Whining on the Yacht (A love letter)

One of my dearest friends read last week’s post with the subject line, a love letter about winning, and wrote me that she thought it said whining. To which I responded, what an excellent idea for a newsletter. And so here we go.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I am a championship whiner.  I can whine about anything, and I do.  It’s too rainy, it’s too sunny (only a native Oregonian would whine about that), I’m too tired, I’m hungry, I’m full, I can’t focus, my knee hurts, I don’t want to exercise, my writing is crap…on and on it goes.

Until I get pulled up short and reminded how lucky I am.  Most recently it was when I was watching a Facebook live event of an energy healer.  (I’m pretty fascinated with this guy, Charlie Goldsmith.) As he worked with people on camera, others commented. By the time I quit watching, there were something like 18,000 comments. And 99.9% listed the terrible physical problems people were having, and begging for help.

If that doesn’t make you sit up and realize how lucky you are, I don’t know what does. Which is when I remind myself of the phrase, no whining on the yacht. I’m not sure where this originally came from, but I first heard it from my daughter-in-law a couple years ago.  (Okay, I just looked it up.  There’s an article dated 2010 that attributes it to U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer.)

I have a wonderful family and friends, an amazing agent who loves my work and is determined to sell it, and oh yeah—I get to spend the whole month of March in France, writing. So yeah, not a lot to whine about.

And, most of all, I’m a writer. I get to write every day of my life and many days I get to work with other writers.  I have an activity that I never get tired of, and I never, ever get bored, because there’s always another story to uncover.

So yeah, my novels may not have found a publisher yet, and I may wish I had more time to devote solely to writing them. I’m not rich, money-wise, and I do have chronic knee pain.  I get called on way too often to watch grandchildren or drive neighbor kids to school because I work at home.  I’m always, always, always, looking for more time to do the things I love.

But who freaking cares? Because I’m a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones in the world, because I get to make up stories and bring them to the world.

(This article first appeared in my weekly newsletter, The Abundant Writer. If you’d like it to arrive directly into your inbox each Sunday morning, you can subscribe in the form to the right.)

Indecision is the Devil for Writers

Indecision is my downfall.

If I know where I’m going next in my writing, it is no problem to sit down to my computer and get words on the page.  I can wrack up a good word count in no time.

But if I’m not quite sure what to write next, forget about it.  My brain gets fuzzy. I can’t seem to connect with my work. I don’t know what to do next and so more often than not I don’t do anything.

This goes for my to-do list as well.  Sometimes it gets so overwhelming that I just stare at it–and then go look for an interesting knitting blog to read.  Or, better yet, a writing blog, because then I can pretend I am working!

So lately my process with my to-do list has been to make a decision on what needs to happen next.  In today’s case, it was writing this blog post. And then I just focus on that until it is finished and I can move on to the next thing.  Here’s the key: if other things crowd my brain for attention, as they do, I remind my brain what I’ve decided to focus on. Once it is finished, I can look at the other things clamoring away and decide what’s next.

Funnily enough, as I was pondering this post, this post came to my attention. It outlines a very similar process, called the Ivy Lee process for productivity. (It is worth heading over there and taking a look.)

So how does this relate back to writing? For me, it means always knowing where I’m going next so that there’s no time for indecision to take hold. Once I’m rolling on a project, this is usually not a problem.  But sometimes writer’s block does strike–and it’s always, always, always because I’m not sure where to go next.

Things I recommend to prevent indecision from stymying your writing:

  • If you start to feel blocked, even a faint whiff of it, free write. Take the last line of the last scene you wrote and use that as a prompt.  Or just write out the problem as a prompt.
  • Maintain a list of ideas in a dedicated notebook. Anytime you have a moment of indecision, check out the list. It might get you going again.
  • Don’t slavishly adhere to chronology.  If the scene you’re working on isn’t lighting you up, move on to another one.
  • Create a loose outline. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Mine is just a list of scenes with notes about each scrawled about each one. But it really helps those moments of indecisiveness.
  • If all else fails, just choose something and go with it.  Not sure if your character should jump off a bridge or ride a merry-go-round? Just commit and write. You’d be amazed how often this works.  And if it doesn’t, you’ll soon figure it out.

How do you deal with indecision that blocks you? Leave a comment!

Or join the Facebook group and come chat there!

Photos from everystockphoto.

On Winning (A Love Letter)

I’m all in on the Olympics this month. (Read my blog post from earlier this week about my love of them here.)

