Deep Work

This topic was suggested by Patricia Stolty, who recently stepped down as our blog administrator after years of hard work and dedication. She will be missed, but is moving on to focus on her own writing, so good luck Pat!

One of the challenges writers face, especially those just starting to focus on their writing over other professional pursuits, is sitting at the computer for such extended periods of time as it takes to churn out the roughly 60k-100k words to make a novel. They find themselves eager to answer the phone when it rings or leaping to read emails whenever the alert pops up at the bottom of their screen, or simply playing solitaire instead of writing. It's true, writing requires the ability to settle in a focus for considerable amounts of time. That is if you want to write more than a book every five years or so. For many, sitting still and typing for that long is an excruciating challenge.

Beep Work by Dr. Cal Newport"Deep work" is a term coined by Cal Newport, PhD., writer and professor, and the topic of his book of the same name. It refers to, in his words, "the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task." In his book, he talks about the ever shortening of the American attention span, all of the demands on our attention, and even the tendency of people to simply not attempt or to give up on activities that aren't almost immediately rewarding.

Dr. Newport explodes the myth of multitasking and offers studies and interviews showing how the most successful among us are able to focus and persevere in tasks before them in ways the rest of us rarely do. He shows how deep work can actually render more thorough and solid results, and in less time than splitting your attention between several activities at once.

Finally, he offers tools and techniques to exercise and develop your own ability to do deep work, to quit flitting around from one thing to the next without ever actually completing any one of them, to churn out deeper, more complete and satisfying work product than you've been able to before. Even if you are one of those able to focus for long periods, I think there is much to learn from Dr. Newport's book.

Look, I'm no fan of self-help books. I think many of them simply restate the obvious or that which is obvious to me, anyway, in creative ways so you feel like you're learning something new. Self-improvement, to me, falls into the category of diets - if you can't stick to it, it does you no good.

But this book, I think, offers some compelling arguments for learning and putting into practice the precepts it sets forth. At the very least it's worth a look.

Perspective Lost and Found

Sometimes, if you take a break from your current WIP for an extended period of time, you lose focus on it. The next time you sit down it becomes hard to recapture the tone, the pace, the perspective on the work that you had when you started it. This can sometimes be especially true for those who write series, between books. This is what I'm struggling with now.

The first book in the series was so much fun to write, and I had all the time in the world to play with it, make it fun and exciting and frankly just wing it. That one was a phenomenal success. Now, faced with the daunting task of writing the second, having taken a few months off to write two other books (one a part of another series, the other a stand alone) I find myself struggling to make this one meet and, to some degree, exceed the first.

The problem is tone and perspective. There is a particular mix of chaos and complexity to the first thriller that made it so popular, the sense of not knowing what was going to happen next. But also a sort of Romancing The Stone pseudorealism to the action, things a little too fantastical or whimsical to ever happen in real life, but still fun to read. That's what I want to recapture in the sequel, while upping the stakes.

Here is how I got past the block.

First, I reread the first book, taking notes on things that I might revisit in the second book. Not just big things but little things that might make the reader chuckle to see reprised. Then I outlined the second book. While I've sometimes done this in the past, I usually just wing it. In this case it was absolutely essential that I outline the book, to help me with pacing. Lastly I watched several of my favorite pseudorealist action movies; the aforementioned Romancing The Stone, The Man With One Red Shoe, Knight and Day, the Indiana Jones flicks, etc.

When it's time to write, I set my Pandora to music conducive to the mood I want to cultivate, certainly not brooding or mellow, but not hard and driving rock either. Something strong, but also quick and exciting. For me, often, soundtracks to other movies help.

Lastly, I sit and before I touch the keyboard, I take a brief moment of meditation, wiping my mind of any ancillary concerns or stresses, concentrate on the feelings I want to put on paper. Then I write. I don't stop, I don't take breaks, I don't go back and edit myself. I write. I push away any other thoughts that may stray in, and I keep writing, building a momentum that will hopefully stay with me when I do walk away from it for a meal or whatever.

I know I'm doing it right if I find it hard to walk away, if even when eating or running errands or watching TV, I keep thinking about my book and feeling excited about what I'm writing, eager to get back to it.

So that's what works for me. Let me know if this helps you, too.

