I Have a Strong Opinion – Now What?

Politics.

The Viking happened to be looking over my shoulder when I wrote that word, and immediately told me, "Don't go there."

He's wise, of course. If, as a writer, you venture to spout your political beliefs on the internet, you're going to get yourself in trouble. You'll alienate readers. You'll invite trolls. You might get into arguments with other writers. Most agents and marketing and PR people advise their writer clients to button up and stay out of the fray.

So far in my writing career I haven't had much trouble keeping my mouth shut. I'm busy. I hate conflict. And since I'm Canadian and living in the United States, I can't vote and don't really feel I have a say in anything that happens here. As for Canada, I've been gone long enough to feel detached and like I don't really understand the issues. So I keep my mouth shut and write my books and let the world fall as it may.

But I've been having thoughts about this of late. Not little, fleeting thoughts, but big, cumbersome, slow moving THOUGHTS that are insisting I pay some attention.

There is so much ugly out there. Thanks to social media, even if I don't watch the news (which I avoid like the plague) all of that ugly is brought regularly to my attention. Rape. Police brutality. Racial injustice. Suffering refugees. Sexual inequality. War and rumors of war. A constant, overwhelming, deluge of hate.

I have opinions on all of these things. Sometimes I have vehement opinions. Still, knowing that anything I put out there on Twitter or Facebook or even a blog post will be out there FOREVER, I mostly just bite my tongue, sit on my hands, and keep my thoughts to myself.

Over the last year I've been pushed to the point where I question my own silence. Things are happening out there that move beyond politics. They are moral and ethical issues involving people. Other living, breathing, human souls who are being hurt.

If a Syrian refugee child showed up starving and homeless on my doorstep would I feed and shelter her? Of course I would.

If a woman knocked at my door late at night looking for refuge from some horror of a human being who has raped her, would I take her in, get her to safety, do everything in my power to help her bring the assaulter to justice? You bet I would.

If I see racial injustice happen in front of me, will I speak up? Yes. I have. I do.

But there's this thing that happens, I think, when we're inundated by horrific images from all over the globe. Before the age of technology, people only needed to focus on what happened in their own corner of the world. Now, everywhere you look, there's somebody suffering. Every minute of every hour of every day. And, as human beings, we have a limited capacity to absorb horror and trauma and fear before we begin to suffer our own traumatic response. When we reach a certain threshold our defense mechanisms kick in, numbing our response, making it easier to see some things as "far away" and therefore not a danger or grief we need to attend to. At some point, even those things close to home can seem less relevant.

Defense mechanisms are healthy, to a point. Just as keeping our mouths shut in public is healthy to a point.

But it's also important to act, to make a difference, to be an instrument of change. As writers, we are adept at using words to share ideas and provoke emotions. I think it's important to develop an awareness of how we are using, or not using, our influence. Action, even in small ways, makes a difference, even if we are never able to see it.

Social Media isn't the only place we can express our opinions, our outrage, and our grief. I've always admired Dickens for his ability to tell a good story while condemning social injustices. Pratchett did this brilliantly, as well, so a writer doesn't have to be focused on literary fiction in order to write stories that make a difference.

To be clear, I'm not advocating that any of us get preachy. Tales told from a moral high horse seldom make for good reading. And I don't have answers for the question of how much we should share our beliefs in the public arena. But I do think some serious soul searching is in order. Knowing what we believe, having a moral compass, and allowing that to find its way into our work is an important step.

I'll be working on that. What about you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Never Give Up

Whatever you're writing, wherever you are in the writing process or in your career, I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. Finish the book
  2. Don't ever give up.

Nobody said this writing life was going to be easy. I don't need to tell you about the obstacles – you already know what they are. Only you know how strong your personal demons are and how much energy it takes to overcome them every time you sit down to write. Only you know how hard it is to summon up enough faith to send out one more query. Only you know how deep and dark your doubts are when you're wide awake in the middle of the night.

Don't let any of this stop you. If you have the passion, if writing is the one thing that makes you feel fully alive and present in this world, then you must keep on.

Write on the days when the words flow as easily as water. Write on the days when it feels like every word has to be dredged up from your toenails. Write on the days when you feel like the painted ship upon a painted sea, when words are sludge and hope is gone and you know for certain that nobody in their right mind will ever read this tripe you're smearing on the page.

