Sine Qua Non

map and compassThere was a time when, like many folks starting out in life, I was struggling. Working multiple jobs, trying to get more education, fighting to keep the first home I had bought on my own. I was determined to hang on to the foothold I had on success and build on it, to do whatever it took. As part of that process, I developed what I now call my bottom line: what is/are the absolute minimum conditions I need to get me through the day. For me, those were: a clean head of hair and a full tank of gas. If I could secure those two things, I could handle whatever I needed to, whatever the day demanded.

Now I’m a writer. I need a new bottom line. What is the bare minimum I need to allow me, to encourage me, to make progress on whatever project I have at hand? At this point, here’s what I believe I need: first, one, or at least one, clear, concrete, next step. And two, some word or sign of encouragement from a friend or my critique partner. Sometimes I think I’m a wimp for needing that second requirement. Heck, shouldn’t I have the inner fortitude, the self-confidence, the chutzpah, stubbornness, whatever you call it, to do it on my own? Maybe I should, but I don’t. I accept that and find ways to secure that positive input. And if I don’t have an initial first step in mind, I end up floundering around for too long.

Yesterday, my one clear step was finding out from Bowker why I couldn’t buy ISBNs online. (Turns out their online ordering system was down and I had to print forms, fill them out and fax them in.) My other need was filled by a thumbs up from my CP on my latest creation. So, today, off it went. As so often happens, once I get that first step out of the way, it leads to more steps. Getting the forms off to Bowker and my CP’s “yes” vote yesterday freed me up to blog today, which will free me up to work on the next WIP. So, that’s my take. Now, what’s your bottom line?

 

 

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Damn, I Did It Again

pauseI’ve come up with what I believe is a new phrase for writer’s like me: “sender’s remorse.” This is the condition I enter just after I have hit “send” and realize I should have added to, changed, or edited my work in some way. Someone once defined a “split second” as the time between when the light changes green and the driver behind you honks his horn. Sometimes for me a split second is the time between when I hit “send” and the  instant when I realize I forgot to change the title, spell-check, or add that most appropriate quote. After my latest submission, remorse didn’t hit until hours later when I was lying in bed at night. I suddenly remembered I had wanted to add a mere five or six words to the essay. But, stupidly, when I first thought of that slight change, which would have made a great difference in the tone of the piece, I neglected to jot it down on the manuscript. I thought, despite all past experiences to the contrary, I would remember to make the addition. Of course I would. Only I didn’t. Not that the essay isn’t pretty good as it is. But it could have been better. Yeah, I know we writers are always editing our work, constantly seeing new ways it could be improved, even well after it’s been published. But this was such an easy fix. And I had plenty of time. The deadline, which had been Oct. 31, had been extended for a month. I could easily have waited another day or two before submitting. But I was just so darn anxious to add it to my submission log. Too anxious. And I pay the price.

This is one of my worst faults as a writer. There are two writers of my acquaintance, not well known names, who don’t have this problem. They work many months on each piece. And it shows. Their writing is the most brilliant I have ever read. I told one of them, I’d give my “write” arm to be as good as he is. [yes, it’s a terrible joke]. But that’s not what it takes. Thomas Carlyle said, “Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.” I don’t know if I’ll ever learn–to pause, to give it time, to control my impatience.

The problem is that once the manuscript is gone, it’s gone. There are a minuscule minority of online journals that allow re-submissions of the same piece. I’m lucky to blog at WordPress, where, the instant I hit “publish” I can go back and “update” a post if I want to. But that’s rare. So, I’ll just have to hope for the best on this latest work, absorb the lesson if I can, and focus on “next time.”