What Is This Blog Post About?

Into The DistanceSometimes an idea for my next post on this blog comes to me in a flash, all at once, all written in my head. Other times I struggle. Sometimes the struggle is to come up with an idea, sometimes the struggle is to pick from way-too-many ideas teeming around in my head. Today the struggle is that I have all kinds of disjointed thoughts about writing flitting around back and forth like an unruly flight of starlings, some near misses but never a collision, and no single thought amounts to a full and complete blog post. I'm trying to decide if any combination of thoughts might amount to one. Let's explore together, shall we?

One thought came to me as I binged on several movies and TV shows in rapid succession during a recent convalescence, interspersed with news coverage of the recent "peaceful" transition of power in Washington DC. No, this isn't a political post, as such. However, I saw vast numbers of people who desperately clung to their own paradigm of the world, so consumed with insecurity in their own beliefs that they simply - and quite publicly - flat-out refused to accept any reality that clashed with what they so desperately wished to be true, in the face of facts quite to the contrary. Often making up things out of whole-cloth in a shocking attempt to negate reality, and convincing themselves fully that their made-up things were true.

This got me to thinking about those who read what I, as a novelist, write. They are not reading my stories in a vacuum. They bring their own paradigm to the experience, as had I when I wrote it. To the degree that their paradigm clashes with mine, there is a sliding scale to which they are willing to continue reading. Some might accept my paradigm and still enjoy the story, perhaps even altering their own to some degree because of what they read. Some perhaps not, but still appreciating my vision of reality. Then again some, if the shift between my paradigm and theirs is too right-angle, might reject my story out of hand, some not even finishing it. Some who, I submit, are insecure in their own strata of beliefs, might feel threatened by my outlook, to the degree that they feel compelled to pen a particularly acid-laced rant in a review of my book.

I, myself, have only been unable to finish two or three fiction books because I couldn't tolerate the premise, but there was at least one book that I literally threw across the room in rage before I even knew what I was doing. Others I have put down it disgust, only that one gave me such a visceral reaction.

The point is, each reader who comes to peruse our work is diverse from any other at the margin, and in a spectrum those differences become vast. Can we predict what any one person is going to think of our writing? In some extreme cases perhaps, but at the margin I suggest it's impossible. There are just too many variables.

I often make the point that market chasing is a fool's games. Trying to read market trends and writing to what's currently selling is the quickest way to insanity, especially given how fast our market shifts. It's why the term "sell-out" is spoken with such disdain - people who attempt to do so fail more often than they succeed and often in the process lose sight of their own original motives for writing.

Just ask any published writer who sold the first book of a series that they wrote after years of market chasing. It's exciting at first...until they realize they have to write a sequel, and another, and yet more, all based on a premise they shopped for, not one for which they felt any real passion or love. Suddenly they're locked into a vortex of having to churn out book after book on a story line they feel no real connection to and invariably grow to hate. This also consumes all of their writing energy and time and leaves little or none for them to pursue the writing they always wanted to do from the beginning.

I have always encouraged other writers to write what they like to read, write what they love to write, write for themselves. The readers will come. The right readers. The ones who will love what you write because they can sense the love, the integrity, the heart with which you write. You will be much happier writing what you enjoy, and that will come through as well. You will write better because it's what you love. And you'll save yourself a lot of tail-chasing, teeth-gnashing, and head-to-brick-wall contact.

Magic-Wand Words

Remember the Disney production of Cinderella, when the good witches waved their magic wands of blue, red and green? Their glitter flowed like Fourth of July sparklers, creating magic.

That’s what my blog is about this month—the magic that happens with words. In an entire novel, only a few or at most several dozen of them may appear. When they do, they connect us to the characters, embed us more deeply in the setting and emotions of the scene, and increase our enjoyment and understanding of the story. They linger in our memories.

These are a few of my favorite magic-wand words. Enjoy! May these words that so inspired me also inspire you to dig deeper in your creative reservoir. May your current work in progress sparkle!

Nora Roberts, Spellbound:  

… an exquisite simile

And she was there, just there, conjured up out of storm-whipped air. Her hair was a firefall over a dove-gray cloak, alabaster skin with the faint bloom of rose, a generous mouth just curved in knowledge. And eyes as blue as a living star and just as filled with power.

