The End Is Only the Beginning

Sunday afternoon I managed to type out two very important words on the novel manuscript I have been drafting on and off for the past year or so: The End. Always a good feeling.

A few days before that I was on the phone with my agent discussing submissions and what I’ve been working on and what might be next. I had thought that at the WFWA retreat in September I might work though a new novel concept in Lisa Cron‘s Story Genius sessions, which I would then start drafting during National Novel Writing Month (November). The one I had in mind would be a follow-up/sequel to a novel that hasn’t even gone out on submission yet. We both agreed that it would be premature to start working on it since we don’t know anything about the fate of the one that would come before it. Who knows if and when book one will get published, and if anyone would even want a book two?

And so, I’m left with the task of choosing what to focus on during the rest of the year. I’ll be sending my newly completed draft out to various readers over the next few months, getting feedback, and making revisions before turning it in to my agent at the end of the summer. But in the meantime, I want to be working on the next thing. Always the next thing.

I have three projects in mind, all quite distinct and requiring different skills. First, there’s my poetry chapbook. Second, research and outlining for a historical novel that I’m not sure I’ll be ready to start drafting in November. Third, a new collection of short stories that would tell an overall story over the course of the collection.

This last one is what most interests me at the moment. I first got the idea when I went to Albuquerque for the first WFWA retreat in 2015. All of the stories would take place in the same hotel and characters from one may appear in another in a different role (i.e., the POV character in one story become a supporting or background character in another, or even an antagonist).

Having this mix of writing activities, ranging from research to outlining to drafting to writing poetry to formatting and producing a book, will keep me plenty busy and also allow me to switch from one thing to another as the muse inspires.

Through it all, I intend to continue to paint and to build my freelance editing and writing base.

To some, this might feel scattered. Lots of people like to have one big goal rather than lots of smaller projects. But I’m definitely a project girl. I do have an overarching goal, of course: publish my work. Even bigger? Earn my living from writing what I want to write. Lofty? You bet. Attainable? With persistence and a bit of luck.

Only I don’t actually believe in luck. So how about persistence and Providence? Yep. I’ll take it.

Welcoming the End of Summer Break

MSU students are flowing back into the city. My son went back to school today. We are falling back into routine. Earlier nights, earlier mornings, tighter schedules. And I’m okay with that. Summer has always overstayed its welcome in my life, and, as every writer (or anyone who works from home) knows, summer is hard on output.

Back in June, I finally got myself from 40,000 to 50,000 words in my newest novel manuscript. Each paragraph was a hard-fought victory over summer distraction, including having my son home for the summer (no day care) for the first time whilst also continuing to work full time. In July, I don’t think I wrote much of anything. I was busily working ahead in anticipation of camp and vacation, entertaining dear friends at our house, editing someone else’s novel, and then gone for two weeks, during which time I was surrounded by people and working fairly diligently on actually getting a tan.

In August, it was (intensely) back to work writing pages and pages of catalog copy for the Summer 2017 list. I began to think I’d been quite foolish to set a goal for myself of finishing the first draft of this novel before my WFWA writing retreat in late September. My yard and house had atrophied — badly — over the past two months of busyness. We’d been eating out most meals because no one had the time or energy to grocery shop or cook. The weight I’d lost in June by diligently tracking what I ate started creeping back on. And as an introvert used to working in the house alone for much of the day had about reached my limit of days-strung-together-without-a-decent-chunk-of-solitude-thrown-in-there.

Enter Guys’ Week.

My husband and my son had one glorious week of fun planned out for the end of summer, which included lots of time out of the house and two overnight trips. During Guys’ Week, they went to zoos and museums and the LEGO store. They rode carousels, water slides, and elevated trains. They ate way too many coney dogs and made it through a tornado. They drank $6 slurpees and stayed on the 50th floor of the Renaissance Center.

Me? I wrote 20,000 words. In one week.

I could have spent my non-work time that week cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, and all the other stuff that needed to get done. But I chose instead to focus on writing.

