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I read many blogs from the writing community.  A common theme weaves into their accounts when they talk about writing.  They each say they have to write because the characters in their heads make them do it.  A recent comment, “If your characters want you to write the story, they will haunt you until you do write the story,” caught my attention.  Actually, it stopped me dead in my tracks.  These authors live to write and write to live.  They’re dedicated.  Focused.  If they didn’t have writing, they wouldn’t have anything.  I look at these sentences trying to find myself in them.  Instead,  I’m left doubting  if I’m actually a writer.

I think about my stories.  There are times where I think about them a lot.  It comes when I’m avoiding 8-5 work, drowning out fighting children, or in between choruses on my drive home.  I play out scenes.  I act out dialogue.  Try out a couple jokes on myself.  But I can turn it off.  In fact, I can easily distract myself with the other million things I like to do.  There are kids, concerts, and cookies to fill in the seconds I choose not to think about writing.

I went to the lemon drop self-portrait vault and found this ol' thing.

I went to the lemon drop self-portrait vault and found this ol’ thing.

I don’t have a compulsion.  When I take a break from the book to give a fresh eye before an edit, I have no regrets.  I enjoy living the non-writer life in doing things with people.  (Lemon drops come to mind.)  I play on the internet and catch a little television if there’s been something I find exceptional.  Damn you, Mad Men.  Does this make me a bad person?  A bad writer?  Is it my subconscious confirming what my doubt tells me everyday?  “You are not a real writer.”

Being a writer is so subjective.  Do you graduate to full-fledge writer when you type THE END on your first novel?  Is there a special initiation when you land your agent?  Or an acceptance to a secret society when a hard cover shows your name on the binding?  Or are you only a real writer when you spit out the sentence about not being controlled by your fictional characters?

The uncertainty can drown you on a daily basis.  Or maybe it’s only me who gets caught in the affirmation undercurrent.  I find myself looking for any sign I’m on the right path in this writer’s journey.  Especially times like now, when I’m fighting to get back to my WIP or start the query process for another.

The other night when I told my Tragic friend about my dilemma, she wrote out some wise words.  “Just write.  Right?”  In fact, she suggested I put it on a shirt.  (I thought she referred to another sentence which would be good on a shirt when I wrote — “Where are all the dicks jokes?”)  Her idea is simple.  To the point.  Stop worrying about all the other bullshit of “should I’s” and “what ifs” and stick to the part I enjoy.  Enjoy the process of getting to know my characters instead of being haunted by them.  Keep telling their stories even if an agent isn’t around the corner.  Most of all write because that’s what I want to do.

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Why Would Anyone NaNo?

If you have a writer friend in your life, you may have heard about NaNoWriMo before.  It’s probably followed by a lot of cussing and self-loathing.  For those of you who have not been around me in the month of November, NaNoWriMo is the project to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  This may not sound like much at first, but that translates to about 7 1/2 pages a day.  A. DAY.

You may want to know why would someone put themselves in this position voluntarily.  Reasons will vary by the writer.  It can range from the newbie writer who wants to have a deadline to light a fire under their creative self to a slumping writer having a hard time crossing the finish line of completing a novel length piece of work.  My own reason was to hate my first draft.

It may seem counterproductive for a writer to hate their first draft.  My mind must agree because it fights me on it with each book I complete.  Although I read story after story about published authors pushing through the first draft crap to get to the fun of revision, I find myself married to the first thing I write.  NaNo seemed like the perfect opportunity to allow myself to hate the dribble spewed out since most NaNo work isn’t usable.  What I got was much more than that.

NaNo forced me to not think.  To keep up with the grueling word count, there was no time to think.  Luckily, I drafted the story before NaNo began.  This was something like programming the GPS before barreling down the highway at 100 mph.  It didn’t really help once I missed a turn because that GPS bitch takes forever to recalculate, but it did keep me from driving off a cliff.  There wasn’t time to worry about word choice because minutes were precious.  Push forward, you’ll catch it later.

Creativity flowed.  With no time for doubt to cloud my mind, the words came out quickly.  I haven’t re-read them yet (see above for why) but they are there.  When I thought the words, they typed onto the page.  In hindsight, I might have spent some more time drafting my characters before starting so I didn’t get confused at some times, but again, that’s saved for revision.

