Competitive Streak

Do you ever look at one of your friends or even just a challenge, and think, “I can do this!”? One of the times when this competitive streak shows is during NaNoWriMo. The challenge was created to out-write your internal editor, and if someone can do it, why not me?

Some days it’s the same thing with those grading sites. Marketing Grader and Tweet Grader were mentioned today, though we’ve also compared Klout on occasion. If you send us (and I’m talking about a specific friend who shares my competitive drive) one of these tools, we try to integrate it into our knowledge base.

And why? What does it matter if my Klout score is 15 or 57 or even 95? [For the record, it is none of those.] That won’t sell my books. It doesn’t matter if the Marketing Grader says my website is 0 or 100 out of 100. Did any of you check the scores before buying a book or a service from someone?

I think it’s even funnier that I can admit that those scores are geared toward businesses selling a product online, but many of the people I know who try to learn from it are online but not necessarily selling a physical product. [Yes, I know books are physical products, but bear with me a moment.] I can look through all of the stats and see whether I’m capturing an audience by Twitter followers, or Tweet Graders or other options. I can figure out what I’m doing on Facebook by fans and shares and other activity. My blog has subscribers and links to various social media.

So what are we doing with it? Just checking. It’s a sliding scale to see whether we’re engaging someone or just talking in a bubble. Are we using the platform not as intended but as we can to get conversations moving?

And then, when it’s quiet, my friend and I try to outdo each other strictly by the numbers. If you’re curious, we have the same Klout score and our Marketing Grades are a single point different. It probably helps that she and I share information and little tricks when we find them and also encourage and support each other to keep up with blogs and tweets and posts. It’s a crazy thing to try to keep all of these things up, but somehow it works.

I’m really grateful that she’s there to help keep me motivated and focused on the target. My target isn’t a number – I’m just here to talk and share and learn as I write and publish. Life and work are good, but it can be good to remember it isn’t just a numbers game.

Except I can’t stop trying to get those numbers higher!

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Books

We had to move my books from the library during the move, so my husband could remove the bookshelves from the wall without worrying about when the movers wanted to put them on the truck. My empty living room became a sea of books from the fireplace to the wall about knee-deep.

It probably goes without mentioning that I love books. The sea wasn’t all of them, some had been moved to the basement to de-clutter the library and others came with me to my temporary home. As I looked at them, I realized how impatient I was to be reunited with them again. It was all I could do not to snag one of two to read right then. [Despite corralling two children away from the action of the packers.]

How do you explain to someone who doesn’t read about the joy of books? How can you ever hope to get into their heads how the fiction takes you away to another place? How the nonfiction infects your brain with more knowledge? How much space those engineering textbooks take and how heavy those things are?

Some days I’m not sure why we keep those textbooks – they were in storage for 10 years, never touched, yet they are guaranteed space on my shelves, along with my fictional pursuits in various stages of editing and first editions from published works. It’s an odd mix that the estimater under-estimated for my home.

While I’d love to share those books with everyone, especially to get the nonreaders to understand the greatness of print – I get that not everyone’s going to get it. [It just makes me sad, as a writer.] I don’t let go of them easily. Even the ones my husband questions, like “Dummies Guide to Coaching Basketball.” No, I’m not sure I’ll ever need it, but you never know when it’ll come in handy.

My writer-friend Shawna once said she’d never be surprised by any book I owned. I like that – she understood that I love books and I can’t resist the treasures they hold. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “I cannot live without books.” And why should we?

Character Introductions

How do you introduce characters? What is the important part about the introduction of a character, and what do you decide to say when to bring them in?

It’s always difficult to know. You want to introduce your protagonist among the very first, many times the very first character to show to your reader. Readers like to know what’s going on and care about someone who comes up. [Yes, there are several people who get away with doing it another way, but we’re going to stick with the mainstream for the moment. Pretend I’m not George R.R. Martin, ok?]

