Tolerating Uncertainty (and Inefficiency)

photo by Flickr's Claire L. Evans

photo by Flickr’s Claire L. Evans

I love having a plan, a detailed goal that I can accomplish based on my own timeline. When I was seven, for example, I made a list of things I wanted to purchase. 1. Olivia Newton John record 2. Red clogs 3. Beaded moccasins 4. Mrs. Grossman stickers.

I included the cost of each item, as well as when, based on chores and allowance and collecting out-of-town neighbors’ mail, I’d have saved the money. I got that Olivia Newton John record. The moccasins and stickers too. My parents gave me shiny red clogs for Christmas.

I kept up this planning into my adult years. After college, when my best friends started moving away to pursue promotions or grad school or men, I found myself happily teaching high school English. But I was lonely. Right around that time, my boyfriend, Fritz, dumped me (over the phone). Then we got back together. Then he dumped me again (over the phone). Without my besties or even a douche-canoe like Fritz, I needed a plan to combat my loneliness. So I made another list: People I’d Like to Spend More Time With. And then I set about the task of getting unlonely.

Along with plans and goals, I love efficiency. The day I found a chocolate chip cookie recipe where I wasn’t required to put the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet ones in another, only to combine them? Halleluyah! Efficiency and one less bowl to wash!

I am equally efficient when I fold laundry or grocery shop or walk my kids to school. Some of this appreciation for efficiency is based on my DNA, some on my upbringing. Growing up in California where drought was common, I learned to take two-minute showers. These days, as it costs about $8 million to fill our old oil furnace, I wear a jacket to avoid turning up the heat. Why waste heat when I’m the only one home? If my husband leaves his breakfast plate on the counter, I brush off the toast crumbs and have my son use that same plate. My signature? Not Sarah Reed Callender, but SCall. I like to do things quickly, and I don’t like waste. Continue Reading »

The Art of the Comp

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From Flickr’s TheBusyBrain

Today’s guest is Greer Macallister, a poet, short story writer, playwright, and novelist whose work has appeared in publications like The North American ReviewThe Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing.

Her debut novel, The Magician’s Lie–released TODAY–has been getting tremendous buzz. It was selected as a monthly or weekly pick by Indie Next, Library Reads, She Reads, Midwest Connections, Publishers Weekly, and People magazine.

Raised in the Midwest, Greer now lives with her family on the East Coast.

You can connect with Greer on Facebook and Twitter.

“Smart and intricately plotted… a richly imagined thriller.” People Magazine on The Magician’s Lie

The Art of the Comp

Many authors resist having their books compared to others. Most of us are striving for originality, to write a book that no one else has written or could write. But there’s an art to coming up with the right comparison (“comp” for short) that can pique the interest of readers. And comparisons in publishing are inevitable; why not be the first out of the gate with the right one?

My book, The Magician’s Lie (out today!) is about a famous female illusionist in 1905 who comes under suspicion for murder. So yes, it’s probably the only book that fits that description, and for readers who are particularly passionate about that time period, or magicians, or murder mysteries, that pitch might be enough.

But if I’ve only got a few moments to tell someone about the book – or if there’s only room in print or online for a single sentence – I might be better off using this comp: it’s The Night Circus meets Water for Elephants. There’s good reason to think that readers who enjoyed one or both of those comp titles would enjoy The Magician’s Lie as well.

(It doesn’t hurt that both were bestsellers. The Magician’s Lie could just as accurately be described as Alias Grace meets Carter Beats the Devil, but the number of people who’ve read both of those books is probably in the thousands, not the millions. You could also throw The Usual Suspects into the mix, but books are better comps than movies.)

There are dangers, of course. You never know how readers might feel about a particular title. My Goodreads reviews often cite one or both of the comp titles, but in very different ways. A few direct quotes: Continue Reading »

How Much Has Changed in 13 Years

change-ahead-600In my previous post, I wrote about how my first adult novel in thirteen years had been recently published. Since then, I’ve been observing first-hand just how much the literary landscape has changed for genre fiction writers since my last adult novel came out, in 2001. Some of these changes have surprised me, and not because I’ve been out of the publishing scene for 13 years; I’ve been right in it all along, only in the area of YA and children’s fiction, and that by comparison has not changed quite as much (though it certainly has not stood still either). But there are things within the world of publishing for children and young adults which to some extent quarantines it from some of the more extreme or challenging changes. I’ve been aware of what’s been going on in the world of adult fiction, but to experience it firsthand is something else — like a leap into a new world. This has led me to think about just what a difference thirteen years have made, and what these changes are.