When he’s an adult, I’m sure my son will have memories of a very different type of household than the pristinely clean one I grew up in. He may remember that many nights for a while there was a bag or a box on the table rather than serving bowls. Occasionally, this bothers and embarrasses me. But I’m comforted by the thought that he may also remember that his parents pursued their passions every chance they got.

In four weeks, summer will be officially over and I will be in Albuqurque, New Mexico, with ninety other writers, women (and one man) who have become dear friends and fellow sojourners in the realm of writing and publishing. We’re all at different stages of our manuscripts and our careers. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one with a messy house and an empty fridge.

And I’m willing to bet that I’ll have finished my first draft before I step on that plane.

A Lesson in Focus

Great Blue Heron, Thumb Lake

Every day at camp, this handsome great blue heron hunted for fish and frogs in the marshy shallows of the lake.

No matter how many screaming kids were around and no matter how many ridiculous games they were playing in the water within a few yards of this bird, he calmly searched for meals.

He did not allow the plans of other beings to affect his schedule.

He did not concern himself with the people who were watching him and commenting on him.

He thought only of his goal and applied himself to achieving that goal, distractions be damned.

Is this speaking to you?

It’s speaking to me.

On the Beauty of Stepping Back

A Rose Blooms on Veteran's DayLike it or not, twenty-four hours is all you get. Subtract sleep (eight hours if you’re lucky) and work (another eight hours if you work full time) and you have eight left. Personal hygiene, prepping and eating meals, doing dishes and laundry and picking up after yourself, gassing up the car, driving to and from work, getting the kids off to school and activities, church and volunteering, hopefully getting in some reading time or an episode of Brooklyn 99 or The Man in the High Castle

Friend, your day is slipping away fast. And that means your week is slipping away. In aggregate, your life is slipping away and you probably don’t have the time to properly lament that fact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion how I “do it all.” Work, kid, writing, gardening, canning, sewing, teaching, etc.

Well, here’s the dirty little secret: I don’t. Not all at once, at least. I haven’t sewed a piece of clothing for myself in well over a year. I didn’t manage to can cherries, raspberries, pears, or apples this year. I did the absolute bare minimum in the garden this summer. I also barely manage to keep my house in working order. I often go to bed with dishes in the sink (and on the counter), with laundry getting wrinkled in the dryer, and with toys strewn all over the house.

And every once in a while I have to step back, look at where I’m spending my time, and reevaluate. I did this back in 2007; the result was quitting grad school. I did it again in 2012 and decided I needed to quit being a docent at the zoo. Suddenly during this crazy fall, I felt the need to reevaluate once more.

I realized that I was overcommitted in general, but specifically in two places: in my local writing group and at church.

As a board member and the marketing/communications chair of CCWA, I was committed to monthly meetings, but also to developing and keeping up the website, helping to plan events that required extra meetings, attending as many organizational events as possible, blogging and asking others to blog, trying to remember to tweet, developing and giving talks, etc. It wasn’t an everyday commitment, but over the year it amounted to a lot of time away from family and, ironically, from writing.

At church I have been prepping and teaching an adult Sunday school class, serving as a deacon, practicing and singing in the choir, attending two worship services, doing building renovations, and often leading singing, lay leading, prepping and serving communion, and trying to be a semi-decent pastor’s wife type person on top of that. On Sunday mornings especially I was rushing from activity to activity with not a moment to stop and chat with church members or visitors on the way. On some weeks, I might find myself at church three or even four days out of the week.

At an especially busy time, I realized that my entire week was spoken for by these two very worthy, fun, and rewarding aspects of my life, plus my son’s one extracurricular activity:

  • Monday night: deacon meeting during which my son had to entertain himself at church (family grabs fast food on way home, son gets to bed too late)
  • Tuesday night: take the boy to karate (family eats whatever I can scrounge up and make into a meal at home)
  • Wednesday night: choir practice and midweek service (husband takes the boy to karate; family either scarfs down early dinner at home or eats separately)
  • Thursday night: CCWA board meeting (family eats out again, again separately)
  • Friday night: take the boy to karate (family would eat at home but no one has had time to plan meals or cook, plus the kitchen, somehow, is still a disaster even though we’ve eaten out nearly every night)
  • Saturday: spend 9 hours at church sanding floor, prep for Sunday school at night
  • Sunday: teach Sunday school, practice choir number, sing choir number in service, come home to crazy-messy house and try to reacquaint myself with my husband and son

It was easy to see that this was just too much, despite the fact that, taken individually, I valued each of these things. I had no margin, no white space, no mental rest or physical rest, no time to let my mind breathe, no time to take care of myself or my family or my home.

