Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House

 

I started planning our trip to the the Netherlands a few months in advance. I knew we were going to see the tulips, I knew we were going to go to Amsterdam, and I really wanted to pay a visit to the Anne Frank House. Of course, I know that place is quite the tourist attraction, and I was warned that advanced tickets are hard to secure.

But surely, I thought, I would be able to get tickets a few months in advance.

I was wrong. Continue reading

GBS: Top Five Scary Things About Being a Writer (And How to Conquer Them)

Photo by Stacey Graham. Those are all her books. On one shelf. In a book store!

Julie’s Note: It’s back from the dead … my blog and the Guest Blogger Series, that is.
Every now and then, I feature a guest writer, and this week, I’m so excited to feature my friend!
This post is for all those who WANT to write, but are too terrified to do so.
Take it from a horror writer … you can do it!


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By Stacey Graham

[dropcap style=”color: #9b9b9b;”]I[/dropcap] didn’t choose the writing life — it chose me. After five kids and countless hours of rhyming “sugar” with anything but “booger,” I needed something sassy. I was in my (very) late 30s and didn’t want to start a new career, but what could compete with wiping baby butts all day?

The complete and utter feeling of failure after I’d sent out my first few pitches, that’s what.

Yet, that’s when I knew I was in the game and so, it was on like Donkey Kong. A few years later, I had published four books and a dozen short stories, and in the process, I identified a few things. A few scary things.

Admittedly, after fifteen years of picking up questionable underwear off the floor, nothing could rattle me. Nevertheless, here are five scary truths about the world of being a mother who writes.

1. Deadlines: Think of it as the homework that never ends. While working on deadline, the house goes, your love life is kaput, and your kids start calling your neighbor “Mom.” He hates that. Take a deep breath, Febreeze the laundry room, and tackle what needs to be done first to get you to stop muttering under your breath. You get a break, and your dog will finally stop peeing in the corner.

2. Coming up with new and fabulous ideas: You’ve heard about keeping an idea file either in notebooks or a board on Pinterest, but you’re not quite sure if that’s for you. Try using the voice recorder on your smartphone, favorite something you see on social media to follow up on later, or take a good long walk to clear your mind. Inspiration can be fickle, so when it strikes, be ready with your method of choice and get crack-a-lackin’. Need more ideas? Go outside and talk to someone. It’ll improve your social life and you won’t be known as that weird mom who hides in her office anymore. Ready for something new? If fiction isn’t your bag, try nonfiction. Share your interests with a wide audience, and I promise you’ll love it.

3. What if nobody likes it other than my mom? Big deal. Move onto the next fear.

4. What if everybody loves it and I’m on the hook for more books? Congratulations! Though now the real work begins. Being a debut author is awesome: You haven’t effed up yet enough to make people doubt your sanity and drinking habits. However, after the shininess rubs off the first book or article, it’s back to you fighting off kids in your cone of silence and not shaving your legs for a few months. I’ve found my most creative time is when I’m a week away from submitting a book. Suddenly the sky opens up and I have a bounty of plum ideas begging for attention – but I’m still a week away from putting the book baby to bed. Take the seed of those ideas and plant them. Write a synopsis, write a first few paragraphs, make a mind-map, outline the story, email yourself photos of characters you’ve found online. Just get.it.down. When your agent comes a’knockin’, you can tell her you’ve already got a few peas in the pot.

5. Just hit send: The most exhilarating – and terrifying – moment comes right before you hit the send button. You’ve edited the heck out of the piece, gotten friends to check it for stray words and plot holes, and are sure that this time you’ll reach super star status – or at least overcome the embarrassment of sending an editor the racy photos you were saving for sexting your partner. It happens.

Scary? Yes. But you’ve got this. Now go wipe the peanut butter off your ass and head to that softball game with pride.

