Writing What Matters

writing26What makes you excited? Happy? Concerned? Passionate? What do you care about? That’s where your story lies. I would like to change that picture to the left to read, “If you wish to be a writer, WRITE WHAT YOU CARE ABOUT.” (I used it though because it’s so sunsetty-pretty.)

So often at writing conferences you have industry professionals tell you what’s hot and what’s so 2012. They let you know what their particular presses are looking for and what they’re tired of seeing. And, to some degree, you may be able to fit your story into one of those trending genres. It’s ever-changing. However, where your stellar writing emanates from is not the hot genre. Instead, it comes from what you care about. Your heart. Your soul. What matters to you. That one you’re thinking of right now. That’s the story you came here to Planet Earth to write.

What other people want you to write isn’t necessarily it. For example, a few weeks ago, a local lawyer contacted me because he was looking for a writer to pen a story for some clients. (He Googled and I came up. He liked my website and contacted me.) He was touched by their story which was pretty remarkable.

It’s a human interest story of love and perseverance. A man had reached rock bottom. He was severely injured, and while recovering, his wife had left him. He was thinking of taking his life. In a moment of desperation, he called 411 just to talk to someone. (Not 911, 411. Resourceful.) He asked the woman who answered if she would just talk to him and she said she couldn’t and hung up. He called back. He reached a different lady and she said, “I could get fired for doing this, but I go on break in 15 minutes. I’ll call you back and we’ll talk.”

Long story short, they fell in love and have been married something like 50 years. Their love even survived the time he clinically died, went toward the intoxicating light we hear people talk about, saw his wife weeping, and came back to be with her so she wouldn’t be alone.

When the lawyer told me their story, his eyes lit up. He was so inspired by them. He had, in fact, thought about writing the story himself, but just didn’t feel like his law practice allowed time for it. To me, it was so clear this was the story he was meant to write. And, it’s equally clear to me, if someone has a “great idea for a story,” that even though it IS a great story, I may be in charge of writing different ones.

I love to write stories based on true stories because I think the world is so interesting as it is. I don’t need to world build (fantasy style) because there’s so much here already that fascinates me.The stories that pound on my head and heart are the ones I know I have to write.

The sweet spot in all this is when those industry professionals are looking for the exact story you are telling. That’s where the magic lies. Even if it doesn’t, though, you will be doing your part when you write the story that really matters to you.

Here we go–and other dreams

dreamAll other blog posts were wiped clean from my brain (EVERYTHING was actually–just tabula rasa me) when I got the email. A series of them, actually.

But before that…

You may remember (this is NOT backstory) last week I was excited/nervous/giddy because my manuscript was all grown up and flying the nest? Destination: Editor-land.

So off it went and guess what? It landed! Immediate requests flew back. In multiples. Not one. Not two. Not three. Ready for it? Four requests within the first 8 hours. Woot! I don’t even know how to describe that feeling. I don’t even know what it means. Does that happen all the time? I’m a brand-spanking newbie at this.

And once again, I danced around the livingroom for a few minutes…

…before that voice in my head said, “Yeah, but…”

I told it I didn’t have time for it right now. I told it it’s not the boss of me. Right now, I’m just dreaming. Picturing the auction. What does that even mean? Are there number paddles involved? Will it be like the one down in Cottonwood on Fridays?

“Yeah, but…”

Shhhh.

This is how it’s gotta be. Let me enjoy the dance.

To be continued….

My Fantasy

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This is a little how I look at bedtime. Just ask my husband who has to navigate through my nightly inspirational magazine, my angel cards, my poetry book, my current personal development book, and whatever novel I may be reading. They’re like my stuffed animals I need to say goodnight to before I can enter into my dream world respectfully.

Truth be told, I get sleepy in less than 30 minutes. I’m lucky if I get to the novel. But this is my fantasy. To lock myself in a chair in a meadow, with flowers all around me, white puffy clouds breezing by, a stream babbling behind me–and My Pile of Books I haven’t gotten to yet.