So I looked at all of the things I was doing and found the ones that could be done by others. No one can be my husband’s wife but me. No one can be my son’s mom but me. No one can write my books but me.

But could someone else be a deacon? Absolutely. Could someone else serve on the CCWA board? Absolutely. Could someone else sing soprano? Absolutely. And probably there is someone out there dying for the chance to do those things, looking for an open spot, for a need to fill. Me stepping down could create that open spot.

So that’s what I did. I contacted the leaders and supervisors and directors of those groups and let them know that, come 2016, I was stepping back. Not one of them was upset with me. All of them understood. And once they had all been told, a weight lifted off my shoulders I hadn’t realized was there, even though I hadn’t really gotten anything off my plate just yet. There are still Christmas baskets to distribute as a deacon. There’s still the Christmas cantata and all the extra practices that entails for choir. There’s still the annual writer’s conference (Write on the Red Cedar) to advertise and execute for CCWA in January. But just knowing that within a matter of months those commitments would be over put my mind at ease.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation — overcommitted and exhausted and wondering where each day is going, unable to find the time or mental energy to serve your family, take care of yourself, or pursue your passion. Why not take some time as this year draws to a close to reevaluate where you’re spending your time and energy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I doing this out of a sense of obligation?
  • Does this bring me joy?
  • Is this good for my family?
  • Could someone else do this?
  • Is this how I want to spend my time?
  • What do I really want to do — both now and in the future — and how do each of my current activities feed that dream or drain time and energy and imagination from that dream?

I think you’ll find that the answers you give will tell you what you can step back from and what you really want (and need) to do with your precious twenty-four hours.

Waiting for the Snows

But for a few days in November, mid-Michigan has been naked this winter. Today was rainy and in the 40s and felt like spring, a melancholy masquerade in late December. Two days out from Christmas with no snow on the ground and even the most summer-loving Midwesterner must feel an itching wistfulness. When we moved to Lansing from Grand Rapids in 2005, it was a green (brown, really) Christmas. During the week following, I was working in my new yard, pulling English ivy from walls, trimming tree limbs with a saw my father got me for Christmas, and digging up sandstone rocks from beneath the ground. I was more than 50 pounds lighter then than I am today, eager to make my new home my own. Nine years later and I have nothing to do in the garden despite the warm temperatures and the soft earth. The garden is “finished” as far as that goes.

I won’t lie; the lack of snow has got me down. What is winter without snow except a long, dull stretch of cloudy sky and gray-brown earth? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. There are lights on the house, presents under the tree, family coming for good food. I’m anticipating the smiles on the faces of my son and husband as they open up their gifts. I’m listening to carols and playing them for my son on the guitar at night. Tomorrow night is our candlelight service at church. Everything is as it should be–except the snow. Funny how one thing out of place throws off the whole thing.

One thing out of place.

When I turned my calendar to December a few weeks ago, I was met with an envelope containing a letter I had forgotten I’d written. Last night I cheated and opened it a week early. At my husband’s bemused urging, I read it out loud. It was cheesier than I can imagine myself being. Or maybe it wasn’t cheesy so much as it was too sincere. We had a couple good laughs during my oration. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my hopes for myself had come to pass in 2014. One very particular one did not–one thing out of place–but I am slowly becoming okay with it. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was ahead of where I had claimed I hoped to be when it came to my writing. And yet, for much of the second half of 2014, I have been impatient and felt as though I was lagging behind. My January 2014 self, the one who wrote that letter, seems a more reasonable person than my December 2014 self. And I’m glad that she reminded me just how much I have accomplished this past year.

