Jessie and the Dictator—Increasing Productivity with Dragon Dictation

About four months ago I finally bit the bullet and threw down the $150 for a copy of Dragon Dictation by Nuance.

It seemed like every writing podcast I listened to was extolling the virtues of using dictation software.

  • I was going to write 5,000 words an hour.
  • I was going to be 1000% more productive.
  • I would never have wrist pain again.
  • I was going to lose weight, and probably live longer.

It sounds like a lot to ask from a speech-to-text program, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably as skeptical as I was as I typed in my credit card information. Would using Dragon Dictation really cause a magical unicorn to appear in my office and put rainbows in my coffee every morning?

(No. The answer to that is no. Sorry.)

Well, I’ve been using Dragon fairly regularly since I bought it – both for my freelance writing and for fiction – and I have some thoughts to share.

First up, dictation is pretty rad. But it has its challenges.

All the things that people say about dictation are fairly true. It does make you more productive, and reduces the physical strain of typing. You can use it while you’re out on walks. I’ve dictated blog posts and scenes from my novel while cooking dinner.

There’s also quite a big learning curve, and sometimes Dragon becomes infested by gremlins that are incredibly frustrating.

(Gremlins, but no unicorns? Get your priorities straight, Nuance.)

Nonfiction vs. Fiction

Because I’m using dictation for both freelance copywriting and for fiction, I’m basically having two different experiences with it.

Nonfiction

When it comes to my freelance work, dictating is faster. I can definitely speak faster than I type and so long as the dictation software gets it right the first time, it saves me time. Because my freelance client work is mostly fairly analytical – I’m writing about things like adaptive learning software and sales CRM software – I’m finding it fairly easy just to gather my thoughts and say what I want to say.

My freelance clients are pretty specialized, so there’s always a bit of a learning curve for the Dragon dictation software to pick up new industry jargon and terms. I’ve found it’s pretty good, but when it comes to proper names – like my clients’ company names – I’ve had a hell of a time training it to type certain things. In that case, I just develop shorthand and then use the find and replace function during the editing process.

The other aspect that I’ve found dictation software to be helpful in is transcribing interviews. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe an interview and you’re not a pro at it, you know that it sucks. You spend a lot of time tabbing back and forth between your document and your audio file, rewinding, typing, rewinding, typing….

Previously, I had budgeted at least twice the amount of time as the interview itself in order to transcribe it. So that meant a 30 minute interview would take me an hour to transcribe.

Now, with the dictation software, I just put on my headphones, play the audio file, and speak along with the person that I’m interviewing. I still have to rewind from time to time, but it normally only takes me about five minutes longer then the interview itself. It’s become a huge timesaver.

Fiction

Using dictation with freelancing is been really great, but I’m not having is easy time using it for fiction. It slows me down in ways I, frankly, expected it to.

What I mean is this. Sometimes it seems like when I’m writing fiction, my best work pours straight out of my fingertips, bypassing my brain and thought process altogether. (You know what I mean, right?) When I’m dictating, I think a lot more about what I’m trying to say, and have a tough time getting into that creative fugue state.

In a recent podcast, Joanna Penn talks about her experience dictating the first draft of her latest novel. She’s just been getting started with Dragon, too, and I resonated with her observation that dictating produces a poorer quality first draft than she’s used to.

But I also think that learning to write fiction via dictation is just something that will take time. Some days it seems to work, and some days it doesn’t. I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop typing up first drafts, but I am committed to getting better at first drafting by dictation.

Why bother with dictation?

For me, dictation has two main benefits.

The first is that I can often the get first draft done faster then if I type it out – with my freelance work at least. I don’t have to wait for my typing skills to catch up with my thoughts – especially when I’m typing a lot of jargony technical words that I may end up getting my fingers twisted around. I haven’t found it to be a timesaver in my fiction yet, but in freelancing – and in blogging – it does save me time.

The second benefit is increased activity. I dictated the first draft of this blog post while out on a walk. I’d been staring at a computer all day long, and was starting to get what I call “screen sickness” – that slightly nauseous, glazed feeling when you’ve been staring at a screen too long.

In the middle of particularly busy days it can be really hard to get myself out and go for a walk. I’m already behind my schedule by an hour today, and I know I’m not going to check everything off the list – do I really have time to go wander around an hour?

(This is the subject for totally different blog post, but the answer is a resounding yes. If you want to live a healthy, happy life you don’t not have time to go for a walk.)

But, with dictation, I can take a walk without falling even farther behind. On a brisk stroll through my nearby neighborhood rose garden, I can get a fairly serviceable first draft blog post of 1500 words.

Yeah, I may sound a little odd as I’m walking by people speaking punctuation, but hey, it’s Portland. I could be on a unicycle playing bagpipes.

Here’s a devils advocate thought for a moment, though: sure, it’s good for my body to go walk around, but I’m really giving myself a break if I’m forcing my brain to continue composing first draft materials as I walk? Would I be better served by leaving my phone and headphones at home, and letting my mind wander aimlessly?

Maybe. But that’s a luxury for a week less busy.

It’s just not not just walks in the park speaking into a headset though. When I’m dictating straight into my computer, it gives me more freedom of motion, as well. If I set up my computer up on my standing desk (a.k.a. my dresser), and use a Bluetooth headset, then I’m not tethered in one spot through the tips of my fingers. Instead, I can paced back and forth, do squats, dance around, etc.

My dresser – my standing desk.
My super-sophisticated home office standing desk.

 

What equipment do you need?

Beyond the software, I haven’t bought any other fancy equipment – and my results have been pretty good. I’m considering purchasing a better headset that’s really designed for noise canceling, etc., because if I was able to improve the software’s accuracy even more, it would save me even more time. As it is, I think the software is about 90 to 95% accurate for me.

Right I’m using either those white Apple headphones that come with every Apple product, or one of those dorky Bluetooth headset by Jabra, which I bought for about $20. The plug-in headset seems to be a bit more accurate, and from my research it looks like you have to spend quite a bit on a Bluetooth headset for it to match the quality. I’ve tried just using my laptop’s internal speakers, as well, and I find that accuracy rates goes down.

Hey, wait. Doesn’t my Mac come with dictation software already?

Yeah, yeah it does. And although it’s fairly decent, it was frustrating enough to me that I decided to drop the money on Dragon Dictation.

And I’m happy I did.

The Mac’s native software doesn’t have as robust an ability to correct mistakes or navigate through your text. Also, it doesn’t learn in quite the same way that Dragon Dictation does. Dragon will take things that you commonly correct into account, and can be trained both by you speaking, and by feeding it chunks of text that you’ve written with all of your industry jargon, etc. in it.

Also, the ability to dictate things while I’m walking and have it translate audio file has been really helpful – that’s a feature Mac’s native dictation didn’t have.

Is dictation always super magical?

No. Sometimes Dragon makes me want to throw my laptop through the wall.

