For The Writer Who Needs A Fresh Start

Oddly enough, I started my writing journey with a failed story.

Weird, right? I tell people all the time that the only way to fail as a writer is to quit. I fully believe that every story has potential, and the worst habit a writer can get into is dumping their current work-in-progress for a shiny new idea.

And yet, that’s how I started. I had a story (of sorts) in progress. I liked the idea. It had some kind of potential. It had a plot, and characters, and a world that I genuinely enjoyed.

But it was a complete dud.

Why? I can come up with a hundred reasons, most of them revolving around cliche plot lines, my own pitiful writing abilities at the time, and a lack of dedication.

But the real trouble came from the characters.

See, I knew everything about my characters. I knew their names, what they liked, what they didn’t like. I had a backstory for them, I knew their family connections, I knew everything about them.

But I didn’t know them. And it killed my story.

Just about that same time, when I was still slogging through pages of this story and rewriting bits of it over and over again in an attempt to make it interesting, someone else slipped into my head and introduced herself.

She didn’t even tell me her name in the beginning. I called her all sorts of things. And, worse still, she didn’t even have a story. Somehow, she just wiggled her way into every mental story I had going, most of the time without being invited.

I couldn’t get her out of my head.

Then, the night before I was leaving for a trip, her story appeared. And I spent the next several months writing it out in the notes on my iPod touch. I couldn’t type fast enough. Really, it wrote itself in those first days, and I hung on and tried to keep up.

Now, seven years later, I have five books written. Two are fully edited, and one is currently with a plethora of agents and editors in hoped of finding a publisher.

All due to a failed story that I gave up on.

Letting go of a story—however hard—is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s the best thing, a sacrifice that will launch you forward instead of holding you back and chaining you to bad habits.

The trouble is, how to tell the difference?

Here are five ways to judge whether you’re giving up or moving on. (And believe me, those are two very different things.)

1) Decide if you’ve grown past it.

As writers, we are always growing. Sometimes our stories grow with us and sometimes they don’t. (I’ve experienced both.) Looking back, I had passed my first story by. The characters were too wooden to teach me anymore, the plot didn’t drive me forward, and the world was too limited.

If I wanted to keep growing, I had to move on.

2) Be honest about why you want to move on.

Are you stuck? Are you buried in plot holes and character arguments? Would it be so, so much easier to move on to this new idea without any of the problems?

Then it might not be time to move on quite yet.

Every story has snarls. And plot holes. And gaps. Mending those gaps is what teaches and grows us as writers. If we give up when it gets hard, we’ll find it exceptionally difficult to finish a story—any story.

Move on if you must. But do it because you know the story isn’t right for you any more, not because you doubt your abilities as a writer. Anything can be fixed. You are endlessly brilliant with an unlimited amount of imagination and options. Don’t quit because you doubt yourself.

3) Give it time.

Rushed decisions—especially when they are emotionally charged—aren’t always the best. Take a week off from writing if you’re frustrated and blocked, and really think about whether you’re willing to leave this story behind. You’ve put a lot of work and effort into this story. Do you really want to put that aside?

Time heals all wounds, they say. So give yourself a week—or even two or three—to consider whether your desire to move on is genuine, or fueled by frustration.

4) Ask for advice.

Have a person. Someone who knows you and knows your writing. Someone who has a little more perspective than you might have, especially now. An outside perspective can sometimes make all the difference in the world—and shock you.

Perspective is everything, dearest writer. And sometimes, in the midst of edits, rewrites, and plot holes, it’s very hard to keep a good perspective on your own work.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

5) Keep writing.

One story is not your creative limit. You’ve got stories ahead of you, characters you have yet to meet, and worlds that are waiting for you to bring them to life with your words.

Only you can decide if a story is finished.

Only you can drive your career forward and master your craft.

Giving up on your story because it’s gotten too hard or you don’t have the patience to finish will not develop your skills as a writer.

Moving past a story because you’ve grown out of it and you need a fresh start will develop your skills.

