Never Give Up, Never Surrender

Galaxy Quest

I teach a workshop called “When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers” and it is based on a collection of stories – my own and other writers’ – of the things that can and do go wrong in the publishing world. There are so many elements involved in seeing a book move from idea, to manuscript, to submission, to revisions, to finished product. Because of all these complicated pieces, the opportunity for problems is as abundant as the steps are. Sometimes there are multiple challenges all with the same book. Sometimes these issues are just minor headaches, and sometimes they are enough to make you wonder why you ever thought being a writer was a good idea.

In my own little corner of the writing universe, I’ve had plenty of encounters with publishing speed bumps. I’ve had contracts cancelled due to one publisher buying out another. I’ve had a publisher accidentally send me a bill for what should have been my author’s copies. And I’ve had editors get ill, have family problems, and delay my revisions by months.  Most recently, I’ve had a book scheduled for release three times only to be delayed again because the original publisher is being bought out. It’s tough to go from preparing to celebrate the release of your book to being told, “We don’t really know when it will be released.”

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In a conversation with an acquaintance, I was explaining the most recent development with my book when he asked, “So why do you keep doing this?”

I didn’t even hesitate. “Because I can’t NOT write. I can’t stop.” And it’s the truth. I have stopped writing before for almost two years, and it nearly made me crazy. I tell people regularly that, even if I never made another dime from my stories, I would still keep writing and submitting. It’s my addiction. It’s what keeps me breathing and keeps my heart pounding. It is, very honestly, who I am. So in spite of all those speed bumps, I will never give up. I will never surrender.

There are only a few things I feel this much passion for. My family, obviously, is at the top of the list. Knowledge is another item on the list because I love learning. My pets, and really animals in general are also  high on my list. But writing is what fills my heart. It’s where everything comes together for me.  It’s why I search for detail in the mundane, why I listen for noises or voices that no one else pays attention to, and why even as I’m sitting in traffic, I’m creating a scene or writing descriptions in my head. It just is who I am.

When someone asks, “Why don’t you quit?” When I go through the occasional bout of self-doubt. When yet another speed bump surprises me and jolts me like I’ve been moving too fast, I might have a quick slip into that dark thought of giving up writing, but ultimately, my brain surges, my heart beats faster, and the passion takes over again. Never give up, never surrender.

work-hard-and-never-surrender

Beginner’s Mind

Writing is a very humbling thing at times. It’s not just the rejections, the bad reviews, or the minuscule royalty checks, but the process itself can often crack you in the knees and cause you to genuflect.

In meditation practices associated with Buddhism, Hinduism, and others as well, there is a concept called “Beginner’s Mind” that applies beautifully to writing as well. Anyone who has begun a meditation practice knows what Beginner’s Mind is: it’s that awkward experience of sitting in silence, seeking a spiritual experience, and feeling as if your mind is in a blender that is set to puree. You have to remind yourself repeatedly to center your thoughts, tune out the outside world, and allow your brain to connect to more important things than the dog barking outside, or the odd creak and groan of the house, or the sudden urge to create your grocery list. For some, this struggle to calm their thoughts and create that connection becomes so frustrating that they give up the practice quickly.

That’s where I am with this new story. I’ve got a pretty decent plot concept, and most of the main characters are fleshed out, but my brain keeps generating ideas for things unrelated to this new story, and I find myself distracted by an urge to write poetry, or a compelling need to clean out files from my computer, or to skate off into Facebook land and lose track of my precious writing time.

Another aspect of Beginner’s Mind is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I don’t do well with the unknown. When I create a story, I need to have the story pretty much written in my head before I sit down to write it. This approach has served me well, but I tend to forget that when I start a new one, not everything is in place. Then, when I sit down to write, I get hung up by the things I don’t know that I don’t know! I forget that sometimes I just need to get BIC (butt in chair) and start writing so I can figure out what I need to know.

Before you think that Beginner’s Mind is a negative thing, let me explain the value of this situation. Beginner’s minds are wide open to all the possibilities. Everything is so new, so different, that there are no expectations or limitations to hold the beginner back. If I were to start a new book and already have in mind that it would fit into a specific box, I might miss some wonderful opportunities. For example: in Death’s Kiss,deathkiss final-front

the paranormal YA that is coming out in a few months, I thought I had the ending completely figured out as I began writing. I started crafting the story to move in the direction I had chosen, and I felt pretty good about it. But I didn’t have all the details in place for certain scenes, and it felt as if I were starting all over again. Instead of giving up, or worse, trying to force the story in an unnatural direction, I left my options open. I found a new, more powerful ending that made better sense with the scenes I had already written, and I’m much happier with the story now than I would have been.

