Mark TwainMark Twain has a wonderful quote in Tom Sawyer after the scene where Tom has seduced his friends into helping him whitewash the fence. “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I’m not obliged to write. Yet, I refer to what I do as “work.” A fellow writer questioned this recently. Why did I always say “work” when I refer to my writing practice? She caught me a little off-guard. I had never thought to explain it, but I also thought the answer was obvious. We writers often have to fight for what we need: privacy, solitude, not being interrupted. That’s because most people don’t understand our process. Of course, this is often true for many people who work at home. People think you can drop everything to meet them, pick them up, do them a favor or just chat on the phone. I always hope that by referring to my writing time as “work”, as in “I can’t talk right now, I’m working,” that I’ll gradually train folks to respect it as much as I do. And, I’d say I’ve been fairly successful.

But referring to what I choose to do as “work” is also for my own benefit. I want to not only be a professional, but think of myself as a professional. I want to think of myself as a professional even during spells when I’m not managing to publish a single word. If I don’t think of myself as a professional, how can I expect anyone else to, and therefore treat me as one? I can never think of my writing as a hobby or pastime. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a word in English that is between the two–work vs. play. Calling? Please, what I do is not that exalted. Passion? Only occasionally. So, I’m stuck with work. Technically, I don’t “have to” and nobody gives me a weekly paycheck or assigns my tasks or sets my hours. The obligation is only to myself. But I feel that obligation no less.


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Third, Fourth, . . .

try again

I saw a new market call and thought I had the perfect essay in inventory. This short piece had been published in a small local market several years ago, which did not disqualify it for this new market. At that time, the editor had pronounced it “perfect.” The deadline for the new market was approaching, but since the piece was already written, I wasn’t concerned. It might need a bit of format or other tweaking, but otherwise it was ready to send. Or so I thought. BUT–when I finally pulled up the file and printed the essay, I could see how wrong I had been. The essay was too short, shorter than I remembered. It was also not written in a way that matched the new market. I would have to start all over again from scratch. This was a mental blow that it took me a couple of days to recover from, but on the third day, I sat down and re-wrote the material into an entirely new piece. I was pretty happy with it and sent it to my critique partner. Yikes. She pointed out several major flaws, so global that I realized I had gone completely wrong with tone and focus. So wrong that the entire piece would have to be started all over again, for the third time, in order to make it appropriate for the new market. Disheartening for sure. But lucky for me, the call deadline had been extended. (See The Moving Deadline for a related post.) I could, alternatively, drop this project altogether, deciding it’s not the type of work I’m best at. But I won’t do that without giving it one more try.

James Michener once said, “I’m not a great writer. But I am the world’s greatest re-writer.” Non-writers only see our best, finished work. They often have no idea what we go through to get there. Sometimes when starting a project, I also have no idea what it will take to finish successfully. I do know, however, that I won’t get there at all if I don’t try.

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Time Off? What’s That?

time offI’d like to report that I had a relaxing, peaceful escape from writing over the Thanksgiving holiday. I’d like to, but I can’t. I did have a wonderful day, visiting friends who just moved into a beach house a couple of hours away. I loved getting out of my own neighborhood, loved the tour of their new digs, loved Kathie’s tasty, healthy dinner, loved socializing with two friends I’ve had for decades. But part of me never stops working. Across the road from their house is a vast range of rugged sand dunes, sprinkled with vegetation. I noticed a couple of people, both men, walking (well, trudging, really) separately through the dunes. There were so many hidden gullies between the hillocks, and with so few people about, I thought “what a great place to murder someone.” The surf would cover any noise. It gets cold at the beach and there are plenty of times when any potential witnesses would be cuddled up inside beside their fireplaces. The setting was so picturesque. Now all I need is a motive and a couple of suspects. I’m already describing the characters in my mind. They would have to be fit and young. Those dunes looked pretty daunting. They’re hard to get to, so whoever is there either came in a vehicle or lives nearby. It’s too cold and remote for panhandlers or the homeless to be hanging about. So, the killer and the victim both . . . and on and on.

This scenario might never result in a story. But writers do this unceasingly. Observe, speculate, muse. On settings, people, atmosphere.  I never get tired of that, so I never need a day off. Just as well, cuz my mind never takes one.