Sometimes I’ll say something totally innocuous, and because the software for some reason thought that I said “Capitalize Grand Canyon”, the cursor starts scrolling madly through my document trying to find the phrase Grand Canyon – which of course, is nowhere to be found.

I haven’t figured out a way to stop this in mid-run, which means that I just have to wait it out – extremely frustrating if I’m in the middle of Deep Important Thoughts and the document is large. With Scrivener, I can just close out of the program and restart it. In Pages, however, you’re screwed until the curser gets all the way to wherever it’s going.

Nuance’s support is pretty non-existent, too. I’ve sent them a few support tickets when I had problems, and I’ve never once gotten a response. Googling solutions to specific problems normally revealed other people asking the same questions in forums – usually to be told that there is no solution to that problem. The software is constantly being updated, though, and it sounds like Dragon is getting better with every iteration.

Is dictation for you?

I don’t know. I can’t answer that for you. And, of course, purchasing Dragon is a big chunk of cash to plop down. If you’re curious to try dictation out and you have a Mac, you can always experiment with the native dictation program. Here’s how to set it up.

(Sorry, I don’t know anything about PCs.)

You might, like me, get addicted and want to pay for something better. Or you might figure it’s not for you.

Either way, Dragon offers a 30-day money back deal, so you can always give it a shot and see what you think.

Have you used dictation software? What did you think? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

(*Disclaimer: Nuance didn’t give me one red cent to write about this – I’m just sharing my personal experiences.)

A Creative’s Guide to Staying on Track with Resolutions

This is about the time of year when shiny New Year’s resolutions start to look a little tarnished.

Those thousand fiction words a day I was writing at the beginning of January? Yeah, not so much now. All that sugar I’m not supposed to be eating? Well, I may have made brownies a few days ago. And I may keep sneaking bites of my husband’s desserts.

I wrote last week about one important tool you can use to keep on track with resolutions and goals: accountability groups. But I think one of the biggest things you can do on your own is to create a system designed to support your new goals.

I’ve noticed a pattern in the goals of mine that have succeeded. It goes something like this: resolutions that begin life without intention and support never last for long, while those that I boost with good habits tend to get met.

I don’t know about you, but as I look back over the last month I can definitely see that same pattern emerging. The goals that I built up support around have actually gotten met. The ones that I just wished out into the universe? Nope.

Here’s the problem I see a lot with creatives, though: we resist building structure around our art.

We tell ourselves that we’ll wait for the Muse to strike, instead of committing to carving out 30 minutes every lunch break to practice our craft. We tell ourselves we’re too tired at the end of the day to write or paint or play music, instead of making the effort to arrange our schedules to support our art.

But I say that building structure around your goals is especially important for creative people.

Are you willing to take that step?

Do you want to carve out time for the work you love?

Or do you want to make the same resolution next January?

Set your intentions

I love this fantastic post by James Clear on setting intentions. In it, he talks about a study in which three groups were asked about their exercise habits. The first group (control) was simply asked how often they exercise. The second group was given a motivational pamphlet and speech. The third group was given the same motivation, but also asked to complete the statement, “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Two weeks later, the third group was 3 times more likely to have exercised than the first two groups.

The moral is that simply saying “I want to write and submit a short story this month” isn’t nearly as effective as saying “I’ll write 300 words every morning before breakfast.”

Give yourself the best chance at hitting your goals by explicitly stating where, when, and how you’ll do them.

Set up a system

Great goals aren’t achieved in a vacuum – rather, they’re reached as a result of hundreds of tiny steps. Try thinking of your goal not as one single thing, but as a system of steps and habits.

For example, I’m working on the rough draft of a novella that I hope to have done by the end of February. To do that, I need to write to 20,000 words. Taking into account that I normally only write five days a week, I need to start writing 1000 words a day. I can write 1000 words in an hour – less time if I’m really into the story.

Knowing all that, I know I need to sit down at my desk one hour earlier every day during the week and get out those thousand words before I check my email and get sucked into client work.

Once I’ve set this system of Time + Place + Avoid Email into place, sitting down at my desk to write becomes easier.

Clear away your obstacles

As humans, we’re often our own worst enemies. It’s so easy to let excuses, inconveniences, and obstacles get in the way of working towards our goals – and so hard to let them go.

The biggest thing you can do for yourself as a creative person is to identify what obstacles are going to be get in the way of your goals, and nip them in the bud.

If I want to write fiction first thing in the morning, for example, that means I need to finish that pressing client project the night before, and install Freedom on my computer so I can block the internet. If I want to cut down on my sugar intake, I should probably (maybe) give away that box of chocolates grandma gave me for Christmas. If I want to stop getting distracted by Twitter, I should take it off my phone.

Track your progress

How do you know you’re improving if you’re not charting your progress? If you’re technologically minded, try using a goal-setting site like Lifetick or an app like GoalsOnTrack to keep track of goal progress. (For a nice rundown of different goal-setting apps, check out this post from Michael Hyatt.)

Or you can go old-school like me, and just hang a calendar above your desk with a color-coded system of check marks. (Feel free to give yourself a gold star when you’ve done extra well – I totally do whenever I hit 1000 words!)

Check in, and tweak as you go

The important thing is to not view your goals as static, but rather to allow them to adapt and change.

If writing three times a week before breakfast just isn’t working, try writing at a different time of day. Or try dictating while you walk, or some other form of writing that gets the words out. Scheduling yourself regular check-ins gives you the ability to adapt your resolutions as you go, rather than simply deciding they’re failures if they don’t work out on the first go around.

I saw this great post today on ZenHabits.net about conducting a monthly review. In it, Leo Babauta talks about taking a few minutes at the end of every month to check in with yourself and see where you’re succeeding, and where you could be doing little better.


 

How are your creative New Years resolutions going? What are you finding to be the biggest obstacles to making time for your creative projects? Let me know in the comments!

(This post was adapted from an article I originally wrote for GovPilot.)

Three Brains Are Better than One: How Accountability Groups Keep Me On Track

On Thursday, I fired up my computer at 8 AM to get on Skype.

I’m normally working that early already – or at least putting the kettle on and checking email – but I try to avoid conversating with the outside world until later in the day.

Thursday, I didn’t have a choice. It was already 11am Stephanie’s time and 6 PM Ayelet’s time in Israel. Plus, we had a special occasion to celebrate: our two-year “Grupoversary”.

Although we’ve never met in person, Stephanie and Ayelet have become an important part of my life over the last two years – they’re my freelance writing accountability partners. Every week, I check in about goals that I have for my freelancing business, my fiction writing business, and my health. (Crucial, since it’s easy to get wrapped up in work and forget to take care of our bodies!)

Over the last year we’ve not only challenged ourselves to try new marketing tactics and take on bigger clients, but also to start running and try Zumba. We’ve shared prospecting tips and healthy easy recipes. We supported each other goals to work on our websites, and to get better sleep. We’ve cheered on each other’s weekly to-do lists, and also gently suggested that maybe we should knock a few items off and go for a nice walk instead.