 

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Befuddlement

befuddlementI’m in the process of bringing out a new edition of my poetry book, Fault Lines. The original edition was brought out by a micro press that is now defunct. That version was not available on Amazon (print or e-book) or on other e-book platforms. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing. Despite reading articles on how to do this, I’m still lost. No way in the world am I going to try to do it myself. My wonderful friend, Jo, recommended a cover designer/formatter that she used. Thanks heavens for Karen. I need a lot of babying and slow walking during this whole process, and Karen is patient, understanding and flexible. She answers every question with all the information and links I need. It’s a journey. It’s a learning curve. I try not to look ahead at all the stuff I don’t know/understand yet. Just do what’s in front of me that I do know how to do. I’ve had nightmares over this, from fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, fear of looking ridiculous. (And those fears are also ridiculous. After all, this is not my debut at Carnegie Hall.) But if I want it done, I have to keep moving forward. What I’ve noticed is that as I take each small step, the next step becomes slightly more intelligible. Like magic. And it’s a reminder that when I’m stuck, it’s okay, indeed mandatory, to ask for help. That takes humility. I have to admit that I’m not as far along or as tech-savvy as so many other writers out there. I have to admit that what looks easy for other people is a struggle for me. But nobody was born knowing this stuff and I’m good at lots of other things. Anyway, if you are looking for this kind of help, Karen is a good resource. “Karen Bangcot” karenuybangcot@gmail.com

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Morning

morningIf I’m going to get any writing done, it has to be in the morning. First thing. Sort of. I say sort of, because, first I have to feed the cat. Then, for health reasons, I can’t skip breakfast. Oh, how I wish I could be like my friend Anne, who wakes up, grabs her coffee and heads directly to her studio in a converted shed. Well, I can’t. But other than those two necessities, I’ve learned from experience, if I don’t get the writing done in the morning, it likely won’t get done. Because, one of four things will happen. I’ll inadvertently get caught up in some urgent, but non-writing project, like mailing my sister’s birthday gift. Once that happens, the next non-writing project will shove itself forward. Even getting breakfast can be dangerous. Once in the kitchen, it’s all too tempting to empty the dishwasher or start planning lunch. They seem such simple tasks, so quick, surely they won’t interfere with my work. Yet, that’s what ends up happening. One chore somehow leads to another. It’s like when dieters make a slip up and then think, oh, well, today’s diet has gone belly up, may as well give it up for the day. If I escape that blunder, but still don’t get the writing done first, the outside world will begin to intrude, with a phone call or email that demands a response. Beyond those practical obstacles, there are the psychological ones. One is that any ideas that seemed new and fresh upon awakening will start to seem trite or unworkable. Related to that, but worst of all, is that the longer I wait, the worse my internal demonic voices will get. The inner critic. I’m not good enough. I have nothing to say. It’s all a worthless endeavor. Better do something more useful. Once that happens, I can still approach the desk. but everything I try to do will be much, much harder. Writing is hard enough. I’d rather do it early, when I have a fightin’ chance.

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Rejuvenation

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Sometimes I just get stuck. Dead in the water. Any creativity I might have had has vamoosed. Many things help, but the one thing I can count on never to fail is a change of scene. And I don’t mean moseying from the den to the kitchen. So I took the opportunity of Bouchercon being held in Florida to combine it with a trip to my sister’s farm in North Florida. It’s a whole different lifestyle, an entirely different atmosphere. My sister and brother-in-law and their family raise goats, miniature donkeys and miniature horses. The sounds, the smells, the rhythms of the farm are primordially soothing. But also, since I live in Southern California, the rain, the lush greenery, the rivers and ponds were extremely refreshing. With that and with what I learned and who I met at Bouchercon, I came home with new ideas, more energy and renewed enthusiasm for my work. Let’s hope it lasts.

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The Only Fix

girl writingI’ve been wanting to bring out a second edition of my book of poetry, Fault Lines. I needed to correct some typos, update the bio, and add some credits to the “Acknowledgements.” Most importantly, the first edition, brought out by a local micro press which has since closed up shop, was not available online. That just won’t do these days. My friend Jo recommended a formatter, as I’m not quite up to doing it myself. All I had to do was send her the manuscript and cover art. But when I opened the Word document, I was dismayed to find that somehow all the front matter had disappeared. So, now, in addition to correcting the issues I was aware of, I will have to recreate both the table of contents and the information on the verso of the title page. It could have been much worse, of course. The entire manuscript lost or garbled. I got off easy