So if you have your protagonist firmly in mind, you want to introduce her to your reader. You choose something that shows who this is and why she is different and important and worthy of the reader’s time and attention.

Then you start the trouble and change things up for the poor protagonist until she can’t help but follow along with the plot.

But what about the others? How do you decide to put the other characters in? What about people who walk in and out for a little bit? It’s always good to think about that a while. Sometimes there’s an organic way to do it. A way to sprinkle the other characters in while the protagonist goes along with her story.

I have two characters that are giving me a little trouble. I introduce them early because they’re important. However, one of my critiquers thought I shouldn’t introduce one so early, and then another thought I should introduce the other earlier to show her importance.

I end up chewing over that kind of advance planning for the beginning. It seemed to make sense how I introduced them, but it’s possible it’s not quite in order. So I’m curious how other writers do it – do you decide to introduce them in a certain order or just when they come up? How do you decide in the rewrite if you’ve done it well enough? And does it matter if it’s a thousand words here or there to keep them flowing through?

Next time I might look closer at how they come through the story. This one is set in a fairly good order except for the two I mentioned. The two characters are important, though neither is the most important throughout the plot. It can all be put together in good time and I’ll have it figured out within the week.

It does give me a great deal to think about. There might be a million ways to introduce a few characters and I’m not sure I always give it as much thought as i could to make sure it’s done the right way and for the right reasons in the plot.

This kind of thought process has slowed my editing progress. I need to jump into a different chapter and stop worrying about those introductions for a little bit. How do you deal with it?

Stretching for Goals

I read Yoga Journal, and I found this quote:  “Failing is a part of success. To make goals effective, you have to fail at them 50 percent of the time, or they didn’t stretch you far enough.” Chip Wilson, courtesy of an article by Ella Lawrence called Set Your Course.

While I make goals and I keep track of them, I must not be stretching myself enough according to that standard. I often choose smaller goals and see if I can do more than just the minimum. I also realize that it isn’t possible to do everything I want to and have interest to attempt. Not even close. But I do prioritize and make an effort on the things that matter to me – though it is often something I know I can do if  I put a reminder in front of me.

So what is the change if I allow myself to fail at a goal here and there? It opens up a lot of possibilities. I can call it a work-in-progress and remind myself that there is wiggle room. Yet it’s also good to remember I only have a couple hours a day when I am doing things for me and not my children.

Writing takes up a lot of that time. I won’t apologize for it, because it’s what I love to do.

I’ve been struggling to get back to my daily yoga practice post-baby. Part of this is because I don’t have somewhere to go do it yet, and my toddler takes it as an invitation to use me as a jungle gym. It greatly increases the difficulty of a pose like Warrior I when you have a small child standing on your back leg.

My challenges this month are to go back to yoga every day and to edit a novel and to keep up my writing streak and prep another novel. Those are big goals considering my newborn is 7 weeks old. He just slept a little over 6 hours, which is called “through the night” by the professionals… and I woke before he did. Somehow I was wide awake and starving at 3:30 in the morning.

If this keeps up, I’ll have plenty of time to practice yoga when my children are sleeping. And edit my novel. Probably a bunch of other things, too, but six hours isn’t really enough sleep for me on a regular basis. While I can dream of things like bottling time, liquid sleep, cloning, and delegating roles to an army of bored people who procrastinate their time away, I know that we’re all given the same time and it’s what we do with it that sets us apart from the rest.

I don’t have time to be bored. If I finish those novel edits, I’m going to dive back into writing that novella I think I have a handle on completing. There’s always another project that I’d like to tackle – even if it’s just knitting another rug for the bathroom floor.

What do you do for your goals? How do you know you’re successful? What do you think of the 50 percent and stretching quote from Chip Wilson?

Focus or Diversify?

Do you ever wonder about which is better – to focus or diversify?

With focus, you can become an expert in a small field. It is identifying a niche that pleases you and moving from there to let others come and make use of your knowledge in that small area. On the other hand, with diversity you can know a little bit about a ton of things and point questions in the direction of someone with the expertise to answer in the niche.

