Saturday, October 08, 2016

How Not To Be A Writer

I am a sucker for anything that sounds like it will make me a better writer. I love to read writing craft books. I love taking classes. And, lately, I find myself attending all kinds of free webinars, most of which exist because someone wants to sell you a course, but they often have a few nuggets of information that make them worthwhile.

The one I went to yesterday did not have a single nugget in it, unless it occurred during the last half of the presentation, because I decided I didn’t want to waste any more of my precious time.

This webinar seductively played on the myth of writer as author. Almost everyone wants to be an author. They have an idea for a book and long to be able to point to copies of this book on their shelves as they tell their friends and relatives, “In my book…” There’s some kind of cachet about being able to call yourself an author.

But very few people actually sit down and write the book, much less go through all the hard work that makes it something worth publishing so that other people will read it. They’ll talk about their book all the time as something they’re going to do “someday.” When they run into a published writer, they’ll suggest that they’ll tell the writer their idea for a book so the writer can write it. Then they’ll split the profits. What the wannabe author doesn’t realize is that ideas are easy. Writing a book is hard.

But that’s exactly where this webinar started. You can be an author. All you have to do is hire one of those writer people to write the book for you. Or, if you don’t have the money to do that, you might have to write it yourself. And this guru was perfectly willing to tell you how to do that.

It started out okay with the instruction to set up a writing time, a schedule. True. All writers know they’re more productive if they treat writing as a job. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You have to force it to show up by sitting at your computer every day and working.

But then it went off into LaLa Land. The next suggestions were all about creating the right environment. Find your special writing place. Set the thermostat to the proper temperature. Choose your writing music. Drink water. Eat healthy food.

These are things newbie writers—and sometimes old-timers as well—discuss endlessly. They post pictures of their writing space. They start long discussion threads on the best music to write to. However, they’re more likely to discuss what kind of coffee or tea they drink or what’s their favorite junk food reward than how many glasses of water they drink.

The thing is, none of that has anything to do with becoming a writer, much less an author. You can spend an awful lot of time setting up your perfect place to write or shuffling through iTunes or Spotify to create the perfect playlist and pretend it’s all part of becoming a writer.

It’s not.

All that stuff is throat-clearing, procrastinating on doing any actual writing.

The next section was on choosing the right writing tools. This included Scrivener (my favorite), Evernote, and learning multi-markdown. More throat-clearing.

You don’t need any fancy tools. You can write with a yellow pad and a pencil. You can use Word, which you most likely already own, or a simple text-editing program. You can make notes on index cards or the back of an envelope, if you still happen to have any of those around.

But again, you can spend a lot of time trying out different writing applications (and, if you post a question about what’s the best one to any writer’s forum or mailing list, you’ll get several suggestions and more of those long discussions), learning how to use them, then running through editing applications, mind-mapping applications, etc. I’ve been writing seriously for fifteen years and published six novels. I have never learned multi-markdown and doubt that I ever will.

When the presenter moved on to the idea of writing a book proposal, even if you wanted to write a novel, even if you intended to self-publish, I bailed.

If you want to be a writer—or an author—there’s only one thing you have to do. You have to write.

You don’t have to find the perfect place to do it. You just have to find a place. You don’t need a playlist. In fact, I prefer writing in silence. You don’t need to buy any writing tools. You can start with whatever application you own now.

The important thing is to start writing and keep writing. Some say you must write every day. I think you can set a schedule that includes days off, just like a real job. But you have to put words on paper or type them into your computer. You have to stop saying “someday” and start saying “today.”

Now, it just happens that now is the perfect time to get started. November is National Novel Writing Month, an event which was created for all those people who want to write a novel “someday.”

During NaNoWriMo, thousands of people all over the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Most of them have never tried to write a novel, so you won’t be alone. You’ll learn to form the habit of writing every day, of setting a goal and, hopefully, meeting it. You’ll learn that a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done. And, if you’re lucky, you might discover that your muse shows up on occasion and leads you into worlds of imagination you didn’t know existed.

So, if you want to be a writer—or even an author—click over to NaNoWriMo and join in the fun. Start writing.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Summer Hiatus

I feel like I’m about to write a confession.

