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!

Managing Your Stuff

The original working title for GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT back in 2005 was “Where’s My Stuff?” “Stuff” is the first thing we think of when we think about becoming organized, because that’s what surrounds us and threatens to drown us day in and day out.

Key and phone organization

I found two rules of stuff management that work for me and hopefully will work for you. First is, “A place for everything, and everything in its place”, and the second is “Use it or lose it”. Let’s start this week with the former.

About the time I was writing GET ORGANIZED (really, I wrote it for my son, who was struggling with these things in early middle school) I watched my mother-in-law constantly misplace things. Her car keys. Her purse. Her wallet. Her wedding rings. What I observed was that each time she put something down, she put it down in a different place. She had an old, bad habit.

Storage bins for my writing swag

Whether you’re young or old makes no difference if you can’t find what you need when you need it, or worse, if you think you’ve lost something important (like a wedding ring or wallet). So the rule “a place for everything” really means that once you decide where something should live when it’s not being used, that’s where it should live. Done and done. As we age it becomes even more important to recognize that the strategy of not having a strategy can be time-consuming or stressful.

For instance, if you tend to throw your car keys on the nearest table when you walk in the door – or maybe you throw your car keys on any old table – perhaps make a habit of hanging the keys on a hook designated for that purpose or placed in a bowl always left on the table. This may sound obvious, but how many of us have left keys in a jacket pocket only to leave the coat behind when it’s warm? And for phones that need to be plugged in I suggest a stand that holds the phone and charges at the same time, and can be left near the door.

The well-organized closet with inexpensive solutions

Another “place” rule revolves around “out of sight, out of mind”. I only carry one purse which, when I don’t carry it, hangs on the same hook near my desk. Purses – and storage boxes, backpacks, briefcases, file cabinets – can become black holes for stuff. I suggest to kids that they empty their backpack (literally, dump it out) every single school night before homework. For adults, I think the same rule applies to purses and briefcases (well, we might not have to dump them out, but it pays to go through them at the end of the day for those errant receipts, shopping lists, reminders, and small purchases.)

As to storage boxes and file cabinets, I would suggest that as you do start to de-clutter and become organized, be sure to label storage boxes clearly for contents so that you can find what you need and return it to its proper place when you’re done. I’m a big fan of nice-looking storage especially if you want to live with storage boxes in your house (as opposed to your garage).

More of my own storage solutions. Out of the way, but visible.

If you’re tight on space the “place for everything” rule is even more crucial. I suggest to kids who do homework in a family room or kitchen that they create a “homework box” that holds everything they need – paper, pencils, tools like scissors. If you need a home office but don’t have the room, you can follow a similar plan – find an attractive box or boxes to hold the stuff you need when you work and that can look nice when you want to put things away. Again, labels are important so that when you need to get to work you don’t have to waste time trying to find your tools.

Having separate bins for “bills to pay” and “receipts/paid” (with the latter then ready to be filed by category) will save hours both at bill-paying and tax-paying time.

This “place for everything” rule works for clothes closets, too. Think about organizing your closet space by clothing types: shirts, pants, skirts, jackets, and dresses each in their own sections. You can further refine this if you organize within these categories by color – and, by the way, you’ll see where you have duplicates, or where you’ll be able to match outfits.

Finding “a place for everything” is a matter of changing habits, but those habit-changes will truly benefit you as you age (since we all become more forgetful) or if you lead (and who doesn’t?) a busy life.

Stay tuned next week for my “use it or lose it” rule suggestions.

Resolutions 2019: Get Organized!

Ok, yes, it’s February, and you’re probably already feeling guilty about those New Year’s resolutions. But in my view February is an even better month to change something up. The weather’s lousy, the kids are in school, the decorations are put away…and now nobody’s judging you.

As creatives – or librarians or teachers or parents – we always feel like we’re trying to juggle our work with life. Especially for those of us who work independently, this is a challenge. It’s too easy to put aside the tough writing work for a load of laundry or a pile of bills. And it’s my personal conviction that Marie Kondo has it right: when our lives are disorganized, we feel out of control and out of sorts.

