Back to Basics

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The past few weeks I’ve been struggling with one of my sons to manage his schoolwork. It’s the end of the year, so I get the whole spring fever thing. But he’s taken these classes all year and knows what’s expected of him. Why, then, was I suddenly getting emails from teachers about missing assignments, tests not corrected and signed and returned, slipping grades? In the past, I’ve seen a big leap in maturity growth in my younger son around this time of year. But lately, he seemed to be sticking his head in the sand and avoiding responsibility at all costs. He’s been having trouble getting to sleep at night too, and has been cranky and snippy with me. What the heck was going on?

Admittedly, I’ve been much more hands-off with my high school senior. Helping to plan the college-prep aspects of his life have been the focus of my time with him: looking for a roommate, planning for course selection and orientation, shopping for a computer. He loves his classes this year, is managing the work fine and getting great grades. It’s likely why the stark difference in his brother’s efforts has been so much more frustrating.

Then I realized that maybe all the planning with the Heir is part of the problem I’m having with the Spare. The boys have become very close this year, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s starting to sink in that our little nest will soon have one less bird in it. The idea of such a change must be overwhelming for my younger one.

This week at bedtime, I decided to try an experiment. I pulled out some old children’s stories and asked my youngest if I could read to him. He agreed, and as I started the first Dr. Seuss story, he said, “I feel like I’m six.” I asked if he wanted me to stop and he adamantly said “NO”. We’ve now gone through all of his old favorites, with only a couple left on the shelf, and I’m planning to go to the library this weekend to find a few more. My son’s been falling asleep earlier and staying asleep all night since we started this experiment, and I’m hoping to soon see a change in temperament and efforts elsewhere.

When I started writing my current book, I was determined to find a leaner, more efficient way to write it. My last book took as long to research as it did to write and revise, so I set out to start writing without doing all of the research up front. But the story wasn’t going anywhere. I’d written a few nonlinear scenes, and then got stuck. It turns out I can’t write without researching first. I need to get to know my characters before I can begin to bring them to life on the page. And if they’re not alive on the page, the story doesn’t move. By returning to my original process of researching before drafting, I’ve met with much more progress than I did when trying to get around it.

I spend so much time looking ahead and focusing on helping my kids prepare for the future that sometimes I forget they are just that: kids. Their progress isn’t always linear. I’ve found the same to be true with my writing. Sometimes we need to take a step or two back, return to basics and re-ground ourselves so we can keep moving forward. We can all benefit from occasional reminders of the things that work, those tools we can always rely on.

 

Awaiting Judgment

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Imagine being a first time mother. You’ve been pregnant for months and doing all the right things: sleeping well, eating healthy, exercising, going to regular doctor appointments and watching your baby grow in sonogram pictures. You’ve tried out different names, prepared his room with all he’ll need when he comes home and readied yourself by reading lots of parenting books. By the time that kid is born, you’ve already known him for months, made tremendous efforts to insure his health and well-being and put him first in every way. So when you gaze at him, all pink and pudgy and wrinkled and loud, of course he is perfect.

Now hand him to someone else and ask what they think of him, what’s wrong with him and how he could be made better.

Right now, my book–which I started in 2013, finished in 2015, queried until 2016 and then put away–has been updated, deepened and edited again, and is out to beta readers to see if the changes work. And I’m waiting. But I’m not just waiting for them to give me the thumbs up. I’m waiting for their judgment. They’ll list their criticisms, issues and problems with the book, the book I love and have worked on for years and feel is as good as it’s ever been. Talk about nerve-wracking.

Anyone who’s written a book knows it’s a seemingly endless process. You take an idea, outline it (maybe), and write a draft. Then you go through and edit to make it better; you flesh out your characters, work on dialogue to make them sound like real people, increase the tension in each scene and then give it to some folks to read and critique. You wait for their feedback.

Then you take that feedback and make more changes and do this a few times, back and forth with reading, and changing and waiting. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get it to a point where you don’t just love the story, but are really happy with it as a final product. Even more than you were before. That means you’re ready to submit it to agents. So you write to them, and you wait. If you’re really lucky, agents will ask to read the book, so you send it to them. And then you wait.

If you haven’t seen the pattern yet, I’ll spell it out for you: writing a book involves a lot of waiting and a lot of judgment. I was never a patient person, or one who takes criticism well, but writing has cured me of both these ills.

This is why writing isn’t for the faint of heart. All the waiting and judgment and fixes and more waiting and more judgment with no guarantee it will ever go anywhere means you’d better love your stories and characters, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. You’re also going to have to make yourself vulnerable, pour your heart into your work and then ask people to tell you what’s wrong with it even though, to you, it’s perfect.