I marvel at friends who read a book a week. My mom’s like that. She tells me about the characters and storylines in her books. She reads several hours a day consistently. I love that. I want to be like that when I grow up.

When my husband’s dad, Len,  died, I remember going to the rabbi to discuss ceremonial details. He told us stories. One was about Len, who was on the board of the temple at the time the rabbi was interviewing for a job. Len asked him this question: “If money wasn’t an issue, and you could do anything in the world, what would you do?”

The rabbi thought and he said, “First, I would pile up all the books and magazines I never get to and I would sail to this remote island (can’t remember the name) and I would sit underneath a palm tree for a year until they were all read. Then I would come back and help people.”

When I heard that, I thought, “Me, too! I want to go to that island with my stack then come back armed to serve.”

For now, I dream. I nibble away at it each night before bed, each moment I can steal here and there, and hold gratitude for each treasured word, knowing that one day me and my Pile of Books will find an island or a meadow somewhere to be together.

The Best Writing

writingbestI was at my youngest son’s swim meet today having a conversation with his buddy, Kyale, between races. Kyale said he liked to write. Called himself a “good writer.” This isn’t extremely common for a 14-year-old boy so I was intrigued. When I asked him what he liked to write, he said his favorite projects were when his teacher gave prompts that took them into writing about parts of their lives autobiography-style.

Thinking back, this was what I liked best, too. It still is. It’s not because I love talking about myself, just like I imagine that’s difficult for Kyale. It’s because this is a topic I know inside and out. I can access the dark parts and the sunny sides if I’m honest. I can feel it in my body if I’m off. Every single teacher from Kindergarten through my graduate work said my writing was tops when I could pull from those emotions. The same goes for agents, editors, mentors, writing groups, etc.  With that positive reinforcement, writing confidence builds and it becomes easy to announce like Kyale, “I’m a good writer.” I’ve heard him say it more than once and I love that he feels that way because so many young writers feel they are not.

Kyale’s source content is going to be his 14 years as mine was when I was that age. However, because I was a young single parent (had my first son at 23 and was still breastfeeding when the divorce ink was dry), my strongest emotion has come through my experience as parent. I pull on my experiences some, but mainly, my perceptions of my children’s experience. I’ve often recognized that I use writing as therapy to work through overwhelming emotion and help others benefit from my stress and God knows, single parenting while working full-time, traveling the globe, and dealing with a difficult ex had its challenges.

However, recently that layer has cleared. Because my first novel hammered through the emotional challenges I dealt with as a young parent, I am now finding I’m able to go back further and access emotions I had as a 14-year-old where there just wasn’t time before. Just picking up my son and his buddies at a popular teen spot this weekend flashed me back. I had frequented the spot at the same age, and wrote a scene about it some 5 months ago. Being there, I was able to test the scene against what I’d remembered. The smells, the sounds, the tastes. How it felt to be kissed in the corner by the pinball machine. The drama that went down when Janet put her head against the locker in a wad of gum and had to have her waist long hair cut into a bob.

I’ve been told over and over just because something is true doesn’t mean that’s how it should be written. In fact, anything that gets in the reader’s way should be let go. That’s why I love novels–they give me the room to access the emotion and insert it in  my choice of scenarios. Over and over I see the best writing show up when a writer is able to access those deepest emotions that he has felt and share them in vulnerable ink.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

Star light, Star bright

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

starblogI spent the fourth of July weekend on Lake Shasta with family this year. We found an isolated cove with a breathtaking view of granite cliffs nestled amongst pines. The natural beauty was intoxicating. The thing that really got me, though, was the sky.

By day, it seemed to stretch on forever, a canopy of violet blue stretched across an infinity frame. By dusk, a soft pink backdrop for bats diving down close to where we lay on the top of the houseboat watching Mother Nature’s previews. The main attraction, though, came at night.