Changes in format and timing. In publishing for young people, the ebook has scarcely had an impact. Print still dominates there. But in adult fiction, the rise of the ebook, particularly in genre fiction, has meant an explosion in the numbers of books published. More risks can be taken with ebooks, and so books may have more of a chance at publication. As well, indie authors now compete to some extent with commercial publishers (though not exactly in fair combat). For commercial publishers, it means they’ve had to adjust schedules, previous ideas of marketing, readership and relationship with authors. It’s been great to see my book (first published as an ebook, then as a POD) take shape so quickly, from contract in June to editing and design in September and release in November. That did not happen with my previous adult novel—indeed not with most of my novels for young people, even this year’s crop. Getting the book quickly on the market is certainly a great advantage. However, the low price of ebooks means that achieving the kinds of royalty payments you’d get on a print book is just that much harder and the lack of advances from most digital publishers is another challenge. And that huge and continuing flow of new ebooks is another major challenge. Discoverability is, it seems, more difficult in many ways, though there is  the compensation that an ebook’s ‘shelf ‘ life is potentially not as short as a new print novel appearing on a bookshop shelf where it might only have a few weeks to have any kind of impact before it’s returned to the publisher to languish in a warehouse before being remaindered.

Changes in marketing. Continue Reading »

A Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting the Research Interview

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Image courtesy IMMages via DeviantArt.com.

One of the most valuable methods of research for writing a novel can be the in-person interview. Experts in a particular field or people who have personally experienced something related to your story can not only answer questions put directly to them, they can provide experiential, sensory and other details it might be impossible to gain any other way.

When I talk to other writers about conducting interviews as part of their research, many express trepidation or outright intimidation at the prospect. This is understandable. First of all, many of us in this profession are introverts, and asking forthright, sometimes intimate questions of people we’ve just met falls outside of our comfort zone. Second, the people we seek to interview are often busy professionals, sometimes holding positions of high status. How can we approach them with any expectation of receiving their time, particularly if we’re unpublished, unknown writers?

The answer is to choose carefully the people you approach and to act professionally and with confidence–even if it’s an act at first. Don’t know where to start? No problem. Here is an 18-step process (yes, 18!) for interviewing people for your novel.

  1. Do your pre-research. Read. Read more. Read history, memoir, articles, sometimes fiction. Watch documentaries. Learn everything you can via various media. Let’s say you’re writing about a murder investigation. You won’t want to open an interview with the detective assigned to a murder case with, “So, what’s it like being a detective?” This vague question is not a valuable use of the detective’s time, and she won’t appreciate it. Learn everything you can on your own first.
  2. Draw up your list of target interviewees. Decide how many and which people you need, and prioritize them. If you need to speak to a general surgeon, begin there. You will probably find someone without too much difficulty. If you need to speak to someone who was a member of Solidarity in Poland in the early ‘80s and was detained without charge during the imposition of martial law, you’re probably going to have a tougher time. But don’t let that challenge dissuade you (see next point).
  3. Be a detective. If your targets are hard to find (the Polish example), sensitive (relatives of people who have died or survivors of tragedies), or people not inclined to talk to the public (people who work with private or secret information, such as some psychiatrists and government officials), you may need to dig quite deep. Comb through every network you can think of: alumni lists, civic organizations, fellow school parents who may know people.
  4. Write a professionally worded email to each person you want to interview. Introduce yourself and your project, offering just enough detail to catch your potential interviewee’s interest and show him how he is relevant. Tell him specifically how he might provide critical information for your book. Don’t go on at length; you’re also showing him that you understand his time is limited. Include a few points from your own biography; keep it to a sentence or two. End with any pertinent travel details—i.e., you’re going to be in his city the week of June 1—and an expression of how grateful you would be if he could meet with you during your time frame. Tell him you will follow up in a week with a phone call, but also provide your phone number and email address in case he’d prefer to get back to you.
  5. How to respond – If you get a positive reception: great! Be as flexible as possible regarding when and where your interviewee wants to meet. You’re a night owl but she wants to meet at 6:00 a.m. before she goes running? You’ll be there at 6:00. And offer to buy breakfast if you have the means. (If writing is your profession, it’s a tax-deductible business expense.)
  6. If you get a negative reception: that’s okay. Continue Reading »

