Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Write for Joy

In Craft, General, Musings on June 26, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I, like countless other writers, have wanted “the dream” to hold a published novel of my own creation in my hand since I was a little girl. In a third grade essay about careers, I wrote, “I want to be an authoress.”  Who knows where I got that term, but it embodies the passionate, zealous little girl I was who became an equally zealous writer over time. And the hunger to hold that book (or perhaps now to hold my Kindle as I admire the pixels of my words) has not gone away. I still want it. I want it for my talented writer friends, students and clients, too. BUT…

But something else has happened to me since my son was born two years ago. First, I have to tell you a story.

Not to get New Age on you here, but I love a certain Tarot deck known as the medicine cards, which are based on Native American symbols. During an intense period of time several years ago when my agent was shopping my last novel; I was pounding the desk to survive as a freelance writer; and I was revising my book Make a Scene I kept pulling one card out of that deck over and over: the hummingbird. That bird would not go away, no matter how deeply I buried it in the deck or picked with my eyes closed. That bird is all about joy–lightening up, not taking yourself too seriously, and being truly in touch with the blessings in your life. I was being slapped symbolically upside the head. And when my novel didn’t sell, and I realized I had to include editing and teaching into the freelance mix in order to have a livelihood, then found out that would all change because I was pregnant, I started to heed the bird’s call.

Now, the universe speaks to me directly in its funny little language of symbols and sends me actual hummingbirds as a reminder when I’m getting too hung up.

I just came back from spending an overnight trip with a kindred writer soul, Eros-Alegra Clarke. We talked a lot about purpose and craft, and doing what we are aligned with, rather than just trying to get published because we want the fame and glory. That all this talk of platform is good and necessary, but…the writer must write the best book she can, and hopefully that process brings you great joy.

That’s right: My writing strategy for the day is to find joy in the process. To be grateful for your gift, to hone it and learn and share it, but mostly to love it. 

When I pulled up to the hotel where I would be staying to meet Alegra, I found their logo (and then, when I was recounting my hummingbird story to her, an actual hummingbird zipped over our heads and buzzed us):

Ignore the “don’ts” and “can’ts”

In Business of Writing, Craft, General, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on June 22, 2010 at 9:29 pm

When I was still pregnant with my now two-year-old son, Writer’s Digest (my publisher of Make a Scene) interviewed me at their website. And while I don’t normally make a habit of quoting myself, I have to say: I have some really good advice, that the me-of-now nodded along to. My life has changed so dramatically since my son’s birth, but pretty much everything I said here, rings true:

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

In short, “be persistent,” which actually means to me: FIRST worry about the writing (and explore it, delve into it, try a lot of things on and get excellent feedback). Work with great passion and be committed to gaining a thorough understanding of your particular form (or forms). THEN, be persistent in the face of rejection and adversity and trust the impulse that led you to create.

But, what has equally contributed to my success is a determined effort to block out all the negative noise and discouragement that abounds on the road to publication. I am a life-long practitioner of leaping first and looking later. I highly doubt I would have ever published a book if I had, for instance, paid attention to the statistics about how many writers are seeking publication (a mind-numbing number), or pursued my MFA because I thought it would make me great contacts. I have always pressed ahead towards what I was compelled to write, and only then has success followed.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

The writing should be your priority. Make the writing as good as it can be before you dip your toes in the whirlpool of publishing. Don’t take your tender, barely finished manuscript to a conference (or send a first draft of anything anywhere!) and let yourself get discouraged or beat up by the first (or sixth) word of rejection. Don’t get sucked into the lust for publication before you’ve given everything to the work. Because you might just need another draft—but rejection could make you believe you should give up right then. (Do, however, seek critical feedback when you’re ready).

For example, a client of mine attended a conference where she was able to pitch many agents at once. They all asked for samples. Problem was, her pitch was better than her manuscript because she’d only written a first draft! The rejections that followed caused her great despair until she realized she’d just done things out of order.

