New Year, New Goals

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As 2011 draws to a close, I have been spending some time thinking.  The last year has brought something new to my life, and I still haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that I am officially a novelist.  A multiple novelist, if you count my terrible NaNoWriMo novel.  I have always written, but I never believed I had the stamina, talent, or drive to complete an entire novel.  So I’m still slightly shell-shocked.

Not only that, but it is surprising to realize the level of passion I have discovered for writing.  I go on kicks sometimes, where I develop an incredible hunger for information and skills, obsess over them for a while, and then move on when I plateau.  Past kicks have included Greek mythology, freshwater aquaria, pottery, weaving, beading, origami, CAD, theater costuming/make-up, astronomy, grant writing, chinchilla care, sewing, and cooking.  I still maintain some skills and knowledge in these areas, but I no longer pursue them with the single-minded intensity that I did.

There are very few things on that list that lasted longer than a few months.  I know the list isn’t complete; the fact that I struggle to remember what consumed my life for weeks or months at a time is a testament to how quickly I move on once I am bored.  However, I got serious about writing in November 2010.  I am not bored, although I have read 25 books on the subject and have another 20 on my shelf waiting to be read.  I have completed one novel, and despite a few weeks when I thought the well had run dry, I have a new story that I am, if anything, more excited about.

I can say with certainty that it isn’t going away.  There are only 2 other things in my life that have had this level of staying power – playing the oboe and wildlife rehabilitation.  One is my career, and until this year, there was nothing that even came close to interesting me as much as wildlife.  In fact, I was a little frightened by the fact that I could not envision anything else I could spend my life doing.  That’s dangerous, because it is such a physical job, and such a financially precarious one as well.  One thing goes wrong, and I’m sunk.  I don’t worry about it too much, because I have some good evidence that I am where God wants me to be (that’s a whole other post), but I still recognize the danger. I don’t know if I can make money writing.  So far, I have not sold anything.  But I can see myself continuing to pursue storytelling for the rest of my life.  That means no matter what I end up doing career-wise, I will always be able to find joy.

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions.  I find that using an artificial point like “Jan 1” to motivate change just becomes an excuse to delay real change.  For example: I know I should reduce my caffeine and sugar intake by controlling my soda intake.  I don’t want to do that right now… I’ll wait until New Years!  That way I can have it now and prepare myself to give it up.  And then by Jan 7 (OK, sorry, I should be honest.  Jan 2) I’ve given it up, because I wasn’t committed to my resolution.  I don’t want to give up soda.

But I do see the value in goals, and also in sharing those goals.  Since this is a blog mainly following my development as a writer, here are my writing goals for 2012:

 

Attempt to sell King’s Mark.  There are several ways to go about doing this, but the first (and most likely to succeed) is to acquire an agent who knows the business better than I do.  Thus:

Goal 1: submit to agents until I have either run through my list of agents or I have convinced one to represent me.  I will limit my list to agents of good repute that I believe I want to work with, and not become so focused on obtaining one that I allow my standards to slip

 

Attempt to sell my completed short stories.

Goal 2: submit said stories to appropriate markets until I have either sold them or run out of places to send them.  I will focus on submitting first to markets that have a reputation for providing feedback for rejected stories first, regardless of pay, in an attempt to improve my craft.

 

Develop my skills and expand my available “product.”

Goal 3: Write and revise a second novel, namely “Thieves of Moirai”

Goal 4: Make it through my shelf of writing books, DO NOT buy any more until I’ve read the last one…

Goal 5: Complete the half-finished short stories on my hard-drive.

 

Avoid burning out

Goal 6: Read for pleasure, get outside, spend time with friends & family, etc.

Passion in Work

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I am so glad I have a job that eats my life.

Not that there aren’t parts that are hard or frustrating – like how little I make, the sheer amount of unpaid overtime I put in, and seeing some of the most tragic and infuriating situations you can imagine. Those things do get to me sometimes.

But I honestly believe I am one of the luckiest people on earth. How many people can say that their evening plans were interrupted because they had to help give emergency care to a harbor seal in critical condition? How about handling animals daily that most people in the world don’t even know exist? Or seeing a bird fly away who came to us bleeding and nearly dead from emaciation? Or, even better, figuring out some easy new trick that hikes the quality of our animal care just a little higher?

For me, it isn’t about some kind of ethereal, spiritual connection with animals (The wolf paused as it walked away and glanced back at me. In that single look I could see his gratitude.GAG–) or some weird pride issue (Ha ha, I have an owl at my house, I’m so special!BLECH!–). I won’t deny I love the feeling that I’m making a difference, or that sometimes it amazes me the things that my colleagues and I find commonplace. But it is more than that, different than that. It’s part challenge, part wonder, part filling a void of compassion few other people know exists. And for someone who spends quite a lot of time putting words together to describe the indescribable, that’s really the only way I can describe it.

Sometimes I lose sight of all of that. I get tied up in the frustrating parts or dwell on the negative.

This is true of writing as well (you didn’t think I’d get there, did you? Well, you underestimated me!). I’ve been pretty stuck on revisions for the better part of a month. I work on it just about daily, but I haven’t been making any real progress. I just keep focusing on that one thing I haven’t figured out to my own satisfaction, and then the entire story begins to fall apart in my mind. Then I get overwhelmed with just how many things I ‘need’ to fix. And then I start making up problems that don’t exist.

The solution to both problems is to remember the good things and rekindle the passion. In my work, it usually works to imagine doing some other job. Or to take a minute while I’m cleaning up piles and piles of bear poo to think about what I am actually doing, and how I’ve wanted to do it ever since I was little. Or to pause long enough in my daily rounds to watch a tiny baby cedar waxwing try to swallow a berry bigger than its head in one gulp.

