Perfection

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Perfection.

Ah, that elusive, manipulative, petulant little imp known as perfection. I mention the illusion of perfection in a previous post (See: Where to Start) but it bears repeating. Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist. Stop trying to find it.

If you’re goading or flagellating or juicing yourself into writing a perfect novel, waiting for all those perfect ideas to fall—bump, bump, bump—into place, understand that you’ll discover no Holy Grail. No perfect chapter, nor page nor sentence occurs in a writer’s reality. Any word, any phrase, any idea, can be altered. Nudged. Tweaked. Deleted. As a writer, I can spend the remainder of my lonely days chasing a phantom that doesn’t exist—or I can sit down and write a story to the best of my ability. To the successful writer (or at least to a sane, successful writer), the glass is always half full. Knowing when to “leave it be” is key.

As scribes, we accept our limitations and strive for a single goal: Doing the best we can. So Rule #4: Do the best you can.

Don’t think of Rule #4 as settling for meh. Rule #4 isn’t about compromising your talents; it’s about stretching your genius—taking the time and making the effort—and trusting that your next book will be a tad better than your last. Only in a world unencumbered by perfection does room for improvement exist.

I bring up the notion of perfection again because I suspect a vast number of novice writers begin a manuscript with the expectation of reaching literary nirvana, the anticipation of soon seeing themselves at #1 on NYTBSL. Somewhere around page 3 or 30 or 300, those writers begin to realize instant fame isn’t going to happen. Some give up, leaving talent and a worthy, half-finished (and perhaps nearly awesome) effort behind. Pity.

Interesting mathematical statistic: 99.9% of all writers never make the New York Times Best Seller List. Many of them still find a way to live happy, fulfilling lives. Some even have cats.

I’m personally aware of several writers—and very good writers—who’ve been slowly chipping away at the same novel for years. Why? Some of us are seeking perfection, and not finding it, or maybe we’re simply seeking “good enough” and not finding that, either. (Occasionally we’re simply methodical writers—and that‘s a damn good excuse. A word of advice: Write at your own pace. Writing a novel isn’t a race, it’s an achievement.)

However…! Seeking perfection (and not finding it) is an entirely different dilemma. Occasionally, a story isn’t good enough. One’s writing isn’t fully developed or else bumps into impossible obstacles that we find ourselves unqualified or emotionally unable to handle. Most of us have a novel (or two) that has “gotten away”…that sits unfinished in our closets or in some obscure folder on our desktop. And that’s okay too. I consider those failed attempts to be a necessary learning curve. Those manuscripts are part of the process, part of our eventual success. Let them rest in peace.

So what are a few possibilities for a stalled manuscript?

  • Seeking perfection. Right. Doesn’t exist. Refer to the above.
  • Fear of failure. Understandable. Although… d’ju know what’s worse? Thinking you might have the gift, but not even trying. On your deathbed, trust me, that’ll be a big regret. You’ve been warned.
  • Fear of success. Although I’m not sure why. Talent deserves success.
  • Fear of the future (good or bad). As in…what if it doesn’t sell? What if it sells big, but my next book sucks? What if people begin to love me for all the wrong reasons? Or hate me for all the right reasons? What if I trip heading toward the stage to collect my Pulitzer. Please refer again to Rule #100: Get Over Yourself. (In it’s own humbling way, it really should be Rule #1.)
  • Writer’s block. Yeah…a bummer, but it happens: That mental or physical fatigue when words and their meaning become lost in a haze, or simply run away from your brain. You’re overtired or stressed or simply out of ideas. Don’t worry, because the empty vessel will eventually refill. But if the vacuum persists, it’s possibly something else. Eventually, it becomes an excuse. (Valid or otherwise.) One can insist to family and friends “I have writer’s block,” for a year or two…but then we just smile politely and realize the book’s not forthcoming. (It’s OK, we still love you.) But either the book’s wrong for you, or you’re wrong for the book. And, hey, it’s not your fault.
    ……I wanted to be an astronaut once. Never was. Moon block. By the way, my own personal solution for writer’s block? Stepping away from the computer and watching a Firefly marathon or else reading a book I absolutely love… for the 4th or 5th time. (Recently for me: The World According to Garp, The Forever War, The Sirens of Titan and Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser.) When my eyes blur, I clean the garage or drive up the coast. Give yourself permission to give yourself a break. It’s part of the process. If your mind’s still writhing with uncorked creativity, write a short story or work on the outline. Dream up another novel. Paint a picture. Take some photos. Often, alternate forms of creativity can replenish your writer’s drive. Give it time.
  • Fear of ridicule. (Rare, but it happens.) Your friends may find you pretentious for even trying. Seriously? Find new friends.
  • Fear of offending somebody. That somebody is usually a friend or family member, and a typically unsavory character prominently featured in your tale. Sorry, Aunt Lucy! The homicidal maniac in chapter 8 isn’t really you. Trust me, they won’t see themselves in your book. Just be sure that you change the names.
  • Fear of offending yourself. Ah, but here’s where the circle closes. We’re back to looking for perfection. Refer to Rule #25 again.

