I’ve been agonizing over the decision of whether or not to keep this blog. I haven’t posted in quite a while. That’s mostly due to the fact that I started studying social media and platform building for writers. And so this blog started to look like a glaring mistake. I’d pretty much decided to trash it and start a new one. After all, this one hasn’t been around long, hasn’t developed much of a following yet. It’d be easy to just pretend that I’d done it all right from the beginning– start fresh, shiny and new.
Then, Thursday morning, I found out that my grandfather died. He went out for his morning walk and didn’t return. They searched for him and found only his body. Everything else that made him him was never coming back. He was less than two months shy of his ninety-second birthday.
He was a happy, fun-loving man. He was independent in spirit and always smiling. My fondest memories are of him in his little beige truck, the bed filled with fishing gear. I remember playing along the edge of the water as he and my father fished for hours on end, barely talking, soaking up the sun. He was solid, self-assured.
I am sad that my grandfather is no longer with us, but I can’t say that I feel a particular loss. He lived a long, eventful, fruitful life. And I don’t think anyone could ask for much more. So, I won’t dwell on his death. I choose, instead, to focus on the way he chose to live his life.
With that said, I feel an overwhelming need to let go of perfectionism. As unrealistic and deflating as perfectionism can be, it has been a pursuit of mine for longer than I can remember. At times it was a conscious pursuit, but mostly it wasn’t. It’s manifested itself in more ways than I can count. The most recent being my itch to give this blog the axe.
Even now, the idea of keeping a public record of what feels like a mistake to me, makes my stomach turn. It’s silly. I know that no one is perfect and that mistakes are a part of living. Yet, somehow my standards for myself have always been higher than those held for others. The side effect has been the unwillingness to take the risks necessary to pursue my dreams.
My granddaddy always did the things that made him happy because that’s what made life worth living. I have generally been doing what’s easiest instead doing what works or what really makes me happy. I think its time I followed in the footsteps the great man I’ll always love. To celebrate the life of David Early Sr., I choose to let perfectionism die.
The first step– the blog stays.
Been slacking in the post department lately. So, I decided to just post about what I’m doing right now. I recently read Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell which is easily the best book on plot that I’ve read thus far. I love creating characters and cultures, writing dialogue, and setting up conflict. Plotting isn’t my favorite part of writing and books on the subject usually make my eyes glaze over.
James Scott Bell’s approach to the subject is different. The book reads less like a college text and more like the transcript of a lecture from your favorite teacher. You know the one who made you feel smart and capable. She/he broke everything down into manageable chunks that you easily understood. The teacher gave you tips and systems that you still use. And somehow, she/he did it all while keeping you entertained. Priceless, right? I borrowed the book from the library, but it’s one that I’ll purchase for my reference shelf.
To get a deeper understanding of plotting, James Scott Bell recommends a plot drill. It involves reading six books,of the style you like to write, then analyzing the plots scene by scene. Bell admits that it’s hella work, but swears its worth it. *Folds arms and raises an eyebrow.* I’m choosing to take his word for it. I’m sure this drill will be highly beneficial. If not, I can always twitter-stalk him with my complaints.
Since, I write both fantasy and paranormal romance, I’m taking three books from each category to analyze.
For paranormal romance-
- A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton
- Undead and Unwed by Mary Janice Davidson
- Edge of Hunger by Rhyannon Byrd
- Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson
- Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip
- Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
I chose two of my favorite authors (Hamilton and Sanderson), three that I really respect (Butcher,Davidson,McKillip) and one that I’ve never read before (Byrd). Half the reading is done. Enjoying the focus this drill requires. Looking forward to what I’ll learn from it.
What’s your experience? Have you done this drill or some other that really helped your writing?
The lovely Amy Sundberg wrote a great blog on the role desperation can play in undermining your goals. It really stuck with me. There’s no doubt that we want what we want, and we want it NOW. Ahhhh…. the lure of instant gratification, also known as “The Dream Killer.” While it is important to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, you can’t let that vision blind you to all else.
