What Do You Mean It’s October?

How can it be October? It was just January, wasn’t it?

It’s hard to believe two-thirds of this writing year is behind us, and that NaNoWriMo and the holidays are ahead. I don’t know about you, but writing between Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year has been almost non-existent for me in past years. Well, except for the Uncle Sam years where I had to write even when my mind was on Christmas carols and snow flakes.

This holiday season, then, will be a test of the writing work schedule I put in place for this year and to which I’ve done a good job of sticking. Holiday shopping, traveling, and all the  seasonal drama, however, can overwhelm even the strictest schedule.

But writing, for me, has always been an escape. Difficult childhood? Write stories about horses and winning the Grand National Steeplechase–no, it was derivative, not plagiarism. Horrid high school experience? Write stories about revolution. Love college? Write a story that wins a prize and gets published in the college literary magazine. Sucky first job? Write an unpublished novel (and that’s a good thing) about a space-faring female explorer who’s in charge of her life. Have a life-changing relationship for twenty-plus years? Write him into a great main character then write a semi-biographical novel about what broke you up.

I think, no, I’m certain, that if I didn’t have that ability to arrange words in an interesting manner on a page, I’d probably have a rap sheet as long as I-95 because I would have put my fist in someone’s face–several someones and repeatedly. It was that kind of life, in other words, a fairly typical one. Reading books carried me through a lot and still does, but there’s nothing like sitting down before the computer and stepping into a world you’ve created or are in the process of creating. The real world falls away, and many times that’s good.

Of course, the shock upon re-entry to reality can be staggering but fodder for future fiction as well. That’s the writer’s burden, curse, and raison d’être. And we love it.

What’s your holiday writing plan? Will you back away until the new year, or will those family get-togethers provide fertile ground for story-telling?

 

Navigating Your 2012 Writing Life

The Virginia Writers Club held its second annual writing conference on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA, and the aptly named conference (see the post title above) was a lot of opportunity packed into one day.

Just a little aside here. I’m ever-so-grateful that my commonwealth, Virginia, which occasionally makes me SMH over its backwardness, invested taxpayer money in our community college system. It’s second to none, in my opinion, in the nation. The VWC conference was held on the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville in the Dickinson Fine and Performing Arts Center. As writers we know setting is important, but it’s also conducive to learning to be in a comfortable, modern building surrounded by an appealing, well-maintained campus. Thank you, Virginia. ‘Nuff said.

Subtitled “A Symposium for Writers of All Ages and All Stages,” the conference had two morning sessions, one afternoon session, and a keynote speaker to end the day. After the keynote, several authors who had served as panelists or presenters had a book sale and signing. From each session you could choose from three presentations. Here is what the conference offered:

1000 – 1045:

Show AND Tell – Presented by Cliff Garstang
Writing Mysteries – Presented by Alan Orloff
Contemporary Women Poets – Presented by Sara Robinson

1100 – 1145:

From Page to Screen: Turning your Book into a Movie – Presented by John Gilstrap
Charming the Gatekeeper: How to Land that Perfect Agent and Why You Will Need To – Presented by Brad Parks
Why We Chose E-Book Publishing – Brooke McGlothlin, Bill Blume, and Wayne L. White

1300 – 1345:

Publication’s First Heartbeat: Critique Groups – Presented by Tracy S. Dietz
A Way With Words: Hook Your Reader with the First 100 Words – Presented by Lauvonda Lynn Young and Linda Levokove
eBook Marketing: Strategies and More – Presented by Mary Montague Sikes

Keynote Speaker: Charles J. Shields

As you can see, quite a packed agenda for a single-day conference. I sorely wished I could defy physics and be in more than one place at a time. I started the morning with Garstang’s “Show AND Tell,” the premise of which is that the creative writing course maxim “show, don’t tell” isn’t quite right. I won’t go into much detail here because Garstang covered the presentation in one of his own blog posts, which you can see by clicking here. Of the three presentations I attended this was far and away the best, and I say that not because Cliff is a writer friend; but because he’s an incredibly good instructor.

Next I went to “Why We Chose E-Book Publishing,” the title of which shows there’s still confusion about the difference between e-book publishing and self-publishing. Not all e-books are self-published and vice versa, but this was a good insight into why three people who write different things opted to publish electronically. For Bill Blume, the choice was obvious: he publishes a comic. E-publishing is the perfect medium for graphic novels, animation, and comic strips. Brooke McGlothlin had already established a large following on her blog about being the mother of boys and heeded her fans’ call to assemble her posts into a book that might reach others. I must say her record is impressive–three book, 8,000 sales. She did, however and much to my gratitude, stress the importance of hiring people to do the things you don’t have a talent for, e.g., creating a cover, editing and proofreading. Wayne White had retired and wanted to participate in something other than the “honey-do” list his wife had made throughout their marriage. He’d been told he was a good story-teller, so he began to write, tried the agent route, got frustrated, and opted for Kindle Publishing.

