Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Combating Perfectionism With Perspective

I’m in the thick of drafting the second book in my series while a host of anxieties rage against me. The worst is the pressure to deliver an amazing story. I’ve gone through several rounds of edits with the first book, and, naturally, it’s shiny and beautiful. So what is this mess of 45,000 words and counting on my laptop? Will it ever be as smart and tidy? Will my unruly character, who loves to torment me by veering from my outline, ever fall back in with the vision I have for her story? And why don’t my words sound as pretty as the NYT bestselling novel on my nightstand?

Sound familiar? This whispering demon is called perfectionism. It likes to feed off of authors’ insecurities, and, let me tell you, it is fat with our doubts. Luckily, I’m a fighter, and I’ve learned a
valuable tool with which to defend myself from perfectionism: perspective.

A friend of mine from high school, ToriAnn Perkey, has a vlog where she teaches three principles for achieving perspective. They are simple, powerful, and so effective when applied to writing.

First, you honor where you’ve been. 

Now is a good time to pull out the first draft of the first manuscript you ever completed. Back in the day, my author dad tried to read that first chapter I’d labored over for months. He made it as far as one-and-a-half pages before he told me everything I was doing wrong and lent me his favorite writing craft book. I’ve learned a ton since then. It isn’t fair to compare my work-in-progress to my edited, polished, and soon-to-be-published novel, but I can compare a first draft to an old first draft. That’s when I can objectively say, “Hey, look where I once was. Look how far I’ve come. This is proof that I continue to get better.” I can also pat that aspiring author I used to be on the back and say, “Good job. You had to start from somewhere. You knew so little. Look what you created when you knew so little!”

Second, embrace where you are right now. 

Remind yourself you have a hard-earned skill set. You’ve been through the mess of drafting before, and somehow the work gets polished by the end. There are always ups and downs to be endured while drafting. This isn’t the first time you’ve felt defeated or wondered if you’ve made the right choice to trust your character over your outline. She’s smarter than you are. You’ve learned this too. She’s going to keep forging ahead, dragging a kicking and whining author mother behind her if she has to. If you stop struggling, you might make friends with her before the end. Then maybe she’ll listen if you want to nudge her back into formation (at least a baby step). The struggle of drafting often means something beautiful is about to hatch on the page. When creation happens, division happens. You know this. You’ve done this before. Why not embrace the chaos this time?

Third, after embracing where you are, look forward to where you want to go. 


In other words, have a bright vision for your future. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t there yet. Instead, find hope in looking for solutions that will bring you to the goal you desire. I’ve had two agents and three manuscripts on submission before I sold my fourth manuscript (the first in a trilogy). I’m no stranger to the patience it takes to get this far. But the truth is there will always be some aspect of publishing out of reach for me, something I ache to have. There is also always something to have an ulcer about. How will my sales do? Will I ever sell another book again? Will my book be reviewed well? Will I ever have another amazing book idea?

So many of these worries are out of my control. What I can control is writing a book to the best of my ability. For little windows of time, I can shut out the world and its expectation of me (at least according to my perceptions) and dream big and build other worlds and channel my emotions into various combinations of the twenty-six characters of the alphabet. My joy in writing will give me confidence in my vision of a successful career. That is a far better way to see the future than worrying about all the ways it can fail. I can also increase my skill set by continuing to read novels and stay up on the market, by attending conferences and reading writing craft books. Education never ends. Writers never know it all. I love to learn, and rather than being impatient that I don’t know it all, I can embrace and treasure each new thing I come to understand.

So the next time you feel like you’re not a good enough writer, that your characters are flat and running in circles, that your plot is tired and your descriptions not fresh enough—and a million other depressing thoughts while drafting—try to turn off your perfectionism by grounding yourself with perspective, because embracing where you are right now is where you’ll find your true happy place.

___________________________________

Kathryn Purdie’s love of storytelling began as a young girl when her dad told her about Boo Radley while they listened to the film score of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her own attempts at storytelling usually involved home video productions featuring her younger sister as a nerd or writing plays to perform with the neighborhood kids. In high school and college, she focused on acting, composing sappy poetry, singing folk ballads on her guitar, and completing at least ten pages in her journal every night. When she was in recovery from donating a kidney to her brother, inspiration for her first novel struck. She’s been writing darkly fantastical stories ever since. Kathryn is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Perceptions and Preferences

Many people in my life get teased or called shorty by me at least once. Sometimes they really are, but most of the time, it just because the top of their head maxes out below my own six feet. You wouldn't believe how many people tell me I look taller than my headshot...

