Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How This ADD Writer Thrives

A lot of writers, other creative types, and even parents worried about their children have asked me about my experience with ADD/ADHD/ADHD-I. It's past time that I put more of my coping strategies in one place.

I first blogged about my ADD experience about two and a half years ago. (That's where I also explained the difference between ADHD and ADHD-I, and how what most people call ADD is actually classified as ADHD-I.)

More than a year after that, I posted a follow-up about one of my favorite tools for getting work done in spite of my ADD: my DIY tread desk.

If you haven't read those posts but are interested in coping strategies, symptoms, and so on, I definitely recommend reading them. I won't go over all of the information in them here.

Rather, I'm assuming you or someone who know has ADHD or a variant, and you know those terms.

For those who have asked, I've compiled a list of things that have helped me and my children in our ongoing battle with ADHD-I:

Yes, I'm listing this first. Not because it's the one and only solution, or even a solution at all. Because it's not. No one thing is a magic bullet that will fix the part of the ADD brain that's broken. But medication is something that many parents won't even consider, and that's unfortunate. Many options exist beyond Ritalin-type medications (although don't rule them out either; keep an open mind to find out what works best for your and/or your child).

What I can tell you is that on my first day of medication, I went to accomplish something, and without a struggle, I simply did it. Then I dropped onto a chair at the kitchen table and burst into tears, thinking, This must be what normal feels like. Medication has been a huge help for two of my children as well. We've changed up medications and dosages over the years, and we're all very aware that meds are just one piece of a much larger game plan.

I'm not a doctor, so I can't give medical advice. What I can say, though, is that from my experience and from the experiences of several immediate and distant family members, starting on the mid-to-lower end of dosages is a good idea. That helps you see if you're prone to any negative side effects, and it give you a baseline for how the medication affects you.

You can always go to a higher dose to see if it helps or go back down to a lower one. But it's not necessarily wise to start at a really high dose. For starters, you'll have nowhere to go if you build up a tolerance, and on a high dose, you'll probably build up a tolerance faster anyway. Plus, high doses are more likely to cause unwelcome side effects.

Our doctor wisely suggested that my kids take medication vacations, breaks from meds when they don't necessarily need to concentrate. That helps their brains have a chance to relax, and they're less likely to build up a tolerance. Then, when they do take their medication, it works even better. During the school year, that meant not taking meds on weekends or during other school breaks unless there was a special need to focus (such as on a Saturday when taking the ACT or on a Sunday when accompanying a musical number at church).

I like to focus on things I know have a scientific basis for actually helping the brain. The following supplements directly aid brain function. Literature backs that up, and so does my family's experience.

L-Tyrosine: This is an amino acid found in many animal protein sources, and it's available in both powder (hard to take) and capsule (easy to swallow) forms. It doesn't keep you awake like prescriptions or caffeine can, but it does a great job helping the brain focus. You can take it several times a day, although 2 capsules at breakfast has done the trick for getting my teens through the school day.

Vitamin D: In addition to helping with mood (especially depression), it's a good brain booster too. My children and I are all very much of northern Europe (mostly Scandinavian) descent, so we have pasty white skin and don't absorb much Vitamin D from the sun even when we're in it. The whole family takes significantly higher amounts than is supposedly typical. After personally tripling the standard dose for six years, my blood work finally came back with a normal Vitamin D level. It took that long to get it up from being painfully low.

Fish Oil: The brain is made up mostly of omega fatty acids, and that's what fish oil provides. It's brain food!

Caffeine: For genuine ADD folks, caffeine aids in calming and focusing the brain. Really. It's kind of amazing, actually. I'm not a huge cola fan, so for years my caffeine source has been primarily Diet Mountain Dew (the regular stuff is just too sweet for me) (plus: hello, drinking sugar). Recently, to cut down on my carbonation intake, I've starting drinking Crystal Light with Caffeine. They've got some delicious flavors. I avoid grape simply because I'm a klutz and don't want to risk the purple coloring getting on my clothes or elsewhere.

Actions and Behaviors
Everyone is different, so I make no guarantees about whether these will work for you. They have been very helpful for me and my ADD kids, though.

Exercise: In my tread desk post, I explained how much it's helped me focus (and how I put it together). Sometimes I'll use the tread desk to deal with email, edit, revise, etc. For some reason, I still prefer to draft off the tread desk. And if for some reason I'm not on the tread desk for a day, I still go out of my way to get in 10,000 steps on my Fitbit, whether that's taking a long walk, strolling around the house with a book, or something else.