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

I think the biggest mistake that anyone in any of these categories can make is what I’ve just said above, to throw yourself to the wolves unprepared, and to assume that there is any such thing as an “overnight success.” Successful freelancers train ourselves to thoroughly study the publications we’re pitching before we spend that valuable time writing a pitch, and sometimes we even have to do extensive research before we have an assignment! Non-fiction book authors survey the marketplace to be sure that the book they want to write hasn’t already been done a thousand times, before they  build a gorgeous, winning book proposal. And successful fiction writers understand the demands of the form—they get very good at it, they practice and read and get feedback and read a whole lot more. Most importantly in all of these categories, successful writers succeed because they commit to learning the highest standards of the form and then applying themselves to it.

I’m often amazed how little research a new writer puts into finding out how the industry works. There is nothing you can’t find with a simple internet search. New writers need to empower themselves to get informed.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

Other writers, both as friends and critique partners, and for the books they write. I recommend this too, because it’s not wise to rely on our spouses or family members or non-writing friends (though sometimes any of those people might have a very savvy eye). As for other writers-as-authors, they teach me and entertain me. I read voraciously and widely (some might even say indiscriminately)and am always learning something about my own craft as I go.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Despite the fact that I left a “day job” more than three years ago to work for myself as a freelance writer, I still rise as early as possible and end up sitting at a desk most of the day. The desk just happens to be in my home, and nobody notices if I’m late, but for anyone who doubts my work ethic, I’m butt-in-chair all day every day.

I do a lot of editing (of others’ manuscripts) and article writing. But I learned a long time ago that if I want to write fiction, I must do it first before anything else. So I either start with fiction, or if I’m not writing fiction at the time, I make myself do a “journal dump”—to get all the myriad anxieties I normally carry with me off my mind—then move on to whichever project is highest on my priority list, and then the second highest (I tend to work on 2-3 projects at a time). I do have the luxury of taking breaks—to eat, visit with friends, etc—and yet I probably take fewer breaks as a self-employed person than I did when working in a workplace because my home office is an environment completely in my control (except for the neighbor’s propensity to play incredibly loud Opera).

Though all of this is about to change in some unimaginable way I’m sure, as I’m expecting my first child.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

Smaller advances, higher marketing budgets for authors, which might then make it possible for more really good books to be bought as well as properly marketed.

But what I hear from my clients is that they wish agents and editors were not so inundated so they could get feedback on why their work was rejected.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

In every way. I decided I was ready to freelance full time nearly 4 years ago, and started stockpiling my on-the-side freelance income until I had a six months “net.” Then I leapt, terrifying as that was. My most significant successes have all come about in that time—I’ve published two books, built a steady income writing articles and editing manuscripts, and been able to do more teaching. Since my book Make a Scene was published, I’ve had the opportunity to present at conferences and to various writing groups and have gained more clients. Quitting that last job was the best thing I ever did (though in all fairness, I am married to a man with a very stable job!)

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

It’s easy to assume that since an editor likes your work, they’re instantly your “friend.” It’s wise to treat these relationships as professional vs. friendly (which is not to say be mean or terse!) because your editor undoubtedly has many other clients and it’s to both your advantage to keep your contact as professional and to the point as possible.

On the other hand, I will say that when it’s clear an editor likes your work and is open to working with you further, try to maintain that relationship by pitching new ideas as frequently as the publication or publisher allows.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

Taking my writing seriously enough to make a career out of it. I’ve had many, many jobs that run the gamut from vitamin buyer to spa director, and every time I stifled the writer in me, I grew miserable (ask my husband). I learned quickly that you don’t have to quit a good job to write—there is absolutely enough time to do it if you make it a priority. You can’t be published if you don’t write.

Any final thoughts?

I’ve always been someone who ignored the “don’ts” and “can’ts” that are slung at you in this industry. This doesn’t come from some defiant streak in me, but from a place of deep curiosity. I have to find out for myself if I can or can’t. And in doing so, I’ve found out more times than not that don’t and can’t are expressions of other people’s fears or anxieties. If you think you can and you put your energy into doing whatever that is the right way (with enthusiasm and purpose), you most likely WILL.

