Lessons We Can Learn Halfway to Black Belt

Last weekend our son was awarded his red belt in karate (which is just our shorthand for the real name of the marital arts system he practices — the American Advanced Combat System — which was developed by Sensei Dan Timlin and is based on Bruce Lee’s system of Jeet Kune Do). At his dojo, this means he has moved up to the advanced class, and he’s still just six years old.

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When we started him in martial arts about a year and a half ago (largely due to his obsession with TMNT and ninja stuff in general) we talked to him about the investment of time and money it would entail, about how when we start something, we don’t just quit when we get bored or tired of it.

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We needn’t have said a word about it because his enthusiasm and dedication has not waned one iota. The young guy next to him in the photos above and below is one of his instructors. He’s a fantastic teacher and incredible to watch on the academy’s demonstration team. He was just sixteen when Calvin started as a white belt in the basic class. He started at the dojo at age eight. When Calvin is eight, he will already be a black belt. When I think of my son someday being able to do the things that this young man does, I get giddy with anticipated pride.

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Now, I’m posting about this partially to share my joy in my son’s dedication and his achievements. But it’s not all about bragging (it is a little about bragging).

It’s also about persistence and drive and dedication to an art. It’s so easy to start something big and then quit when we feel like we’re not making enough progress. Calvin could have watched his teacher do incredible takedowns and disarms and flying kicks and thought to himself, “I’ll never be able to do that. It looks too hard and I don’t think I’m fast enough or strong enough.” But he didn’t. He saw some majorly cool moves and thought to himself, “I want to do that.” And then patient and caring teachers came alongside him and said, “You can do that — but it takes discipline, training, and focus, and we’ll help you get there.”

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And his parents came alongside and gave him encouragement, took him to practice three nights a week, reinforced the lessons he was learning at the dojo, trained with him at home. Because while in some ways martial arts are an individual sport, no one learns best in complete isolation.

What about you? Are you trying to write all on your own? Trying to figure out your camera all on your own? Trying to figure out how to make a certain effect in a painting or Photoshop or a recipe all on your own? What are you trying to do solo that would be easier if you had support, if you had a teacher or a more experienced friend who could answer your questions?

It’s tempting to do art alone, especially if you’re an introvert. And there are plenty of opportunities to practice alone, and that’s not bad. But who do you have who can encourage you and help you adjust your technique if you’re doing it wrong or perhaps just not the easiest or most efficient way?

When I went out to take pictures of the aurora on Saint Patrick’s Day, it was a friend who told me that the aurora was active. That same friend was there when I had questions about how best to photograph them because he and I once had almost the exact same camera. There were a few things I had to figure out by myself, but he was there on the other end of the phone when I had questions. And when I posted a photo on Facebook, he was the first to compliment me on it. How encouraging!

In my writing, I have two great groups of writers who can encourage me to stick it out when the going gets rough and who can share expertise and advice. One is online (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) and one is in the flesh (Capital City Writers Association). Another writing community that is so instructive and encouraging is Writer Unboxed. Beyond that, my husband and a few close friends serve as encouragers, first readers, and sounding boards.

You can do so much more and so much better work when you have a community of like-minded individuals supporting you. If you quilt, join a quilting group or guild. If you paint, organize outings to paint plein air. If you love to bake, create your own informal school or throw a recipe sharing party. If you write poetry, find a local place that can host readings and put the word out to poets in your area. If you’re a musician, schedule a jam session.

When things get tough and your art won’t cooperate or you’ve faced rejection, that’s when you need support. And you’ll find that if you cultivate a community intentionally, that support will be there for you the moment you need it. Those people will keep you from quitting, they’ll celebrate your successes with you, they’ll help you grow, and they’ll feed your desire to succeed.

Your initial passion and intensity may come from within…

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…but you can bet that it’s easier to maintain when others are there to hold you up.

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Yes! NaNoWriMo Is Over . . . Now What?

My last guest post at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference blog today. Now that National Novel Writing Month is over, what are your next steps?

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Finally! It’s over. After thirty days of breakneck writing, it feels good to take a moment to breathe. But once you’ve done that, there are a few more things you should consider doing as this year wanes and a new one dawns on the horizon…

Finish your rough draft.

