June 27th, 2016
Turning Whine into Gold
My writing gratitude list, today:
- The excitement (and relief!) of a new story gelling on the page.
- The women who attended my spring writing retreat, so generous with their encouragement, feedback, and gin and tonics.
- Last night’s kayak adventure with them on a glassy lake, after dark and guided by a full moon, that encouraged us to use our senses in a different way.
Wow. I am so full of gratitude this morning it’s hard to stop at three.
That was not always the case.
Eighteen years ago, after my first husband’s suicide, I made many trips to the bookstore, seeking the advice I needed to patch my soul. I had to pull myself around for my young sons, my clients, and the bevy of farm animals who depended on me. On one such trip I sought Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy.
Oh, how I wanted those long-abandoned concepts back in my life.
These emotional states, Ban Breathnach said, could be reached through gratitude. I needed a lot of help, so I implemented her advice in three ways.
In the early days, my nerves were so jangled that all I could do was put one foot in front of the other—literally. Inspired by Ban Breathnach—and begrudgingly at first, I’ll admit—I infused my aimless walks with gratitude: I am grateful for the breeze against my face, the rustle of leaves through the trees, the muscles that power each step. Such commonplace joys so often get buried within the bustle of our lives.
While my mind slowed to a more meditative place on these walks, every now and then a Great Blue Heron, with its crooked neck and six-foot wingspan, flew overhead. Had they just moved into my rural Pennsylvania neighborhood, or had I been too preoccupied with my problems to notice? My curiosity led to research. At sixty million years old, herons exemplify extreme survival ability. Their method of hunting, standing stock still in shallow water awaiting frogs and fish, teaches us balance and patience.
I am grateful for the Great Blue Heron and its survival lessons for the writing life: to observe keenly, to wait patiently while what we need comes to us, and to be aggressive when opportunities present themselves.
Reaching a place of gratitude while walking a country road was an easy place to start. The beauty and resiliency of nature was only a heartbeat away, my challenge was no greater than the next hill, and much-needed, exercise-induced endorphins were flooding my brain. But later, when I climbed into bed alone and exhausted, my anxieties—the echoes of trauma and failure, uncertainty about what was to come, and questions about my own fortitude—insisted on swelling to fill the silence. Even as I deeply desired the salve of sleep, my brain raced. My eyes stayed vigilant. Overwhelm engulfed.
This was when I needed gratitude the most. I kept a journal by my bed and insisted, every night, on infusing my soul with more positive thoughts by listing ten things for which I was grateful. Honestly, while feeling victimized by a turn of events, this list was often, “I am grateful we have groceries. I am grateful for my house. I am grateful for my dog. I am grateful we are alive, even if it doesn’t feel very good right now”—and then I’d repeat that fourth one six more times.
I am grateful that with consistent practice I learned to recognize and cherish small moments of beauty and grace, and that I can apply this skill to remembering all that I love about the writing life.
Grace was my attempt to pass along some of this healing to my 8 and 10-year-old sons. Before dinner we would hold hands (to symbolize our unity) and take turns listing three things we were grateful for (to share our individuality). Well, chips off the old block, those boys. It didn’t take long until they figured out a formula: “I’m thankful for our house, Mom, and Max. Amen.”
Clearly we needed additional ground rules. Now, the three things listed had to be individual to experiences they had that day. This challenged them. It took longer. They were not grateful for this opportunity—at least not at first. But Ban Breathnach promised that when gratitude becomes a habit, the spirit lifts, and our lives bore witness to this simple truth.
I am grateful that my sons and I moved beyond that fear-filled time and were able to set big goals of our own choosing. Writing for publication was my chosen challenge, and it remains my joy and my privilege.
Gratitude is the antidote to whining. We belittle our profession, our creative potential, and our great big hearts if the only things we writers share with one another are our fears and frustrations. Doing so puts us in danger of hardening to life’s moments of magic. Our professional exchanges deserve nurture; negativity can pull our colleagues down even if all we meant to do was extract their comfort.
But joy? That’s ours to find, and no matter what else is going on in your life or career, small moments of it are always within reach when adopting a posture of active gratitude. Why not give it a try?
What three things are you grateful for in your writing life today? Please share!
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.
June 24th, 2016
I love almost all literary devices, but the three in this post’s title are my favorites. I’m sure you heard of them, and have probably used them in your writing, but you may not know the definitions, so here they are:
Motif is any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme.
