Words Have Power

What’s in a name?

I’ve been thinking about names lately – character names, place names, book titles. Connotations are important. The right name can generate emotional responses, can elicit visceral reactions. When I was writing THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, I wanted to come up with a name for my castle, something that created an image but that wasn’t real. Rooks are a member of the corvid family, and crows have dark connotations (think Poe). And “kill” is a Scottish word for a ravine with a stream, but it also connotes, of course, murder. Hence, Rookskill, something that sounds creepy, deep, and dark.

Consider ice.

What do you think of when you think of ice? Cold. Hard. Dangerous. Treacherous when you need to go somewhere, deadly if you are not prepared to face it with the right gear.

Now consider ICE.

The acronym stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (This is not a political post…okay, maybe it is, a bit.) This agency is tasked with the law enforcement responsibility of finding and deporting illegal aliens in the U.S. and it has come under fire for the way it’s handling its duties.

When I see pictures of people wearing black shirts with the white letters ICE I have an instinctive, visceral response, and while it partly has to do with the nature of the work they do, it is also a response to their presentation.

I submit that this may be intentional, that this presentation is meant to be cold, hard, dangerous, scary. However, I also submit that those who wear ICE white lettering on black might subliminally absorb the name and presentation of the name and not to their benefit.

Words have power. They elicit emotional responses in those who use them as well as those who read them.

I’d love to hear what you think.

The Author World, Part 2

Let’s talk stats

Hopefully from the previous post you have a general idea of why most authors aren’t rich and what happens once a book is written. Here are a few more things I’d like to add. I’m going to be personally open and honest here, because I think it might be helpful for both authors and readers.

There is only one JK Rowling, only one James Patterson, only one Tom Clancy. They are the authors you know about who have done well, and there are a handful of others in their orbit. These authors command six or even seven figure advances. Kudos to Patterson, in particular, who gives back in a big way to many charities.

Me with my books, 2019. Kind of surprising to have written so many!

“Midlist authors” (I count myself among them) can receive advances from four to five figures. For each of my books my advances have been in that range, but not high numbers. Over the 12 years of my career so far my advances, spread out as they are, do not add up to a living wage.

Two of my books have earned out – my very first (GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT), and my middle grade novel (THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE). I’m earning modest royalties on both.

One of my novels, my second (FORGIVEN), although award-winning and recognized by Junior Library Guild, went out of print (OOP, or was “remaindered”) very quickly due to a “series of unfortunate events” (the closing of Borders, the sudden appearance of cheaper e-books, etc.). That means it never will earn out, or even come close.

I was able to recover the rights to FORGIVEN, and have re-issued it as an e-book on my own, with a cover that I paid to have made. I’ve made probably less than $100 on that re-issue over the years, so really my only objective is to keep it available.

My first novel FAITHFUL is vanishingly close to earning out and I hope it does before it goes OOP. (I’ll be doing a special 10-year anniversary promotion to help it along, starting this fall. Please stay tuned!)

I’ve also written a YA sci-fi novel (ARK) and out of curiosity posted it as an indie book on Amazon, with no marketing. It’s barely sold a dozen copies (hence the value of an author having a traditional publisher or, if indie, doing an incredible amount of marketing).

Ah, marketing

Doing an author thing I love.

For each of my books – whether my publisher has done marketing in a big or small way – I’ve done additional marketing, which costs money and time. I’ve made my own bookmarks, business cards, postcards, pamphlets, handouts, teacher guides, study guides, stickers, temporary tattoos, all at my expense. I’ve paid to have my main website made and maintained, and even set up an additional website for CHARMED CHILDREN. I’ve made or purchased items as give-away enticements. I’ve invested much time in social media, although it’s incumbent upon an author not to be all “buy my book!” all the time, so I have to give a lot of thought to what I post, where, and when. I’ve appeared at festivals and on panels at conferences, and gone to book signings at my own expense in order to help spread the word.

Sometimes I’ll travel to a book signing and have one person show up, who may or may not buy my book. (This is not uncommon, and is an author joke. Only, it’s one of those morbid jokes.)

These expenses are tax deductible, to a point, but every two out of three years I’ve taken a loss.

I have earned money by doing school visits, and some appearances are paid or reimbursed. I love the work and I love meeting young readers, and those visits also help spread the word. But the preparation and travel take precious writing time, can be exhausting, and the additional income is not huge. Many writers teach. Many others have quite different day jobs. Some of us are lucky to have supportive spouses. But most of us are not in it for the money.