Back in the day, when I wrote the first edition of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT (Free Spirit Publishing, new edition 2017), my purpose was to help kids – especially middle school kids – transition to a more independent way of managing their lives in school and out. Along the way I did a lot of research on organizational skills, and I found principles that apply whether you are a kid or not.

If you’ll join me, for the next few weeks or however long it takes, I’m going to explore some of the organizational ideas I discovered in my research.

There are three basic areas of our lives that require some sort of organization.

  • First is “stuff management”. (This is where Marie Kondo excels.) All those things we collect, from clothing to papers, can easily become clutter. What do we do with all that stuff?
  • Second is “time management”. Especially if you are a creative, you need to consciously find time to create and not procrastinate. How can you do that and manage life, too?
  • Third is “information management”. You need to know what you need to know, and no more, but how is that possible?

When I wrote GET ORGANIZED, in addition to uncovering these fundamentals, I also unearthed a treasure trove of coping skills, techniques, tricks, and strategies. Many of these are covered in my book, with an eye toward what kids need. But many had to be left out because there either wasn’t enough room, or they were more relevant to adults.

Next week (and for however long it takes), I’ll give you some of those tips that I learned for managing your stuff. After that I’ll tackle time and information. These posts will be directed at adults, but can be applied to kids as well.

Please ask me questions if you need help in one specific area, and I’ll try to answer. I hope these posts will help as you follow along!

Writing Craft Books For Your Gift List

Tis the season…and if you are needing last-minute suggestions for either your own stocking or a fellow writer’s, here are my current favorites.

  1. Donald Maass, Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. This has long been my very favorite craft book. Clearly written, with excellent examples and terrific exercises at the end of every chapter, if you dive into those exercises your writing will improve by leaps. At the very least, read the chapters on building conflict in plot. His mantra is “tension on every page” and he’s so right. Anything by Maass is terrific.
  2. Lisa Cron, Story Genius. I’m a big fan of understanding how we humans process stories, in order to understand how to reach my readers. This book addresses that head-on. What I love most is her definition of what therapists might call a patient’s “backstory wound” and what she calls a character’s “defining misbelief”. She leads the writer through the process of finding and then using that misbelief in the character’s arc.
  3. Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation & Conflict. I found this book only recently. Oh, I’d heard about it for years, and I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t find it sooner. Simple, short, and extremely clear, GMC will revolutionize the way you see both character and story. I’m especially amazed by how I’ve discovered things about my characters that create and add to the deeper layers of story and their arcs. Get this one, if nothing else. I read the ebook and now have the actual on order!
  4. Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering The Craft. New 2015 edition. If you haven’t noticed, I do like craft books that are simple and clear, with examples and exercises that are easy to follow and complete. This is one of the best for all-around story construction at the most fundamental levels. Terrific for the beginning writer on your list, or for any writer refreshing the basics. Short, sweet, and perfect.
  5. James Scott Bell, Super Structure. Just about anything by Bell (like Donald Maass) will sharpen your writing. He’s particularly good at defining plot, and techniques to tackle plot. If that’s what you struggle with, you need this book and the last book on my list…
  6. Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer Workbook. Long a staple for writers, this book helps you to understand and clearly visualize the connection between rising tension and plot progression, in conjunction with character arc. You can’t beat that combo.

Happiest of holidays and here’s to a great writing 2019!

“Best Of”…Writing Advice

NPR’s 2018 “Best Of” Books

So many good books to celebrate this year! I’ve been following the “best of” lists, the successes of friends, the books that are making a difference in kids’ lives. I decided to make my own “best of” list, but not of books (for those, please see the CBC lists, and NPR’s list, among others.

What follows is a “best of” list of some of what I’ve learned about living the writer’s life. I hope it helps you during the season of what can be, for some, both ups and downs.