Theme is what the author is trying to tell the reader. For example, the belief in the ultimate good in people, or that things are not always what they seem. This is often referred to as the “moral of the story.”
Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense.
Thematic Patterning means the insertion of a recurring motif in a narrative.
I’ve used all of them in my books: An ugly scar, to remind the readers of the protagonist’s guilt and shame (Nothing Sweeter). A cowgirl hat to signify the protagonist’s reluctance to change (Sweet on You). White roses, to remind a mother of her grief (The Sweet Spot). Even a motorcycle, to show a character’s running from her past (Her Road Home).
These are powerful and fun to use, because they’re shortcuts; you don’t have to keep reminding the reader with flashbacks and backstory – you can have them look at the symbol, and the reader gets it.
They’re everywhere in literature. The ring, in Tolkien’s series – it’s a symbol of power, good and evil, all rolled into one. The Silence of the Lambs had lambs, but shoes, too. Speaking of shoes, how about The Wizard of Oz? Or the mockingbirds that represent innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird. Hey, this could be a nerdy game for writers on a long road trip – say the book, and the others have to guess the motif!
But before I get carried away with that, hopefully the examples above convince you of the power of these devices.
You can even use more than one symbol or motif in your novel, to weave a strong theme through the story. It helps deepen the emotion and glue the reader to the page.
I did this with my first women’s fiction, Days Made of Glass. I used the symbolism of glass – these are two sisters, on their own at 17 and 13. They live on the edge of society, the edge of disaster. Their lives are fragile. The protagonist is a rodeo bullfighter; her teacher tells her that she has to be faster, better than the men because – they’re wood, she’s glass. Then there’s her mentally ill sister, who shatters glass, and tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrists with it.
The symbol I used was a small glass box, a cheap trinket with a yin yang symbol on the lid.
Yin yang represents forever, which is how the sisters think of their relationship. They’re very close. When Harlie, the eldest, has to leave her catatonic sister in a mental care facility to travel to Texas to train to be a bullfighter, she takes the glass box with her. When it’s broken, it’s the beginning of Harlie understanding that she can’t keep her sister safe – she can’t save her.
What do you think? Have you used symbols, motifs or themes in your writing? How? What about my nerdy writer’s game? Do you have any books you can name with motifs?
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Days Made of Glass
Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.
Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.
Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.
When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.
It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.
A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.
June 22nd, 2016
I started writing my first novel 8 years ago, almost to the day. (I don’t know why I’ll always remember it was July 12th that I wrote those first fateful words.) I had already been writing for years, mostly short stories and some failed attempts at novels, but there was something about this time that was going to be different.
It wasn’t so much that this story idea was any better than the rest. It was more a state-of-mind. I had recently discovered National Novel Writing Month, and along with that, the realization that yes, truly anyone could write a novel. Before then, it had seemed like a pipe dream–something to poke at in the dark corners of my space and time.
That book did end up becoming my first complete novel, but I still didn’t consider myself a “writer.” I’d managed to find the time over those six months to complete a first draft, but there was still so much I didn’t know. It was still just a “hobby.” I hadn’t made it a priority in my life.
ANSWERING THE CALL
Over the next few years, I had my two girls. Through the exhaustion of two pregnancies and the endless sleepless nights that come with newborns, I continued to write because I couldn’t not write, and because in all the chaos, it was my lifeline.
I didn’t think too hard about what writing would mean for my future–it took every ounce of energy I had just to make it through the day.
When my second (and final, for sure!) daughter turned one, life started to finally settle into a routine. The girls weren’t quite so dependent on me, and with that opportunity to breathe and regroup, I had to take a look at what role writing was going to play in my future. Would it continue to be dirty little secret or was I going to make a career of it? In my heart of hearts, I always knew it would be the latter, but being a young mother had been a convenient (and valid) place for me to hide, avoiding the next step. Because let’s face it, declaring yourself a career writer is scary, and the path is hard. We’ve been hearing since we first picked up the pen that it’s almost impossible to make it in this industry, so why set ourselves up for failure? Why put myself out there for rejection?
Nevertheless, I reluctantly decided to move in that direction. I wasn’t 100% sure it was what I wanted or that it was even possible, but felt like it was time to either sink or swim.
