Are You NaNoWriMo-ing?

Since I’m taking my first stab at a novel, I thought I’d hitch my wagon to some accountability and try NaNoWriMo this year.

I’m not a “write every day” sort of writer in the sense that I don’t sit down at the keyboard every day.  I spend random moments throughout the day thinking about the WIP but rarely do more than jot down a note or two in my notebook.  My keyboard time is a once-a-week endeavor.  I need to change things up a bit if I ever hope to finish a novel.

I’ve never really had to consider the idea of writing to a word count before.  Picture books aren’t really a word count sort of project.  I’m trying to decide on my writing timeslot for the month.  Lunchtime is out of the question.  I’m knee-deep in medical reports by then and can’t successfully switch to creative mode and back again.  That leaves very early in the morning or after dinner.  My mind is usually pretty fried at the end of the workday, so it looks like early mornings will be it.  I’ll have to get up a little earlier so I don’t have an excuse for skipping either my workout or my writing session.  Setting my alarm for 5 am should do it.  That alone will give me 30 extra minutes a day.  If I start my workout earlier and skip the morning news, I might squeeze in yet another 30 minutes each morning.

Honestly, I’ve always viewed NaNoWriMo with something of a “What’s the point?” kind of attitude.  Nobody can write a novel, start to finish, and have it ready in one month for publication.  That leaves no time for proper revision and editing, and we have far too much of that going on in the self-published world.  But I don’t think that’s the point of the exercise, at least not for me.  What I hope to get out of it is a more consistent writing schedule and a good head start on my first novel.  I also like the sense of community, of writers all over the world cheering one another on.  With only one car between my husband and I, I don’t have the freedom to regularly attend a writing group.  Writers need a certain amount of solitude to write; but too much isolation breeds loneliness, and loneliness dries up the creative juices.

Due to a previously planned kitchen project in the first week of November, I’m going to start in the last week of October, take the first week of November off, and then pick up the rest of the month from there.  Hopefully, I’ll have my new kitchen table by then so I can do my morning writing close to the coffee pot.

I’ll admit, I’m a little geeked about it.

Is Somebody Cooking a Novel?

While I’ve been able to get back on the writing horse since my latest disappointment, it has proved itself to be somewhat of a bucking bronco this time.

After my close encounter with traditional publishing came crashing down around me, an idea for a novel (or maybe a novella) began to form in my mind.  Normally, novel writing just isn’t my thing.  I don’t think I have the patience for it, and years of writing for kids has trained my brain to keep things very short and to the point.  I never thought of myself as having the literary stamina required to write a novel.

So what is this story idea doing in my head?  I suppose it could simply be the result of long-term stress and emotional upheaval finally looking for an exit (as if the erosion in my esophagus weren’t enough).  The plot isn’t fully formed in my head, though as usual I know the last line of the story.  At present, it’s about a woman who returns home to bury her father, clean out her parents’ now empty home, and put it up for sale.  The conflict for my protagonist lies in the fact that her mother was an emotionally abusive monster and her father a weak man who never stood up to her.  Returning home is the last thing she wants to do.

It’s not based on my life, though I’ll be dumpster diving my own memories in order to flesh out my character a bit.  It’s all grist for the mill, right?

Did I tell you there were ghosts involved?  Yeah.  So there’s a bit of the supernatural in the story, as well as the struggle to forgive in the face of injustice and learning to recognize how generational abuse is perpetuated.

Sounds heavy, I know.  It’s also meant to be allegorical.  What happens in the story isn’t meant to be a theological commentary on what happens after death, heavenly reward, or punishment.

So this is brand new territory for me.  I’m still working on the Winthrop Risk sequel, for which my serious sit-down time is reserved (though I’ve admittedly been giving the day job more attention of late).  The basic plot of the novel is still coming to me in small bits of random ideas arriving at inconvenient times that are scribbled in a notebook.  Eventually, it will all coalesce and the first draft will begin.

I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to slow the story down a bit, to indulge in more descriptive language, to give my characters more than a name.  I might be good at it.  I might suck at it.  Who knows?

It’s quite the adventure, isn’t it?

The Paralysis of Waiting

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I’m still some weeks away from learning whether or not the publisher will make an offer on my picture book manuscript.

Friday I had to vacuum the dust off the backpack containing my laptop and WIP.

Yeah.

I have the most miserable sense of being in author’s limbo.  It’s nothing like the limbo I was told about as a child, where babies go if they die before they’re christened.  It’s more like the lowest circle of hell.  A terrible place where images of success and failure alternately flash before my eyes–the dream realized vs. the dream dashed.

My sense of identity as a writer has grown stronger over the last couple of years.  It’s no longer simply what I want to be, it’s what I am.  Lately, I find myself slipping back into that insecure place where I’m waiting for a third party to nod in my direction and bestow upon me the coveted title of published author.  Something inside my brain is telling me I have no business sitting down to write before permission is granted.

