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Monday, November 30, 2009

How do you stay motivated to write?

What a good question for me to ponder right now since I've been feeling so unmotivated lately... though I don't know if it's actually lack of motivation or lack of focus, but lets tackle the motivation thing first.

I have to say a lot of the same things motivate me as my fellow MTV Books authors. Like Jenny, I work best under pressure and deadlines are great motivation for me. One of the reasons I love revisions is because I know it's a solid, set-in-stone deadline and I can map out my time around it. Like Danielle, creating mini-goals such as finish this chapter or this section by this date really helps me and I try to set word counts, but those don't actually work as well for me.

Like Jan, I have a great local writing group as well as a couple of writer pals who I email regularly and using them to talk myself through a hard place often works for me.

Other writers inspire me in a huge way. I do enjoy seeing them speak like Danielle, but reading their books is one of the biggest motivators of all. Case in point, Thanksgiving night, I started Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. I'd just finished a book that I didn't find very satisfying and I knew Wintergirls would be incredible because Speak is one of my all-time favorite books. I was exhausted. I'd worked like crazy at the bar the night before (Black Wednesday, the biggest bar night of the year), barely slept and did the whole family thing all day. I really planned to read for maybe half an hour tops and then go to bed by midnight.

I stayed up until almost three am because once I started I *had* to finish. Wintergirls hurt to read. I was crying through a lot of it, not just the end. Like with Speak, even though I hadn't been through the precise experience of the main character, it touched on some of the stuff I went through as a teen and that feeling of recognition, of someone understands, someone put this in a book, still meant so much to me even though I've mostly healed from those experiences.

When I finished I thought, this is why I write. I want to be this good. I want my books to be read this widely. I want to touch people the way this author touches people. My characters are very real like these characters and I need to keep putting them out there. People might need them, the way I needed Laurie Halse Anderson's characters.

Ultimately, like Jan, my biggest motivator is my characters or the voices I start to hear about a story that needs telling. They tug at me. At times I have to step away from the computer and (im)patiently wait for them to explain their stories to me while I do other things. But they are the reason I write. Or rather, the real people that I know their story will mean something to or help in some way, are the reason I write and stay motivated to do so. Every email that I get from fans about how my books impacted them is saved in a special email folder so I can go back and look at those when I'm feeling shaky. And when I reply to those or to comments on my Facebook fan page or Twitter or Myspace and say how getting that message has inspired me, I'm not lying. Often times that is the push I need to get offline and get back to my writing.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, right now I have the motivation. I have some incredible characters who I think can really touch some lives and open some minds, but I am so unfocused! I procrastinate, I while away hours on the internet, I organize and reorganize and I honestly don't know what to do about it.

I've set a little deadline for myself and I think to keep it I am going to be staying away from the internet as much as possible. So my blogs will be a lot less frequent this month and my replies to things will be slow. I might not even be around on Twitter as much as I usually am and I definitely won't be on Facebook as much (that thing is my biggest time suck!). So I'm sorry and I'll miss you, but I'm trying to STAY MOTIVATED!!!!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

How do you stay motivated to write?

When I'm under contract, I don't need any help. Somebody has asked for my work and paid me for it. To me the pay is just affirmation, which is what I'm really looking for. As long as I don't feel that I'm spinning my wheels, writing is its own reward.

When I'm not under contract, when I'm writing something on spec and hoping an editor will buy it later--which happens to me a LOT--it's much easier to get derailed by one negative opinion. But I've been through this enough times by now that I know how to deal with it.

First, to echo what many people have said here, I lean on my writing friends--my local writer's group, Southern Magic; my critique partners, Victoria Dahl and Catherine Chant; and other authors like Barb Ferrer, Erin Downing, Niki Burnham and Marley Gibson, who are always willing to read a manuscript for me or just listen to me rant. Writers are a little crazy, in case you have not figured this out yet, and nobody really understands us except other writers, who understand completely.

Second, I read how-to-write-a-book books for inspiration. A lot of writers hate how-to-write-a-book books but I love them, and they certainly got me out of my funk last spring. Click here to review that particularly gruesome episode of wallowing.

Finally, I go back to the manuscript in question, the one I'm having trouble finishing, and I make sure it's the book I want to read. Writers are readers first, and if my books aren't the most delicious novels I personally have ever read, or at least pretty darn close, imho I'm not doing it right.

Just a reminder...

