Taking My Own Writing Advice (or, My Terrible Epiphany)

I hope you won’t mind if I direct most of this post at myself. Because, frankly, I need a good talking to/kick in the pants/smack upside the head.

Myself in a Mirror

Listen, Erin, you have some problems. It seems like everyone compliments your writing (all those agents who declined to take you on had very nice things to say about your technical skill) but there are some serious problems with your manuscript for A Beautiful Fiction that, even if you self-publish, you’re going to want to fix. You know what these are.

Problem 1: Beta readers find it difficult to sympathize with your protagonist.

Your rationale: My narrative voice is detached in an attempt to counter the tendency in a lot of modern fiction to tell too much and therefore not allow the reader to think at all.

Solution: Uh, DUH! Switch from 3rd person to 1st person so you can let people inside your protagonist’s messed up head! (Yes, this will mean rewriting the entire 85,700-word manuscript.)

But that’s not all is it? How about…

Problem 2: Story takes too long to get going.

Your rationale: It just wouldn’t make sense to start later or move things along faster because the storyline would be completely implausible.

Solution: Start at the point the action is intense, then flash back a bit here and there to fill in the details. Seriously, it took you this long to figure this out? For crying out loud, you just wrote a blog post about this very technique for a different story!

(Yes, I admit, it was when I was rereading my own blog post [hanging my head in shame] that I realized this advice could be applied more broadly in my own work.)

There are probably other problems in that manuscript, but two is enough to work on for now. So get your butt in gear, Erin, because you have got a LOT to do now.

Sheesh.

In my defense, though, I will say that had I not stepped away from that manuscript for about six months, I would not have come to realize these possible solutions to my problems. Now that I can look at it more objectively, I can get back to work and make A Beautiful Fiction beautiful indeed.

When the Painful Thing Is Less of a Pain than Avoiding the Painful Thing

It was bound to happen. Fate or Providence had written it into the very fabric of the universe from eons past. We knew in November 2011 that it was inevitable. The only question was when. And 8:09am on Tuesday, March 26th, 2013, was the answer.

I locked my only car key in the running car.

Yes, folks, these things will happen. When we don’t prepare and make provision for our own idiocy, it will catch up with us in the end.

Here’s what makes this extra frustrating.

1. I had been planning for over a year and a half to get a copy of the key made (but put it off because it’s one of those special keys that only a dealership can duplicate and I didn’t want to spend the time/money stuck at a Ford dealership when I could be working, doing fun things with my family, etc.)

2. I have a remote to unlock the car which recently broke off my key chain and had even more recently just been in my coat pocket where I could have easily accessed it to unlock the running car Tuesday morning. Just the day before I had unceremoniously dumped it into my purse which, you guessed it, was sitting idle in the passenger seat in the running car.

3. There is a keyless entry pad on the driver’s door but since we got this vehicle used from a non-Ford lot, we don’t know what the code was. I was told I could get it changed at a dealership (see point number one for why I didn’t).

Yes, my laziness caught up to me on a cold, snow-sprinkled morning in late March and so I sat in my office awaiting the locksmith, typing out this post. And here’s the kicker. When I called the Ford dealership and set up a service appointment to get a second key made, get a new keyless entry code, and a new remote they told me it would take “about an hour.”

An hour. Just an hour of my time, tens of thousands of which I have undoubtedly squandered in my lifetime thus far. And in reality, it took a half hour. (Oh, and $150.)

Sometimes the tasks that seem odious to us are really not that big of a deal. Perhaps it’s time to stop putting them off until some unknown future time. Because they will catch up with you. They will lock you out and then smirk as you rush around trying all the doors, looking for a way in, cursing yourself for waiting.

What have you left undone? Think maybe it’s time to just get it over with?

Beginning at the End

Some stories start at the beginning. Some start somewhere else. It’s not always an easy thing to recognize when your story actually begins. I’m still unhappy with how A Beautiful Fiction begins and may need to massage it before publication. For one of my current novels-in-progress (yes, you can tell I’m not a full time writer just by this statement alone I think) I think I’ve just discovered where it truly begins.

