Friday, November 20, 2015

Getting Into the Groove

I just received a really nice note from a Goodreads friend named Alex who has the itch to write but doesn't know how to start.

We've all been there, haven't we? Think about all the skills you've learned over your lifetime--reading, riding a bike, cooking a pot of pasta, driving a car--and what it felt like at first. The word that comes to my mind is overwhelming. I remember, vividly, my first driving lesson: hands on the wheel trying to steer, foot on the gas (or brake, more often), eyes bouncing from the road to the mirrors to the dashboard, my brain on overload. It seemed impossible that I would ever be able to drive with ease. But eventually I did--and I never would have if I hadn't gotten behind the wheel in the first place.

And so it is with writing. You'll learn by doing. The trouble is that learning to write, or learning to create any kind of art, feels different than other skills because our thoughts and feelings are so exposed. Emotionally, there's more at stake. We're afraid of appearing idiotic or dull to others--or, even worse--to ourselves. Spoiler alert: No matter who you are, at one time or another both are going to happen. But you will also experience moments of joy when you turn out work that surpasses your expectations. If ups and downs are a given for all of us, why not stop fretting and just get to work?

Whether you're picking up a pen for the first time or returning after a long hiatus, here are a few baby steps to help you get into the groove. 

Step 1.  Buy yourself a beautiful notebook and a bunch of your favorite pens. 

Even if you think you'd rather work on a computer, I urge you not to skip this step. For the first several months it's best to stick with paper and pen. Nothing is more discouraging than a blinking cursor, or more distracting than knowing the Internet is just a tab-click away. Lovely paper and a smooth-writing pen are a pleasure to use. By purchasing good writing materials, you are making a commitment to taking yourself seriously as a writer.

Step 2.  Schedule your writing time.

No matter how busy you are, I guarantee you can find ten minutes a day to write. You can either block out the same time every day or you can choose to be flexible--as long as your ten minutes are done by bedtime. No excuses. For the first month, I recommend sticking to ten minutes only. Even if you're on a roll and could write for an hour, shut it down after ten minutes. It's always best to stop when you're hot--it makes it a lot easier to sit down and write the next day. In fact, it will make you look forward to writing the next day. Getting the motivation to sit down and write is half the battle.

After the first month or so, up your time to fifteen minutes. Then twenty. Settle into a block of time that is comfortable for you. Most writers I know only write for a maximum of about four hours a day. How long you write for is less important than keeping a consistent schedule. Some writers insist that you must write every day. Personally, I take weekends off. If your schedule allows you to only write on weekends, do that.

Step 3.  Give yourself permission to be bad. 

Oh, the hours I wasted, staring at a blank screen, afraid to write a single bad sentence! It would have been so much better to just give myself permission to write the worst possible sentence and then fix it later. You can't edit what isn't there. Every writer writes junky first drafts. The real art, the real skill is in the editing. You have to write garbage--a lot of it--to get to the good stuff. To learn how to write, you'll need to be a garbage-producing machine. In my college oeuvre of junk-writing I produced a schmaltzy story entitled "Pink Soap and Lilacs", that still makes me want to gag whenever I think about it. I will not be sharing the awful details of this particular story with you, which brings me to the next step:

Step 4.  Don't share with anyone--yet.

As you begin to churn out your requisite pile of word-sludge you may suddenly strike gold. You might suddenly hit upon an idea for a nail-biting thriller or you may turn out an exquisite sentence that makes you proud. Your instinct will be to share it with someone, but I urge you to keep it to yourself. As I've said over and over again, you will rarely get the ecstatic reaction you are hoping for and early on your writer's ego will be too fragile to handle it. When you find a golden nugget in your junk pile, hoard it. Keep this treasure for yourself. Keep hoarding your literary gold until you have enough of it to feel confident in your ability. If it pleases you, that's all that matters.

Step 5.  Read, read, read. 