Other Movement: This may sound really silly (and I know full well it looks silly), but I have a yoga ball chair, and sometimes in the mornings, I'll knit while bouncing on it. I get in the movement my brain needs to focus, combined with knitting, which also helps focus and calm the brain. (I understand that crocheting has a similar effect as does, of course, actual yoga).

My Accountability Partner: I've been partnering with Luisa for somewhere around six (or more?) years now, and our partnership may well be the single biggest thing that's helped keep me going. The short version: Each weekday (sometimes the night before, sometimes in the morning), we email each other our to-do lists for the day. Then as we finish items on the list, we text our accomplishments to the other. And yes, we even text mundane things, like "showered," and "sorted a load of laundry," because who are we kidding; some days, every accomplishment counts. It's motivating and encouraging in so many ways. (Read more about our partnership HERE, or get the short book we wrote about it, Done and Done.)

Tracking Daily Energy and Focus: I've seen some ADD writers say that their key to being productive is to write first thing in the morning before anything distracts them. That is GREAT. For them. For me, that simply wouldn't work. I am the farthest thing from an early bird. I literally cannot think clearly in the mornings. If I were to try to write then, the resulting story would look like nonsense, and I'd likely ruin my keyboard because of all the drool dripping from my zombie mouth.

I know from a lot of experience that my brain is most likely to be creative and productive between about one and three in the afternoon. If I really want/need to have a big writing day, I might be able to get a decent start around eleven in the morning, but absolutely no earlier than that. I plan my days accordingly: exercise, housework, errands, and other brainless tasks are always for the mornings. Early afternoon is for writing. And sometimes, late night is for writing too. (Although sometimes I curse the late-night second wind.)

Point being, do what works for YOU. Figure out when you're most productive (morning, afternoon, evening?) and under what circumstances (Do you write better at home or elsewhere, like a library? Do you need to change up your surroundings regularly,  or do you write best in the same place every day because cues your muse to step up and get working?).

To pinpoint what your ideal writing conditions are, you may need to keep a writing journal or spreadsheet. Record the date, day of the week, what time of day, location, length of writing session, what you worked on ("Drafted chapter three."), and how many words you got in. Be sure to include other information of relevance, such as if you wrote alone, with a writer friend, with the family buzzing around you, etc. After recording all of that for a month or so, look over the data you've collected. Chances are, you'll find patterns.

When you've zeroed in on your most productive times, places, and circumstances, set yourself up for success!

Apps, etc.
With today's technology, ADD-ers have tools no generation before ever had! Below are a few simple things that have made a big difference for me and my kids. Best of all, many are probably already on your phone, and others are free.

Reminders: This app is far more powerful than a lot of people realize. In addition to making a to-do list, you can set up a reminder to pop up when you arrive home or elsewhere, or to remind you on a certain date and time. I've made it to many an appointment because reminders popped up when my brain had gone on the fritz.

Timers and Alarms: I don't hyper-focus nearly as well as I used to, but it does happen occasionally. Most often, though, I get distracted by various shiny things that need to be done for "just a minute," and I get off track with what I was meant to focus on. Setting an alarm to go off when you're supposed to be doing X activity, can help bring you back to planet Earth. Similarly, for me, it's easier to focus on writing if I set a timer to go off in 20 minutes; somehow I can fight distractions for a short burst if I know the timer will go off soon. Sometimes I'll set timers for when I should start dinner or do other action items.

Evernote: This app has so many features, and I know I'm not utilizing many of them beyond clipping research articles and the link. My current favorite feature is creating to-do lists for the next few days as things occur to me throughout the day. If I suddenly remember that I needed to call the dentist, I might pull out my phone and add it to tomorrow's to-do list right away so that the call is already there. Otherwise, chances are, I'll forget to add it when sitting down to make a list.

White Noise and Ear Buds/Headphones: Blocking out distractions is HUGE. After using white noise with ear buds for so many years, you'd think I'd remember just how effective it is in helping me focus, but no. I tend to not use them for weeks, then plug in the ear buds out of desperation, and discover that WOW, I just had a monumentally productive writing session! My favorite white noise app (and website) is Simply Noise. They have three types of white noise (in addition to rain and other sounds): white, pink, and brown. For my ear, brown is the soothing one, while white and pink are grating. Everyone is different. I like setting the high oscillation feature, which turns the volume up and down in a wave-like pattern. Somehow that aids in concentrating too. The app has a timer, too, so you can set the white noise to run for, say 30 minutes, and then shut off. That's been very helpful in keeping me from staying so deep into the rabbit hole that I forget carpool duty or other crucial things!

