I know I don’t have to thank you for being here with me because if you are akin to me, you’re looking for any excuse to change up the monotony of this novel-writing month and escape that mad-dash. Perhaps you’re feeling like this story you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into for what seems like years is starting to stale. Things are getting drab. The plot line is petering out. The characters have run out of things to say.
This is the dreaded, dead-ended doldrum, (say that one a few times fast) of week 3. And it can often feel like middle age in its sunken sails, stagnant air, and the questioning of the choices that brought you here.
With only days left in this crazy adventure, you may feel like you just don’t want to go on. That perhaps it would be easier to abandon your project all together and take a hot little novella out for a spin. Maybe start seeing some poetry on the side. Perhaps dabble in a little erotica?
While I encourage some dabbling (especially in erotica) I would argue that all of those exploratory practices can be done right in your own work in progress. So you’re bored, so you don’t know what the characters will say to one another…I urge you to start a new chapter, in the same document, where your characters take a jump off of the tracks and do something completely unexpected. Put them in a different time, put them in a different dynamic…hell, switch their genders and see what happens. Write a poem that serves as a synopsis to the story, first from one character’s perspective, and then from another’s. All of this play might help unlock the paths your novel needs to get going again. Think of it as putting some wind in those sails. A little spice in between the pages.
And all of those words you put down, even if they may be edited out later, still count as words towards your 50,000. Let’s be honest, at this point in the process, any word count is better than none.
It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged and bogged down in week 3, but what you’re building is worth hanging on to. It’s worth the investment of time and thought in this, the darkest, dreaded, dead-ended doldrums.
Hang in there kid. Go get freaky with your WIP and spice things up to see you through to the end.
Next week, look for the final, and highly inspirational installment of my NANOWRIMO survival guide.
Hello! Thanks for taking the time to catch up with the blog in the middle of one of your (hopefully) busiest writing months. At this point your mind set is probably so swayed to creating that reading outside of your work in progress is a lot like talking to another adult after being seeped in toddler-speak non-stop all week.
I know that your time is precious so I’ll keep it short and sweet. (Like me, ya’ll)
The second week of NANOWRIMO is all about elaborating on, fleshing out, and developing your baby. Last week we talked about the excitement of new love, the honeymoon stage of writing, if you will. This week is about the baby you’ve made and what that means for not just your writing, but your life for the next seven to ten days.
I know a lot of you are parents, and though it may have been awhile since you’ve spent the midnight hours rocking teary-eyed cherub back to sleep, chances are you remember the sacrifice of time and autonomy for the good of the future. This week is not much different for the NANOWRIMO process. You are starting to see the commitment involved and how the expectations you may have had in the beginning are often dashed by the realities.
Because children don’t always behave the way you think they will. Characters show unexpected traits and say things that throw your dynamic out of whack like dropping the f-bomb at Christmas dinner with Grandma, or asking you for “boob!” loudly in a store.
Settings and plot lines stall with the same debilitating frustration as trying to get a two-year-old into shoes because you’re late for the doctor appointment and you haven’t showered in three days, and you ate cold, leftover mac n cheese for breakfast and you’re not sure if that’s their diaper that smells or the dog…
Keeping on top of the little fires that come up isn’t easy but I encourage you to set a flexible schedule (it works with kids; it works with writing). Give yourself two hours ideally but really whatever you have is fine. Leave half for just writing. Leave the other half to fix plot holes, develop your character’s personalities and backgrounds, build on your story arc, and brainstorm solutions for things that are cropping up as you pour ever more work into the novel. Look at it like doing the groundwork of, feeding, changing, and burping for half of it, and the other half cuddling, coloring, singing, and playing.
A well rounded “story” is equal parts meeting the basic needs and getting to play in the creation of it.
Good luck out there. Nap when it naps, grab a shower while your computer backs up. Drink some coffee and prep for the long nights. Remember the bigger picture. Novels and babies are investments in the future. The work, and love, and committed care you invest now will lead to rewarding results in both your story, your characters, and your craft.
Oh…and get a decent meal. You can’t run on PB&J crusts and half eaten apples forever.
Hello! I realize it’s that scary time of year and I could produce a terrifying post to do the holiday justice. Then I thought, what’s scarier than being sent back in time to a place where you can’t wear pants, all of your rights have been stripped away, and your set to marry a murderous psychopath? Not much. Welcome to episode #4 of Westbury Falls.
