A New Paradigm (Again)

I have talked often of finding a balance between my writing and my life. I have told of new ideas, new routines I’ve made to find that balance, only to share the frustration that comes with life’s interference with those plans.

But I have a new plan.

Seriously.

I’ve been doing the catch-as-catch-can thing for about 2 years now. Coincidentally, that is about how old my daughter is. And I am here to tell you that putting out fires for 2 years is exhausting and spiritually unfulfilling. Certainly I have enjoyed much of what has gone on in the past two years, but the harried, never-get-to-quite-focus mentality has left me feeling both incompetent and fractured. So I sat down to reassess everything.

I found that the greatest issue fueling my frustration was not being able to move all facets of my life forward at once.

I consider that I have 4 major facets in my life: Baby, Husband, Household, and Writing. Baby moves on her own rocket trajectory and moves ahead at warp speed. I try to stuff the other three facets into whatever time and energy I have left over. I found that one always outweighed the other two. When I focused on Writing, the Household and Husband suffered neglect. When I caught up on Household, Writing and Husband stagnated. When I actually pay attention to my long-suffering Husband, very little Writing or Household gets accomplished.

So I always ended up playing catch-up with 2 facets, frustrated that they had slipped in the first place, and then returning to the putting-out-fires method of living. This is not conducive to writing, at least not for me. I need at least an hour to really write. Editing I can do in smaller chunks, but for writing I need time.

My new plan? Move everything forward at once. Set tiny daily goals in each area and meet or exceed them. If I feel like I nothing is stagnating, perhaps I won’t feel the intense pressure of everything I’m NOT doing while I am trying to concentrate on what I AM doing.

It helps that I can now do more things when baby girl is awake. She’s old enough now to want to help or to entertain herself for a while. I can actually do housework, make (short) phone calls, and do email and social media when she is awake. That helps immensely. If I can move most of the Household and some of the Writing into the daytime hours, that will leave her nap and the nighttime for me to have some concentrated Writing time (and time with Husband, too, when he is not working crazy night shift hours!).

Circumstances keep changing, especially as my baby girl keeps changing. So it is smart to sit back once and a while and see what’s holding me back and how I can adjust things to overcome that. I’m hoping that by pinpointing my largest frustration, I can now make a plan that will be successful.

How about you? Do you re-evaluate your writing routine every so often to see if it can be improved? Or have you found a writing design that works for you?

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Books and Community

Books are magic.

This childhood belief is still with me today. And since books are found in the library, libraries are magic, too. At the main branch of my hometown library, I would trot down those white steps to the Children’s section, where they had all these books JUST FOR ME.

When I was a little older, I would ride my bike to the local library branch. It was only as big as two and a half garages, but I loved going in there. It was intimate and I knew where all my favorite books lived, which only reinforced the feeling that IT WAS MINE. My Camp Fire Girl troop decorated it for Christmas every year, and that bolstered this feeling of possession.

Even in college, when the library was on a much grander scale, I would walk though the doors and a peace would settle on me. The library calmed me, sheltered me, and educated me. I felt, in a word, WELCOME.

Libraries have always evoked a sense of belonging. That they belonged to you and you somehow belonged to them. Before the Internet, I spent hours there, as did my peers. Libraries were a community hub, and even today they reach out to the community in various ways and try to fill the needs of their patrons.

When I lived in Chincoteague, VA, last year, one of the first community events I attended was the dedication of the new wing of the library. My baby girl and I were frequent visitors there, always welcomed warmly into the beautiful children’s room the addition housed. That gorgeous addition, built to echo a lighthouse, was the direct result of years of support and fundraising from the local island community.

So for me, books and community have always gone together. Independent bookstores, too, have always evoked this feeling in me. I think that what makes most indies comfortable to me is their size, which is usually on the smaller end of the retail scale. They are eminently browseable, and permeated with the love of books. And so many of them are active supporters of their local communities, as well as hosting book-related groups and author appearances within their walls.

Even though I am a book-lover from way back, when I first heard about the Collingswood Book Festival from author friends Keith Strunk and Marie Lamba, I had my doubts about going. What could a sprawling 6-block bookfest offer to someone like me – shy, easily overwhelmed in crowds, and toting a toddler? Wouldn’t it just feel like a huge garage sale? But I decided to go to support my friends and their fellow Liars Club members Merry Jones, Gregory Frost, Kelly Simmons, Solomon Jones, and Keith DeCandido.

