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Facing the blank canvas

blank piece of paper on a table with pens and coffee mug

© creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The ability to write anything is scary.

I liken it to being given a blank canvas and told to “Paint something.” It’s paralyzing. But if the same person gave you the canvas and said, “Paint a tree,” you’d probably think for a minute about what a tree looks like to you, and then dive in.

In that way, parameters can actually free up your creativity rather than stifling it.

Once I know how my story starts, then I know which path I’m on. I might take some unexpected detours along the way, but I’m not switching mountains halfway through. (Unless, maybe, killer plot twist?)

I’m trying to work on the next book in my Men of Steele series, and this is where I remember how messed up my process is. No matter which method I use, I end up starting the story about 50 different ways before I figure out how to get into it.

I do have a few constraints to help me out. I know I’m writing romantic suspense, and that it takes place within the world of my Men of Steele series. And I know who the hero is.

But if a character can be stubborn, Kurt Steele is the worst. I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters have control, but once they form in my mind, that’s pretty much what I’m stuck with. (See Scott Kramer of Blindsided, who came to me as a Marine scout sniper, even though I’d been researching and writing Air Force PJ heroes.)

I’ve tried to write Kurt’s book several times now, and he doesn’t cooperate. At all. This time, I’m determined to write him a happily ever after, but I may turn gray doing it.

Wish me luck!

If you’re a writer, have you ever struggled with a particular character’s story? Got any suggestions?

Getting back to writing (and giving myself a pass)

WRITE spelled out in block lettersI love writing. L-O-V-E it. The need to build a world, delve into a character’s feelings, create a mood, or explain a concept in a down-to-earth way (often with a bit of humor, and lots of em dashes and parentheses) has lived in me since at least seventh grade.

But that doesn’t mean I always sit down and do it, even when I theoretically have the time. A deployment, a new training platform, a high school graduation, my husband’s retirement from the Air Force, and a Boston-to-Sacramento move took far more of my mental energy over the last year than I expected. I got a little off track, a little out of routine, and my word count plummeted.

But now I’m out of hotels, into my home office, back on an irregular regular writing schedule, and most importantly, mentally back on track.

I’ve written on 17 of the last 18 days and produced more than 11,000 good words on my current WIP. *insert happy dance*

It feels fantastic. There is nothing like finally seeing forward progress in the story—my hero and heroine finally left the damn airport!—after months of going nowhere.

It’s more than being productive in a way that matters to me, but being immersed in my story daily, even if just for fifteen minutes. That daily attention keeps the ideas rolling in, and makes it easier to take advantage of the small gaps in my day where I can fit in a few words, because I haven’t forgotten where my characters are. Or who they are. Writing frequently brings back the joy I had when I first started.

That joy is worth more than gold. (Well, except you can’t buy books with it. Sigh.)

This is a lesson I seem to have to learn over and over, unfortunately.

But another lesson I’ve learned recently (also, again) is that sometimes I need to turn off the pressure valve and simply enjoy the distractions in my life. The last year has been crazy busy, but full of other moments that brought joy, some of them the last with my youngest son before he goes to college. Before we become empty nesters.

Before I theoretically have a lot more time to write. Again.

What gets in the way of your writing? How do you turn things around?

Finishing the book

The_End_BookIn the last two calendar years I wrote 245,000 words of fiction without completing a single novel.

In fact, until Monday, I hadn’t written “The End”—actually I don’t write that anyway—on a fiction manuscript since I finished the first draft of Blind Fury in December 2011.

Which makes Monday’s finish of the first draft of Blind Justice kind of a big deal!

I was starting to wonder if I still had what it takes to write a book to its full conclusion. I’d done it before, plenty of times—in fact, Blind Fury was my fourth completed manuscript—but just not lately.

It wasn’t writer’s block, more like a lack of clear focus.

Scrivener For Dummies provided a distraction for a good part of 2011, but even after that I was all over the place. I started a follow-up to BF, but then worried that maybe I should write something that wasn’t linked, just in case BF didn’t sell.

Then I got to a certain point and felt like I wasn’t at a place in my writing where I could do that story justice, so I started something completely different.

I was halfway through that second something when I decided I was going to forge my own path and dive into self-publishing.

Instant focus.

The series is king, which meant it was time to return to the Blind Fury follow-up and drop the manuscript I’d put over 30K into. It’s amazing how knowing what you want, and what you need to do to get there, makes all the difference.

So, now I finally have that fifth manuscript under my belt, and a sixth one halfway done.

My advice? If you’ve never finished a book, pick a story, stick with it, and finish it. Don’t be distracted by the plot bunnies. Capture them somewhere—Evernote maybe?—and get back to work.

You don’t have to love the first draft—that’s what revisions and editors are for—you just have to get to the end. It’s a lot easier to write half a story than a whole one. Until you complete one, you’ll never know if you can.

And once you do, you’ll have the confidence that you can do it again.

Oh, and I’d recommend not waiting two years to make it happen. 😉

Image credit: By EWikist at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Igniting the writing

LitMatchMy writing brain is on fire! In a good way.

