The Inelegant Balance Between Being Right and Becoming Better

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Now, we all want to be right — to be smart, admired, to think for ourselves and not let anything sway our convictions.  But at a certain point does certainty inhibit progress?

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I’ve been asking myself this question a lot in 2015.  Firstly, as I move forward toward becoming a professional writer, I have started thinking more about what audiences want — and deserve.  A little background: I’ve been a follow-your-vision, write-only-what-interests-you, write-what-you-love-and-the-money-will-follow type for years and years now.  And as I started to discuss the idea of writing more toward the audience’s desires with other writers, I heard my own arguments returned to me again and again.

“I think you’ll be more successful if you just follow your heart.”

“It’s more interesting to just create what you like.”

“Doing what others tell you and chasing popular opinion is no way to live your life.”

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True.  True.  True.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that just being self-satisfied with ‘being me’ wasn’t — actually — helping me get better.  I wanted to take the confidence (and experience) of listening to my inner voice and pair it with something more — with the tumultuous seas of outside opinion.

Rarely has the universe responded so quickly as it did now. 😉  Within weeks of seriously starting to think about this issue, I was challenged with a huge question — Did I want to be right, or better?

I had sent my newest novel, the 1810s-set Society & Civility, out to several friends for feedback.  But this novel — you have to understand — it had become such a favorite with me.  Ever since I’d started it last fall, I had enjoyed its world and characters so much, reread it several times almost just for fun, and thought it was a huge step forward for me as a writer.  It was a lark, a love story — and the best thing I’d ever written.  SO.  When the reviews came in there was a lot of love (most rated it 7 to 8.6 out of 10) and a BIG problem.  Toward the end of my story it totally breaks with the whole Jane Austin genre.  I knew that might be a problem, which is why I’d sought feedback before completing any more drafts.  People didn’t understand or like ‘the twist’ (as it came to be called).

I held out hope that my sister (the last of my beta readers) would feel the same way as I did and ‘get it’ as it were.  Then the crushing blow came — she felt the exact same way as the other readers.  So my perfect novel wasn’t considered by others to be perfect at all — now what?

Found on coolartcanvas.com

Found on coolartcanvas.com

Well, here was the puzzle of pleasing the audience writ large: they loved the book except for the twist.  Did I hold fast and complete it as was — the way I loved it — or should I change it?  I knew I could just brush off the opinions of these smartest, kindest friends — all creators and lovers of this genre — and tell myself that *my* audience would totally get my choices — whenever and under whatever rock I’d find this mystery group.

But– but.  In my heart of hearts I knew these were my readers — and I’d let them down.  I could always have a copy of *my* edition, but now what?  Didn’t I want to challenge myself and make a story everyone could fall in love with?  Didn’t I want to become BETTER that I was?  The answer — after only thinking about quitting writing six times in one morning — was yes.

fatfreedom.net

fatfreedom.net

So far the rewrite is going well.

So when you come up against that question, that challenge — should I listen to others or go my own way? — I would ask yourself:

  1. WHO is giving you this feedback?  Are these people you respect, people you want to emulate, or people who have valuable experience?  There no point in following someone down a road you don’t want to travel anyway.  In the example above, I had every reason to admire these readers and believe that they would give good advice.  In a different example, a co-worker was recently applying for a job I’d previously held for two years and I offered to help them out and answer any questions they had.  They pretty well blew me off, believing they already knew ‘everything’ about the position.  I was someone with insight and a desire to help — and that could have been a powerful resource to help them if they’d been willing to listen.
  2. WHY are they telling you this?  Some people just like to complain, nitpick, or put others down and you should never be using these people to judge your work or your life.  But if you’ve asked someone for their advice, you should listen because you probably thought they had something valuable to say — you know, before they told you what you didn’t want to hear.  And if you are creating products you want people to buy, consume, or love — you need to listen double-hard.  Most likely, they are disappointed — and now they are trying to help you — maybe imperfectly, maybe in the human language of anger or frustration — but what they take the time to tell you are the words a hundred other customers may have walked away with still written in their hearts.
  3. Are YOU 100% happy with your results?  If the answer is yes, you’re done.  Stand firm.  Tell the rest to go to hell and hold true to your path.  Discover your fans and let them discover you.  But… if in your heart you know you could be better, then listen.  Acknowledge that you may be very good — you’re at least very smart and full of potential — but you not as good as you could be.  So learn a better way to jog, take a class to improve your painting skill, and be open to starting anew on that book.  If you see a gap, you owe it to yourself to bridge it and get better.  Even if the gap is just between the audience’s expectations and your design.
  4. Are you EXPERIENCED enough to weed out the noise?  This is high-level stuff, this balancing of being true to yourself and listening to others, and I want you to side 100% with your heart and intuition until you’re ready for this level 16 challenge.  Keep in mind that you always get to decide in the end — listening to others and getting feedback is nothing more than offering you more options to choose from.  And like I said, beware unsolicited advice, negative people, and anyone who truly doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to do.  You really are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff here (okay, not really 🙂 — what you are looking for is that small bit of advice that interests you, challenges you, and makes you say ‘Damn it — they might be right’.
  5. Will this help you get BETTER?  In the end, it doesn’t matter if the critics are right or wrong if their advice hurts your progress.  Weird but so true.  With young writers, my secret feeling is ‘Yes, you are not there yet, but all you need is ten years of enthusiastic hard work.  Then you’ll be great.’  No one really wants to hear that, they want the shortcuts — but you can still bleed from those cuts.  Don’t wound yourself upon the opinions of others if you’re not ready.  I loved my first critique group but then came a time that I felt I must withdraw, and grow in secret like a mushroom, pushing out of the leaf litter and into the sun only when fully formed.  And now I’m ready to face the light.

