Starting Out as a Writer: 5 Things You Should Know

I did a guest post today called “Starting Out As A Writer – 5 Things You Should Know” on the What’s on the Bookshelf blog. I thought I would re-post part of it here for my writer followers who are starting out on their journey toward authorship.

Enjoy!

Five things you need to know:

1. This isn’t easy. But it’s POSSIBLE. As ‘aspiring’ authors, I think we often underestimate two things about established authors: (a) how hard they work, and (b) how accessible a writing career can be. We imagine that writing for a living is a cushy job for the fortunate few, who roll out of bed and fart out a bestseller on their way to cocktails at noon. I don’t think that’s ever been true, and certainly the age of eBooks and self-publishing has opened the field for more hard-working writers than ever to earn a living with their craft. It’s as much about working your ass off as it is about getting a ‘big break.’

==> Read the other four things you need to know at What’s on the Bookshelf.

Only a Writer or Therapist Would Find the Junk Drawer Significant

junkdrawer

“I knew you’d come back for me.”

Luckily for me, I’m both (or at least have been both in the recent past).

I was cleaning out our junk drawer the other day – because we’re getting ready to move, not because I was desperately looking for procrastination excuses – and near the end of my task I glanced down to find it just as it’s pictured here. It struck me as mildly poetic somehow, so I took a break and snapped a picture. Ordinary objects can be fertile ground for writing if you look with the right eye…

In our house, the junk drawer is the catch-all place, where for some reason we keep life’s everyday essentials (scissors and pens) buried alongside the crap we will never, ever use again under any circumstances (year-old soy sauce and manuals to phones I recycled years ago). It’s the one place in the house where hoarding is normal and accepted, even in the tidiest, most minimalist homes. And in my home, which is neither tidy nor minimalist, it’s a place where the crazy really shows. This picture is just the 10% that was left at the bottom.

The writer’s brain is a lot like a junk drawer. We stow things away — both purposefully and at whim — never really knowing if they will resurface, or if they do, if they’ll be useful. An idea that seems essential to our work one minute can become trite and irrelevant the next. Or we scribble something thoughtlessly, only to find it again months later with fresh eyes and find it’s exactly what we need at a crucial moment in a story. It’s a beautiful process of acquiring, storing, and finally (painfully) purging ideas until we have something inspiring or useful to share. It’s good to have a quantity of stuff to draw from, but only when we’re willing to take the time to filter through it will we have the opportunity to see things clearly.

So when was the last time you went through the clutter from your own junk drawer, literally or figuratively? What inspiration can you find at the bottom of your pile — or mine, for that matter? It could be an army guy next to a poignant Taco Bell sauce packet, a mystery key, or a bag of dice. Or maybe an idea that got shelved months ago because it wasn’t ready for the world. Inspiration for a brand new story, or simply texture for a work in progress. Either way, maybe it’s time to revisit something you’ve stashed away, so that you can either toss it aside forever or give it a new life in the light of day.

I’d love to read junk-drawer stories – please link in the comments if you write one!

Anyone Else Suffering from Social Media Exhaustion?

I was cruising my social media universe the other day – it seems all I’ve been able to manage in 2013 is a little cruising – when I came across something that sort of disturbed me. I won’t link to it (a) because I can’t find it and (b) I don’t want to come across as critical of someone who has clearly mastered social media marketing in a way that is far beyond me.

This blogger/writer was touting the benefits of a particular social network site (it might have been Triberr or something, I truthfully can’t remember) and she was commenting that she really liked the auto-approval feature, which allowed her guest posters to post blogs, etc., during the week she was away for vacation or a conference and wouldn’t be available 24/7 to approve posts. Which sounds simply lovely, in terms of functionality. If you are a super-mega-blogger with tons of contributors and followers, I’m sure auto-approve is a convenient and helpful feature. In terms of scale, this person was sort of like the Emperor of Prussia, while I am more like the manager of a convenience store. And that’s all good.

What bothered me about the post was the next statement. It was something to the effect of, “I would hate for my social media venues to go silent for a week while I was away.” And I thought, REALLY? You can never just be ‘off’?

Wow.

For me, social media is all about genuine connection, learning something new, and having a venue to post ideas I find interesting or informative (mine or others). Yes, it’s about reaching readers and marketing as well, but as I’ve matured in my experience that has become less the focus for me.

