Get Your Turtle On

It’s NaNoWriMo, or national novel writing month. For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript between November 1 and November 30. There are many support groups on line with members offering encouragement and holding each other accountable. NaNoWriMo is a great way to immerse yourself in a project, boost your writing output and end the month with a sense of accomplishment.

However, it’s not for everybody. Even if you go into the month with a solid story outline and a detailed plan of how you’ll find the necessary time to get those words down, it can be stressful. Add in an unexpected life event or a manuscript that refuses to cooperate and the stress factor rises. For writers who are more turtle than hare in their approach, a poor NaNoWriMo experience can leave them feeling defeated.

When it comes to writing, I am definitely more turtle than hare. I wrote about that in a blog post five years ago, and it’s still true today.

Frankly, I’d much rather be the hare. Hares have more dash and flash than turtles.  They’re sleek and fast and productive. Plus, they’re cute. Turtles, not so much. They’re ground creepers. Members of the reptile family. Turtles have thick, leathery skin, an armored shell, and they are slow.  Painfully so.

I can’t remember the last time I received a compliment for going slow. Or gave one out. I like fast. I celebrate fast.  So does our culture. Unless it’s a soup that needs simmering or a garden that needs growing, we embrace fast.  It’s a mark of pride if our kids talk or walk at an early age. If our dogs finish first in agility. If we get our Christmas shopping done in October.  If we write three books a year instead of two. Or two books instead of one.

No wonder the thought of being a turtle held little appeal.  But then I found a book on totem animals and learned something about the symbolism behind turtles.

Turtle wisdom encourages us to slow down, to pace ourselves, and to take a break to look within. The wisdom of the turtle lends us determination, persistence, emotional strength and understanding. It teaches us to travel light, to let go of those things we have outgrown.

Turtle wisdom reassures us that we have all the time in the world, and that we’re always where we’re supposed to be. It encourages us to remember that there is no such thing as failure as long as we’re inching towards our goal.

After reading that, I didn’t mind identifying with the turtle. After all, the turtle is also the symbol for longevity. And I’m in this gig for the long haul.  So, my advice? Get your turtle on and forget about the hare. Next week, some tips for making slow and steady writing progress.

                Small – and Not so Small – Signs

Last week, I finished doing a substantive revision on No Right Thing. Revising, as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Polishing and tweaking can take a story from good to great, and I think No Right Thing is one of the best YA novels I’ve written so far. A big shout out to Melanie Jeffs at Crwth Press for comments and suggestions that gave me the springboard I needed to dive in and make some changes.

One thing Melanie wanted me to look at was my story pacing. She felt the speed in which I showed signs of change on the part of my protagonist, Cate, wasn’t working as well as it could.  While Melanie wanted the external story to maintain its brisk, forward motion, she thought a slightly slower unspooling of Cate’s internal growth would serve the story better. So, I went back and started small, slowly stacking up Cate’s discomfort and signs of internal growth until she comes to the inevitable big, black moment when there is no turning back . . . when she is forever changed.

Starting small and not revealing everything at once is the pace you want in a novel because it creates tension. I thought I had that in place, but it sometimes takes a good editor to help an author take it to the next level.

In case I missed the message about the importance of slowly building tension, life reinforced the lesson last week in the form of a bear. Or, more specifically, the sign (this one not so small) of a bear.

Saturday morning, we took Team Sheltie for a walk along the trail behind our house. Within spitting distance of our back gate, we discovered a substantial pyramid of scat. It was bear scat, I told Mr. Petrol Head. No, he said, it was from a large dog. Not possible, I retorted. It was either an elephant or a bear and since there are no wild elephants on the island, I was betting on bear. But even as I spoke the words, I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t want to be sure.

Sunday morning while walking the same trail, a neighbor confirmed the left behinds were the gift of a bear, though he hadn’t seen it. They’re fairly common in this area, he reported.

I became uneasy. When we moved here a few months ago, we loved the close proximity to trails and creeks and ravines. I knew those areas were home to wildlife, but my citified mind conjured squirrels, racoons, birds, maybe a cute deer or two.

Monday morning, a second neighbor told us he’d been followed down the trail by a black bear the previous day. The only reason he knew about it was a couple walking towards him had seen it and pointed it out. He hadn’t glimpsed it himself.

My unease grew. I know the animals were here before us. I realize we share their habitat. I understand the importance of peaceful coexistence. But we live in a town. With paved roads. Streetlights. And houses. Lots and lots of houses.

Tuesday morning, yet another neighbor reported that she’d seen two black bears by the apple tree across the street. Last summer, she added, officers relocated six bears from this neighborhood.