For many writers, it’s hard to admit that they don’t know everything about the craft or the business. When I start a new project, I return to that Beginner’s Mind, and I find that by acknowledging that I can’t possibly know everything about this, I am better able to explore all the options and to look in new and different directions. Sometimes that feeling of not knowing, or having so many things on my mind all at once, can be a bit overwhelming, but as with meditation, in time things settle and I find that comfortable place that works. I know it’s coming. I just have to have a little patience.

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Resolutions – The 2013 Edition

It has been a VERY successful year for me, and I am grateful for the support of friends, family, teachers, librarians, and most of all readers! In June of this year, Angelic Knight Press made an offer for Death’s Kiss. In August, I sold a horror short story under my pen name Mimi A. Williams. That story, entitled Rita, will be part of the Axes of Evil: Heavy Metal Horror Anthology that will be released on February 1, 2014.  The Deepest Blue was released from Tanglewood Press in September of this year. This book has a long, winding history behind it, and it’s one that I am incredibly proud to see in print. All of this exceeded my goals for the year, although there were a few places I fell short

This is the seventh year in a row that I’ve done this exercise. It is a tradition now, and something I look forward in some sick and twisted way. It actually started further back even than the posts on this blog! All credit is due to Carol Lynch Williams who started the whole thing at least a dozen years ago and maybe even more. We are members of several list serves together, and every year about this time, we would publicly post our writing goals, and at the end of the year, Carol would hold us all accountable by posting our objectives on the list.

I like to do it this way: First, I review my resolutions from the beginning of the year to see how I did. That usually provides the motivation for my new resolutions. So here is what I aspired to a year ago and how I did:

1) I will revise my book The Afterward and continue to send it out.

The Afterward did not get the work I had hoped it would. It was shoved aside in favor of other projects. That’s not entirely bad. The other projects were both getting revised for publication. The Deepest Blue was the one that required the most time, followed closely by Death’s Kiss, which will be released early in 2014.

2) I will revise my book Death Kiss and continue submitting it and looking for its home.

Death Kiss was revised, and it was bought by Angelic Knight Press. It did find a home, and as I mentioned, it will be released soon under the revised title of “Death’s Kiss”

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3) I will participate in as many promotional and marketing events as possible (like Authorpalooza, Writing for Charity, and others) to promote my books and my availability for speaking.

I did quite well with this! I attended 10 different events, including a workshop at Whitmore Library, Writing for Charity, Davis School District Literacy Night, SCBWI’s The Inside Story, and others. I have also upgraded my website, and learned new ways to use social media to help promote my books. The results have been very positive, and as I anticipate my upcoming royalty payments, I should have a more concrete idea of how effective these efforts have been.

4) I will begin offering writing workshops 3 or 4 times a year through different sources as a means of income and to promote my books.

I didn’t quite follow through with this, though I did teach two workshops with good results. This year, though, I will follow through with the workshops, and I have recruited my talented writer friend C. Michelle Jefferies to be part of the fun! We have already laid the plans for the first workshop the first week of February.

And now it’s time to commit to the page (such as it is) my goals for the coming year. They came pretty easily this year, and I feel like I am stretching a bit and giving myself a challenge, but I don’t sense I’m setting myself up for failure. So here they are:

1. I will get an agent this year. Period.

2. I will finish at least three novels this year, including rewriting The Afterward, finishing Namesake, and a third novel (yet to be determined).

3. I will continue to look for opportunities to promote my work and to participate in at least one writing-related event each month.

4. I will attend two writing conferences or workshops to benefit my own writing.

5. I will offer four writing workshops  during the year.

That’s a lot to do in the next year, but I’m feeling confident and enthusiastic. It’s as much giving as it is taking. I’m focusing on quality and quantity. Overall, I think 2014 holds more promise than even this past year held, and that just makes me even more eager to get started!

Here’s to the coming year! My propellers are spinning and I’m ready to fly!

airplane

What’s the Definition of Insanity?