And no matter what anybody says about brotherhood and world peace and all that jazz, the Olympics are about winning.  So, maybe the silver is kinda okay, but the bronze.  Bah-boom.*  Everybody wants the gold, right? You don’t get the cereal box if you don’t get the gold. You don’t get the lucrative endorsement.

You gotta go for the gold. For the win.

And as writers, so do we.

But here’s the deal: it is up to you to figure out what winning is for you. What’s your win?

My wise friend Angie often talks about defining what success means. For you. Not for the other writers in your writing group. For you.  Do you want:

To be a best-selling writer?

A contract with a traditional publisher?

To make a living writing?

To quietly write books that maybe only family and friends will read?

To write for fun?

To find satisfaction in journaling regularly?

To write a family history for posterity?

To get letters to the editor published?

To share your poetry?

To pump out as many books as you possibly can?

It doesn’t matter how you answer.  But answer honestly. Because writing success is a long game, and so you better make yourself happy while you’re doing it. Because otherwise, what is the point.

So while I’m engrossed in watching the Olympics this month, I’ll be thinking about my definition of writing success.  How about you?

* Here’s an interesting factoid for you: there’s actually an online sound dictionary! Here’s the link. I couldn’t figure out how to write the sound a buzzer would make, and I looked it up. And still didn’t find one that satisfied me, so used another. But, cool, huh?

Hey–I’m offering one lucky person a coaching slot for March. Email me at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com if you’re interested.

What’s Your Word Count–and Does it Matter?

I’ve been working with one of my clients, who shall remain nameless (Hi, Mitch!) to trim down his long middle grade fantasy.  Clocking in at over 140,000 words it is, as I said, long.

Meanwhile, I recently set out to write a short story.   Apparently, I have a hard time writing anything short.  The story ended up at almost 15,000 words. Which isn’t terrible, but still on the long side for a short story. (When I was a kid, my Mom subscribed to all the lady’s magazines of the day and back then, they all published fiction, what they called short stories.  I expected short stories to be short, like one page or so.  I was always annoyed at how long short stories were. So it’s ironic that I am now the queen of writing long short stories.)  It gets worse. Last year I set out to write a novella.  It’s just shy of 50,000 words, which is short novel length.

Does word count matter?

So, with all these varying word counts, does it really matter? Should my client and I be struggling to trim scenes to make his novel shorter? Should I turn my novella into a novel by adding a few scenes?

Word count does matter–publishers will balk at anything over 100k. The first novel (women’s fiction) I submitted to my agent came in at over 100k and I was instructed to trim it done.  Publishers don’t like long works because they  will cost more to print, for one thing.  And even if your longer book is self pubbed, many people will balk at reading such a long novel. I know my own reading habits, and I tend not to finish overly long books, so I wouldn’t buy one in the first place.

On the other hand, if something is too short it might seem flimsy.  Trivial.  Not substantial enough to warrant going to the trouble of publishing. Of course, in these days of self publishing, all those rules have gone out the window.  But, still–many’s the review I’ve read on Amazon complaining about the shortness of a book.

So, what’s a writer to do? 

Probably aim for a reasonable word count within industry standards is the best option. What, you ask, are those industry standards? Well, funny thing, they tend to vary a lot according to genre. Or who you ask. Or what way the wind is blowing. Or how the planets are arranged.

But, I’ve  come up with some good guesses estimates. While I’m citing specific sources, I looked around a lot to find credible ones that seemed pretty ballpark. So I think the following are good guidelines:

According to Reedsy, here are standard word counts by genre:

  • Commercial and literary novels: 80,000 – 100,000
  • Science fiction and fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000
  • Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
  • Middle grade: 20,000 – 55,000
  • Romance: 80,000 – 100,000
  • Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000
  • Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
  • Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000
  • Western: 45,000 – 75,000

And here, some counts for shorter works (from Christopher Fielden):

 

  • Flash fiction: under 1,000 words
  • Short story: 500 to 17,000 words
  • Novelette: 7,500 to 25,000 words
  • Novella: 10,000 to 70,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000 words or more


Some random things to keep in mind:

 

  • The standard word count per page of double-spaced manuscript is still considered to be 250.
  • The industry relies on word count rather than page count because page size varies according to format, but word count remains the same.
  • Edgar Allen Poe defined a short story as a story that could be read in one sitting.
  • Here’s a fun infographic of the word counts of some famous books.  (593,674 for A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth!)
  • According to Amazon, the median length for all books is about 64,000 words.
  • And, finally, the best rule to adhere to is this: write your book as long as it needs to be.