Unless you’re writing middle grade fiction, you’re going to find that most novels are not 50,000 words. YA is generally around 70,000. Contemporary fiction is about 80,000–100,000. Historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy can get up near 120,000. That’s not to say you can’t write just what you darn well please, but if you want to someday publish your novel, you need to take into account reader expectations and publisher needs. So if you found yourself at 50,000 and felt like things were just getting really good, keep drafting! If you had concluded your story around 50,000, go back to the beginning and rewrite and revise, adding details, subplots, dialogue, and whatever else you need to make your story full and rich.Keep Writing Quote

My advice? Don’t put your 50,000 words away and decide to finish the draft when the holidays are over or in the summer when you finally have some time. Push ahead and finish it now, before the fire is quenched by time and you begin to doubt yourself. Pound out the rest of that draft on the same writing schedule you’ve been keeping in November. Just get it down. It will be a great Christmas present to yourself to have it finished.

Click here to read the rest!

Then go write some more!

Your NaNoWriMo Check-Up

I’m back at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference blog today, guest blogging about the dreaded midway point of National Novel Writing Month.

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Okay, NaNos, we’re just about halfway through the month. If you’ve been keeping up with the average daily word count goals, that means you’re hovering around 25,000 words right now. Good for you! If you’ve been falling behind, don’t fret—all is not lost! It ain’t over ‘til December!

If you’re stuck back at 7,845 words or if you’ve lurched ahead to 36,276 words, you have the same goal in front of you—make it to 50,000. And you have the same erin-b-realitychallenges—keeping up steam, moving your narrative forward, finishing strong. It’s as easy to get stuck at 40,000 as it is at 4,000. So how are you going to win National Novel Writing Month?

Here are a few ideas to keep you going:

Reclaim your time and double down on your efforts. Life just took over. I just don’t have the time. I thought I could fit it into my schedule, but it was just too much. NO! None of us have the time. We must all make the time. Get up earlier. Stop watching so much football. Throw your phone in a lake. Novels don’t get written because there are people out there with nothing to do. They get written because people stop making excuses and start making their dreams a reality. You can do this!

Don’t resolve anything at the end of your chapters. You propel your narrative forward the same way you propel readers forward—with tension…

Click here to read the rest!

Then go write some more!

Trailblazing and the Seductive Pull of the Status Quo

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In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, we encounter two opposite impulses embodied in Laura’s parents. Pa is a restless wanderer moving his family ever west in search of more space, more freedom, and complete self-reliance. Ma is obedient to her husband’s wishes, but her heart is still back in New England where her family remains. Just when the family settles in one place and the land is tamed and things are beginning to work smoothly, just when Ma’s workload gets a little lighter because the house is built, the barn is secure, and the vegetable garden is established, Pa announces the family is leaving that all behind and heading back out on the trail to chase the horizon.

As Americans, we admire Pa and leave Ma to fret about Indian attacks and the children’s education. Or we pretend we do. Or we do while we’re yet young and unattached. But when we have established homes and jobs and families of our own, the pull of the horizon must war with the pull of the earth beneath our feet. We begin to see the sense in staying where we are. We begin to see all that open land not as welcoming us but as waiting to destroy us.

So we stay in jobs we dislike for 30 years in order to feed and clothe our families and keep our health insurance (well, maybe not that anymore…). It would be a different thing, we say, if we were single or childless. We take the path of least resistance and claim that it must be God’s will for our lives because we encounter no obstacles (if that’s your view, go check out 1 Corinthians 16:9 and note the word and). We keep plodding through and put out of mind that there may be something else for us.

Is there something you have been putting off for fear that your life will be disrupted? Or that you may fail? The Ingalls family never quite made it to where Pa wanted to go. I’m not sure even reaching the Pacific Ocean would have quelled his wanderlust. In fact, they had to turn back east and retreat for a time. But that never seemed to stop Pa. And though they encountered hardship most of us can’t imagine nowadays, they also experienced the pride of being trailblazers.

It’s hard to balance contentment with one’s circumstances and the drive to get that dream job or live in that dream city or pursue that dream degree. The status quo is so comfortable, so cozy, so easy. Why would we want to mess with that?

Still, if you have gifts and you aren’t using them or you’re not using them to the extent you believe you should, maybe it’s time to venture out of your shell and take the plunge into the unknown. If an opportunity presents itself to you and your first instinct is to retreat into your shell and wait for it to go away, maybe it’s time to be brave and take on the challenge.

There will be obstacles. There will be long winters, rushing rivers, millions of grasshoppers, prairie fires and chimney fires, people who resent you, and family that doesn’t quite understand. There will be hard work and hard weather. But there will also be satisfaction and joy and adventure.

