A blog about writing . . . and a lot of other things

Thursday, May 31, 2012

This post is not about money

Like all good unpublished writers in this day of modern technology, I'm strongly considering self-publishing.  Even though I still dream of seeing my glossy cover on the bookshelf, I also like the idea of just getting the sucker out there.

On the one hand, traditional publishing does the marketing and finish work for you.  However, I may rot and die before I manage to get anywhere near a traditional publisher.  I also really like the idea of publishing my work electronically or print-on-demand so there aren't cases and cases of books being printed and then sitting around languishing in a warehouse somewhere.  That is so wasteful!

Although self-publishing could get my work out there faster, I wouldn't have the comfort of an editor and would have to do so much work!  Any of you who have an e-reader of any kind know that electronic books can have absolutely appalling formatting.  I don't want to put out a product that looks like crap, which means learning how to do a quality formatting job for a variety of e-readers.

That is almost as boring to me as funding my kids' college education.

So while I argue with myself about whether to self-publish or not, you can read the first chapter of Ravenswood.  My father-in-law thought I should post some of my writing on my blog, and I thought that was a great idea.  The best part is that it forced me to read it over again, and I made quite a lot of changes.  (Really, an editor would be a nice thing to have.)   Perhaps by the end of the summer I'll put the whole novel through it's tenth revision and get the Kindle version up on Amazon.com.

I hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Interesting follow-up to college savings post

Okay, this might only be interesting to me.

Last week I wrote on my blind panic at the thought of college savings.  I didn't discuss this in my previous post,  but while I haven't invested much, I have been investing in a college savings plan for my son since he was a toddler.  We have an Oregon 529 plan for him, and were planning to add one for Mindy and start investing more into both since, you know, time is of the essence and all that.

However, Isaac now has just slightly more in his 529 plan than we have invested.  That's pretty pathetic, actually.  Managing to merely recoup our losses after nearly a decade of investing?  I wouldn't call that a good track record.  Yes, there were some rough years in there for the stock market, but our 401(k)s have performed much better. (Especially mine because it was inadvertently all transferred into a cash account right before the stock market crashed in 2008.  I still giggle whenever I think about it.)

So I have been reticent to fling more money at what has been a losing investment thus far.

Then this morning I was reading some articles online and came across Brent Hunsberger's It's Only Money column for today.  Apparently the Oregon 529 plan has been given a 5-cap rating by savingforcollege.com.

This is a sea-change from the bad press that the plan got a few years ago, when the state sued OppenheimerFunds for mismanagement of the plan's assets.  In 2008 when similar funds lost about 5% of their value, the Oppenheimer Core Bond Fund lost 35.5% of its value.  Ouch!

Bonds are supposed to be safe, boring investments. Investors expect to make very little money, but feel safe that their investment is not at risk.  This is where you put your child's college fund they are getting close to graduating from high school.  So for this bond fund to lose nearly half of its value, from $10.15 in May 2008 to $5.36 in March 2009 was a nightmare to families who thought they were being wise to save for college.  You expect to get whacked like this occasionally if you're invested in stocks, but not when you need that money for your kid's tuition in the fall.

In late 2009, OppenheimerFunds agreed to pay investors $20 million, over half of what they'd lost, and in 2010 the Oregon College Savings Plan changed management to TIAA-CREF, and they've been working on reducing fees ever since.

What do I do?  Do I trust the new, improved Oregon College Savings Plan and start saving more for the kids' college education?  Do I hunt down another investment?  Or do I just stick my head back into a hole and not think about it?  For the moment, I'm going to not think about it.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Ticking Time Bomb

The other day I was chatting with my mom, and the subject of investing came up.  My mom said, "At least your kids have college funds."  Awkward silence while I let the waves of guilt crash over me.

"Mom, only Isaac has a college fund, and he doesn't even have enough for a semester."

To be fair, we've only recently gotten our financial house in order, so to speak.  We had a money pit of a house in Portland that was heavily mortgaged.  We finally sold it for a pittance two years ago, and only paid off the loan on that house last summer.  I finally paid off the last of my student loans last fall.

