Tag Archives: determination

Shaken

Firstly, I apologize to the followers of this post for having neglected you for so long. This year, I have found many such apologies in the blogs that I follow, and I understand. Sometimes, we’re interrupted or become over-committed. LIFE gets in our way. In my case, I could kick about my situation or complain about LIFE stepping in and throwing my recent writing goals to the curb, but as a writer I know that we need LIFE to give us new material.

Also, after my three recent books on writing technique, I felt for a while that I’d said all I had to say on method and approach. This attitude is unfair to you as followers and shirks my responsibility to you. However, as a writing teacher once said to me many years ago when I was as yet unpublished and living on dreams and sheer determination … “From time to time, you have to let the well fill back up.”

Earlier this summer, when I was feeling guilty about posting nonsense about toads instead of advice on killing adverbs, I told myself to pull it together. It was time to walk into my office, sit in my writing chair, and resume posting on writing techniques.

Instead, a weird thing happened. I was plowing through a stack of possible novels to assign to my university course on genre fiction this fall when I read a book by a highly successful author of romance and romantic suspense. It was my first exposure to this writer’s work. I don’t know whether it’s representative of her usual effort or an aberration or a new direction for her.

All I know is that this genre novel had next to no plot. The protagonist hit a strong and dangerous problem in chapter one. That problem was resolved in chapter two. The romance was clenched in less than twenty-five pages. The subplots were introduced and resolved without any conflict. And the rest of the story filled in with illness, personal makeovers, and wardrobe decisions.

That book poleaxed me.

In hindsight, I realize that it got to me because I was tired and stressed due to LIFE. Worry and lack of sleep had sapped my reserves more than I realized. And for the last three weeks after reading that book, I kept thinking, What is the use?

That question is always a danger signal for any writer, at any time, in any situation.

It means, in effect, that the writer is surrendering, giving up, and abandoning the art and joy of creating with words on the page. Whether a writer is stymied by lack of time, distractions, hindrances, self-doubt, criticism, lack of support, or whatever form of resistance being thrown at her, too much of it becomes a tsunami that can drown intentions, goals, writing schedules, and projects.

What is the use, I wondered, of standing on technique, of trying to teach unwilling and recalcitrant students how to form scenes, follow plot questions, or handle pacing? It was as though I was trying to swim across a river, and that novel was a cement block thrown at me instead of a life preserver.

In recent years, I’ve seen waves of poor writing flood our entertainment industry, whether in books or films. I’ve read too many reader reviews raving about books that turn out to be nothing more than gimmickry or a mess of episodic events strung together. I’ve attended writer conferences where young, up-and-coming writers thumb their noses at plot and story design. I’ve watched the publishing industry crashing in Zepplin-flames as the seasoned editors retire or are driven from their jobs in the name of corporate downsizing.

From food to stories, the fashion du jour seems to be deconstruction. I understand this is a fad. I understand that youngsters love rebellion and delight in taking things apart. Yet in a year where the whole world seems to be embracing the cause of anarchy with no signs of stopping, I can’t help but think of that era of history when knowledge and civilization faltered, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

See what I mean? In such a gloomy mindset, how easy–after reading a pleasant but utterly plotless effort by a bestselling author–for me to say, “Writing has reached its end. Stories are dead.”

Yeah, I realize I’ve been a drama queen about the incident. But writers have to over-react. Writers have to be too sensitive. Writers have to be so empathetic that we absorb the emotions of others and vibrate to their joys, tragedies, and comedies.

Good stories are still being written. Plots still exist out there. But, for the past month, I clung to the cement block and sank. I spent a lot of evenings thinking and pondering whether to abandon the abilities and skills I’ve been honing for a lifetime. Was it time to walk away? To say, no more writing?

Well, one of the precepts of genre writing is that readers will accept any emotion in a character except self-pity. It seems to me that it’s a good precept to follow in real life as well. So I dropped the cement block and floated back up to the surface.

Meanwhile, LIFE has backed off its pressure slightly. Stress has dropped a fraction. Sometimes, I get more sleep. I have been reading other books from my stack and they are better. I have dug down and found that my innate stubborn determination is still within me. It’s shaken but intact.

There is usefulness in what I do and teach. I will not stop doing what I know and believe in. I am competitive enough, stubborn enough, certain enough, and trained enough to go on. And if American literacy drops even lower than its current, shameful fourth-grade level, and we become monkeys able only to point and click, then I will hold my lantern aloft for as long as I’m able.

Meanwhile, my intention is to resume regular posts and put my writing schedule back on track. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Quote for the Day

“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

–John Cleese

How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.

Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.

How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.

Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.

Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.

Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.

Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.

If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.

I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.

As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.

My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.

Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.

When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?

Who–and what–holds you back?

And when–and how–will you break free?

