Infrequently Amusing

Reno loves pizza.

Reno loves pizza.

In terms of objects that can be balanced on my dog’s head, pizza is easy. Round things and hats prove more difficult. Last year I photographed my poor dog with pretty much everything I could think of balanced on his head, and last week I created a photo book of my favorites from the year. The book arrived in the mail Saturday, and it gave me a ridiculous amount of pleasure to hold in my hands the finished project–the result of infrequently amusing and totally pointless photography. This wasn’t a planned creative project, nor did I have any idea what I would ever do with all those photos when we first decided to see if Reno would sit still with a potato chip on his forehead.

Mostly we just thought it was funny, and it gave me something to post on Instagram.

This sort of creative process isn’t so different from how I come across some of my best story ideas. I wander into them. I put together seemingly unrelated people, events, objects, and places. I play around with them until a story starts to take shape. Eventually I find myself holding in my hands a book that’s the result of all this meandering effort.

Writing for Reluctant Readers

Having worked with kids who have reading disabilities, I think a lot about the issues involved in writing for reluctant readers. But first, who are they, and how do they end up that way?

–They often come from homes that have few or no books

–They may have a learning disability that makes reading difficult

–When they are young, they may not experience adults reading to them at home

–They may have negative associations with reading through humiliating experiences at school

–They can be any age, from preschoolers up through adulthood

We writerly types tend to be passionate readers–and if we aren’t, we have no business writing!–so we may not have started out as reluctant readers, though I do know of writers and passionate readers who did and managed to overcome their early difficulties with great success.

So how can writers help those with reading difficulties?

1. Include lots of white space. Nothing is more intimidating to a person with reading difficulties than looking at a page of text and seeing huge blocks of dense text. It’s visually overwhelming and gives no space for the eyes and brain to rest. If you’d like to write a book that appeals to children or adults who struggle with reading, be sure to include lots of short lines of dialogue, short paragraphs, and short, straightforward sentences whenever possible.

2. Keep vocabulary simple. It’s okay to throw in the occasional big word, but strive for simple, straightforward language. Whether written for children or adults, a story can be as beautiful and complex as you’d like it to be without using many unfamiliar words. If you stick with words that are familiar to most people, you allow those who’ve had limited exposure to vocabulary (because of fewer reading experiences) to enter your story world with ease.

3. Stick with straightforward, linear narrative. For reluctant readers, reading itself is often an act that takes so much effort, there is little energy left for following complicated story lines. Dealing with the unexpected in a story’s narrative structure is often enough to make a frustrated reader stop reading. One protagonist telling the story, with a linear progression of events, is the easiest story structure to follow.

4. Consider the age of your audience. Dr. Seuss was the master of writing accessible and brilliant stories for young readers, but what about older kids and adults who struggle to read? Third grade is a turning point in elementary school, when kids are expected to start reading to learn, rather than learning to read (which is what they do in K-2). This is where the great need for more books for struggling readers really kicks in. We need more accessible chapter books (for struggling readers ages 8-10), more easy-to-read middle grade books (for ages 9-12), and more teen fiction written for kids with limited vocabulary and reading skills. As a teacher, I really struggled to find books I could recommend and read with my struggling readers. Even those identified by textbook companies as good for reluctant readers are often too complex.

In the world of adult readers, genres like romance and mystery often provide an access point for readers with limited skills. My romance novels are written with a predictable structure, fairly simple language, and lots of white space. So if you do write in a genre, consider how your books can accommodate all readers. We don’t have any control over print size, but we do have control over how long our paragraphs are (I try to keep mine short), and how much dialogue we include (preferably, a lot). We can also keep the pacing fairly fast and the story questions driving the plot interesting enough that readers want to keep reading.

And when struggling readers keep reading, they gain the experience and skill they need to move into the category of confident and lifelong readers.

The Value of Writing Slowly

As writers around the world finish up the last few days of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, I find myself considering the value of slowing down rather than speeding up during the writing process. For those not familiar with this annual November event, NaNoWriMo challenges writers to write an entire 50,000 word first draft of a novel in one month. That’s a lot of writing, but not impossible.

I have always been a fast-draft writer, and thanks to various writing deadlines, I’ve had to finish some books faster than I would have liked. (One memorably unpleasant deadline had me finishing a manuscript while in the hospital for a week recovering from the difficult birth of my second child.) The values of fast drafting are clear. Writers can prove to themselves that they are able to write an entire 50,000 words. They are forced to turn off the internal editor in order to get flawed but revisable words on paper. And writing fast makes it easier to keep the entire story and its various threads alive and coherent in one’s head in a way that slow drafting cannot. I love writing my drafts as fast as possible, getting totally immersed in the story, letting it take over my psyche for a month or so in a way that I can’t let it for many months (because I have a life to attend to!).

But as a fast writer, I have over the years come to appreciate the value of the slow and considered process. In a constant drive to produce pages, I’ve at times made unwise choices about plot and character. Such choices would have benefited from my ruminating for a while, considering, letting my imagination work over the problem at a pace all its own. Sometimes an hour of writing work might be spent considering the various ways a character could respond to a problem. No pages are produced, but that hour was valuably spent.

