The Business Side (Ick) of Writing

taxesI could potentially put myself to sleep while writing this. Correct me if I’m wrong, writers, but am I alone in this? The business side of writing is the snooze.

Sitting in the accountant’s office this year with my husband who is an investment adviser, I felt like a Kindergartner. (Nothing against Kindergarten. It’s a very fine starting place, x’s on the floor and all.) My husband had all his documents (many) in order and I forgot my one document I was supposed to bring: my Profit and Loss Report. Figures. On the up side, I did, however, bring my Nordstrom bag filled with folders, receipts, and all kinds of other things we didn’t need.

After telling me my husband was making me look bad, the accountant circled back around (probably remembered I found him in the first place) and told me life would be very boring if  everybody was an accountant. A solid point.

Still, last year I made it my goal to become more savvy in the business side of writing. Not only would I address the publicity, marketing aspects which are easier for me because of my former life as a marketing director in law firms, but also the financial aspects which have not been easy for me since my first shouting match with my mother when she tried to teach me how to balance my checkbook in high school. Until last year, I hadn’t tried that again. I’m more of an intuitive banker.

Tax time looms, however, and as writers we have things we need to consider. Even if we aren’t drawing in big advances for our fantasy trilogy series, there are still monies here are there from freelancing, speaking, expenses from conferences, and paper and ink, and paper and ink, and paper and ink…you get the idea.

This year, in the first quarter (that’s accounting talk), I merged my writing income with my health coaching income and incorporated which I think worked out well to balance out writing off expenses. I learned Quickbooks and got everything reconciled with a tutorial trip (actually 3) to the local small business center, a day long class my banker sent me to, and some trouble shooting from my husband on my credit card statements when they were–umm–$500 off. Thanks, honey.

Perhaps business majors smirk at my progress, but I say, “Job well done!” Baby steps. And what I’ve decided is this: my goal now is to sell a book and have somebody else do this stuff. What? Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The Idea Tree

DSCN2871When I was teaching second grade in Manhattan Beach, California, we had Writer’s Workshop. We followed an idea, into words, into a published book fully illustrated.

One question the kids always asked is the same question I’m frequently asked by kids when they learn I am a writer: “Where do you get (and by you they mean I) ideas for stories?”

Easy. The idea tree. You know, back in the orchard behind the money tree.

But, really, this is true. Take this particular tree at the Canoe House Restaurant in Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii. The characters this tree has seen. The dialogue this tree has lumbered through. The sunsets this tree has witnessed. The whales it has watched play. The slack key it has felt deep down in its roots.

When I travel, I so frequently have a story land on my head. Usually it happens on the plane. I don’t know what it is about being high up in altitude that gets my creative juices flowing, but something does. On this trip, the idea for my next book just landed in as clear as day. Not like I was looking, mind you, as I have a single space four page document with stories I want to write. Nevertheless, it nudges its way up to the front and demands to go next. (Bossy stories.)

Stories are everywhere. Listen to the palm frongs tapping together in the salty ocean breeze. (That one’s for you, QS). Watch the woozles (not their official name, but that’s what they should be called) that were sent over to the Island to control rats but run opposite shifts so now just reproduce–and so do the rats. Walk the land and imagine how it was 300 years ago.

If that doesn’t work, go find the idea tree. It’s waiting for you.

Best Writing Advice Ever

rabbitE.L. Doctorow said once that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Anne Lamott followed that up with, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

But if it were this simple, why do we have the constant debate about outlining vs. following the story? Every time I turn around someone is blogging about one or the other as the answer to the holy writing trinity. Here’s the answer.

There’s no one answer.

Writing is so not about absolutes–and that’s the hard part. If there was one formula, one way, every MFA program across the country would be teaching it. Second grade teachers wouldn’t puzzle over, “How the hell are we going to teach these kids to write? I don’t even know if I know how to write?” (We actually had those conversations when I was teaching at one of the top elementary schools in the country and it’s not like we weren’t armed with masters degrees and curriculum.)