When I was in college, one of our dormmates came to the room I shared with Hannah. She had a five-page paper due the next day, and only had three pages written. She was stuck, couldn’t think of anything else to add. Meeting the page minimums was a problem for a lot of us. We commiserated with her for a while and then she meandered off. Once the door closed behind her, Hannah, a very astute woman, even at 18, turned to me and said, “There’s only one answer. Go back and grind out another two pages.” Gosh, that applies to so many things in life. So, I’ll just open the Word file and, step by step, (or Bird by Bird, as Anne Lamott would say) recreate the lost material. No short cuts, no tricks. Just one more example of “butt-in-chair.”

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Neither a Borrower . . .

borrowI’ve never confessed this to anyone–until now. Decades ago, I borrowed a book from a friend. She was adamant that she wanted it back. She even wrote her name, address and phone number inside the front cover. Yet, I never returned it. Never. I’ve been wracked with guilt ever since. Why didn’t I return it? I never got around to reading it. As more and more time went by, I got more and more embarrassed about how much time had gone by. We lost touch. Then I moved away, packing the book up with all my other stuff. Wanting to avoid any recurrence of that guilt is one of the reasons I rarely borrow books from other people. Only from libraries. Another reason is the sense of obligation I feel as soon as the book is in my hands, the sense that I must read this book and no other, just so I can hurry it back to its owner. I’m not comfortable with the weight of that burden. I’m also afraid I’ll damage it. Once I borrowed a mystery from a friend. Brand new hardback with a dust jacket. I read it right away without any mishaps. But, just as I was putting it in the car to return to her, I accidentally put the tiniest tear in the dust jacket. I felt awful. She, of course, was forgiving. But I was full of chagrin. She had entrusted me with this possession, and here’s how I treated it. Yes, I know I’m a bit extreme about this, but because I am, it’s safer for me not to take the chance.

On the other hand, if I lend a book, it’s never really a lend. Since I know there’s a good chance I won’t get it back, I let it go.  Even if I haven’t read it yet, I say, “oh, just take it. Don’t worry about giving it back.” I don’t want that burden myself, so I won’t obligate anyone else. If it’s something I must keep, I won’t lend it in the first place. And when I do borrow, I try to be very clear. “Do you want this back?” I give myself a two-week time limit. Read or return. No exceptions. No guilt. And no more packing up and leaving town with other people’s books.

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Rediscovering the Joy

joySometimes I just get burnt out. Or stuck. Or bored. With my writing, I mean. My projects are bogged down, I don’t know how to fix problems, the original idea seems lame. Writing is not fun. Well, of course not. Writing is hard. So you have to have some spark of interest if you’re gonna keep doing it. How do you get that? Or how do you get it back, since we’ve all had it at one time, else we wouldn’t be doing this at all.

I thought back to when I wrote my first poem when I was 9 years old. An idea came to me. I rushed to my room and scratched down several verses of doggerel. I’ve never been so excited. Here was something I created that had never existed before. I think until that moment, I didn’t realize people actually wrote things, like the books  and magazines I read. The grownups were talking around the kitchen table, and every time I added another verse, I raced into the kitchen and read it to them. They could barely control their enthusiasm. I’M KIDDING. My mother alone paused in the conversation long enough to give a distracted nod and a “that’s nice, honey.” The others barely noticed the interruption, if at all. Upon which I ran back to my room to continue my masterpiece. Anybody else’s disinterest simply didn’t register. I was on fire with the pure joy of creation. I wasn’t thinking about “audience.” I had never heard the work “market.” I didn’t know that editors even existed. I was alive with the pure energy creation. I needed to recapture that.

I bought a new spiral bound notebook, just for this. Here, I write whatever I want, solely for myself. Whatever incident, memory, character or puzzlement I’ve encountered that day gets recorded while it’s still fresh and interesting. I don’t care if anything comes of it (although I’ve already roughed out a story based on my notations). I’m just writing for me, for pure pleasure. For the sheer energy of creation. No aim, no judgement. All joy.

