Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's Time to Write!

Summer is over, and I have finally concluded my annual creativity hibernation and am starting to write again. Hibernation? you ask. Doesn't that happen in winter? Not to me. Every summer, I find my creativity wanes to the point where I can barely write anything at all. Not even blog posts. The only explanation I can offer is that my muse likes to go on summer holidays, but she tends to return all fresh and glowing in October. I know better than to ask her where she's been, but without missing a beat, she returns every autumn and assumes her familiar place next to my ear, takes a soft breath, and starts whispering.

So here I am blogging again after the summer drought, and what better topic to discuss than the perfect way to launch yourself back into your craft: NaNoWriMo!

For the uninitiated, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's when everyone from first-time dreamers to seasoned authors pull together to wrangle their muses in a sort of crazed, Sadie Hawkins sort of fashion so they can Write Their Novel. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Mind you, they don't have to be good fact, the idea is that you don't focus on quality at all and just write. At the end of the month, you upload your document, the web site validates the word count, and you celebrate.

I like the idea of NaNoWriMo for so many reasons. One, I am a big fan of the idea of Just Write. Two, I think community and structure are a huge help, even though I've always done without either one. Three, if more people can at least get introduced to the addiction of writing, we might help some wonderful new writers to begin their careers.

Sound intriguing? Let's do it! I have 30,000 words on Madness already (book four of The Soterians series), but my goal is to finish the first draft, which I'm targeting at 80,000, so I have another 50,000 to go anyway.

What do you say? You in?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Balancing Light and Dark

Ever since this unfortunate Wall Street Journal article appeared, Twitter has exploded with countless posts using the #yasaves hash tag describing how young-adult (YA) books have been a lifeline for people. How those suffering from self-injury, eating disorders, bullying, and abuse of all kinds have found they have a voice through these books, which speak for them even if they can't speak for themselves. As I read these posts, I came across this picture, which to me says it all: 

Dear @wsj, #yasaves on Twitpic

The interesting thing is that some look at this picture and think it means that the books are promoting all the crap on the wall. My interpretation is this:

Kids know where they've started; books help them see where they might go.

It's a concept very much like the It Gets Better project, which was started to help gay teens see that high school is about as bad as it gets, and if you just hang on and don't kill yourself, you're probably in for a much better time. The people contributing videos to the It Gets Better project are sharing their own stories of how they were rejected, bullied, misunderstood, teased, and generally made to feel less than human at a time when the most important thing in the world is to fit in. Are those videos teaching bullies new ways to torture their gay classmates? Of course not. The videos act as a lighthouse, giving teens the hope they need to get through a horribly difficult time.

The irony of high school, you see, is that so often we're told by well-meaning adults that it's the best time of your life. That you don't have a care in the world, you just get to play with your friends and go to parties and have a great time, and just wait until you have to start working full-time. For a kid who is struggling with the pressures of schoolwork and fitting in and self-loathing and isn't getting invited to those supposedly wonderful parties, what kind of message is that? Adults think that by trying to paint a rosy picture of the teen's life, they'll somehow make it more rosy, and that by acknowledging that the ages of 13 through 18 are usually the very worst time of a person's life, they're somehow making it more miserable.

But kids aren't stupid. I knew what I was experiencing in high school, and nobody was going to convince me that my suffering wasn't real. Luckily, I was able to listen past the rhetoric and had an inkling of the freedom that being an adult would bring me. And to this day, even when I'm tearing my hair out with stress at my job or slogging through my taxes, I am so grateful that at least I make my own money and don't have to remind my employer every week that they're supposed to pay me. That I have a home with nobody telling me about what is acceptable under "their" roof. That my friends love me even when I'm fat, don't sneer at my clothes, and don't turn their back on me because of the sexual choices I made the night before. That I don't have to ask for permission and money every time I want to buy a pair of jeans, or depend on the whim of an adult to decide whether I get to have a social life that weekend. That as an adult, I get to be part of this democratic society I was forced to learn so much about in high school, when my reality was much more along the lines of totalitarian rule.

Kids know where they come from. They know that the pain they're experiencing is real, and what they need more than anything else is to hear that a) they're not the only one experiencing this, and b) there's hope of a future beyond their current misery, whether that misery consists of not getting into the "in" crowd or being abused by the people who are supposed to be protecting you. This is why there is a whole range of books in YA fiction--to say that they're all violent and perverse is ridiculous.

