writing

Loooow expectations (in writing and life)

We recently took a little family ski trip. And we did it on the cheap.

We chose a resort we could easily drive to (that was always covered by our ski passes) and booked the least expensive motel we could find. Then we packed our bags and set off.

I started to question our decision when we pulled into the motel parking lot, only to be greeted with a “Housekeeper Wanted” sign and a beat-up van with a flat tire.

No, this wasn’t our motel. But you get the idea.

No, this wasn’t our motel. But you get the idea.

But since we went into the trip with very low expectations, we were freed from disappointment, annoyance and frustration. And we were open to something different: gratitude.

We didn’t expect our hotel room to be great, so when we walked into a spacious and clean room with a mountain view (just beyond the highway, that is), we were ecstatic. Even better: there was fantastic Mexican restaurant on one side, and a well-reviewed Chinese restaurant on the other.

Our day on the slopes was cold and windy, but it wasn’t very crowded and we soaked in the views. And when we found our motel’s simple breakfast was actually quite filling, we were even more pleased.

So what’s this have to do with writing? Well, if I sit down at a blank page and expect my words to come out brilliantly (ie, have HIGH expectations), I’m always disappointed. Because for me, that isn’t realistic. My books are born through the slog of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting some more. They’re horribly bad when their in first-draft form. But they can always be made better.

Wait for everything to be perfect and I end up with a grand total of ZERO words written…

Wait for everything to be perfect and I end up with a grand total of ZERO words written…

At the beginning of the process, I have to keep expectations very low. Otherwise, I may stop after the first few pages.

That’s not to say that expectations are bad. But I find in my own life, they can get me off track very easily.

So here’s to opening the door to low expectations, bad writing, and the joy that comes along in the process.

A little skate ski up into the mountains was one of the very real treats of our trip. To keep it real: there were lots of candy bribes and a number of tears involved… but hey, that’s life, right?

A little skate ski up into the mountains was one of the very real treats of our trip. To keep it real: there were lots of candy bribes and a number of tears involved… but hey, that’s life, right?

Skiing the trees (and book writing)

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to hone my tree-skiing skills. But it’s daunting.

Standing at the edge of a stand of the woods, it can feel impossible to find a way in. The trees seem to stack up against each other, no room for a route through.

But it’s pretty in there, among the smooth, slender aspens and wide bushy evergreens. Quiet and still, with pockets of powder that last much longer than on the groomed slopes.

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So this year, I’ve started to point my skis into the woods and see where they take me.

And I’ve discovered something amazing. Often, as soon as I’m in the woods, the trees open up, spreading out. Letting me find my way through.

It reminds me of book writing.

From the outside - the moment before you’ve actually begun the work - the project can feel impossible. Too big, too unwieldy. A thick woods that you’ll never be able to traverse.

But then, after I spend hours and days, or sometimes weeks and months, whining and distracting myself and otherwise procrastinating (am I the only one who does this?), after the thought of putting the work off feels much worse than sitting down at the desk and staring at a blank page, I finally begin.

And just like slipping into the woods, a path opens up. The words may be halting at first, but eventually they begin to flow. Ideas build and grow. Paragraphs stack up, one after another, until there are pages, chapters… and eventually, a book.

Starting is always the hardest part. And yet, as any artist knows, creative work is full of starts. Over and over, we begin again. Anew. And pray that once we’re inside, we’ll find a way through.

Which somehow, amazingly, we do.

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The BEST Christmas (and book launch)

It’s here! The time of year when my expectations go into overdrive. It’s the holidays, after all. And I suddenly want it ALL.

There are going to be waaaay more presents than that. At least in my perfect Christmas scene.

There are going to be waaaay more presents than that. At least in my perfect Christmas scene.

I want my kids to have an amazing Christmas, the sort that childhood dreams are made of, with presents piled under the tree and a magical Christmas morning complete with fresh baked cinnamon buns and steaming hot cocoa and the sound of sleigh bells.