In all, they covered the typical reasons why someone opts for self-publishing, including writing in a genre or a mash-up that’s not easily classifiable and the fact that traditional publishing is difficult for a new author to crack.

eBook Marketing focused heavily on social media, including several aspects I’d either never heard of (Triberr) or never looked into (Digg). There were some great tips on how to use your web site and blog to highlight your work–some of which I went home and put into place–and how to connect what you write to a specific kind of art work, which you can then use for drawing attention to your books. The presenter, Mary Montague Sikes, is writing a romance/thriller series about archeology in some fictional Mayan ruins, so she uses her personal collection of Mayan art as a marketing tool. And you got a free book, Published! Now $ell It! A “How to” Book, as well as a handout of links you can use for developing marketing materials.

As for the keynote speaker, Charles J. Shields, I’ve gushed about him before as the biographer of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, but he gave an inspiring talk about how he walked away from a teaching career to become a writer/biographer. His key point was when you tell people you’re a writer, don’t qualify it. You’re a writer; be a writer. Shields took questions from the audience, and when I asked who would be the subject of his next biography, Shields indicated he was now trying his hand at fiction. He’s an incredibly thorough biographer, so that was disappointing news in a way (He’d been thinking about taking on Maurice Sendak next.), but Shields’ fiction is something I’m definitely looking forward to reading.

It’s always a great day when you spend it among writer types, and I’ll certainly sign up to navigate my writing life next year.

What I Have To Do

Below are the remarks I made yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro‘s Sunday service, which was a panel on creativity and the creative process. With me on the panel were a painter, an actor/playwright, a musician/painter, a dancer, and a stained class artist. It was interesting to hear the similarities among such different artists, and the program was well-received.

This may not be exactly what you were looking for in a five-minute speech, but you’ll understand at the end, this was the only way it could go.

It was my ninth grade English teacher who told me I was a writer—she caught me writing Star Trek™ and Man from U.N.C.L.E.™ stories in her class and confiscated my notebook. The next day, she gave it back to me and told me to never stop writing, just not in her class. That was when I realized I was a writer, even though I’d been writing stories since third grade. When I’d get my list of spelling words for the week, everyone else just wrote each in a sentence and used them correctly. I wrote a story—usually about horses.

I think instinctively I knew as an avid reader that I wanted to do what the people who wrote the books I read did—write. And I ended up doing just that first for an aviation insurance consortium and then for Uncle Sam, as well as for myself.

At a writer’s workshop I recently attended, a fellow writer said, “I write because it’s what I have to do.” I agree. It’s not a hobby or an avocation or even a vocation; it’s who I am; it defines me. It helps me cope. I’ve written about my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s suicide because writing lets me detach and look at those events objectively, and in that way I can move on from them. I’ve dealt with my brother’s untimely death in a recently published story called “Trophies,” and that story showed me the only way I’ve handled what life has dealt me is to write about it. Some of that writing won’t ever see the light of day because it’s too personal, but that doesn’t lessen the healing effect of “getting it all down on paper.”

And here’s the coolest thing about writing fiction: when someone pisses you off, you can write them into a story then kill them, and the grotesqueness of the death is in proportion to your level of anger. Then, you can laugh about what made you angry in the first place because, after all, it’s fiction.

Writing makes me richer spiritually and mentally—it’s certainly not something that’s made me richer fiscally—because there’s nothing like the feeling of creating a story that comes from your imagination then having people tell you how meaningful it was to them. That’s my payday.

To be a writer, you have to write, every day, and you have to read just as much. Writing is like any other art. You have to practice, practice, practice. And it comes upon you anywhere—at your day job, in the middle of a date, in the middle of the night, at any inopportune time you can imagine. The story tells you when it needs to be written, and you must drop whatever you’re doing and tell it.

You create worlds as a writer. Sometimes they’re completely recognizable and commonplace, and sometimes the muse takes you places you never thought you’d walk. I thought I was going to write cute little, Miss Marple-type mysteries, but these two shadowy characters who are spies sprang into my head then tapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to look at current events from a different point of view, and you’re going provide people information they think they really didn’t want to know, but it’s what you have to do.”

So, it was my characters who told me as a writer you sometimes speak for those who can’t. Sometimes, most times, the story isn’t your story. It’s someone else’s, and he or she has appointed you to write it. That’s a heavy burden, but you write on because there are just things the world needs to know. Who better to tell them than a scribe, once a Pharaoh’s most important courtier, the person who put down history and thereby told a tale?

The first writers told their stories in pictures inscribed in their blood or other organic paints on the walls of caves. In some ways, it’s no different today. Each day I go into my writer’s cave, and my tools lay before me. I pick them up, and my mind opens, and the words come, and the story’s told.