I loved it.

It was book overload, but in a great way. I could have spent the entire day there, browsing, listening to panels, and just enjoying the community. Did I say community? Yes, I did. The Collingswood Book Festival was a community affair through and through, with kid-oriented LoompaLand as well as music and the usual fest-type foods. Unfortunately, I could only stay a short time because of my toddler, but I will be back next year, hopefully toddler-free, to browse the day away. For another view of the Book Festival (with pictures!), visit my friend J. Thomas Ross’ blog.

Books can transport you to faraway places—and they can bring local communities closer together.

Books are magic.

The Sagging Middle: A Structural or Psychological Problem?

I went to the monthly Writers’ Coffeehouse run by the Liars Club this past Sunday in Willow Grove, PA. One of the things we talked about was the problem of the “sagging middle.” One of the attendees said she was new to fiction writing (had been a poet) and had gotten about halfway through the book and was now tired of it. She asked for ways to get past this.

Advice came immediately, because what author isn’t familiar with that middle-of-the-book sag? The usual culprit for this sagging middle is structural – something about your plot needs fixing. Typically, adding tension to the plot at this point will charge up that middle and bring it back to life. Often you can accomplish this by changing the challenge the main character faces. For example, your MC has been trying to solve X. He solves X, only to find that it opens up larger problem Y. Problem Y then carries you to the end of the story.

It occurred to me, though, that we had addressed the structural facet of the sagging middle, but not the psychological. This writer was new to fiction. She’d written several short stories, but this was her first novel. It could be that there is no problem with her structure, but that she simply had writer’s fatigue.

A novel is a huge undertaking. It is a marathon, not a sprint. If it is your first one, it is understandable that it can wear you down. Her words seemed to hint at that: “I am tired of it.” So, when your mid-novel sag is due to psychological fatigue, how do you combat that?

There are as many ways as there are writers, but some that work for me are:

• Skip ahead to the end, or a scene you are excited about writing.
• Hop over to a completely different project for a while.
• Take a long walk, or a shower, or something relaxing that frees your subconscious.
• Read a book.
• Listen to some music.

How do you cope with your mid-novel slumps?

Descriptive Language and Trusting Your Reader

I’m taking a Write Your YA Novel in Nine Months class with Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, and this week we talked about descriptive language. Marie brought in examples from published books, and the thing that struck all of us is how little description is needed to give the reader a vivid picture.

Choosing the right words is important, of course. One example described subways as “bathroom tiled” spaces, which is incredibly visual and right on the money. Choosing evocative words paints a complete picture with fewer words, because they pull in associations that you as the writer then do not have to explain.

Still, seeing how little you need to write to have a full-blown image in the reader’s head was eye-opening. It goes to show just how much the reader brings to the experience. Marie illustrated this by using the line, “He was in a spaceship.” Even without the author describing the spaceship, every one of us had a vision of the spaceship in our heads. Marie pointed out that they would all be different spaceships, but since the spaceship itself was not crucial to the story, there was no need for the author to specify details about the spaceship.

That is the lesson: Only describe the details that are vital to the story. Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination to fill in. Choose details that show the reader the characters’ POV and what is important in the world of your book.

Descriptive language is a part of the writing craft that I am still working on improving, but now I understand that by describing only the salient points, I can still get my point across while engaging in a partnership with the reader.

I think that is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer – that you are in a partnership with the reader, and you need to trust them to fill in the gaps. Trying to make sure the reader sees and knows everything can lead to ponderous overwriting that no reader will slog through. Books that honor that partnership are the ones that we remember most, the ones that as readers we have entered most fully.

Less can be more, if you do it right. Tell the reader only what they need to know, and let them do the rest. They’ll thank you for it.

When is a manuscript done?

Okay, I will admit that’s a trick question. No writer I know is ever really “done” with a piece. We could all tweak until the end of time, because we are constantly growing in our craft.

But if we want to be published, at some point we have to finish the manuscript. It has to be “done” so we can send it out. So how do you decide when it’s done? When it’s “perfect,” or when you simply have revised so much you can’t stand to look at it anymore? Or some other criterion?

I don’t think there is any set rule, other than it has to be as good and polished as you can possibly make it. So the stopping point will be different for everyone. For myself, I usually consider it pretty close to done after the fifth or sixth major revision. At that point, I start to “feel” the story becoming solid. Almost like all the pieces of a puzzle locking together. Once I feel that solidity, I start the polishing process.