Desperation is the dark side of ambition. It’s the side that scares small children and little old ladies. It’s the side that brings out ugly characteristics like crazy and lazy. Crazy and lazy are desperation’s hellhounds, sent to slow or halt progress altogether.
When crazy bites, a toxin seeps into your blood stream. You become a puppet with crazy holding your strings. You’ll do pretty much anything to get what you want despite the consequences. Hello impaired judgement! Crazy will make you call someone at two-minute intervals until the person answers. Crazy will make you eat cabbage soup for a week to lose five pounds before your high school reunion. Crazy will make you pay obscene amounts of money for headshots from a kiosk at the mall. Enough said.
Lazy, on the other hand, is more of a trickster. Lazy will convince you that you are a prodigy just waiting to be discovered. It says, “You don’t need voice lessons. Audition for American Idol. Again.” Lazy implores you to cut corners. “Send out those stories. They don’t need revision.” Lazy makes you feel like there’s not enough time to get it all done. “Haven’t worked out in years? It doesn’t mater. Take that three-hour kickboxing class every day this week. You’ll see results faster. No pain. No gain.”
So what do you do when crazy and lazy are nipping at your heels?
That’s easy enough. Ignore the sycophants. Take out the big boss. Desperation. If you are feeling overwhelmed by desperation. It can only mean one thing …
“YOUR FOCUS NEEDS MORE FOCUS.”
In the 2010 version of The Karate Kid, the student, Dre, sees a woman who charms a snake. She stands on a ledge, strikes a fearsome pose, then uses only her inner reserve and the hypnotic rocking of her head back and forth to keep the snake’s attention. The snake mimics her every move. So does Dre. He’s fascinated by what he sees.
During his next lesson, Dre tells his mentor that he wants to do what the woman did. The mentor, Mr. Han, tells him to focus on the lesson at hand. Dre only wants to learn what he saw and continues to babble about it. It doesn’t matter that he’s just beginning to learn Kung Fu and that move requires mastery. It doesn’t matter that he has a tournament to prepare for or risk daily beatdowns by the neighborhood bullies. Dre is focused—on the wrong thing.
That’s what can happen to us all. Somewhere along the journey, you become captivated by something bright and shiny. You forget where you were going or how to get there. Maybe you decided to use someone else’s map and you can’t make it out. The point is, you have to regroup.
In the movie, Mr. Han does something drastic to get Dre’s attention (see pic above). He guides Dre gently back to the present moment and the day’s lesson. Han utters that brilliant line, “Your focus needs more focus.” Then he continues with the drills Dre needs to become proficient at Kung Fu and to meet the challenges ahead of him.
If you don’t have someone to keep you grounded, then YOU have to be your own Mr. Han. Slow down. Give yourself a good shake if need be. Break major goals down to smaller, manageable ones. Bring your focus back to what you can do right now. Don’t think too far ahead. Celebrate the little successes and don’t forget to have fun. It’s hard to feel desperate when you’re having a good time.
I had a discussion with a writer friend of mine. We tend to be polar opposites in many ways and the pursuit of writing is no different. We both have the big dream, publishing regularly and successfully enough to kick the dreaded day job to the curb. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends.
Our main point of contention is whether or not reading books on craft is really worth the effort. My answer is an enthusiastic yes. Hers is a skeptical not so much. She gave me the side eye when I told her that I read craft books so that I know what I’m doing. She argued that those same books hinder creativity.
I can see her point. There are so many writing rules that one can become overwhelmed. And then there is that tendency to accept all those rules as absolutes (which they aren’t). Or the desire to adopt some expert’s writing process because it worked for them. They made x amount of dollars doing it that way. It should work for me too. Right? Right?
Pitfalls, yes, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. How much creativity does one need to suck at writing? Or to be mediocre? Creativity cannot be short-circuited by studying actual technique. It can only be enhanced by it. All the imagination and creativity in the world is useless without the skill to effectively tell a story.
