Category Archives: Nonfiction

Being a Writer

My father

“You can’t write.”

My father said that to me, looking me straight in the face over a beef stew dinner, and with a voice that held finality in its tone. I’d just announced to my family that I’d quit my fulltime advertising agency job to write.

“Being a writer is the same as being a prostitute.”

My brother said that to me the next day when we were running Christmas errands for our mother. I remember we’d just exited the car and were trudging through a snowy mall parking lot toward the entrance. He went on to explain that even though the entire family read lots of books, no one thought of writing as a legitimate job. I held my tongue. At the time, I knew a high-priced call girl whose bodyguard was a good friend of mine, and she thought of her job as a lucrative business and quite legitimate.

When I made my announcement, I did not know where my family’s responses originated, only that they were against it, and once again, I’d be completely on my own without their support as I’d been in college when I declared my music major. Now I understand that my parents wanted me to live the life that they wanted me to live, ignoring me as a person, my desires, skills and talents. My brother was just parroting them. I really don’t believe he cared one way or the other what I did. But he did care about staying in our father’s good graces. I decided since they were ignoring me that I’d ignore them. By the next summer, I was earning money with my writing.

An article in the December The Writer sparked this memory for me today. In “Girls Like Me,” Anna Kahoe wrote about the voices in her life that told her the things that she couldn’t do, and as a result, she thought she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, i.e. write. Eventually, she figured out that it was her choice, her decision, and she started writing. She described confiding to an actress that she wanted to write, and the actress told her “Writers write.” The actress went on to tell her that not everyone was an artist, but Anna held onto that truth: Writers write.

Being a writer means a lot of things, but above all, it means writing, choosing words to craft sentences into paragraphs that build one on another to become a story for people to read and enjoy. And there it is — story. Whether writing nonfiction or fiction, writers tell stories. Without a story to tell, the words have nowhere to go, nothing to say. This is the part of being a writer that can’t be taught — coming down with a story that gives the writer a fever of creation and the visceral need to express the story in a creative way unique to that specific writer. Everything in a writer’s life informs the imagination, the creative process, and leads to the stories.

I write. I tell stories. I am a writer.

How do you define Success?

Success. Everyone wants it. But what is it, really? I’m also curious to know if different countries define success differently based on their cultures. That curiosity arises from American society’s fixation on financial success as the only kind of success that counts. Writers need to figure out that writing for money can be a huge mistake, but it’s hard to ignore that it takes money to live, to pay the bills, obtain food, shelter, clothing. I’ve written about success before at this blog. In that post, I explored the idea of “commercial success.” Now I want to explore the notion of “success,” that is, success unencumbered by money.

Athletes can define success in two ways: when they win a competition, and when they attain their goals whether in training or in performance. Writers can learn from the example of athletes. Success is in how you define it, in other words, not how society defines it. Society will always define success in financial terms. For writers this means in sales. So let’s forget that and return to the athletes.

Photo by William Warby

Competition

Writers competing with other writers — do writers really do this? From my own experience and my voracious reading, I have a tendency to compare my writing to that of another writer’s. But I’m not thinking in terms of competition. I’m thinking in terms of noting what the other writer does well, doesn’t do well, and how I can learn from it. Competition exists, however, with writing contests. Every time you submit a story, a poem, a novel to a contest, your submission is in competition with all the other submissions. Do you submit writing to a lot of contests? I haven’t done this much in the past. Winning or placing well in a writing contest looks very good on your publication credits. Sometimes winning brings extremely favorable publicity, a bump in sales, or attention from agents and/or publishers. But is winning a competition success?

If you define it as success, then for you, it is. Maybe just entering a competition could be the success.

Attaining Goals

I set goals all the time — to do lists for housework chores, shopping lists, to do lists for business chores, setting a number of repetitions for an exercise (like sit-ups, for example) and setting a goal total to work toward.

In writing, wonderful possibilities exist for setting goals and then celebrating success by achieving them. For example, a daily word count. I used to do this when I was writing fulltime. My daily word count goal was 1000 words, or about 5 pages, double-spaced. When I reached my goal, I could either celebrate by stopping work for the day, or continue writing. My choice. But the success was there in writing those 1000 words.