I want said Christmas to not break the bank.

I want someone else (not me) to don our house with twinkly lights that are pretty and warm and always turned on at the appropriate times.

When I drink hot cocoa, this is what it’s going to look like. Pine cone, powdered sugar and all.

When I drink hot cocoa, this is what it’s going to look like. Pine cone, powdered sugar and all.

I want cozy family evenings filled with snuggles and movies. And ideally a fireplace (it wouldn’t be too late to find a contractor, right?).

I want perfection.

And then I remember. There’s nothing about me that’s perfect. There’s nothing about our lives, our bank accounts, our schedules that is perfect. This little niggly “goal” in my mind, one that’s likely fueled by advertisements and holiday movies, is totally, completely unreachable. In fact, it has its own sinister side.

Because The more I strive for perfection, the less I enjoy it all.

And on this eve of launching my first book (Crow Flight is officially out tomorrow!! Thank you, thank you to all of you incredible launch team members and friends for cheering me on through the process!), I need to apply this lesson to my book launch.

Because of course, my wild imagination can get the best of me, and lead me straight to… Best Seller Lists! Morning Show Interviews! Book Sales by the Truckload!

And if that’s what I expect, most likely, I’ll be disappointed.

But do you know what? Right here, right now, I’m going to reframe my expectations. This launch has been (and will continue to be) a great learning experience - it is my first one. I’m proud of the book and the work that went into writing and rewriting and rewriting some more.

And after all… it is a BOOK! There are many, many amazing books out there that don’t make it to this point.

So tomorrow morning, when that “Buy Now” button turns orange on Amazon, I’m not going to be frantically watching sales numbers. I’m going to crack open my very own FINAL copy of Crow Flight and skim through its pages. I might just walk around town, carrying the book in my shoulder bag (because it’s just fun to do that). And you know I’ll be at our local bookstore, buying the very first copy they sell.

I can make popcorn. And Swiss Miss. And that fire in the background may just be on TV.

I can make popcorn. And Swiss Miss. And that fire in the background may just be on TV.

The same goes for our Christmas. Less striving, more enjoying. And I’m going to remind myself to feel grateful through all of it. Because if I plan on perfection, I end up feeling not enough. But if I practice gratitude, I feel full to the brim.

How I got my agent (aka, goal of 40 rejections)

Exciting news: my first book is scheduled to be published this December. A fitting time, as it has been a decade since I began to write books.

I have a number of books (cough, six) hidden away in the drawers of my computer's memory. Most will probably never see the light of day. But all helped me learn to write.

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But... more on that later. Because today, I want to answer the question of how I got an agent.

Before I had an agent, it seemed like a necessary but IMPOSSIBLE goal. I knew the statistics: that agents received thousands of queries each month, sometimes each day. And I had built up my own share of rejections. For previous books, I would query a half-dozen agents. Each time I pressed send, I felt a rush of hope. That hope would last anywhere from a few hours to months, until said agent responded and I learned that he or she was not "the one." 

It made me wonder whether my writing was even agent-worthy. For all I knew, my writing should stay hidden on my computer/in my closet.

But then two things happened. First, a writer friend sat me down and told me the truth of the matter, that finding an agent would take an immense amount of hard work. A full six months of focused time. "Treat it as a job," she said. I grimaced, not excited to take on yet another job, but I took her words to heart and made finding an agent a top priority.

And then, I read an article somewhere - an SCBWI magazine, I think - that suggested a totally new approach. Instead of making it my goal to find an agent, the article suggested making a goal of getting rejected by agents 40 times.

It seemed almost laughable at first. But it was a powerful way to turn the agent hunt on its head. Each time a rejection came in, I could give a small fist-pump - after all, I was getting closer to my goal of 40 rejections. So what if they didn't want my book? I had a goal to meet, and they were helping me along the way.

Slowly but surely, the rejections piled up. A few times, I considered giving up. After all, the book really might be terrible. But I remembered my goal and kept my eyes on the prize: a grand 40 rejections in one year! Bragging rights for sure.

