PUNCH THE SUN!: Maximizing Your Future Today

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Image: silhouette of a colorguard performer with flag, PUNCHING THE SUN.

This morning, I taught seven eighth-graders–none of whom had ever touched a flag before–how to drop spin.

As everyone in the colorguard world knows (and everyone else can deduce from seeing it done), drop spinning isn’t a World-class skill. In fact, it’s a fundamental. It’s darn near the first thing everyone learns to do with a flag. In the world of colorguard, drop spins aren’t so much PUNCHING THE SUN as they are TAKING A BREATH: you’re gonna do thousands of them just as a basic function.

These kids have a week to go from “never touched a flag before” to “can compete with the veterans in the high school guard” for six open slots on that team.  So why did I start with drop spins?

Simple: It was the ONE element I could teach today that would have the biggest impact on their performance one week from today.

Colorguard instructors put a lot of emphasis on the drop spin because it teaches a lot of fundamentals at once: pacing, hand and arm placement, muscle isolation, and (when done marching or while marking time) hand/eye/foot coordination and rhythm.  It also looks good when it’s together, which is why so many parade routines are centered on it.

Granted: I wrote their parade/tryout routine, so I know that it’s chock-full of drop spins. I’m also choreographing the fall show, so I know they’re going to need the skills drop spins teach.

I’m also not interested in wasting time.

Between coaching colorguard, taking on freelance projects for clients, editing several books a year for Autonomous Press (the first of my 2017 batch, Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamberis out now), writing a novel a year, and spending time with my awesome family, I don’t have a lot of procrastination time. And I don’t get any more time than everyone else gets (believe it or not, I also eat three meals a day, exercise daily, and sleep eight hours a night).

What I’ve learned to do is to use the time I have more efficiently, by asking this one question: What can I do RIGHT NOW that will get me closest to X goal?

“X” is always the goal in question, whether that’s increasing my freelance income, getting a bunch of newbies spinning together, or expanding my readership. This morning, that was skipping basics like the 27 points in favor of teaching my new colorguard candidates how to drop spin. This afternoon, it’s going to be sitting down and writing a thousand words.

(For authors, “what can I do now that will get me closest to my goal?” is almost always “SIT DOWN AND WRITE.” The fact that “sit down and write” is also the hardest thing we do is not a coincidence.)

For solid long-term growth, start by setting your five-year goal. Write it in present tense: “I make $50,000 per year in book royalties.” “I have an agreement to turn my novel into a film.” “I am the director of a Scholastic Open-class guard that just placed in the top five at Dayton.” Whatever your goal is.

Write it on a Post-It note. Stick it above your desk. Or on your dashboard. Or on your treadmill. Someplace you’re going to see it every day.

When you have to decide how to spend your time–what project to do next, whether to say “yes” to an offer, and so on–ask, “Is this the one thing I can do today that will get me closest to my goal?” If so, get on it.

Ask yourself:

  • “If I could do only one thing today that would get me closer to my goal, would this be it?”
  • “If I can only spend 30 minutes today on my goal, what will get me closest to that goal in that short amount of time?”
  • “If I doubled my goal (make $100,000, turn two novels into films, direct a World class guard, etc.), what one thing today would get me closest to that goal?”

There’s a place in life for Netflix and chill–but to reach your goals, make sure it’s after you’ve done that One Thing.

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Chekov’s Bear Arms, Or “Does the Gun Have to Go Off in Act Three?”

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If you’re going to show the audience a friendly monster in Act One, he had better have an adorable temper tantrum in Act Two. (Image: Fizzgig the Muppet from The Dark Crystal, a brown ball of fur with his mouth open, showing multiple rows of very sharp teeth. The background is full of “AAAAAAA”, representing his screaming.)

Author Anton Chekhov gave variations on the following writing advice several times during his life:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This morning, I had a conversation with several other people about putting this into practice. A writer friend (and one of the luminous poetry authors in Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber) is writing a fiction piece in which a gun appears on a mantlepiece in Act One. The author wanted to know: does it have to go off in Act Three?

The answer: Yes and no.

Chekhov’s advice isn’t literally about firing guns. It’s about making sure you don’t make the audience look at anything without explaining, at some point, why you made them look at it.

With a gun, the easiest way to explain why you made the audience look at the gun in Act One is to shoot somebody later in the plot. But it’s not the only thing you can do with a gun.

Take, for example, my upcoming novel. One of the two POV characters carries not one gun, but two – everywhere. He’s always got a sidearm and a smaller weapon jammed into his boot.

In the novel, the reader sees both of these guns in the very first chapter. Neither one is fired, though. Instead, the fact the guns were drawn but not fired (a) says something about the character’s personality (he’s kind of paranoid), (b) says something about the circumstances of his job (he probably should be), and (c) foreshadows several interactions that take place later in the book.

