Monthly Archives: June 2013
Today’s blog is a re-posting of one I wrote for Nanowrimo participants as a pep talk in March 2012. It was published at http://www.nanowrimo.org. As I’m currently doing the (very last, I swear!) edits on STEALING FIRE before it goes to final production, this pep talk is perfect for my own state of mind. (The 1983 novel I mention in the blog is STEALING FIRE – and sadly, no, it WASN’T published last year. See what I mean?) Has this ever happened to you? Be honest:
For some of you, this year’s Nanowrimo is the first time you’ve sat down to write a sustained piece of fiction, and if so, my hands hurt from applauding your effort. I’m not sure anything in the world is harder than sitting in front of a blank computer screen (or piece of paper) and dragging something into creation that didn’t exist before. It takes all kinds of hard work, optimism and courage to put down one word, let alone 50,000 (or however many you’ve racked up). You deserve all the kudos in the world. Bravo.
For others, this is not the first time you’ve written fiction – or tried to write fiction. My hands hurt even more for you because you already KNOW what kind of effort is required – and in Nanowrimo, the take-no-prisoners approach to writing a novel, there’s no time to catch your breath and reflect. (Let’s be honest; there’s barely time to use the bathroom.) But you’ve written your words and now you may be facing an issue that could be the most difficult of all to overcome:
YOU’VE TOTALLY FALLEN IN LOVE WITH YOUR NOVEL.
This is partly a good thing – it’s kept you writing this long.
It’s also sometimes not so good – because it could lead to that desire to make it PERFECT – which is completely counter-productive to ever getting it finished. You won’t let it go until every phrase and every comma is touched by the hand of the divine (or at least a divine fingernail.) You’ll solicit endless opinions and rewrite endlessly. You owe it this kind of painstaking care; it’s your baby and given just a-little-more-time, you know you can make it perfect. But unless you can find it in you to LET IT GO, it can never really be a novel.
I know a little about this.
When I started writing books for hire years ago, I was always given a deadline, which I always met. Always. (I didn’t completely understand what `breach of contract’ meant and I was too scared to want to find out.) This meant that sometimes I wrote books badly or haphazardly or (once) hardly even knowing my subject (that was fun), but they got to an editor’s desk when they were supposed to.
How did I do it? Easy. I wasn’t emotionally invested in them. They were someone else’s idea and concept that I was hired to execute. So I thought of the job as sort of like writing a term paper: The deadline was always uppermost in my mind and getting it finished became the priority (like Nanowrimo). It might not be great, but hey, it would be done. (It helped that some of those books were published under a pseudonym, which meant if they were lousy, at least no one would know I was responsible.)
I go back to those books now and you know what? They’re okay. In fact, they’re usually better than okay. They tell a good story. They hold reader interest. I can be proud of them. And the mindset I used to write them was professional: GET IT DONE.
Then there are the novels that are all mine from start to (sort of) finish. I’m proud of those too – but what it takes to get THEM finished is nobody’s business. I started one novel in 1992 that wasn’t finished and published till 2003 – and that’s one of my success stories. I told everyone the research took years (and it did), but the real reason was that I procrastinated like crazy – couldn’t find the right beginning; couldn’t figure out the main character’s profession (usually this is self-evident; when it’s not, it can drive you crazy), couldn’t connect the dots of the mystery – and I had a collaborator! (If it had been just me, I’m not sure it would be finished yet.)
See, I like to write in pieces – have you done this? (I actually recommend it if you’re having trouble getting into your story.) Don’t try to write the novel from beginning to end. Usually when I start a novel, I have certain scenes (often not the first or most important ones) that pop out at me. A sentence forms itself in my mind. A description. A scene tells me what it’s about.
So I sit down and write it. A scene at the beginning, then maybe one in the middle. A little piece at the end. How about the epilogue? Those can be fun. In a strange way, it can keep you writing without getting crazy over being perfect, because you’re not really, you know, COMMITTED to this thing. You’re just writing scenes that may someday connect. You don’t know how yet – but you do know that when you finally write the tough parts, you’ll be more brilliant than you’ve ever been. Just not – you know – today. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day.
