Common sense strikes back

Mom’s always told me I don’t have much common sense. I think she’s wrong. On the other hand, every now and then I have a lapse, and it takes a bit of effort to realize it.

For example, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been very concerned about making sure I’m seen on Twitter, on retweeting and replying and trying to be part of the community. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if one of the reasons I’m on Twitter is to become a familiar name so that when I have books out, people will consider buying them — well, I need to be putting more effort into the writing of the books than into the marketing of myself. Common sense.

So my priorities have been a bit mixed up. As Lazette Gifford says, “Writing comes first.” I’ll still try to be friendly, but that isn’t — can’t be — my priority.

I am going to try to keep blogging three times a week, though. It keeps me honest and on track. And it doesn’t matter to me if I can’t sum up what my blog is about in a single word. I can’t describe myself in one word, either.

What about you? Has common sense made you rethink something you were doing?

As always, thanks for reading.

another week, another submission

This past week, I haven’t been working on anything I set up on my goals for the year. Instead, as I often do, I got distracted by the shiny — in this case, Moongypsy Press’s First Anniversary Writing Contest. When my friend Bonnie showed it to me, she was expecting me to jump in and write a short story. However, I’ve had a Mayan idea kicking around for about five years now in the back of my brain, so I figured this was the perfect time to take it out and dust it off.

Of course, since I hadn’t thought about it recently, there was a ton of research I didn’t have done that I should have, and I spent Thursday, Friday, the weekend, and a good portion of Monday kicking around, alternating between thinking I almost had everything and believing I’d never get it together. Late Monday I started writing, but I was behind.

Yesterday, I kicked myself in the seat of my pants and worked. I drank lemon tea with honey for my throat. I ate Thin Mint cookies to keep myself going. I sent my submission off at 2:45 a.m. EST (the deadline was midnight PST).

Then I went and crashed for four hours, until it was time to get the kids ready and out the door for the day.

Perhaps I should have spent part of today sleeping. Instead, I shoveled snow. I baked bread. I poked at TED talks, thinking I might embed one of them as a blog post. Not my most productive day in terms of writing, but I’ll get back to the keyboard tomorrow. I’ve still got works in progress that need to be completed and sent out.

Why do I do this? Why stay up late to meet a deadline, then turn around and face the next project? Because my stories do no good if the only place they exist is in my brain or on my computer.

In the words of Steve Jobs, “Real artists ship.”

Pointing to art

Justine Musk has blogged a couple of times about Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin. Based on what she had to say, I checked it out from my library, and I’m glad I did. The book is about choosing to be indispensable in your work, whatever it may be. Even without that meta-topic, however, he covers a lot of ground. So far, I’ve hit three important ideas that resonated with me.

Obedience versus art

Would your organization be more successful if your employees were more obedient?
Or, consider for a second: would you be more successful if your employees were more artistic, motivated, connected, aware, passionate, and genuine?
You can’t have both, of course.

This hit home for me not in discussing employees, but in thinking about my children. He summarized the ongoing struggle I have between wanting my kids to listen to me, to their dad, to their teachers and wanting to not stifle their creativity and free spirit because I know they will be much happier later in life if they don’t have to fight to reclaim what they have naturally now.

There aren’t easy answers for this dilemma in Godin’s book. I don’t think obedience is, in and of itself, bad. Without rules and obedience, we get anarchy, as even he admits. (“Yes, we need facts and rigor and systems.”) However, the book is helping me to rethink my approach to parenting, and to cut myself short when something the kids are doing isn’t actually bad, just annoying. (Okay, yes, I have a ways to go with that, but I’m working on it.)

The nature of art

“Art is never defect free.”

“Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.”

“Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.”

He says an awful lot about art. That’s what the book is about — art, creativity, how to make your work art (whether you’re a designer, a painter, or a coffee shop worker). The way he’s defined art as requiring a change is, I think, what separates the merely competent writing (of which I have done much) from the stories that stand out, get bought, get talked about.

That’s what “needs more cowbell” boils down to: The story didn’t affect the editor or the agent. She might have admired the prose; he might have liked the twist in the plot. When all was said and done, though, the story didn’t touch them. They weren’t changed.