Nora Roberts, Public Secrets

... another one

She would remember the feel of the air against her face, air so moist from the sea it might have been tears.

 Nora Roberts, Sanctuary

… a character-enriching analogy

She walked to the water’s edge, let the surf foam over her ankles. There, she thought when the tide swept back and sucked the sand down over her feet. That was exactly the same sensation he was causing in her. That slight and exciting imbalance, that feeling of having the ground shift under you no matter how firmly you planted your feet.

Katie Schneider, All We Know of Love  

...melding scene and character

The clouds are pulled thin like cotton. I understand how they feel, out in the middle of nowhere, unsure of quite where they’re heading.

Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm

…skillful use of the senses

“I saw you in India.” Mrs. Humphrey had about her the slightly sour tang of an unchanged baby. “You took my clothes off.”

…expression of fury, revenge, stunning rhythm and great example of back-loading

He thought of the look on the Ape’s face, the relish of terror, the time it would take; he’d once seen two men hanged and quartered—the expression of the second condemned traitor as he watched the executioner cut down and butcher the first: that was the fear, that was the struggle, the prolonged kicking and spasms, that was the cringing, weeping, purple-faced, swollen-tongued, bloated sickening twitching entrails-sliding agony he was going to inflict.

Mary Jo Putney, Loving a Lost Lord

…fresh imagery

He wouldn’t need her, and that was as it should be. … When she was old and gray, the time she had known Adam would be the merest ripple in the lake of her life.

Annie Proulx, Close Range-Wyoming Stories

This passage slams the reader into the scene

“Hey, you’re old enough almost a be my grandmother. I rather eat rat jelly than—”

But he was edging closer and Mrs. Freeze saw his trick and the red-flushed neck swelled like that of an elk in mating season, the face beaded with desperate sweat.

...succinct characterization

“Think about it, give me a call.”

“I don’t need a think about it,” said Mrs. Freeze. She dropped the cap of the whiskey bottle, kicked it under the chair. She didn’t need that, either.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Memorable, humorous, backloading

“I don’t know where you keep finding these Mexican strawberries,” he said, referring to the beans. Bolivar … mixed them with so many red chilies that a spoonful of beans was more or less as hot as a spoonful of red ants.

Barbara Bretton, Just Like Heaven

…exquisite rhythm and backloading

…she clung to his shoulders so she wouldn’t slide off the face of the earth and into some vast unknowable universe of shooting stars and fireworks and whispered warnings that some things are too good to be true.

Jacquelyn Michard, A Theory of Relativity

…another memorable simile

He had never been able to think of that except as “innocent,” as guileless and tender as a childhood Christmas.

Tina St. John, Lord of Vengeance

...word choices

The answer came swiftly, softly at first, a dark whisper that curled around him, anchoring his soul to the earth with shadowy tethers.

---

I hope you've enjoyed these magic-wand words. If you have some to share, please do!

 

Advertise or Die

I recently had a brief email exchange with Janet Lane on a blog entry she was writing on the topic of book marketing, a topic that I hate. On later reflection I decided to add my own thoughts to hers, which you've no doubt read, precisely because I hate the topic so much.

(Janet: Forgive me if I step on your topic here, I walk only in your shadow.)

Much has been written about how writers are introverts and not easily given to socializing, networking, and schmoozing, all of it true. Marketing is my least favorite part of writing, and I strongly suspect I'm not alone. Marketing is hard for me, and while it comes easily to some, there are even those out there who claim they enjoy it but who are, empirically by observation, not very good at it. Marketing is an art, a skill, one not easily acquired and impossible to fake your way through.

First, when you advertise, remember that you are not marketing this one book. You are not even marketing your entire collection of publications. You are marketing yourself. You want to build an audience not just for your most recent release, but for future releases as well. Marketing yourself is entirely different than trying to sell a product. You have to give others a reason to read what you write, make them intrigued enough to do so, which means bragging on yourself. And yet, to stay likable, you can't come off as bragging about yourself. Doing something while not seeming to do it at all is like trying to pick up a pencil without actually picking it up.