Lillian paced, her legs confounded by the narrow skirt and ridiculous undergarments that seemed to dissuade too much movement and thereby kept the fairer sex, fair. What she’d give for a pair of pants! Or a hot shower. Or an Advil. The bath she’d gotten from Miriam was an influx of boiling water that cooled far too quickly in the drafty room, in a copper tub where the maid scrubbed her down without the gentleness she had grown accustomed to with her brother and the sad, blue-eyed doctor. A shower would have been much preferred.
If she wanted to see or have any of the modern amenities that she desperately craved, she needed to concentrate and ignore the propriety that had been forced upon her both in garments and in expectations.
“Think Lil,” she said and nibbled at her thumb nail. There were only three possible explanations.
One, that she had indeed hit her head and was in her own time, unconscious and in a coma and this was just the wild dream she was stuck in. Yet her body felt pain, touch, annoyance… things too real to be simply a figment. If it were this first option, she could simply play it out until her brain was healed enough to get itself out of this maze.
Two, that she had hit her head, harder than she realized, and was, in fact, dead.
“Which makes this what? Heaven?” she snorked and looked down at the cinched waist and scratchy undercoats of her dress. “Not likely! Purgatory, at best.” In that case, she couldn’t very well do anything about it. Being dead meant she’d never be able to see her family again. But if she were dead, why could she feel so clearly? Why could she move from place to place? Why hadn’t someone or something come to explain the rules? Did heaven have rules? What would that make Matthew Blackwell then? Some fallen angel? An agent of the dark but still beautiful? Lil sighed. This wasn’t some fantasy, tween action series. She already checked most of the nooks and crannies of the place for cameras, in the case of it being an epic prank. She hadn’t even found outlets; no electrical switches. Only candles and lamps. And the fireplace in her room that cast such a beautiful glow over Matthew’s long straight nose and high cheek bones.
“Focus Lil, he’s the least of our worries.”
If it was not a coma, and she was not dead—what were the chances she’d stumbled across some sort of anomaly in the universe?
“Three, I fell down a magical staircase and ended up in a different time.”
She stopped in front of the windows in the parlor and her heart rate steadily climbed. The pulsing in her body amplified in the wounded temple and ribs, bringing about another horrendous head ache. The other options fell away from her rational brain as she faltered and sagged against a settee. Was such a thing even possible? Her mother had always been a sucker for a good fairy tale, and often made them make wishes in faerie rings as children and believe in the strange energies of places like Stonehenge and Newgrange, even though science would have greatly disagreed with such nonsense. Yet, here she was in the 1800’s somehow and no rational explanation could be found.
It was clear, be it dream or a hole in the space time continuum, she was Lillian Byrne, her ancestorial aunt. The one who had drowned, shortly after being married. She was yet to be married, as the good doctor repeatedly reminded her of her betrothal.
Maybe she had to solve this mystery…the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance soon after the date of her wedding and subsequent discovery of her body in the lake, ruled a horrible accident due, in part, the journal entries of her brother had said, for her love of nature and of daily walking.
Maybe her brain really needed to know the answer and was simply conjuring up the story as a means to keep itself busy while the coma ran its course. She knew now that she was, or thought she was, her own great-several-times-over aunt, Lillian Louisa Byrne.
The time period, place, and characters were all the same from the family journals her mother had poured over for years. She never recalled hearing about the good doctor. But perhaps he wasn’t part of the story so much as an extra playing piece her libido had conjured up. Lillian blushed with the idea that if she created him, she could do whatever she liked with and to him. The temperature in the room rose and she cleared her throat.
“My! What wandering thoughts have possessed your injured mind, I wonder?” came the cherry-pink voice of Kitty Darlingwood from the doorway. “I’ve rarely seen such a blush but for the roses in spring, dew kissed and new.” She giggled and came to sit beside Lillian tiny hands clasped demurely in her lap. Lillian had only met her once, in her room after she had first gotten dressed and was called upon.
She supposed in her life Kitty was what her mom would call a bosom buddy. The best of friends. Lillian plastered on her best smile and tried to conjure up some warmth for the stranger. In Lil’s time, she didn’t have many friends. She worked in soup kitchens and low-income restaurants in her neighborhood in Payton Indiana, while her mom, a stock broker, kept the family fed and clothed on her own. She didn’t have leisure time for friends. She didn’t get along with many of the girls in her class. Even at the end of her senior year, she was practically alone.
