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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Happy almost Halloween!  I have all kinds of treats here, and very few tricks, I promise.

all-the-ugly-and-wonderful-197x300First, I’m over today at Writer Unboxed, interviewing the talented Bryn Greenwood about her novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.  Bryn is the kind of writer who takes my mind, turns it inside out, stretches it, gives it a good beating, then puts it back together so it’s never quite the same.  Her books aren’t what I would call easy reading, but they shake me up and make me think.  I’d love it if you would stop by and check her out.  (And there may or may not be a picture of her own Slobbering Beasts there too.  Just sayin’.)

51h9kbdnbjlNext,  I am sooooo happy to announce that Author in Progress, a book to which I contributed a chapter, is available for sale.  It was spearheaded by the lovely and amazing author Therese Walsh, who is a cofounder of the Writer Unboxed site.  Over the years she’s managed to pull together a tribe of writers who are supportive, kind, and just plain fun to be around.  If you are a writer in any way shape or form, published or not, the group is one of the nicest and most drama-free I’ve ever known and well worth checking out.  As is the book.  (See my subtle plug there?)  And if you aren’t a writer, but know someone who is, I promise the book makes a lovely gift.

Finally, Monday is Halloween.  So I couldn’t let this post pass by without at least one trick.  Which I played on the poor Slobbering Beast, who will be confined to his crate that evening so as not to lose his doggy mind during the constant ringing of the doorbell.  (And also to avoid any surreptitious snacking on stray candy bars.  Hey, a dog can dream.)

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Totally Johnny Depp.  Okay, maybe Johnny after a few beers.

 

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With a gratuitous Slobbering Beast shot (doesn’t he look embarrassed?) and a redirect to the Writer Unboxed site for my essay on how to find a great beta reader.  Please stop by if you get the chance!

 

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I love the holidays.  I love the tree, I love baking cookies and gingerbread with my kids, I love the presents, I love the peace, and I especially love the TWO WHOLE WEEKS off from school.  If we could only have snow and have it be 80 degrees at the same time, I’d be in heaven.

One thing I especially love, and have since my daughter was a baby, is making the holiday cards.  It’s one of my favorite activities, and since my oldest was little and I strapped her in angel wings, I’ve spent days each winter planning what I would do.  This sounds obnoxious, as if I’m striving to be Martha Stewart, but believe me when I say that despite my best efforts, the cards remain pretty simple and success is hit or miss.  But I finally realized this year why I love creating them so much.

Christmas cards are ALL character and NO plot.  (Ahem.  Does this sound like any author you may know?)  Each year is an opportunity to create a perfect little vignette, with no worries about rising action, microtension, or conclusions.  (Sorry, Donald Maass. I feel like I’m letting the team down.)

This year, however, my characters revolted.  After over a decade of taking direction, they’ve decided that next year, the Christmas card is theirs.  And while I’m sad I won’t be able to get to the rest of the fabulous ideas I’ve planned, I understand. (Plus, there’s always the chance they’ll forget and I’ll get to do it my way anyhow.)

So, to celebrate the end of a run, I thought I’d put together my thoughts on what makes a holiday card successful.  And if there’s some writing advice in there too, forgive me.  Just don’t listen to me on plot.

  • Pick a theme.  Even if you only use one photo, find a way to tie it to something larger.  I love using a line or two of a poem or holiday song in the greeting, and having the photo reflect what’s written. For example, in one of my earlier cards, I dressed my baby daughter in her pink tutu and snapped pictures while she twirled.  The line under the photo read “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Just like in novels, a strong theme can carry you through.
  • Be unexpected.  One of my favorite cards from last year showed a family on the beach in bathing suits, enjoying the warm weather.  Their card read “Dreaming (NOT!) of a White Christmas.”  (And taking your reader somewhere unexpected keeps them turning pages, too.)
  • Keep it fun.  My son is notorious for looking like a Grinch in pictures.  In the past years, in desperate attempts to make it look as if we’re not torturing him, I’ve had him sit in an old-fashioned horse carriage, pull a sleigh as fast as he could on the beach, jump on a trampoline, and pelt his sister with snowballs. (Guess which activity got the biggest smile out of him?) Just like in writing — if it’s  not fun for you, it shows through to your reader.
  • Keep the photos as big as you can.  And my rule is that in general, people on my holiday list really only want to see my kids. I’d rather have one great photo of the two of them than five smaller ones of the family. And lastly…
  • Make friends with a great photographer!  I’ve always done the photos for our cards myself, but this year my friend Kevin Harkins of Harkins Photography offered to take them for me.  The results were fabulous, and such a memorable way to (possibly) end my favorite tradition. To see our card this year as well as some of the outtake photos, hop over to his blog. And tell me — do you love doing holiday cards too?  If so, tell me about your favorite in the comments!

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

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It may come as a surprise, but I’m not the most organized person in the world. (My husband and mother don’t need to chime in on this.)  My organizational strategies are few, but hard-won: The keys go on the hook right when I walk in the door, or I lose them. The phone goes on the charging station, or it disappears. Twice a day I walk through the main rooms of the house, starting in the left corner and working to the right, restoring whatever has escaped to its rightful spot.