It’s up to you to decide which you’re facing, and what you’ll do about it. You don’t have to explain your decisions to anyone or feel guilty about them, but you do have to accept the results, good or bad.

Make sure the results are ones that you will be happy with later.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Imagination Buddies

Writing Group

Have I mentioned that I belong to a writing group? Because I belong to a writing group.

We’re imagination buddies.

It’s the best.

Once a month—or two or three months—we get together, eat chocolate, and talk about our lives. And plot points. And stubborn characters who never listen or do the things they’re supposed to do.

It’s therapeutic.

We met on Tuesday of last week. I hadn’t seen most of them for five months. (Sadly, schedules are rough when you’re an adult. Jobs happen. And responsibility. It’s terrible.) But—somehow—we’ve managed to keep meeting, and it has been healing to my soul, let me tell you. Being a writer in a world of 9-to-5 adults means that you get funny looks when you talk about your imaginary friends in public.

For real. It’s weird.

But, in a room full of writers, we all have our own imaginary friends. And we’re all excited to meet and hang out with everyone else’s imaginary friends for a few hours.

If you’re not a writer and you’re reading this, please don’t think that I’m off my rocker.

I am, but please don’t think it anyway.

Still, there is something extremely cathartic about being in a room with other creatives. Ideas flow, imagination is sparked, and worlds that belonged only to us are cracked open for other people to venture into. What has been an especial blessing to me is to sit in the same room with a group of girls that are going through the same things that I am. We’re all a little short on cash, we’re all struggling to balance life and work, we’re all obsessed with our stories and committed to sticking with them until they see the light of day.

It’s important to know you’re not alone in the world.

We spent the afternoon eating chocolate—which is also therapeutic—talking about work, money, and moments, and reading each other’s books. We got about fifteen minutes with each manuscript, and every time the alarm went off, I had to drag myself back to the real world and remember what we were talking about before I started reading.

It’s a little exhausting to be dragged between worlds like that, I can tell you. Someday, these books are going to be published and sitting on my bookshelf, and I won’t have to snatch them in bits and pieces that way.

My heart is going to appreciate that. Especially with one certain book, whose writer keeps leaving me stranded in the middle of a sentence. *Cough cough* Gloria. *Cough cough*

Still, even when I have the books on my shelf and can read them whenever I want, I’ll keep going back. Because there’s really nothing as special as imagination buddies.

Do you have an imagination buddy in your life? (Or maybe two?) Tell me about them in the comments!

A Writer’s Guide To Catching Dreams

I’m going to tell you a secret.

I have never had a scene or a chapter in my many books come out exactly the way I planned it in my head.

Isn’t that strange?

Even after seven years of writing, eight books, and nearly two million words, I still can’t capture exactly what it is that’s going on in my brain. I can get pretty close, but it will always end up just a little different than I thought it would. When I first started writing, that would frustrate me to no end, and I would edit and rewrite obsessively trying to get closer to the vision that I had for a particular scene.

Now I’m not so worried about it. I’ve come to peace with the limitations that writers face, and I’m happy with how my scenes turn out.

Okay, not all the time. Sometimes I rewrite obsessively and occasionally scream at my computer when I can’t match what’s in my head with what’s on the page.

Because it’s definitely my computer’s fault.

Not mine.

Seriously though, I think every writer struggles with getting their thoughts onto the page in a way that is completely satisfying. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lot of disillusionment for writers, which I talked about in my last post.

So how does a writer get from the vision in their head to a fully-fledged scene that doesn’t cause that kind of disappointment? 

I have a few ideas. 

1) Start fresh.

Let go of the pages you’ve already written, if any. Start fresh with a new, blank page and get rid of the words you’re trying to edit into the right shape. Let the scene breathe again, without the restriction of the wrong words and the sentences that aren’t quite right for what you want.

2) Outline the scene.

