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A Secret Order

Behind the scenes

My name is Susan, and I have a very messy desk.

I’m hoping that out there is a chorus of people shouting “Hi, Susan,” in recognition, solidarity and non-judgment. Though I’m sure some looking at the actual, real-life photo of my desk that accompanies this blog will be recoiling in horror and disbelief.

I’m a washout in the clean desk brigade. Before anyone calls the health department based on the above picture of my desk, I’d like to say that my appalling ability to allow clutter to build up around me does not extend everywhere in my environment. My used dishes are put in the dishwasher (mostly), my floors are dusted (periodically) and my bathroom is clean and clutter free. Though full disclosure requires that I admit a significant part of that is due to my very tidy husband, who never met a piece of paper he didn’t want to throw away.

The inability to maintain workspace order is a lifelong condition which has followed me from messy lift-top desks in grade school to overflowing desks in college and continued on to extremely cluttered work stations in my various places of employment. The situation became even worse when I was given my own office with a door I could close when the desk was no longer in condition for public viewing.

When I’m working, whether on a fifth grade book report, a grad school thesis, or a mystery novel, silently, unknowingly, unintentionally I begin piling up detritus, until my desk appears as it does now, in the throes of writing the sixth book in the Leah Nash Mysteries series. At this point my work area includes, as the sharp-eyed among you can see:

  • An oversize mug for water
  • A reference book for the writing software I use, sitting on my printer
  • Colored markers (underneath which is the charger for my Fitbit)
  • A small notebook
  • A camera
  • An open file drawer
  • A cup full of pencils
  • A small cactus
  • A file stand filled with folders I want quick access to
  • A family photo
  • An empty can of sparkling water
  • A stapler
  • A stack of notebooks, reference books and reading books
  • Lots of sticky notes
  • Reading glasses
  • A discarded sweater
  • A pile of yet more papers

However, there comes a point in each messy desk growth cycle when the scales tip, and my  need to hold that thought, capture that phrase or write that chapter is outweighed by my need to find my cell phone, locate a hastily scrawled message, or retrieve a lost earring. At that juncture, I regroup and declutter by tossing, filing, discarding and/or returning to their proper places all the leavings I’ve deposited, and reclaim my workspace, restoring it to a place of order instead of chaos.

I always intend for it to stay that way, but it never does.

I have finally come to accept that something there is [in me] that doesn’t love a clean desk, and sets about festooning it with notebooks, pens, books, manila folders and piles of paper and doesn’t stop until it once again resembles a hoarder’s paradise.  But I take some solace in Carl Jung’s observation, “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

However, to all those who shut every drawer they open, re-file every document they review, discard every used item in its proper receptacle, and sit down to a well-organized workspace every day—I salute you. But I am not one of you, nor will I ever be.

Note: This post first appeared four years ago. I’ve updated the photo, the list of items on my desk, and the reference to the book I’m working on, but sadly, nothing else has changed.

All in Good Time, My Pretty

I’ve been watching the cardinals outside my window–don’t tell anyone, they think I’ve been working on book 6 in the Leah Nash series. 😉 It’s made me wonder if I’ll see a repeat of what happened a few summers ago …  
IMG_2551_optWhen I was a kid, I’d sometimes go with my father to visit his favorite aunt, Florence. Though lively of mind and loving of heart, her body had begun to fail her and she spent her days in a wheelchair. She was often seated in front of a large window from which she could see the birds that came to feeders in her yard. She’d tell me little stories about their antics and how much pleasure it gave her to watch them. I’d smile politely and murmur something about how that must be fun, but inside I was thinking If watching birds ever becomes my idea of fun, shoot me.

But now, many years later, though I’ve not yet achieved her advanced age—nor her kind heart—I have discovered my inner Aunt Florence. A wide variety of birds visit the feeders in our yard every day, and as I’m prone to staring out my office window when I should be writing, I see many of them. One in particular caught my eye this summer and I’ve been on a journey of sorts with him.

I first noticed an odd-looking bird in the yard about a month ago. With its small, dark head and reddish feathers, it looked a little like a tiny red-bodied vulture. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I Googled to try and identify it. To my surprise, my exotic bird turned out to be a cardinal

I know what the judgmental among you are thinking: Really, Susan? You didn’t know what a cardinal was? Because that’s exactly what I’d be thinking, were I reading someone else’s story of a mystery bird that was actually one that most grade schoolers could readily identify.