Some of you are doing Nanowrimo this month. Maybe you're blazing trails and have left that 50k word count goal in the dust. Maybe what you're writing is sheer brilliance and you are riding a writing high. But if you happen to be three weeks into Nanowrimo and your word count is falling behind, don't give up. Keep writing. If you can't quite make the word count, focus on making a word count.  If the end of November comes along and you've only got twenty-thousand words, or ten, that's more than you had at the beginning of the month. Keep going. Don't let some airy-fairy idea of failure make you stop.

If you're above ground, if you're still writing, you haven't failed.

And when you finally finish your draft and you read it and you're sure it totally sucks, see if you can make it better. Then move on and write another book. And then another and another. Focus on making every new book better than the last.

I'm not saying you shouldn't revise the sucky draft. You probably should. Most first drafts are wormwood and despair. They need a lot of work to turn them into masterpieces. By the time I'm done revising and rewriting, I generally have as many words in what I call my "Darlings" file as there are in the finished novel.

But there is a danger in getting fixated and stuck on one novel. I see writers working on the same book forever and ever, like they're Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill, day after day after day. The energy leaks out of the book, or it becomes a convoluted mess. The writer lives in a state of desperation and despair. This is not good for either book or writer.

Sometimes you have to step away for a bit. Find a new idea. Write another book. And then another one. Every book will teach you something new about your craft and lead you closer to mastery. And then, maybe, one day, you'll go back to that sucky Nanowrimo draft and realize you now have the skills you need to fix it.

Look what I ran across the other day:

 

winner

Notice the date. Yep. Dead Before Dying was written five years ago, and is just now on its way to publication. Since the time that draft was completed I've written four other books and three novellas. Dead Before Dying had to wait its turn until I'd figured out what it needed. That first draft was a mess. The POV was all wrong. It didn't fit any genre category known to humanity. And Maureen, my feisty lead character, wasn't even in it.

I didn't know any of that. All I knew was that something was wrong with it. I never abandoned it - I always knew I would come back to finish it. But I had to go build some writing chops on other projects.

My point with all of this is exactly what I said at the beginning. Whatever you're writing now? Finish it. And then write something else.

Don't stop.

Don't give up.

Writers write. You are a writer. So go do the thing you're here in this world to do, and don't let anything or anybody stop you.

 

Creating Dynamic Characters

Well-developed characters make for great reading, but also for fun writing. It's such an amazing feeling when a character wakes up and starts doing stuff without a lot of direction from me.

As you've probably noticed, there are a thousand-and-one approaches to character development. A lot of writers use work sheets that ask for details ranging from eye color and shoe size to favorite song and which high school the character graduated from. I think these sheets are awesome, but since I am not  detail oriented and get easily distracted, I have yet to complete one. Inevitably I get bored and wander off to write something more exciting.

I honestly don't have a conscious process for creating my characters. Usually, when I sit down and start writing they kindly show up and start talking. I don't consciously sit down and plot out what kind of character they are going to be.

But, I have a background in mental health and I suspect my subconscious is in on the game and kindly supplying me with information. When I stop to think about it and try to analyze my process, I realize that I am relying on a few basic principles.

  1. I make sure the character has a cohesive personality. Are they an introvert or an extrovert? Somebody who is intuitive and flexible, or somebody who likes rules and structure and routines? Do they talk a lot, or prefer to keep things to themselves? Then I make sure that they stick to this, unless there's a damn good reason for them to break away from their usual behavior.
  2. What is the character's defining life event? Here I am talking about those experiences we go through that change us forever. Most of us have a number of these, but there is often one particular occurrence that changes everything. Pay attention to your friends and family, really listen, and you'll often hear it. Look for the "before" and "after" type words for your clues: Before the divorce … After the accident… Ever since I was diagnosed with… People tend to mark everything in their lives by this one defining event.
  3. I also pay attention to core values. What is most important to your character. Family? Independence? Success? Belonging? Individuality? Once you know what these are, you can really up the stakes in your plot by throwing your character into a situation where there most deeply chereished values are threatened and tested.

For example, in my paranormal mystery, Dead Before Dying, (releasing Feb. 9 from Diversion Books) Paranormal Investigator Maureen Keslyn's top value is independence, followed closely by a love of personal challenge, and pursuing justice. In this story she's about to turn sixty, has recently been injured on the job, and is physically vulnerable for the first time in her life. She's also facing a situation where someone or something is killing off elderly people in a nursing home. This set up makes it easy to set up suspense and emotional tension and keep it going throughout the book.