  1. Write a little every day. Even if it’s just a sentence. Even if it’s just an idea.
  2. Some ideas are better than others. Choose to write the idea that speaks to your heart.
  3. A writing career is non-competitive. Another’s success does not mean your failure; there’s always room for another book on the shelf.
  4. Successful writing careers are like icebergs – there’s a lot more craft-work going on under the surface.
  5. Craft books are inspiring, so find a new one and absorb its messages if you are in a writing funk.
  6. Read, read, read. Especially if you are in a writing funk.
  7. Your physical health is important to your writing. Taking a walk is a great way to get the brain working. Eat and drink in moderation, exercise every day.
  8. Join a writing organization like SCBWI or RWA or MWA. Build community. Build fellowship. They provide invaluable information, too.
  9. A rejection may mean no more than “I don’t get it; it’s not to my taste.”
  10. On the other hand, rejection should always be a time of reflection – is the work as strong as it could be?
  11. But don’t keep revising the same piece over and over. At some point, move on. Your skills will only grow when you stretch.
  12. Try writing something outside your comfort zone at least once a month. Poetry, a short story, a picture book (if you’re a novelist), a novel (if you’re a picture book writer).
  13. Nothing you write is ever a waste. There’s a lot of waiting in publishing: write something new while you wait on something old.
  14. Cultivate beta readers you trust. Listen carefully to what they say.
  15. Give back. Mentor new writers, mentor kids, be a great beta reader yourself.
  16. The writing community (especially for children) is tiny. Be nice. Be thoughtful. Be honest. Take the long view.
  17. That editor or agent who rejected you yesterday might just be the editor or agent who accepts you tomorrow. Don’t burn bridges.
  18. Never read Goodreads’ reviews. Period.
  19. Travel, if you can. Seeing the world through the eyes of those entirely different from you will enrich your writing.
  20. The world needs your words, your ideas, your thoughts. No one else can express ideas the way that you can – you are unique. Write from your heart and you’ll succeed.

The Graveyard Hook, Part 2

As our new group of middle grade authors who write spooky stories is about to launch our website – and come visit us at – I’m finishing up our shared experiences with graveyards this week. I’ll only add that I’m still surprised to find myself writing such spooky/scary stuff, since I can’t watch spooky movies.

Would I walk through a graveyard at night now, like I did when I was a kid? Not a chance!

Enjoy these graveyard stories…

Jan with her angel

Jan with her angel.

From author Jan Eldredge: A few times a year, my parents would take us to some of the cemeteries along the Mississippi Gulf Coast so we could tend to our family gravesites there. At one particular cemetery, there was a statue of a little boy angel standing a few rows over from my great-grandmother’s grave. From the time I could walk, until I grew too old for such things, I would always wander over and talk to him. Many years later, I went back to that cemetery, hoping to see my little angel friend again, but he was gone. I don’t know what happened to him. My guess is that he’d been damaged in a hurricane and the caretaker had hauled away his remains.

It’s funny how I never really thought about it, but graveyards appear in many of the stories I’ve written. I actually find them to be beautiful and peaceful places . . . as long as I visit them in the daylight.

And this tale is from Patrick Moody: I grew up in a very close knit neighborhood in Trumbull, CT. A small public library sat at the bottom of the street, and up the hill, rounding a corner, where my house stood, a long rock wall separated Hilltop Circle from the Nothenagle Cemetery (that’s quite a name, isn’t it?). The cemetery was a mix of old and new. The first people to be laid to rest were the Nichols family, who’d founded the area in the late 1600’s. Their plots were set with stone monuments towering seven or eight feet tall, entire lines of the family collected together behind wrought iron fences. The Nichols were in a corner, where the forest had begun to creep in over the grass, like it was coming to swallow up the graves. That part of the cemetery was perpetually covered in shadow, and if there was ever a truly spooky spot, that was it.

Myself and the other neighborhood kids loved exploring the cemetery. It was our playground. Our sanctuary. Being an old boneyard, it didn’t get many visitors. For us, it was a place where we could be free, out from under the watchful gaze of those ever curious “grown ups”. None of us found the place scary, at least not in the daytime. We’d walk through the rows, reading the names inscribed in granite and marble, and would talk about the lives of the people laying sleeping beneath our feet. I think that’s where my knack for storytelling really began. I was endlessly curious about the residents of the yard. What they were like in life. Who their families were. What they did for a living. How they saw the world through the eyes of their ti

We would take grave rubbings from the more artistic markers, and I was endlessly fascinated by the images of angels, and in some cases, figures from other cultures’ mythologies. Norse and Celtic runes were there in good numbers.

