My 5 Favorite Tools for Writing

Image: Jenni Creatives (click image for more info)

I’m the type of writer who thrives on organization. I love The Container Store. As a freelancer, I have to be organized in order to get paid, regularly have assignments, and turn in work on time. As a writer, I use these tools to keep me on track.

1. Scrivener

When faced with feedback from three readers on my YA manuscript, I freaked out. How was I ever going to incorporate all of their notes and rewrite?! ACK. A fiction writer friend introduced me to the BEST writing software—Scrivener. I don’t know why I haven’t used it before. Instead of having a million Word documents open, Scrivener opens projects in a digital binder so you can keep text files, images, and important links all in one place! There are many amazing functions, but the one I love the best is organizing each chapter as its own file with a little index card that I write a synopsis on and it’s there for me to refer. Plus, the character sketches allow me to write character bios more easily, even adding a photo of what my character looks like. LOVE this software. It’s worth every penny. Here’s a short video tutorial on how it works.

2. Call Recorder for Skype

Whenever I interview a source via Skype, I use Call Recorder for Skype. It’s a simple download that turns the call into an MP3. I can either upload it to iTunes or listen to it through my Quicktime player and transcribe.

3. Stopwatch

For my hourly rate for editing, I use the Stopwatch feature on my iPhone. I simply hit start when I begin. If I stop to answer a call or walk the dogs, I pause it.

4. Voice Memos

Some times I’m on the go, and I get an idea for a magazine pitch or I suddenly solve the problem in chapter one of my book. If I don’t have a pen and paper handy, I record a note to myself in my iPhone’s Voice Memos app. You can title your memos, so I usually title them after the project. This is so helpful to remember what I need to jot down later.

5. Voice Record Pro 7

For in-person interviews or any type of live recording, I’m a fan of the Voice Record app. I once did an interview on a busy street in downtown LA. I was worried that I’d only hear street noise instead of the person talking who I was interviewing. The app worked perfectly. Plus, all the features on it like bookmarks, playback speed, and labeling make it a winner for writers.

How to Find the Time to Write

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I was chatting with a writing friend about the day job dilemma as a writer. How do you find the time to write when you work full-time, just had a baby, or you have 18 million other things you must do?

Before I went freelance full-time, I worked full-time for 12 years while writing at various jobs from nonprofit work to magazines. Some of those jobs, my annual salary was just enough to cover rent, food, and transportation. And while a DAY JOB may seem scary and awful while you’re working on your dream, a day job can afford you a roof over your head and pay your bills.

What are some ways you can get that novel/TV script/screenplay/personal essay/memoir written while you’re very busy? Here’s what I did. Hope these ideas help you!

1. Apply to an artist residency.

My filmmaker friend David Licata encouraged me to apply to an artist residency when we worked together at a non defunct nonprofit. I did my first residency at Centrum, then spent two glorious weeks at Hedgebrook (all women writers should apply!). While getting into an artist residency isn’t easy, it’s worth applying. Here’s a great list of 21 writing residences. If you don’t get accepted the first time around, apply again. David talks here about applying to the MacDowell Colony FIVE times before landing a residency.

2. Get up early.

This is probably the most hard thing to do, but it’s worth it. When I worked as an editor at a magazine, I found that I was too tired post-work to write anything. Mainly because I had spent my day editing and writing. So I decided to get up an hour earlier each day—6 am—and work on my own personal projects. Sure, I was tired as hell the first week or so, but my body adjusted. I found that the quiet and solitude of the morning and the crunch time of 60 minutes let me write faster than at night. If you’re a night owl, try the same tactic at night.

3. Write during your lunch hour.

When I landed a few freelance assignments while working at a magazine, I used my lunch hours to interview sources, write pitches, and finish assignments. I made sure to pack a lunch and used my hour off as my time for my writing.

4. Take a writing class.

I love the beauty of taking online classes such as courses through Mediabistro or the Writing Pad. You don’t have to commute, you can “meet” other writers, and you have hard deadlines for homework assignments. It’s networking, learning, and writing all rolled into one.

5. Give yourself deadlines.

Saying that you’ll write that novel some day is basically like saying you’ll join a gym some day. You gotta to get your butt in a seat and do the work. I give myself set deadlines for projects. Some times I don’t meet those deadlines (unless it’s an assigned piece then deadlines are a MUST), but I get as close as possible. I schedule days on a writing calendar, which is a simply print out of my iCal calendar.

Setting Your Writing Goals for the New Year

As each new year approaches, it’s great to sit down on reflect on what you’ve done and what you want to do. At the end of every year, I make a list of goals for the new year. Not just new year’s resolutions, but yearlong goals in writing, personal, and creative. I find the act of writing things down makes it more concrete.

