A Writing Career: Be Yourself!

Do you ever sit and plan out your career?

Recently on a listserv, authors were talking about careers. Some knew exactly where they wanted to go and were laser focused. Some were looking all around and trying a bit of this and a bit of that. How do you plan a writing career?

What are you good at?
Which pieces of writing are bringing you the most attention? This is a hard one because some of the writers were having success with nonfiction pieces; yet, they longed to write fiction. (Not many vice versa!) The question became, do you stick with nonfiction to build a career? Some needed the income from their nonfiction and considered it their job; fiction was their passion, but not the bread-winner, so they could only fit it in around other projects.

There’s nothing wrong with this! Good writing is good writing. Why not make money at what you do and do well? Often, we don’t see ourselves and our work clearly. The marketplace has a way of rewarding good work and it’s clearly something to which you should pay attention.

Where do your passions lie?

Darcy Self Portrait quilt

“Six of One, Half a Dozen of Me,” self-portrait quilt. c. 2014 Darcy Pattison


Are you a frustrated poet? Do you love YA novels? Or do easy readers excite you because you’ll be helping someone learn to love reading? For me, everything I do winds up being teaching. I like to take complex material and simplify it for others so it’s practical and easy to implement. But I also love poetry, writing fantasy and science fiction novels, and writing for this blog. Picture books are especially exciting for me to write. I’m all over the place. When you have a multifaceted set of passions, sometimes you need to prioritize. Or understand that for this season of life, one passion will sell better than anything else.

If you need some tutoring in order to be great at a passion, then get it.

Unique: No One Else Could Do This
One way of thinking about this is to answer this question: What can you do that no one else could do? What’s the one type of writing/publishing in which you could be the best in the world? Top Dog! Why mess around writing mediocre pieces? Instead, find the one thing that you do best and no one else can match you.

Maybe it’s one of these:

  • Nature poetry for K-3.
  • Erotica for New Adult readers.
  • Christian fiction set in NYC for New Adult readers.
  • YA dystopian stories set on Mars.
  • Picture book family stories for the MidWest.
  • Preschool picture books that include a grandparent.
  • Vietnam War stories for middle grade girls.

It doesn’t matter that you are the only one in your category and you’ve even invented the category. Vietnam War stories for middle grade girls? Yikes! Unlikely. But it that’s your passion and you can pull it off with integrity and excellence, then do it!

That’s how you build a career. Do something no one else has done and do it with such excellence that no one can turn you down.

Easier said than done? Of course. But a career plan worthy of striving toward. And in the end, that’s all we can do. Butt in chair. Write. You might as well choose to write what will build your career.

Abandoned Story? Pick up the Story Lines Again and Create Magic

Some fear the blank page. I fear the half-written page.
I was writing along, doing great on a story when life interrupted (how dare it!). Has that happened to you? You know where the story is going, you’re in the drafting mode and going strong and BANG! Something happens. You have to set the story aside for a while.

Momentum is lost.
The story almost seems lost, too.

fear of half-written page

When life interrupts your story, how do you get back into it?

Picking up the Threads of an Abandoned Story

The first thing I’ll do this week is re-read the story. It’s important to see what I actually put on the page.

Next, I’ll try to recapture the excitement and recreate my mindset. This means looking at notes, images, reference material or anything else that will help remind me of my place in the story. Maybe I’ll need to write a letter to myself about how excited I was when I was writing the story.

Retype a chapter. If that doesn’t help, I’ll retype a chapter and make small edits as I go.

Move the pen across the page. When I taught freshman composition, I used a technique that always worked. I insisted that the student move the pen across the page and write words. In other words, they had to go through the motions of writing.

“What do I write?” they moaned.
“Doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t know what to write.”
OK. Write this sentence and keep writing it until you want to write something else:
I don’t know what to write, so I am writing this dumb sentence.

Inevitably, after writing that sentence once or twice, the student segued into something else.

If all else fails to get me back into the story. I’ll do the same thing. I’ll sit and go through the motions of writing until I get so bored with the drivel that I’ll start to get creative and something will happen. I only hope what happens on the page is magic!

Walking the Ground: Researching Setting for a Novel

I am researching the setting and background for a new novel, which I hope to set near Seattle, WA. I’m going there next month for a week and am trying to sort out what I need to know by the end of the week.

