Jun 21, 2011

Being A Writer: What's In Your Job Description?

So many people say the key to being a writer is simple:  butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard. There's even a shortened version of this reminder:  BIC-HOK.

But here's the thing: BIC-HOK is all about attendance.  It's a minimal requirement for the job.  You must show up.  You cannot hold any job if you never show up for work.

The problem comes when we think this minimal requirement is the only requirement.

Even more worrisome, the minimal requirement becomes more difficult to meet if we continue to make the same mistakes day after day.  It's far too easy to ask, "what's the point?" and give up.  Knowing our broader goals as writers will help us to meet this basic one.

We need specific criteria to understand our roles as writers and whether we're meeting our goals.  Keep in mind that we're more likely to continue writing over time if our goals are within our control.  (So instead of saying, "I'm going to get an agent," we might say, "I'm going to have X number of queries out at a time.  If I get a rejection, I'll consider any advice, revise my approach as needed, and send another query.")

So how do you define your job as a writer?

You have to decide this yourself, depending on where you are now and where you want to be.

I find it helpful to stand back a little and pretend I'm hiring someone for this job.  What qualities would I expect?

Completion.  Finish some stories, yeah?  Build a portfolio of polished work.

Consistency. Show up on schedule. You don't have to write every day, but show up as agreed. Be where you say you're going to be, doing the work that needs to be done.

Dedication to the Craft. Follow through the work from start to finish: planning, drafting, re-envisioning, rewriting, refining, editing.

Creative Openness. Listen to criticism with a specific filter:  will this make the story better?  Know the creative vision for the story so it's clear whether any given advice moves the story in the desired direction.  Do not be toughened to criticism. Be sensitive and smart.  Pay close attention to those who have more experience in the profession.

Training. Study the craft.  Read widely, both inside your chosen genre and beyond.  Read books about the craft and try out new techniques.  Set a budget and save money so you can attend workshops and conferences.

Networking. Hang out with other writers, both inside a local community (when possible--seek opportunities!) and within a broader community (social networking, conferences, blogging w/in a community of bloggers, participating with writing associations, NaNoWriMo, etc.)

Be prepared to pitch and sell. Know what you've written and who will want to read it.

Listen to readers. Take time to listen to the readers of your thoughts, not just the readers of your syntax.  Pay attention. Respond.

Focus on both broad and specific goals. You should be able to take apart a sentence, understand its purpose, rearrange the necessary components, and put it back together with an eye for artistry and functionality.  You should also understand the trajectory you want your writing career to take in the next ten or twenty years.  Focus on the specific, but understand how it fits into the big picture.

Balance. Take care of yourself.  Do not sacrifice everything for writing.  Enjoy family and friends.  Remember that colleagues are not just other writers, but people with non-writerly concerns and worries and joys.  Go to concerts, eat cake, and dance.

I'm sure I've forgotten something important, but that's my basic job description.  What's in yours?

Jun 7, 2011


Life hasn't been going well for me the last couple months.  It seems we're in the middle of a rash of family illness and death and general bad luck.  It's one of those extended times of doom that most of us experience eventually.  There's not much to do but hang on and wait for it to end.

My friends have been reminding me to care for myself as I care for others in my life.  With that in mind, my teen daughter and I drove over to Boise for Monday night's SCBWI meeting.  We settled into the comfy back room of Rediscovered Books, feeling a bit numb and battered.

Then our guest speaker, a local junior high school librarian, started talking about books.

"I'm in the middle of that one!" my daughter told him, pointing at Liar by Justine Larbalestier.  "No spoilers!"

"Isn't it great?" he asked.  "Are you into part two yet?"

And somehow in those moments, our dark cloud vanished for a while.  For the next couple hours, we talked about YA books and the kids and adults who love them.  We came away with a dozen more books we want to read.

This past week, young adult writers and readers have been livid over a June 4th article in The Wall Street Journal.  In "Darkness Too Visible," Meghan Cox Gurdon argues:  "If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is."

The element that most amazes me in Gurdon's statement is her underlying sentiment that anything hideous about life is a distortion of reality.

I cannot do the mental gymnastics to deny the bad in the world, either for myself or for others.  Bad stuff happens. It happens all the time. I can offer friendship and comfort and an ear to listen. Thankfully, I can also offer books.

Monday night, that junior high school librarian didn't know he was saving me from my pain.   He just offered books.  It was what I needed.  I'm sure he does the same for his students every day.