I'll be talking more about character development at the workshop I'll be co-presenting with the Heather Webb at the Colorado Gold Conference. Hope to see you there!

 

What’s Your Plan for 2015?

By Kerry Schafer

planGod knows I'm a pantser by birth and inclination, but I've learned that sometimes I need a plan. In writing as well as the rest of my life, there is a time for pantsing and a time for planning and it's important to get this straight.

Do you need a Writing Plan for 2015?

That depends.

Do you want to just have fun and create stuff for pleasure? Great. Kudos to you. No planning required and I hope you have a lovely time. (I might be a little bit jealous)

But if you want a writing career, you need a plan.

Stay with me here. A plan doesn't have to involve flow charts and spread sheets and hours of tedious details, although it certainly can. Some of you organized minds out there totally get off on this sort of thing. My crit partner, I know, has a spreadsheet that includes detailed timelines of not only WHAT she plans to accomplish this year, but WHEN each component will be completed.

This just makes me shudder. And want a nap. And ice cream, chocolate, and a bottle of wine. Or two.

On the other hand, I know that if I don't set some goals and some timeline markers, I'm not going to accomplish everything I want to do. Time is not linear for me. It expands and shrinks according to its own irrational whims, and if I don't pay attention I'll suddenly look at a calendar and it will be November and I won't have moved any closer to my ultimate writing career goals.

In case planning is not your forte, I've included pantser-friendly steps to help you get this done.

1. Start with the big picture. Think about what you want to have accomplished by the end of the year. Pretend it's New Year's Eve and you're looking back on all of your accomplishments. What do you want to be able to say you have done at the end of 2015? Finish that novel you've been working on? Write ten short stories? Find an agent? Get published?

I like to write this up as if I've already accomplished it all, something like this:

"It's been a fabulous year. The draft of XXX came out awesome and is on my agent's desk, ready for submission...." That sort of thing.

2. Figure out what is actionable. Okay, I sort of hate the word actionable, but it makes its point. There are things YOU can do, and things you can't. For example, if one of your goals is to get an agent this year, you can't actually force an agent to sign on with you. You CAN write a good book, draft an awesome query letter, research agents, and send out queries. So take a few minutes to break your goals down into smaller steps of things you are going to do this year to get you where you want to go.

3. Set deadlines. I don't know about you, but I can get a hell of a lot done when I've got an impending deadline. If you don't have an agent or a publishing contract to do this for you, it's tricky. This is the position I was in this year. It's much harder to make myself get up at 0-dark-thirty to write when there is no deadline. Who cares? says the voice in my head. It's not like there's anybody out there waiting on your words.

The solution - or at least a solution - is to set your own deadlines. Choose a weekly word count goal, number of revision pages, how many queries you're going to send, whatever. Pick a date you're going to do this by. Write your deadlines on a calendar or sticky notes or your bathroom mirror. Tell a bunch of people. Broadcast it on Twitter.

I have to confess that I did not meet my self imposed deadlines for The Nothing. In fact, I was at least a month behind where I wanted to be when I finally finished the sucker and flipped it over to my freelance editor. But you know what? Without a deadline and a goal I'd still be writing it. Or maybe I wouldn't have bothered with it at all, because that book was a struggle for me.

4. Celebrate Everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. This is so important I consider it part of planning. This writing business is hard. It chews writers up and spits them out on a regular basis. Part of motivation and sticking with the plan comes from marking milestones. So live it up. If you made your weekly word count or your daily word count even, reward yourself. Sent out queries? You ROCK. Give yourself a cookie or a piece of chocolate or at the very least a pat on the back. You didn't just sit there, wishing. You did something to make it happen.

5. Recalibrate as needed. Things change. If it looks like your original plan is a bust, revise it. If you're a pantser, you're already good at this. The whole point and purpose of a plan is to be looking down the road a little so you know where you're headed.

Kickstart This, Reprise. Five Lessons Learned.

By Kerry Schafer

Last month I blogged on Kickstarter basics. At that point I had just hit the launch button on my Kickstart Nothing project for the third book in my Between trilogy and had no idea how things were going to turn out. Thanks to a lot of support from friends, readers, and total strangers, I am happy to report that the Kickstarter campaign successfully funded!