As I’ve moved toward tracking my writing progress by hours rather than pages, I’ve seen the quality of my writing go up. Three hours spent totally focused on my story are three hours well-spent, whether I wrote two pages or ten. The trick is actually staying focused on the story–not counting any time spent checking email or browsing the internet as “work” time.

Conversely, I know plenty of writers who could benefit from speeding up their process, because they spend far too much time tweaking and revising during the first draft–to the detriment of their story. It all depends on one’s natural strengths and weaknesses. My tendency is to hurry through things, so forcing myself to do the opposite allows me to work out creative muscles that need strengthening.

How about you? Do you think you need to slow down as a writer, speed up, or keep humming along just as you are?

Reno constantly reminds me that patience is a virtue.

Social Mania

Cristian Mihai wrote an excellent post today on social media, in which he discusses a topic near and dear to my heart–being genuine online (as in, not being a frantic buy-my-book-please-please-please promoter).

Lately when I attend meetings and workshops where other writers are present and the subject of social media comes up, there seem to be three primary camps: the haters, the promoters, and the bewildered.

The Haters: These disenchanted souls literally groan when anyone mentions having a platform on a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. Throw in Pinterest and Instagram and you’d better duck the flying objects they are likely to hurl at you. I can’t say I blame them, because maintaining much of a presence online is likely to steal most or all of the time and energy we have for writing. As social media options proliferate, the haters are likely to become more disgruntled. Either that or they’ll switch games and join our next category…

The Promoters: You’ve met these sales-oriented types. Likely you’ve got a bag full of their business cards and bookmarks from the last conference you’ve attended, and you get five posts a day from them on Twitter reminding you of their latest book and the contest for their latest book and the free offer for their latest book. Oh and did they mention about the two-for-one deal for their latest book?

The BewilderedIf someone would just tell these authors what the heck an Instagram is, they’d be happy to try it. Problem is, they are still trying to figure out how to connect their Facebook to their Twitter, and what the heck is a hashtag? They’d like to use one, because they’ve heard they help sell books.

I’d like to propose that if you recognize yourself in any of the above descriptions (I’ve been all three at various times), you carefully put down your iPhone and take at least twenty steps away from it. Take a deep breath. Go get yourself a cup of chamomile tea, and while you’re doing so, recall the reasons you want to connect with readers in the first place. You have stories to tell, right? You want people to read them.

How much time do you realistically have each day for writing? One hour? Two? More? Less? Whatever it is, you should obey the 90% rule (which I just made up). Spend 90% of your time on writing and 10% of your time on all other things writing-related, which can include doing whatever makes you happy in the realm of social media, whether that be blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, whatever. Go read Cristian’s post about how best to use all that social media at your disposal, but whatever you do, don’t let it get in the way of your writing.

If you only have an hour a day for writing, that leaves you 6 minutes for anything you might like to do on Twitter or Facebook. This requires you to make some tough but worthwhile choices. Where is your time best spent? Probably not gathering recipes on Pinterest for things your characters cooked in your last book.

How I use some of my limited social media time on Instragram–posting pics of stuff I put on my dog.

On Consistency

One of my favorite romance authors, Barbara O’Neal, has some wise words about showing up at the page day after day, slogging through no matter what. Check it out.

I’ve posted before on the same topic, but I always find it refreshing to hear that an author I admire and respect experiences the same frustrations, the same months of maddening story frustrations, that I do. It helps to hear other writers talk about their process, and her process sounds very similar to mine. If you find yourself second-guessing your own writing process, I recommend reading what other writers have to say about theirs until you find someone who matches yours. Then you tell youself: “See, you’re not crazy after all. So-and-so writes exactly the way you do, so stop agonizing about it and get back to work!”

Writing a novel is an act of consistency, for the most part. Being religious about showing up day after day after day after ever-loving day, getting a little work done each time, is what gets a novel written, revised, polished, and ultimately done.

Focus and Flow

 

I’ve recently undertaken a major organizing project at home, tackling boxes in the basement that have nagged at me for years. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I want to work on it all day every day, which leaves little time to focus on writing. And yet, working at my writing every day is a top priority as well. How to balance the two and still have time to take care of family and the usual demands of life?

 

I try to have periods of intense focus each day on both tasks. Time in the morning totally focused on writing, followed by an hour or two in the afternoon totally focused on the organization project. This sounds so much easier on paper (or computer screen) than it is in practice.

 

 

In practice, each of these tasks can easily be derailed by an entire day of random small tasks–kids, walking the dog, exercise, paying bills, answering email, blogging, etc.

 

 

It’s possible to accomplish a great deal even when time is limited though. If my morning writing gets squeezed down to a half hour or an hour, I know that if I stay totally focused for that amount of time, I will be happy with my progress. I found myself with only an hour instead of my imagined 3 hours to write today before the kids got home from school, and within that hour, I reminded myself of all the reasons I love being a writer. Within that hour, I reached a state of flow.

 

 

You’ve probably heard of flow, and I dearly hope you’ve experienced it. It’s the only feeling I can think of that would compel a person to slog through writing an entire novel–or ten entire novels–without ever knowing if another person will read it. Certainly not limited to writing, anyone can reach a state of flow doing any demanding but potentially enjoyable activity, whether it’s rock climbing or painting or sculpting or karate or doing taxes (okay, that last one’s a stretch). It’s the deeply satisfying state of total focus that occurs when we practice a skill we love to practice.