I believe you can get 95% of the way to your goal under your own steam, keeping your secret counsel, and trusting your instincts.  But when it comes time to finese the final pieces, to push yourself further than you know how to go, you have to seek, to see beyond your own faith and fallacies, to press and push yourself ever upward — to become more than you are, more than you thought you could be.

To stop being good and to become truly great.

Found on llhdesignsblog.com

Found on llhdesignsblog.com

 

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2015: 10 Things That Are Inspiring My Writing

Even though the year isn’t over yet, I’m so excited about the things that are exhilarating me and moving my writing forward that I just had to share them (note: no real spoilers here, just a few lines of non-revealing dialogue) —

#1 — Hannibal

Hopefully season three isn’t the end, but if it was — what an ending!  I can’t even count all the ways this series awes me and makes me jealous.  It is more beautifully shot and designed, more intellectual, and has more intimate relationships than almost any series I have even seen.  I did feel like they lingered on the beauty a tiny bit long in the beginning of the season but  once they picked up the pace they were incredible.  This is one of those shows that has changed me and will be with me forever.  I want to make things this rich, this thoughtful, this surprising.

Hannibal Lecter: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in God’s image?

Will Graham: Depends on who you ask.

 

#2 — Mad Max: Fury Road

The trailers looked so exciting, so balls-to-the-wall, so over the top that finally seeing the feature-length film had to be a letdown.

ONE WOULD THINK.

Instead, Fury Road managed to not only hold onto that excitement and craziness for two solid hours but it also added in a great plot, strong characters, and the best female hero the genre had seen since Sarah Conner.  And finding out that — on Amazon.com — silver spray edible cake frosting is ‘often bought with Mad Max: Fury Road’ has restored my faith in humanity.

Nux: If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the fury road!

 

#3 — Nate Ruess / Grand Romantic

I’ve really enjoyed Fun.  Now their lead singer’s new album has become one of my favorites of the year.  He has this emotive, beautiful, lilting voice and it just screams ‘story’ to me.  ‘Brightside‘ especially makes me want to write another love story.

Cause there’s just something about you my love
Something in the way you comb your hair
And fall apart at the seams

 

#4 — Friday Night Lights / Season 3

Aww FNL.  I started this series last year and have been waiting about six months between seasons.  I got past season 2 (the truncated sophomoric stumble) and watched FNL regain its footing and rise again like an eagle (or a panther) in full glory in season 3.

I love, love, love these characters.  I don’t care about football.  I don’t care about teenagers’ love lives.  I don’t care about small town politics.  But I care about everyone, and every second, of Friday Night Lights.

Tami: I love that about you.

Coach Taylor: What? That I can’t make a decision to save my life?

Tami: No. That you make the decision with such a conscience. What other coach would think like that? I think it’s because you’re a teacher first. You–you are a molder of men. And I find that admirable, and I find that very sexy.

 

#5 — Daredevil

I’m only halfway through this one, and yet have been blown away again and again by the writing and the visuals.  The use of light — greens and yellows and neon words shattered among the darkness of an endless night turn the hero’s blindness and growing heroism into a physical landscape.  And the introduction of the Kingpin rates among the best, and most surprising, entrances by a villain in TV history.  I believe Netflix has not only met the quality standards set forth by the Marvel movies, but in many ways it has eclipsed them.

Ben Urich: There are no heroes, no villains. Just people with different agendas.

 

6# — Jim Kroft / Journeys #1 & #2

How Jim Kroft isn’t famous yet I cannot say, but I’m sure he’s on his way.  ‘Journeys’ 1 & 2 are beautiful, imaginative, heartbreaking, and hopeful.  ‘Break For the Light’ is a perfect anthem for reaching for your true desires, but ‘Beijing Morning‘ is the one that breaks my heart every time.

Days may come and the days may go
Sometimes the demon is taking hold
I want the courage to make these steps
To walk from error and regret

 

#7 — The Unusuals

“You should watch ‘The Unusuals’.”  I kept hearing some version of that from my sister, again and again, over the last few years.  She’d seen it when it first came on, while I sometimes avoid new shows till I know if they’ll last.  Terrible, I know.  Well, this show didn’t last beyond its first season but it doesn’t matter, in one season it created more memorable characters, moments, and stories than many shows do given a decade.  Come for Jeremy Renner, and stay for the dialogue — heartbreaking in one moment and gut-busting in the next.  My only regret is that I didn’t see it sooner.

Det. Shraeger: I swear, if you took all the time that men wasted thinking about the female breast throughout history, there’d only be enough time to read a magazine.

Det. Walsh: What, like Juggs or Maxim?

Det. Shraeger: Yeah, you’re adorable.

 

#8 — Far From the Madding Crowd

O-M-G.  I’m not usually someone who goes gushy for love stories.  I really enjoy them, but only the well-done ones.  So I’d been aware of this movie because I love that 1800s English setting but I wasn’t sure if it was for me.  Then my friend and fellow writer Jill Hartmann-Roberts saw it and suggested we go see it together. Wow!  What a story.

