Monday, August 29, 2016

On giving myself permission not to finish books

A quick snapshot of one of our many bookshelves

Long before I was a writer, I was a reader. A voracious reader. At the age of 10, I had read through my local library's collection of children's books and had to have my mother talk to the librarian and grant me permission to take out books from the rest of the library.

I once tried to count all the books I had read - it was my version of 'counting sheep' when I had a hard time falling asleep - and always lost track, but even then, it was in the hundreds.

So when I say I've read a lot, you'll have to take it on faith that it means many thousands of books over a lifetime.

I never abandoned books before I began to write them. It felt disrespectful, somehow, to the sacred act of writing. So even if I didn't enjoy something, I finished it. That changed in my 40s and 50s. Maybe because now that I am a writer, I don't want to internalize poor writing or work that may be good, but I don't enjoy. Maybe because I realized at some point that there would be far more books published than I could ever read, even if I had several lifetimes to do so.

So now I stop reading and put the book away if I get to the 10% mark and am not in the least engaged. In the past 6 months, I've abandoned more books than I've finished. For the majority of them, it wasn't that they were 'bad' (however that is measured), but just not engaging. If I don't care about the characters or the story, then reading becomes work, not pleasure.

There is a common thread in many of the books I set aside: they tell me about the story instead of telling me a story.

The book I closed last night was a prime example. I felt like the author was relating the events of the plot, as if they were giving me a synopsis, rather than letting the story unfold.

Many times, this is a result of mediocre writing, but more crucial, of the author maintaining a kind of uninterested distance from the work. After pages and pages of 'this happens and that happens and then that happens next', I grew bored. There were exciting things happening - a mutiny aboard a space ship, a captain dying from some unrevealed disease or disorder, his need to protect a young woman under his care - but it was a color-by-numbers kind of presentation.

If the author passionately cares about the story and transmits that care THROUGH the characters, then I will happily read even a poorly crafted story. But even if the words are well crafted, I don't have patience to stay with a story that has no passion.

And lest you think that this is a dig at self-published work, understand that I am an equal opportunity critic. Several of the books I set aside in the past 6 months were Nebula and Hugo nominees. Several were self-published books.

What this tells me is craft and packaging is not, on their own, enough and sometimes craft and packaging are not the essential elements of a great story. What I have discovered is when passionate writing, craft, and packaging happen in one place, that's going to be an amazing book. 



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Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Small moves, Ellie, small moves"

One of my favorite movies
I love the movie CONTACT. I loved it when it came out in 1997 and I have rewatched it on a number of occasions and still love it. Its fundamentally optimistic view of the universe and our place in it is one that resonates with me and informs both what I choose to read and what I choose to write.

Some of the quotes from the movie have become part of our family vernacular. There's a part, early in the movie, when Ellie Arroway is a young ham radio operator and her father is coaching her at her radio rig not to turn the dial too quickly. He tells her "Small moves, Ellie, small moves." And that has become a guide in my own life.

I have been writing and writing and writing for a dozen years and a dozen novels. Over that time, I've gone from an overly optimistic newb with dreams of fame and glory to a seasoned in-the-trenches author with 6 books in the marketplace and stripped-down realistic goals of what success means.

It's been over a decade of small moves.

Many of them enhanced by luck and timing.

This year, I was offered the opportunity to participate in the Boston Book Festival on a panel sponsored by Biblioboards and the Library Journal Self-e program. Through them, I was also connected to the Belmont Public Library and their Indie Author Day program.

These feel like big opportunities that have emerged from all those small moves. And I remain optimistic that each of those small moves are moves in the right direction.

So if you're in the Boston area, please come by for either Indie Author Day on October 8th and/or the Boston Book Festival on October 15th. I'd love to see you there!



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Friday, August 19, 2016

When Hobby becomes Profession

Some of my early ceramics efforts. I'm better now. It's still a hobby.

When I started writing my first novel, it was August of 2004. I owned my own physical therapy practice and was parenting two school-aged children. Between the 25-30 hour a week practice, and the all-the-other-hours of being a mom, I was busy. Writing was my hobby. A passionate hobby, to be sure, but a hobby. It was something I fit into the rest of my life because it was something I enjoyed and it was fun to be able to say I was working on writing a novel.

I didn't have a schedule or a daily writing quota, but I did prioritize working on the story anytime I had some free moments.

But it was a hobby. And if I missed a day or three, or stopped writing altogether, it wasn't a big deal. I wrote for myself, primarily, though, sure, I dreamed about having my book published and all the lovely fantasies that go with it.

