The Least I Can Do

first stepWriting can be overwhelming. It’s like any other huge job. Getting a college or advanced degree. Cleaning out the garage. Getting your affairs in order, for when you die. All the advice books tell you to break it all down into small, manageable steps. Then take that first step. But, for writing, what is the smallest possible step? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • For a blog: Click on “new post.” The blank new post template will appear. Put words, any words, in the title space. Go from there. Remember, you don’t have to publish it. You just need to produce something.
  • For a story: Take out a blank tablet or note pad. Place it in the middle of your work space. Come up with the name of a character. Any name. Start describing that person. Is this a character you can build a story around, or insert into a story you’re currently working on?
  • For an essay: Ditto about the blank tablet or note pad. Jot down the ideas that obsess you, the ones that keep creeping back into your mind when you’re doing something else. For me, those ideas include: hunger; loneliness; hoarding; aging, and a few others. These are not necessarily issues that I’m dealing with myself. They’re just ideas that I can’t let go of. Then jot down all the words that you associate with those images. Can you build an essay out of that?

You may already have an idea of where you want to go, the story you want to tell or the novel you want to write. You may already have a great opening line or scene in mind. But if you don’t, the goal is to start somewhere, with something. You have to get those first words or thoughts down on paper or on the screen. This particular first step may not go anywhere. But without that, there is, will be, nothing.

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Distraction Subtraction

blinders2“A definite purpose, like blinders on a horse, inevitably narrows its possessor’s point of view.” Robert Frost

Horses have their eyes on the sides of the heads. They wear blinders to keep them focused on the task at hand, and not startled or distracted by objects or movement in their peripheral vision. Whether this is annoying to the horse, I have no idea. But, if not dealt with, distractions have the potential to kill my writing. I can’t imagine wearing physical blinders (yes, blinders for people are a real thing), so I have to come up with other methods. For the physical distractions: work at the library or the coffee house. At home, temporarily put all the piles of stuff currently on the desk and not related to the current project in another room. Take Freecell off the computer, or at least hide the icon. Like the horse, out of sight, out of mind, works for me.

For the mental distractions: make a list of must-do’s so I’m not wrestling with the fear of forgetting something crucial, then put that list on the piles of stuff in the other room. Otherwise it just becomes one more distraction. I mean, it has to be the perfect list, right? Plus, if it’s in front of me, the temptation is to keep adding to it, re-arranging, perhaps ticking off just the one item. Deadlines help, as does having a critique or writing partner. Most important, I must learn to ignore the thoughts that push into my brain. You know the ones. I’m not good enough. This idea isn’t good enough. I should be working on a more substantial project (which somehow also never gets done). One way I handle those is to remember how important writing is to me. Too important to let one more day slip by without making progress, without producing something, without getting better at my craft, and way, way too important to let my doubts, fears and lack of confidence destroy my dream. When I’m truly focused on my goal, distractions magically vanish. They come roaring back, of course. But at least for those moments, I have won.


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Didja Ever Notice?

piles of booksThe Pasadena (Ca.) choice for the 2020 One Book One City event is The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott. (It looks terrific!) One of the local branches of the Pasadena Public Library set up a display table with a dozen or so books that had the word “secrets” in the title. There are plenty of them, as just a simple keyword search in their book catalog (or any catalog, or Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) will show. And they didn’t even include The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. But it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about awhile, namely, how often titles, especially in the mystery/suspense genre seem to use similar words repeatedly. For a while, there were the “girl” titles: Gone Girl (Flynn), An Anonymous Girl (Hendricks/Pekannen), The Girl Before (Delaney). Then there are the “woman” titles: The Woman in the Window (Finn), The Woman in Cabin 10 (Ware), The Other Woman (Jones). The “wife” titles: The Silent Wife (Harrison), The Wife Between Us (Hendricks/Pekkanen–again), The Perfect Wife (Delaney–again). Right now, there are a lot “bone” or “bones” in titles. Wife, woman, girl–these are pretty common words. More interesting are the titles that include “whisper” et al: The Whisper Man (North), The Whisperer (Fossum) and The Whisper Network (Baker–not a suspense novel, but excellent all the same).

Studies have shown that the human brain is wired to find patterns, even when there are none, so likely this is just me being aware of some titles and not the myriad of other ones out there. But it gives me pause. I know titles are important for my own work, whether stories, essays, poems or books. How do you choose a title that both entices the reader, gives a feel for what’s inside, and still offers something different from the thousands of books and stories published every year? No wonder it sometimes take as much effort to nail down a good title as it does to secure the original idea for a new work.

By the way, I can say with assurance I have read every title mentioned above and recommend them all. Happy reading!

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Process: The Short Story

girl writingI can only speak about how it works for me. I am impelled to start a story in several ways. The first way is that a story just springs to mind, something I have to write, or perhaps a character that fascinates me, that I must build a story around. Another way is a contest or event, like Bouchercon, that solicits stories. A third way is a journal, online or print, that I respect and want to get into, so I come up with a story I think they might like. The fourth way is “the call.”

