How’s Your Writing Going?

When I was 25, I met a friend for coffee on one of her infrequent visits home. After being inseparable as kids, we eventually drifted into our different lives. Hers seemed glamorous to me: she’s a debutante who attended an Ivy League school, then traveled abroad to pursue other degrees. She drives the most expensive sports cars and vacations all over the world. When she called and told me she was in town, I couldn’t turn down the chance to catch up with her.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to meet long because my 11-month-old son would be up from his nap soon. I was so happy to see her – and impressed with myself for losing all my baby weight and then some – that I never thought how plain I would look in my jeans and t-shirt next to her designer outfit. I never thought she’d care to know what I’d been up to. What was there to say? I’m a mom. After catching her up on baby news (which doesn’t take long when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have kids), she asked about my writing.

Writing? What writing? Oh, wait, you mean how I thought getting a degree in English would set me on the path to bestseller-dom? While I kept up with my daily journal, my fiction had gone the way of the dinosaur. I wouldn’t call it a slump. It was just that I was busy and happy not writing. After I missed the “published author” mile marker on the highway of my life, I moved on to “starting a family” and didn’t look back. Yes, I still wrote, but it wasn’t the kind of writing that kept me up at night.

And that was so not how I had envisioned my life – to be unpublished and happy. By the time I was 13, I knew that I wanted to make a living writing novels. I had no inclination to get a regular job and write after hours. I wanted to provide for my family through my books. And I was naive enough to think that I could go to college and get an English degree, and somehow, I would be in that perfect position to fulfill my dream.

Here’s what I often imagined: a home office overlooking a fenced-in backyard, where my future, well-adjusted children would run around and play, allowing me to work in peace. And then we would go out for ice cream and a movie, and we would take vacations whenever we wanted, and if my husband decided to get a job, it would just be because he wanted to, not because we were dependent on his salary.

Obviously, I had no idea what being a parent or an adult is really like, much less how the publishing world works.

But by 25, I was well aware of the perils of the publishing world. I’d already received rejections from literary agents. I’d even gone through a period when I thought maybe I couldn’t write. Maybe I would just be an editor, but I got over that when I realized that I simply hadn’t found my voice yet. After I did, I found joy in writing again. But I still had nothing to show for it, other than the title of “Editor-in-Chief” for a fledgling literary journal.

My entire writing “career” has been full of these ups and downs. I do actually make money as a writer, but it’s certainly not enough to buy us the house with the big yard and to keep my husband from having to work. It’s my lack of steady employment that makes him have to work so hard to pick up my slack. Part of me wishes that I’d gone to work for a newspaper or local magazine or even a small publisher. I would be able to carry more of the financial load, although that’s not at all the kind of writing that feeds my soul.

Yet despite being married to a starving artist, my husband believes in me. That doesn’t mean he thinks I’ll make millions, but he’s always my first reader, and even though he protests that he never knows what to say, I can always trust him for an honest opinion. The book that I’m shopping around right now is the best thing I’ve ever written, but just because it’s the best thing I’ve produced to this point doesn’t mean it’s perfect – or anywhere close to the best thing out there.

Amidst editing and querying and doing a whole lot of work that could amount to a lot of nothing, I finally asked him if I should even bother. I’d been gearing myself up to ask for several days. He loves me, but he’s not afraid to give me the painful truth. He told me it’s a good story, and he wants me to get recognition for it (although that in no way guarantees anything about getting it published).

Then he asked me if I would quit writing, even if it wasn’t any good.

While I would certainly quit wasting both my and the literary agents’ time by querying, I would never quit writing because it’s my outlet.

