When Other People Get Good News

The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.

As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.

I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.

My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.

Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.

The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.

I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding12wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.

My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print.  My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.

I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.




What’s Your Finest Work?

What is your finest work? I’m not talking about masterpieces or magnum opuses. I mean, what is the day-to-day grind that you embrace with joy. What do you work hard at without regret, no matter what the results?  What work do you miss or crave?

Elizabeth George sums up my finest work, what writing is for me:MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

“A lot of writing is simply showing up. A lot of writing is being willing to show up day after day, same time and same place. A lot of writing is being able to put the work first simply because it is the work. A lot of writing is being able to delay gratification.

…Authors are those guys who hope to get rich quick with a big sale to a big publisher followed by a lucrative movie deal. They write the same novel over and over and they declare at the beginning of their careers that if they don’t get published, they’ll give it up.

 Writers, on the other hand, are those guys who’d write anyway. They have to breathe, after all. They have to live.”

Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.

I’m wondering what makes you live.

This post came to me at the most unglamorous of moments: scrubbing the orange mold off my shower walls. It was a grimy, slimy job I’d avoided for months (and I won’t tell you how many). As I submitted to the work, I thought about the story of a friend whose roommate never cleaned the tub, to the point that there was a black tub with white footprints where she stood each day. Fortunately, it was a two-bathroom flat. I comforted myself with the fact I wasn’t that reluctant to clean. But as I worked on the nooks and crannies of the yucky job, fighting not just mold but mineral stains and rust, I thought how hard it is to get excited about this work because I never will be able to get the tub to anywhere near sparkling, no matter how hard I scrub.

But writing…writing is not only the magic of finding the right word in the moment, and then escaping into a phrase, person, or scene you’ve made; it’s also the belief that the story can be a glistening pearl someday. The work is long and slow and there is always sacrifice. But it lifts me up, makes me a better person, and always gives back. I write to live and live to write.

Writer’s Survival Guide, Part I: Chant, Copy, and Paste Your Way into Confidence

Image found here

With the New Year barely launched, our heads full of well-intentioned resolutions, the biggest question is, How do we get ‘er started?

I’ve found and named three ways I stay focused. There are many others, because without a bank of strategies I’d never have made it through 20-some drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT in the last two years. I wouldn’t have believed I could do a third revision for my agent in six months, nor would I welcome more comments if she has them this month. I would have been too worried that writer’s block would plague me and prevent any kind of progress.

Here’s an annoying admission: I don’t let writer’s block get me. I despise my writing at times and think it’s going nowhere, but that’s different than actually stopping. Let me delve into why I keep plodding, because I’m not really sure of all the reasons aside from workaholicism, and hey, the teacher in me wants to understand why others do.

These tactics have kept me solid when I feel my edges blur and my will fade.

1. I chant my mantras. In secular speak, we’ll call this an oft-repeated phrase or a motivational pep line. But they’re best described as words to invoke when I feel fear. I wake up to fear at 4:00 AM; I feel fear when I’m considering an overhaul of my manuscript; I feel fear when embarking on a new idea for a book. I felt a ton of fear while querying of the I’m not worthy variety.

My mantras lean more to the Hindu version: a “word formula” with mystical resonance and sacred power, repeated during times of spiritual reflection. Some might view this to be a spell; some, a prayer; others, an incantation; I consider it all these things. While I won’t share mine, I will tell you it has a calming effect on this writer who has wee-hour or late-night freak-outs. The mantras have evolved into pithier phrases since 2009.

Recently at the Kennedy Center Awards, Yo Yo Ma confessed to being afraid much of the time. As the video montage shared his impressive accomplishments, I respected him all the more for sharing this truth about artistic success–that it is a product of moving through fear, self-loathing, and panic, constantly.

