Vacationing in the Hybrid-Ease

Sun reflections in blue waterI’ve been on quite a long hiatus from this blog–my apologies to anyone who might have been hanging around for updates! Between work and family stuff and trying to develop new and interesting skills, I haven’t made time like I should have. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, life takes you to strange places, some wonderful and some terrible, others just plain bizarre.

Sometimes it’s all three…but when you return, you’re the richer for it.

You might be wondering about the title of this post–what the heck does “Hybrid-Ease” mean? Well, I’m awful about wordplay and punning, it’s true. While I’ve been away, I’ve kind of struggled with my compass spinning, and figuring out what it means to be a generalist in a world of specialists. I’ve always been this way, good or bad, helpful or not. Do I look like a flake? Yep. Do I seem like a butterfly, flitting from one topic to the next? Probably. Am I indecisive? I don’t know (ha ha).

In other words, I’ve been trying to make peace with being a hybrid. And honestly, I don’t know why that should be such a bad thing. I mean, hello, Leonardo da Vinci? Benjamin Franklin? Michelangelo? I want to be a Renaissance woman! Writer, artist, programmer, developer, designer, entrepreneur. Why do I have to choose? Finding a way to become great at all of those things and make a living doing it may not always be easy in an age of specialization, but it’s well worth the effort.

So like the Hebrides, those beautiful, wild, strange islands off the coast of Scotland that have inspired poets, scientists, artists, and travelers for centuries, I’ve decided that my career can be a unique blend of many things and still exist in the world. Perhaps not what everyone’s looking for–I’m no Fort Lauderdale or Cancun–but I’m sure to please those searching for something a little bit off the beaten path :)

It’s a War in There

Okay, so tomorrow is the reveal date for the Pitch Wars contest, hosted by the esteemed Brenda Drake and supported by seventy-five awesome mentors! If you haven’t heard about Pitch Wars, you’re missing out. Agented writers, editors, or industry interns pick one mentee and one alternate each, offer feedback and suggestions on their manuscripts and pitches, and turn them loose a few months later on unsuspecting (suspecting?) agents who are looking to take on clients.

So I’m waiting to hear what happened. Here’s how it FEELS:

Waiting is murder :)

It’s a War in There!

But this is how the folks at Pitch Wars ARE:

Float like a butterfly...

Float like a butterfly…

No matter what happens, I’m happy to have thrown my hat into the ring. And what have I learned? There’s a lot of wonderful folks out there who are willing to give of themselves and their talents to help poor schlubs like me! Whether it’s a fellow potential mentee, Pitch Wars mentors, or agents, everyone wants to help and support.

So is it really a war? In only one way I can see–each writer has to fight the good fight with themselves, fight to get their butt in a chair and write, edit, and submit until their dream comes true.

Whether I get picked or not, I fully intend to belt out a rousing chorus of “We Are the Champions” to commemorate the occasion. Feel free to join in and celebrate our victory!

Pitch Perfect

So my first agent pitches are over. And although it didn’t result in a page request, I got some honest feedback, which is what I really needed. That’s a good thing, in my opinion–because I need the truth to improve my work.

It didn’t feel awesomely wonderful, but then again, it wasn’t meant to. Critiques are critical, designed to point out what’s not working. Warm fuzzies are not going to help, right?

Good news? I can solve the problem! Not an easy fix, but a fix nonetheless. As the old saying goes, “Kill your darlings.” Well, I’m getting the cleaver out and trimming the fat from my manuscript.

The long and short of it is, a fresh pair of eyes is a good thing. We writers tend to fall in love with our creations, not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s less than helpful when we need to tighten our prose, streamline it, and keep the tension humming on each and every page. Having someone totally objective to say, “Your word count is HOW much?!?” or take me to task for overwriting was incredibly helpful.

Afraid to show a fellow writer your manuscript? Terrified of talking with an agent? Do you cringe at the thought of sending out a query letter? Here’s my advice:

Do it. Take the plunge and steel yourself for what comes next, no matter how much you want to puke at the thought. You’ll get some truly amazing feedback that will help you grow as a writer and editor, moving you one step closer to publication. You’ll learn that agents are simply people looking for a well-written, engaging story, not horrible, soul-crushing demons who laugh maniacally and gleefully at your work. You’ll find friends and colleagues who want nothing more than to have supportive companionship and constructive input for their writing, too.