So why do this author thing?

Because I love writing. I can’t not write. It is a deep thrill to write something that connects with readers. It is an emotional high to write something that I feel deep in my bones. I dream about my stories, I think about my characters when I take a walk, I believe in them and their lives and in what my young readers need to know from what my characters experience.

All the writers I know would agree with that statement above.

If you love books and if you would like to help your favorite authors please do check out my suggestions in the previous post, and….thanks.

PS: If you are a teacher, I feel you. I taught for four years. I know that most of your classroom materials, including books, you must purchase from your own pocket. This is neither right nor fair, as you are also doing a job you love. I do try to donate my books to classrooms as often as I can. But if I can’t, now it’s my hope that you understand why.

The Author World: How It Works

Many times when I’m talking with folks who are not authors and have no connection to the world of publishing (other than reading – but, yay you readers!) I realize that the arcane publishing model is not understood. This isn’t surprising (note the word “arcane”). For one thing, most lay people think authors are rich, and sadly that’s not the case. I thought I’d write a little primer here to help the lay person through our confusing model of writing/selling/making a living.

The Traditional Model

This author at a book launch.

There are five major publishing houses in the U.S. today: Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster. Within each house is a number of imprints and divisions. There is an unspecified number of smaller publishers that specialize in different kinds of books. Collectively these are known as “traditional publishers”, and authors would prefer to sell a book to these houses because (a) they pay the author, (b) they support the author with marketing and publicity, (c) they deal with art (both interior and cover), layout and design, and (d) they make the book widely available to booksellers through distributors and catalogues. Plus, they come with a certain cachet.

Most traditionally-published authors today have agents who negotiate contracts on the author’s behalf and know which editors at which houses are looking for what kind of manuscript. Thus, an author wishing to be traditionally-published usually will first need to find and woo an agent. Agents are also specialists, with interests in children’s or adult books, and may even be particularly interested in, say, only working with picture book authors. Many agents are “editorial” meaning that, after they sign the author as a client, they will work with that author to polish manuscripts before submitting to editors at publishing houses.

Here comes the arcane part.

When an agent sells a manuscript to a publishing house and the contract has been negotiated and delivered, the author usually (though not always) receives what is called an “advance”. An advance is really an “advance on royalties” (royalties are the author’s percentage of money earned when books sell in the bookstore). What this means is that the publisher is giving money to the author not free and clear but under the assumption that enough books will sell so that this “advance” is paid back to the publisher – after which earned royalties do go to the author. Royalty calculations are incredibly complicated but result in most authors earning a tiny percentage (like 5%) of the book’s sell price. That means that if a book sells for $20, the author will receive $1.00 in royalties, which will be either applied to the advance or sent to the author if the book has “earned out”.

Got it? I know. Confusing.

Here’s where it gets really sad. First, most advances are small. As in, several thousand dollars tops. Only a handful of authors earn big advances (say, five to six figures or more). Advances are not paid out at once on signing; the first part of the advance is paid on signing, the second on delivery of the early revised draft of the manuscript, the third when the manuscript goes to copy edits, and the final payment on publication. This process can and often does take up to two years, spreading a small advance over a long time.

Second, many books don’t “earn out” their advances, which results in an unhappy publisher which then results in an author who may not be welcome to publish with them again.

Third, most books don’t sell for their retail price, but at bargain prices. We’ve all bought them, on sale, on the bargain table, on line. When they do sell at bargain, the author’s cut goes down proportionally.

At an event – sometimes only a few people show up but that’s okay!

Fourth, book piracy is rampant – and every time someone downloads a “free” book, the author loses potential income as well as street cred with the publisher.

The “Indie” Model

Electronic publishing has opened the door to anyone who wants to publish a book independently, sans agent or publishing house. This is a very attractive option because while there is no advance (nor other support), the author keeps a much larger percentage (like 75%) of the book’s list price. However, most self-published e-books sell very poorly (i.e., several hundred copies), especially if the author doesn’t devote a considerable amount of time and energy to marketing. The romance and crime book titles do best in this model because readers read them quickly and are hungry for the next book.

Now perhaps you can see why most authors aren’t rich. In fact, surveys by The Author’s Guild and others indicate that most authors are not making a living wage and must rely on supplemental income. For children’s authors, much supplemental income comes from giving paid school visits.