Sometime between finishing that manuscript in 2005 and starting what would become my first published novel several years later, the writing had started to shift away from pure hobby. I was still working as a physical therapist, but the writing had become more and more of a priority. I learned how to work faster and complete a first draft in under a year. I started writing more regularly.

When I retired from active PT practice several years after that, I started to see myself as a full-time writer and my my writing time turned into my job. My schedule included a goal of 1,000 words a day or an average of 5,000 words a week. I learned how to complete a first draft in under 6 months.

Now, 11 manuscripts and 6 published novels later, it is my job. I have deadlines and responsibilities that span from the daydreamy kind of creativity I used to imagine was the lot of the writer, to the grinding pressure of needing to write 30 blogposts over the course of a few weeks to support the release of one novel, while reviewing the audiofiles of another, while picking my way through the draft of something new.

There used to be a time when I waited for inspiration to strike so I could write. And what flowed from my hand was - of course - perfect the way it was because it was driven by the muse. (Go ahead, laugh. I certainly do.)

Now I go to work. My commute is far shorter than it was when I was a physical therapist, but my walk across the living room to my office is, in fact, heading to work. Even on days I don't feel the magic happening, I go to work. Even when it takes me six hours to write 1,000 words and most of them will be revised away, or I sketch out ideas for scenes that end up not working in the final analysis.
Today was such a day. And I sat down at the computer to work, regardless of a serious case of the 'donwannas'. I have a planned release date for this novel - July of 2017. That means getting it drafted, revised, to beta readers, revised again, and to my editor, all on a fairly tight schedule. My editing slot is for April. If I miss that opening in my editor's schedule, it means I will miss the publication date.

I do have another creative outlet. I am a ceramics artist. And I'm quite content for it to be my hobby. I've gotten fairly good at it and make things that people have actually chosen to buy. But it remains a hobby.

I don't want to be a production potter. There are several production potters at the studio where I work and I am awed by the sheer amount of ware they create, consistently, uniformly. That's not what I want. That would take the joy out of what I use as a break from my other responsibilities. There are weeks when I head to the studio every day. Because I feel like it. There are other times when I don't get there in several weeks. I don't have to go and play with clay when I'm feeling uninspired. I really enjoy it, but have very little pressure to produce.

There is nothing wrong with being a hobby potter. There is nothing wrong with being a hobby writer. It's all about what your goals are for the work.

To pursue a living through creativity, we have to safeguard our imaginations. This becomes even more essential as the writing moves from hobby to profession. Words don't roll out on a conveyor belt. Artists are not machines.*
A few final thoughts - this isn't about insisting that my process is the right process or that you can't be a professional writer if you don't write full time, or if you have a day job. Nor am I saying if you don't write every day you're not a 'serious enough' writer - whatever that means.

For any artist of any kind, the fallow time, the time to recharge is also an essential part of the work. The important distinction in my mind is to know why you are not writing. Is it avoidance? (Perhaps your subconscious is trying to tell you something.) Are you ill? (Take care of your meatsuit!) Is something wrong in the story? (Give yourself permission to make needed changes.) Are you at risk of burnout? (Take a break.)

After all, we take sick days from work, right? We plan vacations and play on the weekends. If writing is a job, all those things need to be part of the equation, too.

Just know there is a kind of pressure in looking at any creative endeavor as a job. There is the risk that it can rob the joy out of the process.

If you let it.

It doesn't have to, but it will also not always be rainbows and unicorns. For me, the writing needs to come full circle and be read to feel complete. That means not only finishing a project, but creating one that is saleable. Writing for the sake of writing, while satisfying in some ways, isn't enough for me now. It used to be.

It makes me glad to have my ceramics for the pure playtime it provides.

(*Though someday, machines may be artists. . . I do write Science Fiction, after all. . . )



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Friday, August 12, 2016

Overcast Night: Perseids

Night sky, sans meteors, Mont Tremblant, photo by N. Halin

Cicadas sing the moon bright. Clouds
skin the night, sealing stars
on the wrong side. Somewhere
meteors shed velocity for heat
in an unequal exchange that renders
distant travelers to dust. The last time
I saw the Perseids, I was as round
as a planet, believed that we
created our own gravity. The universe
describes a larger orbit than any
astronomer can trace and even
when streetlights pretend to outshine
meteors, it doesn't take my belief
in the perfect sky to make it so.

                   —LJ Cohen, 2016


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