However, Isaac will be eleven in August, and Mindy is hot on his heels.  2019 looms in front of me like financial Armageddon, but even though one of my favorite hobbies is financial forecasting (I am a CPA, remember), I don't spend much time thinking about college funding.  I don't know if it's just boring to me or if I'm in such a blind panic that it's better not to think about it.  College funding has the same effect on me as when Jacob talks about his IT work.  My eyes glaze over and my brain shuts down and I wake up a few minutes later not knowing quite what's going on.

My son goes to college in just over 7 years.

I was thinking that Pepperdine University would be such a nice place for the kids to go.  It's a Christian school with a very good reputation in a nice location there on the beach in Malibu.  What a nice campus to visit, and the kids could go away to school and only be a thousand miles away!  So I went to their website.

Did you know that the annual cost of attending Pepperdine is more than $50,000 per year, and they haven't updated their cost estimator since 2009?!?!

Blind panic.

Okay, so perhaps Pepperdine is a bad idea.  Who wants to go to LA, anyway?

I looked at the cost of attending my alma mater, Harding University.  It's more than 2,000 miles away and the location is, well, Arkansas, but the annual cost is less than half of Pepperdine.  Okay, so maybe it's not the best campus to visit.  There's no sunny Pacific Ocean, no bustling metropolis, no sterling reputation.  But it's affordable.

Then there's Portland State University, where I did my post-baccalaureate accounting studies.  It's about $10,000 a year for tuition, and the kids could live at home.  Admittedly, it's not as cool as living in Malibu, but through the lenses of cost PSU starts looking downright shiny, doesn't it?

Or they could go to Clackamas Community College and ride their bikes to class every day.  I hope it doesn't come to this, but thank heavens for community colleges, right?  Jacob and I have both taken classes at community colleges and the modest expense is a life-saver.

I know that there is financial aid available.  Hopefully my kids will keep their grades up and get lots of scholarships, but I doubt they'll qualify for need-based financial aid.  I thought about retiring early so we're broke when the kids go to college, but considering I'll be barely forty, I can't see that being a wise option.

The most common methods of college savings (other than pretending it's not going to happen) are 529 plans and educational savings accounts.  529 plans behave a lot like a Roth IRA.  The money is put in after taxes, the growth and income are tax-free, and the money can be withdrawn tax-free as long as the distributions are used for qualified educational expenses (college).  One of the nicest things about a 529 plan is that the money in the plan still belongs to the person who invested it (me).  If your kid turns out to not be college material, you stick their younger sibling's name on the account and pretend it was theirs all along.

Educational savings accounts are a lot like 529s, but they lost their shininess after 529 plans came along, mostly because the contribution limits have been pretty low and the money in the plan belongs to the beneficiary.  However, at least the way the law stands right this minute (I think), you can use the distributions for educational expenses even before college: private school tuition, for example.

So, how am I going to save for my kids' college education?

Uh . . . . . .

. . .

. . .

Huh?  What?  Sorry.  I must have blacked out for a minute there.  What were we talking about?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Writewell Academy

Yesterday I attended a lecture through the Writewell Academy.  This venerable institution, established in April 2012 by bestselling authors Jennifer Crusie and Lani Diane Rich, consists of slide show lectures and exercises for writers who want to sharpen their creative writing skills and who may not have the time, money, or pretension to pursue an MFA.  In other words, me.

The 100-level lectures in discovery and conflict are designed for those who may or may not have written a novel before, and want to sharpen their skills, while the 200- and 300-level lectures are for those who have a book written and need help refining it.  All lectures cost $10 except for the 101 introductory course, which is free.

Since the Academy is still young, not all of the lectures are available.  So far only the 100-level lectures and the 200-level lecture on the basics of character are completed.  However, the all-important school store is open.  It's important to have your priorities straight.

I downloaded Lani's 102: Introduction to Discovery lecture, and really enjoyed it.  The lecture was a little over thirty minutes long, was quite witty, and gave me some new ideas for how to come up with new ideas.

I did one of the exercises this morning, which was a character questionnaire.  I decided I would try to answer the questionnaire as Katelyn, who is that accountant who I'm trying to convince to do something interesting enough to warrant a book.  The first question was what her best childhood memory was, and I nearly quit right there.  The woman is thirty years old, and was convinced she was born that way.  It was a hard slog, but I finally got her to 'fess up to a past, and the questionnaire got easier after that.  Eventually she'd spilled quite a few of her deepest, darkest secrets, and I felt like we'd bonded over a cup of coffee and a slice of cake I shouldn't have eaten.  Thanks to Lani's lecture, Kate has the potential to do something other than complain about her ex-husband.  That might be worth ten bucks right there.

