Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The one piece of writing advice I wish I'd known

Just as many times as people stare at me like I sprouted a kiwi fruit from my left ear when I inform them I'm a writer, I meet people who are impressed- who wistfully say, I always wanted to write a book. I have this great idea. . . and look at me as if I'd walked to the moon.

I understand this envy-tinged awe because I used to be this way. As a child I wrote with abandon, before bedtime, when I came home from school, during math class, ideas came to me like raindrops in a storm- but as I got older I grew increasingly nervous about my abilities. I began reading books on 'how to write' and taking writing workshops, and attending book readings to ask the author for advice. I spent a good solid five years looking up advice on how to write, and now, I realize that those were five years wasted- because the only true advice that counts for anything when it comes to how to write is to:

Just write

It sounds so obvious- but the problem is that for someone who wants to write but doesn't- the biggest challenge is sitting down and getting started. You think, I can't just write? Whenever I sit down to write what I write looks like gibberish a two year old penned! And then click on yet another writing blog, or pick up another book and read about. . . writing.

The truth is, you can't read about painting and sketch like Van Gogh, you can't read about basketball and dunk like Kobe, you must do it again and again. You must practice. You think what you've written is jibberish? Write it down anyways. The idea of a 80,000 word novel making you want to hide under your bed? Write a chapter. A page. A sentence. Will your initial foray into writing be bad? Maybe. Probably. But I doubt Lebron got each ball in the hoop when he first began, or that Picasso's first drawing was worthy of a million dollar purchase-price- it takes time. According to Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve genius level in your particular field- the only way to get those hours- is to put it the blood, sweat, and tears, and just write.

That's the part I failed to realize. I thought writing was sexy and elusive- that writers sat down at their desks, took a sip of red wine sighed and began penning away the next Booker Prize winner- but writing is four parts drudgery and two parts creative hypnotic bliss. Writing is hard- some days its boring- some days the words don't fit right, but you have to keep on going.

What I'm sharing may seem obvious, but it is advice I wish I had encountered before I spent my money, and worse still five years of my life reading up on how to be a writer. There is benefit in reading writing blogs and writing books and taking writing courses, but the actual writing- that's up to you to do. Write and rewrite and then write again- and you will succeed with your goal. There is simply no other way. 

What advice helped you sit down at your desk and begin the process of writing? If you haven't done so yet, what are you waiting for?

Image source here

Monday, March 28, 2011

The courage to call yourself a writer

You wouldn't think that calling yourself a writer would take courage, but if you are a writer toiling away in oblivion waiting for that one big beautiful day that a publisher will look at your manuscript and grin from ear to ear- you can relate. Until your work is published, calling yourself a writer can be intimidating stuff something I thought I had gotten past but was reminded of just today.

My head has been hurting lately and my doctor, thinking it has to do with tension in my neck and shoulders, referred me to a physical therapy office for a massage. During the evaluation where they go over your symptoms and learn more about you, we had the following conversation:

PT: So what do you think might be some reasons for your recent neck and shoulder tension?
Me: Well I lift my baby a lot, and I think I sit awkwardly when I'm on the computer.
PT: You're on the computer a lot?
Me: A great bit of time, yes.
PT: Oh, I see here you're a lawyer, you have a home business?
Me: Um, no I'm not practicing at the moment.
PT: pauses. So then why are you on the computer so much?
Me: Well,  I write.
PT: You write?
Me: Yes.
PT: So you write? Write what? Memos? Briefs?
Me: Um, no. I write. . . novels. . .

And my voice trailed off as I saw her incredulous expression.

Kristen Lamb encourages us to call ourselves writers, to not be ashamed of the title for it is only by owning it that we will actually see the dream of publication come true. And yet- though I've been paid for my writing, though I have an agent, and am hoping for publication- it feels so strange and foreign to explain to people that you are a writer. I get the same type of look as if I told them I sell doilies made of newspapers and hope to make a living out of it. A polite smile, and. . . befuddlement.