Unease settled into my bones. Having a bear (or three) within spitting distance of my back door would take some (translation: a lot of) getting used to.

Just as I was mulling over the escalating tension and pacing of my own personal week, there was a new wrinkle in what we refer to around here as the weekly wildlife count. In fiction, we’d call it a twist in the action.

A cougar was spotted on the trail. Not out in the open because cougars, unlike bears, are stealthy creatures. A woman walking her dog in the moonlight caught sight of gleaming eyes staring at her out of the bushes. She beamed her flashlight in that general direction and, sure enough, it was a cougar. Crouched at the base of a tree. Waiting.

A cougar waiting in the bushes while she walked the trail. In. The. Moonlight. That woman, in a fictional world, would be the fearless heroine. She would not be me.

I have enough on my plate dealing with the pacing of my manuscripts. And the escalating bear sightings outside my back door.  

Workarounds

For the most part, I’m fairly disciplined with respect to my writing. It’s my day job; I show up at the same time five mornings a week and I write. I got into the habit when my kids were young and I’ve kept it up. If I’m on deadline, that writing often spills into the afternoons. If I’m not on deadline and providing I’ve already written a decent number of pages, then I’ll sometimes switch gears in the afternoon and do an editing job or research, respond to emails, or deal with any current business issues.

Not deviating and staying consistent with my routine keeps me productive and on track, and that makes me happy. Lately, however, my routine has been torpedoed.

If I’m being completely honest, things began going south in January, when we moved. At first it was the upheaval of relocating to a different town: unpacking, getting my office set up, all of that. Then I realized I was missing my morning gym workout, something I routinely did (and had done for decades) before sitting down to write. Cycling or running was out of the question; the weather wasn’t conducive. Since we’re not living in the community we intend to settle in permanently, I needed an affordable short-term workout location. It took me another week of checking out nearby facilities before I figured out which one would work best for me.

I was poised to sign a short-term contract – and excited about finally getting back into a regular routine – when my father fell and ended up in hospital. He lives half way across the country, by himself, with no family nearby. Someone had to be there for him and I was it. My one week there turned into two, and I returned home with the full responsibility of his affairs, both medical and personal.

He’s still in hospital, still working towards some kind of recovery, and facing an uncertain future. That’s his reality and it’s not a pleasant one. My reality, aside from the personal heartbreak of witnessing his decline (and that’s no small thing), is that there’s a two-hour time difference between the west coast and Manitoba. That means when my phone starts ringing at 8 am, it’s already 10 o’clock there and the middle of the morning. Calls to doctors or social workers don’t happen on my timetable; they happen on theirs. Water pipes don’t freeze at a time that’s convenient; they freeze when they freeze (which is usually overnight, only to be discovered first thing in the morning).

My priorities have shifted in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great blog post this week about priorities. https://kriswrites.com/2019/02/27/business-musings-priorities/

The timing of her post was serendipitous for me. She talks about how there are times when we all have to give up something on our priorities list. She stresses the importance of acceptance in the face of doing that.

My mornings are not always my own right now, and no amount of wishing or discipline will change that. I don’t like it but I’m learning to accept it. Afternoons, never my freshest time, are quieter. So, I’m writing then. Wish me luck.

In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, www.leatassiewriter.com her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

In the Beginning, Take Two

It’s time for more questions from our new writer and answers from more seasoned ones. This week: what lessons did I learn the hard way, and what did I wish I knew starting out?

Let’s take the last question first. What did I wish I knew at the very beginning of my writing career? As I told our beginning writer friend, I wish I’d understood at a visceral level that this whole business is a long game, a marathon really, and nothing even close to a sprint. After my first book came out and I was contracted for my second, I figured I was on my way, or launched so to speak. Not that there wouldn’t be plenty of hard work ahead – I had no illusions about that – but I didn’t envision so many hills and valleys, so many meandering paths taking unexpected turns.  I hadn’t yet learned the importance of fluidity, of pacing myself, and of being open to adjusting for the unexpected. Like a marathoner pays attention to training, to footwear, to staying healthy and hydrated, and bases their success on a slow, steady pace, I’ve learned how important it is for me to pay attention to craft, to my health, and to a balance of work and play.

Lea Tassie, https://leatassiewriter.com author of the Green Blood Rising Series, wishes she’d had more patience back in the beginning, and that she wasn’t so naïve about the publishing industry. Her comment about naivete is the perfect segue into question two: what lessons did you learn the hard way? “I learned that money flows first – or it should flow first – to the writer, not to people like editors or agents who are providing services,” Tassie says. Never go with an agent or publisher who demands money up front, she adds.

