When Your Writing Needs a Kick-Start

Kick-start:  to start something, to give something energy. Literally, to kick a motorcycle into life. Figuratively, to jump-start something.

Like that writing project just sitting there?

If you’re anything like me, the last few months have been a downhill slide. Slow, sure, but steady. Yes, there have been moments where things have leveled out; you’ve felt okay, things seem to be going well – for me, that was two weeks ago when I rescued this adorable little thing that had somehow become impaled on a barbed wire fence –

Hammie 2

but then something else happens and suddenly you’re on that downhill slide again, just trying to figure it all out and stay afloat.

Like, I suspect, a lot of writers, I had kind of thought that this time spent social distancing and staying home more would mean I could write more. I even printed out the last draft I’d done of my novel Ghost Hunt and went through it, making notes, reading over the notes I’d left myself. When I stopped that project last October so I could focus on the research for the Kimmel case, I left myself a pretty good blueprint to follow. The pages and pages of notes I’d written were excellent, and I was able to start to see where things needed to change, to be rewritten, in some cases where entire scenes needed to be deleted so that the blueprint could be followed.

And then, depression began to set in.

I don’t know about you, but when depression hits me – and it does often, and no, I’m not talking about ‘the blues’ or just feeling down in the dumps, but real, true depression, the kind it takes monumental effort to rouse yourself from, if you even can – I can’t write. At all. Some writers can write through it; some use writing as a way to raise themselves up from the depths, or to work through the causes of their depression. More power to them, and to you, if you’re like that. I wish I was! But when it hits me, I find myself unable to write a single thing. Can’t even look at my manuscript. The very idea of turning on the laptop and putting fingers to keyboard is just too exhausting, mentally and physically.

Especially not when those rewrites are so intense. 

I went through the manuscript in late May. But the more I thought about jumping in and starting those rewrites, the more overwhelming it all became. Because it’s a lot. And I’ve been doing rewrites to this thing for a long time. Add in the fact that I had planned to go to England in late May – in fact, I was about two days from booking the trip when everything shut down, I even had the itinerary putting me in London for at least one performance of Hamilton and the seat picked out, damn it! – just made it a thousand times worse. Because this novel is set in Oxford, and I just do not know how to write it when I’ve never been there. Hence, the need for that trip. I need the veracity, the sounds and smells of the city. I need to walk it, to know the streets and what you see when you turn this way on this corner. I know how the colleges are nestled next to each other in the heart of the city, but not how they mesh together. In short, how can I write about a city that’s beloved by thousands, when I’ve never been there? I can’t.

And so the rewrites became even more daunting, and I said screw it.

And that’s where it’s all sat for the last thirty days. I can’t go to my coffee shop and write in the afternoons, as I usually do almost every day in the summer. And it’s hard for me to write anywhere else. Home is congested, busy, full of things that need my attention. And sitting outside when it’s 102 in the shade is not happening. Besides. Those rewrites. Those daunting, exhausting rewrites. I couldn’t even think about them. And for the past month, I haven’t. Well, that’s not true. I’ve thought about them a little, in that fleeting, guilty way we think about projects that need to be done, those projects that skitter off into the abyss because we just can’t face them. Hunt was in danger of being one of those projects.

So a few days ago, I decided I had to do something.

The fact is, none of us knows what’s going to happen in the next two months, or two years. God help us all. And my depression isn’t going to magically go away on its own. There will be good days; there will be bad days. There will be days when I can barely function (except that I have no choice but to function, or the cats will eat me). I have to accept that, and jump in on the good days, and give myself a break on the bad ones.

So, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo. 

We’re all familiar with NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. But it’s evolved beyond that, and now every July, you can join Camp NaNoWriMo. Here’s the website:  https://nanowrimo.org/

There are a few reasons why this is so great – and in fact, it might even be better than November:

  • First of all, we’re stuck indoors anyway; we may as well put that time to good use.
  • Second, some of us have drafts we started last November (or before) that need to be finished; this is a good time to revisit them.
  • Third, you set your own goal. If 50,000 words is way too much, set the bar lower, like I did. I set my goal for 20,000 words – I don’t know how much rewriting I’ll be doing yet, but that seemed reasonable.
  • Fourth:  it keeps you accountable on those long, hot summer days when we could so easily just lay on the couch and watch reruns of Bones and Supernatural and Dr. Phil, eating ice cream and dreading the coming of August.
  • And fifth:  I needed the kickstart. 

As my friend is always telling me:  “You know how you get momentum? You go out there and you get it.” If I don’t write, the novel will never get done. If I don’t find a way to encourage myself, or even force myself, to write, I’ll never get the momentum going. For example, I tried all last year to lose weight. Fluctuated up and down, and by the time the year ended, I was right back where I’d started. I just couldn’t get the momentum going. But this year, I hit the ground running – literally – got a FitBit, and now I’m doing 3.5 miles per day, plus core workouts and some small hand weights, and I’ve lost 9lbs already this year. I went out and got the momentum. I kickstarted myself. And the FitBit keeps me accountable. I know what calorie count I need to hit every day to continue to lose weight. Just like I know what I need to do to finish this novel.

So I signed up. Did the whole thing – typed up a short synopsis of the novel, uploaded a short excerpt, and put in my word count. Maybe by doing just a bit at at time, I can get the momentum going. I have the blueprint. I know what needs to be done.

And hopefully, this is the kick-start I need to get it done.

 

Deadly Perfection – Why It Kills Writers (and our novels!)

“A poem is never finished – only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Have you ever been frog-marched to a particular session at a writing conference because your writing friends are absolutely convinced you HAVE to be at that session?

OH. Good. I’m not alone! 🙂

Last Saturday, I attended the Nimrod Writer’s Conference at the University of Tulsa on Saturday with a group of fellow writer friends. One of the sessions was cleverly titled, “How do I Know When I’m  Done? Strategies for Revision.” That’s the one I was forced to attend. Seriously. You’d think I had a problem with finishing novels or something . . .