When I got my first ghost-writing job, I still wasn't quite sure how to intersperse dialogue with action.   I wasn't even sure how to properly punctuate dialogue. To learn how, all I did was open a book and see how it was done. Every book is an instruction manual. Unsure how to open a story? Or create suspense at the end of a chapter? What about using page breaks? Everything you need to know is sitting on your bookshelf. Take down a few of your favorite books and see how it's done. I still do this all the time.

You should also be constantly reading for pleasure. Read what you like, not what you think you're supposed to read. Fill your head with words and they will be accessible to you when you need them.

Moving Forward

Once you've practiced enough to produce a rough draft of a short story or several chapters of a novel, then you might want to consider finding a writers' group in your area. Don't rush this step, but when you're ready writers' groups can be an invaluable resource for every skill level. For more info on choosing (or starting) the right group for you, see my post about writing groups.

Do you have a question about writing or publishing? Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it in a future post. 

Happy writing!

Monday, November 9, 2015

No Downtime For You!

I'm back!

I've finally finished my latest draft and turned it in to my agent. If you're a regular reader of this blog, thank you for hanging in there with me. I hope to be posting more regularly for a while. Finishing a draft is intense--for the past two months nearly everything else in my world has fallen by the wayside. I've managed to feed and clothe my family, but that's about it. Now I can breathe a little and clean my house, have coffee with friends, go out to lunch with my mom, get ready for the holidays.

So the process will go like this: Mr. Agent will read this version of the manuscript. He may or may not suggest further revisions. If this version of the manuscript is fine as is, he will then shop it around to various publishers. If a publisher is interested, they will make an offer. Then there will be contract negotiations. After that, the real work begins.

There's a huge amount of downtime in publishing. The steps I just described above might take several months. If you're an impatient or obsessive person--which is probably 99% of us--the publishing industry is enough to send you over the edge. What you need to do to is kick up your feet, sip a margarita, and wait for the phone to ring while basking in the glory of your achievement. You've been working hard, haven't you? You deserve to do nothing for a while--so turn on that TV, grab some salty snacks, and get down to some serious binge-watching...


To hijack the words of that immortal Seinfeld character: "No downtime for you!"

The worst thing you can do is sit around waiting for something to happen. You have to start the next thing immediately to save your sanity. It's even better if you're so excited about the next thing that the manuscript you just turned in seems old and tired and you're sick of it. The new thing should be so shiny and sparkly and full of promise that it's all you can think about. I know it sounds like a drag to have to keep going but trust me--this is the worst possible time to take a break. You can goof off later once you have your new project well underway.

I'm thrilled to say I have just such an idea in my back pocket. I also have a short story I've been picking at for a long time that I've been eager to finish. And, of course, I have this blog. These things will be more than enough to occupy me in the coming months.

Now if I could just stop checking my email.

In the meantime, are there any topics you'd like me to cover in a future blog post? Post your publishing or writing questions here and I'll do my best to answer them for you. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It's All About Follow-Through

I'm coming to the end of a significant revision of my manuscript--the last one, I hope, until I have a book contract. If you're a regular reader of this blog you'll know the first draft took me close to ten years to finish (not because it's a work of epic genius but because of family commitments) and I've spent the past year going through multiple revisions. I am more than ready to move on.

I already know what my next project will be and I'm really itching to get started on the research. I have a couple of books on the subject and every now and then I look at them with longing and think,  "I could just do a little reading--what's the harm in that?"

But I know better.

The minute I start dipping into the research for the new idea I'm going to stop being interested in the project I'm currently working on. Odds are the new idea is so seductive because I'm approaching the final act of my current novel and it terrifies me. On a subconscious level, I want to be distracted. If I get distracted, I won't finish; if I don't finish, I don't have to face the possibility that no one will publish it.

This is a problem that all writers fall prey to now and then. Just when one story starts getting tough, a new and more exciting idea pops up that suddenly begs for attention. It's no coincidence. Your subconscious is protecting you from failure. It's also keeping you from success.

There comes a point when, in order to progress, a writer must stop beginning projects and start finishing them. This is the true test of a writer's mettle. This is what separates the amateurs from the pros. Anyone can start a story and call themselves a writer--but how many actually see it through to the end of the first draft? Not many. How many know when they've finished enough revisions to take the leap and send it out to an agent or publisher? Fewer still. It's much easier to let a half-finished piece sit in the drawer or start something new than to risk rejection.

