When Life Gets in the Way

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February, following a routine mammogram. Two days later, I finished my first book. Great timing, huh?  I’m sharing this because sometimes life sneaks up behind you and pounces. It doesn’t have to be an excuse to set aside your burning passion for publication.

If you have the will, fitting in time to write while waiting in doctor’s offices or hospital rooms can work. After surgery, it took more than a week before I could truly feel creative again. Don’t worry; it comes back. Use the time you’re laid up to network, research agents and publishers. Cruise social media, building your platform and readership during sick days.

What are you supposed to do when life gets in the way of your writing? Here are some strategies to help you get through the major (and minor) skirmishes in your life.

Battle Plan

  1. Forgive yourself. Concentrate on what you can control.
  2. Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect to be brilliantly creative every day. Make the most of the days when you are.
  3. Find pockets of peace. Recharging your batteries, physically and mentally, will help speed healing and keep you feeling positive.
  4. Let some stuff go. When you let the little things fall away, the most important parts that are vital to your well-being are exposed.
  5. Feed your soul. Do things you enjoy, like watching old comedies, meditating or hanging out with friends and family.
  6. Journal the experience. Use this challenging time as a plot line or character’s back-story in your next book.

Writing is what I love. It keeps me sane; makes me feel whole. Because of these facts, I reserve part of my time and energies every week to putting pen to paper, after a fashion. Propping up in bed with a laptop in front of you works, too. Fighting back when life hits you hard is possible. Writers are used to it. Impossible odds are our bread and butter.

“My own prescription for health is less paperwork and more running barefoot through the grass. “–Terri Guillemets, American anthropologist

Comparisons

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”—Oscar Wilde

Comparing your writing to others is a fast-track to a killer case of the blues. Don’t subject yourself to this downward spiral; it’s a waste of your precious time. Concentrating on sharpening your craft, educating yourself and building a platform are much better uses of your effort. There is nothing I admire more than when someone is truly authentic in their prose. They sparkle in a library full of dusty volumes.

Tabitha King, wife of author Stephen King in a Writers Digest March 2008 interview: “I wrote before I met the man,” she says. “That’s one of the things he liked about me.” She may not be as prolific as her husband (and really, who is?) but she’s not concerned with comparisons of their style or success. “I’m just too old to care anymore,” she sighs. “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, and if you don’t like it, don’t read it,” she says.

Get over your past. Like a book you’ve just read, close the cover and put it on the shelf. Don’t expend a lot of creative energy on your personal history. Looking over your shoulder all the time gets old fast. Try living in the moment, or better yet, looking ahead to your future.

Don’t compare your present self to your past, or future, selves. Move forward at your own pace. Use your time in pursuit of personal excellence. Be willing to put in the work. The rest of the world will take care of themselves.

  1. Be (a little) ego-centric. Stop looking at what everyone else is doing and concentrate on making your writing its best.
  2. Be authentic. People can smell cow patties a mile away. No one wants to read stilted and awkward prose. Get real…real quick.
  3. Be willing to put in the time. Pour every bit of yourself into your writing. Hone and craft your skills until your product shines. Every hard-fought hour you spend working is worth it, in the end.

Don’t shy away from criticism, but don’t let it paralyze you, either. It seems everyone has an opinion about the best path to publication. There are more author stories than childbirth stories, it seems. Glean what you can from others’ experiences, but stay true to your own journey. Your gut will tell you the best way to go, whether it is self-publishing, blogging, large or small publishing houses, or simply a few copies for friends.

Although they are pretty, if there were no other flower in the world but red tulips, it would be a pretty boring landscape. My grandmother’s garden was a kaleidoscope of colors, overflowing with vibrant hues. I loved the randomness of patterns; it made my eyes jump and my creative heart sing. Don’t strive to be a carbon-copy of anyone else (or your former self). It’s much better to be an original you.

Research: Play the Sleuth

I sat at my mother’s kitchen table, surrounded by loved ones. We spent the afternoon sharing memories from their childhood, about growing up in a small town in Missouri. The only thing that interrupted this enjoyable visit was when I had to turn over the tape. I was doing research on a story.

