I Say To Myself “Be Sensible”

The ME in my head: Be sensible. You don’t need to lie awake all night, thinking up titles and working out plot points in your mind. Get some sleep.

Be sensible. You can’t keep up with your email as it is. Do you really want to sign up for one more online writer’s group?

Be sensible. Do you really need to spend money on yet another “how-to” writing book?

Be sensible. You already subscribe to three book review journals. What can you possibly get from this newly launched one that you aren’t getting other ways?

Be sensible. You don’t need to jump up in the middle of the night to jot down that brilliant, perfect iambic line that will be a brilliant, perfect line for your next sonnet or villanelle. You’ll remember it in the morning. It’s too outstanding for you to ever forget it.

The ME in my heart and soul: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. Yes, I do. Also: Give it up. I’m not listening. You don’t get it. You never have. Come back and talk to me when you’re supportive, on board, and have faith in my goals. See ya then.

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Archives

Now that I’ve finally acquired a decent file cabinet that matches the oak furniture in my office, I’m faced with a wake-up call. I’ve finally gather all my writing notes, ideas, sketches in one place. I’m talking about notes from decades of writing, stabs at writing, first drafts, works-in-progress, and manuscripts submitted over the years but not accepted. These I have hopes to perhaps revise and send out again, as new markets appear. The wake-up call is the sheer volume of “stuff.” A jumble of unorganized, sometimes barely legible attempts and ideas. So. Decisions have to be made. But how? How do I know what to keep? What still has legs? And how to make it accessible? There’s no point in preserving any of it if it’s not in useful, identifiable order.

Most of us have this problem in one way or another. For a lot of us, it’s photographs. For others it’s recipes. Travel mementoes. Records that chronicle the lives of our children. This list goes on and on. Or, perhaps you’ve been confronted with the boxes of papers and other items when a parent has died. They never got around to putting things in order, either. Understandably so. It’s hard work. It’s decision-making, sorting, labeling, organizing and figuring out the best way to store it all. It’s nostalgic and sometimes tear-inducing.

At least my “writing notes” project doesn’t make me cry. But sigh? Yep. And yet, as I’ve mentioned before, also glad. It’s obvious how much better a writer I am now than in the beginning. And I still find seeds of some pretty good stories in all the dross. Stories that at the time, I just didn’t know how to write. I have a better chance of succeeding now. But, while they may be good ideas or memorable details of a scene or character, they won’t do me any good unless I flesh them out, develop them and give them meaning. Hard as it will be though, like writing names and dates on the backs of all those photographs, I have faith that it will pay off in the end.

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Defending the Perimeter

My late cousin was the worst. She was the most unselfish woman on the planet, devoting all her time and her considerable energy to volunteer activities that benefited seniors, the library, civic causes, the charity thrift shop. She battled hunger and poverty. She won accolades and gratitude from every direction. All well and good. BUT—she constantly tried to enlist everyone else, including me, to live their lives the way she did. I get it. She cared passionately about all these causes, so passionately that it was inconceivable that anyone else could have any other priorities, any other agenda. Her most effective ploy was “We need you.” Now, who doesn’t want to be needed? It’s flattering. She would embellish that by saying that my skills were exactly what was most lacking, the one skill that no one but I could provide. And, I admit, at first I fell for it. I joined a volunteer board of trustees that was in my field. That wasn’t enough. She always wanted more. She even chided me for dropping out of the library’s book club. She was afraid if membership fell off, the club would disband. But, why was it my responsibility, or even hers, to keep it going? If there’s not enough interest, you can’t prop it up artificially. (As it turned out, the book club is just fine and thriving.) If I declined her requests, as I began to do, she would enlist other people to do the asking. Now, I loved my cousin. I respected and admired what she did. But (again, a “but”), I wanted to write. And being committed to writing means I must, want to, and will say “no” to other things, whether it’s controlling my insatiable urge to read, or balancing alone time with the human need to socialize, or saying “no” to requests for “help” like the ones presented to me by my cousin.

Of course, there are cases where, in fact, you can’t say no. If you’re a parent, or if you have animals that depend on you, or if you have a job that you need to earn money. Your health and safety. Those demands will always require a “yes.” All the extraneous requests? You can choose.  

