Perhaps We’re Looking at the “Work” of Writing All Wrong

One of my major writing philosophies is that there will always be work to be done.

PileOfWork-265x300Quite a few years ago, I started to look at the work of writing as a necessity. As a fact. I realized I had to accept that there will always be a ton of work: there will be revision, false starts, freewriting, and hundreds of pages that will never end up in the book. I’ve become very zen about the amount of work a novel demands. It’s an integral part of my process. I accept it. And I’ve never been scared of the amount of work to be done since.

But lately, I’ve come across a lot of writers who say the exact opposite to me. They say things like: “I don’t want to put in that much work and have to throw it out.” Or “I’m afraid to do this revision. What if it’s the wrong direction?” or “I don’t have that kind of time.” I’ve talked to them about how freeing it is to explore a story through freewriting and brainstorming. Or the benefit of writing scenes from other character’s perspectives. Or the value of barking up the wrong tree and the empowerment that comes from learning something doesn’t work! But I’m always met with frowns and furrowed brows. Everyone wants to get to the finish line faster. They don’t want to put in the work.

Or rather, they don’t want to put in work they don’t see as useful.

This aversion to writing has always puzzled me. Writing is supposed to be a joy. It’s supposed to be fun. When did that joy go away and get replaced with perfection and efficiency? When did writing really become work?

I had an ah-ha moment recently. I was reading Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, and in it he makes a case for the importance of play in inspiration and the creation of creative works. Play! Not work. Only in today’s society, we frown on the concept of play. We see it as childish and unimportant, when, in fact, it may be the most important thing a creative person can cultivate. Here’s the passage that struck me:

Wonderbook“Inherent in the idea of play being immature and frivolous is the idea that, just like business processes, all creative process should be efficient, timely, linear, organized and easily summarized. If it’s not clearly a means to an end, it must be a waste of time. In the worst creative writing books, this method is expressed in seven-point plot outlines and other easy shortcuts rather than exercises to help encourage the organic development of your own approach. This bind in codification sometimes reflects fear of the unpredictability of the imagination and the need to have a set of rules in place through which to understand the universe.” – Jeff Vandermeer (Wonderbook)

Is it possible we’ve foolishly replaced the word “play” with “work”? In our need to be professional writers, productive students, and serious business-savvy authors, have we forgotten the most fundamental part of creativity? Have we forgotten to play?

I began to wonder if this was why I’m not afraid of the work it takes to write a novel. For me, writing isn’t work. It’s fun. It’s a creative exploration into my characters, their world, the possible points of view the story could be written in, or the possible scenes that could exist. It’s about exploring how wide and deep and wonderful a story can be, rather than seeing it as a straight shot from beginning to end.

PlayWhat if we’re thinking about the work of writing all wrong? What if we need to switch the words “work” and “play”?

“It’s not time to work on this revision. It’s time to play with this revision.”

“I’m going to open my manuscript and not work, but play.”

Does changing one word change our attitude toward revision, exploration, and the time involved? If we think about rewriting a scene as a chance to play, does it free us from the pressures of efficiency and organization? Does it make room for the story to break open and explode with inspiration and creativity?

What if working on a novel is efficient, but not effective? What if taking the long route – taking the time to play – will result in a more joyful writing journey? What if it will result in a deeper and more complex creative pursuit? What if it will open us – and our novels – up to the unexpected and the profound? Isn’t that worth the “frivolity” of play? Isn’t that worth abandoning short cuts and organization?

What if playing is what make us stronger and more creative? What if playing is what actually makes us effective writers?

Only one way to find out. I’ll see you on the playground.

Why Aren’t You Facing Your Fears?

no-fearI just returned from the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International conference (WPPI) in Las Vegas, and I’m over-the-moon jazzed with excitement! My fiance is a wedding photographer and I work for him part time – hence my attendance at the conference. Indeed, much of the conference was about creativity, technique, and a photographer’s unique eye. But the sessions that got me excited were the ones about creating a sustainable business.

Many of us write as a hobby. We dream about being published and writing full time someday. WPPI was full of practical advice on marketing, workflow, and customer service, but the stuff that got me thrumming with ideas were the classes that asked:

Why aren’t you facing your fears and committing to this?

If you’ve been following my Facebook or Twitter feeds, you probably read some of the following quotes as I tweeted from the conference floor. For this post, I’ve collected them together to share. And boy, do they provide one helluva kick in the pants!