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About the author: Stacey Graham is a freelance editor and the author of Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Sculls, and Other Creepy Collectibles (Llewellyn); The Girls’ Ghost Hunting Guide (Sourcebooks Jabberywocky); the Zombie Tarot(Quirk); and The Boxcar Children’s Guide to Adventure: A How-To for Mystery Solving, Make-It-Yourself Projects, and More (Albert Whitman, and Co); as well as a handful of short stories. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband and five daughters. You can visit her website, or chat with her on Twitter, and on Facebook. OR come get a book signed at 7 pm October 30 at One More Page Books in Arlington

Blog 101: Know Your Audience

Who’s gonna listen to you?

 

When I started Julie and Martin in July 2001, I had a great advantage.

I knew my primary* audience. In fact, I knew them really, really well.

Since I created my web site specifically for my friends and family in the United States, I knew more about them than any marketing specialist at the NSA could possibly know about them. (Ha. Ha.) I knew ages and interests, how often they turned on their computers and logged onto the Internet, their web savvy, and how they preferred to receive updates.

And I knew they all shared a common interest: me and my upcoming wedding in Germany. I knew they were excited about it and wanted to be involved in some way.

This influenced a lot of decisions I made about my site and the content I posted on there. I made sure that it was easy and obvious how to sign up for email, and the content was predominantly wedding-related. My updates weren’t very consistent, and they were pretty short and relevant to the wedding, and Martin and me taking the initial steps of building a life together.

As you may already know, that very specific purpose lasted just a few weeks.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed everything.

My audience changed. They became worried friends and family, concerned for what all these world changes meant for me and Martin. For many, we were the only people they knew personally in the military at that time. Knowing this influenced the type of content I shared, and the tone I struck in my journal updates about our lives in Germany at that time.

Eventually, my posts returned to focus on the wedding, which happened that following April. Originally, I intended for the site to wrap up after the wedding, but by the time it came and went, I found I enjoyed sharing my life with my family and friends on the site. And the feedback I got proved that my friends and family were invested, too.

They wanted to continue hearing from me.

While my blog audience has grown beyond that initial cluster of friends and family over the years (which I’ll discuss in a later post), knowing the primary audience of my website allowed me to package and deliver the type of content they wanted to find on my site right from the very beginning. And being consistent with that content and style has attracted the type of audience I want for our blog: people who can relate to what we’re all about wearing the many hats that we do.

That’s a benefit of knowing one’s primary audience.

Whether you intend to write a personal blog or a professional or business blog, everything you write and post online will have an audience. Whether it’s the public or just a few trusted friends who need a password to get to your content,  someone will be reading your blog.

Who is that person, or who do you want that person to be? A friend or relative? A future employer? A potential customer? Someone who is just like you?

Other things to ask yourself as you think about your audience:

  • What do you know about the people reading your blog?
  • What are their interests?
  • What do you know about their online habits?
  • Why are you writing to them? To entertain? Educate? Inform?
  • What do you want your audience to know or do with your content?
  • What do they already know about you and/or the topics you are writing about?
  • What is their likely attitude about the topics you’ll be writing about?

These questions don’t need to be answered before you begin your blog, but it’s good to think about them as you prepare and create content.

For example, if you intend your blog to be a place to discuss local education issues in your community with other parents and educators in your local area, you probably won’t be posting Instagram photos of your kitchen experiments and weekend travel dates in that space, too. Not that there can’t be the occasional overlap, but you get my drift.

Also, be aware that there is always a shadow audience.

A shadow audience can be both good and bad. These are the readers who may come across your content even if they’re not a part of your primary audience.

For example, when I was a writer for the Air Force, working on a military newspaper, I knew my primary audience was made up of Airmen and their immediate families in that local area. But I also knew that the content I was creating could be shared and sent to other websites, other magazines, and into the hands of proud parents or grandparents not familiar with the Air Force and mission. This kept me mindful of military jargon and references, so I could explain things in a way that made sense to anyone reading that particular article, whether they were in the Air Force or not.

A shadow audience deserves just as much consideration as your primary audience because this audience could really make an impact on your blog.

Advertisers, future employers, the media, people you didn’t think would be interested in what you have to say … they may all come across your blog and be pulled into it and become a part of your primary audience. Good opportunities may result.