Dear Readers: It’s been two months since I posted a blog.

I hate making excuses. I believe in fulfilling commitments. When I started this blog, I made a commitment to myself that I would write a new post every two weeks, not every two months. Over the years, I’ve taken different tacks on what those posts have been.

At one time, I would post a book review once a month. That seemed useful, but it was also hard. To review a book means you have to read it, and my reading time has decreased as my writing time has increased. Then there was always the dilemma of what if I really didn’t like a book. I know the writers of many of the books I read, if not personally, at least in a casual, online way. I consider them colleagues, and some are friends. Writing a critical review can be hurtful, and that’s the last thing I want to be. Praising a book I don’t like is dishonest and not being helpful to readers. So I stopped reviewing books.

I’ve written about places I’ve visited, always interesting material. I haven’t had a vacation in a couple of years and haven’t gone any place special for a while. Even Nandi, the baby elephant, turned two this week, and it must be close to two years since I’ve been to the zoo to visit her.

I’ve written about writing, but there are so many other writers who know so much more about it than I do, I feel like a fraud trying to teach other writers about craft.

So I ran out of interesting things to say, and went back to what I do best: sitting quietly and observing.

This year has also been intense as far as writing goes. At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal of publishing the three African Violet Club mysteries for which I’d written first drafts, and writing at least one brand new novel to be published before the end of the year. “Royal Purple Murder,” the third in the series, is now finished and will be released on September 1st. I’ve done minimal planning on the fourth book. For one thing, I need a break. For another, some life events have intervened and I’ve used that break to focus on other priorities. But I’m really looking forward to getting started on the next book.

I’ve also become addicted to Facebook. Unlike a blog post, where it can take days for people to read it and few respond, Facebook posts get almost immediate feedback. It’s fun when it isn’t annoying, which in this election season, is more often than I care for. But it’s still more tempting in breaks from writing to jump on Facebook than to think about a new blog post.

Many authors have stopped blogging entirely for similar reasons. I haven’t decided to stop, but I am going to have to come up with a new focus for this blog if I’m continue writing it. The only point in continuing is if people read the words. Getting responses is also important. Otherwise, it’s like shouting down a well.

So I’m asking you what you would like to hear about? If you’ve read my blog in the past, what kinds of posts did you enjoy most? If you haven’t, what kinds of things interest you?

I’m truly interested in knowing.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Shadow Life

I’m currently reading Turning Pro by Stephen Pressfield. This is somewhat of a follow-up to his bestselling The War of Art.  Both books are about what keeps a writer from writing or an artist from drawing or a musician from performing. They’re about resistance, that tendency of creatives to find anything else to do except create art.

One of the things wannabe writers do is live a shadow life. Instead of actually writing, they go to writers groups, hang out on Facebook, buy yet another book on how to write, talk about the book they want to write, etc. Anything except actually putting words on paper or a computer screen.

M.C. Beaton has a character like this in her Agatha Raisin mystery series. Agatha’s next door neighbor and sometime love interest has been “writing a book” for years. But he never seems to make progress. Instead he has a cottage filled with research books.

The concept reminds me of myself in high school. I liked the kids who acted in the plays or played in the orchestra or worked on the yearbook or contributed to the literary magazine. We hung out together. But while they were actually working on those things, I was merely a hanger on. I was too shy to act onstage, even to volunteer to work backstage. I quit band in my senior year rather than working hard enough to be selected for the orchestra. I went to a few meetings of the yearbook staff, but didn’t do any work on the yearbook.

That behavior was classic resistance, the fear of failing, or, possibly, succeeding. This behavior followed me for a good portion of my adult life.

Convinced that I could never be a writer, I focused on my day job as a computer programmer. I loved learning and applying new techniques, solving business problems, seeing code I’d written do exactly what I intended. I told myself writing computer code was creative. It is, but not in the same way as writing is.

Even when I finally decided to pursue my dream of being a writer, I eased into it. I joined Sisters in Crime, went to writing conferences, bought a ton of writing craft books. I found some online writer groups to hang out with. And after five years, I still didn’t have a completed book. Again I watched other writers get agents, book contracts, be part of panels at those conferences. Meanwhile, I took out that book on weekends and fiddled with it some more.