This group isn’t the only one that I check in with weekly.

I’m also a member of the Trifecta, a group started over three years ago with two old friends. It started one weekend when two of us who lived in Seattle rode our bikes up to Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island, to visit our third friend. We sight-saw and caught up with each other, but we also spent the whole weekend talking about our plans for self-employment.

I was ready to stop working full-time as a copywriter and start freelancing. Nalisha was ready to quit a job she hated and make a living from her art. Andrea was already making money as a knitting pattern designer, but she wanted to grow her business into a real living.

We made a pact to check in with goals once a week, and we’ve done it ever since – for three years. In fact, next week will be our annual Trifecta retreat, where we’ll get together for another long weekend of wine, bikes, and serious talks about our business goals for the next year.

These two “groupoverseries” in the same month have gotten me thinking about just how important accountability groups have been to me over the last few years.

Between these two groups, I’ve seen my business grow. I can’t tell you how important it is to have a group of trusted people to bounce ideas off of. To ask: am I crazy for thinking this? would you buy this product? what would you charge for this kind of writing? how should I approach this client? is this story any good?

If you’re like most of us, you probably made some New Year’s resolutions. And if you’re like most of us, if you want to increase your chances of completing your New Year’s resolutions – whether personally or for business – you need accountability.

There have been so many times over the last three years when I followed through on a goal purely because I had told one or another of my accountability groups that I would. It was enough motivation just knowing that I would have to say: no, I never reached out to that client that I wanted to get; no, I didn’t prioritize my health this week no; I was too afraid to send that email to a clients to raise my rates.

How do you find your own accountability group?

You may know people already in real life who would make good accountability partners.

Or, you may want to try a specialized forum to meet new people. (My freelance accountability group met in the Freelance Writer’s Den when Ayelet posted that she was looking to start an accountability group to focus on health.)

Or, maybe you can think of several people in your industry who seem to be on the same level as you, and who you’ve liked meeting in the past. Try sending out an email asking if they’d be interested. You’d be surprised at how many people are looking for something like this – and all it takes is an email or a phone call. The worst that could happen is they say no, and you continue being colleagues.

Or, you may just want to start posting about your goals on your blog and create accountability for yourself that way. That’s one thing I really admire about writer Emily June Street – she’s always courageously sharing her goals and how she did every month.

However you find accountability, I encourage you to make that a goal this month.

Do you already have an accountability group? How has it helped you with your goals?

What I Learned In My 2nd Year As A Full-Time Writer

My most popular post on this blog was last year’s look back at being a full-time writer in 2014. My goal in writing that post – and this one – is to share my story with others who are just dipping their toes into making a living with their writing. And, of course, others like me who are managing to make it pay the bills, but aren’t at “guru” status just yet. 🙂

At the end of every year, I like to do a client analysis that helps me get a grasp on where I’m spending my time, and what are the most worthwhile projects. The surprising thing I discovered was that the bulk of my good clients are in the B2B software-as-a-service niche. In other words, I write for companies that sell cloud-based software to other companies.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what that meant two years ago, and now it’s my biggest niche – such is the way of freelancing!

And now that I know that, it will help me say no to anything that’s not in that industry. In the last few months I’ve already dropped five smaller clients who weren’t in that niche.

How I made a living writing in 2015

(Again, I’m not going to throw out any specific numbers, but I’m going to be as transparent as possible about this journey. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions for me!)

The exciting thing about looking at my finances at the end of this year was that in this second year, my paycheck* from my freelance business is now more than that of my desk copywriting job!

Plus, have enough saved up in my business saving to cover 3 months worth of my salary and biz expenses. That’s allowed me to invest some extra money (and time) in writing and producing fiction this year.

*To see what I mean about “paycheck,” check out this post on how I work my freelance finances.

What kinds of writing work paid my bills?

Here’s where my income came from in 2015:

  • Website copy (through agencies): 37%
  • Business blogging: 25%
  • Website copy (long-term client): 20%
  • Content marketing projects*: 16%
  • Ghost writing: 5%
  • Misc. business marketing collateral**: 3%
  • Social media management: 3%
  • Product copy: 2%
  • Magazine articles: 1.5%
  • Fiction: 0.5%

* I separated out my ongoing clients for whom I do a variety of content marketing (including blogging) from those for whom I only blog.

** These were all one-off pieces for clients that didn’t turn into ongoing content marketing work, and so I separated it out.

*** I just added that up, and it adds up to 112%. Because I’m that rad.

What this tells me:

  • I’m less reliant on one income stream. Last year, 57% of my income came from a single client. That client’s still around, but their contribution is now only 20% (and I’m doing about the same amount of work for them, so that tells you something!). A major goal of mine last year was to be less reliant on a single client, so I did well there.
  • I made more from Fiction than last year. Last year, Fiction represented only 0.1% of my total income. Now, 0.5% isn’t anything to write home about, but it is an increase! Next year, I’d like to increase that number by a more substantial amount – and I’m poised to do it, with one novel out already, and several more in the pipeline.
  • Blogging actually paid a lot of my bills. Another thing I anticipate changing in 2016 is the Business Blogging category. I separated it out from Content Marketing to differentiate between clients that I do a variety of work for, and those that I only blog for. I actually dropped almost all of my “just blogging” clients at the end of November, and in 2016 I’ll be concentrating on growing that Content Marketing category. Seeing just how big a percentage of my income came from only blogging gives me pause about that decision, but I think in the long run this will be better for business. Onward!
  • Those one-off projects aren’t worth it. For weighing in at only 3% of my total income, those random one-off marketing projects just aren’t worth the time onboarding a brand new client.
  • I’m not a magazine writer. A lot of the content marketing work I do for ongoing clients is similar to magazine writing – I do interviews, work with an editor, provide snazzy quotes and interesting angles – but it also pays better with less hassle. 2016 is probably the time to stop taking low-paying article assignments and focus on business clients.

Where I found my clients*

Outbound (11):

  • I answered a job ad: 5
  • Met at a networking event: 2
  • Already a friend: 1
  • I sent a cold pitch: 2
  • Saw my ad on Ravelry: 1

Inbound (13):

  • Referred by another client: 7 (3 from the same client. Thanks, Melanie!)
  • Saw my writing on another site: 4
  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2

(* These are all people I worked with this year, though not necessarily are all new clients from this year)

Takeaways:

Start building a reputation, and you won’t have to work your tail off marketing.

These numbers don’t show one trend – that most of my outbound marketing efforts took place earlier in the year. I haven’t checked a job board, sent a cold pitch, or gone to a networking event since probably…. Actually, all but one of those clients in the Outbound list are carry-forwards from last year. And the one new client is someone I met at WorldCon, a sci-fi/fantasy convention that only loosely falls in the category of “networking event.”

Keyword the hell out of your LinkedIn page.

My biggest source of inbound prospects has been through LinkedIn, although as of posting this only 2 have become clients. I wrote about what I did to spiff up my profile last year, so you can head there if you’re curious.