Do you have any idea what goes on in a wide open sky sheltered from city light? It had been years since I’d seen it. Living in LA for 30 years near the beach, we hardly ever saw stars. The city lights and coastal fog swallowed them up. I had grown up with these stars, but I had forgotten their power.

We sat and waited, watching for the first star while playing marshmallow Olympics. (The fish weren’t biting, so we had to find other uses for our mini-friends.) As each star dropped into place, it looked unique, like it had its own purpose on that tapestry. Eventually, the sky was covered. As we all watched the sky from our sleeping bag lookouts on top of the boat, my husband had an idea.

Husband: Hey! I’ll go get the IPAD and we can look at the galaxies through that app.

Me: Oh. Hmmmm. Okay. (Technology can’t make this better, I thought. Why does he want to ruin this with technology?)

Cousins: Oh. What? (On the fence. Not sure about what he’s talking about.)

Me: Are you going to get it?

Husband: No. Not enough enthusiasm to go down the ladder.

Me: (Not wanting to break his techno-spirit) Oh, come on. It’ll be cool.

Husband: Nope.

All of us: DO IT! DO IT! DO IT!

Husband: Okay. If you really want me to.

He pads down the treacherous houseboat ladder and returns armed with the IPAD telescope. Holding the IPAD up to the sky we could not only see the names of all the stars, we could see the overlays of zodiac images. It was fascinating on so many levels. We loved it. It added a whole new layer to what we were seeing. After everybody had a chance to play with it, we put it away and stared back at sky original.

As each person faded off one by one, faint snoring sounds filling the night air, I laid there wide awake. How could there be so much up in that sky? One after another satellite passed by. I had no idea how many were up there. Shooting star after shooting star streaked the black. Most amazing to me was how different the night sky was from the day. How unique. And how so many layers performed in a night time drama I’ll never forget.

And while you ask yourself “What does this have to do with writing?,” I’ll tell you what I got from the whole thing. Each artist, each creator, shines uniquely like those individual stars. They have a unique body of work inside them that they have been sent here to do, and though many factors may pull them away from it, if they listen to their intuition, they will find their True North. The compilation of those works create life’s night sky, so captivating it can keep the world up at night if it looks closely.

Summer writing

writing3I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer. I could do that thing that moms do where they tell you how full their dance card is and how they have to take everybody here and there and the other place, meeting the needs of the world, but before I even get started with that long boring conversation, I’ll recap. I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer. It really all comes down to that.

It’s by choice. I love the shift in schedule that I feel and being self-employed, I can flow along with the change just like in school when finals meant summer had arrived. That really pertained mostly to grammar school since I started working alongside school at 15 and never stopped. But that feeling…when you knew, after all the field trips to ranches (yeah, I grew up in Cottonwood–what of it?) and days on the green were done, you’d have pure open time to do whatever the heck you wanted. I like to pretend I’m still doing that.

Just putting myself at the keyboard to type my three weekly blogs challenges me in the summer. I’ll keep doing it for that reason. But the main summer writing I get done is the “pre-writing” as Ray Bradbury called it once when I spoke with him at the Torrance Civic Center. What he said stuck and was in essence this: just because you’re not sitting alone in a room at a table banging away on a typewriter (he was old school) doesn’t mean you’re not writing. You’re doing that which informs your writing by living in the world, by looking at the grand oak outside your window and imagining it comes to life at night, covered in fairies. (I ad-libbed there–he actually said the roller coaster down on the beach in Santa Monica and how it looked like a dinosaur in the dusk.)DSCN3084

 

By smelling the summer rain across the meadow. By walking through the forest, and listening to the stories from the towering redwoods in the Quail Hollow Reserve.

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From watching your almost 11 year old dog play with the froth of the ocean for the first time on Dog Beach. Through sipping a regional zin in a barn filled with stories with my husband and listening to an old winemaker fill the air with stories while your dog listens at your feet.

I may not excel at summer writing, but I’m good at summer living…

I ask myself three questions every day. I think I got these from Brendon Burchard. I actually put them on my Google Calendar so they pop up on my phone each morning. Here they are:

  • Did I live?
  • Did I love?
  • Did I matter?

