“I’m a writer.” When I tell people this, I automatically know what is going on inside some of their heads.
I pad around in my jammies, free as a bird, with occasional bursts of brilliance as I nibble on chocolate and mainline coffee. The words? The words just flow out effortlessly. At least that’s what some folks think.
They also assume my mailbox is full of checks and my email box is full of acceptances. In their brain, I’s sure they imagine me skipping down the driveway every day (in my PJs, remember?), cradling a stack of envelopes from publishers and agents, and they’re all full of contracts.
First off, I should explain that writing is not my full-time job. During the day I teach third graders, and as much as I’d like to be able to say to my students, ”Guys, I’ve got my critique night tonight, and I’ve got nothin’ to share with them. Would you all mind working on something independently while I work at my computer?” I can’t. Teaching is my mission; writing is my love. Writing is crammed in during the evenings and sometimes during the weekends; it only gets a portion of my waking hours.
And coffee is too bitter of a drink, in my opinion. But if you were offering up a bottle of Bolthouse Farms Vanilla Chai Tea, I’d start tapping away at my laptop with a frenzy.
We’re making scads of money, you say? Anyone who writes knows that only a few of us are getting rich. We often get more rejection than praise, yet we continue to plug away. We become excited if we get into an anthology and get $10. I could make more money—per hour-- running the hot dog machine at Costco than I do at writing.
Furthermore, those who are not obsessed with a well-turned phrase can’t even fathom why writers contribute to markets that pay absolutely and positively nothing. Sometimes we have a publisher who was responsible for our first acceptance. Out of loyalty and gratitude, we will send them a story or an essay when they have a new anthology they’re developing. They supported us, and now we’re just returning the favor.
Sometimes, we just want the opportunity to have our writing out there. The joy is not in the money or the possible fame. No, the joy is in the process. It’s exhilarating to be able to see a piece of writing evolve from a steaming pile of poop into something that is capable of moving others. We don’t always need a monetary reward for the job we do. (However, it is delightful when it does happen.)
So when you say, “I’m a writer,” to someone, be prepared to share a bit of your “reality” with them. Or, let them hold onto their delusions.
‘Cause sometimes, fantasies are nice to entertain, if only for a moment…
* * *
Sioux Roslawski has been published in three (so far) Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, as well as several Not Your Mother's Book collections. A third grade teacher with the Ferguson-Florissant School District, she is also one of the five founding members of the famed WWWP writing critique group. Her musings can be found at http://siouxspage.blogspot.com.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!
I recently decided to run writing courses locally and via the website WOW (http://wow-womenonwriting.com). The first course I’m offering is how to write a picture book. A friend passed on my details and I received a call from a local aspiring author. He opened by telling me he’d written loads of stories and wanted to get them published. Then asked if my course would be suitable. I went through the syllabus with him and asked if he felt it was what he needed. “I’m not sure,” he responded.
So I asked if he knew how the publishing industry worked. “Well, um… no,” was the reply. “Then if nothing else you’ll gain a better understanding of what books make it to market. You can then edit your stories to suit the market, giving you a better chance.”
“Oh I know my books will sell because my wife and kids love them.”
I told him that doesn’t mean they would be suitable for today’s market. To make my point I preceded to tell him about my mistake when submitting my first story. The story included three celebrations, these being: Easter, Guys Fawkes Night and Halloween. I continued I’d been extremely lucky that the editor who read my story actually liked it. She took the time to write the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever received. She pointed out that in order to sell globally I would have to think global. Not everyone follows a Christian faith, so would not celebrate Easter. Only England celebrates the fact that a plot to blow up their government had been averted and many would never have heard of Guy Fawkes Night. She pointed out not everyone celebrates Halloween and some even find it offensive. She finished by saying that if I could make a few changes she’d be pleased to read my story again. I made the changes, re-submitted and that story was finally published (after a few more tweaks).
“Oh, but I’d only submit to an English publisher,” was the reply.
I continued that gone are the days publishers just publish in their own country. In order to make a book viable the rights would be sold worldwide. My books have travelled as far as America, Australia, Indonesia, Korea and my publisher has recently sold the Hebrew rights of one of my books.
“Oh, so you’re saying I may have to change my stories slightly.”
I finished by stating that we have to realise we are creating a product. So when writing, we as writers have to bear this in mind. To get our product onto the market (published) we have to think about what the client (the publisher needs) and this product is an item that must have global appeal.
I could sense a silent groan at the other end of the phone.
Last nights #kidlitchat on Twitter had a two-sided topic. One question was what to do when you are blocked with a current writing project. That one generated, as expected, a lot of great tips for jump-starting the writing machine.
But I want to talk about the other side of the question that didn't get much (if any) discussion - what, if anything, can we do to jumpstart or revive a stalled career?
