Tag Archives: Writing Life

Writers and Authors

writer-vs-authorLately I have been working hard on a novel. It is not the first time I have tried to write a novel, but this is the furthest I’ve ever come. And it is still going strong. This is a miracle to me.

And suddenly it feels like I should have been doing this all along. I can talk to other writers with real knowledge of what they are going through, not just a sympathetic ear. I feel like I’ve crossed a border. I am creating a whole world that didn’t exist before, and peopling it with beings I made up. They say words I made up, they make movements I made up. It’s incredible, really.

One thing I didn’t expect: the stark contrast between being in that writing world, and then having to re-enter the Real World. I find myself drifting back to my fictional world in the middle of my days. Oh sure, I’ve heard of this from other writers before, but I didn’t think it was such a visceral, physical tug.

This explains a few things for me. There is, of course, a real difference between the life of a writer and the life of an author. A writer is in their own world, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. They are alone in a room, most of the time, or at least not talking to other people. They are pulling their mind in a different direction from anything that they would normally be forced to consider in daily life. The laundry, dinner, the dishes. Deadlines, bills, work. It’s all extraneous.

And I know this. Intellectually, I know this. I have heard people talk about it. One author I know gave a great keynote a few years ago about this exact thing. But to me, in the audience, not having entered that world in such a way, it was all academic. I knew what he was talking about, sort of, and I even referenced that in my work with other authors. I knew they would suffer as he did.

What I did not know was the depths to which the suffering would go. I thought I understood, but I didn’t. The difference between being a writer and an author is… well, the only thing I can think of that would be analogous is being born. Being whipped out of your comfy safe cocoon, warm and cozy, into a sea of bright lights and noise and demands. Ugh.

That is what an author must do. An author (as opposed to a writer) must push themselves through the birth canal (to use a rather mucky metaphor) and once they have done that, they cannot quit – they must live! They must navigate the ways of the media, they must self-promote, they must speak in front of groups.

This must be why I have found in my promotional work that many writers quit once their book launches. (And not just self-published writers, though they suffer from this more than traditionally publishers authors, I think.) I have worked with many writers who simply cannot or won’t do the work of promotion. They will blog and send out postcards and do events right up until launch month, but then, they just quit. They are done. I have seen this time and time again. It always puzzled me.

What I think is going on is that they didn’t anticipate this dichotomy. They enjoyed the writing so much, but didn’t realize what came after. There was some disconnect there that no one else could address, because the writers themselves didn’t even realize it existed (I’m guessing).

Oh my. What have I got myself into? It is the price we must pay, I guess, for that lovely place you find yourself in when your fictional world comes alive. Well, at least I know what’s on the other side. I mean, intellectually, anyway.

Sucked into the research vortex

time-and-space-vortexIf you are a writer, you must do research. That is sort of a given. One of the staples of the writing life. Even if you write fiction, and purport to make it all up, there will come a time when you will want to know the definition of a given word, or the infinitesimal difference between one word and the next. Then you must consult something, whether it’s a quick internet search or a large tome on a stand. It’s surprising, actually, how much research you will find yourself doing.

But if you are writing historical fiction or any nonfiction, or really, even most fiction, you will need to know more. You can make up a whole world but you will still need to know how people do certain things given certain parameters.

And in my world, with my story set oh so many years ago, there are many parameters.

I had always written essays and poetry. I had tried writing a novel a couple of times, but it just fell flat. Then I got an idea, and I realized it was an idea that could actually work. It was something I was interested in and that I wanted to know more about, and there was a story there. However, it required me to find out an awful lot about a time and place that I knew little about. Lucky for me, I was obsessed.

Because when you start to pull that world together, and the words flow onto the page, it’s like magic. When you have created a scene where something happened, where before there was nothing – that’s a kind of magic, isn’t it? Probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing magic. Conversations that never existed, until now. And if you’re a pantser like me, each day brings these new surprises. New delights, but at the same time, the whole thing is playing like a movie in my head.

Until, of course, it’s not. When a time comes that the character must do something concrete, like take off a shoe. And I have to figure out what that shoe looked like. Laces? No laces? Leather or fur? Or the boat they ride in, or the dishes they eat off of. It’s all so fascinating to me, I can’t help but describe it.

After I spend hours looking it up. Oops. Sucked into the research vortex, I made the oft-repeated mistake of falling in love with my research. I pitched the book at a conference and couldn’t help myself from telling the agent all about the archeology it was based on. I caught myself, but it was close.