“Tell me,” Kitty whispered conspiratorially and her blond corkscrew curls seemed to vibrate in anticipation. “Are you reliving the moment of your engagement to Mr. Sutton. I’ve never heard told the story. It must have been quite romantic!” she twittered like a school girl.
Are you fucking kidding me, right now? was the phrase on Lil’s mind but she dare not speak in such a manner or they might bundle her up and send her to a looney bin for profanity. She gently smiled at the younger, spritely charge. What had her ‘brother’ said? Fredrick Sutton was a good man. A strong a sturdy gentleman of 40 who enjoyed parlor games and pheasant hunting. Good judge of scotch and not yet interested in marriage. What kind of proposal would such a man make that could be spun into a believable tale? Lillian sighed.
Ah, yes, the glorious stage of excitement and foreplay. The thrill of fleshing out your characters, and having them say clever things to one another, and building beautiful worlds with soft hues and brilliant sunsets. It’s champagne and butterflies, it’s rainbows and 3 hour love-making sessions with your laptop (please, God, not literally…the keys are hard enough to keep clean with just my coffee and pastry habit).
The words come easy, the beginning is new and exciting, the chemistry is just right. Possibly you’ve been planning this novel for awhile, maybe you even used October to plan it out and things are running smoothly and in great gushes of inspiration and excitement. (I think ‘gushes’ might be just as bad as ‘moist’ for cringe-worthy words).
You’re stuck in front of your blank page and wondering why in God’s name you agreed to this. The stress of completing such a herculean task is causing every neuron to march around your addled brain with tiny little picket signs protesting the ridiculous workload before they even endure it.
You’re thinking of giving up. It feels as though you agreed to do this on a brash weekend in Vegas and you might have done so under the influence of alcohol and you really don’t know this book that well and what will your parents say and… is it too late for an annulment?
In the first case: Congratulations, keep going! If you have the stamina and inspiration to do so, front load these first couple of weeks so you can have a few days to ride if you need to recover. (I can’t help but hear Sheriff Bart’s voice in my head “Man, them schnitzengrubens will wipe you out!” Come on, people…Blazing Saddles)
In the second case: Don’t give up just yet. So she/he’s a gamble and you may have rushed into things. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s normal to feel like there’s nowhere to go. But you’re a writer. And writer’s do best when they stop questioning the end product and just write. See where that impromptu spouse will lead you, let it play out for a few days and enjoy the crazy weird ride that you’re on.
The secret to NANOWRIMO is to not overthink it. Because that’s when you start looking for all the imperfections and plot holes that send you into editing mode and canceling out any forward movement you have.
If you’re having trouble with getting your word count every day here’s some tips that have helped me:
Break it up into smaller sections. A little in the morning, a little at lunch, some at night. Carry the laptop or notebook with you and write a few lines whenever you have a chance
Keep your characters in your head with you at all times. How would they react to what you’re doing? What would they say to each other in the grocery store line? Let them talk to each other while you’re doing the dishes or in that third useless meeting of the day (come on, we all know at least 2/3rds of all meetings are just wastes of time that allow one person to hear themselves talk).
Strike when the fire is hot. If you are on a roll, do everything in your power to keep writing…then in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence–stop. Yeah, you read that right. Stop. It will frustrate you and keep your mind on what will happen next until you pick it back up. Foreplay people…there’s nothing like a little flirtatious teasing to make the next interlude all the more passionate.
DO NOT be discouraged if you have a short day. Every word counts and a 400 word day is still 400 words. Like running or training, or anything really–great things are accomplished not always in leaps and bounds but by small progressive steps forward.
Rest your fingers and your brain. Take breaks, sleep well, eat well, exercise, and get away from it throughout the day. Burnout probably happens most in the first couple of weeks when our inspiration gets ahead of our ability to keep at it with the same frantic pace.
Okay. That’s all I’ve got for this week.
Remember, comment below with how it’s going or send me quick email with any frustrations or elations you have and I’ll enter you to win a goodie basket with some books and writer self-care stuff that will help keep you going into this crazy month.
Good morning, writer. As we approach Samhain and the dark, twisty corners of the season I thought it would be a great time to bring up suspense in your writing. I’m not a horror writer and I’m not going to pretend to be just to fit in to the theme of the month but I do believe that being able to create suspense in any genre is key to keeping your readers engaged and turning the pages.
