Read It? Review It!

As a reader, I’ve always valued reviews when considering a new book. Unless it’s one of my “I’ll read whatever they write” authors, reviews can be a tipping point to my purchase. Perusing not only the five star reviews, but also the three’s and one’s, I look for why a book is loved, hated, or considered mediocre.

Even a bad review can spur on a purchase. Some readers dock stars because a book contains profanity or they consider it “too dark.” That might not be their catnip, but depending on the details, it might be a one-click buy for me.

But I’ve been woefully remiss in posting reviews myself. For NYT bestselling authors with hundreds or thousands of reviews already, I figured mine wouldn’t matter. Even for authors without a lot of reviews, I didn’t consider my opinion important. (We’ll save self-confidence issues for another article.) I have learned, however, that every review counts.

I’ve been late to the party in realizing the importance of reviews to authors. Through my years in RWA, I’ve become aware of how they can propel an author’s sales as an organic marketing tool. Like a friend at work recommending a book they liked, online reviews are word-of-mouth endorsements from satisfied customers (in a perfect world).

An online review gives an author credibility. Someone read their book and cared enough, one way or the other, to leave a review. Hopefully, that way leads to five stars. But even if a review isn’t particularly glowing, it’s bringing public awareness to the book and the author. Maybe a reader loved everything else the author had written, but this particular book wasn’t their favorite. That tempts me to check out the author’s other books.

And I’ve learned reviews don’t have to be as off-putting as writing a high school composition. This doesn’t have to be Book Report 101, with character lists and a long synopsis of the plot. Simply marking how many stars you think it deserves, saying what you liked about it, and hitting a few of the plot points or tropes, is enough for readers to make informed decisions.

Oh, and NO SPOILERS!

I’m the first to admit that I have a lot of catching up to do regarding reviews. I’ve read a lot more books than I’ve reviewed. But I’m working on it. You should too.

Read it. Review it.

 

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!

 

Under Pressure

pressureThe tune from the Queen/David Bowie song “Under Pressure” has been running through my head a lot lately. Not that I’m under any particular outside pressure. And maybe that’s the problem.

Considering I have a reputation for being just a wee bit OCD about preparing well in advance for absolutely everything, it seems strange that I’ve always worked best under pressure. In college, I wrote my best papers the night before they were due. I did best on exams that I crammed for at the last minute. I always began studying right away, but then tapered off, letting it hang over my head until I had to get it done.

The pressure of a deadline can be intense, but nothing compared to the self-induced pressure of knowing I’m not working on something I should be. It’s a mixture of two parts potential failure, one part guilt. And yet, the procrastination continues.

It doesn’t take my psychology degree to figure out why I procrastinate. I strive for perfection and feel like a failure when I don’t achieve it, knowing full well that nothing I do will ever be perfect. I struggle with every word I type, tinkering to make them perfect instead of spewing forth and fixing later. And all the while, my lack of progress weighs heavily on me.

At this point, my only deadlines are self-imposed ones. But seeing as my future goals will require me to meet the deadlines of others, I better get in the habit now. I think it’s time I have a Come to Jesus meeting with myself, and make sure I understand that failure to meet any deadline, even my own, is completely unacceptable.

But in the meantime, it’s pressure, pushing down on me…

 

Eyes to the Front!

smileLast week someone asked me, “Do you ever think about ‘what if’? Ever wonder what would have happened if ‘such and such’ had been different?”

My answer was a resounding “No! Everything that’s happened to me throughout my life has created the person I am today. Every decision I’ve made (however questionable), every decision someone else made that impacted me, led me to where I am now. Second-guessing any of it in hindsight won’t change a thing. And if I could go back and change something, I wouldn’t.”

Later that same day I happened to read an article in the paper that quoted “There’s a reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror.” Dude! It was like the universe was backing me up or something.

Good memories of past times and places are wonderful, but sometimes we confuse time and place when we’re looking back. When I first moved from Colorado to Texas, all I wanted was to move “back home” as soon as possible. The memories of my happy life in Denver were frozen in my mind. But as I returned for visits over the next several years, I realized Denver had changed. If I moved back, or even if I’d never left, my life would never be the same as it had been.

I’d been wasting away my life by keeping both eyes on the rearview mirror, looking at a distorted view of something that no longer existed. Once I understood that, I focused my energy on regaining the joy I’d temporarily lost. By nature, I’m a fairly happy, smiley person, and it was surprisingly easy to get back into accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. (Earworm alert!)

We have the power to decide to be cheerful or miserable. So why choose miserable? Our time on this earth is too short to waste on the “what if’s” or “if only’s” in our rearview mirrors. So, eyes to the front, and smile!

 

Share, and Lighten, the Load

Share loadWhat do you get out of RWA?

That’s not a rhetorical question. What do you, personally, get out of RWA?

I have to assume something, otherwise you wouldn’t belong to your local chapter, wouldn’t come to the monthly meetings.

It could be you’re coming for the speakers, to learn and improve your craft.

Maybe you’re looking for critique partners, to take your writing to the next level.

Possibly, you’re networking. Building up that base of potential readers, reviewers, blurb-givers.

And for some of you, belonging to the organization could be just for the social aspect. And that’s fine.

Hopefully, each person who belongs to a local chapter is getting from it what they’re looking for. But what if the monthly meetings stopped happening? What if the chapter disappeared? Would you even care?

If the answer is yes, then it’s time to start thinking about helping your chapter survive, let alone thrive. Increasingly, in chapters across the country, both local and online, members aren’t stepping up to volunteer for board or committee positions. More and more of the work is falling on the shoulders of a few members who agree, over and over, for years and years, to serve.

Last year at this time I wrote a similar article which included the advantages to being on the board, and there are many. This year, I’m hitting a bit further below the belt. Because the problem persists from year to year.

If you think you have more important things to do than contribute, does that mean the people who are on the board don’t? We all have families, jobs, or other responsibilities that limit our time. We’re all striving to become successful writers. And we all want our local RWA chapter to continue to help us on that journey.

But it can’t if it’s not there.

This fall, when volunteers for the board are asked for, think about that. Think about what relatively small contribution you could make to assure that the organization, from which you’re receiving so much, continues.

Give back. The load is easier if we share it.

 

Replenishing the Well

well“Drink from the well, replenish the well.”