I've used the word "happy" but let me shade in relieved, exhausted, elated, and maybe even vindicated. The fact that there are people out there who want to read The Nothing enough to put money behind the unfinished book feels incredible to me. It makes me want to be a better writer, because it feels like this book belongs to everybody who backed it and not just to me.

So now that the campaign is over and done, let me tell you a little more about what I've learned, just in case you're inclined to attempt this venture on your own.

1. Pick a launch date and build some momentum This is a tip I got from Jeff Seymour, and I'm glad I took his advice. Once I finally got my video done and the project written up I wanted to just click that little button and end my pre-launch anxiety. Thing is, it's better to have a few people excited about the project in advance. Just like anything else online, a few excited people backing the project from the beginning and tweeting and/or face booking about it can go a long way toward getting other people buzzed. An initial surge of momentum to get the project underway is hugely important, so talk to your friends and readers in advance and make the launch an exciting event. Just as you would with a cover reveal or book release.

2. Kickstarter has an algorithm.  What exactly this algorithm is remains a secret, possibly involving the blood of rare chickens found only in the Amazon Jungle. Okay, it's probably (slightly) more accessible than that, but I never figured it out. There were hints dropped (mostly by strangers popping up in my inbox offering to solve this riddle for money) that more backers and more people leaving comments on the Kickstarter project raises its visibility at the Kickstarter site. Sort of the same idea as favoriting authors on Amazon, I'd guess.

3. Kickstarter is a time suck. Be prepared to spend a month funneling much of your time into updates, social media, and staring at the Kickstarter page, willing the funding amount to rise. Unless, of course, you are the Potato Salad Guy. And then, I'd guess, you just snack a lot and laugh every time you look at your screen. Because, apparently, people will give thousands of dollars to help you make potato salad.

4. People are incredibly generous. You will be touched and humbled by the unexpected backers. People you know just a little (or not at all) who will drop a hundred dollars on your project (or two hundred, or more) and the people who you know are tight on money who still share two, or ten. This, more than anything, makes me want to be a better writer.

5. Add some excitement midway. There's a plateau at the middle of a Kickstarter where nothing seems to be happening. I felt for a bit like maybe I'd inadvertently murdered an albatross. You know, the old, "idle as a painted ship; upon a painted ocean" thing. I thought maybe it was just me, but since I got a formulaic email from Kickstarter at about this time letting me know it was normal for things to slow down here, I figure it's a common trend. Fortunately I had a brand new cover ready to reveal at this point and started splashing that around. People like covers, and this got the momentum rolling again. If I was ever inclined to do another crowd sourced project I would deliberately have something big to reveal about half way through.

And that is about it for my lessons learned. Now it's back to the writing cave for me, because with this success comes the towering responsibility of getting a damned good book out to my readers on time.

You Have the Power

By Kerry Schafer

Okay, writers, time for a show of hands: who among you has ever engaged in a pity party related to your writing career (or lack thereof)?

My hand definitely goes up. I've just dusted myself off after a particularly difficult little stretch where it seemed that everything was going wrong. And not just for me - for a lot of great writer friends out there.

The writing business is a tough one. It eats unwary writers for breakfast and smears the leavings over computer screens and scraps of paper for the wind to blow away. A writer's world is full of politics and trolls, reviews and rejections, market trends and genre crashes, not to mention the self doubt and despair involved in trying to transform that brilliant but elusive idea into reasonably coherent prose.

So what is a writer to do?

Well, keep on writing, obviously. But here are a few other tips that I find helpful in keeping a firm hold on my own personal writer power.

If You're Going to Have a Pity Party, Go Big. Hey, it's inevitable that you're going to crash at some point, and there's no shame in the occasional meltdown. No matter how optimistic you are by nature, you can only take so many hits before a little self pity catches up with you. One too many rejections, one too many bad reviews, one too many days of beating your head against a wall with a manuscript determined to prove that I SUCK AS A WRITER  writing is really hard work.

If this should happen to you, I say let's make it a real party. Bring in ice cream and chips. Chocolate. Alcohol. Invite friends. Weep big fat tears of failure and despair. Rage. Rant. Eat and drink things that provide an illusion of comfort. Just be sure to keep the misery offline and out of the public eye.

Also, set a time limit, say maybe 8 pm to midnight on Tuesday night. Parties that last too long suck and turn into something ugly. When the clock strikes twelve you know what to do. Clean up the mess. Dry your eyes. Let go of the anger. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and go on.