In Act Two, we see this character’s guns again, briefly – when he’s frisked for them. Here, more character-building is taking place. Losing his weapons makes the character feel more vulnerable, right at the very point of the plot in which he feels it is most important that he not be vulnerable.

Finally, in Act Three, the character fires a gun. Ironically, it’s not one of the two guns he was toting around in the previous acts! He’s lost both of those–turns out he was wrong about which part of the plot he would most need to not be vulnerable at. But the appearance of the guns in Act One and the loss of them temporarily in Act Two have both led up to this moment. We saw the guns; we saw them disappear; now we see a gun (but not those guns) fired.

Firing the gun is just one way to explain to the audience why you made them look at the gun in previous acts, though. It’s by far the easiest, but there are plenty of other options, depending on your plot. Maybe the gun is a family antique that was stolen and finally returned to its owner (or used for another nefarious purpose). Maybe the gun jams at a crucial moment. Maybe someone gets pistol-whipped instead of shot. And so on.

Oh, and when you first introduce the gun in Act One? Make it do double duty. Don’t just say “and by the way, this dude has a gun.” For example, in my friend’s “gun on the mantlepiece” scenario, the author might reveal the presence of the gun on the mantlepiece by mentioning it as a detail the protagonist notices while they are hanging out in the room, waiting for the antagonist to show up. The protagonist might draw certain conclusions about the antagonist from the presence of the gun. These conclusions might or might not be correct (I use “not correct” a lot in my work).

Then, the gun drops out of the plotline. When it resurfaces, it should do so in a way that reveals whether or not the protagonist’s conclusions in Act One were correct, in addition to doing whatever it’s supposed to be doing in Act Three (killing someone, jamming so that the shooter is now in even more peril, whatever).

That’s a lot of work for one gun. In good fiction, though, everything does a lot of work. The kind of novels people read over and over, the kind they recommend to their friends, are the ones in which readers notice something new every time they read–because everything in the book is doing double or triple duty.

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SNEAK PREVIEW: Novel

I’m spending today looking over the notes from Proofreading. The finished novel appears in June, but until then, please enjoy this sneak preview.

When Richard Hayek was eight years old, he had rescued a kitten. It was a scrawny, mud-covered thing, staggering down one side of the alley he cut through on his way home from school most days. The kitten had black patches around its eyes; Richard was nursing a black eye. They were both alone, both crying, both hungry. It was a perfect match.

After an evening spent scouring the water-stained reference books his father had once rescued from a dumpster, he named the kitten Koshka. Having never raised another living creature before, the boy promptly set about offering it every scrap of food on the place. Koshka developed a liking for protein supplement bars and a fierce loyalty to the human who had saved her.

Koshka’s death, the year he started graduate school, wasn’t the first time Hayek had lost someone he cared about. But it was the hardest.

She’d gotten listless, at first. At twenty-one years old she was sleeping more than usual, her eyes and ears too aged to let her make her way as a hunter any longer. But those eyes, which had always been alert and watchful, glazed over. She shook her head more often, forlornly, dizzily. At times she would stare past him, as if she couldn’t tell he was there.

Then her motor skills began to give out. Twice he was woken in the night by a scrambling sound and a thump, as she tried to jump onto the low bed beside him only to crash into the side railing and land messily on the floor. He built her an ersatz stepladder from textbooks, but when she stumbled and collapsed off the side of the pile one evening, he moved his mattress and pillow to the floor.

One day, she didn’t get out of his bed at all. She soiled it, instead, and her large eyes and downcast ears were enough to keep him from scolding her. He cleaned up the bedding and the cat, gently, as best he could, then laid plastic sheeting across the foot of the bed and folded the blanket – now “hers” – over it. He took the blanket down to the laundry in his ramshackle apartment building and washed it every time she soiled it, as many as six times a day. He fed her by hand, what little she would eat, and stroked her ears. She purred constantly.

The ending came quickly after that.

When he woke up in the morning, her hind feet were gone. Not missing but limp, frozen, as if they were no longer attached to the rest of her body. He canceled the class he was to teach and sat with her, reading, petting her every time she mewed for him. Her voice had gotten high-pitched, lost, afraid.

The limpness crept up her body. By mid-morning she’d lost control of her tail; by lunchtime, which neither of them observed, her entire lower body. When sunset came she could no longer reach out a front foot to grasp his finger, which had long been one of her favorite games.

He laid down beside her that night knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep until she did, and perhaps not after that. Ten minutes later she closed her eyes, wheezed twice, and was still.

It was the first time he had cried since his father’s death. He hadn’t cried since.

He also hadn’t thought about that day since. At least, not any more than he could help. But today, he couldn’t stop.