What’s the word count of your current project? Do you worry about it? Leave a comment. Or come on over to the Facebook page to discuss.

***I have room for one client or editing job during my upcoming writing sojourn in France. Email me at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com if you’re interested.

On Writing and the Olympics

I’m ready. I’ve got two projects I want to finish, one knitted, one crocheted, on the needles, and I’ve warned my husband that we’ll be eating our dinners in front of the TV for the next couple weeks.  Because: Olympics.  Because: Winter Olympics.

I love them.

I love watching the Olympics, especially the Winter Olympics.   I love the skating (all of it, from figure to racing), the skiing, the crazy jumping. Even the curling.  I love seeing the snow and how beautiful it all is.

I think I love it because I don’t do any of these sports. Oh, I took figure skating as a kid after the doctor told my Mom it would be good for my ankle after I broke it. My sister and I got matching-but-different-color skating skirts and went to the mall every Sunday afternoon to wobble around on the ice.

And I had a brief shining moment as a skier in college. I was so into it that I took a semester off school and lived and worked in Sun Valley one winter.  While I lived there that year, I got to see a World Cup race in person, which was pretty awesome.  As I recall, watching the races was easily accessible. These days it would probably be a mob scene.

And even though here in Portland we got tons of snow last year (well if tons means a dusting that shuts the city down every week) we don’t often see a lot of it.  This year, one storm on Christmas Eve that only succeeded in ruining everyone’s holiday plans.

So I watch these sports that are held on snow and ice every four years from the comfort of my home, likely holding knitting needles and a glass of wine. And, honestly? At this stage in my life I’m happy to be viewing from the comfort of my home.

What does this have to do with writing? One word: passion.  It takes passion by the truckload to become an Olympic champion and I submit it takes the same to become a writer.  Okay, so one is physical and one mainly mental.  Same trait, different arena.  And I think this has a lot to do with my fascination over the games.  I love stories of people excelling, no matter what they choose to excel at.

You and I won’t may not ever make an Olympic team.  But we can excel at our own personal writing.  How? One word at a time, one writing session at a time. Over and over and over again.

One of my favorite current promos for the Olympics shows skier Lindsay Vonn as she prepares for her competition.   It intersperses shots of her as a tiny little girl first on skies, with her kicking ass in the gym and flying down the ski slopes.  It reminds me, every time I see it, of what it takes to succeed.

Yeah, you can call it grit or determination or discipline or whatever you want. But all it really is for us writers is to sit down over and over and over again and return to the page.

 

Hey–join the Prolific and Prosperous Writers Facebook group.  Lots of good stuff going on over there.

And–I’m going to France for the month of March and taking a couple lucky clients with me. Metaphorically, people.  I’m committing to work with only 2 people while I’m there doing mostly writing and I’ve got one person lined up. So if you need some help with your writing, be it encouragement or editing, pop me a line at wordstrumpet@gmail.com.

 

Replenishing and renewing yourself–you need this (A love letter)

Let’s start off with a true confession—I stole that phrase about replenishing and renewing in the title from my friend Patty Bechtold, one of the wisest people I know. She had me as a guest on her podcast this week and that was our topic of discussion.

Patty lives in Santa Rosa and I live in Portland and we’ve never met in person. But we talk on the phone every week—long, rambling, deep soul talks. One thing we’ve been talking about a lot lately is how to replenish ourselves after the year that was 2017 and the ongoing rush of news and information that we deal with every single day.  So we decided to do a podcast on it.

But something else happened this week that made me think about replenishing specifically as it applies to writing. And that was this: I finished the rewrite of my novel that my agent has been waiting for since, oh, the end of October.  It wasn’t a huge rewrite—but I made it into one.  I got myself stalled about how to deepen the motivation of my protagonist and then I turned that into a huge freaking deal that paralyzed me for a couple of weeks. Does that sound familiar? I hope not. I wouldn’t wish the pain of being creatively blocked on anyone.

But earlier this week, I finally finished the rewrite and sent it off.  I was home alone at the time, and right after I emailed it I had a bunch of appointments back to back. So there was no big celebration, just a quiet little “yay” and a rush to get ready to head out the door. The next morning, I rose early as usual, got my coffee and went to my desk and….did nothing but mindlessly cruise around the internet.