Next Saturday, December 5, I'll be signing books in the Birmingham area along with authors of adult romance Christy Reece, Debra Webb, and Peggy Webb, so these would be terrific events to drag your mom to. We'll be at the Books-A-Million in Fultondale from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the Books-A-Million at Brookwood Mall in Mountain Brook/Homewood from 3 to 5 p.m. I realized belatedly that the latter signing is during the #2 Alabama vs. #1 Florida SEC Championship slugfest. If you're not a football fan, come out and see us. If you are a football fan, come see us during halftime and tell us the score.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How do you stay motivated to write?

When I'm feeling blah, funky, or uninspired I turn to the members of my writing group. Sharelle, Eileen, and Becky are the first to hear about my writing issues because (1) they let me whine as much as I need to, and (2) they know how to cheer me up. If my plot hits a dead end or my characters are dead boring, my writing group helps me brainstorm my way out of trouble. They also tell me in the kindest possible way that my “great” story idea isn’t going to cut it. (Sometimes they don’t say a word; their expressions of pity get the point across.) Whether I need a shoulder, a hug, or the occasional kick in the arse Jenny mentioned in her blog, I can count on them.

My other motivators are the same “people” who cause me the most trouble—my characters. They might let me go without writing for a few days, maybe a week. But when their patience runs out, they stalk me. Their favorite tactic is to wait until I’m in bed with my eyes closed, almost asleep. Then they camp out in the semi-conscious part of my brain and start talking. Pulling the covers over my head just makes their voices louder. They’re not satisfied until I drag myself out of bed, boot up my computer, and write down every word they’re saying. After they’ve wormed their way back into my head, there's no stopping them. They talk while I’m running and lifting weights and walking the dogs and so on. And, just like that, I’m in their clutches again.

Which, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad place to be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How do you get motivated to write?

If there's one thing being a writer has confirmed, it's that I need a deadline. In college I wasn't one of those people who read a chapter or two a night and was all set to go by the time the test rolled around. No. I was the person out having fun, going to parties, and then sitting down the night before an exam to cram all that I'd missed into one night.

I remember one particular assignment my senior year of college - a final term paper for a religion class (I'm not a religious person but loved learning about different religions). I had to write a paper about the Bhagavad Gita, which is a sacred Hindu scripture and a philosophical classic. This was a final paper, something I was supposed to be working on all semester. So with a week to go before I was due to turn it in, I figured I'd start.

So I dug in. Just me, Krishna, Arjuna and their battlefield conversation that serves as a guide to life. Pretty heady stuff. And I was a senior, so I still had a fair share of partying to attend to, so the whole final paper thing was crimping my style, to say the least. Well, I ended up getting it done, I think I printed out the last page about 3 minutes before it was due.

And that's pretty much been my approach to writing. Which is why my agent just had to say to me, "I want a book by February 15." He knew that without a deadline he'd probably see another book in 2038. And that just wouldn't work.

So my motivation? Fear of not meeting deadlines. Fear of the repercussions of not meeting deadlines. Because at the end of the day I may prefer to go out and have fun vs. sit at my computer, but I hate letting people down or not meeting expectations. And I like to write. It's not the actual writing I need motivation for. It's the finishing part that requires a swift kick in the arse.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How do you stay motivated to write?

Um, write a blog about motivation for starters! Procrastinate a lot! This means checking email, feeling a sudden urge to clean out a drawer or sharpener a stack of pencils. More laundry, sure, bring it on! Then after a period of time, guilt sets in and I actually miss writing. However, at that time of the day, I’m most likely tied up with carpools, homework or baby chasing. So the next time I sit down in a funk, I remind myself that writing time is precious and I better get to work. That usually helps because after I get going, I don’t want to stop.

On a bigger scale, conferences are a great motivator. Hearing an awesome speaker can really get me back in the groove, especially if it’s someone I’ve admired for a long time, like the time Judy Blume was the keynote speaker at our local SCBWI conference. Also, hanging out with fellow authors at conferences allows us to talk shop and I think that’s vital to regenerating the writing spirit.

I’m also lucky to have a local critique group where I can share a chapter or two at a time of whatever novel I’m working on. Just reading and discussing a chapter gives my mind the boost it needs to move on with the manuscript. In addition, reading a great book is helpful. It makes me fall in love with writing all over again.

Reflection is another motivator. I go to bed thinking how lucky I am that I’m doing something that I love—writing books. I think about how each moment I spend with the book that I’m working on is such a pleasure.