Case in point: I have submitted a few of my short stories this year to a number of contests and gotten a number of emails that include the words, “We’re sorry, but…” And yet, last night I got an email from one of those contests that told me I am a finalist! And that email was from The Saturday Evening Post. Even if I don’t win, I still got that far, I may end up in their anthology, I now have contact with the editor there who likes my work, and I can add this information to my bio as I query other magazines, editors, or agents.

But if I hadn’t taken the plunge and risked lots of rejection, I could never have gotten this far.

Is opportunity knocking? Why not crack the door and at least give it a chance to talk.

Writers: Some Advice on When You Should Give Up

I was reading an article Monday about a couple that both wrote novels and decided to self-publish. Good for them, I thought. It seemed from the beginning of the article that they were just looking for an outlet for their creativity. But then I came across this quote about why they decided to self-publish instead of look for a traditional publishing contract:

“It was disappointing,” she said. “How long do you decide to torture yourself with getting rejected by every publisher in the business before you decide to say you know what, my story’s good enough that it doesn’t really need the approval of a bunch of business people?”

But how many agents and publishers had they queried? Ten each. Ten.

Ten is “every publisher in the business?” No. No it is not. Despite the Big Five, there are still hundreds of publishers and there are thousands of agents.

The couple says that the reason they didn’t have the patience to wait out more rejection in hopes of finding someone who would champion their book is because of their age. Are both in their 80s? Nope! Both are in their 40s.

That’s fine. I may disagree that their age precludes patience (and I’m starting the home stretch toward 40 myself) but of course anyone who wants to can go it alone, and it’s a great choice for a lot of people. I’m self-pubbing short stories every month, so who am I to criticize? And their genres (sci-fi and fantasy) tend to do better in ebooks than many others. But here’s the hard reality: between the two of them, they’ve sold about fifty copies.

This is what traditional publishers (those “bunch of business people”) can generally guarantee: you will sell more than a few dozen copies. You may not be the next bestseller, but you will sell more because your book will be more visible. It will be in physical bookstores, which, yes, people still shop in. It will be sent out for reviews (these authors had to pay Kirkus to review their books). It will get professional editing and proofreading (I haven’t read either book, but a “look inside” one of them on Amazon reveals fourteen en-dashes that should be em-dashes [or commas or sentence breaks] and a distracting slew of ellipses on just the first couple pages).

Those “business people” aren’t sitting in a huge conference room somewhere, gleefully rubbing their hands together and sending out rejections because they don’t “approve” of a story. They love books. They love helping authors improve their books. They love seeing books get into the hands of eager readers. They love their authors (despite what some online rants from bitter authors would have us think) because their authors are the ones who make the whole business possible. Without stories, there’s no business.

I’m glad that these two are putting their books out there. I hope they sell a ton of them and it sounds like both are working on their next novels. They are doing it as a creative outlet. Maybe they don’t care about sales or paychecks from it since it is not their primary employment. And that’s just fine.

But I don’t want anyone to read their rationale, that ten “business people” didn’t respond positively, and think that if you didn’t get a contract after ten queries that there’s no point in querying more. Or that the people who work in the publishing business are heartless or just out to make a buck.

Everyone–everyone–I know in the business (hundreds and hundreds of people) are in the business because they love to read, love to write, and think a good book is its own reward. They simply love good storytelling and they want every book to reach as many readers as possible because they want an author to be read.

Maybe at the tip-top of the Big Five there are some full-on “business people” who are only in it for a fat paycheck. There are the Rupert Murdochs of the world, naturally. But for every one of them, there are thousands of agents, editors, marketers, publicists, and production people who are in it for the love of a good story. They are not a gauntlet of stick-wielding sadists who are looking to pummel an author with rejection. They are an army of supporters who want an author to bring his or her very best to the world.

Thing is, you don’t generally get published by asking just ten people to look at your work. It does take time and tenacity. So many great stories go unread simply because their authors gave up too quickly when faced with the fact that they might not be the next big thing right out of the gate.

Full disclosure here: For my first novel, I have queried 117 agents. Agents I’ve researched. Agents who I know rep my sort of story. Agents who have said they are looking for new clients. Today, one of those agents (number 113) is presenting my proposal to her partners. Together they will come to consensus on whether or not to take me on as a client. If it happens, I’ll be very happy that that particular leg of the journey toward publication is complete. But I’ll also know that it’s not over because then my agent will have to convince a publisher to take on my novel.