Music: This works much like white noise. I prefer to listen to movie soundtracks, especially ones that have a feel that matches what I'm working on. Soundtracks provide the extra benefit of not having lyrics that your brain finds shiny and latches on to. So while I enjoy jamming out to Billy Joel, that won't be happening while I write. Instead, I'll start my Ennio Morricone station on Pandora (have you heard the soundtrack to The Mission? DUDE).

Wordly: This is an app specifically for writers. It has a free demo version that works for one project, but you do need to upgrade to access all of the features. Wordly tracks your writing stats, from average words a day and week, to average speed in words per minute, and more. But to create those stats, you have to tell it when you're starting a writing session. For me, the extra motivation to get good stats is remarkably helpful in keeping me writing for a short burst. I'm less likely to drift off because I know that every second I'm not writing, the app still thinks I'm writing, and my rate of words per minute drops. Silly and juvenile? Yeah. But who said the inner writer wasn't a toddler you can bribe? Having Wordly up for hours on end wouldn't work for me; I find it most helpful for writing sprints no longer than 45 minutes, also known as the max I can realistically concentrate without my brain crumbling.

(Edited to add: I've added a link to the app above, because for some odd reason, it's pretty hard to find the app in iTunes. Also, after you've downloaded it for free, the premium upgrade is only $2.99.)

Games: I'm serious here. No, I don't mean letting yourself get sucked into a Candy Crush addiction. But my brain really need a chance to decompress after a period of intense focus. If it doesn't get that rest period, it rebels. Big time. So after getting in a 30-minute sprint, a thousand words, or whatever other goal I've set for myself, I'll sit back and play a few games of Trivia Crack, Word Streak, or Sudoku on my phone. It's a small (non-fattening!) reward that helps me relax so I can then dive back in to work. Which leads to . . .

The Internet: Okay, yes, I know this is a potential black hole and time suck of mammoth proportions. Duly noted, and I totally admit to losing time to the interwebs. That said, sometimes reading an article, watching a goofy YouTube video, or answering a dumb Buzzfeed quiz does the same thing that playing a game on my phone does: It gives my brain just enough of a reward for focusing and reaching a goal that can I then go back to work mode.

To keep myself from surfing all over the internet, I'll deliberately allow ONE video or ONE article, or whatever (okay, sometimes two). I tend to open new tabs when I see a link I find interesting. And then I LEAVE the tab ALONE. This means I end up with a crazy number of tabs at any given time, but it also means I have interesting diversions waiting for me as a reward whenever I've earned a break. It also means I'm not seeking out diversions, so I'm less likely to get distracted by brand new shiny things. If I do find something new, I'll open it in a new tab but not even look at it, not during this break.

There you have it: My biggest tips and tricks for managing ADHD for my kids as for myself as their mother and as a writer!

Monday, May 16, 2016

What's Wrong with Using "THERE"?

Over the years, I've often done recap posts after the annual spring LDStorymakers Writers Conference, which is always a highlight of my year. In my opinion, it's THE best conference in Utah, and likely well beyond. That's saying something, because Utah has an unusually strong writing community that puts on a lot of conferences.

I hope to do a full recap at some point, but today I want to talk about something I posted on Instagram during the awesome Chris Crowe's 2-hour intensive class about micro-revision.

For those who haven't followed me and my blog ramblings over the years (or as a refresher, seeing as I'm not here as often as I once was), I've been editing professionally almost as long as I've been writing professionally. I've worked on books ranging from first attempts by beginners to pros' books that went on to win awards and become best-sellers. (I could totally name drop but won't; you'll just have to trust me on that one.)

Whenever I'd had returning clients, they mention how much they learned from the previous edit. That is hugely satisfying! It also means that their next book is better than the last one because they've learned new skills, and in turn, that means that my edit can take that next book to an even higher level.

(Important side note here: I'm not taking on new clients right now. I have a few friends and one old client I'll still work for, but typically, if you ask me to do an edit for you, I'll probably have to refer you to someone else. It's a matter of time, balance, and priorities. First and foremost, I'm a writer, but I reached a point where I was an editor who sometimes managed to sneak in a little writing, and I had to change that!)

Above you'll see a slightly cropped version of the picture I posted, which shows a portion of Dr. Crowe's class handout.

