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!

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!

Can you feel me now? Good!

Okay, just realized that this post’s title could come across rather in a different way than intended, but bear with me here, people. What I’m referring to is emotion and writing that evokes an emotional response, that wrenches your gut and makes you weep or laugh out loud. That’s what I aspire to produce so much of the time, but achieve only part of it. I frequently wonder what makes certain movies or stories so emotionally satisfying and others flat or just plain annoying.

I’ve been following Doctor Who for a few years now and haven’t been entirely satisfied with the newest season until the last episode. When Vincent Van Gogh is transported to the present-day Musée d’Orsay and sees his paintings on display, hears how influential his work has been, he’s moved to tears. And I cried right along with him, feeling that profound joy at knowing one’s work has made a difference. In one short episode, I developed a connection to him and felt much of what he felt–empathy, in other words.

That’s what I think makes for great stories, that strong connection to and investment in what happens to the characters, particularly the protagonist(s) or “good guys.” How many times have you sat through a horror movie with vapid, flat, one-dimensional characters that you don’t care about? I’ve sometimes found myself rooting for the monster instead because I actually had feelings about it!

So how do you evoke feelings for and about your characters? I’m no expert, but I can speak from my own experience, both as a reader and as someone who trained to be a psychologist. Making what a character experiences something that readers can relate to seems important. Losing a loved one, especially when we as readers have come to love that person too, feels like a small death of our own hearts…and sometimes not so small. When a writer allows him- or herself to fully experience their own emotions and allows characters to be themselves, be real people with flaws and weaknesses and desires, those feelings tend to come across on the page and move us as well.

There have been times in the past when I’ve cried or been incredibly happy for a protagonist in a movie or a book, and certain other people boggle at the sight. “What in the world are you crying for,” they say, “it’s not as if they’re real people!” I beg to differ. For me, they’re very real. All stories profit from suspension of disbelief, and when I’m presented with someone who could be real, fully rounded and believable, I fall for it and believe they really are. And I feel accordingly.

So maybe, in the most roundabout of ways, what I’m trying to say is that my job, as a writer, is to help my reader clap their hands and believe in fairies so that the magic doesn’t die. We all know that the world encourages us to be practical, to believe in only what we can see, hear, and touch, and that the ability to imagine dwindles as a result. Perhaps that’s our task, as writers–to break the wicked spell of disbelief and breathe life back into our readers, kissing them awake gently sometimes and beating out a thunderous tattoo in their sleeping ears at others.

So what I want to know is, can you feel me now? I sure hope so. Otherwise, prepare for delicate kisses, soft and light as butterfly wings, or a big bass drum to rouse you from your slumber. I won’t spoil the surprise of which one it will be…it’s better this way, don’t you think?

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!