I’ve set goals like this throughout my writing life. I set a goal to finish a short story by a certain date. I set a goal to start a short story on a particular day. I’ve set a goal to get off my butt and find a good editor when I began the production process to publish Perceval’s Secret. During the month of November, there’s a quite well-known activity called National Novel Writing Month when writers set the goal to write a novel first draft by November 30 (or December 1, if you want the entire day of November 30). If I were to participate, I’d be overwhelmed thinking about the entire month, so I’d probably break it down into a daily word count goal. Completing the month with a finished first draft is definitely success achieved!

Nowadays, my goals tend to be a bit different, so my definition of success is, too. If I manage to carve out 2 or 3 hours on a weekend to write fiction, or work on Perceval’s Shadow, I consider that a success. At the beginning of this year, I set a goal to finish the first revision by December 31. For a long time, it didn’t look like I’d come even close to achieving that goal. As time went on, I began to think in terms of chapters — my goal was to finish 17 chapters by December 31, then 15 chapters. Now it’s 12 chapters, or half the novel. I have 3 months to finish the revision of 12 chapters. So far, I’ve done 3 chapters. I am so slow!

Success According to You

Everyday, each of us has the opportunity to enjoy success, or even many successes. It depends on how we define success and if we’re willing to truly claim each success achieved.

Think about it. What will you do?

 

Mid-Year Writing Update

Last week I was working hard on revisions and used all my weekend time for that kind of writing rather than writing blog posts. This week it’s time to take stock. How’s the writing going this year? Any significant accomplishments?

Non-writing Employment: The first three months of this year, I was working hard on the search for a fulltime job after losing the job in December that I’d landed in April 2017. In March, I accepted a fulltime position with a state health licensing board as their office administrative support. It’s a small office (only three of us) and the work doesn’t follow me home which is wonderful. It’s also far less stressful than the previous job had been. The schedule is not very conducive to writing at the computer during the week but I do an awful lot of writing in my head. Being happier and more relaxed at this job has given me more energy to pour into my writing on the weekends. I may still need to sell some possessions for my financial health which is fine — cleaning out the clutter is always good!

Perceval Novels:
Perceval’s Secret remains on sale (only $2.99!) at Amazon and B&N.com. After running a “Free” promotion last spring and seeing where people went to get their copy of the novel, I removed it from Kobo International. The reviews continue to be good to excellent!  I’d love to hear from readers through reviews at Amazon and B&N, or at Goodreads.

I continue to research and plan promotions for 2018.  I participated in a BookBub promotion also last spring that increased my number of followers there. BookBub also provided a list of those followers from that promotion who are particularly interested in thriller fiction.

As for the other novels in the series, I’m now starting to work on the revision of the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the series. This is the year of revision work!  I’m sure that as I work on the revision, I’ll also be writing notes for the other three novels in the series. It always amazes me how my opening one door in my imagination can also open other doors to other projects.

Marketing: As I mentioned above, I ran a “Free” promotion for Perceval’s Secret this past spring.  I learned that most people gravitate to Amazon despite the book also being free at B&N and Kobo. I wrote about the results of this promotion and my response to it here.

I’ve been happy that people at my new job have been interested in my writing. I know of one person who bought Perceval’s Secret and read it. She talked with me about her response to it and I loved hearing from her! I still need to utilize the marketing tools at GoodReads, LinkedIn and Publishers Marketplace.  I continue to promote the novel on Twitter and Facebook.  I’ve been writing more posts at the Perceval Novels Facebook page, too.  Please go and like it, and visit often for updates on the novels.

New Novel Project: This project remains on the back burner this year. I still plan to transform my original screenplay, Over the Rainbow, into a novel. I love the story, the main character, and the potential of it, so I hope to be able to work on it soon.

Debt from Publishing Perceval’s Secret as an e-book: I finally finished paying off the credit card debt that I incurred when I published Perceval’s Secret. I still have substantial debt, but it’s not from publishing. I don’t know when I’ll publish the novel as a paperback. It’s still one of those things that I want to do but don’t have yet the money to do.