You see, as I began last November to write the book I’m now calling My Life in a Minor Key (you may remember my derailed and then failed NaNoWriMo plans) I knew how it would begin and how it would end (a change from how I wrote A Beautiful Fiction, for which I had no plan at all of how it would end when I started). The first and last chapter would be book ends that echoed one another and I had a vague idea that the entirety of the book would be one big literary chiasmus.

I still kind of like the idea of that structure, but it occurred to me randomly and out of the clear blue cloudy gray sky the other day that what I really ought to do is start with the very last chapter. Rather than being a straightforward narrative in which the reader discovers only at the end what has happened to a character, I believe it would be better told already knowing the climax and then backtracking to see what could have possibly led this character to this point.

Breaking Bad Season OneThis is not a new idea. You see it in a lot of post-Tarantino movies. The very first episode (and then many others) of Breaking Bad did just this, starting at the climactic moment of the episode, giving the audience absolutely no background to understand what the heck was going on, and then restarting a bit earlier to fill in all that missing information. The joy of watching in these cases is not discovering along with the characters what will eventually happen. It’s knowing the end and then, like a detective, sorting through all the little events that lead up to it.

Sometimes, if a story is long enough, you as a reader or audience member won’t even remember that you really already know how it will end. Remember how the 1999 film American Beauty started? Kevin Spacey told you he would be dead in less than a year. But I don’t know anyone who remembered that fact by the time they got to the point he actually dies in the movie. (Wait, you’ve seen it, right?)

Thinking of your own WIP, where does the story really begin? What is the most engaging way you can start it so that a reader simply must read on? Sometimes it takes a few chapters of writing to get to that point. Sometimes you need an outside reader to tell you where things really pick up, then try using that as the starting point. If modern cinema has taught us anything, it’s that people really don’t need to know much at the beginning to get sucked into the story. In fact, too much information and exposition up front is kind of tedious.

As for me, I’m beginning at the end this time around. I guess we’ll see how it all works out. Eventually.

Dogs, Quilts, Graphic Design, and the Beauty of a Barter Economy

Each March my sister and her family go to Florida. Each March we watch her now geriatric dog, Max, while they are away.

Princess Max

Each July, my family goes to camp in Northern Michigan. Each July my sister watches our dog, Sasha, dig a giant hole in her backyard and sit in it.

Sasha Digs

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Exchanging services is a very old way to get something you need without having to fork over money. All it takes is your time and sometimes your talent.

Earlier this winter a colleague in the art department needed someone to turn a bunch of biking and running t-shirts into a quilt. I happen to sew a lot and I’ve made a t-shirt quilt for someone else before, so I volunteered. But any time I’ve sewn for someone else, there is the awkward question of “how much is this going to cost?”

Rather than send my coworker an invoice for something I knew would be fairly simple and for which I would probably only spend $5-10 on materials (since she was giving me a bag full of all the fabric I would need) I asked if perhaps she would use one of her talents for me in exchange.

So Heather will at some point be designing a book cover for me. My initial thought was that it would be the cover for my novel, which I intend to self publish later this year. But I’m also considering whether I might rather have her do the cover for the collection of short stories I will have in 2014. But we’ll work it out.

What talent do you have to offer? What needs do you have to be filled? Find a few people you can help out who can help you out in return. Develop a pool of talented people who can all mutually benefit from each other’s skills and passions.

Are you a good editor? See if you can offer your services free to an influential website in exchange for free advertising space on their page.

Do you know an editor who doesn’t have time to clean her house? Offer your services in exchange for proofing the work you want to publish.

Do you have a friend with connections? How can you help that friend in exchange for some introductions?

Need a better website design? Can you offer your techie friend free fresh baked goods for a year?

Want some professional looking headshots? That friend of yours with the amazing camera and Photoshop skills probably needs something too. Could you supply that need?

Writing and publishing take a lot of time and effort. But amazingly, in this day and age, they may not take as much money as you think.

FIRST WARNING: In this barter economy, you must have something to give. I have known a person or two who only calls or emails me when he needs something and has never offered anything in return. Don’t be that guy. Even if you’re just asking for advice about an aspect of publishing or website design or whatever, you should at least offer something in return, or just show up with a gift that says you appreciate the time your friend has taken to help you.

