Why attempting the perfect novel may be hindering you

Why attempting the perfect novel may be hindering you

For everyone who writes there are a million ways to get those words down on paper. If you’re anything like I am you stress over the perfect word wondering if your reader will get it. Is it as compellingly written out as it was in your head? You may even be tempted to labor over every paragraph for days at a time moving from page to page until the last chapter rings in your head like prose from a NYTBS. And even then, you aren’t sure, so you rewrite it—again. You could take months or even years with this routine and still not have a finished novel. The truth is, although there is no right or wrong way to edit and rewrite, working that prose like a drill sergeant with OCD can kill your flow and leave you feeling creatively bankrupt.

The problem with perfection is that it truly does not exist. But that is not the only problem. Passion and creativity are the driving forces of fiction. Sometimes it is easier to simply let it flow to get it out. Trust your instincts. If you think the first scene is too early to kill of the father, you’re probably right.  You may think, well, I’m new at this so I’ll get the opinion of a couple of other folk. Well, you’ve seen that show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Remember the episodes when the contestant asks the audience and gets practically the same margin in response for all choices presented to them?  It is then the frustrated contestant actually has to make his or her own decision. Imagine. Go with your flow. One false move, such as fixing it to please someone else well inevitably lead to another false move and then another and then…well you get it the idea.

I try to keep in mind while I’m writing that I could indeed be wrong. This entire novel could be headed in the wrong direction. But I also know the worse that could happen is that I’ll have to rewrite. But once the story is done how will you know when you are indeed finished? You will know. The story will be told. The issues will be resolved. You will have created tension and your characters will be developed. When this sense of completion hits you, stop writing.

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Writing is like housecleaning—there always something left to do. There will always a paragraph that could’ve be written tighter, stronger. There is always room for more intense character developed. Stop. Save it for the next novel. Now it is time to send it off to your editor and let he/she take a stab at it, or, even better, take it to your beta reader. But stand in the confidence that you have written the best story for the experience and skill and creativity you now possess.

And look on the bright side—the next novel will be even better.

The Power of Silence

The Power of Silence

A friend said to me one day that she couldn’t image her commute to work without music, that talk radio show she loves so much or something to fill the quiet. She went on to say that she knew someone who actually rode with nothing on. Can you imagine that? !

Yes, actually I can. I find it interesting that we are a culture that attempts to fill every white space, almost every moment of every day. The Daily News reports that  more than 80% of the world confesses that they can’t do without their mobile devices.

This leaves us with little to no precious time to clear our heads, our thoughts, evaluate what we’ve learned without forces sucking    us in to respond to some type of stimuli– begging us, beseeching us to buy or sell or react emotionally to some news, gossip or current event. Overloaded with information, we are often no better for it. We subconsciously take in stuff which produces no benefit in exchange for something, anything to fill our heads. It’s kind of like eating when you are clearly not hungry.

We seldom give ourselves time to evaluate, ponder or consider whether information is useful before we are back at it taking in more—stuff. And even when we are conversing with others in real time, we often do more talking than listening always ready to pour out from our head what we know. It just seems the natural thing to do considering we know so much. Sigh.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting with a curmudgeon old lady who rarely smiles and is never up for small talk. She is not the one to chat about the weather –mentioning how unseasonably warm it is for the month of May. Her talk is purposeful and to the point. When she is done, she stops talking.

There was an incident which occurred with my son and her niece and she came to talk to me about it out of concern for her niece. My first reaction was one of defense. I wanted immediately to remind her that I have successfully raised three children and I’ve got this thank you. I wanted to tell her all I knew on child rearing. Did I mention I have three children? But something inside willed me to hush. Be silent. Listen. And so I did. I took in everything, immediately mentally applying it where it was necessary. No I didn’t listen as we often do; we barely hear what the person is saying because we are awaiting our turn to share, to tell what we know, add meaning and depth when often none is needed. No, I emptied myself of preconceived opinions and drank in her words.

 

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What I noticed is that truly listening is well…humbling. It is like sitting at the feet of a sage for the beauty of their knowledge. Assured that they have a perspective, you haven’t considered or experience in an area where you lack.

I saw that day behind that droopy, leathery face and glassy eyes a women who’d truly lived. Her life hadn’t been particularly exciting but she’d lived. It was the same kind of living I was doing. But the difference was she’d already been there. She wasn’t condescending or mean. She was calm, with a slow, measured rhythm to her words. She wouldn’t allow me to rush her But took her time to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

As writers silence is powerful because it allows us to process knowledge in a way that makes it useful, instead of busy chatter clogging our minds. We began to know how an experience feels, what it tastes like, what it smells like and the way it leaves you in the aftermath. It allows us to compartmentalize what we know and apply it when and where it’s needed and discard what is not needed or at least place it aside until the next time.

Silence is powerful because it shows control and discipline on our part. It forces us to think about what we are thinking about. It helps us to hear our inner voice. It is that voice—the spirit of a man, which guides us into truth, helps us to make sound decisions, not just based on how we feel, but what our spirit is revealing to us. It is the God part of us, because it is he who is feeding our spirit-man; yes. It is spirit to spirit.