Take a notebook and a pen. Sit down somewhere comfortable, with a cup of tea and some music—if that’s your thing—and write down everything that belongs in the scene. Sights, sounds. Smell, taste, touch. Forget good sentences, forget grammar, forget even sounding half-way intelligible. No one is going to read this but you. Take the scene in your mind and give it life, without worrying about the progression of the story or readability.

You don’t have to use everything you jot down—in fact, you probably shouldn’t—but it will help you get the feel for your scene and bring you one step closer to living it for yourself.

3) Don’t set too much store on what’s in your head.

I have had scenes slip away from me.

It happens all the time, actually. A character will say something unexpected, or a line will leap off the page and twist the direction of the story, adding another layer to the magic, and suddenly I’m far from where I expected to be.

And yet—sometimes that’s the best thing that can happen to a story. Sometimes the ‘happy accidents’ are really just your writer’s intuition coming into play. After years of writing, I’ve come to realize that my intuition really does know what it’s doing.

Most of the time.

4) Leave some things to the reader.

I know you want to explain everything and give every detail its proper place. It’s so hard to imagine something as vividly as you do and yet not be able to explain ALL of it!

But do you remember what it was like reading your favorite book?

Your breathing slowed down. The world paused. Your room—or the library, or wherever you were sitting—vanished. Suddenly, you, the reader, where there in the book. You didn’t need pages and pages of description to immerse yourself in the story.

You only needed a few words. The smallest detail. The catch in your favorite character’s breath, or the creak of the trees in the wind. Then you were there too, watching everything play out around you.

Your readers have imagination too, and they can supply a good deal of the gaps in whatever you’re writing. You just need to give them a hint, a taste of where they are. The rest, they can provide for themselves.

5) Have grace for yourself.

Unfortunately, that vision in your head is always going to be a little out of reach, especially for those of us who are completely visual and see it play out in our minds in full color with all the sound effects, emotions, and scents perfectly intact.

We were there, dearest writer. And we’re going to do our best to bring the readers there as well. But, as wonderful and enchanting and downright magical as words can be, they are still a little clumsy compared to the real thing. That’s where a reader’s imagination comes in.

Our job is not to work all the magic that will happen in their minds when they read what we’ve written. It’s only to spark something in them, then to lead the way while their half of the spell does its job.

So have grace for yourself. It may not be as perfect as you want it to be, but if you’ve done your best and given the words all the magic you’ve got, then you’ve done enough.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

For The Writer Who Doesn’t Like Their Own Writing

Five Reasons To Champion Your Work

Sometimes it’s really hard to like your writing.

I think that’s a moment we’ve all hit at one time or another, isn’t it? We stare at a page or even a chapter that we’ve just finished and it just . . . doesn’t work. Something about it is wrong, and maybe we couldn’t even tell someone else why it’s driving us crazy or what we don’t like about it.

We just hate it, and it’s all going to end up in the trash file while we try again.

It’s happened to me more than once, and if you’ve written any amount over the years, I’m guessing it’s happened to you at least once or twice. In some ways, it’s almost natural to be frustrated with our writing, because it’s never as vivid or enticing as the vision in our head. We want our stories to be so much more than words on a page, and when that’s all we can create . . . we get frustrated.

This is a pretty natural part of writing, but all too often, it becomes a negative trend that can be incredibly damaging. Instead of merely being frustrated with our writing, we start to become convinced that we hate it.

To my mind, this is a mistake.

You may not like your work all the time. No one does. But I am convinced that if you regularly criticize your own writing and talk about how much you hate it, you will seriously damage your chances of finishing projects and of creating a healthy career out of your writing. You can’t convince someone else to love your work by talking about how much you hate it.

So, here are my five practical reasons to love your work, even when you’re having a hard time liking it.

1) What we say directly impacts what we do.

Lately, I have been listening to teachings in the morning while I clean my house, make breakfast, and get myself ready for the day. One of the people I have been listening to regularly is Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist who travels all over the world teaching on the brain. One of the things that she teaches is that thoughts are real, tangible things and that what we think comes a physical part of our brain. So what we think becomes what we say, and—ultimately—what we do.

