Monday, September 19, 2011

Organization For the Organizationally-Challenged

If you're like me and have the opposite of whatever OCD is, you'll want to check out Bookavore's five-part series from last week about getting organized; it's helped me
a lot already, and the advice is so simple, people who are naturally organized will wonder why we weren't doing this all along.

I don't know, we just weren't. We don't have answers for such things. Now go alphabetize your spice rack.

It boils down to writing everything down. I've always been someone who writes a to-do list and then loses the list, but I have been better about that this year after getting a cute little notebook specifically for to-do lists. Actually, I got a couple of things at the beginning of the year that helped me get better organized:

Aren't they pretty? I found both of those Moleskines at a Barnes & Noble several months ago, 75% off because it was February already.

The colorful book-looking thing has a planner for each month:

These I've been using to keep track of information I'll need at tax time. In years past I'd start out really well, updating an Excel document each day, but by February I quit doing it, then end up the following April trying to re-create last year's life by going through my entire calendar. Since I don't work in the same place every day and I pimp myself out to contract with about five different places, that gets messy. Now, at the end of each day I jot down where I went, anything I donated, and anything I bought or paid for that's tax-deductible:

The small green book is what I started using for to-do lists; it's meant to be a daily planner so there's a page for each day:

So that worked out okay, but I wasn't writing down everything, and I wasn't specific enough. Some things seemed too small to bother writing down, but then I'd end up holding too many of those little things in my head, and of course I'd forget them. And there's nothing to remind me of the stuff I do write down, so if I'm not looking at the list it's easy to let things slide. It's just too much for the hamsters who run on wheels in my brain to keep up with.

Now, using the program Remember the Milk, I have tabs for different lists, like "Personal," "Work," "Writing," "Blog posts," etc. I fill in the things I need to do under each list. Whereas before I would write a note to myself to "Catch up on Apocalypsies stuff," I now have specific tasks under an "Apocalypsies business" tab:

Much more specific than "catching up on stuff."

For things I need to do every day but tend to forget about, like "take vitamins," I set those up as a recurring task. As soon as I check it off as "Complete" for today, the program adds it as a new task for tomorrow. You probably don't have to write down routine things like "eat lunch," or "put on pants," but do what you need to do. I won't pretend I haven't flaked out and forgotten to go to work once or four times, so no judgement here.

You can set up reminders about tasks that are due. Just this morning I got an email from a nice employer saying, "Hey, do you want to send in your time sheet, so we can pay you?" Yikes, I usually think about that during the week and put a sticky note on the computer screen to remind myself to do that. So now it's set up as a weekly task on Remember the Milk, and I'll get an email every Sunday as a reminder. I can access my lists from my computer or my phone, so I can always add a task when I think of it and check of completed tasks even if I'm away from home.

Unfinished tasks that are overdue are underlined on the list. A new version of the program might include a rabid squirrel that shows up at your house and bites you until you complete all of your tasks. But for now, the stern disapproval of the underlining will have to do.

Even though I do like writing things down, storing things on the computer helps me keep track of everything-- address book on a Google doc, daily schedule on Google calendar, for example, and now the to-do lists. I'm sure there are other good online programs or apps for planning and organization, and you do a lot with a smart phone calendar too. Recovering messy people, what have you found that helps you keep it all together?

Okay, now I can check "Do blog post about organization" off the list. Next task: Find pants.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

That's What (S)he said: Weekly Round-Up

I didn't get around to posting a weekly round-up last weekend, because I was out doing some awesome things. In real life! Away from the computer! I know, it's weird. I thought my skin would burst into flames from the shock of the sunlight hitting it.

I was hanging out with this little guy:

And on Saturday I went to the Brazos Writers workshop on "The Art and Science of Investigation." How often have you been at a workshop and said, "No, keep talking! Lunch will wait!" Never, right? Four speakers, and I could've listened to each one all day long. Do forensic entomologists have groupies? 'Cause that might be my new hobby. And I was inspired to try my hand at forensic artistry in the creation of the shot-up nutria picture shown in my invasive species post. (It would be inappropriate to show his "morgue photo," you know.) Seriously, I think I missed my calling.

Back in computerland, here are some favorite things from this week:

Bookavore posted a fabulous five-part series about organization for the disorganized-- really simple, easy-to-follow stuff. Here's part one about how the plan got started, and you'll want to follow through with the whole series. It's helped me a lot already, and my brain is made of hamsters running on those squeaky metal wheels, so it's hard for me to keep track of stuff. I'll do a post next week about things that have helped me be better organized. (And yes, that task is on my list!)