We can’t make it happen every time we write, but we can set up the conditions that make it most likely to occur. Schedule quiet time to write, sit down and do it without doing anything else (no checking email or Facebook!), and every time your attention wanders, bring it back to the manuscript. The longer you stay focused, the more likely you are to enter flow–and find yourself exhilarated and happy at the end of your writing session.

 

Reno Practices Staying Focused

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Name a Book

My most popular blog post ever is this one on the subject of how to name a book. I don’t think I offered much in the way of useful advice though, and I was highly restrained in my opinions of the titles I’ve ended up with in the name of marketability (Okay, I was a total Pollyanna. Baby Under the Mistletoe? Hated it as a title, because it doesn’t match the story’s tone, for one thing. Endless list of titles we had to come up with for a three book series? Lots of great titles were disregarded much to my extreme frustration.). Today I’d like to revisit the topic of how to name a book, or more specifically–how to name a novel.

It’s a hard truth that if you hope to publish your novel traditionally, marketability will be your publisher’s chief concern with title selection. You may be very emotionally attached to a title, but if it isn’t perceived as marketable, it’ll be out the window. The working title of the first novel I ever sold was Catching Lucy. I still think of the book as Catching Lucy. But after it sold, my editor asked me for a list of titles. I gave her maybe 10 or 15, and she selected Some Like It Sizzling from the list. Honestly, I threw that title on the list as a bit of a joke, tongue in cheek, but since the entire novel is written with a tongue in cheek tone, I suppose such a title works for it.

I can see how the title is more marketable to a romance audience. It suggests a sexy tone, and as mentioned above it somewhat matches the tone of the book.

Prior to publication, you can make your title whatever the heck you want it to be. However, your title’s chief goal is to grab a browsing reader’s eye and give her an immediate impression of what your book is about. Your first readers will be the agents and editors whose attention you need to grab, and these particular readers have seen every title under the sun. What can you do to stand out? There are plenty of bad titles I don’t need to name, but what makes a good title? How do you come up with one for your own book?

1. A good title is often clever. Al Capone Does My Shirts and its sequel Al Capone Shines My Shoes, both by Gennifer Choldenko, have cleverness on their side. They provide interesting contrasts, have a nice rhythm, and make the reader wonder what the stories could possibly be about. It’s hard to define clever, but we know it when we see it.

2. A good title is often intriguing. One of my favorite novels is Margaret Atwood’s The Poisonwood Bible. The title works in part because it deals in contrasts–something as prickly sounding as “poisonwood” next to a holy word, “bible.” I don’t know what poisonwood is, but I am curious to know more, and I wonder what the title’s meaning is. It also immediately draws the reader into the story itself, suggesting some sort of religious content, possibly profane, and possibly in an exotic locale. The moment I saw the title I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

3. A good title suggests the tone and content of the book. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon does a good job of suggesting the novel’s tone. The protagonist’s voice is captured in the title, and his tone throughout the story, thanks to his Asperger’s Syndrome, has a quirky, detached, sometimes overly analytical quality that the reader first meets on the novel’s cover.

4. A good title grabs the reader’s attention. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins works well in this regard. My attention is grabbed, and I want to know more. Notice it also deals in contrasts, a quality frequently found in attention-grabbing titles.

5. A good title is memorable. All of the above-mentioned titles are memorable, and they all use contrasts to create intrigue to some extent. What makes a title memorable though? I think it’s easiest to discuss this quality by using an example of the opposite. I love Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries, but I cannot for the life of me match any of the stories with their respective titles. This is often true of franchise authors, whose stories are so hugely popular they sell on author name alone. The publisher creates a brand with the titles, and it doesn’t matter if any individual title is memorable, because readers are simply going to buy every title in the series. I don’t advise using this method as a new author. You need your title to be as clever, memorable, and intriguing as possible, while working to communicate tone and content to your readers.

What are some of your favorite titles? Why do you think they work well?

Writing Resolutions

The end of summer arrives for me next Tuesday, when my kids go back to school. This marks the start of the most productive time of year for me, when distractions fade away and I can focus exclusively on writing. It’s a natural time to review the writing resolutions I made at the start of the year and consider adding a few new ones.

One resolution I made that I know I haven’t been able to focus on very well yet this year was to do something every day to improve my writing ability. I envisioned keeping a writer’s journal in which I use examples from writers I admire to help me practice specific skills I’d like to improve, such as writing more elegant sentences, composing crisp dialogue, etc. I’ve done a good job of reading quite a few books about writing this year, which is part of my resolution to improve as a writer, but as part of my mid-year resolution renewal, I want to start studying examples of great writing more diligently and keeping up with my writer’s journal. I will post here soon about how it’s going and whether I find it to be a valuable process.