You can help your favorite authors by…

  • buying their books or asking your library to stock a book
  • reviewing books on Amazon and/or Goodreads (even a brief review helps)
  • never downloading free books
  • not asking authors to give you books or give free school visits.

We thank you for reading and also for understanding!

 

 

Cover Reveal: Sarah Cannon’s TWIST!

My Spooky Middle Grade friend Sarah Cannon has a new book coming on February 11, 2020, and we’re here to show you its full awesomeness!!

Here’s the flap copy:

Oklahoma, 1983:

Eli has a dream. He’s going to be the next Stephen King, and he’s just created his best monster yet!

Neha has a secret. Her notebook is filled with drawings of a fantasy world called Forest Creeks, and it’s become inhabited by wonderful imaginary creatures. But her new friends are in danger…

Court has a gift, both for finding trouble and for stopping it. And when she accidentally ends up with one of Neha’s drawings, she quickly realizes that the monsters raiding Forest Creeks are coming from Eli’s stories. 

When these three creative kids come together, they accidentally create a doorway from Forest Creeks into the real world, and now every monster that Eli ever imagined has been unleashed upon their town!

Now for a short interview and then the amazing cover…

Janet: What inspired the book? And why is it set in 1983?

Sarah: 1983 was an amazing year for pop culture and music, and it was pivotal in another way, too. It was the last year before the 1984 Cable Act was passed, after which cable TV became a standard fixture in American households. Running cable nationwide was the largest private construction project since WWII, can you believe that? At the same time, television content was being deregulated, so it was much easier to cross-market toys to kids through shows. It changed a lot about the way kids play and the way they pretend, and since I was a middle grader in 1983, the “before” and “after” are very distinct in my memory. A lot of the kids’ pet projects in TWIST are things me and my friends did, too, and naturally I always wondered what would happen if we “crossed the streams,” Ghostbusters-style, between one kid’s hobby and another’s. That’s how TWIST was born!

Janet: Tell us more about your protagonists. Give us a feeling as to what they’re like!

Sarah: Eli, Court, and Neha are pretty representative of the dozens of kids in my Tulsa neighborhood back in the early 80s. They’re biking-around-getting-into-things kids, two of them are latchkey kids, and they’re also nerdy kids back before being nerdy was cool. But what I love most about them is the way they complement each other. Court is well-intentioned and brash but sometimes awkward, Neha is passionate in the defense of the people and things she loves, and Eli is a somewhat beleaguered older brother who cares about his sister but would seriously kill for some quiet time to write. Kids were unsupervised and unscheduled a LOT more often in the 80s, and when you found a group of friends you clicked with the way Eli, Neha and Court click, life was 8000 times more interesting. I’ll add that I know many people who don’t think of diversity or cities when they hear the word “Oklahoma,” so it was important to me to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood I grew up in. That said, I want to point out, as I have before, that writing an inclusive cast is not the same as writing with a diverse lens, so while I hope you’ll love TWIST, I also hope you’re reading the amazing surge of Own Voices fantasy out there right now!

Janet: I love STEAM books. What’s “STEAM-Y” about TWIST?

Sarah: This is another thing that’s so important to me about this book. I moved around a lot as a kid (Neha and I have that in common), and I found that various aspects of intelligence were valued differently in different places. I was a bookworm and a writer, and some schools offered me special opportunities because of that– while passing over some of my peers. In other places, I was grandfathered into math- and science-based programs where I was totally in over my head, but there didn’t seem to be any designated space for kids whose primary talents were in the arts. And of course, we know that kids in the margins are under-identified for any kind of enrichment opportunity. For all of these reasons, I did my best to write an adventure that’s not an either/or proposition, but one in which both the arts and sciences are important, and kids work together on a common problem.

Janet: Tell readers a bit about you and your other books.

Sarah: Sure! TWIST is my second novel. The first is ODDITY, which is set in New Mexico and centers around Ada Roundtree’s quest to find her missing sister, Pearl. This process is complicated by how very weird (and often dangerous) Oddity is. Think zombie rabbits, giant spiders, and a city council composed of evil puppets. In short, it’s a lot of spooky fun. As to the “more about me” part, I’m obviously fairly odd myself. I live in a part of my city that’s named after the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and we have a local “Haunted Neighborhood” tour. I love gardening, cooking/baking, and knitting.

