July 29th, 2016
“But Kelly, why did you wait three years between books?”
Three. Long. Years.
That’s how long I went between publishing my first book, THE GOOD LUCK GIRLS OF SHIPWRECK LANE, and the one coming out now, THE MATCHMAKERS OF MINNOW BAY.
Not because my publisher jerked me around—they’ve been wonderful. Not because of an agent switch—do not be crazy. Not because I wasn’t writing. I was writing. Because three years is how long it took to bring my absolute best to press. And I’m here to tell you, no amount of self-flagellation was going to change that. Trust me, I tried.
In that time I wrote two really really crappy first drafts of other books. The ideas had no legs, the characters had no eyes, and the settings had no heart. I was writing, and I was learning, but I wasn’t making a book.
In that time I got divorced from a very sad marriage. I cried a lot; I tried to put on a brave face. I gave myself pep talks about being better off on my own that I didn’t quite believe. I was surviving, but I wasn’t making a book.
I took care of a beautiful baby who became a beautiful toddler and then a beautiful kid. I showed him enough love for seven parents. I fed him organic quinoa which was probably unnecessary. I was a making a great human, but I wasn’t making a book.
I said goodbye to my father, who died of liver cancer. I cried a lot and didn’t even try for a brave face. I kept my mom close and hurt when she hurt, and then over time started to feel better. But I wasn’t making a book.
But these events, and there were a lot of events, are not the real reason this book took so long. The reason this book took so long is because the whole time I was doing all these things, I was also yelling at myself. “Write more! Write faster! Write better!” And my self looked back at me and rolled its eyes and simply said, No. I fought and I fought and I fought but nothing good came out. I couldn’t fake it. I couldn’t push through. I gave myself lots of strong talks about how other writers COULD push through, but this did not actually help, it turns out.
Finally, at some point, a friend told me to write something on a post-it and put it by my bed. It said, “It takes as long as it takes.” I made lots of protesting noises about tautologies. But of course she was right. When I gave myself permission to take as long as I needed—not to quit, not to slack, not to go work at the Home Depot as I often fantasize about—but to just to settle in for the long haul, a book came along. And as I wrote, the book got better and better and better, until one day, I was proud enough to share it with my amazing agent, and my wonderful publisher and my incredible readers.
And when will my next book come out after all this?
I guess it will take as long as it takes.
Hopefully it takes fewer than three years.
What’s your default self-talk when your life and your writing stop getting along? Do you have any useful mantras for these moments?
Kelly Harms is celebrating the $2.99 promotion of her first book, is halfway through a new book she’s thrilled about, and is proud mother of a little boy who swims like a fish and fishes like a bassmaster. Her new novel, THE MATCHMAKERS OF MINNOW BAY, comes out August 9th and is available for preorder now.
Find Kelly online at …
July 27th, 2016
You’ve heard about it. You’ve been in it. You may have even gotten lost in it.
The writing cave. The mystical hole we decorate with junk food and tea and bury ourselves in to meet deadlines.
It’s comfortable. We have our favorite, overstuffed chair and a wash-worn blanket we cuddle in. A candle flickers in the corner and soft music drifts around our shoulders like a mesmerizing piece of gauze, fluttering in the breeze that sneaks in through the cave’s opening. It reminds us there’s an outside world, so we turn our back and furiously type away at the keys.
The writing cave is a necessary place. When we have a deadline.
But not for all time.
A cave is not a place for a soul that is living and breathing and thrives in the light.
Because you know what else you find in caves?
Bats, skeletons, moles. Creatures that shrivel and shrink from lack of sun and fresh air. They become deformed and shadowed. Things that crave the darkness and the stillness and the being-alone-all-the-time.
Think about Gollum. He was once a Hobbit-like creature. He loved playing in the sun, being with other creatures, until he found that ring. It was so shiny, so special, and it sent him into the darkness to keep to himself, keep the ring safe, keep the ring hidden. Until the ring was no more than a whisper of a dead tale and Gollum was forgotten and wiped from memory.
