Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

Faith, Hope, and Dad

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13: 13

My dad thinks I’m awesome.Daddy_Lyn_June_2013

Before you question this narcissistic start to a Father’s Day post, bear with me. I believe there are two types of people: those who are successful with the help of their dads, and those who have achieved in spite of their dads. I am blessed to say I’m successful thanks to my father.

A male role model must be many things: forthright and honest, loyal and dependable, driven and persistent, and vigilant and protective. It’s a bonus if he is fun, kind, and excited about life. I got the complete Dad package.

During a self-publishing journey, you need a lot of support. You need a cheerleader with faith and business sense. My dad has been at my side throughout this process, suggesting new ideas and sending me the latest updates from bloggers and industry experts, doing research, building Excel spreadsheets, and asking sales and marketing questions. He has my back in an enterprise that has no clear or “right” trajectory. There are some parents who might say, “Are you really sure you want to do this? Isn’t it a lot of work? Why don’t you wait it out another few years (never mind the three spent querying the industry and working with an agent) because the traditional path seems like a safer bet.” Instead, my dad captures all the confusing Excel data from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Smashword and brainstorms how a developer needs to create an app to automate such a process. He compliments my writing efforts and sings my praises to friends and family. He loves to see me shine, and with that special Dad pride, he can make me look even brighter.

My father’s actions relay to me that no matter what I attempt, I can do it. A daughter needs that kind of optimism if she is to undertake an artist’s life.

My dad modeled risk-taking to me since my childhood. We moved from Southern California to Northern, to Belgium, back to Northern California to North Carolina as he pursued various opportunities with his work. I learned that new places hold possibility, that people of other states and countries have fascinating histories, and that there are good people and new friends everywhere. I learned that over time, one can adapt to new situations and discover new sides to oneself. My dad thrives on meeting new people, making new friends, and trying new foods. He handed down to me that same zest for experimentation and newness.

In the ed world, one will often here the phrase “lifelong learner” as a descriptor for a teacher’s ideal persona. Ever curious, open, and excited, this kind of teacher inspires his or her students to embark on the learning journey. That phrase fits my father perfectly. This is what he’s taught me: to treat each day as a new opportunity and an ambitious adventure.

My dad is a man of many gifts. He knows people the world over who are grateful for his leadership, mentorship, and business savvy. With all these talents he’s always been extremely humble and does not call attention to himself. He is the kind of worker right in the trenches with everyone else. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I began to appreciate all he had done and was pursuing. And he still thinks my little business enterprise is worth his time and attention.

Love is reliable and shows up every day, just like a good dad. It is consistent, persistent, and trustworthy. A great father’s love is full of faith and hope. I will be forever grateful for my wonderful father who has shaped me, my view of myself, and my happiness.

Writing Prompts:

  • What is a line your father often said to you, and when would he say it? Why do you think you remember it now?
  • How much are you like and unlike your father?
  • Have you been blessed by a good father, or challenged by a non-father? Have you survived a bad father? How do you know what good fatherhood is?
  • What are your paternal instincts, and how do you pursue them?
  • In How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Wendy says, “Funny how the potential stepdad gives so much more of a damn than the biological mother, who can’t even remember I’ve got this project, much less any major exams.” Wendy is charmed by one of her mother’s boyfriends, Shaye, who seems to be the first with stepdad potential. She has no compass for what a dad’s behavior should be like, and so she is easily misled by seemingly dadlike behavior. What other charismatic ways does Shaye appear to have Wendy’s best interests in mind?
  • What do we know of any males in the story who might be father figures? What conclusions do you draw about this woman-centric, fatherless world Wendy lives in? Does this world have Wendy’s best interests in mind?

Kill That Back Story…Says The Village

My writers’ group has told me in no uncertain terms to kill that back story that currently serves as the opening to my new novel.

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But the other night, I couldn’t quite believe my trusted critique partners. No, the voice of habit and comfort, never mind a fond memory of How the Muse Struck Me, was wa-a-a-a-a-y louder than they.

As I’ve been prepping my manuscript for their critique this week, I’ve stared lovingly at my opening chapter, a back story tale of the protagonist in fifth grade. The history of how the poor thing was bullied–how in the world can I leave that out?

The main action of the novel will take place in ninth grade, when the protagonist vows to seek revenge–but no matter, no matter, the back story tale is just so clever, so well-written, so full of protagonist voice, how could I ever move it from first place?

You see, the Muse brought me the first lines of the character’s voice, they came like a revelation, so OF COURSE they should be the first words of the novel, right?

And don’t readers need to know about the long-standing enmity before we see the ninth grade scenes? Won’t the reader feel the pathos of the poor little 10 year-old character and the story will be the better for it?

My head was so full of these rhetorical questions–in other words, the vote to keep the back story had already won the argument–that I couldn’t move forward. Then it hit me: Post the question on Facebook and see what the people say.