I have seen cases where the author’s research was showing. Where the corset of the character was described in too much detail. Where we know they spent time researching something, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet here they are describing it. It doesn’t add anything.

This is something to be wary of, my friends. What your story is about, and the backstory research that you have to do to make that world come alive, should not intersect. That backstory, though, is so very necessary. You must fully flesh out the world yourself, before you can fully bring it to life. And it shows, but not in ways that are obvious. That is known as depth.

So be careful out there. Do a lot of research, but not so much that you don’t write the story. And write the story, but don’t show so much research that the story takes a backseat. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips or guidelines for realizing you are in too deep and pulling yourself out, or where that fine line is when the research overtakes the story. I am just starting out here, and I hope that I can tell the difference. I already know that the time has come to stop doing the research for a little while. We’ll see how that plays out on the page.

How many of you have been sucked into the research vortex? How did you haul yourself out of it?

Why we write at times like this

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How can anyone, after watching the horrific events of this past week, this past month, this past year, think that putting imaginary worlds down on a blank page could have any meaning?

I will tell you.

It is precisely in times like this, precisely in times when all fabric of humanity seems to be unraveling, when we are struggling to make sense of actions that seem senseless, when we are determined to overcome fear and uncertainty, that we need to write.

Because it is precisely at these times that we need to read.

Because it is stories that most concisely encapsulate our human condition. It is stories that show us that there is good in the ogre; there is beauty in the ugly duckling; and that there is no place like home. It is stories that show us that no matter how awful or black the world may seem, there is some light in it. There is good behind the scenes, there are those attempting to right wrongs, there are those who will fight for the underdog, the downtrodden, the ones left behind.

It is times like this that story becomes even more important.

It is times like this, when the television becomes a weapon, delivering a slew of hate and violence until we just can’t take it any more, that we must unplug, turn it off, drop out and open a book. Who hasn’t lost themselves in a good book when life got just way too overwhelming? Who hasn’t sought solace in a favorite story, the one almost memorized, the go-to imaginary world of prose or poetry that softens the blows, that reminds us that yes, everything will be all right.

It may seem frivolous to pull out the laptop. It may seem even silly to again enter that world you are creating, to create more myths, more monsters, more heroes. But it is those monsters that we can slay. It is those heroes that we can root for. And reading these stories will help us to enter into our own narrative with a fresh perspective, give our mind a little space to process all that it has seen, all the unanswerable questions and perplexing nastiness.

So go. Write your stories. Write your poems. Work on the ideas that are playing in your head. Don’t try to imagine how things in this world can get worse or get better. Control the world you are creating. And when you come out of that world, this world might seem a little more manageable. You may have some answers, some solutions that you hadn’t thought of before. It’s a slim hope, but we need that.

We need to hope that the dragon will be vanquished. That traffic stops won’t be a death sentence. That scuffles won’t turn into vigils. That people will not be blown up as they pray. That some sense will prevail, as we write the most far-fetched story we can think of, the one in which color doesn’t matter.

Submit or Die: Join A Hashtag Community

You may have heard that in certain circles (largely academic), you must publish or perish.

Well, isn’t the same thing true of any writer? And if you are primarily a writer, and not, say, one who concerns themselves with the esoteric functions of some industry or industrial complex, then you really must publish or perish.

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Submit or die

And what do you need to do first, before you can publish? That’s right. Submit. So really, it’s Submit or Die. And that can mean several things.
You can submit your work to journals, websites, contests and the like. Or you can submit queries to agents, publishers or magazines to publish your articles. Really, the how or what doesn’t matter (I mean, yes, ultimately it does matter), because the bottom line is that you must submit something in order to get started.

There are many people who write and do not submit. They exist in a netherworld of anonymity, known as writers only to themselves and close friends and family (and sometimes, not even that). Sometimes, they think they are not good enough. Sometimes, they don’t think their work is ready or they say they simply don’t have time. There are as many reasons for not submitting as there are writers out there.

But the end result is that only those who submit get published. And those who talk about writing but do nothing about submitting are doing a disservice to their writing.

“So I played softball in high school for four years and utterly sucked at it. Like I was embarrassingly bad. That said, I stuck with it. Something about that practice of persistence in spite of continuous failure *read rejection letters*, has fully prepared me for my life as a writer. Thank You, Softball” – Sagirah Shahid

Recently, I saw a post by a poet friend on Facebook, telling how her experience with being bad at softball – but sticking with it – helped to prepare her for life as a writer. She graciously agreed to let me share it. Resiliency. Gotta have it.