On Twitter this week, writers and readers embraced the tag #YASaves to react to the WSJ article, declaring over and over how much good comes from reading YA fiction.  #YASaves.  It's true.  These authors deserve enormous credit for their bravery and honesty, but let's not forget: teen librarians are often the ones putting those books into the hands of the readers who need them.  Many thanks to Gregory Taylor for speaking with our group.  I endorse my daughter's assessment.  You do, indeed, rock.

A memorial post for Liam the ram

On April 25th, a freaky little storm came through our farm.  The sky darkened. Wind whipped up from one direction and then another.  Thunder and lightning followed.

Without warning, the gale disappeared as quickly as it arrived.   Five minutes later it came back.  Then it vanished.  Then it came back again.  Like I said:  freaky.  I've never seen a storm like that.  I hope I don't again.

The first time the sky darkened, anxiety seeped into the core of my being.  I'm a little kid about storms. This one was worse than usual.

The second time the sky darkened, my brother called to tell us my sister-in-law was losing her battle with leukemia.

The third time the sky darkened, I looked out and our ram, Liam, was having a seizure. He'd been hit by a jolt of lightning.

Compared to the news about my brother's wife, I didn't have it in me to express my feelings over what was happening to Liam.  I went to him and comforted him and called the vet.  No one expected him to live.

The next morning, I went out early, prepared for bad news.  Instead, Liam kicked his legs and looked up at me with trusting and vulnerable eyes.  I helped him up and he stumbled a little.  Then he went to his food and started eating.  I couldn't believe it.

I kept checking on him that day and I worried when he didn't respond as usual.  After some trial and error, I determined that the big guy had gone completely deaf. I had to touch him to get his attention.

The personality (sheepality?) changes in Liam also startled me.  Once independent and stubborn, our ram became sweet and affectionate. The fear in his eyes settled down when I approached and a hand against his nose made him quit shaking.

Liam seemed to be getting better.

Last Friday, June 3rd, Liam had another seizure.  He got up one more time, on shaky legs.  He leaned into me and ate from my hands.  He died the next day.  The lightning strike caused neurological damage from which he couldn't recover. I still find myself looking for him in his pen.  I miss him.

Jun 3, 2011

Chapter Arc

This is for Ruth, who asked me what a chapter arc looks like.

This is a general model, so not every chapter will look just like this, but it's always where I start.

Every chapter has a place and a purpose in the book.  Together, chapters blend with and reflect each other to tell the bigger story of the novel.

I often see the larger story taking shape around a series of Aha! moments.  It's the purpose of the individual chapter to show how a character reaches that moment and how the response builds to the next rising action (and the next Aha!).

Sometimes I don't end with the resolution itself, but rather with the promise of a resolution. The reader has to move into the next chapter to find out what the character decides and what problems arise--and thus the action rises again.

Even when this is the case, I plot with the resolution of the chapter on the card detailing the chapter purpose. I can always go back and change the chapter divisions later.

With this model, every chapter has a strong internal structure and a purpose within the novel. Even though I'm seldom able to envision all the details of a novel at one time, I'm always able to see the details of an entire chapter.  If I know the chapters flow together well to tell the story, I can focus on making that chapter the best it can be. Strong chapters make strong novels.

Many thanks to Ruth for asking the question

Writing Through Difficult Times

Yesterday I finished a chapter analysis of DisasterMinds and today I begin rewriting the chapters.

This is a HUGE deal.

The last couple months brought major challenges into my life and I had choices to make.  I could take an extended break from writing and come back after things settled down -OR- I could find a process that would keep me writing through all the set-backs.  I chose the latter---not because I'm super stoic and can write through anything dammit and thank-you-very-much---but because writing is my therapy of choice.  When I write, I escape my troubles for a while.  I refresh my soul.  I need to keep writing.

So what's a writer to do with such a scattered brain?  Only one thing works for me:  plan and chart.

Each note card stack contains:

  • beats for the scenes

  • an arc for the chapter

  • sensory detail

  • characters

  • tension and stakes

Each chapter hangs on my little bookcase line in order.  If I have an element in a later chapter that needs foreshadowing, I gaze along the line until I find the place for it and add a note.  I mark problem chapters and determine methods to make them less problematic.

By organizing in this way, I'm able to divide my book-writing into manageable pieces.

While life is throwing rocks at me, the manageable pieces keep me writing.

How about you?  Do you have tricks to keep writing through the difficult times?