Fear of Flying

I have what they call in polite company "control issues."

So I suppose the publication of The Weird Sisters was the universe's way of telling me I needed to learn to let go. There are lots of ways in which that lesson was presented to me last year, but one of the biggest ways was flying.

I've never been one of those people who loves to fly, but during a period of the book tour where I was flying every day, I had a flight with a takeoff that scared me. After that, I developed a fairly crippling fear of flying.

In my mind, I knew that the issue was not really flying. It was exhaustion, and stress, and pressure, and a lack of control over too many things, and as much as I loved the events I was traveling to, getting there was hard for me.

I was recently at dinner with some other authors, two of whom also have difficulty flying, so I promised I would give them some of the resources that have worked for me, and I thought I'd share them here, in case any of you are suffering from something similar.

What worked for me:

1. Pharmaceuticals.

Think less of me if you must, but I take a Xanax before I get on a plane. I don't tend to run for medication when I can manage things another way, but in this case, my fear was getting in the way of my life, and I needed to fix it. However, I found last year that the sedative alone didn't work. I needed coping strategies, too.

2. Fly Without Fear: Guided Meditations for a Relaxing Flight.

I listened to the entire thing a few times before I had to fly again. Then I listened to it in the airport, and while on the plane, and I plan to do so again. Super-helpful.

3. Fear of Flying Help.

Knowledge is power, and this is AMAZING. It's a website created by an American Airlines pilot, set up as a free course you can go through (though I did make a donation).  He walks you through every part of air travel, from maintenance to turbulence, with video and audio. At the end, he gives you a list of statements you can print out and take on the plane with you (I wrote mine on an index card to help memorize them).

4. Distractions and comfort objects.

I have learned what makes me comfortable on a flight, and I come prepared. I bring snacks, gossip magazines, a pillow and eye mask, books, video games, and music and tv shows on my iPod. I want to be sure I will be occupied no matter what mood I'm in - basically I come with a week's worth of entertainment for a two-hour flight. I also have a little gift from my sweetie that I hold during takeoff and landing that makes me feel calm and centered.

So have I learned my lesson? Resolved my "control issues"? Honestly, no. I think this is going to be a long battle for me. But I do feel better about flying, which is a good metaphor for relenquishing control.

One of the statements in Fly Without Fear is this: "Your fear does not keep this plane in the air." This is an excellent reminder for those armrest clutchers among us.

My fear also does not help me write my next novel, or give me strength and endurance at the gym, or help me be a better friend. So I'm working on learning not to fear what I cannot control, and to let go.

The Amazing Treadmill Desk

As a writer, I spend a lot of time sitting and staring at a computer screen.  I don't think I have to tell you that this is not good for anything, including the width of my behind, my posture, and my attention span.

Enter....the treadmill desk.

A treadmill desk is exactly what it sounds like - a treadmill with a desk mounted on or around it.  You walk at a slow speed while you work.

You can buy treadmill desks or standing desks, varying in cost, but they run pretty expensive. I bought a treadmill and then built the desk for about $100.  Here she is:

Treadmill Desk

Isn't it beautiful?

I absolutely love it.  It's made all the difference in my energy and focus, and I never get tired of sitting all day, because I'm not sitting very much at all!

Since treadmill desks are still fairly rare (though I think everyone should have one), I've answered a few of the most common questions people ask me here:

Isn't it hard to walk and work at the same time?

Nope.  I usually walk between .5 and 1.5 mph while I'm working, depending on what I'm doing. That's really slow.  It didn't take me long to get used to it, and now I don't even think about the fact that I'm walking while I'm typing.  I started at .5 for everything, and now my speed varies depending on what I'm doing.

I find it very difficult to hand-write anything or do detailed work in Photoshop, even at the slowest speed, so I usually stop or hop off when I have those things to do.  My laptop is in a docking station so I can pull it out at any time and go work sitting down if I need to.

How long do you walk each day?

It depends.  Most days I walk between two and four hours.  If I have a lot of phone calls, it's on the higher end, if I've got a lot of Photoshopping, it's on the lower end.  I also find I don't walk continuously, as I thought I would.  I tend to walk for about a half hour at a time, hop off to do some laundry or eat lunch or check my email, and then hop back on for another half an hour.

Do you feel different?

YES.  I have much more energy and focus when I'm on the treadmill desk.  When I sit all day, I find that my energy dips, especially mid-afternoon, and I'm ready for a nap.  I don't feel that at all with the treadmill desk.

How much weight have you lost?

A little.