But along the same line, future employers, the media, people you didn’t think would be interested in what you have to say may suddenly take interest, and it may not be a positive thing. A photo or a post may be taken out of context, and spiral out into a big, unforeseen mess you didn’t intend.

I’ve managed to avoid this for 13 years by living one golden rule: don’t post something that would horrify your grandmother … and if you do, own it. And if you’re not prepared to own it and answer to it, then don’t post it.

Your audience will understand.

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To find previous posts, visit the Blog 101 page HERE.

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* This is also called a “target” audience, but in this context, it feels silly to me to refer to my friends and family as targets for some type of marketing message or product. Now, if we were talking laser tag …

The One About the Writing Class

Photo by Elizabeth Soutter Schwarzer

My video chat with Elizabeth Soutter Schwarzer‘s writing scholars at Harvard on Wednesday night went very well … right up until Skype blitzed out.

But no worries.

She just invited me back this evening so I could continue the conversation about writing and blogging, sharing my experiences relating to creating an online presence, how to write to be found using SEO, and how this simple family blog has paved the way for a lot of things for our family.

That’s Elizabeth in the middle, amused, during the BlogHer ’11 conference.

 

I first met Elizabeth when we co-hosted a writing class at the BlogHer ’11 conference in San Diego.

I was super pregnant (Jaz was born two weeks later), a newcomer to that particular blogging community, and trying not to breathe too loud in the microphone.

She was witty, radiant, and a published author/popular mom blogger and former NASA intern/Congressional press secretary who also taught writing classes at Harvard.

NASA and Harvard, you guys.

I was waiting for the blogging authorities to come in and point out that I had no business sitting next to her, but that didn’t happen, and we clicked immediately.

We stayed in touch, and last year, she asked if I could speak to her class about my blogging experiences. That experience went very well, her students were great, and I was asked to do it again this week.

So, I did.

Because I was doing this remotely from the corner of my living room, Martin helped me set up a “safe zone” in front of our bookshelves so I would look smart. Then, just before I went live, he rounded up all the kids and barricaded himself with them in our basement to watch a movie.

Our aim was to create a webcam frame that projected a quiet, sterile, professional environment here in our home.

Meanwhile, during the class, Elizabeth sent me photos of how I looked from her classroom, to include a photo of my cats waltzing in and out of the living room behind me.

At least it wasn’t a streaking child, am I right?

All in all, I think it went well. Ashley sat next to me during this evening’s class, just to listen and see what it was like, and gave me a thumbs up at the end, assuring me that it went well.

I’m always my worst critic, though, and I always think of a dozen things AFTER that probably would have been more beneficial to them. But hopefully, I was able to offer some helpful information to her students, and shed some light on life as a blogger/writer, and give hope that if they are really serious and committed to writing, the opportunities *will* come to them.

I’m proof of that.

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And remember: you don’t have to be a student to get my blogging advice. You can always check in HERE every Wednesday to learn something.

Where’s Martin?

Oh, look. I wrote a novel in November.

Honestly, I didn’t think I could do it, but being trapped in a vehicle for more than 10 hours on Thursday was very effective in boosting my number count.

The story itself is still not finished, but I’ll keep at it. Martin will be super annoyed if I don’t after he had to do all this research and character discussion, and read incomplete scenes and chapters this whole month.

Wait. Where’s Martin?

So I jump out of bed to share with Martin the good news about NaNoWriMo, and I run thru the house, calling for him, but there’s no answer.

Then, I look out the back door…

Metal detecting.

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I always get a kick out of people’s reactions when my mother and I are together. We do look a lot alike, don’t we? She and her partner Trev traveled from Oklahoma to be with the family for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house in northern Kentucky. It’s the first time in about 14 years we’ve all been together for Thanksgiving.

My sister’s house is already decorated for Christmas.

My niece does this whenever she’s unhappy about her environment. In this case, she was reacting to a kitchen full of relatives who were very excited to see her.

My plate of food this year: turkey, mac and cheese (twice!), potatoes, stuffing, veggies … WAY too much. But I filled my plate twice. Sooooo good.

My dad took this photo during our traditional game of Pictionary. We play this every time we get together. I love my family!