When you start to have the itch to begin a new project--pay attention. Instead of giving in to the urge, use that desire to finish your current project. Make it a reward. Tell yourself you can start that next story as soon as you finish the one you're working on. Follow-through is one of the most important parts of the process.

Do you use new projects as a way to avoid finishing a piece? Do you revise a piece over and over and never send it out? What are the ways you keep yourself from taking the next step?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Don't Speed Date Your Characters

I'm back! I can't believe I haven't posted since July. As you could probably tell by my mid-summer lament, I didn't meet my goal of finishing my rewrite by the end of summer. It was too difficult to concentrate on my kids and my work at the same time. When given the choice my kids will always come first. I put away my laptop for the rest of the summer, forgave myself for not meeting my deadline, and spent my time playing games and having water fights instead.

Now that school's back in session, I'm right back on schedule. I'm nearly finished rewriting 2/3 of the book. My new goal for completion is the end of October.

So, where were we?

A while back, I promised a post about getting to know your characters. That seems like a good place to start.

Sometimes when writers talk about getting to know their characters, we treat the exercise like speed dating. We sit down and knock off a list of traits in the span of a few minutes. To show you what I mean, I'm going to set a timer for two minutes and come up with a character from scratch. Ready, set, go...

Character Name: Krista Mahoney

-22 years old
-Short brown hair, bangs
-Blue eyes
-Small build, sometimes mistaken for a teen
-Crooked smile
-Wears bulky clothes she can "hide" in
-Parents are divorced, one brother
-Dropped out of college after one semester
-Likes cats
-Works at an ice cream shop
-Has no significant other
-Likes to read mysteries
-Eats a tuna sandwich every day for lunch
-Crawls under the bed during thunderstorms

Okay for two minutes work, I guess. Notice the kind of details I came up with--most of them are superficial. She's a little compelling but a bit of a stereotype. Could I write a story about her? Sure, but I don't have much to work with.

This list, dear blog reader, would not be enough information to know if you wanted to date someone in the real world, let alone spend time with them in a fictional one. A person or a character, is more than just a list of traits and likes/dislikes. Rather than just quickly sketching out the basics, getting to know your character should be more like those long, all night phone calls with a new crush; where you don't want to hang up so you ask every conceivable question that comes to mind. To truly know your character, to fall in love (which is a necessity for good writing!) you need to take some time and dig deeper. You need to know the answer to the following questions:

-What does this character want above all else?
-What is she willing to do to get it?
-What is she willing to lose?
-What does she need?
-How are her wants and needs in conflict with one another?
-What does she value most?
-What is her major weakness?
-How does she hide this weakness?
-What in her past makes her this way?
-What, internally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What, externally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What event causes her to change?
-How does she change?

Let's apply the above questions to Krista and see what happens.

-Krista wants to feel safe and secure.
-In order to feel secure, she is willing to avoid anything that involves risk.
-She is willing to sacrifice friendships and romance in order to avoid being hurt.
-What she really needs is to come out of her shell.
-Coming out of her shell will put her at risk of having her heart broken.
-Above all else, she values a peaceful, quiet life.
-Her biggest weakness is not allowing herself to trust others.
-She hides this weakness by avoiding social situations.
-She's this way because her parents divorced when she was ten. Her older brother, her closest confidant, sided with her father in the divorce and left to go live with him. Krista could never understand why her brother took her father's side. She felt betrayed. She lost both her father and her brother/best friend at the same time.
-Internally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she's afraid to risk having her heart broken.
-Externally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she lives alone and has a job that allows her to work in isolation (instead of an ice cream shop, maybe she's an artist?)
-The event that causes her to change is her work forces her to be in contact with a client/patron/philanthropist. If she refuses to contact this person, she will lose her livelihood. The person she is forced to deal with is unpredictable and difficult and keeps her on her toes.
-Krista changes by gaining confidence in herself. She realizes that even when she's involved in events  (or with people) she can't control, she is resourceful enough to handle the unknown and come out fine. With a little experience under her belt, she is now equipped to take bigger risks in her life.

