Trading “To-Do” for “To-Be” in this Busy Life

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Lately I’ve felt there is simply too much input streaming into my life. Too many emails (even though I signed up for updates on these blogs and already weeded out the ones I just don’t care that much about). Too much junk mail in my mailbox (I’ve considered whether I should simply replace the mailbox with our recycling bin). Too many newsletters and flyers from my son’s school each week (can I unsubscribe, please?). Too many posts in too many groups on too many social media platforms (although, again, I choose to participate and I’m not planning on quitting).

Beyond school ending in a few weeks . . . oh, I’m back. I passed out there for a minute. Beyond that, there’s no end in sight. And for someone who enjoys silence, requires a certain amount of unstructured solitude, and gets a cheap thrill out of eliminating expired condiments from the fridge, I’m not really sure how to deal with it all. I have too much to read and do and it is crowding out what I really want to read and do. What I really want is a sabbatical. What I’ve really got is a normal life like everyone else.

So, what to do? It’s time again to take stock of how I’m spending my time and make conscious decisions about whether I’m really using my time wisely and purposefully. I want to enjoy time with family, to spend time tending my garden, to read for pleasure and read for research, to finish revising one novel so I can begin to write another, to eat delicious home-prepared food, to be still and commune with my Creator, to do my work with enthusiasm and passion, to keep my house clean enough so that it doesn’t clutter my mind.

I’m really good at making to-do lists. I have to recover that chair, weed the south flowerbed, make that ninja costume for my son, water those plants, sew a red skirt, vacuum that floor, sow those bean seeds, write that copy, finish that chapter, sweep up those maple seeds, sort that laundry, get that dead bird out of the garage…I could continue ad nauseam.

But somehow I feel that I might be better served by making a to-be list at this point in life…

To Be:

A loving wife and mother
An obedient child of God
An exemplary worker
A thoughtful writer
A collector of ideas and impressions
A decent housekeeper
A reader of good books
A passable guitarist
A lover of nature
A protector of creative time

All of those sound pretty doable to me. And reading them doesn’t stress me out. I can do those, whether they happen in increments or in concentrated bursts or slowly over time or whatever.

What would you have on your to-be list?

The One Thing You Need to Photograph Wildlife

Busy Chickadee hollowing out a home at Fenner Nature Center

At Fenner Nature Center on Sunday I observed a chickadee couple hollowing out a stump to nest in. I think chickadees are my favorite small birds. It took me a while of slowly creeping near to get close enough for a good photo. Then a jogger ran by and off the chickadees flew. I stayed in my spot for another few minutes, and they did come back.

The key to photographing skittish wildlife is always patience. Stay there, stay still, and they will eventually come near. It will always feel like it takes longer than it should, and because we’re programmed by everything in life not to wait silently you will want to give up, get up, and get on with it. Don’t. You have to force yourself to be still and be ready — that means you have your camera trained on the spot you believe the animal will appear, you have it focused, your eye is at the viewfinder, and your finger is on the shutter button. You can’t move your head or the camera or your hand after the animal has appeared, because that movement will frighten them. You have to be ready and you have to wait.

I guess one other helpful attribute is the ability to notice. I almost missed seeing this deer and her companion across the little pond where I was hoping to get a better look at the frogs I kept hearing.

White-Tailed Deer at Fenner Nature Center

One thing’s for sure: you will always miss moments like this if you never look away from that infernal smartphone. Life is out there. Go look for it.

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?

Revising Your Manuscript: The Importance of Patience

After my two-month drafting frenzy in January and February, I was deliriously happy. Now I could finally stop thinking about it. Two months may not seem too long to think about a novel you’re writing, but of course I didn’t start thinking about it when I started writing it. I’d been thinking and reading and researching and outlining for many months before that. And getting to the end of the first draft meant that I could finally, for the first time in perhaps a year, think about something else. I closed the file, backed it up in two places, and went on with life.

Two weeks later, I was ready to start thinking about revision, my favorite part of the writing process and the subject of several upcoming blog posts over the coming month or so.

There’s lots of advice out there on revising and editing. Lots of great books about same. Just earlier this week, Kristen Lamb mentioned the importance of writing a quick draft and not getting bogged down in edits (and accidentally throwing out something that might blossom into something beautiful) along the way. She’s spot on. And the patience doesn’t end with the words “The End.”

Have you ever tried to bake bread that you haven’t left to rise quite long enough? Or been in a hurry to eat your homemade pad thai and thus not allowed the rice noodles to soak long enough before adding them to the pan? (Am I the only one to whom this has happened?) Or tried to enjoy an avocado that just was not ripe enough? It’s always a disappointing experience. Certain foods need time to just sit before they’re ready for consumption or else you’re going to have a heck of a time chewing them.

Likewise, our drafts need to sit awhile before they’re ready for revision. When we’ve been working closely with our characters and setting and plot, we need a little distance, a little time apart, before we can honestly assess them, before we can chew on them. Giving a story time to ripen and soften, allowing time for all the different threads and characters and subplots and symbols to get friendly with each other, like leaven working its magic in a lump of dough, and, most importantly, allowing our own minds to move away from the story for a while into something else–like reining in the out-of-control laundry situation and paying the bills–can give us the kind of clarity we need to honestly assess our work. Even stepping away from the computer for a couple weeks can help.

After two weeks away, I reexperienced my story (with the help of my friendly cyborg voice, Crystal) and did a thorough edit, exchanging good words for the perfect words, clarifying characters’ intentions and emotional states, adding important symbols earlier in the story, making motivation clear, and lots more (which we’ll unpack in other posts). I rewrote the ending to be more satisfying for the reader. I removed some pointless descriptions and smoothed the rough surfaces.

During this first revision, I had some fantastic epiphanies that make the story even better. But if I’d immediately started editing after I finished the first draft, I don’t think my mind would have been clear enough to see the possibilities that lay beyond the book I’d already written. The distance was essential in that.

The distance also allowed my mind to start wandering toward what I’ll write next. The day after I came to the end of the first draft, a plot for a new novel began to coalesce in my mind, and now I’m off and running on that one, doing the background reading I’ll need to do in order to plot it out. I had to get out of that earlier story world so I could start thinking about the next one. I’ve found a writing rhythm that seems to be working. I’m excited about the year ahead. A year that will be filled with waiting for readers, then editing, then waiting some more, then editing, then querying. And while I’m busy with that part of the journey for one novel, a little baby idea will be slowly gestating, ready to be birthed into a new first draft, perhaps round about the same time of year this last one was.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to be patient when it comes to revising your work? Does your eagerness to get everything perfect as you go keep you from finishing? Join the conversation below.

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!