Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Writer's Greatest Gift

I've been posting a lot here lately about my editing goals and how I'd like to have a draft finished for critique/queries by March 1. A few weeks ago I ended a post with a little *hint* to my husband that this Christmas, the best gift for me would be time.

Turns out, he actually reads this thing. Who knew?

And guess what? He did give me time for Christmas. He literally wrapped it into a package. (OK, maybe he didn't literally wrap time into a package. But he did figure out a way to put "the gift of time" under our tree.) Hopefully he won't mind if I share his awesomeness with you....

Inside a gift bag were 15 tokens. (Actual tokens, like the ones you used in the ski ball machine when you were a kid. I have no idea where my husband got tokens.) Along with the tokens was a small cardboard "sign" with this headline: Payment Plan for Book Editing Time. Under the headline were two columns, one labeled "coins" and one labeled "product." Under the "coins" column were numbers. Under the "product" column were units of time each number of coins buys.

So, for example, two coins buys uninterrupted editing time that starts at 8 p.m. - meaning he cleans up after dinner and handles our son's bathtime and bedtime. Four coin buys four hours of uninterrupted time, any time, no questions asked. Ten coins buys an entire Saturday. And so on. And when I run out of coins, the system resets.

I asked him how long this gift would be in effect, and he answered, "Until you're finished revising the book."

Seriously, people. How awesome is the man I married???

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For the Love of Reading

How many times have we heard it said that as writers, we must also be readers? And that's true, of course. But it's also true that as writers, we must read differently than other readers. We read not merely for the love of reading, but for the education and challenge of it.

I don't know about you, but now that I'm writing fiction, reading other writers' work can be pretty intimidating. It brings to the surface all those "am I good enoughs?" and "what the hell am I thinkings?" I tend to struggle with. I've come to realize, though, that those feelings of doubt and insecurity are a good thing, because they're what challenge me and drive me forward. I read, and it makes me want to write. I write, and it makes me want to read. And all of it makes me want to write better ... and makes me realize I can.
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I read a great passage recently in a blog post by Maud Newton at The Millions. She articulated beautifully this idea of reading as a catalyst to better writing:

"When I’m writing, really writing, I read selfishly. Not only do I want to be awestruck, I want to be driven to write better — as well as I possibly can — and I want to feel that the book I’m reading, however superior to my own work, shows me how I might do that. I want it to lead by example."

Yes! Well said. Bring on the insecurity! Bring on the self-doubt! Because along with it comes the burning desire to write more, to write better, to hone my craft.

There's a flip side to this, though. Reading for reading's sake is a different animal than reading for writing's sake. When I'm reading for pure enjoyment, for the pure love of words, I can lose myself entirely in a story. I'm not mindful of where the author decides to place a modifier or why she chooses an em-dash instead of a semi-colon. I don't think, "Oh, what a brilliant sentence," or "Ooh, I wouldn't have used that word there." But now that I'm writing, I can't help that.

I'm not saying I can't still lose myself in a great book. But I also can't lose my critical eye, even if I try.

I read a really good book a few weeks ago (which I won't name in order to avoid spoiling it for anybody else) and was having one of those book-in-one-hand, spoon-stirring-pot-on-stove-in-the-other-hand moments - I couldn't put it down. Here I was, living in this world the author had created, feeling what the characters felt, cringing in anticipation of the inevitable disaster. Then right when the story reached its pinnacle, when the inevitable happened and the tension was at its most tense, the author broke in with a narrator-esque, sing-songey speech to the reader, waxing poetic about the characters and their fates. It very nearly ruined the book for me because it pulled me so abruptly from the story. The funny thing is, though, I don't think I'd even have noticed it if it weren't for this critical eye I've developed through writing.

It's an occupational hazard, for sure, and one I was already familiar with. For years I haven't been able to read a newspaper or magazine story without mentally editing it, and since going to design school I can't simply sit and enjoy my surroundings without rearranging them in my head. It's not an ego thing. (Struggling with self-doubt and insecurity, remember?) It just is.

Again, I think it's a good thing. As writers, we have to be aware. Aware of our surroundings, aware of human behaviors, aware of words and how each individual writer shapes them. It helps us discover our own shape, I think. Our own voice.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Real Goal. Really.

All right, I'm just gonna put this out there: I want to have a final draft of my WIP ready by March 1.
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I need a goal, so I'm setting one. So there. And even though it's a personal deadline (and I've blogged in the past that I'm not so great with "fake" deadlines), I'm going to see it through.

Why the sudden, dogged determination?

Easy. I've decided it's time to get serious with myself. I'm excited about this book and I'm ready to start the abusive process of querying it out. And I want to start a new book. I have several ideas in various stages of progress and I'm anxious to get moving on them.