Take Five with David Corbett on The Craft of Character

craft-of-character-3WU contributor David Corbett, author of four novels (The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, and Do They Know I’m Running), and a must-have craft book for writers called The Art of Character, is teaching an online class about The Craft of Character this month. David is no stranger to teaching, having taught for the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, 826 Valencia and numerous writing conferences across the US, and we know from his posts with us here that he is a master of Character.

Want to know more? So did we. Read on.

Q: Is The Craft of Character meant for beginners, professionals, or writers at an in-between stage of development?

DC: I’ve had students of all stripes take this course, and they generally had positive things to say about the experience – i.e., they learned something useful about the writing craft, gained a fresh perspective for their current work in progress, and felt enthusiastic about taking the next step with it. (I always consider that last aspect – enthusiasm for moving ahead — the most important, and the best measure of how well I’m teaching.)

I also review student submissions on their own merits, with an eye toward identifying what’s single element of craft this particular writer could most benefit from mastering at this point in her education.

I try not to dictate methods or results, but instead engage with each student in such a way that they remain in control of their own work and the decisions they need to make to improve it.

Finally, I’m not such an arrogant knucklehead that I fail to realize I have a lot to learn as well. I often learn it from my students. I always encourage a broad range of skill-levels because students learn from each other (and by engaging with each other). And even skilled, accomplished writers sometimes need a sounding board, someone with enough knowledge of story and craft to be nothing more than an honest reader. If that’s all a student needs, I don’t try to shovel more down their throats.

Q: What is the goal of the course? Continue Reading »

The 10 Most Generic Tweets of All Time

photo by mendhak

Twitter is chock full of vague, generic, redundant tweets. Usually my eyes skim over them like the filler they are, but every once in a while I’ll sink into one and roll around in the absurdity of it. I have no excuse other than sheer glee at such nonsense. (Yes, my humor is a little twisted.)

I have an announcement! I’ll be looking for your questions about the strange and magical ways of Twitter – everything from function to etiquette to theory – and answering a few of them right here on Writer Unboxed. Details are at the bottom of this post.

So today I thought I’d share the joy by posting the 10 most generic tweets of all time – snark included free of charge.

(But seriously, I’ve posted a few of these too. Don’t sweat it, guys. This is all in good fun.)

1. I’m drinking coffee. I like it!

Yes, we know. Everyone likes coffee. You’re probably not even a “real writer” if you don’t have coffee siphoned down your throat as a form of alarm clock. (We won’t speak of The Tea People.)

2. I want some chocolate.

And?

3. I love bacon.

I’m seeing a trend here…

4. Nutella, amirite?

I don’t know how to break this to you guys, but Nutella really isn’t that great. I mean, it’s fine, but it’s no coffee. Let’s just not pretend it is, okay?

5. I’m upset. =(

I’m sorry, but that is so vague I have no possible answer but… “I’m sorry.” And if we ask, “What’s wrong?” and you can’t even tell us, a particularly unfriendly lobster will come pinch your toes tonight while you sleep. Not even kidding.

6. I have good news that I can’t share! =D

Continue Reading »

Some Thoughts On Quiet Books, Timing, and the Ever Elusive Market

photo by afternoon_sunlight

photo by afternoon_sunlight

This is a tricky conversation we’re about to have. For years we’ve encouraged you to dig deep and tell your most personal, individual stories using your unique voice. But once you’ve honed your skills and excavated your most powerful voice—then what? What if you build it and nobody comes? What if the stories you’re driven to tell are quiet ones? Or don’t hit the current market sweet spot? Or have already been done a hundred times before?