Because I had nothing to work on.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I have a ton of things to work on—plans for a class I’m teaching this Saturday, a short story I’m in the middle of a first draft on, a novella to rewrite, a new novel with one chapter finished to plunge back into. And the weekly installment of this newsletter.

But it was as if there was a blank wall between me and any of those projects in my brain. I couldn’t focus on any of them.  Could barely even remember what it was I needed to do. My brain had short-circuited. Fried.

I’d gotten a pretty good roll of momentum going as I finished the rewrite. Getting up early every day, making steady progress—and now that the project was done everything collapsed.  It is obvious I need a big dose of replenishment before I launch back into any other big projects.

I’d like to say that I took the next couple of days off, doing whatever I wanted. But I didn’t. Things are crazy right now, with a home remodeling project about to start, a writing retreat in France in six weeks, and a ton of appointments as I start a new treatment for my bum knee.  And that’s on top of working with my wonderful coaching clients, babysitting grands, and having time to spend with my husband.

But I did take a break between appointments yesterday and indulged myself with an hour of knitting.  I enjoyed a couple glasses of wine by the fire after a long, rainy drive home from the knee doctor. And I have a massage scheduled for next week. (Okay, truth is I try to get massages every two weeks—they are excellent for my knee issues.)

More than anything, I believe that replenishment and renewal is an inside job. As in, you have to give yourself permission to do it. Permission to take a day off from the writing and/or social media, permission not to check email or answer the phone, permission to do what will make you happy and light again.

Your writing will thank you for it.

What do you do to replenish and renew yourself? Leave a comment and let me know! I always need ideas.

And don’t forget to listen to the podcast!

 

My 2018 Word of the Year

So, every year I choose a word to represent the year. Actually, most years I choose three words.  And usually I write a blog post about my words in December.  Well, December is long gone and I never wrote the blog post.

And that’s because I felt uninspired about choosing a word–or words.  Usually they come to me easily. This year, nothing.  Was it because of the year in politics and current events? It was a tough one, no matter what your political persuasion.  Was it because I have fifty-one projects going and can barely focus on all of them, much less choosing a word? Probably.

But two things happened to finally change this. First, we attended a Burning Bowl service on New Year’s Eve. This is a most wonderful event that I love. You go through a whole process of writing down what you want to let go of and then literally throw it in a huge flame.  There’s something about sitting in a candle-lit sanctuary with hundreds of other people all focusing on intentions that is wonderfully affirming. And while at that service, I read something that has stayed in my mind ever since.

Every moment of every day is a new beginning.

I have so many things I want to accomplish (witness the aforementioned fifty-one projects) and sometimes I get caught up in what I’m not doing. Not taking all the steps. Not eating all the vegetables. Not writing all the words. But if I can remember that every second of every day I can begin again? That is hugely comforting. I don’t have to do all the things at once! And if I fail, in the next moment I can begin again.

The second thing that happened was, funnily enough, in another church service, this one called a White Stone service.  The white stones come from Jerusalem and symbolize freedom–because in biblical times when prisoners were released from jail they were given a stone to remind themselves of freedom.  One thing that happens during this service is that there’s a meditation wherein you get a word.

My word came to me immediately.  Breathe. As in, with every breath, a new beginning. A new chance to begin again. Freedom. I don’t have to do all the things all at once. If I feel like I’m screwing up, I can go back to my breath and remind myself–begin again. The best part of it is that my breath is always, always with me.

So that’s my word and I’m excited to see if I can remember the simple instruction it gives.

Do you have a word–or words–this year? Care to share? Leave a comment!

The Three Fastest Ways to Improve Your Writing in 2018

Here we are, two weeks into the new year. How are those resolutions going for you? Like, say, the one where you promised yourself you would improve your writing? Perhaps improve it so much that you’d nab yourself a publisher—or feel confident enough to publish your work yourself?

Don’t despair if you feel you haven’t made much progress on this goal. Because I’m here to tell you how to make it happen.  There’s just one catch.  You have to promise to do what I’m telling you to do. Okay? Okay. Let’s get to it.

Thing #1

Write.  Write a ton. Most especially, write fast.  Yeah, I know that seems counter-intuitive to improving your writing, but actually, it isn’t.  Because by writing fast, you get words on the page. And then you have something to work with that you can improve. If you don’t have anything written, you can’t make it any better. So write.  Go for quantity over quality—until you get to the revision stage. But that’s a topic for another day. 