Plus, as I've mentioned here before, I think chronologically. I can't do two things at once, period, and that includes writing two books at once. I have to finish a project before starting another one. (Ask me how I juggle freelance writing projects with a design career and a 4-year-old. I really have no answer.) .

Revising my first novel has been a long, slow, sometimes painful process. I finished writing the first draft around March. After a solid read-through and line edit, I put it down. I let a few people read it. I mulled over their feedback. Meanwhile, I kept living with my characters, letting their thoughts interrupt my thoughts on a daily basis, the same way they did while I was writing. Eventually, I reopened the document. I hammered out a new first chapter, then kept going. I made big changes and small changes while plodding through the manuscript (of course) chapter by chapter.
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And that's where I am now - roughly halfway through this process of revising and tightening, cutting and recreating. I'm on the precipice of a major change for my main character (I'll be blogging about that soon) and I'm also at a point where my momentum is high. When I'm not working on revisions, I'm thinking about revisions. I'm jotting down notes related to revisions. The Post-Its are stacking up again like they did while I was in the thick of writing.
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I guess that's why I'm setting this goal - I want to capitalize on my momentum. I feel like this process of perfecting and recreating could get unwieldy, and I don't want to fall into the trap of overediting. The changes I'm making are ones I've thought through very carefully after months of planning, pondering my beta reader feedback, reading all the fiction I can get my hands on and studying craft (which for me has meant reading blogs, interacting with other writers and reading and re-reading a fantastic book on editing).
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So basically, it's time to make a move. Either I'm going to attempt to become a published author or I'm not. And let me just go on the record right now to say I am. I want this. I do. And I realize a lot of other people want it, too, and it might not happen, but it won't be because I haven't put everything I have into it.
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So, March 1. And this blog is my accountability partner. By that date - which I'm marking on my calendar in permanent ink with all my other writing deadlines - I'll have a final draft ready, if not for querying (after all this work, I don't want to jump the gun), then at least for serious critique.
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I promise to keep you posted.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Own Worst Frenemy

The single greatest and single worst thing about being self-employed is having total ownership of my time.

Back when I had a full-time day job, I prided myself on not taking it home with me. I got my work done between the hours of 9 and 5, then I hightailed it out of the office and went home to my nights of housework and Must-See TV and whatever else occupied the post-5pm hours of my (very non-industrious) 20s. I barely turned on a computer outside the office because, after staring at a screen all day, every day, why would I have spent my free time doing the same thing? The thought of working outside the Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 realm was abhorrent to me.

Enter 2010. This week, my schedule looked like this: Monday, work from home. Fit in a little housework, a little fiction writing, a little reading here and there when my deadlines allowed. Pay for it by working straight up until 7 pm-ish. Tuesday, work from home between 10 and 2:45 while kid at preschool. Wednesday, ditto Monday, only leave a little work unfinished and vow to get it done by end of weekend. Thursday, work at (design firm) office from 10 to 5. Friday, fit in work around mommying wherever I can. Drop kid off at in-laws long enough to squeeze in design client presentation. Saturday, unplug. Sunday, reluctantly drive out into the cold for pre-church story interview. Feel guilt over Wednesday's unfinished work that did not, in fact, get done by end of weekend.

Then blog about it all at 1:30am while, of all things, procrastinating on the WIP.

And thank God and my lucky stars that this is my life now. If there's one lesson I've learned in my career so far, it's that no job is perfect ... not even one where I'm making up the rules. Sure, maybe as I get better at this freelance career thing I'll find ways to fit more work into the 9 to 5 hours and less in my free time, but if not, I'm not too worried about it - because I'm able to fit free time into my 9 to 5 hours.

That's a beautiful thing.

Maybe back in the day I didn't physically take work home with me, but the 9 to 5 drone numbed my brain and zapped my creativity - hence the nights of Must-See TV. Plus I carried the stress of my job on my shoulders at all times. Now, I definitely wouldn't say my career is stress-free (especially on those rare Sunday nights when I'm sweating till the wee hours over a Monday morning deadline), but I have built-in mechanisms to deal with the stress.

Like taking a time-out for a cup of tea in my own living room in the middle of the workday. Or snagging a day off for a play-date with my son without eating into my measly two weeks' vacation time. Or choosing to go light on assignments one week because I'm busy or tired. Or writing, because I love it so much I can do it all day and still look forward to opening the WIP at 11pm when the house is finally quiet.

Yep, I can be my own worst frenemy work-wise. But I love my work for the first time in my career.