I still have that dream of making a living as a novelist. I still want to have a positive answer when I meet with a friend for coffee. If she were to ask me this week how my writing is going, my answer is that it’s great. I’m editing a story I love and that I know has potential. It still needs work, but maybe someday…

Here’s a quote from Sylvia Plath that I found earlier this week:

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

I have the guts and the imagination, but I also have self-doubt. It’s what made me ask my husband if all this was worth the effort. It’s what makes me cringe when someone looks at me expectantly, like, “Well, you wrote a novel, why isn’t it in bookstores yet?” I think self-doubt is healthy because it makes us look honestly at ourselves. It’s only harmful when it turns into a loss of confidence; then it’s apparent in your writing and your outlook and can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What self-doubt should do is help us re-evaluate our goals and adjust them to be realistic.

I think the enemy of creativity is really regret. Getting to a certain point and wishing you hadn’t done what you’d done. While I sometimes wish I’d done something to augment my position, I certainly have never regretted writing. If my stories never see the light of day, at least I was happy creating them.

***

Before you go away thinking that my sweet friend didn’t understand me at all and didn’t care about my life, let me tell you her response to my lack of stellar news. She said, “But you’re a mom.”

She said it with admiration and almost reverence. Yeah, I’m a mom. And quite often a writer mom. Like I said, no regrets.

Just When I Thought I Was Done…

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!           –C.K. Webb

 

English: Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 o...

Editing (manuscript fragment from chapter 14 of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man/photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

You guessed it. In the midst of querying, when I’m supposed to be done editing, I’m still editing. As a friend once told me (and I’ve heard it echoed by numerous other writers), you will always find something you want to fix with your manuscript.

I thought I was done; truly, I did. After all, I put my novel through a lot. Before I let anyone lay eyes on it, I edited out the embarrassing first draft kind of garbage that no one needs to see. Then I distributed it to beta readers. The feedback was incredible, allowing me to make more much-needed changes.

Amidst these changes, I signed up for a workshop with a team of literary agents, in which I had the opportunity to really work on the first 10 pages. After all, the first 10 pages may be all anyone ever sees if they don’t compel people to keep reading.

So I got my criticism, swallowed it even though it tasted bad, and I changed my book some more. One comment was that my manuscript was much too long, so I cut over 30,000 words. With a new ending and lots of proofreading under my belt, I figured I should quit procrastinating and start querying.

Nowadays, the majority of literary agents ask for a sample of the manuscript. The most common request I’ve seen is for the first 10 pages, although the odd agent wants 20 or the first three chapters. (Some even ask for the entire manuscript, bless their hearts.) The theme seems to be that they want to see a significant enough chunk to get a good feel for how the rest of the book will (or won’t) flow.

I was a little stumped when I found an agent who only asked for the first chapter. After I cut and pasted that one lonely chapter into my e-mail query, I realized that it wasn’t an adequate representation of my story. Without the next few pages to go with it, the pacing was too slow, and it ended in a bad place. I had edited it down from a much longer first chapter. Also, when I was concentrating on 10 pages, I didn’t pay much attention to how the first chapter ended because the first 10 pages went well into chapter two. I should have made sure that chapter one had an enticing ending. You know what the last word of that chapter was? “Okay.” Which is not okay, unless you’re John Green.

Thus began revision number four.

A couple years ago, while querying a different novel, I decided that I would make absolutely no changes (unless I found a typo) on my manuscript during the querying phase. I sent out 10 at a time, and it wasn’t until after each round of rejections that I looked over my query letter and manuscript for ways to improve.

This time, I’m making corrections as I go. Never have I made so many changes from one query to the next. If an agent happens to like the version of my book with an anticlimactic ending to the first chapter, I have that version saved. But I’m not going with the status quo anymore. I will not sit around and say, “Oh, it can wait.” It could be that the agent who’s right for me is the next one I query, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to send a chunk of my book that I know I can improve.

Painful? Yes. And I love editing. But it’s hard to think, I’ve done all I can do, only to look back and see that you didn’t.

This likely means more drastic cuts for my book. I’ve already come to the realization that I may have to trim it by another 10,000 words-plus in order for anyone to even give it a serious look. Do I think the word count alone should be the deciding factor over whether my manuscript it rejected or accepted? Absolutely not. (And I’ve climbed on that soapbox before.) But I also think that it would be a mistake to grow complacent.

