Are We Blocked or Afraid?

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I’ve been wondering about this lately.  While writing this novel, I occasionally find myself unsure of how to proceed. There are kinks in the plot that need to be worked out.  Sometimes what I planned for my characters doesn’t work and I need to make a change.  Plot holes appear out of nowhere.  For example, at one point, my main character thinks someone may have broken into the house.  I had her going up to her bedroom and locking the door.

Dumb and unrealistic.

I had to add a scene in which she realizes she left her cell phone upstairs and flees to a neighbor’s house to call the police.

For several days, though, I left the problem unresolved.  It isn’t really that I wasn’t sure what to do but that I was afraid to do it.  Like the rest of you, I suffer occasionally from nagging doubts about my ability to pull this off.  It was silly, of course, and the scene I crafted turned out well.  The reader will know that the presence of an intruder can’t explain what’s been happening in the house because the police have ruled that out.  That helps to move the plot along.  I even got to know the neighbor a little better.  Maybe I can use that later in the story.

I’m guilty of going for days without adding to the story because I’m afraid to face it.  It’s too big and unwieldy.  I feel intimidated by it.  There are things I’ve left out that need to be added.  Character descriptions, for example.  Right now, the reader would have no idea what any of the characters looks like.  It’s had me slightly panicked, but I had an epiphany today.

I haven’t written the descriptions because I haven’t been able to see the characters.  And you know what?  It’s okay!  As I continue to write and spend time in the world I’m creating, the people and their surroundings are coming into focus.  I can get all of that nailed down in the next draft.  It doesn’t have to stop me from doing the first draft, which is about the plot.  I don’t have to become “blocked” over it.  Bake the cake, then add the icing.

I think this may be why there are so many characters in self-published novels that feel like they’re 2-dimensional people.  It’s as if the author felt they couldn’t proceed with the story until we knew what color nail polish the main character wore.  It feels forced.  If you’re stuck or bogged down because your characters and setting don’t feel detailed enough, let it slide for now.  The more you think about them and the more words you put into their mouths, the clearer their faces will be; and the rooms they sit in will become furnished.

My characters are finally starting to emerge from the mist and introduce themselves.  And I just realized that the living room couch in the main character’s house is a hideous shade of green.

For now.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

If Old Praise is All I Have Today

I was going through an old box of stuff not long ago and found a diary I had kept while in high school.  In it was an entry made after my family had moved from Brooklyn to a suburb just north of Detroit when I was about 15.  A former classmate in our honors English class at Fort Hamilton High School told me that our teacher had stopped abruptly in the middle of class one day and asked, “Whatever happened to that wonderful writer, Mary-Jane?” I was startled when I read it.  I had forgotten all about it; but there it was, some 35 years later, written in my own hand.  It made me a little emotional.

I thought about other teachers through the years who had complimented my writing skills or encouraged me in some way.  The first was Mrs. Burgio in the third grade.  She was a wonderfully creative and kind teacher who inspired me to write my first poem.  There was Mr. Pelkonen at Fort Hamilton who taught the remedial English class.  I had been placed in his class because I had to take remedial math and the geniuses at school thought I was probably just all around stupid and placed me accordingly.  Mr. Pelkonen gave us an assignment to read a poem out loud in front of the class.  I recited Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” from memory.  Mr. Pelkonen looked at me and said, “What are you doing in this class?”  The next day, I was transferred to the honors English class taught by his wife.  Mrs. Pelkonen took every opportunity to praise my work.  For our final exam, we had to write an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird.  While the rest of the class scribbled away for almost an hour, producing page after page, I wrote a page and a half and put down my pen.  Mrs. Pelkonen held it up in front of the class and said, “Now THIS is writing!”

After moving to Michigan, Mr. Voorhees at Lake Shore High School gave us an assignment to write a short story about a futuristic society.  While the rest of the class went for the utopian model, I wrote a much darker tale.  Mr. Voorhees wrote in red pen, “Terrific story! I even read it twice!”  I still have it here somewhere.

We face a lot of rejection as writers.  It can be hard to keep your head up when the message always seems to be “not good enough”.  I hope you’ll take a few minutes this week and think about the people who have inspired you, the ones who said you had talent.  If they saw it, some day some agent or publisher will too.