That’s where I need to focus my efforts. Not on merely telling a story. Not on writing impeccable cliffhangers to keep the pages turning. Not on finding a plot that has been miraculously overlooked by every writer since the dawn of time.

On touching people. On changing my readers. On making my art real.

Emotional labor

The next question, of course, is how to do that. I think the key is in putting in the emotional labor. It’s work. It’s hard. I have to put myself into the work.

Don’t I already do that? Sometimes. Sometimes, I write a story just because I have an interesting idea or I have a character and a plot. I need to care about the writing, need to think about what I find important in what I’m doing, and need to see the change in myself that I hope to evoke in others.

To that end, I’m taking some time this week to think about what sort of change or shift I’m trying to achieve in each of my works in progress. Where is the art? Have I taken responsibility for making sure it’s there? Am I changed because of what I’m writing?

Sometimes the change I’m hoping for may be something I’ve already experienced in my life. It may be something as simple (!) as sweeping readers into the story and letting them step away from their own lives for a time. But I think that thinking about what the change is that I’m looking for may help me more in the long run than contemplating themes and character arcs.


Linchpin is an excellent book. I’ll blog soon about Godin’s discussion of resistance and how it differs from Stephen Pressfield’s. There may be other topics I blog about, too — I’m only halfway through the book.

Do you have any thoughts on obedience versus art, the nature of art, or emotional labor? Or perhaps you want to recommend another Seth Godin book? Please leave thoughts and questions in the comments.

As always, thanks for reading!

Dancing muse

Friday night was the holiday party for my husband’s work, which meant actual sociability for me. And since the college he works at has an immersive Chinese theme for the year, they had performances of Chinese music and dance. For one of the dances, the red and green lights scattered about the ceiling reminded me of fireflies, and I imagined the dances being performed outside in a summer moonlit courtyard. For another, the slow, deliberate movements reminded me of underwater motion; at some point, there will be dancers underwater or in space in one of my stories, inspired by this night.

Sometimes, that’s the way the muse works for me — I’ll see something and know how it will be useful, if not when or where.

Other times, I have to remind myself to look for the basic truths behind what I see. As I mentioned, my husband works at a college. One of the novels I have out on submission takes place around a small town college, and I hope to turn it into a series (publisher willing). However, I have to make sure not only that none of my characters are based on anybody I know but also that no one will stop to ask if these characters are based on them.

So I have to take it all in and feed the muse, then take a step or two away from reality, which isn’t always easy.

The process isn’t always the same. Sometimes I know where life’s material will go. Sometimes I can see how to combine it with something I’ve read or heard. Sometimes things will go where I don’t expect. Sometimes, life is just life. It’s all good.

All it takes . . .

When you start writing (and even if you keep on doing it), you hear “All you absolutely have to do to be a writer is write. Everything else is extra.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Then they start in with, “If you really want to write, you need to read. Extensively. In and out of your genre,” and “You need to focus on improving your craft, whether through critique groups, workshops, classes, conferences, writing books . . . ”

Wait. I thought all I had to do was write?

Except it makes sense, really. First, if you don’t like reading, why would you want to write? Because you think it makes you look smart? There are easier ways. Second, it’s true in any creative endeavor.

My son took up trumpet this year. He (mostly) practices every day. But he listens to music, he hums theme songs he remembers from movies, he tries to work out how he might play them himself (“I need to know a couple more notes before I can try the Harry Potter theme.”), and he pays attention to what other people have done. He also listens to the songs he’s playing on a CD and tries to play along to get the pacing correct.

I’ve done a couple of quilts. This year, I decided to do a mystery quilt presented in American Quilter magazine. I knew it would be stretching my ability (it recommended having completed six to eight quilts before tackling this one), but I figured it would expose me to techniques I might not willingly try on my own. (I’ve decided I don’t want to do a postage-stamp quilt. I don’t like working with one-inch strips.) I also check out winners in the American Quilter’s Society’s shows, as well as those in state fairs.

All it takes . . . is three steps. See what others have done. Figure out how to apply it to what you want to do. Then do it, over and over again.