When I was going into kindergarten, I was five years old, 50 inches and 50 pounds. I've never been small or short. Ever. In elementary, I was always on the back row in programs, usually wrestling with the curtains because the really tall people are back row and to the side. When I started 9th grade, I was already 5'9". And then I grew three more inches. 

Once upon a time, I dated a guy who was 6'9". It absolutely weirded me out. To tilt my head upward to make eye contact was the most bizarre experience. Standing next to him shifted my entire paradigm. 

And I hated it. 

That's not to say that I always love being tall. I'm completely guilty of the knee bend, head tilt, and other posture manipulations when it comes time to take pictures and everyone is inches shorter than me. But in my day to day interactions, I feel more comfortable with my place in the stratosphere. 

I think these little nuances are what we often forget when we are forming and developing our characters. We narrow down style with ease, for some people voice joins quickly. But we need to remember, written or not, that there are experiences that have created norms for our characters, ways they interact with the world that feels comfortable. With any ethnicity, with any culture, with any body type, gender, personality, political leaning, etc., there are REASONS a person has the preferences they do.

And the reasons for those preferences say a great deal about who that person is, who that character is. 

So take a character that has fallen a little flat, that your readers say they struggle to connect with, that seems to coast from scene to scene. Over and over, ask yourself why. Why don't they leap from the page? Why do they stay in the background so easily? Why aren't they emotionally vibrant? Imagining them in a social setting (party, classroom, board meeting) why do they react when they hear their name the way they do? 

And while not everyone has to be a kickass heroine predestined to save the world, sometimes they are. Ask the why questions again. Why does this person accept the call? Why do they push beyond their natural reluctance (because they always are, at some point) to do what is difficult? Why are they able to turn on the charm, the wit, the charisma at just the right time all the time? 

What happened in the normal, everyday living that made them who they are? 

Going through this process for characters will naturally lead us to self-reflection and encourage conversation. To understand motivations of others, we have to understand what motivates us, what makes us feel comfortable and what makes us uncomfortable. And we have to know how the motivations of others are different. It can be an awesomely terrifying experience, but doing so will allow us to know ourselves better, to know our characters better. 
_________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Writing Stress? Try Visualization


Have you ever experienced writing stress? Writing stress occurs when the pressure of having to produce so many words a day builds to incapacitating levels. Sometimes writing halts to a standstill, which only exacerbates the stress. Writing stress has the effect of pulling in negative energy, which in turn decreases your enjoyment in writing, which then pulls in more negative energy. Some may call the result of this snowball effect a "block," but I personally don't like this term because it provides an image of a solid barrier that you have to leap over or squeeze around to bypass. Instead, there may be better ways to remove that barrier once and for all. 


When you find yourself in that negative cycle, yes, by all means take a break. But you can do it in a way that can harness some positive energy to help you more directly with your writing. 


Darci Cole had an excellent post last week about writing exercises that help keep your writing mind sharp. The following is a visualization exercise that I've adapted for writers who are down in the proverbial pit of despair and can't envision a way out. I have a close friend who had a bona fide nervous breakdown because of an impending deadline, and after several counseling visits, she tried this visualization technique with success.

Visualization techniques may be used to harness positive energy to achieve your goals. They also help with your overall sense of well-being. These techniques are are sometimes called controlled/directed visualization or receptive visualization.


What you need:
  • A quiet, comfortable place
  • A block of uninterrupted time (20-30 minutes)
  • Ambient music or a writing playlist (whatever you choose, it shouldn't be distracting but used to set the mood).
How to visualize:
  1. Select a single scene in your MS that you want to work on.
  2. Lie back, close your eyes, and breathe. Spend a few minutes listening to the ambient sounds or music.
  3. Imagine the physical scene unfolding in front of your mind's eye first. Imagine the details as though you were there. What are your physical surroundings? Can you feel textures and pick up smells? Are there cues that you can use to pinpoint the time of day? Is it warm or cold? etc.
  4. Add your characters to the scene, but don't let them run amuck in their physical surroundings -- you are the silent director of this scene. If you're writing from first-person, focus on the character who owns the POV in this scene. If not, view it as though you are watching a movie. Pay attention to how your character(s) is/are oriented within the scene. How are they interacting with their physical surroundings?  Listen to their trains of thought. Hear their dialogue. See if you can carry out the scene all the way through. This may take more than one sitting, but that's okay! If you can vividly imagine any portion of your scene, you are doing great :)
  5. Don't forget to breathe. Relax but stay focused. You got this.
After you're done with the visualization, try sitting down and drafting some of what you just visualized. First focus on the aspects of the scene that were most vivid and real to you. Maybe it's the scenery, or it could be the dialogue. Maybe it's the thought process of your character. Whatever is most vivid and real in your head will probably be easiest to draft first.