Now for this wonderful cover (drumroll, please):

Twist_ARE_CVR Crop

 

Sarah: I love this cover so much. I had to show the full wrap, because look at the gorgeous baby snakes! The cover artist captured them perfectly! Court calls them “The Serpenteens,” and they’re some of my favorite “Creeps” (the friendly creatures who live in Neha’s sketchbook.) Geneva Benton was so thoughtful about the cover illustrations, including the 80s elements, like the ribbon barrettes Neha is wearing! You should all follow Geneva at @gdbeeart and check out more of her gorgeous art at https://gdbee.store/ ! She has stickers and prints and all kinds of things. (I may have already placed an order myself!) Her art is joyous and makes me smile every time I see it.

I love this cover, too, and can’t wait to read TWIST!! Sarah adds:

I’d also like to announce a giveaway, in honor of TWIST’s cover reveal! Comment on this post with either:

  1. One thing you love about the 80s, or
  2. One Own Voices book you’ve loved this year!

I’ll randomly select a winner and send you an ARC of TWIST and a treat from the cover artist’s store, and I’ll make a $25 donation in your name to We Need Diverse Books, which supports diverse authors and publishing interns with grant funding, among other good works. I also want to point out that Paypal users can set up their account to make a recurring $1 donation to WNDB every time you make a purchase!

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Twist-Sarah-Cannon/dp/1250123305/

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781250123305

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twist-sarah-cannon/1130769015?ean=9781250123305

 

An Interview With Kathi Appelt

Newbery-honor-winning and National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt is not only an author whose work I admire, she’s also a wonderful person. I consider her a true friend and mentor (and I know I’m not alone) who is responsible for guiding my writing career from the very beginning. Kathi has two new books out, the compelling young adult novel Angel Thieves (Simon & Schuster) and the charming picture book Max Attacks (Atheneum), illustrated by Penelope Dullaghan. I asked if she would answer a few questions for me, and she graciously obliged. Here first are the synopses of both books, and then an interview.

Angel Thieves

Cade Curtis is an angel thief, searching for the one angel who would be his last.

Zorra is a captive, caught and now lost by an exotic animals dealer, just waiting for an escape.

Soleil Broussard is a sweet believer, but her beliefs are tested by both forces of nature and forces of the heart.

Achsah is on the run, free from master but damned if she’ll leave behind her children he did not set free.

And the Bayou watches, silently guiding them all.

Angel Thieves is a masterpiece that stretches each character’s story across time—connected by the bayou, an angel, and a universal desire to be free.

Max Attacks

This is Max. He attacks. From socks and strings to many a fish, attacking for Max, is most delish. But how many things he actually catch? Well, let’s just say it’s no even match.

J: I’d like to start with ANGEL THIEVES. This is not the first time you’ve written about the “low country” of Texas. Please tell readers why this region speaks to you – and what it says.

K: It’s not that I enjoy mucking about in the soft, sucking mud amidst an array of stinging vines and insects, (not to mention the viperous crew). It’s that the swampier regions of Texas—to me, at least–feel somewhat primeval. When I’m there, I get this sense of the mysterious, of the ancientness of the place. There’s a kind of enchantment about it all that is hard to describe. The other thing to remember about these swampy locales is that they serve as huge nurseries. So, amidst what I think of as “darkness,” there’s this light-filled wonder too. I imagine that the goddess of Story loves it there, and so she’s generous with her ideas.

J: I love the multiple voices in ANGEL THIEVES. Do you have a favorite and why?

K: Achsah stands out to me, largely because I see her primarily as a mother. She’s based upon a real person, a woman named Sylvia Routh, who was enslaved by a ship’s captain. Upon his death, he released her from bondage, but he did not free the children he had with her. There are many ways in which I can’t identify with her, and I wouldn’t pretend to. Though we have a shared history of a place—Houston—that is where the similarities end, with the exception of being mothers. And it was Achsah the mother who compelled me to share her story. I understand her willingness to die in order to save her children. I understood her urgent mission. And it was important to me to convey the stakes to today’s readers.

J: If you had to define the most important thematic idea in the novel, what would it be?

K: What I want readers to consider is the role of love, and how it presents itself in all its myriad forms, and how it can propel us to take risks—some of which aren’t exactly ethical. One of the questions I tried to present was “who are the thieves, and who are the angels, and what are their differences?” It’s a moral question that I hope they can consider as they move through the story.

J: You have a fairly extensive bibliography in the book. Do you have a favorite resource, and why?

