On Writing and Determination (A Love Letter)

Hi Writers,

I babysat my 10-month-old grandson George one day this week, as I do most weeks, and as he gets older and more mobile I’m struck by one thing: his determination.

He’ll attempt to climb on his rocking moose, for instance, but miss and plop on the floor. Up he scrabbles again.  Then he discovers the moose’s handles, but in so doing, takes a header. Cries for a minute, starts over again. He’s teaching himself to walk by pushing chairs across the dining room floor.  Up, walk, walk, walk, fall, cry or sometimes not, up again, walk some more.

The sheer amount of effort it takes to grow from a baby into even a tiny toddling-size human is astounding, and I’m constantly in awe of his determination to get there. And observing George reminds me that writing takes energy and determination, too, just of a more cerebral kind.

I’m not naturally good at it.  Determination, I mean.  Sometimes I wonder what people would say my biggest tragic flaw is and I think I know—I give up too easily.  I remember how, early in my career, I got good comments from agents when I sent out novels but the faintest whiff of rejection and I got discouraged and quit. I also often made the rookie writer mistake of hiding something I’d written away when somebody critiqued it.  Note: I said critiqued it, not criticized. Big difference. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I wasn’t good enough.

I lost faith in myself.  Over and over and over again.

And that’s the underlying key here, the one that I’ve discovered as I’ve aged. Determination is tied to faith in yourself. Because that’s when I quit. When I convince myself I’m not good enough.  When I lose confidence.  When I get scared I don’t have what it takes. I think that’s when we all quit.  If you have no confidence in yourself, it is hard to go out and face the big, scary world.

But—and here’s a big but—I’ve learned this about myself over the years. It is my natural tendency (yours, too?) to flounder when it comes to having determination and faith in myself.  (Getting older is good for some things. Quite a few things, actually.) And so now I can catch myself when I’m quitting because someone said boo to me. Or if I start worrying too much about product versus process when I’m writing. (As in: what will my agent think of this? What will my beta readers think? What will the public think? And of course, the thing is, the public will never have a chance to think anything about it because the writing won’t see the light of day if I keep second-guessing myself.)

Babies are good for reminding adults of lots of things, especially when said adults are grandparents and have a bit more distance from in-the-trenches, day-to-day parenting.  And what George reminds me of is this: we’re all born with this determination, or we wouldn’t be walking, talking adults.

And so next time you get rejected by an editor or agent, remember this.  Next time you throw up your hands in disgust because you think your writing isn’t good enough, remember.  Next time you decide you don’t have what it takes to finish Nanowrimo, remember.

Remember and go back to the page. Or back to the next person on your agent list. Go back to that novel rewrite. You can do this. You just gotta muster up a bit more determination. But I know it’s there somewhere.  It has to be—you got this far, didn’t you?

Leave a comment and tell me about a time you used your determination. Or just say hi.

On eclipses…and love (a love letter)

Dear Writers,

Tomorrow (August 21) is the Great American Eclipse, and as you read this I’ll either be on my way or soon to be on my way to view it.  Me and about a million other people—that’s how many visitors are forecast to arrive in Oregon, a broad swath of which is in the path of totality.  Traffic jams and food and gas shortages are predicted. You can’t get a hotel room or rent a car to save your life anywhere near by Portland. (We are just a few miles north of the path of totality.)

I love mass events like this.

And I love eclipses even more. I’ve been greatly enamored of this eclipse since it first came on my radar several years ago.  Because: eclipses are when day becomes night and night becomes day.  They shake things up, astronomically and astrologically.  And sometimes, shaking things up is good.

They are also about showing us our shadow side, the darkness in us that generally stays hidden.  All you have to do is look at the events of the last week to see that in action.  And difficult as it is to witness, I believe to my core that you can’t eradicate the darkness until you can see it.