In my defense, I present exhibit A. IMG_3031_opt

Now, seriously, would you recognize him? I did some further research to learn what caused his “hair” loss, and what his future might hold. His bald head, I discovered, could be due to head mites, which cause incessant scratching and subsequent loss of feathers. Or he could be one of the relatively rare birds who experience complete loss of head feathers during molting season. If the cause was head mites, the prognosis wasn’t great for full recovery of his crowning glory. If his baldness was just his normal molting pattern, he should recover quite well.

I found myself looking out the window more often than usual to catch a glimpse of the bird, to see how he was faring. He  seemed to come only in the early morning and evening when there were few others of his kin around—almost as though he were embarrassed by his looks. As one who has suffered more than her fair share of bad hair days, I empathized. As the days and weeks went on, his appearance didn’t change. I showed his photo to family or friends and if they laughed at his odd appearance, I felt quite protective of my feather-challenged friend.

When a pert female cardinal with a very perky crest of her own gave him short shrift one day at the feeder, I was downright indignant. Didn’t he deserve love, a family, respect from his fellow birds, no matter what he looked like? I did additional online research to see if there was something I could do, some kind of special feed, maybe, that might speed his feather regrowth.

It appeared there was nothing to be done but wait and see, which as a recovering rescuer, I find exceedingly hard to do. I want to fix every problem I find, whether mine or anyone else’s–regardless of whether they want them fixed or not. Then, about a week ago, I caught a glimpse of him that showed me he was clearly on the road to regrowth. IMG_3198_opt

Finally, today, he posed quite jauntily at the feeder and it appears he’s well on his way to a full crest again. Reminding me that sometimes all you can do is wait, and sometimes, that’s all you need to do. A valuable lesson for cardinals, and for people, too.IMG_3204_opt

How Many Shades of Gray?

We’re doing a bit of painting at our house and I have had a revelation. I am not color blind, but I am color obtuse. One of my brothers is a professional painter. One of my sisters is a high priestess of home decorating. I said I wanted gray for the living room. I pointed at a color in the paint sample fan deck that my sister provided. (No need to go to the paint store and pick up color cards, she has her own fan deck always at the ready). I thought that pretty much settled things. I soon learned that was not the case.

Though she worded her question politely, it was clear from the surprise in my sister’s voice that my choice was not quite on point.

“Well, that one has quite a bit of green in it. I’ll hold it next to the couch. See? Do you think that’s the color you want?”

“Umm, no?”

In truth, I couldn’t really see the green undertones in that choice, or the blue undertones in the other one, or the purple in another. Holding the sample up to the couch, or the fireplace, or the wall did not help me any either. Something that my sister and my brother could see so clearly was simply not apparent to me. They both patiently tried to educate me on the many shades of gray, but clearly were at a loss when my willingness to learn could not overcome the near complete lack of color sense with which I was born. After several more stabs at picking the color, and responses that gently indicated I was still missing the mark, I randomly hit on one that I liked which passed muster with regard to any ill-advised undertones.

The living room is painted now and looks quite nice. However, the process of picking out the right shade of gray started me thinking about how often we simply cannot see what is so clear to others. It’s not just color palettes to which we respond with the limitations of our particular perceptions.

I am prone to quick judgments and practical answers. Less inclined to nuance and philosophical rumination. “If a tree falls in the forest with no ears to hear does it make a sound?” Yes. Next question. But for some people that is an engrossing metaphysical query, one which they respond to with thoughtful consideration. I’m aware, but often need reminding, that there are different ways of looking at the world, shaped by our ability to perceive the layers that lie beneath the surface of a person, or a situation, or a set of facts.

Thanks to my siblings’ ability to see things that I cannot, I now have a color on the walls that—as they predicted—makes the white woodwork “pop” and picks up subtle hues in the fireplace tile. And I have a reminder that in life and in decorating, what lies beneath is as important as what’s on the surface—even if I can’t see it without help. Still, though, the question remains.  How can there possibly be so many shades of gray paint?

Close Encounters of the Grocery Kind

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

As a work-at-home writer blessed with an extra-supportive spouse, I live a relatively sheltered life far from the crowded aisles and winding check-out lines of the local supermarket. Because grocery shopping is one of my least favorite things, Gary usually handles that task. It’s not only because he likes to be helpful, which he does, but also because he thrives on contact with as many people as possible during the day. I do not.