But people understanding or not, is not your problem- your job is to own who you are, be proud of it, and to take steps, active steps, to realize the vision you have for yourself. Us writers, are a notoriously procrastinating bunch, for as much as we love writing we seem to always find ways to get out of it- but its important not to get distracted- and to keep on keeping on- its the only way to succeed. My voice trailed off with the evaluator for my pain- but next time I will hold my head up high and own who I am and what I do.

As the masseuse finished my massage, I told her I was glad the headache was just a tension headache and not- and she cut me off before I could finish. Don't say it, she said. Don't put something like that out there into the universe- you never know when it could come back to you.

In addition to being a writer, which I already am, I hope to soon be a published author. There, that is me, putting that out there into the universe, hoping it will come back to me too.

Can you relate to this? Do you find a moment's hesitation when you have to tell someone you're a writer?

Image Source: here

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tales From The Yoga Studio Book #8

I've been on a book reading kick lately with awesome book club picks and other great recommendations and reads and was excited when FSB Associates sent me Tales From The Yoga Studio to read. I am very picky about books I review because I love reading and the "to-read" list grows longer by the day so I choose what to add very selectively. Still, when I saw the title and the book cover, I couldn't resist [Yes, I've been known to judge a book by its cover a great number of times]. This is the first time in years I read a review copy but I'm glad I did.

This novel leads us through the struggles of a yoga instructor who loves her craft and helps her students not just with yoga but helping them in the other aspects of their lives as well though her own personal life is far from perfect with her marital struggles and the constant pressure to go with a lucrative contract with a fast-growing franchise who'd love to have her on board but would require her to give up her personal studio where so many adore her and rely upon her. The story focuses on a group of yoga students and the personal struggles they are going through. There is something for everyone to relate to in reading this, be it watching the struggles of smaller stores resisting corporate buy-out pressures, to the individual struggles of the women featured in this story. Over all, it was a light quick read and as a wanna be yogi one that helped me live vicariously through the women in the book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fifty Books: Books #1-7

Reading is essential to the craft of writing but thankfully a component nearly every writer enjoys thoroughly, present party included. In 2008 I read 50 books. In 2009 I read one-hundred books. In 2010 I read. . . ten. As it turns out though you can read 100 books in one year, you probably shouldn't as it takes the joy out of the reading as you try to meet a random and arbitrary goal. This year I'm back on the fifty book horse [albeit a random but decidedly more doable goal] and excited for all the book reading fun to come. I just wish I could curb the time I spend clicking on links and getting my daily reading in this way as opposed to an actual book- six books at this point in the game is admittedly a little dismal but I am determined to reach my fifty book goal this year.  The books I read will be on the side-bar- and I look forward to reaching this goal!

Any good books you're reading lately?

[my rating explanation: * are out of five possible *****] 

Book #1 The Lonely Polygamist
This book is an example of why a good title can make all the difference since I  I would never have otherwise noticed this book. I'm a sucker for boy meets girl meets girl meets girl story so couldn't resist when I saw this title: a lonely polygamist? A man with multiple wives and exponential amounts of children feels alone. How can it be? Udall does a brilliant job showing us exactly how such a thing is possible with equal parts humor and stark sobering realism. At approximately 600 pages, I think it was needlessly long with parts that simply could have been chopped out as pretty and interesting as they were they did not need to be there to move the plot along. Still, its well-written and since I tend devour everything written by an author I like, I will be keeping my eye out for future books by Udall.***

Book #2: No god but God

I wanted to read this book ever since I saw Aslan on the Daily Show years ago and was pleasantly surprised at his well-written historic account of the origins of Islam and the current issues faced on issues like hadith and hijab. A controversial book, but an important book that should certainly be read. My main gripe is that the second half felt very rushed- the issues he raised should have been more closely examined, perhaps meriting a separate book alltogether, still it was a good easy read. ***


Book #3-5: Hunger Games
This three part series began with a bang. But you can judge how I liked the series with the time it took me to finish each book. Book 1: 24 hours. Book 2: 48 hours. Book 3: two weeks. I could tell you why this series started off beautifully but then began a steady descent to the sea but this reviewer touched upon every issue I had with the series. I must say I loved Peeta, he had the most well rounded character arc but unfortunately the heroine of the tale was not equally sympathetic nor fully developed. 1: **** 2: *** 3: *

