Writing: On Which I Yield to the Idea of a Muse

A long, long time ago (holy cow, five years ago!), I wrote this article about kicking my muse to the curb.

Thanks to a workshop at the San Francisco Writers Conference this year, I have changed my mind.

When I first started writing – back in the day when dinosaurs ruled the earth – I subscribed to the idea of a muse. My muses would invariably take the form of human beings. Most likely, they would be human being males that I was romantically involved with, or were men I longed to be involved with, or were guys who had snubbed me and therefore I wrote as a way to beat down my enemies with the power of my words. I’d never really puzzled through the fact that my relationships (i.e. muses) were somehow compelling me to write, that they were responsible for my thoughts. All I knew is that I was most prolific in times of conflict and angst.

As a writer, it’s nice to have a fairy godmother muse to sit on your shoulder. She can tap you with magic dust whenever you need her and voila! you begin to type as though your keyboard is on fire and you only have twenty minutes to get it down before it spontaneously combusts, Mission Impossible style.

Yee-ahhhh… That might work for some people. I happen to be more pragmatic. If I don’t cattle prod myself to write something everyday, I’d never have completed three novels. Which is why I decided back in 2009 to kick my muse to the curb and set a schedule.

Five years after writing that article, I wandered into a SFWC workshop totally by accident (because the workshop I’d wanted to attend was standing room only and I really needed to sit down) with Lisa Tener regarding writing in the zone. She insisted that we must find a muse, and went about describing other writers’ various muses: mice, insects, old men, young children, birds, etc. Dictionary.com’s definition is the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.

Our first task was to close our eyes and imagine ourselves going down a path in the woods toward a house where we would then introduce ourselves to our muse. We’d ask for direction and guidance.

(You can imagine here how I reacted. With total skepticism. And with horror, as I had killed off my own muse a long time ago. If I revived my muse, I feared he/she would probably kick my ass in retaliation.)

I decided to humor her and play along, but when I got to the house (invariably located in Golden Gate Park) and opened the door, instead of a room, I walked onto the large plain of Ocean Beach.

I mentioned this, and Lisa said, “Yes! That’s good. Water can be a great muse, and the ocean is vast.” Whodathunkit?

Later on, as I was sorting through my handouts of the day, I thought about using the ocean as a muse. Haven’t I been doing it all along? Isn’t that why I return to San Francisco on a regular basis? To stay by the beach, walk near the water, fight a biting wind, collect my thoughts? Isn’t this where my stories are born? My attachment is so great, I’ve used the photo of the Richmond, taken from the beach, on my blog. This photograph has been enlarged and framed and hangs over my bed, so when I feel a need to connect to Ocean Beach, I can look at it whenever I want.

I might have wanted to deny my muse, but I will no more. After all, it’s been there the whole time.

Sparks Fly During The San Francisco Writers Conference

It had to happen.

After weeks of Internet back and forth on the self-publishing versus traditionally publishing options (which kind of blossomed into WWIII), with articles like this,  and this, and this monstrosity of a blog post that took me three hours to read and that time was spent on the post, not counting the comments, you’d figure that some of that fiery emotion still lingered in the air.

The keynote speaker for the 2014 San Francisco Writers Conference was Barry Eisler, renowned writer of thrillers. He is also an engaging and charismatic speaker. While the ensuing address wasn’t exactly a s*** show, the sparks were definitely flying, mostly because Mr. Eisler gave a spirited speech on the current state of publishing. He listed toward the side of self or indie publishing, giving his own personal experiences and the reasons why he decided to go that route, while acknowledging the fact that there is still a place for an author to choose the traditional publishing route of gaining an agent and then a Big New York Publishing House. (I’m not going to rehash his words; you can click on any of those above links to get the gist of the debate.)

Keep your eyes wide open and make a decision based on gathering all of the facts. That’s what I got out of this address. Sage words for everyday living, wouldn’t you say?