This was a panel session, meaning that four authors held a discussion with the audience about their revision strategies and – yes – knowing when you’re done. Three were fiction writers; one was a poet, so they had varying points of view about this issue!

For me – as for many, many, many writers, maybe even you! – perfection is the siren call. We know it’s a siren call. We know that by following it, we are abandoning all else. We know that by trying to find it, we’re risking running ashore, having our novels crash and burn, having ourselves crash and burn. That’s what sirens do. They make you destroy yourself. Perfection is a Siren. She’s insidious and seductive, and she makes you think one more draft, one more set of rewrites, moving this scene here and tightening this, creating a better motive for this character . . . ad infinitum . . . and then it will be done because it will be Perfect. 

I am a perfectionist. I know whereof I speak. I also know that perfection is not achievable. So did the panelists. But for them as well, it’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. So how do they do it? Well, as one put it, “Perfection is the enemy of the paycheck.” When you’re a published author and on a deadline, you just don’t have time for perfection! It has to get as close as you can get it by the deadline, and then you have to let it go. (Though at least one admitted that when your intuition tells you the novel isn’t right, you should listen to your intuition . . . because otherwise, your lovely, sweet, supportive editor will call you and in the nicest voice possible, say, “Oh, honey . . . NO.”)

However, for poet Patricia Smith, it’s a little different. She has more time to work on her poems. She performs her poetry live, and so she gets feedback on it constantly. Or, as she said, “Perfection is fluid, it changes from audience to audience. Perfection is a shifting thing, depending on the needs of the people I’m writing for.”

So perfection isn’t a realistic goal. So . . . you’re off the hook, right?! No edits! No rewrites! One draft and you’re done! Right?

WRONG.

Perfection may not be achievable. But in today’s world of publishing, we have to get as freaking close to it as we possible can. Your first draft, as my friend and novelist Debra Dockter says, is a sandbox; you put up railroad ties and pour in the sand, and then you get to play in it. Revisions. Revisions are where we pull out ideas of theme, deepen character motivation, establish settings. Or, as one panelist put it,

“Revision is where the magic is.” 

But. How long those revisions take is another matter entirely. If you’re on deadline – well, in the words of one panelist, “Deadlines are a great way of knowing when you’re done.” You might get a small grace period, but you’ll be overnighting that thing to New York in the morning for sure.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2What resonated with me, though, was the comment made by one author on the panel. She said the danger of taking years to write a novel is that we grow, change, learn. We’re not stagnant. 

This one made me sit up and take note. That’s why I put my handy-dandy nota bene icon next to it. I know this. I know this firsthand. I’ve seen my writing grow and change over the years – yes, since I’ve been working on this series! I’ve gotten older. My perceptions have changed. The core of who I am hasn’t – but my writing style, my world-building, my word choices, have all changed. And my characters have, I hoped, kept pace a little. Grown and deepened as well.

But that’s the problem. Every time we evolve, we look at the novel with a slightly different outlook. And that outlook makes us go back to revisions. Some are good. Some are redundant, unnecessary. Who can say if taking nine years to write a novel is good or not? Maybe it takes that long for some writers to mature into their voices, to develop the skills to pull off a novel. As Patricia Smith put it, “Sometimes things don’t work because they’re asking for something we don’t know how to do at the time.” We mature as writers. We figure out solutions to things that were unsolvable a year ago, two years ago.

And at the same time, we run the risk of putting off the inevitable.

So I’ve made a commitment to myself. And now I’m putting that on paper. My novels will not be perfect. That’s a hard, bitter thing to accept, but I guess I can work up to that. What I HAVE to do, though, for myself and my characters, is get the damn thing done. Finish this last round of edits, and take a deep breath, and send it out into the world, knowing it won’t be perfect. Knowing there will be rejections, and maybe an offer, and if there are offers, there will be more rewrites, more edits.

If we ever want to be published, we have to accept the sad fact:  our novels are never finished, only abandoned. And although I known this blog post isn’t perfect, I’m publishing it anyway!

(And just so you know we’re not alone, here’s a few links to other articles on overcoming perfectionism in writing!)

https://thewritepractice.com/writing-perfectionism/

https://www.craftyourcontent.com/writers-perfectionism/

https://mandywallace.com/writing-perfectionist/

What’s in a gait? Horses and how they move.

As I peruse writing message boards – especially those seeking advice on certain questions – I often see some variation on this:

“How long can a horse gallop?” “How long can a horse go without rest?” “I’ve got my hero needing to ride his horse 20 miles in one hour. Is that possible?”

Yeah. NO.

Nothing pulls a reader out of a book faster than finding something that’s Not Right. If I read that a horse is galloping for an hour straight, I’ll chuck that book straight across the room! So I thought this week, I’d see if I could clarify a few things when it comes to horses and their gaits.

The basic gaits:  The way a horse moves is called a gait. Horses have four basic gaits:  walk, trot, canter, gallop. (We won’t get into the gaits that some breeds are specially bred for.)

  • The walk is a four-beat, flat – well, it’s a walk.
  • The trot is two-beat; the horse’s diagonal legs move together as a pair. Human equivalent is a jog. Here’s a link to a short video on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkRieNqW56o (There’s also the pace, but unless you’re writing about Standardbred racing, I wouldn’t worry about that.)
  • The canter is a three-beat gait; most horses find the canter easy to maintain, and it’s easier to ride than the trot.
  • The gallop is the fastest gait a horse has. It’s four-beat, and cannot be maintained for long (it depends on the fitness of the horse, the terrain, etc. but it’s like having a person sprint. They can’t maintain that for long.) Horse racing is the gallop. Here’s a video of the most famous match race in history – Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, 1938. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVT2MPNCqgM Notice how at the end, Seabiscuit’s legs are nothing but a blur? That’s why horse races only last 1-2 minutes. Horse just can’t maintain this pace for that long.

