Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Good Place

The first few years of being a published writer were a stressful, roller-coaster ride for me. On the upside there was getting my agent (my first fan!), holding that first book in my hands, seeing it in stores, reviews, emails from readers, meeting kind new friends in the writing and blogging community, the euphoria of doing something I was meant to do, a $100 Amazon gift card from another writer who said I had inspired her (I bought turquoise jewelry with it so I'll always remember)... I have a "Happy File" to remind me of those joyous parts when the going gets rough.

Then there were the downsides.
#1 The stress of no longer inhabiting a cave in my head but being "out there"--anathema for an acutely private person like me.
#2 Writing the dreaded second book in fear and trembling, only to see it mired for years in...
#3 The meltdown of my first publishing company amid the hysteria of hundreds of its writers bombarding the public Internet and private loops with "the sky is falling" messages. I could not watch. I could not look away. For two whole years.
#4 The first one-star review, on Goodreads, from a "friend".
#5 Looking on at the publishing industry's painful transformation as all the rules changed and kept changing.
#6 And worst of all: becoming so frozen by it all that I could not write for long stretches.

So what came next on the chaotic publishing front? Signing that first book with Amazon's Montlake imprint and actually getting the occasional royalty statement. Starting my own micropress (now at 15 titles, 10 of which are mine under various names) and getting small but increasingly regular royalty statements from there too. Going against the advice to stick to one genre and writing whatever I wish. Being published in respected journals and getting shortlisted for a lit prize.

Most important of all, I'm writing most days. I now understand viscerally (I took a while to really get this) that since the only variable I can control is the writing, I should make that my unrelenting focus. I get the occasional editing job, which I also enjoy. And from September, if all goes as planned, I'll be teaching again--part time, of course. Writing must come first, whatever the hell is happening on the publishing front.

After those tumultuous years, I finally feel like I'm in a good place. It's not about money, because that is still quite scarce. It's about doing the work, being thankful for my blessings every day, feeling some measure of control over my life, enjoying the present, and looking to the future with optimism instead of fear. *knocks on wood* Now if only I could get this exercise thing on track...

What has your writing journey been like? Do you feel that you're in a good place now?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Write more than one story at a time? That's crazy!

“I don’t have time to do just one thing at a time!”

Have you ever heard this expression? It’s okay if you haven’t, as a casual perusal of the internet tells me that this particular declaration doesn’t seem to exist in too many places beyond the confines of my own head. Can that be right, though? I’m not buying it, if for no other reason than I’m just not that innovative when it comes to coining new phraseology.

In our fast-paced, non-stop, cat-eat-dog-because-dog-is-too-slow world, being able to focus on one task at any given time more often than not is a luxury. Now, unless you’re like one of those performers on Venice Beach who juggles running chainsaws while hopping on one foot and reciting Miley Cyrus lyrics as Shakespearean soliloquies*, you’re probably not actually doing more than one thing at any one time.

However, chances are that you’ve got your attention divided among multiple demands on your time and energy. You almost certainly have some kind of “To Do List,” which never seems to let you mark any one thing as being “Done” without first requiring you to add two or more items to accomplish.

As you read this, I have two novels I’m working on (one a solo effort; the other a collaboration with my longtime writing partner). Thankfully, they represent completely different genres, so the risk of me conflating the two is minimal, though it does make for the occasional interesting dream. I’m also working to finish the proposal/outline for another novel, and the typeset pages for the novel that will be published later this spring are now awaiting my attention.

Elsewhere around my writing plate, I have two short stories to write between now and mid-April, an essay, and another book project which came about over the holiday season. Proposals for two more novels that I’ll write later this year are also in the queue, and another one is lurking in the shadows, trying to sneak into the line when it thinks I’m not looking.

And even as I sit here thinking I’ve got a lot going on and I’m getting things done, I know other writers who maintain an “operational tempo” that makes me look like a slacker.

This isn’t me complaining, by the way. I’m loving every minute of this. Well, almost every minute.

When I left my “regular” day job back in the fall, my intention was to become a full-time writer. As I pondered this notion last summer while preparing for the transition, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to secure enough work to replace the salary I’d be losing. As I sit here, halfway through the first month of 2015, I’ve stopped worrying about that potential problem, at least for the moment. After so many years of pulling all-nighters and weekends to keep up with everything while working at my other job, I finally have so much more time (and energy!) to devote to my writing.

I’m still learning how to manage my schedule so that I can keep all of these wonderful balls in the air, but I’ve found a routine or rhythm that’s comfortable for me. I work on one project in the morning, and another in the afternoon. To borrow from Captain Barbosa, that’s more of a guideline than an actual rule and subject to change, of course, particularly if I’m on a roll while writing a scene and don’t want to stop.