Book #6: Outliers
A fascinating study on the people who are outliers in our society, succeeding by leaps and bounds above all others. How does it come to be? Is it really as simple as "pulling up from the bootstraps and making it?" According to Gladwell, no- there is more we must explore to understand success in our society. I love the points he brings up- and societal issues that may need to be addressed. The biggest take home point I got from this book is we need to not only look at those who succeed and why, but those who fail and why. It takes both perspectives to get a true idea of what's at stake. Great book. ***

Book #7: In Other Rooms Other Wonders

Beautiful. That is the one word to describe this series of short-stories all connected to a wealthy feudal lord in the lands of Pakistan. I've read a ton of books from India, most notably Jhumpa Lahiri, and this is the first book I've read where the stories are beautifully rendered and well told. I normally hate short-stories for the way they resolve so ambiguously, and while these are not stories that end with finality- they leave beautiful and haunting tastes upon ones tongue despite their unrelenting realist twist.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How To Boost Your Odds of Getting An Agent

Before I had an agent I scoured the internet for information on this topic and came away feeling dejected wondering if the only way I could land an agent, my portal into the 'published author world' was by networking at conferences I could not afford to attend or knowing someone who knew someone who knew someone who was besties with Stephen King or JK Rowling. Two months into my agent search I signed with the Sandra Dijkstra Agency, plucked straight from the slush pile where most of us find ourselves as newbies heading into the great big world of 'wannabe-published'. I'm not saying my way is the right way, or the only way, it was simply what worked for me. I spent some time reading books, magazines, and chatting with authors to figure these three things out- so I thought I'd share them because I believe they were instrumental in boosting my odds of getting an agent.
  1. Don't be desperate. Be particular. By which I mean, do not randomly throw out your queries to anyone and everyone at random. Nicholas Spark's agent might be basking in a sun-hut in Fiji thanks to his dutiful agenting but if you're writing a nonfiction book on the fashion habits of koala bears- that may not be the best fit for you. Don't waste your precious time and subject yourself to needless rejection mass querying to those who would never be a good fit anyways- you only need one agent to love your work, the right one who will advocate for you and your project, so its imperative that you. . .
  2. Focus your search. I spent a warm day in March at my local Borders bookstore with a pen and paper going down the aisles and pulling out books with multicultural fictional titles [since that was the genre of my manuscript]. I checked acknowledgements, and nine times out of ten the author thanked their agent. As I went down the aisles I realized a handful of agents represented most of the multicultural works on the shelves, the number one agency based on my research of my local Borders? Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency proud agent of Lisa See, and Amy Tan and other literary greats. You don't need to go to a brick-and-mortar store to research, the Internet provides a plethora of resources as well- but for me it was a way to not get distracted and simply focus on the task at hand- plus not all authors list their agents on their websites.
  3. Read the submission guidelines and follow them so thoroughly your momma wants to check you into an OCD anonymous inpatient clinic. Seriously. Follow the instructions and don't think you're the exception if going unsolicited. Many friends have scoffed at this saying, its okay if this or that is off- but the truth is that though its a royal pain to format your manuscript for the specifics of each agent- since you're undoubtedly sending to more than one, each with their own unique requests for page margins, line-spacing, and font- its pointless to send it out if you don't tailor your work to the specifications required. An agent is busy- a fact I realize more now that I have one- and if they can toss your work out for technical error.
Do you have a literary agent? What tips would you give to those in the searching process?

[photo source here]

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Finding Time To Write- With A Baby

How do you find the time to write?

After questions of sleep habits, and diaper bags, its the question I'm asked most frequently since between sleep deprivation, pureeing baby food, and the numerous other seemingly endless tasks that can quickly eat away at a day, many new mothers find their writing taking a back burner to all the other things that must be done.