There’s a wise saying that reads: The definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over but expecting a different result!

I’ve also heard it said this way: If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.

The message to me, my own interpretation, is that becoming stagnate is like digging a hole for yourself and then wondering why you can’t get out! I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this recently for a variety of reasons. First, it’s getting to the end of the year and I tend to get a little reflective during this time as I look back on the past year and look forward to formulating my goals for the coming year. Second, the last year has been one that has forced changes on me. Some of these I have embraced and welcomed, while others I’ve gone into kicking and screaming and digging my heels into the dirt. Finally, I’ve made it a goal of mine to look for ways to improve as a writer, as a mentor, as a partner, as a friend, and as a person.  Change can’t happen when one is stagnant.

As I’ve looked back on the preceding 12 months, I’ve come to understand that the times I’ve struggled most are the times when I’ve resisted the obvious changes I needed to make. There have been so many good things that happened.  In many ways, this year has been one for the record books! My writing world has been filled with exciting events that continue to evolve even here in the final weeks. There was the sale of Death’s Kiss, the sale of a short story entitled Rita, the release of The Deepest Blue, and soon the release of Death’s Kiss. I participated in numerous signings, workshops, and conferences in 2013 – more than I ever have in years past. It seemed like almost every month I had something involving writing (other than my writing group) to participate in. Then came the opportunity to edit a book for one of my publishers, something I absolutely enjoyed and hope to do again! So many changes took place so quickly that sometimes I didn’t even realize they had happened. All of it required flexibility, organization, and the willingness to step outside my comfort zone – something most of us don’t like doing. But not all of the changes I faced were as easy to accommodate.

I had to let go of a lot this year: hopes that I held for myself and others for a number of issues. I know that sounds terribly cryptic, but the truth is, I can’t go into a lot of detail because it’s very personal, and it’s not just about me. Here is one example, though, that truly pushed my limits. I’ve had to let go of a friendship with someone whom I’d been close to for several years. I hate letting go of people I care about, whether through choice or through loss. I don’t give love easily, so when I commit, it’s with my entire heart and soul. Unfortunately, continuing to allow this person in my life was literally asking for continued pain and destruction. For reasons I will never understand, someone who claimed to love me and be my friend was working behind my back to undermine me and hurt me. I’m pretty much a nice person most of the time. I’m not a saint and I have my moments to be sure, but I don’t go out and deliberately try to hurt someone while simultaneously professing to be a friend to him or her. It required some drastic measures to accomplish, but I think I’ve successfully eliminated this individual from my life. It hurt  to do it, but it was a change that needed to be made.

And there are other changes as well. After holding firm to the idea of independence for so long, I’ve finally determined that I need to get an agent, and I am pursuing that even as I write this. After eight years in print, my first three books (the “Hey, Ranger” series) was taken out of print. I will always love those books and I hope one day to be able to do more with that series than the publisher was willing to do. After years of letting it languish, I update my website and I am proud to show it off now!

So what’s the point to all this? Anyone who is close to me will tell you that if you look up the definition of crazy, you’ll see my picture next to it. I move at a fast pace; I’m constantly busy; I’m writing more, editing more, helping other writers, and generally running around like a headless chicken. Things are in a constant state of change in my life: personally, writing-wise, and professionally as well. I don’t think I ever do anything the same way twice, and if that means I’m protected against crazy, well, I’m not sure I agree. But my definition of crazy is what’s keeping me happy, and as the new year approaches, I look forward to more of the same that won’t be the same!

crazy

So What’s the Big Deal with Adverbs?

I read a post on Facebook recently where someone asked, “So what’s the big deal with adverbs?” There were numerous comments that  said that using adverbs in writing was no big deal. There were even a few somewhat snarky comments about writers who eschew the use of them. I know writers who will do anything within their power to avoid the use of adverbs. I also know writers who think nothing of having fifteen or twenty of them on a page.  I don’t think either extreme makes a lot of sense. Writing is never an all-or-nothing deal.  So why the big issue over this particular part of speech more so than any other? Good question.  I happen to be among the group of writers who don’t like using adverbs, and I’ll explain why.