When I was pursuing an MFA, one of my professors told me to “stop resting on talent, and study your craft.” I hated her for it at the time. I felt picked on, but now I know better. It was the most sincere and most useful writing advice I’ve gotten to date. It’s not enough to be talented. It’s not enough to be creative. It’s a publishing jungle out there!
Talent+ Creativity-Skill= A Short-lived writing career (if it ever gets off the ground)
Sure, there are other ways to learn craft. However, there are few that are so readily available , fewer as cheap (break out your library card), and none so adaptable to your own pace. I’m lazy. I don’t want to spend hours toiling away, trying to figure out on my own what I could have learned easily from picking up a book or two. I’m grateful for the kick in pants that professor gave me. Otherwise, I’d still be clinging to my delusions of grandeur.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Okay, so this week I devoured the first two books in Mary Janice Davidson’s Betsy Taylor series. I’m officially a fan!
Undead and Unwed was absolutely hilarious. I admit that I hated the main character at first. Betsy Taylor is vain, self-absorbed, and more than a little ditzy. The girl makes you question her intelligence at nearly every turn. She is easy to hate, but give her more than a cursory glance and you’ll find some redeeming qualities. Betsy is also compassionate, observant, and smart-mouthed. She speaks her mind. You’ve got to love a woman who knows who she is and is unapologetic about it. Betsy Taylor is no shrinking violet for sure.
Of course, Mary Janice Davidson puts our little Betsy through the wringer (as every author should manhandle their protagonists). Betsy loses her job, dies in a car accident, and wakes up super thirsty. She can’t keep down any of her favorite foods. Some of her family friends are happy to see her and others…well not so much. To make matters worse, she may in fact be the long foretold vampire queen, a possibility that comes with its own mixed bag of goodies. All in all, a quick and entertaining read.
Book two, Undead and Unemployed, was a strong follow-up. I won’t get into the details here. I’ll just say that Betsy continues to make me shake my head and laugh out loud. She’s still totally annoying, but thoroughly interesting. Nothing but respect for MJD. There is a special place in author heaven for writers who make the unlikable characters relatable, and therefore readable. Not such an easy task.
“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” -Walt Disney
I got this quote in an email this week and it has stuck with me. I’d like to think that I have the courage to pursue writing with everything I have. Though sometimes I wonder.
Last night, I told my best friend that she was a better writer than me. Today, I had to question that. Is that really an honest assessment? Or is that just negative self-talk meant to make me turn from my path? Sure, she has some skills that I have yet to acquire. But I have my own strengths as well. So, I have to go with the latter. It was fear talking. Fear that my writing sucks. Fear that I’m wasting my time. Fear that this is as good as it gets, and I wont’ get any better.
Fear can talk you out of something before you even get started. It happens to me all the time. It takes skill to distinguish your own voice from that of your inner fraidy cat. It’s a good thing that the absence of fear isn’t required for the presence of courage.
I believe that Walt was absolutely right. So, I’m moving forward fear or no fear.
How does fear show up in your writing life?
I’ve never really been one to reread books,even when I LOVE them. There are copies of books that have been sitting on my shelves for years. I look at their spines, and the memories of reading them make me smile: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, too many others to name. I’ve just never had the urge to crack the covers of these books again.
This week I found myself rereading a book I read fairly recently, Laurell K. Hamilton’s A Kiss of Shadows. I’d checked it out for my roomie, but she never got to it. I don’t know if it was the looming deadline or the fact that I don’t own the book that made me go there. But I did. Two days before it was due back at the library, I found myself sucked back into Merry Gentry’s world. It was almost as if I hadn’t been there before. The juicy parts were still juicy. The funny parts were still funny. And my mouth still fell open at the jaw-dropping parts. Good times.