The treadmill desk is not going to make anyone into a supermodel.  You're walking pretty slowly, and you're unlikely to get your heart rate up (and certainly on phone calls I'm trying NOT to - I don't want to pant in people's ears!).  I do find it's much easier to get to 10,000 steps in a day, and I have lost some weight, but let's just say the folks onThe Biggest Loser aren't quaking in their boots.

This is not a replacement to going outside for a walk if I need to clear my head, and I still go to the gym daily.  What the treadmill desk does is keep me from sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day, which was making me completely crazy.

I have noticed that I have more endurance and can see that my legs are more toned, but the biggest change is the amount of energy I have.  It's wonderful.

Does this drive everyone in your office crazy?

While I work at home, there are plenty of people who work in regular offices who use this. Look on YouTube for news stories or follow the link to the Office Walkers Ning below for info on how it's handled in a typical office setting.

When you choose your treadmill, you'll want to make sure it's pretty quiet at all speeds under 2 MPH, which will take care of the noise factor.

Alternately, if you can't make it work at the office, you can make it work at home - do you use the computer or watch TV there?  A treadmill desk doesn't only have to be used during the workday.

How did you make it?

Probably the most time-consuming part of the process was choosing the  treadmill.  You need something quiet, with a continuous horsepower motor that will function well at low speeds for extended amounts of  time.

Once I had that, I needed two things: a place to put my monitor, and a  workstation for my wireless keyboard and mouse and all my papers.  We did a little research on ergonomics and then measured  while I was standing on the treadmill to figure out how high the monitor  and workstation needed to be (those two things will vary depending on your height and the height of the treadmill).  Luckily, Target had a bookshelf that was  the exact height I needed for my monitor.  $60, some sweat to put it together, and I was done (bonus: extra shelves for storage!). Update: 2014 - we recently moved and I ditched the bookshelf in favor of a monitor mounted on the wall.

The workstation was a little trickier.  We bought some MDF and had it  cut at a local hardware store.  We cut it into three pieces, used brackets to put them together, and then belatedly added a crossbar to cut down on the wiggle (we'd never built anything before - this was a  big achievement!).  Total cost for materials: under $50.

Other treadmill desk resources:

I found these sites helpful when I was considering my treadmill desk.

Fellow writers with treadmill desks: Katie Alender and Joelle Anthony.

The Office Walkers ning forum: Hear from other people considering, building, and using treadmill desks.

Jay's treadmill desk blog: Lots of great links in the sidebar.

If you have any other questions about treadmill desks, leave a comment below!

I was syndicated on BlogHer.com

How I Got Me An Agent

If you're interested in writing books, or selling a book you've written, this post is for you.  If you couldn't care less about the business of writing, you can still read this post, but I recommend going over to YouTube and watching videos of kittens instead.  You will probably be a lot happier.  Because, kittens!

 Man, now you're all distracted.  Who suggested kitten videos, anyway?

If you're interested in publishing, you probably know that one of the keys to getting in at one of the big publishing houses is having an agent.   So I'm going to tell you how I got my wonderful, fabulous agent, and then, if you're very nice, I'll tell you why she's so wonderful and fabulous.

Step 1:  I wrote.  A lot.  My whole life.  All kinds of things - essays and (really awful) poetry and short stories and novellas and novels.  And I rarely tried to get them published, because (a) I realized most of them weren't very good and (b) I was learning - how to write, what to write, why I wanted to write.

Step 2:  I read.  A lot.  My whole life.  All kinds of things - essays and poetry of varying quality, and short stories and novellas and magazine articles and song lyric magazines and novels and the backs of shampoo bottles and newspapers over the shoulders of people on trains.

If you think either of those steps is obvious, I'm sorry to tell you that it's not so to everyone, and I really can't stress their importance enough.  An author may have overnight success, but a writer never does, and in order to be a good writer and take the step towards publication, a writer must be a reader before all else.

Step 3:  I learned about the industry.  Long, long ago, when Auntie Eleanor was a wee babe and books were still carved lovingly onto slate tablets, she read the Writer's Market. Like, from cover to cover.  All the articles, even the ones that had nothing to do with what I wanted to do.  All the listings, including ones for genres or markets I had no interest in.  Because by reading all those, I gained a great understanding of how the publishing industry works, from journals to magazines to independent and major publishers.  There are internet resources available now that do similar things - I'll talk about one of my favorites later - but a book like Writer's Market (and not just buying it, btw, you do need to read it!) or one of its offshoots (Novel & Short Story Writer's MarketScreenwriter's and Playwright's MarketNew Kids on the Block Fan Letter Writer's Market, etc.) will give you some great advice and an insight into common wishes, rules, and no-no's.