I observed a wide range of reaction in this crowded room of 500 attendees. Keep in mind that the room was not only full of wannabe writers who have never published a word either on their own or with assistance, but it was also filled with authors, agents, editors, and those who make their living on the “legacy” model. In between the green with a freshly completed manuscript and the greenest at the top of the food chain were people like me, who had attended the conference before, or who had some success in self publishing, or who had started companies specifically designed to make the self publishing experience easier. By the end of Mr. Eisler’s speech, some were nodding in agreement, some were visibly blanched and upset, and others experienced a light bulb moment of “Oh! I can do that?”

At the end of the address, Michael Larsen came up and gave a just as spirited counterpoint to everything Barry Eisler said.

sfwc

I don’t know Barry Eisler. I’ve never read his books, as they’re not in the genre I like to read for enjoyment, but I might buy one of them to throw on the To Read pile that I can now build a small house with. To be honest, I don’t know any of the authors who have broken away from the traditional publishing model. I know the most visible ones write great books and have strong followings and they’re all immensely wealthy as a result. I do know that what works for one might not work for another.

On the other hand, I know agented authors with published works who haven’t seen book sales rise over 100.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe in leprechauns or pots at the end of the rainbow. I buy lottery tickets, but I’m pretty sure I’m never going to win. I missed out on the eBay and Martha Stewart IPOs, and totally missed the bitcoin boat altogether, which means I will work like a dog until I drop dead.

Economic success is a combination of creating a viable product, brilliant marketing, being at the right place at the right time, finding a loyal niche and consistently delivering. There’s also a bit of serendipity in the way the cards fall; all the stars have to be aligned perfectly, especially in the writing world where a book is a work of art and the art of gatekeeping is a subjective (i.e. artistic) one. Not everyone can find that level, if it were that easy, everyone would be rich and famous.

The reason why I attend the San Francisco Writers Conference is that it consistently provides a wealth of information on the writing world, in craft, in marketing, in giving the opportunity for writers to briefly touch those in the publishing world. Michael and Elizabeth have been generous in allowing all points of view, thereby giving the attendees many options.

I go each year, because by mid-February, I need a recharging badly.

And it doesn’t hurt at all when the sparks fly.

I’m SO Ready for San Francisco!

This will be a short post, because I have a thousand things to do before I leave Thursday (way early) morning.

SFWC Sign up Now

1. I am so ready for San Francisco! I’m always ready for the City by the Bay, but right now I am craving some interaction with creative types, authors, editors, movers, shakers. The San Francisco Writers Conference couldn’t come at a better time. Besides, it’s so cold and snowy here, I need a mini-escape LIKE RIGHT NOW.

2. After the last year, I’m finally feeling like a real writer! That’s because I’ve been writing or editing or outlining almost every day. It’s been tough to get on a schedule, and believe me, you would know. I’ve been bitching about my Real Life problems for years now. However, I’m getting better at carving out a space for me and my writing time. It’s true, if you write, you will write more.

3. I’m planning another book, this one YA. Like I don’t have enough to do? This one will have death as a theme, and I haven’t decided whether I should put my story in Michigan, Minnesota, or California. Hopefully, it’ll be funny. Maybe not.

4. I’ve started editing Virtually Yours Forever (for those of you who were wondering what happened to my Beanie Moms), and I hope to self-publish the sequel by the end of the year. I already have a eCover design, it’s just a matter of getting the story to the point where it makes sense. There’s a lot going on with my moms!

5. I’ve undertaken another launch, but since it’s in the gestational stage, I’m not going to talk about it. Don’t want to jinx it.

I know it’s only Monday, but I’m already packing. I’ll be gone for longer than usual (ten days) so I’ve been plotting and planning my Real Life so there won’t be any Real Life disasters while I’m gone.

Finally, I’m praying that Mother Nature will cut me a break this week. Please don’t send any monster blizzards my way on Wednesday or Thursday, PLEASE. I want all airlines to be running on time, without delay. If I miss one second of this conference, I’m going to be super PO’ed.