I hate myself for allowing that to happen.

I have no excuses today.  The inbox for my day job is empty.  I already did the dishes.  I have forced myself into writer mode by dropping this little note of confession to you.  I’m going, at this very moment, to grab the backpack and see where I left off.

Join me.

Starting from Scratch–Again

It’s something we all do at the start of a new year, isn’t it?  We start from scratch.  We set new goals, revise plans, and look forward.

I’m doing that in unexpected ways today.

A month ago, I was working with a small local independent publishing service to add a few simple illustrations to my indie chapter book for kids, Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, to be rereleased on Amazon with plans in the works for the sequel.  Since then, the publisher and the wonderful bookstore that worked so hard to promote local authors was suddenly and quite unexpectedly closed down by the primary owner.

Also about a month ago, I received an email from an editor at a small traditional publisher asking if the picture book manuscript I’d submitted to them almost four years ago was still available and if she could present it to the editorial board.  Having lost my indie publishing partner, I gave her the go-ahead.  I’ve been honest here about my misgivings and doubts about traditional publishing; but my dream of self-publishing my picture books hit a dead-end when the local publishing service, with its illustrators that were within my limited financial range, went under.  I haven’t yet heard back from the traditional publisher, so on the first day of 2019 I’m drifting in limbo.

I don’t like limbo.

The small traditional publisher in question puts out some wonderful picture books.  I’ve heard they’re selective because they only publish a limited number of titles each year, so I feel honored to have one of my manuscripts considered.  Even if they pass, I know I’m onto something.  It’s a boost to my confidence when I so desperately need it.

I still love the independence of self-publishing and how it enables me to maintain control over my work.  Unfortunately, despite my efforts to learn, I still can’t illustrate my own stories.  My computer savvy is virtually nonexistent, and marketing is something I don’t understand.  Amazon inexplicably took down the one review anyone bothered to write; and if I had royalties for every book people claimed they were going to buy, I’d be closer to hiring that illustrator.

The most frustrating thing for me as a writer is that everyone who has read my first book loved it, including my judge at the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards last year.  My writing is solid.  My ability to represent myself and my work is not.

I’ve taken a big bite of the reality sandwich that is self-publishing on Amazon, and it gave me heartburn.

What’s an author to do?

Well, an idea for a new story popped into my head the other day.  All I can say is that it involves socks.  Mind you, it’s just the germ of a story.  I can hear the cadence of the words off in the distance, but not yet the words themselves.  As we settle into winter and back to a regular schedule, I’ll have time to sit and listen as the words get closer.  I don’t mean to sound weird or mystical, but that’s how my stories come to me.  It’s a drumbeat, faint and a little indistinct.  I can draw the sound closer by beginning to put words on paper, and then the drummer fades out as my consciousness takes over.

I guess if writing is a disease, then productivity is the cure.

The Winthrop Risk sequel is almost finished, but I don’t know if I’ll bother self-publishing it on Amazon.  Like the first installment, it will need a few illustrations.  I won’t make the same mistake and release the sequel without them.  I’m sure the lack of chapter head illustrations has dampened sales of the first book, and it was the Writer’s Digest judge’s only criticism.

As far as my picture books go, I guess indie publishing is out of the question for me.  Time to restart the soul-crushing exercise of tossing my stories onto the slush pile and hoping someone notices my work.  I haven’t decided what to do with the Winthrop Risk series.  I’ll leave the first book up there on Amazon for now, sans illustrations until I can work something out.  I’ll finish the sequel and put it aside while I work on the picture book ideas I had to put on hold, and I’ll submit the others to publishers for consideration.

While we lost the local bookstore/publisher last month, one of the former owners is charging ahead with plans for a new service to help indie authors promote their work.  Her love for writing and her passion for supporting local writers are an inspiration to me.  I look forward to working with her again.

As I sit here on January 1, 2019, I find myself facing obstacles old and new in my quest to be published and read.  I know many of you are doing the same.  Chin up, everyone.

We’ve got this.

A Pocket Watch

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I recently acquired a pocket watch.  It’s an old-fashioned mechanical watch, which means it has to be wound every day.  In the center of the face, you can see the gears moving.  The tick-tick-tick is rapid and soft, like the heartbeat of a bird.

It’s been years since I owned a timepiece that didn’t require a battery.  My home is full of glowing digital clocks.  I’m sure yours is, too.  In the computer age, we’re accustomed to instant information and constant updates, but we’ve sacrificed something beautiful for that knowledge.

We always know what time it is, but we no longer know how to tell time.