Between the kids, non-writing work, managing a household, and everything else; just finding time to write is challenging. To have to be constantly “on” social media as well… wow. Just wow. Some people seem to do it — tweeting every few minutes, blogging three times a week, guest posting, reading and retweeting others. I just don’t know where they find the time. And I wonder (and maybe readers wonder too) how they can produce quality writing while they’re spending so much time being social.

In the end, it’s probably a matter of time, situation and personal style. I can’t tweet forty times a day and be genuine, the same way I can’t write a novel every six weeks and do my best work. But I have a one year old and a three year old, so maybe those who are super-present on social media have more time (and less yogurt smeared on their laptops) than I do. Or maybe they work harder. Maybe they simply want it more.

It will be interesting to see, if we have a way of measuring such things in the long run, whether authors who are ultra-active on social media have more success than those who post less frequently or those who abstain entirely. Certainly it seems unwise to stay away altogether (unless you’re J.K. Rowling, and then you can do whatever you want), but I have to feel there must be diminishing return for time spent posting and re-posting, especially instead of writing and revising, past a certain point.

Could it be that in our frantic race to get noticed by readers and other writers, we are creating expectations for online activity that are completely unsustainable over the long run? Are we watering down the tools we love, and our communal dialogue, through ever-increasing quantity and ever-thinning quality? Could it be that we are contributing to information overload, flooding our followers with information that is often repetitive and only marginally useful or entertaining?

Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my own laziness. It could totally be that, too.

{By the way, happy new year, everyone!}

What to Get your Favorite Writer for the Holidays

If you have a writer in your life — and really, who doesn’t? — you may be wondering what to get for him or her this holiday season. Naturally, I have some helpful suggestions, sure to bring a smile to the wordsmith in your life.

An autographed copy of his favorite book by his favorite author. If you’re considering this option, you’re either very thoughtful or very wealthy. Or both. Good for you. That being the case, you have already probably bought your writer friend countless dinners when he was short on cash, and maybe even filled his decade-old Honda Civic with gas once or twice. So this is that extra-mile gift, the one that says “Dude, enjoy this, because it’s the last thing you are getting from me until you can start paying for your share of the pizza.” The nice thing about this gift is that the scrawled inscription of his hero will inspire and encourage him when he’s feeling positive, and shame him mercilessly when he’s flailing around in self-doubt and indecision. Just like you would do if you could be there. Awww.

An office supply store gift card. It sounds trite, but if the writer in your life is anything like me, there is no place she would rather kill writing time than an office supply store. Leather bound journals with blank pages we can stare at for hours. Planners, calendars, list-makers, and grid paper — all suitable for outlining complex plots and ingenious ways of tricking ourselves into writing on a regular schedule. Folders, binders, notebooks. And color coding — oh my goodness. Innumerable tools — maps, software packages, reference guides — that we can use for “research.” And the pens. Dear God, the pens. It’s all such a turn-on. Not a figurative turn-on, either, but a serious, heavy-breathing, inky-fingered sexual thrill. Your writer will open that envelope, give an involuntary gasp, and whisper “I am going to procrastinate. I am going to procrastinate so damn hard.” And you thought this would be impersonal.

A free pass to use something from your life in her novel. This is kind of like the coupons that lovers give one another for free shoulder rubs or a night of doing the dishes. Except you’re giving over a part of yourself. It could be something quirky about you, like the fact that you have to line your food up alphabetically in the pantry before you can make dinner (which will make her hard-as-nails feminist detective seem more human and approachable) or something deeply personal, like your history of dating jerks who look suspiciously like your father. You don’t really get to choose, actually, but one day you’ll be reading your friend’s novel and come across a bit of you, right there in black and white for the whole world to read. Your cheeks will flush with embarrassment and anger. You will confront your friend, and she’ll give you a sheepish grin and the coupon you gave her in December 2012. Voila! Friendship saved. Not to mention you don’t have to spend a dime on her for the holidays this year. Lord knows she won’t be spending much on you.

