Tag Archives: creative writing

Indie Life 07-09-14

It’s time for another edition of Indie Life, hosted by The Indelibles. You can sign up by clicking the graphic! IndieLife7

It’s my return to Indie Life! While I wish I could say I’ve been slacking on these posts because they no longer apply to me and I’ve just signed a million dollar contract with some fancy New York agent, the truth is being indie is the very reason I’ve hardly had time to keep up with blogging at all. Because being indie means financing all of my own projects and since I’m not selling thousands of copies of my books a day, that means I have to work. A lot. I took on a second job in the Spring, bringing my total hours to just shy of 60. And that brings me to today’s indie gripe–the unpredictability of life.

I know this is a law of the universe that effects all of us but one of the most tedious and important parts of being an independent artist is being organized. There are a lot of spontaneous artists out there who rely on divine inspiration rather than deadlines and who create only when they feel like it, abandoning it as soon as it starts to feel like work. But the success and the fulfillment doesn’t come to those who quit. Those things are reserved for finishers and if you’ve been doing the indie thing for any length of time, you’ve probably got finishing down pat.

See, I have a formula for finishing and it goes a little something like this: writing every day+reading every day=books. Pretty simple, right? When I’m living my life within the parameters of this routine a magical kind of momentum is created and it’s the secret to how I’m planning on finishing four novels this year. FOUR WHOLE BOOKS that will be the hard-earned result of extreme dedication and a devoted work ethic. But despite my diligence and despite my deadlines, there is always the chance that something will go awry and sometimes that something isn’t small. Sometimes that something is big and important and needs your immediate attention. Sometimes you will have to set your art aside and find a second job shelving library books just so you can pay your bills.

It’s a sad truth but a truth nonetheless. Because unfortunately for us indies, there is no amount of want or need or hard work or deservedness that can make pursuing our dreams a totally seamless endeavor. Even when we put the work in every single day, without a huge publisher behind us or a huge readership, there will always be the chance that things will go wrong, or other responsibilities will stand in our way. That’s just a part of being indie. We are in a constant state of choosing, swapping out needs and responsibilities based on what we can physically and mentally accomplish that day. Sometimes after a long day of working our regular 9 to 5 job, we only have enough energy to do laundry and our manuscript gets pushed to the side. On other days we might have to make the hard decision to miss coffee with friends just so we can meet a self-imposed deadline. But regardless of how stringent we are when it comes to doing what we love, let’s be honest, until we’re paying the mortgage with our writing, that time will always be up for debate. Not because we don’t believe it’s important but because we’re only human and there is only so much we can do.

So maybe this week’s indie gripe isn’t really about being indie at all. Maybe it’s really about the modern day juggling act we’re all trying to master, the balance between surviving in this world and thriving in it getting harder and harder to achieve. Today was one of those hard days. But even though I have several looming deadlines and the thought of not making any progress on my WIP today ties me in a knot, I will forgive myself. Because I’m indie. Because I’m human.

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23

Last Saturday was my 23rd birthday. Twenty-three… That’s closer to 25 than 20, which means that I’m almost to the halfway point of my Twenties, which means that I’m almost to that dreaded millennial quarter life crises. And it is real. Trust me, I can already feel it looming, like I’m nothing but a spark traveling down a fuse and the only thing that is going to stop that bomb at the end from detonating is…I don’t know. I know what I want to achieve by the time I’m 25 and I know what I want to have and do and say and create but even if I do accomplish all of those things, will that level of “success” be enough? Will any success I ever have be enough? So then how do I measure the past year of my life? How do I measure the years to come?

Last year my birthday plans got derailed by real life and when it came to celebrating this year I didn’t even attempt something grand. In fact I didn’t even want it. Because I didn’t need it. Last year I felt robbed and angry as if adulthood was some thief in the night who had come and taken all of my joy. This year I actually found satisfaction in all of the sacrifice and responsibility. So even though another year has gone by without bringing an end to my artists’ struggle, so much has changed. Mentally and emotionally I’ve learned to embrace the fear and the sacrifice and the delays and the unpredictability of life. I’ve learned to embrace the challenge that is creating. I’m not perfect. I still get overwhelmed and wish that giving up was an option. But it’s not. Because through all of the growth and all of the changes, it’s my spirit that has changed the most and that has made all the difference.

