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!
By Patricia Stoltey This afternoon my geeky husband had a breakthrough (after a visit to the even geekier guys at our favorite BB store). Just in the last two hours he has retrieved all of my missing files from the bad hard drive and put them on both his computer and my external hard drive. Now I'm ready to start putting the folders in their new home. I am humbled, and I have learned my lesson.
Let's hope you have a good backup and recovery process in place.
My desktop hard drive quit about a week ago, It was sudden. No warning shots across the bow. No flailing around for a day or so before collapse. Everything was fine the day before when I turned it off. When I tried to boot up the next morning, it was dead.
We didn't miss a trick. My husband is a geek retiree who knows lots about PCs and hard drives and all that stuff. He spent a whole day trying to bring that baby back to life long enough to do one more safety backup to my external hard drive.
When he wasn't watching, I tried some other non-geeky stuff.
So...the good news:
1. I backed up to my external hard drive a few months ago, and I save important documents to flash drives. Most of my writing docs should have been safe except the really old ones. I have printed copies of the old stuff.
2. Most of the downloads from my cameras were done before I backed up to the external hard drive, so most of my family photos are safe.
3. My new desk top computer arrived Saturday and I spent the weekend installing software and getting all ready to carry on...
But....the bad news:
1. I haven't been able to find anything on that external hard drive except the photos and a few things from the desktop. So far not one single solitary Word or pdf document. Thankfully, I have the truly important documents in two other places: flash drives and as email attachments in folders in my internet email account.
So heed my warning....
Backup options -- you probably know all about all of these, but that won't help if you're not backing up on a regular basis.
1. Flash drives (thumb drives). Buy these at any office supply store and almost everywhere else. The little gadgets plug into a USB port and hold a lot of data. They're small and easily lost. I use the ones that have a little loop at the end so I can put them on a string or key chain. They also don't have much room for file names or identifiers on the outside so you might want to add tags to each one with that key chain loop.
2. An external hard drive for regular backups of all files. They're available from retailers that sell computers. If you don't set up automatic backups, you do have to remember to plug the drive into the USB port and manually save. And then I strongly suggest you immediately take that drive, connect it up again, and see if the files you wanted to save are really there....and to find them.
3. Online cloud backups offered by your computer's manufacturer or independent companies. These will charge a fee but most of them are pretty reasonable. Dell has it. Carbonite and Mozy are companies that come to mind. Google "cloud backup service" and see what you find.
4. Your own personal cloud which is a piece of equipment (like a bigger external hard drive). You can schedule regular wireless automatic backups.
So come clean. If your computer crashed five minutes from now, what would you lose?
Is there a way to improve your odds for publishing success? It’s likely you’ve learned about other writers’ successes and wondered, “When will it be my turn?” or “How did he finally get so lucky?”
There are ways to improve your luck, and reading about others’ success stories gives clues about ways we can improve our own odds for success.
The remarkable life of TV anchorman Tom Brokaw was recently the topic of a news feature, as well as a cover-page story in Parade magazine. Brokaw’s beginnings were modest. Born to working class parents and raised as an Army brat, he went on to travel to all seven continents, write six best-selling books, win every major award in broadcast journalism and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Success didn’t destroy him--he has been married for 52 years to Meredith, with whom he raised three daughters and enjoys five grandchildren.
In his latest release, A Lucky Life Interrupted, he writes about the not-so-lucky events, one of which was a battle with multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells in his bone marrow. The experience gave Brokaw a dose of humility, and he shared his thoughts on good fortune. “I believe you make your own luck. It’s always a mistake not to go, so I jump on the airplane, try new things… A big part of making your own luck is just charging out of the gate every morning. And if you want to be lucky you’ve got to go out and take advantage of it.”
So it’s as simple as Nike’s slogan, then -- “Just do it!”
In the Parade article, Brokaw reviews his good luck -- good parents, a lucky break when he landed a job at a Yankton, SD radio station that launched his broadcasting career, and a serendipitous assignment from NBC to cover the White House during Watergate, an assignment that gave him the opportunity to play a large part in the greatest political story in American history.
Is it as simple as that, then, “Just do it?” Those of us who have invested a year or more in a novel--the writing and the polishing and the peddling of it--know that it takes more than just doing it. Timing and luck often play a part.