It’s because of NaNoWriMo. One of the things I like best about participating is that it reminds me of a few key points that I seem to forget over the course of the year.

For example, when I’m stuck on a current or future plot point, I tend to quit writing and brainstorm until I figure it out. This sometimes means days or even weeks of not writing. During NaNo, however, I have to keep going or I’ll never meet my goal.

And a funny thing happens.

The more I write, the more ideas I have, and the easier they come.

This month the plot bunnies have been multiplying like, well, bunnies in my mind. I’ve been waking up with new visions for my storyline, thinking of story concepts while walking the dog, and solving character dilemmas while driving in my car.

When I first started writing—and couldn’t wait to sit down to do it every day—this happened to me all the time. I was full-to-bursting with ideas on where to take my stories. Somewhere along the way I lost my trust in that process, and I lost the constant flow of revelations.

Pushing myself through NaNoWriMo reminds me that my brain works best when I’m writing.

Sure, I may go off on tangents, and I may end up cutting a lot of what I write later, but that’s okay. If that’s the price of the ideas I need, I’ll take it. And often, even what gets cut becomes useful down the road. If nothing else, it’s practice.

The other thing this challenge always reminds me is that I can write more than I think I can.

On a normal day, I might reach 1000 words and feel like I can’t do much more. Or I might get stumped after writing 876 words and decide it’s a good spot to quit while I ponder what should come next. But since I now need to produce more words to meet the 50K goal, somehow I just push through the 1K barrier, I force myself to write through the tough spot.

And you know what? I can. Every. Time.

Someone remind me of that when January rolls around and I’m struggling again. 😉

These are some of the reasons I participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s about much more than getting down 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s about reigniting my writing.

What about you? Any lessons learned—or relearned—from NaNoWriMo so far?

Image credit: Match: By Sebastian Ritter (Rise0011) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Retreat from solitude

J.T. Bock and me

J.T. Bock and me

Writing is often a solitary profession, and though the Internet can provide us with the networking and learning opportunities we need, nothing compares to getting out and mingling with other writers.

I spent the weekend at my local RWA chapter’s annual retreat in a cute college town in Maryland. The mini-conference eats up precious time with my family and a nice little chunk of change, but it’s worth it. Just knowing that you’re in a room full of people who “get” you is valuable. Not to mention the ideas that start pinging around in my head as we discuss our craft, our stories, and our struggles.

Editors and agents become real people—rather than sources of fear and stress—as we sit next to them during lunch, or share cookies and life stories with them after a mean game of Romance Jeopardy.

Bestselling authors share their long road to success, their fight to stay relevant, and the self-doubt that never seems to fade, no matter how many books you sell. We are not alone. Every fear we harbor, every doubt that plagues us, every nasty rejection we receive is part of the process that thousands of published writers have faced before us.

Like a hazing ritual that you must endure if you’re serious about making a living at this crazy profession, it would seem even the best writers have suffered for their success.

Of course, conferences are not just about tales of commiseration and lessons on better pacing or dialogue. There’s fun too. Meeting friends you’d only known online, making new acquaintances, talking to an editor or agent without the strain of trying to pitch to him or her.

Some of my favorite moments this year:

– The epiphany I had while trying to answer questions about the barriers between my hero and heroine during a workshop presented by Kathleen Gilles Seidel and Pam Regis, Ph.D.

– Hanging out with Christopher Keeslar, Editor in Chief at Boroughs Publishing Group, an incredibly well-respected editor in romance, and a super nice guy.

– Learning that publishers (traditional, and especially e-publishers) are realizing they have to compete with the ease of self-publishing. They’re now trumpeting their rights reversion clauses, marketing, and editorial quality.

– Spending time with writer friends old and new, which always gets my creativity flowing and buoys my flagging motivation.

Do you go to conferences or belong to a writing group? Why?

My big, scary goal

I couldn’t talk blithely about my goals today without stopping to mention the tragedy in Boston yesterday. My heart hurts for all those affected. It also swells at the stories and pictures of those who raced in to help just seconds after the bombs went off. After such devastation, we need a reminder that most people still care about their fellow humans.

♥♥♥

Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can. ~ Unknown

LadderLast week I talked about being bold and setting big goals. Not just big, but scary goals that represent what you really want out of life in the long term.

Since I’ve been challenging you, I figured it’s only fair that I set my own goals and share them here. Talk about scary. If I put my goals on the Internet for everyone to see and then fail…

Here goes. My overarching goal:

To make enough money from my teaching and writing activities that my husband can quit working when he’s eligible to retire from the Air Force in 2016.

(Excuse me while I go breathe into a paper bag for a minute.)

That’s my big, scary goal. It used to be just a dream, something that would hopefully happen one day after I finally got published. But wishing for something—which often means you think it can’t really happen—does not get help me get things done. Nor does it help me figure out which path to take. Goals, on the other hand, can be broken down into progressively smaller pieces until you get to something you can start today.

I’m already making some money from teaching—and from Scrivener For Dummies—but I really want to generate income from my fiction. With that in mind, I started thinking about the best way to do that.