There’s just something about the moments here, seconds when the light hits two people who were going about their lives, unites them in a pure second of love or lust or hate — and then the world spins on but each’s life is changed, almost ruined, because of that profound pause.  All the actors are great here, and the scenery is SO beautiful.

Bathsheba Everdene: From now on you have a mistress, not a master. It is my intention to astonish you all.

 

#9 — Dragon Age Inquistion

Bioware’s ‘Dragon Age’ series is one of my favorite sagas in video games.  ‘Dragon Age 2’ may always have the edge because, for me, it was like living and making choices inside an HBO drama — the characters were that well-written.  And you never forget your first Fenris romance!

That said, DR3 lived up to the hype and then some, with an unbelievably open world and an even better combat system.  It was the grandeur of the journey though, that caught me up most.  I don’t spend a lot of time gaming, and it can be easy for me to play around in an open world and then lose interest (see every Bethesda title ever [still enjoyed them!]).  DR3 seemed made to stop that from happening.  It united the expansive world of ‘Dragon Age 1’ with the climatic plotting of DR2, making you and your character change and grow along the way (one can feel the beats of Joseph Campbell — ‘and here the hero crosses the threshold’).  Havor, my Qunari warrior, progressed from captive to hero to leader of men — and found himself a flirty mage named Dorian along the way.  Not a bad for a hero’s journey.

Solas: I am surprised you do not practice blood magic, Dorian. Is it not popular in Tevinter?
Dorian: While we’re sharing surprises, you’ve done a lot less dancing naked in the moonlight than expected.
Solas: Tevinter lore about elves remains accurate as always.
Dorian: I wanted to see you make flowers bloom with your song, just once.

 

#10 — Chappie

‘Chappie’ is ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag but, for me, it works.  Is it a drama?  A comedy?  An action movie?  It’s all these and more.  At its heart is Sharlto Copley — amazing and visionary — as the lead character.  Chappie learns and grows throughout the movie and since much of his ‘childhood’ is spent with hoodlums, the movie is both an indictment of violence amid poverty and an example of the power of love and family even in the worst of situations.

And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

And filled with great action.

The best way to put it is: it’s a Neill Blomkamp story and — for some of us — that’s an awesome thing.

 

And still to come —

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • 007’s Spectre
  • The Martian
  • Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs movie
  • Crimson Peak

. . . and more.

Even though there haven’t been a ton of things to inspire me this year, the ones that have are off the charts!  If you have a second, tell me one of your current inspirations.

After all, this list could always use a Part 2 . . .

The SELF-PRINTED 3.0 Splash

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As anyone who is interested in writing and has ever been trapped with me in a elevator, car, or coffee shop meeting room knows, I’m a HUGE fan of Catherine Ryan Howard.  When I was getting started in self publishing, I realised I was still stuck in the ‘vanity press’ mindset of old and didn’t know anything about Createspace, formatting, or selling online.

Enter Self-Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard.  I thought I found the book by accident on Amazon (but later learned it was through Catherine’s savvy choice of keywords) and I was so delighted by it that it has become a large influence in the group I founded, the Athens Writers Association.

In celebration of Self-Printed 3.0, (releasing today!) Catherine is answering a question posed by yours truly: What can self-published authors do to help each other that you don’t see done often enough?

Here’s her answer:

Great question and one I really had to have a good think about. I’m afraid though that my answer won’t be very popular…

I don’t think self-publishers are in need of helping each other out more, because from what I see the self-publishing community as a whole is incredibly helpful towards each other already. You see it all the time: self-pubbed authors hosting other self-pubbed authors on blog tours, recommending each other’s books, gathering together to release box-sets featuring multiple authors so they can cross-promote, etc. etc. When one ascends the ladder a rung or two, more often than not they reach down to help another few take a step up behind them.

So, what would I like to see more of? To be honest I’d like to see more self-publishers holding their fellow self-publishers to higher standards. I’d like to see more self-publishers talking about how important it is to hire a professional editor, work on your cover, etc. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of readers do not hold self-published books in high esteem because in the past, a lot of them just weren’t that good! Imagine now that John Smith, a new self-published author, manages to convince one of these anti-self-pub readers to take a chance on a self-published ebook – and the reader finds grammatical errors, typos, inconsistencies, bad formatting and a table of contents that doesn’t work. Now John Smith has just confirmed for them what they always suspected about self-published books: that they’re bad. So they don’t try anymore. And maybe the next one they would’ve tried would’ve been yours, or mine. Now John Smith has cost us both a sale. Shouldn’t we have tried harder to get him to self-publish professionally?

I think so. So if there’s something I’d like to see self-publishers do to help each that I don’t think I see often enough, it’s to encourage professional self-publishing and to point out that when you don’t, you let the entire side down…

Awesome answer.  I agree completely.  One of the goals of the AWA is to help everyone get better and send well-written, excellently edited books out into the world.  If you’d like to do likewise, I highly recommend Self-Printed 3.0!
Here’s additional facts about Catherine, who is herself a self-publishing success story:
Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer, self-publisher and caffeine enthusiast from Cork, Ireland. SELF-PRINTED: THE SANE PERSON’S GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING (3rd edition) is out now in paperback and e-book and available from Amazon. Follow the #selfprintedsplash on Twitter today (Friday 24th) and/or visit www.catherineryanhoward.com for chance to win an amazing prize that will get your self-publishing adventure started!
“SELF-PRINTED is my self-publishing bible. It taught me how to format, create and upload my e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. It showed me practical things such as how to build a website/blog and how to promote my books. More importantly, it taught me how to compete with the professionals. Just look at the results – The Estate Series has sold nearly 100,000 copies and following that I got a traditional book deal with Thomas & Mercer too, so I’m now a hybrid author. Jam-packed full of hints and tips all in one place, I’m always referring back to it. In a word, it’s priceless.” – Mel Sherratt, author of The Estate Series and DS Allie Shenton Series  