That’s a quote from The Walking Dead, Season 7, Episode 2. Yes, I’ve been binge-watching. And it’s a good thing, because I had absolutely no idea what to write about this month. I’d paused the episode a few minutes in, knowing I really needed to come up with a topic and get this thing written. As I sipped my coffee and stared blankly at the TV screen, searching my brain for random thoughts on writing, the episode name came into focus. “The Well.” Hot diggity damn!

As writers, we know our wells aren’t bottomless. We draw and draw from them while we’re writing. But then we need to replenish them, from whatever sources work the best for each of us.

I recently finished a book and am starting a new one. I’m in the brainstorming stage, which I love the most. But I was spinning my wheels on a few plot points, so I decided to take a little break and see if I could add to my creative reserves a bit.

I’ve been reading. A lot. I’m a slow reader, which irritates me because I’m afraid I have more books in my to-be-read piles than I have time left on this earth. (Not expecting to go anytime soon…I just have really big TBR piles.) But at the same time, reading slowly allows me to appreciate the turn of a phrase, a character’s development, the way other authors accomplish their craft. I learn from every book I read, whether they’re good or bad examples.

I’ve been doing research for the new book. This series takes place in a small town in Texas, and although I live in Texas, I don’t live there. So I go online to research ranches and hunting and a million other things. (I love research almost as much as brainstorming.) When I find pictures of where my story takes place, I download them, get lost in them, and they generate ideas. And often while researching something in particular, I run across other information I didn’t even know I needed or wanted. Into the well.

I’ve been spending time with writer friends. One in particular, whom I love to brainstorm with, happens to know someone who owns a hunting ranch in Texas that she visits frequently (to visit, not hunt). What are the odds? A random phone conversation with her about lunch plans turned into a wealth of information about the ranch property, which in turn started my brain to spark. And the best part— she has this amazing knack for waking up with ideas for her friends’ books. They may not be the route I’m planning to go, but each one fills the well a little bit more.

I’ve been watching TV. I’d severely rationed my boob tube usage while tweaking my last book, so I started catching up on a few shows. Like The Walking Dead. Granted, the dead bodies in my books don’t get up again. But understanding the TV characters’ motivation for what they do creates backstory “aha” moments that I drop into the well.

And sometimes I even get a blog idea from an episode title.

How do you replenish your well?

 

Techno Whiz Kid

CloudHow many times have we heard it? Backup your work. Make copies. Save it to the cloud. And we all do, right? I keep a Passport drive plugged into my computer that my security software backs up to every night. But having a completed book sitting on my hard drive made me think about going one step further.

I decided it was time to invest in actual cloud backup software. I started by doing what I always do. I Googled. I researched. I compared. Then I decided. I paid. I downloaded. Look at me. Sending my shit up to the cloud, where it will be safe and secure. I’ll never have to worry again.

This is a good backup software. Rated at the very top. Lots of bells and whistles and the ability to customize and all sorts of good stuff. I skimmed the instructions as best I could until my eyes glazed over. I set the schedule, marked the files to backup, and smiled that smug little smile I sometimes get when I accomplish something I didn’t know I could do. I am woman. Hear me roar.

This new software has a sync capability, like Dropbox. With the backup software on my laptop too (yes, I got the one with unlimited computers capability, even though I don’t have unlimited computers) I can take the latest, greatest, backed-up version of my book with me and work on it anywhere.

Side note: I write in Scrivener. My critique partner and I email each other scenes and chapters in Word. Sometimes, being my anal-retentive OCD self, I have a tendency to over-save copies of things. Just the weekend before doing the Great Back-up Software Purchase, I’d wasted a half day combining edited versions of chapters because I’d accidentally been working in the wrong one. So I spent the second half of that day doing the Great Copy Clean-up, deleting all the extra, unnecessary versions. Kicking a-r ocd’s butt to the curb. Booyah!

So, back to the sync capability. I dragged my Scrivener file, the one with the completely finished and almost completely edited book, from Dropbox to Sync. I opened it. And more than half of the book was gone. Holy crap! (Okay, that’s not what I said. But you get the picture.) Being the technological whiz kid that I am, I closed it again really quickly. You know, five second rule? And I dragged it back to Dropbox. Who doesn’t believe in do-overs? Still only half my book.

I ran to my laptop and opened Dropbox, because…techno whiz kid. (Yes, I do understand the concept of Dropbox. But a girl can dream, can’t she?) Still only half the book. I tried “recent versions” in Scrivener. No luck. I tried the Passport drive backup. Although good for a total restore, that thing’s a bitch when it comes to trying to find one single version of one single document. Still staving off tears, I called my critique partner. Luckily (for me, not so much her at the time) she’d had a similar issue last year. She helped me find my current Scrivener backup on my hard drive and restore it. Whew!

Once my blood pressure returned to normal, I Googled a bit more. Seems Scrivener doesn’t play well with some syncing software. That’s okay, it works in Dropbox. But just to be on the safe side, I’m reverting back to a semi-hoarder with my files.

Notes to self: Read all the instructions. Don’t over-delete. Wipe that smug smile off your face. After all, you’re no techno whiz kid.

 

Writing Kegels (and Wear Your Tighty Writies)

blog2Ever since I started learning the craft of writing, I’ve heard “write tight.” I thought I understood what it meant and I thought I did what it said. I’ve sold several short stories, so I’m used to writing, well, short. But I recently became aware that I still have a tendency to use more words than necessary.

My characters don’t just sit or stand. They sit down. And then they stand back up. They don’t just turn. They turn around, then turn back around. Anyone dizzy yet?

And don’t think that I forgot all the words that are really so unnecessary. Grammar/spellcheck does not always know best. If the sentence reads well without a word, cut it.

There are all those teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy redundant words that pound in the point we’re trying to make. For that matter, we don’t need to try to make a point by pounding it in. We simply pound in the point, or make the point.

Use contractions when possible. When my characters are talking in my head, they are often emphasizing words that, once on the page, read better as contractions.

Sometimes we need to tighten up bigger writing issues than words. Our sentences can be repetitive. We’re saying the same thing in multiple ways. We’re beating a dead horse. We’re still pounding in that damn point.

I’m currently more aware of currently because a writer friend is currently using it too much. It’s rarely necessary.

I catch a lot of these in my writing now that I’m aware of them. But it helps to keep a list, so when editing, I don’t miss any.

So, do those Kegels when you’re writing. And when you’re editing, wear those tighty writies.

 

Go Ahead and Judge Me

judgeNo one likes to be judged. It brings to light our faults and weaknesses. It exposes our innermost insecurities. But it can also make us be better. Better people. Better writers.