I’m still a bit of a night owl and don’t typically go to bed before midnight, so things like reviewing edits or notes or writing pieces such as this blog post usually take place after dinner and after the kids have gone off to bed. I keep track of where I am with respect to each project, but I don’t sweat things like missing a day’s work on a given story, as I know I can move things around and make up for any lost time as necessary.

Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts to track, but I knew the job would be dangerous when I took it. Besides, I’m having more fun with this whole writing thing than I’ve had in years.

Are you a writer who works on more than one thing at a time, or do you prefer to focus all of your intentions on a single story until it’s “done?” If you do work on multiple projects, what are your tips and tricks for keeping the various trains on their tracks?

* = Description of Venice Beach performer changed to protect his identity. He actually was reciting Kelly Clarkson lyrics, but don’t tell anyone.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dead Man Talking

Happy New Year! (Even though I feel like January is already almost over.)

I had an interesting experience with my WIP, perhaps not an unusual one, but definitely new to me. I had this one planned out. I knew where the story should go, what I wanted to say. For me, getting to know the characters is key to my writing so I did character sketches, lived with my characters, and tried to really get inside their heads--the protagonist, his two buddies, his nemesis, his dad, his buddies' parents--I had it all covered. But still it went nowhere. I could not get past certain points in the plot. Then I realised the issue.

There was one character that I had not considered, had not spent time with, had not got to know at all ... the dead guy. You see the story begins with the protagonist's brother already dead and the reality is that the story spins around him and why he died and to understand why he died I have to get to know him.

It seems like every novel comes with its own challenges and idiosyncrasies. What are some unusual challenges that you have faced in writing?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Is Co-Authoring the New Norm?

By now most everyone has read this NY Times article .  But I'm not here to talk about our Evil Overlords at Amazon. The quote at the end of the article by H.M. Ward is what concerns me.

“I've started working with four co-authors,” she said. “If you’re not constantly putting out new material, people forget you’re there.”

I am actually about to embark at least one- perhaps two collaborations with other authors. I see it as a way to up my production, ( hopefully! I've never collaborated before so I'll let you know how it goes) which is vital for digital and small press authors. Without the visibility that new releases bring (and don't forget to market!) small press and indie books sink fast into the abyss of the self-publishing glut. 

My own (possible) collaborations began before I read this article, but the quote at the end reinforced my thoughts and other advice I have heard (second hand) from successful self published authors. Get a new book out every four to six months. The key is content, content, content.

So is this the new norm? In the name of faster production will we all be collaborating? Will it necessarily lead to better books? Is the need, or the perceived need for the faster production of books in the name of maintaining a presence on the web going to be the fate of authors? Will we simply race to the finish line, cranking out as many books a year as possible. How good can out books be if this becomes the only viable way for authors to make a living int he new digital age? Or is it panic?

I have no answers. But I'm wondering if anyone has thoughts and opinions on this. I'd love to hear from people.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year 2015

Happy New Year!  2015 is here.  Yes we made it to another year.  It’s a time for celebration; a time for resolutions; most of all it’s a time to reflect on the past year and see how far we’ve come and what we need to improve in the coming year.

2014 was filled with personal trials.  I saw my baby sister succumb to her battle with cancer, just six months after my oldest brother died suddenly.  The saying, “What doesn’t kill you make you stronger,” is quite true.  Despite the pain, I am stronger for it.

 2014 was also filled with triumphs.  I saw my 11 year old blossom into a full fledged author with the publication of our first children’s book “Zapped! Danger in the Cell.”  It is the first in the “Small World” series of science adventure novels featuring the memorable and mischievous characters Giselle, Lynelle, Sonya and Justin who get shrunk and enter microscopic worlds.  Since then we’ve done book fairs, school presentations, blog interviews, print, radio and television interviews.  With each interview, with each promotional activity, I could see growth in both of us.  I have learned to utilize Facebook as a media marketing strategy and I am still learning to navigate those waters.

So what’s in store for 2015?  No, I won’t make a resolution, but if God permits, I hope to return to my roots with the publication of my multicultural romance, “Hurricane of the Heart.”  I hope to see second book in the Small Worlds series published. Finally, I hope to do a lot more writing.

2013 was rough, 2014 was tough, but I hope 2015 would give me enough… enough joy, enough sunshine, enough love, and enough rain so I can appreciate every moment that I have breath.  So today, the dawn of 2015 I am beginning anew.  I am pressing forward into the year with lots of plans, and hope for the future.

And for you who read this post, I wish you a bright and prosperous New Year.  May you have success in your endeavors whether you achieve your set goals or not.  May you find happiness in whatever you do.  May God bless you throughout the coming year.  Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Guest blogger Pendrah Gilson: No Shoulds

Back in our 'hippy' days, my husband and I were 'seekers'. We studied so many Eastern and Western spiritual paths, we could have become smug. We went so far as to give up all our stuff and go to an ashram in Arizona with our two year old. To make a long lived life short, no matter what we studied, it always boiled down to three actions to have a calm, spiritual, happyish life: eat good stuff (see Longevity Kitchen by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson), meditate (any kind that works for you), and exercise (whatever kind keeps you moving 30 or more minutes per day without causing the dreaded ennui). All of which helped lead us to right thought which is everything.