If you want to refine your writing skills, Writewell Academy is a cheap and fun option.  Their target audience is definitely female, but a very self-confident man could acquire some tools for his writing toolbox from the Academy if he dared.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Today's dose of cuteness

Do I have a treat for you this morning!

Watch these baby sloth videos and tell me it's not pretty much the cutest thing you've ever seen.

Once you've seen the adorable baby sloths, you can watch Kristen Bell completely lose it on the Ellen Degeneres Show and understand why she was excited, if perhaps not why she was so very excited.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A few of life's mysteries

Here are a few questions on my mind today.  Feel free to respond if you have any theories.

Why do people use tanning beds?  Seriously.  Why?  Tanning causes cancer and makes your skin wrinkled and leathery.  If you overdo it, you end up looking pretty scary.  I just don't get it.

You know those silly web surveys like the ones they have on msn.com every day?  Today it is asking for reader's opinions on some teen's rather tasteless faked suicide.  Your choices are that a) you think her video raises awareness of bullying, b) her project was "unsettling," or c) you have no opinion.  My question: is it really necessary to have an option for people who have no opinion?  Couldn't they simply not participate in the survey?  Where they need a "no opinion" option is on voter's ballots.  I've been known to occasionally do some eenie-meenie-miney-moe.

Aren't they angelic?
Why do children spend so much time and effort driving their parents insane?  Do they enjoy being yelled at?  Get a kick out of punishment?  Like the idea of having crazy parents?  Are they simply addicted to drama?  How can the sweet child who cuddles you before bedtime be the same one who gets called to the principal's office?  A few minutes ago I came stomping out of my room because Mindy was playing the same note over and over and over and over on her ukulele.  She was also singing along (same note) with words something like "Isaac is a big jerk.  I hate Isaac.  Isaac is a stupid head."

Similarly, why do siblings fight so unceasingly?  I'll never forget a lovely game of Risk I played with my husband and two of his cousins back in college.  The cousins were pre-teen siblings, and not once did they attack anyone other than each other.  Jacob and I annihilated them.  It was so easy.  They didn't even notice because they were having such a blast attacking each other.

Why do I get the munchies?  I'm not talking about any side-effects from dope-smoking. I'm talking about when I suddenly am consumed with the insatiable need to eat absolutely everything.  I'm not actually hungry because it's not possible for my pathetic metabolism to require that kind of calorie load.  I'm not eating my feelings because emotionally I feel dandy.  The munchies often hit, oddly, at bedtime.  Usually I crave toast, specifically.  Even better if it is with a mug of hot cocoa.  I rarely get up and have the toast because it won't help.  The need for the toast is bottomless.

Any burning questions on your mind?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Rejection and self-doubt

The day of my surgery I received an email rejection for my novel Ravenswood.  It was a lovely email to come home to, let me tell you.  Good thing I was already thoroughly numbed with painkillers.  It's now been rejected six times, which means I only need three more and it'll be just like Harry Potter . . . or something.

I was thinking about Ravenswood last night as I lay awake unable to sleep.  (Note: when people lie awake in movies, they lie on their backs and gaze up at the ceiling, their faces projecting the pain and hopelessness of the scene.  Unfortunately, lying on my back is excruciating right now, even on the painkillers, so my expression of hopelessness was directed into my pillow.  I can't even fail as decorously as I would like.  Okay, sorry.  I'll stop whining now.)

Do you like the stock photos I snagged off the Internet?  Note the white bedding and white jammies?  See my post from last week if you missed the discussion on stock photos.

Anyway, I thought about my characters, especially the supporting roles, and decided that they are all flat as a pancake.  There's no depth, no edge, and I found even thinking about the characters too dull to attempt.  This is not a good sign.  I know at 2 am I am predisposed to feel pessimistic, but now it is nearly 2 pm, and I am still not in the mood to fix the human pinballs I created for my main character to bounce off of.  No wonder it keeps getting rejected.