My hard lesson was learning and coming to accept that publishing is a business, that decisions are often made with the bottom line in mind, and not always on the merits of a particular manuscript. A ‘no’ on a manuscript doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the story in question. It could be that the publisher has something similar due for release next season, or that their marketing department feels, for whatever reason, that the marketing hook isn’t strong enough to generate a good sell through on your particular story. Of course, this is all based on dealing with traditional publishers. Going the indie publishing route means you’re in control of if, when and how to publish. But that option, as lovely as it sounds, also comes with added responsibilities.

Next week, what is the most effective habit you possess to support your success as a writer . . . and what has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

 

In The Beginning

Not long ago, I was asked by a woman just starting out on her writing journey if I’d be willing to answer a few general questions about the industry, and some specific questions about my path to publishing. Our conversation really made me think. Over the next few weeks I’ll bring you some of her questions and my answers, along with answers from other authors as well.

This week, question one: what does your writing day look like?

That one was easy. I write every day, or at least every weekday. I don’t strive for a set word or page count, nor do I put in a minimum number of hours, but I usually work from 9 or 9:30 until 4 in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Mornings are reserved for whatever novel I’m writing, and if I have an article to write or an editing job to do, I usually tackle those in the afternoon. Unless I’m on a deadline, I don’t write on weekends. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when my kids were young and I wrote when they were in school, or perhaps it’s a holdover from my days working a five-day-a-week job, but I usually take a break on weekends. I might ponder my work-in-progress or attend a writing workshop or do some kind of research, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk and staring at a screen.

Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying that when he works, he ‘works every day, three or four hours, and aims for six clean pages.’  Working daily for two months, he ends up with a 360-page manuscript. And if his books and interviews are to be believed, he also doesn’t outline. He starts with a basic ‘what if’ premise and sees where it takes him. I like the idea of deep daily immersion in a story, and I LOVE the idea of producing a 360-page manuscript in two months. But without an outline? It’s unlikely to work for me. For one thing, I don’t have King’s experience. He’s written close to 90 books; I’ve written about 25.

Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, without fail. Susan Sontag wrote every morning too, and always by hand. Another Susan – Susan Wiggs – also writes her first drafts by hand, in a spiral bound notebook and always with a peacock blue fountain pen. Michael Connelly writes daily and wherever he finds himself, but if he’s at home and in any kind of routine he prefers morning since he ‘likes to get a lot done before the city wakes up.’  Stephenie Meyer is the exact opposite: she can’t focus on writing anything fresh when the sun is out. Only when her kids are in bed for the night can she concentrate on writing her books.

Which just goes to show you that a writing day can also be a writing night.

Next week, what lessons did you learn the hard way, and what do you wish you knew starting out?

A Creative Pause

Today is National Creativity Day. With that in mind, I reached back into my memory bank for a TED talk on creativity that I found particularly inspiring. Here’s one from Elizabeth Gilbert. It puts in perspective any doubts, rejections, or bumps in the road we encounter on the creative path.

https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_success_failure_and_the_drive_to_keep_creating?referrer=playlist-10_talks_from_authors#t-415339

On an unrelated note, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about GDPR over the last few weeks. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the new regulations (GDPR stands for the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation) but given the changes, I thought it was a good time to thank you for subscribing to this blog, and to reassure you that if you’re happy receiving my posts, there’s nothing you need to do. If at any time you wish to unsubscribe, you’ll find the link to do so at the bottom of the email notifications, before you click through to my post.

Even though most of my blog and newsletter subscribers reside in Canada and the US, I have upgraded my privacy policy to comply with the GDPR. Word is amongst those in the know that the new regulations will soon spread to North America, so I thought it was prudent to make the changes now.

Writerly Inspiration

I don’t need an excuse to check out author or writing-related sites and you probably don’t either. But if you want to add a new blog stop to your regular roster or you simply want a few minutes away from your WIP, check out any one of the following links. All of these blogs offer up great content; some are inspirational, others are educational and occasionally they’re both.

C.S. Lakin’s Live Write Thrive  http://www.livewritethrive.com/ is a favorite of mine. Lakin covers everything from scene structure and character development to boosting productivity, growing your audience and the power of positive thinking.

Prolific mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig  http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/  is quickly becoming a favorite too. She addresses all things relevant to the writing life: how to make a living at this crazy gig; why she’s gone indie over traditional; top time savers and tips on public speaking to name only a few. She also provides a weekly roundup of the best writing links on the web.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Inky Girl http://inkygirl.com/  is the place to go if you write or illustrate children’s books. She shares her original comics (reason enough to pop by, in my opinion), provides information on new releases, sometimes interviews industry experts and is always good for a smile.