On a far less serious and more personal level, I see the eclipse as a giant reset button, a chance to challenge old, stale ideas. Like: creativity is just fluff (even though it is vital to our health and well-being), or, you can’t make a living as a writer (even though you can these days, in a million different ways), or one of the biggies: there’s not enough (of course there is).

But the biggest outdated idea of all is the most pernicious: that of the other. As in, you’re different than me and that make me better. And all the variations on that theme that result in abuses of power, politically, financially, and morally, over and over again.

So I suggest, that along with our personal resets, we also focus our eclipse ideas on a grand scale.  And let this event uncover the fact that there is nothing more important on this planet right now than loving one another.

Because there isn’t.

Happy eclipse.

Leave a comment and tell me if you plan to view the eclipse! (And what you might like to reset.)

A love letter about resisting the status quo

There’s a lot of noise in the world at the moment.  Political, and societal to be sure. But there’s also all the information we get from the interwebs constantly, all day and even all night long. And much of it is designed to ensnare us—to click onto the website, read the news story, buy the item, support the cause.

It’s the status quo.

And as writers, it is our job to resist.

But wait, you say.  You need all that information.  You need it in order to have something to write about, you need it to support your WIP (as in research), you need it because you must know what is going on in the world.

Yeah, I hear you. I’m a huge input person.  Next to writing, one of the things I love best in the world is gathering information. Set me up with a topic to research, a pile of books, and access to the internet, and I’m a happy woman.

But, there’s a limit to how much I—and you—can take in before it starts to become a detriment.  Before it starts to affect our concentration levels, and our focus, to say nothing of our emotions and energy, both physical and mental.

Which is why I say you need to resist its lure.

Because when you do, you gain so much. It is difficult in the moment—I’ve had to tell myself not to click over to the internet numerous times as I’ve been writing this—but what I’ve gotten in return is clarity and focus.  And far more enjoyment of the writing process.

And by resisting, you’re claiming your right to be different.  To be a person who stands for writing and creativity and art.  A person who dares to challenge the status quo.  A person who follows her own inner tune.

That’s not always easy in this world, but it is vital.  If you are going to do good work, you need to be able to hear your inner voice and you can only do that if you tune out the noise of the world.

So, let’s do it together. Resist the status quo! Turn to the page instead of the latest news story or blog post. And together we will change the world one word at a time.

Leave me a comment about what you’re writing–and resisting.

(FYI, this originally appeared as my weekly newsletter. If you’d like to get it delivered directly to your inbox, just fill out the form to the right.)

Freedom, Independence, and Writing ( A Sunday Love Letter)

Tuesday is Independence Day in the states. Yesterday was Canada Day in, um, Canada, which I think has something to do with becoming a country but I couldn’t quite tell from the Wikipedia page. (Forgive me Canadians, and perhaps one of you could enlighten me?)

The idea of independence and freedom is afoot in the world.

It’s something we all want, right? I mean, who wants to live their life in chains, real or imaginary?  For most of us, thank God, the only kind of prisons we will experience will be mental and emotional.  But those prisons can be excruciating and powerful.

And I am here to assert that the feeling of freedom and independence comes from one place only—within. Okay, I’m fresh off a weekend of watching kid movies, Trolls and Moana, so I admit maybe I’ve been a bit unduly affected by their messages.  But this idea that it all comes from within is something I fervently believe in, and forget often.

So here’s a reminder for me and you: freedom comes from within, and the best tool I know to access that is writing. Yes, writing. Whether you’re exploring your emotions on the journaling page, or pouring them into a character in your WIP novel, or shaping them in the memoir you’re writing to make sense of your life, writing is your best path to mental freedom.

Because, you can put the drama on the page, as Julia Cameron says.  And then it does have to go out into the world, where it can damage tender relationships. Freedom.

Because, you can spend time expressing yourself, doing what you feel called to do, rather than plopping down in front of the TV or computer. Freedom.

Because, you can put your stories out into the world, where they will affect others in positive ways, maybe even loosening some of the bonds that bind them.  Freedom.