COMMITTING TO MY WRITING
Let me tell you, somehow writing had never been harder. I now had a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old and while they were mostly sleeping through the night and were no longer nursing, it felt like parenting had never been harder. Their incessant requests drained me of energy, their frequent colds threw life constantly out of balance, their tantrums had me counting down the seconds until nap time. And don’t even get me started on the days that nap time didn’t happen at all.
On top of that, two pregnancies had taken their toll on my poor body and I began to battle health problems. Writing, now that I had decided to take it “seriously”, became another demand on my time when I had more than my share of demands. I’m embarrassed to admit how angry and hopeless I felt during this time, but I’m sure you can empathize. You can probably even relate.
With sheer stubbornness, I managed to finish my book through all of this and even land an agent. It was an exciting time, but it was also a terrifying time. I was no longer just writing for me, on my own schedule. I had other people counting on my writing now and I still hadn’t discovered the secret to writing every day and to mentally blocking out everything else during those times so I could focus on nothing but my story. But since I had finally committed myself to writing as a career, I knew I had to find a way to overcome all these obstacles.
I did a lot of soul searching and personal growth, and here’s what I came up with…
THE TRUTH BEHIND WHAT WAS HOLDING ME BACK
It was all me. All those obstacles, that lack of energy, those intrusions–it was all me.
Don’t get me wrong–they were very real and very valid (kids are the most demanding little creatures!), but I finally had to admit that they only affected me as much as I allowed them to.
Finding a way to work my writing in around their needs was up to me. How much energy I handed over to them when they threw tantrums was my choice. How much power I gave my health issues over my body was a matter of my mind.
I had been clinging to these barriers because it was safer than admitting that writing was hard and vulnerable and that I was likely to feel like I was failing more often than I felt like I was succeeding. It was so much easier to succumb to stressors and do literally anything else but write…but it wasn’t getting me any closer to my goals.
And making a career of my writing was my goal. Not fully embracing it was just another way I hid in my fear.
Since then, it’s been a long and trying couple of years. Professional edits were the hardest writing challenge I’d ever faced. There have been hundreds of days when I managed to make writing the priority of my day and felt like I was walking on air, and there have been hundreds of days when there was just no way I could rise to the occasion and I felt buried under the weight of my guilt.
CHANGING MY MIND
Are the girls less demanding? If anything, now that they’ve started school, I feel like there are more demands than ever! I navigate two different school schedules, homework, packing lunches, volunteering, and play dates along with the usual household and mothering responsibilities. My health got a lot worse before it started to get better, and even now, it’s a daily battle.
But you know what? I’m a more productive writer than I’ve ever been and it comes easier than it ever has. Not because anything outside of me has truly changed, but because a lot of things inside me have changed.
Here are just a few of those things:
- I no longer allow myself to fall victim to my life or my need to be a writer. Everyone has demands on their time and energy and those demands are never going to stop. Now I find ways to improve, overcome, or work around those demands.
- I’ve made writing the priority of my day and have it scheduled into my routine Monday through Friday. I give my family the weekends so I keep a good balance.
- But I also don’t beat myself up when life gets in the way. Because I no I’m no longer using life as an excuse, I can accept interruptions at face value. Guilt is just another barrier to my writing that I don’t need.
- I am proud to call myself a writer, on the bad days and the good days. Because regardless of what anyone else may think about writers, I know that writing is the most fulfilling way to spend the time I have on this earth.
- And because I take my writing and my writing time seriously, the people around me take my writing seriously. I no longer have to defend or beg for my writing time. I am a writer and I will write–try to stop me!
I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying there won’t be times in life when writing really does have to take a back seat or even come to a complete stop. It happens. What I am saying is that if a writing career is really what you want, you have to be wiling to go to battle for it, even when–especially when–the obstacle you most need to overcome is yourself.
What is the biggest obstacle to your writing? How do you overcome it?
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Jamie Raintree is a writer, a writing business and productivity instructor, and the creator of the Writing & Revision Tracker. Her debut women’s fiction novel will release Summer 2017. Subscribe to her newsletter for more blogs, workshops, and book news. To find out more, visit her website below.
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Women’s Fiction & Romance Writer
June 20th, 2016
Dr. Ann Garvin
“How did you get a book published?” I get this question from the check-out lady at the Pick ‘N Save’ to the mechanic who is fixing the air conditioning in my car to my dentist (but he always waits until I can’t speak so he can tell me about his book). The short answer is I became an expert on what you have to do to get a book published. The long answer can’t really be covered in a short conversation.
