The Tax Man Cometh, Writer’s Edition

ImageAs we scratch our heads to recall the difference between a 1098 and a 1099, the writing life adds a whole other layer of complexity to filing our taxes. We’ve slaved away, dreaming of the day we’d see our darling stories in print. And then the day comes. And with it, comes the taxes.

As a disclaimer, I’m a writer by trade—whether writing feature articles or romance novels. This article is intended to be food for thought. Definitely, definitely consult a tax professional before you take any steps tax-wise. I spoke with my tax-preparer about preparing for the days when I’m actually earning an income as a writer, and I thought I’d share some of what I learned with my fellow writers.

A few tax caveats for writers:

1.)    Quarterly taxes. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, most writers are self-employed. And as if filing annually wasn’t stressful enough, you may be required to file quarterly. If you don’t, you could be stuck with penalties when you finally do file. According to the IRS, “As a self-employed individual, generally you are required to file an annual return and pay estimated tax quarterly.” Visit the IRS’s website for the self-employed to see where you fall and read the guidelines.

2.)    Hobby vs. business. The IRS is skeptical about people trying to pass off a hobby as a business. One of the criteria is that you must earn a profit three out of five years. So if you write off expenses for your writing career before you actually have an income stream, in a few years, your writing career could be relegated to the hobby category—at least, for tax purposes. To determine if your writing career currently qualifies as a business, click here.

3.)    Business expenses. Being a writer is an expensive business. Paying for trade publications, professional membership dues, conference registration and travel expenses, advertising expenses, or website design and maintenance could all legitimately be written off as business expenses, but in the event of an audit, be prepared to prove how it benefited your business. Keep careful track of your expenses in case you’re audited, and make sure to note how a given expense directly benefited your career. It’s a really complex process, so consulting a tax professional could definitely be to your advantage.

4.)    The home office pitfall. Most writers work from home, so it’s tempting to write off the expenses associated with a home office. But if your office isn’t used exclusively as an office for your writing, you might want to steer clear. Rooms that double as a guest room, living room, or dining space don’t count, in the eyes of the IRS.

I’m not yet ready to declare my writing a business for tax purposes, but I’d like to be prepared when I get there. For those of you who are published, what tips do you have for managing your taxes as a writer?

Stranger than Fiction: Imbolc and lessons from winter

Today the Wiccan community celebrates Imbolc. Though we’re still in the midst of winter, with the potential for Nor’easters and cold days ahead, and though Punxsutawney Phil hasn’t emerged to peek at his shadow yet, we can still catch a glimpse of spring.

The cold days teach us to be grateful for the warm ones. The long nights teach us to be grateful for the sunrise. The days are steadily getting longer, preparing us once more for the equinox, with its equal day and equal night.

I’ve had one of those stranger-than-fiction weeks, a series of strange occurrences that I never could’ve imagined. As a journalist, I also call these moments “man bites dog.” (Because, when a dog bites a man, that is not news. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.)

Failure can be the foundation for success, and pain, the foundation for growth. In fact, as most of us know, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. As Jane Hirschfield writes in her poem “Waking the Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep”:

“But with the sentence: ‘Use your failures for paper.’ Meaning, I understood, the backs of failed poems, but also my life.”

Sometimes the winter seems too cold to bear. One lesson I’ve learned from the past week is that, as we walk through our days, we are often blind to how much pain the people around us are holding in. No one can carry that pain for them. No one can bear the winter’s cold but the person outside in the snow. But the flowers emerge following the spring’s thaw. Hirschfield goes on to say:

“I do not know where the words come from, what the millstones, where the turning may lead. I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples, putting pages of ruined paper into a basket, pulling them out again.”

If we didn’t know winter, would we celebrate the spring? The best we can do with our failures is to learn from them, to build a better version of ourselves, to work toward recognizing that, despite pain, loss, and mistakes, we are still whole. I don’t believe we need to become whole. I think we need to realize we already are. The best we can do with the bad weather is to understand its place in the cycle of things and to smile when the sun rises. May your Imbolc hint of spring days to come, a reminder of light, healing, and the cycle of the seasons.

Life is a crazy journey. And you can quote me on that.

The perfect brand is like the perfect pair of jeans.

Last night I came across a wonderful blog post about brand. Can you, the author challenged, sum up your brand in one word? (Check it out here.)

Can we? When I come across people who are skeptical about brand, I tell them that brand isn’t the entire you; it’s a gateway to you and your work. And I don’t care if you say you loathe brand, if you refuse to fit the mold or narrow yourself into a brand. You still have one. You might as well own it.

