The Writing Life: A Super Balancing Act

I’ll let you in on a little secretI’m a tad imbalanced. My family might use the word ‘super stressed’, my husband, at times, ‘super crazy’. It’s okay, because I know they love me, and it’s true, I do have a tendency to take things on…in excess. I used to attribute it to the expectation that modern women have superhuman abilities to scale relationships, home, health, career, and all their future hopes and dreams in a single bound, but that’s a cop out. The world has figured out we’re mere mortals, and I’m fairly certain I’ve got my priorities and goals straight most of the time. I’ve come to realize it’s more about me wanting to feel in control. I want to manage all my needs and wants with those superhuman powers. I want to do it all, and I want it done now (or, better yet, yesterday).

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom/freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom/freedigitalphotos.net

I think a lot of writers may secretly be like this. They’ll try to crank out the first draft of a novel with the speed of a silver bullet. They’ll read a seven-book series in as many days. They’ll manage their day job like a star reporter at the Daily Planet, and still make time for their secret (writing) identity. They’ll devote themselves to the needs of their family, friends, and home with the efficiency of an evil genius plotting the destruction of Metropolis (but with better intent, I hope). They’ll pretty much do anything they put their mind to, as long as they focus on it maniacally. As in…like a maniac.

Hey, at least we give it our all, right?

Image courtesy of Elwood W. McKay III/freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Elwood W. McKay III/freedigitalphotos.net

I’ll keep telling myself that. Meanwhile, failure to achieve balance among the important things in life can become our own personal kryptonite.

Are those of us plagued with this plight destined to live lives of extremes, or will we ever find a nicely balanced, happily-ever-after?

As I think about this, Colossians 3:23-24 comes to mind: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” 

I wonder, if I stop and remind myself why I’m doing something, will it help me be more selective? If I’d focus on doing some of the same things, but for the right reasons…not for my own vanity or because I feel pressured into it, not because I fear stopping will keep me from ever starting again, not because I’m told it’s what successful people do, and not because it’s supposed to define who I am, would I be more present in the moment? Would there be more joy in the work I undertake? Would I be a happier person overall?

Just maybe it will help me keep the bigger, digitally formatted, wide-screen, blockbuster motion picture in mind. And that, to me, is more powerful than a locomotive.

What about you? How do you stay balanced when you start to feel overwhelmed by the commitment you make as a writer?

Publishing Tips and a Lesson in Humility

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Thursdays at the Water Cooler are for writing about the publishing business—an intimidating topic, and it made me take inventory of what I have to offer. Sure, I’ve written six novels. I’m published in print by a traditional, albeit small, New York press. I’ve worked with Amazon Publishing, and I’ve ventured into the indie business with a novel through Kindle Direct, Apple, and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit. I’ve marketed and advertised. I’ve developed a good network of successful published authors along with a few agents and editors. I’m business savvy, and I treat my writing as a profession. And yet…I can’t help but feel lacking on the topic of publishing.

In part, this is because I’m goal driven and I have lots of goals yet to achieve, but it’s also because I’m sincerely humbled by those around me—the extensive experience of the writers of the Cooler, the proficiency of those in my writing chapter, and the aptitude of people with whom I network online. I am one small voice in the mix, plugging along on my own publishing journey—often a lonely road with only rare glimpses of the bigger picture. So, what could I have to offer?

With humility comes wisdom.

I consider myself the average writer. As glamorous as writing sounds, it really is a somewhat lonely road. If some of what I’ve learned can keep me optimistically focused on moving forward, maybe it can help someone else, too.

1. No one knows it all, so don’t be envious of another’s success, and by the way, get comfortable with ambiguity. The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence.

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Whether landing your fifth series with one of the Big Six or newly exercising your empowerment to publish on your own, neither means you have it all figured out. Every facet of this business brings unique challenges, decisions, and discoveries. You are probably where you are in your journey for a reason. No matter where that is, you have more to learn. My tip: look for opportunities to gain knowledge wherever you can from those you admire, published or not. Just don’t get hung up on one source; look far and wide to develop a deep reservoir of knowledge to draw from.