I realized that nested within this question are so many others and so began my idea for this post. I asked my writing students to make a list of perceived roadblocks to publishing, so we could talk about navigating these This is a sample of what they came up with. When you read them do you see what I see?
- I don’t know if my writing is any good.
- I don’t know if my book is any good.
- I don’t know who to ask about either of the above two.
- I think I might be too old to start this.
- What are comparables? How do I pick comparables?
- How do you write a query letter?
- Who do I query?
- How would I classify my book?
- What’s a platform? What counts as a platform?
The answers to these questions require one-on-one conversations with each writer talking specifically about their project.
Everyone in the class wanted a nap and a cookie after this.
I get it.
I was a Girl Scout and one of the best things about being a Girl Scout was that there was a manual with checklists in it. If you wanted the Back Yard Fun or Gypsy badges you opened to those pages in the manual and got to work checking off boxes. Publishing isn’t that. There isn’t a linear check-list. It’s more like an Etch-A-Sketch where the writer has a vision and she/he must go back and forth over-and-over it again until the vision starts to look a little like a book.
Can this process be expedited? Can we skip a few steps and get there a little less frustrated and little more excited? The answer is Yes but you have to ask the right questions to the right people.
The thing is, before I wrote fiction, I was (am) a scientist. When I’m not writing or teaching writing I’m teaching research methods. The one thing you learn as a scientist is to ask the right questions from the right people.
This is tricky. There are so many people who are willing to give you advice. Everyone appears to be an expert when the fact is, some people are experts and some people are just trying to make a living. It’s all good though because this is a buyers market. You get to decide who you want to work with.
The five questions you really need to ask will take a little courage but writing takes courage so you’re already there.
1. What are you particularly qualified to help me with?
The right people will be clear about what they can and cannot give you. They are able to articulate what their expertise area is and what it isn’t. For example, I’m really good at shaping manuscripts, writing queries, and listing what is missing in an ‘almost there’ story. But, if you want to know where a comma goes. I am not that girl. The rules are a mystery to me. If you came to me for line edits I would give you the name of a line editor. I know my limitations and I’m not going to fix errors. That’s co-dependency and I learned that….oh, wait. That’s my next novel.
2. Have you worked as an editor or writer and can I check your references?
The right people are living, working, and excel in the field you are asking for help in. They should be able to provide success stories, references, and a relevant history. They may have edited a hundred manuscripts but have any of them gone on to being published? Ask that question. Maybe they had a best seller ten years ago but times change and so does the industry, are they currently publishing their own work?
3. Where can I see your published fee-schedule?
The right people are reasonably priced but are neither giving away their services nor over charging. They should meet the industry standards and any excess should be related to question number two above. If they have a chart on their website that compares prices to other services you know you have the right place. Their prices should be extremely clear so that no assumptions are made on either side. You know what they say, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
4. Will I get published after employing you?
The right people will not say, “I have the connections to get you published.” Nor will they say, “If you…you will get published.” They will make no guarantees at all except to give you what you paid for, their answer to this question should be, “No”.
5. Do you have teaching qualifications outside of what you yourself claim?
I mean, you can word that in a nicer way, but for our purposes, this is what you should ask. If you are taking a class you should take it from people who are teachers. They should have teaching qualifications or have students who recommend them. Their only claim to teaching shouldn’t be their own praise, “I’m a great teacher.” Some people are authors, some people are business owners and some people are teachers. There are even people who are all of these, you should find these people.
The thing is, you’re worth these hard questions. These questions take time upfront. Before I was a teacher, an author, and a business owner I read that the number one mistake people make on the way to their idealized future is impatience. I know this is true. Wasting time and money on sub-standard services is wasting your dream.
Nobody has all the answers, and no blog post can help you navigate all the roadblocks that exist between you and holding your published book in your hand Knowing the right questions to ask can help clear the air and help you find the people that hold the answers. Knowledge is power and in this case knowledge could mean publishing.
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Dr. Ann Garvin, is an internationally published author, speaker and professor. Her novels, I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around, The Dog Year, and On Maggie’s Watch are each about women who struggle to find their way in a world that asks too much from them, too often. Garvin balances her literary pursuits with teaching in the University of Wisconsin and New Hampshire systems, and teaching at writing conferences.