Writing, Editing, and Twelve Days to the San Francisco Writers Conference

For some reason, I felt that 2013 was a banner year in my writing endeavors. Never mind that it took me the entire year to re-work and re-edit my first manuscript…even though that was a major undertaking full of major hurdles, I got the job done, which is a major accomplishment. It’s as good as it’s going to get; in fact, I can’t think of anything I left out. (Of course, someone is going to find something I missed – that’s a given.)

On to a new year, and I have plans for 2014. Now I’m tackling other writing tasks, such as editing the other TWO manuscripts that need my attention, and coming up with a new story from bits and pieces of other stories.

One thing I’ve learned from the last year is that 1. It’s not completely God-awful to forsake all of your other projects and concentrate on one thing (I honestly thought I was too ADD to try focusing on one project, much less succeed at finishing one project all the way through), and 2. It helps to get as many sets of eyes on your work as possible. I could possibly throw in a #3. – I’m getting better. Edits of subsequent novels are going so much faster, because now when I write a first draft, I catch myself before I make a mistake. You can teach an old dog new tricks!

:-)

San Francisco Writers Conference

I’ll be attending the San Francisco Writers Conference again this year, and only have twelve days to get it together. While I’ve signed up for the agent speed dating, I’m not so interested in pitching my work this year, and will look upon the experience as an exercise in sociability – something I’m not so good at. Of course, I’ll network with other writers, some who like me attend every year, but my main objective is to learn as much as humanly possible, and maybe absorb some positive vibes. I’m not totally down in the dumps about writing or life in general, but with this Massive Winter, I could use a little rah-rah to rally my flagging ambition.

To kick start some of my storytelling, I’ve signed up for Christina Katz’s 21 Moments Challenge. I suggest all writers give it a whirl. (I’ve just started, so I can’t tell you yet how helpful it is, but I’ll give a full report later.) The price is certainly right – $21. I need a cattle prod – I mean, classes – to get me going. I’m only a partial self-starter.

The new year is still young, so make the best of it now! I see good things in my future, and hope you do too.

Setting My Baby Free – Or, It’s Query Time (Again)

On a cold day in February in 2007, I walked north along Ocean Beach in San Francisco and snapped the photo that now resides as the header of this blog. (It’s also a framed poster over my bed, where it gives me constant inspiration.)

Later that day, on a Northwest Airline flight to Detroit, I began writing in a notebook. It wasn’t a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it was more a stream of consciousness about my walk on the beach.

When I arrived home, I put my musings into the computer. The seven or eight mini pages grew. And grew, and grew.

I honestly couldn’t write a word of dialogue back then, so my paragraphs were full of internal musings. Since I couldn’t write dialogue, I had eight different POVs…yeah. About 7 POVs too many. If there was a rule about writing fiction, I broke it – in spades, over and over.

When I had 70K words (of which 90% was pure garbage), I finally visualized the story: a woman of common beginnings, longing for love, thrust into a world of money and prestige. I leaned toward writing a romance, until I learned what the definition of “romance” was. There are plenty of romantic elements in the story, but this is no Happily Ever After. My main character suffers. A LOT. There was no room for flirtation in this tale.

The story: Cadence’s husband of many years killed in a car accident. His death uncovers many secrets, the kind that could devastate a strong woman, but they totally rattle Cadie. But it’s not just his hidden life and indiscretions she must wade through – in beating herself over his choices, she discovers that the compass guiding her own life is severely skewed. She spends a good majority of the book “finding” herself, thus the title: FINDING CADENCE.

It took two long years and 176K words (still 75% garbage) before The End appeared at the bottom of the page. Two years – I finished the first draft the Sunday before my first San Francisco Writers Conference (2009), scheduled for the upcoming Friday. If you are a writer you know the feeling of typing those two magic words; you’re on Cloud 9 for days. And I was going to attend my first writers conference. I was giddy beyond belief.

I was. Until I realized The End is just The Beginning.