Me e-signing my first book deal. Hooray!

Me e-signing my first book deal. Hooray!

And then, something incredible happened. Somewhere around rejection number 35, an agent called. Actually called. I had long since given up on hoping that out-of-town numbers were agents calling, and since I was at my day job, I let it go to voicemail. When I finally listened to the message, I felt the disbelief rise through my chest. An actual agent wanted to represent my book.

It felt like a miracle. And in a way, it was. Something that happened against the odds. Though that year-long goal of being rejected had made my odds just a little bit better.

So to all of the aspiring writers out there: keep writing, keep working, and set some totally achievable goals. You never know when your goal might get sidetracked in a really good way. 

 

Write, revise, repeat

There's something about writing the first draft of a book that is exciting for me. The idea is simply that - an idea, a figment of my imagination, a hazy thought. And then slowly, minute by minute, day by day, pages appear. Putting weight and substance to the shadowy thought. 

It's one of the my favorite times in the process. Not that it comes easy, or that it goes as planned. But because the accomplishment is clear. I am creating where there was nothing before. As I mark off the words - 1,000... 10,000... 50,000 - it's as though I am passing mile markers in a months-long marathon.

Writing 2,000 words is an achievable goal, and when I fall asleep at the end of a long day, I know for certain whether I have met my goal.

Then, once the first draft is out, messy and convoluted and unclear as it is, the next bit of work begins. Revision.

I know revision is hugely important. I know it's where the magic happens, where the book really gets written. And yet, for my Type-A achievement-focused personality, it can be a challenging phase to muddle through. 

I move around entire sections, cut out paragraphs and pages of hardwork, add in sentences, changes words.  Little by little.  The word count might go up slightly, and then back down.  And day in, day out, it's hard to see whether I'm accomplishing anything.

Recently, I got halfway through a big revision only to feel stalled out. The mountain of words still ahead of me seemed insurmountable. And I was not ready to put my hiking boots back on and pick my way through the rubble.

So I did what any self-respecting adult should do in a time like this: I created a sticker chart.

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I actually got the idea for another author friend, who shared recently how she bought fancy stickers and rewarded herself with them for a work well done. The idea immediately appealed to me. I've always loved stickers - I remember a large folder of stickers I collected as a child, and how I would slip through the glossy (and sometimes fuzzy or glittery) sheets and look over my finds. So I searched through Amazon and ordered up a few interesting stickers, then divided a small square of paper in two - half to hold stickers for every 10 pages that was revised, and another half to hold stickers for every 2,000 words that had to be newly written.

The sticker chart, simplistic though it was, gave me a newfound devotion to the work of revising. Who cared if it didn't seem that I had accomplished much, just pushing my way around another 2,000 words? At the end of the day, I had a sticker to show for it! 

And slowly, as the stickers lined themselves up on the sheet, I got closer and closer to the end of the first revision. Finally, I hit those peace-evoking words - THE END - and set the newly revised book and the sticker chart aside.

After a bit of a break, I'm beginning to think about the next round of revisions. I have to admit, I'm not looking forward to it.  Thank goodness some new stickers are coming in the mail.

 

The power of collage

Sometimes ideas just come. But there's one fail-proof way of helping them along: make a collage.

I was introduced to the idea of collaging during a summer class on Julia Cameron's The Artist's WayAt first, I was skeptical. And a bit nervous. To be honest, the idea of flipping through magazines to collect images, then gluing them to a piece of poster board, felt more like grade school work than "writerly" work. Not very productive. Better to actually write, right?

But I stuck with that first collaging session, surprised at how enjoyable it was to think of a word or idea, then stumble into images that captured whatever I was looking for perfectly. Colors and textures and feelings, all right there before me. Images of soaring mountaintops and leaping dogs and summer flowers bursting out of an arrangement. I'd flip through, faster and faster, pausing to collect only the images that called to me, tugged at my heart. It was a subconscious reaction, and was so fulfilling to pull the image out and save it.