Another resolution I made at the start of the year was to keep a daily log of my writing progress, including time spent writing and pages written. I kept up with this for a while but fell off the wagon sometime mid-summer. Now is the time to pick up that practice again. I find it to be invaluable for keeping myself honest. It also makes me seize little opportunities to write. When I see that I’ve only spent two hours writing in a given day, I’m much more likely to grab another 15 or 30 minutes here and there to up my productive time. Also, the tracking of pages and time really does boost my overall productivity in a huge way. I’ve found it surprising how much I can accomplish in 30 minutes here and there throughout the day.

My third resolution this year was to have fun with writing. For me, this means not just focusing all my energy on marketable writing projects. I envisioned keeping a poetry journal, because I like to write poetry but rarely do it. I also envisioned working on a few children’s projects meant specifically for my own children, because they’ve never read anything I’ve written. I’ve put some energy into this resolution over the course of the year, but I haven’t been consistent with it. My goal now is to do something fun with writing at least once a week for the rest of the year.

Do you have writing resolutions that you’ve succeeded with this year? Have you done a midyear review of them? How do you track your progress?

RWA 2012 Conference Highlights

The Romance Writers of America 2012 conference took place in Anaheim, California this year, right down the street from Disneyland, which I swore I wouldn’t visit but did anyway for my birthday (and had a ridiculously good time). I had no expectations for this conference, which is perhaps why it is one of the best I’ve attended. I was sort of sad to miss the always-fabulous Harlequin party Friday night (because said visit to Disneyland with the family turned into a late-night event), but then I avoided wearing high heels that night, so it’s kind of a wash.

Highlights of the conference included (in no particular order!):

1. The Stephanie Laurens speech I posted a few days ago

2. Another touching and funny keynote speech given by Robyn Carr on the subject of longevity in the business

3. The general air of excitement and possibility regarding the digital publishing revolution

4. Carina Press (Harlequin’s digital publishing venture) author Fiona Lowe winning a Rita Award (the romance industry’s highest honor) for Boomerang Bride, marking the first time a digital-first published book has won a Rita

5. The trend in most of the publisher spotlight sessions toward convincing authors that traditional publishers have something valuable to offer–this is a huge change of tone since my last conference (insert many exclamation marks here) and real evidence that publishers are feeling the pressure of competing with self-published authors

6. The lack of humidity in Anaheim (my hair would like all conferences to take place in low-humidity locales, but no one asks my hair)

7. The conference hotel itself, which managed to be laid out in such a way that nearly all the workshops were located within short distance of each other (I’m pretty sure I’ve put in a good 5 miles a day walking to and fro at a few previous conferences…in high heels)

8. Seeing old friends and colleagues and meeting new ones…if you ever wonder about the point of attending a writers conference, I have to say this is the most consistently valuable part of any conference

9. A hilarious workshop given by Simone Elkeles, that had me in tears laughing at one point–if you ever get a chance to hear her speak, take it, but for now go to her website and see how she has taken book trailers to a whole new level

10. Rooming with the always-wacky Cindy Procter-King, who is such a good networker that I don’t even have to know people–I just get to ride her coattails

11. Seeing my funny and brilliant agent and hearing that she doesn’t hate my latest book (insert tears of joy here)

There were more highlights, but this is getting really long and my daughter is hovering nearby desperate to be entertained. Did you attend the conference? What were your favorite moments?

Summer Reading

NPR recommends 5 funny summer reads. Have you read any of them yet? You like?

I’m in the middle of reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and loving it, but I’m always on the look-out for the next good book. What are your latest finds?

RWA 2012 Keynote Speech by Stephanie Laurens

RWA 2012 Keynote Speech by Stephanie Laurens

Stephanie Laurens’ keynote address at RWA’s 2012 Conference in Anaheim is worth reading. We in the romance writing community tend to be a very polite bunch, so hearing her boldly state how the publishing industry is changing and how authors may respond, in front of editors and publishers, was quite interesting indeed. Check it out!

The Rules of Romance Writing?

Every genre has its story expectations, which lead some people to believe there is a formula for writing within any given genre. Not so.

When I pick up a mystery novel, I expect there to be a mystery (probably a murder) to be solved. I expect there to be a protagonist working to solve the mystery. I expect, with some surprises and plot twists along the way, that the mystery will be solved at the end of the book. That’s pretty much all I expect, and so long as the author fulfills those expectations, she is free to do quite a bit in the process of telling the story.

The reader expectations of the romance genre are similar. Readers expect the book to be about a man and a woman overcoming obstacles and falling in love. They also expect the story to end happily—as in, with the sense that the relationship will continue. Everything else in the story is up to the author.

But that’s where it gets tricky. It’s also where the idea that there are lots of rules for writing romance comes into play.

Following are some romance writing myths I’ve heard, versus reality:

Do the hero and heroine need to meet by page three?

No. Nor do they need to meet by page 6 or 10 or whatever. But if the primary story in the book is about a man and woman meeting and eventually falling in love, you will want to set up that plot somewhere near the beginning of the book. Not on page 100.

Does there have to be a love scene (or 3, or 6 or 10 love scenes)?

No, it’s not required or necessary. Do readers like them? Some do, some don’t. Some believe any kind of sex makes the story unreadable, and some are sorely disappointed by a lack of it. So how do you decide whether to include love scenes? You look to the story itself. Would showing the characters’ developing physical relationship serve the story in some way? Would it advance character and/or plot development? It often will when done well. But you also have to decide what you are comfortable and happy writing. If you hating writing about sex, you’re better off skipping it.