I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer.

And that’s okay.

Young Stars

DSCN2969Is it just me or are 8th graders getting smarter? They read more, they write deeper, and having sat through a plethora of ceremonies this past week including my youngest son’s, I can tell you they speak like they’ve been attending Toastmasters for years.

I live in a small town where I grew up (then left for 30 years, then came back 4 years ago) and many of these kids are somehow related to people I know. There are really no degrees of separation. This makes watching them grow that much more intriguing.

At my son’s graduation yesterday, and the awards assembly a few days before that, students got up to talk in front of a packed out auditorium. That, in itself, is enough to drive many adults running for the hills. But these students, who’d written their own very impressive speeches, spoke flawlessly. One girl even tripped on her way up the stage, gracefully pulled herself together, and gave a perfect speech. What an example!

Teachers read some of the students poems. They wrote of Paris, and of Audrey Hepburn, topics you don’t anticipate from kids growing up in an unincorporated cowboy town. It made me happy we’d moved back and decided to have our youngest go through this school system. I was blown away by the talent at such young ages. The insight. (Not to get all verklempt, but my baby has actually been published in a national poetry anthology since 6th grade thanks to his teacher who believed in his talent and submitted his poem several years back.)

Call it Indigo-Crystal influence, call it evolution–call it a generation looking to the next with Pollyanna glasses. Whatever label you want to throw, I’m inspired. I’m inspired by their sensitivity, wisdom, and insight. I’m inspired by their creativity, their bravery, and their naivete up against this all-knowing background. By their talent. By their ability to mix enthusiastic youth with the adult sensibilities they need to go through to make these life changes with grace.

It makes me realize my characters in my current YA are not rounded enough to reflect these young adults. I need to honor them more, because from where I observe, they truly are remarkable and they deserve it.

Karmic writing

vinhorneoak“I had been up for four frickin’ days and couldn’t sleep. I was really scared…people were following me…I was just really, really fried, but I couldn’t sleep.” My best stab at sounding articulate fails miserably. “I was so tired.”

He jots a note down on his paper. I think I may have spilled too much.

“You said people were after you?”

“I didn’t say that.” Did I?

This is my 17-year-old protagonist speaking to her ER doc in First Break. I mentioned last week where I am in the process with this New Adult manuscript (going through my agent’s edits on track changes in Word). I’m embracing this–mostly. But here’s a really annoying thing that happened and how something really enlightening came out of it (besides the fact I’m still not entirely sure how to spell frickin’ or why I want to use it so badly.)

Do you see how I use the ellipses (…) up there? Well, apparently I REALLY like the ellipses…a lot! Why is this so apparent? Because in the transfer of formats between she and I my three dots became six and a space. Now to fix that, I’ve got to go back through every ellipses, accept the change, delete a space, accept the change and so forth. Monotonous, at best. Here’s the enlightening part: I clearly need to invite other devices into play. Not leave the hyphen out–or at least let him join in more.

I’ve spent much of my morning fixing ellipsis. (I now know that’s how you pluralize that.)  I’m thinking of it like karmic yoga. Do you know that practice? You just do something for a period of time and then stop without getting married to the results. Like raking leaves. You just rake for an hour without having to pick up the leaves and throw them away. It’s like that.

Except for one thing. I’m totally married to the results: three point elipses and no space…unless it’s at the end, and then four.

I’m typing this under a large oak (thanks, Vin, for the sweet Oak shot), the wind playing with the wisps of hair around my face, the speckled sun making my computer screen almost impossible to see, my dog begging me with her eyes to go out for a morning walk, Karunesh playing the haunting music that so well accompanies my story in this manuscript, and my tomato plants nearby dancing to Karunesh.

With all this, who cares how long it takes to fix the ellipsis? Karmic yoga or no, I’m in my happy place.