(Now, I am obviously not a neuroscientist, so if you want to check out her site and listen to some of her teachings, you can find her here.)

I found this teaching to be so fascinating, and it made me think about a lot of the things that we as writers say about our work—especially when we’re frustrated.

Things like: “I’m not good enough to (Fill in the blank).”

“I probably won’t get published.”

“I don’t really like my writing.”

“I give up.”

“I hate this book.”

Now, I’m not saying that if you’ve said those things in the past, you’ve doomed your writing. If you listen to Dr. Leaf’s teachings you’ll realize how much power we have to change our brain, both for the better or the worse. Still, maybe it’s time to take a step back and consider how what you think and what you say about your work is affecting you.

2) You are not stagnant.

Unless you are taking no risks in your writing and spending as little time on it as possible, you are actively learning. Everything you write, whether it is trashed or not—and whether you like it or not—is teaching you and helping you become a better writer. I would say that deserves a positive remark, wouldn’t you?

3) Hating your work changes your focus.

I’m going to bet that you didn’t start writing because you loved sentence structure. (Side note: I do happen to love sentence structure. But I didn’t when I started.) Most often, writers start writing because they have a story to tell, and because they loved the magic of creating worlds and characters from nothing but a little brain matter and a pencil and paper.

You may not have that story perfect just yet. The words you have on the page may not be just the way you want them. But don’t allow that frustration to dull the love you had for the magic of your story. Every job has frustrations, every craft has difficult moments. Move past those and remember that you’re doing this because you love it.

4) The world has enough critics.

There are so many people who are going to tell you that what you’re doing is crazy. That you’re just one more wannabe that’s going to fail. That fiction doesn’t mean anything, and we don’t need more writers in the world. (Um… what?)

You will have plenty of opposition to fight, dearest writer.

Don’t be part of it.

Champion your own work. Love what you do, embrace it, be excited and passionate and obsessive.

The world has enough lukewarm characters in it. We need people with passion, who love what they do and believe in it.

5) You are ALLOWED to love your writing.

It doesn’t make you stuck up. It doesn’t make you proud, or less of a writer. There is no rule that says you have to hate your writing and obsess over every typo and every mistake.

And if there was, we would break it. Because we’re writers, and we spend a lot of time learning how to break the writing rules when it suits us.

Seriously, though. Love your work. Embrace it. Be proud of it. YOU WROTE A THING! Do you know how many people would love to ‘find the time’ to do what you’ve done, and NEVER DO?

A lot.

As imperfect as it is, it’s your masterpiece. So be proud of it. I give you full and complete permission, right now, if that’s what you need. Because you’ve worked hard and that’s worth celebrating.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Planting Seeds

 

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This has been a week of planting seeds.

Not real seeds, like in dirt. Because all the dirt in Colorado is frozen.

So are the trees.

And everything else, including me.

It’s snowing outside. Did you know that? I woke up half an hour early this morning because my house was freezing and the lovely warm blankets I was sleeping under didn’t cover my nose and my ears. So I had to build a fire to keep myself from getting frostbite.

No, the real seeds are going to have to wait for Colorado to thaw a little. Instead, I’ve been planting seeds for the year ahead, starting new practices and new adventures that—hopefully—will start to grow in the next few months and blossom into something more than a simple dream.

I bought a microphone, for one thing. I’m going to be recording podcasts in the next few weeks for my Mental Health for Writers posts. It’s very exciting.

I’ve been playing with it.

I have discovered three things.

(1) When recording, the soundbar should stay green or yellow. It should not be red. I have a terrible habit of sending it into the red.

(2) I do not love the sound of my voice when it’s on a recording. However, if I want to continue doing this, I have to grin and bear it. I have spent a lot of time gritting my teeth.

And (3) I stumble over my words A LOT more than I originally thought. Come to find out, I am not as articulate as I was hoping.

