Friday, November 15, 2013

Using NaNoWriMo To Stoke Your Creative Fires

Aaaah...November. The leaves change to rich hues of orange, red and gold until they drop off the trees completely, the Pumpkin Spice latte gives way to the Gingerbread one, and the sweaters and boots come out of hiding. It's also the month where, if you're a writer, you feel the nagging push to get your #%&! together and start working on that novel.

The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that you are given permission to write complete and utter crapola. It is a draft, and the objective is quantity, as in words, not quality. That comes later, when you have the bones down and then at a later date you can sift through the detritus and find how to actually turn it into something worth reading. People form online groups, they meet in coffee shops and libraries nationwide, and cheer each other on with daily word count updates. It's a feeling like no other, knowing you are deep in the trenches with your fellow writers, cranking out those words and feeling the love.

For some, they start a whole new project, but for others, it may be just the spark they needed to kick a revision into high gear. This year is the first year I'm actually participating in NaNoWriMo, and I'm working on a revision of my latest novel. It's really kept me on task knowing I have to report in, and I'm really grateful for the focus it has offered me. When I see my peers posting their word counts and hitting goal, it makes me strive to work harder, to focus more, to stop playing Candy Crush Saga and just make it through the end of the next chapter.

I believe the hardest part of the writing journey is getting started. The freedom that NaNoWriMo offers, even if it's purely psychological, that you can write pure drivel and it just doesn't matter, that this is for YOU, teaches us more than we realize. It teaches us to be disciplined, to write daily, to revise later when we know where the story is truly going, to forgive ourselves for writing imperfectly out of the gate, and to celebrate meeting our goals and feeling satisfaction in the smaller achievements instead of just focusing on the long term ones.

It's not like we need a November to roll around as our excuse to do this though. We should allow ourselves this gift every month and to remember how freeing it feels to write with such freedom to make mistakes. In the end, what matters is that we are writing.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Finding Your Writing Mojo

I know what you're thinking about now. Where the hell have you been? Did you slip off the face of the Earth? Join the witness protection program? What's the deal?

The answer is not anything too exciting, really. I've just been enjoying these last days with my son before he leaves for college, and trying to soak up the ones with my youngest as well, as his imminent departure has shown me how quickly those moments fly by. Admittedly, it has been a wonderful distraction. It has helped me ignore that for the last year I have completely lost my mojo somewhere under the couch and I can't seem to find it, like a lost sock or my cell phone when it's on silent.

Trying to write when the mojo is not there is like forcing a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn't work. Believe me, I tried. I've had many great ideas, but figuring out how to turn them into full-on stories has remained elusive. And it seemed like every time I would get a burst of creativity, some life event would happen that would pull my attention away like a squirrel to something shiny. But then, this summer, something amazing happened. A friend was working on a TV pilot, and offered me the opportunity to sit in the writer's room and watch as it unfolded from outline to screenplay. What was supposed to be an afternoon sitting in as a casual observer turned into a week of hands-on writing, brainstorming and learning more than I ever could have in a classroom, and as a result, this Stella got her groove back.

It's amazing how a little dose of creativity, even if it's not for your own work, can go a long way in infusing you with unbridled passion to dive in anew. I left that experience ready to tackle the stories I'd been kicking around, to sit down and outline them and see what was there, and to rediscover my writing routine and make things happen.

Although I'm not going as an actual attendee this year, I am going to the SCBWI Writer's Conference this weekend, and am looking forward to being in the company of "my people". There is something so inspiring and motivating about being around people who love to do what you do, and to hear their stories from the trenches and know that you are not alone. Though at times it can feel intimidating as you see others rise the ladder to publication while you are still treading water in the kiddie pool, writers are a really accepting, encouraging bunch. I never fail to leave there ready to roll, confident in my abilities, and I am hoping this time will be no exception.

The most important thing to remind yourself of if you find you hit a writing slump is: It's not over. You are still a writer. There is a definitive ebb and flow to the process, and you have to embrace it. And you will write far more bad stories than good ones, especially in the beginning. The most important thing is to keep writing. And if you lose that mojo, don't stop looking for it. It's probably just under the couch cushion with the loose change and the stray M&M's.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

When The Words Flow More Like "Whine" Than "Wine"...

