Category Archives: The Writing Life

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?

 

Out of the Dream, On to the Screen

Photo from Terra Kate at Pinterest

This morning, I woke from a dream, one of those “processing” dreams that rehash something that happened the day before or a week ago. This one succinctly reviewed an issue at work and how I’d responded, giving me “two thumbs up” for handling it well. Why don’t I remember more of these “Atta girl!” dreams?

The notion of remembering dreams stuck like a burr in my mind through the morning, until I finally realized that dreams have played an important role in my writing life. In Anais Nin’s book, The Novel of the Future, she quotes Jung in the first chapter: “Proceed from the dream outward….” She then defines dream: “…ideas and images in the mind not under the command of reason.” She goes on to discuss that dreams are not limited to sleep time, but they can occur at any time the mind slips away from the command of reason which includes daydreaming, playing in the imagination, and hallucinations sparked by drugs. Any products of the imagination proceed from the dream outward.

When I write fiction, I am using my imagination, encouraging it to provide me with the characters, dialogue, and action for the stories I write. When I’ve run into walls during this process, I have asked for help from my subconscious mind before closing my eyes to sleep at night. Patience has rewarded me with paths around the walls or ways to scale them in dreams I have had asleep. Characters have sometimes haunted my dreams at night.

While working on the very first draft of Perceval’s Secret years ago, I really wasn’t that excited about Evan Quinn being an orchestra conductor. The way I saw it, I’d need to do an awful lot of research in order to make him authentic because I knew very little about professional orchestra conductors, especially the successful ones, and of course, I wanted Evan to be a successful something. So, I began thinking about other possible professions. At the time I knew nothing about his story (I didn’t know his name at the time), only that he’d grown up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I’d seen him conducting on stage in my mind. Professions I thought about included auto mechanic, high school teacher, dentist, and a construction executive, sort of a real estate developer who actually works construction, or real estate agent.

A couple days after I began thinking about changing Evan’s profession, I went to bed in the evening dog tired. I looked forward to a restful night’s sleep. But it didn’t turn out to be: I had a dream in which Evan, dressed in his white tie and tails (his working clothes), stood in front of me, glaring at me with anger in his eyes, then very fast pushing his face into my face, so fast it startled me awake. I lay in bed thinking how odd it was to dream about a character, but then it made sense because the character had emerged from my imagination much the way dreams do. I went back to sleep. But restful sleep it wasn’t, because that dream came back, waking me again, and again, and again. The same dream. For four more nights.

I mean, really! I was annoyed with Evan Quinn, annoyed with myself, and cranky because I wasn’t getting much sleep. It took me five days and nights before I figured out what the dream was about. Evan always appeared in his white tie and tails, as if just about to go on stage or just come off stage. He wasn’t wearing a mechanic’s coveralls, or a suit, or jeans and an Oxford shirt. It was always that tux. And that was the key. He didn’t speak to me in the dream, just glared at me and threatened me by getting in my face. He wasn’t happy. He was angry with me. He was showing me that he wanted to wear his white tie and tails, and he wanted me to know that. In other words, he was an orchestra conductor and nothing else, and he was angry that I was entertaining any other profession for him.

This revelation led to the end of the dream. He left me alone once I’d given in, with some trepidation because of the amount of research I’d need to do, and let him be an orchestra conductor.

Proceed from the dream outward, indeed. It’s time for my dreams to stop being about the job and start helping me with Evan Quinn again as I begin work on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow.

What do you dream about?

I Need to Write Fiction Today

Photo: Margi Nutmeg Lake

Saturdays tend to be so crammed full of house chores, business chores, online chores, that my fiction gets relegated to the end of the day. Well, it’s happened again today and I’m a little annoyed with myself about it. So, this week, I am doing a brief blog post then moving on to work on a short story that screams for my attention for revision work.

Still a Finalist!

Perceval’s Secret has been nominated and is a finalist for the Reader’s Choice Award presented by Connections E-magazine. if you haven’t yet visited the site to vote — yes, it’s a reader’s choice, dear readers, so your vote counts — click on over and give it a vote!

I finished a story!

Yes, indeed. Last weekend, I listened to the satisfied and settled feeling in my physical body as I put the last polishing on the sci fi short story Light the Way. My next task is to find a home for it so everyone can read it.

My Independence Day

I have blocked out July 4 to begin work on the revisions of the Aanora novella. I am so excited. But it’s also another reason I’ve had so much to do this weekend that’s not writing related. My original plan was to have finished the first revision of the Aanora novella by the end of June — obviously I’m way behind with that. The revised plan: finish the first revision by the end of July.

Perceval’s Shadow

The second novel in the Perceval series has also been battering around in my brain and my imagination has been begging to come out to play with it. I realized a week ago, just after finishing Light the Way that I finished the first draft of  Perceval’s Shadow about 10 years ago this summer. I don’t remember exactly when that summer. I have gotten it out at different times over that long period to work on it, read through it and make notes, and do some additional research. But now I’m feeling really ready to finally jump into its deep end and get it done. I expect then that next year the task will be to finish the first draft of Perceval in Love, the third novel in the series of five novels.

And now, folks, on to writing fiction!

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