Keep breathing and feel the positive energy and words flow. You can do it!

_________________________________________________

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Perseverance + hard work = SUCCESS!

The writing process can be super difficult. It can make us feel inadequate or like we're better off pursuing something else. Even if we start a story or project with ease, we soon find ourselves in the trenches of writing, editing, revisions, more revisions, trashing whole chapters or sections, rewriting, dreading critiques, and even loathing ourselves.

Sounds really fun, right?

But we do have those moments when it finally seems to come together. That's where the magic happens. But, that magic is not possible with large amounts of work and not giving up when it gets overwhelming, frustrating, and difficult.

Perseverance + hard work = SUCCESS!

I remember reading about author Kathryn Stockett and her book The Help. That manuscript was rejected SIXTY TIMES before receiving her YES. I was amazed. I don't know how I would have handled that amount of rejection. The point is, is that she didn't give up and throw her manuscript in the trash. She believed in it and spent hours, days, and months reworking scenes to turn it into a huge success.

Writing a book is often referred to as giving birth to a baby. They do have a lot of the same symptoms...


  • At first, the writing is really fun.
  • Then you wonder what you've gotten yourself into.
  • You stress and worry. A lot.
  • You work hard doing all the things you're supposed to do to make your "book pregnancy" a success. 
  • Critique partners do "check-ups" and help you stay on the right track. 
  • The writing is often uncomfortable. 
  • You gain weight. Sometimes a lot.
  • You just want the book to be done!
  • You become extra sensitive, ornery, and cry easily--and all. the. time.
  • The deadline approaches and the worry increases. You start editing like mad, making sure your MS is spotless--the "nesting" phase.
  • Finally, after a lot of pain, self-medication via chocolate and caffeinated beverages, your book baby is born.
  • You show off your cover and masterpiece to the world.
  • And then you worry and stress about its success for the rest of your life.

After you have a child, you don't give up on your kid when she becomes exhausting, frustrating, or has to take yet another bath to get cleaned up. The same goes for writing. You stick with it and do what has to be done as responsible parents (authors) do.

As any parent knows, there will be times when you feel like giving up, DON'T! Keep working at it. Let a fresh set of eyes take a look. Listen to their suggestion and see if it helps further your plot and character development.

Take a break for awhile. When the self-doubt kicks in or you have no idea where your story should go next, step away for a day. A week. Or a month. Just as "distance makes the heart grow fonder," so does letting your MS sit untouched for a bit. I've found when I think something I've written is absolute garbage, if I take a sufficient break, it changes things. I can see my writing more clearly and am able to clean it up if needed and also see where my strengths are.

Sometimes, you will delete some section of your book and replace is with something a lot better. It's part of the process. The revisions, editing, scrapping, rewriting, etc., will all be worth it in the end.
No one is handed success on a gold platter. It takes work, many failures, perseverance, and some more hard work. If success in writing was easy, everyone would do it.


So, hang in there and keep writing.



___________________________

Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 300 articles—book reviews as well as family-oriented articles on familyshare.com . She somehow manages to do that with 6 spirited children ranging in age from 4 to 13 under toe. In the throes of writing her first book, she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading YA or other fiction. She loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Monday, August 17, 2015

When Reading and Writing Don’t Mix

They say that in order to write well, you must read, read, and read some more. I agree with this. I mean, how can I not?  But sometimes I have trouble doing both at the same time, and it’s frustrating in the extreme. This became a huge problem when I was working on my last project, and it took me a while to figure out why. It turns out, I need to read books that are written in the same point of view that I’m currently writing in. Or at least, if the POVs are different, I need to save my reading time for after I’ve finished writing for the day.

I really have no idea why this is, but something about it messes with my writing voice. Sometimes I even get blocked, or I’ll catch myself questioning the POV I’m using, wondering if I should change it when I really don’t need to. The latter happened with my current project. I was reading a fantastic book that I found inspiring plot and character-wise, but it was written in third person past, and the draft I’m working on right now is in first person present. I started to wonder if maybe I was using the wrong point of view. Maybe I should be writing my novel in third person past as well.

