How Does Your Story Grow?

My dad is a master gardener. He taught me early on that canned peas are to fresh what beef jerky is to top sirloin and that it takes skill, patience and passion to cultivate organic works of art. While I’m grateful to have inherited his zest for creating, I gained not a cell of his green thumb. (My dead Chia Pet’s ghost will vouch for me…May it RIP.)

Gardening philosophies work well in writing. Some proper planning and nurturing can help ensure that our stories grow, thrive and nourish ourselves and our readers. So don your grungies. We’re about to get dirty…

Lesson #1: Assess Your Seeds
Many of us recall the moment the “seed” of our work first appeared. Sometimes we seek it out—”Hmm… I’d like to write a novel. It will be about..hmm…” More often, the notions strike us out of the perceivable blue—”Give me a pen! HAVE to write this down.” These “seeds” can strike at any time of the day or night, whether you’re half way through your first novel or haven’t yet scripted a sentence.

People often ask writers where we get our ideas and whether we fear we’ll “run out.” This makes me laugh. We’re overloaded with ideas; we need only stay open to them. I have a Word document and several notebooks of ideas that have struck me at random times. It doesn’t matter where you jot them down, just that you do.

Lesson #2: Prioritize Passion
Tomatoes may seem easier to grow then, say, avocados. But if your dreams feature artichokes and you crave homemade guacamole at every meal, plant artichokes!(Lucky for us, we don’t have to worry ourselves with season or soil-appropriate ventures…) I asked my agent recently which book he’d prefer I focus on completing next. His reply? “Whichever you feel most strongly about.” He knows that this is where the best, sellable stories begin—with passion. Ask yourself what you want to write, then write that.

Multi-published author, Marc Shuster, shares some fantastic thoughts on writing “for love” in this post.

Lesson #3: Start Small
As a kid, authors were some of my heros. One thing that awed me about each book was the fact that someone wrote it. (“It’s so long! So many words… Seems so complicated. How do they keep their facts straight? Must take forever…”) If you focus on cultivating an orchard when all you have is an apple seed, intimidation can damage your soil and send you dashing in the opposite direction.

My first novel started as a short film that became a short story and so on. Don’t obsess over the end at the beginning; start with one line, one page, one chapter… If you’re approaching a second or third work, or wish to try something in another format or genre, apply similar principles. Write some lyrics, not a symphony. Sketch out a few scenes before the whole series. You get the idea.

Lesson #4: Grow First, Prune Later
A talented friend of mine is working on his memoir. “I have a hard time knowing what I should put in and leave out,” he said, in part because he fears offending people in his story. Such fear can sabotage your process. I suggested he get his entire story out, with awareness that he can trim away whatever he’d like later on.

Whether you outline or not, allowing what crops up to unfold as you write can lead to some of the most genuine, unique and riveting additions to your story. Yes, you’ll create some needless, perhaps ridiculous, bits. Who cares? Consider them weeds and pluck them out during the revision process.

Lesson #5: Keep A Mulch Pile
Our hearts can ache as we delete that “totally amazing sentence” we wrote. I place whatever I cut away from my work in a Word document titled “omits.” Do I end up using any of it? Rarely. But it makes trimming and editing far easier. If what you cut truly is fabulous but doesn’t fit your current work, save it for something else.

I also suggest “mulching” paper. I print out pages I’ve written to read and review, then recycle them. Use them as scratch paper or get creative. I made this at my “novel-tea” party—if you look closely you’ll get a scrambled sneak peak at my book. 😉

Lesson #6: Share Your Goods
Fruits and veggies only do some much good sitting in your backyard soil. Pick them once they’re ripe. (In other words, don’t send a manuscript or query letter out before you’ve raked over every detail and shared it with expert eyes.) Another way to share involves writing to and for others. This post by Joe Bunting, writer, editor and founder of The Write Practice, features excellent insight on writing for people you believe in.

Lesson #7: Consider Your Readers
“My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.” – H. Fred Dale, gardening editor for the Toronto Star

You can cultivate the most splendid roses on the planet. But if the recipient is allergic, you’ll have problems… Who is your reader? What type of experience to you hope to impart? Read within your genre, if you have one. Print your manuscript and read it away from your desk, as a reader. And seek opinions from trusted, literary friends. Keep your readers in mind while revising in particular.