Good and complete research can erase the fear that writers face when crafting a book. Simple mistakes can distract your reader from the story. In order to suspend belief and encourage people to travel with you in your literary journey, your book must feel “real” to the reader. Authentic prose equals details: context, environment, history, and language bring perspective to literature.

Everyone knows that non-fiction work requires a great deal of research, but it is vital to all forms of writing. You wouldn’t want a killer to carry a .57 Magnum in your Wild West adventure, and it would be tricky to make your male protagonist sound authentic if you’re a female. According to The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, the average man speaks 7,000 words per day, unlike women, who use 20,000. And we talk twice as fast, but who’s counting?

While the local library used to be where everyone went to find facts, we now have a much larger resource in our own homes. The internet is a veritable gold mine of statistics and information. There are two simple rules for effective research: ask and go.

When I did research on a family history, I emailed the extension agent for Carroll County, Missouri, and asked questions regarding crops, livestock and weather as far back as the 1940s. Looking for further information on vineyards in the area, I cruised websites of wine producers in central Missouri, which contained a wealth of historical data.

Some other resources to dig into:

Library of Congress

Travel blogs

English-language online newspapers

City Hall

County Courthouse

Census records

University and college libraries

College presses

Historical museums

Ellis Island

Genealogy websites

Nursing homes

Medline (U.S. Library of Medicine)

Layout of a city on Google Earth

Baby name websites (for finding great character names)

CIA Public Relations Office (for spy novels)

Twitter (contact people in the profession or geographic area in which you are interested)

Family members or friends with professional experience

Local tradesmen, collectors or craftsmen

If you meet someone with an interesting or unusual vocation or hobby, make sure to get their contact information. You never know when you, or another writer, might need to use it. Ask good, thoughtful questions. Play the sleuth. Remember Nicholas Cage in the National Treasure movies? By the way, I did my research on research by finding articles in Writer’s Digest, Word Serve Water Cooler, and by asking authors.

Whether you begin or end with research on your work-in-progress, make sure that you double-check your facts. One example of continuity is word usage in dialogue. Certain colloquialisms and slang terms are used in different regions of the country and world, or during past eras. These can be checked with area historical societies.

Finally, fact checking and research bring a “ring of truth” or authenticity to your prose. The nuances of background, sights, smells and sounds fill out the gaps in your story and bring rich texture. The most vital part of a reader’s experience is that they can “feel” the place or time of the novel, including science fiction. Research can provide that understanding and the process is both educational and enlightening.

“Your job as writer isn’t just to entertain, but also to teach. The reader may not know anything about the exotic setting of your novel, but through your research (and perhaps experience) you will take them right there and they will learn about it through you. Research breathes life into your narrative and your characters and in turn, that breathes reality into your writing.”—A.J. Humpage, novelist

The Creative Process

     There is an urban legend that the great German-born inventor, Albert Einstein, dreamed up his Special Theory of Relativity while riding his bicycle in circles, arms crossed, as he smoked his pipe. It was said that this was his favorite way to ponder a problem.

While most regard Einstein as a scientific or mathematical genius, he was actually a creative genius. He let his imagination rule his thoughts. Mr. Einstein liked to fly by the seat of his pants. He was a pantster. What’s a pantster, you say? It’s a person who creates, or writes in our case, by sitting down and simply letting it pour out, with no regard for anything but imagination.

The opposite of a pantster is a plotter, someone who is methodical, deliberate and structured in their creative process. Before any writing is done, a plotter carefully determines what he will write, in what order and manner. So, which is better? A plotter or a pantster?

     Pantster: Your strong suit is going with the flow. You may want to set aside certain times/hours of the day when you feel most creative. Put a “genius at work” sign on the door and a brew a cup of coffee or tea. Make sure you don’t stop the writing process to correct any of your manuscript. There will be plenty of time for that during edits.

Wenger and Poe, authors of “The Einstein Factor,” cite Friedrich Schiller, famed German writer, “You reject too soon and discriminate too severely. It hinders the work of the mind…if the intellect examines too closely the ideas…pouring in…at the gates.” Schiller suggests deferring critical judgment for a later time.