I’m struggling with this because I want to focus, but I do not seem to be able to let go of all the little distractions that lead me to exploring other areas. My other problem is a lack of time.

I’m a stay-at-home mom. I play with my kids and try to teach them things and hope they don’t run me ragged by day’s end. I get very little quiet time to pursue my interests, mostly writing, and so I think it’d be best to target one thing and finish it and do it well. Usually I find myself doing about ten things that aren’t that one task that I think ought to be most important.

Is it procrastination? Or is it just some inability to focus?

It’s March and NaNoEdMo is going on. I know I can’t set aside 50 hours to dedicate to editing my manuscript, but I did dutifully send the next segment to my [online] critique partners. While this piece isn’t in their science-fiction-or-fantasy niche, they’re being good sports and reading it anyway.

Yesterday I figured out new goals for the month, and the day before I was free writing about the idea of a community. Some science fiction story will be popping out of that at some point in the near future. It’s not my fault – I refuse to gag my muse. Or maybe that is my fault, because I refuse to gag my muse. She drags me on all kinds of side trips around different concepts and characters and plot twists until I can’t help but focus on something else.

I should be able to help it. I’m the writer. I’m the one in charge! Or so I like to tell myself. When characters take the stories into their own hands, trouble ensues but it makes for a beautiful story.

Sometimes I write articles as well. Does it help to further split my time between nonfiction and fiction? No. Yet something brings me back to nonfiction time and again, so I’m attempting to keep it in check while I go.

I keep track of social media and I’m learning about how I can influence those around me. It’s also interesting because that will be part of my platform for when I do get that book out.

When. Not if. This is not a place or a time for doubt. I am an artist and doubting my work comes all too easily, but I am working on not letting it get in my way. Determination takes me farther than talent, so as long as I keep my iron will set on getting it published I know it will happen.

Then what stops me from working on it until it shines like a pearl? Something is resistant to me sitting down and just saying I’m a novelist, or a short story writer, or an article writer. [Though on that last one, I blame lack of interest in pursuing only articles.] I’m not the best writer out there, but I can’t say I’m a bad writer, either.

Then I’ll be spending more time on the question of whether to focus or to branch out, whether to find my tiny niche or keep writing as I find interest. It is a question for my platform, because then I wonder if I should separate it to be found easier for the things I do, or to lump them together and show the wide differences in style.

It’s hard to be successful until you figure out what you want to do and apply all your talents in that direction. But what if what you think is the direction you want to go actually covers too much territory to make it work? What did you do when this question presented itself? Did you find your niche and become the expert? Or did you dabble with fingers in every inkwell?

It reminds me of the phrase, “jack of all trades, master of none.” Except something in my writerly head wants to twist it to ‘jill of all trades, mistress of one” – meaning writing, of course. I can’t stop because I love it and I don’t know who I am without it.

Plots and Characters

I’ve always taken a middle road on the plotting versus pantsing spectrum. I would argue for both sides as I have friends who manage both ways to varying degrees of success. That is not to say that there is any correlation between the success of those who write with full plots versus those who write off the cuff, but that each writer has a different degree of success with the method s/he chooses.

Lately I think I’m shifting more into a plotter. Okay, there’s no doubt about it. And the more I figure out the difference between figuring out a plot, the more I like it. Yes, the only part I loved about those little outlines with roman numerals was how nicely they lined up – the nerd in me has a sick fascination with overly ordered things like lined up books (alphabetized by genre, author, and title) in a bookshelf.

I know there is more than one way to plot. I wonder if many of the writers who say they don’t plot (yet there are inklings that their instinctual way of feeling through a story might be started off with organizing thoughts in a writer’s head) actually work through some of those issues but don’t formally write them down. For the rest, sometimes it’s about asking the right questions.