Brand for authors can be a difficult notion because we’re creative-types, artists, and, often, nonconformists. At one point, I might have been skeptical, too, except that my path as a writer led me to a gig in public relations. Through that job, I met a wonderful group of people—fiercely creative folks who are passionate about their roles in the promotion of our university—and that part-time gig was my gateway drug to brand.

The thing about brands is that they are alive, shifting, and dynamic. Authentic brands feel alive; they writhe with passion and buzz with electricity. Just like us. At our university, we really do live our brand. And no one has to tell anyone to do it. Our brand is not a contrivance, an artifice, or a sales gimmick. It emerges naturally throughout the course of the day, because as a community, it’s who we are.

Like a pair of jeans, your brand should fit like a glove and feel perfectly comfortable.

I insist that a good brand is one that fits like the perfect pair of jeans: snug and comfy. But it’s not so much that we feel comfortable. It’s that we feel confident. We find our stride because it’s just the right fit. Trying to find that “one word” is a great exercise in identifying our brands.

Since we’re writers, I’m going to pull from Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for an example. Kundera postulates that it’s the things that give our lives weight that make them meaningful. If we strip away those things, life becomes, he suggests, unbearably light. Each of our lives, as individuals and writers, has moments to which we attribute a great deal of meaning: the moment we knew we loved writing, the moment we knew we had to be a writer and damn anyone or anything that stood in our way, the moment we finished our first story. And often times, a theme runs through the milestones of our lives, our stories, and our writing journeys. The moments of our lives shape who we are, personally and creatively.

My word? Soulful. I want to write books with heart, with power, with soul. I believe life and art are a search for meaning. Sometimes I get pissed off at anything that stands in the way of my search for meaning and art. Life means something; art is the search for meaning. And I’m someone with a lot of faith, even if I don’t always know in what.

My blog in many ways is still searching for its shape, its meaning. I hope it helps people, and I’m still finding a way for it to do that. And brand is a part of all that, a taste of who we are, a way to help others understand what we’re all about. Yes, we’re complicated. Much as I enjoy the search for meaning in life, I also enjoy snarky comments, geeky jokes, and the hunt for the perfect pair of shoes. But yes, soulful. The word fits. Life can be hard, lonely, scary, and unfair. It can also be funny, crazy, wonderful, and amazing. I’m all about the journey.

Now, I want to know your word. What word fits you like a comfy pair of jeans? If you were to sum up your brand in one word, what would it be, and why?

A note about an upcoming conference:

In May, I’ll be presenting a workshop called “Your Passion is Your Brand” at the first annual For the Love of Writing Conference, hosted by the Virginia Romance Writers, a wonderful group of fellow writers—some established and bestselling, others, like me, new to the biz—who have helped me find direction in the industry. It’s shaping up to be a great conference, so if you’re a romance writer, I hope you’ll attend. I’m also excited to share my insights into brand, to help fellow authors feel their way out. For many of us, brand is this new, scary thing. For some writers, it feels contrived. My workshop breaks the idea of brand into steps, helping authors create a personalized brand built on their strengths—one that feels comfortable and authentic. If you’re interested in gathering with a great, enthusiastic, and welcoming group of writers for a writing conference at the beach, here’s the link.

Wednesday ROW80 check-in

A short post today. I’ve written 1,302 words so far this week. I’m not blogging in-depth tonight because I’m recovering from a migraine. Hopefully I’ll have a more fun and exciting post for everyone on Friday!

How are your writing goals coming along this week?

And, so I don’t leave anyone empty-handed, a quote:

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” –Richard Wright

Out of the Story’s Nebula: Structure in the Second Draft

Every manuscript is its own creature. Some stories are upfront, divulging so much information your fingers can’t type fast enough.

The first draft of Pierce My Heart, a meager 15K, was meant to be a concise introduction to the fae and their world. But my crit group pointed out that I could do one of two things: Scale back the conflict and keep it short, or dig into a more complex plot and expand.

I chose to expand. Pierce My Heart weaves together a dark, gritty who-done-it and a love story. Lithe and Garien’s potential romance is fraught with conflicts, namely, Lithe’s status as an outsider. Lithe’s chief conflict is a struggle within herself to face and accept who she is. The murder that she and Garien must solve serves as an external reminder of that conflict and why she can’t give herself to Garien.

When I sat down to write draft two, something strange happened with this story.

It sort of, well, opened up, and blew apart. It went from a tight little story to this nebulous creature I can’t pin down.