So, let freedom ring.  Set pen to paper. Let it rip. It is your path to freedom and independence.

And don’t forget–my Freedom and Independence Coaching special runs through July 5th.  Learn more here.

What are you working on this holiday weekend? Do leave a comment and let me know.

(This post originally appeared in my newsletter. If you’d like to have it delivered to your inbox every Sunday, just fill out the form to the right.)

Photo by kplantt.

Friday Finesse: When Should You Share Your Rough Draft?

Friend and fellow writer Jenni asked me an excellent question about writing rough drafts: when is the best time to share it with others? She asked if one should “dump, then do some editing, then share? Or just dump and plow on until you have a full first draft completed?”
Such a good question.  And, as I was formulating the answer in my mind, an email from writer Chris Fox popped into my inbox.  Chris Fox is a novelist and an author of many helpful books for writers, and he once wrote a novel in 21 days. Yep, you read that right. 21 days. (He also happens to share a name with one of my very favorite cousins, which always confuses me when I see his name in my inbox.)  Chris is launching a book today, but in his email he also included a link to his most recent video.
I’m glad I watched it, because it saves me lots of blog-writing time today. He essentially answers Jenni’s question, though that’s not the point of the video. He talks about how to get into the state of flow, and why you want to.  The flow state (also known as the zone), is when you are flinging words at the page.  Or dumping them, as Jenni said. His main point is that this state of flow is a very different brain state from that of editing. And if you are trying to do both, you are essentially multi-tasking. And, as we all should know by now, multi-tasking does not work.
But here’s the bit that speaks to Jenni’s question: Chris says you can either stay in flow for the whole draft and then edit, or do a chapter or chunk at a time and then edit. What is valuable about the latter option is that you can learn what is and isn’t working–and then apply it as you move forward, during your next flow state.  So you write in flow, edit and analyze, figure out what isn’t working, rinse and repeat. Make sense?
I think he explains it better than I do, so here’s his video:

What do you think? What is your working pattern?

What to Do When You Finish a Draft

I finished draft two of my romance novel this past weekend. Woot woot! It still needs work so there was no dancing in the streets or swinging from chandeliers. Just a quiet sigh of pleasure.  And there’s always a bit of confusion as I ponder, what do I do next? So I figured a blog post about just that topic was in order.

Let it rest.  Simmer, marinate, compost, whatever you want to call it, your brain needs time to do it.  You’ve been close to this baby–so close–for months or even longer now. You’ve got to get away and get some distance from it.  Give yourself a few days, preferably at least a week. Go off and don’t think about it.  Let your subconscious do that while you’re busy playing golf or making soap or doing something, anything but working on your novel.

Decide what happens next.  (You can do this while it is composting.)  Was this your first time through, also known as the discovery draft, the rough draft,  or Shitty First Draft?  If so you likely have at least one more draft that you’re going to need to write.  But if it is your third or fourth draft, you may be pondering getting it out in the world. So, at his po9int you have a choice to either:

Write another draft or carry on.  Let’s discuss writing another draft first.  

First, of course, you’re going to re-read it. Duh. As you read, make notes. I use the post-it note method for flexibility. You can read about that and my entire theory of rewriting here.  I like to keep notes of things that I’ll need to put in next time through, ideas that will make the plot stronger, additions to character arcs.  Go through these and see what you’ve got.

Sometimes, this is a matter of going through and dropping things in. For instance, you may have decided on a physical object that is of importance to your protagonist, but you only figure this out fifteen chapters in. So now you need to go back and salt it in a couple times earlier.  These are fairly easily accomplished (once you figure out where they go.)