Writing, like parenting, is a labor of love and authors are in it for the long haul. We don’t do it for a quick buck, or the immediate gratification of getting our books into readers’ hands. It’s about doing everything we can to tell our stories in the best possible way. There will always be critics. So you’ll grow a thicker skin and you’ll work harder.

Neither your child nor your book will ever mean as much to anyone as they do to you, but that won’t matter. To you, they will always be evidence of your love, best efforts and unending patience.

How Volunteering Improved My Writing

We are thrilled to welcome today’s guest and current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Christine Adler. When I first started publishing articles and essays, I …

Source: How Volunteering Improved My Writing

Deep Diving

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I love my characters. Like my children, each of them has a little bit of me inside them. Of course, like my children, I hate for anything bad to happen to them. But that, I’ve learned, is a mistake.

On my first few edits, I made bad things happen to them. It made me sad, but it needed to be done so they would grow. On my next edits, I told the reader how it felt for the characters to suffer such indignities and pains. Still, my beta readers weren’t convinced. Not that the bad things had happened, because they had. They weren’t convinced that my characters *experienced* the pain that such catastrophes would–should–produce.

This round of edits is what I’ve named “the deep dive”. Not only am I letting my characters really feel the pain of events, I’m putting on their corsets, stepping into their shoes and experiencing the tragedies along with them. I’m speaking their reactions out loud as I type, hearing it in their voices as they hear it in their own heads. How else can I truly understand and convey what they’re going through?

I’ll be honest: it’s horrible. Emotionally draining. So bad, in fact, that in some instances I have to stop typing because I’m so anxious from an uncomfortable conversation.  Other times, I have to reach for a tissue to dry my tears. The silver lining? Now I know my readers will feel my characters’ pain as acutely as the characters do. Because I did while writing it.

Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” As a poet, Frost would go right for the heart. He knew about tears, and he knew their effect. That’s why we all know his name. Who am I to question such timeless wisdom?

*diving back in*

The Waffle Effect

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I’ve recently watched my eldest son struggle to choose a college major. Perhaps struggle is the wrong word, because it’s more about his divided passions. He thrives on helping others, and one of his jobs is aiding library patrons-mainly senior citizens-with their technology questions. In my mind, he is every patron’s dream grandson: patient, helpful, knowledgeable and patient. Did I mention how patient he is? He recently had business cards printed up so the folks he helps can contact him in the future instead of having to make an appointment at the library. Apparently, his services have generated a waiting list.

So he’ll follow the early career path that his mom and dad both took, that of help desk technician, right? He’s got the computer savvy, the communication skills and the patience (very important).

Except.

When he has free time, which is rare, he will suddenly get a burst of inspiration-either through reading or a visual, such as an art show-and sit down to write. Or draw. The only other time he gets this pumped up is when he’s helping people with their computers.

He is half techno-geek, half artist just like his mom. Left brain and right brain are battling it out for his attention.

It’s not the kind of thing you really outgrow, I’ve learned. My two favorite genres to read and to write are humor and historical fiction. They are separate entities in my mind because, let’s face it, life two hundred years ago was hard. No one ever smiled in photos. Life wasn’t funny; it was about not dying. So I write very different books. But I’ve been told recently that I’ll have to pick one or the other when I head out to look for publication. I’ve gone back and forth between the two, making a decision and then changing my mind, then changing it back. Over and over.

Left brain or right brain? How do you choose?

My high school senior is lucky. There are many new college degree programs these days that combine technology and the arts, so he may not have to choose but only explore to figure out where to hone his efforts.

My journey is a little trickier. I’ll figure it out eventually, but it’s nice to know I have someone in my house, at least for now, who can relate.

Getting to Know You

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I’m shy. That’s not to say I can’t talk to people, because I can. I used to work in retail, and later the corporate world in customer service. Talking to people was my job. But I don’t get close to people. I talk to them to help them do their work or reach their goal or teach them something they want to know. And then I leave them alone.

The problem is, this attitude doesn’t work with characters. To write a good story, you have to know your characters really well. You don’t just have to talk to them. You have to be nosy.

I’m not a nosy person. I’m very much a you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine person. Of course, in terms of customers and clients, that’s great. But when it comes to my characters, this sounds ridiculous. I mean, really. Am I worried about offending them by asking too many personal questions? I’m starting to think that yeah, maybe I am.

But I realize now that I need to know my characters as well as I know my own children. Because if I don’t connect with them, neither will my readers. So I need to learn what makes them cry, laugh, cringe and rage. What keeps them awake at night. Their regrets, dreams, insecurities and deepest secrets. I may need to approach them differently. Rather than ‘interviewing’ them, maybe I need to put them on the therapist’s couch and let them talk. Or eavesdrop on their conversations when they’re at a party. Look in their bedroom windows at night to see what they’re up to. Read their journals.