But sometimes it’s easier to do other things, and no one will really notice, right? Well, that’s where a support group comes in. Encouragement and accountability might be the things you need to get yourself on a submitting track.

There are some who say that a true writer must write every day; but also some who say that you should just write whenever you can – but above all, make time for it. I have belonged to two groups over the past 9 or 10 months that have helped me do just that. They both offer Encouragement and Accountability. But no judgment.

The first one that I joined, and I would suggest everyone do this, goes along with the principle of writing every day. It is a monthly writing challenge, centered around a hashtag on Twitter, and I wrote about it here. The second one is a Facebook group that operates on the make-time-for-it option, called #1kTuesday, run by the talented and generous Molly Beth Griffin. Both encourage writing and have another thing in common: no judgment. We all have our demons. But we can still celebrate our successes, even the smallest ones, because small successes tend to pile up to be big successes.

Facebook group #SubmitSunday

What I would like to do is build up a similar kind of encouragement aimed at submissions. I will do this more on the model of #1kTuesday, with a Facebook group and a hashtag. I am calling it #SubmitSunday – though in reality there will be no penalty for submitting on other days. The idea, though, is that you will know as you are spending some time on a Sunday morning, afternoon or evening working on submissions that there are others out there doing the same thing. Make time for it.

And when you are done, you can head on over to the Facebook group and enter your accomplishment. I will ask anyone who is a member of the group to submit each Sunday (or any day) what they did, then I will tally them every Monday. It could be “Submitted to x number of journals,” or “Submitted “so-and-so” piece to x journal” or it could be “Worked on a proposal for a writing grant/residency for one hour.” It could even be “Researched markets with x resource for an hour.” It’s okay to do research, but Extra Brownie Points will be awarded for those who are actually submitting work, and who can name the piece and pass along the market that they submitted to.

Occasionally I will share resources that I know of and trust, and I would encourage others to do the same – places where markets, contests and grants are listed that others will find handy. I always share this kind of information with my students and it is nothing but a good feeling. If you are an editor of a publication or director of a program that awards grants or residencies to writers, I would love to see you post the details in the group or simply with the hashtag on Twitter. Open reading periods, deadlines for contests, requests for proposals – all is game.

I have already started the Facebook group, so please join #SubmitSunday. You don’t have to be a Friend of mine on Facebook, and you can invite anyone you want. Also, use the #SubmitSunday hashtag on Twitter (follow me there at @LindaWonder if you don’t already), and tell your friends! I hope that you can join me!

A Mini NaNoWriMo

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This past weekend, I took part in the inaugural North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais, MN, along the North Shore of beautiful Lake Superior. It was stunning, it was magical, it was invigorating and informative. I met people, reconnected with people, had fun with friends and learned a lot, as well as enjoying teaching sessions to other writers. It was a very centering experience in a place that has long held an other-worldly quality for many.

I am not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I know that many are. If I were, this would have surely given me a shot in the arm to spur me into a flurry of writing. But I’m not worried about it – I’ll be sitting down and writing this week anyway. NaNoWriMo is a great idea, and works for a lot of people. The idea of being surrounded by like-minded individuals, even virtually, is a great motivator. And lots of places hold meet-ups, in-person writing sessions at coffee shops and so on, where you can meet your fellow local NaNoWriMoers.

But for many, it just doesn’t work to try to play by the calendar. November is a busy month, particularly if you have kids, book-ended by two holidays and full of the logistics and preparation that the holiday season often entails. It is also a busy month for me personally this year, with two conferences and several author events. I simply would not be doing myself a favor if I tried to hold myself to it.

But I can make my own little NaNoWriMo, riding on the coattails of the North Shore conference and the cooling weather outside to put my butt in the chair and make some headway on some projects. I’m currently working in three genres, but my focus right now is on the first draft of a novel.

I got a good start on it when I participated in my own little Writing Month in August. I had purposely arranged my schedule and prepared myself mentally to sit down and write in August. I didn’t clear my schedule as much as I would have liked, but enough to give me mental and physical time to get a good start. I found the online Writing Challenge group, which I mentioned earlier, and that, I think, was the game-changer. So I wrote over 20,000 words in August. Amazing what a motivation a hashtag can be.

And I encourage you to do the same. Someone asked me this weekend when I found time to read. I simply said, “At night, or in the evenings, instead of watching TV.” The honest truth is that you have to prioritize – you have to decide what kind of life you want. If you want to focus on writing, you are going to have to give something up. And truly, how sad would you be to give up The Voice? Will you be less of a person if you do not watch that?