But sometimes I have a manuscript that never gets that “together” feeling. I love everything about it – plot, characters, you name it – but something just isn’t clicking. People say you can’t edit your own work, and I know that’s true for me. My editor’s nose tells me when something is wrong, but I can’t always see the manuscript clearly enough to figure out what it is.

How long do you work on a manuscript that you believe in but that simply is not working? If no one has been able to point you in the right direction, what do you do? What is the right length of time to struggle with it before putting it in the drawer and revisiting it later, when your writing skills have matured enough that you can hopefully pinpoint the problem and fix it?

Maybe I shouldn’t ask what length of time, because now that I have a toddler my writing time has disappeared. Before the baby, I was a workhorse – I could churn out words like nobody’s business. Now I fight for every word I get, so revisions take many times longer to complete than they used to. So perhaps the better question would be: How many major revisions before you say, “This isn’t going to work right now” and move on to something else?

I know people who have been “perfecting” the same novel for twenty years (and not because they have small children). It is hard to let your work go out when you know it’s not perfect. But nothing is ever perfect. At some point you have to say, “It’s as perfect as I can make it with the skill and tools I currently possess.” Then you send it out.

So when is a manuscript “done” for you? And at what point do you give up on a difficult one?

Moving on to a new Story

Starting a new story is a lot like moving to a new house—a bit of a headache, but very exciting!

When you first start looking, there are so many choices—styles of homes, neighborhoods, amenities. Almost endless. But slowly you whittle down your possibilities to the one that fits you best, the one worth all your time and sweat. The story idea that excites you the most and has the most potential to move your career forward. After all, you will be living with both house and novel for many years to come.

Part of making your choice will be whether or not you can afford it. Can you pay the mortgage comfortably? Will the payoff for months of research and writing be worth it?

If you decide the choice is worth the effort, then the paperwork begins. For the house it’s reams of mortgage and insurance papers. For the book, it’s notebooks (or databases) filled with research, plot outlines, character sketches. Even if you are not a detailed outliner (I’m not), there’s a good amount of pre-thinking to do. Sometimes I will even write a scene or two just to get the flavor before I do any outlining or researching.

Now the house is yours. You own it. The book idea is yours. You own it. Let the unpacking begin!

At the new house, boxes are stacked everywhere. In the new story, “boxes” of information are waiting to be unpacked into the manuscript. In both cases, you have some idea of where everything will go—what room in the house and what major plot point in the story. But then comes those pesky little details. It’s easy enough to put the boxes into the right rooms. But finding a home for every little thing in the boxes can be tricky.

So you slowly sift through the boxes one at a time, uncovering gems, fitting pieces together in new ways, delighting in surprise finds. As you plow through the manuscript, your pieces of information unfold in ways you don’t expect, your characters show you new angles and surprise you with relationships you hadn’t imagined.

Not everything in the boxes will find a home. Some items you’ll pack back up and store in the attic, to be the source of nostalgia and yard sales in the future. Some tantalizing bits of your research will fail to make the cut with your novel, too. Those you can file away for use in the next novel or a short story. They won’t fetch much at a yard sale, though.

Finally, after weeks (months? years?) of toil, you are settled into your house. And your story has that solid feel that tells you it is almost “done.” You will spend time tweaking things, of course—moving a vase from dresser to mantle, changing a word here and there. Polishing, until everything is just the way you want it.

And once that’s done? Well, it’s time to move on—to another story, that is. I don’t intend to move out of my new house anytime in the foreseeable future!

Over My Head

If you read last week’s blog entry, you will know that my life of late has been hectic. I’ve been stretched way too thin, pulled in too many different directions. There are not enough hours in the day!

Hurricane Irene left me without power for 13 hours, but thankfully that was all the damage my house sustained. Still, the past several weeks have taken their toll, and I am behind on several projects.

Therefore, I do not have my normal pithy words of wisdom to share with you this week. One thing most social media experts agree on is that (if you are a writer) if the social media side of things is taking away from your writing time, you should reprioritize your writing time to come first. So this week, that is what I am doing.

I have no choice, really. I’m in over my head (which is also the title of a great YA read by Marie Lamba).

I already have an idea for next week’s post, and intend to have it for you at the regularly scheduled time!