We get through school with some teachers (and later editors and agents) telling us we’re amazing and some telling us we suck eggs and we ought to just hang it up. (They usually euphemize.) It’s a very subjective medium. Just join writers (critics, librarians, parents) in a discussion of published books they think are pure genius or crap and you’ll generally get a divided room.

So what’s a new writer to do when writing a first novel? On the first draft of my first novel I followed the advice of Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The reason I did that was that I’d happened upon her workshop as my first ever and she talked about plot structure that day. She’d come from Hollywood (television) and had learned the 3 Act structure and that’s how she did it. A short time later I met the late Blake Snyder at Book Expo America. He was a third generation screenplay writer and author of Save the Cat. What a great guy. I really liked him. He was funny, nice, and he pitched random people at Starbucks on his ideas.

It was settled. I’d outline. I bought poster board and colored sticky notes. I stuck packets everywhere for my brilliant ideas. Scenes were all over my house in errant places for months. And in the end, I rewrote it all in the first rewrite and it didn’t represent the outline at all. Sigh.

When mentor and friend, and oh–Edgar winning YA novelist–Charlie Price told me how he wrote, I decided to try that. This is the E.L. Doctorow School of Writing. Charlie would say, “Just peer in the window at what’s happening in this scene.” I loved that! And, as an only child who used to plant recorders behind the couch at my parent’s cocktail parties starting at age 6, I had that voyeuristic streak anyway. It was a natural progression. If I just listened to my characters, they’d tell me what was happening.

That’s the approach I’m taking on my current novel. I have the outline in my head, of course, but I’m trusting the story. No poster board or sticky note scenes. It’s definitely more fun even if, as outline afficionados would have you believe, it takes me more time on the flip.

Follow your intuition and know this for sure–in writing, as in life, we are here to explore a diverse buffet of options. It’s how we grow. It’s how we discover. It’s how we create.

The First Draft

biggesteraser“Shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott says everybody has them. They’re messy.

I like things in neat boxes, so messy is hard for me. Recovering perfectionist type. But letting the story pour out in the first draft feels more fair somehow.

Because of that, I force myself into that place. I let myself over explain, tell far more details than (almost did “then”) anyone cares to know. I do draw a line in the sand on some things–bathroom trips. My characters never go to the bathroom–even in a first draft.

It’s all I can do to power through a whole draft and not go back and edit as I go. (That’s the picture here in case you couldn’t tell–the world’s largest eraser in New York compliments of my friend, Kevin. Thanks, Vin.) Sometimes, I cave. I justify to myself that I can only build accurately forward if I fix the foundation. What kind of house stands on sand, I ask!

Really, if I’m being honest, I just don’t like to see my writing looking messy.

Blogging has helped here, though. You’re getting first drafts. Shocked? No, I didn’t think so.  I don’t pour over each detail, give it the proverbial sit in the drawer test and go back with new eyes. Nope. Misspellings, wrong words, word mishegoss when I’m not looking–all of it pours forth to the universe each and every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. (Thanks for tolerating that, by the way.)

In fact, sometimes when a blog comes out, I’ll read it just to see how it looks in my email. It may have been a few days since I wrote it (yeah, I’m one of those autoresponder kids). When I read an awkward sentence that I didn’t even know I had the ability to construe, or substitute “our” for “are,” a mistake my second graders even avoided in their writings, I think, “Really? Really!” About an hour later, my husband yells downstairs, “There’s a mistake in your blog.” (He’s my after-the-fact editor.)

It’s hard not to feel stupid. Like maybe the writing police should come and suspend my writing license or something. And then I counter (in my imaginary conversation with myself), “No way! I’m a recovering perfectionist. It’s part of the writing process.” Stuff. Like. That.

Join me. Let the story pour out. Erasers be damned! Embrace the shitty first draft.