These questions are not just about plot. They’re also about characters and settings and anything else that makes it into the novel. One of the character templates a friend of mine loaned me always had a couple gaps though the questions themselves were exhausting. I’d pick and choose, but often I skipped things like “what would be in X’s wallet?” What does it matter? I’m in a fantasy universe and they don’t have wallets.

Maybe the point I should have been chasing was something broader. A wallet is often one of the things we won’t leave home without. We put things in it like identification and money and sometimes photos of our kids. We also grab keys, cell phones, and other items and stow them in our pockets or purses. [Or voluminous diaper bags – but that’s a different character.]

I’ve been checking into these and backing up. It might be the easiest thing to set down what the character physically looks like. An appearance trait that might even be changed down the road if I decide something else fits better. But the internal parts are not so easy to lay out on paper, and they’re also not as easy to change in a book. “Oh, Lucy isn’t recovering from an overdose of her mother’s guilt trips anymore because I decided her mother needed to not be in this book and I killed the character off.” So every reference to the mother needs to be removed, but also every time Lucy reacted to that guilt trip by doing something without her mother entering the scene. That rewrite would take significant effort to realize the changes in Lucy.

Also, I need to remember to put things in context for cultures if I make them up. It’s simply part of the world building that sometimes doesn’t make it to the character level. It’s one of the fun things about writing nonhuman characters, but also one of the challenges. What is fashion like for a race that doesn’t have a strong sense of vision? They rely heavily on sense of smell, so it makes me wonder if there are trends in scents, rather than colors. “Dogbreath is in this year. I think I’ll hibernate for the winter.” It just opens so many possibilities that hadn’t existed before.

I love world building. I worry sometimes that my races are too much to add into the fabric of the story, but it’s just too much fun for me. There are authors who have done it well, and I’m sure many more who have not that I simply haven’t read yet. As long as I don’t stop the action for info dumps, I suppose I’m not doing too bad.

The world building leads me back to the plot and the characters and the setting and all the rest. And as I’m looking at my worlds, I’m trying to stretch myself so I can ask the right questions and get the right answers in the beginning stages when changes are easy. Like if the character had to leave his residence in the middle of the night for some catastrophe (something on the order of a house fire), what would be the thing he couldn’t leave without? And not forgetting to find the unique voice of that character as we go. Because it’s different if he says “my firstborn” versus “I couldn’t leave without my beloved daughter.” And it’s knowing the difference that will make the novel great.

Staying At Home: More Work Than Going To Work

I love little memes like this one: The Glory of the Stay-at-Home Mom. And then I look at it again, and I hate it.

It’s true in some respects. I often feel that staying at home isn’t something that can be understood until you try it out. It’s not for the faint of heart, either. At first glance, it seems like there is an easy road where a person gets to play all day at doing things that are fun. Somehow it never works out that way, though.

All right, at first when I didn’t have children, my days were filled with writing and playing guitar and messing around with some video games. It didn’t take long to just clean up after myself. Then living with my husband it took a little longer. During pregnancy most of those chores got harder.

Last year I wrote about my three-ish jobs and juggling a child who stayed at home with me all day. Minus three-ish jobs and juggling two children and the household chores makes me feel very much like the woman with six hands in the last frame of that meme. Except I don’t have six hands.

And I’m sure someone will like to comment that the chores are the same no matter if one parent stays home or if both work, and someone might even be right.

All I can say is I want to write during naptime. The trick here is to get both kids to nap at the same time. And have that time be uninterrupted with diapers or random screams or anything else of the sort.

I know the conventional wisdom is to sleep while the baby sleeps. Well, it doesn’t work. I have to be beyond exhausted to get my body and brain to agree to a nap, and even then the smallest disturbance knocks me out of it. I “wake” feeling more fatigued than when I attempted the nap.

So unless I know I can manage at least an hour uninterrupted, I’d rather be productive. I can blog, I can meditate, I can plot, I can write my 750, I can even research potential markets – all of these things are contributing to my career goals.