2. Times have never been more dynamic or uncertain for publishing. I’m not talking about ebooks vs traditional publishing. I’m talking about the markets themselves—what readers will connect with and want more of, what’s hot and what’s not, new genres or formats cropping up. One extremely valuable lesson: do not try to chase a trend. It doesn’t matter how fast you write, I promise you, it will be over before you catch up. I write young adult fiction, and as hot as concepts like the Hunger Games are now, I’m already hearing dystopian is giving way to middle grade—but don’t pull out that old Harry Potter derivative; you’ve got to have something fresh and unique to offer to fit that trend. My tip: you should absolutely consider marketability as you write, but write from the heart nonetheless. It will come through in your writing, and you’ll wind up with something you can feel good about, whether or not it happens to be the latest publishing flavor of the month.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

3. One size doesn’t fit all, thank goodness. I listen to a lot of author speakers, and I have to admit, I grow weary of hearing some say things like, “I pursued New York publishing—because I’m serious about my career…” If that was their publishing journey, great—but not only does that imply there’s only one ‘right’ way to go about it, it doesn’t even make sense anymore. Variety and choice are the best parts of the publishing industry today. Fact is, you can be plenty serious about your writing career, have a far-reaching readership, and make a steady income without pursuing traditional NY houses these days. That doesn’t mean NY isn’t still a valuable and highly sought-after option. They may still even be king of the playground, and they’re no doubt busily trying to reinvent themselves to make sure they stay that way, but there are other viable options out there. My tip: remember you have choices, and stand tall no matter what avenue you decide to pursue on your personal publishing journey. There is no ‘wrong’ way to go about it. Even if you make a mistake, you can learn from it and move on.

There are a lot of experienced writers out there, and I’m just scratching the surface. What tips do you have to share about the publishing industry?

What Writing Fiction Taught Me About Human Nature

I used to think I knew all about right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villainsIt was all black and white to me. When I bothered to think of it at all, I pretty much knew how to bucket things and, I’m sad to say, sometimes people. Then I started writing, and I figured every character central to my plot would be a good guy or a bad guy, an ally or an obstacle. I quickly learned that wasn’t the way to build a character-driven novel. All-good or all-bad characters are flat, boring, and unrealistic. No one wants to read about them, and it wasn’t fun to write about them, either. I realized, like real people, characters must have a little of both in them.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This concept was easier for me to grasp with my heroes. After all, if a hero doesn’t start out flawed in some way, how can they ever hope to grow? This was something I embraced early on in my writing. The fundamental change that occurs when a hero is tested through a series of internal and external obstacles is half the fun of writing, in my opinion. The villain was a bit trickier. Even understanding no one is perfect, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing a finger at a blatant wrong-doer and summing up their person as ‘bad’.

As I spent more time delving into the psyche of my villains before casting them in a story, I realized who they are is more than what they want, their flawed reasoning or perspective, and even what motivates them to do the terrible things they sometimes do. Villains, like real people, can have a backstory wound too.

What is a backstory wound?

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One of my favorite resources for character-driven plots comes from Martha Alderson, often referred to as the Plot Whisperer. A backstory wound can be anything impressionable in the character’s past that interferes directly with their success at achieving their goal. It’s worth pointing out this isn’t always something you’ll reveal to your readers, but it’s something the writer should know. Essentially, backstory wounds are how characters sabotage themselves, whether they’re aware of it or not. Heroes have them, and villains have them. (Don’t we all, really?) The main difference is, at the end of the story, the hero has changed somehow to overcome their backstory wound to the extent they can achieve their goal, whereas the villain hasn’t.

But they could.

Villains have the same capacity to grow and change as heroes have.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I realized that little nugget, I was able to start writing better villains, and I also had a slightly altered view of human nature; I became a little more understanding. Like our characters, real people face conflict and make choices every single day—choices often colored by their own backstory wounds. The fights we pick, the words we say, the grudges we release, the big dramas and little thoughts and actions that shape us every day—these help us grow in character…or not.

I still have my views on right and wrong. However, now I try not to assign those characteristics to people, but rather to their behavior at any given point in time, often framed by the choices available to them.

What about you? What has writing (or reading) taught you about human nature?

