Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Liars and Fiction Writers

Yes. I am a lying liar who lies.

Twitter is a great place to stumble upon great little gems of wisdom. I found an old blog post from terribleminds the other day. Talk about ‘voice,’ Chuck Wendig has one. In this post, he gives ten reasons why one should get far, far away from writers. It is hilarious and scarily true. Just go here and read it for yourself, then consider yourself warned about me.

I knew I was a bit nuts; but I’ve always done a good job of keeping my crazy under wraps. I’m a high-functioning loon. Anyway, as I read this blog post, I had one of those epiphanic moments. That is a word, right? Whatever…I had an epiphany--I really am a writer.

When I read his reasons #2 and #3, I flashed back, right back to first grade when I wove an amazing tale for my parents’ benefit at the supper table. Wendig said, “We are lying liars who lie. We have to be. Fiction is a lie…but at least I’m not lying about, you know, real shit. That’s what I tell myself.” Reason #3 was further enlightenment for me. He said, “We make shit up all day long, and then we must write about that made-up shit with utter authority. It is our job to write with abject confidence in the subject matter. You know in high school you’d write papers that were, as you might say, ‘bullshit?’ And you could convince the teacher of it? Yeah. This is like that.”

Yeah. I’ve been creating scenes in my head forever. I simply thought I had a vivid imagination. It's always been easy to entertain myself for hours on end. It took me a couple of decades to realize I could put all these scenes I imagined down on paper.

The scene I constructed one night over dinner in 1961 landed me in the principal’s office the next morning for lying. I had a bad habit of saying, “I know,” in response to most anything my mother told me – a phrase learned from her if I recall correctly. I didn’t mean it in a ‘know-it-all’ way, more an acknowledgement like, “I understand.” Regardless, when she told us at dinner that night about the firehouse burning down in our small town, I responded with my usual, “I know.” I think it was the vision of firefighters running around in panic unable to save their own building from burning down that triggered my little flight of fancy. I could see it all as it unfolded. That movie in my head was simply too good to resist; the lines between truth and fiction instantly disappeared.

My mother asked me how I knew. So, I told her.

You see, my beloved first grade teacher, Miss Daisy, took her class on a field trip that day. We walked all the way downtown where we stood next to the railroad tracks in the cold and watched the firehouse burn down. We then trekked off to the dairy dip where she bought us all ice cream cones before we went back to our classroom at Oakmont Elementary. We had a fine time, and I remember clearly how good that ice cream tasted despite the frigid winter temperatures.

I had no clue all hell was about to break loose. My mother set the phone lines afire, chewing out the principal, who in turn castigated dear sweet Miss Daisy for undertaking such a foolhardy and dangerous expedition with close to thirty first graders in the dead of winter. The next morning found me standing before Miss Dunn, our stern-faced principal who possessed the ‘electric paddle.’ I envisioned this contraption as some sort of operating table with a huge paddle suspended overhead, ready to pound the poor kid quaking in fear beneath it. I duly apologized to Miss Dunn and Miss Daisy for my horrid lying, confident the electric paddle awaited me in some dark room. I still didn’t quite get why my brilliant tale was considered lying. Afterall, I wasn’t lying about ‘real shit.

It was a life-altering experience. That day I learned I had a gift for making people believe made-up stuff. It just took me a while to equate that with ‘fiction writer.’ I’ve been a lot smarter about my crazy since then.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In Appreciation

My first manuscript, SOUL TIES, is complete, or at least for the most part. I still wake in the middle of the night with words I know I must add in specific passages, but it’s all minor at this point. Although it only took me a couple of months to write the first manuscript, it’s taken the better part of a year to truly finish it to a point where it’s ready to put out there. I made the same mistake many writers make on their first manuscript; I started the query process too soon, well before it was ready. Live and learn—learn being the operative word there. 

The manuscript I have now is very different from what I started with, and I have several people to thank for that. I’ve been fortunate in having great beta readers who took their duty very seriously. For the beta reading process to work, you need to find readers willing to say things that might be hard for you to hear. To grow as a writer, you must be willing to listen objectively and then figure out what you need to do to remedy those issues they raise. I wanted tough critics, and I was lucky to find a great group of savvy professional women who were all avid readers. With the exception of one, all my first readers were entrepreneurs, and I knew they understood how important truthful feedback could be to success. The one exception in that group happened to be a sitting judge, someone else who would have no trouble expressing her opinion. She happened to be a “blind reader,” set up by a mutual friend so neither of us knew the other. She would be free to be as critical as necessary, and that fact bolstered my confidence that her critique wouldn’t be tainted by friendship. I’m happy to say that I finally met her, and her excitement about the characters continues to spur me on every day. Each one of my betas has given me something invaluable, and I can’t begin to express how thankful I am for every one of you – you know who you are!
Another important group of people who deserve recognition is my classmates in Barbara Rogan’s Next Level Workshops. Her Revising Fiction workshop helped me tighten everything and give it that extra polish. Her submission workshop helped me craft multiple queries and synopses, because just one won’t do – each literary agent has specific things they look for in a query and synopsis. It wouldn’t be the story it is now without input from Barbara and the other writers in those classes. Writers make the toughest critics, but it’s amazing what they see and what you can learn from them. Two of my last beta readers came from that class and were gracious in their willingness to pour over the manuscript after my final revision after the workshop concluded. Each and every one of you has helped me refine this manuscript and also helped me build my confidence. Without that confidence, I'm not so sure I could go through this process. I thank each of you for that.
Finally, I’ve taken the scary step of putting it out there. In addition to sending out a few queries, I’ve entered it into RWA’s Golden Heart Contest and a couple of other RWA Chapter Contests.  I'll never know if this thing will fly if I don't push it out of the nest. The manuscript falls in the genre of Women’s Fiction, but it has strong romantic elements. The story is about two people who find each other when neither is interested in sharing their life with anyone else. Their emotional journey in discovering that they might need each other despite not being what the other wants is one fraught with conflict and tension, but sprinkled with laughter and love. In my next few posts, I’ll share more details and an introduction to my characters.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