If you're still unconvinced that teens need to read about the dark side of life, ask yourself this: when is the last time you read a book about a perfect, happy workplace? Or a marriage with no arguments? Did bosses become pointy-haired because they started reading Dilbert? Did spouses start cheating when they read books about the misery that it causes? Of course not. The reason these books are popular is because like it or not, life is full of good and bad, light and dark, and we need to talk about all of it. Ironically, I think a lot of adult fiction is way too obsessed with the dark side--I often say that the best way to have a New York Times best seller is to make sure your plot includes raping children and killing pets. But there's a big difference between gratuitous use of these subjects and exploring the interplay of the dark and light side of life and all the shades of grey in between. We need to talk about our experiences, and we need to read about the similar experiences of others. It's what connects us, and it's what gives us hope.

So instead of bashing young-adult fiction across the board, and bemoaning the fact that Barnes & Noble didn't do a good enough job of picking books for you and your children, do your own research. Read the YA blogs with your kids to find out what sounds appealing and appropriate. (To expand your options, I recommend reading blogs that review self-published books as well as those traditionally published.) And then, here's the revolutionary part: after you've bought the books, read them. Pass them back and forth with your teens, and then discuss the stories. Find out what they thought of it (seek to listen first; don't jump into preaching mode!) and how it made them feel. Was there anything they could relate to? Anything that brought up their own fears and anxieties? You'll be astonished by how much kids will share within this context, because they feel that if the character in the story could talk about it, then maybe they can, too. And then you can share your own experiences from when you were a teen (watch their eyes get wide as they realize you existed before they were born).

But a word of caution: when you tell your stories, be sure to share a balance of the light and the dark. Because just like with good fiction, you need both to be truly authentic. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Taking Your Story to the End of the World

Amidst all the madness about the world supposedly ending today, I came across this amazing video, which shows artist Zack Smithey painting while Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is performed in the background. What struck me most was how he paints such a beautiful piece of art, but along the way he adds so much paint that it runs and covers other parts, and in the end, he allows the entire thing to be obliterated. I found myself getting very anxious watching this, wanting him to preserve the lines that were already there, worrying when he sprayed paint across the parts that were already "done," not wanting him to ruin it and to safeguard it forever.

You can see where I'm going with this.

I realized as I watched this video that I'm way too protective of my characters and my story lines. I lead them through danger, but I get a nagging sense that I'm still holding their hands. I'm pretty good at cutting out whole parts and revising dialog and such, but once I've written a story line, it's very hard for me to go back and take another path instead. And I simply cannot imagine throwing the whole thing out and starting over.

And yet, the only way you can get the richness of a great story, or the tension that makes us root for your characters, is to put them in real discomfort and peril, not to keep them safe, and to go back to the parts that are already "done" and layer on those details that really bring your story to life. You must be both the creator and the destroyer. You need to be willing to take your story and your characters to the end of the world...and if necessary, obliterate everything.

In short, you must become detached from your work, even as you create it with painstaking love and care. You must detach yourself from what you want from your characters, where you want the story to go, how you want your story to be received by readers, and how successful you hope it will become. Only then, when you write as fearlessly as this painter created and destroyed his work, can you be free to write the best story you can possibly write.

It's a tall order, but at the very least, we should have it in the back of our minds as our goal. As an exercise, I'm going to spend some time today pretending that today really is the end of the world, and then I'll see what I write. I suspect it's going to make a difference in how my characters behave and where I take them. If you try this exercise, please comment and let me know how it worked out for you. (If you're still here, of course.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


If you're a writer, chances are you have struggled through moments of such doubt that you have almost completely lost hope. It's essentially a crisis of faith, in yourself or your ideas or the publishing industry. Those moments where you feel like you don't have it in you to stare at the blank page another day, to rewrite that scene one more time, or to send another query letter. Moments where you feel like there's simply no point to it anymore.

The cure to those moments, I've found, is action. If you're stuck with a blank page, take action and give yourself permission to fill the page with nonsense just to get the words flowing. If you're struggling with a scene, ask yourself whether you're trying to make too much of a point or are caught in dialogue that's going nowhere. Instead, write an action scene to get things moving again. Likewise, if you feel like you'll never be published, polish your query again and send it to another agent anyway, and do some research into indie publishers or self-publishing. Knowing that you have options is very important for keeping your hope alive.

The amazing thing is that there's almost a magical alchemical reaction that occurs with action. The moment you take action, motivation begins to seep through your veins. It causes your characters to wake up and do and say interesting things again. And the nonsense words slowly make way for the pearls that were stuck behind a dam of hopelessness. Because when action works its magic, you start to have hope again, which causes your faith in yourself and the world to return, which leads to the motivation to take action again. It's a wonderful upward spiral.

So when you're feeling like you just can't motivate yourself to take action, the cure, ironically enough, is to take action. Don't pour a drink and mope. Don't call a friend and complain. Close your web browser and email program, turn off the TV and the phone, and just act. Because even if the action you take isn't the right outcome in and of itself, it will kick off the motivation cycle that will lead to what you truly want.

Go ahead. Give it a try. You have nothing to lose but hopelessness.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Here we go!