For some great advice about how to promote yourself without being an annoying jerk, see these posts by Nathan Bransford and Livia Blackburne.

Need some motivation to get off the couch and start exercising? How about adding zombies to your run?

This is the largest audience these musicians have had. Who cares that they're cows, just look at how rapt with attention they are:

But is there anything cuter than an orphaned baby elephant wearing a raincoat?

Speaking of elephants, here's an update on my Elephants: The New Vampires post. Look what was waiting on my front porch for me when I got home from work on Tuesday, from Susan The Lovely Assistant Editor:

Isn't it pretty? It's such a fun read, too. How can you not love a book about a boy who's raised by an elephant?

And I saw a newly-released elephant picture book I didn't know about before:

Wendy Henrichs' WHEN ANJU LOVED BEING AN ELEPHANT (Sleeping Bear Press) is about an elephant who's taken from the wild in Sumatra and sold to a circus, then a zoo. Now she's riding on a truck to someplace new, after fifty years of captivity. And I love the name-- CHAINED has a backstory about a circus elephant named Anju!

Writerly types, be sure stop by the Read For Relief auction if you haven't yet. Lots of items like critiques from authors, editors, and agents, signed books, and other fun things up for bid to benefit The Red Cross. Bidding on items posted on Friday will end Sunday, and new items will be announced on Monday.

Have a great week, everyone!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Invasive Animals That Most Deserve a Punch In the Face

Last week I wrote a little about a new law to help deal with the feral hog problem in Texas. But there are plenty of other invasive species running around like unruly leash kids who've broken free of their harnesses. Here are just a few that are especially annoying:

1. Nutria
Nutria are huge rodents from South America that have invaded wetlands in the U.S. and eaten all the plants in sight.

Here's what a nutria looks like, in case you haven't had the pleasure of meeting one:

Hey, you gonna eat that?
With their voracious appetites, rat-like tails, and sharp Cheetos-like teeth, they're like beavers, only hideous-looking and jobless.

One day my brother Mike and his family came home to see their dog in a fight with a nutria. They tried to pull their dog away, but the nutria kept running after it again. They hadn't seen one before and didn't know what it was, but my nephew Luke said, "Hey, that's a nutria! It's an invasive species from South America!" Then he ran and got his science textbook to show his parents a picture. My brother had a less academic approach--he ran to his car, drove up to the canine/giant rodent smackdown, "took steady aim at the teeth that shone like beacons of evil, or Cheetos," and shot the nutria twice in the head. (Do not try this at home. Unless you're a really, really good shot.) He didn't get a picture, because it was "shot in the head and kinda bug-eyed lookin' when it was all over," but here's a crappy artist's* rendering:

It's just a flesh wound! Get back here! I'll bite your leg off!
So in this case, the animal did get a punch in the face, but it was with a couple of .40 caliber bullets instead of a fist.

*"crappy artist" = me

2. Snakehead fish
Thanks a pantload, Evolution
...and any other fish who eats everything in a lake, then gets out and walks to another lake to eat everything over there. Look, you guys need to slow it down a bit. If there's nothing good in the fridge, I don't run around pillaging my neighbor's kitchens. They hate that. I know someone released you in a strange lake, but just hang out, pace yourself, and stay in the water like the fish you're supposed to be. Yeah, we're impressed--you can walk. Very cool. Now give it a rest and quit showing off.

3. The brown tree snake of Guam

This is a snake that probably hitched a ride on a plane from Australia back in the 1940s, on a flight that unfortunately didn't have Samuel L. Jackson as a passenger.

About every three days there's a power outage somewhere on Guam, caused by snakes who thought it might be fun to play with electrical wires. Thankfully they aren't highly venomous, but their bites do cause a lot of ER visits.

Before the brown tree snake barged in, the only other snake on Guam was the blind snake. You know what it eats? Termites. Which makes the blind snake really cool.

Not so cool: ridding the island of birds and small mammals. The birds of Guam weren't used to predators, so didn't know they should fly away from something with sharp teeth opening its mouth
to eat them. They were just sitting there, minding their own business on a branch next to the newly-arrived brown tree snake, saying, "Oh, hi, I don't think we've met. Um, why am I in your mouth?" You'd think the next birds would've flown away then, but no, they just looked into the snake's mouth going, "Hey, where'd our friend go? Can we play?"