Referrals and bylines help.

Referrals were my biggest total source of new clients – which is a good reason to keep your clients happy! I was also pleasantly surprised 4(!) times this year when someone emailed me to say they saw my writing on X Site, and would I pretty please also write for them?

My second biggest source of clients was job boards.

There are some gems out there in all the crud that clogs up the job boards. Don’t waste time going after things you’re not right for, and focus on the good boards.

Overall, this has been a good year.

Although I still stumble into regular periods of overwhelm and anxiety, has managed to find a better balance than I had my first year freelancing. I’ve been able to travel more with my husband, taking overnight trips with him throughout Oregon (he’s a sales rep in the state).

I’ve found more time for writing fiction – and it’s not always after dinner when my brain is already bleary from staring at the computer screen all day.

I sometimes take weekends off, even.

My big takeaway at the end of the year is that stress is a killer. I’ve started to become better at recognizing the warning signs of burnout before it comes – although I don’t think I’m always very good at avoiding it.

I also haven’t been very good at saying no to new projects, which is led to some pretty rough periods of overworking myself. In my first year of freelancing, this seemed inevitable – after all, I needed to make ends meet. But in the second year, when I had enough clients who are paying me well enough that I didn’t have to say yes to every tiny project that came across my plate, I still had a hard time saying no.

Doing this client analysis has been a good way for me to hone in on my priorities:

Say “Yes” to more ongoing opportunities in B2B software, say “No” to one-off projects, magazine writing, and anything that’s not in my niche.

Honing my focus will free up a lot of extra administrative time, which I can use to grow that Fiction category from a measly 0.5% into something a bit more substantial!

How was your 2015?

I’d love to hear how things are going with you, both in business and creatively. Leave me a comment or drop me a line!

How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Keep

(Note: I originally wrote this post last year for GovLoop, but as the year’s end has rolled back around I think it’s still relevant. I’ve adapted it for this blog.)

The new year is a traditional blank slate for most people, but despite our best intentions most of us don’t keep our New Year’s Resolutions much longer than January.

The problem with the usual way of making resolutions is that they’re not often made in the context of our lives. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, so I want to propose a new way: rather than simply picking a goal (“lose weight,” “volunteer more,” “get promoted”), take time to really evaluate your dreams and ambitions, and set goals that are truly in line with your life.

Want to join me?

A note about last year’s goals.

In my post about looking back on 2015, I talked about considering the goals that you didn’t hit. Writing New Year’s Resolutions can seem like a deja vu if every year you put the same goals on it that you failed to hit the year before. Rather, set your goals for 2015 to build on your accomplishments from last year – and give yourself permission to let go of any goals that no longer fit your plans.

OK. Here’s my 3-step plan for setting goals:

Set a theme for 2016

This sounds super cheesy, but I swear it works. How will you evaluate success in 2015? By your career growth? By your side projects? By how much time you’ve spent with your family?

  • For me, 2014 was all about getting work done at all costs. My husband and I had moved to a new city without many friends to distract us, and were both in new work situations. We’ve worked some crazy hours, we’ve worn ourselves out, and we’ve both built tremendous momentum in our jobs. It’s been an exhausting ride, but it’s been worth it.
  • The year 2015 was about harnessing that momentum and taking back time for myself. My theme for 2015 was “Balance and Health,” and I although I haven’t been perfect, I’ve definitely achieved a better sense of balance in my life. I’ve made huge strides in tailoring my freelance client list so that I’m doing the work I want to do, not saying yes to everything that comes across my plate. I’ve been exercising regularly, and making conscious decisions to practice self care, rather than running myself into the ground. (Most of the time.)
  • For 2016, I’m going to stick with the “Balance and Health” goal, since I know I still have lots of work to do in that area. As I ramp up my fiction business, I know I can too easily get carried back into the overtime-stressed-burnout mode of 2014 – so I want to make sure that I’m making each decision with this theme in mind.

This theme is your rubric for making decisions.

When you’re making your goals or deciding what kinds of obligations to take on next year, weigh it against your theme.

One great tool to help you out is a Will-do/Won’t-do List. As you plan for 2016, make yourself a list of possible projects or opportunities you will and won’t do, so that when new opportunities come across your plate you can make a quick decision and move on without regret.

Plan big, but act small

OK, we all know what SMART goals are, right? They’re: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-related. But when most of us write our resolutions, we aim big and vague, writing down things like “I want to get in better shape,” or “I want to spend more time with my family.”

Dream big, but make sure your goals for 2015 are SMART. For example: “I will lose 10 pounds by March by cutting out sugar,” rather than “I want to lose weight.”

Once you’ve got your big goals in place, think about the small daily actions you’ll take to get there. If you want to cut out sugar, like in the above example, maybe start by making a little change. Only allow yourself candy between the hours of 12 and 6, perhaps, or switch to only putting one spoonful of sugar in your morning coffee rather than two. If your goal is to write a novel, set a daily habit of writing 200 words on the bus ride home, or on your lunch break.

If you focus on forming small daily habits, you’ll have a much better chance at achieving your goal than if you try to accomplish it in one fell swoop.

Start preparation

You’ve got until 2016 to turn over a new leaf, right? But what you can do for the next few weeks is to start dreaming so that you’re ready to hit the ground running on January 1st.

Ask for running shoes for the holidays. Start googling alternate careers. Check out a book on gardening from the library. Start a Pinterest board for healthy recipes. Research MBA programs.

You don’t have to make any changes right now, just use the next six to let your imagination run with it. This is a fertile time to let your mind wander, and will help make sure you’re not just throwing goals on your list because think you should.

Is your imagination sparked? What will your theme for 2016 be?

Get In the Habit of Yearly Reflection

(Note: I originally wrote this post last year for GovLoop, but as the year’s end has rolled back around I think it’s still relevant. I’ve adapted it for this blog.)

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time uses the word “time confetti” to describe the harried mishmash of time in modern life. Our days are sliced to ribbons by hordes of overlapping responsibilities, our constant connectivity to work allows it to seep into our personal lives, and the demands of our families seep into our work days. And any free time we manage to find? It gets contaminated by planning or worrying about what will come next, or what we’re forgetting to do.

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

The ability to plan and reflect on our lives has become increasingly difficult, which is why so many of us complain of being constantly overwhelmed, and rushing headlong through life.

The year’s end is a traditional time for reflection, but although most of us probably make the obligatory list of resolutions, most of us don’t take the time to truly, deeply reflect.

Part of the reason is that it’s hard to find the time. Between year-end work sprints, holiday parties, family visits, and the usual chaos of everyday life, it’s tough to carve out as much time as a true period of reflection takes.

But here’s the problem: If you’re never taking time to reflect on how your previous year went, how can you expect next year to go any differently?

  • You promised yourself that 2015 would be year you wrote that novel, but it never got written. Why will 2016 be any different?
  • You swore you’d quit your dead-end job and start making a living at your passion project in 2015 – but you’re still punching the clock and hating it. Why should 2016 be a better year?
  • You promised yourself you’d start taking care of your health, but you’re still in as rough shape as you were this time last year. What’s to change next year?

