What’s in a blog (or should be)?

In my last post, I concluded that I am a sucker for books on writing, so yesterday I lived up to my label, got up early, poured myself a cup of coffee and read We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb.  Her blog is in my blog roll, just to the right of this post if you want to check it out.  I like it.  In her book, she argues that in the current competitive publishing market, anyone interested in writing and actually publishing a book must create a platform to help achieve success.   Even unpublished authors like me, from the get go, should focus on establishing relationships with future readers to help ensure success and sales.  Having worked in sales, this makes sense, and of course, the way to create these relationships is through social media.

As I read, I felt pretty good.  So far I’m on track for just beginning this whole journey in the past few months.  Except for Twitter.  It still scares me a bit, and I reside in the land of the “tweetless.”

I also don’t link all my blogs to my Facebook page or even post on Facebook much, mostly because I’m a mom with two teenagers.  Many of my “friends” are actually my kids’ friends, so I can keep an eye on the lot of them.  (I guess that makes me either a creepy stalker mom or an aware parent – I’ll choose the latter but that’s another blog).  At this point it is more of a parenting tool, not a tool to build my author’s platform, but that will change, eventually . . . hopefully.

For now, my author building platform is this blog, and I’m comfortable with that – one step at a time here.

One of the most interesting arguments Lamb makes is that authors should use their blogs to establish themselves as someone with expertise in their area or genre, even if they’re writing fiction.  To do this, I should blog on topics that relate not just to writing, or the craft of writing, but to whatever my novel or genre is about.  This idea resonated with me.  For example, this blog, so far, has been about writing and my creative process.  This appeals to writers, judging from the comments and traffic I’ve had, but not necessarily to my future readers.  My novel is not about writing; it’s a story, but my posts have been about me and my creative process.  I don’t want to sell me (that’s a whole different business that my husband would probably object to); someday I want to sell books!  I can use this blog to not only talk about the writing of the books, but also about what’s in them.  That makes sense.

In my novel, I use a quilt as a strong thread (no pun intended) between two intertwined narratives, one contemporary and one historical.  I also quilt and have learned it’s an essential piece of my own creativity.  Every time I’ve posted references to my own quilting or quilts in general, traffic on this blog increases.  Interesting!

With that said, I’ll be experimenting with this strategy and writing a little bit more to my future readers on this blog by including a greater focus on quilts, quilt history, quilt fiction – both contemporary and historical, historical fiction and even historical tidbits about mid-19th century America I discover as I research.  I’ll still be writing about writing, my creative process, or anything else that seems relevant because, well, I just like to (even if it may not be strategic).  I enjoy reading blog entries that are just good essays/writing like this one I read this morning, “The Corn Lady of Hillbilly Road,” and I may start writing some of those too.

Obviously, this blog is a work in progress on this writing journey.  I’ll keep you posted on how this new strategy is working out, or you keep me posted!  Thanks for reading.

Target Audience for a Book on Writing: Me

When I started this whole writing journey, I knew there were books on how to write.  I’m a book junkie, so I’d seen them.  I’d even occasionally picked up a copy of “Writer’s Digest” or “Poets and Writers Magazine” to peruse.  I was obviously aware there is a publishing industry since that’s where my beloved books come from; I had no idea, however, that an entire world exists that pertains to every possible aspect of writing and publishing.

To a newbie like me, this has been a little overwhelming.  I can find not just one helpful piece but numerous articles and even entire books devoted to:  why write, how to write, what not to write, why blog, what to blog, the ins and outs of publishing, pitching, querying (what the hell’s a query anyway? I obviously haven’t gotten that far), self-publishing, writer’s effective use of social networks, plot, sub-plots, plot layers, characters, internal conflict, external conflict, scene, structure, setting, story world, theme, dialogue, point of view, action, pacing, the beginning of a story, the middle, the end, how to write short stories, how to write novels, editing, revision, punctuation, the sentence, the paragraph, grammar, and even, the proper use of active/passive voice.  And this is just a sampling of topics writers can read about.

This has become a big problem for me.  After much midlife self reflection over the past few years, I now know that I like to have all my ducks in a row and know as much as I can before starting any project, and as a writer, I definitely fall into the “outliner” category, not to be confused with the amazing “just write” folks who can sit down, start writing, and see where it takes them.  I would not have known that those two disparate categories even existed had I not gotten sucked into reading all about how to write!  (Thank God, I found out that there’s a whole group out there like me.  I am not alone in my writing OCD-ishness.)

With all this information, all these well meaning authors really want to help others learn to write, and they are sincere in their efforts.  The problem is that I am their ideal target market because I feel like I need to learn all this stuff, so I buy it and read it because they convince me that without it, I will fail.  Just read some Amazon reviews on them.  Any successful writer must have some of these books.  Then, I spend all my time learning how to write by reading, researching, and studying about it rather than actually doing it.

