Archive for July, 2010


Stranger in a strange land

If there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s feeling like a tourist. Before traveling anywhere, I will go to great lengths to research my destination, making myself a detailed folder containing transportation schedules, step-by-step directions to meeting locations, the hours of operation of each and every sight I wish to see. There’s more to this behavior than simple garden variety control-freakism. Namely, I don’t want to be seen as a tourist because being a tourist is dangerous. Being a tourist makes you vulnerable.

With the launch of my debut novel exactly a month away, I am feeling very vulnerable these days. Like one itty-bitty slipup, one small failure of planning, one saunter down the wrong dark alley, and everything could go horribly, horribly wrong. I’m aware that these emotions are not unusual for a debut author. And I’m also aware (painfully so) that my ability to control for a desired outcome is largely illusory. Sure, active author participation in a book’s promotion is hugely helpful. But lots of books with it have failed—and lots of books without it have succeeded. Fine.

But still, there’s still that nagging feeling of danger. Like a stranger in a strange land, a debut novelist suffers from one major disadvantage: you don’t know what you don’t know. Or, rather: you don’t know what the most important thing you don’t know is. Consider those two concepts side by side. You’ll see that there’s a big difference. Not knowing what you don’t know means showing up at a museum and finding it closed. Not knowing what the most important thing you don’t know is finding the museum closed AND that it’s shutting down for good and you’ll never be able to visit it again. Two pieces of information you didn’t have—and yet one has way more weight, more gravity, more consequence.

And that’s exactly what you have no way of judging when you’re fumbling your way through your first book promotion. The relative importance of specific unknowns. It’s easy enough to busy your feverish little brain with questions like: Have I contacted enough reviewers? Have I scheduled enough appearances? Have I come up with enough goodies? But the really scary, hard questions that will keep you awake at night are: What have I missed? What are the things that I didn’t even think to consider? What were the unknown unknowns, and how important was it that I know them?

This way, as you can see, lies madness.

To feel my way through this sometimes-terrifying virtual jungle, I find myself relying on the same tactics that tourists have for time immemorial. I watch the locals and ape them as respectfully as possible. I watch the other tourists, stealing their clever tricks and noting their trip-ups. I ask questions—but with the full knowledge that most of the answers are going to be contradictory, unhelpful, or downright wrong 99% of the time.

(In fact, it’s the answers from the people who sound most sure that are the ones that are most likely to be wrong. On a recent trip to NYC, I was trying to find a PATH station. One woman I asked told me with absolute, hand-on-the-bible certainty that I had to get into a cab and head directly to Penn Station. I did exactly as she was told, but was set straight by the cab driver, who got me to where I needed to be. So maybe the moral of this story is, only trust the cab drivers.)

Finally, when I’m really, really lost—I head for the U.S. Embassy. Unfortunately, I can’t quite figure out what the metaphorical equivalent of the U.S. Embassy is to a debut novelist. I know for a fact there ain’t no Marines coming with a helicopter to airlift me out. So here’s hoping I don’t get any more lost than I already am.

So, what do you think? What are your best hints for this starry-eyed tourist on her first trip to Debutville? What are the unknown unknowns that are most important to know? And don’t tell me “a prescription for lithium,” my husband has been trying that on me for weeks with no success.


Part 3 — 5 things I’ve learned about writing — Grow a thick skin

Today’s topic is the third of the “5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing.” When you want to be published, one of the things you need to do is grow a thick skin. Trust me, you’ll need it. Or as I’ve heard it said: “Trade your skin for rhino hide.”

The need for a thick skin doesn’t start when you’re trying to get an agent, or your agent is trying to get a publisher — it’s for your entire writing career beginning with the first word you put on paper or screen. As I’m sure most of you writers out there have experienced, very few people take your dream seriously. Even your friends and family. It’s just a hobby, a thing that you do, and if you haven’t been published, they see no reason to think that you’re a “real writer.” As I’ve said before, this is bullpucky. If you write and are serious about it, you are a real writer, and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise.

That’s the biggest thing right there — you absolutely must believe in yourself and what you are doing. When people heard that I was writing a novel, they would always ask The Question. You all know what it is. “Have you ever been published?” It got to the point where I just didn’t mention my writing in casual company. I got sick and tired of the question. But if someone had heard that I was writing a novel, I’d tell them that it wasn’t a matter of if I got published, but when. For that statement, I’d get that polite little smile that said “Bless her heart, she’s delusional.” Needless to say, I ignored their opinions completely. ; )

But the big wakeup call for most writers (who are close to becoming published authors) is when they find out that publishing industry is just that, an industry. It is a business, people. Just like any other. Your book isn’t your baby; it’s a product. But I digress. I’ll take on that topic in my next “5 Things” blog. Many times I have been soooo close to getting an agent only to get the “no, thank you” letter. Now let me stop to shoot down an unfortunately common myth. Some writers think that agents love rejecting writers. They absolutely do not. They want to find treasure in that slush pile. They love books; they love authors; and they love finding books that give them chills. If you’re fortunate, an agent will have the time to give you a little word of encouragement and/or feedback in that rejection letter or email. But most of the time, you’ll get a “thank you, but your manuscript just isn’t a good fit for us” or something to that effect. That means they didn’t get chills from reading it. BUT, very important point here, what doesn’t give one agent chills, makes another agent jump up and down and go “squeee!” It is all in personal preference. Agents don’t rep projects unless they absolutely adore it. So when you get those rejection letters (and you will, I certainly did), don’t let them get to you. Just check that agent off of your list and keep going.