Suspense can help build emotion in your reader up to your critical moments of change (the top of your acts–the big doors–crisis of faith moments—etc.) And that helps them become more invested in your character and the outcome of the scene. Because it’s been awhile, I’m going to give you a good-ol’ bullet list. Everybody likes a bullet list. Here are some top tips to factor in while working the element of suspense into your novel/Work-In-Progress. Keep in mind, these are general so they can be applied to most genres, but within each tip, there are a hundred different directions you can go–from the benign to the macabre.
Tap Into Universal Fears: We all have some pretty basic fears that drive us. They are usually based in survival. Fear of death, loss of child/loved one, fear of physical pain, starvation, exposure–anything that can take away the basic needs for survival. Fear of the unknown–can mean anything from not knowing what’s making that bumping noise in the closet, to not have existential knowledge of where you’ll end up after death. Fear of emotional pain, fear of social stigma. We’re scared little apes, so there’s an endless well to tap into here.
Create the Right Atmosphere: Depending on your genre and the style you like to write in, you could use your scenes to strike psychological terror (inner thoughts, rampant and illogical emotions, mind-games, gaslighting, etc) physical/gross terror (think limbs stripped of their muscle fibers, blood spurting, eyeballs popped out, or any other gory, pain-inducing action), or subtle/unseen terror (the ever present feeling of dread–small sounds getting closer, lights flickering down long hallways, those two notes on the piano when Jaws was nearby)
Make The Stakes High: It’s not going to ruffle your readers feathers if your character meets the friendly neighborhood cat at night if they love cats and brought yum-yums to share. Make it ten mange-riddled cats with broken, sharp teeth, stalking down a feline-hater, from all directions on a deserted city street and then you have a show. Losing a job sucks–but make it the job with the benefits that her sick daughter needs the insurance for, and its a different game (let us pause for a moment when discussing terror and how the American medical system has actually become something that induces terror…think about that for a moment)
Consider Your Point of View: There isn’t a wrong POV for horror, it just depends on how you want the reader to feel. Are you aiming to put them in a shed with the axe murderer outside, holding their dying cell phone? (FIRST PERSON)Or are you sitting beside them in the shed with eyes on how close the bloodied axe is to the door, yelling out in the middle of the library “Make the call, you idiot!!! He’s coming for you!!” (THIRD PERSON)
Don’t Forget the Character: Listen, it all comes down to the basics, if the reader isn’t invested in your character, they aren’t going to feel the empathy needed to induce terror no matter what horrifying situation you put them into. Make your character someone worth following into the dark and twisted. If your character is the dark and twisted, give it/them the solid justification that makes the reader question who the bad guy really is.
OK! Well, that’s all you get today. Good luck out there creating some suspense. Use it as you need to in your own work and if you feel the Hallow’s Eve vibe, try your hand at a little horror. I always encourage dabbling outside your genre to help make your work stronger.
Enjoy a little head-hop into the good doctor’s thoughts on his difficult patient, and have a brilliant day!
Matthew paced in thoughtful contemplation in front of the parlor windows, pausing to gently touch the top of the piano forte. His cousin had spoken of her beauty. Matthew snorted and turned to pace the opposite way. Beautiful was not nearly a sufficient nor apt description. Lillian Byrne was a statuesque angel, though muddled in her manners and strange in her speech. He could hardly blame her after the fall she’d taken. Her mind was still trying to sort itself out after the contusion.
His cousin, his bumbling dolt of a cousin…far too old to rightly marry such an innocent young lady, had not warned him well enough. He stopped again at the instrument. Frederick Blackwell Sutton had said Lillian was also an accomplished pianist, that her long and delicate fingers were like graceful swallows, deft and quick. They had indeed been long and entrancing, holding so strongly to his shoulder and chest. Stronger than he’d thought a woman could be.
Then again, Lillian Byrne was a lot of things he didn’t think a woman could be. Definitely a few things she shouldn’t be. He thought of her direct and improper English, the way she’d come in and out of consciousness all morning, the strange things she’d called for, asked for. What was Advil? Morphine? Could that be the opium derivative he’d heard whispered about in the medical wings of Oxford?