A History of a Writer

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I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember and, as I’m turning 35 in a few months, it looks like the odds are good I’ll be telling them for the rest of my life (not just gonna yell ‘That’s it!  I’m done!’ as I blow out my birthday candles).  But how did I grow into the writer I am today?  Here’s what I remember (note: these ages may be off a little) —

423440_10150723496996095_1852258631_nAge 6 — Some of my first memories were playing with He-Man figures, though I remember liking the villain Skeletor better than the hero.  We also had an Apple computer and played ‘Choose Your Own Adventure: Cave of Time’.

Age 7 — Loved listening to stories but couldn’t hardly read at all till one summer my sister and I got excited about the Athens Regional Library’s Summer Reading program.  I think I read about 50 books including my first ‘big’ novel — Black Beauty.

Age 10 — Wild Ponies! Wild ponies everywhere!  I loved The Black Stallion, The Island Stallion, Smoky, and all those horse stories and so I made up a lot of tales of wild horses while running around a 50 acre property my mother care-took.

Age 12 — Huge TV fan.  We never had cable (still don’t) but for a while I’d watch 2-3 hours a night and tape many programs (tape, ha ha, the memories!).  I once even pretended I was the head of a network and invented 50 series (each with a log line) and then rolled dice to see which were successful and got ‘high ratings’).  Few of the people who call me intelligent and thoughtful today know just how many episodes of The Nanny I’ve seen.

Age 13 — ‘Sisters’ the TV show premieres.  I’ve watched better shows with my sister and mother (Quantum Leap!) but something about this show makes me start telling stories about people instead of horses (mostly just Teddy & Falconer [a young George Clooney!]).  Adolescence has begun.

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Age 14 — I’m reading a lot of Stephen King and Dave Barry.  Also, SeaQuest DSV and The X-Files debut followed by Earth 2 a year later.  My sister Sarah and I spend untold hours playing out ‘episodes’ of the shows that we ‘write’ (as well as Chicago Hope).  We even have props, like a bicycle tire gage that serves as a syringe.

Age 15 — I start my first book, pretty much called ‘If Dave Berry Had Written Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’.  I write a few chapters, enjoy it, and still remember a scene where a road crew is placing giant, brightly-colored fish in the highway, like stones in cobblestone.  My adventures in literary greatness have begun.

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Age 16 — I make an epic sci-fi / fantasy love story called Move to Fathom about the assistant to the president who is destined to be the soul mate to an invading alien king.  Strangely enough, I only write down the dialogue, not the whole story.

Age 18 — I decide I’m serious about screenwriting.  Later, when asked why, I said, “I was just enamoured by Hollywood I guess.”  I take a 2 day workshop lead by Michael Hauge.  As a home-schooled-off-the-radar person, it is my first formal training.  I go on to complete two feature length screenplays — ‘Murder in the Movies’ which is about a murder on a murder mystery set, and ‘Divining Grace’, which is about an angel earning his wings by helping a human girl.

Age 19 — I get first job just so I can buy an amazing desktop computer with my sister for gaming.  It was AWESOME.  Suddenly, Duke Nukem 3D, Unreal Tournament, Arcanum, X-COM, Civ II, and Myst start to inspire me.

Age 21 — Watch High Fidelity and then start reading Nick Hornby.  My favs (in time) become About a Boy, High Fidelity, and Slam.

417713_10150723505716095_955974438_nAge 22 — I take a three week trip to England to watch the world’s largest dog show (why do other people go?).  I also fall in love for the first time (well, first time recipatated) with a handsome English bloke.  I come home determined to finally start my story ‘Other Gods’.  I try it as a novel instead of a screenplay because I want to flesh out the world and make it deep and meaningful.  I fall instantly in love with novel-writing.  I also join my first critique group and learn about the evils of -ly words.  And I started watching LOTR and the reading the book for the first time.  Yowza!  I realise I have to take my writing to a whole new level.

Age 23 — Go to my first Writer Conference.  I have a fifteen minute session talking to Patrick LoBrutto, who ruins me for talking to any other agents/editor/etc types — he’s so sweet and nice and helpful.  I’m probably here today because of him (at least partly)!  Also see 28 Days Later — the era of my modern movie love has begun.  Suddenly Rain Man and Titanic just don’t seem quite as great.  Hello (in time) Danny Boyle, Zack Snyder, Guillermo del Toro, Neill Blomkamp, Darren Aronofsky, and Alfonso Cuarón.

Age 25 — Shadow of the Colossus (PS2 game) comes out. DA-mn.  Never gonna forget that world.  Time to up my game again.

Age 27 — I watch Deadwood, my first cable show.  I know it only as ‘That show that won all those awards and people curse a ridiculous amount”.  After watching the first episodes, I know it as the show that changed my idea of TV forever.

Age 29 — I finally finish my first novel ‘Other Gods’.  The story of two servants of the god of Darkness (one willing and one unwilling) on a journey to destroy all of the gods on a desert planet.  It clocks in a 140,000 words but I’m very proud — my first book!

