On failure, discipline, and other life lessons from writing

A lot of what I’ve learned as a writer has helped me in my life outside of writing. It’s not just that writing and effective communication skills are valuable assets (which they are!), but that the trials and tribulations of building a writing career make us stronger, if only we’re willing to learn from them. I think two of the biggest things I’ve learned from my writing career so far are the ability to learn from failure and the importance of discipline, which is a combination of goal-setting, dedication, and follow-through.

Failure:

Whether it’s a rejection, a bad review, or simply acknowledging that a story or a scene isn’t working, we can turn failure into a means to achieve our goals. We can fight failure or blame it on others. We can say the market isn’t ready. We can say family constraints got in the way of our writing. Those things might be true. But the only thing we can control is ourselves, not the market, not the situation. When we do this, failure can become a learning experience. When we were kids, we fell when learning how to walk, and yet we learned anyway. Failure is harder for grownups, but still valuable.

I’m one of those stubborn optimists in life who’s always insisting that you have to risk failure to succeed. The most successful people in life are those who are willing to take professional risks. Now, they have to be calculated risks. You can’t just jump off a proverbial cliff to test if you can fly. You have to do research, learn the right skills, and put those skills to work. But ultimately, we will risk rejection, bad reviews, and even snarky comments, to put our writing to the test. It’s the only way to succeed. And then, when we fail, we reassess and try again, armed with the knowledge we’ve gained.

Discipline:

So many of us “creative types” are thinkers, and it’s easy to get stuck in our heads brainstorming and never put our fingers to the keyboard. Sometimes I take a walk and listen to the birds and admire the trees, and while it might be a vital part of my life or my writing process, it’s not going to get the book done. Unless you’re a published writer with an agent and editor and tight deadlines, no one is leaning over you telling you to get this done. Indie writers have their fellow writers, crit partners, and readers to hold them to deadlines. Especially in the beginning, when you’re setting your own deadlines, it’s easy to say, “I’ll get there when I get there.” No two writers will have the same process.

You can reach out to other writers on Twitter (hashtags like #amwriting, #amediting, #writegoal, #MyWANA, or #1k1hr) or blogs (A Round of Words in 80 Days, http://aroundofwordsin80days, or #ROW80) or participate in NaNoWriMo. Or you can build your own goals and stick to them. You have to find the process that works for you (even if it’s trial and error, and there’s failure involved along the way) and stick to it. If great ideas made great writers, there would be a lot more great books in the world. But the great idea has to be in the hands of someone dedicated enough to follow the story and polish it until the words sing.

We have to be willing to just breathe through the failures, which are a necessary part of success. In investing, the greater the potential yields of an investment, the higher the risk. And writing is a risky business. You have to be willing to weather the storms. And discipline, even if we have days where we totally blow our writing quota, helps us hone our craft and accomplish our goals. And both require us to just breathe through the process. As I continue my journey, I know there are plenty more lessons in store.

What life lesson has writing taught you?

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Working with characters during revision

An alternate title for this post was: Dealing with Zoe.

See, I love Zoe, the female lead in Made of Shadows. She’s intense, passionate, fiery, compassionate, and maybe a little nuts. Okay, a little might be understating. Zoe is a woman on the edge. The martial arts skills and motorcycle don’t help.

photo from stock.xchng

So when editing Zoe’s story, sometimes it’s hard to tone her down. I realize I need a little distance from MOS to see the places where Zoe’s zest is adding to the plot and when it’s just distracting. Like I said, I care about her. I want the reader to care about her, too, which means I’ll have to learn to love her a little less, so I can edit her story properly.

She’s an absolute contrast to Lithe, of Pierce My Heart, my other WIP. Lithe is a soft-spoken introvert. She’s also a tough-as-nails fae investigator, but her motto, if she had one, would be, “Grace under pressure.” Sometimes I’ve worried that Lithe’s voice isn’t strong enough. Unlike Zoe, I worry that there’s not enough of Lithe shining through in the story.