So now in no particular order, here are all of the insane and intriguing insight from the past 365 days I spent as a twenty-two-year-old from the cheesy to the overly-dramatic to the disappointingly true.

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The Indie Experiment-The Dream

My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning
The Indie Experiment:The Decision
The Indie Experiment:The Teacher
The Indie Experiment: The Truth

The Indie Experiment: The Dream

It took me four years, a million drafts, two independent study courses, and time in another state to write and finally finish The Things They Didn’t Bury.The idea originated my senior year in high school and I nurtured it and explored it through my entire college experience and after each personal evolution, the story experienced a new evolution as well. I wrote every week and then every day, getting words down in a fury through my father’s illness and then picking them apart after every new creative writing course each semester. In the beginning there was no end goal, not even to finish, but as an end finally started to reveal itself I couldn’t type a word or take a step without doubting it. And this was when I realized that I did have a dream for this story and it was more than just to create or to finish, it was to write something good.

In the beginning this story was not good. It was muddled and shallow and all over the place but something inside me just wouldn’t give up on it. A lot of writers  have abandoned their first book, so many that some people even consider it a right of passage. I used to think that I’d managed to skip that step of my artist initiation but when I look back at the story I ended up with versus the story I started with, I realize that I didn’t skip a thing. The Things They Didn’t Bury is not the same story I began writing my senior year in high school. Everything from the location to the plot changed completely with the exception of just the characters names. By the time I actually finished the novel it had had several other identities, all scrapped, and all for good reason. But the point isn’t how many novels I abandoned in the process, the point is that I kept writing no matter what. When I realized that even after I finished this novel that I wouldn’t be able to stop writing I knew that it was time to come up with a plan.

Sometimes we steal dreams and sometimes we stumble across them but when a desire that big takes hold of you there’s really nothing you can do except follow it. By the time I finished my first novel I’d already declared my major and had already made the decision to pursue writing professionally. What I hadn’t decided on was how. I’d taken journalism courses, news writing courses, short story writing, poetry workshops, fiction and non-fiction writing, writing for feature films, and script writing courses, and while each method and medium spoke to me I couldn’t deny the connection I felt to the challenge of fiction writing. There was something so romantic about it and the process itself allowed for the kind of spiritual exploration I was desperately craving. I knew that I wanted to write novels and after sharing one of the earlier versions of The Things They Didn’t Bury with one of my professors he gave me some advice on querying–something I had no idea I even needed to do.

I put it off, letting the story experience a few more evolutions before I finally started to do some research. I looked into agents, trying to find a good fit, something that proved ridiculously difficult as I’d written my entire novel without a definite genre in mind. In a lot of ways, letting the novel grow as it needed to without trying to fit it into some kind of box left me with something really unique. But on the other hand it made it really difficult to pitch. I went into querying totally blind, seeking out agents who had even a smidgen of interest in multi-cultural fiction that wasn’t easily categorized. I don’t really remember how many emails I originally sent out but I do know how many personal responses I got. Zero. Every response I received was automated and could be summed up in two words: “No thanks.”

I was deflated but not necessarily devastated. The entire process was pretty exhausting but I also considered it more of an experiment rather than a genuine attempt. Part of me had always thought that the story wasn’t ready but that was mostly because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t grown enough as a writer yet but luckily since I was only nineteen, I still had plenty of time for that. Other writers might have chosen to abandon the story at that point or at least to start something new and try to move on but I just couldn’t see myself letting it go for good. I worked on it sporadically, picking at it mostly, but not ready to do another round of re-writes. In the meantime I shifted my focus to short stories and after randomly deciding to enter a contest hosted by a small press, something pretty crazy happened. I actually won. And so began my first and only experience as an almost “traditionally” published author.