That must be why I’m a writer.

In other words, I am going to have to practice a lot with my new toy. Several people have also suggested that I make audiobooks of my two books.

I told them I’ll think about it. After I practice some more.

Another exciting activity for this week has been setting up my newsletter for this site. I’m very excited about this and completely overawed by the complicated service I’m using. It may be a few days before anything pops up.

However, when it does, I’d be very excited if you’d sign up for it! There will be all kinds of special goodies and tidbits for the people on my list, plus we’ll get to keep in touch and grow as a community! Which, of course, is the whole point.

Anyway, that’s my week! I’ve been rushing around, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learning all kinds of new and very exciting things, which, for a stick-in-the-mud introvert, is very exhausting.

I’m a little proud of myself.

What about you? What new and exciting things are happening in your corners of the world? Tell me about them in the comments!

Ash and Smoke

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I buy the kerosene at the shop around the corner. The woman selling it smiles at me, and we talk about the fresh spring weather, the crocuses popping up in her flower beds, and the barges coming down the river from the cities inland. It’ll be a rich year, she tells me. A blessed year.

I laugh and agree with her. This is a blessed year. She doesn’t know how blessed.

I pay for the kerosene with his silver, and she asks me where I’m going. I tell her I’m going to the old mill, the one up by Silverstone stream. She clicks her tongue disapprovingly, as if a girl like me shouldn’t have anything to do with such a bad-tempered curmudgeon. But she doesn’t warn me away, only tells me—a little frostily—to say hello to the miller for her.

I smile and promise I will. The bell over the door rings pleasantly as I leave, and the jug of kerosene bumps against my legs as I cross the cobbled road and begin the long, long walk back to the mill. I can smell the sea from the here, hear the raucous squabbling of the gulls over the bay. I never realized what a busy little town this was, how the port was constantly bustling with sailors and merchants. He never let me come here, not even once. A woman should look after her home first, he said, not bustle about gossiping and poking her nose into the business of others.

Maybe when I’ve brought the kerosene home, I’ll come back and sit on the seawall. Just to watch the world go by, to smell the salt and hear the gulls. I’d like that.

It’s quieter when I leave the town behind me. I kick up dust on the lane, passing through the birch trees that line the road. The mill sits in the clearing, all alone, the old wheel creaking as the creek splashes over the paddles and into the pond. Moss carpets the path up the door, and the lilac bushes on either side are blooming. I pause and set the kerosene down, burying my face in the rich blossoms and breathing deeply. I want to remember that scent. Everything else, I intend to forget, but that fragrance is worth remembering.

The mill smells of death, and the floor is cold. The bedroom door is closed, and I leave it that way. I left his body on the bed, wrapped in the sheet, and it’s as good a burial as he deserves. If he’d really lived alone, as most people thought, his body would have rotted in that bed after the consumption took his soul. Instead, his darling wife—the one he locked away for so many years—will burn his body.

I uncork the jug of kerosene and pour a trail from the kitchen to the living room. I use the whole jug, and several cans of oil as well. And the last of the baking grease. When it’s all soaked into the wood, I light a match and leave it burning on the floor.

Outside, the birch trees are shivering in the wind, as if they know what’s happening. Maybe some of them will burn too. I wouldn’t mind that.

In less than ten minutes, fire is leaping from the roof. I lean against a big oak, listening to it burn. I can almost hear him screaming at me amid the roar of the flames, the way he did all those nights when the liquor was in his blood. He used to weep when the rage left him, telling me how sorry he was, and how I shouldn’t provoke him like that. I would lick the blood from my chin and say I forgave him, and he would go back to drinking.

I smile, watching it all go up in smoke and take my pain with it. The mill, his desk, our bedroom. Everything. All that was left of his stupid life and my imprisonment. I didn’t take anything with me, not even the clothes he liked me to wear. Only his silver, and the memory of the lilacs.

Everything else can burn.

