Archive for writing life

writing life

Good Students and the Dreaded Group Project

I had a bit of an epiphany this morning about why authors tend to find publishing frustrating.

I would guess that a lot of published authors were good students in school, the ones who turned in good work on time and got As. We learned that if you do what’s expected of you, do it well, and do it on time, you will succeed.

But publishing has very little to do with how well you do it. Yeah, you have to meet a certain standard to get a book published in the first place, but quality has no direct correlation with success. A brilliant book may never sell to a publisher at all because it doesn’t have any good marketing hooks, because another book with similar subject matter was recently published and bombed, because there’s nothing really like it in the market to compare it to, so the editor can’t come up with comp titles for selling it in-house and the marketing team nixes it. A less-than-brilliant book on a hot topic may sell at auction. Even once books are published, you never know what will take off. I’m sure we’ve all noticed massive bestsellers that aren’t at all well-written, that are derivative and corny. And there are books that get consistently positive reviews and even win awards but that don’t sell very well. Writing a really good book is no guarantee of success.

Even turning things in on time isn’t such a huge deal. I learned that publishers expect authors to be at least a month late with their books. They love it when an author hits deadlines, but that doesn’t necessarily do you any good. I did get a slightly better publication date once when someone else slipped a deadline so badly that the book had to be rescheduled and my book was done early, but they still dropped me at the end of my next contract. If you’re a big enough bestseller, deadlines don’t matter at all anymore. They’ll just take the book whenever you decide to get around to giving it to them.

Your typical A student feels like something is totally out of whack when doing good work and doing it on time ends up meaning very little, especially when they see the person who, in effect, paraphrased someone else’s paper and turned it in late getting a better grade.

But to make matters worse, publishing is like the dreaded group project. The writer may do the bulk of the work in coming up with the idea and actually executing it, but then someone else in the group is responsible for putting it together in the right format and putting the right cover on it, then someone else is responsible for presenting it to the class—and then the class votes on what grade you get. You can put your heart and soul into doing the paper, but then you’re in trouble if the person who was supposed to present it got sidetracked with cheerleading practice and forgot she was supposed to do it, so she stumbles through the presentation and makes it sound boring, or worse, doesn’t bother presenting it at all. Even if your whole team is putting their all into it, you never know how the class will react. Maybe they’ll really vote on the best project. Maybe they’ll vote for the popular kids who put no effort into it. Maybe there will be an assembly on the day you’re scheduled to present your project, so everyone’s distracted and doesn’t pay attention.

Independent publishing may be a little easier for the “I can do it all myself!” types to cope with because they can choose their own teams and they’re in charge of those teams, but the class is still voting on the grade.

Maybe the ones who survive publishing with their sanity intact are the ones who were bright but not particularly good students because they weren’t motivated by grades. They might or might not bother with the work and didn’t worry about jumping through the academic hoops, instead focusing their mental energy on things they found intrinsically interesting and rewarding.

Speaking of discouraging things, I have a column today at Fiction University on coping methods for dealing with discouragement. Because I came up with this analogy this morning, I didn’t mention the idea of knowing your own worth and not worrying about outside measurements, whether it’s grades or book sales.

writing life

Mental Writing

It seems there’s one thing the weighted blanket is no match for: a book that wants to write itself. But I don’t mind that kind of sleepless night. I pretty much just have to transcribe the first few chapters that wrote themselves in my head last night, and before I even got out of bed this morning I’d written the back-cover copy for the book.

First, I need to create the town because the location is a little vague. I know a few of the places, but I need to be a lot more specific and concrete to figure out the logistics. I’ve spent the morning Google touring the area where I’m setting the book. I’m stealing elements of a couple of different real towns, the location (more or less) of another town, and then making up a lot of stuff, but being able to “drive” down the roads via Google maps made it easier to visualize what I’m hoping to create (and saved me a day trip).

So, I guess I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again (unofficially) and adding difficulty points by starting late, not getting around to even plotting until several days into the month. That gives me a deadline to shoot for to have a rough draft done. I’m going to try to have a couple of books done before I launch, so what I may do is draft the second before revising the first. That way I’ll know what characters and places I need to establish in the first book.