While I have no degree in shrinkology, most fiction writers are somewhat familiar with the above ambiguities. Most writers can relate. So… don’t worry, just write.
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Where to Start

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Where To Start.

New to novel writing? Or maybe you’ve tried it, and found writing… difficult. So why don’t we boil the process down to the bare bones—not of writing, but of starting. For the moment forget style, forget nuance, forget about winning that Pulitzer. Let’s talk about a before-we-even-sharpen-our-pencils kind of basic. Ask yourself this: What’s my story about?

If you don’t fully comprehend that tickle lurking inside your mind, it’s time to find out. It’s that eyeball-to-eyeball moment in the mirror. Answer that question—else your story may bump and thrash about like some gigantic, magnificent creature without a backbone. It might roar and scream and seem very impressive… but it ain’t going nowhere

Prove to yourself that you know your novel. Define your story in a page or two or three. Sit down and create a short synopsis or plot summery. Introduce yourself to this astounding—yet desperately needy!—lover who’ll soon capture your heart, but in return will demand a great deal of your attention and affection. (And kiss more than a few weekends goodbye!)

If that request seems overwhelming (and it may) take a deep breath and try this: What’s your favorite novel? Write a synopsis. For example:

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Amidst the rumble of an approaching Civil War, we find Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, teen-aged daughter of a wealthy Atlanta plantation owner, caught in her own giddy social bubble. Scarlett is clueless about the meaning of life, or the value of honor—although as the war rages, she discovers newfound courage and an inkling of character. Briefly married, she is quickly widowed by the calamity of war. Shortly thereafter, Scarlett’s beloved plantation, Tara, falls victim to the advancing Union army, and she must decide between her love of the land and her dedication to friends and family. She falls under the spell of a rebel blockade runner named Rhett Butler. The two are unsuited, but soon after the war’s end, she weds Rhett not for love but rather for his brash charisma and wealth—his ability to save Tara from the ravages of a lost war. However, their happiness quickly spirals into bitterness and remorse—and Scarlett ultimately decides that saving her home, Tara, is more important than saving her marriage. Still, she gathers the strength to hope for a brighter future.

It’s a sketchy synopsis, it’s incomplete (for instance, no mention of Ashley, of Melanie, or of Scarlett’s children), but it carries forth the deep core of the plot. Now, what about your story? What is its heart and soul? Discovering the essence of your unwritten novel is essential. So crucial that it’s Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. Find your core elements. Because the more you know now, the fewer pages you’ll trash later.

A typical progression of a new idea—getting it out your head and onto the page and ultimately into a book shop—will look something like this:

A brief synopsis. (Short and sweet. See above.) Oh, and don’t delete it after you finish a draft or two. Agents and editors and publishers will ask for it. (At least I will.)