When should characters think, act or speak?

In Business of Writing, Classes, Craft, Musings on June 22, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Lately, rather than imposing an order on my blog posts, I’m simply blogging about the issues that come up for students and clients.

When writers struggle with a scene, I’m finding the most common reason is that they don’t know how to balance the elements. And by “elements,” more often than setting and sensory details, I find it comes down to this:

When should my character think, speak, or act?

The best scenes have a little bit of all three.

In every scene, a character should set out with an intention that is thwarted or met with conflict (and sometimes achieved).

Dialogue and action are the best ways to convey most things: plot info, character personality, as well as character’s feelings and opinions.

But: When there is something your character can’t/won’t say, that can’t be acted out (unless s/he is a mime!), thought (interior dialogue/internal reflection/contemplation) is required.

And remember to SAVE dialogue for hot topics–the kinds of conversations you’d like to eavesdrop on; for tense and conflictual exchanges; for subtle but necessary plot details.

As for action–it runs from the smallest physical tic to the biggest global catastrophes. Action creates a sense of “real time”–which is crucial to bringing people into your world.

When you’re trying to find the balance in a scene, start by asking: Should my characters: think/act/or speak more or less here? And what would be the most active way to demonstrate my scene goals? (Hint: internal reflection is not the most active).

If you’d like to learn more strategies, I’m teaching Revise for Publication, 6 weeks, beginning August 16. .

Revision Fatigue

In Classes, Craft, Publishing on June 18, 2010 at 4:00 am

You know that feeling you get when you’ve looked at your book a hundred times, fixed more nuances than you can hold in your brain, massaged more character dialogue than you’ve actually spoken all month and so on? The point at which if you never had to look at your novel again you’d die happy?

It’s called revision fatigue, and in my experience, it actually means one of two things. The least likely is 1) You’re really just done and can’t accept it yet. But nope, wait–more likely it’s 2) There is somewhere deeper you still need to go and you’re resisting it.

The kind of revision many of us start with is similar to taking off the toenail on a gangrenous foot (sorry for the yucky analogy)–it’s not going to fix what ails it, and in fact, it can fool you into thinking something is “alive” when it’s actually just hanging on for dear life (I was going to say ‘limping along’ but I just couldn’t do that to you all….hahah).

If you have revision fatigue, here are a couple of questions to ask yourself to try and go deeper, thus “waking up” your story:

  • Have you started it in the “right” place? Are you perhaps trying to explain away too much, lump in a lot of unnecessary back-story, or would scintillating flashbacks perhaps add a more useful tension than starting when your protagonist is five? Do you start your story in a “dangerous” place right in the midst of an unfolding action or event?
  • Have you mapped out your plot, taken its inventory, to see if there are any evident gaps?
  • Have you put your protagonist under the most intense, yet plausible, circumstances you can possibly fathom?
  • Has your character undergone a noticeable kind of transformation by the end?

If you’re interested in revision support, I’m teaching a 6 week online course titled Revise for Publication. Register at: $30 early registration discount!

The Terror of Disconnection

In General, Musings on June 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Today I woke up to a message telling me my gmail account had been temporarily suspended. I immediately felt bad and shameful, like when my French teacher in 5th grade caught me talking, but only because that cute guy I had a crush on had shot rubberbands at my head and I was telling him to quit it. But the thing is: I didn’t knowingly do anything wrong. In fact, it might be a spam related issue that has “violated” gmail’s terms and conditions. Either way, following directions to re-activate my account led to an error message telling me “that service is not available at this time.” They are, of course very sorry.

Not as sorry as I am. Email is my primary method of communication with editors, my agent, my clients, my students, not to mention my friends–who at least have other ways to get in touch with me. Without this direct line, I am missing out on possibly crucial information that affects my livelihood.

Which begs the question: Don’t I have the right to those emails, EVEN if I have supposedly “violated” unknowingly some agreement? Shouldn’t there be a way that I can access information directed at me? You’d think so. But clearly no.