The next time your emotions are screaming, or you are tempted to make a decision bred from some emotional high or low or you’re incited to write some crazy, impulsive comment on Twitter or another form of social media, based on what some political blowhard has feed you, I ask you to be still. Be silent. Consider. Think about it. Listen. Simply listen.

Stephen King’s Advice for Writers

Stephen King’s Advice for Writers

His advice has been well publicized, but I thought it worth repeating:

 

  1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
  2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
  3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” (e.g., “he said happily” and “she said angrily”, etc.)
  4. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”
  5. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
  6. Read, read, read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
  7. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
  8. Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
  9. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

Writing your story: Trust the Process

Recently hubby and I traveled 40 miles west of the city to a farm that specializes in producing grass-fed beef. We checked the website and perused bright colorful pictures of animals grazing green pastures and we were ready to roll.

I remember the farm as a kid; I visited one in elementary school; the horses ate from our palms and the sheep bleeped rhythmically in the background.  And I’ve seen farms on television—peaceful, beautiful.

 

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Miles into our little road trip civilization gave way to lonely roads and stretches of open fields with a home here and there. Finally, we gazed upon a worn sign announcing the name of the farm. Ah…we weren’t lost. We turned down the one-lane dirt road. On both sides of us there was climbing brush and hillsides—not a house a car or the sound of anything from the industrialized world indicating we were nearing one of those cool farms from elementary school. Nothing. But the sign indicated that we were on the right road. Onward and upward.

When we type the words, “The End” after a long stretch of toiling over our masterpiece we feel ready to take on the world.  We imagine grueling negotiations with our agent, lucrative publishing deals and an awaiting public. It’s a one-of-a-kind tale and soon the whole world will know it. But the reality is the process can be long and trying and often there are more ebbs than flows and that is even before we get a deal at all.

Yes, there is so much joy in that great feat—finishing the story because many never do. But you did. And as you seek to get your story out into the world know that each grueling step is part of the process. Take the time to develop the perfect query letter. Research agents or publishing houses to make sure you find a good fit. If you are self-publishing ensure you are a part of a deal that you feel comfortable with. Those are the right things to do. Take your time and trust the process no matter how tedious it may seem.

There is no magic in getting published. It requires putting in the work—sometime reworking or tweaking the story or revising your query or attending some writers’ workshops or conferences to understand the industry. These things are all a part of the process.

As we traveled the road that afternoon, my visions of what a farm should be diminished and were replaced by real farm life. Not the ones made a certain way for the public consumption of 8-year-olds but a real farm where the cows meet you at the gate and  the hills rise high into the sunset and the farmhouse is worn and well lived in. But it is a true farm. And although the road appeared destitute and deserted at the end was exactly what we were looking for. All we needed to do was keep driving. And by the way—the meat was delicious.

Keep at it. The process is tried and proven.  And the end result is amazing.

 

Writing Fiction: Make the Payoff Worth the Wait

Writing Fiction: Make the Payoff Worth the Wait

Growing up, my mother had a habit of getting the biggest kick out of a funny story halfway through sharing it.  With tears streaming down her face and completely breathless she’d try to finish it, but simply couldn’t—it was just that funny. We’d all wait patiently because everyone wanted to be a part of a good, rolling-on-the-floor-can’t-catch-my-breath kind of story. We got the first part and surly the ending would have us in the same state as she. And finally she’d pull he self together long enough to finish it. There it was. We’d waited for her to get to the rolling-on-the-floor-can’t-catch-my-breath part. But something was wrong. We weren’t laughing. What should have been the funniest part wasn’t all that funny. The pay-off, the moment we’d waited for was…not worth the wait.

And then again, perhaps it was the build-up. Perhaps that had been too much because often the stories were at the least mildly amusing. If she’d simply chuckled or giggled or smiled broadly we probably would have enjoyed the fact that it was kind of funny. But as a kid, it felt like a setup as if she’d led us to believe, by her gut-wrenching laughter that the story had more meat than it actually did.

And it happens often in fiction writing and movies. How many times have we read a story or watched a movie and the stakes were so high for the protagonist until we were sitting with fists clenched and eyes widened wondering what would happen next? How in the heck was she going to get out of this? And that’s a good thing. It is the hope of all of us that we will engage at such a high level the reader or viewer will forget that these are fictional characters and that their suspension of disbelief will be at its height. But it’s a serious thing to take a reader to the top of a cliff and then…then…the ascension is only a two-foot drop. When a reader trusts us with his time, energy and efforts it is important to engage until the end and make the payoff worth it.

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One approach I have tried to use is to visualize the end of a conflict—exactly how does this turn out? And then I work backward, building from that pivotal moment. This is something you can do with each conflict all the way through the major one near the end.

The first time I saw The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith, I remember halfway through thinking, “Will this guy ever catch a break?” It seemed that scene after scene was nothing but pure struggle and heartache. But at the end when his Gardner gets the intern stockbroker position out of a plethora of applicants you rejoice with him and feel pure elation. This position, this payoff was worth it the wait. This job will take him places he’d only dreamed about. It was difficult to obtain and highly unlikely. And now standing there at the top possessing a position coveted by so many is a payoff worth the wait for him–and for us.

It the payoff isn’t sufficient perhaps you will need to rethink whether the story is worth telling—at this point. Maybe, just maybe a bigger payoff is lurking around the corner.