I spent about 30 minutes on the above. Still not a huge time investment, but there's a lot more meat to work with here than on the previous list. Better questions yield better answers. The answers to these questions even suggest the outline of a story. 

You could make a list of character traits even before you start writing a story, but where this exercise becomes most powerful is when you use it on the characters in a story you've already started, especially a story that has stalled. Often when we're stuck it's because we have yet to make some crucial decisions about what our characters want. Take what you already know about your character and use it to answer the questions. Spend time thinking through their motivations. As if by magic, new plot ideas may suggest themselves and you'll be able to move forward.

Are you stuck on a story? Give this exercise a try. Let me know how it works for you.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Writing and Motherhood

My summer started with such good intentions.

The plan was to get up 1-2 hours earlier than my minions in hopes of getting a little writing done. Getting up early wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, given that I'm not a morning person. I loved watching the sun rise and finishing the most important task of the day so early. 

The problem began when the minions started getting up even earlier than usual. I, in turn, got up even earlier and went to bed earlier to make up for it. It didn't help. With all the running around from activity to activity and all the meals (why must children eat so much?) I was exhausted. And cranky. In short, sleep won out.

Now, four weeks into summer break I'm back to the haphazard approach of stealing a few moments here and there. I'm just starting to fall behind on my rewriting schedule but trying my best to keep up. I'm attempting to embrace all that summer entails--the messy house, the up-ended schedule, the spontaneous opportunities for fun. All the while, though, my novel simmers on the back burner and I wonder if I'll ever finish by my self-imposed deadline. It's really important to me, so I keep plugging away.

I once met a writer whom I greatly admire and he asked me if I had any children. I told him about my twin girls and how it was difficult for me to be fully present for them and for my writing at the same time. This particular writer had several grown children and sympathized with my situation. "Raise your children first," he said, "then when they're in college, write like crazy."

This isn't the first time I've heard this advice. Over and over again I've been told to put my work aside and focus my energy on raising my girls. The writing, they say, can wait.

I'm sure the author (and others) meant well and had the best of intentions. Perhaps he even thought he was offering me a bit of comfort in the form of permission to not be so hard on myself. I'll admit that his advice did comfort me at first, but then I couldn't help thinking that had I been a male writer, he probably wouldn't have told me to put my career on hold for the next ten years.

Must I choose one over the other? I love being a mother and having the luxury of spending lots of time with my children. I also love being a writer. If I was forced to pick one over the other, I would choose my kids. Thankfully, I don't have to make that choice. Still, there has to be a way I can have both without feeling depleted every single day. Am I asking for too much? Was that author simply stating the truth and I just don't want to hear it?

How do you juggle a writing career and motherhood?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Getting Unstuck

I've spent the last few weeks moving forward with my stuck manuscript. I'm usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, but since the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results I decided to try a new approach. Instead of just diving in with the umpteenth rewrite, I took a step back and did a little planning--something I almost never do.
I can't believe how much of a difference this approach has made.

Sometimes you have to do a 180 to get a fresh perspective. Do you have a stuck manuscript? Here are a few ideas to help you get back on track. They really worked for me.

Immerse Yourself in Other People's Words.  The best way to get inspiration is to read, read, read. Read classics, read contemporary authors, read non-fiction and poetry. Learn from others. I'll truly never understand writers who don't like to read or who say they avoid reading when they're working (What? You're not working all the time?).  I know I'm reading a great book when it makes me want to run to my computer and write. I love this quote from Lisa See: "Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river." Amen.

Share Your Work With a Trusted Reader. When you don't know how to move forward with a piece, it's often a good idea to get a fresh perspective from someone who is an avid reader in your particular genre. He doesn't even have to have mad editorial skills to be helpful--the reader's reaction alone can be informative. Which scenes or characters stand out for him? What themes is he picking up? What piqued his attention? Where did it wane?