I know, however, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, there will be another story and another and another. There has to be. It’s what I have to do.

A Rush to Publish?

The literary world was abuzz this weekend over a New York Times article by Julie Bosman entitled, “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year is Slacking.” (I’ve included a link, but I’m not sure if this article is part of the NYT’s rare free content.) The gist: Publishing a print book takes time, but publishing something for an e-reader doesn’t. Traditional publishers watch how well their writers’ e-book sales go, then demand more output. If a writer doesn’t have a novel ready, a story between novels will do to keep the name out there and “meet demand.”

The premise, I suppose, is that e-book readers are more fickle than print book readers. E-books do fulfill our need for instant gratification. No more waiting lists at libraries for the next installment for an author you like, just “Buy with 1-click” and off you go.

I know when I find an author I like, I want to read more of his or her work, but I, perhaps, have a better understanding of the publishing process than the average reader. For me, waiting a year or two or five heightens the interest in the next book. Yes, I may go read other authors, but I’ll always go back to a favorite one. Publishers, it seems, are afraid that we’ll abandon an author if we don’t have a constant stream of new work.

I ask you, even though she has said “no more Harry Potter books,” will fans of J. K. Rowling drop her? No, they’ll pre-order her new non-Potter book by the millions, even at an e-book price just two dollars less than the print book price.

And up comes the quality versus quantity debate.

As someone who has worked on a trilogy for fifteen years (yes, you read correctly–fifteen), I’ve resisted “instant publishing gratification” because I’ve agonized over making them good books, as in a good plot, good characters, and good writing, something I’ve seen lacking in rushed Indie publications. I can’t imagine getting pressure from a publisher to publish more than one book a year. I know the quality would suffer because I’m meticulous about research. If I had to throw together a quick book to satisfy my publisher, I wouldn’t be happy with the product.

As a reader, I can usually tell when a favorite writer has “phoned it in,” especially those who write series. The last few Sookie Stackhouse novels, for example, have had little plot, even less characterization, and end abruptly. I understand Charlaine Harris is wrapping the series up, much as Rowling did, but Rowling’s final two or three novels were more well-formed than Harris’ last three offerings.

I understand there are readers who don’t care about the overall quality–they want more Edward and Bella and don’t much care that the writing and plotting are substandard. That’s obvious from the prodigious amount of fan fiction written about popular characters from books, movies, and television (some very good, most really bad). That’s also obvious when I go look at reviews on Amazon and see four and five stars on a book I’ve just reviewed and found wanting.

For one, I prefer to read a good book, good in all aspects, and I don’t mind waiting for quality.

What about you? Agree? Disagree? Why?

Having a Life vs. Writing

Yesterday, here in the Shenandoah Valley, we had one of those picturesque snowfalls. The view of the snow-covered mountains is incredible. I pause every time I walk past the door to the porch just to take it in. Snow also means work–cleaning the driveway, for example. I almost didn’t do that. I have a 4WD vehicle, after all. I could just back through the snow and go. One glance at the cleared, pristine driveways of my neighbors changed that. So, at the time I’d normally be sitting down to blog, I was outside shoveling.

That kind of repetitive work frees up my brain to think, so while I shoveled, I pondered a story that got rejected with a vague request for a rewrite and thought over comments from the most recent meeting of my critique group. Before I realized it, half the driveway was clear, and most of the sidewalk. (My house is on a corner lot, so I have twice the sidewalk of everyone else.) The bonus was I also had a clear idea about the rewrite and the critique group comments.

Time to sit down and write.

Well, the rest of the week, however, is full of outside obligations–two meetings about a web site I may become responsible for (not writing related), babysitting, a special reading sponsored by my writing group, SWAG, and my book club, the book for which I haven’t finished. I’m looking at the schedule, and I’m not seeing the time to write, edit, or revise, unless, of course, I want to burn the midnight oil, and that’s looking more likely. Good thing I don’t have a real job anymore.

All this is to say, no matter how much you plan to set aside the time to write–and I established a pretty strict schedule for the new year–real life is always there, commitments you’ve made and must honor. Well, the grandkids aren’t a commitment; they’re just plain fun and always adjust my perspective on life. Time spent with them is well-spent and something I look forward to with excitement.

It’s important to my writing, though, to have a life. On the Myers-Briggs scale, I’m a very high E, meaning I get energized by external stimuli. If I spend too much time at the computer in the world I’ve created, I become too insular and nothing works–writing, editing, or revising. It’s a balance, almost as precarious as what I had to do when I worked full-time and struggled to be the best at my job at the same time as I struggled to be a good friend and spouse. You’re always feeling guilty about one or the other.

Establishing that writing work schedule helped me strike the balance between real life and writing life, but it’s done nothing for feeling guilty when I’m writing or when I’m having a life.

How about you? How do you strike the balance between real life obligations and your writing life?