Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Importance of Goals

The Importance of Goals

In preparation for the 2012, I clean house and set goals for the new year. This week, I found a Polaroid of my daughter taken when she was in kindergarten. It was fireman’s day, evidenced by the lopsided hat atop her tiny head. She stood with her friends, all were smiling, looking directly at me and the future ahead. Beside the picture was a Steven Covey journal with a ten year old personal mission statement which read, “someday I would like to write a book.” Blinking away tears, I realize so much time has passed. My daughter has grown into a beautiful teenager and my dream is a reality.

Becoming a published author made me realize the importance of community. It also added pressure to produce more than one book. This year instead of finishing the novel I was working on, I released: Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice forthe Newly Published Author… a project that was not on my “to-do” list.

I wrote Stress-freeMarketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author after meeting two North Carolina authors at a conference. One had a beautiful memoir filled with professional photographs. However, in today’s market the $ 34.95 price tag was professional suicide. The second author remortgaged her home only to see her dream disappear in foreclosure while unsold stock gathered dust. Each day images of these women haunted me making it impossible to focus on my manuscript. Then the muse fell silent.

Upon sharing my intent to write this book, my husband and I had quite the “discussion.” He argued I was making a terrible mistake. He believed emerging and self-published authors are obstinate, opinionated and “dead set on doing what they want to do regardless of who tries to help them.” Further, he explained, “this is why they self-publish, because they don’t want to listen to anyone in the industry.”

I defended that “even though I am not self-published, if someone had tried to share marketing tips with me when I was starting out, I would have listened.” Surely, I reasoned, newbies would listen to someone who had “been there” and “done that.” Surely they would want to do everything in their power to sell the books they had worked so hard to write.

He crossed his arms and reminded me that I am “not like everyone else.” He reminded me that I had spent months researching my market and compiling contacts. Then he gave me a we’ll see look before saying, “Trust me, writers aren’t going to listen to a word you have to say.”

I tried not to cry as his resolve remained. I explained that writers help each other and that I am “doing my part to pay it forward.”

The eternal skeptic was unmoved.

Veteran authors whom I interviewed agreed with my husband. They suggested I lead marketing workshops, instead of authoring a book aimed at emerging authors. I listened…kinda.

Partnering with local brick and mortar bookstores and small businesses, I now offer workshops to emerging authors at a ridiculously low price. Workshop attendees receive a copy of the book, a password to a community blog specifically designed for new authors, and two hours of instruction from yours truly. Businesses who host a workshop receive half of the fee. This is my way of saying thank you for shelving copies of In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life & Tomatoes. I hope these classes will encourage and teach emerging authors as well as benefit small businesses, especially in the winter months when business is slow. The workshops will not make me independently wealthy and the fact that I am not promoting this book with a tour means those who monitor sales information won’t be pleased. Insert pouty face and crossed arms from the beloved.

I like to think of Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author as a community service project…voluntary, not court-ordered. Someone needed to guide the fledglings and who better than a fellow fledgling that experienced extraordinary success with her first publication. Thank you readers, booksellers and book clubs! Offering the workshops have allowed me to rest knowing that I have written something that, when read, will guide others on their pathway to publication. I have done my part. The rest is up to referrals and the magic of social media. If I can save one author from financial ruin, my work is done. Once again, the muse is smiling. Once again it is time to set attainable goals. Have you set goals for 2012?

As 2011 closes, many of us wonder what the future holds. Hopefully I will finish the novel or perhaps the sequel to In the Garden with Billy. I will continue to support independent booksellers and volunteer at the public library, both need our help. And my personal mission statement remains, “I will write a book.”

Visit Renea Winchester’s website for more information about her work, or visit her blog: http://adviceforauthors.wordpress.com .

Thursday, December 8, 2011

All Work and No Play* Makes A Dull Writer

Have you ever read the work of a young, uncorrupted writer? It’s like venturing into a jungle: Fresh. Green. Wild. Monkeys beating their furry chests. Parrots shrieking. Anacondas curling around trees. A chaos of creativity.

Such a writer is ruled almost entirely by her subconscious. The subconscious—let’s call her Crazy Daisy -- doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a dangling participle; she only cares about expressing herself. Writing is play not work.

Unfortunately Crazy Daisy, charming as she is, has a problem: Her work meanders like a toddler strewing petals at a wedding: she needs to be reigned in.

Enter Ms. Grind.

 Ms. Grind cares most about the rules.