After I won the short story contest and collected my prize money, which wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of one of my textbooks, the acquisitions director asked me if I had any other short stories that I might be willing to let them include in one of their upcoming anthologies. I was totally naive and so over the moon about someone actually thinking that I was good that I sent them over two more stories to include in their collection. After they read the other stories they asked me if there was anything else I was working on and I told them about my novel in progress, the one I was still nursing a sore heart over having been rejected by all of my dream agents. Obviously I was in a somewhat vulnerable place so when they offered me a contract I was elated. Long story short, after taking the contract to my professor for his opinion, I realized that this small press was one step above a vanity press and that they were basically trying to rob me blind.

I decided to stop querying at that point or even entertaining the idea of being published until I was finished with school and had a little bit more experience. But even in the midst of attempting to take a break I still couldn’t move on from the story completely. Not yet. So I decided to give it another go, one more round of extensive re-writes to try to turn the story into what I’d always hoped it would be. After graduation I moved to Florida for about a year and a half and during that first year all I did was work on this story. It was the perfect timing and without things like school or friends or money I could focus completely on my work. I also found my very first critique partners online, whose help was so invaluable, especially since no one had read any incarnation of the story except for my professor. Working with other writers and setting deadlines for myself to query again by the Spring made me feel not just like a writer but like a grown-up. I learned so much about the importance of being self-disciplined and holding myself accountable for making my dreams come true. Because this was my dream. Somehow it had evolved from just being a passion to being a commitment, something I woke up every day with the intention of working towards. I had expectations and I had goals, and not just word counts or meeting deadlines. I wanted to be published. I wanted to write full time. All of these things were what pushed me to not only re-write the story, basically from scratch, for the hundredth time but they also pushed me to query again even after failing the first time.

When I queried the second time I was confident. I knew the story was good and that I’d reached a new level creatively. I knew that it had potential, that I had potential, and I knew that if someone would just give me a chance I could prove to them that I was in this for the long haul and that I was capable of building something even greater than just this novel, but an entire career. Unfortunately no one gave me that opportunity. Again I’d put my heart and soul on the line and again all I’d gotten in return was a bunch of automated messages from agents who didn’t see the same potential in this story that I did. And this time it actually hurt. Not a lot but a little bit. I felt the sting of rejection but even worse than that was coming to terms with the fact that this story I’d spent the past four years of my life working on may never be read.

That was the hardest part of all of it, the fact that this piece of me, this thing that had dragged me out of so much darkness, wasn’t considered worthy enough to be shared with the world. But I knew it was worthy. I knew it was important. I’ve written about some authors referring to special projects as “the book of your heart” or about having to shelve novels that mean more to them than anything they’ve ever written. Some artists might be capable of that, of abandoning things for no other reason than the fact that someone else doesn’t think any money can  be made from it. But I just don’t work that way. I think when something speaks to you or through you in a way that changes your entire life, that thing is no accident. Me writing this novel was no accident and if the experience of writing it was so revelatory, how much greater are the odds that reading it will be just as powerful? So I couldn’t abandon this story. In fact I downright refused. And even though some people might think that I made a mistake by striking out on my own or that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and/or talking about, I have come away from the entire experience having learned a very important lesson about defiance. That sometimes defiance is good. That sometimes it is brave and right and true. Sometimes a little defiance makes all the difference.

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The Importance of Daily Declarations

When it comes to writing, and more importantly finishing, momentum is everything. Like they always say, an object in motion tends to stay in motion while in object at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s pure science, ya’ll. Another universally known scientific fact? Procrastination is a disease. The good news? It’s not incurable.

Without my routine I’m like a buoy in the breeze, my direction and motivation constantly changing according to my emotions, my circumstances, and whatever interesting website I happen to stumble upon on the internet. It’s a dangerous environment and while “freedom” is, in so many people’s minds, synonymous with creativity and inspiration, the truth is the muse must be harnessed like every other beast of burden. The muse should work when we say it’s going to work and not the other way around but the only way to accomplish this is to stop making excuses and start cracking the whip. This means that setting crystal clear and achievable expectations is a must. But not just for each story or each draft but for every minute of every day.