What I’ve done this year:

  • Developed a list of clients for freelance writing and editing
  • Published a personal essay (after shopping it around for more than a year)
  • Written a new draft of a YA book
  • Wrote & rewrote a new play
  • Updated my blog weekly
  • Written my dream story (about adoption that will be published in 2015)
  • Organized and maintained a writers group

For writing, I approach my goals by asking myself:

  • What are my dream projects (books, magazine story ideas, plays I want to write)
  • Who do I want to work with (making a list of my favorite publications and target them)
  • What’s a realistic time frame to get my goal done—writing specific months next to those goals
  • What are the steps I need to get there
  • Why do I want this particular goal

Along the way, some goals change. And rejection happens. But for the past few years as I’ve worked with my yearly outline, I’ve hit those major moments that I’ve wanted to achieve. I’m not superhuman. Just organized and committed.

What are your goals for 2015? How will you make them happen?

Some Writing Truths Told in GIFs

What I Feel Like When Someone Asks Me To Write For Free

What People Think I Do as a Freelance Writer and Editor

What I Actually Do as a Freelance Writer and Editor

What It Feels Like When Something I’ve Written Is Published

What I Tell Myself When Pitching an Editor

What It Feels Like Waiting for an Editor to Respond

That Magical Moment When an Editor Likes My Pitch

Thoughts That Go Through My Mind While Writing a Book

What I Feel Like Staring at a Paycheck for My Writing

When I Turn In a Piece I’ve Been Working On For FOREVER

How I Feel When Rejection Emails Arrive

Being a Paid Professional Writer

9 Vegan Holiday Recipes & Ideas for Non-Vegans

I’m lucky enough to have wonderful friends who make sure there’s something for me—the vegan—to eat at their holiday party or when I come over for dinner. Usually, they ask me what can I buy or make. People have asked me if peanut butter and tortilla chips are vegan (yes and yes). Honestly, it makes me happy that people ask!

I’d rather they ask me than have to eat a few bites of air and stare at my empty plate. Plus, I think it’s helpful for people to know that yes, there are tons of great vegan options.

So, I wanted to make a list of a few resources for the non-vegans that won’t be scary, like making you figure out what nutritional yeast is or understanding what the heck we can and can not eat.

1) Vegan Marshmallows
A friend was kind enough to include me in a s’mores station by picking up Sweet & Sara vanilla marshmallows for me at Whole Foods. Dandies are also great, too. Why aren’t marshmallows vegan? Regular mallows have gelatin in them, which is made from animal bones. Yeah, really.

2) Hummus and Crudités & Chips and Guacamole
These are the simplest appetizers that are also vegan. Really simple. Most grocery stores should have them. Same goes for chips and salsa.

3) Easy Vegan Recipes
One of my friends had me and Brendan over for dinner and simply Googled, “easy vegan dinner.” That night, she made soba noodles in a coconut milk sauce with stir-fried tofu. Yum! The number one question people ask me is where to find simple vegan recipes, so here are my favorite food blogs.

  • Healthy. Happy. Life. Kathy Patalsky makes everything look good and taste good.
  • Chef Chloe. Chloe Coscarelli’s Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls are such a hit every time I make them. She makes vegan cooking so easy.
  • Post Punk Kitchen. Isa Chandra Moskowitz is a badass who has great recipes on her site. Make them all!
  • Chocolate-Covered Katie. A non-vegan friend turned me on to this dessert-based blog. Everything is delicious. I’m a fan of her baked oatmeals and black bean brownies.

4) Yes, Chocolate is Vegan
Dark chocolate is usually vegan. Just check the ingredients to make sure there’s no milk. Oreos, Twizzlers, and candy canes are all accidentally vegan. Perfect for holiday parties!

5) Vegan Cookies and Pie
Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have a nice selection of pre-made vegan goodies. No need to freak out about egg substitutions. Though, if you want some ways to sub for eggs, here you go.

6) Homemade Bread
There’s nothing like a loaf of homemade bread. At a recent holiday dinner party, I feasted on delicious bread. Who needs turkey when you have warm, doughy bread?

7) Vegan Cheese
Whole Foods now has a nice selection of vegan cheeses. My friend was kind enough to buy a block of vegan cheese, so I could partake of the cheese and crackers platter. You don’t know how happy this made me. Want some vegan cheese ideas? Here you go!

8) Seasonal Hot Drinks
Mulled apple cider or mulled wine is delightful. So Delicious makes a Mint Chocolate coconut milk drink and Nog just for the holidays, and Califa Farms has a vegan almond milk Holiday Nog.