And so it is in writing. No matter how much I write (a  lot of skits, poems, songs for school; guest blogs-only two so far; letters; essays and stories-not yet published) or how much my friends write (and get published--Sunny Fraizer, Christy Bristol mysteries and Che Gilson, Carmine Rojas, Dog Fight) it all seems to come down to the same things:

1. Positive self-talk. Tell yourself what you want to hear: "I can...", "I am...", "I will..." Forward thinking. See yourself where you want to be whether it's giving a book talk for your newly published book or going on a spending spree with your earnings, or sitting at home reading an e-mail from a friend thanking you for writing. Revel in even the thought of success (no matter how you describe it to yourself) not failure.

2. Ignore the 'shoulds', even those that come from you. You are you and it is okay to write how much you write each day, how many websites you peruse, how many contacts you make. Your style, your format, your energy. You will know when it's time to try something else. You can listen to 'experts' without shoulding yourself to death, Assimilate what you are told then decide what you will try. "If you want to be successful, you need to write six (five, ten, one, etc.) hour per day" is merely a suggestion. No matter what you think success consists of, there is more than one way to achieve it.

3. You don't have to be the best writer in order to make a living writing. If that were the case, there might be a hundred or so writers per generation and as you all know, that is not the case. Like any other joyful work people do, you learn your craft, practice, and keep learning.

4. Focus on the joy of writing and you will have the energy and clarity to see opportunity. Focus on what you want out of writing, not what you don't want.

5. Be prepared to be challenged, to move out of your comfort zone. Whether you see success as making a living writing, writing for your own edification, or writing letters to the editor, there will be opportunities to move beyond where you are now.

No matter what you are doing, whether it's writing or doctoring or whatever, making your life successful (however you define that) will usually consist of positive self-talk, focusing on the joy of the job rather than 'shoulds', realizing that you don't have to always be the best to contribute, and being prepared to be stretched beyond where you are.

Hey, mostly, just write!

Pendrah Gilson is a native Montanan, one-time teacher on a Native American reservation, GATE teacher/trainer, VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts Resource Teacher), 'regular' teacher, now a sub trying to be a retired person so she can write and do other stuff.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Setting as Character

I recently had to write an article on setting and this made me reflect on some of my writing. Most reviewers of CafĂ© au Lait, from professionals in magazines to random readers on Amazon, have commented on the role of setting in the novel. This is not something I set out to do intentionally--at least not that I can recall--but the setting of that story, Trinidad and Tobago, is so much a part of my psyche that there was no way I could write a novel where the place, time and social context were not significantly intertwined with the psyche of the main character. Setting is ever-present, not simply as a picturesque backdrop but influencing the thoughts, feelings and actions of the characters. The impact of the setting was brought home to me when one reviewer on Amazon UK said she followed the characters around on Google Maps while reading the story.

When I compare that novel with my second romance title, there is a striking difference. This one is set in South Florida, and although I spent close to two years there the place is not so much a part of me as my homeland is, and this distance shows. Is the setting a character in Give Me the Night? I like to think it is, but here it plays the role of a minor character and not a main character as in the first novel.

When I look at other stories I have written that are set outside of Trinidad and Tobago, the settings tend to play minor roles (with the exception of one post-apocalyptic story). Then I glance at my recent short stories set in my country and here again, the setting tends to play a major role. In two works in progress, now that I think about it, the setting is the main character. How does this happen? With me it's an intuitive process that apparently depends on my familiarity with and attachment to the setting.

What elevates setting to the status of character in a story? Based on my own experience, I'd say it's a combination of the following:
  • The use of telling details that create images of place, time and context (the basic function of setting).
  • The use of elements of the setting as symbols of important themes or issues within the story.
  • The use of pathetic fallacy which is the perception of nature as sentient--sympathetic or responsive to human issues in the story. (Examples: the angry sky, stealthy shadows, uncaring desert, the rain as tears...)
  • Characters' emotions, thoughts, and/or actions being affected, catalyzed or constrained by elements of the setting.
  • The setting changes over time, just as a well-drawn character must.
  • In other words, making the setting personal, and not simply a static background. 
My favorite stories are almost always those in which the setting lives and breathes and deepens the tales in memorable ways. In my own writing, although much of it is still intuitive--at least in the first draft--by the time I get to the editing phase one of the things I check for is an active setting that works as a reflection of, an ally, an antagonist, mentor or source of inspiration to the other main character(s).

How do you handle the issue of setting in your writing, and how important is it to your enjoyment of a story?