With all this flowing, you’re probably expecting for me to declare I have 50,000 words under my belt.  Nope.  I didn’t finish.  Even though there is a day left, I have no hope to catch up.  Why didn’t I finish when the creativity poured out of my fingers into my work in progress?  Because I took a vacation.  Where I thought this would allow a lot of time to write and keep up with word counts, the opposite happened.  Activities got in the way of setting aside time to work.  But that’s okay too.  Writing is solitary and if the opportunity comes up to experience new things and meet new people, you should take it.  Even if it hurts the word count.  Hearing Taps played for the unknown soldier, watching my son read the Gettysburg address, and visiting family I haven’t seen in twenty years will enrich my life much more than the NaNo completion shirt I could’ve owned.

My children reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial.

Was it all for nothing?  A waste of time?  No way.  I’ll still continue with the novel I’ve started during the month of November and apply the things I’ve learned in this experiment.  (Maybe with a little less self-loathing.  Maybe not.)  I definitely walk away with an appreciation of waiting until the edit before over thinking everything.  And that was the goal in the first place.  The jump-start on a new manuscript I’m pretty excited about is a side effect.  Having taken away so many benefits from this experience, I’d call my first year of NaNo a success.

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…we’re heading to a workshop.

Last weekend, something cool finally happened to Southern Oregon.  No, it wasn’t The Airborne Toxic Event coming over to my house for a barbecue (even though I have my fingers crossed for summertime.)  Instead, Willamette’s Writer group had the awesome Bob Dugoni teach an all day workshop to novel hopefuls.  I first saw Mr. Dugoni at the conference last August.  After I heard him speak about query letters, I dropped my YA classes and went to listen to two more of his lectures.  He was engaging, funny, and detailed in helping to learn more of the craft.  I love his admission of his mistakes made and how he worked through them.  I’ve been giddy for weeks after signing up to get another lesson.

Let me be clear that this post is no way a reflection on his skill in a workshop.  I gained six pages of fantastic notes.  I’m overwhelmed and excited to dive back into the edit of my WIP.  Mr. Dugoni inspired that.  The rest of the class gave me one page of observations noted for this blog of what not to do at an all day workshop.  As with any good lesson plan, we’re going to bullet points:

  • Senior Center — There were about 60 attendees.  85% of them were over the age of 60.  This is an interesting trend I saw at the last conference.  My critique partner’s hypothesis is it’s the time in your life where you actually have time to sit down and write the novel of your dreams.  Not that I have an aversion to the elderly (my mother might tell you different) but they do distract in some ways.
  • Learn To Turn Off Your Cell Phone — There were three separate examples where the above fact about age came into play for this problem.  When the phones did go off at an outrageously loud volume, the owners had no idea how to shut it off.  As the pre-programmed ring tone played through its whole melody, the owner swatted at the screen or pressed it against their side in a weak attempt to strangle the noise.  In all these occurrences when the owner thought they were out of the distracting woods, the happy chirp of a voicemail echoed in the room.  If you are scared to turn it off because someone might call you with life changing news, then PLEASE learn how to turn it to vibrate.
  • Book Lovers — Just because you love books, it doesn’t mean you should write them.  This was a workshop on how to write a novel.  But person after person wanted to theorize about different authors.  Mr. Dugoni would give an example about one of his novels and a participant would come back with “But (insert author name) did this in (book title).”  I fought every urge to turn around and scream “Are you author name? No? Then shut the hell up.”  You might think I’m being a bit harsh, but these people would not let it die.  That question was just their opener.  Then they would go into some disposition about how that author used some fancy technique in contrast to what Mr. Dugoni said, implying he was wrong.  Now you’re with me, aren’t you?
  • That Guy — It never fails.  In school, at the office, or at a work shop, there is always that guy who knows everything.  In this class, he sat in the last row with a maroon turtle neck under a blue striped sweater with his khaki covered leg crossed over the other.  He scoffed at inappropriate times and wanted to argue every point.  He even had the nerve to barely take one note the entire class.  During a break, he leaned over to another woman and said, “I’ve been writing a long time.  I’ve got this all down.” (Serious quote.)  I’m still waiting for him to drop the name of his published book so I can find it on the NYT bestseller list.
  • WTF Random Stuff — 1)  Chick crocheted the whole time.  Seriously.  2) At every break, someone was in Mr. Dugoni’s face.  Even at lunch one chick slid over pages for him to read.  No, please, never mind he might want to go to the bathroom or get something to eat.  3)  People kept guessing what he was going to say.  Mr. Dugoni would build up a story and someone shouted out their guess at the ending.  Hey, this isn’t a choose your own adventure.  Slow your roll and learn from the class.  4)  A woman made a pretty good dirty joke in one of the exercises about re-writing the sentence “he was quick and small.”  Funnier part was she didn’t even know it even after the class burst out into laughter and Mr. Dugoni turned bright red.  5)  I’m still a sucky student.
  • Me = Awkward — This is a classic equation in my life.  It might be why I’m drawn to writing Young Adult.  But sure enough, as I scooted past a desk, the corner of my pocket caught perfectly on the sharp edge of the dry erase board.  (Please insert extra loud ripping noise)  I’m trying to play it off cool when Captain Obvious next to me screams out “sounds like something ripped.”  Uh yeah, no shit, I just gave my ass a sunroof.  I shimmied back to my seat, wrapped my jacket around my waist, and tweeted about it immediately.  Hubs couldn’t even console me because he was laughing too hard after receiving my text.  (Maybe this belonged under  the WTF category.)

