Going back-to-school time (A love letter)

The Abundant Writer

September 3, 2017

Vol 10. No. 36

Here in the Portland area, it is back-to-school time. (I know in many parts of the country this happened weeks ago.)  And it is one of my favorite times of the year. (There is the fact that I’ll be spending most of the month in France, but I loved this time of year long before I started traveling to Europe annually.)  I love this time of year because the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting cooler, but most of all—

Because its back to school!

What is better than shopping for brand new school supplies?  New notebooks just waiting to be filled with ideas, notes, and reports (I loved writing reports) and pens and pencils to write in them with.  New classes with new teachers and new friends.  New topics to learn and new books to read.

There’s so much promise and possibility in the air.  And if there is one thing I love, it is promise and possibility. I’m a great starter.  I love the moment when a new idea starts rushing in and I begin to gather thoughts together and start planning a project. I’m in heaven at the beginning of things.

But finishing I’m not so good at.  I have to dog myself something fierce to bring projects to fruition.  Which is why my craft closet is filled with half-knitting items. (In the knitting world, these are known as UFOs, for Unfinished Projects.) There’s just always a gorgeous new shawl to start! Last winter, when I completed a mitten, my daughter-in-law said, “What? You actually finished something?” Um, yeah. My reputation for UFOs in sterling.

And yes, I do have some UFOs in my writing, too. Stories that seemed so full of promise that fizzled out somewhere in the middle.   A whole draft of a novel that needs a major rewrite.  Haven’t had the heart to tackle it yet—because I have a different novel and a novella that I’m trying to finish editing.

But for the moment, I’m going to allow myself to revel in the back-to-school feeling of newness.  I’ll be teaching in France throughout September, and in past years abroad I’ve gotten inspired and started a new novel.  I have a bunch of notes on yet another new fiction project and I don’t care, I’m going to allow myself to start it!  While I also work on finishing up the editing of the rewrite.

Oh, and by the way—there are some killer sales on school and office supplies at the moment. I suggest you take advantage of them and stock up. Because if you’re anything like me, next to shopping at a bookstore, time spend at an office supply store is one of the best activities imaginable.

Happy back-to-school days!

Leave a comment on what you like about this time of year!

And do come join the Facebook page. You can request membership here.

 

A Brief Hiatus

Where I won’t be, except in my dreams

Sometimes you just have to take a step back.

I’m a big believer in honoring one’s own creative process, whatever it might be and however it works. (You’ve probably noticed that if you’ve read much on this blog.) And one of the things I’ve realized about my own process is that sometimes I just need to take a break to let things gestate.

This is one of those times.

I’ve been writing this blog for ten years now. I’ve written about every aspect of writing and writing inspiration and motivation, as well as the writing life.  And lately, it is getting harder and harder for me to think of anything to write about on those topics. It’s like there’s a big blank wall in my brain when I try to come up with something.

Composting: what my brain will be doing

And so I think I need to take a break for composting–which is what I call what my brain does when it is pondering and breaking down many ideas.  I’m making this intentional instead of just kind of wandering away, as so often happens in my life to other people. (You’ve probably noticed the frequency of my posts has gotten sparser.)

I AM NOT GOING AWAY.

I’ll be back at the beginning of October, maybe sooner if I get inspired while I’m in France.  I just want to have space to think without the voice in my head constantly saying, you should write a blog post. And I have some ideas. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to suddenly start writing about knitting.  Or fixing up cars. Or keeping aquariums.)

IN THE MEANTIME:

I will continue to write, send to my list, and post here on Sundays, my weekly love letters. If you want to have them come right into your inbox, sign up in the form to the right.

AND: I’ll be talking about writing over on the Facebook group.  Click here, ask to join, and I’ll approve you.  For those doubters out there, let me just say I am not a fan of participating on Facebook on my main feed.  It is just overwhelming to me. But groups are different. Groups are where like-minded people come together to discuss one topic. There’s no what color is your ego? quiz or posts about the glories of someone’s vacation (unless it bears on writing). So do come join me there.

Motivation Monday: Sometimes, in Writing and Life, You Just Have to Let Go

Yesterday I wrote about resistance.

But today I’m writing about its opposite, letting go. Which is funny, right? Like life is funny.

Anyway, here’s the deal. This past weekend, the hub and I took an overnight trip to Eugene, a hundred-ish miles down the road from Portland, and home of one of my alma maters, the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!).  We were going to attend a birthday party for my friend and client, Kim Leval. (And what a fun party it was–but that’s a story for another day.)