Writing Update

It’s already the middle of November. 

I’ve written more than 12,000 words for this novel as part of the National Novel Writing Month, and it’s all been accomplished on random days between the hours of 10 pm and about 2 am, because that’s the only time I have to do it, the only time it’s ever quiet and I can get into that head space required to write something that’s out of my writing norm.

I don’t write every day, either, although I know that’s the gist of it.

It’s a lot harder than I thought to carve out time for this. I know this is just me being hypersensitive to it now, but it really does seem like the more I need chunks of time for myself, the more my husband and children demand of it.

It’s like how I can go for almost a whole day without being actively approached, but the second I decide to take a shower, or even close the bathroom door, or want to talk on the phone, that’s when I become the most popular person ever.

I know you other moms know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m beginning to have doubt that I’ll get this done by the time the month is over.

However,  I’ve got a cute husband and even cuter children who need me and take up my time, in addition to more than 12,000 words of a novel that didn’t exist 12 days ago.

Pretty good, if you ask me.  🙂

 

Good Life: Tell Stories

Be brave and tell stories. Photo taken by Miss C from December 2009.

I am writing a novel.

I’m blaming Stacey for it, too. Stacey and her fun little Facebook post about supernatural villains.

She wanted to know what sort of scary things (zombies? vampires? werewolves?) work with Revolutionary War shenanigans alongside the Headless Horseman.

Being the good friend I am, and because I had nothing better to do since it was during the furlough and everything, I responded with some suggestions based on German folklore. Because, you know, I know a few things about scary German folklore, and I made a silly suggestion on a possible plot.

And wouldn’t you know it?

Some of her other friends responded to my post.

They loved the idea.

And then suddenly, I don’t remember exactly, but there was an exchange of information between Stacey and me and some of her writer friends.

And then it happened.

I signed up to write a novel.

Maybe you’ve heard of National Novel Writing Month? For the past few years, I’ve seen references to it over the Internets, but it never dawned on me to participate. The requirement is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

That’s a pretty crazy endeavor! Who has time for that?

But I signed up anyway.

One of the suggestions on my Good Life canvas is to “tell stories.”

Of course, I throw my full weight behind this suggestion. I’ve always been the animated, expressive type who can’t simply relay information: one must experience the information I put out there. I was born to be a communicator.

Hence: this blog.

Hence: my line of work.

But to commit to writing a novel?

It’s sort of terrifying.

It’s been a long time since I wrote fiction, almost 15 years.

Back in high school, I was sort of a writing wizard. I loved my writing classes. Journalism. Creative writing. Advanced English. Literature. It didn’t matter the assignment: haiku, persuasive essay, news release, short story, etc. I could write the shit out of it, and my teachers noticed. I was put in for, and earned, several awards for my pieces, and got published all the time in the local newspapers, magazines, and in journals, and teen collaboration pieces.

They’re all downstairs in the basement in a box. At one point, Martin got impatient with me and went about sorting and organizing them. After disappearing for a few hours, he brought one of the short stories up to me, something I had typed up on my Mom’s electric typewriter (yes!) and said, “You wrote that when you were in middle school? How were you able to write like that at that age?”

Storytelling in the form of fiction writing came easy for me back then.

I hope it comes easy to me again this next month.

For the past decade plus, I’ve grown accustomed to writing this blog, to coming up with ideas on the fly, and working them out as I go. When I’m on top of my game, I use an editorial calendar, but that’s about it.

For NaNoWriMo, I’ve actually taken what was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion about a topic I sort of know about based in a time period I’m vaguely familiar with … and I’ve made a plot line with characters and conflict and drama and mystery … all based on legitimate folklore and historical events we’ve looped together during an insane amount of research done in the weeks since Stacey convinced me to do this.

No headless horseman. But there will be a sexy German something … who may kill you, or at least haunt your dreams.

I say “we” because both Martin and I have been flipping through web sites, print-outs, books, and other sources, and taking lots and lots of notes. (That research part, by the way, is another reason for the long pauses on the blog lately.)