I guess the first question is, what's a stalled career? So much of this business is out of our hands. We can control one thing, the manufacturing of a product to sell, a book, a poem, an article. A speech to give, a class to teach. We can control to the quality of that product and we can control the completion of that product but the actual sale of that product, the sale which builds our career, well, we have no control over that.
So is a stalled career one in which you used to sell and now you don't? Is a stalled career one where you made it to one level of income and you're trying to jump to the next level? Is it that you want to be more known that you are now? What is a stalled career?
And the bigger, more important question is, what can you do about the state of being stalled? Because if you can't do anything you might as well just hunker down and get back to work on what you can control - the writing.
I'm interested in your thoughts.
About five years ago, I had lunch in a Italian chain restaurant in an out-of-town retail park. It was an unlovely place for a conversation that would change the course of my life. The pasta was dry and the service was slapstick. But at least I wasn't paying; the meal was on the company.
At the time, I worked for a national chain. The purpose of the lunch was to Discuss My Future. Like all big companies, the chain had a staff development programme, where training would be given to anyone seeking promotion. I had completed all the training I could do at my branch. If I wanted to go further, I would have to move around the country doing internships at other branches.
So, my manager and I went for lunch.
I had two very different choices in front of me. I could stay in the company, travel, meet new people and eventually have my own branch, maybe my own region to look after.
Or, I could take myself seriously as an artist. I could stop messing around with stories and I could apply myself to a dream.
As I ate my chewy penne, I imagined those two futures.
In the first, I had a clear line of progression, interesting work, a pension plan, regular pay rises.
With the second, I had no guarantee of any money, no pension, no security, but it had a siren song.
I couldn't choose both; I knew that to succeed, I needed to be committed. If I attempted both, I'd do neither well.
I swallowed my food, and it wasn't just the fact that it was barely edible that made it stick in my throat. I was about to take a huge risk that might backfire horribly. I declined my manager's offer. Two weeks later, I applied to do an MA in Creative Writing for Young People.
The reason that I'm writing about this is because artists are having to think long and hard about their choices at the moment and I am no exception. What kind of life would I have now if I had agreed to his offer? I might own a house, I might have a fashionable hairdo, I might take foreign holidays, I wouldn't be so worried about what will happen to me when I'm old.
However, I suspect that I would also be living with regret; no matter how well I succeeded in business, I wouldn't have been doing the thing I loved.
Artists, writers and creative thinkers have to take risks. Simply by persuing those professions we are taking a risk. The arts landscape at the moment makes this situation even more precarious. But, for me, that makes my decision all the more valid. I love my job, I love books and I love reading. They are worth making sacrifices for. These are the things that stir passions.
At the time (and at points since), not everyone has understood my decision. Some have thought it foolhardy or short-sighted. Maybe it was. But it isn't a decision I can regret.
Have you ever been told that you could be the next J.K. Rowling?ANSWER THE FOLLOWING:Have you ever...*been told it's too hard to become an author?*listened in on a conversation for good material?*woken up in the middle of the night to write?*asked, 'Does my bum look big in this computer chair?'*written about your life experiences?*written about a friend or a family members life experiences?*been
After a mere fifteen years restoration, the lights have finally gone on in the palazzo opposite ours across the canal. Two of the new inhabitants are cat-owners. I don’t get out much. So who’s going to blame me for investing in a pair of binoculars?
First there was Neil, a handsome black-and-white gentleman, on the first floor window sill. And then, just a few days later, the lovely Samantha appeared on the floor below. The two cats also saw each other. It’s a proper colpo di fulmine, blinding love at searing first sight. Neil gazes down at Samantha. Samantha gazes up at Neil. It’s a wrap.
But it’s also an impossible love – for an entire tall floor of a Venetian palazzo separates Samantha from Neil.
Now Samantha and Neil pass some hours each day in the kind of yearning contemplation that calls to mind John Donne’s poem The Ecstasy. Sometimes Neil cannot take it any more – he makes for the dangerous edge of his parapet. But at the last moment common or cat sense always brings him back to safety. Sometimes Samantha is gripped by the fever of love, and stands on her back legs in her window-sill, scrabbling at the cruel walls.
These are quintessentially Venetian cats and therefore know the value of presentation. Neil’s tapir markings are set off beautifully by his two green cushions, one in each window on the canal. Samantha is probably just a particularly alluring tabby, but the nobility of her palazzo setting lends her the air of an Abyssinian. With apologies to R. Chandler, she’s a cat who would make an ailurophile pope (as we have now) kick a hole in a stained glass window. What amazing kittens they would make together …
But alas, there is another reason why this love is never to be. A few weeks after this love affair ignited. I discovered that Neil is … married! I should have guessed that there’d be a wife somewhere – handsome, prosperous chap like him.