Undoubtedly, there are few things that compare with the natural euphoric high that is being in the "zone" when you're writing. The words are flowing, the dialogue is snappy, the plot twists make you bite your own nails while you're writing, you're head over heels in love with your main characters and you've mentally started writing the acknowledgements of the book in your head because you just know this is THE ONE.

And then....it happens. Life gets in the way. There's errands, and dishes and school concerts and book reports and all sorts of life dramas that make you pull your focus. You take a little break. Maybe a day. Maybe a week. Maybe a year. You go back and reread those words, and suddenly, your book has so many holes it could be mistaken for an old piece of swiss cheese. And those characters? You can't stand them. They are far too predictable, their dilemmas unrealistic, and maybe they are even downright unlikable. What seemed charming now seems contrived.

Back to square one.

Maybe you rework what you've got, try and discover in round two what the real story is. Maybe you put it aside and work on something else entirely. Maybe you get fifteen pages down the road on that new thing and then realize you don;t know where this is going and start something else. Or you pull out an old project and try with all the urgency of an EMT to pump life back into its lungs.

And sometimes...despite your best efforts...ya got nothing.

The truth is, when your mind is firing on all cylinders and nothing is hitting, sometimes the best thing you can do is regroup. Just because you stop writing momentarily, it does not mean you are no longer a writer. Often, people who are not writers themselves do not really understand the creative process. They think it's really not that hard to tell a story, so what's the big deal to sit down and pump out 200+ pages. Creativity is not something you can just flip on and off like a light switch. Some days, the ideas are never-ending, and when you have one of those days, I hope you are near a pad and a pen. But others...well, others not so much. Some days the muse is out for lunch with her girlfriends, and even doing the laundry looks more inviting than sitting down with that blinking cursor on a blank page. Some days the whole process is overwhelming and intimidating, and you feel like you will never churn out a single new idea. Here are my suggestions of several ways to deal with THOSE days in the hopes that you will soon reel in that muse and keep the ball rolling:

STOP READING PUBLISHER'S MARKETPLACE
Yes, I said it. One of the worst things you can do when you are feeling in a writing lull and trying to recapture your mojo is read about the latest sales. This will probably only serve to make you feel more frustrated by the process. While I think it's good to be on top if the market, you do not want sales to be a false indicator of what you should be writing and make you feel pressured to write it. Also, seeing a story sell that is similar to something you are writing or want to write may serve to sabotage you from continuing with the project. The odds are: that story is completely different and you will have your own unique spin on things. There are a gajillion books out there that may have similar storylines - it's what YOUR take is on it that makes it stand out as a fresh take. Don't be distracted.

GO TO A WRITING WORKSHOP, OR AT LEAST HAVE COFFEE WITH SOME WRITER FRIENDS
Even if you are between projects and feel like you have nothing new to contribute, keep in the game by surrounding yourself with people who love to write. Their passion is infectious, guaranteed, and may serve to help jump-start your creativity and remind you that you really do have what it takes. Conferences are the best because the odds are you will meet tons of people that have traveled many different roads to get where they are and some of them may surprise you in how long their journey has taken. It may infuse in you just the right amount of hope to help you keep moving forward. This is rarely an overnight success story. You will find that for most writers, it can take years. To think you will be the exception is certainly wonderful, as long as you're not disappointed if you turn out to be like the majority of us.

TAKE A SOCIAL MEDIA VACATION
Confession: the real reason I spend so much time on Facebook has nothing to do with people. Honestly, I have developed a procrastination addiction to Solitaire Blitz and Candy Crush Saga like nobody's business. It's a great release for me. What stresses me out is when I start to read everyone's statuses. I'm friends with lots of writers on Facebook and Twitter, as I'm sure many of you are as well. Most days, I'm happy to see their statuses, learn about their new projects and happily give a "like" to their latest moment of sharing their success. But some days it's like rubbing salt in a wound. I know you know what I'm talking about. On those "pity party of one" days, the best thing to do is stay away from social media, or at least temporarily hide the feeds of the people who you know it will be difficult to read at that time. You are not "de-friending" them; you are taking care of yourself. When you are in a better space, you can put everything back to normal, but some days reading a steady stream of everyone else's good news when you are longing for some yourself isn't healthy or helpful.