And worse, it scares me to realize how completely dependent I am upon a company, its servers and policies, that can, for no reason, willy-nilly, put up a huge road-block between me and the people I need to be in touch with. It’s a scary feeling, even though I’m sure it will be resolved. It makes me think (yes, I know this is a dramatic analogy) of people arrested in foreign countries for minor infractions and then jailed without any potential release date in sight.

Ultimately, it makes me question whether being so dependent upon this kind of technology is a good thing, and I can’t come up with a resounding yes.

And if anyone knows how to get around this, please tell me by posting a comment here.

Revision: Journeying through the dark wood

In Craft, Musings, Publishing on June 15, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I’m trying to figure out who to blame: Stephen King? J.K. Rowling? Jodi Picoult? Somewhere along the way in the last decade, some writer who made it big set off a chain reaction in many an unpublished writer. This ever-expanding idea evolved into the notion that all one has to do to become a Big Name, Rich and Famous Author, is to sit down for a couple months, churn out a book, throw it at an agent, and voila: instant success.

What’s missing from that equation are the long, intensive, necessary hours of revision that make a book sing (Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, or as an artist I interviewed once said: “miles of canvas”).  Today I’m thinking about revision both from the writer’s perspective–I’m on my third and a half draft of my own novel (don’t ask where the half came from); and as a teacher–I’m in the second week of a class I adore teaching called Revise for Publication (next session starts in August).

It’s a difficult proposition teaching some writers to LOVE revision. I think sometimes once the first draft is written it feels fragile–like a glass sculpture that will shatter if we so much as touch it. But revision has taught me that a first draft is, most of the time, a collage of ideas and character sketches that needs to be teased apart like a tangled drawer full of necklaces and jewelry, then buffed to a high polish to reveal its true form. And why hurry that process? You discover so much about yourself and the world when you revise.  Yes, at times it is a dark and scary place, the not knowing, the wanting so much to tell a story that reaches people and even, possibly, brings you fame and riches. But hopefully you are writing because you’re on a journey, and journeys are notoriously long and twisty–over craggy mountains and through dark woods. Even the yellow brick road–as straight a shot as one gets in the way of epic journeys–was fraught with danger.

As William Vogler says in his wonderful book The Writer’s Journey: “I think we’re all…finding ourselves through the journey of our writing lives. Looking for our Selves in the dark wood.”

Fight the Fragmentation: Create Silence

In Musings, Write Free on June 12, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I, like many writers I know, took up writing as a way to cope with or understand the world and its chaos (the personal or the global). I cannot count the number of times I have been submerged so deeply in my writing that I literally did not hear someone calling my name or asking for my attention.

Writing is its own silence, for me at least. When I go there in earnest, it is the mental equivalent to a sound-proof room.

But when I emerge, lately I’m finding myself overwhelmed with noise. Not the pleasant and grounding noises of the actual world–the conversational birds in my yard; the yappy dog next door; my son’s two-year old chatter. No, I’m talking about the steady and constant buzz of online conversation. I open my twitter feed and feel as though I’ve walked into the Wall Street trading pit at peak hours, or a Vegas casino at full tilt. I love FaceBook, but I can easily lost hours there sorting through the haiku-like snapshots of where my friends are at any given moment. News headlines about the death of entire eco-systems in the gulf, and men who prey on young girls in the guise of messiahs, crush my spirit. My iphone is constantly pulsing in my purse, asking me to text, to play games, to fragment my attention span into tiny little splinters.

It reminds me of the days of my childhood summers, often spent in a cottage rented by my grandparents out in Shelter Island, New York. I CRAVED these lazy summer weeks where I mostly read, typed stories on my Opa’s rickety old typewriter, and rowed out into the little bay with him. I feel full and calm just thinking about it.

This is my commitment to myself, and my challenge to you: Can you give yourself more deep silence? More grounding with the physical world around you? More writing time? I dare us.