I nearly dropped my binoculars when matriarchal Bessie – big and grey and pear-shaped – appeared on Neil’s window sill. She delivered a sharp cuff about the ear when she caught her man in the act of mooning after Samantha. There followed a Mexican standoff between Samantha and Bessie. Samantha eventually slunk back into her house. And now she and Neil snatch their lyrical moments when they can – but Bessie always appears quite promptly to administer wifely discipline to her husband and give Samantha the death stare.
Samantha is plotting something. She’ll have Neil, if it’s the last thing she does. Bessie’s grown complacent. She thinks Neil’s well cowed. But she’s not seen the glint in his green love-rat eyes lately. If I were Bessie, I wouldn’t be straying too close to the edge of that parapet any time soon.
My deeply embarrassed husband at this point insists that I inform you that ‘Neil’ and ‘Samantha’ and ‘Bessie’ are not their real names. They’re probably something guttingly prosaic. Neil might even be a ‘Maria’; Samantha could well be a ‘Gianni.’ But I swear that Bessie could never be anything else but Bessie. Unless she was a ‘Bertha’.
You’d never guess that I earn my living as a writer, would you?
Michelle Lovric’s latest novel, The Mourning Emporium
, the sequel to The Undrowned Child
, is published on October 28th. Any similarities between the feline characters in this blog and those in the books are purely coincidental.
I dreamed last night that I was accompanying a woman around, who needed my help, who was, indeed, in the grip of a severe emotional crisis. This wasn’t surprising, since she was composed of slices of chicken breast that needed to be reassembled. I spent a little time pondering this after I woke up, but it didn’t solve any of my current plot problems.
You might well say that it wouldn’t, but it’s odd how often solutions do come out of dreams. In many cases (like the chicken-slice woman) I’d find the solution by reflecting on the symbolism. In her case it could signify some sense of inner fragmentation, perhaps, but this doesn’t ring any bells with me. Leave her aside, however, and I can often jump from a dream about a tidal wave full of horrible fish to realising that my character’s repressed feelings about something or other must now leap out and grab her (or him) round the throat. Sometimes there’s no apparent connection at all, but thinking about the dream gives my imagination a nudge nonetheless, the dream has geared me up, maybe?
On at least one occasion, a major plot component was given me by a dream. This was years ago, when I was working on a novel for adults The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, and I took a nap in the afternoon because I wasn’t feeling very well. I woke up with a start, with my heart thumping, and a sense of terror, while a voice spoke to me: ‘You have come a long way to end outside a Chinese city wall.’ When I’d recovered from my fright, I thought: That’s it, Lily, the character in my novel has been abandoned outside the walls of a Chinese city, and she almost dies there. Of course I wasn’t taking exact dictation from the dream, but it was pretty apposite, and I was very pleased with the nudge from my subconscious.
I have other, less helpful dreams, in which I am writing a novel which, I know, is the same as one already written, and have this moment of horror when it gets through to me. Or else I’m just writing a different novel from the one I’m actually working on, and I know it’s rubbish. Then there are the strange published novels that pop up in my dreams, books I’ve written that I don’t recognise – and usually they’re not up to much, either. I have no hesitation in ascribing these dreams to the insecurity of the writer’s life, and I wonder if other writers have them?
Some dreams come, recognisably, out of a particular writer’s plot-bag. I dreamed the night before last that I was Death’s granddaughter (though not at all like Miss Susan) and subsequent to the End of the World – which was, however, only temporary, for reasons perhaps known to Terry Pratchett – I had to tidy up all the mess people had left behind them. I remember making beds – literally, I had to staple ticking onto divan covers and assemble mattresses (such is the quaint verbal literalness of the dreamer’s mind) clearing up kitchens, weeding gardens – for as long as the world stayed ended, the beds stayed tidy – and then the Last Trumpeter appeared again and played, presumably, the Reveille. And everyone got up and the world un-ended. The interesting thing about this dream was its close attention to plot and thematic consistency, whereas most dreams jump from one plot to another like a grasshopper making its way across the field. I also woke at the trumpet, and heard my alarm going off.
And not so long ago, I dreamed I was watching the hobbits arrive at the Bridge in Rivendell. They came there, not on ponies, but in an old VW dormobile, the kind that was painted all over with flowers and CND symbols. They had to leave it in the car park (National Trust, of course) and run up the marked trail to the river, and when the Black Riders arrived in pursuit they came in a stretch limo and got out, all dressed in dark suits and dark glasses like Mafiosi. This surely indicates a distinct cultural connection between The Lord of the Rings and The Godfather.
Quite a while ago, there was a quote on an ABBA blog fr
It seems pretty obvious to me that a writer, writes. It isn't very complicated you are a writer if you write and a fiction writer if you write fiction and a children's fiction writer if you write children's fiction. So far so good. But what if you are not actually writing - just talking about it? Can you still hang onto that status? We have all I'm sure bumped into the writer who published a slim volume of poetry forty years ago and has dined out on it ever since - can they call themselves writers? Can I?