You’ve got this. And eventually, when you’re “pitch perfect,” you’ll realize it was all worth it, every breathless leap off the cliff of your fear, when you begin to fly.

Monkey

Monkey

Monkeys aren’t always this cute…

Cute little buggers, aren’t they? Adorable as they are, they can also stand for an addiction or a problem you just can’t seem to kick. A bad habit. A burden.

How do you get rid of the monkey, or at least keep it manageable? Like any problem, the first step is to acknowledge what it is. Although I have several that cling to me, correspondence seems to be one that I struggle with on a routine basis. Phone calls, letters, emails, tweets, you name it, I’ve let it slide. A few days or even a few weeks later, I’ll be playing catch-up and apologizing for my absence. That’s a serious problem, because writers need to keep those communication channels open and information flowing freely back and forth.

So that’s the problem. Probably doesn’t seem too daunting to you, but for me it’s a constant annoyance and something I want to change, because it could stand in the way of succeeding as a writer. I could lose opportunities to network, opportunities to submit or publish my writing, if I don’t fix it. The question is not only am I WILLING to change, but how COMMITTED am I? Here’s where you sit down with yourself and really think about what’s at stake if you don’t change. Is it important to you? Why?

Change can be difficult. Period. Please don’t go overboard and try for perfection, here! Set small, manageable goals at first and step your way up to where you eventually want to be. For example, my goal is to post a blog entry this week. Success! And I’m feeling pretty good about that. Perhaps I’ll add another small goal in another area, such as answering tweets within 24 hours, and see how that goes. If that’s too much, I’ll know I stepped up too fast and have to back that expectation down a bit. Even if you don’t make it, treat it matter-of-factly instead of chastising yourself—remember, the goal is not perfection and beating yourself up never helps. You might even want to stay at a certain level for a few weeks and allow that to become comfortable before bumping it up a notch.

And if you totally derail along the way? You’re not alone! Relapse is common when you attempt to make a change. Take a deep breath and give yourself the gift of a clean slate before trying again. Examine what got in the way of continuing your new behaviors and think how you might address that. If you need help, get it—pride’s great and all, but if whatever you want to change is important enough or damaging enough, throw pride out the window. I know it’s tough, how well I know—but you can do it!

All right, no more monkeying around—time to show this monkey who’s boss!

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of….This?

When you get right down to it, everything is composed of three things: energy, information, and a whole lotta space. But matter is, well, SOLID—I doubt you’ve mastered walking through walls, right? Sad as it is, that’s reality. “Wait a minute,” I can hear you saying, “I thought this was about dreams. What’s up?” Bear with me, and you’ll see it really is!

Dreams are wonderful. We see what we want, what we desire, the best possible outcome. The phone call offering representation by your dream agent, the slick feel of your first novel’s dust jacket, the person sitting next to you on the train reading your work. Giddy, heady stuff, isn’t it?

Buckle up, because you’re in for a rough ride.

Publishing is a tough business. We’re called upon to not only create but market the beloved products of our imaginations while coping with massive amounts of rejection. There may be times when you feel ready to give up, when you wonder if you’ll ever win the brass ring eluding your fingertips with every rotation of this crazy carousel. Near-misses and disappointments abound.

So why are you doing this, again? Be brutally honest with yourself, because the reason forms the foundation of your vision, your strategy, for actualizing your dreams and making them a reality. You’ll need to reach deep down inside yourself when despair comes a-knockin’ at your door and find the will to keep going. Will, or intent, provides the energy portion of the equation.

And information? There’s a lot of it out there, and not all of it helpful or accurate. Sift through it, study it, research. Pay attention to other writers’ experiences at sites like Absolute Write Water Cooler. Use sites like Preditors & Editors to protect yourself from scams. Follow agent blogs—learn what they’re looking for and how to write query letters. When you have the information you need, you maximize your chances of success.