Earthquakes, Hurricanes & Moving, Oh My!

We moved on Saturday. Chaos, of course. Boxes still hide half my stuff from me.

We have no phone or internet at the new house because Verizon was on strike. That makes online life very hard to maintain. Thankfully, we have cell phones, so at least we can make and get calls.

I had (minor) surgery on Tuesday. Told not to lift anything for 48 hours. Two days of unpacking lost. Plus, have you ever tried NOT lifting a toddler who is still in diapers, high chairs, and cribs? Yeah, that worked out well.

Then there was the earthquake. I don’t live near the epicenter in VA, but I was scared enough here in NJ. No way am I ever moving to CA. The whole house shook, everything rattled, I could feel the ground rolling under my feet! The funny thing was, I thought for a moment I had hallucinated it. I had a contractor out back working on my deck, and he didn’t even pause or look up while I was hanging onto the sofa for dear life. As soon as it stopped, I ran to the front door, but no one else was coming out of their houses. I had almost convinced myself I had imagined it, that it was some sort of side effect from the surgery, when I heard the water sloshing in the toilet bowls. I knew then it was real, because I would never have thought to imagine that detail. Besides, my daughter was upstairs in her crib screaming her head off.

So that all explains why the post is a day late.

I felt like I was living in a novel this past week – it seemed like one thing just piled on top of another, each complicating the earlier ones. Which is exactly what we want to do to our characters – pile on the problems so they don’t get a chance to breathe. If you’re at a loss as to how to up the ante, toss in an earthquake—it can happen!

And now Hurricane Irene is set to batter us. An earthquake and a hurricane in one week. Crazy stuff.

I want to know who’s writing this book I’m stuck in—I’d like to tell the author that I quit!

I should have Internet next week, and be back to business as usual. I hope you all weather Irene safely!

Post-poning

I am in the middle of moving frenzy. The big day is Saturday, and I still have a whole lot to pack! Kitchen is the current project.

I’m also waiting until the last minute to move baby girl’s toys, aniimals, and wall decorations from her room, because I want her to remain as stable and secure as possible throughout the move. She is already a little confused as to where other things in the house have gone (like the piano).

So this week’s blog will simply be a blog explaining why there is no real blog!

Next week will hopefully bring regularly scheduled programming. Except that Verizon is on strike so we have been unable to get phone or internet at the new house yet. I may have to hit a Starbuck’s to post – and I don’t even drink coffee!

Editing Your Life

I’m running around like a fool trying to pack up everything in my house because we are moving in less than two weeks. It’s not like this was a surprise, but you know how it is—you don’t jump into it until you have to because the project is almost too massive to contemplate and stay sane.

Of course, I’m not just packing. If all I was doing was dumping everything into boxes, that would be easy. But I firmly believe in not moving junk I don’t want or need to a new location. I am, after all, paying the movers by the hour so the less stuff they need to pack and unpack into the truck, the less I will pay. Besides, there is something freeing about divesting myself of old stuff with no purpose or meaning.

In essence, I am editing my life.

I am getting rid of all the stuff that once seemed important, but in hindsight is not. Of things that once meant something but no longer do. Of things that once fit me, but no longer fit who I am. Old clothes—I’m a stay at home mom whose body is a decidedly different shape than it was when I worked in an office many moons ago. Do I still need those business suits that no longer fit (and scream “Eighties!!!”)? Old paperwork—do I still need the repair history of a car I no longer own? Old memorabilia—if I can’t remember why I kept it, do I still need it? Old books—okay, I need all of them.

On the other hand, I am keeping all the things I still need. Not just the practical everyday things everyone needs, but things that are like a piece of me. A box with commemorative T-shirts. The old typed stories that were my first stab at writing. Photos. Shining mementos that bring me back to another time, that call up another human being as if they are in the same room…that recall events that made me who I am, moments of brilliance that made my life wonderful.

I couldn’t help (because I’m a geek) thinking how much like editing a book this process is. I edit to weed out the things that aren’t needed anymore. Things that may have been needed in the early draft, but now are simply dead weight. I kill my darlings. I rework prose that no longer fits the style.

And I keep the things that work. Those phrases that capture a character or place perfectly. The dialogue that sparkles. All of the gems that make the story shine and glitter. Weeding out the flotsam allows them to shine.

So weed out some unnecessary junk in your words and in your life. Let your essence burn bright, strong, and unfettered.

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