When I’m in a particularly slow spot in a book, I find that daily word goals help. These mini goals provide me with a sense of accomplishment. Often I go over my daily goal but just knowing that I can stop helps to keep me going.

And when all else fails, dig out the chocolate! I often say, WILL WORK FOR CHOCOLATE! Okay, now that I’m done with this blog, I better get back to working on my current manuscript. So now I want to know, what are your tricks for staying motivated?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Love Thyself

Today on my blog, I shared some photos that a really talented photographer named Chad McGavock took of me this summer for a magazine that did a write up of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. My favorite photo is to the right (and you can click on it to see it bigger), and you can see the rest of the photos and the story behind them here.

I've been posting a lot of photos of me on my blog lately. First there were wedding photos, then last week I showed off my hairstyles through the years, and now these. It feels kind of weird, especially when I share old photos because I remember how much I used to cringe at getting my picture taken. I hated most photos. I always immediately spotted flaws, the same flaws that upset me every day when I looked in the mirror.

Now when I look at those photos, I usually don't see the flaws or at least I am not nearly as critical, and I can always find something I liked about myself back then whether it's my hair, my outfit, or the fact that I had the balls to wear *those* earrings. Other than a phase in 4th/5th grade where I tried desperately to fit in, I've always dared to be different and I think it gave the impression that I was more comfortable with myself than I really was. The truth is from around 3rd grade on, I hated myself. And I'm sure a lot of people, especially women, had a phase or maybe still struggle with that on a daily basis.

I try to think back to why, when it all started because I know at one point, I was a happy-go-lucky little kid who totally didn't care about her bad 80s bowl cut, 80s shorts and socks that went too high.

There aren't very many moments that I lifted from my own life and modified and put into Ballads of Suburbia (I can only think of three off the top of my head), but one happens at the beginning of the book when Kara moves to Oak Park and is accosted on the playground by the most popular girl in her class and her minions and chastised for wearing generic clothes. This also happened to me. And I think that was it, the moment when suddenly I became aware that I was supposed to live up to some sort of standard of appearance and I wasn't making the grade.

A friend of mine from elementary school stopped by the bar where I work on Saturday to catch up. We'd found each other on facebook, but hadn't actually talked since probably junior high. One of the things she said to me was, "You were always so tiny. You were the cutest little thing." And I immediately replied, "Well, I wasn't as small as Chrissy."

In my mind, Chrissy had always been the cute, tiny one. She was a gymnast with adorable dimples. I didn't have dimples and I was just short. If I couldn't be as cute as Chrissy, I didn't want to be short. And I hated that I was the last girl to get a growth spurt and to get boobs and I was so self conscious about my body, I have terrible posture to this day because I spent so much of my life hunching over to hide myself. I also never wore clothes that fit until I hit my twenties. All the concert t-shirts that I got when I was in high school are extra large even though I could have fit an extra small. I'd never felt comfortable about my body, or my blotchy, zitty skin, or my hair that was way too thick and too wavy. It didn't help that in junior high, some asshole jock boys said I looked like the lead singer of the Black Crowes because I was flat and skinny and had this out of control hair.

God, I hated, hated, hated myself. And hating yourself is not a good thing. If you don't care about yourself, you don't treat yourself well, and you allow other people to treat you like shit. If my self-esteem had been better, I never would have gotten into an abusive relationship at fifteen and I also probably wouldn't have been cutting myself or abusing substances.

Most of the characters in my books battle self esteem issues, with some it is more obvious than with others. But it's a topic I will continue to write about because I think it is so important. We need to find ways to love ourselves for who are.

How did I learn to love myself? I started doing what I loved best and what I felt was the thing I was best at--writing. And when I got out of my last bad relationship at 26, I told myself that I was going to live for me and love me and I would allow myself to get into another relationship until I knew who I was and what I wanted. So I surrounded myself with good friends and I wrote and when I was ready, I finally met a good guy, the one I married.

But self- esteem is a battle that I still wage. I hate it when I find myself focusing too much on the five to ten pounds I'd like to lose and I hate that I still feel so uncomfortable about my skin that I don't like having photos taken or going out without makeup (except to run errands, my laziness overrules self-consciousness on some occasions). But at least, I've finally learned that I am a person of value, a unique person who deserves to be treated well. It was a hard battle and I can't say how exactly I got here, aside from supportive friends. And I'm glad I can look at myself and feel beautiful most of the time. Of course it helps that even when I'm feeling dumpy, my husband tells me I'm beautiful :)

What about you? Is self-esteem an on-going battle? I challenge you to look at some old pictures of yourself, pretend they are magazine photos and I bet you will find something beautiful about that "model"-- you! And I also encourage everyone to pay someone a compliment today and every day, a friend, a stranger, and it doesn't have to be about something physical, but it could be about something they've done. There is so much negativity in this world. It's important to counterbalance it. So love yourself today and share that love with others.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This is not what I signed up for.

