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When Summer Is the Hardest Time to Write

For several summers in a row, I have had difficulty putting words together. July and August have been writing dead zones. Each year, I have inadvertently taken a complete writing hiatus in July and come back slowly in August – writing blog posts, but not making progress on my novel.

When the weather cools, the days shorten, and the kids go back to school, I get more writing done.

But I don’t like the break. There is always a little voice in the back of my head telling me I should be writing more. And the further I get into the summer, the louder that voice gets.

Next year, I think I will actively take a break from blogging in July – line up a few posts in advance and relax about the blog. I might even take a vacation from trying to produce new work as well. I could treat it as a mini-sabbatical, a prolonged period of feeding my muse rather than asking her to produce.

In the meantime, I am trying to turn August into a productive writing month. I started well with a post over at An Intense Life about getting ready for new schools for all my kids in September. And, I have devised a little project for myself.

I am a Camp NaNoWriMo Rebel. If you haven’t heard, the people who bring you NaNoWriMo in November started a pared-down version that happens in June and August last summer. I thought about participating last year, but I didn’t want to start a new project and my work-in-progress was in a stage of revision that didn’t fit with the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. So, I skipped it.

This summer, however, I have a lot of first draft writing I want to do. In my class this winter, I did a lot of work sketching out more plot elements and discovering weaknesses in my characterization. I pruned heavily after that class, leaving gaping holes that need filling with new text.

And, NaNo is a great motivator for me to write a lot of new text. So, I am a NaNo Rebel, a NaNo participant who is not following the rules in some crucial way. Some NaNo Rebels write something other than a novel, some work on a work in progress, some work on several pieces; all break the rules but shoot for the 50,000 word count.

I believe in using writing challenges to serve your project. If the challenge doesn’t quite fit, modify it. So I am using the word count challenge as a challenge to generate material to fill the holes in my manuscript. At the end of July, I wrote a list of 31 things to write that will enrich my novel and I will work through those prompts as August continues.

So far, I have followed these prompts:

  • A detailed physical description of the antagonist and the prison from which he escapes (character development)
  • The story of the initial capture of the antagonist (backstory)
  • A phone call between the protagonist and her mother after the first scene of the novel (character development)
  • The first manifestation of the protagonist’s magical powers (backstory)
  • Diary entries in which the protagonist writes about the five kids at school who most impact her life (backstory and character development)

I am not sure how these bits of writing will fit into the next draft of the novel, but it is clear they are going to enrich it. The phone call between the protagonist and her mother is going to go right where the prompt says it should – but the way it turned out means that I will need to add another scene later about how the protagonist and her grandmother respond to the call.

It’s exciting. The novel is moving. My muse is shouting at me; I’m having trouble keeping up.

This is the kick in the pants I needed to get me back to the computer on these beautiful summer days.

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Find Your Zest, Your Gusto: A Tribute To Ray Bradbury

Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears those words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.

~ Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

Like many readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy, I reacted to the news of Ray Bradbury’s death on Tuesday by finding his books on my shelves and starting to reread them. But, I did not first turn to Farenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, or any of his other wonderful stories. No, I went straight to one of my favourite books about the craft of writing: Zen in the Art of Writing.

Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays on writing that Bradbury wrote over a span of decades. The quote about zest and gusto at the top of this post is the opening of the essay entitled “The Joy of Writing.”

I come back to this essay more than any other single piece of writing about writing. It reconnects me with the reasons that I write.

[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-guard coterie, that you are not being youself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health.

~ Ray Bradbury, The Joy of Writing

That paragraph hit me hard when I reread it this week. I have had a hard time getting back to writing my novel since my class had me working feverishly on exploring how to pitch it. I was stuck, but I couldn’t figure out why.

Intellectually, I had a plan. I had generated a timeline and a synopsis of a story worth telling. I had noticed themes of the novel reflecting deep themes in my life. I knew what scenes I had to write to make the piece hang together.

But, my muse was bored. She refused to show up. I think she figured I didn’t need her since I had it all mapped out. She was wrong.

To get out of my rut, I started listening to the materials associated with Holly Lisle’s How To Think Sideways course. One of the things I love about Lisle’s teaching materials is that she demonstrates how she gets her inspirational muse and her craft-based thinking mind to work together on a project.

I found myself leaning on one idea: One of your jobs as a writer is to write bigger than your first impression.

In order to prepare the pitch for my class, I had to pretend the novel was closer to finished than it is. In essence, I pitched something close to my first impression. And, I boiled out some fo the complexity to build the pitch. But it is too early in the process for that. I needed to give myself permission to grow the story beyond the pitch as I prepared it.