Step 4:  I wrote some really awful books.  And then I didn't send them to anyone.  Or at least I didn't send them to anyone I wasn't related to or hadn't seen in a bathing suit and therefore had blackmail material on.  Because, you see, they were awful, and I understood that just because I had finished writing a novel didn't mean I automatically had to, or deserved to, or wanted to, get it published.  I was learning.

Step 5:  I published some things that were good - essays and short stories and articles.  I learned how to polish and rewrite and evaluate my work objectively.

Step 6:  I wrote a good novel.  And then I didn't send it to anyone.  I let it sit and marinate and then I edited, and then I sent it to some of the aforementioned blackmail subjects and took their opinions and edited again, and edited some more, and then, just for fun, I edited it.

Step 7:  I wrote a query letter.  Honestly, at the time, I thought it was harder than writing the whole novel.  It's an entirely different form of writing (but it will prepare you for other things you need to do as an author, which I talk about in another post), and it was hard.  But I did it.  And I'll tell you what made it much easier.  I followed the rules.  All those rules I'd learned about back in Step 3, which frankly had been continuing concurrently along with Steps 1,2, and 4-7, totally came in handy.  I didn't print it on pink paper or put it in a coconut or scent it with Love's Baby Soft.  I didn't bully the agent, I didn't claim to be anything I wasn't.  I wrote a hook, a brief synopsis, gave my bio, and said I looked forward to hearing from them. 

Fin.

Step 8:  I sent out said query letter.  I did a bunch of research - looking at the acknowledgements pages in some of my favorite books, going back to Writer's Market, using a site called AgentQuery (and, btw, reading the listings carefully instead of just starting at 'A' and working my way down ye olde alphabette).  I followed the instructions the agents laid out, and yes, it is a pain. Some want e-queries.  Some want synopses.  Some want sample first chapters.  Fine.  I put it all in a spreadsheet, followed those instructions, and sent them out.

Step 9:  This is important.  I did something else.  My friend and former editor, the gloriously funny and wise Hanne Blank, says, upon sending her book off to her agent, "Bye, bye, little book!  Write when you get work!"  This is absolutely the right attitude.  Start writing something else.  Start a Bocce Meetup group in your area.  Write something else.  Read some wonderful (or terrible, because why not?) books.  Learn to crochet.  Oh, and write something else.  So to review, you're (a) not waiting by the phone and (b) producing the next wonderful thing you're going to share with your blackmailable friends.

Step 10:  Repeat Steps 8 and 9.  A lot.  I have no idea how many queries I sent out.  But it was a LOT.  And there were requests for full manuscripts, and partial manuscripts, and in some cases we got all the way to heavy petting, but then it was never quite right, you know.

Step 11:  I got an agent.  And I talked to her, and I evaluated her as much as she evaluated me, and I thought about it for a while, and then I said yes.  Because it was right.  She got the book, she got me, we had the same vision for what kind of publisher we wanted for it, she made me laugh.  It was just right.  I just knew.  Like you know with a good melon.*

My agent, the glamorous and depressingly gorgeous and bright and talented and fierce Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, of McIntosh & Otis, spent a long time working with me to revise the manuscript again before she was ready to send it out.  And then we did, and she checked in with me periodically and kept me in the loop, though mostly I was re-purposing Step 9 and letting her do her job, and then one day, one weird, fabulous day, she called me with the multiple (!) offers she'd gotten on The Weird Sisters.  Um, yeah.  That'll be another post.

What Elizabeth does is what a good agent should do - she helps me creatively when she can.  She sells my work.  She reads all the legal crap I don't understand, translates it for me, lets me know what's a good deal and what's not, and then makes sure I get paid.  She advocates for me with the publisher.  She asks tough questions I don't want to ask.  She translates publishing terminology for me.  She negotiates contracts.  When we go out to dinner, she lets me try one of her Hen of the Woods mushrooms so I become completely obsessed with them.  She lets me snuggle her dog and takes me on tours of the Village.  She offers her opinion on cover art, headshots, rights offers, and morning versus afternoon yoga classes.  She is fabulous, and everyone should have an agent as much in their corner as she is in mine.

The fact is, I haven't told you anything eye-opening here.  I got an agent, a great agent, by following the rules.  And, frankly, so have most of the writers out there.  It's not flashy, it doesn't make for a great story, but if you're serious, and you've got writing worth being serious about, it might just get you the attention you need.

*Name that movie!