Space, the final frontier. To go boldly where the successful have gone, you’ll navigate vast stretches of distance and time. The wait can seem interminable when you’ve submitted work and are chewing your nails to the quick. Writing is a solitary profession, which means you’ll need colleagues and friends to connect with during the journey. Find them on Twitter, find them on forums like Query Tracker Discussion Forum, find them at writing conferences. They’ll help ground you, keep you from drifting away from your dream, and support you when hopes are dashed.

With energy, information, and a way to manage space, your sweet dream is on its way to becoming wonderfully hard reality!

Changes In Attitude, Changes In Latitude

Anyone there? *crickets chirping* And here’s the subject of today’s blog post: Consistency with a big “C”. Without it, a writer is unlikely to succeed.

My graduate advisor, Kathy, once commented that school was like spinning china plates on sticks—focus on any one of them too long and the others will come crashing to the ground. I’d forgotten this valuable piece of advice while attempting to launch my career as a writer. Instead of writing a quick blog post, checking in on Twitter a few times during the day, and doing some writing or editing, I would devote every single minute to one task. “I’ll just finish X, then I can go on to Y,” I told myself. Imagine planting a garden of lovely flowers and caring for one while the rest of them wither and die. Ouch. Sure, it’s a beautiful flower, but you only have one—didn’t you want a garden?

Although I’ve put in a lot of hard work, I’ve also learned to work smarter. Here are a few pointers to stay consistent and productive:

1. Pencil yourself in. Draw up a schedule of tasks you need to complete every day. Divvy up your time between social media site upkeep, writing your blog post, writing, editing, querying, and submitting. Don’t forget to devote some time to exercise and fun, too!

2. Stay the course. Take a moment each day to assess how each is faring, and make any adjustments if you notice signs of neglect.

3. Take advantage of others. Benefit from others’ experiences, I mean! If you’re querying, for example, check out QueryTracker or AgentQuery. Both sites provide databases to search for agents, learn what genres they represent, and locate contact information, among other useful tools. Saving time on one task will allow you to keep up with the rest.

4. Be a butterfly. These delightful creatures flit from flower to flower, only staying long enough to sip the nectar they need. Do what you need to do, then move on.

5. Be alarmed. Set a timer or alarm clock to prod you into finishing the current task and starting the next.

6. Net assets. You thought I was referring to the Internet, right? Well, maybe. Whether on the Net or in real life, develop a network of colleagues who will not only support you but also give you a nudge when you’re drifting toward obsession with a particular task.

7. Some call me Bruce. Building your career as a writer involves a good deal of multi-tasking. Imagine how different things might have been, had Bruce Jenner focused only on running instead of all the events involved in the decathlon. No gold medal, no appearance on the Wheaties box. A social maven won’t go far unless she submits her work. A stellar writer won’t sell books unless people know about them. So be a Bruce!

That’s all for today’s blog post…next stop, researching agents. I wish you success, consistent success, on your writer’s journey!

Balance and blunders

Yoga practitioner by the water

Finding balance can be tricky.

Balance. Everyone talks about achieving it, but how does a poor, beleaguered writer get it? What does that even mean?

I’ve been writing fiction for only a few years now, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. Mostly by making mistakes, much to my annoyance. For starters, I had this zany idea that I could quit my day job and write full-time, get my book done and published within a year, probably with one of the first few publishers to see it. Whoops.

First and most important lesson: don’t quit your day job. Writing is probably one of the most difficult ways to make a living out there, when you’re competing with so many other things for people’s attention. Strike a balance between working a job that brings home the bacon and the job that brings you satisfaction. Eventually, it could be the same job, but a lot of hard work and time may pass before that becomes your reality.

Which brings me to my second point: is writing your job or your passion? Work or play? For money or for love? Can it be both? Although some folks have managed to have their cake and eat it too, the paradox is hard to resolve: developing a career in writing takes a lot of work, but it’s the passion, playfulness, and love that gets you to that point. If you’re doing it for money or glory, prepare for disappointment. Short stories commonly sell for 1 cent per word, if at all, and should you manage to sell your novel, don’t expect tons of money in return. Much better to get a small advance and sell enough books to at least cover it, because unless you have a gigantic audience willing to plunk down money on your book (usually not the case), your publisher isn’t going to be too happy with you. Careers are built steadily over extended time periods. I also had to learn the lesson that making writing your job too quickly can kill the fun and your imagination, if you’re not careful. Taking that pressure off yourself and enjoying the process is important.