All I know is, what I’m doing so far isn’t working. I need to get past my personal hang-up and figure out how to become a busybody. So I’m open to new ideas. How do you get to know your characters?

 

The Illusion of Control

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We all need to feel we’re in control. Whether in business or personal life, regardless of how easygoing your personality, it’s an intrinsic human need and we chase it every day. While my business and home lives are often out of step–one is calm while the other is running at full-tilt—eventually there is balance, if only for a little while.

I never realized how much I needed this feeling that I have some kind of control over at least one area of my life until this past week. First we lost Bailey, our family pet for the last eight years. Then emails began arriving reminding me that my baby was about to graduate middle school and head for high school. It’s the end of the academic year, which means final exams and wonky schedules. All these events came together like a perfect storm, throwing my home life routine out the window. So I juggled to keep up there while throwing my energy into my work. I’d write, edit and manage upcoming programs for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, of which I am a board member.

But the words wouldn’t come and the more I tried to force them, the more they resisted, so I gave up on the writing for a few days. Editing proved to be equally frustrating as I went in circles around a plot issue that wouldn’t be tamed from any angle. And then the news of Orlando hit, and there was nothing but anger, blame, nastiness and despair everywhere. I pulled back from technology for a couple of days, trying to regroup and find my lost mojo.

When I sat down to think about why I was struggling so much, it occurred to me that my whole life, nay the world, felt as if it were suddenly beyond my control. Everything was in flux; I had nothing upon which I could rely anymore. I felt helpless, like all my efforts, no matter how large or small, were meaningless. The feeling had begun to eat into my psyche and my daily life, and I found it hard to find a reason to leave my house.

I reached out to a few friends and was surprised to find they were feeling the exact same way. Sure, their reasons were different. But they all complained of feeling on edge, snippy and out of patience, even with those they cared about.  That underscored for me the illusion of order and control we impose on our own small lives and humanity at large. We need to know we’re making progress, making things better, making a difference.

Yes, the world can be a scary, ugly and dangerous place. But when we’re struck repeatedly with reminders, and multiple efforts to change the pattern fail, the only thing we’re left to count on is more fear, ugliness and danger. I’m convinced this is why I can’t write, edit or focus. I’m sure it’s why I feel so uprooted. None of the things I was taught to believe in are visible or tangible anymore, and I don’t know how to live in this unfamiliar world. Nothing I do seems to make a difference.

I need some control back. I need to feel I can rely on certain truths–the goodness of people, the power of love and the sanctity of The Golden Rule. Otherwise, I need someone to send me the new laws of this dystopian society I’ve fallen into and, hopefully, some clue how navigate it, to find some control within it.

Until then, I’ll read to feed my soul. I’ll volunteer to help those I can. I’ll smile at everyone, even if it makes me feel like a fraud. I’ll go through the motions of trying to make a difference, in myself and my surroundings. With any luck, I’ll be able to fake it ’til I make it.

The Glorious Sound of a Book

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I am not a public speaker. Standing in front of a crowd, even if it’s just to introduce someone else, makes my throat go dry, my voice squeak and my palms sweat. A teacher once videotaped (yes, I’m dating myself with that word) class members reading aloud and when I watched the playback of myself, I silently swore never to open my mouth again in public. It was that hideous.

Needless to say, I swoon in awe listening to those gifted enough to give TED talks, run engaging seminars and perform in the theater. They seem so comfortable.  So relaxed.  So real. 

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to an audio version of a book I read and enjoyed last year. Now let me state right here that I’m a sucker for a British accent (see: Pride & Prejudice, the BBC version; Downton Abbey, et al). Since the book was written by Jojo Moyes, a Brit, it made sense the audiobook would be read by British narrators.

As a writer, listening to this audiobook was a revelation.

The settings were more vivid than they were on the page. The dialogue crackled. The characters felt so real, so alive, that I found myself anticipating their responses to each other, laughing out loud talking back to them as I walked the dog.

I’ve often told my children to read out loud while studying. Seeing words on a page is only one way the brain receives information. Reading them aloud is another; hearing them read to you is one more. The brain process the information differently with each type of intake, just as it does when watching a movie version of a story you’ve read. So why should writing a book be any different?

Suffice it to say I will be reading my writing aloud from now on. I want to hear each word, understand how they’ll sound strung together,  how I’ll feel when I hear them. My goal is to make my stories and characters as real to others as Ms. Moyes’ book felt to me. And I may or may not do it with a British accent.

