Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Surviving the Slow Build of a Writing Career

If there is one lesson I've learned about building community and building a writing career, it's that both can be painstaking--because it's all about the slow build.

Not that The Writers' Loft community has grown slowly--we've been open just shy of a year, and we have over 60 involved members. But the way we have grown has been by word of mouth and by paying particular attention to each person interested in joining. We hope to not lose anyone through the cracks. It's definitely a slow-build mentality.

And, I am sure that there are other ways to do it, but if you are looking to grow your own community, the slow build is a way to make it rock solid. If you are building a blog, for example, (and subsequent blogging community), visit other people, comment on their blogs, show them that you want a relationship with them, and most likely, they will join in the conversation you're having at your blog. Does it take time? Yes. Does it build a supportive community that you can rely on? Yes.

Building community is about building relationships, which, by its nature is a one-on-one activity. A slow build.

I argue that building a writing career is about the slow build as well, which is why it is such a difficult profession to survive.

The slow build: You have to write. A lot. David Edding says, it takes a million words before you are ready to begin:
“... A writer’s apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin. That takes a while.” ~David Eddings
Then you revise, you get feedback, you crit someone else's work (I learn the most about my writing through critiquing other's). Then you query industry professionals, and then you most likely start the whole process over again. Bird by bird, my friend.

So, how do you survive this slow build? By treating it like a game.

I'm serious. Jane McGonigal, in this stupendous TED talk, nails the ways to keep sane and motivated. *Blogger is preferring NOT to embed this talk right now. Please follow the link. We'll wait.*

Now, I've talked about this TED talk before. Why do I think that treating your professional writing career build like a game is so important in keeping you sane and motivated?

Because if gamify your career, you will:

1. Create an awesome writer identity for yourself. This is akin to fake-it-'till-you-make-it, pretending to be more confident about your writing self than you might be, and will tell you, in a nutshell, what your author brand is. Who do you want to be as a writer? In you writing game, YOU ARE THAT PERSON.

2. Collect Allies for your writing career. These might be your favorite tweeters, your mentor who posts on their blog each day, your crit partners, or anyone who is supporting you as you write/revise/submit/lock the ms in the drawer. When you reach out to your people, you feel much less likely like banging your head against your desk.

3. Give yourself positive feedback and and level up for all your small wins and each defeat of the bad guys. Constant high fives (with myself) throughout the day keeps me going. I don't pretend my writing is better than it is, but I do give myself credit for the small wins--writing 1k, revising a chapter, learning a new revision technique. Otherwise, it is way too overwhelming to think of writing a 75k book. And, I identify what obstacles stand in the way of these small wins, and defeat them. Procrastination, loss of confidence, feeling overwhelmed. Battle them. Show them who's boss. Level up. You are a better writer today than you were a month ago!

4. Keep focused on attaining the EPIC WIN. In gaming, you are never given a task you can't accomplish. I believe that if you put your mind to it you can accomplish your Epic Win. There are set-backs for sure. There are things that are out of your control, for sure. But, create an identity, collect allies, level up, and keep your eye on the prize, and you will be happier while playing the slow build game of writing.

I am using Jane McGonigal's app game SuperBetter to treat writing like a game. It's a ton of fun. Join me? Be an ally in my game!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

New Year Writing Tips for When the Going Gets Tough: What I've Learned at the Loft

So, I was having lunch with a crit partner yesterday, and we were talking about possible workshops or craft chats for the Loft, and she mentioned wanting to do a chat about how to stick with writing a ms long enough to get to the end. I opened my big mouth, and said something like, "I've never understood why people have trouble getting to the end--that's never been a problem of mine." This friend is a multi-published author, and I had never seen her struggle to finish a manuscript. After a moment of her glaring at me, and perhaps mouthing a word that rhymed with itch, I backed up and we talked about it.

What she was saying is that writing is hard. And we all have our hang-ups. I have plenty of those. Plenty of things that get between me and writing "the end." While I do have a drive to always get to the end of a manuscript, I do find that writing is hard. Absolutely.

So, I thought of the tricks that help me write when it gets hard. And I thought I would share them with you.

Pip, the cat, trying to get into the car through the windshield. Talk about the going getting tough. 

1. Show up.

This is actually my goal in all areas of my life--perhaps I suffer from low expectations. :) I don't particularly know how to be an awesome parent, but I do know how to show up. I don't always know how to write the book that is in my head, but I do know how to open up that word doc. And when I open it up, I engage in the words.