And strangest of all, I can’t shake the feeling that my characters—or the story itself—are hiding something from me.

There are several things of which I am sure:

1. This is a good story with plenty of potential. The pieces are there, even if I can’t figure out how they fit together.

2. The issue is one of form and structure.

3. I am overlooking something, and it will drive me crazy until I figure out what.

4. I am capable of figuring out what that something is.

So, fellow writers, have you been there? What do you do when a story enters the nebula, when you feel like you’re missing something but you don’t know what? How do you help the manuscript find or retake its shape?

A few days ago, I mentioned on Twitter that my “creative mojo” appeared to be missing. Debra Krager (@debrakristi) sagely advised: “You need a mojo lifter? Maybe a weekend off. Do something different and fun to find it.” She also blogged about this very subject here. (Timing really is everything.)

Somehow I have to work this weekend (day-job stuff). I’m not thrilled, but deadlines are deadlines, and no one’s going to hold the presses so I can have some fun.

But heck, maybe I’ll squeeze it in anyway. Perhaps a dose of silly creativity will give me the jolt I need to put the pieces together.

Wednesday ROW80 Update and Some Blog Fun

Last week I was very honored when  Alicia Street gave me the “Versatile Blogger Award.” Thanks, Alicia!

The award has several stipulations. One: I have to tell you seven random facts about myself (see below). Two: I have to post the lovely logo on my site, which isn’t a problem because I love pretty, shiny things. And three: I get to pass it on to other bloggers.

I am pleased to bestow the Versatile Blogger Award upon these people. Perhaps some of you have already received it, but I wanted to name you anyway:

David N. Walker

Kendall Grey

Coleen Patrick

And now, as per the rules, here are seven random fun facts about me:

1.)    My husband and I were together for 10 years before we tied the knot. (Hey, fools rush in.)

2.)    My favorite book is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Hilarious. Delightful. Perfect.

3.)    The only thing that bugs me more than people who don’t use their turn signals (I’m not a mind-reader!) is people who wear pajamas in public. If you’re well enough to go to the grocery store, you’re well enough to wear actual pants.

4.)    I hate peaches. Don’t know why. Just do.

5.)    I love roses, especially coral roses.

6.)    I am NOT a morning person.

7.)    I am not weird. I am delightfully quirky. 🙂

My ROW80 check-in:

  • Monday I wrote 958 words. Today I wrote 615, bringing the total to 1,573. I tried the old trick of opening a blank Word doc and seeing where the muses take me. It worked out nicely tonight.
  • Working on my goal of blogging Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

Sunday #ROW80 Update:

A quick post tonight on my ROW80 goals. Here we go:

1.) I wrote 1,600 words in “Pierce My Heart.” Still shy of 3,000, but getting there. I also did some background writing and attempted to do some plotting. This story is still squirming around. It’s too complex to be a short story but doesn’t have the multiple plot threads of a novel. It should land square in novella territory, but since I don’t have a final word-count goal in mind, I’m having trouble pinning this one down at the moment.

2.) I blogged Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, so I hit goal No. 2.

On the day-job front, I finished an economic-development article, so there’s one deadline wrapped up. I’ve determined that deadlines are like gray hairs. When one’s out of the way, scads more seem to pop up to take its place. But hopefully the day-job craziness slows down a little bit and leaves some additional room for fun and creativity. Lucky for me, tomorrow is a holiday, so I’ll have a full day set aside for writing (and laundry). 🙂

Finally, I’m delighted that one of my fellow Team WANA1011 members (*cough* Alicia) has honored me with a blogging award. Join me later this week for more information–and as I pay the blog-love forward.

Have a great week! I hope 2012 is treating everyone well and the writing, reading, blogging, and life in general is going smoothly.

How to Evoke the 5 Senses and Create a Meditation Space

Meditation can take our lives from drowning in deadlines to sailing on a sea of tranquility. Carving out a special space for the practice, which can take the shape of anything from a simple yoga sequence to guided imagery to reflection on a religious passage, means we’re more likely to take a few minutes each day to ground ourselves and reflect. The practice allows us to cultivate relaxation, gratitude, and awareness.

I take my own life as the perfect example: I’ve spent this week on a tight deadline for an article for work. I know as soon as I finish this story, several more will emerge from the sidelines to take its place. Between dog-walking, doctor’s appointments, paying the cell phone bill, and cooking dinner, how do we find time to focus on nurturing our deeper selves? Between jobs and hobbies, friends and family members, eating and exercising, how do we make a space to reflect?