I'll admit that I love my characters.  I can see them in my head and usually find them amusing as all get out.  However, I don't think I've written them as cool as they are in my head, and I'm afraid to read Ravenswood over again and find out.  I am such a wimp.

Similarly, I still have not started revisions on Blue, the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last fall.  I know that one is a catastrophe.  I mean, I wrote it in 30 days, so its status as a work in progress is a given.  However, I also missed a week or two in the middle having surgery and had to polish off nearly half of it in the last few days (probably while taking painkillers and not eating).  This is the one for which I actually posted a request on Facebook for ideas on how to get the sucker moving.  Meagan, bless her heart, suggested ninja pirates, and I used them to get my character to stop wandering in a boring - although lovely - meadow.  Quite an accomplishment considering that this is a novel that includes space flight.  By the end of the book I had turned her into a superhero.  It's like one of those awful satires of desperate Hollywood movies, but Jacob says it's my best book yet.

And then there's the one about the accountant that is no longer an embryo, but is still just a fetus (the novel, not the character).  I'm determined to keep her from turning into a superhero or having any kind of special powers.  However, while the story is simmering on the back burner, one of her clients has been taking on an uncanny resemblance to Tony Stark.  He doesn't have a metal flying suit . . . yet.

It's probably a good thing that I'm planning to return to my day job in a few more weeks, although the tax returns moldering on my shelf in my office aren't that much more attractive than my paper-thin characters.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Another food blog

When I started this blog I didn't know precisely what I wanted to write about, but I knew what I didn't want to write about - food.  You may have noticed that the Internet is overflowing with food blogs.  Everyone and their cousin has a food blog, and they come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are all about chocolate.  Some are only gluten-free.  Some are vegan, fat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and really make me wonder what on earth the blogger does eat.  I was determined that I would not add to this smorgasbord of culinary mayhem.

Taking the sting out of nettles for stinging nettle soup
However, there's a big problem with that decision.  I spend a good half of my waking hours planning, cooking, and consuming food.  I don't think that's an exaggeration.  I love to eat and for the past few years I've been cooking my tooshy off (quite literally).  For example, last night for dinner we had homemade pizza with crust I made from scratch and a sauce made from heirloom tomatoes I grew from seed last summer.  Admittedly, the goat cheese, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses were store-bought, and I didn't grow the onions that I caramelized, but I did grow the basil that we scattered on top.  If I weren't having so much fun, I would be sickened by my own domesticity.

Last night was not an isolated incident, either.  I now bake my own crusty loaf several days a week (thanks to Mark Bittman's New York Times article on Jim Lahey's revolutionary no-knead method), and am considering experimenting with baking sandwich bread for the kids' lunches.  We took over a farm share from friends who moved away, and now have piles of greens that we have to figure out how to eat.  So we saute a lot of greens and eat a ton of salad (with fresh crusty bread).  This year we are growing our own tomatoes, peppers, onions, beans, peas, and arugula, and I'm looking forward to planting some Cinderella pumpkins from seed I saved last year.

I don't even use box mixes for brownies any more since Cooking Light has such a lovely recipe, and I have dispensed with margarine now that I can make my own spreadable butter.

In conclusion, this blog is not about food.  However, I am personally all about food.  So when you're wondering why I am not posting anything new on my blog, you'll know it's because I'm busy making cheese souffles to eat with the lovely fresh micro-greens that we are ready to harvest from our backyard garden.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Hazards of Being Opinionated

My son is at a lovely stage in life where he parrots everything I say.  I'm not kidding.  When Jacob and I get into an argument - er, discussion - I know that I've got the advantage.  It'll always be two against one.  What about Mindy, you ask?  She can't be bothered to invest in conversation with her family.

Jacob complained to me about this the other night.  He's annoyed that Isaac always takes my side.  After pointing out the boy's obvious intelligence and discernment, I also suggested the main reason Isaac doesn't parrot Jacob's opinions: Jacob doesn't have any.

Jacob's lack of opinion is probably what drew me to him in the first place.  He is so darn relaxing to be around!  It's why everyone likes him best (especially my mother).  He's a good, non-judgmental listener, never trying to insert his own opinion, but patiently listening to yours.  It's lovely, let me tell you.