This is my favorite phase of the writing process, making up all the stuff, just before I start actually writing. I’m not plotting too heavily. I know who the bad guy is and why, but I don’t know the process. If “pantsing” works for so many mystery writers, I may try it this time and see if my writing feels more spontaneous.

writing life

The Mystery Convention

After a very busy week, it’s nice to get back to something like a “normal” schedule. I let myself sleep in, as it’s been more than a week since I didn’t have to get up and go somewhere in the morning, but now I’m trying to go by my usual working routine.

The mystery convention was interesting, though not quite what I expected. For one thing, I was probably in the youngest quarter of all attendees. I felt rather like a child. For another, I wasn’t entirely sure where it fell on the fan vs. writer spectrum. A lot of the panel descriptions made the panels sound like they’d be writing panels with how-tos and advice for writers, but then they ended up being more for a reader perspective. I still got some good info and learned a lot about the way mystery writers and readers think, but I didn’t get the nuts and bolts I was hoping for. I think most of the benefit for me was that hearing the discussions gave me ideas, and that made the vague mystery idea I’ve had in the back of my head start taking concrete shape.

As big of a mystery reader as I’ve always been, I hadn’t heard of (or hadn’t read) most of the speakers. I’ve now got a list of books I want to look for. I did get to meet Rhys Bowen, who writes the Royal Spyness mysteries, but that was in the hospitality room rather than on any panel. And I got a lot of scoop about writers I had read from Felix Francis’s talk. Of course, he talked a lot about his father, Dick Francis, but because of growing up with his father and because of the people he knew, he was also able to talk about going over to Agatha Christie’s house or visiting P.D. James. It sounds like as a kid he was very curious about writers’ processes, so he was able to talk about how they plotted their books and how they worked. I graduated from Nancy Drew straight to Dick Francis and Agatha Christie, so it was fun hearing all those stories.

I was rather surprised to learn how many mystery writers are “pantsers” who just write rather than plotting out the book in advance. I’d have thought that would be the one genre where you have to plot and plan. There seemed to be huge extremes between having everything planned out on color-coded notecards or Excel spreadsheets and just making it up as they go. Surprisingly, Agatha Christie was apparently a pantser. She made sure that every suspect actually could have been the murderer, with motive, means, and opportunity, but didn’t decide who actually did it until late in the writing process. Was Murder on the Orient Express a case of her not being able to make up her mind? And I guess And Then There Were None was a case of flipping it and making all the suspects victims.

In a way, I suppose it makes sense that if the writer is surprised by the conclusion, the reader is more likely to be, while if you know it all going in it might be harder to avoid being too obvious. My books haven’t technically been mysteries, but I have gone in thinking the culprit would be one person, then realized midway through that it was too obvious, so that person became the red herring, and then someone else became the culprit, with some editing to set it up.

I’m not sure I’d travel out of town to attend this convention again. Even if I start writing mysteries, I’m not sure the demographics are in line with my readership. I did get recognized a few times by readers who saw my name and knew who I was and commented about loving my books, which was cool. So I do have some readers there. But I doubt there would be much promo value without the backing of a major publisher. Most authors were only on one panel each, and then there were the publisher giveaway signings. That’s not a lot of exposure from an author perspective, but there’s also not a lot of business/education going on. There might have been more networking if I’d stayed at the hotel and attended the evening events instead of commuting, but networking isn’t my superpower, so I’m not sure I’d have got that much out of it.

But I did get some new books to read and I need to look up a few authors at the library.

writing life

Distracting Myself

I got my energy back today, so I’m looking forward to a productive day (the morning so far has been spent on dealing with the HOA, with their vendors getting estimates on doing repairs around my house).