We also live in a climate of very savvy consumers these days - people are very acutely aware of when you are trying to sell them something. Everyone has had the experience of being set upon by a salesman the moment we enter a store or used car lot - we cringe and recoil and are uncomfortable, even resentful, of this kind of hard-sell tactic. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth, and these days we are more likely to walk away having bought nothing than giving in to the pressure.

The term channel-hopping refers to the act of changing the channel on a television every time a commercial comes on. On-demand television must disable the fast-forward feature of their programs because they know, if given the freedom, viewers would much rather skip a commercial than watch it. Commercial-free streaming services have become ever more popular. Web browser ad-blockers sell quite well. I myself am a charter member of the national do-not-call list, and I faithfully report every unsolicited sales call I get. Hell, I never even answer the door unless I'm expecting someone. In short, consumers want to buy, but by and large hate to be sold something.

So now we have to market ourselves while NOT bragging on ourselves, and sell books without seeming to sell books. A more impossible task was never set before mankind.

What's left to us? Mostly indirect sales techniques. In personal appearances you'll notice people will avoid your table. I like to engage them on something entirely unrelated to the books so obviously stacked around me. I comment on the weather, or something they are wearing, or on anything else. I do not address the books I am selling until they ask. I answer their questions succinctly, never going on-and-on or offering any information they did not ask about. And the minute they pick up a book and start to leaf through it I shut up and walk away. From that point on they will buy or not, you have no further control over it.

If you don't keep a blog, start one. But don't write about your books and how good they are and how everyone should buy one. Instead, interview other writers or industry professionals, or write about topics peripherally related to the themes covered in your books. If your books are mysteries, write about other unsolved crimes in current media. If you write romances, then blog about prominent figures who have recently gotten married or divorced. You get the idea.

Keep your books, with buy links, prominently visible on your blog pages, just don't try to sell them directly. The hope is that people who happen upon your blog and like what you have to say on other topics will be spurred enough to check out your books and maybe - hopefully - buy them.

(NOTE: For god's sake, don't get political in your blog. In our current hotly charged, cavernously divided political climate it takes very little to alienate half of your consumer base with an off-hand reference to topics about which very few agree. Steer clear.)

Participate in events, such as book fairs, book giveaways, library drives, etc. Volunteer for things such as public speaking engagements, guest blogs, organizations that dovetail with the topics you write about. Send letters to editors, comment on others' blogs, leave thoughtful reviews for books by other writers on places like Amazon and GoodReads.

The point is, marketing is never going to be easy, and it gets harder as our industry changes. Your best bet at selling more books is to keep your name as prominent and visible as possible while never hard-selling your books or alienating possible buyers. Finding that marketing sweet-spot is as elusive as that cat hair tickling your nose that you can't quite seem to find. And frankly just as annoying. But keep at it - you're only certain to fail at the things you don't try.

Enthusiasm Refill

The festive holiday season fills us with excitement, hope, cheer, enthusiasm, optimism. For several months we have something to look forward to. For many of us it is the excitement to see family and friends we haven't seen is a long time, for others it's seeing what Père Noël left for us under the Christmas tree, and for still others, like me, it's the anticipation of watching loved ones open presents we chose and wrapped just for them.

Inevitably after the holiday season there is a period of blahs, the unavoidable doldrums as we look ahead to what can't help to be mundane pursuits after the bright tinsel and blinking lights of such a heart-warming and lighthearted time. The lingering hangover from New Years Eve doesn't help.

Santa WritesHere's a perfect way to reignite your enthusiasm: write. Whenever I write, even when I have to force myself to sit down and put fingertips to keys, whenever I allow myself to be transported into the world I'm creating in my own stories, my spirits are always lifted, my heart lightened, my mind liberated.

It's safe to say the time-constraints of the season have necessitated that many (most?) of us have had to neglect our writing, even if only for a couple of weeks or so. This is the perfect time to get back to it. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it's productive.

And it will keep at bay the post-holiday blahs.

The RMFW Spotlight is on LS Hawker

Our monthly feature, The RMFW Spotlight, is intended to provide members of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers with more information about our board members as well as featured volunteers. This month we’re pleased to present LS Hawker.

2016_ls-hawker1. Hi Lisa! Tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I'm the new PAL Coordinator. RMFW has been instrumental in my success as an author and I want to help other writers realize the same success.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

My newest suspense novel END OF THE ROAD comes out January 31 from HarperCollins Witness Impulse. You can buy it at any online retailer.