For The Writer Who Needs Encouragement

Writing Encouragement

Writers need encouragement.

Can I get an amen?

Writing is hard, it’s lonely, and above all, it’s slow. Slow to finish, slow to see progress, and slow to get any kind of notice. Writers do a lot of work behind closed doors, we spend a lot of time alone, immersed in our worlds and puzzling over plot holes, sentences we may or may not like, and characters who sometimes really don’t like to do as they’re told.

On days when we’ve stared a little too hard at the blank screen, argued one too many times with a stubborn character, or—sometimes hardest of all—had to swallow a nasty comment or negative review, discouragement seems inevitable. And, if we depend on other people for our encouragement our moods will go up and down and all around.

And believe me, you will notice the negative comments much more than the positive ones.

It might seem a little backward to tell you not to depend on other people for your encouragement, right? After all, encouragement comes from other people, doesn’t it?

Actually, it doesn’t.

Yes, positive comments are encouraging. People who come to stand alongside you and help you along are incredibly helpful, even necessary.

But, if your journey depends on other people’s opinions, you will end up discouraged, empty, and too frustrated to continue.

Writer, you are the master of your journey and your mind. At the end of the day, it is you who will keep discouragement at bay. So, today, here are five tips to staying encouraged on your journey as a writer.

1) Find your balance.

Writers spend a lot of time writing, yes? Or, more specifically, staring out the window, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, researching obscure facts, and doodling on scraps of paper while we wait for the words to come.

We’re all guilty of it. In fact, I like to think of those moments not so much as procrastinating, but more as giving our unconscious brains time to mull over the problem. In fact, I think a writer does their best work while they’re looking out the window.

Still, our entire lives cannot be spent writing. Balance is the key to everything, dearest writer, so go outside, go to a movie, make dinner for a few of your friends, read a new book, or go to the zoo. Live your life outside of your writing, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come back to that blank page with a little extra perspective.

2) Celebrate yourself.

It took me years to realize that I could buy flowers for myself.

Isn’t that ridiculous? I love flowers. I love having flowers in my home. The very presence of them lift my spirits. And yet—I never bought them. Because people don’t buy flowers for themselves.

Or, at least, I didn’t think they did.

Now, I buy myself flowers. I celebrate the small things. When something exciting happens, I make the most of it. Milestones are important, dearest writer, and they do not have to be huge, once-in-a-lifetime events for you to celebrate them. Did you finish a chapter that’s been bugging you for ages? Did you finish a draft of your novel? Did someone read your work and love it?

Celebrate. Buy yourself flowers, or your favorite snack or drink, or even just pause for a moment to be still and think I did that. Be proud of yourself, and celebrate the small moments.

In the end, they’ll be the ones that mattered.

3) Don’t talk trash about your work.

I’ll be going into this subject in more depth later, but I want to put it here, because I see so many writers knocking themselves down and talking trash about their work.

Don’t.

Just don’t.

Could you write every single day with someone standing at your shoulder, making snide comments and telling you that you’re never going to make it because you can’t write?

NO.

Stop doing it to yourself. You are learning. You are doing what so many other people wish they could ‘find the time’ to do. You may not be perfect, but you are trying, so don’t laugh off your efforts or bad mouth your own work.

It’s not cool. It’s not humble. It’s toxic, and it will discourage you faster than anything else possibly could.

4) Look at how far you’ve come.

Every page you’ve written, deleted or not, is progress. You’ve learned, you’ve grown, and you’re developing in your craft. Take pride in that and be encouraged. All your work has not been for nothing.

5) Remember why you started.

Remember that you love what you do. Remember that it was the story first that drew you into this crazy, beautiful journey. Remind yourself of the dreams you had for your writing, for the book you want to hold in your hands and the characters that haunt you.

You are a writer. You create worlds from thoughts and stories from pen and ink. You have a wealth of imagination and characters at your fingertips, and if you take care of your mind, enjoy the journey, and stay encouraged, you’ll make it through the bad days.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.