Write Out a Sketch of Each Character. How well do you know your characters? The more specific you get about each character the easier it's going to be to get to the heart of the story. Knowing your character goes far beyond superficial details. Even though I had a complete manuscript with well-developed characters I still sat down and wrote out everything I knew about them. What I discovered is that throughout the manuscript my characters' motivations and wants were a little cloudier than I thought. It's not enough to know what they're feeling--you have to know what's at stake for them and what they're willing to lose. I'll have more specifics on this in a future post.

Make an Outline. Most writers belong in one of two camps--outliners and wingers. Some need to plan out the entire plot in advance, while others--like me--follow wherever the characters  take them. I've been a longtime proponent of winging it, believing in Robert Frost's assertion "no surprises in the writer, no surprises in the reader" but I'm changing my tune a little bit. I've realized that part of the reason why my story wasn't working was that I'd failed to make some key decisions. The plot was chugging along, but since I didn't know my characters as well as I should have, their actions weren't specific enough. To remedy this problem, I went through the entire manuscript and wrote a summary of what needed to be accomplished in each scene. I also wrote summaries for scenes that appeared to be missing. As I did this, the story became much more focused. Now, as I'm rewriting, I'm able to approach each work day in a more relaxed way because I've already decided what each scene needs.

Keep the Momentum Going by Setting Goals. When you feel ready to tackle your rewrite, set a deadline and tell others about it to hold yourself accountable. I've chosen August 31st as my deadline (with you , dear blog reader, as my witness). In order to stay on track, I've divided the number of days until my deadline by the number of chapters. I need to edit a chapter every three days in order to keep on track. I have written each chapter deadline on my calendar so I know where I stand. Currently, I'm three days ahead of schedule--yay me!

Write Every Day. Until now, I've given myself weekends off. I'll probably go back to that schedule eventually, but right now I can't imagine letting a day go by without doing a little editing. It's been tough with summer break and the kids being home. I have to steal my writing time any way I can. The confidence I'm feeling right now is a brittle, fragile thing. I can't afford to let myself get stuck again.

What do you do to get unstuck?

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Tie Breaker


It's been an interesting week.

As some of you know, I've found myself in new territory this year. I finished the first draft of a novel that I love but that my agent doesn't. My original plan was to put it on the shelf for a while and move onto something else, another novel that I started a few years ago. Instead, I gave the draft to a trusted friend, a novelist who has a lot of experience in the field. He gave it a read and the verdict is in: he loved it. Maybe even a bit more than I'd hoped he would.

We met for coffee and had a long talk about agents. I learned some interesting things. My friend has had the same agent for over thirty years and they've had many disagreements. As one might expect, agents have biases. Depending on the kind of novel my friend turns in, he already has a sense if his agent will or won't like it. Agents also have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to editing. My friend listens carefully to his agent's suggestions and if he strongly disagrees, he then turns to his editor as a tie-breaker. Ultimately, my friend decides what stays and what goes.

It was empowering to be reminded that I, as the creator of the work, have the final say. I've generally approached criticism with an open mind and trust that when someone finds a problem with my work there must be an issue that ought to be addressed. I also trust in the expertise of others and think that those who ignore counsel do so at their own peril. And yet there's a time, I'm beginning to see, that maybe you need to trust yourself more.

I received a few great podcast suggestions after last week's blog post, one of them being OTHER PPL with Brad Listi (thanks to MWPA's Joshua Bodwell for the suggestion). Listi is the Marc Maron of the literary world and I've been immersing myself in his author interviews. One that stood out for me is a conversation with Stewart O'Nan. His approach is to work is to be slow and steady and to roll with the punches. Among his more traumatizing moments in the publishing business: the time his publicist left in the middle of a book launch and the time the entire staff of his publishing house was fired. Hearing these stories made my current squabble with my agent seem small. I've been writing professionally for twenty years and yet I'm still so green.

So now that I'm feeling confident, I will ride this wave and dive right in. I will spend the summer taking my friend's and my writing group's suggestions and power through another rewrite. I will "write a little every day, without hope, without despair" as prescribed by Isak Dinesen.

I am back.