I think my brain has been working over some things, and it generally finds ways to distract me to get me out of the way so I can’t work until it’s ready. It reminds me a bit of one of those books I recommended, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It’s a time travel book that’s basically about chaos theory and how the timeline seems to be self-repairing. The time travelers are trying to fix something that another time traveler seems to have possibly messed up, but everything they do to try to set things right just makes matters worse. Finally, when trying to get back to the time they’re working in after reporting to the “present,” they get stuck in the wrong time for a while and realize that the timeline was getting them out of the way so things could get fixed.

That’s what my brain seems to do sometimes. When I’m going in the wrong direction on a book, I sometimes get to where I can’t work at all and am totally distracted. That keeps me from writing the wrong thing that will have to be deleted. I get back to work when my brain has it all worked out.

The trick is figuring out the difference between normal distractions and “don’t wannas” and getting out of the way so I can work it all out. There’s nothing like a deadline for making me feel like my cabinets and closets need to be re-organized or to really want to go on a baking binge.

We’ll see when I sit down to write whether this otherwise lost week has paid off.

writing life

Narrating my Insomnia

Some of my author friends have been discussing sleeping problems and what to do about them, and it seems that it’s pretty common for writers to have difficulty sleeping. It’s hard to shut off the brain, and whenever you’re quiet and still with no outside stimulus, the brain goes into overdrive.

What I’ve noticed while I’m between books is that if there’s no active story for it to be working on, my brain still doesn’t slow down. It just starts narrating my life. I’ve always tended to think in narrative. As a kid, I was a lot like Calvin in the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” when he has his “Spaceman Spiff” adventures that he mentally narrates in third person. A long car trip might have turned into an intergalactic voyage, being kidnapped by pirates, or journeying across the frontier in a covered wagon, all mentally narrated as though it was in a book.

I don’t do that so much now, since I’m usually writing a book. If I’m not actively focusing on something else, I will tend to start mentally composing a scene for whatever I’m working on. If I’m sitting still, I’m generally writing in my head. I had to take up knitting so I could manage to focus enough to follow a TV show, and I take notes in church so that I follow the sermon rather than drifting off.

It’s only when I’m not working on something that’s taken over my brain that I go back into “Spaceman Spiff” mode, only instead of making up crazy adventures for my imaginary alter ego to go on, I find myself just mentally narrating my life, as though it’s a blog post or women’s fiction novel. This week it got particularly bad because not only was I between books, but the book I was reading was a first-person women’s fiction novel, so it was way too easy to fall into that mode. The craziest thing came when I decided to try long, deep breaths to settle myself down so I could sleep, and then immediately there came the mental narration, “I decided to try long, deep breaths to settle myself down so I could sleep.”

One of my childish coping mechanisms is starting to make more sense to me. I used to tell myself stories in order to get to sleep, usually based on whatever thing I was really into at the time. Either I was a self-insert character in that fictional world or I was in the role of one of the characters, and at some point in the story, that character would go to sleep — either having to rest out of exhaustion, passing out for some reason, or hurt and having to rest. When the character went to sleep, the narration stopped and I could go to sleep. I think I stopped that somewhere along the way when I started writing fiction professionally and learned that having your characters asleep all the time makes for a boring story, so even mentally writing that sort of thing offended my novelist sensibilities. And there’s not really any fictional world that I’m that into right now. I’m not writing mental fanfic for anything.

I am trying to do better about settling down at night. I was listening to the classical radio station, but some classical music is really stirring, so it doesn’t always work well. Instead, I switched to CDs of calming music, like chant or music for Evensong services. For the last fifteen or so minutes before I turn out the light, I switch from reading a novel to reading a magazine, so I’m less keyed-up about what’s going on in the story. But my real problem isn’t so much falling asleep at night, but rather getting back to sleep when I wake up at about three in the morning. I’m not awake enough to follow the advice to get up and do something instead of trying to sleep, but I’m just awake enough to be aware that I’m awake and for the narrative to kick in: “I’m lying here, not really awake, but not really asleep.” Maybe I should try creating a character I can put to sleep all the time, like I did when I was a kid.

writing life


I ended up not going on that trip, but I did let myself function kind of on a vacation schedule yesterday. When I checked the hotel again over the weekend to make the final decision, the rates had really shot up, and I didn’t want to go that badly. I’d only picked that place because it was one of the few places I could get to in an easy road trip distance where there might be things to do in summer-type weather. Now that fall might be almost upon us, finally, for real, starting next week, I think I’ll just do more of a fall trip a little later. I’ll go up to the mountains in Oklahoma and do a little hiking.