Consider Diana Gabaldon’s story. She posted incomplete chapters of her work in progress in an on-line chat room and caught the attention of an agent who secured a lucrative contract for Outlander, which became a New York Times best-selling series and made-for-TV movie. Then there’s J. K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series. Rowling graduated from writing on paper napkins to becoming richer than the Queen of England.
The Parade article included five tips to get luckier:
1. PAY ATTENTION. We need to pay attention when opportunity knocks. We need to open the door, and take action. Put down your cell phone. Walk away from your computer. As Brokaw says, “Charge out of the gate every morning.” That means get out of the house, step out of your comfort zone--join the publishing world in an active, rather than passive way.
2. OPEN YOUR CALENDAR. Avoid over-scheduling yourself, and save some “down time” for walking, meditating, enabling you to make connections and allow patterns and ideas to reveal themselves. Talk to people and listen, and you’ll begin to recognize opportunities.
3. INCREASE YOUR ODDS. It’s like the old expression, “If you throw enough mud on the side of the barn, some will stick.” You must be in the game to win. If you try 30 new things, you might be able to count 15 good things that happen to you.
4. TAKE CHANCES. Serendipity is more likely to strike when you step out of your comfort zone. Expose yourself to new people, new places, and new information. (Which is why attending writing events such as the RMFW conference is so valuable.)
5. LET IT GO. Clinical Psychiatry Professor Richard A. Friedman notes that the “unlucky” tend to dwell on their bad experiences, replaying negative events and giving them too much weight in their lives. Losing out on a good parking space becomes as bad as losing your wedding ring. Try to downplay the unlucky events, and create ways to easily recall your lucky or successful events.
And why not carry a good-luck charm, something that reminds you of a good-luck moment in your life? Brokaw mentions the late Sam Gibbons, a Florida congressman who carried a cricket, which he used as communication with fellow soldiers during parachute assault during World War I. “It’s a reminder that I’m lucky I wasn’t jumping into enemy territory in the dark of night,” Gibbons said.
Keep writing, keep dreaming. Pay attention, be ready, and take chances.
When asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I usually say it was about fourth grade. That's when, as a big fan of the feature called “Life in These United States” in The Reader's Digest, I realized it made a big difference how a story was told. I began to appreciate humor, brevity, and careful word choice. Looking back, I realize that long before I had professional ambitions, I would often volunteer to take the notes of the meeting or write the blurb for the newsletter. In sixth grade I won $25 in a national contest for saying (in 25 words or less) why I liked a certain toothpaste. It was fiction. I had to borrow the required box top from a neighbor, since we didn't use that brand.
Years later, I have some solid publication credits that range from poetry and plays to a newspaper activity column and six cozy mystery novels. Of course (of course!) my career as a writer has not been one huge success after another. In the olden days, when manuscript submissions still involved postage, SASEs, and, all too often, paper rejection slips, I sometimes gifted special writer friends with wastepaper baskets covered with decoupaged rejection slips.
My dedication to the job--as well as the rewards--still waxes and wanes. Good times, bad times, blah times, discouraging times, productive times--they're all in there, so I've developed several writing-related activities designed to keep me moving and productive, and remind myself that I am a writer. The very best of motivators would be a contract and/or a deadline. I'm talking about those other times. If you've ever suffered from the blahs, maybe one of these ideas will help you.
Draft a query letter describing your idea to an editor or publisher. Draft an application for a writing job, even an imaginary one. Write a thank you note or a letter to your mother. Write a letter to the editor. Almost certainly, you'll find yourself editing and improving what you've written, as well as clarifying your thoughts. Flannery O'Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” How can that be a waste of time?
Find some motivational slogans to post near your work station. “The only unforgivable sin is giving up.” “Even Babe Ruth struck out most of the time.” A little of this goes a long way with me, but it's far better than thoughts like “What made you think you could do it?” and “Who cares, anyway?”
Find out about markets, contests, conferences, organizations, classes and workshops for writers. Check on details for a story.
Put that research to use. Enter a contest (which might come with a deadline, a focus, and feedback). Get into an existing critique group, or form one. Join a group (like RMFW) of people who face the same challenges and have the same goals. These people are the ones who can help you over the bad spots and re-direct you when you go astray. Sometimes they'll have useful marketing information.