I started a novel in 1983 that I wrote this way. A scene here, a piece there. When I added up the pieces (they were all in separate files on the computer), I had 275 pages of an unfinished novel – too much of a good thing to let go.
But sooner or later you have to connect the dots in order to write a novel – and that’s where giving yourself an inflexible deadline (like Nano) is so good. I had such a deadline in 2007, when I finally faced taking those piles of disconnected pages and forming them into a novel. And I only had ONE WEEK to do it, because I was entering a big writing competition.
I had to stop loving my novel and toying endlessly with words and phrases. Now I had to get down in the trenches – deal with the story and character questions I’d always avoided before – and somehow finish it.
In that one week, I cut 100 pages of the manuscript, wrote dozens of new pages (the scenes I was going to write `someday’ – well, someday had arrived), wrote connections between scenes so it was (more or less) coherent, and sent it in with my fingers (and my eyes) crossed. It made the semi-finals, but more important, I had something that still needed revision but was really, finally, a novel, with a discernible beginning, middle and end. (I did this in October, just before starting a NEW novel for Nano in November. And that year’s Nano was a snap; after what I accomplished in ONE WEEK in October, 50,000 words in November was a yawn. Perspective is everything.)
That 1983 novel will FINALLY be published this year – almost 30 years after I started it. That’s way too long. I needed years to get it down, but I also needed to GET IT DONE – something I delayed because I was chasing perfection. What I’ve finally learned after all these years is: When it comes to finishing ANYTHING, perfection is your enemy. Getting it done and being perfect are two factors that in my experience do not co-exist. Perfection is something you daydream about; typing THE END (the two most beautiful words in the English language) is solid reality.
And reality is way better.
Nothing we write will ever be perfect. But if we aim for damn good, believe me, we can all get there, and writing helter-skelter in November really helps. And in getting there, we become what we want to be: An honest-to-God NOVELIST. One finished novel, published or not, makes you a novelist. A hundred unfinished novels don’t.
I have a lot of favorite novels that I re-read again and again, and each time, they give me great pleasure (and teach me a lot about writing). I never ask myself if they’re perfect; I just love them. (A lot like my kids.) You can write a novel that will be loved by many, many people that will still never be perfect – and that’s fine. If you think about it, every novelist you admire has faced the same struggle with perfection, and they’ve won: They’ve written THE END.
So my advice to anyone struggling to complete a novel is: Avoid loving it too much. Love it just enough to get it done. It takes love, along with sweat, sleepless nights, cursing and a lot of chocolate, to finish a novel. Don’t ever expect to make it perfect; you can’t. Don’t rewrite endlessly; have the courage to write THE END and mean it, and know that while you can always write a NEW novel, you can’t write this one ever again. It’s the price you pay for being a novelist.
When it’s done, let it fly on its own. It will. I promise. Like your kids, it has more of your best in it than you think.
And just a little bit of your best, believe me, is all your novel needs. It’s truly divine.
Wishing you inspiration, magical connections and easy access to chocolate –
This spring has been a huge breakthrough for me, career-wise. For the first time in my life, there are no boundaries, no red lights, no barriers. Every question I ask is being answered, “Yes!” Opportunities are turning up out of thin air – and leading to even more opportunities.
After thinking I had no choice but to self-publish for the rest of my life, in the last month, I’ve signed to publish two books with Drake Valley Press, a medium-sized publishing house in North Carolina. DVP chooses their authors carefully and sparingly, produces their books with meticulous attention to detail, and supports them with a barrage of marketing and promotion strategies that are low-cost but highly effective. I’m consulted on every decision from punctuation to cover art to scheduling, and the mantra constantly repeated to me is, “Your name is on this book. You make the final call.” I LOVE it!
It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced such a sense of team play in publishing a book. DVP loves my work, and the feeling that other people care about my books—and will invest their own hard work and energy toward my success–is overwhelming.
STEALING FIRE, a love story, will be published on August 31st. FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION, the reprint of the alternate-history novel about the JFK assassination that I wrote with Kevin Finn in 2003, will be published on October 31st. DVP will be focusing on promoting both books heavily for at least the first nine months and then steadily after that.
