When Giving Up Is Not An Option

This post was originally published as a guest blog at Writers in the Storm on May 27, 2019.

Life is unpredictable. For writers, its capriciousness can be especially difficult because it influences not only our ability, but also our desire, to create. More than one writer reading this has at some point wanted to quit writing for good.

Maybe it was years ago. Maybe last week. Maybe this morning when you decided to read this blog rather than admit you’re just not feeling it when it comes to putting words on paper. I know where you’re coming from, and it sucks, right? But I also know the joy of stick-to-it-iveness, the success that can be achieved if you roll with the punches rather than giving up permanently.

I’ve written my entire life, as I’m sure most of you have. But when I got serious about writing a novel, I was determined to learn everything I could about the craft. I joined Romance Writers of America and began going to local chapter meetings. I took online classes. I bought craft books. I didn’t just read novels — I studied them.

My plan was to become a published author, and when my husband retired I would quit my day job and write as we camped our way across the country in our fifth wheel RV. I had it all figured out.

I pitched my first book to an editor at the RWA National conference several years ago. She requested the partial. I submitted it. She requested the full. I panicked. I got a bad case of the “be careful what you wish for” nerves.

I’d been told that once you sell a book, you better enjoy what you’re writing because your readers will want more of the same. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write that genre forever. A battle between fear of failure and fear of success raged within me and I froze. But I wasn’t quitting. I still called myself a writer. I’d figure it out, because I was determined to submit that book.

While I struggled with the requested book’s genre, I decided to write short stories for magazines like True Confessions. I wrote four, submitted four, sold four. The pay was paltry and there was no byline, but my confidence grew.

However, if I was going to spend my time writing, it was going to be a novel. And by God, my name was going to be on it. My mojo returned. Once again, I attacked the book, determined that nothing would stop me from getting it published.

My determination couldn’t hold a candle to what life had in store. Both my husband and father were diagnosed with cancer. I bounced between Houston and Denver, taking care of my parents, their affairs, and my husband while he underwent five continuous years of chemo. First my dad passed away, then my mom, and then, my dear husband.

Throughout that five-year period, my writing took a backseat to grief. I was emotionally bankrupt, physically drained, and though many writers can, I can’t channel my pain onto the page.

I’d been newsletter editor for the Houston Bay Area RWA chapter for years, and I couldn’t even bring myself to continue my monthly column. But I still went to chapter meetings whenever possible. I kept in touch with my writer friends. I continued to read craft books and study novels. I never stopped calling myself a writer. I just didn’t write.

The first six months after my husband died were lost to crying and wallowing in grief. And then one day, I got the itch to write. I wasn’t ready to deal with the book yet, so I decided to take baby steps. I wrote an Editor’s Corner article for the newsletter, posted it to my website blog for accountability, and vowed to never miss another month.

Next, I wrote a short story and submitted it to Woman’s World Magazine. The competition was fierce, but at least they paid well and had bylines. It wasn’t accepted, but my creative juices were finally flowing. I’d dipped my toe into the ocean and felt the pull of the tide. I had to write.

So I pulled out the damn book, decided to change genres, and started over. Life’s too short to not write what you love. I saved the setting, a few of the characters, and brainstormed a whole new suspense plot.

Around the same time, a new chaptermate asked me to critique with her. To me, critique partners were to writing what a league was to bowling. They sucked all the fun out of it because you had to show up whether you wanted to or not. But I agreed to give it a try.

I soon found that being accountable to someone other than myself was everything I needed. Instead of just calling myself a writer, I was a writer. Every damn day. Within a year, my critique partner and I finished our books, entered contests, and finaled in the Golden Heart. We signed with agents.

And that book I was determined to publish for so many years? It’s being released this September through Tule Publishing’s mystery line. Because I. Never. Gave. Up.

Life is going to knock us down and kick us where it hurts the most. I’m in awe of those who can write through hard times without missing a beat. But for the rest of us, the important thing is to never wave the white flag.

Take a break if you need to, but hang on to your passion, even if it’s by the thinnest of threads. Continue to call yourself a writer. The day will come when you’ll resume the pursuit of your dream, even if that dream’s shape isn’t what you first imagined.

Instead of writing while gallivanting cross-country on six-month adventures with my husband, I’m writing in my home office or on my screened-in patio. It isn’t what I thought it would be. The important thing is that it is.

It’s bittersweet that my first book is about to be published and my husband and parents, who always believed in my talent and encouraged me to write, aren’t here to share my success. But I celebrate every step of my writing journey, big and small, with my ride-or-die critique partner and my friends.  