Remember, You are Here by Choice. That's right. If you're involved in this crazy rat race, then it's because you chose to be here. Nobody is holding a gun to your head to make you write (unless, maybe, you're a character in a Stephen King story). If you don't like it, if you think the rules aren't fair and the heartbreak too frequent, you are always welcome to pack up your computer and your stories and betake yourself elsewhere. If you choose to stay, do it with your eyes wide open. Acknowledge the reality. Sometimes great writers are passed over. Nice guys and gals may not win. Books that you consider not nearly as good as yours might make bestseller status while your work of art languishes, unloved and unappreciated.

If you continue to choose to be here, suck it up. Write anyway.

Take Responsibility. This is your writing career. Nobody else wants it as much as you do. Sure, maybe your significant other is supportive and wants you to be successful. They also want you to clean the house and make dinner and be available for sex and childcare and possibly even random conversation. And your agent? She's got a lot to gain from your success, it's true, but let's face it. There are millions of writers out there, clamoring at the gates. If you decide not to play anymore she might miss you, but she'll find another author to take your place.

Focus Your Energy Where You Have Control.

You don't have control over whether an agent or editor accepts or rejects your book.

You do have control over writing the best damn book you can and taking the time to craft a great query or pitch.

You don't have control over whether or not readers go crazy for something you write.

You do have control over writing a damn good book and learning some marketing strategies.

See the trend here? Nothing happens unless you write. And that means working on craft and structure and plotting and making every book better than the one before.

If you've already written a damn good book (and this has been confirmed by honest beta readers and editors and not just people who love you) maybe it's time to self publish. Or try a kickstarter.

You, my friend, are not powerless. In fact, all of the power is yours. Claim it, wield it. Don't let people walk all over you or make you believe that you are somehow not as worthy as some other writer. Only YOU can tell your stories. Only YOU can write the world through your eyes. So pick yourself up. Brush off the cake crumbs and the chocolate smears.

And get yourself back to the page where you belong.

 

Tips for Conference Goers, Especially First Timers — Part I

A few of your regular RMFW Blog contributors have submitted their best advice for an enjoyable and educational conference experience. These suggestions work for any conference, of course, but will be especially meaningful for those who plan to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference September 5-7 at the Westin in Westminster.

Feel free to add your own tips in the comment section.

Kerry Schafer

1. Talking to writers at a conference is easier than talking to "normal" people, because you can drop the small talk. If you don't know what to say, just ask, "So what are you writing?" Even shy writers are generally happy to start telling you about their latest project, and this helps to break the ice.

2. Have a business card or bookmark you can pass out with your name, email address, and social media contacts. This allows people you connect with at the con to find you again later. You can get inexpensive business cards at Moo.com or Vistaprint, or even make some yourself and print them on cardstock. Definitely worth the time.

3. Agents and editors are people. They don't like to be spammed any more than you do, but they are looking for the next wonderful book and it might just be yours. Treat them with respect and let your enthusiasm shine through.

Kevin Paul Tracy

1. Don't necessarily attend all the same workshops/classes as all your friends. Split up, then come together later and share notes.

2. The hospitality suite is great, but explore, there are all sorts of impromptu gatherings all over the place all weekend.

3. Listen more than you speak. You'll overhear so much more that way and learn all sorts of interesting things.

4. Don't go to bed early - stay up past your bed time. Some of the best conversations come after 1am and everyone is well lubricated.

5. When you make a new friend, get their "deets" right away, so you can stay in touch. You will forget later.

Robin D. Owens

1. There is no "one true way" to do things. What the seminar speaker is telling you works for him/her. Take what works for YOU from the workshop and use that.

2. Sometimes you have to hear a concept several times or phrased in different ways before it sinks in and is useful for you.

3. Stop when you get overwhelmed.

Susan Spann

1. Set specific, and reachable, personal goals. When I go to a conference, I try to meet (and remember) three new people every day. I used to feel shy about approaching strangers and introducing myself, but that became much easier when I replaced “Meet lots of people” with “Meet three new authors every day of the conference.” I usually end up meeting many more, but focusing on initiating three conversations made the goal more personal and reachable.

Jeffe Kennedy

Don’t over-schedule in advance, particularly regarding panels and workshops. Leave room to talk to people and go to panels and workshops as the opportunities arise. Connecting with other people is the one part of the conference you won’t be able to replicate some other way.