Why not? Sometimes I fantasized about what I would wear at my first book signing. Write jacket copy or a review for that as yet unpublished, or unwritten novel. (This might help you find your focus. What IS that book about?)
Teaching is a great way to sharpen your own skills and understanding. Lately, I've been tutoring a Korean woman who wants to improve her writing in English, and I recently presented something I called “Working With Words” for a high school career day. I tried to give these hopeful high schoolers an honest assessment of their chances of making a living as writers. At the end, I gave each one a certificate (which I had downloaded and customized) that read: “A writer is one who writes. Abigail Authoress (not her real name) is a writer.”
TAKE A CLASS
Attend a conference like RMFW's Colorado Gold, where you can learn craft and marketing and meet people at all stages in their careers. I'll be there, presenting a session called “Show AND Tell,” discussing how to apply the advice, “show, don't tell,” and another session addressing ways to expand or compress your manuscript to make it the length you need. I'll also be facilitating a discussion called “Birds of a Feather,” for writers of mysteries. If you come, say hello. And if you need one of those certificates I mentioned, either download and customize it yourself, or let me know and I'll have one ready for you. A writer IS one who writes.
Linda Berry's mystery novels are set in the small Georgia town where she was born. For more information about Linda and her books, please visit her website.
Many writers have Bucket Lists of the good stuff they hope to accomplish before they kick the aforementioned bucket. It usually starts with “write a book” and ends with “#1 NYT Best-Seller Five Years in a Row.” Take that, Harry Potter.
“Write a book” is an appropriate listing because it’s within your power to do it. Being a best-seller does NOT fit the Bucket List because it depends on somebody else. Example: Writing a book and entering a contest are Bucket List-worthy. But you have no control over whether or not your masterpiece wins the prize.
For years, I’ve had a series of inappropriate Bucket List wishes. Example: Get Five Star Review. Get Four Star Review. Two Stars? Ignore All Reviews. Kill Reviewer. Kill All Reviewers.
Clearly, I need to re-think my Bucket List...which is not to be confused with my goals and planning. As a chronic procrastinator, I’m familiar with the concept of goal-setting. Practical goals, such as writing a certain number of words per day or hours per week, are important. As are promotional goals, such as chatting on Facebook, updating the website, tweeting, etc. Goals are part of the job. They’re the tools used in the craft of writing.
A Bucket List is different.
A combination of plans and dreams, a Bucket List is both reflective and aspirational. When you look back at where you’ve been in your career, you can see how your bucket list has changed and become more realistic. Once upon a time, I envisioned being carried through the halls of publishing on the shoulders of my editors while the peasants chanted: Genius! Genius! Now, I’m thrilled with a happy face on the copy edit pages. After you look back and reflect, you’ve got a better idea where you want to go.
My Bucket List
Number One: What got me started writing? That would be reading. Over the years, I’ve gotten lazy with my book diet, going back to the same authors over and over or the same type of book. Bucket List says: Branch out. Maybe read all the books that won Pulitzers or the Top 100 Novels of all Time. Instead, I decided to: Read one book per month from the NYT Top Ten Best-Sellers. This book can’t be by an author I already know and love. So sorry, Lee Child.
Number Two: When writing toward a deadline or a goal, I am Grumpy Cat. Really? I mean, why write if it isn’t fun? Enjoy the process. Every day, I’ll try to write one sentence that makes me laugh or one scene that scares me more than zombies. This shouldn’t be hard because I really like my romantic suspense genre. My books are short, punchy and have happy endings...kind of like me.
Number Three: It’s entirely possible that I’m not going to win any big awards or land a multi-million dollar contract. At one time or another, those things have been on my Bucket List. Not anymore. The best prizes are the ones I give myself. Celebrate Moi. When I finish a project, I will throw myself a party or give myself a shiny gift.
Number Four: My dad used to love poetry. When he’d call me and read his fave new poem over the phone, it made the world “puddle-wonderful” and the “goat-footed balloon man whistled far and wee.” Try Writing Something Different. A new manila folder is on my desk, and it’s for poetry (gasp!), which I will print in hard copy because my dad didn’t love computers.