(Optional) An expanded synopsis. It’s okay to add a little padding, either before you begin to write or as you begin your first draft. Give yourself another 5 or 10 or 20 pages to explore your ideas. Make mistakes. Think new thoughts. Re-evaluate. Leave blanks. Every time I finish a synopsis, even a first draft, I find myself with a few dozen gaps where I’ve typed [IDEA TO COME]—and yes, in bright, bold red—before moving along to those ideas that are freely flowing. Trust that every idea you need will arrive—and in its own damn time. Writing a novel is funny that way. PS: If you’re one of those people loathe to leave a blank space, who must write every word precisely in chronological order, who must pen every thought with unwavering exactitude, striving for immediate perfection, my advice is this: Get over yourself. In fact, it’s even a rule. Rule #100: Get over yourself.* Because there’s no such animal as perfect writing. There’s no single solution—no perfect sentence or perfect page or perfect chapter in a perfect book. Perfection is an illusion—a Siren singing sweetly on the rocks of self-importance and ultimate disillusion. We do the best we can, and we also finish the book.

The outline. This process is little more than bullet-pointing the story, scene-by-scene. It’s the literary equivalent of story-boarding a movie. You’re puzzle-piecing a plot into place, with methodical, mechanical deliberation. No fluff, no poetic license. And it’s OK if the finished book bares little resemblance. The outline is strictly a tool to use, change, update and tweak as you so choose.

First Draft. Now you’re ready to fill in the outline with crucial basic information. You’re adding the essentials; setting scenes and introducing characters, keeping in mind how you foresee each character arc—that is, how you believe each character may grow during the tale. Now’s the time to point a direction for your plot—what’s necessary, what’s not—with an understanding that so many facets of your story may change over the duration of this journey. (Some writers have an iron-clad plot already in mind and, if you do, congrats! I usually have a hazy whisper of where my plot may go, although my characters are fairly well developed before I begin writing.) Dialog is important—but worry less about polished dialog and more about the basic necessity of keeping your characters and plot on a forward trajectory. (And much more about dialog as this blog develops.) You should see a basic writing style begin to emerge—but sometimes finding your voice takes a bit of “warming up”…so don’t panic if you find your first few pages raw or clunky. Relatively few writers manage to pretty much finish their book in a single pass. If you’re one of those skillful few… by all means, go for it. However, most of us need room to maneuver and an eraser (metaphorically speaking) the size of Philadelphia.

Second Draft. You’re adding additional depth and nuance to your characters and story line. Adding color and sounds and smells. Augment your dialog—revealing character traits and subtle innuendo. You’ve already built a creature of bare bones, now you’re adding frizzy blonde hair and freckles and one unlaced hi-topped Keds. You’re “putting the red on the apple” as they say. (By the way, the “Second Draft” phase encompasses all other—third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc.) drafts… until you feel the story you’re telling feels complete.

The Stick-it-in-a-Drawer Phase. Seriously. Put it away for a week or a month. Try to forget that you’ve ever written it.

Polishing. Read your story again with fresh brain cells. Tweak and polish and cut every uncertain or unnecessary word that doesn’t want to fit, un-garble every phrase that feels plodding or slow. Fill in the blanks. Trim threads from the tapestry. Be sure every aspect belongs. Speed up the action or, when it doubt, truncate or eliminate the morass. If you feel something reads slow, don’t assume it isn’t. If you think it is, your readers will think so too. Definitely find ways to truncate or tweak the slow spots. Oh, and kill your darlings.

And there’s your finished novel. Piece of cake, right?