3. We've all heard of bucket lists -- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish -- what's one of yours?

One that I'm going to realize next summer is to witness a total solar eclipse. Ever since I read Annie Dillard's description in Teaching a Stone to Talk, it's been an obsession.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

As with most areas of my life, I'm a binge writer. I don't write every day. But I'll write up to sixteen hours at a stretch when I'm on deadline. I wish it could be different, but I've come accept that it's part of my process.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

I love traveling, speaking, reading, dreaming — but most of all, I love that I get to write for a living.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Don't rely on your "talent." Work your ass off learning your craft. Don't wait until you're in your forties, for the love of God.

2016_desk-ls-hawker7. What does your desk look like?

It's an electric adjustable desk so I can sit or stand, with two large monitors. What item must be on your desk? Coffee or bourbon, depending on the time of day, and a quote from Calvin Coolidge about persistence. Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it? A pair of wax lips, a rhinestone tiara, and Story Cubes.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Thanks Lisa!

You can learn more about LS Hawker at her website, blog, and on Facebook and Twitter.

The RMFW Spotlight is on Mari Christie

Our monthly feature, The RMFW Spotlight, is intended to provide members of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers with more information about our board members as well as featured volunteers. This month we're pleased to present Mari Christie.

2015_Mariana Gabrielle1. Mari, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I’ve just started as PR Chair, which means I get the word out about RMFW news and events. (Currently looking for social media volunteers…)

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

Right now, my books on sale are historical romance, The Sailing Home Series and a standalone, La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess. I’m also co-writing a serialized Victorian romance posted weekly on Wattpad, Never Kiss a Toad. I am, however, presently moving into mainstream historical, currently working on a Civil War story, Blind Tribute, to come out next year.

3. We've all heard of bucket lists -- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish-- what's one of yours?

I don’t believe in bucket lists. I try to live in such a way as to avoid regrets at the end of my life. That said, if fantasies count, I would not mind at all if Anson Mount played the lead role in the Paramount Pictures version of Blind Tribute.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

Setting and description. That is always second draft work. Pacing is a hard slog, too, but better than it used to be.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

The writing.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Start sooner. Don’t be afraid of failing.

7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

My desk is a serious mess. The only things that must be on it are my cats, India and Burton (they told me to write that, but it isn’t really true), and my computer. One thing I’ve had at eye level for years is a brass ingot of a meditating lion.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

I’m currently reading A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents.

Thank you, Mari. We wish you well in your new position with Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog Needs You!

laptop-and-notebook
http://www.1001freedownloads.com

First:  Co-editor Julie Kazimer and I are looking for one new regular monthly contributor to the RMFW Blog. If we have several applicants, you get a bonus point if you're already familiar with WordPress. You receive a second bonus point if you are funny (as in humor writing). And you get more points if you promise to be obsessively on time (as in getting your posts in draft or scheduled at least a week ahead of time). Regular contributors educate and inform, focusing on their writing craft or writing life areas of interest. Self-promotion is minimized. Click here for the current list of contributors.

Second: Starting in January, we also need at least two guest bloggers per month and sometimes more. The submission guidelines are posted under the Blog link on the RMFW website. We'd love to see some new faces on the blog this year. If you're interested now or later, email us at blog@rmfw.org  The guest bloggers are invited to add an author photo and recent release cover art to their posts, but should still aim to educate and inform.

Third:  We need volunteers to participate in the Getting to Know You Project for 2017. For that one, we give you three questions to answer and request an author photo and social media links. Click here for a sample of the GTKY post from 2016.

RMFW Members Only:  Occasionally we feature guest posts by conference keynote speakers, agents or editors, but those are rare exceptions. We want RMFW members for these open blogging positions. Doesn't matter if you're published or not. Doesn't matter whether you opt for traditional publishers or prefer to do it yourself. Doesn't matter what genre(s) you write. Doesn't matter if you write under your own name or a pseudonym.

What's Important: You have something of value to share with the world about writing craft or the writing life. You know your grammar and punctuation. You meticulously proofread your own work. You strive to meet deadlines.

You can contact us by emailing blog@rmfw.org