Because sometimes the inescapable fact is, the things we love to write don’t sell. So then what?

Well, you can quit—which while a perfectly reasonable, legitimate life choice, is obviously not one we here at WU hope you make.

You can also self publish. And while this post isn’t about self publishing, the truth is, with the advent of self publishing you have the option—the luxury—of being able to tell your stories your way and still have them published and available to readers. Of course, the big question is—available to how many readers and how exactly will they discover your work? But that entire topic is the subject of a different post. I just wanted to acknowledge that was a very viable option once you have honed your craft.

Lastly, you can rework your stories to try and create a larger welcome mat, or you can polish your craft and skills so that your writing shines so brightly people will simply have to pay attention to it.

So this conversation we’re having is not about selling out your artistic vision to get a contract. Nor is it about watering down your artistic integrity in order to find readers. It’s about finding the largest, widest doorway into your story so that you can to draw in as many readers as possible, and then tell them exactly the core story you’re driven to tell.

A while back, Julia Baggott wrote a terrific piece about writing books of the heart versus more commercial books and pointed out that was a false dichotomy. Her point is a critical one (and if you haven’t read the piece take a moment and do so now)—we don’t have to choose one or the other. We can find ways to put pieces of our heart in more commercial ideas as well as find ways to make the books of our heart have a broader appeal.

There are a variety of things that allow a book to stand out and find a wide audience:
gripping plot
stunning reversals and sleight of hand
compelling characters
unique original voice
exquisite language
exploring the vulnerabilities and universal truths of the human heart

And of course, the best of the best often incorporate more than one of those elements.

If you write quiet books or books that go against current market conventions, that doesn’t mean all is lost. It simply means that some of these other aspects of your work will act as the wider doormat for your potential readers. And the good news is that widening that doormat does not have to radically alter the story you are hungry to tell. Continue Reading »

Six Things Every Writer Needs to Succeed (Psst: MFA is not on this list.)

Mike socks

Mike credits his whimsy to the magical powers of his rainbow socks, hand-knitted by blind leprechauns from the manes of free-range unicorns.

Therese here to introduce you to today’s guest, M.L. Swift. Mike has been a follower of Writer Unboxed for quite some time, but it wasn’t until I heard him read his fiction at the Un-Conference — work he’d produced just that day — that I realized he’s also a powerhouse writer. What a unique way with words he has, what a clear voice, and what a quick mind with its quirky and spot-on sense of humor. Of course I wanted you to get to know him a little better.

In his own words:

M.L. is a lover of words who squanders away his afternoons arranging them into sentences which, when combined, resemble fiction. A caregiver for over ten years, he has written several articles for The Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and plans a novel on his experience. He lives in the Florida panhandle with his two dogs, Rameses and Buster, and spends his nights fighting a losing battle to reclaim his side of the bed.

Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, and learn more about him on his website.

And now for the main attraction…

Six Things Every Writer Needs to Succeed 

When Therese asked if I’d like to scratch out an article for Writer Unboxed, I literally — in the most figurative sense of the word — stood up, turned around, and knocked the gold bricks out of my chair. Did I read her note correctly? Would I like to write an essay for the website I’ve worshipped for over three years, and — e’en if for a day, ere I’m shown the door fore’er — dispense Parker-esque aphorisms to the most respected minds in the industry, while at the same time, make a complete and utter fool of myself? Would I? Would I? I pounced on the keyboard: “Does a bear sh—?” Wait. Breathe. Backspace and delete. Respond as if it were as commonplace as “You want fries with that?”

“Why, yes, Therese, that would be lovely.” There you go. Classy. Mature. Professional. Kiss, kiss; hug, hug. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

By dinnertime, my euphoric ride on the Cumulonimbus9 had ended with a belly-flop to earth, leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere, dusting off rainbows and gnawing my thumbnail like a piece of beef jerky. “Mike, what in the world were you thinking?” Actually, if you really want to get down and velveteen about it, I used a much more colorful, less Hogwarts-friendly expression.

