Monthly Archives: April 2012

E-Books and the Browsing Problem

I use my Kindle often. I read books using the Kindle app for my iPhone more.

But, I don’t like shopping for books in the digital world.

You see, I am a browser. I always have been.

Not only do I judge a book by its cover, I judge it by the weight of the paper and the tone of the ink and the books that are near it on the shelf.

And that last one is the kicker.

When I go to the bookstore or library looking for a book, I am rarely looking for a specific book. If I want a particular title, I order it from an online seller or place a hold on it at the library from the comfort of my living room.

But, if I have a gut feeling that I want to learn something about a particular subject, I like to wander over to a cluster of bookshelves and browse. I have no easy way to browse digital books and this bugs me.

Are you a browser? If so, how is the move to digital publishing changing your book-finding habits?

Rest: Giving A Body A Break

For those of you who missed my regular post on Monday, I apologize. I have been doing something important since Saturday.

I have been resting.

After months of not only burning the candle at both ends, but also looking for extra wicks to burn that same candle more brightly, my body has been saying “enough, slow down,” for the last two weeks.

I haven’t been listening.

And, so, on Saturday, my body took control. Without plan or forethought on my part, I napped. In that “I lay down to read a book and woke up several hours later” way, I napped. And, I napped on and off for the next four days.

My ‘to do’ list is too long, my commitments are more than my time available. Something has to give.

These naps have been my wake-up call.

If I won’t take care of my body, my body will take care of me.

Learning to Fail Better

“Learning to Fail Better” is a chapter title in Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of A Story. The chapter is about revision, but I have been thinking of the title in the context of my overall journey as a writer.

Like many fiction writers, I started my journey writing short stories during my elementary school years. I still have some of those stories. They are charming. They show real promise, a sense of detail and some imaginative twists, but are fundamentally derivative works, inspired by the stories my teachers read aloud in class.

In late elementary school, I tried my hand at a longer piece and got stuck trying to develop a plot. I couldn’t figure out how to build a narrative and I abandoned the project in despair. That failure was pivotal in the path I have taken on my return to writing fiction as an adult.

I was the perfect participant for NaNoWriMo, that annual mad dash of bad novel-writing. I had wanted to write a novel since elementary school, but had let my fear of writing a bad one stop me from writing at all.

The first year, I gave myself permision to write a horrible novel. I wrote a 50,000+ word narrative centered on a single character’s journey. There were some interesting characters, but the plot was horrible. Realizing this, I spent the next year studying plot. The following November, I dove into NaNoWriMo with an outline of half a plot and an idea of where to go from there. But, the idea wasn’t enough and I stalled.

But, I wasn’t done. I kept thinking and studying and writing some short stories.

The following year, I started NaNoWriMo with a full narrative arc planned and a Liquid Story Binder file with a description of what would happen in each chapter. By writing each chapter in that outline, I ended NaNoWriMo with a complete first draft of a middle-grade novel.

It was a messy first draft, but it was my first complete long-form narrative.

I was still failing to write a publishable novel, but I was failing better.

No book is ever perfect, but maybe, if I keep going, one day, I may have failed at a publishable level. And that is the goal.

What does the idea of learning to fail better mean to you?

Getting The Work Out There

Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly.
Seth Godin

Today, I am thinking about shipping. Shipping is scary, but must be done.

I don't usually think of myself of a seamstress, but my kids love these "sock monsties" that I made them for Christmas.

When Seth Godin talks about shipping, he means getting your stuff out there into the world.

Shipping has always scared me. I have a tendency to assume that people will judge me by my work and that I will be deemed not up to snuff.

It’s always a little unnerving when people read my work and like it, even more so when it inspires them or they ask for more. There’s still a voice in my head doing the internal equivalent of looking over my shoulder to see if the person is talking to someone else, then looking back, pointing to myself and mouthing “Me?”

I am starting to realize that I how I feel is immaterial. The truth appears to be that I produce some words that some other people get something useful from. I think most of us do. Not always, but often enough that keeping our thoughts to ourselves is actually a disservice to the rest of the world.