Having an outside life and interests is important, too. Although writing on top of a day job sucks up lots of time, you probably aren’t going to be too happy if you never see friends or family, become a couch potato, and obsess over your chances of becoming Stephen King. Regular exercise, quality time with your spouse/kids/friends, and gardening or some other healthy outlets are important for a happy life and, I would argue, rich, well-developed writing.

Writing is both art and craft, which is yet another balancing act. You can study, you can read, and you can analyze your performance to improve, which makes this a craft. But it’s also art, something that can’t be captured in a mere how-to book, and that’s what makes it so difficult and so breathtaking. Chasing after the elusive best-seller in a paint-by-numbers approach might achieve temporary success, if you’re seeking fortune and glory, but I suspect authors taking this path tend to fall away and sink from view, leaving little impression on the hearts and minds of others. For me, that’s just not an option.

What’s the takeaway lesson? Balance isn’t easy to achieve, especially when you’re a writer, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s taking a look at the relationships and activities that contribute to your happy life and then devoting time to each of them in a way that works for you. If you need to buy that organizer and pencil in time for exercise, time for a weekly date night with your husband or wife, time to write, and time for work, DO IT! Ask yourself what you need, write it down, and try to incorporate that into your life. I’m not saying it’s easy, we all know that would be a lie, but balancing the scales makes it easier to sit down and let the words issue forth in a clear, easy stream. Writing is enough of a tightrope already!

Disciplinary actions will be taken

Discipline. Self-control or orderly conduct, according to the ancient Webster’s New World Dictionary residing on my bookshelf. Extremely useful when you’re a writer, and something that I have trouble with on more than one occasion. As one of my friends has said more than once when we play D & D, “You rack the disciprine.”

Martial-arts movie quotes aside, he may be on to something there. Writing does require discipline–you have to make yourself sit in the chair at the computer/typewriter/paper, for starters. You must then put words on the page to get an idea across, and edit what you produce, if you’re at all conscientious. A market or agent must be selected and the work sent out, and tracked. Even when you’re successful, there’s correspondence and marketing and selling to be done. Without discipline, the process breaks down.

I think my error has been on two fronts–believing that the process should always be easy and fun (which it sometimes isn’t), and that it should only occur when “inspiration” or “the mood” strikes me. I know these ideas are unhelpful and detrimental to getting things accomplished, and yet they persist. The truth of it is, writing can be hard work. Notice how this addresses both fallacious ideas in one fell swoop.

So what can we do? Show up, for starters. Put your butt in the chair and grab something to write with. Set yourself a goal, whether it’s a particular length of time or word count, and do your darnedest to achieve it. A word of caution, here–don’t try to make yourself do 10 pages or 4 hours straight, because you’re setting yourself up for failure and even more problems down the turnpike. Make it easy to achieve, so that you get that feeling of pride and confidence and WANT to do more! If you chronically over-schedule and pressure yourself to complete Herculean tasks, come up with a goal and then cut it in half. Yes, you heard me right, you overachieving perfectionists! Foster a feeling of confidence and trust in yourself, so that when writing is difficult or you don’t “feel” like it, those feelings and the good habit of consistently writing will carry you through the rough patches.

And do try to inject a little fun into it, if you’re struggling with getting started! I hate the thought of anyone white-knuckling it as they grimly peck out each joyless word. Play music, have desk toys to stimulate your creativity, and let yourself follow up on that idea that simply captivates you right now. Be silly, be zany, be gross, but be certain that discipline does NOT mean the absence of fun and individuality. Self-control does not mean you’ll be bringing the iron curtain down and running yourself like a totalitarian regime (besides, no one, not even me, would buy me as a dictator of any kind). We get to write, remember? It’s a privilege, not a duty.

So look upon “disciprine” as the doorway to greater fun, productivity, and rewards of all kinds. Even we flaky writer-types need a little now and then…in moderation, of course.