So it’s time to continue cutting, revising, and searching. The right agent is out there, I know it. It will just take a more vigilant search than last time, and I have to be willing to do my part to earn a contract.

Another Project Bites the Dust

 

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Getting ready for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past week was the big deadline: after June 30th, the CreateSpace coupon code for two free copies of my NaNoWriMo novel would expire. As a perfectionist, I found it difficult to call my novel good enough. But then I realized that not only had a written a novel – from scratch – in just a few months, but I had also fully revised it a couple times. That’s a record for me – and quite an accomplishment, considering I’m so picky.

Now, if you’re reading this and wondering, What in the world is she talking about? What is NaNoWriMo?, I will tell you. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) comes around every November. Why November? I don’t know. You can read more at nanowrimo.org. All I know is that it’s awesome. And it’s also for crazy people. Like me. Even some really successful novelists participate in NaNoWriMo. Like Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

While brainstorming my last blog of October – the one in which I would list all the reasons why my sorry butt wouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, yet again – I had an idea of novel-sized proportions. So I figured, What the heck? I just had a couple days to wait, so I held off until November first, then started writing like… what did I say earlier? Oh yeah – a crazy person.

A novel, as defined by NaNoWriMo, is 50,000 words. I wrote over 80,000 in November, so I “won,” but I wasn’t finished with the book. I kept at it until I finally finished in early February. Then I sat back and let it rest for a month – something Stephen King recommends (maybe I read it in On Writing – can’t remember).

When the month-long waiting period was over, it was time to start editing. I usually enjoy editing just as much as writing. Sometimes it’s the joy of discovering a detail I forgot I wrote. Sometimes I realize I really screwed something up, and I feel liked I’ve accomplished something after I fix it. And I always, always try to cut extraneous words and make the manuscript as clean as possible.

Now, I know this will sound gross, but the first draft is kind of like diarrhea of the pen (or keyboard, whatever). Many – way too many – writers leave their first drafts pretty much alone, so consider how awful it is for editors to read diarrhea-on-the-page. One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is to just plow straight through, so there’s going to be lots of crap. It’s necessary if you’re going to write so much in such a short time. But if you want to have a chance of the success that Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, and authors like them have enjoyed, you have to return to that original draft and pull out your ax. After all the useless words are cut, you pull out your chisel and try to make the story as close to its intended shape as possible.

One great goal to help achieve this is another that Stephen King recommends (which I read in the same place as “wait  a month”): he says to cut the manuscript by 10%. I have tried this with other novels and short stories – always to no avail. If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m wordy. I mean, I almost always break the blogs-should-only-be-500-words rule. And I had new scenes that I wanted to add to my book. How in the world would I cut a 148,000-word book down to a little over 133,000? (A double-spaced page in a word processing program has 250 to 300 words, so that’s like cutting 50 to 60 pages.)

My mom's amazing cover art.

My mom’s amazing cover art.

But I did. And for once in my writing life, I surpassed my goal. A couple days before the deadline, I trimmed it to just over 129,000. I even managed to design a cover. I got the basic outline done, told my mom (who is an amazing artist) what I really wanted, and then she waved her magic wand, and BOOM! Cover, done. It’s wonderful having a talented mom.

I sell my children’s book through CreateSpace (shameless plug – buy it here!), so I knew I needed to submit my story one day early to make it through the reviewing process. Hero is an illustrated book, so I had to submit it as a PDF. Like a dummy, I assumed my novel needed to be a PDF, as well. It was only after I submitted it that I saw they would also accept .doc or .docx.

Sure enough, the morning of the 30th, I saw that they had rejected the PDF – it cut off all my pages numbers. So I resubmitted it as a .doc, then waited. And waited. I went to sleep and set my alarm to wake me a few minutes before midnight, so I could still order my copies before my coupon code expired. But at midnight, July first, my book still wasn’t approved.