I find myself opening my new pocket watch just to see the second hand tick around the mother of pearl face.  The minute hand moves along slowly, in no rush.  It knows it can’t outrun the second hand, nor can the hour hand overtake it.  Everything moves along at an even pace, the gears moving in turn.

I’d forgotten how long a minute can be.

We rush around, especially at this time of year, glancing at our phones or our digital dashboards to see how much time we have to get to the next place or the next thing.  There isn’t much we can do about it.  We all have deadlines and promises to keep, but I can’t help but wonder if much of what we call writer’s block is really just writer’s rush.

I’ll be keeping my pocket watch with me when I sit down to write.  Before I open my laptop or my notebook, I’ll open the watch and do what the name suggests–I’ll watch.  I’ll watch the second hand make its way around the face.  I’ll watch a minute pass.  I’ll listen to the tick-tick-tick.  I’ll let my digital mind slow down.

I’ll make time to write.

 

Atmosphere

This time of year, you can’t avoid the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel.  No matter how hard you try.  Trust me.

At first glance, the success of these movies and their popularity with viewers is puzzling.  They’re running a few basic plots that are done over and over again with minor changes in the characters and locations.  The plots are so predictable that you can come in on the middle of one and walk away before it ends, never missing a beat.

This has become a running joke with my husband.  He can come in at the beginning of a movie, ask me what’s going on, and get a full run down from me of how the entire thing is going to play out.

What should be obvious by now is that I’ve gotten sucked into watching quite a few of these.  Why?  I mean, I don’t even celebrate Christmas anymore.  Is Hallmark slipping in subliminal Christmas messages?

I think it’s pretty simple.  As with their mystery series, Hallmark has mastered the art of atmosphere.  Each movie features little towns decked out in impossibly lavish Christmas decorations.  The homes are cozy and festive.  Snow is abundant and pristine–no muddy slush at Hallmark.  Even the characters are dressed in greens and reds.  In the end, wrongs are righted, true love triumphs over misunderstandings and selfish ambition, and the true spirit of Christmas is realized by all.

It’s genius.

The holidays are a stressful and often sad time of year for many people; but 24/7 during the season, you can sit down with a cup of tea or cocoa and enjoy an innocent tale in an ideal town with a guaranteed happy ending.   As a children’s book author, I recognize the need for that sense of warmth and safety in my picture books.  Kids need that more than ever to overcome the effects of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

But the lesson can apply to any genre.  Where is your story taking place? What does that dark room in an empty house feel like?  What kind of couch does your detective stretch out on at the end of the day, and what is she drinking?  Can your reader feel the story?  How are you engaging their senses?  Can you do it without being too heavy-handed?

Trite, formulaic stortelling is something we all  want to avoid, but we can learn something from those who are successful in spite of being trite and formulaic.  We can learn how to immerse our readers in our story’s world and how to keep them coming back for more.

Hot cocoa, anyone?

You’re a what?

A self-published author.  Hold on and hear me out.

Not too long ago, what I do was called vanity publishing (insert sneer).  The meaning of the expression was pretty clear.  It was for authors who couldn’t get a publisher but were vain enough to think they were great writers and that the traditional houses didn’t know what they were missing.  You paid for x number of books and had to sell them yourself.  It was a practice that was ridiculed and looked down upon by “real” writers and publishers.  I recall comments in Writer’s Digest back in the eighties warning against vanity publishing.

I imagine the lack of marketing left many cartons of unsold books in attics, basements, and garages the world over.

Times and technology have changed, but attitudes remain pretty hind bound.  We are still considered by many to be nothing more than wannabes.

Like I care.

A group of us dirty wannabes had a discussion at the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium (Clawson, Michigan) last week about these attitudes.  For newcomers, the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium is a bookstore/publisher here in southeast Michigan.  In addition to used books, they feature and support local self-published Michigan authors.  Walk in the front door and our books are the first ones you’ll see.  They carry some 250+ titles, including mine.  The Scriptorium has become my new favorite place.  They offer seminars, host book signings, link writers with illustrators, and are just all around passionate about local writers.  Led by the fearless and intrepid Diana, there’s nothing they won’t do to help an author succeed, including opening up space in the store for us to just sit down and work on our manuscripts.  You can even bring your dog.

Recently, a man entered the bookstore and inquired about the focus on local/self-published authors.  He felt if we were any good, we’d be published by one of the big publishing houses.  He was getting pretty loud about it and as the store was filled with kids attending a book launch for a local author, he was invited to shop elsewhere.

One of our “Idea Lab” members wondered if our critic expected every NFL player to have won the Super Bowl.

He makes a valid point.

Writing seems to be the only art form in which you aren’t considered a legitimate artist unless you have a contract with some faceless entity.

Remember that musician playing the local club last week?  Did they have a contract with a record label?  How many Grammys have they won?  Did you ask for these credentials or just sit and enjoy the music?  Would you have walked out of the venue if these credentials weren’t produced?