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And then, putting them together. Taking a pile of images that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Cutting or ripping. Arranging. Gluing. And suddenly, meaning would appear. Something bigger, something more, something that resonated completely with me, but that I hadn't even known to look for.

Not only that, but I could repurpose images: an ad for a beauty cream became a statement on true beauty; tips for time management became a call to slow down and manage less. It was empowering. And beautiful. And fun.

I collage regularly now. For big life changes and questions that I need to work through. To explore goals for a coming season or year. And for my writing.

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For every book that I write, I'll make several collages along the way. At the very least, it's a nice way to spend an hour or two feeling productive when the ideas stall. And invariably, these collages point to deeper themes and meanings that are bubbling up in my work. 

It's become a part of my artistic process. I grab used magazines from doctor's offices and the library whenever they're available. I subscribe to several magazines just because of the quality of the images inside. I always try to have glue sticks and poster board on hand. 

And somewhere in the process, as those bits of photographs come together in a new and orderly way, I find myself ready to dive back into the writing process again.

To share or not to share

When I first started writing, one of the most common pieces of advice I received was to join a writing group. Share your work, read it aloud, take input and make it better.

It's straightforward, good advice. And for many people, it works really well. Joining a writing group can be motivating, encouraging and an excellent way to improve.

But for me, all that sharing stalled me out. After reading the first chapter of my yet-to-be-written book, I'd listen intently to the feedback and questions that other writers had.

What's the main character's critical flaw?

What if the story had higher stakes, like maybe... death?

What would this sound like if you wrote it in first person? Or started it five years earlier? Or put it in another setting - like, Nebraska, or the moon...

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Okay, that last one is an exaggeration. But the lists were often long. All (usually) great feedback, all great things to consider. And yet, for me, the endless options sent me into a flurry of self-doubt and questioning. Maybe the story should take place in an entirely different place or time. Maybe the main character wasn't the right person for the job. Maybe the whole thing should be scrapped and begun again.

But there's an alternative. I first heard about this method from author Jennifer Haigh, who said when she writes a novel, she does not share it until she's far along in the process. She doesn't talk about the idea, doesn't give her agent a blurb on what she's writing - nothing. Talking about a work in progress, she said, was like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne: it can let out all the energy and excitement, and make it difficult to continue.

In an interview with GrubStreet, Haigh gave an emphatic "No," to the question of whether she lets her mother read her work in process.

"I don’t even tell anybody what I’m writing.  And my editor doesn’t know what I’m writing about until it’s too late. I’m super protective about my work. I think that work in progress is very porous and very fragile. … It’s the coward’s way out. I don’t want feedback. That’s just a chilling idea to me that I would show somebody a chapter out of context and ask for feedback. It’s really unimaginable to me."

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Now don't get me wrong - my work definitely needs to be edited. But I've found a gentler process that involves a full reading by a trusted editor, and I'm lucky to have an agent who is hands-on with editing as well.

So the bottom line? Use and enjoy writers groups if they help you. Who knows, maybe I'll plug back into one in the future. But don't be afraid to find another editing process that works for you. Different processes work for each of us, and the main thing, at the end of the day, is simply (or not so simply) to write.

 

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creative commons/pixaby

 

Feed that monster

Sometimes it’s hard to write. Things come up – work, family, vacation, illness, life – and writing isn’t the easiest thing to slip into the spaces.

That’s why each of us needs our own, personal, “art monster.”

I first heard this idea from Lauren Groff, award-winning author of the novels Arcadia, Fates and Furies and more. When speaking last year, she talked about sticking with the artist’s life, even through times of crummy jobs and uncertainty.

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“It’s hard, it’s so hard to be a creative person,” Groff said.

But what gets you through the bad times, she said, is waking every day with a commitment to your art, then practicing that commitment. Even if it’s not good in the beginning (because, as Groff said and as we all know, it’s never good at the beginning). You have to keep going and know that you are good. Have faith in yourself.