Grr. By the time I woke up the next morning, the book was approved. Isn’t that how it always goes? Part of me felt like giving up and continuing to edit my book to supposed perfection. But I’m enough of a realist to know that that will never happen. The whole reason I even considered sending it to CreateSpace to begin with was because of the two free copies, but I was already planning on buying a few more. They’re not expensive, and I wanted to have something nice to give my beta readers. So I went ahead and ordered them anyway.

My books should arrive early next week. I am both excited and nervous. If you had told me this time last year that I would have a sudden brainwave and write an entire novel in just over three months – and edit it and print it for its first critique-ers within eight months – I would have thought you were nuts. I had no idea that I would love NaNoWriMo. Even though I had to write ridiculous amounts every day, it wasn’t a chore. Maybe it’s just that serendipitous magic of the right story coming to me at the right time. As is my goal every time I write fiction, I created the story that I wanted to read. My only hope that my beta readers agree and won’t give a unanimous, What was she thinking? This is terrible!

Either way, my third big project of this year is done. I’m currently living in a bit of a fiction-writing vacuum. Yes, I still have plenty to do. But at night, when the kids are in bed and I’d usually be revising, I sit around and think, What do I do now? It’s hard to adjust back to a normal life, whatever that is.

There is, however, one consolation. I know that when my beta readers get done – even if their comments are miraculously positive – I’ll have my work cut out for me again. And I look forward to that day.

The NaNoWriMo Loophole that Could Solve Your Early Inspiration Problem

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: This Year’s Love)

Okay, I know I said “loophole,” but the solution I’m about to address isn’t really in the fine print. Anyone who cares to know what it is can just go to NaNoWriMo.org and read their FAQ. (Thank goodness for an organization that gives clear and concise answers.)

So what is this “loophole” that I’ve discovered, and what does it address? Well, excuse me if I digress by way of explaining…

Readers who have stuck with me since the beginning know that in 2012, I thought people were crazy to participate in NaNoWriMo (writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch, all in the month of November). Then in 2013, I had a change of heart. Or, that is, mere days (like two) before November, a story idea popped into my head, and I realized that I could wait a couple days to write and hope that magic would follow.

It did, and I am glad to say that it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had writing. Not only did I finish my novel, but I’ve edited it once and am currently putting the finishing touches on it, so I can send off to CreateSpace for my two free print versions, which I will then distribute to beta readers.

After participating once, I sometimes wonder what this November will bring. Will another idea come out of nowhere in the nick of time and make it possible for me to enjoy the same success as last year? Or could I possibly write a sequel to one of the other novels I’ve written, waiting until November to start? (This is what I consider a fallback option – but at least I do have a sequel that I’ve considered writing.)

I received an unexpected answer to these ponderings this past week. It hit me as inspiration almost always does – unexpected, uninvited. It’s not that I don’t like inspiration, but why can’t I be inspired at times when it’s a little more convenient?

I was driving across town when an image popped into my head. Two characters. And then a scene began to form. From there, it was a novel-size idea. And I was on my way to teach four- and five-year-olds in Sunday school, with no time to even jot down my idea.

I realized that this could be the idea I’d hoped for, except that it had arrived six months too early. I didn’t dare write anything except notes – character’s names and ages and little bits of backstory. If I wrote an actual scene or dialogue, that was it; I could forget using it for NaNo and would have to hope that either I could make the sequel idea work or that another novel-size idea would be born in the intervening months.

As it happens, I have several big projects in the works, and a new novel does not fit into my busy schedule. I barely had time to capture the scope of my idea in writing, much less sit down and let the prose flow. I figured that if I could stall long enough to finish these projects, maybe I could endure until November.

Being extremely busy, however, does not mean that I’ve quit thinking about this new, unwritten story. I’ve been walking around in a daze of possible scenes, sometimes whispering lines – maybe if I do this, I can make them stick. I’m sure anyone who catches me at it will think I’m nuts.