Our stories are like the One Ring.
Our stories are very much like a shiny, magical ring. They call to us, they sing to our minds and hearts and make us want to shout what we have to the world. But we don’t. Because it’s special. Our story is precious. It begs us to crawl into the cave, under the, sometimes very real, guise of a deadline and keep to ourselves to do our creative work. Keep our story safe. Keep our story hidden.
Until our stories are no more than a whisper of the tale it once could have been and we become forgotten within our own community.
Writers are solitary creatures.
Yes, writers crave being alone in our writing space and doing our creative work and it is completely necessary to do so.
(you knew there was a but coming)
…when we stay in our writing space and we don’t experience and interact with the world, we shrivel. Our stories become stagnant and depressed and unoriginal because we don’t have the new experiences to feed the little creative creature that lives inside us.
I could bore you with scientific facts about how creativity thrives in a new environment, but I’ll resist. I could preach proven psychological tidbits about how it is imperative that a creative personality have new experiences to make the synapses fire that feed the creative center in the brain, but I won’t. I could recite lists of innovative thinkers and world-famous authors who attribute their creative problem-solving and master storytelling to their travels around the world, but I’ll refrain.
Because you know this. It’s the whisper on the breeze that sometimes sneaks into your cave. You turn your back, because deadlines! Sacred creativity! Fear.
That breeze is a little warm, compared to the coolness of the cave. Warmer than you’re used to.
It speaks of the outside world. Friends ready to welcome you back to the writing tribe. Cultures you’ve never experienced. A salty sea breeze and the call of a seagull. Sand that begs you to dig your toes in deeper and build a sand castle. The musical sound of native French spoken in a café.
It’s time to come out of your cave.
Don’t be scared. The writing tribe always wants new members. We’re here. Waiting with open arms.
You can start with a small tribe. Your local writing chapter, some friends who also write. You can go to a writing conference or even a small writing retreat (on land or on the water – more about that below) where you all experience something new, together. Maybe even go to a place you’ve never been before that will breathe fresh life into your struggling story.
Soon, you’ll slowly stop crouching in a hunched over position. You’ll stand, stretch, and for the first time in a long time, be able to deeply breathe.
And you’ll be with others who are doing the Exact. Same. Thing.
And maybe, that story that is wiggling around inside you will finally break from its cocoon and spread its wings.
Are you a cave dweller or do you get out regularly? Do you attend conferences or retreats? Meet with local groups?
Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. When she’s not cruising the Caribbean, she’s dreaming up new writing retreats to take talented authors on or writing the stories of the imaginary people that live in her heart.
About Cruising Writers
Cruising Writers brings aspiring authors together with bestselling authors, an agent, an editor, and a world-renowned writing craft instructor together on writing retreats. Cruise with us to Belize this October (almost sold out!) or go to France with us in 2017 and stay in a historic chateau with Margie Lawson, Louise Fury, Shelley Adina, Kobo Writing Life, and Literary Translations.
July 25th, 2016
Turning Whine Into Gold
While the writing life can be full of joy (We make our own hours! We’re doing what we love! We work by dreaming up new possibilities!), I think we can all agree that it is also full of scenarios that can suck us into whirlpools of stress. Many of them have to do with the added pressure of deadlines.
How many times have you read a long editorial letter right before a deadline and emailed back, “This looks doable!” even as your stomach knots? Publishing is a business requiring cold hard deadlines, yet the writing it relies upon requires nurturing whose exact quantity is unknown. It’s like all those times you told your spouse you’d be down for dinner in fifteen minutes, only to descend after an hour or more flew past.