And I get it--when you're at an all-you-can-eat buffet, you want to get your money's worth. But you know what happens when you eat all the birds, Brownie? ALL THE BIRDS ARE EATEN. Kind of screwed yourself over there, didn't you? Enjoy the lizards, jerk.

I don't need to put in a disclaimer, do I? Then again, we need warnings on lawn mowers so people will know not to trim their hedges with them. Sigh. Okay, then.

People: It's not the animals' fault that they're in the wrong place. They're just doing what they know, after being plunked in a ridiculously inconvenient place. DO NOT GO AROUND PUNCHING ANIMALS IN THE FACE. It's not nice, and some of them are bitey.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see what my neighbors have in the pantry. I've run out of Cheetos.

Friday, September 9, 2011

5 Lessons From Toddlers & Tiaras

Toddlers and Tiaras is one of those shows I watch that simultaneously horrifies and fascinates me. I'm cringing the whole time, but I can't look away.

You can learn a lot by watching the show, and I'm talking about more than the creative spellings of the name Michaela. (Mikayla, Makayla, Micaylah, Mikaila, Mukayluh, Mikado, etc.) It's the pageant version of Gaddafi.

Mostly what I've learned has to do with how much I got wrong as a parent. I thought I did all right, but I had no idea what I was doing. So, as a service to you all, here are just a few of the lessons I've learned:

1. If your child is sleepy, give her Pixy Sticks and energy drinks.

And there was the six-year-old who drank Red Bull from a bottomless sippy cup. They bleeped out the brand name, but it was clear what she was saying:

"I want my Red Bull!"

"I'm on my fifth Red Bull!"

"Where'd all those spiders come from?!"

So, they're learning early that if you need a pick-me-up, grab a drink or a white powdery substance. This can't possibly turn out badly.

2. Children cry and throw themselves to the floor to show enjoyment.

Pageant detractors complain that parents are living vicariously through their children, and that the way they're raising their kids is borderline abusive. But over and over again we hear the parents argue, "We're doing this for her" and "She loves pageants."

Witness the joy:

3. Dress as a prostitute to be rewarded with jewelry and money.

I don't mean that they're just wearing skimpy outfits; I mean a contestant on this week's episode was dressed as Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman. You know, when she played a hooker. I wish I were making this up.

And it worked. This contestant went on to win the Grand Supreme title. Even more disturbing was her trophy for "Most likely to shack up with Richard Gere."

Say it with me, kids: "Big mistake. Huge."

4. I know nothing about investing.

Pageants give cash prizes! $1,000 sometimes! Yes, the dresses cost a few thousand, and there are coaches, entry fees, hair extensions, makeup artists, hairdressers, and custom made "flippers" to hide the hideous gaps created when kids dare to lose their baby teeth, but if it all comes together in a glittery harmonic convergence and your child wins the pageant, it was all worth it.

5. Babies should be tan.

Just look at this picture from when my daughter was a toddler:

I'm sorry, I should have warned you how terrifying that would be. I mean, look how pale she is. And that outfit does nothing for her figure. But I didn't know any better. I never took her to a tanning salon. It was a long time ago, and I feel comfortable telling you people now.

Here's what I should have been doing:

It's too late for me, but I speak out now to save the spray tans of the future. If I can save just one toddler from walking around with embarrassingly pasty-white skin, then my journey here has meant something.

And if my time here has been worthless, I have my Pixy Sticks and Red Bull to keep me company.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Collective Nouns That Aren't Real But Should Be

You've probably heard of a murder of crows and a pod of whales, but maybe you didn't know about a huddle of penguins or a congress of baboons. And unless you were playing along with #collectivenouns this week on Twitter, there are even more obscure group names you didn't know. Here's a recap with some favorites:

You might call them a "herd of hippos," but that's wrong:

In the wild you might see a "colony of rabbits," but under your couch...

There were some literary submissions:

And speaking of homonyms:

Writing is a lonely profession, but if you find yourself in a group:

And here are the group names for a few other professions (including one of my own contributions):

There were a couple of squees:

And of course zombie groups:

There were a lot more, of course, but it's still not an exhaustive list. What are some of your favorite collective nouns-- real or made up?

"An unproductivity of people who sit around thinking of collective nouns," for example.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Can't Decide Whether to Noodle or Rent a Hog-Huntin' Helicopter

Some interesting new laws came into effect in Texas last week.

People are always complaining that the government should cut out the pork. Now you can help, thanks to a new law that makes it legal to hunt feral hogs from a helicopter.