These are the deets of what goes on at a workshop.  Do you feel prepared to attend one yourself now?  At least you have some ideas what not to do.  Turn off your cell phone, want to be a writer, don’t argue with the professional, don’t be a dick, and cover your ass.

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It’s no surprise Valentine’s week involves a lot of treats, sweets, and baked goods.  Hallmark has been successful at infusing the day with the “if you don’t give something to someone else, you suck” attitude into a day where you should be only required to say “I love you.”  Ironically, I did minimal baking and felt hella guilty because of it.  But the one thing I did get to creating were owl cookies for my kids’ teachers.

I’d been pinning all sorts of owl projects to my Pinterest wall because of it being the mascot to Kiddos’ elementary school.  Yes, I’m one of those goober moms who tries to stick with the school spirit theme in my gifts to the administration.  The owls were from The Adventures of Sugarbelle and were the perfect choice with the heart-shaped faces.  Instead of pink and gray, I thought I was “oh so clever” by using the school colors of green, gold, and purple.  This is what it looked like when I was finished:

Aren't these owls filled with school spirit so freakin' cute?

There was excitement and cooing over the cuteness of the finished design.  I got my daughter’s sign off she thought it was cute enough for her best teacher ever and the teacher’s aide they call “Grandma.”  She even asked for an extra to go to another one of her favorite people, the librarian.  (This makes my heart swell and melt at the same time.)

Then I took a second look at the cookies and I could no longer find the face of an owl.  All I could see was Day of the Dead cookies with colorful skeleton faces.  Now look again:

Who's celebrating Day of the Dead in February?

Same picture, but a totally different way of looking at it.  Panic set in about the school administration wanting to know why I’m sending skeleton heads as signs of love and appreciation.  I wasn’t sure if it would give the same sentiment of “Thank you for inspiring my children” as a friendly owl head might.  So I spent the next hours asking people what they thought it looked like.  There was a Facebook post to see if anyone else saw the same thing I did.  Poor Hubs had to answer the question about ten times over.

This happens to fall at the same time as I’m editing my work in progress.  I have super notes from my crit partner pointing out things I never thought of during those first couple drafts.  It’s so funny to see things I never even imagined before and now they are so obvious.  It’s one more confirmation I’m on a good path of growth in my writing life.

While the cookie was received, liked, and hopefully consumed, the WIP is still in process.  Soon I’ll have another set of notes and see even more details I hadn’t before.  When it’s finally done, I’ll have confidence in a piece I love and can’t wait to share.

Having a second or third pair of eyes is a benefit in any creative process.  They can point out what’s lacking or support what’s right.  After critique partners and beta readers, I won’t have to worry about the insecurity of asking a million scattered people for their opinion.  Most will see what I want them to, but maybe a handful will see the unintended symbol of death.  And that’s okay.  That’s the awesome thing about creativity.  Everyone gets out of it what they want.

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I don’t think I hide the fact I like a good vulgarity every once in a while.  Oh hell, who am I kidding?  A slew of expletives can be as fun as baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies with the kids.  They pepper my language regularly and I even turn the ordinary into words something profane.  Example:  New bakery in town is called “Buttercloud,” which I have now turned into a word that can’t be used by anyone without snickering.  But all this jovial fun of offending others comes to a screeching halt with the dirtiest word of them all–process.