I need to bring perspective back to my writing. No, it isn’t perfect; I do have a lot of work to do. But it’s manageable. There are things that work as they are. I like reading my story, I like my characters. That one plot problem does not take the entire story down with it. I will find a solution to it at some point. Things aren’t a hopeless tangled mess, they’re just a tangled mess.

And even if I don’t solve it this draft, I need to let my beta readers (and after them my agent/editor), tell me what is important. I am often surprised by what things my critique group focuses on, because often what I deem awful and messed up is not a problem for them as readers. But something else I hadn’t even thought of threw the story off the rail. And, surprise surprise, there’s actually an easy solution to that problem. And surprise again, that solution actually fixes what was bothering me before.

So back into it. And I’m actually feeling motivated again, for the first time in a month.

Lessons from the Revision Process

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So, having now finished the draft version of my first novel, I must now undertake the most extensive revision I’ve ever had to do. And it’s waaay harder than writing the first time.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like it, finding those spots that I can change just so to make a concept or character click is one of the greatest joys in writing. But I like to feel in control of my efforts, and I am finding it difficult to maintain an organized approach. I guess I haven’t found the revision process that works for me yet. Maybe it’ll take another book or three before I get it down.

This entire process has been a learning experience, so even if the book goes nowhere, I’ve benefited. I can hardly believe the sheer amount I’ve learned, both from the writing style books I buy voraciously and from the process itself. I know I’m not done, but I thought I’d share some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far. Keep in mind these are just personal lessons, I’m not in any way qualified to advise others. Remember, I’m pretty much wingin’ it.

ONE
Revision is scarier than writing. For me, there is this constant lurking fear that I am going to change something and it won’t be as good as what I had. Or I’m going to irreparably mess up everything my critiquers said they liked in my attempt to fix what they didn’t. This is ridiculous. It’s just insecurity and a tad bit of hubris. As James Scott Bell says in “Revision and Self Editing,” you revise from a place of deeper understanding than you write. You might think you understand your characters or plot when you write them, but it isn’t until the entire thing is on the page that you can see the whole picture.

TWO
If your alpha readers say something, LISTEN! Even if you disagree with the suggested solution, readers are never wrong about their reactions or understanding of the text. I don’t remember who said it, but writing is a kind of telepathy. Your end goal is to control what the reader experiences, so if they don’t get the right vision from your work, that’s YOUR failure. So fix it. It doesn’t mean your vision is wrong, it means your telepathy is off.

THREE
Passion is what gives writing life. If you suddenly shift focus, you lose that special magic. It isn’t the individual words on the page; word-smithing doesn’t create passion, although it can enhance it. I learned this because I re-read my earlier chapters. Although I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last few months, my first few chapters sang in a way my recent work doesn’t. And as I begin to add and rewrite segments to better reflect my vision of the story, I’m rediscovering my passion and excitement for the story itself. I believe my writing will show this.

FOUR
That said, the muse nonsense is bull****. I used to believe I couldn’t write unless I felt the inspiration. Now, I know that’s horse hockey. I totally agree that there is a wondrous kind of “zone” you can get into sometimes. But it is mainly excitement and focus – not some sort of magic that means your prose improves. The voice in your head that tells you what words to put where is the same, it’s just talking enthusiastically so you feel good about it. In fact, stuff I wrote while I was in the “zone” actually needs more work than a lot of my other stuff, only it is harder for me to recognize, because I get this little echo of how great it was to write that part when I read it through again. So passively sitting around waiting for the muse to strike is wasted time. The best stuff I wrote came from ideas I got excited about after thinking and thinking about an “unsolvable” problem for days.

FIVE
Washing dishes, long drives, going on walks, and taking showers are idea-generators and problem-sovlers. Steven King was totally right when he talked about sending stuff down to the “boys in the basement.” Anything even remotely creative I thought of wasn’t me in my desk chair.

SIX
Every book, podcast, and writer says that the serious author should write a quota of words every day. Or every week. I’m not against this, in fact, I agree with the principle. Good writers must develop dedication, discipline, and professionalism, and writing every day is a step towards that. Not only that, but there is something to be said for momentum – it is way harder to get back into something when you’ve spend days or weeks or months away from it. However, personally I can’t hold down a quota of words daily. There are too many days when I come home from work and can barely eat before I fall asleep. I’m sure a better person would be able to set aside their hour or two and slog through 500 words a day, every day, no matter how exhausted. But I have come to realize I am not that person. In the winter, I can do that and more. In the summer, no dice. So I have compromised. Absolutely every day I sit down and work on my writing. It might be a bit of an editing or it might be 3000 words.

I like my day job. I am writing because I love to write; it is enough for me that I do some small thing every day. Maybe someday that will change; I have no idea what the future holds. They say you cannot possibly be published if it isn’t what you live and breath for. So if I need to commit to more someday, then I’ll think about it. But for now, I think it is a good thing that I am not dying to be a full-time author. It means I can learn without judging myself too harshly, be semi-objective about my work, and distance myself a little from the neurotic, destructive author behavior I hear about and see in other writers I meet. My self-worth is not inextricably bound to my writing – I am more than that. And if that means I am never published, so be it. It is worth it to keep some tiny bit of my mind sane. But I think I will always write, just as I always have.

More later, I’ve got a timeline* and a heck of a lot to do.

*Speaking of which, I’m sorry to the one of you who looks at my progress bar. I’m not well enough organized to be able to tell how much farther I have to go on my revision. Suffice to say, I’m doing lots every day, and there’s still plenty to go. I don’t know if I’ll meet my first week of September goal, but I do know I’m working hard.