Do these easy run-throughs first and then see where you are. If you are several drafts in, or an excellent first-drafter, you may well feel very pleased with your work, and ready to take the next step.  And so, ta-da, it is time to get some fresh eyes on it.  You may have a trusted family member who reads all your work, or an agent or editor you work with.  Or perhaps you need to find you some:

Beta Readers.  These are the most wonderful of creatures, those lovelies who will read your book in its current form and give you feedback on it.  You can find them among friends and family (as long as they promise to be honest), amid your writer friends, or on social media.  Some of you may already have a trusted group who read your every release.  Take their ideas and incorporate them or not as you see fit and get ready to carry on. Woo-hoo! Almost there!

Here you have another choice point.  (You probably already know the answer to this.) Are you looking for a traditional publisher or will you publish yourself?

If you are going to self-publish, you will need to find an editor, formatter (or learn to do it yourself), and cover designer.  Don’t skimp on any of these, because they can make or break a book’s release.  You want your book to stand out from the crowd and actually get purchased, and going the cheap route is not going to do you any favors. Trust me.

And, if you are going to seek traditional publication, you will need to search for an agent. Fun times.  It is a process that basically involves writing a query letter, researching agents, and then submitting to them. And a whole lot more. All of which I am going to cover in my upcoming How to Get an Agent class.  Which you can read more about here.  Summer writing conferences are coming up, with opportunities to pitch, so why not learn all you can about the process and present your work in its best light?

Good luck with whatever stage you are in! And please leave a comment and let me know what draft you’re on and how you’re feeling about it.

When Narrative Summary Takes Over

Hi there.

Your writing will be as flat as these lines if all you write is narrative summary

Yes, I know it is Friday and for the last couple of months I’ve consistently been cranking out Five on Friday posts, wherein I cheerily catch you up on what I’ve been doing all week and drop in a few brilliant helpful writing tidbits.

And today I started out with the same intention but one part of my usual Five on Friday post, wherein I tell you what I’m reading, consumed my brain.  And I wanted to share it with you. So here goes.

I’m reading a novel I can’t tell you about. This sounds way more glamorous and mysterious than it really is.  I’m judging a contest for a group I belong to and so I can’t reveal details.  The novel has a pretty good story line, some well-drawn characters and a compelling theme.

And yet I am struggling with everything I have to finish it.

Why?

Because it is mostly written in narrative summary.  And while narrative summary is a handy tool, when used too much it becomes boring.

Remind Me About Narrative Summary?

Let’s do a quick review.  Here’s a definition of narrative summary:

Narrative is made up of summary, and description.  It is broadly known as telling.  Narrative compresses or expands time—for instance, gliding over years in a paragraph.  There’s no action in it, only descriptions of action.

That bit above about there only being descriptions of action is key.  I’m sure you can imagine how page after page of that gets draining.  This is why we put action in scenes, people. Because it is more immediate, more engaging, more, well, dramatic.  And it is a lot more fun to read.

Speaking of fun, I thought it might be useful to read some reviews of this book.  While many of the are positive, focusing on the things I like about it, many others are not. They say things like “boring” or “flat characters” and so on. These aren’t professional writers who are doing the reviewing so they don’t quite have the words to explain why the book isn’t doing it for them.

But I do:  too damn much narrative summary.

And Then There Are Scenes

Of course, you can go too far in the other direction and write too many scenes as well. (Though in all the gazillion manuscripts I’ve read over the years, I’ve only seen this happen once. Most of the time I’m imploring writers to write more scenes.)  The trick is knowing when to use each one.  In the broadest of fashions, you can think of scenes as showing and narrative summary as telling and use accordingly.

We probably don’t need to see your character on her daily run to the grocery store–unless she meets the love of her life there one day.  You can dispense with her trip in one sentence: Delilah went to the grocery store.  But if she does meet the love of her life there, that’s when you put it into a scene. A scene occurs in real time, and contains dialogue and action.   It could theoretically be acted out, though many scenes contain interior monologue as well.

The Middle Ground

The best novels, in my opinion, use a combination of scene and narrative summary, with the ratio canting in favor of scenes.  If someone has critiqued your story and mentioned that things drag in places, examine those spots and see if you’ve got too much narrative summary going on. Is there something you can put into a scene?