I am Ok with people saying they are writers even if they are not currently working on something - if they are on holiday , or briefly between books but if the hiatus goes on for too long surely they are ex writers or former writers rather as women of a certain age can be 'former glamour models.' I say this only because I haven't actually written a novel or even really done more than a couple of hours writing for the best part of a year.
I have lectured on writing, run workshops on writing, critiqued writing, given talks about writing, given advice about writing, got into arguments about writing and even assessed other people's writing but I haven't done any myself.
This makes me feel fraudulent. Is an actor still an actor if they haven't had a part for ten years? And what is the cut off point? Am I still a writer now but not if I don't write for another year or two?
I don't think you can be a writer in your heart or head without also being one with your fingers ( or with whatever appendage you use to generate words on a page). I think you can be 'resting' for a while but not for too long or it begins to look like retirement. Sure you can be between books as you can be between jobs but doesn't that kind of make you just unemployed?
Maybe you are different and in your soul you 'just are' a writer, but I didn't start writing until my thirties. I wasn't a writer before then and I fear that I can cease to be a writer as easily as I became one. I am not sure my soul has noticed.
Does it matter? A bit. I like saying rather grandly that I write when asked what I do at parties. It seems more glamorous somehow than saying I hang around for long periods of the day in my dressing gown reading the paper and arguing with imaginary people on t'internet. I would miss the label, but would I miss the activity?
A lot of people took the holidays off from blogging and online activities intentionally. I took some time off but it wasn't so intentional. I was in one of those dark holes I fall into sometimes and it sorta surprised me. But here I am and now I'm wondering how to jump back into things because it feels a bit odd to be away from everything for a while. It was good for me, though. I realized that online noise is just as noisy to this introvert as going to a crowded cocktail party so my brain has had a chance to rest. And then hubby and I got sick and this year's cold has been a bugger to shake. I've beaten myself up a few times about things that haven't gotten done and stuff that's fallen through the cracks. But you know, sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug.
Writing is one of those things that fell through the cracks. I think I know why. Or at least part of the reason why. I was working hard on Flyboy and making great progress. Then I took a few classes. The classes were all wonderful and helped me in a lot of ways but I have ended up with feedback from way too many people and it just short-circuited my brain. I needed the time away from everyone's input so I could just let it go and then return to the project with their comments in the back of my mind but not so forward that they overtake me. At least that's the plan.
Lately I've been thinking about things that soothe my soul.
Birds. We don't have anything fancy or unusual in our yard but just seeing the little house finches or the mourning doves hanging around the yard makes me smile. They help me feel connected to nature here in the big city. And they make me feel that little things, like our native plantings for wildlife, can make a difference
Unexpected love. Cassie isn't an affectionate dog but sometimes she just seems to know when I need a little something and will come over and nudge my hand with her nose. It might not be an all-out love fest but for her it's a big deal so it means a lot to me.
Hearing from a friend. An email (not a Tweet or a Facebook message) but an email from a friend that speaks to my heart is a good one. Or a phone call. I do love to hear the sound of a friend's voice.
I can see those things, or the need for those things, in my writing. My characters are always looking for where they fit into a family or a group because they need to feel needed, to feel loved, to feel wanted.
What about you? What are that things that soothe your soul? Do those things show up in your writing?
Many years I was told that I could probably have a good career in writing, under one condition. I had to get out of my own way.
20 some odd years later I'm still trying to figure out how to do that.
What do I do to block myself? I'm a big procrastinator for starters. I listen too much to other people instead of to myself. I let the fear of not being good enough outweigh the joy of writing. I worry about selling sometime instead of finishing something. I compare myself way too often to other writers or their work. Mostly I think it is a case of not believing in myself even when my friends and family continually tell me I should.
I'm older now. Wiser too I hope. I'm trying to kick all those negative thoughts to the curb.
How about you? What are your personal writing fears? What do you feel are your roadblocks to reaching your writing goals?
And more importantly, what are we going to do about it?
It's Saturday morning and I am up and awake early for me, 8am.
The dog is quiet. Husband is still sleeping. The house hugs me like a favorite sweater. It is a perfect time to write. I open my manuscript and then . . . it is 11am and I have written but not in any of the three WIP.
Oh novel, how do I ignore you? Let me count the ways.
I ignore you with days in the garden and training the dog and
reading books that do nothing
to show you my fickle love.
I ignore you by following the trail of shiny things to buy on Ebay and
picking up total strangers on Facebook to play
endless games of Lexulous.
That is how strong is my need
to ignore you.
There is no question that I love you novel, do not fear.
I love you to the depths and heights of my ability, beyond even,
and yet there are days when my ability to ignore you
is even greater than that.
Rather than spend time with you
I clean the house that otherwise, were I to love you truly,
would be left to gather dusts for weeks.
There are closets I clean that, were I to not,
would still hold clothes just as well.
And spiders left to spin the webs in the high beams wish I ignored you
not quite as much as I do.