When we take a short road trip, I usually make ask my hub to drive so that I can knit. (I wear these so I don’t get carsick.)  This past weekend, I had the perfect idiot knitting project (one you can do without paying much attention to). It is an airy scarf that I hope will be wide and long enough to wear as a shawl.   I’m not that far along on it, but I made good progress in the car.

However.

Something bad happened to my knitting.  It started slanting.  As far as I was concerned, the thing was supposed to come out all nice and neat, eventually forming one gargantuan rectangle I could artfully wrap around my shoulders. But instead it was freaking slanting.  I kept telling myself it just appeared to be slanting, and that if I yanked on it enough, it would stop. So every knitting session turned out to be a marathon of yanking on the edges of the damn thing, then holding it up to see if that made any difference.  

It didn’t.

I wasmaking myself crazy trying to make the shawl into something it was never going to be.  And I might just as well have been getting my teeth cleaned for all the enjoyment I was getting out of it.

Finally, driving home yesterday I had an epiphany: the shawl is slanting because it is creating a bias drape as I knit. I have no idea how or why this is happening. (I’ve been knitting since I was a kid, and still the craft offers mysteries to me.) But it is happening and no amount of yanking is going to change it. So I decided to quit fussing over it and relax and enjoy it.

I no longer care, either. It will be what it will be. Maybe it really is forming a bias drape, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it will magically become the giant rectangle I have in mind! But most likely it won’t. Doesn’t matter.  Because, suddenly, the knitting is fun again.  I am no longer resisting the natural shape of the shawl and instead I’m relaxing and enjoying it.

I don’t know about you, but this is all too familiar to me in other areas of my life. Like all the times I’ve tried to force a character (or a real person) do something they have no interest in doing.  Or when I hang on to the idea of how a scene should go when it is clear that is leading itself in a different direction.  Or when I keep trying to do the same thing over and over again in my career when it is clear it isn’t working.

And when I finally let go (which is surprisingly hard) the relief is so sweet.

Is there something in your writing or life you’re hanging onto that you need to release?

Update: I almost forgot! (Well, technically, I did forget.) My How To Get an Agent Class is tomorrow! Come join us! Just in time for summer pitching!

 

How difficult is it to get a literary agent?

The best way I can answer the question of the title is to tell you two stories, the stories of my two attempts to get a literary agent.

Attempt to get an agent #1

The first story happened back around 2011-2012.  I was seeking representation for my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior.  Over the course of a year or two, I actively submitted to agents.   Boy, did I ever get an education.  I had many agents respond to my query (because writing queries happens to be one of my super powers).  And then, often I’d never hear another thing.  But some did ask for either a partial or my full manuscript.  And I got great responses.

The agents complimented me on my writing, said they loved the sex scenes (it is not erotica, I promise), and enjoyed the story. But. And this was a big but–none of them thought they could sell the book because Emma Jean was too brash. Too opinionated. Too inclined to blurt out exactly what’s she’s thinking.  Too “unrelatable,” as one agent called her. (Oh, and then there was the one who took offense to her getting drunk on a plane. Because, “nobody ever does that.” Yeah, right. That’s never happened.) I lost exact count of how many times I sent Emma Jean out, but it was somewhere around 60 submissions.  Yes, 60. (Which isn’t even that many in the pantheon of literary rejection stories.)

So, long story short, I never did secure representation.  Instead, a friend told me about the small press that had bought his book, and on a wild tear one day, I submitted my book and promptly forgot about it.  Six months later they accepted Emma Jean for publication.  I sold my book without an agent.

Attempt to get an agent #2

Two years ago, I had another novel ready to submit. This one had a sweet, relatable main character and was set in a bakery. A slam dunk, I figured.  I had recently joined the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association, and in one of their emails I noticed that an agent named Erin Niumata of Folio Literary was accepting submissions. I read her profile and decided she was the agent for me.   So I sent her the query for The Bonne Chance Bakery.  I got a reply back so fast I thought it was an auto out-of-office deal. But no. It was from Erin. And she wanted to see my full manuscript.

A week later, we talked on the phone, and she said the magic words, “I am calling to offer you representation.” Woot woot! So this time out I got my agent on my very first effort. Dreams do come true. I was right about that slam dunk thing.  My two experiences couldn’t be more different. Which is why I love to tell these stories. I think they are both encouraging in their own ways.

How you can get an agent

The moral of the story? Yes, it is hard to get an agent. But it can be done, as long as you:

  • Have a finished novel that is as good as you can make it
  • Understand how the publishing world works
  • Write a kick-ass query letter
  • Practice your pitching
  • Have some determination and patience

I can teach you the first four points in my upcoming How to Get an Agent Class.  It is a teleseminar, easily accessible by phone or computer the night of the class or in a recording after. And there are two options–class only or class + my critique of your query.