Here’s one of the most fantastic videos I’ve ever seen – this is Edward Gal and his most famous ride, Moorlands Totilas. This is Grand Prix Dressage. Unless the horses in  your book DO Grand Prix dressage, they won’t be doing any of the movements you see here – but this will give you an idea of the basic gaits and how they differ from one another. Totilas enters at the trot; the walk is at 3:29; the canter work begins at 4:00. Also – most horses who do dressage work, even at the Grand Prix level, don’t make it look this damn effortless. Totilas is in a  class by himself.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT6Yn7SLkmQ

How long can a horse maintain its gaits? It depends on a lot of things – are they at liberty? How fit are they? How much does the rider weigh? How much other weight is the horse carrying?

When you see Westerns with the riders galloping their horses hell-bent across the desert – YEAH, RIGHT. Doesn’t happen. Not for long, anyway. The same thing with the stagecoaches and the four-horse teams cantering or galloping down the road – just NO. Maybe for very short bursts, but those stagecoaches were bloody heavy! Mostly, those horses walked and trotted. Mostly they walked. Have you ever seen True Grit? Remember the scene at the end where Rooster Cogburn gallops the pony to death in order to save whats-her-name, the whiny little girl? That’s the reality. That’s what happens when  you gallop a horse too fast, for too long.

It also depends on the breed or type of horse you have. If you’re writing a Western, your horses are probably going to be a mix of several breeds. The cavalry had Thoroughbreds, which often escaped and bred with local stock, producing a tough, smaller horse that was more suited to the environment. If you’re writing a medieval history and you have knights, they would have ridden draft or draft-crosses – horses big and heavy enough to carry a rider, his armor, and his incredibly heavy saddle. Here’s a chart that shows some of the major draft breeds – as you can see, there’s quite a bit of difference between them all!

draft_horse_breeds

ALSO – if you research this further, you’ll find that many times, Western riders have different terms for the gaits. They refer to a trot as a ‘jog’ and the canter as a ‘lope’. In point of fact, if you show Western, these are the proper terms. ‘Lope,’ however, is often a four-beat, quasi-gait, and not a true three-beat canter, and the ‘jog’ is often more of a shuffle. To illustrate, here’s a video from the 2008 Quarter Horse Congress:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stEgqgnbC4M (I’m trying to be fair, but I absolutely despise the way Western Pleasure has gone downhill! When I showed 20+ years ago, proper gaits were still rewarded – ugh.)

I hope some of these videos help illustrate the basic horse gaits, and maybe clarify any questions you might have had. 🙂

Now that NaNoWriMo is over . . .

So. NaNoWriMo is over. Maybe you got to 50,000 words. Maybe you didn’t. I did!

But even if you didn’t . .  . Take heart. Take stock of what you’ve written. Was it a novel you’ve had in mind for a long time? Or something you just started on a whim, with no idea where it would end up? Did you have notecards and plans and research done, or did you just say “hey, what happens if you take x and y and mix in this and that and . . .”

Either way, it’s good. You wrote.

But what now?

Apparently (and I didn’t realize this until I found this article – http://www.salon.com/2010/11/02/nanowrimo/), there’s a problem with NaNo novels being pushed onto unsuspecting agents and editors without any thought to the process whatsoever. To save you the trouble of reading the entire rant, here’s the salient point:

I am not the first person to point out that “writing a lot of crap” doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November. And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. “Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?” tweeted one, “Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo.” Another wrote, “Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with ‘I’ve just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and …’”

I’d like to say that surprises me, but – given that I actually once read a message board post that said, ‘I just finished my 88,000 word novel two hours ago and uploaded it to Amazon as an e-book, and NO ONE has downloaded it! What do I do?” – I can’t. This could, in fact, be a pervasive problem.

So what do you do?

The last time I won – three years ago – I knew I wasn’t done with Nicky. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was heading, but I did know that Nicky and I stood at the edge of a big adventure together. I knew this would be bigger than any book I’d ever attempted before. Which is probably why I’m still feeling my way through it.

This year, I did a bit here and a bit there. I wrote on three different novels, in fact. None are done yet. But that’s not really what NaNoWriMo is about. It’s not about finishing a novel; it’s about starting that journey. (I think, anyway.)

So if you won NaNo, congratulations! But now, let’s think. What, exactly, have you written?

It’s time to be honest, unfortunately, and that’s hard for a lot of us. But as a writer, you have to be realistic about what you’ve written. I know, I know:  this is your baby. You just spent an entire month (more, hopefully!) writing it, crafting it, bringing it to life. You’re too close to it. Just like no parent wants to admit their child is a screaming, raging, bullying lunatic (and if you’re saying “but mine isn’t,” trust me, IT IS!!!) no author wants to admit their novel has problems.

You have to, though.

If you’re still writing, that’s great. That means you’re not satisfied with it yet. You’re not done. Keep going! Maybe NaNo just opened the floodgates for your characters and you’re only now feeling them come to life. That’s fantastic! Keep going!

But if you feel done . . . let’s evaluate.

  • How many words did you do? If you’re at less than 50,000 words, either keep writing or . . .
  • You need to decide: Is this a novel? A novella? A very long short story?
  • How do you know? Simple. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? I’m guessing that yours may have only the beginning and the middle. The ending is probably not quite there yet. Keep working.
  • Characters: are they fully formed, or do they feel like cardboard cutouts you’re parading around on a stage? Do you know what they want? Do they know what they want? If not, keep writing. This goes for ALL your characters! Main characters, secondary characters, even – especially – your baddies.
  • Do the characters have believable goals, and do the goals remain consistent throughout? (Do their names remain consistent throughout? If you’ve been on a 30-day writing binge, you might accidentally have renamed someone at some point.)
  • Does the beginning jive with the end? In other words – do the characters achieve the goals they set out to achieve in Chapter 1? If not, keep writing. It’s really not surprising to find that your characters change from the start of your draft – what you thought you were going to write about isn’t what they want to talk about. That means they’re taking on a life of their own. And that’s a good thing! But it does mean some rewrites.
  • Are there plot holes? If so, fix them. Are there places where you just wrote “Stuff Happens” and forged ahead to a scene you really wanted to write? Nothing wrong with that – writers do it all the time – but you do eventually need to figure out what ‘stuff happens.’
  • Do all the characters have a reason to be there? If not, get rid of them.
  • Maybe most importantly of all:  are you scared to death to let your beta readers see it? If so, it’s definitely not yet ready to go out into the world!