How did it happen? And why now, after I’ve been a professional writer for 25 years? I think because after all these years, I made a key decision, arising out of a fundamental change in the way I’ve chosen to live my life—and that has changed EVERYTHING. Literally. The universe is aligning itself to support my choices. Suddenly, nothing is hard.
The gurus tell you to visualize. SEE what you want in your future, imagine it, feel it happening to you. Theoretically, this brings you closer to that future. Well, either I’m too auditory for it to work (I hear sounds, music and words in my head all the time, but am much weaker at ‘seeing’ anything – blame all those years when my actual uncorrected vision was 20/400.)
What was that fundamental change?
Here it is. Drum roll, please: the fundamental change I made was deciding to LIVE MY FUTURE – RIGHT NOW.
I was one of those people who never lived in the now. I kept thinking that some time in the distant future (which I never quite defined), life would fall into place (didn’t know how) and I would make my living writing my own stuff, and everything would be wonderful. But years went by, I kept taking writer-for-hire assignments and never quite believed that writing my own original stuff would support me – and every time someone said something even slightly negative to me, I buried my original creative self in the sand and hoped no one knew where to find me.
Everything I did was ‘temporary, just until something better comes along’. But somehow, last year, the universe decided that wasn’t the way to go anymore. The writer-for-hire assignments dried up. I was no longer motivated to hustle for those jobs (and almost convinced myself I was no longer interested in writing, period), and my New York agent informed me a year ago that she no longer saw any point in representing me.
When your agent fires you, you know you’re on the wrong path. But how to get on the right one?
After thinking it over, I knew I had nothing to lose by LIVING THE FUTURE I thought I wanted, right now. Nothing else was working. The only jobs I could get paid $8.50 an hour and used none of my skills (and I had to take them; I desperately needed the income). It was profoundly depressing.
Early this year, I decided that visualizing my future wasn’t cutting it. No matter what rosy future I saw in my mind’s eye, it seemed completely disconnected to my present – and how to get from here to there was a problem too big for me to solve.
So I decided to go about it differently, using a two-pronged approach:
1) No more writer for hire. What I write from now on is MY OWN WORK. I stand or fall on it. I never felt like a real writer (whatever that is) fleshing out someone else’s ideas. I want to write my own. That’s why I became a writer to begin with (duh). Writing the books I have inside me is what keep me going – and I’ve previously delegated that task to some time in an undefinable future because I just could not imagine it on a day to day basis. But however well or badly I create a story, characters and world, that’s what I do, and what I intend to do for the rest of my life. While writing for hire is a GREAT way to get your name out there, to learn how to deal with assignments, editors, deadlines and the business of writing, it is not a substitute for letting your own voice be heard.
NO ONE BECOMES A WRITER TO WRITE SOMEONE ELSE’S STORIES.
2) I decided to stop even trying to visualize my future. Forget meditating with my eyes closed. Strategic planning (the business school version of visualization) never was my strong suit. I have trouble coming up with five-year plans; heck, I have trouble coming up with five-month plans. I can handle a week at a glance, but a life? Nope.
So the second decision was – STOP VISUALIZING AND START, INSTEAD, DOING EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO FILL MY PLACE AS A WRITER RIGHT NOW. EVERY DAY.
What did that mean? For me, it meant no longer visualizing a project. It meant writing it NOW, with whatever creative tools I have TODAY. Get the idea, jot down some notes, write a first draft, make more notes, rewrite, polish, submit. Repeat. It meant no longer dreaming of being respected as a writer and earning the big house, the big car, the big whatever; it meant doing my very best as a writer TODAY, so even if no one else ever respects me, I can at least respect myself and be happy with some, hopefully most, of my own effort.
It also meant accepting the knife-edge of recognition. It’s lovely when someone writes to say they like your work. It’s not so much fun when someone posts a rotten review of your book on Amazon, where the whole world will see it. Accepting that I’ll never get 100% of the audience is one of those things that to me means I’m thinking like a professional writer who knows that as much fun as it is to create your own world, there’ll always be someone who doesn’t like it. I’ve decided to accept that (like I can do anything else!) and move on. Brooding about one rotten review when a dozen people like my work is stupid and unproductive. And, by the way, unprofessional.