And in stolen moments, I’ve written loose descriptions of these scenes, where and when they happen in the flow of the story, creating – ugh – a sort of outline. Despite being a planner, I like to outline as little as possible when writing fiction. Yes, it’s great to know where a story is going and even some destinations along the way, but during the writing, the adventure is letting the story and characters dictate, day by day and scene by scene, what happens next. So waiting until November to write, allowing myself to put down bullet points and thus possibly boxing my story into a particular shape, isn’t sitting too well.

It’s gotten to the point that I’ve realized I can’t let this go on much longer. Once these projects are no longer occupying my time, and especially once school is out and the kids and I are spending a lot less time commuting and a lot more time at home, it’s going to be hard not to write.

I decided to check out the NaNoWriMo FAQ again, thinking that I would have to use the sequel idea if I wanted to be able to participate this year. I was sure that was one of the questions I saw listed before, but I wasn’t worried about it at the time and didn’t read the answer. Upon checking the site, I didn’t see the sequel question after all, but I did find something else. From their website:

We think NaNoWriMo works best when you start a brand-new project. However, what’s most important is being excited about what you’re writing. If you want to work on a pre-existing project, you have our full support!

Outlines, character sketches, and other planning steps are encouraged. Just be sure to only count words written during the month.

Here’s the loophole, people! Not only are sequels okay, but I could pull out something I started five years ago and pick up where I left off. The only words that count, however, are the ones I write in November, of which there must be a minimum of 50,000.

Hmm… This is very tempting. I can go ahead and write the scene that keeps popping in my head and won’t leave me alone – that way I don’t have to continue whispering it to myself like a crazy person. What I’m afraid of, though, is that once a little fissure opens in the dam, I’m going to invite the whole flood, and I won’t have 50,000 words left to write, come November.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. After all, I have that sequel that could still work if this new idea takes off. And I think the NaNo people would agree that it’s wonderful that new ideas are still occurring to me and begging to be written. So I’ll hold off as long as I can, but when I can’t keep the creativity in any longer, watch out.

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5 Reasons You Should Join a Writers’ Workshop (and One Reason You Shouldn’t)

English: Tessa Laird writing workshop

Writing Workshop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A common flaw among many new writers is the idea that criticism is bad, and any corrections made to their golden prose mars the original genius.

With the right attitude, however, this can be overcome in the workshop setting.

Yes, I was a new writer at one time – or at least new on the workshop scene. I was in my late teens and had been writing for years, but as for my serious attempts at fiction, the only people who had read it were teachers or family members, none of them writers. My mother can proofread like a fiend, and my teachers could tell me all day long what was wrong with my grammar, but as far as improving my stories, I was kind of on my own.

So I wrote grammatically correct, typo-free stories that just weren’t all that easy or fun to read.

I thought I knew how to write a bestseller. After all, I’d subscribed to Writer’s Digest from the time I was old enough to afford a subscription, and I read anything about the craft that I could get my hands on.

After visiting one fiction workshop, just to test the waters, I realized how much I could benefit from not just knowing how I should write but receiving critiques and criticism from other writers.

 

The Workshop Format

Not all fiction workshops are created equal. I’ve attended anywhere between 120 and 150 individual sessions, the majority in person (usually in a classroom setting) but a few online. Anyone who tells you online is preferable either has only experienced this version and doesn’t know better or hasn’t attended a live workshop with a successful format. Dialogue between the critique-ers is such an important element, and in my opinion, it’s hard to capture that online.

There are workshops for creative non-fiction and fiction alike. Choose whichever best fits your needs. I chose fiction, and I took my friend Ari’s semester-long workshop seven times, four for credit and three post baccalaureate. Workshops are available at colleges at the undergrad and grad levels, but I’ve attended others put on by small groups of writers who couldn’t commit to an entire semester or weekly meeting. The Internet is a great resource for finding one in your area.