The Hard Truth:

  • “You can be passionate about what you do and still suck at business. Being passionate isn’t the whole picture.” – Jeff Jochum

On Fear:

  • Fear“Fear will cause you to lose focus every time, because you’re looking at all the potential for failure, instead of concentrating on success.” – Dave Ramsey
  • “The more fear we have of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” – Steven Pressfield
  • “The only limitations are those we set up in our minds.” – Napoleon Hill
  • “Tomorrow is not promised to any of us.” – Jaleel King
  • “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it only empties today of its strength.” – Corrie ten Boom
  • “Vulnerability equals value. It shows people you’re human and real.” – WPPI
  • “Fear is an opportunity for courage. We are all afraid, which means we all have the opportunity to be courageous.” – D Park Photo
  • “Remembering you are going to die is the one way to avoid the trap of fearing you have something to lose.” – Steve Jobs
  • “Fear gives you excuses for why not. But you can give a million and one excuses for why not. Beware of everything becoming an excuse. It becomes a way to keep yourself from living.” – Jaleel King

“You can either live in your fears or live in your dreams. Most people choose to live in their fears.” – Jeff Jochum

On Compromise:

  • “If you limit your choices to what seems possible and reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want and all that’s left is compromise.” – Anais Nin

On Impostor Syndrome:

  • “When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.” – Amanda Palmer

Surrounding Yourself With the Right Influences:

  • “You will become the average of your 5 closest friends. It’s always easier to pull someone else down, than it is to pull them up.”
  • “Where you will be in 5 years depends on two things: the books you read and the people you hang out with.” – Zack & Jody Grey
  • “The number one enemy of learning is experience. You think you already know everything.” – Jeff Jochum

On Finding a Balance:

  • “Live in the tension of who you are and who you want to be.” – Dane Sanders
  • “Expression beats perfection.” – Bambi Cantrell
  • “What is it that makes you feel like you’re not good enough? Flip this logic. Define what you love about yourself. This changes the energy from “I’m not good enough.” to “You’re just not right for me.” When you say you’re not good enough. This is YOU rejecting You!” – Jeff Jochum”

This is only a taste of the awesomeness that was WPPI! More inspiring blog posts to come!

“Stop hiding in insecurity. Start sharing your story, and begin your legacy.” – Katelyn James

It’s All About Taste

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing, publishing, and the importance of taste.

TasteMany of my friends are in the trenches of querying agents and submitting novels. They’re racking up long lists of rejection letters and wondering why they aren’t good enough. They’re asking: Why doesn’t this agent want my book? Why didn’t they connect with the material? What am I doing wrong? Should I give up writing?

Rejection seems to be a constant in the world of writing and publishing. The long-desired moments of praise and acceptance seem to be temporary and fleeting. Yet, rejection is something we writers deeply internalize, having spent hours, and months, and years creating our novels. We want people to see that effort as worthwhile.

Illustrated silhouette of a man sitting with his head in his handBut too often we believe that the rejection of a book is also a rejection of the writer. Slowly, brutally, I’m learning that it’s not that simple. In fact, I’m learning that a rejection has very little to do with me, and everything to do with the book. Or more accurately, sometimes it isn’t even about the book, it’s all about taste: the taste of the agent, the taste of the editor, or the taste of the market.

Let me take a moment to share three examples that have changed the way I look at submissions and rejection. Hopefully these will help you to see there is hope, lots and lots of hope.

1) My Editor Didn’t Want My Second Book

Last week my current editor (the one who adores my first book and bought it within two weeks of submission) just passed on my new novel. She said she “didn’t connect with it.” That’s the agent/editor kiss of death isn’t it? It’s a generic statement of rejection that won’t let me know how to move forward to what to change. Only – here’s what’s empowering about that statement. All it means is that this book doesn’t match my editor’s taste. Sure, I want my editor to love my books – all of them – but that’s unrealistic. This rejection doesn’t mean she doesn’t adore my writing. She would never have bought the first book if she didn’t think I was talented. All it means is she didn’t connect with this story. And after rejecting this book she promptly asked what else I’m working on. The rejection of one book is not the rejection of every story I will ever write.

2) Agents Want to Feel Goosebumps

goosebumps_2443265bA colleague of mine is the assistant to a top-tier agent at a large agency. Recently, I asked her what causes her boss to pass on a project or decide to represent a writer. She said: It’s all about taste. The book has to give the agent goose bumps. But here’s the part you need to hear: She also said that they pass on great books all the time, beautifully written books, books she knows will sell, books that she is certain another agent will scoop right up. So why doesn’t the agent scoop it up herself when she knows it will sell? The answer is simple: it didn’t give her goose bumps. It wasn’t something she loved. Finding an agent is all about finding the best advocate for your work, and that can only be done when both you and your agent adore the book. Would you really settle for an agent who doesn’t love your book?