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The Moving Deadline

deadline-e1510854304464.pngFor me, deadlines are essential. They keep me moving along on projects, keep me on track, establish a fixed end point. But, sometimes they jump around. Occasionally, a market will extend a deadline, for mysterious reasons. This can be a relief, but it can also cause me to slack off. Other times, a deadline gets advanced. Recently I had a November 15 deadline for an essay. This was not an assignment, but a response to a call for manuscripts, so if, for some reason, I didn’t get it in on time, no one would know but me. On the other hand, I found out about the call less that a week before the cutoff date. I had roughed out the first draft right away, but then, the next day, I got a idea for an upcoming story contest, and spent the morning crafting a first draft of that piece. Now there were only three days left to submit the essay. Suddenly, that night, I remembered that the power company would be shutting off the electricity for an entire day–the day before my essay deadline. Which meant if I didn’t get the essay off the day before that, which was the very next day, I’d be stuck with rushing it off Just under the wire. That’s a dangerous practice. All too often, when I’ve done that, I’ve discovered one more fact I need to research, or my Internet connection goes kerflooey  or some other crisis trips me up. So, my “new” deadline was now two days before the official one. I succeeded in finishing and submitting the essay on the 13th, and was happy with the result, whether the editor likes it or not. It was a reinforcement of good practices. Start early. Factor in other circumstances. Act quickly on new ideas, before they fade. Now to finish and submit my next project–deadline in two days.

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Are You a Hoarder?

pearl in oysterOkay, not a regular hoarder with empty tin cans and decades old newspapers. Think of it this way: do you have pretty underwear tucked away in a drawer, waiting for that perfect romantic date to wear it? Do you have a set of fancy, expensive china that you keep “for good?” That is, only when the most special of occasions warrants hauling it all out? Yet, somehow those occasions never arise, or else, they’re never quite special enough to justify the extra effort. Or is there anything else in your home that’s “too nice to use” and so, guess what, you never use it?

Well, I used to be that way with ideas. Like most writers, I have a pile of ideas jotted down in notebooks or scraps of paper. I would paw through them when I was ready for a new project, seeking something to write about. But there were some ideas that I always passed over–not because they were not good, but because they were too good. I had the irrational sense that they were too good for whatever small market I had in mind. I was saving them for the blockbuster novel or the world-changing essay I was going to write “some day.” Well, I stopped doing that. First of all, I had the equally irrational sense that ideas were limited. They are not. There’s always more coming into my head. Second, it’s not the idea that counts. It’s what we do with it. It’s how we shape it into a poem, essay or other material. Third, I’ve found that a new idea loses it’s appeal to me over time. So now, if I have a good one, I don’t “save it for good.” Rather I flesh it out right away, even if I don’t get it into finished form. And guess what? Using those ideas ends up generating even more ideas. This is not a new concept or one just discovered by me. Just as writing begets writing, bringing ideas to life begets more ideas. Good to know.

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comfort zoneToday is Halloween. You already know that. These days, fewer people are afraid of supernatural beings. But we writers still have fears–the oft-acknowledged rejection, exposure, failure. We already know we have to act in spite of those fears in order to have any achievement at all. This mug reminds me that, while it may be uncomfortable, it’s necessary.

But my comfort zone isn’t always about fear. It’s just as often about facing hard work. Even tedious work. It’s about giving up some pleasures, e.g. reading, watching TV, time with friends, in order to give the necessary time to my chosen art. It’s about exercising self-discipline. It’s not always comfortable. I remind myself to accept that. And then get started.

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I gained a new follower a few days ago. Normally, this would be a cause for jubilation. But this time, I felt anxiety. The new follower is someone I know slightly. So what? I have lots of followers I know personally (and many lovely people I’ve met only online.) Why should knowing that this particular person will be reading what I write be any more daunting than any other reader? I haven’t figured it out yet. But I do realize it’s one of those cases of self-consciousness that results from self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-censorship: exactly those icky feelings that so often get in the way of our work. That ol’ debbil, our inner critic, has struck when I least expected it. My blog was the one place where I felt comfortable sharing experiences about the writing life, insights, new literary finds. What do I do now? The only answer, as with all my work, is bravery. We all know it takes guts to keep sending out our work to faceless editors, busy agents, even sharing it with our critique partners or groups. Yet, it’s as essential to our work as any other skill.

brave2Coincidentally, I picked up a book at Vroman’s the other day, Fortune Favors the Brave: 100 Courageous Quotations. Turns out there’re lots of quotes in here that apply. I like this one attributed to Stonewall Jackson: “Never take counsel of your fears.” I don’t know anyone who is so arrogant or naïve as to not worry about how his or her work will be received. Yet, we send out our work anyway. Because of that, we can all claim to be brave. Another quote in the book, from Mark Twain, states, “To believe yourself brave is to be brave; it is the one only essential thing.”

