Monday, May 30, 2011

The Necessity of Scaling Back

You may or may not have noticed (or cared :) that for the last couple of weeks I've only been posting on the blog once per week. No, it's not me being lazy or forgetful. I made a conscious decision that for the next little while I need to scale back on a few activities - one of which is how often I really need to post on this blog.

I'm not advocating a complete retreat from social networking - far from it. I will still be on Twitter and Facebook and on Verla Kay's message boards. I don't think I overuse my time on those sites (well, Verla's can be an addiction, I must admit). I think every writer needs to have connectivity to other writers in order to survive, maintain sanity and impart and receive support. I will also still visit the blogs of fellow writers and gain knowledge, laughs, tears on whatever topic catches my interest that day. Again, this is not about complete retreat - it is about determining what is essential. It is about how much time I spend on what activity and, for me, the blog posts took up more thought and time space than those other things.

It is not a coincidence that I've finished the rough first draft of a WIP that's been a long time gestating in the same period that I scaled back on doing posts for the blog. I found I was thinking way too much about what to post every few days than what I needed to be worrying about - what to write so I could finish this damn book! So why, now that I have the first draft, am I not going to blog twice weekly again? Because, for me, the most important part of writing - the re-writing - is when I have to have the most focus. This revision is probably going to be the hardest one I've ever done. The book will expand and contract in numerous ways. Ultimately, what I have to remember is the philosophy of scaling back: there is too much unnecessary clutter in our lives and when we let go of those things that are not absolutely essential we are free to make the necessary things so much more important and meaningful in our lives.

Think about it. If you had to give up a few things related to your writing life what would they be? The only essential thing, really, is the writing. It is the water we all need to drink from in order to survive and thrive. So, yeah, I'll be drinking a lot more of it these days. :)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Does it Get Harder the Closer You are to Finishing?

For every writer who has ever written "The End" on a piece of work there is no greater thrill or sense of satisfaction during the whole process. I've missed that thrill for a great long while now. For a variety of reasons (my first book released last year, I submitted my option book last fall, I've had two WIP's that have stopped and started for a variety of reasons, my mom got cancer, we're in the middle of a major house reno, you know ... Life?) Anyway, I'm now approaching the last fifty pages of the book and I'm so close I can taste the end. So why the heck is it so hard to get there?

I'm thinking, for me, it's a couple of things. For this WIP I have a vague idea of the ending but it keeps shifting as my characters do unexpected things. That's okay, I can handle shifts but it means I need to add in another scene to get the right resolution. I can't just leave things hanging. I hate endings that don't feel complete. I'm okay with some open endedness but I need to close up some loops on a few characters and the action just hasn't stopped! I've had the first climax of one storyline and now I'm approaching the second climax. After that things get resolved fairly quickly. But approaching that climax? That's climbing the mountain, that's stretching the calf muscles a bit more than rolling down the hill toward the end. And that's always why it's harder for me to get to that finish line. There's the climb just before it.

How about you? Is reaching the end the easiest part of the book for you? Or is it a bit of a struggle?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spring Cleaning Your Novel

I don't know if there's any truth to that whole spring cleaning frenzy people seem to enter when the days turn longer and warmer (it's certainly never affected me before) but the last couple of weeks I've really felt the urge to clean house. It's not just the basic laundry and vacuuming but I'm talking clean out the van, organize clothes, eliminate unnecessary 'stuff', even cleaning out old messages on my cell phone (and I hardly ever do that!). Just an overall less is more attitude has pervaded my consciousness. I've even pulled back from the little social networking I do attempt and, instead of logging on at night, I'm reading more, being more 'present' rather than distracted by endless web-searching for useless tidbits of information that clutter your brain and trying to live more in the moment. As for my writing, even though I haven't 'quite' finished my wip (but the end is in sight people! Yes it is!) I'm already thinking about how I can 'purge' some unnecessary 'stuff' in it.

