Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Not to Write

Okay, so you’ve all heard that a writer can write anytime he or she darn well pleases. And that writers should write whenever they can.

But what about times when writers shouldn’t write? Are there any rules for that, or is this just an excuse to use when there’s a deadline looming?

Sure, procrastination can be detrimental to your career. But maybe there are times when it’s not such a bad idea? That maybe stepping away from the computer can benefit your work?

Here’s a list of times when I know I should NOT write for fear of losing the Muse and my mind.

1. After I’ve submitted a manuscript.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not. When you submit a manuscript, or an article or poem or hey, even a blog post, it’s time to celebrate! Time to focus on a job well done. Don’t start another novel. It squelches your current glory, well, at least mine anyway. Enjoy the satisfaction of hard work sent off into eager agent’s/editor’s hands- and then write.

2. After I’ve been out all day running errands.
This may seem dumb, but trust me, I lose my skills --or whatever you want to call it-- when I am out picking up groceries, having the car repaired, or running to Target. An errand or two, maybe I can get away with. But a half of a day? No way, doesn’t work. Because by the time I get my rear end in a chair, I CAN’T focus long enough before I have to start dinner, get kids to bed, etc. You see my predicament.

3. After I’ve seen a movie.
Wow, this is a weird one. But it’s also true too. There’s something about movies-- kind of like the very reason they make them-- that makes me want to write the next great story that every producer and director in Hollywood will want, which in turn everyone in the world will want to watch. Don’t do it! Write down an idea or two, and wait for the euphoria to pass. Then you can look at your notes … and throw them away.

4. After I’ve read the best book ever!
Very much like number three, do NOT try to write after you’ve read the best, heart wrenching, anxiety-ridden, edge-of-your-seat book. I’ve tried this before. All I ever write is garbage. Really. Because inevitably, I sound so much like the author I’ve just read that what ends up on my computer is a washed-out, copycat mess that no one -- and I mean no one -- should read. Read the book, let it simmer and then maybe in a day or two try to write. Maybe. Even then, that might be too soon.

5. After I’ve written for six days.
Take the seventh day off. Some people write five days a week, some write three. Whatever the amount, for God’s sake (no really, for God’s sake take a Sabbath) take the seventh day off and recuperate. I do this. It’s not only something to look forward to-- even though I love writing-- but it’s a chance to focus 100 percent on my family; something other than my work.

6. Before I’ve had my coffee.
Do I really need to elaborate on this one?

Now, get out there, and write --or not-- and see how some of your best stuff will show up with practice, education and more practice. Write on!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Characters That Work

I’ve heard countless times that agents, when looking for the next great manuscript and readers, looking for the next great read, want compelling characters. But, what does this mean? Compelling? And why have I never thought of characters as compelling when I can’t put the book down? Sure, these characters are amazing, and sometimes I want to be in the middle of the stories as if they were my own experiences. But why?


Compelling characters make me --force me-- to be in love with them as they find their way through trials or charge fearlessly down hidden hallways and dark forests. This makes for wonderful literature, and for fascinated readers. But how do we do this? How do authors create compelling characters -- ones that not only we want to read but others too -- and convince our readers that they should care about them?



Here’s a tiny list by which I try to strive:

  • Make them human: This is a given. And most writers would tell you this is. Give your character flaws that lots of people have or even flaws that only some of us have. Give us your poor and needy, and you’ve got a character most everyone can identify with. Fears, insecurities, bad habits. These human characteristics are all important for a true character, which in turn, makes them compelling.

  • Give them a goal: If the character isn’t striving to overcome a huge goal, or meddling with a huge personal sacrifice, what’s going to make me turn the pages? Why would I care about a perfect character without any goals? I wouldn’t. That’s a non-compelling character no one identifies with. Plot-less, character-less books don't make for happy readers. Give your characters goals, and you’ve got attractive people.

  • Give them a problem: I’ve heard this, most recently from Mary Kole from a Writeoncon “class,” to absolutely, without a doubt, give your characters a problem. In other words, what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to this person? Or take it the other way and figure out what’s the best thing that could happen? (which, should inevitably lead to a problem). This propels the story, makes more personal the character for the reader to relate to, and gives the writer awesome characters.

  • Make them learn: Don’t forget to make your character learn through this goal/problem that they overcame. If they’re worse off than when the story began, or didn’t learn a thing, talk about an unfulfilled reader! And really, as a writer, it should be unfulfilling for you if by the end of your story nothing's changed. Your characters, especially the protagonist, need to learn something about themselves and their world around them, in order to create not only a great story but satisfying characters.