The ridged metal surface of the floor jabbed at him as he lay on his back, examining the ship’s computer core. Above him, bundles of glowing optic cable hung limply and a forlorn data node blinked red. Beyond that the core stretched away into a densely-packed darkness, three decks high, only a faint whirring and the sharp close smell of warm metal to tell him it was running at all.

That, and he was still breathing.

Barely.

Inside the core, he was tolerably warm. Outside it, in the rest of the ship, the temperature had dropped to a crisp seven degrees. The crew were going about their business in snowsuits, blankets, gloves and hats. Even their captain had donned an old overcoat, her one concession to the predicament facing her crew.

The ISS Jemison was dying.

It was the only explanation Hayek could find that made sense, the only metaphor that fit. Her functions were shutting down one by one, had been for weeks, ever since they’d attempted to integrate a new analytical processing core, a bit of alien tech picked up at a salvage yard near Alpha Centauri. No. Before that. They’d added the processor because they’d lost its predecessor, another bit of salvage that looked to be Devori.

He couldn’t blame the new unit. It had never worked. It had fused to the EF network and he didn’t know how to remove it, but it hadn’t caused the cascade of failures as near as he could tell. But he also couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t talk to a tangle of wires attached to a plastic box, and talking was about the only thing he was good at.

Which left no one to blame but himself.

Hayek scowled and wedged one large hand into the node, fishing for the dangling ends of the data cable. He reconnected them, bracing himself for the small, biting shocks that told him the connections were working.

They didn’t come.

He blinked and looked up. The pulsing red light on the front face of the data node had faded away. The unit was dark.

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Two New Contributions

I’ve been busy elsewhere on the Web recently! Here are my two newest pieces:

For Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017: Disability and “Can’t,” on the line between “can’t” and “won’t,” and what barriers to access really look like.

You can also catch me in Folks magazine, to whom I gave an interview a few months ago: How the Autistic Academic Got Her Sci-Fi Writing Groove Back.  (Yes, that’s my TOS dress. Yes, I am a huge nerd.)

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Disability Visibility Project and Disabled Writers (Including Me) Discuss Author Pay and Publishing Ethics

Check it out:

#CrippingTheMighty 1 Year Later: Disabled Writers on Publishing – http://wp.me/p4H7t1-N5o

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Sci Fi, Satire, and More: Join My Patreon

In 2009, I started writing marketing copy for a living.  It pays the bills, but it’s not all that exciting to write, and it certainly doesn’t captivate, inspire, or entertain the way my decades of non-paid fiction, satire, and short stories have.

Eight years in, I’ve decided it’s time for a change.  It’s time for me to be able to produce more of the stuff you love to write.

That’s why I’m now on Patreon:

http://www.patreon.com/danialexis

I call it the Practical Joke Universe – a place where I can produce science fiction and other flights of fancy, hone the delicious satire you’ve seen here and at Field Notes on Allistics, and share writing advice and commentary on a wide range of topics.

And you’re invited.

What do you get out of it?  By supporting my Patreon at any level – even $1 per month – you get access to all the members-only content.  Kick in more and you get special content and even some AutPress swag.

What do I get out of it?  Another brick in the wall of my eventual getting to write fiction and blog full-time.  We’ll be moving this blog to the Neurodiversity Matters network in a few months; my first science fiction novel, Nantais, comes out in 2017.

The more support I get, the more time I can spend updating this blog regularly and producing more of the stuff y’all actually want to read, instead of marketing crap y’all would rather avoid.

This blog, as well as Autistic Academic, will keep rolling ahead as usual – which is to say, they’ll be updated when I feel like I have something to say.  But if you want to see more than just autism commentary, and you want to see it more regularly, head over to Patreon.  I’ll see you there!

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Radio Silence: More On the Ethics of Pay and Publication in Disability Writing

A couple times a month, I get unsolicited* correspondence from someone who wants one of two things:

  • for me to guest post on their blog or Web site, or
  • to republish something I’ve already posted here on their blog or Web site.

I have never responded to these requests, but not because I have any policy against responding to cold calls.  Rather, I have never responded to any of them because every single one has left out a vital component: compensation.

Sometimes they fail to mention compensation altogether.  More often, they offer me “exposure” instead.

I’ve written before about the serious ethical problem involved in not paying writers, particularly when those writers are disabled and particularly when the non-paying outlet claims to champion disability-related causes.  At that second link, I specifically addressed problems with The Mighty’s model of soliciting unpaid labor from disabled writers, making money on ad revenues generated from that content and from investors using the site’s presence and reach supported by that content, and offering to donate any writer’s compensation to charity rather than simply paying the writer.

This was enough for me to speak up against The Mighty.  But The Mighty, at least, stops at asking for free labor.  The Mighty does not, as far as I know, go around copying other writers’ work without their knowledge or permission, posting that work to its own site, and making money off it.

Some outlets do.

