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EllenMSWhen I wrote about Finding Preliminary Readers back in September, I hadn’t yet asked anyone to read my current work in progress. But that changed in June, when I reached that place where I could no longer see the forest for the trees; I needed new eyes on the page, and I needed to know what works and what doesn’t. It was time for me to follow my two rules for asking for feedback.

  • Rule 1: Tell your readers exactly what kind of feedback you want.

I queried ten different people, hoping two or three would be up to the task. They all said yes. This group includes people from every decade between twenty and ninety; it includes men and women; and the group represents a variety of professions: two high school English teachers (one retired, one current), a professional book reviewer, a physician, a carpenter, a fiber artist, a poet, an antiques dealer, a Jane Austen fan, and my agent. These are the instructions I sent them:

Thank you for reading Ellen. In addition to bearing witness to the work I’ve done over the past three years, here are other, specific ways you can help me finish the book:

  • Praise: Tell me what you like about the book – what characters, scenes, circumstances – anything and everything that you liked, in detail.
  • Tell me if and where you lose the thread of the story or have a question that you need answered to maintain your willing suspension of disbelief. Please tell me what your question is and where it arose.
  • Tell me where you yawn and/or lose interest.
  • Please alert me to typos, grammar, spelling.
  • Also let me know about inconsistencies, anachronisms, repetitions, dead ends.
  • It would be incredibly helpful to me to have your written synopsis of the book. What do you think it’s about?

Two things that would not be helpful and that I ask you to refrain from:

  • Suggestions about how to fix problems
  • Allowing anyone else to read this draft. In fact, I would like the hard copies returned to me and the electronic ones deleted from your machines when you are done.
  • Rule Two: Listen to what your readers tell you without defending your work.

Two readers have already responded. They both had questions and comments. Hard as it was, I just listened. I didn’t try to answer their questions or explain what I was trying to do. And I didn’t blame them for not getting it; I accepted responsibility for not being clear. I noted where they lost the thread of the narrative or didn’t believe the course of the action or wanted less or asked for more. Lest you think I’m inhuman, it wasn’t always easy to refrain from defending my work as it stands. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the comments that rankle the most are invariably the most salient.

I’ve also learned to let my work ferment. While the book is out with my readers, I’m doing other things, some writing-related, like updating and filing my clips, and some not, like heading to Maine for a week’s vacation. All the while, I’m thinking about the book, but I’m not actually delving into the typescript. For the time being, I’m just letting it sit.

dll2013_124x186Deborah Lee Luskin is looking forward to reading the novels of Virginia Woolf while vacationing in Maine.

 

Tenacity is a great word to start off a new week. And this image is quite inspiring and worth sharing.

Tenacity

 

I hope you have a productive and successful week!

Getting Out of My Head

Meghan Sargent

My daughter, proudly atop Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park

Last Saturday’s Weekend Edition was slightly abbreviated, but – as I said in my post – for all the right reasons.

The photo I shared was an  in-the-moment selfie of me and my daughter just before hopping in the car with my beau and heading five hours north for a few days of hiking in Acadia National Park, one of our favorite places to visit and the perfect place to celebrate the summer solstice. Though there was, as usual, a slew of hurdles to clear before we were actually on the road (including turning around twenty minutes out because I realized the spare key I’d meant to leave for the cat sitter was still in my purse), the effort and last minute scrambling was so worth it. We had a magical trip.

As writers, we live in our heads. We create whole worlds up there, including places, people, and the stories that they inhabit. We spend long hours behind the keyboard, usually in complete or semi isolation. Much of our day is spent in stillness – butt in chair, only our brains and fingers skittering across the otherwise tranquil surface of the moment. We have our routines and our talismans. We willingly embrace a creative grind that non-writers might consider a cruel and unusual punishment.

But sometimes, it’s good to get out. Out of your head. Out of your chair. Out of your routine.

acadia dogwood

Cornus canadensis (aka creeping dogwood or bunchberry), Acadia

And that’s just what we did. Acadia National Park is a stunning natural treasure. The mountains, though small, hold a wealth of trails that lead through astonishingly diverse landscapes to stunning views of Mount Desert Isle and the surrounding chain of smaller islands. Many of these trails include long stretches of granite stairs that were built into the sides of the mountains back in early twentieth century … without the benefit of modern tools and technology. Once the holiday haven of America’s elite – the Rockefellers, Fords, Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies – the island now welcomes over two million visitors each year, many of them hikers.

