I’ve been writing fiction for almost 25 years. You would think in all that time it would get easier and the writing would go faster. But this is how it really is:
I begin my book. Three lines in, I start to agonize. Am I starting in the right place? Is this a dramatic enough opening? No, that sounds too passive. I need action verbs.
Eventually I move on. But, is there too much backstory? Is this description immediate enough? Am I using all five senses?
A few paragraphs more. Am I showing rather than telling? Oh, there’s an extra that. And you’ve already used really. Sheesh. Caught in your usual bad habits. But moving on, is there too much backstory here? It feels like an info-dump. Maybe you need to tell the character’s story through flashback. But that could interrupt the flow of the narrative.
I struggle through a few more pages. But are my characters likeable? Are they going to be able to change and grow enough to satisfy readers? And what’s the motivation in this scene? Their goal?
I finally reach the end of the first chapter. Am I in the right viewpoint? Can the reader really envision this scene? Is it dramatic enough? I can’t end the chapter here. I need a hook to keep them reading.
It goes on. I tell myself I can fix everything in the revision stage. But more and more I find myself going backwards, rewriting the previous scene and trying make it at least tolerable. Then I start worrying, are you trying too hard? Maybe you’re turd polishing, trying to shine up what is actually unredeemable crap.
I grit my teeth and move on. Just get the story down. Let it flow organically. Remember how you used to do it when you didn’t know all that stuff?
Admittedly, it was a lot more fun in those days. My first book I wrote without a critique group or any self-censoring/editing. I felt like if I could just capture what came to me, get down on paper what my characters were feeling and doing as I watched their phantom selves act out the story on my internal screen, it would be magical. I know now that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. The magic is in my head. Getting it on paper requires hard, grinding work.
And every year I learn more, and it slows me down. At exactly the time when I need to be more productive. Because to be a successful writer these days, (everyone says) you need to publish a lot of books, as quickly as possible. And here I am, writing slower than ever.
But the other thing that’s happened in the last 25 years is I have a different perspective. Some of the people dearest to me are no longer in this life. Their absence is a reminder that simply being alive is something to celebrate. And if you get too focused and obsessive, you might miss out on some of the joy.
So back to the story. Which seems to get a bit better all the time. I’m starting to like my hero. And my heroine’s not too bad either. And about all those passive verbs, don’t worry so much. You can fix them later.
As promised, I’ll ask, did you try the “Three Acts of Gratitude” exercise? The Fun Fifteen? If so, did these simple strategies nudge you up a step on the happiness scale?
I tried it. It didn’t launch me into euphoria, but it did instill a quiet happiness inside me, an inner strength that made each day a little easier, a little brighter.
When happy, our creativity triples. Be grateful for the simple things in life, recall specifics about them, and this daily practice will retrain your brain to see the world in a brighter light. Think of one positive experience in your last 24 hours, day after day, and it will empower you to find new meaning in your life.
Simple but powerful stuff.
I started this happiness journey because my life was feeling flat. I felt my options slipping away, as if I had been given X number of days left to live and that all the pleasant surprises and opportunities I would ever receive had already been sent—and there would be no more.
These exercises (Gratitude and Fun Fifteen) reminded me that the joys and pleasant surprises of life were still gracing my days. Once I started focusing on happiness, some sunny and cumulative effects began occurring.
First, I noticed the proliferation of “happy” articles in the media, as outlined in the first installment. Second, I noticed tips on how to regain happiness.
Then Mary Gilgannon, who is always so generous in sharing some of the more frustrating details of her writer’s journey (not just the triumphant moments), spoke on our RMFW loop about writing journeys gone bad. She announced that a panel of published authors would discuss failures and frustrations at this fall’s RMFW conference.
Being in the happiness mode, I was fascinated. How can we sustain happiness after we’ve been flattened by circumstances beyond our control? That’s exactly what Bonnie Ramthun, Mary Gilgannon, Shannon Baker and J. A. (Julie) Kazimer revealed during the discussion launched and moderated by Jeff Seymour.
First, kudos to them all for being willing to share the failures hidden from view by an exterior curtain of traditional “success” --
First contract with a reputable agent.