For a relatively small investment of time and money, you just may land yourself the agent of your dreams.  Find out more and sign up here. 

See you on the call!

Photo by svilen001. 

Why yes, I’m still here

So, I didn’t blog last week.

It was, um, because of the malware attack.

No, wait, I meant the constant stream of news out of Washington.

No, here’s the truth:

It was the one-armed man.

Heavy sigh. Okay, it was none of those. I just got overwhelmed.

I’m in Week Two of my Do That Thing class, anticipating teaching a class at Sitka, filling a couple last spots in the France workshop, and working with private clients. Oh, and trying to keep up with writing the second draft of my novel.  (Almost done!)

And so the blog post fell by the wayside.

To be honest, I’m not as focused on my blog these days. Blogging has changed in ways I haven’t entirely grasped yet and it is hard to know how to react.  My stats and comments are down (like a lot of other bloggers I know) and one of the things I liked best about blogging was the community that grew up around it.  That isn’t happening any more and it makes me sad.  And it is harder to get excited about writing something when I’m not sure how many people are even reading it.

But, I have a couple ideas.

The first one is an obvious solution.  And that is–start a Facebook page!  I’m really more of a fan of Twitter and Instagram, but the one way I do like to relate on Facebook is in groups.  I find it much easier to engage with people who have the same interests as I do, rather than shouting out over the vast Facebook web.

It will be a closed group called Prolific and Prosperous Writers and there you will be able to post anything having to do with writing. Questions, interesting links, pleas for help, ideas.  I’m not going to put any limitations on joining, though you will have to request an invitation.  I think it will be fun!  With everything else that I have going, it will take me a bit before I can get it up and running, so stay tuned.

And second, I’m going to be offering a class at the end of June on…wait for it….How to Get an Agent.  Ta-da!  The class will come just in time for summer pitches at writer’s conferences, but it will go beyond pitching to instruct you on how to submit to agents when conferences are over.  And, there will be an upgrade option wherein I will read and critique your query letter.  Find out more here.

Sound good? I think so, too. So keep an eye out for the Facebook group. And check out the class!

And don’t worry, I will continue to blog here. Because, its been ten years. So I might as well keep at it a while longer.

Tracking Throughlines in Your Novel

My life has been wonderfully routine (which is a good thing–no drama, except on the page) lately, and so in lieu of a Five on Friday, I’m giving you a longer post about an aspect of novel writing.

Today, I’m talking about throughlines.

Google the word and your head might explode.  Throughline is a word much beloved of story wonks (I love those guys, too, I’m just not one of them) and some of the definitions and explanations are so complex. To put it mildly. But here’s a simply one:

A throughline is a connecting them or plot in a dramatic work.

Say, for instance, your *main character has a beloved necklace she wears all the time.  The charm on the necklace has special meaning for her.  And, her father gave her the necklace.  Double special meaning. At the start of the story, another character compliments her on the necklace.  Then she loses the necklace while doing something naughty (having sex in a gazebo, but don’t you focus on that part).  When she finds the necklace again, it is because another character (yep, the one she was having sex with) returns it to her. And he does it such a way that it changes everything for her in that moment. Ah, true love.

Anyway, sex and love aside, the necklace is a throughline. It is a piece of plot. Ish.  You see what I mean? A throughline could be a character’s efforts to get into medical school, or it could be her reaction to a book she’s reading, as long as that book is important to the plot and it is mentioned several times.  And has some relation to the plot.

Are you with me?

Dropping In

Stories of all kinds are enriched by the addition of minor throughlines.  (Of course, many stories wouldn’t exist without the bigger throughlines.) But when writing a draft, it can be hard to keep the big picture in mind. You get so focused on the scene in front of you (as you should) that it might be hard to remember you need to mention that lug nut again. But, never fear–because you can easily drop these bits in after you’ve finished a draft.

I got very good at this after rewriting, my novel **The Bonne Chance Bakery several times.  There were certain throughlines that needed to be added, to bump up a character, etc., and at first I was daunted by the thought. But then I realized it literally is like dropping something in. I have this image of me above my manuscript, aiming little parts of throughlines at it.

Tracking

Sometimes, as I’m writing, the piece I need to add is small enough that I can go back and do it at the moment I think about it. But more often, it requires some thought. And that thought will take me away from the scene I’m currently writing.  In which case I note it on my ongoing list of Things That Need to Be Added.   This is helpful not only for tracking but for keeping these items front and center in my mind. I refer to the list often enough that I’m always reading it over. And there is the thing that writing it down cements it in my mind.