Here’s the thing: many, many people can, and do, perform the work of these volunteer groups. On the other hand, no one can do my writing but me. If I don’t do it, it will never get written. My work may be meaningful or not. It may be effective, inspiring, entertaining, or not. Yet, if I forego writing, who will do it for me? No one. I can’t say, “Okay, I’ll sort the clothes for the homeless, while you write my next mystery story.” It doens’t work that way. Still, it’s hard to say “no.” We have to learn to say it with kindness and politeness, but with firmness, or at least the ability to keep saying it until our message gets heard. I saw an anonymous quote that helps me. “It’s easy to say “no” when there’s a deeper “yes” burning inside.” I’m not sure it’s ever easy, but remembering my deeper “yes” strengthens me when I’m tempted by the agendas of others.

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Moving On

I once knew a “writer” who had written a book. That’s it. One book. And not because she died young, or anything like that. She kept re-writing this one book. She kept submitting this one book, to agents, small publishers. Every time she got a comment, she’d rewrite it based on that, hoping that would do the trick and get her an acceptance. Or, she’d see a new book out that, in her mind, was similar to hers and she’d rush off a query to that small press. This went on for at least 20 years. To my knowledge, (and I did ask), she never wrote anything else. Never attempted anything else. Didn’t seem interested in writing anything else. All her efforts, all her beliefs, all her hopes, were tied up in this one work. She also wrote strictly on her own. She never took a class, joined a group, or had a critique partner. She never hired a developmental editor or book doctor to try to figure out the flaws in the book that was keeping it from generating any interest. From a mutual friend, I learned the plot of the novel. And believe me, it was the most cockamamy, unsalable . . . well, that’s just my opinion. The last time I saw her, she had simply given it all up. Not from discouragement. She had fallen in love and seemed no longer interested in writing. So, was she a writer? Or just someone who wanted to publish a book? If you are a “real” writer, would you, could you, ever really give up? We all beat our heads against the wall, or walls. One wall for me is not having the skill level to say what my heart is aching to say. Another is finding ways to keep the momentum going when I’m on a roll. Still another is shoring up my belief that my work has value. But I am not so blind or fearful that I don’t ask for feedback, seriously search out weaknesses in my efforts, and try new things if what I’m doing doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere. I know the strength that comes from associating with other writers, especially ones who are better than I am. I spend time reading those writers and those publications that I want to submit to. What are those folks doing right? The healthiest thing that I do, I believe, is to let go of anything that is just not working, that are dead ends. Old pieces that seemed so perfect at the time, but now seem like amateur drivel. Genres that I’ll just never be good at. Topics that no longer interest me, or heck, were never that compelling to begin with. Occasionally, those old efforts give me a lift by reminding me of how far I’ve progressed. A few have salvageable bits. But mostly they just weigh me down.  I have moved on and the world has moved on. One popular definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.” I may be crazy. I just don’t want to be that kind of crazy.

 

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Can I Handle Being a Pest?

If I have to, yes. I used to spend hours agonizing about how to approach an editor, or the owner of a micro-press, with questions, requests for updates, clarification of certain points in the guidelines. I didn’t want to “bother” them. They’re so busy. They have other writers, vendors, computer issues to deal with. I was raised not to put myself forward, so I’m usually uncomfortable speaking up. Finally, I got tired of the hamster wheel in my brain. Just ask. I tell myself, if you’re not sure, ask. If you’re still not sure, ask again. Did I turn some of those editors or publishers off? Without doubt. But I’ve decided it’s better to risk that than to either stew in uncertainty, or turn them off by not following their preferences. On the other hand, once things are clear, I follow rules. If a publication says wait three months for a response, I wait three months. If they want a certain format, I follow those instructions.

I also used to refrain from asking questions after talks or panels, thinking my ignorance of some basic thing that absolutely everybody already knew but me, would be met with scorn or exasperation. But then I decided, this may be my only chance. If people scoff, so what. I’ve also learned over the years, that if I’m confused about something, very likely someone else is as well. And if I speak up, they’ll be grateful that I did it and they didn’t have to. Or maybe the question hadn’t even occurred to them until I gave it voice. And guess what? My biggest fears have never come to pass. My concerns and questions have been treated only with respect and also with the precise missing piece of knowledge I needed.