It looks innocent enough.  Defenseless with it’s unsuspecting meaning.  “A systematic series of actions directed to some end,” says Dictionary.com which only adds to the normalcy of it.  The exact reason it’s the worst thing out there for people like me.  People who can’t stand idly by as those “series” slowly trudge by while you have your hands in your pockets.  When did systematic mean “taking fucking forever?”  Don’t even get me started about the last part with the nose turned up snobbery of “directed to some end.”  What am I supposed to do with that?  What if I get to this “end” and it’s really just the start of another process?

A picture of "process" -- faceless and empty

You may be asking what has brought on this rant (and frankly, why you are still reading about it)?  I have written four novels in the last three years.  It’s easy to see now that I really vomited a bunch of words the first time and called it a book.  The following two improved, but still lacked the needed voice to land an agent.  I’ve taken my medicine of rejections because it’s the necessary part of learning.   If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have understood how I missed huge chunks of the writing process and my books were suffering because of it.

On this fourth book, I decided to go completely opposite of what I had done in the past.  Call it the George Costanza shift where I hope to get the exact opposite result if I do everything contrary to what I believe and did the first three times.  It started with a written outline.  I ditched my panster* status and went to putting a structure on the idea I had.  Next was a conference where I learned the first draft is only the beginning.  Bob Dugoni, a great speaker, said it was like climbing Everest.  The first time you are just happy to get there.  The next times are where you carve a clearer path.  After many trips and a lot more practice, you can bring someone with you.  (That’s you, reader.)  The conference also brought the realization in the need of critique partners, which I was lucky to find two I’m very happy with.  (Here’s Amy’s view of the process.)  But in all this desire to create a better product, process partnered up with patience for a double punch of difficult for me.

Accepting the process is easier said than done for a person who feels the need to fill in every second of the day with something.  This may explain my new addiction to Pinterest or diving head first into baked goods.  It’s not because I don’t want to write.  It’s the opposite, I’m jonesin’ to get back to the WIP.  I want to roll around in it, cover myself head to toe with the characters and immerse myself back into that world.  I even want to jump in the query process, cross fingers, and hope this is the time.  Those are all my gut instincts, and in true Costanza fashion, I have to resist.

It’s going to take all my energy to embrace this new frenemy of mine, process.  We’ve had our disagreements in the past where I left shaking my head and wondered what process was thinking.  There’s frustration with the time taken when going through the systematic series.  I’ll even admit there has been a few cuss words thrown around because of it.  And they weren’t the funny kind.  But one thing I have come to give process in this writing journey is respect.

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One thing I have picked up along this writing journey is the importance of community.  As with any grouping of people where there are nosey women (like me) they just can’t wait to meddle and hook up all the singles in the area.  Right, Spinster?  The book lover population is kinda the same way; like a blind dating service where you match up people on what they say are their likes and dislikes. When you read something great, you can’t wait to tell all your reading friends who are in between books about the next greatest thing.

Agent extraordinaire Meredith Barnes is having a fabulous contest on her blog on getting the word out about some of their clients.  They have books that are out of print, but making their way to the e-book route.  Her contest is about getting their profile out there so the match-making can begin.  Because she’s so awesome, she’s coming in as the wing-woman.  She’s offering a query critique so introductions can be made.  Yes, that’s damn cool.  But is that the reason why I’m writing a blog?  Okay, well, maybe a little.  But more the reason because we should all support each other.  Writers and readers should work together to make sure more book love  can be spread.  If there is someone who needs a little more Internet time to be seen by a new audience, other writers should join the call and help them out.

Here are the authors Meredith is talking about:

  • Deborah Camp  (A mix of contemporary and Old West Historical romances…over 40 coming in the near future, but here is a list of 10 or so available now)
  • Lorena Dureau  (Historical Romance: American Colonial South and West. Very Sexy)
  • Dan Streib  (thrillers with a James-Bond-meets-Anderson-Cooper main character)
  • Barbara Keesling (her too-hot-to-blog nonfiction is here, here, and here)

What do I want you to do about it?  Start setting people up, of course.  Do you know someone who is a nice PTA wife who’s ready to do the dirty in the bedroom like a crazed Angelina Jolie?  (Oh yeah, you know she’s freaky.)  Then set her up with Barbara Keesling.  She sounds like she’s got some interesting tricks under the sheets next to the whips and chains.  Do you have a friend who loves the cowboys and saddling up romance?  Tell them about Deborah Camp.  The description of “thrillers with a James-Bond-meets-Anderson-Cooper main character” is enough to pique interest in what Dan Steib has to say.  Maybe your girlfriend has a fantasy of a candle lit dinner alone with Abe Lincoln?  Then Lorena Doreau may be your fancy.  (Okay, I really didn’t have anything better to describe Historical Romance…I failed History.)

