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!

The Lady or the Tiger?

Today I wanted to write about two completely different topics. The “Should” monster popped up and chastised me, urging me to pick one and roll with it. But the monster’s not as big as it used to be, and I kicked it into a corner instead. So here goes.

First topic: Amazon’s decision to create the Kindle Indie Bookstore. There’s been a good deal of discussion about the profitability of self-publishing for authors who either cannot or refuse to go the traditional publishing route, and arguments about whether releasing a glut of unvetted books will have any impact on the overall quality of literature. I’ve been warned not to self-publish for fear of turning off agents and blowing potential deals when I do seek traditional publication, and encouraged to do it because circumvents gatekeepers, with a higher percentage of profit from each book sale.

How will Amazon’s decision affect e-book self-publishing? Hard to say. The storefront does highlight indie books that have sold well, which may give better quality books a leg up. In addition, having your own category could be perceived by some as a nod to legitimacy. Then again, segregating the entire category may eliminate the chance for readers to “stumble upon” some of these books while browsing among their traditionally published cousins, or mark them as the dross of the publishing world. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Second topic: Scientists have discovered that reading fiction can change your personality (read the Quill & Quire article). Subjects were given either a short story or a simple list of plot points to read, and then administered a standard personality assessment. Those who had read the story exhibited personality changes, while those who read only plot points did not. This does not surprise me, but I’m pleased to hear there’s now empirical evidence to support fiction’s influence on readers. In my former life as a psychologist-in-training, I was introduced to narrative psychology—understanding how we, as human beings, make sense of our and others’ experiences by developing a narrative, or story.

We have an important job as writers. By writing stories, we change others and shape the world we live in. It’s easy to become discouraged by the submission and rejection process, thoughtless questions from others about what’s taking so long to get published, the insinuations that what we do is both easy and meaningless. Not so.

I guess I see both topics as “Lady or Tiger” issues: Self-publish or go the traditional route? Quit writing or keep going? Both choices have their up and down sides, their heartaches and ecstasies. In each, there’s a ray of hope because we have choices, and we do make a difference in the world. The evidence is in our favor now, isn’t it?

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!

Leggo my ego!

LEGO Eggo

Writers eat criticism for breakfast!

Nope, not a misspelling–I really did mean ego. In this case, I’m referring to it in the vernacular as a sense of self-importance, such that we believe our work and the products of our imagination are unassailable.

This is where the trouble begins. How do you improve your writing? By hearing and acting on constructive criticism. But let’s be honest, shall we? Hearing that criticism can be agonizing, threatening to our egos when we aren’t sure of ourselves. I know I’ve wanted to run away from it sometimes or clamp my hands over my ears as I babble “la la la la la, can’t hear you!” And I know this isn’t productive–not everyone is going to think our writing is the best thing they’ve ever seen, as beautiful and porcelain-perfect as babyskin. If that were the case, all of us would be instant New York Times bestselling authors, right? Well, I don’t see my name on that list. Not yet, anyway.

Writing is an intensely personal process in many ways. Our ideas, our thoughts, and our feelings are poured out into written form, an imperfect translation of the soul, and when someone critiques that translation it can be crushing. We respond violently, defending our ego from the external threat. “They just aren’t able to appreciate me,” we bluster between licks of the wound, “why can’t they see how talented I am?” So we tune out the criticism and slog along, no wiser.

Did you spot the fundamental flaw? What is being critiqued, anyway? Words on a page. Execution. The match with another person’s unique taste. But you, the person? Hardly. It’s like saying a picture of you is the same thing as the living, breathing you and that because someone doesn’t enjoy that picture, you are worthless. And that’s baloney, because there never has been and never will be anyone else like any of us, ever again. As much as we’re all alike, we’re different–and that means you have something to offer.

So let’s turn the process around. Instead of letting our worth depend on someone’s judgment of words on a piece of paper, unhook the two. Start with remembering what you want to say, the joy you take in writing, all of the great things you are. Write it on a piece of paper in fruit-scented markers and hang it over your desk, record it as your mantra and play it back after the twentieth rejection slip comes in, tattoo it on your forearm if that works for you (and please don’t take all my advice literally, thanks very much–I don’t want hordes of angry family members coming after me to demand monetary compensation for the laser removal treatment), whatever works best.

But DO listen to constructive criticism. Does your story’s pace seem slow or draggy? Cut material or use more active verbs. Too much of a trope? Tropes are hard to avoid, but try for a twist that no one would’ve expected. Comma junkie (my personal problem)? Edit the crap out of your piece and yank the commas out as ruthlessly as weeds from your flower beds. Be honest with yourself and consider feedback not as an attempt to brutalize you, but as the means to becoming a superlative writer. How else do you think you’re going to achieve that goal?

And remember, even the most successful writers still receive criticism throughout their careers. Get used to it. It’s part of the gig. Pour syrup on it and swallow it down as you leggo your ego–bon appétit!

Special thanks to Eric Hunter at The Art of LeGogh for the spectacular photo of one of his awesome LEGO creations!

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?

Shadowboxing

Shadows.  Areas where light cannot penetrate, when obstructed by an object. That part of ourselves that we repress and try to bury, reluctant to admit that it exists at all. Why do I bring this up?

I came face-to-face with my own today. And I was disturbed, to say the least. Generally, I like to think of myself as a good, decent, and relatively soft-hearted person. Someone who tries to do what’s right, and sticks up for the underdog.

The problem is, people like that don’t write the things I put down on paper today…or do they? According to Jung, “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” Okay, I suppose I can buy that, although I’m still uneasy with it.

I wrote this piece, a short story about demons and demon possession, specifically for a particular anthology. I was trying to disturb the reader, to shake them up, but I didn’t expect to feel it myself. And in turn, about myself. We all have the persona, or mask, that we show to the world, reserving our truest selves for our most intimate relationships; and, I would argue, there’s always some part of us that we never share. For me, a lot of that is shadow material, some of which spilled over today into my conscious and even public life, a dark earthquake sending out temblors to rattle my self-image.

And how others see me. I’m quite good at keeping my and others’ secrets, and I can’t say whether that’s fortunate or not, because secrecy is sometimes essential to preserving trust. People used to tell me things, you see, and they often weren’t very nice things–but that’s what I signed up for, when I did counseling. I worry about someone, perhaps a former client or current friend/family member, reading what I’ve created, seeing my darkness, and wondering how in God’s name they ever thought I was a good person to have any sort of relationship with. Because in every story I write, there’s some part of me being brought into the light.

Jung wrote that “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” So I suppose that by writing this story and presenting it to others, making it conscious, I’ve let a little more light into the blacker depths of my psyche. In any case, I’m being honest. And I believe that’s truly important when writing, just like it was when I was doing counseling (although I think I’m more honest now), because it improves the instrument I’m working with–me.

So although I’m doing a little shadowboxing today and fussing over what that means, I don’t think I’ll be stuffing that part back down anytime soon. Stretching the boundaries of the self might be painful and letting the darkness out into the light scary, but I agree with what Shrek says after belching: “Better out than in, I always say.”

Ogres are so wise.

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.