First publishing contract with a Big Five Publisher.
First multi-book contract.
Who among us, seeing such success, would approach these authors and say, “Oh, poor you!!”
Yet each of these authors suffered a punch in the gut that would floor most of us.
Bonnie Ramthun. Landed first contract, followed by a series contract. Series cancelled. Random House, landed new contract. Sold well but not enough for a sequel. A stunning FOUR-book contract with Grosset & Dunlap in 2012, followed by a nightmare when Penguin Putnam acquired them, her editor left, and Bonnie became an orphaned author.
Mary Gilgannon. After a Cinderella beginning when she was first published 20 years ago, her career became a nightmare of four different editors, three pseudonyms, six agents and a ten-year drought filled with dozens of rejections.
Shannon Baker. Her Nora Abbot series was picked up by Midnight Ink, but never made it past the third book. She was so overwhelmed by defeat after the first book’s release that she didn’t even promote her second book. Now? She recently signed a multi-book contract with Forge.
J. A. Kazimer. Julie collected a record one thousand rejections prior to her selling her first book in 2010. She’s now at 8 traditionally published books and ponders how many more it will take for her to make a living from her writing.
One of Jeff’s most interesting questions of the panel was this: How did you turn things around?
Shannon just kept writing. Those who know Shannon also know her wicked sense of humor, and it has been a valuable tool for her as she navigates the more treacherous waters of publishing.
Mary used her sense of humor, also, when she told us she vented and indulged in whiskey and chocolate. What Mary did instinctively each time she suffered a setback was to come up with a new plan. This gave her a sense of direction, a modicum of control, a way to get through the tough times. “Exercise. It makes you feel better. And write.”
Bonnie recommended that you move to a different direction. Don’t keep butting your head against a blocked path. Try a different route.
Employ your good sense of humor. Use your creativity to create new paths. These women all used their own assets to weather the storms.
They also reached out by venting with their fellow writers, who understand.
Returning to the topic of the first installment of this series, first find happiness in yourself, and then go forward to claim success. Don’t wait for “success” to make you happy because, as these experienced published authors can attest, publishing success can be erratic, punitive, unpredictable or nonexistent. Be happy, and then go forward with your dreams.
Some new releases on the topic of happiness:
THE GRATITUDE DIARIES: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan—how living gratefully leads to a richer, more fulfilling life.
BROADCASTING HAPPINESS: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change by Michelle Gielan
RISING STRONG: THE RECKONING. THE RUMBLE. THE REVOLUTION, wherein social scientist Brene Brown takes us through the process of getting back up after stumbling and falling.
Finally, a pretty blonde took me aside at the RMFW panel discussion and recommended a series on happiness. Hopefully, she is reading this blog, and will respond with the title to that series, which sounded very good, also.
Wishing you all much happiness in your writing journey!
Yeah, I know, it’s backwards. Everyone always says Work/Life balance, right? Well, after Colorado Gold this month, I can see how we’ve had it wrong all this time.
I mean, really, which is more important: Life or Work? (Hint: this is not a hard question to answer) Yes, most of us need to work to make money to pay the bills, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads. But we can do lots of things that accomplish that. Some might not be all that fun, but it’s not called funning, it’s called working.
What does this have to do with Colorado Gold? We’ve heard from a lot of people, including the incredible writer of the year Susan Spann, about how great Colorado Gold was. And it’s all true. But what I really took away from it, besides the (OMG/Yea/Holy Cow) requests for pages/full reads, was that writing fits into the “life” part of the equation above, not the work part. I am not one of the stupendously lucky people like Jeffrey Deaver who get to combine the life and work parts and write for a living. But I can still write. And I make a little money doing it. Enough that I can almost say it pays for itself (OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but who the heck cares!).
Being surrounded by other writers, agents, editors, drinks, food, drinks (hey, it helped counteract the smoke in the air from the California fires), was like what I imagine a Prius feels like when it gets plugged in. My life, love, and pursuit of happiness batteries were recharged. All the way home (and it took 5 hours!) I was thinking of new and improved scenes, a kick-ass ending, and having a bunch of other writing-related epiphanies (and let me tell you, those epiphanies make it damn hard to keep from getting a speeding ticket!).