In her free time she runs the The Fifth Semester and the marketing collective The Tall Poppy Writers while raising a family. Garvin teaches at a low residency Masters of Fine Arts Program and recently decided she could do something similar for half their price. Her desire is to help wonderful writers access the knowledge and tools that traditional and low-residency MFAs in creative writing just don’t offer.
June 17th, 2016
Ah, backstory. According to many, this is the BIG BAD WORD in fiction. How many times have you heard someone say, “Backstory is bad, strip it from the scene!” or, “Backstory slows the pace, bogs down the action, and will only bore the reader.” Well, if you hang out at the same online writerly spaces as I do, probably you hear this said quite often.
But here’s the thing…Backstory is not the F Word.
In fact, it’s pretty dang important.
Part of the problem with blanket statements is that they can do a lot of damage. So, let’s discuss, and hopefully change a few minds about this sacred cow advice in the process.
Hidden Backstory vs. Visible Backstory
There are two types of backstory: hidden backstory, which is for you the author, and visible backstory, which is for the reader. Both are important, and both are absolutely necessary to build a successful novel.
Hidden backstory is all the great stuff authors need to understand about their characters, especially the hero or heroine. Among other things, this might be knowing the character’s passions and beliefs, how a skill or talent came about, who influenced them in good ways and bad throughout their life, the fears they grapple with, and the source of their deepest emotional wounds.
Knowing our characters intimately means we are able to write them authentically: every action, decision, and choice will line up with who they are deep down. But if we don’t take the time to chart our character’s backstory, we won’t know what makes them tick or why they do the things they do. Chances are, we’ll end up with a one-dimensional character that won’t hold the reader’s attention beyond a few pages.
Visible backstory is the hidden backstory the author intentionally shares with readers so that they better understand the character’s motivation. In other words, this type of backstory supplies context when it is needed.
For example, you could read about a character who avoids everything red: tomatoes, pomegranates, holiday sweaters—he even grows ill at the sight of blood. If the author shows him refusing to buy a couch because it is red or even throwing away a gift basket of beautiful red apples, it stands out as odd, unreasonable, and may even put readers off because they don’t get it. However, with a subtly added touch of backstory, suddenly there is context for this behavior:
Lucas traded his paint roller for a blue-smudged cloth, wiped his hands, and then pressed his knuckles into his hips to stretch. His back resisted the move to straighten, but stiffness couldn’t steal his grin. This was the third coat and hopefully the last, but it was worth doing. To give both himself and the house a fresh start, he needed to do this with his own hands. And now, midday light streamed through the window and glimmered off the blue paint, an expansive wall stretching across the room like his own private sky.
His gaze found a thin slash of old crimson paint at the top of the wall, and his lips flat-lined. Why the previous owners would choose such a hue, he couldn’t fathom, but he wouldn’t live in this house until all of it was covered. Twenty years had gone by, but the sight of that shade never failed to put him back in Gramma Jean’s pantry, with the damp rot and moldering fruit and rats scrabbling behind red-lacquered walls. Lucas could not look at the color without remembering the screams wrenching from his throat and the pain of his tiny fingers clawing at the door until they bled. Gramma Jean might have been long dead, but the memory of what she’d done, over and over, remained.
The doorbell chimed, and Lucas jolted his gaze from the red strip. Some time on a ladder with a small brush and it would be as if the red never was. If only the past could be so easily erased. He swallowed down the bitterness coating his mouth and threw on his best “friendly new neighbor” smile on his way to the door.
Now, with the addition of backstory, we see Lucas’ behavior for what it is: echoes of fear from a past trauma. Not only does this give readers clarity regarding his actions, it pulls them in through this personal doorway to an old wound that still pains him.
The reason why backstory is so frequently demonized is that it’s easy to be heavy-handed when delivering it. When showing an important moment from a character’s past sometimes we get so caught up in painting the picture for readers that we try and deliver a Rembrandt. The result is a painfully lengthy flashback, or the dreaded info dump, each the literary equivalent of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
With backstory, the trick is to only show what is necessary to supply context–no more, and no less. Tie it to the current scene, and to the emotions at play, so that it is seamlessly delivered along with the action. Choose powerful details to convey what you need to. Like the thin strip of red paint in the example above, think about what symbols in the setting can be used to create a doorway to the past. Make each word earn the right to be included. In this way, we can add depth and meaning without sacrificing the pace.
For a deeper look at how to using the setting to deliver backstory successfully, please reference The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces.
Do you have thoughts or questions about backstory? How do you slide it into your stories?
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.