So I wait for the snow and I wait for the fulfillment of a goal I hadn’t really given myself a year ago. I remind myself that I’m right on track and that Christmas comes whether it snows or not. I may feel that there is still one thing out of place, but in reality it is just my own impatience. God’s time is rarely our time, is it?

The Creative Momentum of Concentrated Time

I wrote this post just a little over a year ago. Since that big writing weekend at Gun Lake, I’ve taken a few blocks of concentrated time off of work in order to write. The first week of this year I did this and managed to write over 13,000 words and the first five chapters of a new novel. And I felt pretty swell about that.

I managed to write here and there in the weeks following, ending up with twelve chapters and nearly 28,000 words by the first week of February. At this rate I thought maybe I could be done by Easter.

Then this past week I took another writing vacation that was capped with another weekend at Gun Lake. Two weeks of vacation already used up in February?! Why would I do such a thing? How foolish!

Actually, it’s not a big problem. One of the perks of staying with one company for twelve years is accumulated paid time off. So I’m not worried about needing more vacation time later in the year.

And you know what? I wrote more than 36,000 words this week and am now on chapter 29. That’s called momentum. Almost 65,000 words into a novel that I started just six weeks ago.

How did I manage it? I took control of my time. I directed my life instead of letting it direct me. And everyone, everyone can do that.

On Wednesday I’ll be guest blogging over at author Susie Finkbeiner’s blog. I’ll be talking about time. If you’re having trouble finding the time to create, whether you’re writing or quilting or painting or making music, I encourage you to check it out.

You’ve got 24 hours today. Are you going to set aside a few of them to do what you love?

The Picture of Confidence

I’m eleven chapters and 27,000 words into the novel and feeling a bit like this…

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The boy got his orange belt last week. In January, the word of the month at the dojo was goal-setting. This month, it’s confidence. 

Reaching your goals does wonders for your confidence. So what are you hoping for? What are you striving for? How will you achieve your goals? How will you surmount the obstacles in your way?

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In late March, the boy should earn his green belt. Round about that time I hope to be in the home stretch of my book. We’ll both face obstacles along the way. But we’re both committed to overcoming them.

How about you? Are you going to let your circumstances stop you? Or are you going to have confidence in your ability to persevere?

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Remember–the only thing all published authors have in common is a finished book. The paintings that hang in museums are finished paintings. The quilts that people sleep under are finished quilts.

So be confident, work hard, and go out there and finish something!

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3 Easy Ways to Get Back into Writing Your Book

Ideally, we would all have time to work regularly on our writing projects, never allowing the fire to cool or the story to get stale. But reality is rarely ideal. It’s reality. It’s busy times at work, kids who need love, meals that need making. Those clothes won’t wash themselves, you know. So we often find ourselves torn away from our works-in-progress for a time and they turn into works-in-the-backs-of-our-minds. Sometimes we wander away from our writing fairly purposefully when we aren’t sure what comes next.

Either way, how do you get back in the groove after an absence? Here are three easy ways…

Reread. If it’s been just a few days, reread the last chapter. If it’s been more than a week or so, read what you have written so far, from the first to the last page, to get yourself not only back into the story, but also to reorient yourself to the flow of the story thus far. It’s more than simply figuring out where to go next. It’s recapturing the flow, the voice, the tension, the characters, the setting. Immerse yourself in it as a first-time reader would and you’ll be propelled forward in the story by the momentum you’ve hopefully built up. Plus you’ll see if what you’ve written thus far still holds up after letting it rest. You can also listen to what you’ve written, which gives the story another dimension altogether.

Outline. After that, see if you can outline what happens in the next few chapters. It helps to have at least a small idea of the road ahead. Just seeing a paragraph of synopsis (which I tend to write before an actual chapter is written) can almost trick you into thinking you’ve already written that chapter and give you a small feeling of accomplishment, which you can then ride into the actual writing of that chapter. Then, when it’s written, you can go back and tweak your synopsis to match what you actually wrote. In this way you are also finishing a chapter-by-chapter synopsis to put into your book proposal later. Two birds, one stone.