He knew that the effects could be quite addictive and that he had a dear second cousin nearly ruined by its affects. Where he could have asked his father for a dosing to assuage her pain, he thought better of it. She was well enough to argue and to stand, what she needed most was time. He’d seen patients come out of such contusions and not be affected too greatly. Perhaps that was what was responsible for her impropriety? As she healed, he hoped that she would remember her station, her manners, and that she was indeed, his cousin’s fiancé. For if she were a single young lady… the line of suitors, himself included, would be a bane to endure.
He flushed beneath his high collar and stopped to adjust it, wishing he was on call in the country as he had been all week, in the east of England and southern Wales, interning with the poor, much against his father’s wishes. There he could loosen the buttons of his collar. There he could be more himself, practice medicine and have the community respect and revere him instead of always living in the cold shadow of his father’s profound reputation.
There, in the rural hamlets, where he stayed in sublimely unfettered accommodations and even at times, cozy and warm barns, his smile was easy and he breathed freer out from under the tight thumb of his father and the expectations of his station. He’d been set upon by several of the young farm girls and had enjoyed their attentions but would never consider besmirching their innocence, nor would he ruin his own reputation with ill behavior towards the fairer sex. Some of them clearly made it much harder to accomplish such feat of will. He touched his lips without thinking of anything but the gentle pads of Lillian’s cool fingers on his skin. A sparrow dived outside in the garden and broke the spell.
When he’d been riding past the Byrne estate, a parcel of land just down the road from his cousin’s and on his way home from nearly a year away, he’d seen a flurry of activity at the gate and the housemaid calling in severe tones to the old butler, nearly shambling off his horse as he was in such a hurried frenzy to seek help.
Was it serendipitous to cross paths with Miss Byrne in her time of medical need? Or was it just a test of his will power, he thought with a sigh as he replayed every aching moment of carrying her to the bed, inspecting and cleaning the deep gash as well as the bruising along her ivory perfect skin. He had kept the maids within the room as each part in turn was inspected, and kept his cool aloofness even as his heart hammered at the sight of her slender ankles, long legs bruised but not broken, and scraped and scuffed arms and shoulders. The maids had shooed him out as they inspected her more…delicate areas and declared that, besides a few bruised ribs, everything was ‘as it should be’.
He’d been entirely over careful as he’d draped her to inspect the ribs which had been struck rather hard. He remembered the slightness of them as he ran his thumbs over each in turn with great care. She’d moaned and shifted away and he declared two of the ribs indeed broken. Together he and the staff carefully wrapped her tightly in order to immobilize the area. The bleeding on her forehead, from a cut that stretched into the hairline of her raven tresses, was staunched as he carefully washed and stitched the delicate skin together.
She had affected him without words and in ways he wasn’t prepared to deal with, and that was before she’d even opened those lovely violet eyes. He’d never seen such a shade of soft and heather blue. Never seen such a wide and full mouth on a woman. Never a delicate and pert nose. The small beauty spot below the corner of her right eye, long and thick black lashes that fluttered down over her cheeks as she fell in and out of fevered sleep. First, he had placed his fingers alongside her beautifully long and graceful neck to find the flutter of pulse until the maid had cleared her throat from the improper touch. In the country, he could use the most efficient and accurate means necessary and was not questioned. Perhaps it was the way he’d inadvertently graced his fingers over her statuesque collarbones or the pleased gasp she’d let out at his touch.
To the Almighty above, he was nothing more than a cad! He surely would burn in eternal damnation for the thoughts and desires that had plagued him since first laying hands and eyes on Lillian Byrne. He leaned against the windowsill and stared out at the modest grounds. He must do his best to remember that his cousin’s fiancé was not a woman. She was a patient.
And an angel fallen from the heavens. Or at least from the second-floor landing.
The sooner he could visit his father, acquire his blessing to move to the Southern peninsula of Wales to begin his own practice, the better for him. Perhaps he would find a quiet and humble wife whose eyes weren’t the dusky hue of starry nights, one that knew her place and appreciated the strength of a man to compliment her softness. Matthew’s brow gathered in a scowl. Such a woman may have suited him an afternoon ago. Now… he thought and stared up to the ceiling where she lay resting three floors above, now he wasn’t sure any woman would affect him the same way again.
So, last week, I hit a rough patch, and I appreciate all of the kind comments and voices of concern that were raised for my well being and in defense of the human. I wanted to take a moment, before I launch into today’s poetry (brought to you by the amazing NCW Writing Retreat I was able to attend) to reach out and say a few words.