Usually, my first drafts are lean - meaning after revision I end up with a few thousand more words because I add in more description, layer in more meaning, add a scene that deepens characterization, etc. But for this wip I'm now approaching the 65,000 word mark. My goal is to hit no more than 70,000 words. With what I know I still have left to write, I may inch over that mark. I also know that there are a couple of short scenes that I need to add in as a sub-plot. I may be heading into 75,000 words at that point. This is not a huge problem but it is heading towards the upper range for contempory YA. But then my wip is a fairy-tale inspired YA so maybe I have a bit more wiggle room because it's not exactly a contemporary - but it's not exactly a fantasy either and not exactly a paranormal. Yeah. I like to make my life difficult. :) Regardless, I really do not want to make this longer than 70,000-75,000 words. So, I know will have to purge.

I know that most of the purging will be done in the first half of the book. It took me awhile to get to the end of this wip and I took a few detours along the way that either have to be trimmed or cut altogether. A couple of secondary characters didn't pan into much by the end of the book so I'll have to lesson their importance at the beginning while beefing up the presence or changing some motivations for some others. There's always the little things that add up and are an easy clean: unnecessary words like 'that' and 'seemed'. Too many dialogue tags or repetition of information. Scenes that are 'filler' - don't progress the plot or deepen characterization. Combining scenes where one can do both of these things. Like any good spring cleaning, I know things have to get messier before they get cleaner so I really hope all my moving around and throwing things out won't end up making the wip messier than it is right now. But the urge to purge is still strong in me. I have a vision of a more organized, well-put together story that hopefully will appear seamless to a reader. Like the result of any good cleaning, when you enter a room you may not notice all the details like the plumped up pillows or dust-free tables but you will sense a peacefulness - a sense of zen - that allows you to enjoy the room as a whole. A good book should be the same - don't let clutter destroy what is essentially a really good story.

So, are any of you spring cleaning your novels? Any tips you can share to help clear away the mess?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How Do You Measure Success as a Writer?

When I began writing - almost nine years ago now! - I hadn't made any kind of plan, or listed my goals or anything that many writing organizations or professional coaches tell their clients to do when embarking on a business. I suppose it was because I didn't consider my writing to be a business. It was - and still is - my artistic outlet in a life filled with non-artistic pursuits (well, except for my kids. I think they're pretty awesome works of art, myself. :) But once you publish - heck, even way before you publish - people are constantly reminding you that this is a business. And to be successful in it - and why would you deliberately set out to fail? - then it does make sense to have some measures by which you, as a writer, can define whether you feel you've been successful. The issue is: what exactly are those measures?

Now I'm not talking about other peoples measures of success. Other people's definition of success is theirs and shouldn't be applied to you because, like everything in this business, it is subjective. One person might say someone is successful only when they've achieved the fame and numbers of books sold of a J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins. If that's your measure then great! But, personally, my measures have always been less 'out there' and maybe not as obvious in the typical business definition of success (i.e. money). For me, my measures have been to make my writing stronger and better with each book and to put myself 'out there' in the social network arena as much as I can without making myself overly-stressed and too uncomfortable. Is that it, you say? How puny those measures seem to be! But I could have kept my writing to myself - I kept a journal for many years and could have continued to do that. But I needed to stretch myself and the only way to do that was to have my writing put out there for others to see. One of the first measures of success was letting others read my work without getting physically ill over the thought. Got over that so Yay! Successful!! Then it was querying agents and letting them judge my work. Got over that so Yay! Success number two. Actually landing an agent? Wow, I'm feeling pretty successful. Go me. Getting a book published. A dream. No way. But it happened. Another measure of success attained. The biggest yet. Yes!

So, then, after all that, I must be successful, right? And, by my measures, I am. By others? Maybe not. I'm not a household name. I haven't sold a gajillion books. Or gotten a movie deal or ______ (insert your measure of success here). But I've met mostly all the measures of success I set out to do plus a few more like gotten good reviews, a second book contract, I'm in lots of public libraries, and I just learned that I earned out my advance. As a bonus my independent publisher is supportive and believes in my work and continues to champion all their authors works so I've had a lovely publishing experience with them. These may not be huge measures of success for others but they are for me. I believe myself to be successful for the place I'm in now. But, by the same token, my measures are constantly changing as life happens and circumstances change. After all, evolution is the only way to survive in life and in business.