Thus, one of my primary focuses for the next few months is going to be character development.

Our characters need to be relatable and likable. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to Zoe or Lithe, then why keep reading? We want our readers to love the characters as much as we do. And if we’ve stuck around long enough to tell their stories, chances are that we do love them.

What complicates the issue is that our characters need to be consistent. This doesn’t just mean that in chapter one our character (let’s call her Lucinda) is a diehard vegetarian and in the next chapter she’s woofing down filet mignon. Character consistency is about more than favorite foods and hair color–it’s about the psyches of our characters, who they are deep down and how that influences their actions.

"Rodrigo, your kisses rock my world. Let me tell you my deepest, darkest secrets."

If Lucinda is perennially mistrustful, we need to make sure she doesn’t just easily open up to other characters. (As in, “Oh, Rodrigo, you’re a really good kisser. Why don’t I tell you about my traumatic childhood?”) Every action needs to be consistent with who she is. It’s not just about what the author wants to happen or where the plot needs to go; it’s about what Lucinda would do next, or what she would do given the next progression in the story. So if she opens up to Rodrigo, there needs to be a damn good reason, and one that’s consistent with her character.

But Lucinda also needs to change, affected by the circumstances of the plot and her interactions with other characters. Lucinda on page 1 can’t solve the situation (say, defeat the bad guy). If she could, we wouldn’t be writing a novel about her. Something has to happen between page 1 and page 300 that allows her to emerge victorious (if that’s the plot). Lucinda needs to change.

The character arc needs to mesh with the plot arc. Maybe Lucinda learns to trust, and trusting allows her to let someone in who can help her defeat the bad guys. She changes from a loner to someone capable of teamwork and trust.

And that’s where I’m at right now: reading books and blogs about character development. I know my characters. I need to make sure the reader does as well, and that each action is believable and appropriate. I hit a turning point while writing MOS. I’d been stuck for a while, not knowing where the story should go next. I tried a new approach. I stepped back  and asked, “What would Blake do?” Ah, bingo. “And what would Zoe’s reaction be?” Ah, naturally. I let the characters drive the story, and the plot unfolded before me.

What about you? What are your stumbling blocks with character? Any advice for working with character during the revision stage?

Summer writing wrap-up and fall writing plans

So, as I dot the i’s and cross the t’s on my syllabus for the fall semester, I realize that I’m entering a time when my writing hours will be in short supply. And since a few golden leaves are starting to tumble to the ground, and my mums are offering up their yellow blooms, I figured I’d offer a recap of the year so far.

So, this year, I have:

  • Written a 100K 2nd draft of Blake and Zoe’s story, MADE OF SHADOWS. Don’t worry. Following drafts will be shorter. I’m already finding places to cut, but I needed to get it all down and sort it out later. This fall I plan to start revisions—putting me at draft 3 sometime in 2012.
  • Joined the Twitterverse and attempted to master the art of the perfect tweet. I’m still learning, but hey, I can now use “RT” as a verb.
  • Started blogging on WordPress in addition to my LJ blog.
  • And… last week, I finally got out the last few scenes in PIERCE MY HEART, a novelette-length story about a golden arrow and a murder in the realm of the fae. Hoping to get a finished draft of that one out by next spring. (At present, it’s weighing in at about 12K words.)

And my goals for fall:

  • Blogging twice a week. I might have to cut that back to once, but I’m going to try.
  • Revising one chapter per week of MADE OF SHADOWS. We’ll see how that plays out. Some scenes will undoubtedly call for more time and more extensive revisions than others. I’ll be sending it to crit group a couple chapters at a time.
  • Revisions on PIERCE MY HEART are also under way.

With all of the revisions, I don’t expect to have much time for new writing, though there are plenty of new stories jostling around, just waiting to be told. It’s sort of like the crowd waiting outside Best Buy at 3 a.m. on Black Friday. Every character just wants to get into the store to get their hands on a cheap DVD player. But my storytelling time, like Best Buy’s supply of discounted Black-Friday electronics deals, is limited.

