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.

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”

deathkiss final-front

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

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.

Beautiful Monster Blue.2

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!

Zounds!

The partial Shakespearean quote reads: “Zounds, I was never so bethumped by words . . .” Perhaps a bit out of context, but I am very clear on the concept. I need to clarify first that this isn’t a complaint by any means! I don’t know when I’ve been happier, and a good deal of that is due to the fact that I am – indeed – bethumped by words.

I’ve just finished the final, final revisions (at least on my part) for my young adult novel THE DEEPEST BLUE which will come on in October of this year. Right there, I’m a pretty happy camper. deepestblue

This book has been a long time coming, and I don’t mean the publishing process (though certainly, there is a little bit of that involved). I started this book in 2006, and early into the first draft, my dad passed away. The scene I was writing at the time had to do with the main character losing his own dad, and that just became too much for me to contend with.  At the same time, I was struggling with my own beliefs in my writing ability, and for a variety of reasons, it was easy for me to put this book, and all my writing, on a shelf. That shelf turned out to be pretty big. In fact, it lasted almost three years.  I’ll save part of this story for another post, but suffice to say that I took a renewed interest in it, sent it out, collected a lot of rejections, and ultimately in December of 2011, it sold to a wonderful publisher.

A few months ago, not sure what my employment status was going to be, I took a work for hire project. My job is to write the last three books in a nine-book series about a former secret agent type guy (sort of like Jason Bourne, only my character is a pretty upstanding guy who hates killing unless there is no other alternative). I am having an absolute blast with this project, and the first book is now almost 70,000 words long. I’m becoming a faster, more efficient writer because of this project. The edits from THE DEEPEST BLUE are informing my writing on this project, and overall, it has been a very meaningful addition to my writing life. The deadlines are rigid, and it forces me to write almost every day to stay on top of my work load. It also forces me to balance my life between a full-time job, my writing projects, and my family. The level of growth I’ve experienced is profound, and I’m grateful to the publishers for granting me the opportunity.

Now another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. My young adult novel, DEATH’S KISS, has sold to another publisher and I will begin working on those revisions within a few weeks. The publisher wants to release this book in September of this year, so I will have two books coming out within a month of each other. Those revisions will take place while I work on the second and third books in my work for hire project.

And the point to all of this is that, with limited exception, this is exactly how I’ve wanted my life to be for more than 15 years. Now I am here. Now it is happening. There is little to my life that I would change, but believe me, I understand the risks. I also know how very fortunate I am, but I know how hard I’ve worked for this as well. I’ve had a lot of support from friends and family, but I was the one who had to sit down at the keyboard and spill my brains through my fingers.  My life is bethumped by words, and that is exactly how I want it to be until I fall over dead at my keyboard, nose on the F key.

Country Music, Sardines, and the Color Orange

I attended a workshop many years ago where the two speakers – two ladies who were writing partners – discussed what goes into developing believable characters. They used an elaborate system of character development worksheets that traced the lives of their characters from infancy to the exact moment the story began. The worksheets – all 5 pages of them – were used to record all kinds of information: best childhood friend, most memorable family vacation, favorite food, least favorite color, favorite book, favorite movie, and on and on. Their theory was that, as a writer, you need to know your character as well or better than you know yourself.

My writing partner Jared and I were talking about this recently. There is a lot of value in this concept, and I use a form of worksheet myself.  However – it certainly isn’t 5 pages long and I don’t need to know ever minute detail of my character(s) life.  Jared and I were discussing a piece of writing that included a lot of interesting character detail, but none of it really added anything to the story. Descriptions of certain characteristics were included that really didn’t help the reader to better understand either the story or the character, and didn’t really contribute to the concept overall.  But there are some things that I think it’s crucial to know about my characters.

The first thing I need to know is how old is the character. Since I write kid and adult characters, I need to have a good feel for the age and level of life experience of my characters. 

Next, I need to know what this character looks like. Is my character tall? Short? In between? Heavy? Skinny? Average? Being able to envision my character physically helps me to imagine how he or she moves and interacts with the world.

I also need to know who interacts with my character? Family members, friends, teachers, enemies, pets, imaginary friends – whomever. This is the group that populates my character’s world, so I need them to be believable, too.

Then I get to the fun stuff – I need to know what my character’s proudest moment is.  This tells me what my character values about him or her self.  This is what my character’s strength is primarily based on – that core value that gives my character integrity. I won’t necessarily show the event or activity in particular, but I will make this clear through action, dialog, and character choices.

Along with that, I need to know my character’s greatest fear. This shows me where and how my character is most vulnerable. When it comes time for the major conflict in the story, where is my character most likely to crack? Again, I don’t necessarily have to show the reader a specific memory or incident, but it should be clear to the reader that when conflict hits, this character has a weakness or two.

Then I need to know my character’s secret wish or dream – something perhaps even his or her best friend doesn’t know. This will tell me a lot about my character’s motivation, what will keep pushing my character past fear and on toward success. This can also serve as a way to make my character more vulnerable because he or she doesn’t want this secret revealed.

The final step for me is to ask my character if there is anything he or she wants me to know. I have found that my characters will always be happy to tell me all kinds of stuff, but that they always try to put themselves in the best light. For me, this is a form of reverse psychology. Whatever they tell me, I look for the opposite to see what the characters are trying to steer me away from.

It’s rare I need to know  character’s favorite food, least favorite music, or favorite color. Unless this information moves the story forward (in a novel in progress called “Death’s Kiss” the main character hate macaroni and cheese, and that plays an important role in an important scene), then it doesn’t matter to the story so I don’t bother finding it out.

The bottom line to me is, it isn’t the volume of information you gather on  character, it’s the quality and purpose of that information. And besides, who has time to spend filling in 5 pages of worksheets when you could spend that time actually working on your story?