I know all humans aren’t assholes. I also know it’s our job (each human) to try and do our best not to be assholes. To not raise assholes. To forgive those who are being assholes. I know these things. But just like holding a weight constantly can fatigue a muscle and cause injury, holding on to this dark while trying to be light can be draining, so it behooves us all to drop the weight once in a while and call out the asshole-ness when we see it. After all, our job as humans is to try to make it a better world and that sometimes means calling on others to do better by one another.
And now: Poetry:
When we break apart
to find the core of iron-will within
or the soft underbelly of a soul
too long denied air
Then we will understand the
driving nature of our force
Lies not in what covers us
but what centers us
When we give in to the churning
burn of a life outside our control
the masticating masses of teeth bared
in anger and fear
Then we will understand that
we only control the product
of our own mind
And we are the owners of
sanctuaries or hells
within our own creation
When we let go
of the idea that its our job
to dictate the perfections of others
to drive their engines
to direct the film of their lives
and focus instead on
what beauty we can leave behind
Then we will find the only
fragile, and faltering peace
a human can own.
It’s that time of year again, when the cold crisp air settles around and the light grows softer. The mornings are get-ups and lunch packing and full backpacks. The wind rustles drying leaves and the echo of everything Pumpkin Spice descends. Fall. Probably my favorite season (minus the Pumpkin Spiced everything). Fall signals the slowing down of the bustling summer, a cooling off (we hope), and a getting ready for the winter ahead. It also reminds us of new opportunities to learn, to gain intellectual ground, and to prepare for the prime writing months coming up.
There are plenty of ways to keep your skills sharp as a writer. Last spring, I covered the conference season and this post will be similar in that I’m going to give you some online resources for improving your writing skill, developing a business or marketing plan, and helping to boost your creativity. Just like conferences, a writer can easily blow their budget by trying to train themselves into success. My goal is to offer you a spectrum of options with the caveat that classes can show you how to write better, give you pointers on the business side of things and offer marketing advice, inspire new ideas, and improve your editing. About the only thing they can’t do is write your book for you.
The Long Haul:
MFA/MA Programs: These programs (Master of Fine Arts and Master of Arts) are advanced, graduate degrees that can help to help your overall exposure to the big picture of writing (MA tends to focus more on Literature and less on writing, MFA can be broken down into Creative Writing, Journalism, Linguistics, etc). In these programs you will learn pretty much everything, from plot and structure, to dialogue and character development, to grammar and editing. It will take two years at least, and the cost averages out to about $38,000, not counting room and board. You’ll read an enormous amount of material. You’ll probably complete a novel or collection as part of your Thesis. Not a horrible way to go, but studies are showing that the cost of MFA programs are often not paid back in employment afterwards so–carefully think through that one.
Online Writing Courses:
A number of reputable online courses and classes are now offered through various writing groups, professional/successful authors, and university departments. The courses are less intensive than a MFA and can often be done at your convenience. They cost a lot less (some are even free) and you can often pick and chose the ones that will benefit you the most. Here’s a small list courtesy of softwaretestinghelp.com:
Wesleyan University Creative Writing Specialization
Gotham Writers Online Writing Classes
Reedsy Learning Courses
Udemy Creative Writing Courses
edX Creative Writing Courses
FutureLearn Creative Arts and Media Writing Courses
For this area of your continuing education I’ll ask that you explore seminars (mini conferences, or a series of five or more classes on one topic, like Novel Writing) and retreats in your area. I’m sure there are beautiful, far-flung retreats in tropical islands that are also available, but with travel restrictions, lack of funds, and a busy life outside of writing, those may not always be attainable, so do a little research closer to home. Some of my favorite retreats and seminars have been offered through Northern Colorado Writers at a very fair cost and are conveniently located. It also helps my sense of altruism to know I’m funneling my money into a local organization that turns around and helps other writers in my area.
Retreats tend to fall into two categories, those with classes/seminars and free-write time, and those with simply free-writing time, punctuated with social hours. You may wonder how effective three or four days, stuck in a lodge, with nothing but time spent writing can be as beneficial as say, a whole weekend of conference classes. Well, young writer, let me elaborate.