A crappy childhood. Every writer needs a suffocatingly boring, chronically strained or downright traumatic childhood he can draw from in his writing. To be effective, a childhood must be happy enough to produce a semi-stable human being, and yet awful enough to provide the rich experience (and perpetual ennui) needed to be a successful writer. Now, unless you are the parent of an adolescent novelist, it may be too late to give your writer the crappy childhood he really needs. But what you can do is sort of a reverse Pollyanna: ask your writer to talk about his life, and point out the terrible side of everything he says. Grew up middle-class in a suburban home with unassuming parents who stayed together and loved him? Sounds like a bunch of vanilla, Stepford, cultural fascists to me… You get the idea.

A Kindle, nook, or iPad, pre-loaded with her favorite authors and the MLA style guide. There’s no snarky explanation for this one. That’s a damn nice gift. Need another writer friend? I’m available!

Three Guys, a Girl and 200K

No, it’s not the latest reality show from VH1. It’s my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) experience!

Last year I wrote my NaNoWriMo entry in a relative vacuum (perhaps one of many reasons I bailed out at 20,000 words), but this year I’m excited to say that I have three writing buddies who were already buddies to begin with. They also all happen to be men whose names begin with R. What can I say? I’m a girl with a type.

The first to join my writing group this fall was my friend Ross. Actually, he’s a guy I dated for a couple of years in college who is now married to a friend of mine’s younger sister. Awkward? Not at all. Why would you think that? I mean, how could I talk so freely about how not awkward that is unless it were totally not awkward, right? [insert high pitched, but totally not nervous laughter here]. Seriously, it’s exciting to see him challenging himself to write long-form fiction for the first time.

The other two are Ryan and Rob, whom I count among my very best friends in the world. The former and I bonded over Virginia Woolf during a summer at Oxford and have been alternately challenging, supporting and inciting each other to laughter ever since. Ryan and I exchanged playlists a few weeks ago, each of us creating an era-specific mix to help the other stay inspired in November.

And as for Rob, well, some may find this hard to believe, but Rob has been my friend since we were six years old. That’s more than 30 years, y’all. He is truly more like a brother than a friend, not just to me, but to my husband as well. It’s a gift.

People often comment about the longstanding, deep friendships in my novels. I can tell you that those relationships are certainly (fictionalized) reflections of what I am so blessed to have in my real life. Some writers prefer an isolated life, which I can understand, but that’s just not how I’m wired. I need that interaction and support, the stimulation of good conversation and mutual accountability.

Every writer needs a support system: whether it’s a richly woven web of relationships like mine; the simple acceptance of a spouse or partner who can take the kids while you write; or even a writing buddy who is time zones away, but can give you a pep talk just when you need it. The writing life can be difficult; but strong relationships can make it a little easier and a little more worthwhile. Who are your biggest supporters? Where would more support be helpful?

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo like me this month, feel free to connect with me and become part of my web. [Warning: once you’re in, it’s hard to get out!] The Writer’s Challenge Feature is on hold until December while I scramble for those word count goals, but we’ll be back with more fun stuff in chilly weather. Good luck, everyone!

My Preschooler vs. The Costco Happiness Mandate

Once a month or so, I go with my family to that Mecca of Consumerist Culture, Costco. It’s probably not cool to say so, but I love this ritual. Usually we’re stocking up on staples like paper towels, milk and diapers; but it’s also a specific type of quality family time. While we’re getting our basic household needs met, we also wander around browsing, snacking on samples, and looking forward to the cheap hot dog at the end. The boys (one and three) fit securely side-by-side in the super-wide shopping carts, and the various items for sale typically spark conversations about future vacations, home improvements, or large gatherings we’d like to have.

If you’ve been to Costco, you know that they have employees stationed at the exits, who check your receipt against what’s in the cart and put a line through it with permanent marker. If you have little kids, they also routinely flip the receipt over and draw a smiley face there as well. Unbelievably, it’s this smiley face schtick that has become a point of contention between my stubborn as hell precocious three year old and the staff of our local Costco.

I don’t remember exactly how this started, maybe by a loose cannon employee trying to cheer him up on a grouchy day, but somehow my little guy got it into his head that he wants both a happy face and a sad face on his receipts. Leave it to a therapist’s kid to insist that a fuller range of human emotions be represented. Apparently, we’ve learned, this is against Costco policy.

If you know any three-year-olds, you know that accepting such realities is not really their

Costco Smiley

You would think this a simple issue…

specialty. He asks for a sad face, in his most charming and polite little voice, every time. And every time, they refuse. Sometimes they rebuff his request with a muttered joke, sometimes they pretend not to hear him, and once or twice they have even refused him directly – saying that it’s Costco policy. I find it hard to imagine this is actually Costco policy, but if it is, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting.