You can also do fun things with throughlines like track them on large pieces of paper.  Use post-its in different colors, or markers, or any of the gazillion fun things you can find at the office supply store.  This kind of visual representation can be very helpful in figuring out what you need to add (and subtract) from your plot.

However you decide to do it, consciously tracking your throughlines can be an enormous help as you write your draft and save frustration when it comes time to rewrite. So have it.

Don’t forget–my Do That Thing program starts next week. Your thing could be writing a novel! Or organizing your lug nut collection! Whatever it is, I’ll help you get it done. You can sign up here.

*Yes, this example is taken from my WIP.  SO DON’T GO STEALING IT. Never mind. I know you won’t. There’s nothing new under the sun, anyway.

**Yes, it is still being pitched. The novel is with several editors at this very moment.

Photo by Scott Robinson.

There’s This Thing Called the Delete Button

Me: early this morning, working on my novel.  Staring at the words on the screen, wondering if I should add a sentence about the hero’s past. Thinking it might be too much.

And then it hit me. I have a freaking delete button.

It is really freaking easy to write the sentence I’m not sure about and delete it if it doesn’t work.

Why is it so difficult to remember this?

I’ll tell you why: it’s that sneaky little thing called fear rearing its ugly head. Again. Fear disguising itself as perfectionism, as in, I’ve got to make sure the sentence is perfect before I write it.

I think about this when I do the crossword in the morning.  (In pencil, thank you very much.) Sometimes I hesitate to fill in an answer I’m not sure of. And then I do it anyway, and the whole section of puzzle opens up.  Why do I hesitate? Because I’m afraid I’m not right.

That’s about the stupidest thing ever.

Put it all on the page, people. (And when I say people, I include myself in that. I need to remember this as much as anyone.)  Because it is easy to delete or edit something that’s there. But you can’t edit something that’s not there.

What are you not putting on the page?

And, if you’re having a hard time with this, maybe you need some writing coaching.

Photo by surely.

Blocked? Try This to Get Your Writing Going Again

Before we get started, I have a guest post today over at the wonderful Samara King’s blog. It is called Born to Be Bad, and it is about the importance of wielding your creative power. Go read it!

Okay, so I promised you a tip for when you are blocked.  This is so ridiculously simple that you’re going to think I’m crazy, but it works. It’s based on one of the laws of the universe (possibly physics, though I am not scientific enough to know) with which you are familiar:

Nature abhors a vacuum.

And so does creativity.  And so here’s the idea:  you create a space in which to allow your writing to flow. I know. I told you it was simple. But it really works, because not only are you telling the universe are ready to riot, you are also easing yourself into the work.  Here are some suggestions as to how:

External

Open a file.  Opening a file is telling yourself (and the world) that you are serious. You’re going to do this thing. You are creating a place in which to actually write it. Woo-hoo!

Buy a notebook. Ditto above. Only analog, not digital. Claiming your space!

Create a binder. And ditto again.

Fill out a template.   This can be a character dossier, or a form (or forms) that you find in a book or online. Sometimes having somebody tell you what to do helps, and if they’ve given you a ready-made outline, so much the better. (Though take everything anybody tells you, especially even me, with a grain of salt.)

Title a blank page (on the computer or in a notebook) with Chapter One (or whatever). Now you’ve created a vacuum.  I’ve been known to have a file open or a notebook created for days or weeks at a time before actually writing anything in it. And that’s okay, because the energy is there, gathering. This draws on the Japanese productivity theory of Kaizen, which advocates small increases in productivity.  As in, one day you open the file, and the next day you write one word, and so on. Sounds crazy, but it works.

Kon-mari your workspace.  Creativity is messy and sloppy, yes, but getting things organized creates, yes, you guessed it, a vacuum into which words can flow. And yeah, I’m the worst person on the planet to be preaching this, seeing as how I’ve been re-organizing my office for years months.

These simple actions tell the universe that you’re ready to receive. That you’re serious. You’ve fashioned a vessel into which the ideas can flow.  And before you know it, you’ll be writing like crazy again.

Do you ever create containers for your creativity? What’s your favorite way?

And hey, don’t forget about connection calls. Just click here to schedule a time to chat about writing!

Photo from Everystockphoto.

Writing: Exhausting or Energizing?

A while ago, one of my wonderful clients mentioned that after a good writing session, she felt exhausted. Boy, could I identify with that, because I often have the same experience.  After a particularly intense stint at the computer, I sometimes feel like doing nothing more than crawling away and collapsing in a quivering heap.