Yes, I fear I ignore you too well.
© Susan Taylor Brown, 2009
Thinking about writing a book and writing a book are not the same thing.
Talking about characters and making characters talk are not the same thing.
Researching a setting and making a setting come to life are not the same thing.
Sometimes I need to remind myself of the basics.
Many people get dogs, especially German Shephards like Cassie, because they want protection. They want a big dog bark when someone comes to the door or they want to know that when they go walking late at night no one is going to bother them. A lot of people attend special training with their dogs to bring out those protective instincts or even send them away to special "guard dog" school. I've always been of the mind that if you train your dog with love, that dog will love you right back and will instinctively learn when you need protecting.
Cassie is spoiled rotten. Some might say that removes her need to guard and protect. She is also a huge people person and loves nothing more than having someone come to visit so she can jump up and down for nose tackles and butt scratches and do the wiggle worm dance. When the doorbell rings and it is someone she knows on the other side, it's like watching a comedy show. She KNOWS she is supposed to go to her rug where she can see the front door but I have enough room to open the door and let the person in before she says hello. She does it, reluctantly, sitting on her rug, wiggling in place, with that little high pitched welcoming sound she makes that gets faster and faster until I release her to say hello.
But when someone comes to the door that she doesn't know, it's different. Before I even open the door she knows there is a stranger there. She barks a lower bark, not alarm bark yet but one that tells me to come check this out. She waits on her rug without wiggling or whining, watching while I open the door. I haven't trained her to do anything but go to her rug when the doorbell rings. The distinctions are hers alone. And I have not trained her to do anything if I were to open the door to a threat but I have no doubt that if I reacted afraid of what was on the other side, she would do something to protect me.
I can fool myself and say that my backyard is for wildlife but really, it's for Cassie. The birds and other critters can do what they want in the front yard but out back Cassie rules and she decides who gets to hang around. Birds and bees and butterflies are all welcome as long as they don't mind her nosing around. The doves can hang out on the log while she is napping, working on her suntan. Even the squirrels are tolerated with little concern. But of late in the evenings around 9pm, there has been a possum popping up over the fence in the corner of the yard. Cassie has charged the fence again and again telling the possum it is not welcome here. On Monday for some reason the possum decided to come out in the daytime. Cassie was in the house but she charged the patio door with an alarm bark so loud I expected to see a hoard of masked criminals with guns waiting under the maple tree.
But no, what I saw was this.
Cassie was doing her job. Her front hackles were raised and she kept moving closer and closer to the fence until I was afraid she was going to jump up and try to do something to the possum. And then I worried what the possum might do to her. I know possums like to play dead but it was unusual for this one to be out in the daytime. I called Cassie off and she returned to my side, reluctantly, while the possum paced back and forth on the fence. When I caught a picture of the possum going in the other direction, I understood. She had something to protect too.
Cassie's job, trained or not, is to make me happy and to protect me. She fulfills both of those jobs wonderfully well.
My job is to write. I have never been formally trained in it (save a few conference classes) but I come to it instinctively, knowing it is what I am meant to do with my life. To tell stories that cut to the heart with emotional honesty.
Over the years things have happened to make me wonder if I should keep on writing or just give it up. This isn't a plea for sympathy because we have all been there at one time or another. Sometimes a bad critique has made me forget anything good anyone has ever said about my writing. Sometimes someone who supposedly loved me has said something so cutting that I wondered what made me ever think I could write at all. Sometimes it was just the act of getting one more rejection on something that felt so close that made me, for just a moment, wonder if I was doing the right thing with my life. I have had times where I told myself to just go ahead, to just quit and make a new life that meant doing other things, things that were not writing. And whenever I do this I get the biggest pain in my gut and I want to hide in a corner, curled in a ball and just sob.
Because I know I can't quit.
Sometimes I greet writing like an old friend coming to visit. I get so excited that I am dancing in my seat and ready to do a few nose tackles of my own. Sometimes the writing is like a stranger come to call, one I don't know well enough to understand if he is friend or foe until we have wrestled for a while. There are times when writing is so hard that I just sit at my desk and want to cry because toothpicks under my fingernails would hurt less than what I am trying to do and yet . . . and yet, there are times when writing is so easy that I forget it is my job, my business, my only livelihood.
If you are meant to write, if you feel that calling in your bones to tell stories, don't let anyone scare you away from your dream. You will have good days and bad days. You will have sales and rejections. You will have times when you are prolific and times when you are blocked. But if you want to write, then write.
Love the writing, love the work. Then protect what you love.
We are on the downward path of weaning Cassie off the steroids and as a result we are beginning to see a bit more of her old self returning. The side effects are lessening more and more each day. Today she was not happy to hear me use the blow dryer because she knew it meant I was leaving the house. And when I came back after being gone just a short time, she was interested enough to sniff me all over for any new smells and then give me lots of kisses to say welcome home, I'm glad to see you. She picked up a stuffed monkey a few times and chased her "egg ball" around the room for a while tonight.