Late last night, I got a Facebook message from a friend asking whether I had ever given permission to an Australian site called My Disability Matters or its adminstrator, Dale Reardon, to republish any of my work.

The answer is no.  Except for a handful of outlets I personally selected and approached about guest posting or sharing content, including Misandry Angie and The Ed Wiley Autism Acceptance Lending Library, I’ve never authorized anyone to republish my work.  When I do reach out to others about republishing my work, I choose them carefully: either these platforms can afford to pay me, or they understand that I’m offering them something of value, and they’re willing to offer their professional assistance in return.

The name of the site, its admin, and the fact that it was based in Australia caught my attention, though.  It did all sound familiar.  So I went looking in my messages.

Turns out Dale Reardon did contact me about publishing on My Disability Matters, by leaving a comment on my March 2016 post on eye contact.  In it, he states that he “was wondering if it might be okay to republish this article and any other relevant ones on our website, with appropriate credit and a link back of course.”  In exchange, I would get the site’s “help [to] spread your work and gain a wider audience for you.”

In other words, exposure.  In other words, nothing.**

Not only did I not respond to this comment, I never let it out of the moderation queue.  I view all requests for my unpaid labor as demands for unpaid emotional labor, so I treat them exactly the same way I treat all other demands for emotional labor I deem unreasonable: I ignore them.

I never said yes or anything that could have been reasonably understood to be a yes.  To put it in contract-law terms, Mr. Reardon made an offer; I did not accept; there was no meeting of the minds, and thus no deal to put my work on My Disability Matters.

Usually, when I don’t respond to unsolicited demands for my unpaid labor, that’s the end of it.  Most people understand that radio silence is a “no,” not a “yes.”

So imagine my surprise when, after my friend’s query, I searched the My Disability Matters site to find that well over half of my piece on identity-first versus person-first language had been excerpted there [pdf], either the same day or the day after I had posted it here.

My Disability Matters makes money off the work it publishes, as is explained on its About page.  The About page does mention a long-term goal of employing disabled people (other than the site’s founder, one presumes) and of reinvesting some of the profits back into the disability community.

It does not, however, mention paying writers.

In other words, the site was using work I had not given permission to be used, and keeping the money it generated, without ever mentioning to me either that my work was being used or that the site intended to keep the money my work generated.

Oh, and it got the name of this blog wrong.

My search for “autistic academic” on the My Disability Matters site turned up two entries.  One was for the aforementioned post.  The other was for a listing on the site map.

The site map, as it turned out, lists every “source” of the site’s articles, including several dozen I recognized – and several that are written by people whom I know share my (dim) view of exploiting writers in general and disabled writers in particular.  When I asked the ones I know personally about their involvement in or knowledge of My Disability Matters, they were as baffled as I was when my friend first asked me last night.

In other words, it’s not just me.  My Disability Matters is exploiting several of us.

I’ve written before, in my comments on The Mighty***, how traditional excuses like “but startup costs!” or “but business model!” don’t fly as reasons not to pay writers.  I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly a decade now.  I’m currently the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press and the editor of the forthcoming anthology Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber from NeuroQueer Books – an anthology series that pays its writers.

I understand the costs of the writing and publishing professions.  I face those costs every time I try to publish my own work, every time I negotiate with my clients to be paid what my own work is worth, and every time I negotiate with potential AutPress writers to ensure we pay them what their work is worth.  I started blogging for pay back when Merriam-Webster was still debating whether “blog” should be added to their dictionary.  I’m a partner in a company that has compensated every one of its writers to date (with cash, copies of anthologies, or both).  “But startup!” is never an excuse for not compensating writers – at the very least, with a share of the ad revenue generated by their work.

And even if it was, it’s no excuse to copy-paste substantial portions of their writing onto your own site without their knowledge or permission in order to generate that ad revenue.

This is exploitation of disabled writers, and it needs to stop.  We get exploited enough by the rest of the world.  Don’t do it to one another.


*by definition, because I don’t solicit them

**The rule of thumb for measuring the value of “exposure” is this:  Any site with a sufficently high profile to offer you worthwhile exposure can afford to pay you.  That kind of high profile is worth money.  If The Huffington Post were to go up for sale tomorrow, its price tag would be in the millions, and a substantial chunk of that price would be based on its name recognition alone.

If the site claims they can’t afford to pay you?  They’re not big enough to give you worthwhile exposure.  You can get the same exposure by hustling your own brand.

That is, if you care about exposure at all.  What every one of these unsolicted requests for my unpaid labor has failed to understand is that I don’t.  I’m a professional writer.  Have been for years.  I’m exposed.  Offering me “exposure” instead of pay just tells me you haven’t bothered to learn who you’re talking to.

***published three months before Dale Reardon first contacted me, so it’s not like he didn’t have an opportunity to understand my position

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