READ LIKE A MADWOMAN (OR MADMAN)
If you can't be writing, spend your time reading within the genre in which you like to write. Nothing is more inspiring than reading really great quality writing, or a story with a similar theme to the one you hope to tell and see how another author handles it. As I have said in the past, you can also learn from really bad writing. And one of the greatest gifts of all? When you can read multiple books by one author you may particularly like and see with your own eyes that some are better than others. Even published authors can be inconsistent. Case in point: there is a YA author that I absolutely LOVE and I have devoured all her books. I was beyond excited for her latest offering, which honestly? I found kinda "meh". Great story on the flap, but the characters were pretty one dimensional, the story was too light and way too predictable, and all in all it was a disappointment. But it was wonderful because it showed me she's human, and that even though we may write several really great books, we are allowed to write ones that aren't so great too. And it will happen. But at the end of the day, it's all good because we're still writing.

BE GOOD TO YOURSELF
When the words don't come, we may get upset with ourselves. We feel like we've stalled out or failed somehow. There is no clock here. No race. Take care of your body and in turn you will take care of your brain. Taking time to meditate and de-stress, to eat well instead of pure crap, to take walks and think about ideas, to treat the in-between days as remembering the real priorities - enjoying your life, your family, etc. Because without your health, all else suffers, and when we feel like we are falling short of our personal goals, the stress level inevitably skyrockets. In the quiet moments, the words will come. They may even come during the chaotic ones, but know that eventually...they WILL come.

If you are like me, writing has never been a choice. It's just what you do, who you are since as far back as you can remember. Don't let the pressure to get published, the need to deliver "what sells", or the competition of your peers making sales while you are still waiting for your big break let that self-doubt settle in the cracks and dash your mojo. It will come back. Have faith it will come back. If you are that distracted by other things, then what you write would probably not be your best work anyhow, and perhaps it is life's way of making you temporarily shift your focus. But just as you need to breathe and eat, so you will also need to write again. It's just what we do.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Blog Post About How The Path To Publication and College Acceptances Are Not Really All That Different

Writing a novel and having it out on submission, waiting for a magical acceptance, is not unlike the whole college application process. I say this with personal knowledge, as I have just undergone both in the last year, though the latter was for my son, but both processes are not for the faint of heart and carry with them equal highs and lows, excitement and heartbreak.

You see, your book is like your child too. You've created it, nurtured it along, infused it with essential elements and love, and released it to the world, hoping it can stand on its own two feet and that the world will be kind to it, celebrating its strengths and rewarding it accordingly. You can lock on to any agent or publisher (or college) and think: this is it! This is the one. Life would be so fantastic if this opportunity was the one that came through. And with each rejection, each let down, its as if air is going out of the balloon. It was hard enough to go through this kind of scrutiny with my own book, but watching my child go through this agonizing process was debilitating, especially when you see other books (or people) get through the gates you want to burst through. It can't help but feel personal, and make one wonder why their best wasn't good enough for some.

But just as is so for college, it is true for publishing: There is a place for everyone. There is an audience for everyone. And the place you think you want to be may not be the best place for you at the end of the day in this period of time. It doesn't mean it's forever out of reach, it just means you might have to do things a little differently in order to get there. And above all, it doesn't mean you've failed. The universe works in mysterious ways, and often in retrospect we can see why things unfolded the way they did and how we benefited from it in the long run. As my grandmother used to say, "the delay is never the denial."