Nobody’s born knowing this stuff. We all have different pieces of the puzzle, and luckily we can also count on each other, our fellow writers, for information. We share advice, tips and leads, on forums, in groups, and in private email exchanges. There’s a line between being pointlessly shy and being a pest. But this is my work. Like someone said, no one will ever care about my writing as much as I do. So, I risk a negative response if I’m a pest. But the whole business is about taking risks. At least let me take the risks that give me a chance of success.  

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Do It Anyway

You may be familiar with the Kent Keith poem, popularized by Mother Teresa, that contains the line “Love them anyway.” It goes on to mention setbacks, disappointments and obstacles, to which the response is to continue to do the right thing, anyway. I feel that way about my writing. As in:

The competition is staggering. I write anyway.

I’m not at the level I want to achieve. I write anyway.

I rarely get a response. I write anyway.

I’ve used up all my good ideas. I write anyway.

I get tired of trying. I write anyway.

I wish I had more time. I write anyway.

All my work seems so ephemeral. I write anyway.

Sometimes it’s hard. I write anyway.

Whatever happens or doesn’t happen, I write anyway. 

I write anyway.

Just this: I write anyway.

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Money

I don’t make enough money from writing to deduct writing expenses. But I still have them, so I look forward to the day when I might, in fact, be able to balance them against what I’ve earned. My accountant was incredulous when I suggested this possibility. Not incredulous about my ability to make money writing. That’s reserved for my family and friends. But incredulous that it might cost anything to be a writer. After all, isn’t all you need paper and pens?

Well, no. Okay, maybe. I have plenty of writing related expenses and we’re not even talking about the infamous “home office” deduction that we are warned will only trigger an audit.

The first one I mentioned to my accountant was the cost of a professional head shot. I got mine done a few years ago, when a local photographer gave my chapter of Sisters in Crime a one day “author’s special” package. Saved me a bundle. I didn’t have to do it, I could have gotten some friend to take a snapshot in the back yard with my cat.

Then there’s the cost of professional writer magazines, craft books, classes, seminars, conferences, and, once, for professional coaching when I was in a slump. Add in the membership dues for professional organizations I belong to. There are books, anthologies and magazines that I buy because they are ones I aspire to submit to. Yes, I could get some of these from the local library or even online. But I’d rather own them so I can take my time with them. Finally, (or maybe not, maybe I’ve forgotten something) there’s the high and ongoing cost of printer ink, plus other office supplies and, vitally, an internet connection. At least we’re not stuck with postage, mailing envelopes and SASEs like the old days. I’ve also paid for a cover designer and a formatter for online versions of my work. If all goes well, someday I’ll need a professional editor before I send my proposals off to agents or publishers. And also, there the cost of a domain name if you have a web site, and, if you have internet, some virus protection software.

Can you be a writer without spending all this money? Of course. Can you cut costs by using the library’s internet, books, magazines? Sure. Can you team up with another writer to share subscriptions and other resources? I guess you could. Can you do it all with just pen and paper? Many people have. Or so we think. Just butt-in-chair daily output. While that part is essential, I’d rather have all the other supports and incentives, the camaraderie of groups, the tips and critiques, the ability to send off a manuscript at midnight, during a thunderstorm, or on a holiday. On the other hand, will spending one dime make me a better, more productive, or a more marketable writer? No. Only time and work and study will do that. The commitment to those necessities is the one quality that only I can provide. There’s a cost to that as well. I’ll talk about that some other time.

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Showing Some Spine

Between the global health crisis and the upcoming election, many of us have been more glued to our monitors than ever. So much of what we hear is repetitive or speculation, so I start noticing the backgrounds, rather than the commentators. Well, I’ve always kind of done that. And I’ve noticed there are two basic backgrounds: indoors and outdoors. (Well, what else could there be? Outer space? Internal organs?) I haven’t done a formal study, but it seems to me that 90% of the indoor shots are filmed in front of bookshelves. Some wall to wall. Some packed and overflowing. Some with carefully curated objects spaced artfully between the volumes. And more and more these days, I see a trend to feature the commentator’s own recent book prominently in the camera angle. One author/commentator even had a giant blow-up of her book standing behind her.