A real author

Today’s post started sounding like another Poor Pitiful Pearl post (Mom always said that — I think after the doll, though William Steig created the character), so I deleted it and started over, very tongue in cheek.

  • A real author doesn’t need a day job.
  • A real author has sold a book.
  • No, a real author has sold more than one book.
  • A real author has someone else to clean her house so she has time to write. (And a real author’s desk is never messy.)
  • A real author wears tweed with pearls or a pipe, depending on inclination.
  • A real author doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
  • A real author doesn’t need editing.
  • A real author’s genius is recognized by everybody.
  • A real author sells everything she writes.
  • A real author has editors knocking on her door to see if she’s written anything they can publish.
  • A real author has a gold-plated keyboard, works one hour a day, and jets around the world every weekend.
  • A real author has a matched pair of dodos trained to walk on leashes and pick up after themselves — and they dye their feathers to match her outfit every morning.
  • A real author keeps emeralds in the crisper drawer with all the other greens.
  • A real author has a chauffeur to take her to book signings, and a masseuse to make certain her hands don’t cramp up from writing by hand too much.
  • A real author doesn’t have to tell anyone that they’ve just got another book or story out because everyone knows.
  • A real author is the ideal weight, gets plenty of exercise, and always sleeps eight hours each night, unless she’s out dancing until dawn at an embassy ball.
  • A real author never gets papercuts.
  • A real author is instantly recognized at every library and bookstore, even the library at her children’s school.
  • A real author creates in perfect isolation, never accused of taking an idea someone else has used, and all of her peers acknowledge her craft to be of the finest.
  • A real author has to decide which Silver Ghost to take to opening night when they make movies from her books.
  • A real author never dies because the universe can’t bear to lose her creative genius.
  • A real author is enjoyed on planets we haven’t even heard of yet.

Above all, a real author makes up lies about herself as much as she does about the world around her.

Is it neurotic if I’m partly right?

I’ve been worrying about my writing not being good enough.

On the one hand, there’s physical proof backing me up on this: I don’t have books on the shelves in a bookstore yet. Not there = not good enough yet. On the other hand, I just started submitting novels this year, so even if I had written a book good enough to win the Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nebula (I haven’t), it still wouldn’t be on the shelves yet. So we’ll discount that and just get back to my worrying.

Specific worry #1: People in my novels are always meeting for coffee, sipping tea, grabbing a bite to eat. Yes, normal people eat and drink, but the generally accepted view is that these scenes do not move a novel. In the Harry Potter books, for example, whenever there was eating, something else was going on — Harry was getting blamed for a floating pudding, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher was being announced, howlers were being sent to students — tension mounted, the plot moved, characters reacted. If, on the other hand, I have my main character and her best friend sitting down to Saturday brunch and talking about their upcoming college reunion, it doesn’t matter how much subtext I’ve layered in that will come to fruition at the climax of the book because no one’s going to read that far.

Response: I have a friend reading the first few chapters to tell me if my urban fantasy is as bad in this regard as I fear. The current plan is to continue the edit pass I’m working through to make sure I’ve added in all the world-building and scene-setting that I left out in my first pass. Then, I need to go back through it again and add more action and tension, deleting (or revising) the ho-hum scenes so that readers will want to keep reading. I even have one idea for something to add. Yes, this means it will take longer to reach a final draft — probably until next year sometime. It’s worth it, if it’s jaw-droppingly good when it lands on an editor’s desk.

Specific worry #2: I’m concerned that my characters, though believable, are not compelling. This worry started when I asked a question on the NaNoWriMo forums (which of your characters would you like to spend a day with?) and realized that most of my characters have rather prosaic lives, interrupted by action or murders to solve. Most of the time, hanging out with them wouldn’t be any different from hanging out with my other friends.

Response: Actually, I’ve been told before that characterization is one of my strong suits. One of my beta readers once applauded a couple of my larger-than-life characters. It’s possible that the only reason I think my characters aren’t compelling is because I live with them in my head. It’s like thinking about somebody dating your brother — what could anyone see in him? (Yes, I’ve asked that of women my brothers have dated. What else are sisters for?) This one may actually be a neurotic worry — I have to worry about something, and this looks like a good choice!