Short Stories: Lots of success to report here! I finished the revisions of Light the Way.  It is now ready to submit. I spent some time researching possible markets for it, and now I just need to pick one and start the submission process. I also finished the revisions of The Negligee. I’ve decided that this short story falls within the horror genre and I need to research markets for it. I finished the first draft of Aanora and two revisions. Right now, it’s in the hands of a beta reader. I expect that I’ll be doing at least two more revisions before it will be ready for publication.  I’ll be very happy to start getting more of my fiction out in the world.

Blogs: I’ve been participating in a blogfest called #We are the World Blogfest at the Eyes on Life blog (as Gina Hunter) for the past year or so, finding positive stories about humanity and sharing them on the blog. That’s all I’ve been writing at that blog and I’ve lost readership there. So, I will probably end my participation and return to my former commentary format with “The Successful Patient” posts as well as the current events and society commentary. I’ve been struggling with time — having the time to work on my fiction — and blog writing has taken more of a back seat to the fiction writing this year. I still continue to write posts here at Anatomy of Perceval on Saturdays.

Essays/Paid Gigs: I’m only now beginning to figure out if I have the time to do some of these personal essays for ClassicalMPR or other online sites. So far this year, I haven’t had the time.

Journal Writing: I’d hoped to establish a regular habit of journal writing every Sunday, but have failed miserably at this.

The Successful Patient Memoir:
Nothing has changed on this project — still on the back burner.

Reading: My daily conmute during the work week gives me lots of time for reading and I’ve been enjoying that aspect of being back to fulltime employment. I shall exceed my 2018 Reading Challenge at GoodReads. Reading is such an essential part of being a writer, and I’ve enjoyed some wonderful and provocative books so far this year. You can check out my reviews of them on GoodReads, and give me a holler while you’re there!

I’m really looking forward to submitting the two short stories and the Aanora novella, and spending the rest of the year on Perceval’s Shadow!

Rejection, with a side of Acceptance

Believe it or not, rejection is an important part of every writer’s life. No one is immune. I was reminded of this recently when I read the editor’s column in the July 2018 issue of The Writer. Nicki Porter described the reality of writing submissions, whether the submission is to a magazine editor, a literary agent, or an editor at a publishing house, the mathematics are much the same. Each receives hundreds of submissions a week. Porter wrote: “The amount of manuscripts a typical agent receives in a year could fill three train cars, but the amount she accepts will fill a tidy desk drawer — and she’ll successfully sell even less.” Rejection, then, is an important part of every writer’s life no matter if the writer is a beginner, experienced, or an award-winning author.

I tend to look at rejections the same way I look at mistakes: they are opportunities for learning, for improvement. Yes, each rejection hurts initially, but I learned a long time ago that the rejection is never about me personally. In fact, the rejection might not even be about my writing. Sometimes it’s about an editor who has already scheduled to publish a story similar to mine in theme or story. Or it could be that despite my research into the publication, my story just doesn’t fit it. Once, I even encountered the reason that the publication had changed hands and editors with an entire new approach to the magazine.

When I suspect the rejection is about my writing, that’s an opportunity to go through the story with a more objective eye, an editor’s eye, and revise and tighten it as needed. If an editor takes the time to write a note, I pay close attention to what the editor says in that note. There was one time, however, that I dismissed the note — it was from a young literary agent writing about Perceval’s Secret that I’d submitted to his agency for consideration. The agent expressed interest, but wanted me to change Evan Quinn, the protagonist of the novel (and the subsequent 4 novels in the series), to a woman because female protagonists were “hot” and it would be easier for him to sell to a publisher. The agent didn’t say that the character didn’t work as a male, or even ask me anything about my decision to make Evan a male, or any other comment specifically about Evan Quinn or the story. No. It was what I considered an extremely shallow comment that totally ignored the amount of work already put into the book and the amount of work what would be required to change the gender of the protagonist, not to mention how the gender would radically change the story itself. Needless to say, after politely declining to consider the change, I moved on.