While writing that last paragraph, my sister was sitting behind me using her laptop trying to order something on Amazon Prime that was on flash sale. Ten minutes until the sale ended: pushing herself faster than she would have liked, she hit “send” too soon and had to cancel the order because the item would be automatically sent to her home address while she is visiting me for the summer. Seven minutes till the end of the flash sale: she re-entered all the info and hit “send”—yes!—but the order was rejected because they wouldn’t send to our PO box. Five minutes till the end of the sale—tick, tick, tick—and she could barely navigate the form. She finally found the place to add the street address but had to cancel another time because she typed in her debit card information rather than the desired credit card. Only three minutes to go! She took a deep breath, centered herself, and retyped the order slowly and successfully.
You could almost see the adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her heart rate was elevated. She’d been holding her breath. Her muscles were tense, causing typing errors. She got the job done, yes, but now she’s in the next room doing yoga.
Many of us writers adore deadlines. They inspire us to organize our workload and get things done. Help us prioritize. And let’s face it, without a bit of time squeeze, many writers would surrender to the couch and the bonbons.
But the adrenaline response that can see us through a tight deadline is an emergency measure. If invoked for the long haul, aided by the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, it can break down your body (think heart attack, chronic pain, raised blood sugar, weight gain, inability to sleep), frazzle the mind (memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, anxiety), and lead to self-medication (alcoholism, sleeping pills, other drug use). Add to this the fact that most writers are sensitive in every way, and it’s important to get a handle on stress before it manhandles you.
So what can we do in this uncertain, novel-a-year market, in which so many of us have known the kind of stress that scrambles our brains and clamps down on our problem-solving capabilities?
The answer is obvious: we need to learn how to handle stress better. Right?
To prolong our creative lives, we need to become even more sensitive to stress so we can recognize quicker its deleterious effect in our lives.
Stress is an injury to the soul in the same way that an ankle sprain is an injury to the body. After you sprain an ankle, would you ever think to say, “I think I’ll go out and run a few miles to get rid of this pain?” Of course not. Yet what do we do when a deadline looms and we feel our hearts pounding and our muscles tensing and our creativity floundering? We roll up our sleeves, dig in, and redouble our efforts.
That may not be the way to achieve optimal results.
In times of stress, we need full access to our store of wisdom, creativity, and the optimistic belief that we will prevail. These characteristics are the polar opposite of those exhibited by someone mired within a prolonged stress response.
The lower your tolerance is for stress, the quicker you will nip it in the bud and take restorative action. The simple reminder that you chose to be busy can remind you of the joy writing brings to you. Add a walk outside so the back burner thinking can kick in, a snack with protein to even out your blood sugar, and a glass of water to get the blood flowing, and the answers that seemed so elusive a half hour ago may start flowing through your fingertips—even with a deadline looming.
Everyone’s ability to tolerate stress is different. The main point here is to take the time to tune in and learn what stress feels like in your body and mind. When you see the signs, don’t ignore it. Stop and find a way to relieve it.
What symptoms of extended stress have you noticed, and what have you done to address them? Please share what’s worked for you!
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.
July 22nd, 2016
Things that are never the same: snowflakes, fingerprints, and a writer’s process. While surely there are more one-of-kind instances, process is the topic I’ve popped in to chat about today. It’s a good choice, since I flunked meteorology back in the eighth grade and my fingerprint knowledge is limited to a thorough Google search.
Right or wrong, I know a little about how to get words on a page—or not. And I’d love to hear your wordsmith habits at the end of this post.
Process, like those snowflakes and fingerprints, is individual to each writer. The sphere of process encompasses everything, from the cup you take your coffee in to things more specific to writing, like editing—or maybe that’s the other way around. I bet more writers would be willing to toy with their editing process than how many cups of courage it takes to get going on any given morning.
Here’s difference number one—I don’t drink coffee. And while you might call it crazy, I can promise that I’m off to a better start if that simple Tetley brew is served in the ugly blue cup from Pier One. I think I paid $2.50 for it about a dozen years ago. It has a nasty chip in the side, and those who live here know never to touch it, unless unloading it from the dishwasher, in which case it’s handled with the care given to heirloom china or fairies’ wings.