A feel good stop high on motivation is Lucy Flint’s Lionhearted Writing Life. http://www.lucyflint.com/  If you’ve ever felt stuck, been derailed or struggled to find a balance between work and play this is the place to check out.

To help give your characters psychological depth, to understand what readers really want, or to find out how to deal with writing fears, check out Tamar Sloan’s PsychWriter. https://psychwriter.com.au/ And be prepared to stay a while. There’s a lot of terrific content here.

A book within easy reach in my office is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I refer to it often and I also like to stop in at their blog Writers Helping Writers http://writershelpingwriters.net/ where the focus is on helping writers become better storytellers. You’ll find some great resources here.

Who doesn’t love Writer Unboxed http://writerunboxed.com/ and the rotating daily column by a variety of writers? It’s delivered to my in box daily and I’ve come to recognize who posts when and I look forward to the different styles and viewpoints. It’s a fairly interactive community with lots of comments on each post and that’s fun too!

And last but definitely not least is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s  Kris Writes http://kriswrites.com/category/on-writing/  I love her down-to-earth take and I appreciate the fact that she’s in the trenches trying to make sense of this crazy business. I don’t find her site all that easy to navigate so I subscribe to her blog instead. If you’re unfamiliar, visit her site and scroll back through her posts to find her take on how U.S. election years impact book sales. They should be required reading for indie authors.

 

Originality is . . .

editing . . . simply a pair of fresh eyes. So said American writer Thomas Higginson. I’m not sure I’d go that far but I do think a pair of fresh eyes is essential when it comes to refining a manuscript.

As a professional writer, I rely on editors at various times in the publishing journey. If I’m working with a traditional publisher, developmental editors are the first to see my work. They provide feedback on my story and characters, the pacing and the structure. Copy editors check my continuity, my logic and occasionally comment on my sentence structure or grammar. Proofreaders catch any last minute mistakes. In the traditional publishing world, the publisher hires the editors to take care of those things. All I have to do (after writing the book!) is get my work to that editor on time and address any issues based on the feedback I receive. It’s pretty straightforward.

When it comes to self-publishing my books, I decide whether or not to hire an independent editor to help me polish my novels. And it’s an easy decision: I always do. I’m a good editor, and I probably could do it myself, but it’s not easy to edit your own work. In fact, it’s damned hard. There’ve been times when I’ve traded editing favors with other writers (and that works well) but it’s not always possible to find another writer willing and able to do the trade when you need it to happen. So paying for a professional editor is an expense I’m happy to incur.

Editing is fun. In a lot of ways it’s my favorite part of writing. It’s gratifying to take a novel that’s almost there and polish the rough edges, transforming it into an attention-grabbing, unputdownable read. Given my thrill with that whole tweaking process, a few months ago I began doing some freelance editing for other writers. So as well as creating my own fictional worlds, I’m spending a little time immersing myself in fictional worlds created by others. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it. You can find out more about my editing services by clicking here: http://lauralangston.com/editing/

 

And So the Story Grows

plottingimageI have no shortage of ideas for novels. In fact, I have files of story ideas going back two decades. They’re filled with random scraps of paper, detailed notes, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, even transcriptions of interviews I did as a journalist for the CBC.

Ideas are cheap, easy, and beautifully compelling, like that picture of an impressive 9-layer chocolate ganache cake you might see on Pinterest. Make me! the cake says. I’m impressive and delicious and everyone will love me. Book ideas may not come cloaked in ganache (a serious flaw, in my opinion) but they have the same shiny draw as a gorgeous cake.

Only you can knock off a cake, even a complicated one, in a day or two. It’s impossible (for me at least) to do that with a novel.

I looked through my files the other day. Mostly what I have are plot points – ideas for situations and events – and stories are so much more. I thought about that after coming home from the Red Door last month where the five of us brainstormed a new Laura Tobias book (thanks, ladies!). I came away with the skeleton of a situation and the sparks of two characters.

Those sparks are key because most of my stories are character driven. Before I even start to write I need to know how my character will change over the course of the book. How will he or she be different when the story ends than they are when the story opens? The plot matters of course – it determines what will happen along the way – but the character is the one making the journey. The character is who I care about and who I want my readers to care about too. So I’m spending some time getting to know my new characters. I’m not so much plotting as I am gestating. It takes time, space, silence. And the occasional slice of a decadent chocolate cake doesn’t hurt either.

Chocolate-Chocolate-Cake-2D