Let me do this for a while. Soon, the other urges will return. The need to polish, shape, sharpen and share. There’s plenty of pleasure to be had in those activities, too. But the joy of creation must come first. Seems to me.

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No Telling

don't sayjWe writers know all about keeping quiet about our work, or at least our works in progress. We know that talking about them too soon discharges the energy and excitement we need to keep pressing on till we at least finish the first draft. But lately, I’ve come to realize there other reasons for shutting up, even when, or especially when, non-writers ask us how our work is going. These people mean well, of course. And at least they ask, which often is not the case. Still, it can be a disheartening experience. A few of the most egregious responses go like this:

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m writing about how my cat would. . .  Them: Oh, I used to love having cats. I can’t now in my apartment, but talking to you brings back so many wonderful memories, like when . . . .

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m writing about how I know when my cat is about to throw up and how I rush over there with a newspaper, hoping to . . . Them: You want to know the best way to get up pet stains? I can tell you if you want. Here’s watcha do. . .

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m working on a piece about a cat who . . . Them: Ha! You should write about my cat. I tell you it would be a best seller. Maybe I can tell you the stories and you can write them up and we’ll both get rich.

Them: What are you working on? Me: I’m writing about my cat who. . . Them: Forget it. Cats are all over YouTube. The market is saturated.

Them: What are you working on? Me. I’m writing a story about a cat who. . . Them: Yeah, I know somebody else who’s doing that. Maybe you two should get together. I’ll bet you could get lots of tips.

Solution: Them: What are you working on? Me: Oh, I have a few things in the hopper. I’ll let you know if anything pans out. And what have you been up to?

This almost always works. If you’re skillful, they won’t even realize you never answered their question. You’re safe. Until next time.

 

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Harder Than I Thought

hard workI mentioned a while back that I had a story accepted for an upcoming anthology. So far, so good. Then the editor sent to all the contributors her comments and suggestions for improvements, fixes and edits. I was pleased that she only had three minor issues with my manuscript. It should have been simple and quick to address them. But it wasn’t. What should have taken a few days, even hours, took weeks. Why was it so hard? When the coordinator sent around reminders for the deadline for the edits, some of the other contributors sent group emails saying things like “oh, I did them right away and sent them right back.” What did they know that I didn’t? Okay, a couple of them were far more accomplished writers than I am, so maybe because of their greater experience it was easier for them. But, still, it seemed like I was having more trouble than I should have. I finally got them done, and several days before the deadline. But what could I learn to make it smoother next time? One thing I realized was that I had worked long and hard on this story. I had worked so hard, made everything as perfect as I could. I had had critiques and beta readers. Had done revision after revision. I had gotten the story as perfect as I could make it. Therefore, when I saw the editors suggestions, it was hard for me to see how the story could possibly be made better. It was already as perfect as I was capable of making it. So, for the first few days, I gave up. But of course, I couldn’t let that situation stand. Another thing: I had lived with the story for so long, every word seemed firmly stuck in place. I had a hard time seeing the words any other way. They were frozen in my consciousness just the way they were. It was like they existed already in some eternal universe of fiction, never to be changed. The third issue, and by far the hardest to conquer, was that once given the chance, the temptation to make a boatload of other changes–meaning what I thought were “improvements,” was hard to resist. This sounds like it contradicts what I said earlier about the story seeming perfect. But what I was now looking at were changes that I wanted, not ones the editor had requested. However, I feared that in making those changes, I would only open myself up to more negative feedback from the editor. So I resisted the urge.

hard work 2Finally I was able to buckle down. I picked what I thought was the easiest thing to fix. Turned out it wasn’t, but I had to start somewhere. One item turned out to be easier than I thought. I realized I could just delete the offending sentence, without any loss of meaning. After the three changes were made, naturally, I re-read the whole piece obsessively, before sending it off. It was a relief. Also, I do believe that the exercise will help me become a better editor, whether on my own, or in response to change requests from other editors in the future. I read a quote recently that applies. “Progress is in the pursuit.” Yep.

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