Back in 2006 when my first book was published, you could have asked me to do any sort of appearance and I would have said yes. I drove several hours each time to speak with potential authors at the Wetumpka library, to coach teen authors at the Prattville library, and to make a presentation and speak on a panel at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery. I really appreciated the invitations, and all these appearances were great fun, but I swear I would have said yes if I’d been invited to emcee a pumpkin chunking. As my (extremely extroverted salesman) husband kept telling me, "Your book may not sell well, and you may never get this chance again. You'd better enjoy being a published author while it lasts."

Lately I’ve started saying no.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I just don’t have time. I’m in a twilight zone (or purgatory, depending on your perspective) where I have requests to write more books, but I haven’t quit my “real” job. My normal life chugs along as usual, including work deadlines in addition to book deadlines. And every time I need to find child care so I can speak to a group after school hours, it takes a village.

The other reason is that I hate making public appearances! I have a good time while I’m there, but the fear and anticipation leading up to the event nearly kill me. I know a lot of authors love to meet readers and make speeches. From the way our “Events” sidebar looks occasionally, I’d guess Stephanie is one of these. My own writers’ group just hosted Anne Stuart, who strolled up to the podium in a quilted kimono and sneakers, gave a hilarious speech until she discovered she’d lost the last few pages, and ad-libbed the rest without a single shudder. I’ve even met some folks, children’s authors especially, who seem to make a living from their school appearances rather than their books themselves. I do not understand these people. I want to shake them and scream “YOU ARE AN AUTHOR! AREN’T YOU INTROVERTED? ISN’T THAT WHY YOU SIT AT HOME BY YOURSELF AND WRITE BOOKS? HAVE YOU GONE MAD???”

Having said that, I have a couple of appearances coming up in the Birmingham area. My writers’ group, Southern Magic, has arranged book signings for several of the members. Christy Reece, Debra Webb, Peggy Webb and I will sign our books on Saturday, December 5 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Fultondale Books A Million, and from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Brookwood Village Books A Million.

There is strength in numbers, you know. If you’re sitting with a group of authors in the bookstore rather than by yourself, you don’t feel quite so conspicuous when a potential buyer approaches, and you think she might want a book signed, but instead she asks you for directions to the bathroom. Please come out on Saturday to have some books signed for stocking stuffers, and tell me how convincing my extroverted act is! I won’t be doing it again for a while. (And please don't ask me out loud where the bathroom is--just make a flushing motion and I will point you to it.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Writing Conference Don'ts

At every writing conference I hear horror stories about the outrageous things people will say and do to get an editor’s or agent’s attention. And it occurred to me that writing conference newcomers—and a few clueless conference veterans—might benefit from a refresher course on writing conference behavior.

Here are the Top Ten Things Not to Do at a Writing Conference:

10. When sending in your work to be critiqued, do not single-space the manuscript, use a microscopic Font, or include a 10-page synopsis. Not following the guidelines labels you as a rank amateur and annoys whoever is critiquing your writing.

9. If you don’t know anyone in the room, resist the urge to hide in the coat closet or cower under the buffet table. Writing conferences are for networking. Climb out of your shell and make some new friends!

8. During workshops, small group sessions, or keynote speeches, do not talk on your cell, text, or draw unflattering pictures of the speaker—especially if you’re sitting in the front row. Speakers notice these things, and not in a good way.

7. In breakout sessions hold back from pointing out every flaw in the work being critiqued. Use the sandwich method—discuss the positive aspects of the writing, give a suggestion for improvement, and end your critique with an overall positive comment. If you can’t think of any positives, go directly to the punchbowl on the buffet table and bob for orange slices.

6. No matter how annoyed you may be, do not bitch at the conference organizer about the schedule, speakers, food, door prizes, parking, accommodations, or weather. This person has spent months working out the details, dealing with vendors, and finding replacements for cancellations. If you don’t like the way things are being done, roll up your sleeves and help put the next conference together.