It doesn’t mean everyone is going to be a match, but it does open the dating reading circle for choices to make sure you find the perfect match.  If we didn’t have each other looking for the next author who is right in line with what you long for in a book, we’d never get to expand our horizons.  You never know when you are going to find the diamond in the rough or make an instant reading love connection.

Oh, by the way, if you decide this blog is so great and you want to link to it, could you share in the comments?  That query contest, uh…yeah, it helps me with that, too.

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This holiday week, I’m on vacation.  It’s not one of those trips to somewhere exotic or drinking cocktails by a beach.  Instead, I drove 12 hours with my two children to visit my parents in the town where I spent my first eighteen years.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of vacation aspects to it.  My children are pre-occupied with their cousins so I am able to edit the current WIP, I’ve been able to meet up with a couple old friends for reminiscing, and I’ve even gotten to see the sun again.  Hands down, one of the biggest perks of my parents’ house is the fact it’s on a golf course.  Not only does it have a beautiful landscape, no traffic noise, and an endless supply of retirees, it allows me to try my hand once a year on the links.

Golf has always been a big part of my parents’ life.  I took some lessons when I was young and occasionally hit a round of eighteen.  As with anyone under the age of sixteen, my fascination was more with driving the cart than practicing my swing.  (That was until there was a terrible accident where I ran over my mother and she never allowed me to drive again.)  Although the best I’ve ever done is par a hole every once in a while, I can usually hit the ball with minimal occurrences of shanking, topping, and making a total ass out of myself.  But this last round, where my mother invited other family to join, was the worst I’ve ever done in my entire life.

When my cousins rolled up in their serious golf gear, I did the smart thing and started the campaign to lower expectations about my play.  They were very reassuring about nothing was expected from the person who only played once a year.  It didn’t help that my cousin’s daughter, the one I occasionally diapered when I tried my hand at babysitting in high school, is a freakin’ golf star.  Seriously, she kicks ass on her college golf team.  On the first tee, all eyes watched as I teed up the ball.  I took a deep breath, remembered the steps of a successful swing, and went for it.  I topped the ball and it barely trickled off the tee box.  My mom gave me the pity offer of a mulligan and threw me another ball.  Repeat process with the exact same results. I gave an embarrassed smile, shrugged my shoulders, and sulked back to the cart. (Mom driving.)

Every shot proceeded to go like this the entire day.  It was brutal.  My mom tried to offer coaching tips, but nothing helped.  Two years ago I would’ve been cursing at myself from the first mulligan.  The whole day would’ve been consumed by anger at how terrible I was instead of enjoying the beautiful weather and chatting with my family I only see every once in a while.

On the second hole, after topping another one and it barely rolling thirty feet away, I said to my mom:

“One thing writing has taught me is everything takes practice.  If I don’t invest the time, I can’t expect to be good.”  I didn’t go on into the fact it’s also given me the “suck it up” power of not being good at something.  Rejections and online board feedback can do that.  Some of the brutal comments from my first book attempt humbled me to the fact the things you want to excel take a lot of time and practice.

I’ve read some wonderful blogs by people who have agents and book deals where they detail how they work really hard.  They remind it isn’t about natural talent where you can open a laptop once a year and write a best seller.  Writing has become a daily thing where I practice, study, apply, learn some more, listen to feedback, look to hang with experienced peeps, and still be okay when I get rejected.  (Even when I’ve topped the ball for the millionth time.)

Mom and I bailed out on the 8th hole to head back to the house to check on my dad who was watching four kids.  (Everyone was still alive and in one piece.)  But on that last hole, I finally hit a drive off the tee.  One that actually went into the air and made it near the green.  Well, the general vicinity.  Mom picked up the pitch shot and the putt and we parred the hole.

Even though I joked we had to exit on a high note, it had nothing to do with it.  The entire day was a success in my eyes.  (Similar to the success in my writing year.)  I took the mis-hits in stride with a smile on my face and a resolve to try again on the next hole.  I appreciated the good things like awesome weather, great company, and my little cousin’s kick-assery.  This year may have not brought the elusive hole in one or a representing agent, but it was filled with steps in getting there.  Hopefully the agent will come before the hole in one.  When it does happen, I’ll let you know.  Drinks on the 19th hole will be on me.

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