Which is why sights like this:

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Creative doll house space that needs maid service

 

and this:

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Sewing corner that would make Martha Stewart cry

make me crazy.  Sometimes after a long week, I admit it — I lose my cool and yell about the mess of plastic and paper we’re drowning in.  And for half an hour, everyone under the age of fourteen scurries around, putting their laundry away and moving the toys from the floor to under the bed.

But I always wind up feeling horribly guilty about these rants. Not just because I hate to yell but because I’m torn.  Childhood should be a time when kids learn organization skills, it’s true (although I had the most organized parents in the world and not much rubbed off, so I’m leaning toward nature over nurture on this one) but it should also be a time of insane creativity.  It’s a time when kids don’t know the rules, so they have no compunction about breaking them.  They can dream big, because no one has yet told them how small their space is in the world.  They can make a mess, and create something beautiful.

It’s not just things that are over-organized, either.  Almost every minute of my children’s day is scheduled.  My youngest goes to a school where even recess now has ‘stations’ to choose from. Gone are days when kids could play tag (too rough) practice cartwheels on the grass (too dangerous) or wander aimlessly through the playground. And after school, the days of just hanging out in the neighborhood with friends or on the couch reading are over, too — the neighborhood is empty, because everyone’s at soccer practice, and if anyone’s just hanging on the couch, they’d better be studying for that math quiz.

But if everything is scheduled, everything is put away, when does serendipity strike? When do the unwashed petri dishes lead to penicillin? When does the time on the couch lead to a book that leads to a hobby that leads to a brilliant idea? When do our kids have the time, and the opportunity, to connect two unrelated things and make them sing? For that matter, when do we?

Or as Steve Jobs said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

If you schedule every moment, if you put everything away neatly in its place, you’ll have a well-organized life, it’s true.  You may become brilliant at taking tests. But then that sewing corner may never lead to this:photo 2

 

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And this:

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Random paper clips arranged in a pattern on the floor

 

won’t ever have time to grow into this:

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And who knows what else the world will miss?

(Tell  me — how do you balance organization and creativity?)

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NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

NOT the Slobbering Beast, although we are working on exactly this.

When I used to show my dog in the obedience ring, I had a joke with a friend.  If a dog sat when he was supposed to down, wandered off when heeling, or  jumped out of the ring to snag a jelly donut (before jumping back in!) it was ‘handler’s error.’ Translation: my fault.

My riding instructor said something similar this week.  There are three of us taking classes together, all of us middle-aged, at different levels of experience and with very different horses. We are all having different problems, and the ray of sunshine that is my current instructor blamed it all on us.  If the horse isn’t doing what you want it to do, she said, it’s your fault. 

Either you aren’t communicating clearly enough what it is you want, you haven’t schooled on that particular issue enough, or you haven’t made it evident just how important this action is to you and committed to following through with appropriate consequences when your request isn’t met.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good trainer or rider, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.

It’s the same with publishing.

At Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace two weekends ago, I heard the same message over and over and OVER again from the published writers who were teaching classes: There’s always a way to get better. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always room to make your dialogue sharper, your plot more intense, your characters more believable.

Agents want to say yes.They need to say yes — their income depends on finding that next sellable book.

Editors want to say yes. They want a book that keeps them up at night, that makes them go past their stop on the subway, that has their whole department buzzing.

If they aren’t saying yes, there’s a reason.

There are exceptions, of course — there always are — but in general, to be a good writer, you need to look in the mirror when things aren’t going your way.  You need to own what you can control, need to work it as hard as you can, so that if a ‘no’ comes your way, you know it’s not because of you, because YOUR writing is tight, YOUR dialogue sparkles, YOUR plot is heart-poundingly intense.

To paraphrase writer Matt Bell (who does so many revisions on his novels he made my head hurt) you have to be in it for the work, not the glory, because the glory may never come.

Do the work.

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I’ve been riding horses, off and on, since I got my first paycheck out of college. One of the reasons I can still get on and (kind of) giddyup after years away from the barn is because I had great instructors. No matter how high my rent was, or what odd expenses came my way, I almost always managed to scrape together the money for a weekly lesson. One woman I rode with for over 10 years — she helped me find the first horse I ever owned free and clear, she taught me how to fall, she even came to my wedding, one of the few times I saw her dressed in something other than boots and breeches.

Another instructor helped me regain my confidence after some bad falls. She taught me how to observe what the horse was saying, not just what I wanted him to do. A third found me my dream horse and went out of her way to bring us together. Although there were other teachers, these three are the ones who mattered the most.

I’ve moved on from that part of my life, but I still remember them all every time I climb into a saddle, and at other moments as well. I learned so much from them, some of it about riding, most of it not.