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Age 31 — Start my second novel ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’.  I had been trying to write a sequel to ‘Other Gods’ but the timing just wasn’t right.  So I decide to pick a short, sweet idea, and ‘Let my romanticism off the hook’ for the first time.  A love triangle starring a man trapped in a cage is born.

Age 33 — I start People Who Have Come Alive, to inspire others to live their dreams.  I also met Rob White, an Athens-area writer who has inspired me in many ways including founding the Athens Writers Association that year.  I also wrote my first non-fiction book ‘How To Come Alive: a Guidebook for Living Your Dreams’ and self published for the first time.  Yow!  Things are getting busy!

Age 34 — Finish and self publish ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’.  Will finish (soon!) 12 year project — ‘Fall Street’ novel.  Am writing a teleplay.  Soon to start next novel …

Taken on day #5

Still crazy after all these years.

 

How To Write a Book (Part 2 of 2)

Here’s the second half of my guide to book writing —

Austin Kleon

— Austin Kleon

How to Write — a Practical Timeline

Here’s the nitty-gritty of how I get to ‘The End’:

  1. Get an idea.  You might be reading a news article, or a another novel, watching a film, or daydreaming a ‘what if’ and it gets you — this is a good book idea.
  2. What kind of book?  If you want to explore organic farming, is this a non-fiction investigation?  A ‘how to’?  A novel set on an organic farm?  Figure out what first drew you in — that’s your passion.
  3. Who lives there?  In a novel, for me, the people arise from the idea.  In ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ I ‘saw’ a cage in the middle of a Regency England estate and started asking ‘Who would be put in such a cage and for what purpose?  In a memoir you might be writing about your grandmother but who influenced her?  Who were her heroes?  Her nemeses?  Even a non-fiction book may need examples of people who succeeded — be in it building a birdhouse or starting a business.
  4. Make an outline / roadmap.  A couple of page document, meant just for you, that hits the main points of what you want to tell.
  5. Research (if the spirit moves you).  Some people LOVE research, others can’t stand it.  Depending on the story you’re writing, you may eventually need to do some, but whether or not you like it, don’t let research slow you down too much from actually starting writing.
  6. Boldly begin.  Start a chapter one, and make time to write.  I also don’t believe in writer’s block.  If something isn’t interesting to you, set it aside and write something else.
  7. Edit (a little) as you go.  I know this runs counter to what a lot of people do but my way is to start each day rereading the pages I worked on last session and making spelling/grammar corrections along the way.  I don’t worry about making big changes though; I mainly read just to get back to the flow and excitement of what I’m doing.
  8. Finish the first draft.  Hit the last page and celebrate.  Buy yourself dinner or a nice bottle of bubbly.  Then put your book aside for two weeks or a month.  This time is crucial to getting some distance and seeing your work with new eyes.
  9. Do a second draft.  Reread the book, see how you feel about it — is there anything BIG you want to change?  New chapters, love interests, and ideas can be worked in now.  Once the ‘big picture’ looks good . . .
  10. Do a third draft.  Start looking at the little things — each line, each word.  You may feel like an extra scene is needed to explain a growing friendship, or you may discover new data to share in your ‘how to’.  Reading aloud to yourself is also a great tool for ferreting out awkward sentences.  The third draft is about making it as good as you can make it.  Then . .
  11. Find trustworthy readers.  This is super-important: only use people you trust, love, share your idea of a good book, and WANT to read it.  If you can’t find that, it might be better to go it alone.  But getting these outside opinions is valuable, provided you remember it’s your book at the end of the day and the most important person to please is yourself.
  12. Do a forth draft.  Take feedback from your readers (try to find at least three) and decide if you need to make a few changes.  If all your readers mention something, you might want to look closer at it.  Most of the great feedback I’ve gotten has been about beginnings (orient  the reader about the world better), little side endings (couldn’t they get away and get the money?), and lackluster areas (the ‘food’ section of my self help book eventually became ‘Energy’ after reader feedback).
  13. Do a final draft (and copyedit).  Go over your book again, seeing how it strikes you now.  Are you happy with everything or is there anything that still sticks out and bothers you?  Take the time to fix it.  And you do need to copyedit a lot, catching all the grammar and spelling errors you can.  It can be hard to do this on your own, but there are a lot of inexpensive copyeditors out there, or you might be able to do an exchange with another writer (you’ll catch their errors easier than your own).
  14. Cerebrate!  You just became an author!

Some common questions —

How do I get published?  It’s pretty confusing these days and only you can decide what ‘published’ means to you.  The traditional way is to get an agent, who in turn will try to sell your book to a traditional publishing house.  You can also query a small publishing house, self-publish, or hire someone to ’self publish’ your book for you.

Say I want an agent — how do I get one?  First you’ll need a very good query letter and/or proposal.  There are whole books about how to write them — in a nutshell, they should recapture in a few pages what made you excited about this book and let the agent know what to expect.  Queryshark is a great site about queries for fiction writers.  You can find an agent on agentquery.com or by googling your favorite writer and the word ‘agent’.  But, it’s super hard to get an agent right now, as their whole industry is changing and they’re not taking on a lot of new clients right now.  So don’t be discouraged if you’re not chosen.  And always remember, you don’t pay for an agent — instead, they get a percentage of the book sale.