Does a romance novel have to be written in third person limited point of view?

It doesn’t have to be, but that’s the easier way to write a romance. First person is more difficult but is certainly possible. When you’re spending 300-400 pages telling the story of two people falling in love, it’s nice to get a sense of where each person is psychologically. That’s why romances tend to go back and forth between the heroine and hero’s third person limited points of view.

Does the romance heroine have to be a docile, innocent, virginal type while the hero is an alpha male jerk who also happens to be a cowboy billionaire?

No, no, no, no, no. Those are silly old-school images of what romance characters are like. Some books may still include such types, but I don’t read or write them. Romances tend to work best when they are about believable characters who are both realistic and admirable—same as any mainstream protagonist. We want to be able to like and identify with the characters in some way. Most people tend to like stories about characters who are perhaps a bit of what we wish ourselves to be.

But making your character too perfect is a recipe for a boring story, so you have to balance admirable qualities with the types of flaws all people have. Romance readers are often disappointed if characters are too flawed though. Never forget that these books are a bit of escapist fantasy. They are usually not the place to try out making a reader fall in love with a philandering alcoholic. Think about the kinds of traits that would make a person a deal-breaker in a real life relationship with you, and that’s a pretty good measuring stick for deciding if you can make it work in a romance novel. Save the tragically flawed characters for your more literary efforts.

Aren’t romance novels so easy to write that I can knock one off in a couple of weeks and then sit back and wait for the cash to come rolling in?

Oh hell no. I suppose a few authors may work that way, but romances are very difficult to do well. It’s a crowded market. The books depend heavily upon author voice and compelling characterization to rise above the mediocre. Inherent in the question above is disrespect for the genre, and I would never try to write in a genre I don’t enjoy and respect myself. You might be able to sell some books with such a cynical approach, but your energy would be much better spent writing in a genre you love.

(And the money rolling in part? That’s a tragically inaccurate myth for 99.5% of all writers.)

The Creative Impulse

If you long to be a writer or a painter or a dancer or (insert creative pursuit here), you will have to decide at some point how much creative energy you will devote to that pursuit. I am nearly as visual a person as I am inclined toward the written word, but I made a decision in college that words were my first love, so I would devote all my creative energy to writing. And I did. For many years.

But that visually creative urge still tugs at me for attention. Photography is my favorite hobby, and it mostly fulfills my desire to create visually. I don’t put a lot of energy into it, and I don’t try to excel as a photographer. I just have fun with it when the urge strikes. Yet I find myself longing for more tactile activities. I have a dirty little habit of amassing paint and paper and canvasses and other bits of ephemera with the intent of using it all to paint, make cards, and create mixed media art, but I rarely get around to it.

Why? Limited creative energy.

Put another way, the well is not a bottomless one. It takes an immense amount of psychic energy to write a book, keeping my attention sustained and the story taking shape in my head for the months and months of writing and editing. I’ve never been able to shake the desire for visual creativity beyond my photography though, so this summer, with my daughter home with me all day some days, we have set about doing our own art workshop. We do a little here and there, and it’s enough for me. I am at a place in my writing development that I can afford a bit of energy for this other thing, so long as it’s kept in the realm of easy and fun.

For someone just starting out on a creative path, I would recommend throwing all of yourself into it. There is no such thing as achieving mastery. It’s a lifelong pursuit we never quite reach, but the pursuit of it is incredibly worthwhile and fulfilling. In the early years of learning a new skill, the energy and focus required can be immense, so beware of dividing your energy if you are very serious about becoming good at what you want to do. The result could be that you never move past the novice stage.

Instead, commit to being the best you are capable of being. If it’s a goal you care deeply about, it deserves nothing less.

How We Improve

Excellent post from Steven Pressfield this week on how we improve as writers.

A Whole New Look

I just updated the look of my website. You like?

I’ve been meaning to do it for, oh, let’s see…a number of years. I know, I know, I still need to update my books page and all that other tedious stuff, but this is a huge improvement.

Look over there in the left column. All my books are finally here! Yippee.

Letting Go of the Results

I just finished a project I started 4 years ago. It’s never taken me so long to finish a book, so I have discovered whole new levels of feeling relieved with the completion of this manuscript. Several friends have asked if I’m happy with the results, and this question always makes me cringe.

I should have a good answer for it, right? I should be happy with the results.

I never am. I invariably finish writing projects with a feeling that it is most definitely the worst thing I’ve ever written, that my skills as a writer are somehow getting weaker and weaker with each word typed. I deal with this feeling by letting go of the results.

I am only responsible for the writing. I make it the best I can. I don’t try too hard to judge it though, just as a mother never looks at a new baby and thinks, oh, gosh, this one’s a little uglier than the rest.

Months or years later, after the rigors of writing the book are long past, I might be able to look back and see what was weak or strong about a given story. Or I might not. I usually don’t try. That helps me stay sane and keep writing.

How about you? Do you find yourself to be a good judge of your own work?