K: True confession, the YouTube video called “Ocelot Attack” makes me so happy. I think I’ve watched it about a hundred times. There was also an amazing book that I intend to return to at some point, called Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City, by Tyina L. Steptoe. In it, she describes Houston’s various neighborhoods in terms of race, ethnicity and interestingly as “sonic landscapes.” It took me right to my hometown and reminded me of my own growing up years there. Really, a wonderful book.

J: I love the small carving that Achsah carries. Can you describe its significance to you, and to Achsah?

K: Achsah’s talisman is the only gift she was ever truly given, so it has a unique power to it. She never even knew the name of the giver, but there was just enough love in the giving of it that it holds her up, and it continues to hold up her family as it transcends time. I try, with each of my stories, to consider the endowed objects that might bring some symbolism to the page. I also love the small figure in Achsah’s pocket.

If I had to sum up what I feel the whole book is trying to say it’s that “There’s love enough.”  In other words, it doesn’t take buckets of love to motivate, reassure, console, empower, save, or connect us.  Love has this huge power, regardless of the size of it. There’s always enough.

J: And now, MAX ATTACKS! I know you love cats (and your cats are the best) and I’m betting that Max is based on a real live cat. Is that true?

K: The Real Max belonged to my son, Jacob. Max definitely wasn’t blue, nor did he have a tail. He was a fire-red American Bobtail, and in his prime weighed in at over twenty pounds. He was notorious among our friends and family for attacking anything that moved, including fingers, toes and lower legs. Despite that, he was the best cat ever!

J: I love the fact that Max can’t hold onto one idea for very long – it’s so little-kid-friendly. Is that part of the inspiration?

K: Absolutely, and thank you for noticing that.

J: The illustrations are fabulous. Was the “hidden detail” (no spoilers!) your idea or the illustrator’s (Penelope Dullaghan)?

K: It must be Penelope’s because I have no idea what it is. (Challenge to readers!! Let me know if you find it!)

J: So many writers try to write rhyme before they’re ready. Do you think it comes naturally to you, or is it an effort (to this reader it feels effortless!)

K: Nothing makes me feel smarter than a well-turned rhyme. I’m not sure that it comes naturally, but I don’t know what I’d do without my Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary. It’s my not-so-secret weapon.

J: Another book in the wings? Anything else you’d like to add?

K: I have a couple of projects going, but they’re in the very early stages.

Janet, thank you so much for hosting me here!  I so appreciate it.

My pleasure, Kathi, and readers – find the hidden detail!

Teachers & Librarians! STEM Activities & Giveaway!

To celebrate the coming of summer and teachers and librarians everywhere, Curious City has put together a great new activity kit – and a giveaway – for my VOLCANO DREAMS: A STORY OF YELLOWSTONE. Here are the details:

The giveaway for a copy of VOLCANO DREAMS (we have 35 to give!) runs until 5/28/19. To enter, click here. (This will send you to the entry form at Curious City).

The activity kit is a free download with STEM activities suitable for elementary ages. You can find it here.

We hope you enjoy this new material and that you win a copy of VOLCANO DREAMS!

 

Ghosts In Yellowstone!

Hi everyone! Sally Diamond has written this piece – to inspire your ghostly writing – on tracking down those ghosts that haunt Yellowstone (yes, there are many spooky stories in the Park.)

About Sally: “I spent over a decade working in web design before taking a step back to focus on home and family. These days, I work from home as a freelance writer. I love to spend as much time as possible exploring the great outdoors with my husband, two sons and our crazy but loving Labrador.”

Have fun and hope you visit Yellowstone National Park soon! Enjoy…..

Find a Real Yellowstone Ghost to Really Inspire Your Writing

If you’re one of the 65% of Americans who believe in the supernatural, then you’re probably fascinated and intrigued by this possibility. You want to get up close and personal with the mysterious, so that it can feed into your writing. However, you’re unlikely to see a ghost wandering down Main Street. If you want to encounter a spirit directly, then you will have to venture out into ancient and sacred lands. One of the best places in the US for this is Yellowstone National Park.

Numerous ghost sightings have been reported from here and they have been the inspiration for many stories. If you are a writer of mystery, then heading to Yellowstone can allow you to experience the supernatural for yourself and help you to craft more believable tales.

Yellowstone’s Most Haunted Lodge

Ghosts are said to inhabit all areas of Yellowstone, but one place has had more sightings than anywhere else: Old Faithful Inn. Built in 1903, this is one of the oldest buildings in the area and it has a rich, but terrifying history. The most famous deceased guest, who never checks out, is the headless bride.