Entering a writing contest is intimidating. I mean, face it, you’re literally asking people to judge you. We write our words, we think maybe they’re good words, and we want positive reinforcement from someone else. Someone who isn’t a friend, living in fear of the screaming banshee we turn into when confronted with negative feedback. Someone who isn’t a relative, afraid of being cut from the will if they’re honest. So we send our words off to a contest, then spend the next several months alternating between hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

There are several good reasons to enter contests. I entered OCCRWA’s Orange Rose and HODRWA’s Molly for feedback. They were my first contests, and I wanted to see if I was on the right track with my book. I received praise, but also constructive criticism that helped me tighten my plot and strengthen my characters. The feedback didn’t leave me crowing from the rooftop, but I also wasn’t curled up in the fetal position in a corner. I’d gotten what I’d hoped for from both contests.

So imagine my shock when I finaled in both (as well as the Unsinkable Heroine award in the Molly), then went on to win first place in romantic suspense in both, and then the Orange Rose’s Charlotte for Best of the Best. Winning gave me self-confidence, something I often have to work hard on. It validated the fact that maybe my writing doesn’t suck like a Hoover. Although I hadn’t thought about it when I’d submitted my entry, I found that validation is an important reason for entering contests. When I’m banging my head on my desk, wondering why I ever thought I could write, I look at my beautiful Charlotte trophy and think, well shit, someone thinks I can write.

Then I decided to enter WHRWA’s Emily contest, this time to focus on the final judges who would read my work if I reached that stage. I did final, then won first place in romantic suspense, then the Emily Best of the Best. A lot of people will testify that I was, to say the least, stunned. Not only did I get great feedback from the first round, and affirmation from finaling, I also received full requests from the editor and agent final judges. All I’d hoped for, but much more than I’d expected.

All of this contributed to my decision to enter the Golden Heart. Go big or go home, right? Although it doesn’t provide feedback, it’s the ultimate contest for unpublished romance writers as far as affirmation and potential requests from editors and agents. I was lucky enough to be one of the happy-dancing, screaming-into-the-phone entrants who received that coveted “You’re a Finalist” call early one March morning. And I have found that the Golden Heart is unique in that it comes complete with a group of finalists who bond together in friendship and support, encouragement and advice. The National Conference in Denver will be a whirlwind of fun and excitement, culminating in the winners being announced at the big awards party. (Okay, that’s how it used to work…now we get a luncheon in the middle of Thursday instead of a formal event Saturday night, but you get the idea.)

As with every contest, I hope for the best, but am prepared for the worst. But the worst is far from bad this time. Because as my Golden Heart sisters will tell you, just finaling has already made us all winners.

 

I Fully Embrace My Suckitude

 

I recently read a guest post by Jenny Hansen on Christina Delay’s Cruising Writers Blog about how to keep writing when you feel like you suck. Her advice to allow yourself to suck while writing is priceless. Hansen basically says to stop letting fear of making mistakes prevent you from following your passion. Make those mistakes because they’re part of learning.

Hansen’s post includes a video by author Maureen Johnson, “Dare to Suck.” Johnson is hilarious, but delivers a very important message. No one can expect to be awesome at something the first time they try it. They have to suck at it first, then suck less, then become awesome. Johnson’s advice applies not only to first attempts at a completely new endeavor, but also to first drafts.

I happened to be struggling with a scene when I came upon Hansen’s post. After reading the blog and watching the video, I marched my butt back into my office, planted said butt in chair, and spewed forth more writing in two days than I had in the previous week. Why?

Because I fully embraced my suckitude. I stopped worrying about if it was good enough (I can rewrite it later) or if it would be finished soon enough (sucky progress is better than no progress) or any of the other what if’s that roll through writers’ minds when they’re supposed to be, uh, writing. By embracing my suckitude, I felt free to just write.

So stop worrying about your words being perfect the first time they hit the page. Stop telling yourself you can’t write because you suck. Dare yourself to suck. What have you got to lose?

The Only Thing Standing In My Way Is Me

stopsabI love to plot. Brainstorming a story problem gets me excited. I also love to edit. Tinkering and tweaking previously written words makes me happy. It’s the stuff that comes between brainstorming and tinkering that sometimes makes me want to tear out my hair and rend my garments. You know, the actual writing of all those words.

We can analyze the psychology of it all until the cows come home, but it basically boils down to this: self-doubt, leading to fears that paralyze my mind and fingers. And there are really only two big fears here. Ironically, they’re on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Fear of failure. What if I finish and it sucks. I’ll never be as good as I want to be. People will realize I’m a fraud, that I can’t really write. I’ll be criticized and ridiculed and will have to change my name and drift away from all my writing friends.

Fear of success. What if I finish and it doesn’t suck? What if someone actually wants to publish it? Then I’ll have to write another one, similar to this one because that’s what readers expect. And it has to be at least as good as this one or everyone will say that one sucks. I’ll have to deal with editors, agents, deadlines. I’ll have to learn about edits, covers, marketing. What if I make a wrong choice along the way? What if my long hours of writing become mandatory instead of voluntary? What if I lose the joy? The passion? What if I can’t keep doing it all? (See fear of failure, above.)

These two fears then lend themselves to a truly amazing array of self-sabotaging behaviors.

Procrastination. The baseboards suddenly need to be dusted. That box of twelve-year-old tax papers must be shredded now. The newsletter article I’ve been putting off has to be written before I work on my book!

Avoidance. I deserve to watch that Netflix show everyone’s been raving about but I haven’t seen yet because I’ve been so busy writing, poor pitiful me. I also deserve to spend more time reading books, lunching with friends, playing with my dog. I shouldn’t have to give up everything I love to do in order to write, should I?

Perfection Complex. I sit my butt in that chair, I put my hands on that keyboard, and I start writing. But the word I just typed isn’t quite right. There’s a better one, but I can’t think of it. So I pull up Google on my other screen and do a quick synonym search to find the perfect word.

A couple paragraphs later, I’m not sure which imaginary river should flow into the imaginary lake in my story. I made up the lake, for God’s sake. I should be able to make up the river, right? But what if that state has no rivers that flow into natural lakes? I don’t have a dam on my lake. Should I? Back to Google, for never-ending research.

As writers, we all know that what we write will never be perfect. But that doesn’t stop some of us from striving for it. It’s not just in our writing – it applies to other areas of our lives. Again, I won’t get into all the psychological mumbo jumbo of it, but it’s a thing. Unfortunately, when we inevitably fall short, we beat ourselves up, call ourselves failures and say “I can’t do this.”