Right. I admit it. I have career goals and part of it is to stay at home.

Naps don’t last forever, and I’m probably pushing it with my daughter nearing three. My son seems very resistant to napping during the time she deigns to be quiet. Somehow, I will make it work. Determination can make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t.

But if anyone does know how to switch diaper times from 2 am and 2pm to 8 am and 8 pm, I’d be grateful. Or, really, any time when we’d already be awake. Domestic chores are trying my patience. It must be time for more yoga.

I am determined to keep writing, despite the dishes daring me to put just one more on the stack, and the laundry sitting to become riddled with wrinkles. It’s a lot to do. Most of the time I’d just prefer to ignore it, though somehow that only makes it worse when the time comes to tackle the chores.

The Time for Plotting Never Passes

Some people can begin at the beginning and keep writing until the end. I don’t happen to be one of those people. I find myself mired in the ways that the story could go, and somewhere in the middle it fizzles out if I don’t know where I’m headed. Conventional wisdom says to dump something in a sagging middle like a dead body or have aliens land, but it doesn’t always work for me.

It always returns to plot. I have less trouble with my characters getting in line. I have been taking time out this month to try to correct my plot fizzling issues. Somehow I know there must be a way to carry everything through to the end while being true to my original vision of what the novel is supposed to say (and why I don’t have aliens land on the kitchen table in my contemporary YA).

To that end, I have been trying out several different ways to see a plot through, from randomly typing out from the beginning (which is why I know it isn’t working for me) to setting everything out scene by scene (which I know runs a large risk of me taking a left turn about halfway through).

I always liked the look of traditional outlines but never thought they fit me very well. Or maybe I just liked that they had such an orderly form with the roman numerals and all the other stuff thrown in. Lately I’ve also attempted to type a bare bones summary in prose form to see where that led me. Turns out the answer was ‘in circles’. I still use that method to organize my thoughts to find connections between pieces that I’m not sure fit together but seem to have possibilities.

Then I also stumbled into some worksheets. You can find them in books, too, like First Draft in 30 Days or Book in a Month. I haven’t progressed to filling them out in order, but taking time to pour over them has pushed my thinking into that kind of system. What was the climax? What is my internal or external conflict? What else do I need to get my characters from point A to point B or what obstacle do they need to overcome in order to get to this spot?

While they can be a good tool, I’m also trying not to stuff too much into them. I like giving my characters a little room to breathe while they get through the novel. When I originally drafted Don’t Tell Your Mother I only had a vague notion of what the end was going to be, and then as I got to each segment I’d write a sentence about what the next scene would be so I wouldn’t lose my place in the story if I got interrupted. [It really is a bummer, but there comes a time I must sleep.]

I’ve also read lately about Scrivener (which I thought I had blogged about, but apparently I just looked at it) being a good tool for novelists because of the functionality to rearrange things at ease. There are other software programs that also do this kind of thing, and I’m sure each has advantages and disadvantages.

It’s going to take some time for me to perfect my method of plotting, and I might just come to the conclusion that each project takes something different and it will depend entirely on my inner vision of the story. If nothing else, I’m enjoying learning the different methods and how each might be implemented to help (or hinder) my progress.

What do you choose to use to plot novels? Have you tried other methods? What did that teach you about your writing and plotting?

Measuring Success

A book blogger friend of mine posted this over the weekend: The Honest to Goodness Truth about Comments. While I wanted to comment right away, it got lost in my iPad with its refusal to link through my Open ID. Blah. By now I’ve all but forgotten the encouraging comment I had (one of the drawbacks of a newborn keeping me up all night), but my question remains on my mind.

How do you measure success?

Success ought to be achieving goals that you set out for yourself, but it isn’t that simple. While we place goals in front of ourselves, the pieces that determine whether or not we are successful are often out of our hands. Do you set straightforward goals with singular paths to achieve them?