Part of making your dreams and aspirations actually take shape is to understand what factors are standing in your way.

  • If you want to be happier, it helps to understand what has been making you unhappy.
  • If you want to have more time, it helps to understand where you’re spending the time you have.
  • If you want to have better relationships, it helps to understand what relationship habits you’ve been in.

If you want to have a healthy, happy, amazing 2016, it helps to understand just what happened in 2015.

To do it, I want you to schedule an entire afternoon to yourself in the next few weeks – no distractions, no obligations, no excuses. You can take more time than an afternoon, if you want. I have a friend who takes a weekend vacation by herself every year on her birthday in order to reflect on her life and examine her goals.

In the time leading up to your Afternoon of Reflection, grab a fresh notebook or Word document (notebook is better, because no internet), and start jotting down notes as they come to you. Then, when you actually sit down to reflect you’ll have a head start and can dive in deeper.

In a season of celebration and giving, make this the gift you give to yourself.

Here are some topics to get you started.

Celebrate yourself

Think back through your year. What goals did you achieve? What personal or professional milestones did you pass? Maybe you were too busy to celebrate at the time, or maybe it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. But this is your time to remember those achievements. Take the time to list your accomplishments, and to do something fun to celebrate them. I can think of several for myself this year that I’ve completely rushed past without acknowledging!

Your first assignment – leave a comment with a goal you achieved this year, AND how you plan to celebrate it.

Celebrate others

You’re not the only one rushing through life without celebrating your accomplishments. Think about your friends, family, and coworkers. Did any of them meet a goal or do something huge that they haven’t gotten recognition for? Take a moment to help them celebrate it, or to spread the word (such as writing a note praising their accomplishment to a supervisor, if appropriate). Who made your year a little brighter? Who helped you out? Celebrate these people’s positive influence in your life with a heartfelt “thank you.”

Start a list, but don’t let yourself get caught up in the enormity of it. Just send an email today, take someone out to coffee tomorrow, and work your way slowly through your list.

Consider your time

How did you spend your time last year? Probably a mix of at work, at home, and on other duties. Think back through your biggest time commitments, and evaluate what you liked or disliked about each. What did you love doing the most in 2015? When where you happiest? What times were the most stressful, frustrating, or dark? What can you do to shift that balance for next year? What could you have done differently this year?

Get specific – don’t just say “I liked spending time with my partner,” rather, list out your favorite moments and remember how they made you feel. Remember to list out the hard moments, too, and try to understand what you learned from them.

Consider your regrets

This is a tough question, but it’s not meant to get you into a funk. Think about the frustrations of last year. What opportunities (both professional and personal) did you pass up? What do you wish you’d spent more time doing? Less time doing? What words do you wish you could take back? What words do you wish you’d said? What fears or procrastinations held you back?

Take time to learn the lesson in your regrets. Some things may have been out of your control, but others may hold important lessons to help you live better in the future.

Consider the goals you missed

Was 2015 definitely going to be the year you changed careers, wrote that screenplay, started a business, or ran a marathon? Did you not, in fact, do that?

Rather than simply saying, “Well, then 2016 is the year I’ll finally do X,” take a moment to really examine why you didn’t accomplish the goal this year. Did life get in the way? Did you forget about it? Did you go in a different direction? Is it a goal you feel obligated to do, but don’t actually want to do?

Don’t simply transfer goals from one year’s to do list to the next without truly thinking about it. Then, decide either to let it go and be at peace, or to double down in 2016 and actually accomplish it.

Make a list of what you want to leave behind

Along with goals that aren’t aligned with you anymore, make a list of hurtful emotions, unhealthy relationships, bad habits, and anything else that you’d like to leave behind in 2016.

All these lists and considerations will help you hone in on your goals for 2016, and form the basis for a great year. I’ll talk about how to turn them into action steps and goals in my next post.

News: Book launch party, print books, and giveaway!

I can’t even believe it’s December right now. I know I say that every December, and I’ll probably keep saying it every December for the rest of my life. But seriously, you guys, it’s December.

For me, December is a time of quiet contemplation – liberally seasoned with fevered dashes to finish goals, more events than one calendar can hold, and, normally, an Epic Eastern Washington Road Trip to see all the facets of the family.

This year the road trip will be a little mellower, and so far my calendar isn’t yet full to bursting. Maybe I’ll actually squeeze in some quiet contemplation after all.

So, while were on the subject, how’s your calendar looking?

If you’re not doing anything on December 9th, you should totally add this into it:

Book launch party!

When: December 9th, 2015, 7pm
Where: Alameda Brewing Company, 4765 NE Fremont St, Portland
What: A book launch party for Shifting Borders and A Vanishing Glow
Why: To hear us read, buy some books, drink some free beer, and make merry

My friend Alexis Radcliff, the author of A Vanishing Glow, and I will be hanging out at Alameda Brewing Company with some print books for sale and some pitchers of beer we hope you’ll help us drink.

Alameda Brewing has graciously offered us happy hour pricing on their yummy appetizers, so come hungry and prepare to have fun!

The Facebook invite is here.

Speaking of print books…

…they’re finally available!

Screenshot of Shifting Borders print edition on Amazon

I know some of you have been asking when you’ll have a chance to hold a print copy of Shifting Borders in your hot little hands – and folks, that time is now.

If you’re not too keen on paying for that print copy, though…

A giveaway!

I’ll be giving away one signed copy to a lucky person on my mailing list.

What, you’re not on my mailing list? Well, go put your info in the sidebar for a chance to win. At this point, my newsletter is mainly, well, news, and comes out once or twice a month. I’m currently working on a novella in the Bikes to New Sarjun world which I’ll be serializing exclusively for newsletter subscribers. So rest assured it’ll be worth joining.

Happy December, everybody!

What’s your favorite thing about this time of year?

The anti-Nano: Bikes In Space novel revisions

While other writers are hoping to add 50,000 words to their manuscripts this month, I’m on the mission to delete 10,000 from mine.

Yes, I’m revising.

I’m currently hard at work making sense of the first draft of my Bikes in Space novel for Elly Blue and Microcosm Press, which will be published in spring 2017. It’s based on the short story I wrote for Elly’s second Bikes in Space anthology, although the world of the novel has certainly grown and shifted from what I first imagined in that story.

(Want to read that story for free? Head here.)

Revisions are tough, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. As much as I try to plot things out, I’m very much a discovery writer. I’m constantly suppressing myself with what my characters say, or what they find when they open doors. These little discoveries and mysteries are delightful, but stressful at the same time. Why won’t my characters behave? Why do they make me sit and re-outline my plot every other chapter?

Granted, I think these little surprises makes for a much better story than what I originally thought of. But it does seem like instead of writing the story down in the drafting process, I’m making the material out of which I will pull the story later.

I’m creating the clay that I will use to sculpt a story during revisions.