And…we’ve come full circle. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of failure.

I’ve come up with a few creative ways to deal with these self-sabotaging behaviors. I reward myself with a show or a book when I meet writing goals. I throw my dog’s ball close to the wall when we’re playing fetch, and she dusts the baseboards as she slides by. And instead of Googling as I write, I type one particular word in caps when I get stuck. Later, when I get to do the fun editing stuff, I do a search for that word and Google to my heart’s content.

I know in my heart that I can accomplish any goal I set for myself. I just need to get out of my own way.

 

May Your Reach Exceed Your Grasp

Shoot2I gave up on making New Year’s resolutions around the same time I quit writing my adolescent fantasies in pink diaries that came with tiny metal keys. I’d learned that both things had about the same odds of success. But that doesn’t mean I gave up on either one completely. The fantasies improved with age, and if I wrote them down, they were channeled into fiction writing. And the resolutions gave way to goals.

Resolutions are often so vague or so big, they’re impossible to keep. Goals, on the other hand, are specific. They can be broken down into smaller steps. And most importantly, they’re within my control.

At my local RWA chapter’s Christmas party, everyone jots down their writing goals for the following year. One member keeps the goals and brings them to the party the following year. We share what we did or didn’t accomplish, and then write our goals for the upcoming year. Sometimes we celebrate achievements. Sometimes we just stick the same paper back in the container and vow to do better. It’s a fun part of our celebration, and it’s helped me focus on what I want from my writing each year.

I know that having my book traditionally published can’t be my goal. I can’t control whether or not an editor buys my book. But my goal can be to submit my book to editors. To do that, I have to finish the book. To do that, I have to write a certain number of words, pages or chapters within a certain amount of time. I need to research editors. Learn how to write a query letter. Learn how to write a synopsis. (Gack!) Each of these is a measurable step in reaching the goal of submitting my book.

There’s a popular method of goal-setting called the SMART plan: Your goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. A Specific goal is more likely to be reached than a general one. Measuring your progress helps you stay on track and motivates you with what you’ve already accomplished. A goal is Attainable if it’s something you want and are willing to put in the effort to achieve. Your goal is Realistic if it’s important to you and isn’t at odds with other goals you have. And a Timely goal is one with target dates for each step of the way. This is a great template for setting goals.

But keep in mind, setting attainable and realistic goals doesn’t mean not stretching yourself. As Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” That doesn’t mean you’re setting yourself up for sure failure if you dream big. You only fail if you don’t set goals and start taking steps. I can reach for the moon, knowing I’ll still be successful if I simply grasp a star.

Happy New Year. And may your reach always exceed your grasp

 

NoNo NaNo

Turtle2I’m in awe of writers who can do NaNoWriMo or any other book-in-a-month endeavor. I wish I could spew forth 50,000 words in four weeks and wind up with something salvageable. I’ve tried in the past to convince myself I could do it. If only I had the idea for the plot. The outline for the plot. The turning points, goals, motivations, conflicts, and black moment all lined up like newly-sharpened pencils next to my computer.

But therein lies my problem. NaNo is based on pantsing. I can pants to a point. But I live November in fear of pantsing myself right out of a whole month’s worth of writing time. Just as I don’t like surprises in real life and have a tendency to plan things to death, complete with checklists, I don’t like big surprises in my writing. Little surprises are fun, but big ones bother me. I’m not what you’d call spontaneous. To me, anticipation is half the fun. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

There’s also the issue of pressure. Now, I work well under pressure. Click a stopwatch and I can do an hour’s worth of work in fifteen minutes. But I can also crack under pressure. If I start slipping behind and the daily word count deficiencies keep adding up, I spend more time obsessing about that than I do writing. I refuse to set myself up for failure.

Not every writing method works for every writer. So instead of feeling disappointed about missing the party, I will cheer on my friends who do NaNo and admire from afar everyone who makes it to the end. But for me, NaNo is a big NoNo, and I can accept that. If you feel the same way, it’s OK. Trust me. Just spend November doing what you’ve been doing (assuming that’s writing at some pace). If I remember correctly, the tortoise won the race.

 

I Will Never Stop Learning

LearningIt’s my nature to be inquisitive. I love research, both in writing and in life. If I want to know something, I google the shit out of it until I’m satisfied. But I also like to scratch curiosity’s itch by asking people questions, taking classes, and attending workshops. I never know when someone will say something that flips a switch, even one I hadn’t realized was off.

Within the past two weeks I’ve been to two conferences put on by local chapters of Romance Writers of America. At Houston Bay Area’s Starfish Conference, Melinda VanLone spoke about book covers and Tracy Brogan discussed small moments and working humor into any story. At Northwest Houston’s Lonestar Conference, Damon Suede presented workshops on branding and creating power couples (and so much more). I’m not ready to think about book covers yet, and branding is barely on my radar. But I’ll remember the things I’ve learned from these conferences later, when I do need them. I had several lightbulb moments during Damon’s workshop on voids and verbs that had me speeding home to my computer, eager to apply these new techniques immediately.

Last month I took Terry Odell’s online class on writing romantic suspense, which answered questions I didn’t realize I had. I’m currently taking a class on weapons for writers, taught by Wendy Rome and Mark Pfeiffer. I’d decided it was time to learn about guns from the experts. I hadn’t counted on them also discussing head wounds, a timely assist for my current book. And the resources they’re providing for everything from poisons to stab wounds are invaluable. I’ve already signed up for a class next month on intrigue techniques by Colleen Thompson. I never pass up an opportunity to take one of Thompson’s workshops.

I look for learning opportunities everywhere. My only caveat is that the knowledge doesn’t come at the expense of my writing. My classes and conferences are rewards for putting words on the page, not excuses for being unproductive.

No matter if we’re young or old, novice or professional, successful or not, none of us are so transcendent that we can’t pick up nuggets of wisdom from others. I will never stop learning.

 

A Whirlwind of Inactivity

stressHurricane Harvey was bearing down on the Texas coast. I evacuated during Rita and Ike, so this would be my first time since moving here that I had to ride one out. I set about making preparations – I filled the car with gas, figured out how to start the generator, stocked up on bottled water and non-perishables. I had my Kindle charged, booklight batteries replaced, Scrivener on my iPad. I felt ready, especially since I’d been snowed in in Colorado plenty of times. If I got rained in for a week, I would just hunker down and write, write, write. Right?