And I smiled.
Less than a year ago I didn't even know this dog existed and now, now I can't imagine not having her in my life.
I have talked to other people who have had dogs with similar and worse diseases. Some were told to let the dog go, to put it down before the illness got worse, to save themselves the pain, the money, the struggle of dealing with a young dog who had a disease that would be cost them both time and money for the rest of their lives. Not a one of them did. They all stuck with their companion through it all.
I am struggling with Flyboy's story. I broke my own pattern and started with plot instead of character. I feel like I've been dropped off in a foreign country where I don't know the language. I have journaled him, written letters, journaled more, interviewed him, written more letters, ignored him, cossetted him and even yelled at him more than a time or two. And the simple fact remains, I have no idea what's going on with the story at it's most basic level - what does Flyboy want more than anything else in the world and what is his willing to do to get it.
How can I be working on a book for over 20 years and still not know what it's about?
When I was writing Hugging the Rock I wrote at least 10 versions of it all the time telling anyone who asked that it was a story about my daughter and her relationship with her father. Along about version 15 I realized it was about me. And along about version 17 I finally admitted that it was about me and my dad.
I didn't get there all at once. I had the help of a fabulous editor who constantly pushed me to go a little deeper each time, to peel away a little bit more of my self-preservation until I was raw and exposed and filled with nothing but absolute emotion and no place to put it except for there, on the page.
I'm not there yet with Flyboy. I don't have an editor with a vision of the end story that can be my guiding light. I have to get to a certain point on my own. What I have is a sixteen-year-old boy who is a lot like I was at that age, wondering where he fits into the family dynamics. A square peg in a round hole. I can see the pieces, I just don't know what to do with them. It's like Cassie's bumps, we could see them, but until someone put them under a microscope and looked real close, they were just bumps under the skin.
And I think I figured something out today. I don't think it's Flyboy that has to go under the microscope for a closer inspection - I think it's me. I need to reconnect with the part of me that is a part of him. Until I do that, he's just a name on the page, not a flesh and blood character that will have you rooting for him as you turn the page.
It might sound easy, like giving Cassie the right medicine once we got the correct diagnosis, but I've been there before. I know better. There are going to be side-effects from going deep. It's not going to be pretty, not at first. It's going to hurt to look at some of those parts of me that I know need to go into the story.
Some people might give up on a story after 20 years and no results. Especially knowing the path ahead of them.
But the thing is, me and Flyboy, we've been together a long time. I can't imagine not having him in my life. He's counting on me to tell his story.
Dear Author who thinks she wants to write this book,
Maybe you should just give up on Flyboy's story. Again. I mean, really, what is this problem you have whenever there are two people who need to appear in the same scene? What are you so afraid of?
I'd say go to work on Max or Plant Kid but you've already proved that you have the same problem every time. You're fine as long as the main character is talking to himself or dealing with the world around him but bring one more person into the scene and you freeze up. Your characters turn into wooden puppets that would be better used as kindling than interesting page turning characters. Just because you're a super shy introverted loner who is afraid to talk to people in real life doesn't mean you need to model all your characters in the same mold. Come on, big yawn there, don't you think?
Don't you know that you need conflict and conflict is going to come from interaction with other characters?
Don't you know that you can write pages and pages of crappy non-usable stuff that can be deleted later.
Can't you remember what it was like to be a teenager anymore? Sure, there was lots of angst but there were lots of thing going on all around you too. People at school. People at home. People at the grocery store.
Why are you so afraid to put people in your book?
That other Susan, the one that DOES want to write this book
I am a creature of routines. Because of our different work schedules I usually go to bed several hours before my husband does. When I'm ready to head upstairs he usually heads to his office. Lately I've been pausing in his office first. I sit on the floor, petting the dog who does not want to be touched and ask my husband questions about my WIP. Five or ten minutes of conversation and then I go upstairs. Just before I turn out the light I grab my steno pad and jot down a few ideas. And then, before I know it, there is a scene. And as we know, a scene after a scene after ascene makes a book.
With the work-for-hire project my WIP has been short-changed of late. But that doesn't mean I am not working on it. Sometimes it seems the less time I have for a project the more my brain goes into overtime trying to solve the story questions. A lot of my pondering is done in the shower or on the drive back and forth to the day job. When I come home from work and empty my pockets I am liable to find scraps of paper with ideas of things to research or a couple of lines of something that just popped into my head. I can be driving and unable to write anything down and I get a great idea (or what seems like one at the time) and I will make up a song using the line and sing it to myself until I can pull over and write it down.
I used to tell people that I squeezed writing into the holes in my life whenever I could. Like it was something to be forced.
I realize that's the wrong way of looking at it.