Please come back on Friday for Part II of Tips for Conference Goers, Especially First Timers, featuring Liesa Malik, Pam Nowak, and Katriena Knights, and Jeanne Stein.

The Sane Writer Goes To Conference

By Kerry Schafer

Most of us head off to writing conferences with enthusiasm and great expectations. We plan to learn, meet with like minded people, and get our creative batteries recharged. We expect to come home brimful of energy, all ready to conquer new and wonderful writing worlds.

But just maybe you've headed off to a writer's conference in the past all full of hope and expectation, only to come home feeling like somebody sucked your soul out through your eyeholes and then used it for target practice.

If so, you're not alone and there's nothing wrong with you.

Writer's conferences are big, busy, and supercharged with emotion, information, and expectation---exactly the sort of environment in which an extrovert thrives and grows. But most writers are introverts. We get recharged home alone in the quiet with a good book and maybe some good tunes on the playlist. Crowds drain and exhaust us.

So should you just keep your introverted little soul at home then, swilling coffee or booze and watching the cons all unfold through tweets and pictures and Facebook posts? Because this isn't very good for sanity either.

Part of the problem is the fear of missing something that most of us still carry around from when we were little kids. If I take a nap right now, what am I going to miss? Maybe the ice cream man, or the Easter Bunny or a big purple dinosaur riding a tricycle down the middle of main street. And if we don't nap then we get crabby and tired and if the dinosaur does show up we're in the middle of an exhaustion induced tantrum at the time and miss him anyway.

Right? So I think conferences become much more manageable (and enjoyable) if we are able to give up on the idea of  experiencing everything and are able to focus in on one primary purpose.

There are a lot of possible options. Maybe you want to learn more about craft, or need to explore new strategies for marketing. Maybe you're searching for an agent, or want to place a manuscript with an editor. Or your intention could simply be to network, have fun, or get as drunk as possible every night at the hotel bar.

Setting a primary purpose doesn't mean you can't involve yourself in other things. It does give you a focus, an ability to turn down the static and not be overwhelmed by trying to pay attention to All Of The Things. It means you can skip a session of classes and hang out in your room. Maybe even take a nap.

There are three steps to creating a mindful goal.

1. Define for yourself what is your primary reason for attending this conference at this time. (Hint: this may be different for every con you go to)

Ask yourself, "If I get only one thing out of this conference, I want it to be _________."

If you're struggling with this, stop and make a list of All The Things you want to accomplish. Tell yourself you have to give one up. What will it be? Cut that one out. Repeat, until the primary goal is left.

2. Make sure your goal is something over which you have control. Look at your statement of purpose from step one and see if this is true. For example:

"At this con I will get an agent," is a fabulous goal, but not one over which you have control. Your agent--the one who is out there looking for you--may not even be at the conference. Or maybe you're not quite ready to meet her yet.

Consider modifying the goal to, "At this con I will focus on connecting with agents."

3. Tailor your conference experience toward this goal. If your purpose is the example above, then sign up for pitches. Go to the classes that teach pitching, or that talk about premise and synopsis. As other writers to help you practice.

Once you're pursued your primary goal for the day, If you have the energy and the inclination to do other things, perfect. If not, also perfect. You'll come home feeling like you accomplished what you set out to do. Sure, you'll still be tired and might want to avoid people for awhile, but hopefully with your self and soul still intact.

Curing a Case of the Shoulds

By Kerry Schafer

Yesterday I relapsed with a bad case of The Shoulds.

For those of you who are not familiar with this disorder, it is pervasive, dangerous, and can be lethal to the creative process. Unfortunately, medical science has yet to come up with a vaccination and there is no known permanent cure. It's one of those diseases you have to live with and manage - like diabetes.

I know I’m not alone with my affliction, because I see signs and symptoms that the rest of you have also caught this disease. My evidence? Posts on Facebook and Twitter that look a lot like this:

“I should be writing.”
“Oops, yeah you caught me. I should be working on that synopsis.”

See the word “should” in all of these examples? Yep. That’s a dead giveaway, one of the more blatant forms of a case of The Shoulds. Note the following more sneaky manifestations, again of the type often seen in social media:

“Ugh. I’m supposed to be working on my word count.”
“I’m meant to be writing. But you know. Talking cats. Hahaha.”

Note the clever use of “supposed to” and “meant to be,” which really mean the same thing as should.