If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be disappointed. But then I will start researching more agents who might be a good fit for me and my writing. Or perhaps I’ll self-publish (after getting a professional edit on my own dime) and move on to the next novel, which might strike a chord with an agent where the last one didn’t. Who knows.

The point is, I believe in the publishing industry and I still see value in it. Maybe it’s because I have an inside track on it (I work for a traditional publisher). I love a lot of aspects of self-publishing and it is the right route for certain people and certain projects. But it’s not right if you’re just doing it because you’re impatient. Rejection isn’t just part of the game, it’s an essential part. Because it should make you a better writer.

Had I self-pubbed after I got my first ten “no thanks” responses to my query I would have published a book that wasn’t ready, that was inferior to the book it is now in more than one way. If these two authors had queried agents who rep their genre and were looking for new clients, the rejections they received should have been the first clue that there was something in their writing that needed improvement.

From my 117 queries, I received 11 very helpful rejections and one specific request for revision and resubmission. That’s 10% who read at least a portion of the manuscript and had a lot of positive things to say about it, yet had reservations for a variety of reasons. One of those rejections was a hard one to take because it had a lot of criticism in it. But even that one, when I had let it settle in, contained helpful revision advice.

My manuscript is far stronger now than it was when I sent my first query to an agent in early April of 2012. Yep, that’s nearly a year and a half ago.

So what’s my advice on when you should give up on your dreams? Never. Even some of the greats were told at various times by various people that they lacked talent, their stories were uninteresting or unmarketable, and that they should pursue another line of work. Keep working, keep improving, keep trying.

And for goodness sake, have the humility the learn something from those “business people” in publishing.

Oh, and you don’t have to take my word on all this. Turns out agent Rachelle Gardner was thinking about some of the same things this week!

Life Lessons from an Injured Bat

I realize that not everyone loves bats. In fact, the photo below may make some of you shudder involuntarily. Forget all the arguments for their usefulness and their harmlessness, they just give you the creeps. But bear with me a moment, because I think there is a lesson to be learned from this particular little bat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found this little brown bat on the ground when I was putting out some yard bags this past weekend. He was lying on his belly in a dirty bare patch on the still-dormant lawn beneath the lone ash tree on our street (perhaps in the entire city of Lansing) that has thus far miraculously survived the onslaught of the insidious emerald ash borer and getting run into by a car.

I could see this little bat was breathing and, knowing a little something about bats, I knew first of all that it could not fly from a ground position (bats must drop from a height to fly) and that I should by no means touch it, even begloved in thick leather, because if it bit me (which, being frightened and/or hurt, it surely would) I would have to get an expensive and painful series of shots to ward off rabies. So I went to the garage to get a long-handled flat shovel, not to bash the poor thing to death, but to pick it up safely.

I carefully scooped it up, eliciting a threatening display of tiny white teeth but little more in the way of resistance. Then I walked it to the large mostly-dead sugar maple by the garage, well away from the road and any possible contact with unsuspecting children or adults with no sense. I placed the blade of the shovel against the tree and let it slowly grip the bark and huddle against the rough bark. It crawled around a little to find a place sheltered from the wind and remained. A day later it was still there.

I wanted so desperately for it to fly away. I wanted it to leave the shelter of the tree and fly off back to the group of bats it must have wintered with. I suspected that that might be at the top of the very tree I put it on since it has hollow parts. But it hunkered down and did not move. Perhaps it was injured and could no longer fly. Whatever the reason, despite my efforts, it remained frozen in place.

Here’s why I bring this up here on a blog that is mostly about writing. Sometimes as a writer you get knocked down, whether you are a bestselling megastar or someone who has shared your work with only a few close friends or a bunch of strangers on the interwebs. You get a bad review (or maybe lots of them). You get a rejection letter (or maybe lots of them). You get silence (which is sometimes worse than negativity). You’re face down in the dirt wondering what hit you.

I hope that each of you have someone in your life who cares, who scoops you up, talks tenderly to you, and helps you get back on your feet. That person may not have the power to make you fly again, but maybe just knowing that there are those out there who care about you and your work will give you some sense of camaraderie, some feeling that you matter. Because you do. Whether or not you ever sell that screenplay or ever capture an agent or ever make a dime from your writing, you matter.

Then, once you’re back in the shelter of that tree, that place of safety, I hope you will take off and try again. Don’t hunker down and give up. Because your best days are waiting for you up ahead. Create your art. Share your stories. Take flight.