I don't have to force myself into the words. The words are always there, sliding out when I least expect it, just waiting for me to catch them and put them back where they belong. In a story.
This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but I am not an organized person. (Okay, that will only surprise you if you don't know me in real life.)
One of the things I've been meaning to do for a while is to go through all my notebooks (of which there are many) and all my scraps of paper (of which there are also many) and find all the little snippets I've written pertaining to the various WIP. Some people might actually have a notebook for each WIP but not me. I grab whatever is handy, write in it, leave it somewhere in the house and usually misplace it for a few days to a few weeks to even longer. It was a recent "misplacement" of a notebook that sent me into a panic trying to find what I had written about Plant Kid and Flyboy and Max. (which turned out to be spread across 5 different notebooks.)
You'll be happy to know that I did find said notebook. (I wanted to set your mind at ease on that right away. I could sense your worry across the virtual space.) I spent most of yesterday curled up in a chair in my office reading old notebooks and getting reacquainted with various trains of my writing mind. At the end of the day I realized I had 7 books that I was still passionate about writing. (Not all at the same time.) A couple of traces of "found words" reminded me how much I had been in love with a particular historical story that I had originally written as a picture book but now plan to do as a novel. It was like meeting an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time. A couple of the other books were ideas that are loosely based on incidents from my childhood which reminded me to mention the book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. I don't plan on writing mine as a memoir but I believe the prods in this book will help me remember things about my childhood that I have long forgotten.
This morning I went through much of the files on my computer and moved more of those snippets into folders associated with the various WIPs. I've really got no excuse left. It's time to generate more words, messy first and second and third drafts and get further along into the stories.
But it was something I had to do first, to get ready.
How do you organize all the various pieces of a book as you are writing it?
There's been a lot of talk around the kidlitosphere lately about keeping your dream alive when all around you, as in this business of writing, seems to be working against you.
Some people are afraid to post their success stories because they don't want to make other people feel bad. (Which brings to mind that great Eleanor Roosevelt quote, "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.")
Some people are afraid to whine about anything, especially after having sold a book or two or more because they are afraid that people won't think they are grateful for the success they have already achieved. (I would probably put myself in the second category.)
Some writers attribute their success to everything from having a cat sleep on a manuscript, always mailing manuscripts from the same post office and kissing the envelope before you drop it in the big blue box. Sometimes it is the act of getting an agent, finding the right agent, attending the right conference, having a great critique group, not listening to their critique group, writing every day, writing in many genres, writing only one thing, writing teachers and classes and degrees designed solely around writing for children, supportive spouses, understanding children and pets who love us even after we've been rejected.
Some days for some writers, being a success means getting a contract, finally seeing a book on the shelves in the bookstores with their name on it. Other days, for the same writer, it might mean being able to write ten pages on a new novel that isn't even under contract. (Hmm. I'm in the second category here as well. I'm beginning to sense a trend.)
And for all the many ways of achieving success there is a different definition of success for that writer at that particular time in their writing life.
But being a success is evolutionary process, not a final destination. It is good to remember this. Not easy, but good.
And it is a uniquely individual process. Success for a young writer, say in their 20s or 30s might be different for a writer in their 50s or 60s. I am a different writer now than I was in my 20s. And my version or perhaps vision of success has changed over the years. In some ways I am more realistic, which is actually rather sad because I thought I looked good with those stars in my eyes and the rose-colored glasses. In other ways I still remain a Pollyanna, true to the idea that a good story will find a home, that hard work will be rewarded, and that while nice folks might not always finish first, they will always finish.
So I challenge you to think about what success means to you. Spend a little time today to actually write it out, the whole vision of what being a success would mean to you. How do you define it? How would you recognize it? What does it mean, to you, to be a success? Not in how you measure up to anyone else in or out of the business. It doesn't matter if your younger sister/older brother/best friend is suddenly the most powerful person ever at her ad agency and they wonder why you persist in playing around with this writing thing. It doesn't matter if your mother/father/next door neighbor has bought and sold more companies than you can remember and has their picture on the cover of some fancy business magazine. It doesn't matter.
I'll say it again, slowly so you can hear me.
What does matter is that you have a dream. You have a dream and you are doing something, anything in any way that you can to pursue. If you get up in the morning and you remember your dream of being a writer and at the end of the day you've done just one thing in pursuit of that dream, well that qualifies as success to me.
No, it doesn't replace seeing your book on the shelves at a bookstore. It doesn't change the fact that it was great aunt Martha who called to tell you about her bunions instead of your agent calling to tell you your book has just sold. It doesn't make it any easier to give your kid money for the book fair knowing your book isn't going to be there, may never be there.
But it's a start. A word after a word after a word is tremendous power.
And you can't sell what you never write.
Each book writes itself differently. Some books have a plot that falls into place but a character who remains elusive. Sometimes a character walks into my head fully formed and the plot is ever just out of reach.
But some things remain the same.
