The Illusion of Control

controlkey

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.

Advertisements

The Glorious Sound of a Book

6023268510_df0042f314_z

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

writing calendar

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?

Tragic_Life_Stories

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.

On Writing Drunk

writedrunk

“Write drunk, edit sober,” is a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. And though his family members dispute the idea that he ever said it or even practiced this method, the attribution has persisted. Many critics gripe about this, saying it glorifies addiction and perpetuates the myth that creativity is something whimsical rather than real work.

But as a self-proclaimed plotter and one who rarely drinks, I say there’s something to the concept.

I’m not saying alcohol makes one more creative. Like Hemingway, I write best in the early morning, while I’m still in a relaxed, hazy state. When the details of day-to-day living have yet to bombard my senses and require practical thought and action, the fuzzy, “what if” sensation of possibility we gain in dreams is still driving my train of thought.

The two historical novels I’ve worked (and am working) on had extensive spreadsheets precede them. At least a third of the time spent creating them went into research alone. The books are accurate, detailed and well-planned.

Then there’s this contemporary women’s fiction book I wrote during National Novel Writing Month some years back. With nothing more than a bunch of character sketches in my head and a vague story idea, I sat down every day for thirty days and wrote 1,800 words. Plot complications came in “aha!” moments. Voice flowed effortlessly. And once I was able to let go and allow my characters to make bad choices, there was no stopping me.

Now I’m trying to edit the thing into submission and, ideally, submittable form. I liken the task to knitting with a pair of live eels. But.

The story is one of the most authentic, emotional and fun projects I’ve created. I never get tired of reading or working on it. It makes me laugh out loud. The characters feel like my friends, and I can’t wait to share it. And I wrote it in a time-crunched, don’t-think-just-write, race to the finish state of mind. In a way, I was drunk on the idea of reaching my goal of 50,000 words in thirty days and refused to let logic or planning cloud my vision.

My point is, abandoning rational thought and letting yourself succumb to a state of drunken freedom with your writing is a great idea. Like alcohol, it can reduce your inhibitions and make you feel powerful, daring and willing to try things you wouldn’t otherwise try if you thought about it too much.

The results might surprise the logical, sober you. And without any regrettable texts or tattoos to face the next day.

Lightening the Load

rejection letter

Writers have baggage. We’re human, after all. It’s great if we can use it to bring our prose some authenticity. But more likely, baggage weighs us down, trips us up and makes us doubt ourselves. Artists are their own worst critics.

Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, puts it succinctly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We write, edit, rewrite, fall in love with our words and the next day, delete half of them. It’s a painful business, but easier to handle when I’m the only one reading my words. It’s when it’s time to share them with others that I falter. Great critique partners can be a godsend, and I’m lucky to have several. But while they can help me prepare my words for agents’ scrutiny, they can’t prepare me.

When those query letters go out into the world, they lay bare the passionate work of  years of writing. Suddenly I am a child again, holding my best work before an esteemed adult, looking for affirmation. Pride and fear swirl inside me that they will deem my efforts childish, dull, worthless.

Rejection is hard to take. And while I understand that form rejection letters serve several purposes (relay the message; save the agents time; are short and polite without being critical), they’re still disappointing to receive. But you get used to them after a while.

So when I had the opportunity this week to receive personal feedback on my query letter and first ten pages from an agent, I leapt at it. Even if it was only one agent’s personal opinion, it would give me some insight into how my work is seen by these professionals.

I was so excited, I missed a step in the submission requirements. “Well, that’s that,” I figured. This agent was likely so overwhelmed with queries because of his generous offer, I told myself, that my misstep would surely garner me nothing more than another form letter.

But I was pleasantly surprised, on several accounts.

First, the agent wrote back within a few hours (practically unheard of). Second, he did give me personal feedback, despite my inability to follow his instructions. But best of all, his words were kind, praising and specific about what he loved and what, for him, did not personally fit. It was the first time I’d read a rejection letter and smiled.

It wasn’t soul-crushing.

It didn’t leave me wondering why someone didn’t want my work.

And it didn’t add to my baggage of self-doubt. In fact, it left me so optimistic that I got right back to work.

When negative news is balanced with support and positive feedback, it can change someone’s entire outlook. This is what I’ve got with my critique group, what I received from this agent, and what I wish for every artist out there who struggles with self-criticism and doubt.

You’re doing great. Don’t stop. We need your beautiful work in the world. Please, do whatever it takes to get it out there. Persevere. We’ll be here, anxiously waiting.

Sensitive Creatures

grief

I am a mom of boys. This is something I hoped for since I got married–that I would have boys–because I get them. Boys don’t say one thing and do another. They are not manipulative. Sneaky, maybe, but not manipulative. I’ve never heard of “Mean Boys”.

Plus, with boys, there’s no drama. No “he said/she said” play-by-plays of the soap operas of teen social life. Boys are pretty black and white, practical and logical. I can handle practical and logical.

My firstborn was just as I imagined he’d be. It was as if he’d read the AAP textbook on child development milestones to make sure he’d hit each one right on time. He napped like clockwork and was as predictable as one could imagine a baby to be.