To Anniversaries and Time Well Spent

October is a month of anniversaries for me. The first week of October my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary, and this upcoming week I will celebrate another important milestone. It’s the first anniversary of my first blog post, my first query, and my first rejection.   

After ten rejections, I decided to pull back and reassess. I had great beta reader response to the characters and story, so what might I be doing wrong at the query step? What else might I be doing wrong? I knew I needed a professional to steer me in the right direction. Just as I did when I started my decorative finishing business over a decade ago, I needed to find a great teacher to guide me. The last thing I wanted to do was waste time. If I’m going to invest this kind of time in something, then I want to do it well.

Just as in fine art and decorative arts, there’s a big difference between the professional and the amateur that the untrained eye might not perceive. As I told one of my fellow decorative artists after I began to learn more about the craft of writing, “I had lap lines all over the place.” For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘lap line,’ it is the ‘veining’ that you sometimes see in glaze work. If the artist can finesse them, they look like veins; if they can’t, they appear as darker lines and areas that ruin the look. Either way, they are something that marks an amateur. To the untrained eye, they might be interesting; but to the trained eye, they are a major mistake that make professionals cringe.

Fortunately, I found Barbara Rogan who taught me how to avoid those ‘lap lines.’ Barbara is a former literary agent, current teacher and editor, as well as author of eight novels. With her critique of my first twenty pages came an invitation to participate in her Revising Fiction Workshop, a once a year, invitation-only boot camp she offers to a select few with completed manuscripts. Boot camp is my name for it because that’s what it felt like. It was rigorous and intense for the eight participants who completed the course. We began in mid-June and finished a couple of weeks ago. I learned more in those four months than I did in all my college writing and literature classes. I may still commit some of those ‘lap lines,’ but now I know how to recognize them and correct them. I’ve also gained a circle of friends who are amazingly talented writers willing to share their time and wonderful stories. I look forward to seeing our collective progress over the next year. We all seem to be similarly obsessed with the craft of writing.

I love writing—much to my surprise, more than I love painting. It’s a very similar process for me, the under painting equivalent to my first draft, the subsequent detail and layering of light and shadow my fleshing out of the setting and characters. The last year was time well spent doing something I love. How can that ever be a waste of time?    

Monday, May 30, 2011

It's Been Awhile...

The last six months, I’ve been lost in a haze of addiction.

I admire people who can Twitter, Facebook, Blog, pursue their profession, and do all the necessary marketing to create their ‘platform.’ To those who can juggle it all, I congratulate you. I do not see how you do it. I had no idea when I pulled that old manuscript out of the chest of drawers what exactly I was about to get myself into. Thoughts of publishing and all that might include never entered my mind. Now, eighteen months later, I’m learning about ‘platform building’—a concept that is a bit unnerving to a very private person who has never been compelled to express her thoughts to the world.  I began to realize there is only one thing that would drive an introvert like me to put herself out there willingly—Addiction. 

Hello, my name is S. J.  I’m a wordaholic.

It started out as nothing more than an exercise, pulling that manuscript out and writing again. Before I realized it, something had clicked between my brain and my fingertips. It was the completion of a circuit that I had forgotten was there. Characters and scenes dropped into my brain and flowed so rapidly from my fingertips onto my laptop screen it was frightening—and amazingly pleasurable. It was like opening up a vein, the words flowed through me like a drug. 

I’ve read about the science of addiction, how once the pleasure center of the brain is stimulated by a particular activity it becomes impossible to control the desire to repeat the activity. In the last year, words have become my drug. Try as I might to set them aside and focus on more productive work, it is a struggle to do so. My only saving grace is that my income generating work is conducive to quiet contemplation, allowing me to lose myself in the movie playing in my head. These characters and stories demand my attention, bombarding me with their world. They make it impossible to do anything else until I give in and let it flow from my fingertips into a document. My focus narrows to such a point that I can only think of writing, the monkey on my back. 

So, here I am, building a platform…