What about you??? How does your “garden” grow? Any tips to share? Challenges you’d like to overcome? I always love hearing from you… 🙂

Writing Tricks and Blog Treats

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could go door-to-door on Halloween and get loaded up with insight from writers??? In some ways, that’s the internet–streets and houses chock-full of free goods. And until we’ve visited a particular house–website/blog, etc.–we don’t know what we’ll get. Some offer the BEST goods; so great, we return for more, share memorize their addresses and share them with friends. (“Dude, that house has king size Symphony bars!”) Others we wish we’d bypassed. (“A toothbrush? Are you serious?”)

But maybe you hate chocolate. (Ouch, that hurt.) Or have a…minty fresh breath fetish. What works for and pleases one writer’s appetite may not work or please another. That’s just one of the many beautiful things about this business.

A few WRITING TRICKS that work for me:

Make writing a high priority. Many of us struggle to balance writing and other responsibilities. My career took off once I made it a top priority. This meant sacrificing work opportunities I cared less about, at the risk of making less money, turning my ringer off during writing time and saying “no” to social functions that felt obligatory. As it turned out, this led to my making more money through writing. (Do what you love and love what you do, right? It pays off.)

Set and stick to deadlines. As a journalist, many of my deadlines are built in. Applying the same practice to my fiction does wonders for my productivity and work quality. (Creative juice can kick into high gear under pressure.) Deadline keeping also brings a level of professionalism that appeals to agents, publishers, editors and other industry professionals.

**Tip: If you have trouble holding yourself to self-concocted deadlines, join or start a critique group that requires x-number of pages per week or month. Or pal up with another writer. Just as gym buddies tend to exercise more successfully than unenthused singles, knowing a friend is expecting your work and bringing theirs is hugely motivating. Just don’t pick a friend who’s laxer than you. 😉

Read. A LOT. Like Stephen King says in his fantastic book, On Writing, “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write.” I’m always amazed when an aspiring, usually stuck, writer tells me they don’t read. And it happens fairly often. Write because you love writing, but because you loved reading first.

BLOG TREATS (Chock-full of tips for writers!)

If you enjoy the posts below, consider subscribing, following, posting comments, “liking,” Tweeting and/or emailing them about the cyber-sphere. Supporting their creators will inspire them to keep inspiring you and others. And you’ll be amazed at how much support and even friendship you may get in return. Enjoy!

Write Practice
Write From the Inside by Joe Bunting
Five Ways to Quit Being a BiPolar Writer by Joe Bunting

Kristen Lamb’s Blog
The Dark Side of Metrics–Writer Friend of Ticket to Crazy Town
Structure Part 4–Testing Your Idea–Is it Strong Enough to Make an Interesting Novel? 

Nathan Bransford’s Blog
Page Critique Thursday: The Importance of Staying with Your Character

Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
Conference Consternation by Michael Bourret

Writers in the Storm
Critique Groups: How to Find Your Dream Team 

Novel Rocket: Getting Your Book off the Ground
5 Books You Should Own by Gina Holmes

The Renegade Writer
The Number One Thing Holding You Back From Freelance Success

The Writers Help
Easy Writing Ingredients by Jackie Paulson

Paperback Writer
NaNoWriMo Prep IV: Ten Gems O’ Wisdom You Should Probably Ignore During NaNoWriMo by Lynn Viehl

Any tricks or treats you’d like to share??? I’d love to hear them.

Blog Blast: Literary Agents’ Advice for Writers

Happy weekend, all! As a followup to my last post, I’ve gathered recent posts composed by literary agents for writers. I hope you find them as insightful as I did.

Have the BEST book idea? Mike Larsen, of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents, shares 16 Questions for Test-Marketing Your Book Idea on his award-winning blog. 

Think your book is publish-ready? In her post, I Don’t Believe You, Janet Reid, of Fine Print Literary Management, suggests you think again.