Wrong. Oh, I got rained in, all right. Hours upon hours of isolated time, yet I didn’t put a pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard. What I hadn’t counted on was the creativity-killing stress from a storm like Harvey.

For more than a week, the local TV networks were all Harvey all the time. At first I watched for information. Safety. Watches and warnings. Soon it became an obsession. Social media was a lifeline, a way to stay in touch, find out which friends had water in their houses, lost power, been evacuated. Even when reading, the electronics were on…just in case. We had 148 tornado warnings in three days. The phone/TV-blasting, hide-in-the-center-of-your-house type of warnings. Stressful.

Water edged closer to my door, lightning turned the night sky into a constant strobe light, thunder shook the house, winds brought down tree branches – all stressful. Then evacuations by boats. Rescues by helicopters. Curfews. National Guard trucks cruising the streets at 3 a.m. Stress. Full.

Once the sky cleared and the waters began to recede, I took stock and was ashamed of myself for wasting a whole week of productivity. Especially as I’d been lucky enough to make it through Harvey unscathed. But after talking to my fellow writers, I found I hadn’t been the only one unable to write. The stress of the storm had sucked the creativity from all of us. Stress is distracting. It affects our ability to focus. Even if we weren’t worried about ourselves, our concern for those who lost everything didn’t leave us with enough mental energy to create.

Life will never be the same for thousands of people in Texas. But we’re working toward recovery. Like many other people and organizations, our RWA communities in Houston have donated money, furniture, clothing, and food. Those of us physically able to have helped friends clean up damaged homes. The sun is shining. And we’re finally starting to put words on paper again. It’s a start.

 

Behold the Mighty Cog

cogsIf you’re reading this, you’re a member of at least one local or online chapter of Romance Writers of America. We’ve all joined RWA for a variety of reasons. Educational workshops and conferences. Access to industry information. Writers helping writers. Hanging with our peeps.

What makes a chapter run like a well-oiled machine? The volunteers within its ranks who act as cogs, turning the gears of the board and moving the chapter forward.

I was having lunch recently with four fellow Houston Bay Area members. We calculated that between the five of us, we’ve accumulated almost fifty years of service, either as officers or chairpersons. Our current board members have served a total of sixty-five years between us (and only two of us overlapped the lunch group). Neither of these totals includes the many years of unofficial volunteering for conferences, literacy luncheons and special workshops.

Chapters need board members to survive, and they can’t be the same people, rotating from position to position every two years. Boards need new blood, new enthusiasm, new ideas. And the members who have racked up ten or more years of service in various positions need a break. It’s not the responsibility of just a few people to keep our chapter’s wheels turning. We’re lucky that we have a lot of members in HBA who can contribute to our chapter’s excellence.

Not having the time to volunteer isn’t really a valid excuse. Being a board member doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. I’ve been on the board for six years in three different positions, contest coordinator for thirteen continuous years and newsletter editor for the past eight years (sentences running concurrently). Many other board members have volunteered even longer. We’ve done it while working full-time jobs, driving long commutes, raising children, burying loved ones. Oh, and writing.

Why do we do it? Partly because someone has to. But being on the board is as much a privilege as it is a commitment. It’s a way to have a voice in the direction the chapter is taking, the speakers being brought in, the activities being planned. It’s a way to become better acquainted with our chapter members as well as to network with those in other chapters. It keeps us connected when we might otherwise drift away while taking a break from writing.

If you’re taking advantage of your membership by coming to meetings, listening to speakers, socializing with chaptermates, you’re receiving something of great value. If you haven’t already, isn’t it time to consider giving something back? And if you already have, the entire chapter thanks you.

 

…And Then My Brain Explodes

brain explodesHow often do you see a Facebook post about a particular song an author listens to while writing? How many blog articles have you read that detail someone’s writing playlist?

The first time I heard discussions about music to write by, I thought whaaaat? And the more this topic was discussed, the more I felt like some mutant freak. I can’t listen to lyrics without being distracted from my writing. I’ve tried, because it seemed to be one of those writerly things one was supposed to do. I spent a happy afternoon enjoying the music, listening to the lyrics of the songs, and accomplishing no forward progress on my word count.

In an attempt to research this issue, thus proving I’m not the mutant freak I seem to be, I did what I always do. I Googled. Apparently, playing music with lyrics while writing causes the brain to shift rapidly between listening and creating. But the brain works more efficiently when paying attention to just one thing. It has something to do with burning too much glucose and releasing too much cortisol and creating too much stress. In other words…and then my brain explodes.

Listening to repetitive sounds or background noise like rain or waves actually works to improve focus by blocking out other distractions. And there’s no denying that listening to music or songs you like can improve your mood. I have friends who play music before they begin writing to put them into the scene. Especially the bow-chicka-wow-wow scenes.

I’m impressed by those who can listen to lyrics and write at the same time, but I will never be a member of that camp. I prefer total silence, instrumental music, or ambient background noise (rain, waves, the clink of ice in a glass of tequila—whatever). And I realize now that I’ve always been this way. Even in college, I could rock out like nobody’s business, but not while studying. When I cracked the books, I cranked up the volume on the moog synthesizer version of Switched-On Bach.

Yes, electronic classical music. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer. And that’s okay. Synthesized Bach may not make my panties melt, but it keeps my brain from exploding.

 

Keep Your GPS, Just Give Me A Roadmap

RoadmapI used to be a hardcore plotter. I worked out every detail of my book in advance. I outlined. I knew what would happen, when it would happen and to whom it would happen.

Then I’d sit down to write and find myself bored stiff. It was like I’d already written the story. In a slightly different format, sure. But even so, there was nothing new, nothing exciting. I had shot my wad, so to speak.

So I took a break from the book and started writing and selling short stories. I’d begin with a vague idea, and twelve hours later I’d written an entire story. I just let it flow. And it flowed like a mountain waterfall during the spring melt.

I started to wonder why I liked writing shorts so much. Of course, there was the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing, submitting and selling something. But it was more than that.

I realized what had jump-started my passion was the more spontaneous process. I’d get an idea—a place to start. I’d figure out where I wanted to wind up when I was done—my final destination. And then I’d write. I’d stay on a straight course for a while, then maybe back up and make a turn, try a slightly different route. I was still headed in the same general direction, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d get there. Freeway all the way? Or blue highways and back roads?

For me, writing is a lot like taking a road trip. On road trips, I don’t need GPS. I don’t want a voice telling me how many feet before turning right, or that I missed my turn and need to recalculate. Especially if that missed turn was intentional. Maybe I’d seen a detour that looked more picturesque, a trail that seemed more exciting. However, I don’t want to get hopelessly lost either. So I never leave town without a map. I like adventure, but I want to get my bearings from time to time.