What I Need to Know

Sensory Details. I’ve written about the importance of vivid sensory details here, and here, and again, here. As a young writer, I heard over and over, “Show, Don’t Tell.” When I finally made that more specific–use vivid sensory details–my writing took off. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of great sensory details. I consider it the basic writing exercise for fiction.

That means, I need to walk around the proposed setting and be a fully-present human. I need to soak in the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and what it feels like to move around in this place. I remember a couple years ago, I was at a conference on Puget Sound and a salmon was swimming up a tiny stream. Thrashing, 3-foot long salmon, powerful tale, the smell of salt water and the bacon I was eating at a restaurant, the stream only 2 inches deep, the salmon like a Gulliver in Lilliputia.

When I write details, I don’t care about whole sentences. I’m just creating a word bank so that later, I can draw from the memory what I need. I also need to be able to extrapolate. If it’s like this on Bainbridge Island, would it also be like this in the San Juan Islands far north of there? I need specific enough, yet general enough details so that the story comes alive, but isn’t bogged down by details so specific that I can’t move around the area.

Port Townsend, WA. My husband took this photo when we were in the Seattle area a couple years ago for a sailing trip. Photographs are great research tools. Copyright 2008, Dwight Pattison.

Port Townsend, WA. My husband took this photo when we were in the Seattle area a couple years ago for a sailing trip. Photographs are great research tools. Click to enlarge and see just how spectacular this photo really is. Copyright 2008, Dwight Pattison.




Facts. Oh, dear. There are so many facts that I need to know about the Seattle area. Volcanoes, Puget Sound, school system, boats and on and on. I can absorb lots of that just by visiting the area, but fortunately, I do have long-time residents who can vet the story for me after the first draft. I need to know enough to get the STORY right, and then details can be tweaked.

Logistics. Of course, this is another category of facts, but slightly different than what I meant earlier. For this, I need to know transportation details. How long does it take to go–walk, bike, drive a car, swim, take a ferry–from point A to point B. This is crucial to developing a reasonable time line. Part of this is understanding maps, of course, but mostly it’s about physically moving a person around the landscape.

Culture. Now, here’s a fuzzy one. What cultural elements will impact the story I am planning. Attitudes, beliefs, institutions, dialect/slang unique to the area, how people here DO something–so many subtle and not-so-subtle things need to be taken in (and again, vetted by long-time residents after the first draft).

Whether you create your setting from historical details, contemporary details or create a a fantasy world, this is a crucial step in creating a believable story.

Don’t Be Discouraged? Writers and the Creative Gap

After the first draft, there’s are really two stories: there’s the one in your head (and it’s perfect) and the one you actually put on paper (and it’s not perfect). And they don’t match up. It’s OK. Don’t let this creativity gap give you writer’s block. Revision is the process of re-envisioning.!

THE GAP by Ira Glass from frohlocke on Vimeo.

If you can’t see this video, click here.

Introverted: The Writer’s Power and Downfall

Do you love to go to your writing cave and spend hours? Do you hate marketing, which means getting out in front of people? Why is is so easy to be alone for hours at a time while working on a project and so hard to be out among the crowds?

You’re an introvert. Of course.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Wow, I’m so there. Here’s a TedTalk she did on the subject.

(See the TED Talk transcript here.)

Our society encourages and rewards the extrovert in unique ways: leadership roles, better sales, more opportunities. Writers, on the other hand, are the people you overlook at a social gathering. And put a group of writers in the same room and it’s, well, quiet.

Cain says,

“. . . Extroverts are sociable because their brains are good at handling competing demands on their attention—which is just what dinner-party conversation involves. In contrast, introverts often feel repelled by social events that force them to attend to many people at once.”

In other words, as I tell my husband, I think slowly. It takes me a while to understand a joke, to catch an implied compliment or threat or insult.
While society rewards the extrovert, though, they need the introvert. We are the ones who think deeply about situations, who have insights into potential pitfalls (if they would only listen!), who can produce more verbiage than you ever wanted if you just leave us alone for a while.

I recently read a college entrance essay for a high school senior who bemoaned his social skills. Immediately, I told him to go and read this book because he needs to know that he is an introvert—and that’s a good thing. I’m telling my writer friends the same thing today: you’re an introvert, and that’s a good thing.