We were among those two million, and we did our fair share of hiking – 10 to 12 miles each day, two peaks on the first (Dorr and Cadillac) and three on the second (Gilmore, Sargent, and Penobscot). It felt so good to get outside, to move, to venture into new territory. Best of all was being able to share the experience with people I love. I am so grateful that my ten year-old daughter has taken to hiking like she was born to it. She’s a trooper and a half, and – even better – she has the fever for it.

Stones from a Bar Harbor beach

Stones from a Bar Harbor beach

The interesting thing about stepping away from my keyboard is that while it does help me clear my mind, it also has a way of filling it back up to overflowing with new ideas, thoughts, and questions. Out there on the trail, without so much as a pen in my pocket, I felt like some long unused lines of communication had suddenly crackled back to life and were transmitting an endless stream of inspiration. The world around me seemed brighter and sharper, each plant and stone and mountain stream seemed to speak to me of their stories.

Though our writing comes from internal sources, it is influenced by everything around us. Our experiences – what we do, see, read, feel – are the raw ingredients for our stories. I imagine my experiences lining the honey-colored shelves of a kitchen witch’s pantry. Here in this sea-green bottle is a day in the mountains collecting photos of wildflowers. See how the light sparkles inside with all the colors of their petals? There, in a small paper box tinged with the bright colors of autumn, is the afternoon spent building a girl-sized birds’ nest with my sister. And inside this seashell is the memory of warm sunshine in November and pink skies rumbling across the soft sea.

Love your words. Cherish your stories. But don’t forget to get out into the world. It’s full of just what you need replenish your stores of creative magic.

 

What I’m Writing:

flash fiction challengeI didn’t do any writing while away, and this week has been mostly playing catch up and adjusting to my daughter being out of school for the summer. I did, however, come across an upcoming writing event that might be just the thing to kick my inner fiction writer in the butt. The Flash Fiction Challenge is an annual event. Here’s how the event is described on its website about page:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is an international creative writing competition, now in it’s 6th year, that challenges participants to create original short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments.  The event is organized by NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness, an organization that has been holding exciting creative competitions since 2002 and is dedicated to discovering and promoting a new wave of talented storytellers.  NYC Midnight aims to provide the prizes and exposure necessary for writers to take their next big step towards writing professionally.

There is an entry fee ($39), but I’m feeling like that’s a completely reasonable cost if registering for the event will get me to push my fiction practice to the top of my To Do list for a few days, instead of letting it languish at the bottom of the pile beneath my marcom projects.

The event includes four writing challenges that take place in three-day sprints in August, October, November, and December. Writers accrue points based on placement in each of the challenges as judged by a panel of writers and publishers.

I might be crazy, but this sounds kind of fun.

What I’m Reading:

book moon sistersWhen I was a kid, my family watched The Wonderful World of Disney each Sunday night. Our only television was in my parents’ bedroom, so me, my parents, and my younger sister would all pile on the bed together, often with dinner. (If we were really lucky, dinner would be my mom’s homemade pizza.) I don’t remember all of the stories we watched, but I do remember clearly that any sign of an emotional bit always sent me sliding off the bed to sit with my back against the footboard where no one could see me bite my lip to hold back the tears. I never wanted to cry in front of anyone.

As I get older, I’m losing my inhibitions about showing tears. I cry openly at movies, in my own living room and even in public theaters. I also cry at books.

Just this morning I finished The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, an author who also happens to be the cofounder of one of my favorite writing blogs, Writer Unboxed. The Moon Sisters is a beautifully told and captivating story of grief, redemption, release, and acceptance. The last few pages brought me to tears. I don’t want to give away too much of the story (there is a surprising twist at the end), but here’s the cover blurb:

After their mother’s probable suicide, sisters Olivia and Jazz are figuring out how to move on with their lives. Jazz, logical and forward-thinking, decides to get a new job, but spirited, strong-willed Olivia, who can see sounds, taste words, and smell sights, is determined to travel to the remote setting of their mother’s unfinished novel to say her final goodbyes and lay their mother’s spirit to rest.

Already resentful of Olivia’s foolish quest and her family’s insistence upon her involvement, Jazz is further aggravated when they run into trouble along the way and Olivia latches on to a worldly train-hopper who warns he shouldn’t be trusted. As Jazz and Olivia make their way toward their destination, each hiding something from the other, their journey toward acceptance of their mother’s death becomes as important as their journey to understand each other and themselves.