Since I’m still digging into the plot I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet, but I have created a Pinterest board to collect all my visual inspirations. Here’s one of my favorite images:

anime stars:

It’s by illustrator Akaya Suda, and I think it’s just gorgeous. You can find more of Akaya’s work here.

If you’re curious to get a taste of the Bike Caper Novel (name still TBA), check out the Pinterest board, and sign up for my mailing list (in the sidebar) to be the first to know the news!

Follow Jessie’s board Bike Caper Novel on Pinterest.

Get Shifting Borders for $0.99! [through October 31]

It’s here! It’s finally here!

As of this moment, Shifting Borders is available on Amazon. It officially launches on October 31st, but if you pre-order, you can get the e-book for only $0.99.

Pre-order button

Head on over to Amazon to pick up your copy today, and it’ll magically appear on your Kindle on October 31st – just in time for Halloween.

Shifting Borders is a story of how a ghostly possession brings two sisters closer than ever before – perfect spooky reading for the season. If you’re curious to find out more before you bite, check out this blog post to read an excerpt from the first chapter.

Cover Reveal! Shifting Borders [plus excerpt]

I’m excited to announce that I have an official cover for Shifting Borders!

ShiftingBorders-679x1024

It was designed by Eloise Knapp from EK Cover Design, and I think it does a fantastic job conveying the mood of the book.

Writing Shifting Borders and working on the Four Windows project has been a long, exhausting process, and sometimes along the way I’ve forgotten that an actual, finished book will be the result of all this hard work.

This gorgeous cover is a reminder of that.

The manuscript is currently with my editor, Kyra Freestar, after which we’ll finalize the layout and get it ready to launch – appropriately just in time for my favorite spooky month, October.

Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when it’s ready to go (and to get biweekly writing prompts and reading recommendations).

In celebration of the cover reveal, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, wherein Patricia and Valeria quickly find themselves over their heads. I’d love to hear what you think – feel free to shoot me an email, or leave a note in the comments!


Shifting Borders [excerpt]

Patricia Ramos-Waites picked her way through the brackish puddles that passed for a sidewalk in this part of town. Reflected streetlight traced oily slicks in the pitted gravel, and a faint mist gathered on her cheeks and fogged her glasses. The neon sign announcing “Oh Pho” cast an orange hue in the premature evening gloom, but through the windows — papered with peeling, handwritten specials — the restaurant looked empty.

No, not empty. Her sister sat at a table near the door, shredding the label of her Tsingtao. Patricia waved, and Valeria scowled. Fantastic.

“Two small number sixes,” Valeria said to the waitress before rising to kiss Patricia. They were alone in the restaurant, no surprise for a Monday night, given how far it was from civilization. Oh Pho’s regular clientele of commercial truck drivers and warehouse workers had gone home for the night, and it was too far from the artists’ lofts and shops in Georgetown’s main strip to attract the few people that actually lived down here.

“I saw two of your buses go by already,” said Valeria. “You said you’d be here by 5:30.”

Patricia wedged her stuffed backpack into the plastic booth opposite her sister, then slid in beside it. “Work was fine today, thanks for asking,” she said. “We’ve been short-staffed this week, so things are extra busy. How are you doing, Val?” She searched her sister’s face for cracks there — it had only been two weeks since the funeral, and though she’d called daily, Valeria had been putting her off.

She’d be putting her off today, as well. “Jesus, Pati,” Valeria sighed. “Don’t be a bitch. You’re just never late.”

“I can’t make the buses run on time.”

“But you can call.”

So this was how it was going to go. “It’s 5:45, Val.”

“Yeah. And I’ve got places to be.”

“Then don’t let me keep you waiting,” Patricia snapped — and instantly regretted it, but didn’t apologize. Just another snipe-fest between sisters, she thought.

The waitress returned before any more friendly fire could be loosed, two massive bowls of soup balanced on her tray. Valeria set to plucking out her slices of beef while they were still pink, draping them over the side of her bowl. Patricia used her chopsticks to plunge her beef deeper into the boiling broth.

“I need a favor from you tonight, Pati,” Valeria said, shredding basil leaves into her soup without making eye contact. Patricia watched her with a sinking feeling, taking in her sister’s black clothes, the black gloves lying on the table, the faint scent of pungent herbs rising above the anise aroma of the pho.

Nighttime favors meant Resurrections.

“I have to help Ava with her science project,” Patricia said automatically. She reached for the Sriracha, but hesitated when she saw the nozzle’s tip: crusted over and black. Jalepeños would be — Patricia sighed. Would have been fine. Valeria had dumped them all into her bowl, and was busy doctoring her soup into a nuclear accident of gloppy brown plum sauce and safety-orange Sriracha. Chili oil formed a greasy slick across the top.

“It’s important.” Valeria finally looked up. “It’s Marco.”

Patricia’s heart broke for her sister. “Oh, no. No no no.”

“Please, Pati.”

“Do you have a permit? A court order? Because how will you explain to my kids that their mom has to go to jail over an illegal resurrection? Val, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry he’s gone.” She reached across the table, took Valeria’s cold hand in hers. The nails were ragged, chewed to the nub like Valeria used to do when they were girls. They were painted a cafe con leche color which nearly matched her own skin, a subdued tone that worried Patricia. Everything about Valeria had been more subdued since Marco’s accident.

And then the hand was gone. “Wouldn’t you have brought Joe back if you could have?”

That stab, unfair and unexpected, sliced neatly through six years of emotional scar tissue. “Joe is in Heaven,” Patricia said quietly. “Why would I bring him back from that?”

“What if you knew he wanted to come?”

“You can’t speak to the dead in their graves.”

“You can if they want to be spoken to.” Valeria met her gaze, eyes fierce and tear-bright, smoky eye makeup smudged around the lids. The restaurant’s neon open sign called out the reddish tones in her dark hair, but her curls hung limp, and her lips were chapped under the silver gloss she wore. “When I go out to his grave, I can sense him, just a little bit. He’s waiting there. He wants me.”

“But do you have the legal paperwork?” Patricia stabbed at her soup with her chopsticks. Legally, a few ghosts were allowed to come back, mostly to help solve unsolvable cases or clear up disputes over wills. Illegally…. Patricia didn’t want to know. Valeria had been selling her body for years to a local Mexican Resurrectionist, acting as a Host for the spirits he brought back. Valeria claimed that they only worked the lucrative court contracts, but Patricia knew her better than that.

Valeria hesitated, and Patricia could see her practicing the lie. But then she sighed. “No. I don’t. This is entirely for me.”

“Then I can’t help you.”

“Patricia, is it a crime to bring back the man I love? When he wants to be with me?”

“You said you were done with the illegal stuff. I’m not bailing you out of jail again.” Patricia struggled to get a grip on a slippery piece of tendon, but her hand was shaking too badly to hold the chopsticks steady. Droplets of broth spattered the table when the morsel hit the soup’s surface. “I won’t help you.”