Strengths of Introverted Writers

Don’t rely on approval of others. Do you agonize over what someone thinks of your writing? Well, yes and no. While you’re writing that first draft, there’s only you to please. The only time we worry about others’ opinions is when it comes to publishing. Mostly, I work alone and I do what I like. I choose the projects; I choose the way I work with those projects; I decide what to send out. This is good. Writing shouldn’t be a committee affair, but the storytelling or insights of one person.

Able to spend large chunks of time with just yourself. Writing a novel or a long nonfiction project demands time, and that’s time spent largely alone. Even when my friend, Carla McClafferty goes to Mount Vernon for a week to research George Washington, that’s only a fraction other time spent on THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: REMAKING A PRESIDENTIAL ICON. Personally, I couldn’t write that book because it would require me to go to Mount Vernon and actually tell people that I plan to write a book about Washington. Carla can do that and then come home and spend the time alone needed to actually write the project. And she’s doing it all over again, as she researches a future book on Martha Washington.

Concentrate on a long, detailed project. Books have been called the archive of our culture. They include information that needs long-term storage, as opposed to a daily newspaper, which is just a short-term conversation about events. Books are long, detailed, intricate pieces of writing that take a large chunk of time. The details of such a project can be overwhelming: organization of information, drafting multiple times, proofreading, fact-checking, etc. Do you think an extravert could manage something that unwieldy? Maybe. But it’s a natural fit for the introvert.

Think long and hard about something. Is it any surprise that introverts often come up with innovative ideas,whether that’s an invention or a fresh, new way of storytelling? A story that takes a year or two to tell—that’s a lot of thought.

Weaknesses of Introverted Writers

Please yourself first, and others only secondarily. Sometimes introverts stumble onto something so odd and idiosyncratic that only they will like it. Being out of society’s main stream can mean that your writing won’t find a ready audience. No one will buy your book because you’re just so weird. (Just saying.)

Marketing is HARD. Yes, introverts CAN teach and some do well on stage—but every public event takes extra energy and produces greater stress. My introvert daughter teaches high school math, where she is literally on stage every hour of a school day. It’s not that we can’t do this; it’s that it takes its toll. When I have days and days of just teaching and marketing, I get cranky. I actually love to teach and talk to groups of people (not so great one-on-one). But I need to gear up and for a couple days after, I’m more depressed until I get my equilibrium back.

The hardest thing I do is stand up and say, “See my book.” Well, no. The hardest thing is, “Buy my book.”

I can teach, speak to crowds, entertain 1000 kids at a time. But holding up my book means holding up a piece of myself that I care about so much that I can’t stand the possible criticism. Oh, I do it. You have to just get over it and do it. But it’s never easy.

Hard to open up and discuss your ideas and emotions. Communication is hard, but it’s the business of writers. We communicate through our written words, where we can carefully control the emotional content of what we say. That’s important.

When I first met the woman who would be my future mother-in-law, I was overwhelmed. She was an extrovert, who never met a stranger. Furthermore, nothing in her life was secret and she told the whole world about anything and everything. To my great dismay. I am still a very private person (read: introvert) and had never had such a person in my personal sphere. I never got used to her open attitude, though I did learn to appreciate it.

I’m an introvert and a writer. My emotional struggles will come out eventually. When I’ve had a long time to think about what happened and what I felt about that event of my life. And only disguised as a novel. I am learning to be more open, to imbue story events with emotional power. But it’s hard.

But that’s the struggle of an introverted writer.

Do you feel me?

Complicated Dialogue: Keeping 5 Characters in Line

Today, I’d like to answer a question from a reader.
Shena asks, “I’m writing a story and I have five people who are carrying on a conversation with each other. How do I go about stating each person’s line without constantly using, he said, he replied or using the person’s name to say this person said after the sentence without it being an overkill of redundancy?”

Thanks for the question! You’re right to be concerned about repeating speech tags too often. It’s really a balancing act: on one hand, you don’t want to repeat too often, but neither do you want the reader to get lost. You have limited options, however, and you’ll have to work hard to keep this conversation interesting.