Pro/crastination ≠ pro/ductive

Hi, my name’s Michele and I’m a Procrastinator. There, I’ve gone and done it, haven’t I? Taken an actual step toward facing one of my worst personal demons. I might call him Mr. Noitanitsarcorp, because trying to work with him inhabiting my soul is like working in reverse (and it’s kind of a cool demon name, you know?). How to exorcise a demon of this particular ilk? By discovering what powers him–and for me, that’s fear.

Fear is an extremely powerful human emotion and is quite constructive under many circumstances, except when it prevents you from being productive and prolific. Procrastination is one manifestation of fear, although there might be other reasons a writer puts things off or makes excuses not to write, submit, network, or promote his or her work.

So if you find yourself not sitting down at your computer/typewriter/laptop and not writing/editing/submitting/answering correspondence, stop for a moment and listen to what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. Are you scared? Bored? Frustrated? Write down the thoughts and reasons that might be contributing to those feelings, then address them.

Do you hear yourself saying “I’ll never make it,” “no one gets my writing,” “it’ll take too long to get a career going,” “what if I fail?” or other negative statements? Fight back! Talk back to that pessimistic voice–“I will make it,” “I believe in my work and so do others,” “doing what I love is worth the time I spend,” and “I will succeed!” Short, sweet, and positive–make it your mantra and thumb your nose at that cranky, grumpy, fearful, uninspired part of yourself.

A few excellent resources are “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and “A Writer’s Space” by Eric Maisel. These two books can assist you in recovering your creativity, productivity, and self-confidence using a variety of helpful exercises and techniques. And if you need additional help, don’t be afraid to seek it out–during my years of training in psychology, I went to counseling and found it quite helpful in rediscovering my most passionate dreams and working to achieve them.

Moral of the story: well, I try not to moralize! But seriously, if you love writing and creating, don’t let anything stand in your way. Identify what’s getting in your way and remove it however you need to (although anyone who’s not a Mythbuster or trained professional should steer clear of high explosives). May you be pro/lific and pro/ductive!

War of the Worlds: Frontlines has arrived!

A few days ago I received my contributor’s copy of War of the Worlds: Frontlines. Came at the best time, too, because I had a terrible day at work and wanted nothing more than to go home, shut the front door, and collapse in front of the TV set for a few minutes. Healthy and constructive, no. Quick and easy, yes.

But there it was, a small book-sized package waiting for me on the front porch. And I knew instantly what it was, dropped my satchel and tote and purse and simply ran from car to house to rip it open (carefully, oh so carefully, mustn’t damage the long-awaited prize) with mildly trembling hands.

Beautiful. Glossy cover, elegant font, and my name in the table of contents. MY name, you understand? Turning the pages, there was my story, “Tequila Sunset,” on page 150. Sounds silly to say, but I was goggling over having something I created in an actual, real, professional-looking book that other people will read. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they won’t, but if even one person gets it, that’s enough for me!

As a kid, I was a voracious reader. Couldn’t seem to get enough of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and yes, even the occasional romance. I read the classics and I read complete and utter trash. Hell, I even read the backs of shampoo bottles (not that I’ve stopped, mind you)! There weren’t enough words in the world to fill me up. And now I get to feed others, which is a huge honor that I don’t take lightly.

I was listening/watching some clips on YouTube yesterday about writing and the whole business of it, and one author encouraged writers to think about why they want to write…to teach, to move, to stimulate thinking, to shock, to elevate? I thought about it and responded, “yes.” Maybe that’s not wise in this culture of marketing yourself and finding a niche, but then again, I really believe that successful writing involves using yourself as the tool. And I mean to achieve all of those things in the reader, maybe not all at once, maybe not every single time, but on the whole, that IS who I am. I trained to be a psychologist, so why wouldn’t all of those fit?

When I read my first published story, I see so clearly that writing from a place that’s solidly Who I Am and not catering to what’s Out There is working for me. I could chase after the latest pretty-vampire fad, but that’s not me. All I can say, gentle readers, is that many things become easier when you embrace yourself and your gifts (although many other things get more difficult, but that’s for another day). If you want a window into a little piece of my soul, think about picking up a copy of WotW: Frontlines and turning to the 14th story. And thanks for listening (watching) me ramble!