Writing begins November 1. The idea is that one will write at least 1,667 words a day. A pretty crazy endeavor, especially since I’ll be doing my writing in the evenings, super early mornings, and on the weekends. Fortunately, Martin is so passionate about the plot and characters at this point (maybe a little more than I am?), he’s agreed to blog more often in November (yea!) and put in some extra Daddy overtime so I can focus (double yea!).

And best of all, whenever I feel those moments of doubt, and say to myself, Is this the most ridiculous thing people are ever going to read?, Martin will be right there to say, “Julie, the world went crazy for glittery vampires. I think you’ll be okay.”

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So, who is with me?

Are you going to write a novel, too?

If you sign up, let me know your NaNoWriMo name, and we’ll buddy up!

No Worries

Well, that was fun.

Of course, when I say that, I mean the furlough.

And of course, I’m being sarcastic.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the furlough is over. And for me, it was awful. It was not a vacation, though a few folks kept pointing out that “at least you’ll get paid later! It’s like a paid vacation!” But it was the farthest thing from a vacation for me.

Here’s the truth: I did not trust Congress to agree on retroactive pay for federal workers.

Even though they said it would happen, I did not believe it. Which is unusual, because I’m normally a pretty optimistic person who believes things usually work out for the best, who can usually see the silver lining in just about anything.

But I still applied for unemployment.

As the sole breadwinner with no other income coming in? That weighed on me so hard.

And I did not trust that Congress would reach a decision on the debt ceiling, and I sincerely anticipated a very bad financial situation for everyone. Not just federal workers and those directly affected by closed government programs and parks … I mean everyone.

And then to see all the hatred and negativity on the Internets and in the headlines … I’m sure you saw it, too. I don’t need to re-hash it. I did my best to avoid it. It was just ugly. And demoralizing.

And for what?

On top of that, during those weeks, Martin had surgery on his hand. He’s now in a full arm cast as it heals. I tried my best to be a good nurse to him, but I realized fairly quickly that I don’t have enough patience to be a very good nurse to a grown man who refuses to take his pain meds, but insists on letting everyone know (many times) how bad the pain is making him feel.

Still love him, though. A lot. 🙂

And I got bit on my toe by a mystery bug (most likely a spider), and my entire foot swelled up and now I’m on antibiotics as it heals. For awhile there, I had only one good foot and Martin had only one good hand, and the kids were running the place.

Upon my return to work on Wednesday, there was a meeting where we were asked to go around the room and mention something positive we did during the furlough. I couldn’t bring myself to be Pollyanna. I mentioned the German-American celebration, but I also mentioned Martin having surgery and me being bit, and how everything we did had a cloud of dread hanging over it.

I had to be honest. Those three weeks (to include the week leading up to it as I worried about it) sucked. It was hard to feel upbeat about anything. We barely left the house. I barely changed out of sweatpants.

I barely blogged. (You know that’s bad!)

But looking back, I really could have mentioned in that meeting that Martin and I have great friends and neighbors.

Not only did they come for our German-American day, but when Martin had his surgery and my foot went crazy, they brought us food and hung out with us and kept my spirits up.

And wrote me emails like, “Your silence on the blog has me worried. Are you good?”

I love my posse. And I’m grateful for them.

Very grateful.

These days? Now I’m back to work.

My foot is almost completely healed … just a few more days on the antibiotics … and I’m walking with no issues again. Martin has a follow-up appointment and he’ll soon get out of that cast.

We celebrated Martin’s birthday with pizza, we went out to Mount Vernon over the weekend, and I feel like we’re falling into a good routine again.

Even better, I feel like blogging again.

So, no worries.

We’re here. And we’re good. 🙂

 

It Says “Be Creative” and “Tell Stories”

You’ve seen this before, back when I first hung photos up here.

Like most things, it started with a question.

It was Miss C who asked it. She was standing in our hallway, reading the wall art I hung on the top of our stairwell. It’s a popular Louise Carey piece on canvas, white typography on black, featuring a long list of recommendations of what it takes to live a good life. I’d seen the piece online via social media, and was pretty stoked to find the artwork for sale in a local home goods store.