You see, that very morning, Sharon Bially had written a post listing six criteria for an impressive writer’s resumé, and according to the stats, I was batting zero. Even worse, I didn’t foresee three of the six items making my five-, ten-, or twenty-year plan. Her suggestions, in order of my probable attainment (from “most likely” to “you’ve got to be kidding”) included:

  • Submitting your work for prizes.
  • Publishing short stories in literary magazines.
  • Seeking blurbs and endorsements from established authors.
  • Teaching writing at a respected (damn that respected clause!) organization or university.
  • Having a career with a literary organization, like a magazine, agency, non-profit, or publisher.
  • Getting an MFA.

Jiminy Crickets! That’s a far cry from my engineering and architectural background at Virginia Tech. In contrast, my literary experience looked more like this:

  • Summer reading certificates from the neighborhood bookmobile, grades 1-6 (with gold seals, not silver).
  • Founder and Editor of the Altama Elementary School newspaper (The Anaconda), grade 4, asking such questions as: “Do you prefer ‘Macaroni and Cheese,’ or ‘Cheese and Macaroni?’” In the 70’s, this was cutting-edge journalism.
  • Scoring a 730 out of 800 on my verbal SATs.
  • Working on the high school newspaper.
  • Working on the high school yearbook.
  • Getting stoned and writing bad poetry in college, fascinated by the “nge” sound in words like grunge and unhinged. “Grrr-uuu-nnnggge. Unhh-iii-nnnggged.” I’d say them for hours between mouthfuls of chili dogs.
  • This article.

That’s about the extent of my writerly resumé, other than the little stuff from daycare to kindergarten. Oh, yeah, and I’m a team player.

Needless to say, I didn’t comment on Sharon’s post. At the time, I was too intimidated, which, if you know me, isn’t one of my natural states. Who was I to opine with this learned lot of literati? And for a brief moment, the bony finger of self-doubt poked and prodded, trying to probe its way in. Who am I in this highly competitive, MaFiA-ruled world?

I’m Mike Swift, that’s who. Better yet, M.L. Swift, if you want to get all nom de plume about it. I am nobody and I am everybody.

If that sounds brash and a bit arrogant, it isn’t meant as such, and has nothing to do with a sense of entitlement in this new and seemingly open-gated world of publication; I’d feel the same if I were a writer in the nineteenth century. Nor is it meant to diminish the respect I have toward the holders of Fine Arts degrees and established publishing careers. I wish I’d have followed my dreams and pursued my passions rather than the almighty dollar — but as my mama always said, “If wishes were horses, poor men would ride.”

I’m simply of a different belief system: one that places equal value on life experience, and, when combined with a decent education, sets the stage for fantastic storytelling. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me that. This is a belief I must hold, if I’m to succeed in this business. I also believe that the path which brought me here was the path I needed to tread — complete with every rock of Sisyphus and head of Medusa — to gather the stories I needed to tell.

I believe the six commonalities of good writers — sheepskins and wineskins and Rumplestiltskins aside — are: Continue Reading »

Stirring Higher Emotions

“Pure Joy” Photo by Deborah Downes

What was the most emotional day of your life?  Google for people’s stories and you’ll read a lot that are probably like your own: birth, death, betrayal, trauma, marriage, divorce, miscarriage, failure, second chance, recovery, a dream achieved, a confession of love, getting a helping hand.

Now, those are events.  Let’s look at the emotions they evoke, for these are strong feelings and ones we’d like readers to feel as they read our fiction.  We’re talking about primary emotions, maybe even primal ones: fear, rage, passion, glee, ecstasy, triumph, hope, astonishment, grief, humiliation, awe, joy or love.

You likely are not thinking about mild emotions like apathy, boredom, contentment, doubt, fondness, gloom, grumpiness, liking, melancholy or satisfaction.   Those are real, everyday feelings but not ones that stick with us.  Memorable times are memorable because they’re connected to big feelings; feelings so strong we describe them as experiences.

It would seem then that to give readers emotional experiences we need only work with primary or primal emotions.  Unfortunately, from a craft perspective, there’s a problem: big emotions often fall flat on the page.  Often that’s because they’re familiar, flatly reported or poorly engineered.  Entering a dark basement doesn’t necessarily instill fear.  Send a dozen roses to our doorsteps and you don’t automatically deliver love.