By focusing on the scenes that work and being willing to ditch the rest if need be, and by giving myself explicit instruction to think bigger than the pitch I had prepared, I convinced my muse to come back and play.

I am making progress again. With gusto and with zest.

In tribute to Ray Bradbury, I offer these links:

When an artist who has touched you dies, how do you respond?

In his speech to the graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Neil Gaiman argued that one should greet life’s trials with one response: make good art. I add now, from Ray Bradbury: with gusto.

So please, find your zest and your gusto and make good art.

Say it Loud: I am a Writer

Jeff Goins is leading a 15-day challenge he calls “15 Habits of Great Writers.”

15 days is not long enough to form one habit, let alone 15, but I am curious to see what he thinks, so I have signed up to get the daily challenge e-mails.

Today is Day 1.

Today’s challenge: Declare Yourself a Writer.

His point: If you write, say you are a writer. Say it loud; say it big; say it often. If you say it big enough, you will believe it.

His challenge to his readers for today:

Declare you’re a writer.

Not just to your wall or computer or notebook, but to an actual person or institution. Someone or something you’re scared of — this could be a person who might reject or judge you, a family member who may misunderstand you, or a publisher who could discredit you. But tell them and tell them now.

I grew up believing I could neither draw nor be taught how to draw. I am learning I am teachable.

So, I figure that makes today as good a day as any to tell you about my new Facebook page. I have

been on Facebook as a private individual hanging out with my friends for years. Last week, a little latte mug with a link to Facebook appeared on this page. That link, my friends is to my public page; the page where I present to you Kate Arms-Roberts, Writer.

On that page, I expect to post about the things that make me the writer I am.

  • Books I read
  • Books I want to read
  • Things that inspire me
  • Creativity
  • The genres I write in: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Middle Grade
  • Things that make me think
  • Information about the craft and business of writing

Please come on over and Like my page.

Set the Right Expectations With Back Cover Blurbs, Please

When was the last time you read the copy on the back of a book?

Did the blurb create expectations about the book?

What happens when a book doesn’t meet those expectations?

These two books didn’t match their blurbs. The blurbs were interesting, the books were good. They should have been telling the same stories.

Over the last week, I read two books where the back cover blurb set up inappropriate expectations. I could not enjoy the books as I was reading them because my brain was constantly telling me I had been lied to.

The two books were Buried Fire and The Leap, both by Jonathan Stroud, published by Hyperion. Both are good YA fantasy books, well written with engaging characters, interesting plots, and enjoyable plot twists. Unfortunately, both were marketed as straight-forward hero’s journeys, and neither was. Because I was reading them to understand how other writers are handling YA urban fantasy, I finished the books. But, I am going to question every book from Hyperion in the future.

According to the cover, The Leap is about a girl who follows a dead friend into a parallel universe through her dreams. But, the story as written is not just her story. The chapters alternate between her point of view and her brother’s. The end of the book reveals the value of that structure with a lovely plot twist, but I could not enjoy the journey of reading to the end because I was confused by the expectations created by the cover blurb.

The cover copy for Buried Fire said Michael would wake with dragon powers and would have to choose between freeing the dragon and solidifying his powers or fighting the dragon and saving the people he loved. That was sort of true. In one moment in the climax, he made such a choice, but it was a minor moment. The most important moment involved action by his sister. There is no single protagonist in Buried Fire. The story is told from multiple perspectives and is actually the story of how an entire village reacts to the awakening of the dragon. Michael is a central character, but not the central character.

In retrospect, the books were actually better than the blurbs implied. There was more subtlety in the storytelling: more nuance to the narrative and more complexity in the character development. They should have been more enjoyable to read.

The disconnect between the expectations set-up by the cover and the actual text ruined the reading experience for me.

Is there a book you have read that ended up being very different from what you expected? How did you feel reading it? Let me know in the comments.

When Your Work is in Other People’s Hands

Waiting.

I pitched my novel on Wednesday night. It went well. I got some feedback about some possible improvements to my pitch, but I was one of three people who came across as knowing what they were talking about.

And now we are waiting, waiting to hear which two are being considered for submission to an editor who rarely looks at unagented work.

I hate waiting, so I am doing other things: spring planting, house cleaning, LEGO organizing, and having friends over for dinner.

I am not expecting to be selected to move all the way through the process: one of the novels has a hook that is too juicy to pass up. The marketing potential is huge, and the writing is good – it needs polishing, but it is well on its way. Although that novel will not be the only one to be considered for passing on to the editor, I am sure it will be in the mix, and I think the package is good enough that the marketing hook will get it selected.

But, I do not know. And so, I wait.