Or how about the local art fairs you enjoy every summer?  Did those artists have showings at the Guggenheim?  Do their paintings and sculptures sit in the homes of prominent people?  Did you turn up your nose and walk away when you found out they had no wealthy patrons?

If you can enjoy the work of artists in other fields without asking who “allows” them to create and sell their art, why don’t you give writers the same courtesy?

Granted, there are bad writers out there.  There are also bad singers, songwriters, painters, and sculptors.  Sour apples, I grant you, but none of that would stop you from listening to or purchasing what better artists offer.  Nor would you malign all artists as wannabes who can’t make it, simply because they work out of their garage and personally hawk their wares to the public.

In fact, we even have a name for these unknowns.  We don’t call them wannabes or losers.  We call them local artists and they are given at least a modicum of respect.

Writing is an art form, no less so than painting or playing music.  It’s difficult; and maybe bad writing is glaringly obvious in the sense that we expect stories to be told in a certain way, following certain rules, while the appreciation of other art forms is more subjective.  I get that.  But how will you know unless you give us a chance?

I made the decision a few years ago to stop banging on doors that were never likely to open to an unknown.  I realized that I could spend the rest of my life trying to get some faceless (and sometimes soulless) publisher to consider my work, reaching zero readers in the process, or I could take that leap into self-publishing and sell a few books.

I haven’t sold many yet, but I’ve sold a lot more than those writers who are still waiting for the publishing gods to cast them a crumb.

Your stories are your art.  Do your best and put them out there.  You don’t need permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

still largely considered to be wann

 

 

It Had to Happen Sooner or Later

I finally broke down and bought a laptop.  Years of working as a transcriptionist has damaged my hands, making my usual writing in longhand slow and uncomfortable; and trying to write in the same space I use for the day job was getting me down.

I know, it’s an extravagant thing to buy when I have a perfectly good desktop in the house, but I’m in a screw-it-I-work-my-ass-off-and-deserve-a-break kind of mood.

I’m not one to plot or brainstorm on the computer.  I still like to sit with a pen and paper on the front porch and scribble down notes about characters and plots.  I use the computer once I’ve roughed out the story and want to give it some shape.  Yesterday, new laptop charged and ready to go, I sat on the couch and typed the opening scenes of the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, with a DVD of Salem’s Lot (the David Soul version) playing in the background.  It was glorious.  By saving the draft to One Cloud, I’m able to easily access it from the desktop when I want to print it out for revisions.

I bought a nifty backpack to carry the laptop in, with plenty of space for my notepad and the reference material I need.  My own portable office.  I suddenly feel wonderfully free.

Now to find a suitable coffee shop to haunt.

 

When It’s Been Too Long

I haven’t done a great deal of writing over the past year.  I’ve worked a lot of hours at the hated day job, just trying to keep the roof over our heads.  I’ve battled some health issues and I’ve been neck-deep in ongoing family crises.

I’m tired.

Now that my husband is back to work after a very long layoff, I’m hoping to get my Sunday writing schedule back on track.  I have the bare bones of the next installment of Winthrop Risk, Detective, but I haven’t figured out the opening line.  Once I get that down, the actual writing of the story will be easier.  I’ve written some of Winthrop’s snappy dialogue and I know what his new case involves.  I have three solid suspects and have worked in a bit of a surprise about the identity of one of them.  My Winthrop character will be more “fleshed out” in this installment.  He’s turning into quite the guy.

I’m excited about it.  I’m also paralyzed.  How is that possible?

I think my enthusiasm for the characters and the story have set my own expectations far too high.  In short, I’m afraid of screwing it up.

Of all the forms of writer’s block, this is the one I dread the most.  If I don’t have a story idea, I know how to trick my brain into coming up with one.  It usually involves doing anything BUT trying to write.  I observe the world without trying to figure it out.  Look and listen without comment.  Jot down interesting names or phrases that I hear or that just pop into my head.  I use the same technique when I don’t know where the plot should go.  No big deal.

Someone once said (Anne Lamott?) that Fear was an especially vicious monster that smiles and wears lace gloves and says things like, “I just don’t want you to look foolish, dear.”

It will do no good to tell her she’s not invited.  Fear is also a narcissistic bitch if ever there was one.  She’ll show up, convinced of her own importance; but today I’ll resist the impulse to let her take a seat.

Today, I’ll gently court the Muse.  I’ll invite her over for a long-overdue visit.  We’ll sit on the porch and read a little bit.  We’ll read about writers and writing.  Then we’ll go over the story notes and I’ll tell her, “See, this isn’t bad.  We have something here.”  If she agrees, she’ll whisper that opening line and the floodgates will open.

I’ll make some tea.  She likes that.

 

Winthrop Risk, Detective

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