On my current WIP, I’m using a roadmap instead of GPS. Rather than plotting the book to death, I’ve jotted down possible plot points—like circling landmarks on a map. Now I simply figure out how to reach them while I’m writing. (Yes, “simply” was sarcastic.) Sometimes I pull over to study the map and consider my options. A new idea could steer me somewhere unexpected, and that’s okay. It’s not like I’m locked into nonrefundable hotel reservations in towns I don’t want to visit. I can go where the story takes me.

Like a road trip, writing isn’t necessarily about hauling ass from point A to point B. It’s about enjoying the journey and appreciating the scenery along the way.

Holy crap! Writing is fun again

 

Procrastination (or why I don’t have time to write)

ProcrastinateI really have a story
It’s living in my head
But getting it to paper
Is harder done than said

There’s the necessary day job
That, frankly, is a pain
And chapter volunteering
Sucks ideas from my brain

And then there are the errands
And the other household chores
Like shopping, cooking, dusting,
Doing laundry and the floors

By then, a little R & R
Is what I really need
Computer time, some e-mail,
Time to watch TV and read

And then, of course, the “health” thing
Working out and eating right
And on top of this I’m s’posed to
Get eight hours of sleep a night

I go to chapter meetings,
Join the chats and read the loops
Take lots of online classes
And hang out with writing groups

I glom on to great ideas
Other writers recommend
But the time I spend researching
Isn’t time I have to spend

With Prime, in just two days
Stacks of craft books are all mine
But now I need to read them
And I just can’t find the time

Suggested writing software
To help prioritize
But first I have to load it,
Find my notes and organize

I’ve got some great excuses
Why I don’t have time to write
The reasons vast and many
Some are wrong and some are right

I really have a story
And it’s one I want to write
Perhaps I’ll start tomorrow
‘Cause I’m writing this tonight

© 2017 Leslie Marshman

Shhhh. I’m Not Telling.

ShhhhAfter punching and scrunching my pillow for what seemed like hours, I untangle my legs from the twisted sheets and crawl out of bed. I force my feet to shuffle down the hall to my office, toes burrowing into the plush carpet with each step. I flip the switch and am blinded by the sudden glare from a bulb coiled like a cobra and guaranteed to last at least five more years. Feeling my way to my desk, I drop into the scuffed leather chair, my butt settling into its permanent indentation that’s sadly only grown larger.

A quick tap on my mouse starts the computer fan whirring quietly and the monitor awakens to the white glow of the still blank document I had stomped away from earlier. My fingers rest on the keyboard, waiting for neural impulses from the primary motor cortex. My toes tap dance between cables and cords. My knee jiggles. Unfortunately, other things jiggle along with it.

The wall calendar that summarizes my entire life (abbreviated to fit neatly within two-inch square boxes) catches my attention. Usually delighted by its pictures of adorable baby sloths hanging upside down yet smiling right-side up, tonight my amusement is tempered by the large red circle drawn around the tenth of the month.

I spin my chair ninety degrees and eye a wall of books. An entire shelf of writing craft tomes taunts me. I spin the remaining 270 degrees, then repeat the full circle several times, stomach growing queasy, sweat beading on my brow. Each time the sloths whoosh past, the red circle below them gapes like the ravenous maw of Hell.

I skid to a stop, minimize the concept-challenged document and click the e icon. That proprietary gateway to everything and nothing. So help me, I will web-surf until my fingertips bleed if that’s what it takes. But first, a quick check of my email. Junk and ads and blogs, oh my.

I click on one. The topic: Show, Don’t Tell.

Holy crap! Why can’t I ever think of something like that to write about?

 

Just a Little Thing Called JABBIC

JABBICIn 2005, when I was still a relative newbie to RWA and the local Houston Bay Area chapter, a board member asked if I’d be contest coordinator for a new endeavor they were considering – a little contest for published books called Judge A Book By Its Cover. Most, if not all, RWA contests back then focused on the writing. We wanted to do something unique. We wanted to be the first chapter to emphasize the importance of a good cover. Booksellers would judge and the first place winner in each category would be featured in an ad in RWA’s magazine, Romance Writers Report.

First, I was flattered that the board thought I’d be the right person for the job.

Second, I was excited because I’d get to be part of “them,” the illustrious Board.

Third, I was freaking out because I had no idea what to do or how to do it.

Luckily, author Sandra K. Moore would be the wizard behind the curtain, running the computer end of things (the heavy lifting, in other words). So I figured, what the heck. I’ll do it for a couple years. I contacted booksellers around the world, asking them to judge. I designed certificates for the winners. I sent out posts on chapter loops to announce the contest. And Sandra coded her fingers to the bone.

Twelve years later, JABBIC is bigger and better than ever. I’m still the coordinator and Sandra is still the computer wizard. (We have a secret pact – if one goes, we both go.) We’ve tweaked things along the way. We added categories and renamed others. Several years ago we added the Readers’ Choice portion, allowing the entire world to judge all the entries separately from the booksellers. Even if a cover doesn’t win, thousands upon thousands of people see it. (That is a lot of publicity!) We spread the word on Facebook and Twitter as well as chapter loops. Authors and artists mention us in blogs and posts and tweets. Beginning with JABBIC 2016, all of our winners receive cool badges to post proudly on their web sites.

When JABBIC began, traditional publishing was pretty much the only game in town. The authors entered and noted their publishers. Since indie publishing took off, we’ve honored not only the authors but the artists who design the covers (for indie and traditionally published books).   Writers who scroll through the gallery discover artists for future books. Bookseller-judges place orders for books to restock their shelves. Readers discover new authors for their to-be-read stacks.

Each November I dread the start of another four months of hard work. But each February I’m delighted when the winners let me know how thrilled they are to have their covers appreciated by so many. And each April I love opening my RWR to our beautiful Winners’ Ad on the inside front cover. As contest coordinator, I’ve become friends with authors I might never have met otherwise. I’ve developed lasting relationships with booksellers from down the street to Down Under.

And it all started with an idea for a little book cover contest. Holy crap! Who’da thunk it?

 

 

Three Virgins Form A Ménage A Trois (Critique Group Style)

threevirgins I’ve always shied away f rom joining critique groups. I didn’t want the pressure of having to write a certain number of pages every week.  I didn’t believe myself capable of critiquing other people’s writing.  And I didn’t want my hopes and dreams squashed by the critiques of others.  (I know, I know…suck it up, cupcake!)