I pulled a definition from Google, just for fun:

“Should: verb, used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions.”

Criticizing is such a nifty word, isn't it? And criticism of self or others is one of the debilitating effects of the Shoulds.

Still, the above examples are relatively harmless cases. Probably you won’t die from the disease in this form, although it is still likely to affect your creativity and productivity.

The Shoulds are much more dangerous when evidenced by the following types of statements:

I should be published by now.
I should have finished this book months ago.
I should be writing in a different genre.
I should write faster, better, bigger. I should be a best seller. I should be able to quit my day job. I should be a perfect parent, lover, house keeper and writer and manage a day job all simultaneously while smiling and having a good time and always being nice to everybody.

Let me ask you this - what good does this sort of talk do you? It smacks of guilt, self disparagement, hopelessness and helplessness.

Should is not an action word.

Now, take a statement like this, which was probably written in the recent past by me:

“I should be writing, but I’m hanging out here instead.”

Words carry a great deal of power. Should implies that I believe I’m doing something wrong, but am too weak willed to walk way from this social media screen that has somehow magically opened in front of me. That I’m too morally bankrupt to be able to go write the words that I say I want to write. It also carries an underlying message that there are others out there - my mother, society at large, maybe even God - looking over my shoulder and making sniffy noises at my lack of discipline.

But if I switch out the should construction with an action verb, something like choose, everything changes:

“I choose to write now,” is a statement of an entirely different flavor. Or, alternately, “I choose not to write now. I’m going to hang out on FB with my friends.”

This is a significant thought shift. Either I have just set myself up to go get some word count in, or I’ve made an active decision to keep doing what I’m doing - guilt free, and by choice.

One version is vaguely self critical, helpless, with a victim-of-fate sort of feel to it. The other is strong and leads to either a change of action, or an acknowledgement that the action you are already engaged in is undertaken by choice, not because somehow you drifted into it. This allows you to assume the responsibility for your own behavior.

The same sort of shift works for the more complicated should constructions as well, they just require a little more finesse with the reframe.

“I should have an agent by now” becomes, “I choose to start looking for an agent,” or “I choose to wait.” Maybe it gets refined into something like, “I will send out ten queries this week, and a replacement query for every rejection.”

“I should have finished that book by now,” becomes, “I will write 500 words a day, five days a week.” Or even the much simpler, “I’m going to spend the next hour working on my book.”

Speaking of which, I have frittered a lot of time this morning so far. It’s time to get some writing done. Not because I should, but because I choose to.

Look Who is Coming to Colorado Gold: A Conversation with Agent Sue Brower

By Kerry Schafer

Last month I had the privilege of posting an interview with Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency. Today, I'd like you to meet Sue Brower, another fabulous agent, who works with the Natasha Kern Agency.

suebrowerSue Brower loves finding and developing authors and connecting them with the reader. Book publishing has changed dramatically over the past several years and it’s no secret that the novels that create buzz through their unique writing or concepts are the ones that become bestsellers. Over the past 25 years in publishing, Sue has done marketing, editing, story development and acquisitions for Zondervan, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. Most recently, she was Executive Editor and had the privilege of working with New York Times bestselling authors Karen Kingsbury, Tim LaHaye, Stephen Carter, and Terri Blackstock and was named ACFW’s Editor of the Year in 2010. And now she is fortunate to partner with Natasha Kern at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency. Sue’s been an avid fiction fan since childhood and loves the way stories are able to change lives, heal hearts, and bring joy to readers. Today, she wants to read and acquire women’s contemporary fiction, any kind of romance, suspense, mystery and historical novels. She would love to discover the next breakaway author in any of these genres.

Kerry: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Sue. I'm looking forward to meeting you in Colorado! But first things first. Your bio tells us that you are interested in acquiring women's contemporary fiction, and also romance, suspense, mystery, and historical novels. Could you tell us a little bit more about what gets you excited?

Sue: I like stories with strong characterization and a well-paced plot.  One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “…fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” I want to be so engrossed in the story that I am disoriented when I close the book. I do not acquire based solely on genre because publisher and consumer trends change so quickly.  But give me a well written book and I think I can pitch it anywhere, anytime.

Kerry: What was the last book you read for pleasure and what did you love (or not) about it?