If I have an idea that might help you, I do you a disservice by not sharing it with you. But, because I have no idea what of my material might resonate with you, I have to find ways to get most of my stuff out where people can find it.

It is the best way I know to be of service.

I have increased my rate of shipping recently. I am writing more for this blog; my fiction is out in the hands of readers for feedback; I am writing once a month on issues associated with giftedness for An Intense Life; and, I have been publishing improvised poems over at A More Playful Life.

All I can say is that the thrill of having people respond to my writing is intoxicating. The more I do, the more I want to do.

I don’t know where this is all leading, but it looks like it might be a wild ride.

Thanks for being a part of this journey.

Now Comes The Hard Part: Reversing Underachievement

I am in the part of my learning curve with my fiction writing that will push me to the brink. Like many adults who slid through school without having to work hard, I never developed habits of persistence and grit. And now, I have to if I want to make progress.

I got through school by showing up to class, reading the assigned work, and taking the tests. Notice the complete lack of revision, study, or thinking about the material to understand what I was missing. I always understood enough to get As, but never enough to excel. I had no motivation to excel. To excel would have required me to live through the discomfort of staring what I didn’t know in the face and hanging out with it, examining it from all angles, trying to find a path to understanding – a discomfort that most people encounter before leaving high school, but that I managed to get through law school without ever encountering.

This pattern of not pushing myself has led to a classic case of adult underachievement, a failure on my part to fully use my strengths to accomplish my goals.

Luckily, the universe sent me a bunch of challenging children to parent. I can’t stay in bed all day and ignore my kids. I have to do my best to help them grow into happy, healthy, productive citizens. And, like all parents, some days are not so good. Some days, I really feel like a failure. But, I need to get up the next day and keep trying, hoping that what I can manage to accomplish that day will be enough.

Parenting has forced me to develop persistence, to become comfortable with studying, experimenting, and changing things that aren’t working.

For the first time, I have been given a task that feels too hard for me, but that I refuse to give up on, and I am learning to push past what comes easily.

As a writer, I have reached the point where I need to dig in for the long haul and do the hard work. I have written bad first drafts; I have read a huge amount about the craft of writing; I have written good and bad short stories; and now I am revising a novel – a very messy, in serious need of hard work, novel.

I am unwilling to give up on this novel. But, I don’t have the discipline of decades of hard work to draw on. I need help getting past my lazy habits of doing just enough to get by. For now, I need external deadlines to meet, to push me through the frustrations. I hope not to need them forever.

I have homework due for my novel-writing class – homework that will require me to do some analysis of my draft that I have been putting of for too long because it is hard. I have agreed to send the first 25 pages of my WIP to Charlotte Rains Dixon tomorrow because I won a critique from her. I am terrified to give her these pages. This is the weakest part of my draft and I know it. But, it is better now than it was before I won the critique, and it will be better again before I submit the first 20 pages at the end of my class in a few weeks.

I am determined to beat this underachievement thing.

Raising Literate Children

So far, it looks like I am off to a great start in my goal of raising readers. The pile of books my kids bring home after each visit to the library is evidence of that.

But, I don’t just want my kids to be able to read. I want them to feel comfortable with turning to written materials to learn anything they want, to know the joy of reading stories that engage them and move them emotionally, and to find the great literature of the English language accessible. To succeed in the last task, making the great literature accessible, I must introduce them not only to the classics, but also to the material referred to by the classics.

So, on this weekend of Easter and Passover, I am telling them bible stories. We are neither Christian nor Jewish. We do, however, celebrate a springtime festival of chocolate that we call Easter, and a winter festival of lights and gift-giving that we call Christmas. I am not telling them these stories because they are part of our faith tradition; I am telling them these stories because they are reference material for literate readers.

So, last night, we talked about the plagues of Egypt, the slaughter of the Egyptian first-born sons, the exodus, the crucifixion, and the empty tomb. We also talked about calendars and the scheduling of holidays.

Today, we will be at a maple syrup festival and will surely talk about symbols of spring. Sunday’s egg hunt will bring us to conversations about how religions use natural phenomena as symbols. We have these conversations every year. As the kids get older, the conversations get deeper, richer, and more complex.