“I’ll be careful,” Valeria said. “No one will ever know.”

Patricia sighed. “Why do you need me? What about your Mexican guy?”

“Lucho’s a businessman. He won’t do a resurrection for free, and I can’t pay him.”

A chill traced itself down Patricia’s spine. “So you’re going to—“

“I’ve done it before. I’m not just hosting for him now — he’s taken me on as an apprentice. I’ve done the last few resurrections on my own.”

“Val.” Patricia almost reached to take her sister’s hand again. “Come over tonight. Adrian’s at an away game, Ava’s got her science project to keep her busy, and I think I might even have a bottle of wine somewhere. You can stay over.”

“I can’t, it has to be tonight.” Valeria slurped a quick spoonful of broth, coughed on the chili sauces.

In the kitchen, the waitress and the cook were talking loudly in Vietnamese, pots banging as they cleaned up from the day. Calling this Monday night a bust, Patricia thought. Ready to go home to their own families just as soon as the Ramos sisters finished their meal. Patricia was suddenly very tired. “He’s dead, Val,” she said after a moment. “He won’t be the Marco you loved.”

“You haven’t seen them, the way people are when they’re reunited. The spooks are just as thrilled as the clients. I’ve made so many people happy, Pati. When do I get to be happy?”

“Val, this is stupid. You have to move on.”

“Yeah, like you did? You still wear Joe’s goddamn ring, Pati.” She dug into her purse, and threw a ten dollar bill on the table. “Forget it. Forget I ever asked you anything.”

“Valeria, wait.” Patricia grabbed her wrist, and Valeria didn’t try to pull away. “Promise me…”

“Promise you what.”

Promise me you won’t disappear without a trace this time, Patricia wanted to say, but that would only spark a fight she didn’t have the energy for. “Promise you’ll talk to me before you do anything rash.”

Valeria pulled away. “I am fucking talking to you, Pati.” She shrugged her purse over her shoulder and slammed the door as she left.

*

Forest Lawn Cemetery was a ten minute drive from Patricia’s house in White Center — less, the way Valeria was driving. “Slow down,” Patricia hissed, gripping the door handle with all her strength. “If you get pulled over, I don’t know how you’ll explain that to them.” She gestured at the duffel bag in the back seat. She had only a vague idea of what it contained, but it smelled sweet and foul as rotting fruit. “What’s the hurry? He’s not going anywhere.”

Valeria’s jaw tightened. “No hurry,” she said, but she glanced once more in the rearview mirror, and the speedometer crept slightly higher.

They parked a few blocks away, where no one would remark on an extra car, and stepped past the heavy chain that blocked the cemetery’s driveway. The earlier mist had shifted to a light rain, which was already soaking through the black Highline Pirates hoodie Patricia’s oldest son had left at home. Her only rain jacket was baby blue, and had been summarily vetoed by Valeria.

Rows of flat headstones tufted the well-manicured lawn, following the gentle contours of the hills. Trim Japanese maples dotted the grounds, and a few oaks stretched dark silhouettes against the low clouds. Persistent clouds meant Patricia hadn’t seen the moon for over a week, but the city lights infused the fog with the faintest of glows, illuminating their way. Barely.

Marco’s grave was in the northeast corner — far from the road, Patricia saw with relief, tucked near the strip of wild brambled forest that covered the ridge’s steep eastern shoulder. 

A waist-high fence separated the civilized dead from the disordered urban forest, and overhanging branches afforded them just enough cover from the rain. The toes of her sneakers squelched in sodden fresh turf.

Patricia shivered, realizing she was standing on Marco’s grave. She stepped aside.

Valeria’s duffle bag clinked as she set it down. She stooped to brush the leaves and grass clippings off the stone:

Marco Caruso

1975 — 2014

“Who will Marco be when you bring him back?” Patricia whispered, and Valeria stiffened but did not answer.

Valeria’s face glowed in the flame of her lighter; her jaw was set, her eyes flashing steel. She lit a pair of candles on the headstone, then a propane camping lamp. She shook a pair of coals onto a grate over the flame. “Stop looking over your shoulder. You’re making me nervous.”

“I thought the cops were cracking down on illegal resurrections.”

“The cops around here have drug deals to watch for. They’re not out patrolling the cemeteries.” Strain as she might, Patricia couldn’t see the gate over the rise of the hill — still, she felt exposed and nervous. Valeria looked up from her careful arrangement of…bones? Patricia shivered. “It’s fine, Pati. I’ve done this dozens of times. Hold this.” She handed her the flask of vile smelling liquid, and Patricia held it at arm’s length. She tried to force herself to relax.

The candles on the headstone sputtered as fat raindrops splashed down through the branches. It was never any use to talk sense into Valeria when she had a plan. When they were kids she’d nearly drowned after breaking into a neighbor’s swimming pool in Managua — Patricia had refused to go with her, and Valeria had snuck away to go on her own.

Their father had been angry with them both, but it was Patricia who’d gotten the spanking for not watching out for her little sister. Granted, Valeria had been in the emergency room, but the injustice still smarted.

Patricia had seen that same determined look in Valeria’s eye tonight. “What do you need me to do?” she asked, afraid of the answer.

“I’ll do all the ritual, don’t worry about that. I just need you to hand me things when I need them, and to break the circle if anything goes wrong.”

“Scalpel, stat,” Patricia said, trying to laugh. She shivered instead.

“Normally the Resurrectionist summons a spirit into a Host, but I’ve been reading about modifications to the spell that let a Resurrectionist call the spirit directly into herself.”

“Reading?”

“I’ve done the original spell before, and the variation isn’t tricky. You’re here just because if anything goes wrong, I’ll need you to break the circle. Here.” Valeria dumped the now-lit coals into a censor like they used in Catholic churches, and handed it over to Patricia with a pair of tongs and a baggie full of some sweet-smelling herbs. “If anything goes wrong, just dump the herbs onto the coals, erase part of the circle with your foot, and put a coal in each of my hands.”

“Val—“

“Nothing’s going to go wrong. But if it does, you just dump the herbs, break the circle—“

“And put a burning coal into each of your bare hands,” Patricia said. She swallowed.

“Right. And keep an eye out.”

“For the security guard?”

“Sure.” Valeria swung her gaze over the cemetery, searching. When she seemed satisfied that they were alone, she lay down over the grave, her head resting just below the stone. She began to whisper at first, in Spanish oddly accented from years forgetting their native tongue, and then relearning it at the hands of her Mexican Resurrectionist. She seemed tense at first, hands clenched on her belly, but as she spoke she slowly relaxed, drawing her palms down over her hips, smoothing her dress in a way that seemed both self-conscious and sensual. Water began to seep up out of the fresh turf, darkening Valeria’s dress, cradling her hips like ghostly fingers. Patricia shivered.

Valeria’s voice fell to a whisper, and then she fell silent though her lips still moved. Patricia leaned closer, trying to make out the words. The salt ring glimmered a brief moment, then went dull once more. A faint play of light flashed over the wall of foliage beyond the edge of the cemetery.