Then we had another boy. It soon became evident that the only thing the brothers shared was anatomy. My youngest was emotional and teary, sensitive and touchy and seemed, to me, very needy. He’s matured as he’s grown, and things became much easier when he was able to communicate with us. We could explain thing rationally, apply logic, and reason with him. But too often, I still think, “this is what it would have been like to have a girl”.

But here’s the thing. I have never laughed harder than I do with my youngest. I have never felt pain, sadness, futility or frustration deeper than with him. Lately, I find myself crying over news stories of victims of all kinds of atrocities and wrongdoing, and these are people I’ve never met. My practical side has been chipped away. I’ve become less practical, more sensitive.

Thankfully, this isn’t an ongoing condition. In fact, when it strikes, I mine the feelings instead of running from them.  When grief, despair and compassion sneak up on me, I reach for my pen to write down how it feels, what it’s doing to me inside. When my heart is breaking, I bottle the emotion so I can share it later through my characters.

When I read a book and get to know characters, I want to really know them. What makes them cry? Laugh? Snort derisively? How much can they take before they crack? That will be telling of their strength, intelligence and personality.

When creating characters, practicality isn’t enough. Thanks to my sensitive son, I can finally create characters that feel all the feels so that my readers will be able to as well.

In The Thick Of Things

In the thick of itWhen I read about the writers in days of old, I marvel at their output, their commitment and their complete and utter focus on their work. Sometimes days go by when I don’t write a word, but not for lack of trying. Family management, I’ve learned, is a thing, and it comes pretty close to being a full-time job. I manage the school work, extracurricular activities, long-term projects, medical needs and general care and feeding of two young humans, as well as the needs of a dog, a husband and a fifty-year-old house. I’m also trying to teach a workshop and write books.

And now that the holidays are upon us, preparation for family visits, out of town guests, gift shopping, baking and extra volunteer time gets added into the mix. Today I’m working with headphones on as the plumber cuts pipes in my bathroom. I can’t help but wonder: how did the writers of old do it?

They had help, of course. Tutors and nannies for the children; cooks for the meal-planning and preparation; doctors who came to the house and wives who did everything else. Come to think of it, many of the great female writers of history were either young and single or childless. But that’s another blog post for another day.

The point is, even when it’s not holiday time, we writers are always in the thick of things. It’s life, and it’s what gives us material to write about. It’s also what our readers look to escape from when they pick up our books. So today I’m going to try a new tactic: do some administrative tasks, then set the timer for an hour and write until it goes off. Then I’ll break for lunch and read over what I wrote, maybe answer some emails, and then do it again.

As easy as it would be to let the day get away from us, every day, with the demands of life and the call of social media, we owe it to our readers to schedule in time to write the books they’re waiting, itching, longing to read.

Letting Go

byebyeballoon

I’ve read of many writers who abandoned projects that were two-thirds finished, or had been edited and re-edited extensively and still didn’t quite work. Worse than killing your darlings, the idea of putting years of work into a project and then admitting defeat and moving on to something new broke my heart.

But this week I’m doing just that.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Many of my beta readers have enjoyed the book immensely. They’re eager to hear more of the story and they love my characters. They’ve told me how pleased they are that I’ve written in another genre and done so successfully. What writer wouldn’t stick it out, if only to garner more admiration and joy from readers?

I used to think that putting a project aside was an admission that it was a waste of time, a failure. That it was something only an amateur writer would do. But I was wrong. Rather than breaking my heart, the plan has brought me a great deal of relief. Not because the project was so flawed that it couldn’t be saved. In fact, I’m not burning it and saying goodbye forever. I’d put it away once before, then returned to it and worked it for several months. But in this process, I’ve learned several things about myself as a writer. In order to move forward with a project:

  1. I must have sustained excitement about the book. I’m choosing to put this project away again because, while I’ve had moments of enthusiasm for it, they don’t last.
  2. I must be passionate about the characters and their story. Learning about my characters as if I’ve entered into a new friendship with them makes me eager to know more. Give me a glimpse of their story and I become the nosy busybody who will dig for every relevant detail.
  3. I must be transported by research. The project I’m putting away again was the first book I’d ever written. But the first one I finished and am now shopping is historical. It involved months of painstaking research and personal edification. Yet whenever I was away from the process, I longed to return to it. I’ve never felt that with the first book.
  4. I must learn something about the world. I love to learn, no matter what I’m doing, whether it’s reading or talking to new people. Historical fiction is what I read. It’s what I know best and where I find the most enjoyment as a reader. That pleasure has only been equally prevalent when I write historical fiction.

I’m pleased that I recognized these things about myself early enough to make a change. The current WIP is contemporary. I already know the characters, and their lives are not much different from mine. I want to time travel. I want to live in far flung societies in grand houses, governed by laws that need to be challenged, among people who break the rules.

It’s good to know that I have the ability to write across genres if I want to. But it’s even better to know where my writing time is best spent. I’m certain this knowledge will play a big part in my success as an author.

Writing is a constant learning process. We must understand what time of day we do our best writing, what planning process works for us and how to make our plots, dialogue and character arcs stronger.

But beyond learning the craft, we must also understand ourselves as writers. Only when we discover and admit our weaknesses to ourselves can we overcome them to do our very best work.

How well do you know yourself as a writer?