Keep working toward traditional publication, or self-publish?

Even a year ago, this would have been a no-brainer for me. New York all the way, baby! But times have changed. While I would love to be on bookstore shelves—if there are any left in a few years—and would love the ego stroke that getting a traditional publishing deal would bring, I don’t need either one to consider myself successful. Neither is a guarantee that the money would follow.

So, my plan is to self-publish. I think for all but the best writers among us there’s more money to be made going it alone.

That said, I don’t want to self-publish just because I’m not good enough to get a deal. I’ve seen enough work by authors who should have waited a few years to upload their books to Amazon, and I hope to not be one of them. But the kind of feedback I’ve been getting tells me I’m close. With a little help from an editor, I hope readers will never even notice my book doesn’t come from Avon, Signet, or St. Martin’s.

Am I averse to risk? Oh, yes. But there are different types of risk. While I’m loath to plop down the cash (that I might never earn back) for an editor and book cover designer, I’m even more worried about giving up my rights indefinitely to a publisher.

I also like to be in control. By self-publishing I can choose my covers, titles, release dates, book lengths, and story lines. For better or worse, success or failure is all on me.

(Where’d I put that paper sack again?)

By defining my ultimate goal, and determining that I intend to reach it by self-publishing, something dramatic happened. My daily priorities changed drastically.

I dropped my current WIP cold. It doesn’t fit with my new plan to release a trilogy in the spring of 2014, so it had to be pushed aside so I can work on revisions for the first book in the series and get to work finishing book two.

Without defining my goals so carefully, I would have kept pushing really hard—25,000 words in January, for example—on the wrong thing. Productive, yes. Helpful, no.

I can now make more informed decisions about how to utilize my time.

Sign up for editor/agent pitch appointments at a conference? Nope.

Read a blog post on writing great query letters? Pass.

Take a class on self-publishing? Sign me up.

See? A month ago, the answers to those questions would have been very different. There’s the real value of creating specific goals and plans for achieving them.

There’s no guarantee I’ll succeed, anymore than there was ever a guarantee I’d get a publishing contract. But at least I know I’ll be heading in the right direction.

Photo credit: By SOIR (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The best bad grade I ever got

Dgrade

Want one?

During the second quarter of my freshman year of high school, I got a “D” in a class I easily could have aced: physical education (PE).

Why? Because I let myself be swayed by a friend.

She was perpetually late for class, and begged me to wait for her while she finished dressing out. So we were both late. Even though I liked running, I walked with her when our class did laps because she didn’t want to be alone.

Peer pressure, especially in those teen years, is a bitch.

But that poor grade was a gift. A wake-up call.

Sad as it is, the “D” gave me an excuse to be myself again without losing a friend. (Whether I should call her a friend or not is a discussion for another day.) Now when she was running late, I just told her I couldn’t risk another bad grade and left the locker room. And I could play the grade card when it was time to run laps.

I actually liked PE. Never a star at any particular sport, I was a decent general athlete, and I enjoyed playing sports. I even dove into third base during a PE softball game at the cost of half the skin on my lower leg. But I made it. 😉

The fact that I liked the class makes it even worse that I needed any kind of excuse to do what I really wanted. But as teenagers—and sometimes as adults—we often need a reason to justify why we won’t “be cool” or go with the crowd.

You should see the looks I sometimes get when people find out I don’t like to drink alcohol or that I don’t eat food from that comes from animals. They’re the kind of looks that have me conjuring up excuses in my head to defend myself. It’s a struggle not to use them. I don’t want to care about the opinions of people who don’t have my best interests at heart. And really, does anyone but me?

Ever since that I received that poor grade, I’ve tried to be more true to myself, without excuses.

There’s been a lot of talk in some of my writing groups lately about the reaction of friends and family to our stories. Romance writers often include—gasp!—sex in their books. If it’s done well, it’s not gratuitous, but enhances the emotional connection and increases the conflict between the characters. It raises the stakes and gives the reader an intimate glimpse into the hero and heroine’s changing attitudes toward each other during an act where they’re emotionally and physically vulnerable.

Every writer needs to stick with their own comfort level, but I don’t believe you can write stories that really resonate if you’re worrying about what your mother, brother, sister-in-law, or kids will think of your writing. As if our inner critic isn’t harsh enough, now we need to add the voices of the people around us?

Whether they dislike the sex, swearing, graphic violence, or your character’s political views, they’re not your target reader. Their opinions really shouldn’t matter.

Easier said than done, I know.

And for now, if you need an excuse—your own “D” to wave around when someone tries to push you down a path you don’t want to go—make something up. (I tell my kids I’ll be their excuse any time.)

Tell the naysayers you’ll never sell a book in your genre if it doesn’t have X in it. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent or editor, use them the way kids use parents. “Well, my agent advised…”

And maybe, eventually, you’ll be strong enough to own what you write, embrace it, and be bold enough that everybody’s talking about it. Personally, I’m still working on it.

Like a friend and bestselling author recently told me with regard to her writing, “You want people to love it or hate it, not say, ‘Eh.’”

Is there something in your life you need a “D” for?