But what is the one constant measure of success that I know will never change for me? Writing the best book I am capable of at the time. For me, writing is a marathon, not a sprint and the only measure of success that matters is set by me and not others.

What about you? How do you define your success as a writer?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Self-Criticism and 5 Ways to Stop It from Paralyzing Your Writing

I am, like most writers I think, an extremely picky person about my writing. I don't know if it is a gene or if it's because we read so much and see so many amazing stories out there but this tendency to look so critically at our own work can absolutely paralyze us sometimes. And, for me, rather than losing this self-criticism over the years of writing it's gotten worse. Why? Because I have learned so much and I see, so much more clearly now, where the problems lie and, unlike a beginning writer, I'm no longer unaware of the pit falls that can crop up as I'm drafting a story. Things like weak story structure, shallow characterization, slow pacing, lack of plot … my God, the issues could go on and on. It's enough to make a person shut off their computer for life.

But we love stories. We should love writing them! Obviously, with so many stories out there, other writers have silenced their self-criticism (or, at the very least, put ear muffs on). So then how can we, as writers, stop those critical voices in the back of our heads telling us our writing/story is just not up to snuff? The following may not work for you but here are some of the things I do to become unstuck.

1. Study
When in doubt, take a class, read a writing book (two books I recommend and that always inspire and help me work through problems are Stephen King's On Writing and Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure), go to a conference or read a book you really admire and analyze why it's so darn good. I'm a big believer in researching information when something is scaring me or blocking me from progress. Store that information you obtain like a squirrel does acorns in a tree. When that awful winter of discontent (your self-criticism) hits you then you burrow into your nest and eat those acorns you've stored so you can survive the winter.

2. Get Critiqued
I know it's scary to let what you think is crappy writing be seen by people. This is the one bit of advice I struggle with the most. I only let my CP and then my agent see what I think is my best work. Maybe that's wrong - especially when I'm slogging through a rough patch. But what you should never do is assume that you can see your work clearly because what you think is crap could be gold. What you think is gold could be dreck. Yes, you make the final call but if your self-criticism is clouding your judgement then get someone else to give you fresh eyes.

3. Get Inspired By Other Writers
It's easy to let the progress of others make you feel like you're a sluggish writer who is not producing enough words or, worse yet, words that aren't worth reading. Yeah, how's that negativity working for you? Not so much? Then use their progress to inspire you. My CP is inspiring me with her progress on her first draft of a women's fiction novel. It's going really well for her and her excitement excites me and makes me remember what it's like to be on that finishing a novel wave that's cresting toward shore. Another writer I know is also finishing her book. She's struggling with it - especially as it's getting toward the end. So she's not exactly riding a wave but she's swimming against a current that seems determined to keep pushing her back. But she's not giving up and that inspires me too. If she can do it, even if she's hating that story right now, so can I. Remember: Fellow writers are not your competition - they are - or should be - your inspiration.

4. Work on Another Project
If you are truly hating the work, then start something else. Maybe it's just noodling out a new idea to work on later. Maybe it's a short story. Maybe it's a completely new genre you've always wanted to try. Whatever it is, use that to get excited again - sometimes the thrill of a new idea or new area is enough to smother those self-criticism creatures long enough for you to move forward again.

And the most important thing...

5. Whatever You Do - Don't Stop Writing
This is critical. I don't care if you have to tie yourself to a chair to stare at that screen or look at that journal the best thing you can do is force out the words. Even if it's one measley paragraph a day. Defeat is not when you write crap. Defeat is when you don't write at all. Those crappy words (or so you think) that you are putting down were not there before - that in itself should be celebrated, not criticized. Pushing through the hard part of writing makes you a better writer - even if you don't believe you are. Once those words are down celebrate that achievement. It's like when my son makes an ugly goal in hockey - lying on his stomach, stretching out his stick to shove that puck in the net. Yes, it's ugly. But he got the job done. He didn't give up and say, "Well, I'm lying on the ice. Why bother even trying?" Get those ugly words down. You never know which ones will become a goal.

I'm sure there are many other ways you may have to stop the voices of self-criticism. Please share! I'm always looking for inspiration.