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It’s Not My Fault

boucherconI spent the last few days in Toronto at Bouchercon, the be-all and end-all of mystery writers and readers conventions in Toronto. I had vowed I would not bring back a suitcase full of books. Any of you who read this blog can guess how that turned out. But it wasn’t my fault. Honest. First, in our registration goody bags, there were three free novels. Then, the Simon and Schuster table was giving away three books if you signed up for their newsletter. Who is not going to take advantage of that? As I met new friends, I bought their books as a show of support. In the book room, stocked with a vast array of books from many booksellers, I found several volumes that were hard to find in other venues, so I had to snap them up when I had the opportunity. I need not go on.

But in addition to carting home books I arguably did not need, I met lovely people, many of whom I knew only from our online contacts. The authors on the panels were delightful, and so, so gracious in person. I was also happy to meet so many attendees who were librarians or library support staff. I’m ready to sign up for the next one. Now I just need to start pumping iron at the gym, to be in shape to drag home the next haul of books.

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You’re a Writer, So . . .

woe is me. . . you get the same reactions we have been getting since the creation of dirt. We get questions: where do you get your ideas? We get “help.” “Boy, we should team up and I’ll tell you my life story and you can write it up and it will be a guaranteed best seller.” We get misunderstood, especially on the nature of our work. “I guess you just sit at home all day typing and the money pours in.” We get the rather disheartening question, “what do you write?” which often means, “have I ever heard of you, and if not, I’ll go talk to someone else.” these reactions are usually from people we’ve just met or who don’t know us well. Friends we have gotten to know, or who have gotten to know us, at least have some understanding of what we do and how we do it and are much needed cheerleaders and supporters.

So, when a friend of mine confessed she had enough material for two non-fiction books already compiled, including photos, and hinted that she would like to “do something” with them, my reaction was to issue a caution. This is someone I take seriously, as I have a lot of respect for her business management skills. She’s no wannabe. If she says she has enough material, I know it’s true.

My caution was this: Be careful who you tell, at least at this point. She can tell me or another writer. Hesitate before mentioning her plans to anyone else. Then I told her one of the gentler incidents in my own writing life. I had published my first book of poems and was at an event where I knew quite a few people. One of them was a lady I’m very close to, to whom I wanted to give a copy of the book. When I did, the woman next to her, whom I knew slightly, got animated. But it wasn’t about me or my book. Her response was, “Oh, my granddaughter wants to write a children’s book. What should she do?” Sheesh. First of all, this moment was supposed to be about me and my work. Second, I don’t write for children. Third, there are no easy answers or advice to give. I probably mumbled something about The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and left the scene. There’s a reason why cops socialize with other cops and physicians with other physicians, etc. There are lots of perfectly wonderful people who don’t “get” us. They make cherished friends and often are great supporters. Still, be careful. I’m just sayin’.

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Make it Stop! (Not Really)

nyreviewOnce again I’m overwhelmed by piles and shelves of unread books. I shouldn’t say, “once again,” because it’s actually a permanent condition. I could never live long enough to read them all, especially since I can’t resist adding to the pile, sometimes daily. In the past, I’ve periodically weeded the bunch, but that’s not near as much fun as finding new stuff to read. And like any addict, I have no problem locating the good stuff. I’m a big fan of The New York Review of Books. But with every new issue I find 5 or 6 books I just have to read. There’s Goodreads, of course, which sends out monthly lists of new releases. Then there are the displays at my local independent bookstore, plus their wall of “staff picks.” I see the best seller lists posted at the library, along with the book club selections, special exhibits (this month it’s “banned books”) and the new books shelves. I regularly visit favorite blogs and websites which have recommendations. Time and other magazines have their “summer reading” issues. All this, not to mention the books my friends are raving about. So far, I think it’s a harmless vice. Except. . . going cold turkey sounds unbearable. So I have no solution. But then, secretly, I don’t really want one.

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