Photo: aliyasking.com

So, how can a writer increase his chances that his submission will be accepted for publication or representation? Here are three essential tips I see over and over in articles about gaining acceptance of one’s literary work:

  • Follow submission guidelines to the letter. The guidelines are not there to amuse or frustrate you. The agent or editor has created them to make his or her job easier for processing submissions. I judge scholarship essays every year, and it never fails to astonish me that 25% of the submissions never make it through the first cut because those writers failed to follow the guidelines.
  • Submit polished writing. Never submit first drafts. Just don’t. It takes at a minimum 3 revisions — and often far more — to get a piece of writing into publishable shape. Do ask for help in the form of first readers or members of your writing group to give you relevant and intelligent feedback about your piece. Do not rely on spellcheck or grammar check. Read your piece out loud. That is hands down the best way to catch grammar and syntax issues as well as word choice issues. When you submit polished writing, you are also showing that you are willing to do the work necessary to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Be a respectful professional. Forget the gimmicks. Follow the submission guidelines. Provide a succinct cover letter that includes what the editor or agent requests – nothing more, nothing less. If you receive a rejection, resist the temptation to fire off an angry or derisive e-mail in response. Doing that marks you as a disrespectful amateur. Every submission is like a job interview for your writing.

Each writer possesses a unique view of the world, a unique writing style, and unique stories to tell. Be true to the process and honor your own uniqueness by writing what you are compelled to write in your own voice. And while you’re at it, forget what other writers are producing or how other writers’ careers are progressing and focus on your own writing life and work. After all, that’s where you are.

Where I write

 

Facing the Blank Page…Again

Every writer I know has trouble writing. — Joseph Heller

The blank page taunts me again. It demands my attention, requires me to make the Big Decision. In order to do what they love, writers make sacrifices. Some writers don’t think of them as sacrifices while others feel guilty about them. Writers also need to really get to know how their minds work in order to survive writing. Curiosity rules the writer’s mind, especially a curiosity of why human beings behave as they do. Trouble writing can be about the writing itself (find the right words, editing, grammar, narrative structure, etc.) or about creating the conditions in a life in order to be able to sit at the desk to write.

Yesterday, a realization seared my mind. The Blank Page was throwing a tantrum in order to get my attention, and when I stopped long enough to pay attention, the thought marched through my mind like a screaming subtitle across the screen of my life: I needed to focus my attention and just do it.

What does that mean? For the rest of the day, I reflected, had discussions with myself in my mind, and finally realized that I’d been giving myself too many free passes. My Attention Butterfly flits from one interest to another, never staying too long in one place before moving on to something else. My imagination latches on to an idea and spins endless variations on it, testing different directions, capturing my attention away from what I know is most important to me in my life. Granted, it’s been a rough year lifewise, and that’s interfered with a lot. But it looks like my life will be settling down and now it’s time to return to my creative process and trust it.

My “Office”

What does that mean? The short answer: I need to laser aim my focus on my writing. I feel a tremendous pressure, both mentally and physically, to stop restlessly wandering and concentrate on my creative process, figure out what I need to do to nurture it now, and then spend the time I need to spend to get down on paper (or the computer screen) all the stories that have been skipping around in my mind lately. I’ve known for a long time that my ravenous curiosity can consume me, and what I need to do is put it on a diet of writing or writing-related food. It’s particularly helpful when I’m doing research for something, and I’ll need to ratchet it up to research questions that have been coming up as I’ve been working on the Aanora story.

So, the “blank page” I’m writing about this time isn’t actually a piece of paper or the computer screen, but the dedication to writing. I have writing projects lined up like planes on a runway. But the control tower isn’t paying attention.

I know what I need to do, and I’m determined to do it again as I have in the past in order to write and write and write, i.e. establish a writing schedule and cut everything else out of my life. A comment by a writer in a magazine yesterday also hit home — the writer was talking about how the more writing a writer does on a consistent schedule, usually daily, the better the writing becomes, the faster it hits the page. I experienced this in 2007 when I edited a draft of Perceval’s Secret, then immediately wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow and half of the first draft of Perceval in Love in about 10 months before life stepped in front of that writing train and stopped it cold.  I would love to get that kind of momentum going again, even with a fulltime job stealing time away from the writing during the work week.

My imagination is ready. My mind is ready. What about yours?

P. S. If you’d like to read my first Facing the Blank Page, it’s here.