While these are obviously big, overarching things – that’s where you need to start, because any one of these will cause a publisher or agent to toss your submission like yesterday’s cat litter. As harsh as that blog post I quoted above is, let’s face it:  it’s true. Agents and editors are looking for reasons to reject you out of hand. Your job is to force them to read your manuscript.

There are many published books that started as NaNo projects, but they all have one thing in common:  the authors took the time to craft them afterwards, to mold and shape them into a readable, marketable work.

Now, that’s your job, too.

 

Here’s a link to some novels that got their start as NaNao projects: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53481/14-published-novels-written-during-nanowrimo

And here’s a link to the NaNo Official List of published NaNo projects:  http://nanowrimo.org/published-wrimos

And, to give you some inspiration and make you feel better about that first draft, here’s a great blog post from NaNo published writer Alan Averill:  http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/128034053636/i-spy-with-my-critical-eye-trusting-your-inner

Inspired by true events . . . authors, agents, and publishing.

Last Saturday, I trekked 60 miles – about an hour and a half – to hear a ‘publishing panel’ at the Wichita Public Library.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and since I was about 15 minutes late (darn my addiction to white chocolate-cinnamon chip scones!) I honestly can’t tell you who the panelists were – I know one of them was former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low-Weso, who is co-publisher of Mammoth Publications (https://mammothpublications.net/). (No, the information’s not available on the library’s website, either, sorry!) By the time I got there, they were taking questions from the audience.

Most of the audience seemed to be beginning writers – there were some that were already published, either by small presses or self-published. I have to say that I think the panelists would have been best if left alone to answer the questions. However, there was a facilitator – a librarian – who simply wouldn’t let that happen. By the time it was over (half an hour early), my inner teacher had kicked in and I wanted to stand up and say LISTEN PEOPLE, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWERS TO YOUR QUESTIONS, LET’S GO OUTSIDE AND I’LL GIVE IT MY BEST SHOT! It was pretty clear that most people had come to get specific answers to specific questions – but they didn’t get them. And I felt so bad for them.

But I did want to address one question that was handled so poorly, the advice given was useless. Here it is:

I’m already self-published, but I haven’t had much success. How would I break into mainstream publishing? The facilitator wouldn’t let the panelists answer this question. She answered it herself and her answer was total crap. Her suggestion was to get a blog and get your books listed on Goodreads.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the real answer:  GET AN AGENT. It really is the only way to break into mainstream publishing, even with small houses. Very few reputable publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts. They just get too many! Last year, a fairly well-known sci-fi publisher accepted open submissions (no agents) for 30 days. They had more than 5,000 submissions. They did not read them all. Agents, for better or worse, have become the gatekeepers of the publishing world.

Agents aren’t just a gateway, though. They may be the first people to really critique your book and give you honest, unflinching, realistic views about it. I love my beta readers in large part because I know they will tell me that crap is crap. But so many people don’t have those kinds of betas – they have the kind that gushes over everything and proclaims it perfect. (Much the same way I imagine Trump’s handlers must do every time he opens his mouth and tries to utter a coherent sentence and fails spectacularly.) Agents don’t have time to do that, though. This is their business. They’ve got to sell books to publishers in order to keep their cars and houses. That’s why they’re so choosy about the projects they take on. On average, agents will only take on a teeny, tiny fraction of authors who actually query them. They don’t have time to do more.

Your first taste of how critical agents can be will come with the query letter. (For more on this, see my blog post https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/agents-authors-and-query-letters-oh-my/ ) But I will say this:  the days of a form query letter addressed to ‘sir or madam’ are OVER. If your query letter isn’t 100% right, kiss that agent goodbye. Agents have requirements on their websites. Follow those requirements. Follow them to the letter.

There’s several responses you might get to your query letter. A lot of agents don’t even respond to query letters if the answer is ‘no,’ and I think that’s just wrong. Some will send a form letter back – ‘thanks but this isn’t for us.’ If the manuscript is good, but not their thing or not quite ready, they might send a personalized note – ‘Hey,  I really liked x, y, and z about this, but I’m not the best fit for the project,’ or ‘Like the concept, but the main character needs work.’ If they like the manuscript and they think it’s close to being ready they might say ‘look, I’m excited about this project, but there’s changes that need to be made to it. I’ve got them listed on the next page. If you’re willing to do that, then resubmit when you’re done and we’ll talk.’

If you get that last one, the agent’s interested. Really interested. If they take the time to not only read your manuscript, but also to make detailed notes about what they’d like to see changed, they’re interested.

Of course, what you really want is an email that says “OMG, I love this – can I call you at x time on x day to talk about representation???? Please????” 🙂 Been there, done that, best feeling in the world!!!! But even then, you might find that the agent isn’t the best fit for you and your work – and it’s up to you to make that decision. They might be asking for changes you’re not willing or able to make. That’s where you have to take a step back and say okay, do I want to be published – or do I want to be a writer? No, they’re not the same thing.

But to get back to the original question –

Agents are the ones who know what editors want. A lot of them started out in publishing, as either editors or junior editors. They know how to make a pile of pages into a book. They know which editors are actively seeking new projects – and what they want. And agents are the only good way to break into traditional publishing.