And yet, I’m also energized. And excited. And in love with the world. It is a strange mixture of exhaustion and joy. Years ago one of my  MFA mentors and I marveled at how it was possible to get a blood sugar drop (an experience usually reserved for being physically active) from an avid writing session. She related that a neurosurgeon friend of hers had told her that under intense concentration, the brain can use up as many calories as one’s body does when exercising.  I’ve since had other people vigorously refute this, but I prefer to believe it–because I’ve experienced it. (Okay, here’s an article that disagrees with me, but it is still worth reading.)

Here’s the deal, though. This weird state is one of my favorite states to be in. And that is because I feel like I’ve given everything I have to the page, let the words flow out of me so intensely that I’m totally spent.  It makes me feel like I am fulfilling my purpose as a writer.

Process, Not Product

And the key to achieving this state is…yeah, its pretty obvious, isn’t it? The key is focus.  I would take that even a step farther and submit that it is a certain kind of focus.  And that is the kind of focus wherein one is so caught up in the process that she is not worried about the product.

Not worried about what her family will think when her memoir is released.  Or how her agent will react after reading the manuscript. What the spouse will say. What the children will think. What the high-school friends from long-ago will think. How the first-grade teacher, long in the grave, will judge. I swear we let all these things and more stop us from doing what we really want: which is deeply engaging with the writing at hand.

The Inner Critic

And sometimes they congeal into one big, bad lump of an inner critic. Your worst enemy. The one who keeps you from writing. The one you listen to scream at you. The one you let stop you from all your dreams of creative freedom. Guess what, people? You’ve got three choices here: you can carry on as usual, letting he/she/it stop you, or you can tell it to shut the f$%# up and ignore it, or you can befriend it.  Either of the latter two will work.  Just don’t get stuck in the first option. Please. (I’ve written numerous times about dealing with this imp. You can read more here and here.)

Balance

Besides acknowledging and slaying dealing with your inner critic, I think it’s important to realize that this kind of exhausting and energizing state is not one we are going to be in all the time. I used to get into it more often when I was not a professional writer. Back when I was writing for fun, it was far easier to just have at it without worry about the end result. That is not quite so easy to do anymore when I know that people will be reading my blog, newsletter, or novels. This is one reason I write in my journal every more–crap that means nothing to anybody but me and will never be seen by anybody but me. It reminds me that this is my goal, always–to write freely and openly without worry about how the words will be judged.  And thus it is important to seek a balance between this wonderful free writing and the time when you are more slowly considering the word you are putting on the page. (And for the love of God, don’t confuse the exhilaration you feel after completing a first draft with the idea that means it is perfect. I see this happen far too often. Just because it was fun to write doesn’t mean it isn’t in need of more work.)

A Certain Kind of Exhaustion

But, oh how I love it when the words are flowing freely and I’m a mere shadow of my former self at the end of a writing session!  This kind of exhaustion is what we all aim for: the knowledge that we’ve given one of the most important things to us all we have in the moment. That is all we can ask for.

How does a good writing session make you feel?

Hey want to chat about your writing? Get some perspective? Sign up for one of my connection calls!

New Book You Need to Go Buy

You guys, just yesterday I found out that one of my favorite humans ever, J.D. Frost, is releasing a new book today. It is called, Redemption Face: The Black Room Murders, and it is going up as a kindle release for only $2.99! I loved the first two books in the series.  They novels are police procedurals but with a depth to them. The main character, Moses Palmer, is what makes them different and so interesting to me.  He’s troubled and flawed, but still always strives to do the right thing–according to his own moral code.

J.D., the brain behind Moses, is a good friend and loyal reader of this blog.  Though he lives in Alabama, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him in person a couple of times–when he came to France year before last, and once when I was in Nashville. And I’m excited about the latest entry in the Moses Palmer series. Here’s the blurb about the book:

  Detective Moses Palmer is accustomed to driving strange routes, away from the river, around the river. Now Chattanooga is suffering a terrible drought and the mighty Tennessee that cuts through the city’s center is down several feet and barely moving. But Moses hardly notices. He and his new partner are chasing an eerie murderer who leaves his victims in darkness―total darkness. They have no suspects, so Palmer’s new boss, Maddie Kraikos, is breathing down his neck, in more ways than one. Then, the crazed killer ups the stakes, as if he knows Moses’ history, all of his history.

     Does life sometimes scar us beyond recovery, beyond redemption? Find out in this thrilling new novel from J.D. Frost.

Go check it out, you won’t be disappointed!