How often has a horror novel made you keep a light on?  How many thrillers have genuinely made you feel paranoid?  Do romances always turn you to mush?  Does reading women’s fiction guarantee, every single time, that you will feel empowered or healed?  I doubt it, though I have no doubt that you have on your shelf classics or favorites that have had those effects on you.

Reading The Spy Who Came In From the Cold gave me the sick feeling that I couldn’t trust anyone.  A totally forgotten category romance by Janet Daily called That Boston Man made me fall in love.  To Kill a Mockingbird still stirs in me hope that goodness and justice will triumph, even though in Harper Lee’s novel they do not.  I know from these and other reading experiences that fiction can stir big emotions.  The question is how.

Emotions have been exhaustively researched, written about, categorized and charted.  For our purposes today we can put them into two simple categories: positive and negative.

Negative emotions are the easiest to access and write about.  Fear and anger are a cinch to switch on.  You can see this, for example, in the prevailing “voice” of our times: the often first-person narrative tone of ironic detachment.  This default voice can be funny and entertaining, but that amusement factor springs from an underlying coolness.  Ironic narration is attention grabbing but not always deeply engaging.  How could it be when it is rooted in pessimism, passivity, distance and distrust?

(Exceptions like snarky  narrator Holden Caulfield are exceptions for a reason, but that is a topic for another post.)

Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use.  Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.

Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use.  Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it. Perhaps.  I suspect, though, that positive emotions are simply more difficult for us to sustain as human beings, despite being more helpful to us and conducive to happiness.  (Check out Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity for more on that.)

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman quotes Aristotle on the difficulty of positive emotions and emotional mastery: “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.”

Optimism, vision, leadership and persistence are not everyday qualities.  Compassion, empathy and understanding—even of one’s enemies—are rare.  Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa do not happen by all the time.  Not everyone plays in the philharmonic orchestra or makes it to the Olympics, either.  Kicking an addiction or forgiving one’s father can happen in our own experience but when it does it’s a one-time, life-defining change.

“Higher emotions” are called that for a reason.  They elevate and inspire us.  Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of “moral elevation” by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.

While it’s true that the negative emotions associated with betrayal, trauma, tragedy and death are large and memorable, they also die when we do.  Positive emotions—and in particular higher emotions—live beyond us.  The highest emotions become the timeless virtues extolled in every religion and recommended by every great thinker.  They bring us back to The Bible, say, and in the same way they can bring readers back to our fiction when we evoke such emotions.

Thus, if we want to give our readers emotional experiences why settle so small?  Why not plan to stir in readers the highest emotions known?

As I said, the question is how.  Let’s turn this into a technique, starting with the observation that any big emotion does not spring out of nowhere.  It is laid on a foundation of anticipation.  Fear grows.  Hope builds.  Paranoia deepens.  Love dawns.  Healing comes in stages.  To create high emotions in readers requires laying groundwork.

So, try the following. Continue Reading »

In Praise of Quitting

WLM14ES_-_Molinos_La_Mancha_-_Hugo_Díaz-RegañónIn our culture, being a quitter isn’t generally seen as a good thing.  We value determination, drive, commitment, and the willingness to carry a task through all the way to the end.  And rightly so.  Determination and commitment and all the rest are admirable qualities to have– and they’re essential to us as writers.  I’ve always felt that one of the deadly sins of the unpublished writer (ie the sins that will stop her from ever getting published) is to be a serial book-starter.  To start writing story after story, only to abandon the work in favor of some bright, shiny new idea when the going gets hard.

I still feel that way.  In my experience, every book hits a rough patch, a time when it would be easier to just shove the whole mess into a drawer and switch to something new.  But it’s kind of like parenting, in that you’re in it for the long haul.  You don’t trade in your kids just because they will not for the love of pete put their dirty socks in the laundry hamper (and my kids aren’t even teenagers yet).   You don’t give up on your book because the characters are stubbornly sitting with their arms folded, refusing to participate in the story you have laid out.  Or worse, raising their eyebrows at you and sarcastically asking, Really?  That’s your idea of a plot?