Ari’s format was pretty straight forward. We almost always received stories a week in advance, read them and marked them with edits and critiques, and when we met for the workshop itself, we sat in a circle, and he read the story aloud. Then we started in with our comments and critiques, in no particular order, and we kept going until Ari felt we were done. The author sat among us the whole time but was not allowed to say one word or make any kind of gesture or facial expression to “help” the conversation. Authors were merely flies on the wall.

It’s tough being the author in this situation, especially those times when it’s obvious that no one gets it. But as Ari pointed out, the majority is often – although not always – right. If an entire room of people can’t make sense of the story, chances are that changes need to be made. How to implement those changes is up to the author, often based on suggestions from the other participants.

I’ve heard of other workshops in which the author is allowed to respond or engage in the dialogue, but as hard as it is to just sit there and take it, it really is beneficial to be silent. For one, the workshop is full of other writers who will all be in the hot seat at some point, and if you can’t respect one another, you don’t need to be there. The workshop is not a place for personal attacks but a place of learning and growth. It’s a place of safety, although not necessarily comfort. By not being able to respond, the author can learn where the story falls short because other readers are allowed to express their own perspective without the author’s bias.

I also know of workshops that allow the author to read the story, instead of the instructor or another writer. The problem with this is that the author will read it how he or she intends it to sound – whether it’s truly written that way. Another reader may not get the inflection right, may not get the exact cadence, but this will highlight for the author problems within the text. This is how, after all, the general public will likely read it – something the author needs to know.

 

5 Benefits of Joining a Writers’ Workshop

1. Meet other writers.

Many of us are introverts, and the idea of venturing out to meet new people is frightening. My writing meant enough to me that it was worth the discomfort of meeting a roomful of new people. I never intended to make life-long friends, never intended to spend time with these people or become involved in their lives. And that didn’t happen at first. But the wonderful thing about workshops is that if they’re effective, the same people will attend again and again. My second semester, a group of us bonded and created Fiction Fix, and it’s still going strong today, well over a decade later. My instructor and friend Ari gained such respect for me that he agreed to workshop my first finished novel. A few of the friends I made in the workshop have even chosen me as their editor. One recently published her first novel. (Check out Brightleaf.) Don’t complain that you don’t have any connections – join a workshop and start making some!

2. Develop a thick skin.

The publishing world is harsh. I know this from both having my own fiction rejected numerous times and working for Fiction Fix, where we’ve rejected a lot of… refuse. If you’re serious about publishing but cry every time someone says something negative about your work, you won’t make it long in this industry. Sure, some of the comments you’ll get are unwarranted, but you need to learn to filter out the hurtful stuff from ignorant jerks and utilize the nuggets of pure wisdom.

The workshop environment is the perfect place to grow your alligator hide because, as I said, it’s a safe place. No one’s out to get you, just to help you. Criticism is merely a means to help you improve. Your first workshop will be tough, but it gets easier, I promise.

3. Sharpen your editing skills.

Even if you don’t plan to edit professionally, it’s handy to be able to self-correct. Spelling and grammar may not be your thing. They are for me, but there are amazing storytellers who can’t spell their way out of a paper bag – and that’s what the professionals are there for. But after you’ve attended enough workshops – and I’m talking about workshops that tackle others’ stories, not just your own – you’ll start to pick up on things by osmosis, and you will inevitably meet an author or two who has concrete editing advice that will stick. You’ll soon find yourself looking for the errors in your own work that you’ve found in others’ stories.

4. Discover your own style.

My earliest stories were formatted after Michael Crichton‘s style. A few years later, I moved on to Stephen King. If you’re not careful, you can easily fall into the pattern of imitating whatever author you’re reading at the time. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not good to let it dictate how you write.

What you want is a consistent style that is yours and yours alone. Just as you may be able to hear a song on the radio and immediately know who it is because of the distinct sound, you want someone to pick up your story and say, “Yep, this is Bob through and through.” (And I mean that in a good way, of course – not “Oh great, it’s him again.”) Sure, you may borrow different aspects from your favorite writers, but the end product should be all you.