I intend to have at least one novel, possibly two, published EVERY SINGLE YEAR from now on. That means sitting down and banging away at that keyboard NOW. Making short-term career plans NOW (I can do short-term). Having pages completed THIS WEEK, not next century. The more I found myself making ‘writerly’ decisions – whether on creative content or promotional ideas – the more I found the universe was treating me like a – gulp – respected writer.
What a surprise. (Second ‘duh’ here.)
I got invitations to speak at conferences I’ve never heard of, and for some reason, the conference organizers were THRILLED when I said I’d turn up. They offered me great speaking slots and – hello! – will pay me just to show up, apart from any book sales I made. The way the world is seeing me as a writer seems to be a reflection of the fact that I’ve decided to see myself as a writer – you know, the kind who writes from original ideas and presents something to the world that comes entirely from me.
It feels good. The hell with visualization – being highly auditory anyway (I hear songs in my head all the time), visuals just aren’t my thing. But being a professional writer is. TODAY.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike,” President Kennedy said (pretty famously) in his 1961 inaugural address.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to capture the essence of President Kennedy and some other pretty famous people we associate with him, in my novel FORWARD TO CAMELOT (co-authored with Kevin Finn). So I thought that calling my blog ‘Let The Word Go Forth’ and devoting it to ruminations on the writer’s life would be the right way for me to venture into the blogosphere.
I’m kicking off this blog, then, with those immortal words, in hopes that they might lead to some immortal words of my own—whether in my blog or (fingers crossed) in my books or in other writing that I do. But I also hope that reading this blog regularly will help you, my fellow writer, to greater success in your own writing endeavors. I don’t pretend to know everything—or in some cases ANYTHING—about the million-and-one things we writers are supposed to know about living the writer’s life. What I do know is that it seems vastly more complicated than it used to be.
It used to be that writers only had to know their craft inside and out, and cultivate an individual voice, and adhere to deadlines that insure their projects are finished, and edit their work to fit the guidelines of correct spelling/grammar/usage, story consistency and character voice. And after we’d done all that, we also got to check our finished, typeset work — every single word — again for final errors and supervise the creation of the cover and write the cover copy, dedication, acknowledgements, and in the case of non-fiction writers, the bibliography and footnotes (whew!). We usually also had to produce media kits, with at the very least, a brilliant-sounding bio (some of my very best fiction is in my bio). Then we could (hah!) relax.
Now, though, it seems we are also expected to be at least conversant with promoting books via social media—Facebook and Twitter are the barest minimum—along with such staples as Amazon site promotion and a presence on sites like Goodreads and Pinterest, if you want to really show off. This does not even include the hours needed to drum up interest on virtual or local book tours (I prefer the virtual kind), local or national radio and TV shows and book reviews from ‘established’ reviewers.
I wasn’t thinking about all this stuff when I decided to be a writer. Well, in all fairness, most of it didn’t actually exist when I decided to be a writer. (I am now admitting in print for the very first time that I went off to college in the ’70’s with an Olympia manual typewriter — and felt good about it.)
But all these new outlets exist now, and not using them means possibly imperiling your career and your readership.
What’s a mother to do?
Grin, bear it and work your butt off, I think. And how to do all these things swiftly and painlessly and still have a life and write your next opus will be the subject of upcoming blogs as together we survey the writer’s life and decide how best to navigate those often-muddy waters. We’ll talk about the writer’s craft, the writing business, realistic vs. unrealistic expectations, and the spiritual side of a writing career, because all good writing–and living–has that element as well.
2013 will be, I hope, a monumental year for me, with the publication of three books: REALIZING YOU (with Ronald Doades), in the summer of 2013, STEALING FIRE (from my new publisher, Drake Valley Press) in September, and the 50th Anniversary Edition of FORWARD TO CAMELOT (also from Drake Valley Press) in November. Part of my blog will be an ongoing account of what I’m doing and how well it works out. I’ll be embarking on my first virtual book tour (looking forward to it!) and my first virtual review tour. Will certainly keep you posted!
Join me for tips, quips and maybe even a few tears as we work toward household-nameship together. (Didn’t think I could invent a word in the middle of my first blog, didja?)
Thanks for being on the journey with me – it’s so much more fun when you’re not alone.
LET THE WORD GO FORTH …