She’ll tell Crazy Daisy that a sentence can’t run on for three pages or that exclamation points shouldn’t be showered over a page like pepper. She’s so bossy and judgmental she frightens away Crazy Daisy. Ms. Grind doesn't care; she doesn’t needs that wild little girl hanging around anyway. Yet when she tries to have fun with her prose, it’s scary like having Dick Cheney ask you to pull his finger. Most of her writing comes out freeze-dried and soulless.  

Fact is, all writers are slightly schizophrenic, their mind divided between Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind. We usually start out dominated by Crazy Daisy but once we immerse ourselves into the sea of endless writing rules, Ms. Grind tends to take over.  

Can Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grim live harmoniously in a writer’s head? In other words, is it possible to create prose that’s technically proficient but also has passion, wonder, and playfulness? Yes, but only if you allow Crazy Daisy and Ms Grim to play to their strengths.

New ideas usually come from Crazy Daisy.

You’re talking a walk or daydreaming and suddenly… BAM! You get a great idea. Crazy Daisy, impetuous minx, wants to start writing immediately. It’s like she has a case of diarrhea. You’ll be tempted to run with her. Don’t do it. Stop and take a moment to diaper the little imp.

Believe it or not, it’s time to bring Ms. Grind into the equation—not to shoot down the idea--but to structure it. Ms. Grinds loves outlines and plans and she’s good at them. After a little structure work, she might find that the idea isn’t workable after all. Sadly not all of Crazy Daisy’s ideas are golden. She likes to take risks and some don’t pay off.   

In fact, it’s wise to begin with every writing session with Ms. Grind and structure your thoughts when you sit down to write, whether to compose a short scene or a brief essay. You’ll satisfy Ms. Grind and give Crazy Daisy some perimeters. T.S. Elliot summarized this process:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its upmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.

Keep Ms. Grind Out of Your First Drafts  

Once structure’s in place, time to let Crazy Daisy loose. Allow her to scribble on walls, turn somersaults or eat paste. Sometimes she might break down structural walls and that’s okay too. Ms. Grind, however, isn’t allowed in.  Why? Because she’ll keep up a steady stream of inner dialogue that sounds something like this:

That sentence was abysmal. It must be fixed immediately. Can’t you do anything right? Who do you think you are, passing yourself as a writer?

Occasionally Crazy Daisy interjects, bringing flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s Ms. Grind who stands over the writer, wielding her ruler.  

Not surprisingly Ms. Grind doesn’t give up her authority easily. How can you keep her out of your head when you're drafting?

Learn How to Break the Judgment Habit

Most people aren’t aware of the stream of criticism flowing in their mind while they’re writing. Thinking is so fast and transitory; it can be hard to catch Ms. Grind’s endless digs. That why it’s helpful to develop a habit of sitting quietly and meditating for fifteen minutes each day. Ms Grind will no do doubt object saying, “What a ridiculous idea.  Do you realize we’re wasting valuable writing time sitting around doing nothing?”

She’s no dummy. Ms. Grind knows that meditation is the best way to access all of Crazy Daisy’s wild brilliance.  Meditation helps you to recognize Ms. Grind’s judgmental thoughts, and to ignore them when you’re drafting a piece.

When Crazy Daisy takes over the draft, watch out, because diamonds and gold nuggets will start shooting out of your computer. BEWARE. Don’t pat yourself on the back because that, too, is a judgment and any time you make a judgment, you’re issuing an invitation to Ms. Grind. The time for judgment, positive or negative, is in the re-write. Not now.

Writing will suddenly be fun again and as effortless as letting out a whoop of joy. You’ll find yourself falling in love all over again.

One caveat: Crazy Daisy is very messy. 

When you go back to revise, you might be horrified at the results. Yes, the writing was intoxicating but the hangover’s a killer.  Ms. Grind will say, “I told you so.”  Don’t listen to her. Simply ask her to help you clean it up. She’ll balk at first, saying, “If you left things to me there wouldn’t so much clutter.”

True but neither would there be so much fresh, wild writing. Give it a try and see. It can be a little disorienting. You might not even recognize your own prose. 

By the way, there’s an easy way to tell which personality dominates your writing. If you love the drafting phase and hate structure and rewriting, Crazy Daisy probably dominates your writing. If you like outlines, loathe the drafting phase and love to polish your prose, you need a T-shirt that says “Team Ms. Grind.”    
*If you resisted reading this article, thank Ms.Grind. She’s not interested in articles about making writing fun. It threatens her authority. She much prefers list articles like “Ten Ways To Punch Up Your Dialogue.” They’re useful; this article is a waste of time. Crazy Daisy, indeed. 