     Plotter: Do you need to know where you’re going before you start? If your genre is complex, like mystery, you may need to keep a close eye on the plot threads, so they are all sewn in by the end of the story. Otherwise, it is wasted effort.

For the plotter, a spider web story diagram may be helpful. On a large page, write your main topic or plot line and circle it. Draw four lines, one on each side of the circle. Write four scenes at the end of the four lines and circle them. Draw a line from each of the four scene circles and write four sub-topics or scenes. Continue as needed.

An index card/bulletin board system is preferred by other plotters. You may want to write character information, scenes, plot and sub-plot notes, dialogue, setting and background on cards. These can be arranged in chronological order on the board, which should be placed in your writing area to reference as needed.

Don’t let all that discipline and structure affect your creativity. According to Wenger and Poe, “Our subconscious minds spew forth streams of images, hunches, and subtle perceptions almost 24 hours a day, many of them charged with insight and premonition…most of us fail to heed these messages…first impulse was to squelch it…the vast majority of people squelch their most profound insights without even knowing it…this defensive reflex…blocks us from achieving our full mental capacity.”

Whether you are a pantster, a plotter, or somewhere in between, you need to keep entertaining the creative genius that inhabits our souls. Einstein’s imagination flowed when he rode his bike, something that reminded him of his childhood in Germany. Perhaps our own organic creativity could be enhanced by allowing our thoughts the freedom and space to play.

   “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”–Albert Einstein, inventor (1879-1955)


Waging War

When Joshua led his troops before the walls of Jericho, they first prepared. The soldiers made ready for battle by girding their loins and shouldering weapons. Writers can arm themselves with their own weapons of war, as they face the battle of the page.

From the humble mechanical pen to the latest computer application, wordsmiths have a plethora of helps and tech toys to make writing less daunting. Whether your genre is young adult, poetry, journalism or romance, you will need to fill your tool belt.

It’s a good idea to have a few basic references on your book shelf. A dictionary, thesaurus, and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style are great go-to volumes. You can also use online resources. Bartlby.com features the text of loads of reference books.

Most writers have access to a laptop or desktop computer, while others eschew technology and stick with pen and paper for a more organic experience. Gel ink pens seem to be more reliable than the old standby ballpoint instrument. If you have problems with hand cramping, consider an ergonomic model like the Yoropen, or Pilot’s Dr. Pen. While Moleskines are elegant and durable, they are pricey (large size is $12.21 on Amazon.com). A cheaper and somewhat perkier cousin is Post-Its covered notebook (4×6 size is $4.99 at Staples). Both options are portable, which is vital for today’s on-the-go scribe.

Other travel-savvy tools are the digital camera, smart phone and digital voice recorder (Sony makes one for $33.88 that holds 500 hours). A DVR can be used for both interviews and your own notes. Wired Magazine is a trusted resource for finding the latest gadget or software.

If you crave organization, index cards and a poster board can be utilized to plot out your next novel. Simply write character sketches and scenes on cards and then place them in chronological order on the board. Writer’s Project Organizer is a computer application that takes a novel from conception to birth. Scrivener for Mac OS X and RoughDraft for Windows are two popular writing software apps.

Calendars are helpful for scheduling writing and editing, as well as tracking agent and publisher queries and contest submissions. Cozi.com makes a great online calendar with notes and lists, as well as household organization tips.

Literary creators are a sensitive bunch and like to be comfortable as they write. Some prefer a quiet room with soft jazz in the background, a crackling fire in the hearth, scented candles and a soothing beverage, while others are drawn to a lively public location with lots of noisy activity.

Whatever weapons you use to wage war with the page, satisfy yourself. Nobody else sits in your chair, but you. En garde!

Quiet, please. Writer @ Work

We’ve talked before about the voices in your head suddenly going silent. But what if they stay that way? You’re stuck. A deadline is looming ever closer and there’s nothing on the paper but lint. Writer’s block is a familiar, albeit dreaded term that every wordsmith knows.

The holidays and all their hubbub are over. It’s time to get your butt back in the chair and get on with it. Start over with the New Year. Clean your desk and get rid of the brain clutter, too. Don’t let the post-Christmas blues cloud your creativity.