This goes for any big goal you have, of course. Sit down and think about your goals and how you want your life to play out. How do you want people to see you? What do you want to leave behind in this mortal coil? There was a session at the conference called The Writing Life. I didn’t take it, but I have a pretty good idea of what she covered. Take a look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. These are not so much writing guides as they are guides to building the life you want as a writer. Ultimately, of course, building that life is as individual as the leaves on the trees. And it’s up to you.

Q is for Quiet

There is something you learn when you have a baby: if you keep the house perfectly quiet, hoping for longer naps, the slightest sound or breath of air will wake that child. Whereas if you maintain a normal hum of activity, maybe with some soft music or something playing in the background, you can practically vacuum under the crib and that baby will sleep through it.

Now, I don’t know if this applies to writing or not. I do know that when I used to work at home alone, in the beginning I would play lovely classical music, usually Mozart or something lively, to keep me humming along. And then when I got really busy with clients, I got out of the habit of playing music. And then my husband started working nights, so now the house is full of all sorts of distractions, interruptions, and different kinds of noise.

Oddly enough, my productivity is about the same. Which is to say, not as much as I’d like, but I am less distracted by the idea of being at home writing than I used to be. I was so in love with the idea for so long that I couldn’t get down to work. Now I just sit down and start typing, most days while still in my pajamas. I am doing less client work these days, on purpose, to have more time for that. We’ll see how that plays out with the pocketbook. It’s a gamble, to be sure.

Most days, I don’t even hear what my husband is saying. Right now, he is in the living room, reading aloud from the latest Growler magazine he just received. He wants me to be up on all the latest news, on which new tap rooms are opening up or what new seasonal beers are available. Truly, I want to know this. But once I start typing, about two or three paragraphs in, I no longer hear him. It’s not that I’m ignoring him – I’ve just kind of vacated into another conscious plane, or something {insert new age thoughts here}.

Very often, when he leaves to run errands, he is back before I even really realize he has left. Often, he will say something to me and I will murmur some response, and then shake my head a few minutes later and ask him, “What?” He is puzzled, “Didn’t you just answer me?” And I have to remind him, “No, not really.” He never remembers to get my attention first. By the time he’s finished his magazine and gone to do something else, I’ve lost track of him entirely.

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This could be considered amazing concentration, or a severe ADD symptom, or absent-mindedness. I don’t know. What I do know is that I cannot wait for quiet to sit down and write. So I write where I can, when I can. I’ve written in theaters, during other people’s readings, during my own readings. I’ve written during high school plays and at bars and cafes. On planes, in hotels and at interstate rest stops. Anywhere where my butt hits the chair, I can write. (Yes, that’s my office, after a big book purge.)

Most often, I write at night. I compose poems and parts of essays in my head, and only rarely do I get up to write them down. I should do that more often. It’s far better than the Facebook posts I used to compose, or the work emails I used to compose before that. Maybe I should be keeping that proverbial notebook near my bed.

I have found that it works best for me to just write it as it comes. I know that there is some truth to the idea of habit – a habit can be a powerful thing. You should cultivate good habits. You should cultivate a writing habit – a creative habit. This was actually the name of a class I took with my coach Rosanne Bane, Building the Creative Habit, and the purpose of her book, Around the Writer’s Block. Now, I’ve never had writer’s block (at least I don’t think), but why take any chances?

There are many collections of the rituals that famous writers performed before they sat down to write. My writing coach thought ritual might have some value for me. It would probably serve to calm my thoughts. There is, of course, some value in routine. Hemingway always wrote standing up. (I’ve been to his Key West house – his writing room contained two large tables, one with the typewriter and one bare. He would clip his pages apart and lay them on the work table, jostling them around for the best effect.) Joyce always wrote lying down on his stomach (with crayons). Many writers required certain types of desks, certain pre-writing rituals (picking fleas off your dog, anyone?) or certain things to be placed near them (rotting apples!), or with only certain writing instruments.

I have found that it can be inspiring to look at where other writers work. I love to tour houses all over the country. So far, I’ve only been to Hemingway’s, but I have a long list to get to. Of course, that is after I finish what I’m working on now. What type of writing environment works best for you? Do you like it quiet? Can you write in a coffee shop? Do you like to be right in the middle of things or tucked away in the attic? I’d love to hear how people write!

H is for Home Residency

Have you ever wanted to just escape and hide in a cabin in the woods to write for a while?