She was found in the hotel in around 1915, decapitated in the bathtub. To this day, she walks up and down the stairs throughout the night, her head tucked under her arm. If you are brave enough, you could stay in room 127, where the murder is said to have taken place.

Are You Brave Enough to Camp?

Yellowstone is famous for attracting avid nature lovers, who enjoy being close to nature. The geysers and volcanoes make for spectacular scenes that are unmatched by any other national park. However, another advantage to camping outdoors is the possibility of encountering a spirit.

Around the hot springs, you may observe the spirits of those who were killed. For instance, in Lower Falls, it is possible to hear the chanting of Native Americans who drowned there in 1870. Then there are the ghosts of the eight people killed by bears since 1872. Camping among all these spirits isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is sure to provide stories which adventurers can later write into thrilling novels. That’s assuming you make it out alive.

Preparing for Your Ghostly Adventure

Yellowstone can be an unforgiving environment, so make sure you have a good set of outdoor clothes and some survival gear. This is essential, even without the presence of ghosts. If camping, make sure you are not alone and have communication with the outside world. You may want to bring Ouija boards or similar equipment to entice a ghost, but make sure you practice this in a safe environment first. Tread very carefully and bring experienced spiritualists to ensure your safety.

Yellowstone National Park is sure to get your creatives gears going. Whether you believe in spirits or not, there are so many fascinating tales to draw inspiration from. Spending a night in a creepy lodge or wild camping will help you to experience the thrill and adrenaline of a mysterious experience. This will feed into your novels and short stories, making them all the more believing and captivating.

Announcements

I’m truly delighted to be able to announce that VOLCANO DREAMS has been shortlisted for the Reading The West Award of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. The books on this list in all categories are stellar, so it’s particularly gratifying to find my debut picture book in such company. Voting is open to the public.

I hope you’ll go and vote for all your favorites!

I have a number of upcoming events, so I thought I’d post them here:

March 22-23: Denver Children’s Festival of Stories, multiple presentations for this day-long event. A large number of authors will be there visiting with children, so come see us!

March 25: Preston Middle School, Fort Collins CO, school visit

April 5: Children’s Literature Festival, Truman State University, Kirksville MO, all day panels for children in grades 4-6.

April 20: Center For The Arts, Jackson Hole WY, morning workshop for writers on deep revision sponsored by Jackson Hole Writers. Limited number of spaces left!

I look forward to all of these events, and to seeing more kiddos, parents, writers, teachers, and librarians at each.

Managing Your Stuff, Part 3

All that paper!!

We are drowning in paper. Unwanted mail flyers (admittedly a lot better than it was right before the November election, but just wait a year), multiple catalogues, cards we can’t throw out, etc. etc. Here’s the good news. Paper is the most recyclable of all products.

But the kicker is, we have to be willing to let it go. So here are a few tips.

The slot that holds my collection of personal cards really needs a purge!

First, I like the “touch it once” rule. I keep a recycling bin next to my desk, and as I go through the mail, I set aside the envelopes to open (bills, personal letters), and toss without opening the junk mail. I never open junk mail.

Second, I also use the “time’s up” rule. I have places for certain things I like to hang onto for a while, and I try to make those holding bins just so big. My friend Linda mentioned last week that she hates to toss personal cards and notes. So do I – to a point. So, I have a spot for them, and when I can no longer fit a new card in that spot, I filter the old ones out to make room for the new.

Bills. Ugh.

I do the same with catalogues. I like catalogues, but we get so many! Every couple of weeks I recycle the old ones and add the new ones to the same small inbox. Magazines get the same treatment. (No. You do not have to read them all. Stop feeling guilty. But more about that in a future post.)

Third, for bills, I have a filing system that goes like this: I have a “bills to pay” station, and a “bills paid” station. Every couple of weeks, the paid bills go into the file box, in hanging files I’ve set up in categories according to what my tax preparer has suggested I need. That makes bill paying and tax time both so much easier.

Hanging folders waiting for those paid bills to be filed.

As to those old tax files, I keep all the paperwork for seven years in individual labeled plastic boxes. At new tax season I yank out the oldest box, take all but the tax forms (those I’ve kept forever, in case I ever run for President) to the shredder, and use that box for the new paperwork. That’s seven plastic file boxes, which, if carefully labeled, are easy to find and renew. Hanging files in each of those boxes make this task easier. And the UPS store has a shredder.