Another Brick in the Publishing Wall

Inevitably, whenever I read an article about the publishing business lately, Amazon’s name crops up—often to highlight how they’ve become the big, bad wolf trying to blow down the publishers and booksellers with a huff and a puff of discount prices, a far-reaching distribution channel, and the ability to sell direct to consumers. Much heft, in particular, has been placed on pricing as the lynchpin that could make traditional publishers and bookstores obsolete. No doubt (and for good reason) they fret over this more than the average reader, and time will tell if price and reach are the mortar holding it all together. Meanwhile I’d like to explore another factor influencing why and from where customers buy because I don’t believe it’s all about price, and I don’t believe it’s all about marketing and promotion, either. What about convenience? Selection? Fulfillment? What about how well the seller delivers on the overall customer experience at every touch-point and every interaction?

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Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a harpy about the ‘customer experience’ (call it a hazard of my day job), but it’s the one thing that keeps me coming back again, even if I can get something cheaper elsewhere, and when not done right, it’s the one thing that drives me away faster than I can pluck a hair from my chinny-chin-chin. Why do you think people who buy only from certain bookstores do that? Nostalgia for traditional publishing or because the experience and interactions they have in those places make them feel good? I’m guessing it’s the latter.

And do you think people who buy mainly from Amazon do that solely for the price, or might it have something to do with Amazon’s wide selection, easy to use website, quality packaging, fast (often free) shipping, easy returns, overall solid reputation, and available, empowered customer service? It just might. I’ve been buying everything from books, games, and gifts to guitars, clothing, and Cuisinarts through Amazon since 2004. Every time, they’ve worked hard to build my loyalty by delivering a consistently extraordinary customer experience.

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When I think about my experiences with other sellers, they’ve been average or infrequent. With publishers (traditional and electronic), it’s a mixed bag. As a consumer, I don’t have many. As a writer, I’ve mostly been rejected or ignored. I realize this is par for the course in the publishing industry, and I don’t doubt I deserved the rejection at the time, but being ignored is memorable. I’m expected to provide thoughtful responses to hundreds of emails a day (and, no, email isn’t central to my day job), so it chafes a little when publishers say they don’t have the time to respond at all, ever. These may be ego-bruising realities for a writer, but as consumers who buy a lot of books (and the occasional Cuisinart, for that matter), engaging us only when it’s self-serving isn’t the way to build a positive, lasting relationship.

On the flip side, Amazon isn’t perfect.  I hear some Indie authors say they’re unhappy with Amazon’s KDP Select customer service, and they feel ignored or unappreciated. Amazon may, in fact, be wading into dangerous territory if they don’t figure out how to deliver the same service excellence to indie writers as they do elsewhere. But given the overwhelming number of positive experiences I’ve had with Amazon, I might be willing to forgive the first lapse or two.

FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If publishers and booksellers intend to compete profitably in a world where customers are ever-evolving in their expectations and where the likes of Amazon exist, they have their work cut out to deliver the kind of experience that builds loyalty (read: profitable behavior). There is no silver bullet. It takes time to build a reputation. Amazon isn’t the only threat to houses of sticks and straw. There’s a hurricane of savvy customers brewing.

What about you? Have you ever decided to purchase from somewhere (or not) solely based on an excellent or poor experience?

Disclosure: I have two contemporary romances published with Avalon Books, which was recently acquired by Amazon Publishing. I had drafted this blog post before I was aware of the acquisition, and it in no way impacted my depiction of Amazon here.

Seeking a Revelation

source: Fotolia via MS Office

We’ve all been there—happily plowing through a manuscript when we’re suddenly brought to a squealing halt. Or maybe it comes on gradually, like so much mud solidifying as we try to trudge through until we find ourselves frozen in place, blinking at the ground and wondering what happened.  It could be our outline didn’t foresee all it might have, or we wandered down an unexpected path only to find it’s a dead end. Or perhaps our characters took on lives of their own and staged a coup when we weren’t looking. However we got there, we’re stuck, and being stuck mid-project is no fun. So what’s a writer to do? 

We could ditch the whole thing. Occasionally that is the right answer, but being persistent writerly-types, thank goodness that’s not our first inclination. There are lots of ways to get unstuck which leave us with a better manuscript in the end. Here are my top five:

  • Walk away for at least 30 days. It never ceases to amaze me how insightful this can be. When you’re writing, you’re close to the material. You leave a part of you on the page, and sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Many writers know this, and they take frequent steps back from their material in the hopes of approaching it later with a less familiar eye. It’s tempting to think a week or two is sufficient, and sometimes it is. But if you’re really stuck, I highly recommend walking away for a full month to get a truly fresh perspective. That distance can do wonders for improving your writing on the next go-round.