Like all my favorite books, this one had a touch of magic, but it was the kind of magic that is firmly based in real life. That is, perhaps, the best kind. I enjoyed the story and the characters. The language is, as many reviewers have said, “lush” and has a lyrical quality that is heightened by the poetic perceptions of Olivia who has a condition called synethesia. Another very enjoyable read and one I recommend enthusiastically.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin magic in writing

I hope each of you found a little magic in this past week, and I hope each of you gets to have a little adventure in the one coming up. Keep those creative larders well stocked! 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Ahhh, summer. We’ve discussed what the summer season means to us, but what does it mean to our writing practice and our reading habits? For some, summer brings more leisure time. For others, the pace picks up with kids out of school and vacations to work around. What does your summer look like in terms of time to write and read?

 

headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: I recall the summers of my childhood with great fondness. They seemed an endless stretch of days in which to read and sketch, write and wander, daydream and create. As an adult and a mother, my summers are somewhat less idyllic. More than at any other time of the year (except, perhaps, the holidays), the approach of summer fills me with both happy anticipation and anxious dread. On the one hand, I love the idea of spending some quality time enjoying less structured days with my daughter. On the other hand, I know from experience that having her out of school will amp up the challenge of balancing my freelance work, motherhood, and my own writing projects.

If I’m going to be honest, I sort of give up during the summer. It isn’t that I’ll walk away from my writing practice or my ever-growing stack of to-be-read books, but I definitely lower my expectations. There are only so  many hours in a day, and – more importantly – only so many summers to be spent with a daughter who still enjoys my company (most of the time). So, I’ll allow myself to be a slacker. I’ll sacrifice some productive time in favor of more personal time.

I don’t think I’ll regret it.

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson: Summer doesn’t seem any different to me than other months. Work keeps me busy during the week and I may get out more on the weekends in the summer, but I can’t really say that my reading or writing habits change. With no kids or partner to work around, every day is always what I want it to be – the balancing act doesn’t change unless I want it to. Having said that, I just realized that in July I have a few trips that will take me away from technology for 2 or more days at a time — so that will mean reorganizing a few week days to balance the work so I won’t stress about it while I’m playing! (but the same is going to be true for Aug, Sep, and Nov right now, too!)

 

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: Summer does change things for me, but I think it balances out because when my husband is on vacation with me, as we are this week, I can get some writing time during the day if he is occupied with our son, but there’s sometimes less time because this particular week my husband is also caring for his mother so I’m in charge of outings with Joey while he’s busy with his mom.

My son still goes to preschool (only they call it summer camp and they go swimming every day) twice a week, so on weeks we are home I still have my regular schedule.

I’ll be driving with my son to PEI, Canada, to visit family later in the summer and I don’t expect to get any writing done that week except a little journal writing at the end of the day. Summer is so short and beach days or park days are so precious, I usually opt to give up writing time to spend more time with my son (and the rest of my family.) Right now my son is napping so we can go see fireworks this evening so I used the time to finish my blog post for tomorrow.

I have to say I used to love sitting on the beach and reading or writing in my journal. But now, I’m happy just to be on the beach, although I always bring my journal and I usually get to write at least a little bit. Reading and the beach will be back when my son is older and interested in other things besides building construction sites and castles in the sand with me and his dad. You know what they say, the days are long but the years are short. Everything changes so I don’t begrudge the time I don’t spend writing right now. The days are coming when I’ll have plenty of time to write.

dll2013_124x186Deborah Lee Luskin: Last week, I sent copies of Ellen to ten readers, so I’m momentarily untethered from a project that has anchored me to my desk for the past three years. I feel light and giddy and a bit unfocused, which I’m enjoying! I’m also tackling some long-deferred projects, like updating my clips and cleaning my house. Then, I’m heading out for a week in Maine, and taking the novels of Virginia Woolf on my Kindle, already starting to think about my next novel . . . Other projects include updating my website and preparing to start my own blog. But these will all take back seat once I hear from my readers. I expect to dive back in to a final draft by mid-July and to keep my nose to the grindstone, so I can turn in a book to my agent in September. These are subjects I’ll be covering in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

Susan Nye: After seven years working as a chef at a private club in July and August, I now have my summer back. Or at least I’ll have a little more free time. When it comes to schedule, my summer now looks a lot like the rest of the year. I have weekly, monthly and quarterly deadlines along with a new, part-time job. Plus more members of my family are around so there is often something fun going on. So there will be crazy, busy days and weeks as well as a few relaxing afternoons to read in the shade or kayak on the lake.

wendy-shotWendy Thomas: Summer, ah the double-edged sword of summer – so much to do, so little time. I have to consciously work on carving out a schedule between the kids’ activities. They are older but they still require guidance and rides to and from work and friend’s houses. In the summer, I tend to religiously rely on my to-do lists in order to get done all that needs to get accomplished (*highlighted* on today’s list is an article that is due by 5 p.m.) My reading changes in the summer, much as I eat lighter food, I tend to read “lighter” books. More stories and more inspirational materials are on the menu – books that can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice.