Classes, conferences and seminars are excellent resources for enhancing your writing and helping you learn technique as well as opening up your mind to the business side of things–just like I mentioned above. And, just like I mentioned above, they can’t write a book for you. Only you and time can do that. As a mother of two busy kids, with a couple of side gigs, and a whole household to run–I don’t always have time to write. Somedays I’m lucky to get 20 minutes in. So to have four days, uninterrupted by children, husbands, dogs, laundry, volunteering, teaching, or grocery shopping, cleaning, and yard work, just focused on my writing is priceless. I’ve finished novels in that time. I’ve written four months of blog posts and edited entire series. I’ve barreled through plot holes that I thought I could never find solutions to.
The truth is, when there’s nothing else to pull your procrastination strings, you can get some shit done. PLUS, its immensely helpful to be surrounded by other writers while they’re “in the zone”. There is an inexplicable energy that catches you up when you’re surrounded by other souls and brains focused on their art and passion. Plus there’s usually some socializing/decompression hours at the end of the day to give yourself respite.
Okay–that seemed like a lot of info and I don’t want to bore you to tears. Check out some of the ideas above this week for taking yourself back to school. When we invest in our writing, it becomes less the pipe dream, and more of an attainable goal. Good luck out there, writers. Keep me posted on your progress or if you’ve found some great retreats, classes, and resources yourself!
Today I’m talking about two pitfalls many writers fall into. First, the desperate search for the holy grail of what’s on fleek (do they say that anymore?) or ‘trending’. And secondly, the pursuit of higher literary fiction as the only respectable way to claim ‘writer’ status.
It’s no secret that trends play a big role in what kinds of books get produced and published. Like some kind of secret surfing spot, the waves that peak are often unpredictable and by the time you get your board out into the fray, the ride has already passed.
In the same manner, when writers take it upon themselves to invest in their education with an MFA program or something similar, they are put into a strange and high-walled box of what constitutes ‘worthwhile’ literary fiction.
When, as writers, we are so desperate for that publishing contract, agent, representation, royalty check—or whatever your goal may be—we often forgo our ‘pet projects’ to work on something that will sell or is more ‘meaningful’ aka digestible by a higher caliber of reader.
These are pitfalls and I’m going to tell you why.
No one can predict trends. No one. In an excellent class, taught by Todd Mitchell, he talked about a controlled experiment wherein three groups were kept isolated (online) and given the same songs to listen to, vote on, dissect, and judge. In every group, a different song was chosen to be ‘best’. In every group, when one song started to get more votes, strange herd-like mentality propelled it further. Bottom line, people will choose at random and marketing departments of publishing companies don’t represent the whole palette of readers in the world. Writing to trends, especially if it’s not something you love or are invested in, is a waste of your talent and time.
MFA programs are great at exposing you to a range of writers, styles, perspectives and technique. I highly recommend if you have the money and time, to pursue one. But you don’t need a higher degree to become a better writer. Also, having an advanced degree will not guarantee you will be published. The main focus of an MFA program is to get you to finish a novel, a whole project. In the process, it will look down its nose at genre fiction, light-reads, and non-literary fluff. Which may lead you to believe that kind of writing is not worth your time. Even if you enjoy it. Even if most readers prefer a lighter, easier book for at least some (if not all) of their reading time.
So what do we do? Well…I’m going to offer you the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
Write what YOU love.Trends can’t be trusted and you won’t write with heart and fire if the subject doesn’t drive you. The world only needed one Hemingway. What the world is severely lacking is your book. Written your way. I’m not saying you can throw out good writing, grammar, decent editing and the one-two punch of great plot and snappy characters. I’m saying if you love your pet project about ghosts on a mission to save their grandchildren from mutated vampire bats, but you try to write a theory-deep mind fuck about 21st century American Existentialism, because you think it will be more impressive—nothing will go well.
Writing without heart, without passion, will feel empty to readers. AND it will discourage and squelch your flame…and a writer without fire inside will sputter to ash.
So write what you love.
When it’s done, you’ll be excited about it, you will nurture it…it will be easier to promote and share because you believe in it. And it won’t matter who else picks it up or loves it, because it’s already loved. Even if it doesn’t ‘make it’ by industry standards, you win because you have created something that brought you joy. Approaching your project with love puts positivity into the universe and it tends to circle back around. With every project you do with maniacal joy and persistent love, you’ll build the confidence in your work and your purpose as a writer, which is the beauty of creating as a whole. And it leads to miraculous things.