And really, what’s the alternative? Not writing? Not an option. I never gave up. I never quit calling myself a writer. And now I can call myself an author.

And who knows…maybe, just maybe, they have books in heaven.

(Re)Treat Yourself

I’ve been going camping since I was two years old. Family vacations were spent in tents in national forests and state parks. Twice, my parents and I camped our way down through Mexico (and back, luckily). My honeymoon was a three-week camping trip, and every vacation my husband and I took was spent camping in forests or at lakes from California to Massachusetts, Montana to Texas.

A few years ago, shortly before my husband passed away, I met Sara L. Hudson at a local RWA chapter meeting. I hadn’t been writing much during Bob’s five-year battle with cancer, but I made it to meetings whenever possible. About six months after Bob’s funeral I finally started to get that creative itch to write again. Sara convinced me to try critiquing together, and we became immediate ride-or-dies. But one day she read my website bio and said, “You need to take out that line about camping and fishing, because that’s just not you.” I was  devastated, because camping has always been in my blood. It’s who I am. It’s what I do.

Then I realized that she didn’t know about that part of my life, because since Bob had died I hadn’t had the opportunity, or the desire, to do some of my favorite activities. Sara hated that I’d lost touch with such an essential part of myself, so she gave me a combination birthday/Christmas gift (sometimes it pays to be born in December) of a long weekend at a lake. She drew the line at actual camping, but she’d found us a tiny house right on the water.

Best. Present. Ever.

We recently returned from our weekend at Cedar Creek Reservoir in north Texas, and it was amazing. I relaxed. I recharged my battery. I read. And I wrote. We both did. We’d decided beforehand to make it a combination R&R weekend and mini writing retreat. We packed all the essentials (basically a delicatessen and a liquor store), brought our laptops, and let the good times roll.

There were no distractions. No errands to run or chores to do. Our time was our own and we were determined to make the most of it, whether swinging in a hammock, watching the lake lap at the shore, or getting words on paper. Bouncing ideas off each other, getting instant feedback and critiques, and having dedicated times that were committed to writing helped get shit done.

There have been a lot of studies on how to increase creativity, and we managed to hit several of the suggestions. Brainstorming. Being in a natural setting. Being happy and rested. It worked so well, we’re going to do it again.

What began as a gift to get me back in touch with my true essence has became the start of a new tradition for us. Instead of giving each other birthday and Christmas gifts, we’re going on annual writing retreats. We’ll create and replenish our wells at the same time. And who knows, one day I may even convince Sara to try camping.

Anxiety Monkeys

I’ve been writing these articles for a long time as an unpublished writer, because other than several short stories I’ve sold to magazines, that’s what I am.

But that’s about to change. I recently signed a contract with a traditional publisher for my first book. I’m thrilled. I’m excited. And my anxiety monkeys are climbing the tree.

All the information from speakers at chapter meetings about publishing and marketing, all the tips and advice from author friends about social media and book signings, all the knowledge from workshops and classes about Amazon rankings and keywords and online statistics, had been filed away in my mental “do not need yet” file because…I hadn’t needed it yet. I’d been focusing all my brain power on what was necessary at the time: writing a book, entering contests, writing a synopsis, creating a pitch, getting an agent.

Now I need to learn all the things I know I don’t know. And I think what’s making me breathe into a paper bag is that I don’t even know what I don’t yet know.

What will revisions from an editor be like? What will publicity involve? Will I really have to face a room of people for a book signing (raise your hand if you’re an introvert)? Worse, will I have to face an empty room for a book signing? Will anyone buy my book? Will they read it? Will they like it? And these are only a few of the questions I can think of. I’m sure my anxiety monkeys will come up with some doozies as time goes on.

And in the midst of all the anxiety, I’m still thrilled. I’m still excited. And I can’t wait to find out what’s next on my journey as a, gasp, published author. (Repeat after me: Revisions will be fun. Revisions will be fun. Holy crap, pass the tequila. Revisions will be fun.)

I think I’m gonna need a bigger tree.

Ghosting

ghost2I’d like to talk a bit about ghosting. Not “why don’t you return my calls?, why don’t you reply to my texts?, why did you block me on Facebook?” ghosting.

Ghostwriter ghosting.

I’ve always known ghostwriters exist. Celebrities hire them for autobiographies. Entrepreneurs with no writing talent hire them for how-to books. Sometimes people who want to tell a true-life story hire them because, again, they have no writing talent. I totally get that. And I’m not criticizing ghostwriters for making a hard-earned buck.