These people choose this background for a reason. It conveys a message–of thoughtfulness, expertise, education. Fishing gear or a restaurant grade freezer would send an entirely different vibe. Doesn’t matter whether they’ve actually read the books behind them. In fact, there used to be a standard studio set fitted out with bookshelves on one of the cable news networks that appeared in multiple news segments with a rotating cast of speakers posed in front of it. It was strictly to set the atmosphere and provide a nice backdrop. Nowadays, with experts (or otherwise) being wired up for video in their homes or offices, there’s more variety to puzzle over and be entertained by. Being a heavy reader, I recognize many of the titles, sometimes just by a particular distinctive cover or spine. I look especially for titles I’ve read myself. But I also wonder. Hmm, did they set this up? Did they hide the trashy romances or erotica, in order to attempt to make a better impression? Or is this what their shelves look like in real life?

Here’s my point: physical books still rule. I love eBooks and audio books. But I still prefer physical books and so do the majority of US readers. According to one marketing blog, during August, 2019, hard copy books sales made up about 80% of all total books sales. While there may be some difficulty collecting statistics for some eBook sales, this is still a good indicator of how people read.  I do have one friend who reads exclusively on some device. But she’s the exception.

It will be interesting in a few months or a year to see how the recent conditions have affected these numbers. After all, so many bookstores and libraries where people get physical books are closed or have limited service even though online retailers are still available. Will that urge more folks to try electronic versions? Don’t know. But what I am sure of, is that after reading this, you’ll start to pay more attention to those backgrounds behind the talking heads.

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Less Than I Thought

What do you need to write? Ideas? A certain space? A block of time? Quiet? Solitude? Physical comfort? An Internet connection? A writing group? An MFA? What if you don’t have what you think is essential? Are you dead in the water?

I used to think I needed some of these things. Now I know there is only one requirement: the decision to write. If I have that, everything else follows. I can write in the middle of a crowded room, with a bad pen on stray pieces of scrap paper, wearing a scratchy shirt. When the commitment is made, there’s some switch in my brain that takes it to a whole other place, separate from whatever else is calling to me. Sure, there is a minimal level of comfort or peace of mind required. I doubt I’d be able to write if my house were on fire, or while having my cat put to sleep. But, for me, it turns out that, 99 percent of the time, what I need is pretty minimal. Decision. Commitment. Action. Not even faith is needed. Because the end result, whether publication, recognition, or improved skill, doesn’t matter at this point. Those goals may come later. But they won’t be possible if I don’t, or can’t, initiate that first act. My job as a writer is to make that decision frequently. Maybe every day. Maybe even several times a day. If I make that one simple decision, I have a chance for all the rest. If I don’t, then, that’s when I’m dead in the water. If I have not made that decision, I can sit in the best writing space in the world, with all the solitude and tools I want, and still, nothing will happen. What those other conditions can do, at least a little, is to help make the fundamental decision automatic.  A particular space or time or writer’s group meeting can be a trigger. But in the end, the decision comes from some hidden, mysterious place inside of myself. And in the end, that’s all I need.

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Oh, Really?

I can’t work at a messy desk. I need to relax with a few games of FreeCell before I get started. This email is way overdue. Just let me throw in a load of laundry. Need to make that dentist appointment. If I don’t get this birthday card in the mail, it won’t get there in time. It will only take a minute.

My mind is very creative when it comes to making excuses, finding distractions, justifying work delays. It’s a daily battle, between my writing goals and my reluctance to start typing.

And yet–sometimes it’s not that hard. When I forget myself, my ego, the possible outcomes. When I can see large projects in the tiniest of segments. One segment that I did two days ago was simply to photocopy a quote I want to use in my latest work-in-progress. Maybe that was all I could get done that day, but it moved the work forward, however incrementally. Greg Louganis said, “Focus on skills, not results.” Whatever it takes to trick my mind into taking action, I’m all for. Good habits help. Opening up a blank document and writing even one word helps. Sometimes writing something else helps. But I’m pretty sure all those other things in that first paragraph above don’t help. They drain my mental and physical energy, and all of a sudden, whoops, it’s time to make lunch. So, I’ve learned to do it first, “it” being the writing, or at least some tiny smidge of writing. Like Mark Twain said, “The secret to getting ahead is to get started.”

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