But all the master-published-writing teachers out there also say I must write to improve.  I just need to read their book first.  It’s a vicious cycle.  I use my precious writing time reading about how to learn to write when all the teachers say I should really be writing as that’s the best way to improve.  So why am I reading all this stuff?  And why am I compelled to write about my writing here?  What is it about writing that makes one want to write about it?  Ah, I think those questions are for another day (and blog).

Generally in these blogs, I reach some sort of conclusion.  Not so much in this one.  Unless the idea that one must actually write to improve at writing, instead of reading about writing, is a conclusion.  But I don’t think so.  Even though it keeps me from writing, I still really like to read about how to write.

The only profound conclusion I can reach?  I am a sucker.  So, if you are thinking of writing a book on any aspect of writing whatsoever, and you are struggling to identify your target market or audience, email me.  I can fill you in.

Just . . . Keep . . . Writing

I’ve read lots of books on writing over the years, but I’ve always read them from a teacher’s perspective ie. how can I use these ideas to help improve my student’s writing?  Now that I’ve begun writing, they’ve taken on a whole new meaning.  I have to improve my writing?!?

I haven’t written much in the last week or so due to lack of time and (I’ll admit) commitment.  So last night as I was watching a movie with my son, playing Words with Friends (a highly addictive app for scrabble people like myself), and not writing, I was thinking about why I’ve been avoiding my story.  I like my plot, my characters, my setting, but I don’t really like what I’ve written so far.  I’ve always been a decent writer.  It’s something that has come fairly easily to me.  But my novel is fiction, something I’ve never really tried and fiction is hard.

As I was pondering this, I thought of Annie Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.  It’s one of my favorite texts on writing.  Chapter 3 is titled “Shitty First Drafts” and chapter 4?  “Perfectionism.”  I realized that this is where I am.  I’ve written scenes and even whole chapters, and well, I’ll admit, some of it’s pretty shitty.  I’m not used to writing “shitty.”  And, I don’t really like it.

Apparently, I have to get used to it.  Lamott says, “All good writers write them [shitty first drafts].  This is how they end up with good second drafts, and terrific third drafts.”  I know I’m a good writer in the sense that I can write concise clear sentences, but can I build a story?  That’s a whole different ball game.  I’m not sure why I expected myself to do this really well, my first time.  Thinking about it, it’s a little bit (a lot) ridiculous.

A few years ago, I tried snowboarding.  I’ve been skiing since I was seven, so I didn’t think snow boarding would be that hard.  They both entail coming down a mountain attached to a board, right?  Wrong!  My skiing skills did not transfer even a little bit.  I never got off the bunny hill on the snow board; I was bruised and battered, both physically and mentally, and I gave up.  I have not picked up a snowboard since; instead, I’ve stuck with skiing, something I know how to do really well.  Learning to write fiction has been a little bit the same way.  I think I expected the transfer of my writing skills to a new genre to be a little bit easier . . . or maybe less painful?

I’m not giving up; this is just another mountain to go up, so I can have the fun of cruising down the other side.  But this is the hard part for me.  The initial excitement of this project has worn off a bit, and now I’m really having to work at this.

Annie Lamott’s book goes through the entire writing process.  Her last chapters deal with publication.  I wish I was there, but I’m still at chapter 2.  So, I’ll keep plugging away on my shitty first draft and hopefully, at some point, it will be a “terrific third draft” and worthy of a reader . . . somewhere.

“Any road will get you there.”

Earlier this week while my students were working on their final projects, I asked a senior what she was planning on doing after graduation.  She explained that she was going to an acting/comedy school.  Then she instantly began justifying herself, as if her decision was somehow wrong.  When I asked her why she was doing that, she paused a moment before explaining that quite a few people had made her feel like this decision wasn’t quite good enough; she’s smart, so others feel she should be going to a traditional college program.  However, she is funny, a natural performer and clearly excited about this program.

At the end of class, she stopped to say thanks for not telling her what she should be doing.  After my struggle over the past few years to figure out what I want to do when I grow up, I would never in a million years tell her what she should be doing.  How would I know?  I just figured out what I want to do, and I’m in my forties!  I envy her.  She’s 18 and has a clear vision for her future; she’s not succumbing to pressures to get a “real” education and find a “real” job.

I’ve been thinking of this conversation for the past two days.  We put so much pressure on kids to go to college, get a job, and follow a “traditional” path, whatever that is.  But I think instead, we should pressure them to find their passion, explore their strengths, and confidently reject everyone else’s “you should” comments.  Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  Most of us need to try out lots of roads to figure out our there, but some know early on.  Let’s let them go there, guilt free, and encourage the others to try out as many roads as they possibly can.