Can publishers predetermine which books will sail to the top of the charts? No, according Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Gain her insight here: A “Sure Thing?” 

Eager to attract an agent? Dawn Dowdle, of Blue Ridge Literary Agency, shares her top pointers here: Agent Advice.

Frustrated by having to write AND build your platform? Read Publishing in a Brave New World: Rachel Gardner, of WordServe Literary Group, on the value of publishers and why authors should stop complaining about platform-building.

Thinking of wallpapering your home with rejection letters? Carly Watters, associate agent at the P.S. Literary Agency, tells us How to Avoid the Rejection Blues.

Thinking of attending a writer’s conference? Learn How to “Pick-Up” a Literary Agent and other conference tips from former literary agent and founder and CEO of Literary Agent Undercover, Mark Malesta.

Pssst! Contrary to popular belief, literary agents are not only humans, but often congenial, helpful and sharp as whips. (Few pout as much as Rosie.) The first agent to read my manuscript sent me such a kind “rejection” letter, I considered adding his family to my holiday gift list. My perhaps worst response came from a woman who said she found my novel “quite disturbing” and that I best convert the whole thing into a family drama. Seeing as I write suspense thrillers, I wasn’t offended. 😉 I did, however, question my agents-to-approach picking skills…

Have an agent-related story to share? Lessons you’ve learned or are grappling with?

Boost Your Writing Willpower

A beggar approaches a well-dressed woman and says, “I haven’t eaten anything in four days.”

“God,” she says, turning to face him. “I wish I had your willpower.”

Sad joke, right? I think so, namely because it’s realistic. As a society, we seem to have a somewhat convoluted idea of willpower is. In my humble opinion… 😉

Recently I had the opportunity to interview several experts on the topic, including renowned social psychologist and researcher Roy F. Baumeister. His latest research is featured in “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” a book I highly recommend. He and Karen R. Koenig, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating” addressed willpower, whether it exists, how it relates to diet and how to strengthen it. (To read the full article, click here.)

“Willpower is a traditional folk term based on the idea that a person uses some energy to resolve inner conflicts and do the right thing,” Baumeister told me. “Self-control is how you change your responses, and willpower is an essential ingredient of that process.”

We experience temptation for about 4 hours each day, according to his research, with a success rate of about 50 percent. Snack foods, that extra nap, the TV, sex, internet popups and social media can lure us from tasks, making it difficult to complete them with efficient ease. Because we have a limited supply of willpower, says Bauermeister, using it wisely is key.

So how does this relate to writing? Whether you believe in willpower or not, we can all benefit from increasing our willingness, desire and success in sitting our butts down and writing well. Right???

Willpower-Boosting Steps:

1. Set realistic goals. Most people fail to do this, setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. Rather than aim to write 10,000 words per day or four books per year (unless your publishing deal demands it), aim for five to 10 pages per day or a reasonable amount of time each week.

2. Eat well. Maintaining positive glucose levels in your brain, which stems from carbohydrates, promotes heightened willpower and self-control. Sugary sweets provide a short burst of glucose, which can be helpful for immediate, short-term goals (like a last-minute writing contest, for example). Otherwise, aim for balanced meals and snacks throughout each day, emphasizing complex carbohydrate sources. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are useful options. Don’t partake in dieting or let too much time pass without eating.

3. Practice. Willpower functions like a muscle, according to Baumeister. If we fail to practice it, we’ll fail to grow. If we stay atop those realistic goals we’re likely to not only reach them, but increase our ability to demonstrate self-control in general. If you struggle with writing daily, for example, try every day, in small increments. It will get easier.

4. Write with passion. I personally believe that fulfilling our heart’s desires facilitates willpower, self-control and success. This is why we may feel entirely unmotivated to do, say, math or taxes (blech!), but spring out of bed with gusto in the morning knowing we get to write. If you love writing, write. And choose topics you love.

5. Sleep enough. Even a mild sleep deficiency can zap our creativity and abilities to focus, learn and remember. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night.

Any steps to add? Challenges you’re facing? Challenges you’ve overcome? I’d love to hear from you. In either case, stay well and write merry. 😉