The sad fact is this:  yes, there are a handful of self-published authors out there who had the traditional publishing world come knocking at the door. A handful. That’s it. Hugh Howey had this kind of success with Wool (it started as a short story that evolved into an online novel; but by the time Simon & Schuster came along, it was already making more than $100,000/month on Amazon). And of course . . . E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey. But seriously? That’s like IT. So the odds of your novel a.) making it big on Amazon and b.) attracting an unsolicited bidding war between the Big Five are c.) astronomical.

I did a blog post a while back that included a bit about self-publishing – https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/what-the-bleep-do-publishers-want/ – and the fact is this:  if you’re self-published and your novel isn’t doing well, it’s time to pull it and think about why that is. That’s what a good agent can help you with. (Also, a good freelance editor, who will – for a fee – read your manuscript and make suggestions. If you’re not good at editing, spelling, grammar, etc. I highly recommend you do this.)

One last sad fact to leave you with today:  most writers won’t break into mainstream publishing, depending on what your definition of ‘mainstream publishing’ is. If you’re only shooting for the Big Five, it’s a long uphill slog. If you’re okay with a smaller press, you’re in luck – they’re much more willing to take on new authors and more willing to work with you to make that novel successful. Again, these are things your agent will discuss with you.

But if you want to be published ‘mainstream,’ finding an agent is the only way to do it.

Some helpful links:

http://www.writersdigestshop.com/writers-digest-october-2016?utm_source=writersdigest.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wd-bak-bl-161001-oct16-preview – this is the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, which had some great insights into what agents are seeking, as well as a list of new agents seeking authors. No, there’s no articles here, but you can run out to your local bookstore and grab it. 🙂

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/11-steps-to-finding-the-agent-wholl-love-your-book – from Writer’s Digest.

http://www.sfwa.org/real/ – from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, on how to find an agent.

 

 

 

 

 

The Procrastinating Writer

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you probably know one thing about me:

I like to procrastinate.

Well. Wait. That’s not really true. I don’t like to procrastinate; I need to procrastinate. Yes, there is a big difference.

One thing I know about my writing – or anything in my life – is this:  If it feels wrong, if it feels forced, there’s a reason for it. Something with a capital S is telling me wait a minute, hang back, let’s see where this is going, this isn’t quite right, we need to regroup . . . a bit like Bill Paxton’s character in Twister when he thinks the tornado is going to change tracks and if they keep going they’re going to be right in its path.

A lot of people procrastinate for the wrong reasons – they’re bored, or they don’t want to do the work. That’s NOT what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, until yesterday when I heard this fantastic TED talk by Adam Grant. Here’s the link:  http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_the_surprising_habits_of_original_thinkers/transcript?language=en#t-300538

Grant is also the author of a book I almost bought yesterday, Originals:  How Nonconformists Move the World, and his belief is this:  procrastinators are more likely to be creative, and more likely to be world-movers, than non-procrastinators. Let me be clear:  this doesn’t apply to all procrastinators!!!!!! Some are just goof-offs and there’s nothing to be done there. But for some us – and yes, I’m including myself in this subset for one very good reason – procrastination serves a purpose.

It gives us space to think.

It gives us space to be creative.

Seriously. Walk with me for a minute. Let me explain.

We’ve all had writer’s block, yes? I don’t need to explain the mechanics of it to you – the numbing doubts, the overwhelming choices, the dread of putting fingers to keyboard and finding nothing there. Some will tell you it doesn’t even exist; some will tell you the only way to get through it is to keep writing, even if it’s nothing more than dribbles of cold pudding. Write, damn it! Write! Write! Write! Sort of like a prison guard telling prisoners to move these cement blocks over here and stack them and now take them and move them over there and don’t you dare stop! There’s no purpose to moving the cement blocks; it’s just something to keep the prisoners active. Writing, when you have writer’s block, can be the same way.

Here’s what I find, and this was the big revelation for me in Grant’s TED talk:  procrastinating gives you the chance to, as he puts it, “doubt the default.” You were 100% sure your novel was going in X direction. But then you get writer’s block. Why? Maybe your brain is doubting the default. Maybe this isn’t the best idea after all. Maybe it’s trite, overdone. Maybe it’s not what your characters would really do. Maybe, if you walk away for a bit, you’ll come up with something better. Here’s what Grant had to say about that:

Vuja de is when you look at something you’ve seen many times before and all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes. It’s a screenwriter who looks at a movie script that can’t get the green light for more than half a century. In every past version, the main character has been an evil queen. But Jennifer Lee starts to question whether that makes sense. She rewrites the first act, reinvents the villain as a tortured hero and ‘Frozen’ becomes the most successful animated movie ever. So there’s a simple message from this story. When you feel doubt, don’t let it go.”

Because here’s the thing:  your brain doesn’t stop thinking about your novel and your characters just because you’re not writing actively. It’s still processing. Somewhere, deep inside, little gears and gizmos are whirling away. Or alternatively, your characters are waiting for you to listen to them again. However you personally look at it. 🙂 Grant noticed this, too:  he said that one reason we like to-do lists is because once we cross something off the list, we can stop thinking about it. But those ideas we procrastinate on? We can’t cross those off the list. They’re just – there. So our brain works on them. We may not know what to do about them. We may not want to do anything about them. We may not know what direction to take next. It’s okay.

We’re procrastinating with a purpose.

Grant talked about this as well. He was writing the book I mentioned above, and had a chapter on procrastination. So:

I thought, “This is the perfect time to teach myself to procrastinate, while writing a chapter on procrastination.” So I metaprocrastinated, and like any self-respecting procrastinator, I woke up early the next morning and I made a to-do list with steps on how to procrastinate. And then I worked diligently toward my goal of not making progress toward my goal. I started writing the procrastination chapter, and one day — I was halfway through — I literally put it away in mid-sentence for months. It was agony. But when I came back to it, I had all sorts of new ideas.

So being a procrastinator can help generate new ideas and more creative angles and solutions to problems than forcing yourself to work through to the end.