You may have already heard the news, but self-published authors are finally "making it."

Thanks to a huge rise in ebook sales, authors like Amanda Hocking, who writes paranormal young adult books, didn't have to give up her dream after failing to get a publisher interested in her work. Instead, she started publishing ebooks, and the rest is history.

Check out the story here:

This is exciting news for those of us who have chosen the self-publishing route. And although I truly believe there will always be a place for traditional publishing--just as there will always be a place for traditional record labels--it's no longer the only game in town.

So dust off that manuscript that's covered in rejection letters, put away the query letters, and start writing your book. There's never been a better time to get your writing out there into the world, and never a better time to do it without the limitations of traditional publishing. Just be sure to take the necessary steps to create a professional, well-written book (see my previous posts for some tips), and take the plunge.

Here we go!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Coping with Professional Jealousy

Several years ago, when I was writing some children’s stories, I asked a friend to read them and give me her feedback. I had read her novel several times and given her a lot of feedback, so I was completely unprepared when I got her email saying she just couldn’t bring herself to read my stories, because she felt sure I’d be successful and it would only shine a light on her own “failure.” Of course, anyone who has read this blog knows that I don’t think not getting published is a failure, that the act of writing a book is itself a huge accomplishment. But not everyone sees it that way, and she just wasn’t able to move past her disappointment.

Despite the surprise and hurt I felt at the time, something truly wonderful came out of that experience. I realized that I never wanted to be keeping score with other writers, that I never wanted to hold back out of worry that someone would be more successful than I was. I was at a crossroads: I could either decide to say to hell with everyone else and never reach out to anyone again, or I could open my heart.

Thankfully, I chose the latter. I love helping other writers and giving them feedback and guidance, and usually they’re wonderful to work with. A few times I’ve gotten no more than a cursory thanks or haven’t heard from them again, and it’s hard not to feel regret at the hours I spent on someone else’s work that could have been spent on my own.

But that’s not the point, because it’s not about me. By opening my heart and helping others, I am contributing to the flow of creativity in the world. And I think that if you truly care about your art, contributing to that flow is the entire point. If you’re focusing primarily on what you can get for yourself—money, recognition, whatever—you are not going to be the best writer you can be. Only by opening your heart can you receive the full power of your muse, which suddenly makes professional jealousy seem pretty ridiculous.

So if you find yourself experiencing a pang of envy when your writing buddy lands a publishing deal, try to remember that his accomplishments are also yours, and that whatever efforts you put into helping him polish his writing are part of what made him successful. If you read a book you really enjoy, instead of comparing it to your own work, email the author and tell her how much you liked it, focusing on feeling joy for her success as you compose the email. I’ve done this with a few authors, and they all really appreciated it and wrote back. Even one wildly successful author responded--it took her a year, but she eventually did write back, and she too was grateful for my email. By supporting other writers, we become part of the flow, which helps remind us that we’re all in this together, and that there really isn’t such thing as being an outsider.

And remember, if someone becomes jealous of you, don’t close your heart. On the contrary, open it wider and keep the flow going, continue to offer your help where you can, and wish them all the success in the world.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Coming Home to Your Writing

I've written a lot of posts about the process of writing, of courting your muse, finding time to write, and so on. A big part of what we do as writers is find a way to do the thing we love when we don't feel like we love it so much anymore.

I have just awakened from a very long dry spell. I missed writing, but most of all, I missed the powerful drive that was behind it, making me long for the end of the work day so I could get home and write. I wasn't feeling it, and so I didn't try to force it. I waited.

And now, slowly, the desire is returning. I wrote a half a page yesterday, and a half a page the day before that. I don't know if it's any good, and I don't care. I'm just cautiously optimistic that it's coming back. The feeling is very much like getting close to your partner again after you've been fighting or estranged--a tentative, breathless sensation.

I've learned over the past 20 years with my soulmate that all relationships, no matter how perfect, go in waves. We have times where we really do feel like one person, like there's no division between us, and we can talk and laugh and are completely on the same page with everything. Other times, I feel like I have no idea who he is, and when we're fighting, it can be really hard to remember what I liked about him.

But when we come out of one of those troughs and reconnect, the feeling I always have is that of coming home. And my relationship with my writing is no different. Sometimes my muse and I aren't speaking, but I know it's temporary and that we'll come back together again soon.

The important thing is to keep the faith and not lose patience with yourself. Don't start beating yourself up about how you're not really any good--or how you weren't ever any good to begin with. The wave you happen to be in right now, whether it's a 100-foot tidal wave or a very deep trough that exposes the ocean floor, does not define you as a writer. It's just where you are right now. And when the time is right, you'll come home to your writing again, to enjoy the feeling of the words flowing out of you like magic spells, shaping the world you're creating and carrying you away on the next adventure.