I don’t expect a self-help guru to also be a bestselling author. I wouldn’t expect a survivor from the Titanic to write their memoirs without help from a professional author. But if someone is throwing fiction books they claim they wrote, but in reality were written by someone else not acknowledged as a co-author, up on Amazon and calling him/herself an author, what the heck?!

Although I’m often accused of being cynical, I’m sometimes surprisingly naïve. I had no idea this was even a thing. I mean, seriously, why would someone do this? Do artists pay ghostpainters to create landscapes? Do vocal artists release albums actually sung by ghostsingers? (Milli Vanilli don’t count as vocal artists, and kind of prove my point.) Why is it okay for so-called “authors” to publish books they didn’t write but say they did?

If you have a great story idea but can’t form a coherent sentence, co-author the damn thing with someone who can write. Acknowledge them on the cover. And split the royalties with them. Fairly. Stop lying to readers, scamming the system, and hurting real authors, all in the name of the almighty dollar.

True writers pour their hearts and souls into their stories. They work long and hard; physically, emotionally, mentally. They sacrifice time with their families, time for other interests, time sleeping. They do this because they are artists who want to share their creations with others. That’s who real authors are. Real authors write their own books.

 

Thank You, Mr. Martin

baby sloth poses for the camera on the treeAs I was slaving away recently on my current WIP, struggling to pry words loose from my brain like flesh-eating scarabs in the mummy’s tomb, I needed to Google something. Grateful for any diversion, I managed to lock onto a video of George R. R. Martin and Stephen King, discussing writing. Martin, known to be a slow writer, asked King, “How the f%*k do you write so many books so fast?”

I’m a huge fan of both King and Martin, so of course I wanted to hear the answer. But being in my currently frustrated frame of mind, I was all ready to make my well-la-de-da face (you know the one, when someone tells you how easy it is to do something you can’t do), fully prepared to become even more depressed.

King’s response was “I try to get six pages a day. When I’m working, I work every day, three, four hours, and I try to get those six pages and I try to get them fairly clean.”

My mind, already exhausted from fighting with words, took longer than it should have to do the math. But I got there. One and a half to two pages each hour.

At this point, I’d been writing for two hours, and I’d written about four pages.

Holy Crap! Even writing at the speed of a sloth on Ambien, I was keeping pace with King’s daily goal. Holy Crap!

Granted, the pages on my computer weren’t exactly clean. And I certainly don’t compare my writing to the caliber of a best-selling author. But it made me realize that sometimes (like, always) we’re too hard on ourselves about our progress (or lack thereof).

And then that glorious man who created the mother of dragons made me feel even better.

Martin asked King, “You don’t ever have a day where you sit down there and it’s like constipation? You write a sentence and you hate the sentence? And you check your email and you wonder if you had any talent after all and maybe you should have been a plumber? Don’t you have days like that?”

Stephen King said he didn’t have days like that. I, however, do. Apparently, so does George R. R. Martin.

Thank you, Mr. Martin. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

 

Cheers to Critique Partners!

Moscow MulesJust as gamblers need to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, critique partners need to know when to be stubborn as a mule and when to mix a Moscow Mule.

My critique partner and I try to meet every week. Originally, it was strictly to critique. But as time went on, we began critiquing more by email and our weekly meetings morphed into “writing sessions.” Sometimes we brainstorm new ideas. Sometimes we discuss plot problems, characters’ issues or conflict solutions. Sometimes we just write. We can run ideas past each other in real time instead of texting or calling. And she’s faster than Google when I can’t think of a word I want.

The basic purpose of our meetings is to make sure we’ve got our minimum weekly goals done by our deadline. If one of us is behind, the other cracks the whip. If my laptop keys are tapping more slowly than normal, she’ll tell me to stop doing online book research and write. If her side of the room is unusually quiet, I’ll tell her to close that ebook she’s trying to finish reading and work on her own damn book.

But sometimes a writing session has nothing to do with writing.

Last week we met at my house, as we always do (she has small kids). I’d picked up dinner (we alternate). We ate, had a drink, and chatted (our normal start to the evening). I had a new chapter I needed to write; she had some revisions she was contemplating. But as we continued to visit instead of opening our laptops, I asked if she wanted another drink. (OK, that’s a lie, she just grabbed the vodka from the freezer and mixed us fresh ones.)

She’d had a particularly frustrating week, and my brain was fried from plotting and outlining. We finally admitted to each other that we didn’t really want to write. Instead, we spent the entire evening talking and laughing until we cried. We refilled our wells. (We refilled our copper mugs, too, but the wells are kind of the point here.)

A critique partner needs to know when to kick your butt into gear. But she also needs to know when to kick back, raise her glass, and laugh with you.

Cheers!