Read . . . Reflect . . .Write

I am an avid reader.  Literary, historical fiction and fantasy are the books most often found stacked on my bedside table, but when I first started this novel writing project, I set those aside and immersed myself in books on a new genre, “how to write fiction.”  Those books have been interesting and helpful but after completing three of them, I needed a break.  Last week, I took one and picked up a really great novel, The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff.  I loved it, and the entire time I was reading I kept thinking about why I was enjoying it so much.  I don’t usually spend much time reflecting while I read – I just enjoy the story and move on to the next one.  But for this novel, I kept asking myself why I was staying up until midnight, knowing that my alarm would go off at 5:00 am, to read this book?  What was making this novel so compelling to me?  What made one character sympathetic,  another likeable, and another truly evil?  How did the author create suspense and tension?  And on and on.  I’ve never thought quite so much about why I enjoyed a novel during the reading process, and this reflection is due, without a doubt, to my recent writing adventure.

I also realized that I was doing what many authors of “how to write” books do.  They use their favorite novels as examples which they then break down for the reader.  While some of their points are helpful, I realized that I can actually do this all by myself.  I guess that English degree is useful for something!

I’ve decided that even though my time is at a premium, continuing to read fiction as I journey down this writing road is crucial.  If I plan to write for others, I must know what I like and why I like it.   Sure I can find the answers to these questions in “how-to” books, but I think I can also find them within myself if I continue to read and reflect on it.  This is good news!!  When I get sucked into a great book that I can’t put down, I can rest, knowing that I am actually “working” on my novel.  Right?!?

My Weekend Epiphany (or “Oh . . . duh!”)

During the past two weeks, I have made no progress whatsoever on my novel, so yesterday I decided to celebrate Mother’s day by quilting and continuing to ignore the whole book project.   I began cutting and stitching fabric I had pulled a few weeks ago for a new project, but after I had it all cut and sewn a bit, it was awful . . . ugly even.  After quilting for fifteen years, I know that I always get to the “I hate this hideous quilt” stage at some point during construction.  When I first started quilting, I would stop working and set the project aside.  Now, knowing that this stage is normal, I sometimes I set the piece aside, but more often I just power through it, knowing that my planning will pay off, and the quilt will ultimately shine.

Yesterday, when I hit this stage with my quilt I had a huge “well . . . duh you idiot” moment, as I was struck with an epiphany about my creative process.  This is exactly where I am with my novel.  I have this great idea that at one point I really liked.  It’s all plotted.  I’ve written a few scenes, but for the past few weeks, I haven’t written a word because I’ve been at the “this book is awful and I hate it” stage.  There are two major reasons I’ve told myself this:  one, I can’t think of name for my main character, and two, a large part of the setting is historical and set in the west (both of which I love), but I do not want to write a “western” – ick!  Can I write historical western fiction and have it not be a western? I think that’s another post.

I have to say this discovery made me sigh with relief.  If I get to this stage for every single quilt I’ve ever made (and I’ve made a lot) but end up loving it after I force myself to keep working on it, then clearly this is normal for me during my creative process.  So these past few weeks that I’ve set my novel aside to read, quilt, write a short story, and write blog entries haven’t been wasted.  They are obviously part of how I work.  I just had to figure out that my creative process applies whether I’m sewing or writing.  I feel much better about my novel project now . . . and I also feel ready to start writing again, knowing that I just need to power through this.  It will all shine in the end.

Name Block

When I had my children, the first one had a name way before he got here; the second one took a little longer.  She was here, in our arms, for a few hours before she had a name.  Now, I’ve given birth to a slew of characters all of whom need names.  Most of them have names, and they seem to work, but naming them all of them is tough, much more difficult than naming my own children.  My main character has gone through three or four names.  Now she’s just ______________, literally.  Somehow, she has rejected all my ideas.

Juliet says, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Essentially, we can call a person or thing by any name, and it won’t change the essence of that person or thing.  I don’t disagree, but names definitely have differing connotations.  For example, to me a “Priscilla” would be, well, prissy, while someone named “Scarlet” would probably be a much more sexual character.   When I named my children, their names “fit” them, but they also “grew” into them.  Now I can’t imagine calling them anything else, well, okay that’s not entirely true (if you’re a parent of teens, you know what I’m saying).  But generally, their names “fit” them.

Now, I’ve created a character who is fully grown and developed.  I have a picture of her in my head; we’ve had conversations.  (That may sound crazy, but if you write, I think you understand what I mean.)  I know her strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, all kinds of interesting details about her life.  But I don’t know her NAME!!!  It’s driving me crazy.  I think the hard part is that her name has to fit her right away; she can’t “grow” into it like a baby does.  I have looked through books about the time period to help create a list of names.  I’ve looked at the etymology and meaning of different names. I’ve written about her using different names, but none seem just right.  And she’s not a newborn staring at me, waiting.  I’m stuck.  I have name block.