Here’s how it goes: An editor puts out a “call” for an anthology centered on a theme, let’s say, crab traps or antique tennis balls. He or she helpfully includes a link to a website devoted to such items. The theme is one I feel an affinity for, so I click on the link. Sure enough it’s a wealth of information. For instance, the evolution of the modern tennis ball, famous collectors of antique tennis balls, how to spot a fake antique tennis balls, antique tennis ball events, conventions, etc. in your geographic area, the astronomical price a rare antique tennis ball fetched at a recent auction, and on and on.

Reading through the site I jot down a few facts or whatever that intrigue me. I let that simmer for a few days, as ideas for plots and characters flit through my mind. Nothing gels. I go back to the site and find more ideas. I have them all on a list on a yellow pad.

Finally my thoughts seem to circle around one particular image or fact. I mull that over, adding possible motives for murder, weapons, locales. Eventually, I come up with the scaffolding of a story. I begin to add timelines, bits of dialogue and motivation. Character descriptions get fleshed out.

At this point, I can talk it over with someone, either a critique partner or someone else who’s gets what I’m doing. As I tell the story, it’s structure gets clarified in my mind. My listener may suggest tweaks or point out weaknesses. The story gets better. At this point, I’m ready to start the first written draft.

I write about one-third of the story. This is where I stop. I’m convinced the story is lame, the dialogue unnatural, the characters mere puppets, the motivation for the crime not believable, and it doesn’t include enough connection to the prompt.

Okay, maybe all those things are true, I say to myself. But so what? You’re halfway there, you’ve done all this work, why not finish it. Then decide whether to junk it or polish it and submit. And, after a few days, I do, in spite of having little faith. Because part of me really likes this story. The fun part kicks in again. I want to see it through. I finish the first draft, let it rest, revise, improve, revise, improve, falling more in love with it all the time. At last I take a breath and send it off. Does it get accepted? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Either way, there are always more “calls”, more jogs to the creative mental forces to generate new stories. With those that don’t get accepted at the initial market, I build up an inventory. With revision, I’ve placed older stories in new markets. I also get better all the time. It’s a process. It repeats itself. It works for me.

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guitarI’ve played the guitar for decades. Well, sort of. I know lots of chords and chord progressions in several keys. But basically I’ve just plunked along, self taught, or with tips from people who were better than I. A few years ago, I finally started formal lessons. One of the things often said about the guitar is that it’s an easy instrument to play, but a hard instrument to play well. So true.

After a couple of years of lessons, I wasn’t much further along that when I started. I practiced not nearly enough. That goes without saying. But a couple of months ago, I realized I had other tendencies that were working against me. These were tiny things that I thought didn’t matter. I would be too rushed to file my nails. I’d wait till I got into the classroom to tune the guitar. When I did practice, I’d sit on any old chair or couch, just to get it done.

What I realized was that these tiny lapses were essentially expressing disrespect–for my stated goal of wanting to play better, for the difficulty of what I was attempting, and for all the time and money I was spending to get there. Now I make sure that, even if I haven’t practiced as much as I would like, I’m prepared in all the other ways. I practice on a straight chair that promotes good posture and guitar position. I have my music on a music stand, not just spread out on a table or footstool in front of me. I tune the guitar every time I pick it up. For some reason, and without my consciously doing it, these small changes have resulted in more, and more regular, practice. And I’m better. I can tell. So can my teacher. He doesn’t know that I’ve made these slight changes in attitude and behavior. But he sees and applauds the results.

Now I get the pleasure of progress, incremental perhaps, but noticeable. It makes me wonder, are there ways in which I’ve been treating my writing with lack of respect? If so, and if I correct them, will I also become a better writer? Or am I already doing everything I can in that area? I don’t know yet. It deserves a fresh look. Who knows what I will find?

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The Words That Kill My Writing

paperworkLots of words and phrases put my writing and my writing career in grave danger. Some come from inside myself. Well, actually most of them these days come from within myself, even if they originally came from outside sources. These are words like “I’m not good enough.” “There’s too much competition.” “Other things are more important.” Yes, I’ve internalized these messages, but at least I’m aware of them and can argue back. No, the words that most hurt my chances of success are: “may as well. . .

As in, “while I’m at the computer, I may as well. . . ” Pay that bill. Address that birthday card. Make that appointment. And on and on. These small, seemingly minor, not very time consuming, yet often urgent chores will, without my even realizing it, eat up an entire morning. One leads to another. There’s no end to them. Every day there’s a new batch. Am I using them as an avoidance technique? Or do I really believe that a little desk-clearing will pave the way for working on a project? Is it the immediate kick of satisfaction I get from checking things off my to-do list? (A feeling, let’s face it, that is much delayed when it comes to writing.) Or is it fundamentally a lack of awareness of just how damaging to my goals such an apparently innocuous habit actually is?

Whichever it is, awareness of a problem is the first step to finding and implementing a solution. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. Now that I know.

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Gosh, Thanks!