The first step can be a small one. We simply make a place for that reflection. What better way to ensure we meditate than to create a space in our home–whether it’s a small corner or an entire room–especially for this practice? Here’s a guide to creating a meditation space, one sense at a time.

Floor pillows, available at www.westelm.com.

Floor pillows, available at http://www.westelm.com.

1.)  Touch: For meditation, comfort is key. Few of us can meditate while seated in an uncomfortable high-backed dining chair. Meditation requires a mix of focus and relaxation. Touch means comfortable surroundings. A floor cushion, folded blanket, or yoga mat provides the necessary foundation for good practice. Add comfy clothes (my go-to is yoga pants and a tank top) and just say “om.”

2.)  Smell: Scent is powerful. It can ignite the first spark of attraction or trigger a memory. Lightly scented candles can set the scene for a meditation, though overwhelming smells or chemical fragrances can trigger migraines or asthma attacks for some. If the smoke of incense isn’t your thing, consider a much more subtle alternative: an aroma diffuser, such as these, sold at Mountain Rose Herbs, which also offers an assortment of essential oils. Add a few drops of the essential oil of your choice–anything from eucalyptus to bergamot to lavender–and allow the scent to waft through the room. Electric diffusers that use a light bulb instead of a tea-light candle are also available from other retailers.

3.)  Sound: Few things are as personal as our taste in music or the sounds that produce a sense of relaxation. This can be a Tibetan singing bowl or a gong, so that you’re in charge of the sound; a podcast of nature sounds, anything from bird songs to ocean waves; the soft strains of Vivaldi; or complete and utter silence. Even if you’re in a space that’s normally full of the hustle and bustle of the household, try to make it as quiet and serene as possible. Not even the most disciplined of us can truly focus on a meditation exercise when surrounded by a cacophony of car horns and crying children. Having music or nature sounds also gives us something to focus on. That way, if our minds wander, we have something to draw us back into our practice.

4.)  Sight: Don’t forget to set the stage for tranquility. Anything from the art on the walls–whether you fancy the pastel hues of Claude Monet or the black-and-white nature photos of Ansel Adams–to the statues and knickknacks we surround ourselves with helps us relax into a receptive state of mind. A small, low table can become a makeshift altar when we add a few meaningful items. Houseplants or fresh-cut flowers, statues of deities, inspiring artwork, and relaxing colors can all play a role in finding our inner zen. If you can paint the walls, bright red probably isn’t the way to go. Cool tones like blues or greens, earth tones like adobe or khaki, or a middle-of-the-road hue like purple whisper (not shout) zen.

5.)  Taste: Taste doesn’t typically come into play when creating a space for tranquility. But consider brewing yourself a pot of green tea to have nearby. At the very least, pour yourself a glass of filtered tap water. (Bottled water consumes more natural resources than water straight from the tap.)

Whether you have an entire floor or a small nook, an hour each morning or a few minutes each evening, setting aside a time and a place for meditation can benefit body, mind, and soul. Creating a space for meditation practice encourages us to carve out that time in our busy lives. The practice can rejuvenate our creativity, alleviate stress and anxiety, and help us head off stress-sensitive conditions like high blood pressure, migraines, and depression. Create your space one breath, one object, and one sense at a time. Then relax and enjoy.

Unwritten Bios: How the Places We Live Shape Us

“These fields stretch out like patchwork on my granny’s quilt. She used to tell me, ‘Life is a series of strange and mysterious things.’” –Jewel, “1,000 Miles Away”

The view from Buffalo Mountain in Southwest Virginia

I’m from western Pennsylvania, a distant and strange land also known as Steelers Country. Two college degrees, countless travels, and a few moves later, those mountains still live inside me. I know people who are ashamed of where they come from. And I can’t be. I’m grateful. My ancestors—who came from Ireland and Germany to settle in Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century—made incredible sacrifices for me to have a shot at my dreams. I’ve always known how hard they worked and how much they gave, and I’ve always given life, love, and art all I’ve got.

My great-grandfather worked in the coal mines; most people in my hometown (which is named after the freakin’ coal company, no lie) can trace their roots to the coal companies in some way. It was a shit job, too. He once walked home on a broken ankle. Another time, his clothes burned off in a fire. He was a coal digger before he finally landed a “safe” job riding the back of the cart that went down into the mines to be loaded up with coal. He had to jump off the cart and flip a switch that determined which set of tracks the cart would go down. One day, not long after landing his “safe” job, he was killed when the cart jumped the tracks and pinned him. He was 40 years old. My grandmother told me, point blank, “He had a horrible, miserable life.” I wish he’d had better. If he sacrificed so his children and children’s children and on down the line could have better, I am eternally grateful for it. I try never to waste a day of it.