It all ties back to my previous “5 Things” post — you gotta want it bad. You have to want it badly enough to ignore what anyone says or thinks or implies. You gotta want it regardless of how long it takes (over 20 years for me). Because I am here to tell you that the wait, the struggle, everything is so worth it. I’m actually glad it took over 20 years from the time I started writing until I got published. I appreciate everything so much more because I had to work so hard and wait so long for it. And it is still hard work. Actually, I’m working harder now than before I was published. Because as I said, writing is a business. I do more than just write. But I’ll talk more about that next time.

I’ve got a sticker on my computer that says “If they can do it, you know you can.” It’s been there for years, and I have no plans to take it down. So grow that rhino hide and believe in yourself — if they can do it, you know you can. ; )



Part 2 of “5 things I’ve learned about writing” — You gotta want it BAD

Today is Part 2 of the “5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing” — the second thing I’ve learned is if you want to be published, you gotta want it BAD!

Today’s post isn’t meant to discourage anyone; I’m just stating the cold, hard truth about writing that anyone who’s ever sat down to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard already knows. Writing is hard work, it’s lonely work, and a lot of the time it’s unappreciated and misunderstood work.

Some authors are literal overnight successes — they hit pay dirt and even the “big time” with the first book they’ve ever written. We’ve seen their stories — six- and seven-figure advances, press coverage out the wazoo; heck, sometimes even Oprah.

Then there’s me — and 99.99% of writers. The first book we have published isn’t our first or second. Mine was my third. For me, it took over 20 years of hard work to get to where I am. I’m grateful as hell for everything I have now. I just don’t understand diva authors, the jerks of the literary world. Okay, I’m going off on a tangent; I’ll save diva authors for another day. I personally don’t know any (every author I know is gracious and grateful and the nicest people you’d want to meet). But I’ve heard the jerk stories.

Anyhoo, back to what I’ve learned. For the vast majority of writers, success (i.e., reaching the goal of being published), takes a couple of manuscripts that are more than likely stuffed in a closet, before we write something publishable. I’m grateful for the “no, thank yous” I got early in my career. At one writers’ conference, I even thanked one agent for turning me down. From the expression on his face, I’ll bet he hadn’t heard that very often.

After producing something worth printing, there’s the struggle, the waiting, and the waiting some more to finally land an agent, and then waiting for your agent to sell your precious to a publisher. In the middle of all of this is hard work. There is no easy way to do this. You have to want it so badly that you’re willing to write every day, even when you don’t want to, even when you don’t feel inspired, or even when you’re just too danged tired. You have to write regardless of everything. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take the occasional day off. It’s a good idea, for you and for those who have to live with you.

Writing for publication is kinda like training as a professional athlete. They have to work out every day, training and honing their skills if they want to improve. As a writer, your challenge is to find the time to write, which very often means sacrificing something else you want to do.  Also, when you write, you write alone. Some writers have critique groups; I don’t. It’s just not something that works for me. I’m a lone wolf.

Then there’s the biggest problem that most writers encounter: family and friends not taking them or their work seriously. They think that if you haven’t been published, that you’re not a real writer. That’s a load of bullpucky. If you write and work hard at it, you are a real writer regardless of whether you’ve ever signed your name to a publishing contract or not. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; and if they do, don’t believe them. I always told people that it wasn’t a matter of if I got published, but when.

Keep telling yourselves the same thing. And like me, if you tell yourself often enough, you will believe it. Believing in yourself is half the battle.


Part 1 — Things I’ve learned about writing

Sorry if it seems that I dropped off the face of the earth.  Just the usual writer stuff — a book launch, immediately followed by a book deadline, on the heels of a book revision.  Okay, I’m back now.  Over the next five Mondays, I’m going to revisit a series of posts I did quite a while ago on “Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing.” They were true back in 2007 when I wrote them, and they’re just as true now.

I thought I’d start with what every writer has to wrestle with — taking a book one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time. Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don’t have the whole book in our heads when we finish. They think that it’s all there, we write it down and we’re done. Don’t I wish.