I applied for a residency for this summer. The idea of a residency is to get away, to get concentrated time to focus on your art (similar to a fellowship, but with a place in mind). I didn’t get it, though I was told that I was placed on a waiting list. I have no idea how long this list is or what my place is on it. I had hoped to go to a secluded spot, where, with minimum interruption, I could write and focus on research for a book I’d like to finish.

Just because I didn’t get the residency that I applied for doesn’t mean that I can’t still have that focus, however. I have in my head a little scheme to try to carve out some time from my schedule so that I can indeed get that focus that I so crave.

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If I had gotten the residency, I would have received a room at an arts center about an hour south of my home. This would have included a small stipend for food and travel expenses. But I think it would have been a very small amount. Since I won’t have the travel expenses and I have to buy food anyway, the fact of a stipend is negligible.

The residency would have required that I do one or two events in the community. This could have been a reading or workshop or some other type of public event. Since I don’t have to do that, I save the time spent on that effort.

Now, I’m not exactly glad that I didn’t get the residency. What I’m trying to do, of course, is to rationalize why it’s okay to stay home. And it actually is. I save travel time, event planning time and packing time.

What I have decided to do then, is to have my own home residency. I will stay home during that time period, which will be two to four weeks (depending on some other factors), during the month of August. There are typically few literary events scheduled during that time. I don’t have any contracts covering that time period, and if any new ones come along, I can simply extend the contract and excise the month of August from the period it covers.

Most of the regular events I go to do not hold sessions during August. The bulk of the population will be on vacation somewhere, so a short period of time being out of the loop is not going to adversely affect me too much. I am teaching a class in July, and don’t have any scheduled for August. So that means no promotion needs to be done, and the only thing that I would need to keep an eye on is my client’s launch in September. I can do most of the work for that during July.

I think this will work out pretty well. I just need to take myself away from typical daily distractions, like housework and such. I am considering absconding to a coffee shop during the day, something I’ve never done before. That will allay any disruptions by my husband, random visitors or chance temptations.

My residency plan called for writing 2,000 words a day. I am certain that I can do that if I create my own home residency, and focus on the daily goal.

So come August, if you need to reach me, leave a message. I’ll return your call when I’m able!

D is for Distraction

Do you find yourself having trouble getting down to work sometimes? I know. Me, too. When the weather is nice, this is especially hard. However, for the past year I have had an added Distraction: my husband.

He used to work days, which was lovely, really. I got up when he left and I had the place to myself. I was much more productive that way. Now he works nights, and while he’s sleeping part of the day, when he wakes up at about 2pm he is a Big Distraction. He always wants to know what’s for dinner. Ha!

I try to get some work done in the evenings, but by the time he leaves at 6pm, I’m tired. I can’t work 12 hours a day like I used to. Even though I am not working all those 12 hours, there are these other demands, and I just can’t keep going all through the evening. So I get a good four or five hours of work in, and the rest is catch as catch can.

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But that’s not the worst of it. I could handle it fine if he were just working Monday through Friday. I do end up working a fair amount of weekends, mostly with author events, but if I don’t have a work commitment, I like my weekends to myself. Plus, most family events are on weekends.

Well, now his weekend is Monday and Tuesday. This makes for a nice relaxing Saturday for me, if I can swing not working, but come Monday, I have to get back to work. And his question is ‘well, what are we going to do today?” He wants to do something on his days off. I totally get this, as I really like to have my Sundays free. I almost never work on a Sunday.

But I can’t take off my weekend, and then take off his weekend, too. That’s just not going to work. It’s been a struggle for the past year. I am trying to at least not schedule work events or meetings on Mondays or Tuesdays, so that I can be home with him. And I try to get as much done as I can during the evenings while he’s working, or while he’s running errands or sleeping. But if he wants to go somewhere, I feel terrible saying no. We don’t do much, mind you, but if we are going to go away for a ‘weekend,’ now it is a Monday-Tuesday thing. If we are leaving on a trip, we leave on Monday instead of Friday or Saturday.

So this means I end up working a fair amount of my Saturdays, and try to slot in chores when I can. It feels like everything’s off kilter. I’m distracted from spending the time I want with him, and distracted from my work by not having enough time to get it done. Oh, and my house is a mess (oh well!). I continue to try to work out a way to get it all done, but it ain’t easy.

How about you? What are your main distractions? I remember when my kids were home – boy, the whole world stopped when my son walked in the door. He’s the kind of person who takes over a room. And school vacations – well, just forget it. And nice weather. I’ve written about that one before. There are as many distractions as there are stars in the sky. How do you handle yours?