If you utilize these four things, and yes there are many more layers to this list, it’s the basics for some amazing characters. And if you have compelling characters, then more importantly, you will have both agents and readers compelled to read your works.

-Heather


* This blog post would not be possible without the gentle coercion from Elana Johnson, writer, writing teacher (Writeoncon, Query Tracker Blog, and League of Extraordinary Writers) and amazing person. Thanks for the inspiration and for reminding me how to write compelling characters. *



Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Posting Productivity

For all of you procrastinating, I’ll-do-it-later, just-leave-me-alone people who are trying to find a way to become productive in your own life -- and a more organized member of your family-- perhaps I have the answer you’ve been waiting for.


This may come as a complete shock, but if you’re willing to buy a pack of Post-It Notes©, and a pen or pencil - anything that will create tangible writing (no, the computer monitor doesn’t count -- you need something you can actually scroll a pen over) you will find yourself fast becoming productivity’s friend. Are you ready? This is what you need to do:

Write down all the important things you need to do today.

Now, I can hear you thinking, “Whoa, hold on there. Don’t you think that’s a little too simple? I mean, lists? Come on, I thought you were going to give me a life-changing idea.”

But, I have. See, if you’re anything like me, I feel productive when I’ve accomplish something worthwhile to myself; something I place value in doing. I understand that this is subjective; that accomplishing something “worthwhile” for some is climbing Mt. Everest and for others, like me, it’s just getting on the treadmill for twenty minutes. But God gives us a certain amount of hours per day, and if we end that day without an accomplished goal, what exactly did we do with our time? Did we waste our time or spend it wisely?

The thing about lists is that they are the “to-do” not only for the day, but also for our future. By writing out what we need to do daily (wash the car, go to the gym, read two chapters of book) our goals are clear. We accomplish much, rather than wasting it doing frivolous and often-inconsequential things like checking our Facebook friends or staring endlessly into opened refrigerators.

Seeing your “to-dos” in front of you reminds you to check those things off until you’re done, and even possibly, make us feel a little guilty if we don’t.

To be honest, I didn’t believe in all this list “stuff” either. I saw my sister doing it and thought she was bonkers. But when I decided to do it for one day, I was amazed. I not only finished everything -- because suddenly it forced me to accomplish things rather than twiddle by thumbs -- but found myself irrevocably proud of what I’d done. If I could do this for one day, what would happen if I wrote a list out every day? What amazing things would I be able to achieve if I wrote out a list all the time?

Let’s get one thing straight though: lists don’t define you. Obviously, we don’t have to follow them to a T to be successful. But it’s a guide; a map to remind you where you are and where you want to go. A simple list, one with a few relevant “to-dos” that you can cross off when completed, (yes, this is very satisfying) is something you have to try once.

Lists are like a stepping-stone that help us reach our peak productivity because it forces us to figure out what’s important, and what’s not.

It’s a very simple concept. But this concept has the possibility to change your life for good. And who doesn’t need a good dose of change every now and then? Let me know how this works for you. Did you accomplish more with a list? Or, if it didn’t do a thing for you, why? Forward this to friends who you think need help (or those who don't, but just love sticky notes.) Tell me about it, and maybe we can all help each other become productive.

-Heather

Monday, September 13, 2010

From Not to Net

Networking. It's a tough job. And it’s a job that sometimes, though very beneficial, doesn't feel like it counts for much. After all, as my "punny" husband so kindly pointed out, there's only one little letter that turns "networking" into "notworking."


That got me thinking: Is networking really me not working? Then I asked myself - while I was busy throwing dagger-like glances at my husband: Just because I don't get paid for this, is it still considered real work?

I'd like to think that this work of finding people with similar interests to not only be friends with but become fellow blog followees, has helped me with my writing career; one that could potentially pay me a few dollars. As of now, it's all free; all my time and energy isn't compensated for. So in order to feel like I'm doing something worthwhile, I prefer to think of my time spent networking without pay as an internship; the whole paying-my-dues-before-I-get-paid thing. And not as “not-working.”

What I’ve found, through all of this networking, is that the friends I make (through Facebook, Twitter and the like) don’t join my list of “friends” as just another friend. They all count as friends; as real friendships. Yes, I have to spend time to make friends. And the old adage we heard growing up “in order to have friends, you must be a friend,” is relevant in this case too.

While I can’t know everyone like I know my true best friends, I understand that this friend-making isn't wasted time. They're friends whom I trust and rely on for help and they’re all from the online world. Without them, I couldn't have gotten this far; I'd never have had the nerve to take that step of faith and get my writing out there. The friends I'm following are in my best interest so that I can not only learn from them, but help them too. And hopefully, I’m their friend for the same reason. If not, well, that’s their problem.