 


* RE: Rule #100. Unless, of course, this particular procedure works for you. Some writers (I believe Arthur C. Clarke was one, although I may be mistaken) would write a single perfectly structured thought (whether it was a paragraph or a page) before moving on. A single draft, thoroughly polished, chronologically stable, even stunning, from beginning to end. If it works for you, awesome! Ignore this rule! However, if you find yourself hovering maniacally over an incomplete thought for a week, a month, or a year, unable to push forward even a line or two—yeah, learn to love the blank space. Jump ahead and return when the mind is ripe. (And pity the poor wordsmith who lived before cut&paste!) But trust yourself. Trust the future. All good thoughts will come in time.
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Active Composition

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 3): Active Composition (Plotting)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

The late, great Elmore Leonard addressed this dilemma very well: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Simply put: Tell an exciting, engaging story. A writer divulges the highlights and skips the low points. Determining those potential chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words to exclude is no less important than what is written. Active composition is knowing the difference.

My advice (to reiterate from Simple, but Exciting): include only those ingredients that 1) build or strengthen plot development; 2) build or strengthen character development, or; 3) set the scene for the reader (where, who, when… perhaps why and how).

I shall chatter many times in this blog about the necessity of plotting… but it’s best to begin at the beginning. How does one go about preparing a good plot? It’s good to think ahead.

The most important preparation of Active Composition is this: Before you begin to write (or certainly before you write too much… as some writers approach a blank page, a fresh idea, a new novel, with blissful ignorance) is know where you’re going. Certainly before you finish your first chapter, I recommend knowing—at least intuiting—where your story will end.

Rule #14: Before you wander along too far, develop your story from A-to-Z. Meaning, formulate a solid game plan ASAP. Be sure you have both your plot and your characters fairly well determined—with no insurmountable obstacles—from page 1 to THE END.

A hypothetical. Let’s say I want to write a novel about Lisa, a young, adopted woman with a prosthetic leg, who decides to walk from Miami to Seattle—a 3300 mile trek—to meet her birth mother for the first time.

In one sentence, I’ve outlined a credible protagonist, her intent, and the probable (or at least possible) conclusion of her ordeal. I can now intuit a host of conflicts and stimulating engagements along the way, an opportunity for personal growth (did I mention that Lisa’s afraid of the dark?), the chance of encountering many delightful or mischievous characters and, of course, the obligatory dramatic conclusion.

While I probably won’t know (not yet, not exactly) all of Lisa’s trials and tribulations along the way, I intuit my story will indeed end in Seattle, with an encounter between Lisa and her mother. Will the woman be receptive? Will she be dismissive? Perhaps that element remains hazy. However, as a developing plot, I’ve mapped myself much or most of an A-to-Z game plan—a beginning to an end. I trust that I know enough about my character, and about myself as a writer, to begin my story.

Remember, it’s okay that neither my protagonist nor I know what’s lurking around every corner. I may not know what specific event will transpire on page 25, or on page 250. Maybe Lisa finds true love along the way—but where? Walking through Georgia? Through Kansas? Through Oregon? Those specifics may still be whirling around in my head. We need not know every detail before we embark. And even if we think we know, much will likely change as we continue the journey.

As I begin to compose the basic plot points of my novel, my principle job is to highlight only those areas of Lisa’s marathon walkabout that matter to a reader. It’s important to write only what matters to your story. (Or, conversely, leave out the boring parts.) That’s Rule #12, by the way. I need not depict every one of the 6,508,014 steps that Lisa will endure to complete the trip—but I definitely want to mention the 2am tornado she encounters in Nebraska, the kind stranger in Tennessee, the motorcycle gang in Missouri and the moment she finds true love in Montana.

Active composition is writing only the essential elements of her story, while eliminating or ignoring those parts that don’t move the plot forward. If Lisa picks up a discarded gum-wrapper on Interstate 40, outside of Rapid City—big deal. Doesn’t interest me in the least. However, if Lisa finds a gum wrapper in Gainesville and vows to pick up every piece of rubbish she discovers along the way—that development becomes an important character trait and a plot point! As an author, I need not document every piece of trash she picks up, either. Show me a few unique examples… oh, and include the discarded Lottery ticket she plucks from the roadside in Buzzard Springs—a $180 million winner. That’s probably worth a mention.