Last evening, I went to Vroman’s, my favorite independent bookstore, for the monthly Trivia contest. While there, I picked up the latest copy of Mystery Scene Magazine. I am a faithful reader. I love the articles on historic figures or events in the mystery genre, the profiles of mystery writers and of course, the reviews.

In this issue, though, one review was an unexpected delight. On page 47, Betty Webb reviews the latest Guppy anthology, Fishy Business. She gave a shoutout to my story, “The Wannabe”, as one of her favorites in the collection. Wow! So, thanks to The Guppies (a chapter of Sisters in Crime), Wildside Press, the coordinator, the judges, the anthology editor, and to Betty Webb for including the book in her roundup of small press reviews.

There is one problem with Mystery Scene Magazine. I end up with another 17 books on my To Read list. Actually, that’s not a problem. Having lots of enticing new titles to look forward to, whether mystery fiction or otherwise, is a perpetual joy for people like us. So, read on!

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We Are Not Alone!

bulls eyeNo I’m not referring to extraterrestrials. I’m referring to the hurdles we face in getting published, getting accepted, getting read. I recently saw an article in my local paper titled “The Odds of Getting Hired,” by Angela Copeland. It stated that only 2 % of job applicants make it to the interview phase, and that the odds of getting hired are 1.2 % overall. It sounds pretty familiar already when I think of all the statistics I read about how many people are out there trying to write for every market available. The article mentions that according to one source, there are 250 applicants for corporate job opening. While it’s true that job seekers often apply simultaneously to multiple openings, we writers are likely doing something similar. We may not submit simultaneously (usually frowned upon) but we at least keep the same manuscripts circulating to different outlets. The next part of the article touts the advantage of (guess what?) networking!  “Your chances of getting hired go up exponentially when you know someone internally.” Of course this is true for us. It’s why conferences and other ways to make connections to editors, agents and readers is so important. There’s more. “So often we assume that we weren’t hired because we aren’t qualified [in our case,, our work wasn’t good enough]. But it may really come down to a numbers game at times.”

All I’m saying is, it’s tough out there for everyone. The author’s conclusion sounds even more familiar: “Keep moving. Keep applying.” Yes. Keep writing. Keep submitting. And take comfort in knowing we’re not alone.

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resourcesWe writers depend on resources. Market listings, critique groups, craft classes. But I, at least, end up being a resource for all my non-writing (or less experienced) friends. One acquaintance recently asked me how to register/protect a book title. I explained that titles are not subject to copyright. I was a little surprised he wasn’t aware of this. If you search Amazon for, say, Sucker Punch, you’ll get multiple entries, distinguished in this case by sub-titles. My own book, Fault Lines, can be hard to find due to all the other books with the same title. Ditto the anthology Fishy Business, which includes my story, “The Wannabe”. Another friend said she felt guilty downloading ebooks because she thought the authors didn’t get paid. I assured her they do. Unless the works are out of copyright, or pirated. I also get questions from less experienced writers on getting books into electronic form or setting up readings. I’m flattered that people think of me when they have a question. I’m proud that I’m far enough down this writing/publishing road that I have the knowledge they need. It works both ways, for sure. I have a wonderful actress friend who helped with the “cattle call” scene in “The Wannabe.”

Of course, it can go too far. I’ve encountered several folks who don’t understand the line between “resource” and “crutch.” Or “help me” and “do it all for me.” But I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries. And I always, always remember the wilderness of ignorance I wandered in when I began. Naturally, there’s always new stuff to learn, and I add to my knowledge and skills every day. Resources, too, get better and better, with so much (everything?) available online. However, the personal touch can’t be beat. So, I include my fellow writers in my list of resources. Stephanie, Jo, Michael, and the rest. Couldn’t do it without you.

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Better. Just better.

betterHave you ever found one of your old, old stories or essays or poems, one of your earliest attempts to be a serious writer? Do you laugh gently to yourself about how bad it was? Me, too. In fact, I’m embarrassed now to realize I actually sent some of those pieces out. Those poor, kind over-worked editors! But so what? Everybody starts somewhere. None of us is born knowing how to be a good writer. We all start off at varying stages of ineptness, then improve. How? I’ve taken classes, attended workshops, shared critiques with fellow writers, both better than I am and on the same level. I’ve compared my attempts to those already in print in markets I aspire to. Though it’s taken years, I’m astounded at how much better I actually am, at least, IMHO. No, that’s not quite true. I know I’m better because I get published now, when in the early days I didn’t. I know I’m better because I can writer faster, often easier. I know I’m better because I occasionally get solicited for content, something that would never have happened in the beginning. I don’t ask for perfection. I can only become a better writer at my own speed, although I have experienced bursts of insight about my own writerly mistakes. I may never achieve amazement inspiring work. All I demand of myself is to keep improving, learning, honing, caring. To be better today, with this manuscript, than I was before.

If I wanted more, I’d get discouraged. If I wanted less, I’d be stuck forever where I started. It’s may not seem like much to ask. But it’s also everything. Better.

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