Instead of going somewhere, I’m treating this like a reset week. I’ve got a short story started that I want to finish, and then I’m doing a lot of work-related reading, both research for a book and some business-related things that I need to figure out and learn to do better. If I don’t want to have to resort to a day job, I need to find a way to make more money from the books I’ve already written, which means more publicity. And I need to figure out good ways to do that in today’s environment that I can live with, and I need to make plans and schedules to actually do things. Just as I do with travel, I make a lot of plans, but then don’t get around to carrying them out. Putting the plans on a schedule may help.

Meanwhile, there’s housework, and I’m trying to remember to make time for fun. I want to keep up a good work schedule throughout the fall, but I don’t need to push myself so hard that I don’t have time to enjoy myself some. I’ve almost reached the number of work hours I had for all of last year, so I’m doing pretty well, but I want to keep going instead of slacking off.

The plan for the rest of the year is to keep working but also let myself breathe since I’m not on a tight deadline. I have a lot of stuff to figure out about my career and what I want to do next. I’m coming up on one of the deadlines I set for myself to make some decisions, and I haven’t reached some of the milestones that I set as conditions for what decisions to make. Now I have to decide if I want to hold myself to those conditions, and that means figuring out what I really want and what I can reasonably do.

writing life

And Back to Work

I was just feeling weird about not being in the middle of working on a book, and then I got copyedits on another book, so I guess I’m set for something to do. Fortunately, I got my house mostly tidied yesterday.

I’ve had overlapping projects for about a year now — I was drafting a book, paused to write a proposal, was working on another book, went back to drafting, then wrote another book, then while waiting on copyedits and edits on two projects started researching another book, then was bouncing around between production, revision, and writing on three different projects. Finally, one of them got finished and published, one was in the editor’s hands, and then Monday another one got done (for now). So for a whole day, I wasn’t really working on anything, and it felt weird. But now I’m back to normal with something I should be working on.

It’s actually quite good timing because I was just starting to ramp up research on something else, and research and copyedits fit well together because research makes for a nice break.

I think I am going to reschedule my flu shot plans, though. I’d been planning to do it tomorrow, then take the weekend to recover (because it always leaves me feeling tired and crabby). Since I’ll need to be alert the next few days, I’ll just do it next week.

writing life

Rushing to the End

I finished my draft yesterday! But I already know I’m going to have to rewrite the ending. There’s a lot and not enough going on at the same time, and I seem to be missing a climactic final confrontation. There’s a big emotional moment, but the conflict is off the edge of the “screen.” There’s a danger out there, somewhere, but nothing direct that the characters have to confront. They’re just trying to get away from it. And then I’m afraid there’s a “Return of the King” ending, so the main plot ends, but then there are lots of little endings to wrap things up. Now that I have something on paper (well, metaphorically speaking), I feel like I’ve written an end, and that means I can think it through and come up with something without that weird anxious rush I always get when writing an ending. Sometimes I don’t want the book to end, sometimes I want to get it over with, sometimes I’m just excited, but I always careen recklessly through the last chapters and have to go back and rewrite.

This morning, though, I’ve been a complete slug. It was rainy, which always seems to make for a lazy morning, and I’ve been catching up on other things. There are errands to run and there’s housework to do.

And then back to writing. I’ve had the wacky idea that I need to write another Christmas book, and I’ve got an idea for a short story that might fit an anthology. Meanwhile, I’m researching ideas for the next Rebels book, and it may go in an entirely different direction than I originally planned. The planned book may get moved to the one after this one.

writing life

Optimizing My Life

This year, I’ve been contributing posts to Fiction University about various aspects of the writing life. My latest, from last week, is about creativity boosters.