So, yeah, Rule #12: Leave out the boring parts. (Write only what matters to your story.)
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“Sacred Economics” Author Eileen Workman to Speak at Santa Barbara’s Lucidity Festival 4/13

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Lucidity Festival‘s Spiritual Economics Panel Hosts Controversial Political, Socio-Economic and Spiritual Author Eileen Workman to discuss a shift from modern society to a life-affirming global community on Sunday April 13, 2014.

San Francisco, CA (PRWEB) April 11, 2014

On Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 1:30 p.m., Santa Barbara’s Lucidity Festival will feature controversial political, socio-economic and spiritual author/blogger Eileen Workman on a Spiritual Economics Panel. The open-source transformational arts and music festival is hosting several Wisdom Keepers to discuss the future of our global economic society.

Workman, author of “Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life” from Muse Harbor Publishing, will speak about conscious evolution and spiritual awakening being the keys for shifting our modern society away from the power/dominator attitudes of Empire, into a more loving, compassionate and life-affirming global community.

A former Wall Street financial adviser who walked away from her profession at the height of her career after a spiritual awakening, Workman realized that what she’d been doing did not serve life’s highest values.

On Sunday, the author will share a hopeful vision for how to create an abundant, harmonious economy that eliminates indebtedness, exploitation and inequality. She will discuss how resurrecting the archetypal energies of The Divine Feminine can help us build a regenerative, sustainable and compassionate society on a global scale.

Workman will be discussing the progressive ideas and practical life-tools used to manifest abundance from her book and the return of the Divine Feminine to promote new ways of thinking from the heart for world betterment.

The financial expert and noted economic visionary will provide simple, non-monetary steps that individuals, companies and local governments can take toward building sustainable communities, and peace of mind.

Workman will provide concrete examples of how real-life, self-sustainable, gift-based communities, modeled after natural ecosystems are being created and successfully implemented in cities around the world.

Showing how today’s greed has killed many industries, Workman predicts the death of the debt system and explains how these new, gift-based communities are not only here, they are thriving.

In her book, “Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life”, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Muse Harbor Publishing, Workman offers a logical analysis of the problems that are undermining the global monetary system. She also maps out steps individuals and governments can take to move beyond our present economic gridlock to create a real sustainable and life-affirming economy.

Workman worked most recently as a First Vice President of Investments with a major international Wall Street firm and draws upon her work experience and extensive research, to present a powerful argument that the outmoded and corrupted vehicle of capitalism cannot sustain us for another generation.

Workman does not blame capitalism for the problems we face. Instead, she questions why society continues to worship the aggressive growth engine that drives our global economy.

Why is debt necessary? How can society overcome greed? Why does poverty exist? Is a moneyless society possible? By carefully deconstructing our shared, often unexamined beliefs around “making the grade” in modern society, Sacred Economics points to an evolutionary opportunity.

Sacred Economics’ inspired perspective explains why humans are drawn to the innovation of creative exchange, and how-in the interest of becoming the best we can collectively be-society might direct their attention toward the purposeful design of a more compassionate, cooperative and abundantly flowing economic system.

Workman says, “Better to confront our fear, our unknown self, than to run because we’re too afraid to ask those questions we’ve been taught never to ask. Those questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my life purpose? What am I capable of doing? Does God exist, and what is my relationship to this world?”

Ms. Workman, an engaging speaker, financial expert and global economic visionary, can be reached for further Radio, TV, Print and Online interviews or event speaking engagements, by contacting Margaux(at)museharbor(dot)com. Friend Eileen on Facebook to join her blog and conversations on innovative solutions and political/economic philosophies targeting a wide array of current events.

Muse Harbor Publishing was founded in 2011 as an organization of “writers helping writers, in service to our readers.”

 

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At the Scene of The (Left Coast) Crime

lcc_notebookWhile I’ve long been an advocate and frequent attendee of the California Writers Conference scene, the Left Coast Crime Conference (Monterey, Mar.20-23) is my first foray into the fan-of-the-genre conference. And I’ve already penciled in my commitment to next year’s LCC in Portland, Oregon. The truth is, this is much more fun than writing.