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Just as with all other parts of speech, adverbs have their place. I’ve had someone ask me why I hate adverbs so much. In truth, I don’t hate them. That’s sort of ridiculous, honestly! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  Sometimes adverbs are necessary to provide detail or clarity, but many times, they become the cop-out, the lazy writer’s way of adding detail or clarity.  It’s unfortunate, but many otherwise talented writers fall into the trap of relying on adverbs instead of pushing their writing to a better level.  That doesn’t mean that you should never, ever, under any circumstances use an adverb, but rather that they should be used in limited doses.

First, you have to understand what an adverb does. An adverb modifies (adds to the meaning of) a verb, such as “The woman sang loudly.”

An adverb can also modify another adverb: “The woman sang very loudly.” And they modify adjectives: “The dog was really cute.” 

So, yes! They are very handy little parts of speech, and they definitely have a place in writing. So why all the hubbub? It’s easy for adverbs to be overused. They get put in places where they aren’t necessary, and they take up space where better word choices could be.

For example: “Gretchen sipped slowly from her  tea cup.” 11771007-sensual-blond-girl-with-hair-style-in-elegant-pink-dressover-holding-tea-set-drinking-tea-dark-fashi

The word “slowly” is unnecessary, because how do you sip? Wouldn’t a fast sip be considered slurping? In this case, the writer needs to consider what else is happening. Is the writer trying to set a mood? Is the writer just filling in time? If more detail is necessary, what kind of detail needs to be present for the reader to better understand this part of the story? It may be that this scene doesn’t need anything more because it’s not that important. Either way, the word “slowly” just doesn’t belong.

Here’s an example where the adverbs are just lazy writing: “He stared longingly into her eyes as she lifted her chin gracefully toward him. ”

There’s so much more that could happen with this. There is emotion and intensity waiting to happen, but this sentence falls flat because the adverbs prevent the reader from understanding at a deeper level. Would removing these adverbs and replacing them mean more words? Of course, but unless you’re writing with a very strict word limit, that’s not a problem. In this case, adverbs are restricting the moment and limiting the reader’s enjoyment. What writer wants to do that?

Sometimes an adverb can be useful. If a writer needs to set up a scene and move through the information quickly, then the adverb short cut isn’t a bad idea. But the problem comes when these short cuts become the norm, and the page becomes flooded with them to the point the reader is left with an uninteresting experience.

Bored-Reader

Writers typically try not to overuse any word because it creates an awkward experience for readers. Over using any word, but especially adverbs, cheats the reader and limits the effectiveness of the story. What’s wrong with adverbs? Absolutely nothing, unless you abuse them.

Things of a Symbolic Nature – Take 2

Symbolism is a subject that I have a lot of interest in. I like finding it when I read (which was the only thing that saved me when I read MOBY DICK), and I love using it when I write. Obviously, not every story will have a place for symbols, but I like looking for places that I can include them, even if it’s very subtle and limited.

A symbol, as described by Robert Di Yanni in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, is any action, object, person, or event that conveys a meaning beyond the literal interpretation or significance. An author will make a symbol known either by giving it emphasis, repeating is use in a story, by giving it detailed description, or by placing it in key moments within the story. These techniques may (though not absolutely always) indicate that the element in question is being used symbolically. Throughout literary tradition, symbolism is used to enhance and add meaning to a story; to bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the story.

Here’s an example: In Eudora Welty’s short story, A Worn Path, the main character’s name is Phoenix Jackson. The name Phoenix is a clue to the personality of the character – someone is resilient, determined, and perhaps mythical. The color black features prominently in the story as well. Phoenix is a black woman, she expresses her admiration for a large black dog that takes on the dog of white man who threatens Phoenix. And there are other examples. This story also features an assortment of birds, everything from little bobwhites to a buzzard among big dead trees which remind her of lynched men. Throughout the story, the symbolism is woven into plot, building upon critical moments, showing us more about the place and time where Phoenix lives, and giving us a greater insight into aspects of human nature.

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In my own work, I’ve used these techniques as well. Though it isn’t easy to spot (because I limited the use and held back) the shiny red dog collar in Kiss Kiss Bark serves as a symbol. Mattie sees the collar as everything that is wrong in her life: her unfair babysitting responsibilities; how her brother gets away with things she would never get away with; and ultimately, of her love for her brother and her acceptance of his role in her life.