So get out there…without worrying about the current trend or if you’ll hit the sweet spot of American capitalistic consumption. Create what you love to create. That’s success.
Times of transition are like hurricanes. Confusing, loud, messy and intense. There is uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness that directly affects our peace and sanctuary. Some of us deal with the changes with decidedly more grace than others. Some are rocked off their foundations, never to be the same again.
The point is that no one is safe from change. And why the hell would you want to be?
Change is the great motivator. It is the one unequivocal trait of the progression of human life. Without it we are stagnant lumps. Change breeds invention and new ideas, it sparks, hopefully, encompassing understanding and empathy. Compassion even.
What happens though, when we have too much change? When we are in a constant state of upheaval. When everything in life is a transition?
It is proven that children who suffer chronic instability (experiencing transitions so often that instability becomes their norm) can suffer from toxic stress.
Toxic stress increases the risks of several physical and social problems including but not limited to increased risk for cancer and diabetes, heart, lung, and liver disease, increased risk for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence and depression.
While a normal amount of stress can be good (it stimulates healthy growth, promotes resilience, and helps us to learn coping mechanisms), constant stress and insecurity in our lives actually causes the body great physical and psychological harm.
The effects are more pronounced in children but adults are not immune. Just ask the millions of people living with high blood pressure, depression, cardiac disease etc. We are in over our heads.
So how do we balance the change and transition? How do we grow and push our boundaries without breaking apart our safety net?
Balance seems a cop-out idea. Of course balance (*eye roll*). That’s like asking “how do I write a novel” and some smart ass saying “Just sit down and write”.
True…but too general. Writing, like balance, is not a one size fits all idea. What is balanced for me is way too much for someone else. One woman’s six, 50,000 word romances a year is another’s one 38,0000 word novel every seven.
How do we find our balance? How do we find the right amount of change? I think the answer lies in retaining sanctuary in our lives. Now I’m not talking humpy-backed bell swingers walled up inside the cathedral, sanctuary. I’m speaking of it on a more personal and sometimes mental level.
Are you safe in your own mind? Do you have a place to go, in your brain, where you can let go, remember to breathe, where your shoulders can drop away from your ears and you can feel at peace? Or is it all hell-fire and disaster, 24/7 from the moment you wake from stress-induced nightmares to the moment you’re knocking yourself out with Melatonin just to escape?
We all need peace. We all need change. How much of each is dependent on who you are.
One person may be content taking 15 credit hours, while raising a family of six and working part time for the PTA. Another may be perfectly happy chiming into an online forum on bee-keeping once a week and counting her reading in hours not minutes. One person may be at home living from a suitcase, jet-setting to all parts of the world for a story and a perspective never gleaned. Another may never leave their childhood hometown and yet still maintain contentment in the smaller world around them.
I’m not here to tell you how much change to accept. I’m here to tell you to accept some change. Pursue some change. But if you find that all you do is change, and you can’t recognize yourself or the people you love anymore, then it’s time to come back home.
Use that one word…what is it? Shoot, I’m not very good at this word, though I’m learning to let my lips form it’s simple monosyllabic music…it’s… NO. The word is NO. If you’re genteel you may even tack on a “Thank You” at the end.
NO is a great place to start. No I do not want to go to that party. No, I do not want to volunteer sixteen hours a week when I’m barely getting my chapters written. No I don’t have time to bake seventy-two cupcakes for the basket-weaving club…would you take a donation instead?
Conversely…don’t forget your YES button in the gleeful mania of refusing. Yes, I would love to meet you for coffee, it’s been too long! YES I would love to take a weekend class in basket weaving. YES, it would be an honor to help out for five hours a week. YES, I’ll go to Italy with you, tall-dark-and-handsome stranger…(*guffaw* still waiting for that one to come around).
You know you best. If you aren’t sleeping. if you’ve bitten your nails to the nubs and can feel the bonds of your family life deteriorating. If you’ve sacrificed what you’ve loved to do what you “should” for too long, then its time to take a long hard look at your hurricane and find a graceful exit from the storm.
If you’re still in a dead end job because you’re too afraid to throw caution to the winds of the hurricane blowing outside, do yourself and everyone who loves you a favor and chase that storm. Live a little for goodness sake. We only go get so much time! Don’t waste it wishing for something better, when you are perfectly capable of hunting down the something better and taking it back to your sanctuary.