Determination is what carries you through those patches, and leads you to the miraculous moment when your book finally works, when your fingers can’t fly over the keys fast enough.

Except when it doesn’t.

Continue Reading »

Becoming a Stand-Up Writer

Up on your feet!

Welcome to 2015! For many of us, today is the first real workday of the new year. I always enjoy the “clean slate” feeling of starting a new year, and I’m usually eager to make some tweaks and changes to how I operate.

Some of those changes are simply about breaking some bad habits (e.g., no more chocolate-covered Pringles after 11PM), while others are about creating some new, better habits.

Getting butts *out* of chairs

As the svelte and savvy Porter Anderson observed in this excellent WU post, a popular health trend for writers in recent years is the standing desk. After all, with studies like this, this, and many others all pointing out the health risks inherent in sitting for prolonged periods of time, the age-old writer’s mantra of “butt in chair” can start to sound like a death sentence for some of us.

Case in point: I’m an admittedly sedentary person. I spend the majority of my day sitting at a keyboard, either working on my next Pretty Good American Novel, or trying to persuade my clients to avoid using terms like “incentivize” and “thought leadership” in the corporate speeches and presentations I write for them. As a result, it’s safe to say my chair and my butt have been getting more than enough quality time together. So I decided to do something to change that in 2015, and I’m happy to inform you that I’m typing this post at my new standing desk.

Fear of commitment

I held off on this move for a couple of years. For one thing, switching to a standing desk can be an intimidating commitment to ponder. I mean, what if I hated it? And most of the decent standing desks are pretty big, so where the heck would I put the thing if I actually took the plunge and ordered one? Plus, most of the options I was finding were awfully expensive, making this an even riskier venture to consider.

In keeping with my historic cheapskatedness (hey, it might be a word), I began looking for a workaround. After checking out some of the commercially available standing desks (focusing particularly on ones that go on top of your current regular desk), I started varying my search terms, and soon struck gold. For just 42 bucks, I found a solution that lets me try out this whole standing-desk thing with minimal investment of money or space. Continue Reading »

Why We Write, Why We Stop, and How We Can Possibly Restart and Keep Going

photo by Sebastien Wiertz

photo by Sebastien Wiertz

I put out a call on Facebook a few days ago, asking writers who aren’t writing, why they aren’t writing. (I know some of my own reasons.) Of course, not writing because you know your creative process and the value of fallow fields is good. I’m interested in reaching out to those who’d rather be writing and aren’t or, for some reason or another, can’t. Here are some unrefined thoughts on the subject. (If I were capable of refined thoughts, I’d be writing a new novel right now.)

Most of the people wrote in saying that time was the issue. I’ve given a lot of advice in the past on creating time, on reserving your freshest brain cells for your own work (and committing to that), on reclaiming your muse time (down time while showering, gazing, waiting for kids to get out of practice, commuting) — I have a very specific speech for this alone.

But the fact is that when juggling the demands of a very, very busy life, sometimes there simply isn’t enough time. And the novel, in particular, is so architectural burdensome and, early-on, so ungainly that it’s very hard to work on it in small increments. This is why artist colonies exist and why some writing professors simply don’t write until summer hits. (I can’t work this way. I have to write or my gears would whir too hard, and I’d resent those around me. I believe in living life with a metaphorical metal detector, always listening for the beeps of possible resentment and digging them out so they can’t root — especially important in relationships.)

But what happens here is that the desire to write when you know you won’t really have the time and head space to do it is painful. It’s an ache. And sometimes the only way to make it not ache is to shut down your desire to write. Stop the wanting. If you practice this, however, this tamping out of the creative impulse, you’ll perfect it. And once shut off tight, it’s hard to open again. There’s been a breach of trust inside of yourself.

I’m not sure that I have a fix. (Can you accept the ache if you know that a stretch is coming? Can you build stretches for yourself? Can you work with your partner to find ways to allow yourself time and head space?) I do know that shutting down the want is not healthy. It’s a shutting down on a life force.

In lieu of not having a great answer to the above, I’ll offer three things I’ve thought of recently about why I get stuck.
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