Source: Wikipedia

  • Ask for help. While many writers recognize the value of a critique group for the craft side of writing, I’m surprised how few ask for help with storyline. Asking for help does not make you weak. It makes you resourceful. I recently rewrote the entire end to my novel because an editor thought it predictable. I asked a trusted critique partner for help. She brainstormed with her daughter (this was a YA story) and came up with a slew of possibilities. One contained the thread of an idea I ultimately spun into a much better ending. And let’s not forget the power of prayer. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and asking for guidance from above is simultaneously humbling and empowering. Just remember to let go of any preconceived ideas and be open to whatever form inspiration may take.
  • Print it. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but it works. Seeing your work in print is strangely insightful. You will plainly see things you don’t when looking at it on the computer.
  • Push through. To put it bluntly, give yourself permission to write crap. Knowing the next chapter or two will be ‘throw away’ material is incredibly freeing. It takes the pressure off and lets you work through the block. Not everything you write needs to be brilliant. You’re not going to go with that first or second draft anyway, right? So give yourself permission to make a mess before you refine it all.
  • Read in your chosen genre or non-fiction category. Some writers worry if they do this they’ll either find someone beat them to the punch or they’ll inadvertently pick up another author’s voice or idea. In the case of the former, you’re better off knowing this sooner than later so you can make your story stand out as different. In the latter, you can influence this: you’re a disciplined, creative being, not a machine that regurgitates what you’ve read without your knowledge. The benefits of understanding what’s successful (or not) in your chosen field far outweigh the possible risks. Read—and keep a pencil handy for when the revelation hits.

How do you get through when you find yourself ‘stuck’ during a writing project?

Third Day Give Me a Revelation

Hope for Shrinking Violets

If you follow industry blogs you’ve probably seen advice on how to promote your book or author brand.

You get it. You also probably know social networking is critical to self-promotion these days. If you know this, and you haven’t yet jumped into the fray, could it simply be you aren’t comfortable with it?

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.n

A Myers-Brigg personality study tells us half the U.S. population consists of introverts. Surprising, right?

Not really.You just don’t always notice them next to the more conspicuous extraverts. Introversion isn’t the same as being shy, though. It’s a natural preference for solitude and reflection. We live in a fast-paced, “noisy” world that expects everyone to keep up. You see the conflict.

It’s not hard to imagine a good number of writers cringe at self-promotion—not because they don’t know what to do, but because the idea is emotionally draining to them. And maybe a wee bit nauseating

While introverts may have a harder time making small talk (hmm, Twitter?) or new friends (ahem…Facebook?), they do enjoy activities with long stretches of solidarity (writing, anyone?). If it makes you nervous to comment on a blog—if you write, edit, then rewrite your Facebook or Twitter posts—if you feel like you must say something witty or nothing at all—if it seems everyone else is having a grand old time with social media but you—you might be an introvert.

You’re not alone. Heck, I’m there right now. But here’s the thing about introverts—we’re in our own heads a lot. We know if we want to succeed, we have to venture out of our comfort zone, like it or not. Fortunately, social media can work in an introvert’s favor:

  • Need time to process information? Great! Rather than being forced to think on your feet, participate in conversations at your own pace. Mull things over to your heart’s content before you engage. Just don’t get stuck there.
  • Enjoy people but prefer them in small doses? Easy! All one has to do is Google to find a number of applications that allow future scheduling of pre-written updates for sites like Twitter, rather than facing them everyday. Or, you could begin by engaging in a site you feel most comfortable with (GoodReads worked well for me), then feed your updates to Facebook or Twitter to help you appear more ‘talkative’ while remaining true to yourself.
  • Trouble making small talk or accumulating friends? Start small. ‘Like’ someone else’s post. ‘Retweet’ a relevant article. Share a link or a picture on tumblr. You don’t have to talk much to say a lot. Just be sure you’re being thoughtful about what you share—no problem for an introvert!

Remember, every move you make in the social media realm makes the next ones easier. The trick is to get moving.

Why not start now? Tell us, what’s holding you back from engaging in social media? If you’ve already passed that hurdle, what worked for you when you were getting started?