Those of you can’t see a good reason to fork over the money, or take time off from your job (see above equation!), or are afraid to admit that writing is more than a hobby for you, are missing out on something that can make your whole life a better place to live in. I know a bunch of you out there are saying, yeah, yeah, it’s just a bunch of people sitting in rooms listening to a bunch of other people talk blah-blah. But until you are there, soaking up inspiration, motivation, craft and just having the opportunity to talk to other writers who have been there/done that JUST LIKE YOU, you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s not “What happens at Gold stays at Gold.” It’s “What happens at Gold sticks with you for the next twelve months.” Really.
So start saving your milk money, hang on to a couple days of vacation, and make plans to attend in 2016. While you’re at it, check out the submission guidelines for the RMFW Anthology. Maybe you have “THE” short story inside you that gets you published along with some other really great writers. Go for it…and Write On!
We put ourselves in this situation—“forced” to think about stories and characters and plots and craft.
The burden of it all; the agony!
The tortured artist at work--just look. Over there in the corner, writhing in pain. He's squirming in the corner in sheer horror, drowning in his own drool, recoiling at the thought of having to pound out one more precious sentence.
Did you listen to the recent RMFW podcast with Aaron Michael Ritchey? If you need a lift, check it out. You’ll hear a guy who a) produces at an impressive rate (he’s currently working on a six-book series, under contract) and b) embraces the work.
On the podcast, Ritchey recalls a key moment when he was complaining to fellow writer (and RMFW Colorado Gold Writing Contest chair) Chris Devlin about writing. And Devlin apparently told Ritchey how much she enjoyed it all, getting lost in her worlds and her characters.
That changed everything.
Ritchey decided then and there he didn’t want Devlin’s pity. “I forced myself to love writing,” he recalled.
Ritchey’s enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not saying you can wrap yourself in a cloak of enthusiasm and the books will come flying out, but starting with an upbeat thought or two about the writing day certainly couldn’t hurt.
A few days ago, I listened to Meg Wolitzer deliver a stand-up, no-notes story on “The Moth." (Yes, another podcast.) Wolitzer's storytelling style was so natural, unforced, easy-going (and funny) that I’ve got to dive into her novels. (Like my pile of books isn't tall enough.)
And this particular story, “Summer Camp,” concluded with a message similar to Ritchey’s: “The world is always trying to tell you what you’re not,” concludes Wolitzer. “And it’s up to you to say what you are,”
Funny, isn't it? How some times you run into the same message twice within the same couple of days.
It’s summertime, and the weather’s finally fine. Sunshine is in abundance, and so are articles about happiness.
In July 9th’s Colorado Style, The Washington Post’s Brigid Schulte wrote an artcle, “Boost happiness with a few simple daily habits.” The July 12 issue of Parade’s cover headline reads, “50 Shades of Happy,” and the August Golf Digest cover declares it’s their “Happiness Issue.”
In one of those golf articles, contributor Bob Carney discusses a golfer on his high school team who was the happiest golfer he ever knew. He would be happy no matter the weather or what he shot, and he was not only the best player on the high school team, he was also the luckiest. His 6-handicap, Carney says, wasn’t all magic. It turns out there’s scientific proof that this “happiness edge” exists.
Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, claims our brains, in positive mode, perform significantly better than they do in negative, neutral or stressed modes. Carney quoted five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thompson, who said, “You can think best when you’re happiest.”
So why are we all so hard on ourselves on the golf course, or at our computers, writing novels? One reason, Carney suggests, is that we “model” experience. We have preconceived notions about the “right” way to raise children, choose a mate, or in our case, write or promote our novels. These notions can be time-saving, but if we take them too seriously, we begin to believe that this is the way the world really works.
Are our theories about how to write a good novel simply a construct, also?
Annika Sorenstam’s coach, Lynn Marriott, says we have a negativity bias, that we store negative experiences in a deeper and more permanent way than we do our positive experiences. This suggests that we can undo the harmful, negative bias by replacing it with a positive bias.