And that’s where your personal art monster comes in.

“Have an art monster inside of you, and feed it and let it live. Let that art monster stomp around the house,” Groff said.

And while it’s stomping and taking up space, rearranging your life for a bit, sprawling out over your chores, shoving your “real” work to the side for a moment, it’s telling you that you are good. Saying that you’re worth it, that you can do it.

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“It’s about knowing how good you are on the inside and having that faith,” Groff said.

I collaged the idea of an art monster soon after hearing Groff, and ended up with images that reflected a sneaky, creative force, one that slips in through the night and early morning, working without being loud about, though it's still insistent and real and hungry. And while I feel those images still hold true, I’m ready for a louder monster. One that wants to do some stomping. To yell and shout. To say it’s hungry. To jump up and down, and push things around.

It’ll be hard, especially with summer and its strange schedule and extra trips and other fun stuff. But today, at least, I’ll sit for a minute and listen to that monster. And make some space for writing. Because all of us – me included – are worth it.

 

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pixabay.com

Near famous: ornithologist Alexander Wilson

For the past few weeks, my morning drive to work has taken me right by a Wilson's Snipe. The small shore bird, with its pebbly tan body and white chest and incredibly long beak, is always perched on a fence rail overlooking a damp field.

The beak makes the bird.

The beak makes the bird.

I looked the bird up and learned that these birds are shy, nest in well-hidden spots, use their long beak to probe soft earth for insects and worms, and have a special courtship flight that involves flying high in circles then making shallow dives to produce a distinctive noise. And, I learned they were named for Alexander Wilson, a man who's considered the greatest American ornithologist after John James Audubon, but who is definitely not a household name.

Wilson was born in 1766 in Scotland and started off on a weaving apprenticeship, though soon turned to writing poetry (some that was politically charged, most that was not good) and walking the countryside. After failing in writing and in love, he journeyed to America in 1794, settling near Philadelphia.

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He began working as a schoolteacher, then in 1801, left his job over a second love affair gone wrong - this time with a married woman. He started teaching again in Gray's Ferry, Penn., and lived down the street from naturalist William Bartram. 

At Bartram's urging, Wilson decided to produce a collection of drawings of birds. He spent much time outside, alone, once journeying from Gray's Ferry to Niagara Falls. In 1806, he took a job at Roe's Cyclopedia and studied and drew birds in his spare time. He continued with his journeys through the forests, and in 1808, he published his first volume of ornithology, which included his drawings and notes on the behaviors and habitats of the birds.

He continued to travel, trying to garner subscribers for his volumes on ornithology, hitting towns from Maine to Georgia. At one point in February, he decided to take a small skiff down the Ohio River for 720 miles, floating to Cincinnati. By the end, his hands were stiff and unfeeling. He later rode through the thick swamps from Lexington to Nashville, battling dysentery and forests so thick there was barely the light of day.

He went on to publish his volumes, gaining national and international recognition. He took a final long journey north in late 1812, saying he was devoted to finishing his work, even if it killed him, which seemed to be prophetic as he died of dysenterry in 1813.

I love these stories of American naturalists. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe because I enjoy the outdoors, and like to imagine what it would've been like to walk through a land where much of what you saw was still unnamed. Maybe because they're the ultimate adventurers, risking their lives and forgoing a comfortable existence in the effort of identifying the plants and animals around them. 

Maybe because, in a very small way, it reminds me a bit of writing. Setting off into the unknown. Not exactly sure of what you'll find. Going along for the journey anyway.

Hopefully writing won't kill me. Sometimes, especially in the middle of first drafts or tenth revisions, I wonder. But I do it anyway. And I know I'll discover something along the way.

 

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resources: wilsonsociety.org | xroads.virginia.edu

American Ornithology by Alexander Wilson | portrait of Alexander Wilson attributed to Thomas Sully