2. Pair the dreaded activity (writing) with something awesome.

When the going gets tough, and you don't want to show up, give yourself a prize. I love drinking coke. No, love is not strong enough. I'm obsessed. Feel that it is something both medicinal and magical. So, if I don't want to write, then I crack open a coke once I show up in that word doc. :) (I leave a coke at the Loft, and it gets me out the door and to the office.)

3. Do it with a friend.

I exercise a lot. I'm not bragging here--it's just something I do. I do triathlons, pick up road races and generally am ready to compete at a moment's notice. And yet, right now it's freakin' cold outside. I don't want to go to the Y. Even though I've paired working out with a visit to the sauna, which is my favorite, I still resist this standard-to-my-life activity. It's SO cold outside. But when I receive a text from my friend, I can't not go. She's waiting for me and holding me accountable to show up. And when I show up, I work out. Magically. Medicinally. :) How do you find this for writing? Join Row80. The Blueboards. The Practice Room. NaNo (it doesn't just happen in November anymore). Find a crit group through SCBWI or some other writing community. Come hang with us at the Loft.

4. Still not feeling the desire to get to the end? Give yourself a deadline or a competition.

There are deadlines all over the place. Contests at Miss Snark's First Victim, or Cupid's site. Sign up for a conference, and note the deadline to submit something to be critted by an agent or editor. That's your hard deadline. Or, if you have an agent, you probably have deadlines built in to your schedule. Need help meeting your deadline? Join your friends in #1k1hr. Make showing up a game to be won. Join a crit group that demands pages every. single. week. That's awesome pressure for showing up.

5. Celebrate EVERYTHING.

Be kind to yourself. This is a long tough business. Celebrate things that are in your control. Celebrate showing up. Celebrate finishing a first draft. Celebrate a completed revision. And always celebrate the big stuff--even if it threatens to go by with minimal notice. Fourth book birthday? Have a nice lunch with a friend. That's how this whole blog post got started in the first place. :)

Speaking of celebrating, my oldest turned 14 this week. Look at all those candles!
So, what do you do when the writing going gets tough? How do you trick yourself into finishing a manuscript?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I've Learned at the Loft: You Can't Jump the Line

I haven't blogged in a while. Certain shifts have happened that keep me from blogging. One, conversations have moved to twitter, tumblr and facebook. And I like to be where the community is. So, I'm splitting my time between all the e-stuff I love. Two, this blog is a little antiquated, and I know I need to move it to a nice and clean author website. (Which I'm not quite ready to do, because of number three...) Three, I've launched a writing community which is awesome and does a lot of good, but sometimes sucks up my time. Oh, and four, I'm starting to query agents again after finishing a revision based on agent feedback. Woo-hoo for me! That's a full-time job of sending emails, refreshing my emails, crying a little, and then refreshing again. :)

But I am still here, and thought that I might share with you guys some of the things that I have learned from building an in-real-life community.

Plus, the TED talk I was going to blog about today REFUSES to embed. :)

So, here's the first post in the series, What I've Learned at the Loft:

You can't jump the line.

If you are one of our cats, you CAN jump the turkey-leg-line.

Let me clarify a bit. I've seen people get publishing deals in a short amount of time. But mostly, those people had a very steep learning curve. They responded well to critiques, made adjustments, and rebounded (from crits or rejections) very quickly.

I no longer think that this business is about perseverance. Or maybe it's not solely about perseverance.

It's about quickly learning when something isn't working and making adjustments. 

Since I have founded a writing community whose members include published authors, some writers have approached me and asked me to "get them an agent." (None of these writers attempting to jump the line wanted to stay and join the community.)

Eeek! I'm not agented myself. I don't have a book published. And even though writers at the Loft have found inroads in publishing because they hobnob with authors further along in the journey than themselves, those Loft writers have also put in the time to critique, give back and support the community.

You can't just show up and jump the line. You need to try something and when it fails, you make adjustments. When a crit shows you where your ms is less than stellar, you make adjustments by revising. When you get a critique that doesn't jive with where your ms is going, you make adjustments by finding a new crit partner. When you query agents and don't get the response you wanted, you get more feedback on your query and you (all together now) make adjustments.

Sometimes it seems like people were overnight successes, or that they were in the right place at the right time. They probably were in the right place at the right time, because they paid attention to what worked and followed that. They made the right adjustments.

What is the hardest adjustment you've had to make in your writing career? An adjustment of expectations? An adjustment of what success looks like? Tell me!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Past, Present and Future, or How My Stupidity as a Parent Teaches me About Writing

I'm not a perfect parent. I happily share my mistakes with anyone who will listen, and I especially abhor parents who pretend that they are perfect--it just makes everyone else feel alone.