My new instructor is funny and sharp, with her own ways of teaching, her own equine hangups.  She’s threatening to get a video camera system, so she can show those of us in her class how we really look, not just how we appear in our own heads. And it’s true — the way we think we ride, straight and tall, loose and limber, isn’t the reality at all. This week, something she said reminded me of an exchange I had a long time ago with my first instructor, who had seated me on a horse that was ready to leave the ground at any moment.  She kept telling me to turn him in circles and not to throw away my outside rein.  After the fifth or sixth time, I remember snapping that I was using the outside rein just #$#$ fine, thankyouverymuch.

“Well the horse disagrees,” she snapped back. “And so do I.”

In my last lesson, the current instructor was trying to help me get the horse on the bit going forward, and suddenly, I could hear the old instructor yelling at me not to give away that rein.  From the distance of 10 years or so, it suddenly made perfect sense.  So I shortened up the rein when I was turning, kept the tension in it as we circled, and voila! I had a horse on the bit, moving forward nicely.  (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe in lieu of videotaped evidence.)

Revisions in writing can be a bit like riding. How you think it looks, how it appears in your own head, can be radically different from what is actually on the page. If you have beta readers, resist the urge to tell them “That’s exactly what I’ve done,” if they suggest you need to tighten up the plot, increase the love interest, or ground it in a more realistic setting. Remind yourself that you’ve asked for their advice because you have respect for their abilities and judgement. Say “thank you” to them and as little as possible of anything else. Then put their comments away, along with your manuscript, for as long as you possibly can.

When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you just may see that they were right.

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

 

 

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Last week I was sitting on Rory, listening to my instructor correct some point or other in my riding, and another person in the class commented on what a lovely head set Rory had as he stood there.  His head and spine were perfectly rounded, he was mouthing the bit, and he looked like a real dressage horse, instead of a get up and go hunter. (Like this, if you are looking for a visual.)

“I know,” I said. “I can get him to relax into it when we’re stopped, but not when we’re trotting.”

You know how the second the words come out of your mouth, you regret them? I should know better to ever, EVER  tell a riding instructor I can’t do something, because they will take it personally. They will devote the rest of their lives to making sure that I can. Or at least the rest of the lesson. And this instructor is no different.

“Of course you can,” she said immediately. And I silently cursed the person who had commented as I dutifully went off at the trot to get Rory on the bit.

But here’s the thing. People call riding a conversation, and it really is. No matter how big and powerful you are, no matter how harsh your aids, you cannot make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do.  You may prevail for a while, you may get your way that day, or the next, maybe even the third, but at some point in time there is going to come a reckoning, and it is not going to be an attractive one.

Instead it’s like getting a three-year-old to eat their peas.  You ask nicely.  You mix them with a bit of honey, maybe, and you’re not surprised when they come back at you.  You give it some room and you ask again. You mix them with carrots, you use them frozen to soothe sore gums, and eventually, if you’re persistent and you really, really want it, you have a three-year-old who will eat peas.

Let us say that Rory does not like peas in any way, shape, or form.  We’d had this conversation on our own, with me kind of suggesting, in a timid way, that he might want to try them, and him spitting them back out at me hard.  No peas for him, I’d decided.

Because the other part of the conversation of riding is that once you ask a horse for something, you have to follow through. You have to mean it, to really commit, because if you don’t, then the horse has just learned that he doesn’t have to respect you.  That you aren’t serious about this, and he can ignore whatever other suggestions you might have, which can get dicey when you’re outside and you ask him to pay attention to you, not to whatever is blowing in the breeze, or when you ask him to go over a jump.

But here was my instructor, telling me to give Rory some peas, telling me I was capable of doing this, that I NEEDED to do this. So I swallowed hard, and started the conversation.

It went about like you’d expect.  Rory huffed and puffed and behaved a little bit like a punk, tossing his head hard at me and stomping sideways. It wasn’t a full-scale temper tantrum, just a little bitty one, the equivalent of a toddler dumping his dish on the floor. No real malice, just curiosity about what would happen. Nothing personal.

“You can do this,” my instructor said. “And if it helps, I’ve never known him to buck.”  It didn’t help one bit, since I have a mortal fear of bucking based on past painful experience, and whenever anyone says that it’s the equivalent of saying the Titanic had plenty of life boats.

But I stayed with it, despite the huffing and puffing. I breathed and unfroze myself from the self-protective frame I’d immediately folded into.  I kept asking, nicely, and eventually Rory got tired of putting on a show. He recognized that I meant it, and he dropped his head, rounded his frame, and looked a little bit like a dressage rock star.

After, my instructor took me aside and reminded me that I had the skill to do this.  I had the talent, even if I hadn’t used it in a decade. That I should be able to get on a horse even after 10 years and politely and firmly explain what we were going to do, and then do it. That it’s not just skill, but self-confidence too.

Publishing is a very similar conversation.  You can’t make an agent take you, you can’t make a publishing house buy your book. You can’t make readers fall in love with your story.  But you can be prepared. You can be as skilled as you possibly can be before you start that conversation. You can commit all the way to making it happen, to getting better and better, to not taking the rejection personally, but to getting back to a place of strength for the next time you ask. And the time after that. And every single time going forward. Until at last, you get that yes.

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My little girl on my big sweet non-punk horse.

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