For me I have to burrow deep into the idea of the story, wrap myself in its threads like a catapiller building a cocoon. Only the catapiller knows for sure that it will become a moth or a butterfly. As I write I am not ever sure what I will have at the end of the writing.
I spent my weekend committing to telling Plant Kid's story. Now you might think what with all the character letters and Teaser Tuesdays I've done that I was already committed to the story but I wasn't. The commitment doesn't come because I've written a certain number of words. It comes from a promise I make to a character to follow him through thick and thin until we reach a logical and acceptable conclusion to the story.
I started by gathering all the scraps of paper, all the text notes saved on the computer, and all the false starts and random scenes I had created around this idea of Plant Kid. I typed them into the computer, sorted snippets into an "attic" file to save and organized the random scenes in the order I think they go in the story. There is now just one file on the computer, one notebook that will go back and forth to work with me to capture those stray thoughts that pop into my head in the middle of work at the dayjob.
I designated one big red basket as Plant Kid's basket and put it in the place of honor in my office. It's a holding place until something gets into the computer or a place to store things that remind me of the book or the character.
I began to read (or in many cases reread) the first of the many books that will help me reacquaint myself with the subject matter that is the backdrop of this story and perhaps even a character in the story. Already there are a multitude of Post-it notes sticking out from the book and a stack of index cards beginning to form as a gather my notes.
I picked a poppy from the yard, the very first poppy that has bloomed here in this new house, and pressed it in a book.
Tonight I printed out for the first time what I have so far. Not because I'm at the point of doing anything different with it but just because I finally had something to print.
Not much. A little over 2,000 words. It felt like so much more. But that's okay. This story has a long taproot and the roots have already taken hold. There's a lot of growing going on in places no one can really see. And there's a boy whispering in my ear, telling me to watch and listen and wait.
I had a dream about him last night. I saw him smile and heard him laugh and when I saw what he was doing, I laughed too.
And so it begins.
Through thick and thin right through to the what I know is going to be a multi-tissue messy end.
I have a new habit for the drive home from work - I keep the radio off and let the silence wrap itself around me. In the past I would use the drive home as a time to sing, decidely off-key, to try and restore the energy that is sucked out of me with the dayjob. But now I find the silence makes a good transition from a crowded time to a quiet time to what I hope will be a writing time.
I've thought of B on and off throughout my day. He has a twang in his voice at times. I don't know where it comes from yet I know it belongs to him. He argued with someone and he is homeless again and I don't know why. I don't know what will happen when I sit down to write.
A few hours later I have 200 words or maybe less. One scene that contradicts everything else I've said so far. One new character. One lost character. Three index cards of notes.
Plot still MIA.
I stand at the window and watch the birds feed, count the number of new poppies that have bloomed and wonder what Mr. Mac would say if he saw this yard. I should try for another scene, or at least another sentence or two or three but instead I reach for the camera hoping to catch sight of the woodpecker that has begun to visit the giant Yucca next door.
I listen for B. but all I hear is the sound of squabblying birds.
Hubby says dinner is ready.
Not a moment too soon.
I had no intention of writing today at all. But I was sitting here on the couch after a nice visit with Linda Sue Park
and Debbi Michiki Florence d_michiko_f
and thinking about words, just words, and suddenly there they were.
250 new words.
Color me happy.
That doesn't sound like much and yet.
300 words. Words I didn't have the day before. Words that captivated me so much when I was thinking about them that I drove right past my turn-off and had to backtrack about 5 miles when I was going home.
300 words. Mostly dialog which is unusual for me and yet it felt easy and right as I wrote it. There is still a voice that uniquely belongs to the main character and yet falls naturally from my fingertips.
300 words about a boy with a secret and his sister who has a secret of her own.
300 words. That I had no idea where they were going when I started and yet, when I ended, hooked right back to the beginning of the book.
I have never written like this before, in fits and spurts of scenes that are mostly complete in their rise and fall and conflict. With no idea of the road ahead and yet, like stepping stones in an overgrown garden a path is built to somewhere special.
Oh happy day.
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Well it would be so nice to report that I spent my three days off immersed in Plant Kid's story but alas, that was not the case. I was buried, nose to the grindstone only coming up to breathe buried, in the work-for-hire stuff. I had 8 stories due on Sunday night. It would have only been 4 but I got the bright idea (smack me next time, will you please?) to do two different versions for them. I must be into pain, that's all I can say. And I didn't ask for enough money for the project which makes me mad because there is a lot of research needed. Live and learn, right?
I continue to ponder the reasons why I felt so compelled to take on this project. Yes, there are a lot of household projects we want to do (like putting in an actual yard, a new roof, new heating/AC, redo a bathroom, etc - you know - cheap stuff) and money is always useful to have. But I also can't help but wonder if it was a bit of self-sabotage just when things were getting interesting with Plant Kid.
That idea scares me just a bit.