So, yesterday, my oldest son did something that made me mad. Yelling mad. Whipping shirt mad. Madder than I needed to get.

Today, of course, I'm thinking-thinking-thinking about it. And then...I apologized to my son. I told him I shouldn't have yelled. That I should have been calm about it. After all, he is only learning.

I wanted him to understand where I was coming from and why I got so pissed off.

I told him:

I don't just see you in the present. I see your entire past and all the hopes for your future all wrapped up in this one moment. It makes me super angry because this is the 1,000th time you've done this behavior (your past). I get angrier because I don't think that a thirteen-year-old should be behaving this way (your present), and I worry about your entire future because if you can't learn from this, I don't know how you will survive out in the real world (your future). That being said, I totally should not have gotten so mad! That was my baggage. My problem. You're an awesome kid and you're gonna turn out fine. :)

And this extreme reaction reminded me of writing. Specifically about why some portfolio pieces are so hard to write-- query letters, synopses, blurbs. It's so hard to come at those things calmly, with a clear sense of the project at hand.

I think these things are so hard not just because it is hard to boil an entire novel (or picture book) into tiny summaries, but also because as the creators, we see the entire history of our project (every single draft and all those revisions), we worry about what our project is at this moment (is it good enough to send to an agent/publisher), and we have this amazing dream of what this project might become.

Experiencing all that information at once immobilizes us.

So, when you are writing your query letter, your synopsis, your blurb, try to just think about what your project is today. If that makes you anxious, then you might need to go back and revise until your project is closer to what you dream it could be. If you still have trouble, ask one of your betas or a critter to help you execute the summary because that person won't have all the baggage that you do about your project.

Have you yelled at your kid recently? Have you yelled at your novel? :) What's your biggest frustration right now? I showed you mine--you show me yours!

Author's note: while composing this blog post, my daughter's birthday cake overflowed the pan and is now cooking onto the bottom of the oven. (Burning, in fact.) But that is another blog post entirely.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

One True (Writing) Thing: About Self, Writing, and Community

I read a YA thriller yesterday. (Escape From Eden, by Elisa Nader--an author I met at a recent conference--she's delightful, by the way, and her book rocks!) In a fast-paced scene, (okay, it was all fast-paced with delicious twists at every turn) Elisa took a beat to describe the sound of blinds tangling as a door slammed shut.

And, I thought to myself, wow, that is exactly how that sounds. What a great nugget of truth.

It might seem unnecessary to bring that piece of sensory truth into the novel--it didn't advance the plot, it didn't strictly need to be there, but that one piece of truth lent reality to everything else.

By anchoring your reader to familiar things, it allows them to believe in all the made up stuff. :)

Knowing one true thing about your writing journey can show you the reality of how to advance your writing career.

A few years ago, I led a special interest group for first time conference-goers at the marvelous NE-SCBWI spring conference. I asked the writers/illustrators to think of that one thing that they needed to get their career to the next level. I mean, there isn't just one thing, but there is always that one bald truth staring us in the face. If I could overcome that, one thinks, I could go places. :) It was especially important advice for the conference, because attending workshop after workshop can be overwhelming. If you know what one thing you are trying to get out of a conference, then it changes the whole reality of the experience. You can take breaks instead of trying to take in every little piece of information. By focusing on what matters, you can learn how to do that one thing much more quickly.

Now, I meet a lot of writers on a daily basis. I talk with people who are interested in joining our local community, The Writers' Loft. I find out what they are writing and what they are looking for. Because everyone who wants to join a community is looking for something specific. And since I know our community of writers, since I attend writing conferences, since I read books about craft and publishing, and since I try to keep abreast of publishing news, I can sometimes connect people with what they need. That one true thing.

 You probably don't need to talk with another writer to find out what you need. (Although it certainly can't hurt.) It's probably that nagging irritating thought that won't leave you alone. If only I had time to write. If only I knew how to get this Picture Book into the hands of an agent. If only I had a great pitch for my book. If only I knew how to add tension to my revision.

Focus on that one true thing and go after it! No excuses. And, if you need a writerly friend, email me. Open invitation. I'd love to help connect you to the answer of your one true thing need.

Finding community doesn't have to be hard.

My one true thing? I am trying to not lose the thread of my writing projects while I grow my non-profit. My answer so far is that I am leaning on my writerly friends to keep me accountable for my writing, and I'm learning everything I can about project management. What about you? What's your one true writing thing right now?