Wait just a minute, Antsy McGee. I know what you're thinking: "I've got a case of Budweiser, an AK-47, and a rented helicopter. What could go wrong?"

You're right, I can't think of anything either. But for the sake of All That Should Remain Unholey, be extra cautious and take the aerial hunting safety course first.

There's a reason there aren't many regulations on feral hog hunting--they're a highly adaptable invasive species that eats anything they can get their hooves on and leaves behind a giant mess wherever they go. (You know someone like this, I'm sure of it. Don't look at them right now, they'll know we're talking about them. Just keep looking at the computer.)

Now, imagine if they produced thirty offspring a year just like them. Feral hogs have up to twelve piglets per litter. I know, it sounds adorable, but they do a lot of damage.

I'm here to destroy you
Feral hogs have been a problem for a long time, and they do hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage every year, like by tearing up land and devouring crops. They've even destroyed golf courses.

That does it, Wilbur. You've gone to far.

Don't look at me like that. You know what you've done.

That's better. Not so cute now, are you?
Watch for more headlines containing the phrases "Hog Wild," "Bringing Home the Bacon," and "Aporkalypse Now."

And I know you'll be thrilled to find out that noodling is now legal. Didn't know it was illegal before? Or do you have no idea what noodling is? It's fishing. But you're the fishing pole. The bait too, come to think of it.

Yes, you shove your hand (or foot) into a catfish's mouth and hope that it bites you. I can't wait to get started. I don't even like catfish that much, I just want to see the look of horror from the manicurist when I go into the salon.

Speaking of poles, there's a new "Pole Tax." Yes, "pole." Strip clubs that serve alcohol are assessed a fee of $5 per customer to help fund sex offender prevention programs. Actually, the charge has been around for a couple years, but the money's been sitting there like a big tease that the state can't touch, because of a lawsuit from club owners who complain that the tax suppresses their right to free speech.

Not true, says the Texas Supreme Court. In delivering the unanimous decision of the court, Justice Nathan Hecht stated that, "The fee does not infringe upon a scantily-clad nubile young woman's freedom to speak on any topic of her choosing in front of an audience of sweaty patrons reeking of alcohol and broken dreams as they delight in her bouncing, writhing, and gyrating...sorry, what was I saying?"

But you know the clubs aren't going to eat that fee, so it'll be passed along to the customer, who will have fewer singles to wave around in the club. This will lead to tearful testimonials about Rick Perry "Literally yanking dollars from the G-strings of strippers," which makes a really funny picture.

I'm really happy about this one--you've seen the people who protest at funerals? I'm not even going to link to them, but the ones who think God is a big Mr. Hatey McCrankypants? No more funeral protests allowed, within three hours before or after the service. I tweeted my approval of the new law and got a reply from the protestors who noticed it:

I feel dirtier than a noodler in a strip club.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

That's What (S)he said: Weekly Round-Up

The other day I wrote about several recent and upcoming elephant books for kids. Thankfully, you can never have too many elephant books, and none of them look similar to my own book. But maybe you've had that problem--you had a great idea for a book, then discover that someone else (or a few someone elses) wrote a book a lot like it. Now what? See Jen Nadol's guest post on the Cynsations blog, "Oh No! Someone Used My Idea!"

A trending topic on Twitter that's funny for some reason we can't explain and might have stolen some of my productivity this week is #replacebooktitleswithbacon. Some favorites: Are You There, God? It's Me, Bacon, How Stella Got Her Bacon Back, and Something Bacon This Way Comes.

One thing that keeps me reading a book is wondering how in the world the character is going to make it through his predicament. Are the stakes high enough in your own book? Not until the reader can't see a way out. Kara Lennox has a great article, "Is Your Black Moment Enough?" on Anna DeStefano's blog.

If you're interested in author marketing, be sure to bookmark Kristen Lamb's blog. We authors are really good at networking with each other, but it's harder to reach out to our readers online. "The Secret to Selling Books Part I--Let's Get Sticky", shows how we can better connect with our audience.

Here's a video I just saw today, but I have a feeling it'll go viral. Perfectly captures the emotional stages a writer goes through when writing a novel. I especially love the editing stage:

What happens to an elephant who survives a land mine explosion? If she knows the right people, she gets a giant prosthetic leg! Edited to add: Just saw that there's a documentary being made about the hospital that cares for this elephant and others injured by land mines. Learn more and see the trailer on the Eyes of Thailand website.