9) Fruit Salad
Never underestimate the power of a fruit salad. It’s always vegan, healthy, and most people like fruit. It’s a win for everyone.

Above all else, we’re just happy that you’re considerate enough to make sure we have something to eat. Thank you!

Interview with Debut Nonfiction Author Alexis Coe

I first met writer Alexis Coe when I lived in the Bay Area and our mutual friend set us up to meet. I’m usually not expecting much on blind friend dates, but Alexis and I hit it off. (I think it also helped that we are both obsessed with our dogs.) Alexis wrote her first book, which was published in October, and she was kind enough to share about her writing process and how her first book tour went.

1) How did the idea for ALICE + FREDA FOREVER come about, and what was your process for getting a book deal with Zest, your publishers?

I read about the case in grad school, and carried it with me for years. Friends in publishing didn’t want it. Historical Societies and museums I was working in didn’t want it. Publications didn’t want it—until the Toast was born. Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg made me their in-house historian, and they gave me a space to share the many historic women I want to write about. From there, an editor in the Bay Area was circling, and basically gave me the opportunity to name my project. (There are some “I told you so” moments I’m going to resist.) I immediately knew that I wanted to tell Alice and Freda’s story, and exactly how I wanted to tell it. Once they agreed to allow me to include illustrated primary sources, I was in.

Next time around, it’ll be different. I don’t want that much control or responsibility. Writing a book is hard enough! Editors can approach me, but a deal will likely come out of a proposal my agent sends out.

2) Your book is based on a true story. To quote your book blurb, which sums up your novel nicely: “Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man and marry seventeen-year-old Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden to ever speak again.” How did you research the story? What information did you gather to piece together their romance and history?

I’m so glad you called it a “novel,” because that’s something I’ve noticed people say, but it isn’t fictitious. Alice and Freda were real people in 1892 Memphis. That being said, I think people call it a novel because it reads a bit like one, which is the GREATEST compliment you can give a nonfiction writer. (I can’t pretend that I didn’t love when the New Yorker said that . . . ) Writing an engaging narrative that never strays from the facts was a real challenge!

I collected old newspaper articles for a few years, which allowed me to get a lay of the land. By the time I started the book in earnest, I knew most of the players and their motivations. From there, I read A LOT of nonfiction books about the period and different themes, like American modernity, all of which are listed in the extensive bibliography. There’s also a section in there about archives, which speak to the other primary sources I used, from courtroom proceedings to patient rolls.

3) ALICE + FREDA FOREVER is beautifully illustrated. How did you find the right illustrator, and what was the collaboration process like for you?

I contacted four artists I knew one way or another, and asked them to submit a sample cover. Pulp (the imprint they started for my book) offered their input, but the decision was up to me. After the artists turned in their work, it was clear to me that Sally Klann was the perfect woman for the job. I went to grad school with Sally’s older sister, Mary. I’ve had the privilege of watching her grow as an artist, both through commissions and exhibitions.

I wrote a draft and highlighted sections I wanted Sally to illustrate, with more specific ideas placed in comments. For the first dozen or so illustrations, there were several exchanges. It was fun to have someone so involved who also felt like a confidante. After the first dozen, I wanted just a few things altered here and there, but for the most part, Sally either met or exceeded my expectations, and I’m in awe of her.

4) What have you learned through the process of writing your first creative nonfiction book?

I can’t stress this enough, second readers are so important. They don’t have to be writers; it might be better if they work outside the field completely, or work in a field related to your book. I had four second readers, and I’m indebted to them: Mary Klann (Sally’s sister), Daniel Jacobson, Emily Clement, and Avi Steinberg.

5) You just came back from a book tour. Where did you go? Most importantly, how did Rosie (your pup) handle you being gone for a month?

I did half dozen events in Memphis, made my way to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, came back to CA, and then had a very busy week and a half in NYC. It was wonderful. I was really nervous going into it, and in a cruel and wonderful turn of fate, the first stop on my book tour was a 7am live television appearance. After that, I felt relatively prepared to experience anything, and let go off all attachment to my known, everyday life. It was all different, and I had to adapt. By the end of that day, which also included a couple of signings, a radio interview, and my first big reading, I felt ready for just about anything. I must confess, I like being in conversation with someone onstage more than reading excerpts (though I often do read them even when I’m in conversation), and I suspect the audience does, too.

Oh, Rosie! She wasn’t very happy about any of it, from the attention writing the book took away from her to the tour. When I came home, she went nuts for an hour, and then fell asleep. She holds no grudges. I aspire to be like her.