Now, I’m glad I don’t live in western PA anymore. There wasn’t anything left for me there. The job market had dried up, and my hometown didn’t have much to offer, not even a bookstore. But I still carry the stories of my ancestors with me. Because of their sacrifices, I’ve had amazing chances. I’ve earned two colleges degrees, taught at a major research university, and, best of all, had the chance to practice the craft of writing. I’m a storyteller, and that is an amazing gift, one for which I am eternally grateful.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly six years since I left my hometown. It feels like so much longer. Today, my life is full of a new place, the beautiful mountains of Virginia and the small town I currently call home. No matter where I go, this place will stay with me.

The places we live, even if we leave them, remain inside us. They get under our skin, shaping us in ways we can’t understand until we’re away. I learned about magic and possibilities in the mountains surrounding my family’s farm. I also saw firsthand how fragile the land is, how irreplaceably precious. I’ve seen slag heaps so high they look like mountains themselves and water permanently tainted sulfuric orange thanks to acid mine drainage. But there are many places where the land is not scarred, and unspeakable beauty dwells there: ferns and grapevines, maple and apple trees, and tiny creeks swollen with clear water in the spring.

Today, nature infuses my stories. I can’t help but let it. In so many ways, my stories are born in the natural world. A full moon, a constellation, morning mist at the brow of the mountain, a tree’s gnarled roots, or the ocean’s lullaby—these are the birthplaces of my stories.

What is your unwritten story? How have the places you’ve lived left their traces on your soul?

Creative Blocks and Feelin’ Rebellious

For a rebellious person, I am remarkably straight-laced. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t need drugs or alcohol to have a good time, and, as I already can’t run a mile without my lungs burning like Hades, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to make it worse by smoking cigarettes.

No, I’m not a party girl. I go to bed at 10 p.m., though if my insomnia kicks in, I’ll scribble on the yellow legal pad I keep next to my bed or read a book or magazine. I play by the rules, pay all the bills on time, stick to the speed limit, and park only in the designated areas. I am, for all intents and purposes, a good girl.

Yet I am fiercely creative, passionate about my beliefs, and, as an artist and an intellectual, willing to take risks in these arenas. When it comes to the laws of men, I am tame. When it comes to the vast, uncultivated territories of the heart and self, I am a wild pony. To be an artist, we have to be. An artist’s job, whether her medium is canvas, page, clay, or the stage, is to learn all the rules, see how elastic they are, how much they can be bent, and then to twist and weave those rules into all sorts of unusual shapes. In the wild world of creativity, I am a rebel.

the inner rebel

Lately, my inner rebel has reared her fiery head. Her hair changes every time I see her, from pink-streaked to fire-engine red to un-dyed and uncut, her clothes destroyed and paint splattered or sleek and sequined. Do you have a side of you that likes to rock out to Bon Jovi, driving through town blasting “Livin’ on a Prayer” with the windows rolled down?

Lately, my life has been wrapped up in deadlines and rules, and remarkably little writing has been getting done. My day jobs and chores have taken over. I’ve been feeling restless, yearning to uproot myself and do something spontaneous. Crazy for me isn’t what most people think of. I have no desire to go out and get wild and crazy in the typical sense. I can’t imagine why anyone would.

Crazy for me is a Wiccan ritual under a full moon, a desert yoga retreat in search of serenity, getting my hands dirty in the garden, opening a notebook or blank Word document and following the muses’ furious chatter. Crazy for me is creativity. Creativity is coming alive.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman

Our lives should be a balance of stillness and electricity, yin and yang, the usual and the unusual. When the balance gets thrown off, for me, that’s when the restless rebel rears her head. We all need to play and have fun. When I’m bored and fenced in, the inner artist wonders why I’ve only got two tattoos, why I haven’t lived in Paris, or why I’m ignoring all of the stories and poems that long to fight their way to the surface.

But I know enough now to recognize that I don’t need to hop in my little blue Yaris and drive to Arizona or yank out my passport and catch a plane to London. And I’ve always known that I don’t need parties full of people or glitter in the air. What I need is a blank page, an open mind, and a space for my restless imagination to run wild.

When I’m restless, it’s the wide open space of the page that I’m craving. That’s the artist in me. As long as my creative side has a space of her own, I’m on the right path. Even the quietest, the tamest among us has a rebellious side.

What about you? How do you rebel? What makes you come alive?