Then the next day, I’d read over bits of it, and realize that no, first person present really was the way I should be writing it. But still, whenever I would think ahead to scenes I had yet to write, I’d think of them in terms of third person past.

So I set the book I was reading aside to finish at another time . . . and I picked up a memoir. It’s in past tense as well, but it’s in first person. And that has done the trick. Granted, there’s tons (and I do mean tons) of fiction also written in first person, but that particular memoir had been calling to me for a while, so that’s what I went for. (It’s Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, if you’re wondering, and I’m enjoying it immensely.)

Now? Boom, I’m back in business. I wrote 4k without a hitch the day after I picked up that book. Four thousand words in one day is a crazy amount of writing for me, especially during the summer with two kids at home running in circles all over the house.

So my point is, if you find you’re having trouble getting your writing voice to flow, or if you’re getting stuck completely, you might want to take a look at what you’re reading. No matter how much you’re enjoying the book, it may be the culprit. Consider setting it aside (only temporarily, of course!) and see what happens. That might be all it takes to get your writing mojo back.
______________________________________________

When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Lumberjack Writer

My husband told me a story once about two lumberjacks, one old and experienced, the other young and ambitious. In the story, the young lumberjack sees the old sitting down multiple times in the day to sharpen his axe. (Yes, I'm purposely spelling it with an E because I think it looks better that way.) Feeling this a lazy practice, the young man challenges the old. Whoever fells the most trees in one work day, is the winner.

Well, they had the challenge. And as usual, the old man took time about once every few hours to sit and sharpen his axe. At the end of the day, the young man was astounded to learn that he'd lost. The old man knew that to be the most effective, he had to keep his instrument sharp, and his body rested.

I tell you this story because I think about it often in terms of writing novels. There are some key skills we must learn in order for us to be successful (sharpening the axe), and we need to make sure our creative tank is filled (sitting to rest).

I'm sure you know of a million writing exercises out there, but I'd like to share some with you that have worked for me. I'll do these when I'm stuck in a scene, or having a hard time pinning down the voice of a character, or just warming up my writing muscles.

Character Interview
Write a transcript, so to speak, of a conversation between yourself and your character. Pretend you meet them in their setting, or maybe you invite them to dinner. This is a great thing for plotters like myself to try, because it's very freeing and you don't know where it might go. Sometimes that's okay.

Scene Shift
If you're stuck in a scene, or bored with it, if it's just not exciting you, Mary Robinette Kowal suggests changing a small element in order to help you, the author, be more engaged. Changing the point of view, the setting, even the time of day, can make just the right amount of difference, and get the creative juices flowing again.

Thirty-Minute Setting
This is another one I borrow from MRK. To get your mind shifted to a place where it will notice small details, she suggests sitting for thirty minutes and describing the room you're in. After a few minutes, you'll think you've run out of things to describe, but if you push through it you'll discover the tiny gritty details that make a world real.

Now, the next part of keeping ourselves lumberjack-fit is making sure our creativity tank is high. Again, there are a ton of ways to do this, here are just a few.

Read A Book
I think this one is the most obvious. If you've run out of words, go get more! Read in your genre, or out of your genre, Read a short story or a novel. Read fiction or non-fiction. Just don't count Twitter.

Move Around
Walk, run, jog, skip, leap, stretch, Yoga, Zumba, Kick Box, Tai Chi, whatever floats your boat! Moving your body can help snap things into place for your brain, and really helps when you're stuck on a problem and need to think it out.

Watch TV or a Movie
Confession: I went a whole month this year without writing at all. I needed the break. And to help me relax, I started watching shows on Netflilx. They're great. I didn't finish all seasons of anything because I got my mojo back, but I got started and it helped.

The thing is, writing sometimes suffers when we push it. Those of you with agents and book contracts have it rough, and I know it. But the goal is to know which tools will help you get back in the game. Learn these tricks now, so that when the deadlines loom, you can fight your way through the tough spots.

May the words be ever in your favor, friends.

_____________________________

A Gryffindor, Mormon, and Wandmaker, Darci Cole is an author of YA and MG scifi/fantasy, the YA usually with a romantic twist. She's edited a number of manuscripts for clients and also served as an editorial intern for Entangled Publishing during the summer of 2013.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Recipes for Writers

Summer is coming to an end (sob!) and since many writers are parents and/or teachers too, life is about to get even busier. Who has time to make dinner? But on the other hand, who wants to alternate between pizza and cereal for weeks on end?