Photo courtesy Scott Cranfill

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Name Is Stacey, and I'm a Writer

I took a big step over the weekend without even realizing I was doing it. Somebody asked what I do, and I replied, "I'm a writer."

Now, you might be saying, "Um, yeah. Of course you're a writer. You write this blog. And it's about writing."

But in my career thus far - depite the fact that I've done newspaper writing, magazine writing, corporate writing, PR writing, ad copywriting, even script writing - I'm pretty sure I've never referred to myself as a "writer." All those jobs came with another title: reporter, editor, communications specialist, etc., etc. But the fact of the matter is, every professional job I've ever had has included some type of writing in the job description - even my job as an interior designer. (Somebody has to write the press releases and website copy.)

So why is it so hard for a writer to own the title?

Honestly, I'd never given the subject a minute's thought until I started writing fiction. And that's where the difficulty comes in. It isn't hard to admit I write. Pretty much everybody who knows me knows I write - especially since I've hit up pretty much every friend and acquaintance in my contact list for a quote at some point.

But not many people know I write fiction. In fact, even this blog is on the down-low. I don't link to it on Facebook (and shudder at the thought). I do link to it on Twitter, but only on the super-secret Twitter account (actually it's my only public Twitter account, but that's beside the point) created specifically to interact with other writers.

It's OK for strangers to know I write, just not friends.

What's that about? Fear of failure, I guess? Like, if people know I'm writing a book, they might ask me how the book's going, or whether it's published yet, or even worse, whether I've thought about self-publishing (not that there's anything wrong with that) like their uncle's cousin's best friend did. And I'm a pretty private person, so the thought of answering those questions is kind of mortifying.

But there are other, more benign reasons for my covert behavior. Like, I figured my friends who do know I'm writing fiction (and who are now being hit up to read said fiction) were probably sick to death of hearing about it. That was my main motivation for starting this blog and creating my Twitter account - to give myself an outlet for discussing the HUGE part of my life that is writing without systematically driving away all my friends.

I don't know when I'm going to feel comfortable owning the title of writer. When a work of fiction is published with my name on it? When I'm actually able to make a decent living solely through my wordsmithing capabilities? When I get over myself and just admit that this is what I do and who I am?

Step One: admitting there's a problem....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What I Write ... & Why

I just finished reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which is a fantastic piece of literature. It got me thinking about the genres I like to read, the way I write and how the two things relate. I don't tend to stick to one genre, but I do prefer fiction over most forms of non-fiction, and I do read a lot of books aimed at a female audience, whether classic or contemporary.

My own writing style falls somewhere in the land of contemporary women's fiction. It's tough for me to draw a comparison for my work, largely because I don't feel bold enough yet to hold my work up to other, credentialed, actually published authors. Plus the manuscript I'm working on is my first manuscript, and it's still morphing and growing and changing.

Still, I know I have a style that's all my own. All writers do, I think, and it shines through our work whether we embrace it, flaunt it, stifle it or attempt to altogether mask it. Trying to disguise your writing voice, I think, would be like trying to disguise your true personality to win a million bucks on Survivor. People have tried it, and the results have been comical at best, humiliating at worst.

We can't hide who we are, even on the written page. Even when we become someone else.

That doesn't mean our characters all reflect us. It doesn't mean our plots or subplots or snippets of our dialogue are plucked from our daily lives, though they sometimes are. It just means that pieces of ourselves are, necessarily, sprinkled throughout our work, and if they're not ... well, that work will be disengenuous at best, unappealing at worst.

Because the reader can tell.

I think a savvy reader can absolutely tell when a writer is trying to be something he/she is not. And I think that's why there's so much advice out there along the lines of "write what you know" and so many writers who say they "write the types of books they like to read." That's what I do. It doesn't mean I shouldn't challenge myself. It doesn't mean I shouldn't stretch outside my comfort zone and better my technique and exercise my writing muscles in new ways. But I don't want to write a certain way or in a certain genre or in a certain style or point of view simply because it's what other people are doing or because it might gain me more respect in certain circles.

And yet I second-guess myself a lot. I struggle with those "am I good enough" issues I think a lot of writers struggle with. And right now, as anyone knows who's reading this thing, I'm struggling with revisions. I'm in the phase of novel-writing that entails writing in a certain way or in a certain genre or in a certain style or point of view because it's what might sell or what other people might want to read.

Trying to figure out exactly what that means has been the hardest part of this journey for me so far, mainly because writing is so personal. I want my novel to reflect my voice, my style, my genuine self - and most of all I want it to be the story I want to tell.

I also want it to be published. And those things war against each other in innumerable ways.

Oh, geez. am I overthinking this again? Maybe I just need to shut up and write.