Still, there were quite a few new experiences as well. I was able to give the book a much closer reading. Of course, there were things that I completely missed the first time. But I was more intrigued by looking at the writing from a technical standpoint. I got a much better grasp on how LKH weaves description and backstory into her work. I became aware of the subtle, but effective foreshadowing that was lost during the first read. And then there was steady building of characters without slowing the pace of the story. All good lessons. Hmm, I’m thinking I should break open some other oldie-but-goodies and see what I can learn.
Borders recently filed for bankruptcy and one of our local stores is closing. I’ve gone to the store for the last two weekends looking for deals. The bookworms have come out in full effect. Each time the store has been packed. I guess those everything-must-go sales will do that.
Last week, I spent most of my shopping time looking at writing books. This week I focused more on fiction. As I browsed the shelves, there were two books that really caught my eye. I wasn’t particularly interested in reading either of them. In fact, I didn’t even crack the covers on them. What stood out was the authors’ names, Lauren Conrad and Snooki Polizzi.
Those names belong to two of MTV’s most popular reality tv stars. That got me to thinking about all the blogs I’ve been reading lately about why all writers should spend time building a platform. It makes you more attractive to publishers. Now, I’m not going to say anything about the talents of these two young ladies. (Though what’s the likelihood that they actually wrote those books?) I will say that I doubt either of them would have gotten contracts without the notoriety they gained from being on tv.
For those of us that aren’t fist pumping on Jersey Shore, that means we have to find other ways to build a following. Enter social media. Facebook, Twitter and the like have become the author’s way to connect, build a brand, and sometimes land a contract. I’ve known about marketing with social media for a while. I just never thought of it in terms of writing fiction. Now, I’m learning that how you choose to use social media could be a make or break decision for your writing career. Sigh. So much to learn, but now I know and knowing is half the battle. 😛
Last week, I traveled from Atlanta to Savannah to visit my family. It was a lovely visit, but what’s fresh on my mind is how I got there and back. I rode the Greyhound for the first time in my life. When my mom first suggested it, I was not happy at all. Ugh. I was very resistant indeed, but I knew it was the best way to travel under the current circumstances. So, I decided to suck it up and do it. I’m glad I did.
The Atlanta bus station was well, a bit dingy. I got there at nine in the morning and it was already packed wall to wall with people. I could barely move from one spot to another without sidestepping a person or their belongings. After picking up my ticket and checking my bag, I found myself a spot. Of course, no seats were available. I crammed myself into a standing space as close to my departure gate as possible. Then, I watched. And listened.
The round trip produced all kinds people. So many stories. So many character traits to use. I saw a woman in her pajamas shuffling two kids and three bags. A gay couple cuddled in seats across from me. Both men wore acrylic nails with faux diamonds on the tips. One had braids so old that the natural chevron pattern of the interwoven hair had worn smooth. An older Australian couple had toured Savannah and took the bus to Atl to catch a plane. Another group discussed their probation officers and gave each other tips on how to avoid them. A trio of barely legal guys traded stories of sexual conquests from MILFS to threesomes, all of which sounded highly embellished.
All in all, the trip was more than entertaining. It was productive. I realize that the more I limit my own experiences, the more I limit my writing. You have to go out and interact with society. I am a natural introvert in many ways, and I am comfortable being at home. And though I’m not interested in riding the Greyhound on a regular basis, I am willing to open myself up to new experiences. You just never know when you’ll find that detail you’ve been looking for to make a character or story.
This is one of those moments. It’s been a long week filled with traveling and visiting. Busy, busy, busy. I just got home. Right now, I don’t feel like writing. I am tired. I just want to skip writing a post for this week. My mind is foggy. I can’t think of much I want to say. It would be easy just to let it go, to skip posting for just this one week. I have allowed such dalliances before, just a simple lapse, one I can rationalize my way around. I’ll just pick up where I left off next week. Or, I can just set a new goal to accomodate the infraction. I’m choosing not to do any of that . I’ve committed to one blog post a week. So, here it is. I’m still on track and damned happy about that.