 3) I Don’t Care if You’re a Bestseller

bestseller_graphicsmall1My last story is about a friend who is a New York Times bestselling author. She’s sold multiple book series, speaks at conferences around the world, and has had large publishing contracts. In all the traditional measures of success – she’s made it! But guess what, she’s currently self-publishing her next series. Why you ask? Because the market is scared. Her new series is a paranormal romance and well … we’ve all heard that market is dead. It doesn’t matter that she’s a bestseller. None of the publishing houses want to take the risk. Again, it isn’t about her or her writing, it’s about the book, and how scared the publishers are about the taste of the market. So what has she done? She’s taken the power back and is self-publishing the series on her own. She believes in her work and that the book will find an audience that loves it too.

Ultimately, we can only hand over so much of our power to others. You love the novel you’re writing and submitting. Have faith that it will find the right agent, editor, and reader that loves it as much as you do.

Yes, there are lots of gatekeepers on the road to publishing. But remember that gatekeepers are only taste-makers. They don’t determine what is great, they pick what they like. They pick what aligns with their own taste, and they gamble that others will have a similar palate.

Keep writing. Keep submitting. Write the next book.

How to Take Criticism

love_leonie_leaf_border_445I came upon a little bit of wisdom in an interview with artist and entrepreneur Leonie Dawson. This is the best answer I’ve ever heard to the question of who’s criticism you should value.

Question: “How do you deal with people’s criticism?”

Leonie’s answer: “Ignore anyone’s advice / criticism / judgements unless they are genuinely happier than you.”

Brilliant! What an important and powerful way to look at the world.

Art School Getting You Down?

Martha

The marvelous Martha Hull of: Cute. Funny. Deadly. Art & Stories.

Last week I was catching up with a fellow pink-haired friend from art school, Martha Hull. She and I were chatting about the creative life, books, and running our own small businesses. In the midst of our conversation about the struggles of finding an audience and making art that we’re passionate about, Martha looked at her studio wall and said:

“Wait! I have and inspirational quote on the wall about this!”

She proceeded to share with me an email I sent her twelve years ago. An email that she printed out, decorated, and still has hanging on her studio wall.

The email is a lengthy quote from Tim Burton on the importance of making art because you love it, and forgetting all the other negative chatter. Hearing it again after all these years gave me chills. It still holds up. It’s still a lesson I need to remember a whole decade later.

I asked Martha to send me a picture of that decorated email, and here it is:

Burton

In case you can’t read the email. Here’s what it says:

Subject: Art School Getting You Down?

Date: Thursday, January 2, 2003

Message: Just in case you’re feeling like you can’t draw – thought I’d send you a few words of wisdom from good ol’ Tim Burton:

“I remember going through art school, and you’ve got to take life drawing, and it was a real struggle. Instead of encouraging you to express yourself and draw like you did when you were a child, they start going by the rules of society. They say “No. No. You CAN’T draw like this. You have to draw like THIS.” And I remember one day I was so frustrated – because I love drawing, but actually I’m not that good at it. But one day something clicked in my brain. I was sitting sketching and thought, “Fuck it, I don’t care if I can’t draw or not. I like doing it.” And I swear to God, from one second to the next I had a freedom which I hadn’t had before. From that point on, I didn’t care if I couldn’t make that human form look like the human form. I didn’t care if people liked it. There was this almost drug-induced sense of freedom. And I fight every day, someone saying, “You can’t do that. This doesn’t make any sense.” Every day it’s a struggle. It’s just a question of trying to maintain a certain amount of freedom.” – Tim Burton (Burton on Burton)

Go make art because you love it!

Ingrid

Cool huh? It’s kind of awesome to be getting advice from yourself twelve years later.

Have you been writing for years and publishing has you down? Are you in that brutal state of querying where you’re surrounded by rejection? Are you being told that what you’re writing isn’t right for the market? Are you in the middle of that difficult draft that no one else seems to understand? I say: print out this quote and put it on the wall and remember the LOVE. The love of writing. Writing because you LOVE to write.

Forget everything else and embrace the joy. Find that little nugget of freedom and never let go!

Get It Done!

It’s the last few days of the National Novel Writing Month challenge. Many of you have already gotten to 50,000 words already (or blown right past it). But I haven’t. I’m still chipping away word by word. Yesterday I filled my belly with turkey and in my current state of post-food bliss I’m thinking about throwing in the towel. Who was the crazy person who decided NaNoWriMo should be in November?

But I shouldn’t give up. The fact that Thanksgiving is part of NaNoWriMo month is a lesson. I should write every day, even with a turkey coma, even when it’s a holiday.

I’m almost there. If you’re in the same boat as me and pushing these last few days to get your word count — let’s do it together! Let’s keep writing.

Here are some words of encouragement for you (and me!).

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You’re almost there! Let’s do it together. I’ll see you on the other side of the finish line!

Keep On Writing

I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this month. It’s a mad-sprint to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month, and we just reached the half-way mark. This means we’re wading through the murky middle of our novels when it feels like nothing is happening and it’s hard to keep our momentum.