Sue: I have been on an odyssey the last six months or so to read beyond my normal  favorites. Unfortunately, that left a lot of books unfinished. Probably the most memorable book I’ve read recently is Reconstructing Amelia.  It was a little dark and had some themes that put me off, but it was compelling and I still remember many of the characters.  The best book I’ve read that feeds my love of romantic fiction was Julianne Donaldson’s Blackmoore.  I loved that it drew me into an era that I read a lot about, yet this felt new and refreshing.

Kerry: Now that I have a couple of new books to add to my towering To Be Read pile, could you talk a bit about how you view the author/agent relationship? This seems to be a hot topic for writers these days.

Sue: I view the author/agent relationship as a partnership.  As a former editor and marketer, I tend to be very opinionated, so the writer needs to be open to input on their writing, where they should be spending their time, and how they should brand themselves. Notice I said “input.” I want to be available to help an author to succeed at building a writing career.

Kerry: I think that input is one of the things that makes an agent so important to a writer. Things have changed a lot in publishing over the last few years, and it gets overwhelming trying to figure out where to spend your time. Another question writers often have involves what you see as your role in publishing, and how do you help your clients navigate the slippery territory spawned by Amazon and self publishing?

Sue: I see my role as coach, career counselor, advocate, listening post, and biggest fan.  Editors today do not have time to acquire projects that just have potential. The editorial staff has more and more to do and there are fewer of them doing it. It’s my job to make sure that what I send out truly represents the writer's best abilities.  With regards to the various ways that a writer can be published, I think we, as agents, should be aware of the pitfalls of self-publishing and coach the writer to make the best choices for their career goals.

Kerry: I see that your agency is closed to unsolicited manuscripts—do you have any advice as to how a querying author could still get your attention?

Sue: There are a number of ways that a writer can get their manuscript in front of me.  The best ways are through referrals from current client authors and through conferences.  I would also say that if you respond to a blog or online class that I am a part of, I would be open to talking with you about your manuscript.

Kerry: Could you tell us a little about what happens when writers pitch to you at a conference?

Sue: When a writer pitches to me at a conference, they need to have a completed manuscript ready to be reviewed.  I want the writer to tell me what their story is about and anything about their research or background that supports why their book is fresh or unique. I will look at a one-page, but I want to hear the writer to engage in conversation with me. If I am interested, I will ask for a proposal, synopsis, and three sample chapters to be emailed to me. If that looks good, I will ask for a full manuscript. Writing conferences are a great way to reach your preferred agent or editor since most will not accept unsolicited manuscripts.  I would absolutely ask for anything that interests me.

Kerry: If you are considering a project that doesn't immediately shout "pick me pick me" – what tips the balance toward acceptance?

Sue: I don’t usually consider projects that don’t shout “pick me up.” I have too much to read and too many queries to follow up on.  The things that tip the balance for me are usually in the writing. If I am intrigued by a project, but the writing isn’t quite there, I will look for possibilities. Are they willing to revise? How much work will it take to get it ready for the publisher? If I am interested in an author, I usually want to have a phone chat before making an offer. If I see that they are not open to constructive criticism, or are reluctant to do the work, I will pass on the project.  Also, if there is just too much work that needs to be done, I will have to put it aside. I usually make a few recommendations including finding a critique group or editor and I offer to look at it one more time.

Kerry: Are you open to authors pitching their books to you if they see you out and about in the hallways or the bar?

Sue: No. The worse pitch I ever received happened when I was leaving a dinner on the last day of a conference and I was obviously worn out and sick with a cold, but the writer wouldn’t let me politely decline a conversation. It’s never good to approach an agent when they are heading to a meeting or relaxing with colleagues after a long day. It’s absolutely forbidden to approach them in a restroom!

Kerry: I've heard horror stories. Personally, I can't imagine the desperation that would drive a writer to the bathroom pitch, but I know it happens. Would you prefer writers keep to the boundaries of scheduled pitch sessions entirely?

Sue: I think that depends on who the agent is.  If I am sitting in a common area (lobby, for instance) and not already talking to someone, I am open to a writer starting a conversation.

Kerry: Last and most importantly, what is your beverage of choice? Just in case we do find you hanging out in the bar and would like to show our appreciation for spending time with us at Colorado Gold.

Sue: My favorite drink is Diet Coke. I am particularly open to this approach when the venue is Pepsi only!

Kerry: Excellent. I'm a Coke fan myself, so if the venue happens to be misguided I will try to snag you a drink from somewhere. Thank you again for taking the time to answer my many questions.