Patricia looked up, startled.

Valeria’s hands clutched the grass, fingers worming their way into the fresh soil, her back arching, shoulders writhing against the headstone.

The light came again, stronger.

It could be the headlights of a car, maybe, someone turning down a residential street? The foliage above them lit up again. Flashlight.

Patricia’s mouth went dry.

“Valeria,” she whispered, but her sister didn’t seem to hear. “Valeria.” A breeze stirred the grass inside the salt circle, toyed with the ends of Valeria’s hair. The air around Patricia was still.

The beam of light came again, stronger now. The police. Patricia’s mind whirled as she thought up excuses, but there was no excuse that could explain away what they were so obviously doing. Oh, Lord, her job, her kids. The church. “Valeria!”

Her sister moaned.

Patricia glanced back over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of a small group in the distance, rough voices, laughter muffled by the fog. A hint of cigarette smoke drifted on the breeze before them.

Not the police.

“Valeria, we have to go.” Patricia hesitated, her foot poised over the line to erase it. What would breaking the circle right now do to her sister?

As if in response to the thought, Valeria’s body arched violently away from the ground, her face screwed into a silent scream. A trickle of black blood seeped from one nostril, and when she opened her eyes, the whites were colored an unholy pink.

Patricia fumbled for the brazier. She dashed her foot across the salt line, feeling a hurricane force of wind tear into her as she did. Her hair whipped across her eyes. She grabbed for Valeria’s hand, plucked a fiery coal from the censor.

The stench of burned flesh stung her nostrils as she dropped the first coal into Valeria’s hand — her sister gasped, flinging it away to hiss in the wet grass.

“Can’t take him,” Valeria whispered. “I almost—“

“Hey, hey, what you doing?” A shout came from behind them. “Ramos?”

The men were running, now, the glowing butt of a cigarette flicked into the grass, the silhouette of a handgun against the fog.

Patricia grabbed Valeria’s hands, tugging desperately against her sister’s dead weight. “No, no no nooo,” Valeria gasped. Her body arched again, wrenching violently as her heels dug into the fresh turf above Marco’s grave. She screamed, piercing the night.

Patricia pulled once more with all her might, dragging her sister’s writhing body past the salt line.

She gasped as an ice-cold wind rushed through her, then searing heat; her body suddenly felt too tight.

Too tight, yet surprisingly strong. She yanked her sister to her feet and half-carried, half-dragged her toward the cover of dense brush at the edge of the cemetery.

A gun shot rang out. Bark splintered off the oak above them. Someone let off a stream of curses. “Don’t kill her, pendejo!”

Patricia boosted Valeria over the fence, then vaulted it herself, tumbling into a clutching Oregon grape that clawed at her baggy sweatshirt. She grabbed Valeria’s arm, propelling her through the underbrush like a reluctant toddler, heedless of blackberry thorns and slapping wet ferns, sliding ever downward through the sloping underbrush.

Now running, now tumbling, until Patricia’s shins hit against the trunk of a fallen tree and she dropped, stifling a cry. She wriggled her way between the tree and the sodden earth, hugging her sister tight to her, hand clamped over Valeria’s mouth.

Valeria shook uncontrollably, but whether from fear or cold — or from the spell — Patricia couldn’t tell.

The crashing pursuit continued a few minutes longer, the men calling to each other, the beams of their flashlights streaking terrifyingly close to where the Ramos sisters lay. After a long while the sounds faded to silence.

Patricia stayed still, unsure if they had actually left; the chorus of rushing blood in her ears and her sister’s ragged breath muffled all other sounds. A stone dug into her ribs. When she could bear it no more, she lifted her weight onto just one shoulder, shifting so her hand could brush away the stone.

A twig snapped. Less than ten feet away.

She froze, her heart pounding.

“Val. Valium, baby.” The same man who had shouted earlier was wheezing now, his voice raspy from liquor and smoke. “I know you’re in here somewhere. I know you can hear me, and you know what I want. I’m gonna send one of my boys to see you tomorrow. Call me in the morning, we talk and I’ll send Charles. But sweetheart, you think you’re smart, you try to lay low? I’ll send Javier.”

He waited as though expecting a response, but damned if Patricia was going to give him one. Valeria’s breath came ragged and hot under Patricia’s hand.

After what seemed like eternity, Patricia heard him clamber, swearing, back through the underbrush.

Patricia gripped her sister tight a while longer, her cheek wet with Valeria’s tears, Valeria’s fingers curled in her hair, her own fingers digging into the wet thin fabric of Valeria’s dress. Valeria was shivering, flighty tremors that slowly grew into sobs.

The rich black earth reeked of decay, the slick mat of waterlogged leaves beneath them rotting back into soil. Something crawled over Patricia’s hand. It had started to rain in earnest now, gathering in the leaves, dripping in fat drops onto Patricia’s back.

“We should go,” Patricia said finally, but she couldn’t make herself move. She should be afraid, she should feel cold, but the only sensation Patricia was aware of was joy, elation at finding herself in Valeria’s arms. :val, valvalval:

Something stirred deep within her, its attention pulsing toward Valeria. She stroked her sister’s back, brushed her lips against her cheek.

“I failed, Pati,” Valeria said after a long moment. “There’s no second chance. He’s gone forever.”

Patricia kissed her sister’s forehead, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Warm, vital blood rushed in her veins. “It’s OK, babe,” she heard herself say. “I’m here.”

A pressure, like the pulsing ache of an anxiety attack, began in Patricia’s chest, like her ribcage was too tight, her lungs carved of stone. She forced herself to take deep breaths, pushing against the pain.

“They wanted Marco,” she heard Valeria say. “And they probably got him.”

“What?” The pressure inside her chest swirled, fluttering against her ribcage. A wave of clammy heat broke over her, and she tugged at the throat of her hoodie, trying to breathe. Nausea, throbbing head, hot flashes, Patricia ticked off the symptoms, trying to remember if she’d hit her head. She pushed Valeria away from her and scrambled out from beneath the fallen tree, just in time to revisit her earlier meal of pho.

Patricia wiped her lips on the sleeve of the now-filthy hoodie. Sorry, Gabe.

“You OK, Pati?”

Valeria’s voice swam to her as though through water. “Who were they?” Patricia asked, and Valeria started to answer, in that hedging way when she was trying to lie without lying. Patricia couldn’t make out her words — they sounded muddled, echoey, and Patricia fought down her rising panic. I think I have a concussion, she tried to tell her sister, but her lips wouldn’t move. I think. . . . And the pressure — the presence? — in Patricia’s chest stopped fluttering. It shifted, just ever so slightly.

:who?:

“I’m Patricia,” she whispered. “Who are you?”

Valeria stopped mid-sentence. “Pati? Oh, shit. Pati?”

Patricia could feel her sister’s hands on her face, hear her frantic voice, but all she could focus on was the swirling voice in her head. :whowhowho?: The world went black.


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