Now I want to know what everyone else is working on this fall. New stories? Old ones? Revisions? Publications? Are you querying agents or writing synopses or outlines? Or, what are you reading? What are everyone’s fall goals? Do tell.

And now, for the first time ever…

THIS WEEK’S DASH OF AWESOME-SAUCE: Cool posts from around the web

Ilona Andrews: On Blurbs, Difficulty in Obtaining

A hilarious compilation of emails that reveals how NOT to go about requesting author blurbs for your next book.

India Drummond: Ordinary Angels Revealed

Follow India as she reveals her experiences in the world of small e-pubs, her foray into indie writing, and the cover for Ordinary Angels.

Kait Nolan: Why I’ll Never Unplug

Kait, on the role social media plays in fueling her writing career. And, in case you missed it, her YA novel Red is now available!

Stop knockin’ the romance novel

So I just read this post by contemporary romance writer Jeannie Moon, which, of course, made me feel all twitchy. Why, tell me why, are people always knocking romance novels? Tell me how a romance novel is “not a real book.”

What makes a “real” book? Plot, character, description, tone? Because romance novels have all of those things. And have the people who say such things actually read a romance novel? (Or, if they have, do they just skip to the dirty parts? Tsk tsk tsk.)

I just realized I’m preaching to the choir. *steps away from pulpit*

I was already feeling mildly irate because, in a writers loop I belong to, a fellow writer said that her boss called her books “silly romance novels.” Silly? Romance novels are silly? They’re not real?

Oh, wait, excuse me while…

Sorry. I’m back.

Jeannie, who managed not to turn into the Incredible Hulk, raised some valid points to put her particular naysayer/book snob in her place:

“I set out to bury Harpy with the facts. Facts about romance’s incredible reach, profitability and the most basic of all: that if the genre were to become extinct, 1.3 billion dollars in book sales would be lost. It would decimate publishing and all those “real books” wouldn’t have anyplace to go. I talked about academic work being done at major universities studying the genre as literature and I talked about how it made people happy. And in the end, that’s all that mattered.”

So here’s my piece. Why do I think romance novels are most certainly REAL books, and not at all SILLY? Because…

Books change us; all art does. Books help us understand the human experience. The last time I checked, romance, yummy parts included, is a vital part of that experience. And we’re never more alive than when we’re in love.

I could go on. And on. And on. But I think I’ve said enough.

And this whole thing has inspired me to blog about why I chose to write romance novels. But that’s a separate post for another day.

Why do you love romance novels? Why do you think people feel this way? And how can we help them see the light? Or, if you’re a hater, why?

FYI: CPM closing its doors

Just as an FYI to writers, the Crit Partner Match site will be closing its doors on Aug. 15. Site creator Kait Nolan posted on the site:

I do hope some of you found it useful and that you DID locate a crit partner in all of this. For those of you still looking, I would point you to Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com), which is a large and vibrant writer’s community that has a much larger pool and a greater purpose, as well as a specialized sub forum devoted to crit partners and writing buddies. I think you might have better luck there. Best of luck. You have until August 15th to remove any material/posts or whatever from the site before I delete it. CM Clark is starting a new board Crit Partners http://critpartners.proboards.com/ if you’re looking for an alternative. –Kait

Personally, I don’t think we can have too many places to meet up with one another. My thanks go out to Kait for facilitating the site!

Update: About 5 minutes after I published this post, I received a follow-up email in my inbox. Just thought I’d share. 🙂

The fabulous CM Clark is setting up a board for Crit Partners http://critpartners.proboards.com/ as an alternative to CPM. Check it out if you’re still partnerless!
Kait

3 weak sentence constructs to avoid in our writing

As writers, everything we read and write develops our ear and eye. We learn how good writing sounds, how it leaps off the page, how it sends a thrill or a chill through us. A good line has bite. And we develop an eye—an eye for glaring spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors, so that those, too, pop off the page.