At first I wondered if it was just another one of my procrastination tactics, me refusing to face the hard work of drafting. But I headed into the virtual village anyway.

I wrote, Begin with back story, or jump right into the action? That is the question.

Bob: Only if it’s a prologue, and I’ve been shooed off of those.

Lauren: So many of my favorites start with action in the first chapter, that I lean towards that side. But that’s not to say that there can’t be backstory as well. Find a situation to put your character in that allows them to tell a part of their story as the action develops. Just a bookworm’s two cents.

Karen: Action…plenty of time for backstory later.

Jamey: I do love me some backstory, but I think that might work (at least for me) if it’s doled out bit by bit in the story…This makes me think of when we watch older movies. The credits came before any action at all. And now it has to start with a bang.

Tara: “I will destroy this mean girl.” That’s a pretty darn great first line to a book if you ask me. Flashbacks to the history as she goes would prob work.

The people spoke, and finally, I was ready to listen.

It’s not about my not trusting fabulous critique partners, Stephanie and Jen. They steer my prose well so often. It’s not about my not knowing modern storytelling strategies that work well–because I do. I think one of my issues is that I can’t always define my genre and in this limbo land, I try to be both old school and new school. I write commercial fiction, with a literary twist–but not full-on literary and not straight genre. Since I straddle the lines, those fast-dissolving lines that perhaps never were to begin with, I confuse myself sometimes wanting to be all things to all people, which is a way of giving myself a pass Don’t box me in because there are no rules. In other words, an easy way out.

Not so with writing. What does the audience want? is a question you can never ignore. You can answer it myriad, creative ways, and the voice of the people can set much-needed strictures. Nuns fret not, remember, in their narrow convent rooms; Wordsworth tells me so. Limits are a good thing.

So I got back to work on Chapter 1. And suddenly, I started asking more questions of plot events I’d taken for granted. Why didn’t Mean Girl Carli’s secret get more play? Why didn’t Carli ever directly threaten Minerva, the protagonist? What if they had a scene together? Does the pain of fifth grade seem like centuries ago to a ninth grader, and why should the reader care anymore than Minerva about that fated day, circa age 10? Suddenly my sacred manuscript suddenly looked moth eaten, a Swiss cheese of plot holes.

The new chapter might fix this. I don’t know; it’s only draft one. But if we are going to write novels in this revolutionary time of self-publishing, we must take heed of what the people say, else become part of the supposed “tsunami of crap” that would-be authors unleash on the web, or, lost in the hubbub, the roaring noise of too many voices.

Last thought: if Salinger, Lee, O’Connor, or Munro (four of my favorite authors) had used Facebook, would their writing be better? I’m not saying it would. All I know is, I needed it yesterday for my creative process, and it kickstarted me out of an idling path and revved my engine for better plotting going forward.

Now I have a new chapter called Cornered by Carli’s Cartel. Clearly I’m having too much fun with alliteration. The inspiration came from the crowd, and I’m thankful for it.

Where do you get your inspiration when you’re trying to break through a writing block? 

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare. What You Mean to Me.

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Today the Bard is 448 years old. This universal author touches so many: he’s global and he’s omnipresent because he’s also quite local and personal. So let’s set the GPS for me with the typical narcissism we love as bloggers. What does the Bard mean to me? It’s still a pretty nice birthday tribute to tell another how he’s changed your life, so I’m sure Will wouldn’t mind a fan 400 years hence bowing to his wisdom, his beauty, and his wit.

I have already written my thanks directly to Will and why I need him, and I have already defended his honor, nay, his very existence. Today, just some simple, quick thoughts of how Shakespeare is part of my daily bread and daily pages.

  1. Poetic language that transports the teen heart. I fell in love with Shakespeare in 11th grade when Macbeth taught me what “all is lost” meant. Is there any better speech than “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…” (The entire text shimmers at the end of this post.) I knew then that Shakespeare got me. He got depression, he got ennui, he got hopelessness. 
  2. Words, words, words. I have so many great words thanks to the man who made them common parlance. Dauntless, besmirched, and lackluster are just a few. This delightful Youtube video, a must-see for high school students, dedicates Chapter 3 (found at 2:19) to the Bard’s impact. His words, read aloud many times in my own schooling and later in my classrooms, inform my writing today with diction, musicality, and emphasis. I think of his consonance, alliteration, euphony, cacophony, internal rhyme, and meter, and I hear me trying to imitate it in my own work while sounding 2012. 
  3. Kid inspiration. The other day, I’m standing in line for a burrito, and a young man in scrubs said, “Excuse me, did you ever teach at Stanford?” I told him yes once I figured out he meant the middle school, not the university. I could not place him. “I’m Adam,” he said. “I played Mercutio?” Then I remembered. One can only cast an adventurous, humorous soul for that role, and suddenly I saw the 13 year-old I hadn’t seen since 1998.  I told him I was happy he had survived that production of Romeo and Juliet, because I recall it involving a) seventh graders  b) no budget and c) not enough time to master the Bard’s work. But because of intrepid and enthusiastic kids, a persistent if naive director, and some awesome parent support, the thing came off. And Adam made his mark. Now he takes care of patients and plays music. And yet he still remembered being Mercutio. “My one claim to acting fame,” he joked. Thanks, Will, for helping me make an impact on some youth on a dusty stage with poor lighting yet burning still with your incandescence. 
Shakespeare, a book of your complete plays would suffice for a desert island exile. On my worst days there, I’d still find great speeches with more left to mine, and I’d call up great memories with your stories in my classroom. And I would find great words to help me write my story in the sand. 
Writing Prompts:
  • What has the Bard done for you lately? Or once upon a time?
  • Write about to-morrow, about life’s petty pace, and your fears of dusty death.
  • Find one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and let its lines inspire a new work from you.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
 Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
 To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