And yes, I go to conferences and take copious notes. And then I come home and annotate those notes.

No, I don’t, and neither do you (well, maybe you do and then I’m mildly jealous). I run through my notes on the way home, pull out the most important thoughts/ideas/things-to-do and toss the rest. If there’s something I really need to remember I take or put the notes in a bound journal, but I still rarely go back to those, so every once in a while I spend a couple of hours culling all that paperwork, too.

Some of our reluctance to part with things stems from guilt, and some of it stems from nostalgia. Recognize why you can’t part with something. Realize that guilt is counterproductive to your health, and nostalgia is best reserved for the truly important stuff, like baby pictures. If that get-well card is signed with no meaningful note, maybe it’s time to let go.

As with anything, if you have stuff just hanging around, whether it’s an old pair of pants that are out of style or a stack of papers you haven’t looked at in five years, it needs to be sent on to a better place. Look at it this way. Next week you might eat off a paper plate made from your recycled catalogues.

Have questions? Have ideas? Have your own way of handling stuff? Please do share!

 

 

Managing Your Stuff, Part 2

Shortly after GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT came out in 2006 I was asked to participate in a live drive-time radio interview. The interviewer and callers clearly didn’t know that the book was for kids, as I very quickly realized that these adult callers were asking about their own problems with too much stuff.

One caller especially caught my attention. He’d cleaned out a lot of things from his house, put them in garbage bags, and stuffed them into a shed on his property. Now, he asked me, “What should I do with it?”

Illustration by Steve Mark from GET ORGANIZED

I was floored, but said, “Don’t open those bags. Take them straight away to either recycle or the dump. But don’t open those bags!”

We all collect stuff throughout our lifetimes. In fact, we have much more stuff than we use, much, much more than we need in our homes – an average of 300,000 items! So, my second rule of stuff management is “use it or lose it.”

I love Marie Kondo’s approach to stuff. If it doesn’t “spark joy”, out it goes. But I developed some slightly different strategies to hers. Maybe they’ll help you peel away all that stuff you no longer need but can’t seem to part with.

Kondo suggests dumping all clothes in a single pile. I like to take a different approach to clothes, partly because I don’t have all the time in the world, so I prefer to tackle getting rid of stuff in small bites. Also, by sorting by clothing type I can see where I have gaps/needs rather than shopping for shopping’s sake.

I chose one type of clothing – say, slacks – take them all out of the closet and sort them. Things that don’t fit, are out of style, are worn out – they go. Then I look at them with a kind of “spark joy” attitude: do I love this item or not? It doesn’t matter how nice it is if I won’t wear it because there’s something about it that I don’t love.

Illustration by Steve Mark

As a corollary to this, I used to work as a teacher, and needed “teacher clothes”. Now, most days, I’m at my desk in my own home and need comfortable clothes that also look nice enough in case someone suggests meeting up for a glass of wine at the end of the day. The teacher clothes went to Goodwill, where they can be put to much better use.

And…if I haven’t worn something within a year, I give it away. Why hang onto things I never wear?

While Kondo sorts by category of things (i.e., clothes, then papers), I prefer to tackle one room at a time. Again, this is because I don’t want to spend days on end making this clean-up happen. I’d rather spend a couple of hours on a weekend going through one set of drawers or one section of closet and really paring things out. I find it less overwhelming, so maybe you will, too.

All stuff management is really predicated on the same principle, whether you call it “sparking joy” or “paring down” or “cleaning out” or whatever – it’s a matter of how much we all have that we don’t need.

Once we’ve acquired a thing, whether through a purchase or a gift, it takes on certain intrinsic value. But…rather than think that an object has value, think about how the space it consumes has value. It’s like seeing a work of art and realizing that the “white space” around an object in the art has as much impact as the object itself. By getting rid of stuff, you are giving value to what you’ve decided to keep.

The key is to revisit what “value” means to you. Maybe the object will have value for someone else. Or maybe it really has no value at all. Approaching stuff management without emotional attachment is what matters here. And if that’s hard for you (like it was for the man who stuffed the stuff into his storage shed), that’s okay.

The bottom line: once you’ve decided you are done with an object, put it in that plastic bag and don’t take it out again. Take it to Goodwill or to a recycling place or the garbage can. Today. You’ll actually feel great.

More next week!