If you’re like me and you need a little internet inspiration, I’m happy to provide these pep-talks of writing wisdom:

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Keep calm and write on

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Why are you still here?

I thought all that was pretty clear.

Get to your keyboard, and remember…

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Happy writing everyone.

8 Terrible Titles

Choosing-a-Book-TitleI’ve been tagged by Sweet Sixteen debut writer Shannon M. Parkerauthor of the forthcoming novel CRUSHING, to find 8 Terrible Titles within my manuscripts. The irony is that I have about 300 bad titles that I brainstormed for ALL WE LEFT BEHINDbefore my editor and I came up with one that stuck (and I’ll admit, my editor named my book!). Horrible titles are in my blood. So this challenge is right up my alley!

Challenge rules: Scroll through my manuscript and stop at a random spot. Wherever my cursor lands…That’s my title. There’s no hunting through my pages for the perfect phrases. This challenge is to see how truly awkward my title could be.

Here are my #8TerribleTitles from my YA Contemporary novel ALL WE LEFT BEHIND:

1. This  Should Be Our Best Year

2. She Riles Me Up

3. Dripping Sticky Gold Onto Wax Paper

4. How Blind We Must Be

5. Swinging Against My Elbow

6. Far Less Important Than a Soccer Ball

7. Skin Through Soaked Cotton

8. Blinking From Orange to Ash

There they are, in all their terribleness. Wahooo! I tag Melanie Fishbane and Mackenzi Lee for this challenge. Happy title-creating ladies!

The Case for Morning Writing

morning-windowI know everyone isn’t a morning person. I wasn’t always a morning writer. I used to be a mid-day writer, believing I was like a flower that fully bloomed when the sun was high in the sky. But in the last few years I’ve changed my tune. I’ve started to brave the dark cold morning hours away from my cozy bed. It isn’t easy. Who wants to give up those precious hours and minutes of sleep before the day begins? But I gave it a shot, and I’ve discovered I’m a lot more productive as a result.

I know morning writing won’t work for everyone. But I want to share a few of the ideas that influenced me to give it a try. Finding a process that works for you is essential to being a successful writer. For me, morning writing has become a staple of my process. It affects both my productivity and the quality of my work. Who knows, maybe it will work for you too.

Three reasons to consider writing in the morning:

1) It Helps You Find “The Zone”

One of the most inspirational reasons I started writing in the morning comes from Robert Olen Butler’s craft book From Where You Dream. Butler argues that to write you must enter a dream-space away from your intellectual thinking brain. This dream-space is a “zone” that lets you tap into the unconscious, which is where true creation comes from. Writing from the unconscious allows “a work of art to become an organic thing, where every detail organically resonates with every other detail.”

Realms Of Human MindTapping into this space is not an easy thing to do. Butler suggests writing in the morning because it helps you to find “a way to clear your sensibility of abstract uses of language,” which is important for helping you get into the zone. The problem, according to Butler, “is that we naturally use language in so many non-sensual ways all through the day. It’s helpful, then, to buffer those hours in which you necessarily use language in those analytical ways from the hours in which you dive into your unconscious and seek language in quite another way. One obvious way to do that is to put your night’s sleep in between. You go to your writing space straight from another dream state and go to language before you’ve had a chance for all those other uses of language to intrude on you. So after you wake up, don’t read the newspaper, don’t watch CNN; if you have to pee don’t pick up the back issue of The New Yorker in the basket nearby. You go to your fiction without letting any conceptual language into your head.”

Of course, there are different philosophies on writing. I was pretty skeptical of Butler’s “unconscious dreaming” concept. But I’d never tried it before. I’d intellectually talked myself out of its benefits before giving it a whirl. I’m a convert now. My writing has new depth because I write in the morning and I’m able to tap into that dream-zone.

For more information on this writing process, I highly suggest reading Butler’s craft book From Where You Dream. 

2) It Creates a Sense of Accomplishment

making-bedAdmiral McRaven’s gave a commencement address to the University of Texas earlier this year in which he said, “if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” That may sound odd, but consider his outlook: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

Morning writing works in the same way as making your bed in the morning. Many of us say writing is a priority in our lives and yet we struggle to find time for it. If you start off your day by writing, then this important priority has been accomplished first. Now you can meet the rest of your day without guilt because you’ve already accomplished your writing goals.

3) Don’t Check Your Email

Email_Bad-resized-600Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week suggests you never check your email before noon. He makes a strong case, pointing out the importance of making room for the tasks you need to get done before you open your email and see what the rest of the world wants from you. Sid Savara adds to the conversation with his 7 reasons you shouldn’t check email in the morning. Both authors point out that checking your email first thing in the morning makes your day about someone else’s to-do list, not yours. Write first! Resist the temptation to check your email and put your priorities first.

Anyone else out there a morning writer like me? Have you found it beneficial? Please share in the comments!