But recently two fellow chaptermates and I decided to give it a shot. None of us had critiqued before.  One is starting her first contemporary romance and has a masters in creative writing.  Another, relatively new to RWA, has finished an 80,000 word romantic suspense and now needs to revise and edit.  I’ve sold short stories but have yet to finish the damn book.

None of us had a clue about how to critique. We found articles on the RWA site and asked friends who belonged to critique groups for tips.  We discussed what we each wanted and needed from the group.  All we knew was that we got along very well with each other, needed new eyes on our work and needed weekly deadlines for motivation to write.

We met for the first time at a Mexican restaurant that serves killer happy hour margaritas because, well, margaritas. The first meeting was mainly about getting to know each other better and figuring out some ground rules.  And drinking margaritas, of course.  But we did also critique.

We’re still working out the details, making it up as we go. But holy crap, I love being in a critique group.  The ideas we’ve offered each other have made out stories stronger without changing our voices.  Our personalities mesh perfectly.  For the first time in years, I wake up in the morning thinking about my (untouched for way too long) book and the changes I want to make.

Due to personal reasons, I haven’t been writing for quite some time. I’m writing again.  I want to write. It’s been eight months since I last wrote an Editor’s Corner column. I’ve written a new short story that’s almost ready to submit.  And my book is knocking on the inside of my skull, trying to get out.

If you’ve avoided becoming critique partners or joining a group, give it a second thought. It rarely hurts to try something new, and it may just be the kick in the ass you need. It was for me.

Mise en Place for Writers

mise en place  I watch cooking shows from time to time and a term I’ve picked up is mise en place. It means put in place, and it’s the preparation chefs do before they begin cooking to make themselves more organized and efficient. They know in advance what they’ll be using and how they’ll be using it and can then concentrate solely on the actual process of cooking. They have their vegetables chopped, spices set out and measured, utensils and pots arranged within easy reach. This prevents them from cooking the way I normally do, scrambling for an ingredient I don’t have or realizing the utensil I need is in the dishwasher, dirty.

I started to think about mise en place in relation to my writing as a way to focus. Could I concentrate only on what I’m working on without becoming distracted by other projects or even other aspects of the current project? I’ve often claimed that I have writer’s ADD, with my mind chasing after squirrels and birds. New ideas pop up that are bright and shiny compared to the one I’ve been staring at for hours. Could I get organized enough, physically and mentally, to follow through without losing my train of thought?

Mise en place for writers may be difficult physically. Organizing a work space to be conducive to writing is definitely possible. And just as cooking in a clean kitchen is preferable, so is writing on a desk not piled high with distractions. But writers need to be able to write anywhere. We have random ideas and plot breakthroughs at stop lights. We write on planes, during day job lunch hours, in doctor’s waiting rooms. To always be physically ready to write, the important thing is to keep the necessary tools with us: notebooks, pens, tablet or laptop or even a flash drive.

Plotting (or pantsing, and that’s not the point to debate here) is another issue. Whether we outline or just wing it, we still need to know some basic things. We need to know our characters and their GMCs. We better know our setting. And a basic plot idea is always a good thing to know. When we sit down each day to write, we can be more organized and efficient if we know who we will be focusing on and what they’ll be doing. If you know your theme and you’re incorporating motifs into the story, be aware of them. We need to keep our minds from wandering to questionable edits of what we wrote yesterday or research we need to do for tomorrow, and just focus on what we’re writing today.

We can be specific in our planning, but still flexible while writing. Just as a recipe calls for a certain amount of spice, if it needs a little more or less, you adjust it. If you undercook the salmon, you put it back on the heat for a minute. The same holds true for writing. You work according to your plan, but if something in the story needs adjusting, change it. Know your original ingredients and how they’ll be used, but replace them if necessary. Just have them laid out and ready to use before you start writing each day.

 

Mindfulness or Mindlessness?

MindlessnessOver the past several years I’ve learned the importance of living in the moment.  The past is gone, the future is uncertain, and this moment is the only moment we have.  I force my mind to stop thinking about what I need to do tomorrow or what I didn’t do yesterday and notice the “now” of my life.  I tend my plants and gardens and celebrate every new leaf and bloom.  I watch lizards on the patio and butterflies and birds in the yard with the awe of a two year old.  When a breeze blows my many wind chimes, I stop and listen to them.  Mindfulness is the awareness of not just the surrounding physical environment, but also thoughts and feelings and accepting them for what they are without judgment. I have learned to embrace mindfulness.

Except when it comes to my writing.  Mindfulness can enhance creativity by helping us focus on something and see it in a new, inventive way.  And mindfulness is invaluable while editing.  But I have also found that mindLESSness often opens creative channels for me.  Feelings, thoughts and words spring forth like underground water seeking the surface.

Not long after I graduated from college I took a data entry job in accounting.  (My degrees in Psychology and Sociology were great but I needed to pay the rent.)  I typed ninety words per minute and was no stranger to a calculator, but data entry was new to me and I wasn’t the fastest kid in the cubicle.  This was back in the days when it was acceptable to drink at lunch, and our department manager took us out monthly on his expense account, alcohol included.  Returning to the office after our first such meal, I think my boss assumed the rest of my afternoon was a write-off.  But much to our amazement, I finished four hours’ worth of work in half the time and with no errors.  I realized that the information went straight from my eyes to my fingertips without my mind getting in the way.  Mindlessness at work.

I’ve always kept a pad and pen by my bed, and there were times in my younger days when I crashed after partying, only to wake up the next morning to find a complete, well-written poem on the paper that I didn’t even remember writing during the night.  Occasionally hard to decipher, especially with a hangover, but good stuff!  Mindlessness at work.

Sometimes I relax by playing puzzle games on a handheld Nintendo DSi.  When I’m playing the ones that involve instinctive or repetitive actions rather than a lot of concentration, from time to time I get a whoosh of a happy memory from my childhood or teen or early adult years.  Sometimes it’s a vivid memory.   Sometimes it’s just a feeling that invokes a memory, much as aromas can transport you to your past.  I finally realized that when I’m doing a relatively mindless activity, these feel-good ghosts escape the prison of my brain and bring me a moment of joy.  Mindlessness at work.

This is why writers often have “aha” moments while in the shower or doing dishes or driving the same route day after day.  Mindlessness allows our unfocused brain to wander where it likes, which is often exactly where we need it to go.