If we have a propensity to imbed the negative, it will take a little more effort, but we can learn to apply this concept to make our writing more joyful, more satisfying.
Close your eyes and think back to the first time you wrote fiction—how excited you were, how magical it all seemed, creating a story from your heart, from that beautiful, magical place we call creativity. You couldn’t wait to write more, to discover what happened next, to watch your characters come to life on the pages.
Time, as we know, passes. Some stories get rejected, some get admired, some get published. We trudge on, dragging our feet through the industry “mud” of dashed hopes, disappointing letters in the mail, demanding editors, indifferent agents, careless reviews, puny sales numbers.
Over time, the joy fades, and our creative hearts need replenishing.
Take a deep breath. Hug your manuscripts and/or published books, and recall that early joy. Armed with positive thoughts, dwell on your successes and enjoyment. Remember to relish those memories, because it takes more effort to embed the positive.
When you’re preparing to edit (or, let’s be honest, “thinking” about preparing to edit, or tying yourself in the chair to force yourself to edit), engage encouraging thoughts.
Capture old, negative thoughts and turn them on their ear. Dash memories of plotting gone bad, and critique sessions that leave your manuscript bleeding from all the comments. You may have to hand back your bleeding manuscript to your critique partners and ask them to write two good things about your pages. Then you can take control and read and re-read those positive comments, giving them the same power as the critical comments . This will help you enter into your editing session with a hopeful, happy outlook, better able to tackle any problem areas.
When you’re gearing up to write new material, hug your creative mind and give it a jump start. Think of three or more outstanding memories of your writing, times when you could sing, you were so happy.
When you finished a scene that made you cry. Or laugh.
When you wrote a piece of dialogue that impressed you so much, you wanted to dance.
When someone looked you right in the eye, gave you a smile, and said they really enjoyed your writing.
When you wrote “The End” for the first time.
When you read a fantastic, positive review of your book, written by an obviously intelligent reader.
You’ll think of other gems. They’re in your memory bank, just temporarily dulled by the hard knocks that come with the industry.
Writing this blog made me happy. I hope it makes you happy, too. Join me next month as I continue my happy writing thoughts.
Recently, I’ve thought a lot about how much, and how many people, I take for granted.
How often do we all converse about losing people and how much they meant to us—most often in the past tense? People move, become less involved, or—worse—pass away. Too many times, we chat about how important that person was without having ever told them directly. This seems to occur in families, with childhood friends, in careers…well, pretty much everywhere.
We think conveying appreciation more with family members because there are built-in holidays that prompt us to tell mothers, fathers, siblings that we care about them. Yet, we have a tendency to mention it only on holidays and we forget entirely about our extended families. Have you ever told your favorite aunt how important she was in your life? How long has it been since you even spoke to your uncle? Your cousins?
And then there are those friends from high school who are remembered at class reunion time but easily forgotten in between. Recently, I discovered Facebook pages related to my former hometowns and was able to reconnect with people from my past…it’s been a fun experience. But…maybe it’s time to reach out to tell them how much their friendships meant all those years ago.
There are so many I’ll likely never have a chance to tell. I wouldn’t begin to know how to locate college professors, former bosses, co-workers who taught me skills I use today. One day, I’ll see obituaries and think about how important they were, and how I never told them.
And then there are those who are still part of my life, many of whom have guided me in my writing. Writers seldom develop their craft in a vacuum and seldom find the courage to undertake the submission process without the support of others.
So many fellow writers taught me craft, helped me grow, supported me as I floundered, hugged me in the face of rejection letters. RMFW is filled with people who impacted me as a writer and as a person. Yet, I may have never told them how much they mean to me. It’s as easy to neglect doing this when you see someone regularly as it is when you’ve not seen them for years.
It’s well past time to let them know the impact they’ve made.
My challenge, to myself and to my fellow writers, is to reach out to those who helped shape us. Whether it be a chatty note, a formal thank-you, or a “I never told you this, but…” next time you see them, take a moment to convey your appreciation. Tell them they’ve made a difference. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just heart-felt. The Colorado Gold Conference is a perfect time to do this but certainly not the only time. The opportunities are endless. All we need to do is take the initiative and convey our appreciation.