excerpted from the MIT full text. Act V, scene v

Meeting C. Hope Clark

When C. Hope Clark announced the debut of her first novel, Lowcountry Bribe, she shared in her weekly Funds for Writers newsletter her plan to tour writers’ groups.

What a great idea, I thought. Since her weekly FFW emails share contests, grants, agent/publisher resources, and editorials on market and craft, she’s able to talk not only books but also about every aspect of the writer’s life. I wrote her immediately, since I already belong to two groups and am starting a new writing partnership. I teamed up with my parents, not only writers but also consummate hosts, and offered Hope a place to stop along her tour.

Last night we saw yet again why many view Hope as “the Oprah of the writing world.”

  • She’s a wonderful storyteller. As a friend commented to her, “You had us mesmerized.” Hope talked easily about the grueling process of birthing this book (14 years!) and personal events that inspired the novel, such as being offered a bribe while working for the government, pursuing criminal investigations, and working alongside federal agents. 
  • She’s been through it. Let me say it again: 14 years. This is the story that most writers relate to, as not many of us are Snooki and Kim Kardashian who can say, “Book?” and poof, someone writes it for them. For years she shared her work with local critique groups and an international online writers’ group even though she was told her first draft “sucked.” She kept showing back up with new drafts. One of the most encouraging stories was about the very first draft of the novel. She deleted it off her computer to resist the temptation to repurpose anything, but she did shelve it in hard copy. When this past year her publisher, Bell Bridge Books, sought a title, she stumbled on the infant draft. The publisher had just sent her “Lowcountry Bribe” as a possibility. Hope, 14 years prior, had thought to call her work, “Lowcountry Bribery.” There was a collective “ahhh” in the room when we heard this story, and here’s what I got out of it: No matter how bad that first draft, believe that its existence in your writer’s life serves a purpose. 
  • She can laugh at herself. She noted how every trauma she’s been through has ended up being useful later on. Writing can make meaning out of the mess we call Life, and Hope talked about taking horrible moments and reconstituting them as fiction. She also admits to being a shy writer who’s figured out how to talk to large groups. You have to have a sense of humor to overcome that kind of discomfort. You can check out The Shy Writer, one of her first books, to learn about how one overcomes the fear and challenges of getting outside the writer’s cave.

I read Lowcountry Bribe quickly–ate it up like a good meal–and know I’ll buy the next book. You can read my Amazon review here. Let’s just say that Hope’s Carolina Slade is a the perfect protagonist writers need as a model for big choices, big action, and big trauma. She is the opposite of the meandering, in-your-head, do-nothing characters that plague many novice manuscripts. I add Carolina to my list of writing prompts of how to kick start your pathetic characters.

I loved the book, and I’m not a mystery reader. I just did a genre switch–unlikely for someone in their fourth decade of reading–and I credit Hope as a person. Hope, the encourager of writers, is the reason I bought her book. I felt like I had gotten to know her over the course of newsletters and blogs, and I cared about her success with this book. 
Hope’s story and how her work hooked me is a great example of 21st century reading experiences and how flat our world has become. I would never have met Hope without the Internet. Maybe a subscription to Writer’s Digest in old-school print format might have made the connection, as she’s written for the magazine and also won Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers for 10 years.  But the relationship we have built through her blog, e-newsletters, Facebook posts, and tweets, and her answers to my emails, is a product of today’s online publications and social networking.
Hope walked out of the car, a four-hour ride to our side of the world, talking about the edits she’s doing on the second book. After several hours of hob-knobbing with fellow writers and fans, she got back on the road to edit some more. When I wonder if I can get up the energy to take up my manuscript in revision yet again, I will think of Hope, get hope, and start again. 
Writing Prompts:
  • Have you met an author lately? Attend a book talk at your local bookstore and meet someone new.
  • Have you crossed a genre line lately? Read a book outside your typical tastes and see what happens.
  • Have you subscribed to Funds for Writers? Check out Hope’s list of contests, publishers, agents, her advice and editorials, and other resources, and make a commitment to follow through on a bit of advice.