The smart use of narrative summary and scenes can help you in pacing.  You might utilize more scenes and fewer summaries as you near the exciting conclusion of your novel, for instance. Or you might use a lot of narrative summary as you’re familiarizing the reader with a character at the beginning. Just aim for a balance.

Okay, that’s my rant on narrative summary.  Please do share with me your thoughts.

Oh, and somewhere in my vast files I have a couple of great handouts with definitions and examples of scene and narrative summary.  If you would like to receive them, just email me at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com and I’ll send them your way.

And don’t forget my new program, about which I am SO excited.  You’ve got a goal you don’t seem to get done? Join me for Do That Thing.

Five on Friday: Good Friday Edition

What I’m writing: Draft Two of my first romance novel.  I am living proof that you can write a Really Shitty First Draft and make it into something.  With previous novels, I’ve known more about the plot and characters and thus had a more polished first draft (still crappy, though).  There are many places in this one where I write in all caps things like I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE, and I really didn’t.  There’s tons of boring narrative summary and endless paragraphs of characters thinking, thinking, thinking.  But I got the story down–and now I’m having a blast figuring out better ways to present it to the reader. I’m pretty happy with it.  So if you’re in the middle of a draft that you’re despairing over, take heart.  Oh and here’s a pertinent quote I found today:

“Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.” Jane Smiley.

I love it. By the way, that photo to the left is of Horn Seven. He’s my new writing buddy, given to me (and named by) my grandson to sit by my computer. (Follow me on Instagram for lots of photos of the writing life. Well, my writing life anyway. IG is my current favorite social media.)

What I’m Reading: Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, and Dior or Die by Angela Sanders.  The first is a collection of short stories, one of which the movie Arrival was based on.  Chiang is the current darling of the sci-fi world and I waited months to get this book. And…I’m fascinated with it but it makes me feel dumb because I don’t always get the stories.  Sigh.  Dior or Die is another great mystery by my friend Angie. Go buy it and read it.

What I’m Watching: The current American Experience: The Great War, about World War I. I’m now fascinated with this era, thanks to the Maisie Dobbs books. (Book two in the series is next on my reading list. It will actually be the third one I’ve read, because the one I found that introduced me was way out of order.)  Anyway, it may or may not be true that I fell asleep on the couch watching American Experience, but still, it is worth mentioning.

What I’m Excited About: Nia, an exercise class. I wrote a whole thing about it in my newsletter that comes out this Sunday. If you’re not on my list to get it, you can subscribe from that banner up top. And you might want to, because I mentioned something exciting in it.

What I’m Excited About 2: Ordering groceries online. THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER.   A huge time saver for me. I’m not a human that likes going to the grocery store. At all. Ever. So this is a godsend.

Happy Good Friday and Easter, everyone. Hope you get some writing in even though its a holiday weekend!

PS. As I’ve mentioned, we are offering two sessions for the France workshop this year. But the first session is full (though we could accommodate you if your begged, or bribed us), and the second session is filling up fast.  So check it out!

Five on Saturday

Why I’m writing this post on Saturday: Because yesterday morning we had a big windstorm.  One minute it was a nice, calm Friday morning and the next it was so windy I thought the fir tree in the backyard was going to crash into my house.  And lots of trees did crash down all over the city. Turns out the combination of our very wet soil and everything in bloom was not a good match for high wind.  And so yeah, the power went out.  I had appointments all day, including on Skype, and nearly decamped to my son’s house. Luckily, it came back on quickly. But then it took a bit to get the internet working…and such distractions are murder on the schedule.

What I read: I finished the first Maisie Dobbs novel and am on my way to the library today to get #2. I know I’ve written about this series a lot, but I haven’t been this taken with a character in a long while.  It’s interesting, because in this first book there are some things that would normally drive me crazy and make me throw the book against the wall, like viewpoint shifts.  But the character and the setting–London between the two wars–keeps me so fascinated I don’t care.  I emerge after finishing the book and every other book I have on my to read shelf looks dull and boring by comparison.