How do you ‘self publish’?  You can pay a printer to print up copies of your book.  But the best option for a lot of people (if you book doesn’t have many pictures) is to create a paperback and an ebook using services like Createspace and Lulu.  You’ll need a program like Microsoft Word, and then Createspace will give you a template that helps you design the book.  The upside is that Createspace is free (you only pay for the books you buy), and puts high quality paperbacks (of yours!) into the hands of Amazon customers (and you get a percentage of the profit [higher than traditional publishing] from each sale).  The down side is that it doesn’t work for books with a lot of pictures, and EVERYTHING is on you.  You control how good the cover, editing, format, and marketing is — that’s a lot of power and responsibility.

What about companies that ‘help’ you self publish?  The best examples of these companies really are invested in making your dream come true.  The trade off is usually that you give them several thousand dollars and they take back a lot of that EVERYTHING responsibility that self publishing pushed into you — editing, formatting etc.  Different packages are different prices — just be sure to do a lot of research if you go this way.  And remember, it’s not anything you can’t learn to do yourself — but then, neither is making your own clothes.  You just have to decide if it’s worth the cost.

I have a great idea for a book.  Can I get someone else to do the ‘writing the book’ bit?  Yes — if you pay them.  Yes — if you want be part of a writing team and do half the work.  Yes — if you’re famous in your field and have a big built-in audience.  But if you have an idea (especially for fiction) and you just want someone else to do the work of writing — you’ll find writers already have too many good ideas and won’t take on some else’s.  So pick up that pen!

Can I get rich and famous doing this?  Of course; we’ve all read the success stories.  But the most important question is What do I really want to get out of this?  Don’t just lump your book in with your job, the painting you found in the attic, and the lotto ticket you bought this morning at the Quik Trip.  To paraphrase Fight Club — you are not your get-rich-quick-scheme.  If you spend time with your grandmother, learn her life story, and self publish it as a treasured family heirloom — does it really matter if every book club in the country isn’t reading it?  If your great new plan for paying off student debt faster helps 100 kids have better lives, is that not a success?  If the characters that seem as real as day to you suddenly find a home in a second heart — have you not succeeded spectacularly?

Some Tips —

  • Use a computer if at all possible (it will save you a lot of time later)
  • Use 11 or 12 point Times New Roman font
  • Use format>linespacing>Between Lines 2 SP (or something similar in your program).  This is double spacing your lines — it’s easier for editing.
  • If you only have one backup of your book file, you don’t have a backup.  Keep several copies on different flash drives, hard drives etc.  And emailing yourself the file is a good way to keep it ‘in the cloud’.
  • Name different saves along the way — yourbook010414.doc — might be a good name for an extra copy you made on Jan. 4th.  If you don’t like changes you made, you can go back to the older file.
  • Remember to find inspiration — songs, paintings, picture, articles, jewelry etc that can inspire your book and your characters.  Put the pictures around your work area (or on a Pinterest.com board to inspire you).
  • Printing out a chapter, editing it pen in hand, and reading it aloud to yourself can really make a difference in your finished product.
  • Don’t worry about copyrighting your work.  It’s yours from the moment you write it.  If you’re concerned, you can always print out the pages and mail them to yourself.  Don’t open the package; the postmark now serves as a date of when you began the work.  If anyone later tried to claim it, they couldn’t.  But honestly, I’ve never worried about it.  And if you’re afraid of someone stealing your once-in-a-life-time Matrix-like idea — then keep it to yourself until the book is written.
  • Read different things.  Don’t read only romance and write romance, or only self help books and then write one.  Instead, try all sorts of things and let them inspire you.  Graphic novels, rap songs, 500 year old poems, British TV shows, documentaries!  Your work will be better and more original if you have more interests and express them in your works.
  • Get excited.  There has never been a better time to write, to publish your own book, and/or to share your work online!

How To Write a Book (Part 1 of 2)

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— Lemony Snicket

Somewhere in your heart you know it.  Maybe this is a recent dream, but quite likely it’s been kicking around in your subconscious for some time and every once in a while, when reading a new book, or hearing an author interview, or thinking about your lifetime goals it comes to the surface — you want to write a book.  Maybe you dream of being a fulltime, famous, professional writer or maybe there’s just one idea or story that begging you to expound on it and send it out into the world.

Whatever your dream project is — a memoir, non-fiction, children’s book, or novel — there are some common elements needed to move from Chapter 1 to ‘The End’.

Elements of Success in Writing:

  • Figure out what you want to tell and why.  Before you write a word, get a good idea of why this book?  Toni Morrison says ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’  That’s always been my driving force.  Figure out what makes it special and different than similar books.  Don’t worry about originality yet (we’ll get to that part), just envision who your book is for.  Sometimes it helps to think of a person you know who is also your intended audience.
  • Plan (a little).  Finding a similar book can help you get an idea of number of chapters, number of pages, type of words (for children’s books) etc that your book might have.  The internet has acted to level the playing field and let you acquire ‘insider knowledge’ of the book business. Did you know there are four categories for children’s fiction?  Simply do a Google search for ‘books how many children fiction categories are there’ and you can find the answer.  Just remember that ten ‘Wikihow’ articles don’t necessarily equal the depth of one good how-to book.  This is the ‘know the rules so you can break them’ phase.
  • Make a roadmap, not a blueprint.  I wish I remembered what writing book this was from, but never the less it’s still important advice: make a roadmap not a blueprint of your book.  A blueprint is exacting and unchanging, but a roadmap lets you decide to take a detour when you see something interesting and you still know where you’ll be at the end of your book.  A lot of beginning writers start without a roadmap, and begin with a flush of excitement but can lose their way after a few chapters.  To me, a good road map is only a couple of pages long but will let you know the next ‘beat’ of your book if you get lost.  The outline for my novel ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ was two pages long and explained the main plot from beginning to end — just like you were telling a best friend the plot of a movie you saw.  For my self help non-fiction book, I decided to focus on five areas of improvement (Inspiration, Freedom, Peace, Energy, Strength) and then decided to have five little chapters in each area and named them (i.e. Do Yoga).  These outlines kept me moving forward while giving me the freedom to discover better ideas along the way.
  • Make your goal to finish.  Believe me — there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing your first book, of knowing you’ve done what a lot of people will talk about but never do.  You can always edit and polish on later drafts but just getting finished should be your first goal.  I started with screenplays and just told myself that whether or not the plot made any sense, I would reach page 100 (the length of a screenplay).  I knew one writer who kept rewriting chapter one over and over again.  I met him again years later and he was still writing chapter ones.  Now, each person must follow their own path and it’s great he’s still writing, but if your goal is a finished book — look toward that finish line.
  • Remember — you have potential.  My belief is that LOVE + TIME = TALENT.  If you keep writing, and reading, and learning you will get better and better.  The book ‘Talent is Overrated’ has some wonderful stories about how being born ‘talented’ might mean you get out of the starting gate before everyone else, but if you’re trotting and everyone else is working hard and galloping along you’ll soon be left in the dust.  If you love the book you’re writing, if you’re excited by it, the feeling will pass right along to the reader.  And you are the only you who has ever been, so your work (if it’s true to you) will be original and one-of-a-kind.
  • Just keep writing.  Even a page a day will get you to your goal.

Next time I’ll give you a timeline for writing your novel and answer some commonly asked questions.

Reclaiming ‘Perfection’

Black Swan

Perfection is a dirty word.  Look up ‘perfection’ quotes and you get everything from the funny —

to the downright hostile —

And I get it, really I do.  Trying to be a perfect, flawless person sets one up for heartache.  Some people spend years before realizing that it’s an impossible standard — we are human, we make mistakes.

By the same measure, some people find having too high of standards stops them from producing any creative work at all, from finishing anything.  That too is bad.

But I will fight to my dying day for the idea of perfection.

Why?  Because why the frick else are we here (and by we I mean creators of all types)?  Yes, I’m not a perfect person, not by a long shot.  And my work isn’t perfect, but it’s as close to perfect as I can make it.  I have high standards and love beautiful, amazing works.  Yes, these works could be The Great Gatsby and they could be Sid Meier’s Pirates! I think lots of different things are absolutely impeccable manifestations of their ideal nature — Hannibal is nothing like How to Train Your Dragon nor should it be.  But to me, both take their basic ideas and push them to new heights.

If you are not trying to achieve perfection in a piece of art or a novel, what is your aim?  Pretty good?  Nice stack of paper you got there?  ‘It’s 43% of what I wanted it to be’?

To me, perfection is just the top shelf liquor of excellence.  Being able to create the best version of your best vision.  When I begin a project — I see, I feel, I know the highest, most splendid version of that story exist somewhere out in the universe.  And my years of honing my sense of what I like tell me when I’m getting closer to that best version.  But like Ira Glass says —

KMBA-Ira Glass QuoteSo, while my taste tells me when I’m getting warmer or colder, it’s only my level of craft and dedication to keep going that decides how great the work will be.  Leonardo Da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and there is an element of truth to that.  I do the best work I can, polish as long as I can, and at some point realise I’ve reached the limits of my powers for this book.  It’s a little frustrating because I know the future me will be able to write it better, but if I’ve worked hard, I feel satisfied that it is as close to perfect as I can make it at this time.

And if it pushes toward perfection, even if that’s a distant star, I smile at it.  I’m proud of Other Gods and A Caged Heart Still Beats and How to Come Alive: A Guidebook to Living the Life of Your Dreams.  Because they are all perfect in a way, in a way humans never quite are, because we can’t rewrite our lives and relive them.

And in the end, maybe that is what I love about perfect works — they were messy, crazy things full of jagged, broken bits and a thousand mistakes.  But in the end, they form a glorious, perfect whole.

And in that sense, maybe I do believe in perfection for people too.

Quote by Sarah Cerulean

Quote by Sarah Cerulean

 

Awesome Day #7 — Meeting With the Mentor

by Lucas Graciano for the Lord of the Rings card game

Yow!!!  Yesterday (on day #7 of my 8 day ‘stay-cation’) I had arranged to meet well-known and respected writer.  I’ve never really gotten to talk to anyone on that level before, and by contacting them, I had brought myself into this whole new range of experience.

I had been quite nervous before our meeting for coffee.  Luckily I didn’t need anything from them, I was just happy for the time together.  And that went surprisingly well.  Except for violently knocking the table when I sat down (and spilling their drink everywhere), I’d didn’t embarrass myself.  I listened politely, answered questions about myself, my family, and the Athens Writers Association that I’d founded, and after an hour we parted on friendly terms.

‘That was easy’, I thought.

It was after that the trouble started.  I was driving to a nearby Publix to pick up ice cream for my sister.  And I found myself starting to cry.  I pulled it together for the ice cream but then bawled just about all the way back to Athens.