I’m learning to write as if my internal editor has stepped away and the words my fingers type are traveling via an express lane from somewhere deep within me.  It doesn’t always work and even when it does, what winds up on the page is far from perfect.  But the joy of the process, the whispers of happiness, the awe of creating something I hadn’t known was even there to be created, make mindlessness worth trying.

And when all else fails, on those days when my mind insists on being a Catholic school nun with a ruler in her hand ready to rap my knuckles, there’s always that bottle of tequila in the freezer.

Change Can Be Scary…and Rewarding and Exciting!

changeI whacked off more than 12” of my hair recently.  I’ve had very long hair most of my life and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I wanted a change.  I needed a change.  And it made me feel good to cut off enough to donate to Locks of Love.   I’m learning how to handle it at a shorter length, but the basics are the same.  After all, I didn’t shave my head and start over from ground zero.  I’m happier about my hair than I have been in a long time.

I’m going through something similar with my writing.  I’ve been focusing on contemporary romance for a long time.  After a lot of soul searching over the last year, I’ve decided I really want to write romantic suspense.  But I had a gut feeling there were a lot of things about that sub-genre that would be different from contemporary romance.  I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, let alone how to learn what I didn’t know.  I tried to talk myself into continuing to write contemporary romance even if my heart wasn’t completely in it, but I was losing my passion for writing.

So I did what I always do:  I first convinced myself that if someone else can learn something, so can I.  That’s not to say I’ll be successful doing whatever it is, but at least I can try.  I started on the internet, finding articles and blogs about writing mystery and suspense.  I joined the Kiss of Death RWA chapter and immediately signed up for a class on writing crime fiction.  I picked up a couple of craft books that, although written several years ago, deal with the basic fundamentals of suspense and answered a lot of my beginner questions.  And I reached out to a friend, an amazing romantic suspense author, with a few questions on getting started.  She was kind enough to tell me what worked for her when she switched from historical romance to romantic suspense.

It was intimidating to think about starting over from ground zero.  But then I realized I wouldn’t be.  There will be some different tools I’ll need to master, but it’s still writing.  I’ll be using my basic writing skills, but improving them, expanding on them, adding to them.  Additional subplots and more characters will be new for me.  As will be figuring out how to keep the reader from seeing much of the mystery until it’s time to reveal it, yet keeping track of what everyone’s doing offstage throughout the story.  (I’m hyperventilating just writing that last sentence.  Holy crap!)

But like my hair, I’m happier than I have been in a long time with my writing.  Change can be scary, but it can also be rewarding and exciting.   It’s never too late to make a change, especially if that change will bring us happiness.

How Audacious Am I?

bird_62_vultureOften when I’m trying to find time to write or trying to decide what I want to write, I start to wonder why.  Why do I want to write?  I usually get past that question pretty quickly.  I write because I love to.  I always have.  I always will.  But then I delve a little deeper into the subject.  I don’t always write just to amuse myself or entertain family members.  I write because I want other people to read what I write.  I want to sell my writing.  I want to make money doing what I love to do.

And then the really big question squats on my head like a reeking vulture waiting to peck out my eyes.  How audacious am I to think other people would want to read what I write, let alone pay money to read it?  Who the hell do I think I am?  And what’s the point of even trying if I’ll never be good enough?

I know I’m not the only writer who battles self-doubt.  Many authors I know say every book they’re writing is total crap…while they’re writing it.  Even Maya Angelou said, “Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”  But it’s not just a matter of having talent that spills out on the page like blood from an opened vein.  These authors are successful because they also continue to hone their craft.  They write and re-write.  They edit.  They listen to critiques and advice and they write some more.  They never give up.

I constantly struggle with the tug-of-war between self-confidence and self-doubt.  I know I can write.  I’ve sold several short stories to magazines, so I know people will pay money for my writing.  But deep down inside, that obnoxiously loud voice keeps asking me, “Who the hell do you think you are?”  And it takes a conscious effort on my part to whisper back, “I’m a writer.  I’m not the best writer I’ll ever be.  Yet.  But I’ll put in the time and work to learn my craft.  I’ll write and I’ll edit and I’ll write some more. I won’t give up.”

Imagine if all your favorite authors thought they were being too audacious to assume anyone would want to read their books.  What if every person in every creative field surrendered to their insecurities?  We’d have no books, no paintings, no music, no sculptures, no…you get the idea.  So maybe self-confidence is a good thing.  It doesn’t mean I have excessive confidence in my abilities.  It just means I have enough confidence to follow my passion and learn the skills necessary to improve any God-given talent I do have.  Dictionary.com defines audacious as insolent, brazen and fearless.  Trust me, I am none of those things.  But it also defines it as daring, original and inventive.  Those I can admit to.  Holy crap!  I AM audacious.

Please Don’t Pull the Plug

I haven’t been writing for a while now. It was a conscious decision on my part after being overwhelmed with family crap, family medical crap, general life (and death) crap. Something had to give. I kept trying to write but didn’t or couldn’t and then I felt guilty about not writing. This went on for a long time until I finally gave myself permission to not write. The guilt went away. But eventually I felt like an imposter. A poser. I still told people I was a writer, but was I? Was I really?

Assurances from my writer friends that I’m still a writer, even if I’m not writing right now, helped keep me in the game (if only on the sidelines). Staying active in my local RWA chapters helped make me feel like I was still living a writer’s life, albeit barely. Monthly meetings. Chapter newsletter editor. Chapter contest coordinator. All these things have been like writer life support. I may not be writing on a regular basis, but please don’t pull the plug. As long as I’m not completely disconnected, I have a chance to survive.

I still have an occasional gasp on my own. Like the Christmas poem I recently wrote as an adaptation of Jingle Bells while sitting for hours in gridlocked holiday traffic. And the new story idea that just grabbed hold of my brain like a mutant octopus and refuses to leave me alone in my non-writer’s coma. I’ve read that people in comas can still hear things around them. Well, I’m hearing voices again. They’re in my head, but that’s normal for a writer. Right?

Some people say that writers can’t not write. Some people say you’re not really a writer if you don’t keep writing through whatever life throws at you. I say everyone is different and it’s not fair to pull the plug on them too soon. I may have to take writing breaks to deal with an overly-full plate of life, but I refuse to stop calling myself a writer. I’m lucky to have friends who have faith in me even when my own faith wavers, who keep treating me like a writer even if I’m not actively writing. And I’m really, really lucky I didn’t sign that writer’s DNR.