I think it's easier on him, as well.  The number one hazard of being opinionated is, of course, that you're often wrong, no matter how intelligent and thoughtful you are.  I have long wished I was capable of just shutting up, for pete's sake.  It would save me so much backtracking, keep my feet out of my mouth, and I wouldn't be stuck eating so much humble pie.

A new hazard has sprung up with Isaac's current stage in life.  Not only am I always in danger of saying something that will come back to haunt me, but I've got him repeating everything I say.  This is a huge responsibility.  I don't want him going around saying things like, "Well, that girl has a huge booty," and "So-and-so has the world's least-convincing comb-over."  So I find myself saying things like, "Doing well in school is the best fun ever!" and "Mowing the lawn is not only exciting, but a fun, healthy form of exercise."  It's a bit of a challenge squeezing these topics in while watching Dancing With the Stars, but I'm nothing if not a talented conversationalist.

By the way, I've been trying to ease off on the narcotic painkillers, which is no fun at all. (This is another thought I have to try not to voice in Isaac's presence so he doesn't go to school and tell his teachers that "narcotics are fun!")  Yesterday when I saw the doctor for my surgery follow-up, he said that my surgery is a very painful one, and I should go ahead and stay on the painkillers as long as I needed to, and he gave me a refill.  Music to my ears, let me tell you.  So I will continue to be somewhat narcotic-fueled in my blog posts for a bit longer.  Hopefully I won't have any more awful dreams like the one I posted about last week.

Here's a link to a very, very funny website about retro Weight Watcher's recipes.  This is not a website for kids or people who are offended by bad language, so please, don't even go there if you fit into these categories.  I would be sad if I messed up your day like that.  If you, like me, have been so ruined by modern society that you sometimes don't notice bad language, then this is a fun place to go, but make sure that Isaac isn't standing behind you reading over your shoulder because he will totally repeat anything he sees.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Narcotic-fueled brilliance!

I made several New Year's resolutions this year, and one of them was to blog weekly.  I'm doing a better job at keeping my weight loss resolution.  How crazy is that?

For a while, I had the excuse of working a lot, but the tax deadline was nearly a month ago.  I did have back surgery a week ago and have been mostly lying around watching television and reading ever since.  I keep thinking I should post something to my blog, but do people really want to read my narcotic-fueled insights?  Do I even have any narcotic-fueled insights?

The only thing my brain has spawned from the painkillers was a truly awful nightmare earlier this week.  I was chaperoning at a youth rally and ended up on a horrible journey that involved being vomited upon, trying to take care of a baby while being crippled by an unknown neurotoxin, and getting lost on the way back from the bathroom.  I tried to get back to the teens I was supposed to be chaperoning, but I was hopelessly lost, wandering through several sports facilities and children's arcades, a strange retro martini bar filled with men in suits, a sushi kitchen, a courtroom, and a porn palace.  It was the porn that freaked me out enough to make me think maybe this was a dream.  The only thing that would have made the dream more frightening is if I were being chased by clowns.

I don't have much of value to write about, so I've gathered a few links for your browsing pleasure.  I just realized that all the links are on the subject of women.  Interesting.

The first is a wonderful link to a random page that has women laughing alone with salad.  I feel it has something deep to say about how women are portrayed in modern society, and I really want to stage photos of my family laughing with salad now.  I'm not kidding.  When I finally do it I promise to post pictures here.
On essentially the same subject is The World According to Stock Photos of Women.  Apparently stock photos have captured the reality of my life.  I mean, I'm always laughing as I eat salad, and my bedroom is completely white, with completely white linen, and I sleep in a white cami and white yoga pants.  Isn't that what being a woman means?  
Finally, I present you the latest in the endless stream of non-news controversies brought up to pit women against women (which we fall for every time).  This time it's the Time Magazine cover shot of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son.  It's getting more news than it deserves, which is why they did it.  I love this column from the Huffington Post's Lisa Belkin.  It's long past time women stopped criticizing each other's parenting choices and started supporting each other.  Parenting is an endless challenge and anyone who thinks they have all the answers is either an idiot or not a parent.

I promise I will try to post again soon.  I'm starting to think my weekly resolution was a bit optimistic of me.