Do you read your work aloud when editing? Has it changed how you write? How? I’d love to hear from you.

The Everyday Writer

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I hate excuses. That’s not to say I don’t use them when I have to, but they don’t make me happy. Sure, I’m busy and that makes it hard to write. But we’re all busy. If I want it to happen, I have to make it happen, just like anything else. Lately, though, I’ve been making excuses.

The worst part isn’t that I’m not writing (getting words down) but that I’m not writing regularly (training my brain to keep going when I’m away from the computer). The reason this is tragic is because I can feel the difference, and see it in the quality of my writing. When I started writing, it was to create a blog to document my new baby’s growth so my parents would know what he was up to, though they live many states away. The writing was for me, for them, and something I did purely to figure out what I had to say.

I wrote on that blog every day, and not only did it become a journal of my children’s early lives, it served as a growth chart for my writing. I got better. When I was out at the park or the supermarket, I was cataloguing  ideas to use as post topics later. Without realizing it, or intending to, I started writing all the time regardless of where I was or what I was doing.

Of course, back then it was much easier to write every day. Babies’ needs, while primarily physical, are also well-regulated. They thrive on routine as, I’ve subsequently learned, do writers. Breakfast, play time, nap time. Nap time for them meant writing time for me. 10am-noon and 2-4pm every day, I could count on the napping hours as the time do all things non-baby-oriented, such as laundry, cleaning and  yes, writing.

Newton’s First Law of Motion, sometimes called the Law of Inertia, is this:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

The same is true for the writing brain. Like any muscle, it strengthens and remembers what it is supposed to do, and it does it with less effort the more it is used. The same holds true for anything we want to progress in, such as exercising, learning a language or playing an instrument. By this measure, we could name this the First Rule of Writing:

By writing every day, the writer’s brain produces a regular flow of ideas and words more easily, and with the same regularity and quality unless this practice is stopped for a significant period of time.

Today, my kids are in school all day, gone from 8 until 3:30 or later. But the lack of that structured regimen from their early days is hurting me more than the extended amount of kid-free time is helping. For years, I let their schedules dictate my writing time. Now I have to do it myself or it won’t get done. So I’m putting it on the calendar for two hours every morning, or two hours in the afternoon on days I have other meetings. No excuses.

How do you maintain your routine of writing every day?

Literary Genres: Good or Bad?

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Publishing has changed in almost every way over the last twenty years. When ebooks came around, critics feared it meant the end of libraries and bookstores. Now print books are once again outselling ebooks. Once upon a time, you had to have an agent to publish a book. Now you can do it yourself, from story to cover.

Even genres have shifted. Where once readers choices were books for children, teen or adult, now there are MG (middle grade), YA (young adult) and NA (new adult), targeting specific age groups in those formative years between 10 and 25. And in adult books, I personally think categorizing books helps readers navigate to the stories they want to read, and helps publishers and booksellers direct buyers to what they’re seeking. Beach read? Historical fiction? Thriller? Suspense? Fantasy? I’d be lost without the compass of genres, so to me, sub-categorizing is a welcome aid, despite the ongoing discussion about whether or not a book is considered Women’s Fiction.

WF is generally accepted as an umbrella term to encompass stories about women’s issues that are aimed at female readers. Characters are most often striving to overcome personal and external challenges, and the stories tend to be layered as such, including professional issues, relationship struggles (both romantic and familial) and social obstacles.

Some have argued that Women’s Fiction isn’t even a genre. After all, men don’t have their own genre; why should women? Why does WF need to be a subcategory of fiction at all? Does it mean women are not taken seriously in the literary world?

To me, WF as a genre is more of a badge than a crucible. Without the privilege of the Y chromosome, women are challenged, harassed and judged for things men are not. Our experiences in the world are vastly different from men’s. Why shouldn’t our fiction show that?

Women are also more empathetic than men. Perhaps this is why women read more fiction, a genre that, by design, requires that readers empathize with the characters. When women read fiction, they feel engaged. And this may be a biological difference. According to The Literacy Company, a recent international study shows that boys are not as engaged as girls are when reading. “Statistically, 56 percent of boys read only to get information, compared with 33 percent of girls.” Maybe this is why men are more likely to read nonfiction books than fiction, and that the opposite is true for women.

Libraries have used the Dewey Decimal System to help them sort books for over 100 years. With such differences in life experiences, motives and material preferences in reading, I say the more categorizing we can do, the better. And if those categories happen to include gender differences, that’s fine too. I’m a consumer, and knowledge is power. When it comes to spending money on books, I expect publishers and booksellers to make it as easy as possible for me to find what I want, critics be damned.