I recently bought a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein, for my son. He’s 4 and he loves to rhyme so when I saw the book I thought he’d love it.

He does.

You know what? I love it even more.

I remember seeing the book around but it didn’t come out until I was finishing high school, so I never read it.

Reading it out loud to my son makes me remember reading other poems as a child and the joy of words spoken aloud just to hear how they sound.

When I opened the book to read to my son, I came to a poem called “Joey.” Read these lines aloud (about how Joey knocked down the sun) and see what you think:

And whoosh! it swizzled

Down so hard.

And bloomp! it bounced

In his backyard.

And glunk! it landed
On his toe!”

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? I love the silliness of the poems but I don’t think, as a child, I would have appreciated that silliness, as I was a more serious child. But now I love the silliness and the alliteration and the onomatopoeia.

I have tried to write poetry many times over the years, and enjoyed the attempt, but never wrote anything I thought was worth much. But reading from Where the Sidewalk Ends reminds of the epic poem my brother and I wrote about a school cafeteria food fight, and the spoof I wrote, in verse, of the place I waited tables while I was in college. The restaurant (lounge and bar) was called Pete’s Dream and, of course, my spoof was Pete’s Nightmare.

I think I might start writing poetry again, if only as a creative exercise. And allow it to be silly, as silly as I can make it. That sounds like fun to me. Unlike a poem I wrote many years ago that was cathartic, but not really any fun. You can read it here on my website if you’d like.

I’m also wondering what other children’s poems I might like. I’ll have to go on a hunt, especially as my son asks me to read from Where the Sidewalk Ends all the time. I bet he’d like some other children’s poetry.

Do you read poetry? Who are your favorite poets, especially children’s poets? Please share in the comments.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, physician, mother, and stepmother. I’m excited to tell you that I’ll be hosting a one-day writing retreat in September for 12 fellow writers who’d like to spend a day writing together in a comfortable setting. It’ll be structure writing time, a little time to discuss craft, and a whole lot of coffee! Click here to find out more information.

 

 

etsy print by Andrekart

etsy print by Andrekart

I keep a magic wand on my desk. It’s a simple, unassuming implement made of basswood. I picked it up at a Renaissance Faire a couple of years ago because I liked the feel of the smooth wood and the look of the ash-gray striations that run along its slender length. Also, I didn’t have a magic wand.

I use my wand all the time. I have yet to see it display any overt magical properties, but it is a comforting talisman when I find myself confronted with a writing task that feels beyond my ability. This happens almost every single time I sit down at the keyboard.

I had an honest conversation with some writer friends about this recurring and paralyzing lack of confidence. It was immediately clear that this condition is common among writers. Each of us could relate. Each of us had her own methods for getting past the fear. Whether we chipped away at our anxiety word-by-word, or tried to slingshot past it, each of us knew this chronic ailment intimately.

To be clear, our commiseration was not about suffering from a lack of creativity or battling that shape-shifting foe known most commonly as writer’s block. This was a little different. This was more about feeling like a fraud. More specifically, this was about feeling like a fraud who was about to screw up big time and expose herself as a fraud. This feeling of despair and dread is sometimes called The Impostor Syndrome, and it’s not pretty.

Very often (almost always) when I sit down to write something (an essay, a column, a page of website copy, a case study, a blog post … pretty much anything), I am immobilized by the certainty that I have no idea what I’m doing. Despite the fact that I have been making my living as a writer for nearly seven years, I am sure that the entire experience has been a fluke.

There is a (not so) helpful soundtrack that plays in my head as I sit, staring at the blank page on my screen. It whispers in my ear that the jig is up. It tells me what I think I already know – that there’s no way I can pull off this heist again. The whispering voice marvels at how lucky I’ve been so far, at how gullible my clients have been to accept my work as The Real Thing.

I sit and I stare. The voice rattles on, subduing me with its hypnotic babble. I am sure that the voice is right. After all, here I am – sitting and staring and not writing. Clearly, I have no idea what I’m doing. Clearly I have just been faking it all this time, but my luck was bound to run out and today is the day and oh-my-gods-what-will-I-do-now?!? I type a few words and delete them. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Everything sounds staid, crass, cliched. The whisper is getting louder and louder and …

Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record that has suddenly stopped spinning.

Breathe.

Know that this is completely normal.

You are not a fraud. You are a writer. And this is part of the writing process. At least, it’s part of the writing process for most of the writers I know.