I confine my grocery shopping ventures to those occasions when he is not available or is not feeling well. Which was the situation on a recent Sunday morning.  It was quite early, and I thought that I’d be able to slip in and out quickly to get the few things on my list. That was not to be.

I found the fruits and vegetables I needed, I picked up several things that I did not need, and I got in some daily steps trekking back and forth between the two ends of the store which each held something I was in search of. I crossed everything off my list and headed to the checkout lanes.

You might think that as a card-carrying introvert, I would prefer the self-checkout choice. On one level you would be right. I do like being able to glide quietly through the purchasing process and be on my way. However, experience has taught me that if I have individual fruits or vegetables that will need keying in and/or weighing, something untoward will happen at the register.

Invariably a much more public, chaotic and time-consuming event occurs than would have, had I left the checking out to the professionals. So, I usually choose to stand in a pleasant stupor as someone with quicker fingers and better hand/eye coordination than I have whizzes through my items and bags them, and my only responsibility is to present payment.

I did not have that option on the Sunday morning in question. Not only was there no cashier on duty in any of the regular lines, but every self-checkout register was also in use. And almost everyone in line had full carts. I felt a short-lived surge of happiness when I spied a woman who was in the final stages of making her payment. I scurried in behind her, only to realize that she was not paying, she was staring in puzzlement at the screen and holding in her hand what looked to be coupons that were not processing correctly. I noticed then the red light flashing and her husband trying to flag down a store clerk.

I pulled out of line and spotted a register with only one woman checking out, and her cart was almost empty. However, it turned out that she preferred to run a few things through the register, then pause to bag them. And she was a meticulous bagger of items. She considered each gravely before determining which of her bags should hold it. The minutes ticked by and I was rapidly approaching my maximum tolerance for shopping. Impatient, I pulled out of line and prowled up and down the rows, trying to gauge the best place to jump in. Finally, I settled in behind a man who had a lot of groceries but appeared to be as eager as me to get the job done and get out.

By now my twenty-minute trip to the store had already stretched to fifty minutes. When my turn at the register came, I shot forward. Immediately I began thrusting the bar-coded items at the screen and sending them hurtling down the belt. The faster things progressed, the more my spirits lifted. I was almost done. Then came the dreaded produce. I grabbed the zucchini with determination. I scanned it in. I put it on the scale for weighing. I placed it on the belt. The machine announced an unexpected item on the belt. I took it off. I put it back. The message continued. The red light began to flash overhead, announcing to the world that I stood at the register of shame.

A clerk arrived. She fixed it. She left. I tried my next item, a red pepper. I scanned it. I weighed it. I put it on the belt. The unexpected item on the belt message returned. I touched a few things on the screen, shifted the pepper on and off the belt, glanced apologetically at the growing line-up behind me, but again the red light overhead flashed. The clerk returned. Trying to learn from my mistakes, I asked where I had gone wrong. She listed the proper check-out steps. I told her that’s what I’d done. She looked at me with weary skepticism, fixed the issue and left.

I keyed in the last item—an onion. I weighed it, put it on the belt and when a negative message didn’t pop up immediately, I hastily slid my credit card into the processor, removed it when it buzzed and prepared for escape. But instead of my receipt, a new message appeared, informing me that I had committed a serious error. The red light went off again.

My clerk—we had been together long enough that I had begun to think of her as “my” clerk—was at my side almost as soon as the red bat signal flashed. Her expression plainly said that she was disappointed in me. By using my card—which I’d like to add, the card reader had eagerly accepted, until it turned on me—before the produce problem was addressed, I had caused a more difficult issue to resolve than usual.

She got a slip to print, but she noted that the single onion appeared to have cost $3.49. The price for three pounds of onions was $1.99. Obviously, my lone onion did not weigh in at more than five pounds. But, because of the invisible line I’d crossed, her options to help me were limited. She could cancel out the order, and I could start over—clearly, neither she nor I wanted that. Or I could go back to produce and pick up additional onions.