In the workshop setting, I learned about POV (point of view), clichés that drive people nuts, and “rules” that may not be grammatical law but are certainly stylistic norms among seasoned writers. Yes, these issues are covered in any number of books and blogs and interviews, but it’s so much more informative to get this information in a practical setting. It took me a year of workshops to find my own particular style, my writer’s voice. And it sticks whether I’m writing children’s picture books, middle grade fantasy, young adult dystopian fiction, adult sci-fi, or even this blog.

5. Improve your writing.

This may be your ultimate goal, and it’s certainly a worthy one. If you come to the writing table with an open mind, the above four will automatically improve your writing. You’ll have friends who care enough to be honest about what does and does not work, who will support you in every literary endeavor (and then some); you’ll mature enough to be able to hear their criticisms without getting your feelings hurt; you’ll develop the tools necessary to not only fix what needs to be fixed but to not make those mistakes next time; and you’ll create a style that becomes your own literary hallmark. Sure, I still write garbage that’s not fit to print. But I’ve internalized so much valuable advice that I have an inner critic who says: You’re going to write that?! You know better! Many of my first drafts are better than what I thought of as “polished” in my pre-workshop days.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Sign up for a Writers’ Workshop

There are many other benefits of joining a writers’ workshop, but if you read #5 above and thought, I don’t need to improve my writing, then maybe you need to step back and do some soul searching.

I find it sad that some people are unable to improve because they simply use workshops as a venue to receive accolades for their writing. They are very disappointed when someone points out flaws. How dare they! these writers think – and sadly, a lot of them are not new to the writing game. They should know better. One older writer who attended my first workshop quit after his story was critiqued because we didn’t give the response he wanted, and he didn’t think he could get anything else out of our sessions. Another writer was so disillusioned when no one understood his story that he refused to go back and make changes. These are the  type people who most need the workshop and, sadly, get the least out of it because they refuse to think they need to improve.

I do admit that I expected praise for my brilliance when I workshopped my first story. Turns out it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I thought. I was taken aback, sure, but I learned a lot. So I guess I need to add, as a prerequisite, that you should leave as much of your ego as you can at the door – and then just leave it there for good.

If you can do this, your workshop experience will change your writing life in unexpected, life-changing, and lasting ways.

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When Life Happens

Goals

Goals (Photo credit: Celestine Chua)

People who know me know that I am a planner. And that’s really just a nice way of saying “control freak.”

I’ve gotten better about it. When things don’t go my way, I’m not as likely to flip out as I used to be. But still, as a self-motivated person, I set personal goals and stick to them for a reason. Even if those plans don’t mean anything to anyone else, they mean something to me.

So this weekend was going to be a full one. We would end the week with my husband visiting our kindergartener’s class and talking to them about his job, and later in the afternoon, I would take the boys on a quick trip to visit their grandparents.

As far as freelancing goes, I have certain tasks that I complete each day, and after the kids are in bed, I get to work on my own writing. A while ago, I devised a goal for the end of January: finish the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel.

Yes, I did complete the 50,000-word goal before the end of November (actually, it was over 80,000 at that point), but the novel wasn’t done. One week out from the end of the month, my goal seemed almost too easy to attain. It was practically a sure thing.

Well, as you have most likely already figured out, things did not exactly go my way – or anyone else’s – this weekend. Life struck in a really awful way – in the form of that nasty fiend, the stomach bug. I can’t say I was totally unprepared because my younger son had it earlier in the week, but he got over it quickly, and no one else I knew had it.

But by Thursday evening, I had a bad feeling. My husband did the grocery shopping and took the kids to my son’s open house while I… well, let’s just say everyone involved is glad I decided not to tough it out and go with them.