I usually don’t like text on my walls, but I’ll make an exception for a good canvas.

The location is a bit strategic on my part: it now hangs in a place that everyone must walk past every day before descending past photos and portraits representing more than a few of the sentiments expressed in the art.

It’s meant to be food for thought.

And maybe inspiration.

My daughter was a little incredulous, though.

 

“Are you suppose to do all those things in a day?” she asked me.

I laughed and explained that would be one incredibly busy day.

And then I started thinking.

What if we did set out to do all those things? Not in a day, of course. But wouldn’t it be fun if we actually made a deliberate attempt to DO all the things listed here? If we — as a family — made a concentrated effort to accomplish these recommendations one-by-one?

To turn sentiments on a mass-produced piece of artwork into something tangible?

And blog about it?

And as my brain wheels were turning, I was reminded of all the posts we received during our Guest Blogger Series, and how a lot of those related very well to this sort of thing, with the stories about setting goals, and moving through life with purpose and kindness.

Why not do that again?

That’s how the idea was created, and when I explained it to Miss C, she agreed it was pretty awesome.

So here is the deal:

As a family, we’re going to set out and DO something tangible for every one of the recommendations put on that piece of artwork. There are 34 of them, but some of them are repetitive, such as “be grateful” and “be thankful.” Some of them work better partnered up with others. Some of them may be a little tricky to apply as a tangible experience, but we’re going to try, and that’s going to be the fun part.

We’re going to shoot for at least one post about this every week.

As for the Guest Blogger Series, we’re inviting our readers to submit their own stories relating to the sentiments expressed on this artwork, too.

We want to hear stories about how you fell in love … how you dreamed big … how you never gave up … how you embrace change or pursue your passion.

You get the picture.

Or rather … the wall art.

Submissions don’t have to be long essays, either. We’re game for photos, poems, and video, too. Let me know if you would like to participate in this with us by sending me a note using the CONTACT US link, and I’ll send more information on how to submit.

Oh, and did you notice another one of those sentiments?

Seize opportunities when they reveal themselves.

We look forward to hearing from you!

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19July2013_-1

Friday commute home on the Metro, listening to my Led Zeppelin playlist and looking forward to a sizzling hot and busy weekend with the family.

Life is good.

Look What I Got! Want One, Too?

Our postwoman brought me a package today.
Inside were the Bumptabulous: 20 Moms Expose Pregnancy books I’ve ordered for my family. I also ordered two copies to give away free to two lucky blog readers.
This will be the first time ever … and probably the only time ever (unless I happen to contribute to, or write, another book) … that I do this on my blog.
Because it’s the holidays.
Because it’s what the cool cats do.
Because I have these books and I think you’d like to have one, too.

So, on the advice of other bloggers, I’m using a raffle widget to get this thing going, which you will find below.

It should be pretty self-exclamatory.

If you want to participate in the raffle, all you have to do is sign up with an email or your Facebook account, and then do the following:

1) You can like our Facebook page. Or, if you are already a fan, just let us know by clicking the ENTER button. This will be entered as 1 point/chance.

2) You can leave a comment in my comments section describing your favorite Julie and Martin blog post from this past year … or whenever. As this year comes to an end, Martin and I will be writing a year-end wrap-up, but we want to hear from our readers, too! Between our trip to NYC to Martin blogging for an entire month in the summer to his enlisting to our recent trip to Cincinnati … we’ve done and written a lot! So you can tell us your favorite 2012 entry … or whenever. 🙂 And then, after you comment, just click the ENTER button in the widget when you are done. This will be entered as 2 points/chances.

You can do both options, and be entered for a total of 3 points, or chances, to win.

If all works as intended, when this raffle ends next week, the widget will randomly pick two winners for me. Of course, I will be moderating to make sure no spam-bots or anything have taken over the widget. You have to be a real person and all.

I will use your email address to contact you for shipping information. And then the book will be on your way.

Signed by me, of course.

Because it’s the holidays, and that’s what the cool cats do.

a Rafflecopter giveaway