SECOND WARNING: Don’t let this exchange of services make you start thinking of the people in your life purely in terms of what they can do for you. People can smell this kind of thought process a mile away and you’ll find yourself losing friends instead of gaining help.

Share and share alike and we all benefit.

The Past, the Future, and This Unending Winter

March 16, 2013, Fenner Nature CenterMichigan, like quite a large swath of the country, is in the midst of a depressing cold snap the likes of which puts me in mind of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. We haven’t started twisting straw into kindling or burning our furniture yet, but one can’t help but feel that everyone is teetering on the edge of that kind of desperation lately.

Last year the temperatures in mid-March were a full 50 degrees higher then they have been during the past week. This was not necessarily good, as it caused massive fruit crop failures when temps dipped below freezing again (for example, Michigan normally produces about 96 million tons of apples a year while in 2012 we only managed 2 million tons). But still, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that it would be nice to have temps in the 40s rather than the 20s at this point in the year.

Being stuck in this winter is like being stuck in a story. You get to a certain point where you feel frozen. You can’t push forward. You can’t go back. You’re just…there. Waiting for the thaw in your brain so you can get on with it already.

That’s how I feel right now. Frozen in time. Tired of what has come before. Waiting to see where things will go in the future. Ready to move on. But stuck frozen in place.

How do you hasten spring? How do you thaw the fertile soil of your creative mind? It seems clear to me that we cannot rush the changing of the seasons, as much as we might want to. There are plenty of tips and tricks to get beyond blocks, but sometimes maybe we just have to wait it out, trusting that the thaw will come, the waters will flow, the flowers will bloom, and the story will move on to the next chapter.

A Cruel and Gentle Month

Sugarbush 2013Oh, March. You fickle month. You bringer of sunshine and rain, then ice and snow. You can’t decide whether to reveal the toll the winter has taken on the earth or to cover it all back up again. The birds sing, the red-winged blackbirds and robins and turkey vultures have returned, the very first crocuses have bloomed and frozen. The sap and the rivers are running, but I am sitting inside with my coffee wondering just how much longer until I can get out in the gardens and start cleaning up your mess.

Here’s a poem about March I wrote in 2007 and have been modifying ever since. I think I may have it how I want it now.

March

Month of crows
Driven rain in slush-filled gutters

All the flotsam of winter’s rage—
Empty bags whipped in wheezing wind

Parking lot valleys in the shadows of
Mountains formed from filth and snow and abandoned shopping carts

The frail sun pretends to shine
A sudden squall and all is beaten down again

But then
quietly
pushing up
through mud
comes the green

Stretching
reaching
hoping
comes the green

The sun shines stronger
the days grow longer
and all my fondest hopes of spring
see fulfillment in one blossoming
flower

 

Overcriticizing Your Own Work (or How NOT to Take a Compliment)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Sunday I wore this dress for the first time. I made it back in early September (if you found this blog through the Sew Weekly, you may have seen it before).

Normally I’m someone who dives in, wings it, fixes along the way if necessary, and comes out of the creation process with something I like. Something that fits. Something that works.

Not so with this dress. I thought I’d be smart and really measure and really fit the pattern to my body, and so I ended up thinking I needed to lengthen the bodice (that’s the top part of the dress, for you non-seamstresses out there). But it turns out I must have done that all wrong. And I neglected to check the neckline while doing my alterations. So I ended up with something way too low-cut for comfort and bunchy around the torso to boot.

It went straight into the closet and I decided I would take the time to fix it later. Yeah, right.

Then Sunday morning I decided to finally wear it. I’ll wear it, I reasoned, so I can really get a feel for what needs to change. I put a light turquoise tank underneath to deal with the neckline problem and wore it to church.

I got a lot of compliments on it. No one noticed the flaws (except perhaps my close fellow seamstress friend who may have been wondering about the bizarre bodice issues). People loved the fabric (which I also adore and which is one of the reasons the fit issues were such a huge disappointment to me). They loved the pleats. They loved the whole package.

But as I received their kind comments I quickly told them about all the flaws I needed to address. Not being seamstresses, they all adopted a somewhat glazed over look in their eyes and were probably thinking, “Geez, Erin, I was just trying to give you a compliment.”