Get It Written

I stumbled upon my first completed manuscript the other day. I scanned the first couple of lines, laughed, and put it away again. It will never become a published book, and I’m really quite happy with that. I remember the story well, and I wince at the many beginner’s mistakes I made. The first paragraph–the first sentence, even–alert the reader that here is an author who doesn’t yet know how to tell a story.

Did I write it knowing it would never be published? That it would, indeed, become nothing more than a steaming pile of unreadable crap? Of course not. If I had, I would have given up before I’d gotten started.

I wrote that novel with such assuredness, with such energy… I immersed myself in it, determined to finish and rush it off to the nearest publisher who would most certainly stumble over themselves to get it in print as soon as humanly possible.

Instead, what that first publisher did was send me the world’s fastest rejection letter. This was before the age of email rejections, but truly, this was an astonishingly fast rejection, arriving in my mailbox a mere week after I’d mailed off the manuscript. (This happened to be one of those rare publishers who still accepted unsolicited complete manuscripts.)

Do I believe someone read the entire manuscript? No, she didn’t need to. All she had to do was read the first line or two in order to be confident in slapping a rejection letter on that puppy and sending it back to me.

I was crushed, of course. But I’d already gone to the library during that week after mailing my manuscript, picked up some books on writing craft, and read them with the sinking feeling that I’d done everything they warned beginning writers not to do. So I wasn’t exactly surprised at the rejection. At the speed, yes, but at the outcome, no.

What that first completed manuscript did for me though was to show me that I could, indeed, write an entire novel. Next my task was to figure out how to write an entire novel someone else might want to read. It took 5 years and 6 manuscripts to make my first sale. I eventually sold novel # 5 as well, but those first 4? All learning books that don’t deserve to be in print.

If you are struggling to finish a first manuscript, there is nothing more important you can do than to get it written. Prove to yourself that you can do it. You might have better skills than I had and actually write something sell-able the first time around, but even if you don’t, there is great value in the process.

Are you working on your first novel? If so, how is it going? And if you’ve finished your first novel, what became of it? What was the lesson it had to teach you?

The Time to Write is Right Now

“Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

I used to think I needed an entire uninterrupted day in which to get any real writing done. If I had a doctor’s appointment or a meeting to attend, my focus was shot. Then I had kids, and I learned that the busiest people are the ones who get the most done. All of a sudden writing time had to be seized whenever possible–during naps or late at night. Deep down though, I still held the belief that I needed long, uninterrupted stretches of time–5 hours at least–in order to be as productive as I wanted to be.

What I’ve discovered though is that if I wait around for those stretches of time to materialize, they never do. Life only gets more full of interests, obligations, and commitments. Time becomes more precious. The only time we have to write is that which we demand will be reserved for writing.

An hour is enough time. A half hour is enough time. Fifteen minutes is enough time, even, to make some kind of progress.

Perhaps more difficult than setting aside time for writing, these days, is devoting the attention necessary to writing. We writers must make difficult choices about what we devote our attention to. If we are going to be serious about writing, then maybe social media, the news, magazines, internet browsing, TV and movies have to take up very small places in our lives.

I’ve experimented with giving up most or all of the above at different times, and it’s amazing how much more focused I can be when I’m not dividing my attention between so many things. Instead of checking your email at any given moment, why not devote that moment to writing? Instead of sitting down to television, why not sit down with your manuscript and see exactly how much you can accomplish in the next 30 minutes?

Be Your Own Best Friend

The publishing industry can especially be brutal for us creative types. We are emotionally invested in our work, but the industry necessarily is all about profits. It’s easy to become self-defeated, self-critical, and self-doubting.

I saw a therapist last year to work through some job-related stress (my day job, not my writing), and as I was grieving the loss of a friendship I felt I’d invested a great deal of love and energy into, she listened and then said, “What if you invested all that love and energy into yourself?”

That question kept coming back to me, particularly in relation to my writing. In my everyday life, I do tend to take care of myself. But when it comes to my writing career? Not so much. After that conversation, I started making a more conscious effort to say to myself positive statements about writing rather than negative ones. Self-affirming statements instead of self-doubting ones.

No one cares about your writing the way you do, so why not be your own best advisor about all matters concerned with it? Give yourself the advice you would give to someone you love and admire. When you catch yourself having negative thoughts, pause and ask yourself if that’s something you’d say to your best friend.

The Dirty Little Secret of Self Promotion

I have never been a great self-promoter. I am shy, and I start to mumble and turn red when people ask me about my books. I have an author website, partly because when I read a book I like, I love to go check out the author’s website to learn more about her and any other books she might have written. If she has a newsletter, I sign up for it so I can find out when future books will come out. I assume if anyone else ever likes one of my books, they might want to do the same.

I maintain a blog because I enjoy doing so, but not because I think it will make me rich. I am on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram mostly for fun, but do I think they are a good means of self-promotion? Not exactly. I have never bought a book because of any interaction I’ve had on a social networking site. I’ve also never bought a book because of a promotional bookmark, keychain, or other doodad picked up at a conference.

How do I find new books? I read reviews on Amazon.com, Audible.com, in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and a few other magazines here and there. I hear books mentioned on NPR. I get recommendations from friends. Also, all those email newsletters I sign up for let me know when my favorite authors have a new book coming out. All these means of finding books depends upon the book being good enough to be recommended by others.