Right now, I’m stuck again on Nicky. I had that great revelation a few weeks ago about how the rest of the novel should flow, and that opened me up to a wonderful, absolutely wonderful, run of writing. But now – I’m stuck again.

I’m not worried, though. I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again, with Nicky and with other books. I’m procrastinating, but I trust the process. (Meanwhile, these two new characters just showed up on my doorstep one night to ask if I’d write their story and of course I said yes, get in queue . . . but they’ve decided they’d rather try to jump ahead of everyone else.)

So that last bit is very important – I’m not not writing. I’m still generating ideas and jotting down scenes and listening to these two characters and their crazy romance and doing research. It’s just that I know if I push it on Nicky right now, I will get crap. I don’t want crap. I don’t want to waste time on crap. More importantly, it won’t be the right crap. It won’t be anything I can work with. I know that about myself and my habits by now. Heck, even if I walk away from writing completely for a while, I know I can come back to it and pick up where I left off.

Of course, you can’t procrastinate forever. And there’s a very fine line between creatively procrastinating and being lazy. One gives you space to generate creativity; the other generates nothing.

But if you’re stuck on your novel – give it a try.

 

Here’s some other links on the same topic:

 

Half-Baked Cupcakes: Getting Your Characters “Done”

It’s no secret:  I’m a historian, and I write a lot of historical fiction. Even my urban fantasies are infused with history. (Sort of hard not to be, when one of my MCs is an 18th-century ghost, I guess.)

But one thing I’ve learned over the past years is that characters will often come to you fully formed – including backstory – and sometimes, they don’t. They’re like a cupcake that’s not quite done in the center. It looks done; the top has risen, and it looks like all the other cupcakes, but it’s just not. Stick the toothpick in, and you get a gooey mass of unbaked chocolate batter.

So what do you do?

There’s a couple of things. First, figure out what you do know about this character. They came to you, so clearly you need them in the story somehow. They fulfill a purpose. Of course, if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water and we’re never seeing him again, then no worries. Don’t bother. But if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water, and suddenly he pulls out a gun and shoots at the baddie that’s been secretly stalking your MC – wow. He just turned into a Real Character. How’d he come to be there? Why is he packing? How many more tricks does he have up his sleeve, and where did he learn them?

Those are the things you may not know right now. You may be just as shocked as anyone that this random guy has done this. Maybe you meant for something else to happen in that scene. Who cares? Go with it!!!! Because if this character can suddenly insert himself into your novel like that, he’s worth keeping.

So. You can talk to him, of course – do a character sketch, where you let the character tell you about his life. I do this a lot.

But depending on what he says, you may also have to do some research. Let’s say he’s Interpol. Well. What do YOU know about Interpol? Maybe nothing! Maybe you head the term on an old rerun of “Magnum, PI.” So you’ll need to do your research. What you learn in your research will shape who he is. If he’s Interpol, chances are he’s not American – so what is his nationality? That will give you race, religion, ethnicity, beliefs, other languages he speaks, contacts & connections . . . You might even change your mind. You might realize he’s not Interpol at all – instead, he’s Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA). Or Scotland Yard.

Well, then what?! 🙂 More research!

If you hate research, then better stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But even then, there’s going to be research. Let’s say you’re writing about your home town and one of your MCs is an auto mechanic. Do you know anything about that? Or maybe he’s engaged to a woman who runs the local movie theatre. Or teaches for a local college. Research!

I’m doing this right now with Sarah, my female lead in the historical romance I’m working on. The more I research Massachusetts circa 1774, the more real she becomes.

Another example is Rebecca, from my urban fantasy series. Rebecca appeared briefly in one novel, but I was always intrigued by her and finally decided that she needed her own novel. So I wrote it. It sucked. Mostly because I had no idea who Rebecca was. I thought I did:  I really thought I did, but in reality, she was a caricature. Calling her a half-baked cupcake is a kindness; she hadn’t even been put in the oven yet! In truth, she was missing quite a few key ingredients!

So I put it away, embarrassed I’d even let my beta readers see it.

And then one night – about six months later – I had a very clear scene in my mind. Rebecca, squaring off against her husband, only I knew that it wasn’t really her husband, but something else. I grabbed my laptop and started writing – and from the second my fingers touched the keys, it was her voice coming through. Calm, educated, scared to death. In love so deeply with her husband that she might very well drown in it. And yes, a woman living in the 17th century with powers no one could attribute to anything other than witchcraft. It was that voice I’d been waiting for. It simply took her longer than my other characters to bake.

What’s funny is that there’s another character from these novels. a ghost named Shannon, who came to me 100% done and ready to raise all kinds of hell. But Rebecca was more subtle. I needed to do more research on the time period, read more about the witch trials of the time, review the Malleus Maleficarum. And in truth, there was another character who I needed to know more about – her nemesis. They began to come to me in tandem, telling their stories. In truth, I love her nemesis – he’s an extremely complicated character, and makes no excuses for it. But I needed to research him as well. I needed to know how he came to be in her village, and once I understood that . . . I had no problems.

Rebecca is much closer to being done than she was a year ago. I’m still struggling with how to finish her story and embed it into the existing novel without a ton of rewriting – it’ll involve some experimenting with format, and I’m okay with that. Besides, I’m still doing research for both her and Sarah. And with every new fact I learn, the more ‘real’ I know they’re going to be.

Someday, they’ll be cupcakes fresh from the oven. Fully baked. Ready to be frosted and consumed by readers.

At least, I hope so!!!!

An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert

This past Monday, I was lucky enough to see one of my favorite authors – Elizabeth Gilbert – live. Thank you, Watermark Books in Wichita! 🙂

I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love this spring . . . and as I’ve said before, you have to be a certain point in your life to truly get this book, on the level it’s meant to be understood and contemplated. It saved me. I’m not really ‘there’ yet, but this book made me realize that you can have everything that everyone thinks you should have, and still be miserable – and that’s okay. I meant, it’s not okay to be miserable, but it’s okay to seek Something More, or Something Else. So when I heard that Watermark was hosting her in October, I bought my ticket the first day they went on sale.