Not surprisingly, this whole experience got me to thinking about writing, editing, and sharing our work with others…

Lesson 1: We’re all our own worst critics. Well, unless we’re deluded. We see the flaws in our work that others do not. What we need to ask ourselves is whether we can be satisfied that others see beauty when we ourselves see something that’s almost-there-but-not-quite-yet.

Lesson 2: If you’re not happy with it, go ahead and work to make it exactly what you wanted. If it will continue to eat at you and keep you from confidently showing your work to the world, keep making it better. Go ahead. Indulge yourself in all those little edits. However, you may, like me, discover that you constructed your creation so well and so precisely that to fix it you have to do a lot of work and everything you alter will mean some other part needs to be altered as well. (This is why I like making clothes but not altering them.)

Lesson 3: At some point, you really just need to let go and let the thing be what it is. Sometimes the more we work on something the worse it really gets. I’ve worked a piece of clothing to death. I’ve probably worked over my first as-yet-unpublished novel almost to death. Sometimes you just have to call it quits and move on to something new.

Lesson 4: Don’t point out the flaws that have already gone unnoticed. It’s not humility. It’s false humility. It’s fishing for the other person’s comfort and reassurance (and more compliments). It’s giving you a chance to talk about yourself more. Just gracefully say thank you and move on to another subject, perhaps returning the compliment to them somehow.

Now then, where’s my seam ripper?

Banishing Clutter and Getting Your Literary World in Order

32/40 bags in 40 daysToday I took a huge load of junk I don’t need to Goodwill. I filled my Explorer to the gills and then passed it all off on an unsuspecting lone worker who is on the front lines of the redistribution of stuff in this community. Every time I handed him yet more bags of stuff (32 in all on this trip) I could see his resolve strengthen a little bit. He would sort through my castaways if it was the last thing he ever did.

Other loads I’ve dealt with today: two of dishes, three of laundry, one of trash. And I have to tell you that it feels so good to walk out into the warm, sunny day (we actually hit the mid-40s in mid-Michigan today!) carrying out the stuff I don’t need.

It’s like editing. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) You go through your manuscript or article or story and find the useless stuff, the stuff that doesn’t help anyone, the stuff that you thought you’d use but that instead just ended up as unsightly clutter that distracts you from the real focal point.

What parts of your latest creation could use a good spring cleaning? Trust me, you’ll like your story better once you can get yourself to part with the unnecessary clutter.

Anticipation, Distraction, and Writing It All Out

Waiting for DaffodilsMy distracted mind has not been on writing lately. It’s been on spring cleaning. It’s been on my son’s impending move from preschool to elementary school. It’s been on things I want very much to see clearly (and soon)–on the snow melting, on the sight of green leaves and yellow daffodils, on what the future may bring. It’s been on very physical things. No room in my brain right now for the mental work of writing.

Planning. Expectation. Preparation. Yearning. Possibilities. A desire I didn’t realize until it was spoken aloud. But that’s how writing works, too. Sometimes you don’t realize what you want to write about until you start writing about something else. If you’re not careful, you can write yourself into things you would never have expected.

Are you stumped about what to write about next? Don’t know which way to turn on the road of your life? Can’t see as far into the future as you would like?

Just write. Write yourself into a compelling story. Write yourself into a plan for dealing with what’s bugging you. Write out your dreams. Write the future you want. You just might get to know yourself better. You just might discover you have much more to say than you realized. You just might be able to re-distract your mind until the thing you anticipate has finally happened.

It’s March! And That Means I Have Something for You!

I don’t know about you, but I’m super happy to leave February behind. We’ve gotten through a few winter storms, we’ve had some wonderful temperatures recently just above freezing, we’ve heard some beautiful birdsong around my house, and the sun made an appearance and I could actually feel it. Puts me in a springy mood.

Which is why I painted my bathroom a much lighter color.

Which is why I’m buying vegetable seeds even though I can’t plant most of them for a couple months.

Which is why I’m feeling pretty generous at the moment.

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m releasing March’s short story today (first day of the month!) and I’m making the first two short stories of 2013 absolutely free for a day! So if you missed the last freebie, take heart. This one’s for you…and for the promise of spring.

FirstThreeStories