There is only one tried and true method of self promotion: writing the very best books we can write and sending them out into the world to fail or succeed. Then do it again and again and again until we fall over dead clutching a dusty, worn-out keyboard in our gnarled old hands. Sooner or later, we hope we hit on the right book at the right time for the right audience. Maybe we do, and maybe we don’t, but because this one all-important method of self-promotion is so difficult, and because the publishing world is so out of our control, we like to distract ourselves with things we can control:

Blog tours, website makeovers, light-up keychains in the shape of our next release. These things call all be quite fun, but never forget that they are, at heart, distractions from the task at hand, which is always going to be sitting down and the keyboard and writing one sentence, then another and another, forever and ever. The End.

How do you find the books you read? Do you ever buy books based on promotion you see on social networking sites?

Keeping Track of Time

Nora Roberts has said she works an 8-hour day as a writer. Other famous writers such as Stephen King claim to work until they have their pages done, whether it takes 2 hours or 10. I’ve tried working both ways, and I’ve tried working just mornings, or only afternoons, or while my kids are napping and after they’ve gone to bed. I’ve also had to squeeze in writing first thing in the morning before work or last thing in the evening while trying to stay awake over a cup of coffee.

My schedule has depended mostly on whatever else is happening in my life, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining what the perfect writing schedule is. I, for instance, find that I can’t write for more than about 4 hours a day regularly without getting mentally exhausted. So my perfect full-time schedule might include a writing session in the morning until lunch followed by taking care of less mentally taxing business of writing tasks in the afternoon.

Now that the school year is done for me but my kids aren’t out of school yet, I’ve had a week to play around with my schedule to see what works. I’ve recently read (and re-read!) The Now Habit by Neil Fiore and am intrigued by his methods for eliminating procrastination and getting more done. His is the first book I’ve read that actually suggests real and plausible techniques for avoiding procrastination (a struggle every writer I know faces, and I don’t want to hear from you if you never deal with it…).

First, he suggests keeping a log of your every activity and exactly how much time you spend on it. This is supposed to show you how little time you really have in your life for getting the important work done.

Next he tells the reader to schedule in fun and pleasurable activities every day, creating what he calls the “unschedule.” The fun activities provide an incentive for getting work done. For instance, if you want to have lunch with a friend, pencil it in, but then work for at least a half hour before you go.

For work time, he suggests only writing in work time on your schedule AFTER you have completed at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted focused work. The key is staying focused for that short time and seeing what you can get done. I have been amazed at how much I can accomplish when I only have 30 minutes at a time. If I’m really rolling I will keep going longer than 30 minutes, but I always take at least a short break after an hour, because I need one by then.

So after 5 days of not trying very hard to get a lot done, I’ve logged in 9 hours spent producing good solid work. I was hoping for 20 hours, but like I said, I wasn’t trying very hard, and I’ve been doing household chores too. If you’d asked me last week whether I could accomplish a great deal in that short amount of time, I would have said no, but it’s been incredibly productive and fruitful time. I’ve made progress I truly thought I’d need 20 hours to make.

I can’t sum up the ideas in The Now Habit in a few paragraphs, so I’d recommend reading it yourself if you’re looking for tips on avoiding procrastination. The first few chapters are a bit slow going, but I appreciate his explanation of why we procrastinate, and the chapters on putting his ideas into practice are priceless. I’m off to create my unschedule for next week.

The Definition of a Writer (And a 3-Question Quiz)

My writing “career,” whatever that means, began in January 1998. That was when I sat down and started writing my first novel seriously with the goal of publication. I didn’t want to publish one novel though, or two or three, or even ten. I wanted to publish a lifetime’s worth. How many will that be? I don’t know, because I’m not dead yet.

It’s an ambitious goal to set out toward though for a person who’d never written even one little novel yet. I’ve now written 25+ of them, 20 of which have been published, while the other 5 or so (I sort of lost count with a few sloppily finished ones) will never see publication. They were my learning novels–one written each year for the 5 years it took me to sell my first book.

But my first sale didn’t mark the beginning of my career, such as it is. I was a real writer with or without a sale, and if you too struggle with the question of whether or not you are a “real” writer, as I did many, many times over the course of those 5 years and even a few times since, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Are you so passionate about reading that you do it constantly?

2. Are you so passionate about writing that you count the act of it among your happiest moments?

3. Do you write regularly?

If you answer those three questions with a “yes,” then there’s no doubt you are indeed a writer. (Well, actually, you could just answer questions 1 and 3 with a yes and still be a writer…)

First, I don’t believe anyone who doesn’t read regularly  and with great relish can really be all that genuine about their desire to be a writer. More likely, he or she desires fame, fortune, ego strokes, and a fat book contract.

And for question number two, let me clarify. It’s not that writing is always or even regularly a happy act, but when it’s good, there’s nothing better. If you’ve ever hit that sweet spot of creative flow, you know what I’m talking about. 80% of writing might be pure unadulterated work, but the joy of being in “flow” is worth all the slogging it takes to get there. (I’ve actually figured out a few tricks for reaching a flow state faster and more regularly, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Question 3 is obvious, but also requires a bit of clarification. I was talking to a friend this week about the ebb and flow of the writer’s life, and she bemoaned the fact that she has no energy for writing at the moment. Her life has been an utter shit-storm of Big Life Events lately, and in the midst of all that, she has lost her energy and passion for writing. Of course she has. It’s certainly happened to me. Writers can’t be engaged endlessly in the act of writing–especially not writing novels every day. There may be months or even years when other things necessarily have to take priority.