What a (first) line!

firstlinesWhen my manuscript came back from my agent with its first batch of edits last week, I was so excited. To have someone engaged with you in your whole work, and sharing their thoughts, is a special kind of connection.

I had wondered how the edits would come. Would they come on hard copy? I doubted that because after all it’s 2013 and we have so many greener options. Would it be a Google doc because we had tried that in our critique group and it didn’t win first place on the preferred form of critiquing and making changes. Turned out we were Old School and still preferred paper. Was there some other way I didn’t even know about?

They showed up on Google doc and after a brief nervous sweat, I looked forward to learning how to use this method better. It’s so much better than paper in so many ways and I really embraced the opportunity to get proficient at it. Besides, it’s so tidy. And everybody’s changes automatically save and never go away. No losing your hard copy in an old file or spilling a glass of juice on it–not that I did that. The days of losing work–gone. (Note: when I typed this, I thought it was a Google doc, but no…actually, track changes in Word was the flavor.)

I started flipping through the manuscript in the view form to see the extent of the edits–you know, so I could tell how far in the cave I needed to crawl. I got to page 50. “Wow,” I told my husband. “I must have really polished these pages. There aren’t any edits.”

“You’re probably looking at the view wrong,” he said. (Oh, ye of little faith.)

“No–oh.” I clicked a button and saw I was indeed looking at it wrong.

There it was–highlighted with a comment. The dreaded first sentence.

No, I thought. Anything but the first sentence. I had labored over this and changed it about 8 million times (I’m approximating.) I stared at the wall for dramatic flare.

Five minutes later, I got excited. I got out my legal pad and started carrying it around jotting down new first sentences. I kept it by my bed. I dreamed new first sentences, ones I liked so much more. Ones I thought others would like.

What makes a great first line? Even more importantly, what first lines do I love? I Googled famous first lines. But before I even got to that doc, it came to me. I trusted it. I liked it. And now I have a new first line. Heck. Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll Google famous first lines, and there it’ll be.

Advance or an In-Between?

writersadvanceThe writer’s advance. A concept beyond me. Why is it called an “advance” in the year 2013 when it really comes in the “in-between”?

Writing is not like any other profession I’ve ever had. I’ve been a movie candy girl, a flower deliverer, a legal secretary, a marketing director in law firms, an assistant in a psychiatrist’s office, a second grade teacher, a massage therapist, a health coach, and probably a number of other things I’ve left out. But every single one of those jobs came with regular pay checks that were delivered very near the time the work was completed.

Not writing. Even in the case of freelancing, rules vary. Some publications don’t pay until your article comes out and frequently you are writing several months prior to publication because of the time required to publish a magazine. This is getting slightly better with groups like Ebyline, but still there’s a long way to go towards closing the gap. Where this is most apparent, though, is the book advance.

The term “advance” stems from way back, I’m told, when deals were made at Parisian bars over a handshake after an idea was thrown out to an editor. The editor would then give the writer money (said advance) to write the book. Since he’d be busy writing, he’d need money to live.

In today’s market, though, it seems to me most manuscripts need to be pristine to ever get to the advance conversation. And to get a manuscript pristine takes hours and hours and hours of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting…in my case, six years. Now my critique partner Darbie is reading Stephen King’s craft book where he says a first draft should take 3 months. (Whatever, Stephen. You clearly aren’t raising kids. Or going to the grocery store. Or ever leaving your chair to sleep.) Nevertheless, even if we go with that, that’s a first draft and that’s 3 months. What other job do you work at for 3 months (ah-hem, 6 years) and not get paid? Oh, and maybe never get paid?

Fact is I don’t know many writers in it for the money. If they are, they quickly leave when they figure out the “in-between” (um, maybe if you’re very lucky) thing because, in case you didn’t already know this, there’s usually a ton of work waiting after the advance, both in and out of the cave.

I’m pretty sure writers write because they have to. Because nothing gives them the same satisfaction as the idea that their book, their published book (story, article, research, poem), will be out there in the world for others to read.