5. If you are lucky enough to have an editor or agent ask about your current project, do not take up their time with a 10-minute description of your inspiration, writing philosophy, characters, plot, setting, and theme. Before the conference, practice summarizing your story in 60 seconds or less—30 is better. An interested person will ask for more information; someone who isn’t interested will breathe a sigh of relief.

4. At mealtimes do not elbow, trip, or head butt other hopefuls out of the way so that you can sit at the table with a presenter. Being a writer doesn’t grant you immunity from wrongful injury lawsuits or assault charges. And there’s always the possibility you’ll elbow the wrong ribcage by mistake.

3. If you find yourself in a situation where complimentary drinks are served, you do not need to “get your money’s worth.” Drunks are never as charming or witty as they think they are. And upchucking on an editor’s shoes is not the recommended way to make a lasting impression.

2. Do everyone a favor by not dropping the names of every editor, editorial assistant, intern, and agent you’ve ever met, heard of, or seen from a distance. Nobody—and I mean nobody—cares.

And the Number One thing NOT to do at a writing conference:

1. Never, ever, ever corner an editor in the restroom, pass your manuscript under the stall door, and hold the poor woman hostage on the stool until she reads it. That’s not opportunity knocking at the door; it’s the SWAT Team.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mistakes happen, but...

I'm reading a new teen book that's gotten a lot of press. Something happened on page 14 that totally turned me off. The main character goes into the girls' room at her high school, walks into a stall, "puts down the lid" on the toilet and then sits on it to think. Now you tell me. How many high schools have toilets with lids? Commercial grade toilets don't have lids for several reasons, one of them being that they're just one more thing to break and with all the wear a commercial toilet gets it doesn't make sense.

So why am I talking about toilets? Because the author did something simply to serve her character and scene - she put a lid on a toilet so the character could sit on it and think. And it totally spoiled the mood for me. It just would never be. And I hate when authors make near impossible things possible just to serve their purpose. I hate mistakes in books.

Now I'm not talking about typos. There's a HUGE typo on the very last page of THE BOOK OF LUKE. And it drives me crazy. But the book keeps getting reprinted with that damn typo over and over again. I swear in my manuscript it was correct! Mistakes happen. Copyeditors and typesetters are people, afterall. By the time we've all read the book over and over we're lucky the chapters have the right numbers.

But authors are supposed to be held to a higher degree of accountability for the content they write. I once read a book for a blurb and it had the character taking a cab from Kennedy Airport in NYC to Manhattan. But the fare and the time it took to get there were all wrong! And it ruined it for me. Such a little detail and so easy to get right.

Creative license is one thing. Just making something implausable up just because it's what you want to happen or because your character needs it, is another. The character in the book could have sat on the floor. Totally gross. No person in their right mind would sit on the floor of a school bathroom. But it would totally have been in character. The girl is considered nuts. She's odd. She'd do something like that. I wish the author would have realized that instead of taking the easy way out and changing the rules of commercial plumbing.
What about you? Do you let the incorrect details slide or do they break the spell of the story?

What I Learned as a Debut Author...

1. Start collecting friends months before your first book signings because they will make up the majority of your audience.

2. Be expected to be woken up by hubby and have a pen and book shoved in your face to sign a book for client that he’s going to meet that morning. And you need to write something uplifting for daughter of client in crisis. No pressure.

3. Dive into social networking—there is a whole world out there of book bloggers, teachers, librarians and authors talking shop and reviewing books etc..

4. Writing can be lonely at times so blog your heart out and read other authors’ blogs. There is so much to learn.

5. You are your own best advocate so make sure your bag is stuffed with bookmarks or postcards about your book, you never know who you might run into around town.

6. Join a community of writers. I belong to the Class of 2K9 (see our recent post on marketing advice: http://community.livejournal.com/classof2k9/) and the 2009 Debutantes (www.feastofawesome.com). Both groups are very supportive and help keep you grounded. And I love the ladies over here at the MTV Books Blog—all have been very kind to me, willing to answer any questions I had during the year.

7. Take a moment every day to appreciate the fact that you are published. How many people get to do what they love? The publishing world is very competitive yet the community is very warm. We are a lucky bunch.

8. Be prepared to answer all sorts of questions from are you going to be as rich as J. K Rowling to my friend wrote a book, is your editor interested in______fill in the blank.

9. Take the time to say thank you. I make sure to answer every email that I get from readers in a timely manner. It really makes my day to hear from readers so I let them know that. Remember they are taking the time out of their busy day to write you.

10. Don’t forget to breathe. It’s a fast and exhilarating rollercoaster ride!