This was a stop on Liz’s tour to promote her newest book, Big Magic. It’s about how to find creativity and make room for it in your life. I admit, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I wanted to share with you some things Liz told us.

First:  she admitted that this book has been in her mind for twelve years. Twelve. Years. Why hadn’t she written it before now? Because, as she said, “I felt i needed to establish the chops, and make sure I had the authority to stand here . . . I needed a few more books under my belt first.” But she couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, she thought it needed to be something grander, a huge volume about creativity based in neurobiology and science, so she bought lots and lots of books on the subject. And then one day . . . “I looked at all of those books on my shelf and decided I didn’t care! I needed to do creative work – a completely irrational thing to do.” And it was this thought that finally made her sit down at her desk and work.

Liz isn’t shy about pulling punches. In fact, that idea that creative people – whether we’re writers, photographers, artists, or whatever – engage in completely irrational behavior was a theme she returned to time and again that night. “I am going to take the single most precious thing in my possession – my time – this commodity that can never be restored – and I’m going to pour it into working on something that no one wants or needs or even asked for!” There are lots of things you could be doing with that time, so “why do we indulge in this completely irrational behavior?”

A question I think we all ask ourselves from time to time! Especially when the laundry is piling up and the cats want fed, and the kids have to go to soccer practice and dinner is going to be cold cereal again . . . why do we do it? What drives us to spending our time on our art, our writing, our whatever, when there is no guaranteed payout? When the only person who may ever see it is YOU?

For Liz, though, that’s not the question. For her the question is:  “Why – if you’re not doing your creative work – why aren’t you? What’s stopping you?” This was the question she posted on her Facebook page a year or so ago, and she got back tons of responses – fear after fear after fear. Fear of failure, of wasting time, of taking time away from family and other pursuits, of being told you’re not good enough. Fear of beginning. Fear of success. Fear of change. On and on. Sound familiar? It did to most of the audience, too.

Liz took many questions from the audience (so many that I was late to pick up my kittens from the babysitter, in fact!), and I want to share some of them with you:

The first came from a young lady who asked (and I’m paraphrasing here):  how do you choose from your many ideas which one you want to focus on?

Liz’s answer:  “Realize that they’re collaborators:  they want to be made, and I want to make stuff. BUT. I am the president of my creativity, and my ideas are my cabinet. Assert your presidency. There’s limited resources, and no one gets to have everything they want – even your ideas. Explain that to them. This book, for example (Big Magic) wanted to be made for twelve years. Every day, it spoke to me. And I kept sending it back, saying ‘Come to me when you’re fully formed. I have to spend time with other ideas who got their shit together and put together a proposal!'”

But she also said that once you commit to a project, you have to follow through. “I know what it’s like to be at the boring part of the project . . . and this lovely idea, this Jessica Rabbit-like idea, comes along to seduce you. Don’t let it happen.Say, ‘too bad. This is the idea I have a contract with. Finish things.”

There was so much more, and I’ll cover that next week. But for now, think about those things. If you’re like me, some of these things were a revelation. How man of us get sidetracked by those alluring, sexy new ideas wearing three-piece suits and fedoras, looking a heck of a lot like Matt Bomer, when we’re stuck on a project that’s just sitting around in its boxer shorts, gut hanging out and beer in hand? Of COURSE we want the sexy idea! That’s how we get unfinished novels and started novels and how we never get published.

But I also loved her take on the ideas – because that’s how I sort of think about them, too. They’re not living, obviously, but they are real. They do invade our lives, whispering incessantly in our ears, keeping us up at night. How many of us have ideas that sound great, but in reality, we just know they’re not going anywhere? I’ll raise my hand! You’re in charge of your ideas.

Think about that this week, and next week – more from Liz Gilbert. 🙂

Being Authentic – In Writing and In Life

This is going to be an odd year for me.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking – wait. It’s August. How do you know what 2016 will be like already? Because I don’t go by a calendar year; I go by an academic year. August to May. June and July are bonus months in which I frantically prepare for the coming of August again. So – although technically I live in a 12-month year – I really live in a 10-month year. Normally, not such a big deal, since I’m an adjunct -or was, anyway. Now I’m a full-time instructor and still struggling with that. I still feel like a feral cat that’s been brought indoors.

I never honestly meant to be a teacher. Ask anyone who knew me in high school or my early 20s, and they’ll tell you that a teacher is the last thing I should be. Yet here I am. Why? How did it come to this? I still don’t know. I think it goes back to me being a pantser at heart, in writing and in life, and never having a real plan for anything.

Right now, teaching is my ‘main gig,’ so I have no choice but to stick with it. But my real passions wait for me at home. My vintage shop on Etsy. Thrifting on the weekends. My kitties (though I do wonder if they even notice I’m gone during the day).

My writing.

But it’s my writing that seems to suffer the most. I find it so hard to write when I feel depressed, and these past weeks, as I tried to come to grips with the reality of my new situation and how drastically my life was going to change – yes, I’m fully aware that I’m on the only person on earth who gets depressed over getting a full-time job, thank you – I could barely pick up any of my manuscripts or type anything new.

Over the last few days, though, I’ve been able to come back to my romance novel a little. Just a bit. And to my surprise and delight, I’ve found that what I had written wasn’t half-bad, and what I’m writing now – though not a lot – is fairly good, too. Sometimes when you write, you feel like every single word is being forced out of you; every sentence is Mount Everest. And sometimes – the way it should be – the words pour out. You’re in the voice of your characters. Without thinking, you delve back into their diction, their accents, their lives. That’s what the last few days have been like for me. And they’ve given me some hope that maybe these characters will stick with me for a while and work with me. Let me tell their story.

I’ve been reading Sarah ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance this year, and we have reached August – the time of creativity. She says that if we want to be truly happy in life, we must trust our instincts, follow what we are guided to do, and above all, honor our gifts.