Have you ever painted yourself into a literary corner? Maybe you’ve reached a spot in your story that you can’t go beyond.  A cold, clammy feeling envelops your psyche. “Is it gone forever this time?” you wonder. Don’t beat yourself up, there is a remedy.

Go outside for some fresh air and exercise when writer’s block strikes. Read a few chapters of a great book (or a stinky one), a blog on writing craft or a few inspirational quotes. Ask a trusted friend to read your work-in-progress and give you some feedback.

When your writing time is fragmented due to work, family, or other commitments, it’s hard to refocus. Make a date with your story and keep it. Even fifteen minutes of keyboard pounding is one hundred percent more than no time at all. Waiting rooms and grocery store lines are great places to jot down thoughts and ideas.

If you’re stuck because you are not happy with the direction the story is going, reassess. Read over what is already written. Reacquaint yourself with your characters and their lives. Give yourself a creative pep talk and move forward without expectations. Allow your work to speak.

Creative Calisthenics is an excellent book by Terri Main, and a valuable tool for jump starting your prose motor. It all comes down to motivation. If the spirit is willing, the body will follow. In no time at all, your muse will be sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear again.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”–Sylvia Plath

Love Your Reader

“You look ravishing tonight,” Marco breathed into the dark-haired beauty’s ear as he led her to the dance floor. The exotic sound of a tango filled the room and the couple embraced in a passionate dance.

 

While the first paragraph of this essay evokes romance and seduction, the emotion that a reader wants from an author is pure, innocent love. As writers, we should strive to attain that lasting kind of devotion from our readers; a faithful, monogamous relationship. Following are some ideas to build a life-long love.

Invite your reader in. Once you are comfortable in your genre, you can identify your target audience. Who are they? Why do they read mysteries or (insert your genre here)? Encourage them to read your product by building a web presence and blogging regularly. Writing is lonely work, but you must always imagine your reader looking over your shoulder. Keep them in mind as you labor.

Connect with your reader. Write with your reader in mind. What are their likes and dislikes? Put yourself in their place. Above all, share your heart. Vulnerability builds loyalty. We must create characters that our readers connect with on an emotional level.

Don’t frustrate your reader. Build tension, but don’t carry it on too long. You can’t hide the main character in your story forever without annoying your reader. Don’t leave them hanging in the end. They want something to take away, something hopeful, unexpected or thought-provoking. That’s what makes bookworms crave your next novel.

Respect your reader.  How can they benefit from your work? Remember, something you have written has the power to change a person’s life. You don’t want someone to read your stuff and forget it. You want your words to take up residence in their hearts and minds. Words are powerful. Treat them, and your reader, with dignity.

Stephen King, On Writing: “I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me, that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.”

Bad Reviews

It arrived in your email box yesterday. You’ve read it 20 times since then, and still can’t believe someone would say such hurtful things about your story. Receiving a bad review is not lethal, but it sure can gut your confidence like a fisherman with a striped bass.

First, if bad reviews send you into the depths of the mullygrubs, your psyche sandwiched between thick slices of doubt and insecurity, don’t read them. Your novel, like your child, may have its flaws, but strengths as well. If you are working towards perfection, then read everything critics say and slash away.

Vulnerability occurs when you are passionate about your work. That renders you sensitive to harsh criticism. Not everyone loves your book like you do.  When someone trashes your baby, you’re going to bleed. A blood-letting could be cathartic though, and lead to fresh growth.

The 2009 forest fire that burned more than 1700 acres of wilderness in Yosemite National Park sounds like a tragedy at face value. Actually, the fire was started by park rangers and was part of the natural process of clearing off dead vegetation and litter to “clean” the land. New grass and young trees have replaced the dead, charred undergrowth. It’s the circle of life, Simba.

Now think about your work. If you remove some of the underbrush, would it look fresh, young and alive? Perhaps the accelerant of a bad review could catch the spark of your story and bring out a verdant meadow of prose.

Learn the differences between a hatchet job and a sincerely critical review.  Is it a personal attack? Full of generalities? That review is straight from Satan’s lair. Don’t let it quell your confidence.