This series has come out of my ongoing quest to optimize my life. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about productivity and creativity, and I think it’s making a big difference. For one thing, I’m really getting my house in order. Some of the trouble spots I’ve fought for years are clear and have stayed that way for weeks, even months. I’ve organized my closet and drawers, my bathroom, and my kitchen, and that’s turned into a big time saver because I don’t have to go searching for things. Everything I need is right where it’s supposed to be. I think I’ve shaved a good five to ten minutes off my morning routine just because I can just reach for what I need. That’s really nice on mornings when I have to be somewhere. There’s no frantic search for the shoes I want to wear.

Then the tidiness has led to being able to keep things cleaner. When you don’t have to move things to dust or vacuum, it’s quicker and easier to dust or vacuum.

This has a ripple effect that seems to be making me work more effectively. When the room is clean and orderly, I can focus on my work. I do still sometimes get sidetracked with thoughts about what I need to be doing, but it’s not quite as bad.

Meanwhile, I’ve really established an exercise habit, which also helps my productivity and creativity (there’s science behind that).

You can read a lot more of my tips in my Fiction University posts.

I’ve been doing this reading for years, but it seems to finally all be coming together. I think it really started when I was in physical therapy for my knee a couple of years ago. That meant I had to do exercises daily, and that started a new habit, which led to more new habits, and those new habits have pretty much stuck, so I’ve been able to start more new habits.

This year, I’m on track to have spent more time writing than I have in years, I just have the upstairs to get organized and cleaned (which has to wait for cooler weather because it’s unpleasant up there right now), and I’m on track to surpass my annual reading goal.

The really important thing I seem to have finally worked out is that failure in any one thing doesn’t mean everything has to fall apart. If I get busy and things get untidy, I don’t just give up (which used to be a bad habit of mine). I merely tidy it up again and get back to my habits. Ditto with exercise, eating right, and writing. In the past, every time I started a diet, exercise program, housekeeping routine, or writing schedule, I’d do fine as long as I could keep things the way I wanted them. Then when something upset my system, it would all fall apart. I seem to be doing better now about forgiving myself for little lapses and then going back to my routines.

My latest attempted habit development is focusing on promotion and marketing, trying to dedicate time to that every day, with plans for specific things to do. I’ve had lists of things I felt I ought to be doing that I never did, but now I’m trying to make it a priority to actually do them.

It’s weird how all of these things tie together — being more organized seems to make me not only more productive but more creative, and that spills over into being healthier, and the overall result is being a bit happier and more satisfied with life.

writing life

Goal Review

I woke up groggy this morning from a persistent nightmare (woke up in the middle of the night from it, reassured myself that it was a dream, finally went back to sleep, and found myself in the same nightmare), so I warmed up my brain this morning by flipping through my journal. It was interesting to go back and read what was going on around this time last year. Some things just don’t seem to change. Most of my plans are more or less the same, just with different book names. I even have some of the same promotional ideas that I haven’t gotten around to implementing.

Last summer, I was apparently having a milder version of the career crisis I had earlier this year. I’d set deadlines for myself for getting things together or finding a real job. I guess I don’t really want to find another job because those deadlines keep slipping.

I have made progress on some things. I was making plans last year to get the house decluttered and organized, and this year I have the downstairs mostly done. I just have some tidying to do in the living room and bedroom, but the bathroom and closets are done, and the trouble spots have been cleared out. I’ve also done the upstairs closets and bookcases, and I’ve made a good start on the office and loft. It will have to wait until it gets cooler before I get back to work up there because the air conditioning barely reaches upstairs. I should have the downstairs the way I want it before fall, and I’m on target to have the whole house done by the holidays.

I’m on target to reach my writing goals for the year, though I seem to keep changing what I’m planning to write. There was something I planned for last fall that I ended up not doing, and that gave me an idea for what I can do this fall because the timing should work out perfectly — unless something comes up.

The main thing I need to do is get better about promotion and marketing. I really hate doing that stuff, probably because that was the day job career I fled. I’d rather just hide in a cave and write.

But it’s nice to know that even though I keep making the same plans, I am actually starting to bring some of them to fruition.