Fiction Notes at darcypattison.com

Speech Tags

Speech tags are the “he said” and “she said” that often accompanies dialogue. Notice that when you use HE or SHE, they are pronouns and will refer to the person immediately preceding. That’s important. The pronoun antecedent must be the right person. In the case of five people talking, you’ll probably need to use the character’s name often.\

James said, “Get lost.”
Jim said, “No way?”
Jill said, “Why?”

In the example above, notice that the job is even harder when character’s names all start with the same letter. Make sure your novel is populated with characters who have unique names that stand in contrast to one another. Not Jill and Bill, because they rhyme. Not James, Jim and Jill because they all begin with the same letter and are all one syllable. Instead, choose something like this: James, Brianna, Marguerite, Ally, and Bob.

Actions in the Midst of Dialogue

Dialogue rarely stands alone, though. When you add actions to dialogue, it’s sometimes called beats. This isn’t the same as action beats in a scene, but instead just means the small actions that are interwoven with dialogue. Sometimes those are the same, but sometimes not.

Dialogue beats are the small actions. Scenes demand actions, not just interior thoughts. What are your characters doing? Changing a light bulb.

James took the light hub out of the package and said, “Get lost.”
Reaching in, Marguerite gently took the package from him and said, “No way.”
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “Why?”

Notice here that Ally has an action, but has no speech tag. Sometimes, you can just omit the speech tag, if a character does something right before or after the dialogue and it’s clear that it’s this character speaking.

This still sounds boring, though. Part of that is because we repeated the structure too exactly in the first two sentences. They have an “action and said,” structure, which doesn’t really work here. Vary the structure of your sentences, sometimes putting the dialogue first, last, or even in the middle of the action.

Bob shook his head in disgust.
James tore open the light bulb package and snarled, “Get lost.”
“No way.” Marguerite’s voice was soothing and gentle. She took the torn cardboard from James and patted his shoulder.
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “Why should I get lost?” She hesitated and added, “I don’t want to.”
Bob grunted, “Why? Isn’t it obvious?”
“James is just upset,” Brianna said, “But that doesn’t mean he should get his way.”

Notice the variety here.

  • There are some actions without dialogue.
  • Dialogue occurs at the end, the beginning or the middle of the dialogue.
  • After some dialogue, there’s a longer section of actions.
  • I’ve used two substitutes for “said”: snarled and grunted. I don’t like using very many substitutes. Many writers explain that “said” disappears and readers don’t notice it. If you use an alternate word, it should add something important to the story.

Character Tics and Tags

Finally, it’s possible to use character tics or tags to good effect. Perhaps, poor Ally stutters. And James has a high pitched voice.

Bob shook his head in disgust.
James tore open the light bulb package and whined in soprano, “Get lost.”
“No way.” Marguerite’s voice was soothing and gentle. She took the torn cardboard from James and patted his shoulder.
Ally stuck out her lip in a pout. “W-w-why should I get lost?”
“Especially you!” James squeaked.
“W-w-why?”
Bob threw up his hands. “Why? Isn’t it obvious?”
“James is just upset,” Brianna said to Ally, “But that doesn’t mean he should get his way.”

You can start to see how dialogue can be enliveded with actions, sentence variety and small characterizations. You can devise many more ways to distinguish one character from another and use those traits in creating interesting dialogue. Try varying the character’s typical word choices or dialect. Within a larger conversation, too, you might have one character addressing another, as in Brianna’s aside to Ally and Marguerite’s intimate moment with James.

What’s your favorite way to keep complicated dialogue straight, yet keep enough variety to be interesting?

April Poetry: Take the Challenge and Get Your Poem Published

April is Poetry Month! Robert Lee Brewer, the Writer’s Digest editor who write the Poetics Aside blog has upped the ante this year with a challenge and the possibility of having your poem included in an anthology.

Each day during April, Brewer will post a poetry prompt on his blog. Your job is to take the challenge and produce a Poem-a-Day–thirty poems during April. If you wish to be considered for the Poem Your Heart Out anthology published by Words Dance Publishing.anthology, you should post the poem in the blog’s comments.

Brewer is recruiting 30 poets as judges for the anthology.

Here’s one of my poems to kick off the month

Sleeping with Foxes

sleepingfox

SLEEPING WITH FOXES
by Darcy Pattison c. 2003 All Rights Reserved

My favorite source of idle talk is from the soccer moms,

weekends, every Saturday.