I wanted only a quick escape. I assured her that I didn’t care how much the onion cost. I was happy to pay 3.49 if it would free me from my Groundhog Day checkout experience. I quickly shoved my purchases into a bag, gently pulled the receipt from her hand, thanked her and left with my overpriced onion. She was taken aback by my casual disregard for the excess onion cost. But to me, freedom has always been priceless.







Pulling Back the Curtain

It’s all on you, kid.

Four years ago when I finished writing the first book in the Leah Nash Mysteries series, Dangerous Habits, I decided to publish it as an independent “indie” author, rather than with a traditional publishing house. OK, wait a minute. That makes it sound like I had a bidding war for my book going on between major publishers but intrepid soul that I am, I struck out on my own. That’s not exactly how it happened.

I already had some experience with the world of traditional publishing. I had tried to place a nonfiction manuscript with a publishing house several years earlier. That experience taught me a lot about the long and arduous journey an author goes through between typing “The End” and actually seeing a book in print. Before anything else can happen, you have to find an agent. That can take weeks and often months of querying to connect with someone who says she’d like to read your manuscript. Then it takes additional waiting time of weeks to months for her to get back with you, usually to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

But, if the happy day comes when you actually find an agent who wants to represent you, the query process starts all over again, only this time your agent is trying to find a publisher who wants to offer you a contract for your book. That again is a months-long process, which quite often ends not with a contract, but with your agent (if she’s very nice) regretfully telling you that it’s not your book’s fault, but it’s just not a good fit in the current publishing market. By then you’ve spent the better part of a year, or more, trying to get your book published. You can elect to start all over again with a different agent, or you can put your manuscript in the bottom drawer of your desk and move on to the next writing adventure, battered but unbowed.

Which brings me back to the point at which I finished writing my first fiction manuscript and decided to publish it myself as an indie author. I talked to a writer I knew who had taken that route, I read some articles, learned that I could publish both an ebook and a paperback version through Amazon and I thought, “How hard can this be?”

I’m here to tell you, a lot harder than you might think. What you gain in speed to publication from indie publishing is balanced by what you lose in terms of the services a traditional publisher provides, e.g., editing, proofing, formatting, book cover design, and marketing. In other words, it’s all on you, kid. Plus setting up a website, building and learning to manage a mailing list, and way too many technical details to get into here.

There was a huge learning curve for my first book, and I made many, many, many mistakes that cost me most of the profits and a significant portion of my sanity during my first two years as an indie author. And, sadly, because I am a slow learner, and there are always new things to learn about indie publishing, I continue to make mistakes as I stumble my way through my series. Still, the control, the freedom, and the immediacy indie publishing offers offsets—most of the time—the absence of the turnkey services traditional publishing provides. I still haven’t found the magic formula for marketing a series. Despite having a large family of supportive siblings and children who push the books as much as they can, and a husband who has never had a conversation with a friend—or a stranger—wherein he does not try to sell them a book, their reach is still fairly limited.

I’m in the home stretch for book 5,  Dangerous Flaws.  Editing and revisions are done, manuscript is with the proofer, with only corrections, formatting and a final print proof review to come. But instead of the vacation from all things writing that I like to take between books—wherein I immerse myself in other people’s books—I’ll be spending at least part of the time on the business end of writing. In this case, trying to master the art of building a marketing strategy—which apparently involves advertising plans, social media ads, costs per impression, click-through-rates, return on investment and Lord knows what else. And somewhere in there, developing the plot for book 6. Wish me luck.

I finished!

A short, but happy post. At long last, I have finished the draft of Book 5 in the Leah Nash series, Dangerous Flaws. For a variety of reasons, which I will not bore you with here (those who wish to be bored may contact me via email and I will be happy to oblige), I fell behind on my writing schedule. Like, way beyond the-dog-ate- my-homework behind.

Which I hate to do. To make up for it, I have abandoned normal things like cooking, cleaning, and washing my hair for a greater percentage of the last few weeks than I am comfortable specifying. I have not read for pleasure, nor written a blog post, nor kept up with my friends and family the way that I like to.

But today, I typed “The End,” on the last page of my 300+ page manuscript. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s not really the end. Editing and proofing and formatting and many other things must happen over the coming weeks before publication, I know. But for this brief, shining moment, I’m going to say I’m done. At least until tomorrow.

Now, I am going to drink a glass of wine, eat something I shouldn’t, and sleep the sleep of the just. Good night.

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