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In a much more obvious attempt at symbolism, The Deepest Blue  uses several symbols throughout the book. The first, most obvious symbol is the color blue. Because it represents depression, it is an appropriate color to use at key moments in the story when the main character, Michael, is feeling the loss in his life. But a blue sky can also represent hope, the lifting of a storm, or the start of a new and better day.  Another symbol I used was the storm. It builds at important moments, it rattles windows and reflects the turmoil that Michael feels, and threatens him physically as well.  The last significant symbol is water. Sometimes the water is in the form of rain, sometimes it’s the ocean, and there are other uses as well. Water is an emotional connection for Michael, reflecting his feelings, tying him to his father, and signifying the importance of place in his life.

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So why incorporate symbols? Well, for one thing, I think it’s fun! It’s an aspect of writing that appeals to me at a deep level. Another reason is that I respect the readers I’m writing for. They like the challenge that symbolic meaning represents, they like a deeper story. As a reader, I like this, too.  There are wonderful stories out there that use symbolism, but that aspect isn’t one that is often given much attention.

The book I’m working on now also has symbolic elements to it, and I’m enjoying the process of giving deeper meaning to the story as I find new ways to incorporate these symbols. Of course, my greater hope is that my readers enjoy it just as much as I do.

Research, Reviews, Revisions – Oh My!

revision

I’ll start with revisions. For one book, they’re done, for another, they’re just beginning. Two weeks ago I received the Advanced Unedited copies of my contemporary young adult novel THE DEEPEST BLUE from my publisher.

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This was the last possible chance to make any kind of changes to the book before publication. Nothing major – like I couldn’t change the ending, make big alterations to scenes, or anything of that nature. A few extra spaces were found, and a line that should have been deleted was probably the biggest glitch. The thing is, it was just an amazing thing to read the story all the way through for the first time since all the major revisions were done. It was frightening, but it was also exhilarating. I can tell you that at the end of it, I’m pleased – very pleased. I’m very critical of my work, and typically I’m harder on myself than anyone else ever would be, so the fact that I read through the entire book and didn’t hate it says something.

Now I’m gearing up for the revision process for my young adult paranormal novel called DEATH’S KISS. My publisher told me to expect the work to begin in earnest at the beginning of August. I actually like revisions because it’s a second chance (or third, or fourth, or whatever) to fine tune the story. It’s like working on a painting only now I get to go in with a tiny brush and add the details that bring the picture to life. And believe me, the excitement of having two books coming out within a month of each other is only getting bigger with each passing day!

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This brings me to reviews. The verbal feedback I’ve received from those who have read the two stories has, thus far,  been incredibly positive. I’m grateful for the comments of my beta readers and my editors. Their input has guided both stories and helped to make them stronger. But last week I got word that Kirkus Reviews was planning to publish a review of THE DEEPEST BLUE in their August 1st edition.

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I got a copy of the review, and while it is very positive, it is fairly critical of one aspect of the book, and that stung a bit. Well, no, it stung a lot. I’d be lying to say that my feelings weren’t just a bit hurt. The only remedy is to remind myself of the same words I’ve given to other writer friends in the same situation: reviews are really only one person’s opinion. If readers respond, that’s all that matters. Soon enough, I’ll have the answer.

So research – I’m working on a new young adult novel, a murder mystery. When I worked with my writing partner on BEAUTIFUL MONSTER, we interviewed a friend of mine who is a mortician to be sure that we got certain icky details correct.

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Now, I’ve started interviewing a good friend who is an attorney, and a friend of my parents’ who is a retired city detective. They are helping me to verify the details of  a cold case murder. I’m learning all sorts of legal and forensic information that will help me tell a better story. The cycle has started over, and I’m excited to be launching into a new adventure.  Of course, with three books in the works, I’m at three different stages in the writing process, so to say I’m starting over is only partially true.

This time in my writing life is busy, rewarding, and always interesting! I’ve worked hard for this, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have spent 15 years of my life (minus a few I took off when I didn’t think I could write) working toward the experience I am having right now. When I hear other writers whine that they haven’t achieved some level of literary greatness after three or four years, I just have to laugh. I’m happy. I’ve worked hard for this happiness. I will enjoy it to the fullest, and I will continue working to maintain it. Research will not slow me, revisions will not dissuade me, and reviews will not take it away. I’m having a blast!