I am fully conscious that what I am doing is passing down cultural traditions in a way that reveals my deepest beliefs. I am sharing stories I think are necessary for my children to understand their literary heritage. I am sharing my appreciation for myth and metaphor, encouraging an understanding of the importance of the stories we tell, grounding my love of wonder and miracle in observation of the natural world, and imparting my belief that history is a vital part of understanding who we are. To me, all of these elements are part of teaching my children to read.

It is not just enough to be able to look at words and know what they mean. To read well, you need to understand what the author is talking about, and that often means understanding references to other material.

I wrote about the need for writers to read widely last April, and included familiarity with the bible in that context. I believe that raising literate readers requires the same approach.

Are there specific books and stories you think children should be exposed to?

Giving Pages to a First Reader

I did something very unusual this morning. I gave my son pages of my WIP and asked for his feedback. I am revising these pages to submit to an editor for feedback by the end of this week and was working on them next to him as he was working on school work.

He asked me if they were part of my book and I felt moved to see if he wanted to read them. And he did. And then, I asked for feedback. Asking him for feedback was terrifying. I wanted him to respond honestly and I also wanted him to have liked it and want more. I would have been mortified if he hated it and horrified if he lied to make me happy.

It took every ounce of patience I had to not look over his shoulder as he read, and I cringed the few times he pointed out proof-reading errors. But, having handed over the pages, I had to live through the result.

He needs to be asked direct questions in order to discuss what he has read, so I asked him to tell me what he knew about the characters from the first few pages. I did my absolute best not to ask leading questions. I am pleased to report he understood at least as much about the characters as I had hoped the three pages would convey. He did use his knowledge of me to pinpoint the age of the two kids more accurately than the “older than me” that he inferred directly from the text, but he is 8 and has little frame of reference for judging between a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old – which is an issue I will be discussing with the editor.

He did indicate that he would have preferred it if the stakes had reached life or death proportions within the first three pages, but when asked if he would have kept reading if I had given him more pages he said, “yes.”

He then asked me some really good questions. The one I liked best had to do with the narrator. The latest draft is in first person and there is no reason within the first three pages for anyone to address the protagonist by name. He wanted to know how the reader would get to know her name. (And yes, he figured out the protagonist was a girl from what I had written; I was so proud of us both.)

My son is not quite my ideal reader, but he is close. He reads more middle grade fiction than YA and my novel is definitely heading in the YA direction with this draft. He prefers science fiction to fantasy, and genre fiction to realistic fiction. My WIP starts in a realistic mode, but is definitely a fantasy. More importantly, he neither lies well nor continues reading when he is not enjoying himself.

The biggest compliment he gave me was an hour or so after he gave me back the pages. He asked if I had the next chapters ready for him to read. I don’t, but I have a new incentive to get them written after this morning.

It took a lot of courage for me to give him the pages, but I am extremely glad I did.

Do you have a first reader you usually turn to? Or does it depend on the work?

The Things We Are Afraid to Write About

The last of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

Did you notice how my writing got analytical and vague last week?

For the past year, I have been easing my way toward dealing with the most defining moment of my life – the nadir from which the rest of my life has been an ascension. I thought I was ready, but I was wrong. I pushed and my chief defense mechanism, my intellect, jumped into the fray.

I believe that as I learn to retell my story with myself as the protagonist, as I turn my knowledge of storytelling on myself and claim the moment I chose to walk out of darkness towards my own power, I am changing my life. But, I also believe that this is a deep-body process, not one I can think my way through. As soon as I jump to analyzing emotional events intellectually, I know that I am reacting from fear and it is time for me to turn back to play.

I came up against my hard edges last week and hit a wall. I’m closer to my deepest material than I have ever been, but I need to be gentler with myself. Time for me to go back to some sneaky deep play.

Which is why I decided that I will leave my improvised poems about play up at A More Playful Life. Leaving them up is scary, but it is a fear I am willing to face. And, by approaching the poetry InterPlayfully, I connect to a deeply supportive community.

I hope you’ll drop by and check them out.

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