In other animal news, how can you not love a girl who punches a bear in the face to save her dog?

Have a fun and safe holiday weekend! Watch out for bears. But if you do see one, you know what to do now.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Elephants: The New Vampires

It seems like elephants are everywhere lately, and not just in my house. They're showing up in a lot of books. (And an Oscar-worthy movie you may have heard of.)

The upcoming elephant books for kids I've seen all look awesome, and thankfully not too similar to my own (like what happens in the "Oh No! Someone Used My Idea!" experience).

Since you can never have too many elephant books, here are some to look for:

THE MASTERWORK OF A PAINTING ELEPHANT by Michelle Cuevas (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, October 2011)
I remember seeing the listing for this one back when it sold and thinking it sounded fabulous. Here's the description from the publisher's website:

Ever since he was an infant, Pigeon Jones has lived on the back of an artistically gifted white elephant named Birch. Birch is a loving father, but that doesn’t stop Pigeon from wondering about the human parents who abandoned him. Birch has dreams, too—of being a well-known artist, and of finding the acrobat he fell in love with while they performed together in a circus years ago.

And so, on Pigeon’s tenth birthday, their search for fame and lost loves begins. Pigeon and Birch paint their way across the world, dodging an evil circus ringleader, freeing zoo animals, and befriending singing hoboes along the way. But when they reach the end of their journey, Birch must master the most difficult art of all: letting go and allowing his beloved Pigeon to stand on his own two feet.

Switching from fantasy to historical fiction, one that's completely different but from the same publishing house (Macmillan's leading the herd in the elephant trend) is the young adult novel AN ELEPHANT IN THE GARDEN by WAR HORSE author Michael Morpurgo (Feiwel & Friends, October 2011).

Lizzie and Karl’s mother is a zoo keeper; the family has become attached to an orphaned elephant named Marlene, who will be destroyed as a precautionary measure so she and the other animals don’t run wild should the zoo be hit by bombs. The family persuades the zoo director to let Marlene stay in their garden instead. When the city is bombed, the family flees with thousands of others, but how can they walk the same route when they have an elephant in tow, and keep themselves safe? Along the way, they meet Peter, a Canadian navigator who risks his own capture to save the family.

As Michael Morpurgo writes in an author’s note, An Elephant in the Garden is inspired by historical truths, and by his admiration for elephants, “the noblest and wisest and most sensitive of all creatures.” Here is a story that brings together an unlikely group of survivors whose faith in kindness and love proves the best weapon of all.

TUA AND THE ELEPHANT by Randal Harris, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo (Chronicle Books, March 2012).

Not much online about this one other than the Publishers Marketplace announcement where it was described as "...a middle-grade novel about the remarkable journey of a young girl who rescues and befriends an elephant."

And a couple of this year's elephant books that are already out:

I loved SMALL AS AN ELEPHANT by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Candlewick, March 2011). It's a midgrade novel, but one that I think teens and adults would enjoy too. This was a hard one to put down, because I had to keep reading to find out where Jack was going to go next and if he would find his mom.

Ever since Jack can remember, his mom has been unpredictable, sometimes loving and fun, other times caught in a whirlwind of energy and "spinning" wildly until it’s over. But Jack never thought his mom would take off during the night and leave him at a campground in Acadia National Park, with no way to reach her and barely enough money for food. Any other kid would report his mom gone, but Jack knows by now that he needs to figure things out for himself - starting with how to get from the backwoods of Maine to his home in Boston before DSS catches on. With nothing but a small toy elephant to keep him company, Jack begins the long journey south, a journey that will test his wits and his loyalties - and his trust that he may be part of a larger herd after all.

Ann Downer's ELEPHANT TALK: THE SURPRISING SCIENCE OF ELEPHANT COMMUNICATION (Lerner, 2011) is fascinating nonfiction book about elephant communication.
Here's a bit about the book from Ann's website:

Everyone has heard a bull elephant trumpeting, in a Tarzan movie or at the zoo. When we think about elephant communication, we think about that call. But elephant communication is much more complex and much more interesting that what we can hear with our human ears. Did you know that elephants also communicate through low-frequency rumbles we can’t hear? Or that they read vibrations in the ground through pads on their specially adapted feet? Or that they send signals to rivals and mates using chemical signals and body language?

Share your favorite elephant books in the comments, if you have some I haven't mentioned here. Any others you know of that are coming soon?

Then go on and write that elephant-lion romance book. I know you're thinking about it.