Never fear! We've compiled a list of recipes just for writers. Quick, easy, relatively healthy, and perfect for fueling your writing, these are some of our contributors' actual favorites. Read on to find your perfect recipe based on where you are in your writing process!



Beta Reader Baked Ravioli (contributed by Tasha, adapted from this recipe)

For those times when feedback leaves you staring at the screen (insert weeping or giggling here as necessary) and suddenly it's time for dinner.

Characters:
  • 1 bag frozen ravioli
  • 1 jar marinara sauce
  • shredded mozzarella cheese


Plot:
  • Cover the bottom of a 9 x 13” pan with a thin layer of marinara sauce, then cover that with a single layer of ravioli.
  • Cover the ravioli with another layer of sauce, then a layer of cheese. Then repeat: ravioli, sauce, cheese.
  • Cover with foil and bake at 400 F for 30 minutes while you re-read feedback and alternate between weeping and giggling.
  • Remove foil and continue baking (and reading feedback) for 10-15 more minutes.


Resolution: A delicious dinner that looks more difficult than it is! Unlike writing, which often looks much easier than it actually is. This goes well with salad and bread, or a large helping of chocolate.


“Don’t Be Chicken” Taco Soup (contributed by Elaine, adapted from this recipe)

A recipe so easy you only need to be able to operate a slow cooker and a can opener, perfect for those days when you’ll need to spend 8+ hours with your finger hovering over the mouse, daring yourself to finally send your precious to your agent/editor/betas.

Characters:
  • 6 cans of stuff: 1 corn, 1 tomato sauce (small), 1 chili beans, 1 black beans, 2 diced tomatoes with green chilis (Note: We use mild everything because we are wimpy.)
  • 1 ½ cups chicken broth
  • ½ packet taco seasoning
  • 3 chicken breasts

Plot:
  • Dump all this stuff into the crock pot, stir, and cook on low 5 hours while you obsess about your work.
  • Shred the chicken, then stir it back in and continue cooking 2 more hours; resume daring yourself to send and/or tweaking small details and/or pacing the room.

Resolution: Delicious dinner, especially when served with sour cream, shredded cheese, and tortilla chips. And the leftover are tasty enough to be tomorrow’s dinner, because you’ll be busy staring at your inbox!


Chapter Revision Chile Relleno (contributed by Helen, adapted from this recipe)

An easy casserole version of this Mexican dish for those days when you have to feed a mouthful but have a handful of revisions to conquer!

Characters:
  • 2 (10-oz) cans whole green chilies
  • 6-oz Monterey Jack cheese, cut into strips
  • 8 eggs
  • ⅔ cup milk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1½ cups cheddar cheese, shredded

Plot:
  • Preheat oven to 350 and spray a 9x13" dish with cooking spray.
  • Drain the green chilies, then stick a strip of cheese inside each chili. Place the stuffed chilies in the baking dish.
  • Whisk the eggs, milk, flour and baking powder together in a bowl until they’re smooth.
  • Pour egg mixture over chilies, then top with cheese.
  • Bake for 30 minutes until the egg is puffy and the cheese is bubbly and you’ve revised at least one chapter, even though you know you’ll be coming back to it at least twelve more times.

Resolution: This one makes great leftovers for breakfast, just in case you’re revising all night…


Pardon my French Dip Crescents (contributed by Tasha, adapted from this recipe)

For when you have gaps in your story, underdeveloped characters screaming for your attention, and your family wants dinner at the same time.

Characters:
  • 2 packages crescent rolls, 8 count
  • 1 pound deli roast beef, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces Swiss or provolone cheese, cut in 16 equal sized pieces

Plot:
  • Unroll the crescent triangles, put a piece of meat and cheese (and a dab of horseradish, if you’re feeling zesty), then roll toward the point.
  • Repeat for all sixteen, then place finished rolls on a baking dish.
  • Bake at 375 F for 11-13 minutes, during which time you can make au jus or brainstorm a juicy new character or scene. It’s a win either way.

Resolution: Tasty and a total crowd pleaser. Just like your manuscript will be when you fix all these blasted problems. (WHEN! Not if. WHEN!)


Okay, readers. I’m still looking for more recipes! What are your go-to meals for those days when you’d just rather be writing?

______________________________________________


Elaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she's not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She's a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. :)