At night, on those summertime Saturdays when we didn’t have a care in the world, the cemetery became a magical place. As fireflies danced between the rows, we’d play hide and go seek, using the graves, bushes, and trees as our hiding spots. Sometimes we’d play capture the flag, or flashlight tag. When we didn’t really feel like chasing each other in the dark, risking tripping over a gravestone (or breaking it…that wouldn’t have been good), we would post up in a comfy area, usually inside the Nichols family plot behind those fences, and try to best each other with our scariest ghost stories.

We walked a fine line between embracing the inherent “scariness” of the graveyard, and looking at it as a place of practicality: literally, seeing it as a place for the dead to be lain to rest. You can either be scared, or at least mildly creeped out, or you can be interested in the cultural aspects of it. I found myself clinging to both: the ghostly aspects, and the way that we as Americans (or in a broader sense, the Western world), view and experience death.

Needless to say, the cemetery shaped me. Probably in some ways I haven’t even recognized. But I do know that I wouldn’t be a writer today, or an artist of any kind, had I not spent my youth dodging between those tombstones alongside my friends, exploring our moonlit kingdom of granite slabs and towering statues.

Fun stuff here, right? There’s lots more to come, for teachers, librarians, and kids. Follow us on Twitter @spookymgbooks

The Graveyard Hook, Part 1

I’m delighted to report that a bunch of us middle grade authors who write “spooky” books – from the moody to the seriously scary (I’ve been told that The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is seriously scary) – have joined together to form a group of Monstrously Good Middle Grade peeps. Very soon we’ll open our website (, which features information for kids, teachers, and librarians. We’ve got tons of fun things planned (group author Skype visits, for example), so please stay tuned!

But while we were all chatting it emerged that most of us had graveyard experiences as kids.


Now, I don’t think that having such a might-be-creepy background is a requirement for writing spooky books, but it is interesting. Right?

I have my own graveyard experience. My dad was an Episcopal priest, so we lived next door to the church, which meant next door to the graveyard. This was a very old New England church. And a very old graveyard. But that didn’t bother me. I found my own secret spot inside the graveyard, where I would take my reading, and my homework, and my daydreams. It was a little nook with a big headstone on one side and overgrown shrubs on two other sides, so I could sit there completely hidden for hours. I never thought of it as scary…then. Of course, there was also an underground mausoleum with a broken door, and I looked inside that tiny dark place more than once – on a dare, but also because I was curious.

Did I see ghosts in that graveyard? You may ask…

But now I’ve asked my fellow spooky authors to tell us about their graveyard “hooks”. So many responded that I’ve got one part this week, and one part next, so here’s part one:

From author Jonathan Rosen: I grew up in a section called of Brooklyn called Gravesend, which was settled in around the 1640’s. Such a creepy name, and as a matter of fact, that’s why I named the town in my book, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, Gravesend. I figured, why make anything else up? The reality is creepier than what I could come up with. I lived right next to Gravesend Neck Road, and if you followed it all the way, it led to a really old cemetery, which we used to go exploring. It was right in the middle of a neighborhood, near homes. So creepy that everyone was living around it, with tombstones dating back hundreds of years. I was fascinated by that and it always spurred the imagination of what it was like to live right next to this old cemetery.


From S.A. Larsen: As an elementary-age child, I used to visit our town cemetery often with my grandparents. By the time I was middle school and high school age, both my grandparents had passed away, and I found myself drawn to that same cemetery – which I preferred to call the boneyard much like my main character, Ebony Charmed in Motley Education. I’d stroll what felt like endless rows of graves after graves, lifetimes after lifetimes. I could create unseen worlds and playgrounds for the dead. (I think that’s why I fell in love with Lydia the first time I watched Betelgeuse; she got me.) Sometimes, when I’d find an interesting name etched on an old tombstone, I’d sit and stay a while. And crypts? They were way cool! Who was in there? Were they really in there? OMGosh, I needed to know! Weird? Maybe, but I was completely fascinated by who these people were, what kind of life they led, and what they left behind. I was never frightened there; not really. Of course, there were times my mind would play tricks on me, fooling me into thinking I saw something I didn’t. And then there were the times during middle school when a group of use would wait until dark, sneak into the cemetery (no telling!), and scare the screams out of each other. I just loved that!