Before starting this post, I perused my Facebook newsfeed. (How else would I procrastinate?) It didn’t take long for spillover process to turn up, writing triumphs and tragedies: “OMG, I hit 100K mark! This book is officially done!” “Kill me now. Without a doubt, this draft is the worst POS I’ve ever written!” Somewhere in between kvetching and celebrating, fill the blanks with writer-rich thoughts and you’ve got process.
Are most writers morning people? Show of hands, please. For me, it’s a rare day that a decent sentence shows up after lunchtime. I’m more flexible about where I write. I prefer my dedicated desk in my dedicated writing room, but I’ve been known to work well in crowded airports and other bustling venues. In fact, I wrote most of my first book sitting on the floor of Children’s Hospital in Boston. My middle daughter was ill for a long time, which turned out to be a lot of down time—sitting, waiting, if you’ve ever been in that boat. Sometimes I imagine if I were to journey back to Longwood Ave., I’d find the characters from Beautiful Disaster wandering the halls.
Whether you are a multi-published author or cranking out the first draft of your first novel, we’ve all read books on craft. Important stuff, like double-space your manuscript and how to make those first five pages work the room. Many offer common sense advice and some (quite successfully) offer detailed blueprints for penning the perfect novel.
I’ve indulged in process improvement concepts over the years. For Unstrung (out February 2017) I produced the much touted index card outline. For this book, the methodology worked. Unstrung was on a tight deadline and I had no idea where the story was going or how I would get there. The self-supplied prompts proved invaluable to the process, and I thought I’d found the Holy Grail of book writing.
Not so fast. Enter Ghost Gifts II, which I literally started the day after turning in Unstrung. Not my ideal scenario for book writing, but tick-tock, deadline looms. I quickly found the index card system wasn’t working. Then I compared the two set of index cards and realized why—Unstrung notes were about characters I didn’t know, a story that had no roots. These cards were a roadmap to hardcore facts that already exist in Ghost Gifts, the mother ship to what will be book two in a trilogy. So, aside from spit and a prayer, how will I write this book?
Default to the ill-organized notebook with diagrams that could pass for medieval witchcraft rituals and the scribbling of thoughts that, hopefully, will result in just one “ah-ha” moment. In the end, perhaps all this handwringing over expert advice on how to write a book only leads back to Stephen King’s thoughts in On Writing: “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” In the wake of my near manic book-writing rituals, I have to agree.
Editing is the final piece of process I want to expound on today. How do you edit? I know the drill—get the story on paper, go back and fix it all later. I’ve battled bad habits on this front for years. I’m a serial editor. Not long ago, it dawned on me: editing is my process. That’s how I write. Getting the story down isn’t my key step; it’s the one I fumble through, all fog and headlights. Massaging what’s there is how I push a story forward. I know. It sounds completely counterintuitive. But so far, it really is how I’ve gotten six books to publication. As for number seven … Well, I’m off to procrastinate a bit more, log my Facebook post on the gut-wrenching stops and starts, highs and lows of the writing process.
What’s your process? Has it worked from book to book?
Photo by Jaclyn L Photography.
Laura Spinella is the author of the #1 bestselling novel, Ghost Gifts, soon to be trilogy. Her other titles include the RITA nominated Beautiful Disaster and Perfecting Timing, as well as the Clairmont Series Novels written as L. J. Wilson. Her next Laura Spinella title, Unstrung, is out February 2017.
July 20th, 2016
It’s summer. I’m a parent. I’m a writer. This is a combination that results in noise and anxiety and lots of heat and bad hair and snacking in my house. Notice, I did not say it results in progress. Progress screeches to a halt, in summer at my house. Progress sleeps late and leaves its dirty dishes in the sink and trails laundry through the hallways and laughs with its flip flops kicked up on my ottoman, in summer. Dude, Progress got no ambition round here, in summer.