Think about those who are important to you. Then, reach out and let them know!
I am very fortunate to have an editor with whom I have a great working relationship. I had first approached my editor when I was trying to publish a sword and sorcery fantasy book under another pen name. I had been following this editor's blog (Tara Maya's Tales on http://bestfantasynovel.com) for some time and thought she would be sympathetic to my desires to get published. She read over my story, told me she liked it, agreed to publish it, but warned me that she did not expect it to sell very well. I asked her what was wrong with the book, and she said "Nothing. The problem is, it's only one book. Readers of this genre like to have a series of books."
I tried another series of books, under a different pen name. She reviewed them, politely told me they were nice stories, but had major structural defects. I thought that was kind of cruel, so I fought back, as any good writer would. "What kind of defects?" She started to list them. First, my stories did not fit any clearly defined genre. What difference did that make? A lot, she explained. Having a clearly defined genre, even a mixed or a new one, makes it possible to market the book. She asked me to search Amazon and find books similar to mine. I tried, and failed. Unfortunately, she was right, and the series has never gotten very far.
Finally, about a year and a half ago, I sent her the first of a new series of stories, this time about an ex-cop who becomes a hot dog vendor, and then ends up solving crimes. Tara Maya said she was not familiar with the cozy mystery genre, or even the mystery genre, but she would do some research and get back to me.
Research for an editor like Tara Maya consists of reading a hundred books in the genre, making extensive notes about their structure, characters, themes, conflicts—everything that makes the genre distinctive. She finally got back to me and said my book had possibilities. Did I have more than one written?
Yes, I did, and I began to send them to her.
That's when I found out what working with an editor really means.
Over the next six months, as we went over book after book, my editor helped me refine my plot structure, introduced me to new tools to help organize my story, manage the flow of events so that the story built up to a climax and ended with a satisfactory resolution. She forced me to confront my characters, understand their motivations a lot more clearly, and make them behave in a more consistent manner. She challenged scenes I had ("Do you know how deep the South Platte River is there? Is it deep enough to break someone's fall? Most readers won't know, but what about the one or two who live within a thousand feet of that location? When you combine fiction with reality, the reality better be believable!") That meant I now had to go on auto excursions around Denver to check out the scenes in my book. "Your readers don't believe in Magic, Mattie. They believe in police procedures, wits, and courage. When you write, always think of your reader. Will they believe your story?"
There were a lot of times when I resented her criticisms. It's easy to point out problems, I thought, it's a lot more work to fix them. But that's all part of the writing process.
So, here is a summary of what I've learned about working with an editor:
1. Communicate regularly with your editor. She is your ally, not your adversary.
2. Listen to what she says. You may be the writer, but she often knows what's selling and what's not selling. If you want to sell books, she can help.
3. She is not always right. If you feel what you've done is the best thing for your story, explain your logic, give her an understanding of where your story is going. If you can convince her, fine. Otherwise, review point 2.
4. Keep your commitments. Yours is not the only book she is handling, in all probability. Editors are more likely to respond to the authors who meet their deadlines, follow-through on a timely basis, and help them get the book ready for publishing.
5. No matter how much you think you can go it alone, don’t do it. Get an editor. An editor, plus your talent, just might make you a successful author.
Mathiya Adams grew up on the East Coast (Massachusetts and New York), moving to California in her early teens. She's always been interested in writing, first trying her hand at science fiction, then dabbling into mysteries and adventure stories. Mathiya tried to study writing in college, but became discouraged when her application to a writer's course at UCLA was turned down because "you don't show any real talent." A stint in Peace Corps over in India whetted her appetite for the strange and exotic, and once again she took up writing. This time she tried her hand at sword and sorcery, and while she had lots of ideas for subsequent books, real life—work, children, family—always seemed to provide ample excuses not to persevere.
After Mathiya's retirement, she dived into the writing life head first, coming up with dozens of story ideas she wanted to pursue. Some of them were actually good ideas and she thinks they might actually see the light of day. But one series in particular caught her interest. It was a story about a hot dog vendor, one of those people you sort of ignore except to buy a hot dog from them. What kind of life could they possibly lead? When Mathiya asked that question, the answer hit her. The hot dog vendor secretly was a phenomenal detective who only solved crimes that the police couldn't handle. That was the birth of the Hot Dog Detective series.