This is how I go about gathering tidbits:

I set up my collapsible chair near the sideline and sit.

Then, I look through my collection of ears,

choose a robust pair, put them on and lean in close,

as if every word is pure gold and my existence consisted of only

rumor, innuendo, weird stories.

Then I take out my tongue and hold it in my lap.

I do this so that what I hear will be pure,

completely chaste,

uncontaminated by the chatterings of my voice.

One mother tells about her miniature Doberman,

how he jumped onto her bed

in a frenzy, like a mad yellow-jacket.

He didn’t stop until she got up.

She followed him to the living room,

unaware that bizarre things were taking place.

She flipped on the light and looked around

at the fireplace, the couch, the rug.

She had to rub her eyes: the neighbor’s cat

had come through the doggie door and sat on her favorite chair.

In between the cheers for the forward’s great header

and the keeper’s save, another soccer mom says,

That’s nothing, listen to this.

My ears glow red with joy.

I should mention, she says, that I like to watch

TV’s Strangest Home Videos.

I find it hard to ignore the temptation,

the true America.

The program shows extraordinary stories,

like the one about a boy who tells his parents

he sleeps with foxes. They don’t believe it.

The boy is sincerity itself: He insists that he sleeps

with a red fox every night.

After a spell, the parents decide to set up video cameras.

Then, they watch the boring tape until,

just at midnight, at the stroke of midnight,

they see a sly red fox come in the doggie door,

eat the dog food, trot down the hallway,

and jump onto the boy’s bed.

It curls itself around the boy’s head.

The horror-struck parents watch the pair sleep.

When the boy stirs lightly a few hours later, the fox leaves

the way it had come.

Afterward, when the keeper has saved his last goal,

the teams line up to slap hands.

I replace my tongue.

I take off my sullied ears and stow my collection

with my collapsible chair. Then I gather up

my soccer son, his soccer ball, his soccer gear,

and speed through the city,

barely making it through every yellow light.

My radio blares––

country or jazz or rock-and-roll, I don’t know––

And I listen to none of it because

all I hear is my voice rehearsing

the tale of a boy who sleeps with a sly red fox.

Facing the Kickstarter Fears: Take a Risk

Guest post by Deb Lund

Most of you know me as the author of rollicking rhyming romps like my dinobooks, Dinosoaring, and Monsters on Machines, but preparing for a retreat with Darcy forced me to finally complete a first draft of an upper middle-grade historical fantasy. But kidlit isn’t where my writing started. My writing dreams began with wanting to write for adults, so I played with novels, short stories, and poetry. I’m getting back to trying an adult novel right now, but I’m jumping ahead here. Let me back up.

Deb Lund online.

Deb Lund online.

[DebWeb.jpg] Web site link for here and/or in bio below. http://www.deblund.com]

Years ago, I was an elementary teacher librarian who wanted a sabbatical, but my school district didn’t know what to do with me since I already had my master’s degree (which focused on teaching writing). The personnel director said I could plan out my sabbatical year and list activities that I would do, comparable to a master’s degree, and my list had to relate to my job. My first thought was, “But I wanted to work on my novel!” And then the light went on. *Kids’ books!*

These days I find myself teaching more adults than kids. I love presenting at conferences, providing continuing education courses for teachers, and offering writing classes when my schedule allows. I often say that once I figured out I could teach adults the same ways I taught kids, we all learned a lot more and had a lot more fun.

Fiction Magic Title

That’s how my 54-card deck and guidebook set Fiction Magic: Card Tricks and Tips for Writers got its start. You’ll find them on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter right now, but they won’t be there long. Why Kickstarter?

Kickstarter makes it possible for people with creative ideas to get the backing they need to pursue those creative ideas. I thought about sending the cards out to publishers, but since this project wasn’t the usual kidlit submission, I didn’t want to face another huge learning curve for this one unique project. In what genre would you place a writing-teaching card deck and book set? And with all the presentations and teaching I had done using my homemade deck, I already knew I had an audience, especially after all the requests I had from writers who saw what the prompts could do for their manuscripts.