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

 

 

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Carrot Time

As anyone writing fiction knows, a tremendous amount of patience, perseverance, and self-discipline goes into crafting a story–from the first glimmer of an idea through the slog of writing, writing, writing, rewriting, and writing to the marketing.

Dreams are fine and good, but it takes effort and sheer gut-crunching determination to stick with a project from start to publication, especially novels.

And some days, writers are just weary, unable to put more than a few words or paragraphs on the computer screen. The plot is a blur. The characters are flat constructions, speaking tepid lines of dialogue, and the pacing seems to drag. Certainly I have reached points two-thirds of the way through some of my fantasy novels where the deadline was looming larger than a mountain and I just wanted to type, “Then they all died suddenly of the plague. The end.”

There are writing sessions where the only thing that keeps us going is a stick. We grit our teeth, think of our book contract or deadline, remember our flat bank account, and continue typing.

And there are the days of joy, when the writing soars, our heart is light and happy, and the words spiral from our imagination into our tapping fingers. Those are the carrot days.

For the past few weeks, I have been laboriously proofreading scans of my back list for re-publication in digital format. Although hampered by tender eyes recovering from surgery, I dutifully read and read and read. For the most part, I enjoyed being reacquainted with some of my earlier work. A few that I feared would be dogs turned out to be decent, and one science fiction tale in particular that I remembered as being fun to write is actually pretty lame. Alas!

Still, my first published fantasy novel, REIGN OF SHADOWS, is now on Kindle and today it’s ranked #1 in dark fantasy. I realize that this is due to its promotion as a free title and that the ranking won’t last, but at the moment I don’t care. I am simply enjoying it.

Best of all, it’s given me a psychological boost and I’m happily writing on a new project with restored confidence. We writers have to be as tough as old boot leather, able to take blunt editorial comments without blinking and find inner strength to keep going when no one else believes in our story premise, but despite the swagger and the growing of rhino hide, we remain at heart fragile creatures. We must keep our sensitivity and our ability to empathize with others, most particularly our characters, if we’re to bring our pages to life in readers’ imaginations.

Carrots help. Whether that reward comes in the form of a cookie permitted at the end of a writing day or through an exciting ranking on Kindle, it doesn’t matter. Whatever gets us up, eager to sit at the keyboard, whatever fuels our passion for the words, whatever gives us hope and spurs us on … it is both necessary and good.

And so much better than the stick!

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Staying on Track

There’s an ad on TV about financial planning/investing. I think it’s Fidelity that runs a green line down the sidewalk for its customers to follow. A man starts walking on the line, but then glimpses a fancy car in a dealer showroom window and pauses. The Fidelity adviser calls out to him to “stay on the line,” and with a smile, the man continues.

The ad’s well done. It’s simple, visual, and effective.

Writers need to stay on a line as well. When we’re working on a long, involved project such as a novel, it’s easy to get sidetracked. We think, no need to work on the book everyday; I have lots of time until my deadline.

But pulling off the project means the story stops. You may stop thinking about it. You may let another activity or project take over your energy and creative focus. In a week or a month or three months later, when you come back to your novel you find that it’s died. It’s withered like a shrub left unwatered.

Can you resurrect a dead project? Maybe. A good flogging of craft, skill, determination, and sheer cussedness may be enough to put life back into it. Even so, you’ll find that it’s not the same.

If you can’t revive it, what will you do? Shrug it off and tell yourself that it wasn’t much good anyway? Are you going to treat your next writing idea the same? And at what point will your imagination stop serving you ideas that you’re going to kill? Why bother?

A draft should be written from start to finish as constantly and as steadily as possible. Drafts of short stories preferably should be written in one sitting. Novels work best when you work on them daily. You may not get much written, or some days will see higher production of pages than others, but it’s the steadiness that counts. Our thoughts need to be in our story. It makes us absent-minded and forgetful of other things, but as long as we do no harm (don’t forget to feed a baby or pets and don’t run stop signs because we’re far away in the land of Mugu while we’re driving home) what does it matter if we forget to buy cheese or don’t listen to every word in our committee meeting?

I know that life interrupts us. A crisis occurs. A big work deadline looms. Someone tramples all over our writing time and leaves us fuming. These things happen. It happened to me this morning.

But we’re not always overpowered by such interruptions. Sometimes we let ourselves be interrupted. We aren’t ruthless enough in protecting our writing time. We’re tired of our book. We’re lonely. We’re convinced that we’re missing all the fun elsewhere.

Are we really? Or are we fooling ourselves?

If we’re tired, then we have to find a way to keep going. Writers build their stamina by pushing themselves to stay the course instead of wimping out.

If we’re lonely, then we need to make our characters more interesting.

If we’re yearning for diversions, then we need to improve the quality of our plot.

Your goal is the completion of your draft. Stay on the line until you get there.

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