Waiting for rejection is part of the writer’s life. We must find ways to handle it, to not pause our life and writing while our babies are out in the world to be judged.

I am drawing on my experience as an actor after auditions, reminding myself that I have done my best and letting go of whatever outcomes may be.

My attitude to auditioning changed completely when I directed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night<
in college. For that show, the lead female and a secondary male must be mistaken for each other. Two women auditioned who could have played the lead. No man auditioned who could be mistaken for one of the women, so I cast the other. And the woman who could have played the lead wasn’t right for any of the other female roles, so I couldn’t cast her. I used weaker actresses who fit the characters better to make the play as a whole work. For this actress, it was the lead or nothing and my choice depended on who else auditioned.

After that, I knew I would’ve never understand all the thoughts any director goes through when casting. All I can do is show up, do my best, and see what happens.

Yes, the waiting sucks.

But, there is no point in wallowing in it.

I have editing, writing, and living to get on with.

Dealing with Nervous Energy

This evening, I will be pitching my unfinished novel to a panel of strangers.

This is part of my novel-writing class and is mostly an exercise. But, it isn’t just an exercise. At the end of this evening, the panel will choose two of the pitches and request the first 20 pages of those manuscripts to share with the owner of the bookstore where our class meets. She will then show one or both of the pitches to the Chief Acquisitions Editor of a major publisher, with whom she has a personal relationship. The last time she did this with one of my instructor’s classes, the editor asked to see the full manuscript.

This is not a drill.

I have not been focusing well for the last three days.

This afternoon, I yielded to the wisdom I have acquired over three decades in theatre. I took a nap. (For those of you worried about the kids you know I homeschool, they were occupied and I was right near them.)

I have been writing this novel for over two years. I have been revising my pitch and synopsis for a month. A few extra hours of revising and prepping were going to make me more nervous, not improve my performance tonight.

And, sure enough, when I woke up, I was calmer.

My nerves will be on fire again later tonight, but I have to trust that I am as well rehearsed as possible and that I know my work. Tonight I will focus on deep breathing, relaxing my eyes, and talking to the panel with energy and enthusiasm. It is all I can do at this point.

I don’t know when I will hear whether or not my work will move on to the next stage of this process, but I will surely have another strong emotional response at that time.

How do you manage your nerves when you have something important at stake?

When Something Has to Give

Have you missed me?

I have missed you.

I didn’t mean to disappear, but my priorities have been away from this blog during April and I couldn’t bring myself to post the dreck that I was writing when I did sit down to write for this site.

I did improvise poetry for 24 letters of the alphabet for A More Playful Life during the A to Z blogging challenge. W and X are still waiting for their moments. Putting unpolished work out on the net was odd. I felt extremely conflicted about whether I wanted people to read them poems or not. When I have performed improvised poetry in classes led by poet Alison Luterman, I have frozen. I loosened up somewhat writing these poems. I think it was a good exercise.

I have been busy revising my work in progress for my novel-writing class. We submitted the first 20 pages this past weekend and will be pitching the novels to a panel next week. With the excellent comments on the opening that I received from Charlotte Rains Dixon and feedback from my class on the synopsis, I had some significant changes I wanted to make. I am pleased with the current state of things, but not complacent.

The panel next week is going to choose one package to share with the chief acquisitions editor of a major publisher. I think I stand a reasonable chance of being selected and want my work to show me in the best light possible. The novel had to take priority over the blog.

My other priority has been celebrating my triplets’ fifth birthday. They are old enough to take the birthday adventure seriously and getting things right has been a challenge.

My favourite part of preparing for the birthday celebrations was the evening before their birthday. One at a time, I took each child into my room to wrap presents and sign cards. Each child had a fit of jealousy that their siblings were going to receive these cool gifts, and I had to help them understand that they would also be getting gifts. The moment of understanding was different for each child, but in each case, I got to witness a glow of excitement and anticipation as they realized what their siblings were doing when alone with me.

The actual birthday was fun. The birthday party was more of a relief than anything else. I wrote about getting ready for the party for An Intense Life today. In that piece I describe the intensity of the kids by comparing them to small monkey pumped full of amphetamines. It was wild.

But, I am back.

I pushed myself too hard in March, blogging every day. I needed energy I had already used for getting through April, and there was too much going on at the end of April.

So, I am doing myself a favour – or at least I think it is a favour. I’m not deciding how often I am going to post here in May. Suffice it to say that I plan for it to be more than April and less than March.

There was too much going on in March and April. I need to strike a new balance, a balance that puts my priorities where they need to be – on getting the novel finished.

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?

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.

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?

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