We are so hung up on prestige in this world. The prestigious publisher vs the small house that may actually give the author or the book more attention. The bigshot agent with an impressive roster vs. the lesser-known one with less clients who may actually take more time to work with us. The fancy college vs. the lesser known one with the better program and smaller classes with greater opportunity to get hands-on. When we don't get what we want, we quickly can lose sight of the real achievements in play; the fact that YOU WROTE A NOVEL! Not something everyone can do. That you queried and found someone who believed in you and your work and wanted to try and help you sell it. That a publisher believed in your story and felt it deserved a place on the shelves. Or that you got into a college, not something everyone can achieve. The hard work, the perseverance, the opportunity . . . these are the things that matter, not the forum in which they see fruition. We get out of things what we put into them, and if they don't play out according to the script in our heads, we can let it defeat us or define us. The choice remains ours. We are not as powerless as we may think in that moment.

Life is about learning, and all of these moments of not getting what we want are the true opportunities for growth, experience, and pushing us forward, should we choose to accept the challenge, to work harder. The path may not be what we expected, but it does not mean that the rewards we want cannot be ours for the taking if we continue to persevere. Embrace YOUR path. See where it takes you, and don't let the path others are on distract you from the view on yours.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Unremembering

My writer friend and agent sister extraordinaire Jessica Brody is helping celebrate her upcoming release of her new sci-fi trilogy, beginning with the first installment UNREMEBERED, by asking fellow writers and bloggers to blog about a moment in their lives they wish they could "unremember". Well, here's mine *cringes*:

At the beginning of my writing journey, when I was still questing for an agent, I became fixated on one who seemed to be the perfect fit. It was the summer of 2009, and when I saw that he would be attending the national SCBWI conference here in Los Angeles, just a mere 45 minutes away from me, I took it as a sign. (FYI - I'm all about signs, so who was I to fight the universe?) I signed up for the conference with my sole mission to make contact with this guy, since he currently had my full, hoping that a little snarky banter and face time would win him over, if not make him all the more eager to sign me regardless of the fact that my book, at that time, probably wasn't ready for publication. (It went through at least 4 subsequent drafts. Oy!)

At the conference, I met some writers and told them why I was there. They knew who he was, and joined in my mission to track him down and make sure I had my shot. At a party there that night, we totally stalked him poolside until I found just the right window and made my way over to him. We indeed had a great conversation, and in a rare moment, all my words came out in cohesive sentences and I left the exchange satisfied that it had gone really well. I should have left well enough alone.

Over the next two days, I saw him numerous times, but now we knew each other kinda sorta, right? So I'd wave, I'd say hello, and once I was even sitting at a table near him in the lobby and (shudder) felt so awkward sitting right next to him I offered to buy him a drink. (He said no thanks and continued talking to the two editors he was sitting with, probably about that overeager newbie author who was clearly starting to make an ass of herself with her fangirl/borderline stalker excitement.)

When weeks later he passed on the book (with a sweet rejection and uber-helpful notes though, to his credit), I was devastated, but was determined to do a rewrite and contact him again. (First note to self and others: Only do this if the agent has actually ASKED to see it again, which, technically, he didn't.) Flash forward to the following year's conference, where he had subsequently agreed to read the book again, and once again I was waiting on pins and needles. Naturally, he was the first person I saw as I checked in, and he recognized me and even said hello. But then, it got weird.

He was, literally, ever-y-where, and even though I was totally NOT stalking him (no, seriously, I really wasn't, I'd be straight up with you), it started to seem like I was. But we were constantly in the same orbit, and after the first few times, I could literally start to see him tense up when I was nearby, if not dodge and hide behind some fake foliage in the lobby. (Not really, but I bet he wanted to.) And in an act of sheer irony from the universe, I befriended his writer wife, and ended up talking to her quite a bit and even writing with her in the lobby one afternoon, making sure to steer clear of the subject of him. When he saw us sitting there together, I swear he went pale. Suddenly, I was Newman to his Jerry, and there was no undoing it. Inadvertently, in my attempt to be friendly and outgoing and make a good impression, I'd done just the opposite, and in his mind he was probably worried he would go back to New York and find a literary equivalent of a rabbit in a pot on the stove from me.

So, needless to say, this guy is not my agent, and if I could "unremember" any single event from my writing career, it would be this one, hands down. I cringe every time I think of it.

Oy, indeed!