Number Five: Supporting and sharing with other writers is fun (always a motivating factor), interesting and a great way for me to continue learning. I’ve been plowing this field for a long time with my first Harlequin published in 1984 and a total of 79 books sold so far. Writing has given so much to me, it’s time to give back. Become a mentor. I can’t wait to get started on this Bucket List item. Over the years, I’ve stumbled into jobs with copy editing, developmental editing, ghost writing and pre-plotting.
If I were thoroughly altruistic, I’d dress in flowing mentor robes and give away free advice. But that’s not going to happen. Development and editing will be a business.
Enough about moi... What’s on your Bucket List? Remember: it has to be something you can do for yourself. Endless possibilities: Start a blog. Write in a different genre. Publish an e-book. Find a critique partner. Brain-storm. Get fifty thousand followers.
Kay Bergstrom (aka Cassie Miles) has sold 79 novels of romance and suspense, 4 super-short e-books, 2 audio plays and 2 screenplays that went straight to video. Her teaching experience ranges from college level to fifth graders. She’s been on the USA Today Best-Seller List (extended) and been RMFW’s WOTY twice. You can find her books listed on Goodreads.
I’m turning this month’s blog over to Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.
Denver cab-driver and wanna-be-a-famous-writer Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. "Murph," has collected some of his favorite commentary on being an unpublished novelist. (What is below is just the tip of the iceberg of insights.)
I thought you could—relate. And maybe grab a laugh.
These quotes are from the first six novels by the late Gary Reilly that have been published to date – The Asphalt Warrior, Ticket to Hollywood, The Heart of Darkness Club, Home for the Holidays, Doctor Lovebeads and Dark Night of the Soul.
Murph #7, Pick Up At Union Station, launches Friday, June 19 at The Tattered Cover (2526 E. Colfax Ave.) at 7 PM.
(You are all invited.)
“I’m an unpublished novelist, but it’s been a long time since I haven’t published anything. I keep promising myself that I’ll sit down and start another unpublished novel one of these days, but if you know anything about unpublished writers then you probably know that the worst thing that can happen to one is to run headlong into a wall of free time. That’s when his bluff is called. That’s when he knows he has to get creative—and he does. You’ve never seen a writer get more creative than when he starts thinking up alibis for not writing. I’m as prolific as James Michener when it comes to excuses.”
“My brain is like the print-spooler on my word processor, which holds a failed novel long enough to print it out before it is deleted from the RAM and replaced by a rejection slip.”
"A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing—such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon—when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.”
“I started thinking about writing a book called Face the Music, Chump. It would be a gut-wrenching tale of rejection slips. I wondered if there was a place where a guy like me could get rid of the craving to scribble. Some kind of Writers Anonymous, although most writers are anonymous. A place where human wreckage with Smith-Coronas could gather to cure themselves of hanging around office supply stores while their kids starved. I needed a 12-step program and I needed it bad. Step #1: admit you have a plotting problem.”
“With a novel, you have to do an outline first and then write the book, but with a screenplay you just knock out the outline and sell it. I don’t know why the publishers in New York don’t take a tip from Hollywood and just publish the outlines of novels rather than the completed books. Let the audience use their imaginations, as my Maw always says about radio. I would much prefer to read an outline of War and Peace than slog through eight hundred thousand words. Why do I need Tolstoy to describe snow? I can imagine snow, whether Russian snow or just regular snow. But book publishers seem to think that the authors should do all the work, and the readers should be waited on hand-and-foot like a buncha goddamn prima donnas.”
“I have some bookshelves in my apartment that are built out of old novel manuscripts. The rest are brick and plank, the way hippies and broke people do it. I’ve written a lot of novels since I was in college, but I use only manuscripts that have absolutely no hope of ever being published to build the bookshelves. I use them in place of the bricks. Admittedly bookshelves made out of paper are not the most structurally sound things on earth, but neither are my novels.”
“The desire to write is one of the few desires I possess that doesn’t overwhelm me in the way that the desire to drink beer or smoke cigars does. Or watch TV. Or date. Or sleep till noon. I’m not that good at resisting desires, but for some reason I’m able to fend off my desire to write. Sounds inconsistent if not completely illogical I know, but there you have it.”
“A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.”
“I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called ‘formula fiction.’ I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?”