Now her days are filled with exploring Denver, checking out the locales frequented by Mark MacFarland and his associates; recounting the exploits of MacFarland; and occasionally attempting to write a blog to help other aspiring authors.
Recently I've read quite a few blog posts by discouraged writers, Yahoo! Group posts from writers who are tired of the struggle, social media updates that read like the last whimper from someone who's given up.
Back in the old days, when we took on a job, we were expected to stick with that employer/career for a lifetime (assuming the job was a good one and there were opportunities for advancement, of course). In an odd way, that decision has also applied to those in creative fields--painters must paint forever, writers must churn out more words--even when a day job is necessary to put food on the table and maintain shelter.
But times have changed. Job hopping is normal. Changing careers in the middle of the stream is a growing trend. Our work lives are more like this: Try something new, master it or not, decide it's not the ideal life you thought it would be, and move on.
I'm hearing a lot less of "I write because I have to write," and a lot more of "This is a monumental waste of my time."
"What does Roth do instead of write? 'I swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature,' he says. He added, 'Barely time left for a continuing preoccupation with aging, writing, sex and death. By the end of the day I am too fatigued.'
Of course, Roth is over 80, has published more than 25 books, won awards, and has earned a joyful retirement. He retired and he doesn't miss writing fiction, just as many of us retire from real world jobs and don't miss them at all. Roth stuck to his writing until he had accomplished great things and could enjoy his remaining years.
What if you haven't achieved as much as you'd hoped, or worse, you're just beginning and are feeling overwhelmed and suicidal?
Back in 2012 Chuck Wendig at his Terrible Minds blog posted 25 Reasons You Should Quit Writing. The whole writer angst thing is part of the writing process, part of the of the writing life. But Wendig's #24 reason to quit writing is:
"I don’t think you like writing very much. Mostly you just complain. Boo-hoo pee-pee-pants sobby-face wah-wah existential turmoil. Writing is hard, publishing is mean, my characters won’t listen to me, blah blah blah. I don’t get the sense you really enjoy this thing, so why don’t you take a load off?"
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is an organization of writers at every stage of the craft from beginner to published to winning awards. It will be the rare member who doesn't periodically cycle through stages of whining, feeling rejected, dumping projects, and wanting to quit. Most of us will cycle back into productivity and optimism.
And some will quit. There lies the truth behind today's blog post. Some will quit. Maybe at 25 after two years and no writing success. Or at 80 after a successful award-winning career. It's not the end of the world if you quit writing and do something else. It's not the end of the world if you take a five-year break and write more when you're older.
I played at writing during my real world working years but didn't get serious (if you can call the way I do it "serious") about it until almost five years after retirement. I think about quitting almost every week. Sometimes twice in one day.
So how long have you been writing? How often do you feel like quitting?
What does your plan for your writing year look like? Are you a schedule plotter (step-by-step) or a calendar pantser (by the seat of your pants)? Do you find yourself struggling to maintain writing goals and deadlines? Are you overwhelmed by the idea of finishing your first novel, or making time to write your next book while juggling your author business and your life? Are you often stressed about how much writing you’ve got to get done in what feels like very little time?
By now I’m sure we’ve all been asked if we’re a plotter or a pantser when it comes to our writing. As far as that goes, I think you should do what works for you. But when it comes to managing your writing time and how it fits into your writing life, I’d like to make a case for plotting your time on paper.
Last year, I attended a goal-setting class that spoke about scheduling yourself a year ahead. My first reaction was, “A year ahead!? I barely know what’s going on next week!” But after giving it a go, and now living it for almost a year myself, I can tell you that it’s worth trying.
To get started, you need a year-at-a-glance calendar. You can Google sites that have free printables. Calendarlabs.com has many to get you started. I use a spreadsheet set up so that each quarter fills a single printed page.