Why? you ask?  Well, I’ve thought about it.  Obviously some of it could have just been released after having been nervous, but I did feel strange, Hero’s Journey, strange.  I felt like my blood had been drained away and replaced by some mystical liquid.  I felt altered.  I was not at all comforted by this Mentor.  They’d talked about hardship and long odds, and the struggle even after ‘breaking through’.  I felt like I’ve been climbing mountains for years, trying to become a better writer, and this Mentor showed me a near-sheer cliff and said ‘That’s the only way’.  It was a deep challenge and it nearly broke my heart to look at it.

I remembered a very different Meeting with a Mentor more than ten years back: at a writing conference, I paid to have Patrick LoBrutto look at my first few pages and talk with me for about fifteen minutes.  It was one of the highlights of my young writing life.  Pat was friendly, excited about storytelling, and gentle with a new writer, both telling me it needed work and mentioning a scene he thought was quite good. ‘Quite good!’ — this from the man who worked with sci-fi gods as an editor for Tor.  I think I love him to this day.

But . . .  That was the Mentor I needed then and this was the Mentor I needed now.  I’ve decided part of what upset me about seeing the sheer cliff, that high bar, was that I thought I’d already come a long way.  And I have.  I haven’t had too many chances to be around more experienced writers than I, and especially not world-renowned ones.  I’ve been writing for 16 years and in the groups I frequent, I get a lot of people who look up to me.  I had to realise that instead of being Master of the Baby Lengues, I was now Baby of the Big Leagues.  By reaching out, by starting the Athens Writers Association, by working hard, I had climbed so far and had now passed through the mist, and met this man, and seen the next mountain.  And it’s a doozy.

But it leads exactly where I want to go, and (after all the tears of vexation have dried) I’m grateful for the help and advice, the warnings, and the chance to meet someone truly great.  Some Mentors are cuddly and their advice tastes more like lembras bread than medicine, and then others are a sear-the-flesh-from-your-bones force of nature that arrive to warn you that you’ve passed over the threshold into the dangerous land of elite heroes.

But they know if they can’t dissuade you, if you still choose to pick your shield and move forward, you will stronger than you’ve ever been before.

Quote from renowned author — “I didn’t get great by being patted on the back; I became great by getting my butt kicked every day.”

Spoken like a true Mentor.

Awesome Day #5 — Play Time

hannibal math

If you watch Hannibal, you might find this hilarious.

Yesterday was day #5 of my 8 day stay-cation.  It was a time of rest and having WAY too much fun creating new pinterest images.

Allow me to explain — I love the titles of Matt Adrian’s bird pictures.

Title: A Financially Unstable Mess, But At The Liquor Store They Call Me Ma’am

And I had a pin of one I thought would make a great Hannibal pin (Hannibal is amazing BTW).  So, using MS Publisher, I made this —

hannibal laugh

Then I realised that lots of Matt Adrian’s other art titles would make great pins.  The floodgates were opened.  And it reminded me just how FUN creation can be, especially when you aren’t worried about being perfect.

All of which ties right back into my writing.

So if you get a chance, visit Matt’s website, and check out all of his Mincing Mockingbird art (they’re awesome and often hilarious).

And if you get a chance, go over to Pinterest and search ‘Hannibal Matt Adrian’.  I’m very proud!

hannibal sublime

Awesome Day #3 — Finishing a book

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Yesterday was day #3 of my 8 day ‘stay-cation’.  Except for going to see X-men (it was great!), I spent the rest of the day working on my novel Fall Street.  It’s not done yet, but it’s getting closer.

As a writer, there’s a special feeling as you get toward the end of a book, perhaps a little like what a parent feels when their child graduates high school.  You’re excited for them and their future, and yet you’ll miss this early time in which you discovered who they were and helped mold them into the thing they’d become.

Fall Street is about a 15 year old girl growing up in 1950s America.  Her views and beliefs change after she unexpectedly befriends the most popular guy in school, Tommy Delano, and through him, she gets to know John Rainhorse, the only Native American boy in town.  A lot of trouble ensues but Claire never loses her sense of humor or her desire to see the world become a more tolerant place.

Yesterday I was re-reading it and making notes on this draft.  I’m a failure as a writer though (!) because I feel I should be making bigger changes but I love it just the way it is 🙂  Oh well, I did polish it a lot over the years I was writing it.  Of yes — years.  I wrote the first chapter in 2004, then just kept coming back to it now and then, whenever the mood hit me, till I finished it last year.  So excited!  In fact, I’m off to reread the last ten pages now . . .

Here’s a little except — 

I could still feel John’s hand upon my neck, even though we’d parted a half hour ago.  I ask again, “So you really don’t think it’s wrong?”

Tommy was slicking back his hair.  He shook his head, seemingly a little puzzled.  “He’s been my best friend for three years.  I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me, his skin.  I just kind of stopped seeing it.

‘You know, this one time in church, the preacher told a story about these two women who did everything alike — breakfast at the same thing, eggs, everything.  And they both loved gardening.  Same . . . Shovels, everything.  The times they liked to work—  It went on like this.  But they liked different petunia colors or something.  And so they were bitter enemies, and they fought all the time, and then one day God came down to them — ’cause God came do that in stories — and God came down to them and said ’If you have everything else in the world in common, why are you fighting over this one thing?  And they became best friends.  I’m kind of like that petunia woman.  What’s color matter in the end?”

Oh my God, did Tommy Delano just make my parents look like idiots?