More years passed and more life changes. I gave up on the first book and started a few others. I still went to writers groups and talked about writing. I was still living the shadow life of a wannabe writer.

As I grew older, the day job became much less satisfying. No one wants to hire an old programmer. They want the kids, the ones with the brand new skills, the ones who were willing to work 60-80 hour weeks. I was stuck in a job I hated. I wanted to retire. I wanted to write.

But I had niggling doubts still. Was I willing to take the steps to be a real writer or was I still a wannabe living a shadow life?

I decided I had to prove my desire to myself. No more excuses about lack of time or needing to recuperate after a tough week at work. After watching Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture , I knew all my excuses, all my walls, were there for a reason. So how willing was I to conquer those walls?

I promised myself that if I could finish a publishable book, I’d allow myself to retire. I got up early and made myself write. I stopped finding other things to do that let me be a shadow writer. And I did it. I finished the book.

Over the past three years, I had to conquer other fears. I had to screw up the courage to actually press that Publish button on Amazon for Faith, Hope, and Murder. And again for Shadow of Death. I had to learn to promote my work (I’m still not very good at this), to tell everyone I had a book for sale. I had to make myself write a few short stories, something I always tell myself is much harder than writing a novel. I had to keep writing new work and putting it out there, chancing the dreaded one-star reviews and criticisms.

I’m no longer living a shadow life. I’m a writer. Yes, I’m too often tempted to spend too much time on Facebook or email, which is why I need to read one of Steven Pressfield’s books on a regular basis. To remind me that writers write. They do the work.

You can see the latest result of this writing work in Blood Red Murder, the second in my African Violet Club Mysteries. It will be at the introductory price of 99 cents until the end of June.

And, on Monday, I’ll be back to work, revising the third in the series and planning on publishing that one in July. Because writing is what I do now. I’m no longer content with a shadow life.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Happy Book Day to Me!

Well, not today. In the flurry of publishing and sending out the announcement to my newsletter subscribers (you are on my newsletter list, aren't you?), and posting to Facebook, I somehow missed making an announcement here that "True Blue Murder" has been released.

This is such a fun series to write, I plunged right into revisions for the second book, "Blood Red Murder." And I've already got ideas for the fourth book in the series and can't wait to get started on that one. But first I'll have to release Red (coming on or about June 15th) and "Royal Purple Murder" (coming in July).

As a reward to myself for releasing the book, I ordered more African violets from the Violet Barn. Unlike Lilliana, I am not an expert grower of African violets. I'm not entirely sure what I do wrong. Part of it is watering, to be sure. I find it hard to know exactly how often and how much to water. Supposedly you're not supposed to let them get too dry. And following that up with a soaking is supposed to be bad, too. But, strangely enough, I've had success with that kind of treatment--totally by accident--in the past.

Then there's light and fertilizer (how much? how often?) and grooming and repotting (again, how often?). The desert of Arizona presents another problem with its extremely dry air, especially this time of year. It's been so dry and my nose has been giving me such problems, I bought a second humidifier and put it in my office. But I haven't yet bought a humidifier for my plants. (Yes, Lilliana is smarter than I am about that.)

Anyway, over time I lost a lot of my plants. It seemed as if one day they were thriving, and the next they were dried up shells of their former selves. So, while I've also had some success starting new plants from leaves, I had fewer African violets than when I started. I decided I was entitled to buy some new ones, in new colors, to inspire new books.

When they arrived, it was like Christmas! One even had two pink blooms on it. I've got them in quarantine while I make sure they didn't arrived with any passengers. I've never received plants from the Violet Barn that were infested with pests, but better safe than sorry. I'm already looking at another lighted plant stand and trying to figure out if I can fit that purchase in my budget.