Remember that all reviews are subjective. The author has their own experience to draw as reference. Don’t let one poison pen send you packing. Glean what you can from the criticism and walk away, holding your head high. You have survived to join an elite fraternity, the Gloria Gaynor Guild of Highly-Criticized Authors.

Pay no attention to what the critics say.  A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.  ~Jean Sibelius

Letting Go of Your Work

“It seems like yesterday when we sent Junior off to kindergarten, and now he’s starting college!”

“There, there, Marge, think of the bright side. Now we can put a hot tub in his room.”

Like parents sending their child off to college, writers must release their work for scrutiny and possible publication. Not unlike parents, authors may have trouble letting go of their little darlings. Locking your prose in a desk drawer feels safe. How will you know its true worth without assessment? Little Sarafina looks lovely in that gown, but no one will ever see her if you don’t let her go to the prom.

The goal of writing is not to hoard your stories, putting them in display cases with velvet ropes and spotlights. Sure, these monuments to your untested and immature creativity are treasured by you. If this is why you write, then you’re done. For those who seek publication, however, this is not an option. You can only mature and grow as a writer when you submit your work for critique.

Insecurity prevents budding writers from showing their work to others, be they literary professionals or average readers. Potential novelists may believe that if readers don’t like their writing, they don’t like them. “Don’t take it personally” is an easy phrase that is hard to absorb. Proficient writing (and thick skin) is achieved only through consistent critical crafting.

Battle Plan

  1. Start close to home, by showing your work to someone you trust.
  2. Build up your confidence. Have your work critiqued by a literary professional.
  3. Continue your quest by honing your work to a razor-sharp edge, then submitting.

When parents have children, their goal is not to keep them in diapers at home their whole lives. God forbid! Kids gain their independence gradually, with small victories (and failures) along the way. Think of your stories as grown children. Do you want them parked on your family room sofa, playing video games the rest of their lives, or facing the world with fully equipped prose? Plaster on a smile, proud parent, and kiss them goodbye.

A NaNoWriMo Success Story

Quite by accident, I had the radio on this morning when author Erin Morgenstern came on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR. Erin’s debut novel, The Night Circus, is a sensation that’s drawing comparisons to Harry Potter, but for adults. Here’s what they had to say about it on the radio show’s website:

It’s the story of a life-or-death competition between two young magicians late in the 19th century. The contest takes place at Le Cirque des Reves – The Circus of Dreams. There’s also a dreamlike aspect to how the book itself came about. Erin Morgenstern says she started with a circus and it turned into a story about choices and love, and finding the shades of grey between the black-and-white.

The Night CircusI was only half-listening to the radio from the other room until I heard Morgenstern — who speaks in a girlish, eager voice that fits her fantastical, quirky personality — say that her book owed its genesis to NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Many KWA members have participated in this annual writing challenge, which lays down the gauntlet to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Morgenstern says she launched a NaNoWriMo project in 2005 that wasn’t going anywhere. She decided she needed to give her characters something to do, so she sent them to the circus. The rest is a publishing success story that inspired me. I’m even still listening to her interview as I write this post. (The fact that we share the same name, and that the host keeps saying it, is lulling me into a fantasy that I am the successful novelist getting national media exposure.)

I won’t recap the whole interview but you can go back and listen to it yourself. And I recommend all aspiring writers do so. She started just like you and me: with an idea, the discipline to write it down and keep at it, and no real publishing connections. She sent loads of queries to loads of agents, and actually had the good fortune to get a lot of requests for the full manuscript. And then, she got back a lot of rejections. But they came with feedback, and she took their advice about what didn’t work. She rewrote and rewrote until her novel landed in front an agent who also said it wasn’t ready–but he offered her a contract, and helped guide her the rest of the way. Now she’s in talks with Hollywood about bringing her book to the screen (which I have to admit I would love to happen to me).

Two lessons here: Persevere, no matter how many times you are rejected or ignored. Rewrite, no matter how perfect you think your story is. Let’s face it, if we want to get published, we have to submit a product that will sell. But in the case of books, our customers are readers, and so are we. And we want to read something good! So listen to your critics, take what you like, and leave the rest.

We’re about 5 weeks from NaNoWriMo 2011. Consider taking a crack at it. Maybe this is the year you unearth a circus of your own.