Reading a lot is a given for a writer—it develops your ear. And editing and critiquing—whether it’s a friend’s cover letter for an employment opportunity, judging for a writing contest, or the in-depth work we do for our critique partners—develops both our ear and our eye.

I’ve found a few sentence constructs that pop up in writing (my own included) that diminish the strength of the prose. When revising, we can find phrases with more “pop,” replacing weaker sentence constructs with those that have more “bite”.

1.)    There is/are/was/were. What is “there”? It’s not a character, not a meaningful object or place in the story. “There is” is one of the weakest sentence constructs I can think of, especially in fiction, when we have so much poetic license to be creative. “There is” can generally be replaced with a stronger, more vivid construct. “There is a tree deep within the forest…” can easily become “Deep within the forest, a tree stretches out its great, wide arms…” Because “There is…” really doesn’t mean much at all. But “A tree stretches…” takes us right to the heart of the sentence. When I revise my work, I try to avoid this sentence construct as often as possible. It’s too easy, it’s often telling not showing, and it’s just not powerful enough. “There is” is okay every once in a while. It’s just best in very minute doses.

2.)    I felt/he felt/she felt. If you’re in first-person or in third-person close, “felt” can be useful but highly overused—especially in a first draft. When revising, we can note these places in our writing. If we find this structure frequently, it’s time for a change. Why? Because, like “there is,” “I felt” can often be cut, leaving us with a stronger sentence. “I felt my heart thumping in my chest,” becomes the much stronger, “My heart thumped in my chest.”

3.)    Overuse of rhetorical questions. “How was Blake going to get out of this one?” “What was Cassie going to do?” I find these phrases peppering my first drafts—often because I honestly didn’t know how Blake was going to get out of this one, or what Cassie was going to do. They were more for me as a writer (clues to myself that I needed to figure something out) than for my reader. Every once in a blue moon is okay. In subsequent drafts, I try to delete these phrases as much as possible. If we’re not careful, such questions can start annoying the reader. Don’t you think? 😛

What weak phrases do you find in your own or others’ writing? How do we vanquish weak sentence structures so we can make our stories really sing?

Consider donating to help maintain Crit Partner Match:

Earlier today, I received the following email from Kait Nolan, indie writer and founder of the Crit Partner Match site. For those of you who aren’t familiar, CPM is “like Match.com for writers,” connecting writers with potential critique partners based on genre, critique style, skill level, etc.

I don’t know how I’d survive without my critique partners. They tell me what I need to hear, straight-up. They support my work but also call my attention to what does or doesn’t work.They ask the hard questions. In other words, they help my work realize its full potential.

So, apparently, Grou.ps, the site used for CPM, is now charging for use of its services, and the fee is pretty steep–at least for one person to manage on her own. Here’s Kait’s email:

So I started CPM back in…lord, it’s been quite a while, but back then it was on Ning and Ning was free. Then Ning went to paid plans and I moved to Grou.ps because Grou.ps was free. Guess what? Grou.ps has been moving to paid plans. it’s been ongoing for a while and apparently they have started limiting membership for the free groups to 25. We have 314. I think because I’ve been around since the beginning, I kinda got grandfathered in without being charged. HOWEVER, it’s recently been brought to my attention that new members cannot join. The front page apparently says that the group is NOT accepting new members. Well I’m not cool with that because we like new members.

So I go digging to check out the plan options. For our group to continue to grow it will be $8.95 a month. Which comes out to..roughly $ 108 a year. Now I don’t actually get anything out of this group. I found my CP via other means and just started CPM as a means for other writers to connect in a more unified place because I would be lost without my CP and I think others need to be able to FIND ONE. But I really don’t have $108 a year to toss out of pocket.