After they got home, Thomas made some quick plans for how he would get the kids everywhere they needed to go and still talk to Peter’s class the next day. He would even take them with him to a meeting later in the afternoon to give me a break.

Then, when he was getting ready for bed, Peter woke up with the bug. Shortly after Thomas got done cleaning up Peter’s room, Ian awoke with it, too.

Not only were my own plans busted, but so were everyone else’s. On the plus side, I don’t have to feel bad about missing a day of exercise because I lost weight, anyway. But school and our trip and everything else I hoped to do were put on the back burner. I just wanted to make it through the night.

So my personal goal is shot. At times like this, it’s easy to give in and throw away goals all together. But the planner in me won’t let me give up so easily. I’m well enough to sit up and type, and maybe not quite being 100% will lend my story some really cool/trippy ending, even if it’s a few days later than planned.

And another plus: since I was so useless that I could do little more than sit around, I did some web surfing and found a short fiction contest with the deadline of January 31st. So I thought, What the heck? – might as well get something productive done, even if it wasn’t a part of the original plan – and revised a story and submitted it. At least there’s something positive coming out of my blown-to-bits weekend.

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It’s November. . . Do You Know Where Your Story Is?

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve lived through a little bit of a fiction drought lately. For months, the only new thing I’ve written is a bit of flash fiction for a writing contest. I queried agents until I was sick of it and did a lot of editing. Plus, I’ve been busy running the freelance circuit. So when I saw that it was time for another blog, and it was also November first, it seemed like the perfect time to write a list of excuses for why I can’t participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and solicit tips from anyone daring enough to try.

It made me feel like a coward, the idea of acknowledging that I was going to sit around while other people worked really hard to do the seemingly impossible. But November is a busy month. My elder son’s birthday is during the first week, and since my younger son has his birthday in December, I’ll throw a party for both of them halfway between. Plus, there’s Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping, and life in general. When both of the kids are in school in a couple years– that’s when I’ll finally be able to do it. Except that there’s no guarantee that things will be any less busy then.

Aside from my schedule, there’s also the problem of starting and finishing a novel in one month. Well, I mean, the idea can come before November first, but no writing. The problem for me is that when an idea strikes, I have to get it down pronto, or it’s gone. So if I had the best opening scene ever, but it came to me in August, would I be able to memorize it and wait until November to actually produce it? Or would I go ahead and write and hope that another story idea might strike closer to the starting date?

As it happens, sometimes inspiration does strike right when I need it. Remember the flash fiction I mentioned at the beginning? Well, I saw a contest for flash fiction a few weeks ago, and although it seemed impossible for me to write an entire story in 750 words or less, I decided it was worth a try. Aside from the challenge of cramming my usually novel-length stories into such a small space, where would the story come from? And just like that, a story popped into my head. I wrote it, edited it a few times, and submitted it the next day.

So as all these doubts about NaNoWriMo flitted through my head – as I remembered how fun it is to sink my teeth into a new story – as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and considered rubbing coconut oil on my vitiligo-afflicted arms – I remembered something. I remembered seeing a teenager whose vitiligo was much worse than mine, and I wondered how my self-confidence would have suffered if my arms had been covered with white splotches when I was a teen. Hmm. Well, it happens that I love writing young adult fiction, and with NaNoWriMo only a few days away, I had the perfect opportunity to explore a character with just such a problem.

Can books be born from a single character? Absolutely, they can. The first novel that I ever finished started just that way, although it took me eight months to write the first draft, not one.

Oh well. I decided to take the plunge, anyway. My husband thinks I’m nuts. He probably assumes I will suffer from severe lack of sleep and shortness of temper this month, but I’m sticking to my work-at-home covenant. I doubt I’ll reach the 50,000-word mark by the thirtieth, but I’ll never know unless I try, right? I’m just excited to have a new story to write, and it’s something I plan to continue enjoying through the next year.

So will you take the plunge with me? Yeah, the water’s freezing, but I’ve heard it’s not so bad once you’ve swum around for a while.