The first thing you need to do is load your calendar up with all the “off time” things like trips, events, conferences, vacations, kids’ school breaks, and other time-heavy things that will take place over the year that will interfere with your writing time. Then, fill in the deadlines you’ve got for your writing or writing business.
Work Backward to Break Up Your Work
Once you’ve got your “off time” noted and your writing deadlines in place, work backward to break the writing goals down into smaller chunks. Let’s say you’re drafting a novel, and you plan to send it to your editor on December 1st. You’ve got to build time in for your writing, deadlines to send to your critique partners, reading time for beta readers, and your own revision time between each of these stages. All of this so you’re ready by your main December 1st deadline.
The value of the year-at-a-glance calendar is that you’ll know well ahead of time that you’ve got family in town for one week and you’ll be traveling over a long weekend right in the middle of your working window. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by these events when they creep up on you, you can plan ahead and adjust your writing time accordingly so you can meet your deadlines and enjoy your off time.
This Technique Works For Anything
The same holds true if you’re launching a book, scheduling release parties, promotional events, online blog tours, cover reveals, etc. It even works for non-writing goals. I’m using this process to schedule the re-org of my house! There’s no need to panic when you’ve plotted out your time.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Granular
Once you have your year plotted, break it down by quarter, then by month, week, and day. Allow yourself to get as detailed as you need in order to really see what your daily and weekly goals must be in order to hit your big-picture deadlines. You might be surprised to see how manageable your writing goals become when you break them down like this. Alternatively, unrealistic goals stand out when you do this, allowing you to adjust your time so you can be successful.
Allow Yourself Adjustments
Granted, nothing is ever 100% perfect. But I can attest to the value of seeing the year ahead when it comes time to make the inevitable changes and shifts. Life happens and things get in the way. Being a life plotter, at whatever level of detail, can go a long way toward keeping you on the path toward achieving your goals in your writing and your life.
Corinne O'Flynn is a native New Yorker who now lives in Colorado and wouldn't trade life in the Rockies for anything. She loves writing flash and experimenting with short fiction. Her novel, THE EXPATRIATES (Oct. 2014) is the first in a fantasy adventure series with magic and creatures and lots of creepy stuff. She is a scone aficionado, has an entire section of her kitchen devoted to tea, and is always on the lookout for the elusive Peanut Chews candy. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, Corinne works as the executive director of a local nonprofit.
I’ve been perfecting my recipe for Coq au Vin for years. I use the happiest, most humanely raised poultry, a decent French Burgundy, organic farm-fresh veggies, and my own secret blend of herbs. The other night I prepared this special dish for my critique group—we always eat dinner before discussing our writing—and because my critique partner Aaron is a vegan, I also prepared an eggplant Wellington just for him.
As I proudly placed the food on the table, alongside a nice Cabernet, I asked the group, “So, what do you think?”
The guests tasted and slurped and savored and pondered, then they let me know what they thought of the dishes I’d worked so hard on.
Wine, not whine.
“It’s pretty good, but I think there’s a little too much salt,” Morgen commented.
“Yeah,” Todd said. “Too much salt, not enough garlic. And the carrots are too crunchy.”
“I don’t love the wine in the dish,” Giles said. “It doesn’t seem to go with the wine we’re drinking. I would have made a different choice on one or the other.”
“I like the wine,” Aaron said. “But my vegan Wellington doesn’t relate at all to the Coq au Vin. It would have been nicer if there were at least some parallel to the dish the rest of you are eating. Besides, I personally don’t enjoy eggplant.”
“Of all the nerve!” you may be thinking. “These guests are so rude. Chris’ feelings must be hurt after putting so much time, effort and love into creating that meal. And that Aaron—what an ingrate! He shouldn’t complain, especially after she went to all the trouble to make a vegan dish just for him.”
Hold your horses and your happy chickens.
This is a happy chicken. He has not been turned into dinner because the prior story was all made up.
This is just an imaginary dinner party, so don’t be too hard on my friends. The real Aaron would never say those things about a real meal I cooked for him, but he might say something like that about a story I ask him to critique. I can almost hear him:
“I like the voice [wine]. But the subplot [vegan Wellington] doesn’t relate thematically to the main plot [Coq au Vin], and I personally don’t like ‘fish out of water’ stories [eggplant].”