You can follow Alexis on Twitter at @Alexis_Coe and on her Facebook page.

rare pub date selfie

Cookbook Review: Vegan Casseroles + a BlendTec Blender Giveaway + Recipe

Photo: juliehasson.com

I admit that I love cookbooks! I can’t get enough of them! I was a fan of Julie Hasson’s Vegan Diner cookbook and I make her super simple Greek tofu scramble, veggie chili, and chocolate chip cookie pie pretty regularly. I’ve fooled several omnivores with her dishes, so when I had a chance to review her latest cookbook, Vegan Casseroles, I jumped at the opportunity.

What I’ve always loved about Julie’s cookbooks is that her recipes are easy to follow and they turn out pretty damn tasty. As a vegan who cooks a lot for omnivores, I’m always looking for recipes that satisfy everyone.

I tried out two recipes—Very Veggie Pot Pie and the Baked Penne with Pumpkin Cream Sauce—and they were perfection.

Very Veggie Pot Pie from Vegan Casseroles

Very Veggie Pot Pie from Vegan Casseroles

As a fun part of reviewing, I’m allowed to share the recipe for the Baked Penne with Pumpkin Cream Sauce with my readers—SEE BELOW. During the months of October and November, I’m all about pumpkin everything, so this dish is ideal for a weeknight dinner.

AND THAT’S NOT ALL!

Running Press, the publishers of Vegan Casseroles, are hosting an awesome Grand Prize giveaway for 1 BlendTec 725 Designer Blender. Five runners up will receive a copy of Vegan Casseroles. 

CLICK HERE TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY!

(Details: Giveaway ends on December 11, and it’s only open to US residents.)

Baked Penne With Pumpkin Cream Sauce from VEGAN CASSEROLES (Running Press). Photo credit: Felicia Perretti.

Baked Penne With Pumpkin Cream Sauce from VEGAN CASSEROLES. Photo credit: Felicia Perretti.

Reprinted with permission from VEGAN CASSEROLES © 2014 by Julie Hasson, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Baked Penne with Pumpkin Cream Sauce

Pumpkin is always a fall favorite, although you can enjoy this dish anytime of the year. The sauce has a hint of sweetness from the pumpkin but also a nice savory flavor from the sage and onions. I think this dish has become one of my daughter’s favorites.

Serves 4 to 6

12 ounces dried penne
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
3 large cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 1/2 cups plain unsweetened soymilk or almond milk, plus more as needed
1 (15-ounce) can puréed pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
5 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
1/4 cup raw unsalted cashews, soaked for at least 2 hours and drained
1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 recipe Buttery Crumb Topping (see below), prepared without nutritional yeast flakes

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish.

In a large pot of lightly salted boiling water, add the penne and cook according to package directions until al dente. Don’t overcook the pasta, especially if you’re using one that is gluten-free. Drain the pasta well and transfer to a large bowl.

While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onion until soft. Add the garlic and cook a few more minutes. Remove from the heat.

In a blender, purée the onion mixture, soymilk, pumpkin, nutritional yeast, cashews, salt, sage, and nutmeg. Blend until the mixture is super-smooth and velvety, and no traces of nuts remain. If the sauce is too thick to blend, you can add up to an additional 1/2 cup of nondairy milk.

Add the pumpkin sauce to the pasta, stirring until the pasta is well coated. Add salt and pepper to taste. Scoop the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the crumb topping over the top of the casserole. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the casserole is hot and the top is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and serve hot.

Tip: If you’re using a high-speed blender, you can skip the soaking step for the cashews and just use them dry. Add a little extra water to blend if needed.

Variation: Substitute fresh or dried rosemary for the sage.

Gluten-Free: Use a gluten-free pasta, such as brown rice, as well as gluten-free panko breadcrumbs in the topping. My favorite gluten-free pasta for this recipe is brown rice penne.

Buttery Crumb Topping

A nice buttery crumb topping is my husband’s favorite part of a casserole. It is especially good on everything from mac and cheese to vegetable casseroles, as it adds a nice rich, garlicky crunch. Crumb toppings are also open to a number of variations, depending on how you season them.

Makes about 1/2 cup, enough to top an 8-or 9-inch casserole

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine, melted
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast flakes
1 clove garlic, pressed or finely minced
Pinch of salt

In a small bowl, mix together the panko breadcrumbs, margarine, nutritional yeast, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Tip: You can substitute olive oil for the margarine, if desired.

Variation: For an herbed-garlic-flavored topping, add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs. For a richer topping, increase the margarine to 3 tablespoons.

Gluten-Free: Use gluten-free panko breadcrumbs. My favorite brand is Ian’s, which is also egg-free and dairy-free.