I had a plan. You’re laughing, but I’m serious. I had a hand-written plan, folks. I bought gel pens and everything. I don’t even outline without breaking out in a nauseous sweat, you understand, but I had sort of an idea that I would outwit, I mean, fill my summer with progress by proclamation. I filled in the squares on my planner (Yes, a paper planner. Shut up.), to finish a draft of a draft of a draft of a novel and have that sucker all written down in actual sentences by August. Oh, yeah! August! Like, two weeks from now. Here’s what I had in mind. You’ll see, it is completely rational.
I had a plan that I would take the kids to the pool a lot and really let my mind work out the knots for hours, during which I would also do leg exercises in the pool, so when I returned to my desk/recliner, I could focus on just zipping through the story. Cardio plus pages. Compartmentalization, people. I could parent really, really well so everybody was happy and fill up the pantry with Little Debbies and stock the fridge with Freezer Pops and corn dogs and then sneak off and do the REAL work while they were poking sugar in their gobs, completely oblivious and high on Mama-Luv. I could write my story on the sly, and still get a tan! And baby, I’d Instagram it all!
Also, I set up this thing where the two teenagers would go away to a college camp for a week in a neighboring beach town. Score! Instant excuse for ocean, right? And because I am brilliant and planning stuff, the town just happens to be on the magical Georgia coast, the setting for my first novel and my work-in-progress! (You are, right now, wishing you were me, right?) Get this: next week I get to drive down and back, and down and back again, to the beach town college camp. Four hours each way. Because my husband has a jury duty summons and we can’t stay the whole week. And we’ll do this with an eight year old boy in the car. So, you can imagine all the plotting and story structure I’m going to be just really hammering out in my drive time. Boo-yah!
It’s all about the planning. That was my conviction back in May. Yeah. So far, this is how it’s going: insomnia.
No, really. I am so rested I can’t even sleep. I have eaten my weight in Little Debbies. I have a notebook full of chlorine-scented notes on my novel that are barely legible. I don’t have firm, tan thighs, because I’m sitting under the porch at the pool, sweating the work I’m not getting done. I can’t tell you when the washing machine stopped running, but I guarantee you whatever is in it, is currently moldering. There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, for dinner. And I am completely neurotic because I know the plan is total crap. Worse, I’ve done this before! Many times! So, not only am I neurotic, I’m stupid. I do not learn by experience. I am delusional. I am not your role model. I am failing. I am losing. I am eating Cheetos. I am considering taking a part-time job at the frozen yogurt shop and giving up this writing gig. It is over.
I hope by this point, you’re all smug and feeling better about yourself. Because, that’s the point. Really. Think of me as the wise old sea turtle of summer, come to bestow upon you sincere-of-heart, wide-eyed writers, this greatest literary advice of the ages: It’s summer. If you don’t want to end up at the Secret Writer Sanitarium, you have to accept it.
And by summer, I mean liminal space.
Now, let me lament for a moment on the agonies of liminal space, the empty, soul-sucking yawn of the in-between. Oh, wait. I just spent six hundred words doing the lamenting. Well, you get it. But in case you don’t, or maybe you happen to read this somewhere where it’s wintertime outside and you’re still cursing your own, personal writer’s summer, here’s a smart quote. Picture me in my shell, speaking to you in my wise old sea turtle voice (which is actually Richard Rohr’s voice, so I’m a Franciscan wise old sea turtle and totally legit).
“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways. It is when we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. During this graced time we are not certain or in control. This openness allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive. Liminal space is where we are most teachable.”
Based on the summer I’m having, I am excelling in teachability, y’all. I am wide open and receptive and way out of control. I am allowing room for Freezer Pops and the genuinely new. I translate that to mean, transformation. And when it comes to this writer’s journey, in my opinion, there’s one thing I am sure of beyond my compulsive issues with my paper planner or my need to complete my next manuscript – that’s entirely the point. Transformation by Cheetos. It’s working for me.
How do you feel about the liminal spaces along your writing journey? Do you embrace them? Do you discover new energy during your metaphorical summers? Or do you fight against the transitional stages of the process? What works for you when you are betwixt and between with your writing projects and life?
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Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.
Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.
She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.