Karin Gillespie is novelist who loves to pick daisies. Follow her @gillespiekarin.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Best Advice I Ever Got

By Man Martin

“Experience is a dear teacher, but a fool will learn by no other,” Benjamin Franklin

I am a school teacher, and one thing life has taught me is that you have to be very careful what you say around students. The same child who cannot master a simple lesson you have drilled into his head for three weeks will be able to recall verbatim a random wisecrack you made in passing and quote it back to you, often in the context of a parent-teacher conference.

I myself, who have been educated to within an inch of my life, have often taken away more from a teacher’s passing comment than from all the carefully planned curriculum on earth, largely because most of what writing teachers have to offer is advice, and I have never been good at taking advice. This is not owing to a lack of good advice coming in at regular intervals from all sides. I am not proud of the fact I’m not good at taking advice. Had I taken advice, my teeth would be whiter, my cholesterol lower, my waist slimmer, my bank balance fatter. But, like I said, I’m not good at taking advice.

I do not know if this is because I’m cocksure, stubborn, or just a slow learner. Certainly being a slow learner is part of it. Usually I appreciate the value of advice – “Check your tire pressure every week” – only when I’m already stranded on the side of a long, deserted stretch of black top with a broken jack and a spare that is – also – flat.

I have received boo-coos of writing advice, all of which I’ve ignored, which is understandable enough when it comes unasked from friends and family, but which is downright inexplicable when it comes from respected professionals whom I’ve paid, at least in part, for the valuable advice they offer. I’m talking here about college professors under whom I’ve studied writing and who must have on more than one occasion shaken their heads in pained wonderment at my mulish stubbornness, persisting in doing things the way I want to do, dammit, and not listening to their seasoned wisdom which would have made my task lighter in oh, so many ways.

Or if not lighter, at least more productive.

Tonight as I type this the advice that comes to mind is from my dear teacher Tony Grooms. Grooms, author of Trouble No More and Bombingham, was one of my writing teachers at Kennesaw State University and taught me many things. He taught me the essential quality of a character is that he or she must care about something. “It doesn’t matter as much whether they care about their lover, their children, or their rosebushes, but they have to care about something or the reader won’t care about them.” He also said that while an ambiguous phrase might be very nice in poetry, it should probably be avoided in fiction. Clarity is the sine qua non of fiction. Next to characters we can care about, what the reader wants to know is just exactly what the hell is going on.

But all of this wisdom, plus much more besides, wisdom that I heard and neglected until I’d pounded my own fool head against the concrete for myself, testing that, yes, pounding your head on concrete probably is a bad idea and something that should be desisted from in future – Tony also warned me against excessive cleverness or “cuteness” in my writing, a lesson I may never learn – the thing that sticks in my head is one phrase.

Two hundred words a day.

He said this in an off-hand way during a summer workshop. He had graciously opened his home to his class, and we met there weekly to exchange and critique stories. It was there I debuted the first chapter of Long Gone, my novel and Masters Thesis, the only copies of which sit on a shelf somewhere in the KSU Library. The thing was never published and never will be; it was what we euphemistically call a “learning novel.” Too much ambiguity and the characters didn’t care about anything, is my post-mortem diagnosis.

Anyway, one summer afternoon before or after workshop when I was enviously admiring the tomatoes he’d already gotten from his garden long before ours were ripe, he said apropos of nothing much, “If you wrote just two hundred words a day, at the end of a year, you’d have a seventy-thousand word novel.”

He said this in the most casual way imaginable, a man nonchalantly observing that three hundred sixty-five times two hundred is seventy thousand, but what a light bulb went off in my head! Two hundred words a day. Anybody could do that! I could do that!

Thank you, Tony.

I have written two novels and am well into a third. Given my nature, I have had to learn the other lessons you taught me the hard way, pounding my head over and over against stubborn realities until the stubborn realities sank in. Stubborn Realities: 1, Head: 0. But I was able to learn what little I have because of that other thing. The two hundred word thing. I know I have a lot more to learn, and God willing, I’ll learn at least some of it before I die. But if I do, I’ll learn the hard way. Pounding my head. Pounding my head. Pounding my head.

Two hundred words a day.

Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette and Scoring Bertram Wiggly, a novella.  His second novel, Paradise Dogs, was selected by Atlanta Magazine's December "Best Of" issue, as one of the top five novels for 2011.  He is writing a third novel, 200 words a day.  He blogs at manmartin.blogspot.com