As you can imagine, this leaves us with a frustrated and bewildered child on our hands after every trip to Costco, at least until we can get to the car and his dad or I will add a sad face to the happy one on the back of the receipt. Silly, but true. And you know what? I don’t blame him. He approaches those employees with a perfectly reasonable request, and feels frustrated when those in charge refuse him for no apparent reason.

Readers are the same way.

When I pick up a novel, I develop certain expectations for how it will go in the first few pages, and certainly by the end of the third chapter or so. If the author doesn’t resolve the problem presented in the initial chapters by the end, I get frustrated and angry, too. I’m not talking about happy endings, necessarily, because like my three-year-old I believe there’s room in the world for sadness, too; but I do expect to feel satisfied at the end of a novel.

I have noticed that some authors – amateurs and publishing legends alike – sometimes ignore or fail to account for this expectation when they write. They muddle their story with too many unrelated twists and turns, or so many characters and details that they seem to lose track of them [I’ve been guilty of that one myself]. Or, in what I assume is an attempt to avoid being predictable, they heap tragedy or ecstasy on their characters to such excess that it’s hard to keep reading. Maybe that is how real life works sometimes, but that’s not why readers pick up novels.

Originality is critical, as is the element of suspense. And I’m certainly not advocating two-dimensional characters or canned plotlines. But I think there’s a time when writers take their quest to surprise and engage to a level at which the reader becomes an adversary to be bested, rather than a fan to be courted. I believe that’s a strategy for failure. Readers love twists, intrigue and surprises, but they have to fit into the context of the story and help the reader progress toward solving whatever problem the novel introduces (whether it’s resolved for the characters or not, it must be resolved for the reader in some way).

Writers who smugly try to outsmart readers, rather than partnering with them to tell the story, will most likely find this strategy about as useful as telling a three year old how he should feel. While I don’t think my little guy will ever boycott Costco because of their happy-only philosophy, I do feel confident that readers who find a story unsatisfying will be likely to look for what they expect somewhere else.

So, how do you strike the balance between expressing yourself as an artist and creating an enjoyable experience for the reader? Is your reader forefront when you sit down to write? Or maybe he/she doesn’t enter your mind at all?

Writer’s Challenge #5 – FEAR

With Halloween around the corner (and my house infested with creepy, itchy little fleas – UGH!), I wanted to spend some time talking about fear, and how writers can use fear in their work. For writers of horror, suspense and thrillers, the use of fear is not only overt, it’s an essential part of the story. But what if you write contemporary romances, or satirical fantasy? Fear plays a minimal role, right?

I’d like to challenge you to re-think that perspective. Knowing what your characters (and readers) fear most is absolutely critical in writing good fiction of any sort. Fear is the shadow side of drive; you can’t have one without the other. Most of us could say what drives our main characters to do what they do – perhaps the pursuit of love, prestige, money, or power. But what keeps your characters awake at night? What are they desperately trying to avoid?

Maybe your fashion-focused heroine is afraid of becoming irrelevant; perhaps the brooding hero can’t stomach the idea of being vulnerable, or disappointing his father, or you know, spiders. While we may or may not share those fears explicitly with the reader, they guide our characters’ actions and thoughts just as strongly as their movement toward the goal of the story. Sometimes, more. Ignore fears and insecurities, and your characters can fall flat.

In my work as a therapist, I have often invited anxious clients to play out their worst fears by imagining the worst case scenario in vivid, horrifying detail. Too often, we are ruled by what we cannot see and dare not name, but when we cast our fears in concrete details, we begin to be able to evaluate them more rationally. This can be helpful as a writer, too, knowing what you’re afraid of and becoming the master over it. You can take your characters on that same journey as the story progresses — whether they succeed or fail in overcoming their fears is up to you!

Fiction Prompt: Pick a character you know and love (yours or someone else’s) and write their worst nightmare, in excruciating detail, right up until the point when he or she wakes up in a cold sweat. How does it impact the character’s behavior upon waking?

Non-fiction: What scares you the most as a writer? What is the most painful result you can imagine from your work? Describe it in detail. Then ask yourself how much that particular fear limits your writing or guides what you do. Is it worth it? How can you take ownership of that fear?

Boo!