From Sam Clark: I didn’t live next to a graveyard, but when I was doing my A-levels in England, I used to walk home from school and there was a graveyard smack bang in the middle of a short cut. And, given that it was an old English town, the graves were ancient. Many had slabs of concrete over the actual grave, as well as headstones, and a lot of the slabs were broken. It was easy to imagine bony fingers inching around the broken pieces and pushing up! In the summer, it wasn’t too much of an issue. I’d walk through there, but I’d walk quickly with eyes darting around to make sure no zombies were rising. In the winter, though, when it got dark around 4pm, I only took the short cut once. I accidentally got locked in the graveyard and had to climb the gate on the other side to get out. I scrambled up that gate so fast! I walked the long way home after that.

(Yikes! I would, too!) Stay tuned for more graveyard hooks next week………………..


“Volcano” in the Country Bookshelf window!

A busy time between the book launch for VOLCANO DREAMS, and finishing a companion novel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN (more about that in a future post). I’m pleased to say that VOLCANO DREAMS has been very popular, including scoring the #1 bestselling slot at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman.

In addition, VOLCANO DREAMS has been featured in this wiki: Children’s Books That Actually Make Learning Fun

I’ll be appearing at the Children’s Festival of the Book at the Bozeman Public Library on November 10, too. This is a super fun all-day event, so I hope to see you there.

Stay tuned for more news about this and other books!

VOLCANO DREAMS Giveaway For Teachers/Librarians

I’d like to announce a giveaway as part of the launch of VOLCANO DREAMS. You MUST be a teacher or librarian to enter. The prizes include:

  • 2 hardcover copies of VOLCANO DREAMS for your classroom/library
  • A “Volcano-Making Kit”
  • A hard copy of my teacher’s guide to VOLCANO DREAMS
  • Bookmarks for all your students
  • A Yellowstone Forever bag to hold all your goodies
  • A 30-minute classroom Skype visit with me

The giveaway runs through the month of September.

To enter (remember, you MUST be a teacher or librarian, as I will only mail to school addresses in the US and Canada) you can comment below, and/or comment on Twitter with the hashtag #VolcanoDreamsYellowstone.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

I hope you will enter and hope you will win!!

But It Doesn’t Look Like A Volcano!

In the last couple of posts I told you that when you are in Yellowstone, you are inside a volcano. But you wouldn’t know it. And that’s due mostly to one simple thing: erosional processes.

Note the “yellow stone” exposed in the Grand Canyon.

The earth isn’t static. Gravity plays a huge role in how the earth looks, as do water and temperature fluctuations. Landslides, rockfalls, sinkholes, and so on are all aspects of erosion. Glaciers once rolled over the landscape and carved deep valleys. Because we are on a planet that experiences wide changes in temperature and rainfall, we witness what those processes do over vast time scales to change the way our earth looks.

In Yellowstone, erosion is responsible for the creation of landforms like the Falls of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Hoodoos, and much more. Erosion has exposed cliffs and carved steep falls and riverbeds. Erosion has made the great mountains even greater.

The huge Yellowstone caldera, which is roughly shaped like a bowl, is formed by a combination of collapse (of the volcano as it cooled) and erosion (of the edges of the caldera over time).

Erosion is a continuing process that you can witness in real time, every time you see a stream or river, or witness a heavy rain.

At the end of August, I’ll be announcing a giveaway for teachers and librarians that will run the month of September. In the meantime, I’d like to announce that I’ll be in Yellowstone, so if you happen to be there, please come by!

I’ll be signing my books in Canyon from 11AM to 3PM on August 22.

And signing in Old Faithful from 11AM to 3PM on August 24.

I’ll have bookmarks and other swag. See you then!