One thing she emphasizes  – and how many of us can identify with THIS?! – is that when an idea comes to us, whether it’s a character, a plot for a new novel, an idea for an article, or whatever – we need to grab it then and there and hold on to it. Even if we can’t quite get to it Right Then and There, we still have to take note of the idea, jot it down, ruminate on it, never let it out of our hands. And never once doubt that we can actually do it. She quotes William Hutchinson Murray, who led an expedition to Mount Everest in 1951:  “. . . the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

One thing writers always say is, “I had this idea, but someone else wrote it first.” And that’s okay. How many Scottish romances are on the shelves right now? Three hundred? More? And yet, publishers are still buying them, aren’t they? Sarah says “It is impossible for you to be an original. But you can be authentic . . . Why do you think you were offered the spiritual and creative opportunity?” My romance novel is set in the American colonies on the eve of the Revolutionary War. There are a few hundred others out there in that same time period. But this is my writing, my characters, my plot.

As I think about my Authentic Self and What I’m Meant To Do Here (which, apparently, has nothing to do with winning the freaking lottery), it always comes back to writing. Writing has always been there for me. It was how I survived high school. My characters are always waiting for me, nudging me from time to time to remind me that they’re still there and would I please come visit them and this time, might I write some more on their novel, please?

My authentic self is probably not a full-time teacher. It may not be a full-time anything, honestly. I may be one of those people who happily has five or six things going at once, juggling all of them and happy to do it. I’ve done it for ten years, after all. So as I head into a new year, I have a few resolutions to make:  That by the end of my year (in May) I will have at least one manuscript ready to be sent to agents, if not before.That someday, I will be able to support myself by writing novels.

That sometime soon, August won’t be the start of a new year, it will just be one more month, the last month of summer, another beautiful warm month to enjoy as I sit outside and write, with my kitties playing and locusts singing in the trees.

Keeping It Real

At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Keeping it Believable,” which I think should be mandatory for ALL writers. Not just sci-fi and fantasy writers (though it was geared towards them) but EVERYONE. I mean, seriously, how many times have you watched a TV show or a movie and suddenly screamed That can’t happen! He can’t bloody drive a car with two broken arms, a broken femur, and no fingers! Or something similarly ridiculous?

So here’s the top things I took away from that session:

Do your world-building in advance – but don’t info-dump! Readers need to be grounded in Something. Does that mean we jump in with forty pages of description about your alien world and all the flora and fauna and the lack of gravity and the technology and the purple panda bear-type things that the locals call kumquats? NO!!!!!!!  It’s up to YOU to figure out how to work your world-building into the narrative. The more you know about your world, the easier that will be. No info dumps!

Start with the story. You have a character and he has a problem. So what if it’s set on an alien planet? The reader will get that soon enough. It’s the character and his problem that are going to draw the reader in first – and keep them reading. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is a good example of this, and here’s a link to the first few pages of it:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/06/childrensprize.patrickness

See how Ness deftly weaves the subtle hints about Todd’s world into his narrative? There’s no two-page lecture on how fissionbikes work, or a five-paragraph discussion of talking germs. He lays a trail of crumbs, and lets the reader follow it. That’s what a good world-building is all about.

You have to consider everything. If you’re writing a fantasy that’s set on a world like Earth, your work is easier than if you’re writing a sci-fi novel set on an alien planet where the gravity is different. Gravity – whether there’s more or less of it in your fictional world – affects the physiology of everything in that world. It’s up to you to research how. If you’ve decided to put two moons in your sky, both have to exert a gravitational pull on your world – which will affect tides, which will affect weather patterns and climate, which will affect where people can live and agricultural patterns . . . see? And before you think that your readers won’t care – they absolutely will, and they won’t be your readers for very long if you don’t care enough to do the thing properly . . .

Because everything matters. If you say the shirt is cotton, then where did they get it? If you mention oranges, but you’re on a frozen planet, where do the tropical fruits come from? Can your five-foot tall, 90-pound MC wield a broadsword with one hand? Probably not. But she might be using a rapier. Why have the animals of your world evolved as they have? Remember, gravity affects physiology. Climate affects everything. Cause and effect. Everything matters.

Your aliens, particularly if your protagonist is an alien, should be human-like. What the presenter meant was that you need to think about emotions, religion/spirituality, ceremonies and rituals, worries and concerns, family life, etc., so your reader can relate to them more easily. If you have a YA protagonist, make their lives as much like a human teen’s as possible. Are they worried about fitting in? Being popular or as good at something? Do they worry about living up to their parents’ expectations? Think about How To Train Your Dragon – it’s pretty hard for us today to relate to the Viking way of life, so we had to have a protagonist that didn’t fit in. 🙂

Language, language! Just for a minute, think about the last sci-fi or fantasy book you read. Or, if you haven’t read one lately, think about this:  Cthulhu. HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT NAME?????? I worked with the Lovecraft stories for two solid months and I STILL have no idea!!!

Bottom line:  If you can’t pronounce your characters’ names, place names, or ANY of your made-up words, change them. Readers have no patience for it. (I hear you:  Tokien made up his own languages! Yes, and he was a trained philologist. He was allowed.) And yes, J.K. Rowling had made-up words – but they were simple. Muggles. Apparate. Expecto patronum. Even her spells were loosely based on Latin words, which – since we get so many English words from Latin – is familiar to most of us. So. Keep it simple. 🙂 And for the love of all that’s holy, NO APOSTROPHES IN YOUR NAMES.

Writing fantasy and sci-fi isn’t easy! WRITING isn’t easy. Every genre has its own rules and problems and pitfalls – and rewards. And no matter what the genre, you have to keep it real. Your historical has to be accurate; your murder mystery has to have all the forensics stuff right.

But. If you’re willing to do the work, your book will stand out.

(Next week:  keeping it real in magic!)