Research. Read over any research notes you may have taken to put you back into that world and spark your imagination with possibilities for your characters. If you are writing anything besides contemporary fiction that is set in a city like your own, you need to put yourself back in the right place, the right time period, and the right clothes. You need to pick up those speech patterns you’ve given your characters. You need to reorient yourself to that world, reintroduce yourself to its problems.

Now stop fooling around on the internet and get back to work!

5 Reasons You Need to Attend a Writers Conference

On Saturday I attended the first ever Write on the Red Cedar writing conference, hosted by a relatively new writers group in the area, the Capital City Writers Association. The featured speakers were writer, blogger, and literary agent guru Chuck Sambuchino and literary agent April Eberhardt. Both were friendly, gracious, funny, informative, and accessible. In fact, everyone was friendly and fun to be around. It was a great group of both established writers (like Lori Spielman) and beginning writers.

But why go to a writers conference? Why spend the money? The time? I’m glad you asked. Here are 5 good reasons:

1. Network. Writing may be something you can do alone, but publishing and getting your book into the hands of readers is not. Even if you self-publish, you need a network of people who can help you along the way with everything from editing and cover design connections to endorsements and book reviews. So much of publishing success lies in who you know. So you need to get out and meet people.

2. Hone your craft. Working in isolation can make us fall into lazy writing, even bad writing. Yes, you can read books (like this one) but it’s also helpful to get jolts of focused advice in one-hour portions. I went to a workshop once that was about where to start your story, with much of the class focused on just the first sentence. It was extremely helpful.

3. Make new friends. I know you have friends, but having friends who are fellow writers is awesome. Writer friends spur you on, cheer for you, complain with you, and know what you’re going through. They read your drafts and give you constructive criticism. They go to the next writers conference with you. They are special.

4. Learn insider tips and tricks. When you go to a conference attended by professional writers, editors, agents, or anyone else involved in the Industry, you get priceless insider information about how publishing really works on the ground level. I gave out a lot of such information at both Breathe, where I was a speaker, and Write on the Red Cedar, where I was an attendee.

5. Meet agents and/or editors. Nothing can substitute for positive in-person interaction between a new writer and an agent or editor. Cold calls and queries just don’t carry the same weight as a handshake and a great conversation that will make you real and memorable. Not every conference or retreat has agents and editors attending, but even if they don’t, people you meet there can lead to meeting agents or editors in the future. You never know who someone else has connections with.

If you’re just starting out on your writing journey, I can’t recommend good writers conferences enough. Just being around that many other people committed to improving their writing and helping each other along the way is energizing and encouraging.

A Letter to My Future Self

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This morning I wrote a letter to myself, sealed it in an envelope, and taped it to the December page of my 2014 calendar. On January 1, 2015, I plan to open it. I won’t tell you what it said just yet (maybe I will next New Year’s Day), but in it I made some suggestions and promises to myself. I hope to find that this year next time some hopes and dreams will have come to pass, some goals may be met, and some growth may have occurred.

As for writing goals, this year I have just one–to write, revise, and edit my novel so that, come 2015, I’m ready to query agents. I’ll do other writing-related things, like publish my ebook, The Intentional Writer, and my collection of 2013’s short stories (now planned for June to avoid rights conflicts). I’ll put the individual short stories up on Smashwords for you non-Kindle users. I’ll continue to write in this space.

But the main thing is the novel. I’m quite thrilled about it. The first couple days of writing have gone well and netted me close to 5,000 words and a lower back ache that is subsiding a little today.

Here’s where I’ve been writing:

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The big map is of Detroit and the markers are to delineate borders at various times in the city’s history and highlight spots affected by riots. The books include a number I’ve already read, some relevant ones I got for Christmas, and the sixteen new ones I just picked up from a couple used bookstores. Because, after all, the more you research the more you realize you need to know. I’m hoping I can get them all read as I work on writing the book.

My husband says it looks like I’m planning to go back in time and murder someone.

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But actually, I imagine the body count will be far greater than just one…