 Yet, since his birth, I finalized a manuscript, wrote a second one [which I am in the process of editing] and blog several days a week. Writing is my release, my escape- it is frankly, necessary. So how do I manage to create the time and space to ensure I write? These are five tips that worked for me which I share in the hopes they may be of benefit for you:
  1. Write when your child is sleeping. The laundry, the dishes, the phone calls to return; these are all different forces that will beckon you when you see your beloved baby dozing away. A chance to catch up on all that remains undone. If you value your writing- let all that go- sit down- and write. A friend shared that she tried this and completed a short story while caring for a young baby. Now that my son's naps are less lengthy and frequent, I  set aside one hour after he sleeps for the night to find a quiet space and write. Following this simple rule, I completed the first draft to my current project in six weeks.
  2. Allow for a 'less than Martha Stewart' home. As I write this, there is dust gathering on the nightstand, sheets not perfectly folded, and toys scattered across the living room. While I do make sure the floors are swept, and the counters cleaned- I know I must accept my home is a living organism in which there will always be something to upkeep, fix, or dust, and if I spend my time devoted to perfecting it, my writing will suffer. I accept that while my son is young, this house will never be a Martha Stewart showroom, but if I want to find time to write I have to let go of perfection. 
  3. Get help- and then- get out: Even if I ask my husband to watch my son while I write upstairs in the guest room, I never succeed. I'll hear a cry- or a giggle- and and instantly hit the stairs to see what the problem is, or the fun I'm missing out on. Instead, I now hand over my son and head to a coffee shop where I won't be distracted by wanting to help when I know my son is already in capable hands.
  4. Make the most of the time you can't get out: Some days- and weeks- when you simply can't sneak away to a coffee shop and the nightly writing isn't enough- don't be afraid to take advantage of snippets of time here and there. The biggest hindrance for most people who feel they have a novel in them, but can't seem to complete it, is the illusion that there needs to be a wide expanse of time within which to write- no. The ten minutes you're waiting for the baby carrots to steam while your little one is distracted by a plastic bowl? Write. The five minutes your baby is sitting on the high chair giggling at his finger food? Write. It all adds up.
  5. Use what you have at the time. I write on my laptop. In my moleskine journal. On the notepad I scratch out my grocery list. Behind envelopes that carried bills and credit card offers. Because I am not always right next to a computer- or easily accessible one- when an idea hits- I use what I have and I write. There's always time to record your thoughts permanently later- but I take advantage of the material around me when I have an idea that I don't want to lose.
Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you- Zadie Smith

 [Photo Image Source: Here]

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Borders Closing- and the guilt that comes with

Yesterday, on my way to get groceries, my foot involuntarily stepped on the brakes as I passed our local Borders bookstore and saw the ugly yellow sign draped atop the entrance: Store Closing. I mentioned this to my mother who told me that the Borders near my parent's home, where I worked  as a struggling college student, is also closing its doors. I knew Borders was struggling, but had no idea how bad it was- that they filed for bankruptcy and are now closing 200 stores.

Agents and publishers have long urged us to not forget about brick and mortar stores- but with the advent of online shopping and e-readers, its been clear for a while that bookstores are being affected. While I do sometimes purchase a book from a brick-n-mortar bookstore, when I'm not getting my books from the library, most of my literary purchases? They're on-line. It's just cheaper. A lot cheaper. Clearly, I wasn't the only one thinking this way as the mass closings make clear but now, with the announcement of these closings, I can't help but wonder: Should I have paid $5-7 more for a book to support the chain? As a member of a single-income household, the honest answer is no. Not really. That's money for my kid's future. Dinner. Shoes.

So the sadness mixed with guilt has no easy answer for me. I wish I could have bought more books, drank more coffee and done my part to keep my local Borders in business because it fills me with sadness- the book signings that won't happen, the emptying stands once filled with books you could touch and rifle through and the end of Tuesday story time that my son loved attending and which lent a sense of community in an increasingly isolated world.

Border's bankruptcy is the beginning of the end of something huge- so big in fact, that as a writer, I'm fairly certain I don't understand its full scope, which is exactly why, regardless of my justifications- the closings make me feel guilty for what I could have done and what is now, at least for my local Borders, much ado much too late.