What I’m writing: Perking along on the novel rewrite.  One thing I noticed in the Maisie Dobbs novel is what a great job she does of withholding information.  The reader may not learn the fate of a character for many pages.  Or, Winspear will hint at something in Maisie’s backstory and only later reveal it.  This is not a technique that is new to me, of course, but it is useful to see it in action. (This is why we read as writers.) And, I’ve been applying it to this novel rewrite with good result. (Or so I say. Nobody has yet read this thing but me.)

Most popular post on Instagram: The doll hospital.

What I did last night: Took a friend who is attending a conference for death and grief therapists here in town to an open house at The Dougy Center. I’ve driven by this place a million times–it’s on my route to my daughter’s house–but have never (thank God) had reason to go in.  The center is a non-profit that helps families cope with grief over the death or dying of a loved one.  In 2009, a huge arson fire destroyed their offices, located in an old home.  So they build a new place–and it is amazing, with myriad rooms devoted to various activities–talking, art, music, games, a theater and a mock-up of a hospital room. It is hard to express how incredible this place is–but it is a testament to rising literally from the ashes into something way better than the original.

That’s my report. What’s yours?

On Discovery Drafts and Writing Fast

In case you hadn’t noticed, writing fast has become quite the thing lately.  This is for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that, if you want to indie publish, your fans expect you to pump books out one after another.  And you can’t maintain that pace if you write slowly.

Writing Fast

But I think it is also because writing fast works.  Again for a variety of reasons:

–When you write fast, you access the subconscious mind, bypassing the conscious mind which tends to be, um, critical.

–When you write fast, you get something, anything, down on paper. And once you have something down on paper, then you have something to work with.

–When you write fast, you bypass perfectionism.  And let me tell you, perfectionism breeds procrastination big time. Because if you’re putting yourself under pressure to be perfect, you’ll think of 5,000 other things you’d rather be doing.

–And besides, writing fast is fun!

It’s when you get to revision that the hard work begins.  Which I am learning as I take the first draft of my novel, which I wrote really fast, just working to get the story on paper.  Which leads us to…

The Discovery Draft

You’ll often hear the first draft of a novel (or a story, or a memoir, or anything) called different things. Like a rough draft, or a discovery draft. I’m guilty of most often calling it a rough draft, though I think the term discovery draft does it more justice. Because the most important thing to remember is that you are discovering the story.

You are not:

–Worrying about every comma and period.

–Fussing over not knowing everything.  Instead, when you get to a place you don’t know something, you insert a TK and keep going. (Using TK allows you to do an easy search at the end.)

–Stopping writing for a month when you don’t know what happens next. Instead you start writing where you do know what happens.

–Reading back over your work and editing as you go. Forward motion is the name of the game.

In other words, you are writing fast, getting the story down.  The discovery draft is for you to discover the story. Subsequent drafts are for you to figure out how best to present the story.

I am currently rewriting a discovery draft of a romance novel I finished in February, though in this case, the word rough really does apply.  There are vast stretches where I’m not exactly sure how it all goes together, and these pages are full of TKs and all caps notes to myself.  There’s lots of cursing and name-calling in those all cap sentences.  Not that it does much good to call myself names and tell myself what a terrible writer I am. But it does the trick to get those thoughts out of my head so I can keep going.

What I’m finding, though, is that the bones of the story are strong. I’m rearranging like crazy, dramatizing long stretches of narrative that were flat on the page, and making the characters more complex.  But my discovery draft, written fast, captured the story I wanted to tell.

So the moral of the story is: don’t agonize over every word.  Produce those pages and get to the end of your discovery draft. You’ll be happy you did!

Should you need help with your discovery drafts, learning how to write fast, or any aspect of your writing, I’ve got a couple of spots open in my coaching.  Pop me an email and we’ll set up a time to talk!

Photo by hisks.