Although it will take months for my baby plants to adapt to Arizona and their new environment, I'm already imagining them covered with blossoms. It makes me smile every time I look at them. Which is why I grow African violets. Because everyone needs more smiles in their life.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Loss of Belief

Last month, a story from National Geographic came up in my Twitter feed that gave me pause. The line said “The World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” Churches have noticed this trend unknowingly by seeing membership decline and attendance dwindle. What might have been perceived as an organizational or local problem is actually a worldwide phenomenon.

In 2014, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking made a big media splash, a one-day wonder, with the announcement that there is no God. His belief is that science can explain everything. He even made the statement that “we would know everything that God would know,” which sounds suspiciously like the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Religion used to form the core of a person’s life. It defined their place in the world, had established rituals for life events like birth, puberty, marriage, and death. It united society with a sense of morals and traditions and customs. It defined right and wrong, what was acceptable and what was not. A secular world substitutes laws for values, certificates for ceremonies.

I understand how this came about. It’s hard to understand the teachings of an itinerant preacher of the first century, or the leader of a people who received a set of stone tablets that defined God’s law before that. Our world has expanded, and we learned of cultures that weren’t Judeo-Christian, that had a very different set of beliefs about God than ours. The idea of a heaven in the clouds makes no sense when we send men to the moon. Scientists make pronouncements filled with math and logic about their amazing discoveries, things that are nowhere mentioned in the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita.

On a day to day basis, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference whether we believe in God or not.

Or does it?

Joseph Campbell, in his classic “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” describes many myths and religions throughout the world. It appears as if, no matter what the specific belief system, there are certain stories that are universal. How could these stories from so many places and so many times be the same when the peoples who told (and tell) them are isolated from one another?

And how do you explain that sense of “the other” that some of us have experienced?

I believe that there are two ways of knowing truth: the scientific and the mystical. Science provides what we need to build cities and roads and power plants. It can take us across the ocean or, one day, to Mars. It’s easy to experience. It’s composed of what we can see and touch. (Except theoretical physics, which often seems like magic to me, but those revered scientists seem to be able to explain it to one another, so I’ll take their word for it.) The experience of it is repeatable. If I drop a ball, it’s going to fall down every single time. (Barring other influencing factors, but you know what I mean.)

The mystical is harder. For one thing, it’s not out there. It’s inside you. Most of the time, you can’t point to it or pick it up in your hands. If a doubter says, “Show me God—or spirit or a miracle,” a challenge Jesus faced often, a believer will try to explain how the doubter needs to see. But since the whole method is different than the way science teaches us to see, the doubter has an impossible time understanding and so concludes that the believer is delusional.

Because the mystical is not experienced with the senses, but with the spirit or soul, it requires quiet. You can’t experience it with the television on or in a lecture or driving to work. You have to calm your thoughts, something that’s very difficult for me to do. I have hamster brain. If the world is quiet around me, my brain runs on a wheel, pulling up worries and old memories or lists of all the things I should be doing. It’s hard to listen for the other.

There are techniques to quiet conscious thought. Meditation, with the chanting of a mantra that drowns out the hamster, can work. Walking a labyrinth, which requires focusing on the next step and slows you down to a measured pace, works for me. Music—not rock and roll or jazz or country, but something like Gregorian chants—can also fill the mind with quiet. Even today’s latest fad of adult coloring books has somewhat of the same effect.

If you think about today’s world, it’s rarely quiet. And we rarely spend time with ourselves. Even when alone, we’re texting or following Twitter or doing something else with our phones or iPads. There’s a racket of mental noise.

But in the quiet, you can sometimes glimpse God.

I can hear the doubters mocking that statement. But how do you explain places like Iona or Rosslyn, which have been sacred to different religions through time? Or Jerusalem, sacred to three major religions? These places are often described as being where the veil between worlds is thin.

I used to go to a Unitarian church in Massachusetts, a religion which doesn’t even think you have to believe in God to belong. It was an old building, and it stood on a hill above the town. The first time I walked inside, I got a sense of “presence.” I immediately knew I was standing on holy ground. It is another of those thin places.

And how do you explain that personal experience of the other by perfectly sane people?

I know a lot of evil has been committed in the name of religion. It’s not something to be proud of. But I also think humanity experiences a great loss when it ignores the mystical. The loss is something I mourn.