Thing #2

Change your mindset.  Nobody likes a gloomy Gus, especially when it comes to writing. Yeah, there’s a glut of indie books on the market and traditional publishing is impossible to break into. But who cares? Your book may be the one that beats the odds.  Plenty of authors and writers are making good living doing what they love. And beyond that, writing is an innately powerful activity in and of itself. And, I would also submit, that shaping said writing into a story of some kind is even more powerful. Life changing, even. What you’re doing when you sit down to write is important. Don’t forget this. Celebrate it.

Thing #3

This is the one you’re going to hate.  Ditch social media. Specifically, Facebook. Because, really, it is an insidious plot to turn us all into complacent citizens who do nothing more than scroll through their news feeds.  So rise up and rebel! Spend your time writing instead of scrolling.  Oh, wait, there is that small fact to consider that you will want to spend time on social media building your platform. But if you do that intentionally and mindfully you won’t get lost in the Facebook vortex, wherein you tell yourself you’re just going to take a quick look and half an hour later you’re still scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Okay, who’s with me on this? Let’s do it.  Leave a comment and tell me how you’re improving your writing this year.

And if you’re struggling with any of these things maybe you need a coach. I have a couple spots open on my roster.  Email me if you’re interested!

On Feeling Sorry for Yourself (A Love Letter)

I awoke one morning this week to an email with the headline Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself. I don’t even know what the email was about—it is one of many (way too many) I get because I signed up for something somewhere along the line.

The email stopped me for a minute. Because, right at that very moment I realized, I actually was feeling a bit sorry for myself.  So I stopped and pondered why. And realized there was no good reason for it. Maybe ….. because I was a little tired, still waking up. Because my big toe hurt. Because I was still dragging myself through the rewrite of my novel when I should have been done a week ago. No good reason.  No real reason.

You ever feel this way, too?

Well, I have two words for you. (And me.)

Stop it. Just stop it.

We have all the things in the world and yet we feel we don’t have enough.  I had a huge epiphany last week when I was working on some goals for the new year. (Finally, it took me forever to get to it.) When I think I don’t have enough, then I go for too much. Not enough food? Overeat. Not enough money? Overspend. Not enough time? Waste it.

And, worst of all, not enough writing talent? Squander it.

And of course, the whole idea of not enough is an illusion anyway, fed by my primitive, reptilian brain that is still convinced I’m living in a time when food and resources truly were scarce for days.

I’m convinced this vague feeling of not enough translates into feeling sorry for ourselves. And that translates into resentment. It’s really hard to write when you’re feeling put upon and woeful and resentful.

So, again, to you and myself, I say stop it.  In the most loving and kindest of ways. But if you want a really funny version of someone saying stop it, watch the video below. It may just become your new catch-phrase to yourself for the new year.

 

Living the Astonishing Writer’s Life (A Love Letter)

As you read this, I’ll be finishing up a five-day stay in Louisville, Kentucky, after a conference/celebration at Spalding University, where I got my MFA.  The celebration part was to honor Sena Jeter Naslund, the founder and long-time director of the MFA program, who is retiring.

Sena is the author of many wonderful novels, including my favorite, Ahab’s Wife, and is also an amazing teacher and inspiring speaker.  One of the things she says is, “writers get everything everyone else does—plus the pleasures of a writing life.”

That quote encompasses everything about the life of a writer and why it is the best life imaginable.  We get everything everyone else does—and more.  And, conversely, everything in our non-writing world (that part everybody else gets) impacts our writing world.  It’s sort of like the double helix of the DNA strand—our writing and civilian lives combine and recombine, constantly fertilizing and enriching the other.

A walk on a beautiful fall day inspires description for a novel. A snippet of overheard dialogue makes its way into a scene.  Reading a book deepens your understanding of your main character.  And you also get to enjoy those things as aspects of living life.  A beautiful fall day, some interesting eavesdropping, the pleasures of sinking into the world of a book.

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment,” says Annie Dillard.  “Instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it,” says Mary Oliver.  We writers are the lucky ones because we get to not only be astonished, but then tell about it.   We get to live twice, as Natalie Goldberg points out.

And that, my friends, is astonishing, no?

I do often wonder how non-writers make it through. I can’t imagine living without a writing practice, be it journaling, writing this newsletter, or crafting novels, in which to process my thoughts and figure things out.  How do people live without a container in which to place their astonishment at the world?

Aren’t you glad you’re a writer? Leave a comment and tell me the best part about being one.