–because that’s what really makes the hours fly by!

How to Make a Contest Judge Very, Very Grumpy

The organizers of the contest I was judging sent an urgent email saying that a few of the judges had opted out at the last minute. Would I review two more entries?

Of course, I said, “Yes.”

One of those is still upsetting me.

You see, this particular entry featured a charming and highly original story idea. To my mind, it was “high concept.” It was a big idea that causes people to smile and say, ‘Ahhhh!”

But the writer didn’t proof her work. The 30 pages were riddled with extra spaces between words, lack of indentation for paragraphs, missing spaces between words, extra periods at the end of sentences, misspellings, verb tense mistakes (“lead” for “led”), and a total disregard for common usage of commas. At first, I simply marked these using the yellow highlight function. Toward the end of the piece, I started to get hacked off. Really annoyed.

You see, a contest entry or a query for an agent should represent your BEST work. You are consciously, and by definition, trying to set your best foot forward. To ask anyone to read your work when you haven’t gone through it and polished it to perfection is like asking a guest to come over for Thanksgiving dinner to a dirty, messy house. A house festooned with wet towels, cans overrun with garbage, dirty toilets, and a grubby floor.

Wow, you are thinking, Joanna, you’ve really gone off the edge on this.

Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

You see, writing is my profession. I worked 40-hours a week in college to put myself through school. I went into massive amounts of debt to buy an education. Despite my full-time job, I still graduated cum laude, and it would have been summa cum laude had I not gotten tripped up in a statistics class. I take my work very seriously. I believe that publication is an honor. A privilege. I take my readers very seriously. Their attention is an honor. Their time–and mine–is a nonrefundable resource that is precious.

Even today, I struggle to improve my writing. Recently I asked an English teacher for clarification on “which” and “that” usage. I’m still working to perfect my skills with those words! And even in this article, I will stop and look up spellings and meanings of words as I go along. Every piece I write is edited many times over. That’s just part of the job.

So when someone submits a piece for evaluation, I give that piece hours of attention. Yes, you read that right: HOURS. I was told to expect to spend 45 minutes judging each piece. I spent 2 and 3 hours per piece. I did not give them a cursory look and then assign numbers to the heuristic grid. I highlighted comments as I went along. I line-edited the submissions, and used the strike-through function to show wordiness. I noted missing commas, missplaced modifiers, faults of logic, and sequencing errors. Such editing in the marketplace is valued at $5 a page, on the low end of the professional editing scale. Each contest piece was 30 pages long. So I offered each contestant $150 worth of my time.

Which in this case was wasted. I say “wasted” because this particular entrant obviously didn’t take the contest seriously. Didn’t spend the time necessary to master the basics of our craft. Didn’t put in the baseline effort needed to prepare a story for a contest, much less for publication.

In short, I guess I’m miffed because I was willing to “waste” my valuable time…but the person submitting that particular entry wasn’t equally willing to spend his/hers!

Here’s the shame of it: He/She had a wonderfully creative idea for a story. He/She was gifted with a delightful imagination. These are God-given talents. All this editing stuff can be learned! But those talents are gifts.

Then there’s the underlying premise of any competition: The entrant promised me his/her best work in exchange for my time and attention.

And I was cheated.

What a shame.

Is it any wonder that I’m still sort of grumpy about that particular entry?