I may do some research on the possibilities of charging a very small fee for membership (like $2 a year or something). There is also the issue of potentially monitizing the site (which also requires a plan upgrade to be an option). I’m not interested in making a profit, just making enough to cover the costs of running the site. For now, though, I am going to ask for donations. Give as little or as much as you like. I’m not setting any thresholds.

If you like Crit Partner Match and feel it’s been helpful to you and you’d like to see the group continue to grow, please donate a little if you’re able. Send any donations via Paypal to kaitnolanwriter (at) gmail (dot) com. Once we’re upgraded, I’ll absolutely look into monitization options that will allow the site to remain free and self sustaining.

Thanks for your support! Happy writing.

Kait
Your CPM Founder

So, I’m chipping in a small donation, and I’m challenging others to do the same. If you can spare a buck or two to keep a valuable service for fellow writers going, please consider doing it. That’s not even a latte!

I also want to hear success stories about critique partners. How did you find your like-minded peeps, and how much have they helped you?

My story: I met Kathleen Foucart and Amelia Ross in graduate school. We founded our little group informally, meeting at local coffee shops. Over the years, we’ve grown as writers, each developing our own voice and finding our own path. We met last night, actually, and they totally saved me from months of muddling through a couple of difficult scenes by helping me find the right direction. We give each other support, guidance, a chance to vent, and plenty of cheerleading, as needed.

I hope all writers get the chance to do the same!

Sneaky motifs: What’s your secret little write-obsession?

While mulling over a new novella I’m working on, it dawned on me that there is a motif that flows through nearly every story that I write. It’s not something as abstract, as love (which is a given, considering my genre) or redemption or healing (though those are common ones) or any sort of existential commentary on the human condition.

No, my novels have plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle themes that run through them. But this one was so unexpected it caught me off guard.

Tea. Yes, that’s right, tea. The beverage, preferably served hot, often with honey. In an early MG fantasy novel I was working on in grad school, a professor noted with good humor the importance to which my characters had elevated tea. One of them says, “Something big is going down. End-of-the-world big.” And the other character says, “I’ll put on the tea.”

Now, tea is my comfort food (if you could call it a food), even more than a bar of dark (very dark) chocolate. But despite my love of chocolate or ice cream or artisan cheeses, none of these things has become an unconscious motif if my stories.

Each time tea surfaces in a story, its presence feels completely natural. When someone is sick or worried, what better way to console him or her than to offer up a cup of tea? So when Cassandra (heroine in newly begun novella) arrives shivering and soaking wet on Nick’s doorstep, what is a guy to do but make her a cuppa?

I blame my best friends, those ladies who have been my confidants through the numerous ups and downs of my twenties. When some people would whip up a pitcher of margaritas (we have done that, on occasion), we usually put some hot water on and brew a pot of tea. We’ve stayed up until 5 a.m. contemplating our lives and the mysteries of the universe, anything from relationship woes to work struggles to spiritual awakenings, while imbibing endless amounts of tea. Those are good memories. And after a long day at work, there’s nothing better than coming home and sipping a cup of Lady Grey tea while allowing my body to sink into the sofa cushions.

I don’t know why tea became part of my writing universe. Maybe I associate it with the magic that runs through my life. It’s natural, earthy, relaxing—a sort of meditation and medicine. It’s a balm for the soul. And, maybe, drinking tea is even an art form.

What about you? What subtle motif has popped into your work unintentionally? And where do you think it came from?

Shout-out to Robin Ludwig:

So my new WordPress site is officially up and running. I’m still over on LiveJournal as well, so you can keep up with me at either site.

I’d like to take a moment to thank Robin Ludwig for the awesome header she designed for the site. Her turnaround was superfast, and I might have squealed in delight (just a little) when I saw the result. Robin designs all sorts of things, so keep her in mind if you have any design needs.

Today, hubby and I are celebrating our second anniversary, so we’re doing the classic dinner and a movie. Which means that I’m making this one a short and to-the-point post.

Have a great evening, all!