The responses to my post varied from those who cheered Dr. Crowe's advice to those who were genuinely confused as to what the problem is with using THERE. And thus this post was born.

The most important thing to keep in mind about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. For every so-called rule, you can find exceptions. If someone ever says ALWAYS do this or NEVER do that, you can safely assume that they're wrong at least part of the time.

About the only guiding rule I follow as a writer is this: 

Anything that separates my reader from the deep experience of being immersed in my story—anything that holds them at a distance, pulls them out, or otherwise reminds them at they're reading a book—defeats my goal.

In my two-plus decades of professional experience, stronger sentences are one of the best ways to reach that goal. Words and sentences are the tools we use to create a story world and make it come so alive that it immerses the reader.

For those wondering about my passion for grammar and how that fits in, consider this: 

A big part of creating stronger sentences includes all of my grammar, usage, and punctuation rants from Word Nerd Wednesdays.

Why? Clunky, ungrammatical, ambiguous, and otherwise troublesome writing automatically makes for weak and confusing writing that pulls the reader out, making for a shallow reading experience.

All of that leads to my main point: 

The vast majority of the time (note I didn't say always), sentences beginning with THERE WAS, THERE WERE, and variations, are weak. Such sentences tend to TELL instead of SHOW. Other times, they end up wordy and redundant. They may even have a strong verb, but it's buried inside the sentence.

The Good News Is Two Fold: 
  • You can easily do a search for phrases like there were and there was to find those weak sentences.
  • Strengthening those weak sentences is almost as easy as finding them.

There Were: Weak Examples

I made these up on the spot, and I make no claims about their brilliance, but they should do the job:

  • There was the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. 
  • There were many streets leading to the cemetery.
  • There were dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.

None of those sentences is grammatically incorrect. None is wrong from a technical standpoint. But none is great, either. They could all certainly be stronger, and stronger writing should be every writer's goal.

Okay, so we've figured out how to identify the weak constructions. Now what?


Just cut off THERE WAS/WERE from the front of each sentence. Using the example sentences above, let's see what we have left:

  • . . . the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. 
  • . . . many streets leading to the cemetery.
  • . . . dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.

Check it out: Each sentence already has a strong noun we can use as the subject instead of the weak THERE. Plus, the verbs are already a whole lot stronger than WAS or WERE: 

  • teacher lecturing
  • streets leading
  • couples waltzing

So if we already have strong subjects and verbs, why on earth would we want to fall back on something that will water down the image? The phrase there were is so bland on its own that it literally requires an explanation to be understood.

Yet chances are good that the explanation already following the THERE opening is pretty strong. In which case, simply cut the dead wood before the explanation and let it stand alone.

To show just how weak THERE can be, try this: Imagine your eyes are closed and you hear someone begin a story with, "There was . . . "

The storyteller pauses. What do you picture?

I'd wager that your mind would be blank. You couldn't picturing anything, because those words don't tell us anything. We have to wait to hear more before becoming part of the story. We've started with garbage words. They do nothing.

Just Cut to the Chase

Let's take the strong subjects and verbs we already have. The only real other change needed is tweaking the verb so it makes sense, and that's easy:
There was the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom
The teacher lectured at the front of the classroom. 
BOOM. See how we're immediately in the classroom, listening to a lecture? Before, we were being held at arm's length as someone else points out what we're supposed to notice. (Over there is a classroom . . .)

We can then expand on the image and experience, building the rest of the scene with other writing building blocks.

Here's another take on that same sentence: Flip the order and start with the location to orient the reader right away: 
At the front of the classroom, the teacher lectured.
Depending on the context, tone, pacing, and other factors of the scene, that might work even better.

You could come up with a hundred other ways to change it up, and almost all of them would be stronger than starting with THERE WAS or THERE WERE.

Another One of Our Example Sentences: 

Original: There were many streets leading to the cemetery.
Deleting first two words: . . . many streets leading to the cemetery.
Changing the verb tense as needed: Many streets led to the cemetery.

See? So easy, it's almost like a game. Let's Fix the Third Sentence: 
Original: There were dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.
Deleting the first two words: . . . dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.
Changing the verb as needed: Dozens of couples waltzed around the dance floor.

This kind of revision is one of my favorites to make: it's very effective and oh-so-easy to implement! 

Tightening sentences by cutting the dead wood such as THERE makes a huge difference, especially when you're talking about a novel-length work.

Don't make your reader slog through wordy, meandering sentences. Experiment with cutting THERE, then see how much stronger your scenes become.


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