“Ah,” you may be saying. “I see the parallel now.”
Yes, this dinner party conversation is an analogy for CRITIQUE.
Now that you know that, let’s go back to the dinner party and change things up a little. Rather than simply asking “What do you think?” when I put the food on the table, let’s say instead I explained things this way: “I’m working on some recipes I’m going to cook for the producers of the Food Network, and they’re going to decide—based on this one meal—whether or not to give me my own cooking show. I need this meal to be perfect, so please evaluate these dishes as critically as possible.”
Would the same comments from my dinner guests feel any different to you after that?
“Sure!” I imagine you saying. “Absolutely.”
Knowing the context of the situation—that a career milestone hinged on the outcome of this event, and that I really wanted critical feedback—makes all the difference, right? The criticism at the dinner table doesn’t seem so harsh once you know that it was my goal to make the dinner the best it could be and that I was inviting criticism so I could improve.
Although we writers communicate for a living, we’re not always clear with ourselves and with others about the nature of the feedback we’re seeking when we offer up our work with a question like “What do you think?”
In my fictional dinner party scenario, without knowing the backstory about the Food Network’s interest in me (which is also sadly totally fictional), there’s no way of knowing if I’m asking for critical feedback or simply looking for a pat on the back.
Sometimes all we want is for someone to say, “You look nice,” not “Well, your butt does look a little fat in those pants.”
Sometimes we want constructive criticism, and sometimes we just want a little praise. Both are fine when it comes to cooking, to writing, and to everything else for that matter. The important thing is to be cognizant of which we’re seeking when we ask for feedback, and state our requests with a bit more specificity than the simple “What do you think?” By being clear and explicit with ourselves—and with others—about what kind of feedback we’re seeking, it can save us from a whole lot of heartache.
When it comes to writing, if you show your work to your best friend or a family member and you aren’t looking for critique, be sure to say that. But when you submit your work to a critique group, be prepared for criticism. That’s because whether you verbalize the request for criticism or not, the job of a critique group is to LOOK FOR THINGS TO CRITICIZE so that you can learn from it and improve. It would be a waste of time to belong to a critique group that said nothing but “This is awesome,” wouldn’t it?
The moral of this story is, when you submit your work to your critique partners and ask “What do you think?” be aware that what you’re really saying is: “Find problems. Poke holes in it. This needs to be perfect so please evaluate as critically as possible.” For the sake of your morale, try to prepare yourself emotionally for responses like “there’s not enough salt” or “the Wellington doesn’t relate to the theme of the meal.”
This is good. This is what we want. We like the color red.
Remember: we want critiquers to be critical.
Even when you’re expecting criticism, it can still sting to have your precious words criticized. I find that it helps to remember that we want critiquers to be critical. Recently I had to remind myself of this as I prepared to send my debut novel, Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure to my publisher. My critique partners dealt out some heavy criticism, but I set aside my feelings, remembering I’d asked for tough feedback. Even though it was still a little painful on an emotional level to hear that my story wasn’t perfect, on an intellectual level I viewed their critiques as food for thought. I accepted the criticism and advice that resonated with me and revised my story accordingly (a process I repeated when I received feedback from my editor). In the end, my story was greatly improved as a result of all the criticism it received, and I believe it now has the exact right amount of salt, if I do say so myself.
This is not to say that critics (and dinner guests) shouldn’t be complimentary and kind and constructive with their criticism. Of course they should be.
This is to say that we—the cooks and writers—should be aware of what kind of feedback we’re looking for and prepared as much as possible to receive that feedback. If we’re clear with others about what we want, and we’re clear with ourselves about what to expect, there will be a lot fewer hurt feelings, and a lot less vegan Wellington hurled at our friends and critique partners.
So at the next meeting of your critique group, I encourage you to set ego and emotion aside and prepare yourself to receive criticism with an open mind. In fact, welcome the criticism! Because that’s what we’re seeking by being part of a critique group, right? Consider the criticism food for thought. Let it digest, then use it to make your stories better. And bring on the wine, not the whine!