Especially if you attend a kick-ass writing conference like the SFWC. I learned in two and a half days that my work was so not ready for the big time.

With that cold slap in the face, I put the manuscript away. And cried a little. (Let’s be honest; I cried a lot.) At first I’d shuttered it for thirty days, but when I peeked at it again, it was so awful, I put it away for a YEAR. I honestly thought my writing “career” – such as it was – was over.

After many online classes, another SFWC, a new manuscript (VIRTUALLY YOURS, totally different in feel and genre), and much prodding by my writing friends, I decided to give it another go. Opening the now dusty computer file, I discovered that while the execution was terrible, the story wasn’t half bad.

There was editing. Once, to get rid of redundant words, the adverbs, etc. That chopped off 10K post haste. The second go-’round I changed the POV from eight (maybe nine) to ONE – first person. The third, I cut, and cut, and cut some more. By this time the result was about 50% garbage. So off it went to not one, but two editors. I meditated  on this story – A LOT. As there is a musical component, I listened to a lot of music, especially Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, and the subsequent modern day rip off riffs from the common themes of the piece. Like Cadie, her life appeared to undulate much like the three movements of the concerto. And so I discovered my theme!

I visited San Francisco many times, to get the feel. Also returned to Colorado, because the feel of the High Plains is NOTHING like San Francisco – or Michigan.

I also ran the manuscript through a Savvy Author class, devised a workable ending that made sense. When it was down to about 20% garbage, it went through another developmental edit, and voila! what I have is what I have now. (Hopefully with less than 10% garbage.)

So you can see how I view my work as my baby. :-)

Now it’s time to set my baby free. Look out agents, the queries are coming, the queries are coming.

Soon.

Readers: Are They the Exception or the Norm?

The one thing I enjoy about the San Francisco Writers Conference are the contests. Yes, I enter, and yes, I’ve had mixed results, but that’s the whole point. How will you know if you’ll win or not unless you try? I’m also impressed that they hold a similar contest for high school students. Even though I don’t currently have any high school students, I was once one – a long, long time ago.

I have, in fact, told stories as long as I can remember. I like to draw, so many of my tales were illustrated. I had a wild imagination, one so off the beaten path, that in 7th grade I was expelled from Catholic school because of a rather racy short story I wrote that got passed around until it landed in the hands of Sister Mary Ruler-Slapper. (I can laugh about it now, but my mother didn’t speak to me for three months.) It was so bad, I was not only banished, but so were my siblings.

My shortcomings were not in writing, they were in speaking, which is why I never said a word during debate class. However, I read voraciously, skipping right over anything age appropriate and going straight to the classics. The “harder” the book, the more I wanted to tackle it. Book reports: in 4th grade I wrote nearly 30 of them, for extra credit and because I loved to read. That’s more books read than there are weeks of school.

In my junior year of high school, I decided to enter the city-wide Junior League Creative Writing Contest. Okay, so the city was Colorado Springs and not the Big Apple, but it was a big deal to me. My short story was a dystopian, future set tale of a broken down world and one man’s love for a priceless antique chair. I dug it out of the basement about a year ago and typed it — it was TERRIBLE. How did I win Second Place?

I have no idea.

Now I am old(er), and starting to sound like my dad. I am concerned about the reading abilities of our children. I deal with teenagers all the time in my Day Job, and I had two children. As a writer, I’m fearful for these new readers, my potential audience. Many of them can’t read because they were taught some cockamamie theory when in kindergarten. I’m surprised my son can read at all, because at the time, “inventive” spelling was all the rage. He was encouraged (by the school) to spell words however he wanted to. On the other hand, I, as the mean mom, would make him write his spelling words twenty times and then grill him in mock tests. (What can I say? I’m half-Japanese.)

Other kids are dyslexic or have ADD. This would be my daughter. She would read out loud perfectly, but would write out of context or not retain one iota of information. That’s because her mind was thinking about something else – it’s always thinking about something else. She doesn’t enjoy reading, and the only way I could get her to ‘read’ Harry Potter books was to buy the accompanying audio books so she could read along while listening.