Sure, there are those glorious and golden moments of pure  inspiration when the words fly from your fingers as though coursing through you from some alternate universe where writing is as easy as eating pie. But most of the time, writing is hard. Most of the time, each assignment feels like a new territory and you feel like a lone explorer who is venturing forth without a map or proper supplies or any idea of how to get from point A to point B. You feel like you faked your way here based on false bravado, but now as you stand on the edge of the jungle you’re finally realizing what you’ve promised to deliver and you’re scared.

It’s all going to be okay. Remember – you’ve stood here before and you’ve made it through to the other side. You will do it again.

Each of us has her favorite tricks for hacking past the fear and doubt and paralyzing lack of confidence. Some of us start in the middle. Some of us go for a walk. Some of us set up our page with placeholder headlines and subheads. Some of us read the praise of past clients and editors. I’ve used all these tricks and then some, but the thing that ultimately gets me through a rough start is invoking the thing that scares me most – being an impostor.

Instead of cowering before this supposed flaw, I embrace it.  After all, what is a writer if not a person who makes things up? A writer conjures places, characters, and ideas with words. Why shouldn’t we use this same skill to our own advantage? When I am most stuck, I take “fake it ’til you make it” to a new level. I fabricate a story for myself and I step into it with all the conviction of a method actor. I transform myself into the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I inhabit my role so completely, that pretty soon I have forgotten about the ruse and am thinking only of the words that are flying from my fingers like sparks from the tip of a wand.

That’s when I pause for just a moment and smile to myself. The trick, you see, is not about fooling anyone else into believing I’m a writer. The trick is about fooling myself just long enough to figure out that this writer identity I’ve created for myself is the reality, not the role. I am the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I’d just forgotten my own magic.

'Help!' photo (c) 2013, Betsy Weber - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I’ve been investing more time in my fiction writing since January. Not only have I written more, but I’ve attended a conference and a workshop. I’ve been happy with the progress, but I’m still working out my process long form writing. Recently I was feeling at wits end with the story. I knew I had something good, but it felt amorphous and I felt like I was flailing. I needed to bounce some ideas off of someone. I bit the bullet and asked a friend and fellow romance writer if she’d help me see the holes. Prior to this, I’ll admit some reticence about asking others for help with my stories. I readily admit I’m still at the beginning of the process, so the structure and ideas feel fragile. We’ve all heard horror stories of sharing our work with family and friends too soon and getting crushing feedback. I needed someone who could be constructive. I wanted real feedback, but at the same time, I needed someone who understood the process and could respect where I was. Someone who could offer helpful suggestions as opposed to “that’s great, keep going” or “You should totally name your hero Kurt” (not that there is anything wrong with the name Kurt). I have a friend who is also a romance writer and working mom. I had recently critiqued one of her manuscripts (with what I hope and she says was constructive feedback). So I felt confident in asking her if she’d spend some time helping me shape things a little. Thankfully she enthusiastically agreed. I sent her my character descriptions and plot summary/outline in advance and we met for lunch. After we ordered our sushi, I tried to open my mind and shut my mouth. I *think* I was mostly successful. I know the feedback I got was invaluable. I tried to listen and hold off on evaluating her suggestions until I’d had time to digest them. It didn’t hurt that she said she liked the story and was interested in my characters. She did point out that my heroine wasn’t flawed enough and we bemoaned the challenge of writing flawed female characters. I took four pages of notes and came away reinvigorated and excited about the story again. It’s been two weeks and I’ve had time to ponder her questions and process her suggestions. Some I took to heart, others I discarded as not a fit for this story (at least the way I want to tell it). I’m to the point where I’ve gotten as far with my plot summary/outline as I’m going to get with out writing more scenes (I’m a hybrid plotter/pantser). On the docket for this week, is finalizing some characterizations and adding some meat to the outline. Asking for help in any situation is hard for most people. We like to think we can do it all ourselves, but that just isn’t realistic. With a creative endeavor, it can be even riskier especially if you don’t ask the right person or you don’t have enough faith in your own ability. It might not take much to let someone else’s ideas (well meaning as they may be) overrun you own thoughts or crush your momentum. Here are my suggestions for getting the right kind of help for your writing.

  • Find someone who is as experienced as you or better yet a little ahead of where you are.
  • Friends can work, but make sure they are familiar with the genre your are writing in. They don’t have to be a writer, sometimes readers can also provide valuable insights.
  • Don’t impose. Ask your helper how much time they have and supply only enough material to get the answers you need.
  • Evaluate the information provided. Don’t take everything someone else says as the Gospel Truth.

What has your experience been asking for help with your writing?

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