I am always a happier and more fulfilled person if I am writing daily, but sometimes I have to take a break from novel writing. I will haul out that old metaphor about giving birth to a novel–it really isn’t so different from giving birth to a child…without medication…alone in a field with no one but yourself to help guide that baby out. So when life gets rough, maybe you turn to a journal, or writing poetry, or just writing letters (okay, emails) to friends, but always, if you are a writer, the written word has a power very little else has. It is a way of thinking about and experiencing the world that you return to again and again throughout your life.

In this uncertain world, we have no control over what agents and publishers do, but I hope after reading this post you can at least stop worrying about whether or not you are a real writer. Being a writer means taking solace and pleasure in the process, from day to day, month to month, year to year, which adds up to a lifetime.

Constructing a Novel

I’ve been reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and found this article about it today. His Six Core Competencies are a useful way to make sure you have all the parts you need to build a solid story.

Having written more than a few novels myself that stalled out midway through and never became fully formed books, I’m curious to see how well I can incorporate his ideas into future projects. I’m a decidedly messy writer though, and I’m not convinced I can reform myself at this point. But we shall see.

How to Write a Romance Novel

Okay, that’s a pretty huge topic for one little blog post, but let’s see if I can cover the highlights in 300 words or fewer, shall we?

Every once in a while a friend or acquaintance will approach me, wanting to know how they can churn out a romance in a month or so and start raking in the cash. When I finish laughing and wiping the tears from my eyes, I have to break the terrible news to them: writing romance novels is difficult, and it’s not a job for the condescending. Also, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Sure, in a cynical mindset, you might be able to write a serviceable book and you might, if you’re really lucky, be able to sell it to someone. But can you build a steady stream of sales that way? I very much doubt it. Readers are smart. They look for books with genuine heart, written by authors with a true love of the genre. And you can’t earn anything close to a living writing romance novels unless you build a readership by putting out lots of good books.

So first and foremost, you need to pour your heart and soul into your story. Anything less comes across as hollow and false, forced, condescending…bleh. What does it mean to write with heart? Check out Susan Elizabeth Phillips, or Susan Wiggs, or any number of talented greats in the genre. I was just reading a book yesterday written by the wonderful and talented Barbara Samuel, entitled How to Bake a Perfect Life, and it is a great example of a book the author poured her heart and soul into. You can see it and feel it in the writing. It moves you.

Next, you have to know the genre. Know what’s been done to death, what’s cliche, what’s not. This means reading widely, not only from current releases, but from classics as well.

Another vital task is honing your craft. Think writing romance is easy? It’s anything but. It’s possibly the most difficult genre to do well, because it’s almost entirely character driven, and the characters have to not only be interesting and real but they must behave heroically nearly all the time. How to accomplish that and still do something original? Figure that out and you just might have a romance writing career on your hands. But while you’re figuring it out, you have to pay attention to the craft of writing. Study it and study it some more. Good writers never stop learning. I still read books about the craft of writing nearly every day, and I plan to do so for the rest of my life.

Once you’ve studied the genre, committed to becoming a master of the writing craft, and have settled into your own heart-felt voice, what’s next? Behave like a professional at all times. Remember that editors and agents are people with jobs. They are not the gatekeepers of some mystical land where cash grows on trees and all your dreams will be made real. Vow to never behave desperately. Treat editors and agents like the professionals they are, and remember always that they are people! If you treat them as such, they’ll appreciate it and be far more likely to consider your work than if you, say, color all your interactions with desperation to get your work on their desk.

Finally, learn to sell yourself and your work. This is my least favorite part of the business, but business it is, and we all must be in it if we want to be writers who sell our work. Selling yourself means learning to write a great query letter, learning to pitch your ideas effectively, learning to maintain a website, develop a public presence, and promote your work however you best see fit. But this should come at the very end, after you’ve mastered the rest.

Want more specifics? Post your questions here, and I’ll try my best to answer them.

Oh, and oops, this is 670-something words now.

Instagram Addict

I was doing so well for a while there, and then my day job intervened, and all of a sudden it’s a ghost town around here. Also, in my not-so-spare time, I’ve become obsessed with Instagram. If you have an iphone, and/or you’re already an Instragram user, you can look me up as Jamie Kain (my married name), or inthecityoftrees (my Instagram user name). Not familiar with Instagram yet? It’s sort of like Twitter meets Facebook meets Photography 101, but simpler than I just made it sound. It’s an app that makes it easy to edit and share photos, and it has a twitter-like stream you can search and follow that is filled with some pretty creative and amazing photos. I was already a photography hobbyist, so now I’m like a photography hobbyist on crack.

I wish there was a way to integrate WordPress and Instagram. I love my blog, but I have far more to say with pictures than I have to say with blogging lately. Any Instagram users out there? If so, let me know and I’ll search you!

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