Many of the fans are also authors and most of the authors are also fans. There’s a thrilling sort of intensity, a near obsessive adoration at play here. (Some flew in from the Right Coast to hang with their favorite writers. I find that intense.) The fans love new writers who, in turn, love the newly published writers, who in turn love the seasoned writers. And the elite—many of whom were present—clearly love the fans. I watched Sue Grafton get more hugs than a cute baby on Christmas morning. And she didn’t mind in the least.

Unlike the workshop-based writers conferences, where both egos and fears can sometimes run rampant, I’ve discovered the fan-based conference to be far more casual, even playful. Fans meet authors, chat with authors, eat with authors and immerse themselves in a genre they clearly love. I put the mystery fan up there with the romance and sci-fi/fantasy fan—dedicated, loyal and extremely knowledgeable. Many of the fans have tried writing, or else find themselves in the midst of their first effort—and what better way than to “feel the buzz.” And unlike the workshop atmosphere (where hopes are often dashed by a careless critique or two), the more casual ambiance of simply chatting about one’s profession, or obsession, strikes me as a far more pleasant way to soak it all up.

Far better for those just beginning to write, I think, to be mesmerized by the success of others than to to find oneself in the trenches too early. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, success is hard. But not beyond your dreams. If you’ve wandered through the Left Coast Crime Book Room, you see the astounding possibilities.

 

Notes From A Conference Room

So where’s the ice water?

As a first-time attendee, and first time panelist (“Now What? Industry Experts on New Publishing Options”) I devoted much of my attention to new writers, or those dangling from the precipice. The changing industry has orphaned many successful mid-list authors, who now find themselves struggling with the option of self-publishing or a smaller press. (A midlist author isn’t a best seller, but rather a self-sustaining author with a large enough fan-base to remain moderately successful, from book to book.) However, with the midlist author a vanishing species, what’s the alternative?

My co-panelists and I (moderator Stacey Cochran, Christine Munroe of Kobo and Jeffrey Weber of Stark Raving Group) were pretty much in total agreement for the duration. Yes, there’s hope. Options exist for new writers and authors in transition. Traditional publishing is in flux, and some writers will be lost to the Way Things Will Work—but I truly believe good writing will find a home.

Small presses (like Muse Harbor) are beginning to thrive—one author at a time. We’re planning just 12 titles for the 2015 calendar year, and not one David Baldacci or J.D. “Nora” Robb among them. Meaning we intend to prevail on the new and midlist author, and are hoping to boot at least one of them upstairs into that stellar category. We have only two publication slots available for our next year’s roster (and I came home with 30+ new manuscripts and queries from the Left Coast Crime crowd—so you do realize the necessity of very good writing) but if the increasing number new presses can churn out a dozen or two authors a year, gradually both writers and readers will find a new influx of talent worth their time and attention.

What about self-publishing? Sure, that’s a viable option. However, as panelist/author Claire Johnson said, “You don’t self publish because nobody else wants your work. You self publish because you want the control.” Meaning, good writing is still paramount. Self-publishing affords you the ultimate creative control—marketing, social networking, book design, management, accounting and ultimately pay-off as well—but you have to be ready for that challenge. If you’re self-publishing and still not succeeding, perhaps it’s time for a rewrite? A new novel? A fresh start.

The key to success? Many variables—with, for better or worse, a healthy quotient of “luck” among them—factor into a writer’s success. But I believe marketing to be a fundamental key. And few small presses (or large traditional publishers, for that matter) have yet to discover that magical “Can’t Fail” strategy. At Muse Harbor, we’re looking at traditional marketing solutions, but we’re also taking the “small steps” approach, building an author’s audience one loyal reader at a time. No, you won’t be partying with Dennis Lehane or Patricia Cornwell just yet…but with a bit of luck, diligence and perhaps another novel or two under your belt, maybe they’ll be calling you up for an invite of their own.

 

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