Here’s how Kickstarter works: You design your project, come up with rewards for people who contribute to the project, explain your project in print and on a video, have it approved, set the date, tell everybody about it, and then try to reframe the ensuing anxiety as exhilaration and excitement.

Risk it All

Fears About Kickstarter

Failure. It was daunting to put myself out there like this. To be so public about the possible failure. But as a creativity coach, I know taking risks is an important part of the creative process. Failing is part of it, too. And so is picking yourself up after a fall. I’m no longer the person who had her first rejection years ago and didn’t submit anything again for 15 years.

Imposter. And then there’s the imposter syndrome. That’s how I felt today after seeing another big-name author back my cards. This one is not only getting the cards, but paying me to talk to her. I’m used to the imposter syndrome now and I don’t stay there for long any more.

This imposter business is where it’s good to have my own inner creativity coach to balance out my inner critic. Even though I’ve always prodded and been drawn to people who mentioned something they’ve “always wanted to do,” I have to admit that there were definitely selfish reasons for taking creativity coaching training, and even if I never worked with a client it would still have been worth it.

MagicalDebLund

I coach myself pretty much daily. It’s not magic. You can be your own coach, too. I remind myself of my teaching and training. Of all the successes of my students and clients. Of the accomplished writers who seek me out when they hit blocks. I must have something to say. And if I do, you do, too.

Say it. Say that something that can help another find their way, see a new vision, take a risk. A risk like going on Kickstarter. A risk like joining a critique group. A risk like signing up for one of Darcy’s workshops. A risk like writing.

What risk can you take today? Not the big dream. Just one little step broken down as far as it can go. Take that step. Let us know how it went…


Deb Lund is an author, teacher, and creativity coach. She is proud to be on the Western Washington SCBWI Advisory Committee and to chair the original Inside Story. She babbles on her blogs and dabbles in the arts on Whidbey Island. See what Deb is up to at www.deblund.com.

From Darcy: Support Deb’s Kickstarter Project here. Only 6 Days to Go! The main goal has been reached, but the stretch goal is still looming! Read about it now! (“I want all my writers to have your cards.” Jen Rofe’, Agent)

Author Website Content: Keep the Blog and Website Going

This month-long series of blog posts will explain author websites and offer tips and writing strategies for an effective author website. It alternates between a day of technical information and a day of writing content. By the end of the month, you should have a basic author website up and functioning. The Table of Contents lists the topics, but individual posts will not go live until the date listed. The Author Website Resource Page offers links to tools, services, software and more.

Keep Your Author Website Fresh

WWW under construction building website
You’re done it. Your author website is launched. Now what?
The care and feeding of a website is necessary and part of your career now. Please, don’t abandon the website and let it wither on the vine–not after this month of hard work. Set aside regular days to write something for the blog and get it scheduled. When you have new books, update!

Also, you must plan ways to connect with your readers. Remember that these are things readers want from you.

AUTHOR WEBSITE CHECKLIST
Where on your website did you include these things? List the page(s)

Exclusive unpublished writing: ______________________
Author Schedules: ________________________________
Author’s Literary Tastes:___________________________
Insider Information: _______________________________
Freebies: ________________________________________
Regular Contact: __________________________________
Contests, puzzles, teacher’s guides, book club discussion guides, puzzles, coloring pages, etc.__________________________________

Resources

I won’t leave you without some resources! You can always look at my Author Website Resource page for ideas–and please send me ideas on what to include there!

For problems or questions about WordPress, refer to the WordPress Codex.

WRITING A BLOG – GOING DEEPER

31dbbb2After your website it up and going, you may still want some hints and advice on building a strong blog. Darren Rouse, owner of Problogger.net has this great tutorial that will keep you going for the second month. He is one of the original people talking about how to make money online with blogging and he’s still one of the best. This book is a simple, easy-to-do collection of tasks that will make your website even stronger. After two months of concentrated effort on your site, you’re well on your way to success!
Darren Rouse’s 31 Days to a Better Blog

EMAIL SUBSCRIPTIONS AND MARKETING

Every website needs a way to collect names of fans. After you finish your first month or two, you should look into getting this set up. Own your audience!

Mailchimp is my preference because it’s easy to set up and it’s free until you get 2000 subscribers. After that, the prices go up on $5 increments as your list expands, so it’s easy to live with.