Sometimes it isn’t about giving up or staying the course. Sometimes it is about how success is defined. Another friend of mine, Michelle Tuesday, runs a music school. A guy came in one day to sell her the option of a better page rank. Michelle knows her page rank, her analytics, and how to reach her customers. A page rank may or may not lead to more students in her school. She defines success as keeping her students happy and building her studio. These are measurable goals and she can track how she’s doing.

I sometimes have issues with this. While I am not counting the comments in my success, I love to get them. I can see how when so much time is spent crafting posts to put in the blog that it can be easy to see that lack as a failure whether it is or not. How many other things are easier to count as failures rather than how success ought to be measured? Is this just another way we give ourselves permission to give up on our pursuits?

I remember when I sold lia sophia jewelry I had a manager who defined success as getting out there. She encouraged us to get ‘no’ answers, because we were trying. I wrote the word NO on a piece of paper 50 times trying to hear that from my customers. While I think I did manage to get yes as an answer, I did also hear the word No a lot. The trick was not to let it shut you down. Getting out there meant becoming a success.

In some ways I treat my creative pursuits the same way. I get out there. I send stories for publication. I share them with friends. I blog and keep up with Facebook and converse on Twitter. Has that sold a million copies of my book? Not even close. Here and there my book does get shared, and every now and then I get feedback from someone who read it. That is what I love. I know I’m out there. I’m sharing with people. It won’t make me rich, but it does make me happy.

Next time you set a goal for yourself, try to make sure that the path to success is within your ability to achieve. What other ways do you define success?

Are You Ready To Write That Novel Yet?

There are a lot of ways to ask and answer this question – but the one I mean today is “How do you know you’re ready for that idea that won’t leave you alone?”

It’s not something we’re ready for at all times. The idea hits me and I want to run with it. The problem comes along later, when I realize the idea was not fully formed and is in dire need of tweaks and research and who knows what else… And when I run into that wall I end up with a partial draft of something that I’m not sure what to do with, because the idea takes a turn every time I actually finish the front end stuff.

Somehow that leads me to the idea I wasn’t quite ready to write it when I started setting fingers to keyboard. Later, when the ideas mature, I can put them in different combinations and make something better.

Example: I just pulled two ideas from my snippets and merged them with another idea I came up with more recently. While they were not related at first, this time they seem more suited to weaving together. Once I started down that path, a torrent of words spewed forth. Then I read my old notes and found nuances I had forgotten. I’m still trying to pin them together.

I’m not sure if it’s enough to write that novel yet. I have a couple different viewpoints I want to show in this world I’m creating, but I haven’t figured that all out yet. So it might be a few novellas woven together into a book. It might also be a series. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how much I have to say before it begins.

Other times I am not sure if I’m ready to say exactly what needs to be said. At least I have time to manage to think about it. I am focusing on editing my last manuscript (still working due to moving and having a baby and everything else that gets in the way of pure writing pursuits), yet in the meantime I still doodle and dream up this alternate place that sings to me when my creative side takes hold.

I’m not sure I’m ready to write it yet. The two year old and the two week old are definitely taking most of my waking hours and will continue to do that for some time. I’m also not sure what my message is, but somehow the idea won’t leave me alone for the moment.

It’s a little like when the unicorn kept telling me he was the one who wanted to skewer my last protagonist. Silly unicorn, she’s got her own magic to protect her. Now if only she could control it… But that’s another story that hasn’t quite been finished yet. I promise I will when I’m ready. The question of how to know when I’m ready troubles me, but I write hundreds of thousands of words in a year (250k+ last year). I have time to figure out drafts and redraft them later.

I’ll admit it would be seriously more efficient if I could figure that all out before I start drafting, but so far I haven’t been able to help myself. What do you do when that idea takes hold of your brain and won’t let go? Do you write it? Do you start building the world? Do you outline (or whatever other plot devices you use to figure it out before you write)? Or do you take a little snippet and let it simmer for later?

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