Some of us (like myself) prefer to work with an outline. I’ve discovered that I like to work with a VERY detailed outline. Of course, I can change it (and I always do), but I know it’s there like a security blanket. Other brave souls come up with an idea and just strike out on their own, no outline, no nothing — they feel that to write anything down would sully the creative process. Most authors are somewhere in between. But all of us have one thing in common: we all have to write our books one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.

I absolutely MUST work this way. While of course I have my outline, when I’m actually doing the writing I have to force myself not to think much beyond the one moment in that scene that I’m writing. When the sheer enormity of what I have to accomplish pushes its way into my thoughts, my poor little brain just shortcircuits — actually it panics. How am I going to get from here to there? Oh crap, I forgot to include that character. Do I really need that character? Should I save him and his subplot for the next book? How is that subplot ever going to fit in? In short, I try to do what I don’t think any author can do — have the entire thing in your head at one time. It’s kinda like looking at deep space pictures from the Hubble telescope. Your jaw drops open at just how vast the universe is. The same is true (on a much smaller scale) of your books’ universe. It’s just too big to comprehend all at once.

And when you do that, you lose the immediacy of the sentences you’re writing, the intimacy between the characters in that scene. You lose that emotional human (or elf or goblin) touch. The realness of two people who care about each other, or hate each other, or one is about to betray the other — their intimacy/connection/animosity is lost unless you immerse yourself in their moment, get into their minds, and understand what they’re feeling. Only then can you accurately convey your characters’ emotions and make the words come to life on the page — one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.


On Goals

Goals tend to be important in every aspect of life. These goals might be long term: graduate college with a certain GPA, reach a certain level in your career, or see that your kids grow up healthy and happy. Goals might also be very immediate: answer all the waiting mail in your inbox, practice an instrument for a certain amount of time, or finish a looming project. We all set goals constantly because, whether our goal is to write a certain amount of words, lose weight, or just get through our daily to-do list, we tend to need to track our progress to feel accomplished. Looking back on a day, a week, a year, in which we accomplished our goals tends to leave us feeling satisfied whereas not meeting our goals drags on us and leaves us feeling like we’ve wasted time. That said, setting the right kind of goals is important.

So what makes up “the right kind of goal”?

For starters, a good goal should challenge you. If a goal is too easy, there isn’t all that much a sense of accomplishment at the end. They call it “reaching for a goal” for a reason. If you don’t have to extend yourself, that’s not much of a reach.

But, while challenging, a good goal should be achievable. If you set your goal too high, you’ll become discouraged if you can’t reach it. This is especially true for more immediate goals. I’m going to use writing goals here, because I’m a writer, but these can apply across the board. My daily writing goal on a first draft is around 3k words a day (depending on my timeline). Some days I blow past this amount, but some days I struggle to reach it. I wish I could write 10k words a day, and I have on a couple occasions, but not only do I tend to burn out quick and lose writing days following a 10k day, but if I set my goal that high, I’d hit it so rarely that I’d feel guiltier and crummier by the day. 3k is a comfortable goal for me and a goal I can usually hit. (Comfortable, in this case, does not equate easy.) That means when I close my laptop at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, instead of thinking I fell 6k words short, again. I will hopefully have to up my goal in the coming years, and have upped it in the past as my writing speed has increased, but for now, 3k words a day is a good goal for me. In the past, instead of word count goals, I had writing time goals, meaning my goal was to devote an hour or two hours (whatever I could juggle at that time) to writing. Shape your goal to fit in your life. An impossible goal will help no one.

Speaking of achievable goals, make sure yourgoal is within your control. It is important to distinguish between goals and dreams. Dreams are something you desire, something you want to happen. Goals are something you can make happen. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a hand in helping a dream come true, but you can’t make a dream happen. Being published is a dream. Becoming a major league athlete is a dream. Performing in the Met is a dream. You can structure your goals to work toward a dream, but the dream can’t be a goal. If you are a writer, it is self destructive to make your goal that you will be published by xyz date. That isn’t within your control. Now a good goal might be to have a certain number of queries out by that date, as that is something you can control and works toward your dream. If you’ve never done it before, examine your dream and your goals. Are you working against yourself by considering a dream a goal? Do your goals and dream work together?

I could probably list a few more points, but I’ll end with the fact good goals reap rewards. Okay, that one sounds a little obvious. The sense of accomplishment at the end of the day is a reward, right? And your goals paying off in your dream coming true, that’s a reward, surely? Yes. Yes, of course. But don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way of accomplishing your goals. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the big goals (and big dreams) and you shrug off the littler goals. Met your goals? Then give yourself a minute to enjoy that sense of accomplishment. Take a book in the tub and read by candle light, watch a movie with the family, go out for dinner, or at least do your own private happy dance in your office before diving into your next goal, just so you don’t burn out.

Well, I hope you found this list of good goal traits useful. Anyone one want to share their goals? Progress on goals? How about dreams and the goals you are using to achieve those dreams?

Happy Thursday everyone!