2. I copy and paste models of good writing into my manuscript. When I embark on a scene or section that feels out of my league, I grab something that seems far more professional and copy and paste it into the manuscript. For example, the other day I had to add a newspaper article to my novel, and though I’ve written some in my day, it isn’t my first-choice genre nor is it my area of expertise. This particular article had to be a report on a high school play. So I found a review of Shakespeare’s Henry V–done on trapezes, no less–and plunked it right inside my story so it was right in front of my eyes. A review is not a report, but seeing where the writer focused got my engines fired such that I could start typing my own lines. Maybe it’s like good company; you feel like this task is now do-able with this demonstration before you. Do as I do…it’s as if you’re watching a virtual mentor. The model coaches you along.

As an English teacher who’s forever preached academic honesty and campaigned against plagiarism, I must pause here to say, Don’t get tempted to borrow even two words in a row from another writer. Seriously. English teachers such as me still struggle to communicate the dos and don’ts of plagiarism, but this formula would serve us all well: when you have ten words you wish to paraphrase from another author, make sure five are brand new (your own words, synonyms) and every other word is be re-arranged in a new order. I even paraphrased the definition of mantra you see above, though the content comes from the Free Online Dictionary and most people would say, Copy away. I’m nerdy and precise like that. But it pays off when you’re writing. You build writing muscle–I can paraphrase in a heartbeat–because I have a word bank at the ready in my head. I’m constantly seeing new word combinations and syntax isn’t an issue when you’re writing all the time.

3. I act confident when I don’t feel confident. Though I haven’t quite graduated to the word “when” (as in, “When this novel is published”) and stay stuck on the ifs, I talk with authority about writing to my agent, to my writing group, to colleagues at work, and in my blog. I’m not an expert, but I’m a lifelong learner, and I’ve invested a lot of sweat in the manuscript and several others. I know my characters, what they would and would not do, so when we discuss these folks, it’s like gossiping about the neighbors, and I trust in my own knowledge enough to question other’s responses to my characters.

I’d say 90% of the time, I take my writing group’s or agent’s advice, but sometimes others will offer suggestions that just don’t fit. They’re good ideas, but they don’t suit your manuscript. Comments I’ve heard about my WIP include change the title, don’t have Wendy act in the play, don’t have this adult share personal information, don’t have this person die here; make Wendy happier earlier on, and so forth. All of these comments are 100% valid for the readers who were commenting; it’s what they want to see, and I harbor similarly strong opinions about every book I read. I’m not saying I won’t eventually implement some of them. But as long as I am working hard to learn and listen and address the spirit of the feedback (and sometimes that’s the challenge for all of us–giving or getting feedback that expresses the concepts, or spirit, of what changes must be made, rather than picayune fixes here or there), I’m headed the right direction.

When I’m telling a certain reader that I appreciate the feedback but I want to stick to my guns on this particular point, I do not feel I’m doing the right thing, necessarily, but I tell myself to trust in my gut even though I would rather make my reader happy. Good authors want the story to have an impact, so hearing that your audience isn’t quite moved the way you hoped is important feedback and a heckuva thing to disregard. That said, you have to trust that you see the whole landscape and trajectory of action, plus you know your characters’ back story, present story, future story–or you soon will. And you have to live with the changes, not the readers, in a way that is so personal that you must have confidence in yourself when you choose not to change the manuscript.

And from whence comes such confidence? Uh, see Tactic #1. Lather, rinse, repeat!

How’s your New Year kicked off? What tactics have kept you at the page? What’s your Survival Guide consist of?

Writing Prompts

  • Develop a mantra to keep you at the page. Create multiple mantras till you find the one that suits. Will yours be matter-of-fact (listen to your mother) or spiritual? Will it be like a Marine drill sergeant or Yoda? 
  • Which writers do you admire, so much so that you’ve either read one of their works multiple times or actually can recall passages by heart? Find an inspirational passage and keep a hard copy near your work space and also an online copy to move into your manuscript whenever you need it. This can be another kind of mantra.
  • When your writer’s block is so heavy you can barely lift hand to keyboard, surf online till you find a couple examples of great writing in your genre. Try Google Books, online booksellers, and other  sites that give you samples of writing. Start a library of Models to Emulate, at the ready when you return to the page tomorrow.
  • Rewrite a scene from your life–an incident you’ve survived–where you return to act confident when you did not feel like it. What’s your secret now?