Having a following of people who like my blog can't hurt a future in writing either. That’s a given. Unless, of course this following finds out that I really can't write. Then the answer is no, I’ll never have a career in writing, and now I just have a bunch of friends like me with common interests. But, that’s not exactly a bad alternative reaction to my endeavors, is it?

Everything I've done up until now -- reading, researching, seeking friends, mentors and like-minded writers or readers -- has taught me copious amounts about my career and field, especially from authors who've already been there and "done that." And if all I net are friends, then that's still time well spent.

Just because I’m not paid for this “work,” doesn’t invalidate it. If I trust my talents and time as productive and focus on the things I feel led to research, then I can learn from it all. "What is the answer then?" I hear you ask: Work your hardest, be a good friend, and you’ll reap a harvest when the season arrives. And think about this (written by the wise-writer Solomon) the next time you might think your networking is a waste of time: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23, NIV). Get busy networking.

For me, I’ll continue to network while I blog/write. But I’ll also stick to my day job, or rather, my husband’s job, as most of my writing and taking care of the kids -- last time I checked-- is still salary-free.

-Heather

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ralphie and Glenn: Two Peas in a Pod?

Okay, this isn't a political statement, nor is it a way to jump start Christmas, but do you  notice a resemblance between these two people? Maybe it's just me, but they sort of look related.

Perhaps you're laughing, perhaps you agree, perhaps you think this is a waste of a blog post. Regardless, the first time I saw Beck with his glasses, I told my husband that he looked like Ralphie, you know, the kid from  A Christmas Story. And I still think he does.

No, this guest post has nothing to do with writing, and it's not really writer's food of any kind (well, maybe it is) but I suppose it is food for thought. The glasses give Ralphie such an endearing quality. And they do the same for Glenn.  Um ... I think. Or is that a bit of a stretch for some of you?  - Heather

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Happy Medium

Ah, the paper and pen: that duo is such a powerful and magnificent reverence to our literary past. So much so for me, that I used to write only long hand in the early days of my "authorship." It’s how I thought true writers really should write because in all honesty, there’s something to be said for feeling the words lick off the ink or lead, throwing caution to the wind, and getting those words out at which to marvel. But, this was erroneous thinking, and the error was believing it was the only way to write.

I changed my thinking about this a few years ago when writer’s block was having at it with me. I decided to sit at the computer and write something, anything, that didn’t have to do with what I was currently stuck in with my paper canvas. Lo and behold, after typing away and finding paragraphs and pages of quick, good material appear, I realized I was beginning to understand how people wrote books solely on the computer. It was remarkable. What I first thought to be boring and bleak really had an amazing advantage. The biggest one? Ideas entered the page within seconds on the PC, versus minutes with handwriting. Having written papers long hand in school for years, and then transferred to the computer as a final draft, I didn’t actually think of starting a project on the computer screen to begin with. Oh, woe is me ... and to think I had been showing my age too!

With either method of writing, using both allows me to change my medium for variation -- to change the scenery if I’m having an “off” day -- yet still supplies me with the same outcome: finished, written material.

If you could only choose one method for writing, would you feel short-changed? I didn’t think I was. I felt superior really; being able to grab what I wanted to say onto paper with my snobberish notebook-buying, pen-purchasing club-of-one. But that was absurd. Because today, I love writing on the computer. In fact, this essay was written wholly on Microsoft Word© and I’m extremely happy about it.

Yet, I must divulge the drudgery of computer writing as well. There are times, when a blank screen tears at my creative soul, leaving me as pale and wan as the screen itself. Somehow, that white and dismal virtual piece of paper has the power to suck the creative juices out of me; like an electrical vampire, leaving me lifeless ... and just plain dumb.

That’s when I revert to my precious paper notebooks and put the bleached pulp to my nose, watching the ink flow out of the tip of the pen like a waterfall over the proverbial writer’s block mountain, down to the river of words. Yes, old ways die very hard indeed.

So which one do I choose? I don’t. I use both. Here’s the moral: don’t choose one medium over another to create your masterpiece. Your canvas is workable utilizing both methods. What do I do when neither of these methods creates a work of art? I stop, close the notebook (the real or the electrical one) and set my writing aside. I use that time instead to read and absorb other people’s words, their style and flow. It still helps my writing, only I don’t have to do any actual typing or scribbling.

Are you stuck in a rut? Switch things up a bit. And don’t be afraid to try new ways to find your muse.

-Heather