My children didn’t grow up deprived; we read to both, all of the time. We supplemented what they were learning in school (had to, even though they went to private schools). We could afford books and I bought plenty. Yet, I believe that neither one (for whatever reason) could read to my ability in 7th grade.

Sure, kids these days read, and the popularity of the Hunger Games and the mad YA market are testament to that. But my own kids have been in “reading” classes where they watch the movies the books were made from – not exactly reading.

I live in the Detroit area, and the city schools have notoriously low graduation rates. Many of the kids I see come through here can barely write their names. Some can’t spell or pronounce the streets they live on. They can read abbreviated text messages, but have no idea how to read a book for the enjoyment of it. Suburban kids might fare a little better, but the standards are still mediocre. Some kids (and adults) these days want to do the least amount of work, to just do enough to get by.

I place advertising in school newspapers, partly because I am a product of several school newspapers (junior high, high school, and college), and partly because I like to read what the current crop of kids are writing. Most of the writing is good, witty, relevant. However, one by one, I am seeing school newspapers being dropped as a class. One advisor told me it was not just the money, but the school spends a good deal of time trying to get test scores up, so they drop the classes that don’t apply to the state test, like newspapers, wood shop, home ec, etc.

The result is kids who can’t create because they aren’t given the chance, and not given the chance, can’t improve their minds. I don’t know if what I’m seeing on a day to day basis is an anomaly, or if it’s a trend. The other question that lingers is if these are writers of the future, what will become of books? What will become of opinion, or art?

That’s why when I see articulate, intelligent teenage writers at the San Francisco Writers Conference pick up their awards and get recognized for excellence, it quickens my heart, if only temporarily.

I still have my fingers crossed.

The San Francisco Writers Conference – 2013 Edition

Five years ago I was THIS: an author with a freshly pressed “The End” at the bottom of an abyss-like (and therefore abysmal) tome of 175K words. My first novel. I’d researched plenty of writers conferences and thought the San Francisco Writers Conference was the one for me. Highly touted by everyone, and when my writer pals found out Donald Maass was slated as one of the speakers, they pushed me to attend. It’s held in February, when I can usually take a week off without the (Real) world coming to a crushing end. And my son was going to college there, so visiting after the conference was a definite plus. But I was self-conscious and didn’t think my work was good enough. That was the year I thought, “I’m just going to be a fly on the wall and observe dispassionately.” I’ll become the human sponge and soak up all the knowledge I can.

Yeah. Right.

I must admit, I was star struck, flabbergasted, and so amazed that my head didn’t stop spinning for a month. Agents, writers, editors – genuine best selling authors! But there was more to it than a reporter’s unbiased look at a world class writers conference. As with any love, I fell, deep and hard.

Wallflower no more, I made friends. I chatted with people around the country and around the world. Their positive energy and enthusiasm caused me to step outside of my comfort zone. Even though my draft was a first draft, and needed a TON of work, I signed up for agent speed dating and gave it a whirl – where I learned not only was my book not ready for the big time, I was not ready either.

Tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., I’ll be jetting back to the City by the Bay for yet another conference. This year, it’s different. I’m seasoned. Thanks to the SFWC, I have accumulated a ton of writing friends, belong to the RWA (PRO member!) and Greater Detroit RWA, and have an editor that I work with. I self-published what was my second completed novel last year. I’ve learned to stalk agents on Twitter without having them take out a personal protection order out on me. I’m hooked up with so many helpful writing web sites, and have increased my writing reference library by 10 fold. But just because I’ve attended five years in a row doesn’t mean I know it all.

I’m counting on Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada to host another kick-ass conference, where I’ll learn more than my head can possibly contain (and therefore will take copious notes), be thrilled and encouraged by the successes of others, and jump start my mojo so that I can write yet another day.

They haven’t let me down yet.

:-)

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