Holidays always have a tendency to derail my focus and sometimes it takes me weeks to find my motivation again. But just because something’s been displaced doesn’t mean it’s been lost. In my opinion, finding your focus is all about the preparation. Every day I sit down at my desk and I know everything I’m going to accomplish that day and in what order. Lists and plans don’t wok for everyone but having a clear direction is crucial. But not only do I know what I’m going to accomplish and when, I also know how long I’m going to spend on each task. In the mornings I give myself an hour and a half to write 1k-2k on my contemporary romance and then after lunch I give myself four hours to write 3k-4k on my YA series. If I don’t reach my goal in time, I leave it be. But what I’ve realized after setting these benchmarks for myself, is that after a while I tend to rise to my own expectations. When I’m out of practice it would take me up to six hours to write three thousand words but after getting used to my routine and my self-imposed obligations, I’m cranking it out in half the time.

But maintaining a routine isn’t just about showing up every day and doing the work, it’s also about finding balance. Some days the internet swallows me like a black hole and when I finally find my way back out, the laundry’s turned sour in the washer and my lunch has calcified. It’s a dangerous place, and as temperamental Creatives who are constantly looking for an excuse not to do the one thing we love most in the world (Can you believe how messed up we are?) it’s imperative that we learn how to navigate every distraction in a healthy way.

When we find ourselves getting easily distracted, or seeking out any excuse to avoid writing, it usually means one thing–that we’re lacking balance. Everyone’s heard the expression “work hard, play hard” but in the context of creative work, these lines can sometimes get blurred. When I’ve hit my writing stride, I can hibernate for days with a story, typing until my fingertips are raw and forgetting to engage in even the most basic necessities such as eating and sleeping. And I think a lot of us find ourselves working in this same pattern of extremes. When the writing really gets going we gorge ourselves on words and the second we hit a roadblock, we starve ourselves to death. But no one can survive like this. It’s not natural and if you keep telling yourself that this is “just the way I am” or this is “just how my muse works” I’ve got news for you. You’re wrong. So wrong.

When it comes to your life and your creativity, you make the rules. And whatever rules you set, the muse will adhere to as long as you’re stringent about the consequences if you falter. So set deadlines. Schedule every hour of every day, and not just your writing time, but also the amount of time you’ll spend reading or watching TV or surfing the internet. For every forty-five minutes I work, I spend fifteen reading weird news stories on the Huffington post–just enough time to give my brain a break, but not enough to break my stride. I know it may sound counter-intuitive but when it comes to creativity rules are crucial and boundaries are everything. So don’t be afraid to set out every day with a plan, to make a schedule, to create boundaries, and to set expectations. Because who knows? After making them a part of your daily declaration and creating a solid plan of attack, you just might actually reach them.

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The Indie Experiment-The Teacher

My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning
The Indie Experiment:The Decision

The Indie Experiment:The Teacher

My high school didn’t have a Creative Writing program and not one of my English teachers in the history of my public education ever devoted any time to it. School was about reading and analyzing and using historical and social context to squeeze paper thin ideologies out of metaphors and imagery that I’m pretty sure the writer wrote in by total accident. It wasn’t about making art but instead about stripping it down to all of these mechanical parts that were supposedly more important than the whole. So naturally I was left with the misconception that having good grades in English class meant that I was a natural writer. Well, until I started college and took my first Creative Writing class and I realized that I was wrong. In actuality whatever talent I had as a writer was more in spite of all of those years in public school and had more to do with all of the reading I did outside of class. But that’s beside the point. The point is that I went into the Arts totally unprepared but all it took was one teacher to make me believe that I had something important to say.

I had so many great teachers growing up but the ones I remember the most are the ones who always got lost in their own memories, the ones who would stop in the middle of class just to tell us a story, the ones who taught me more about life than the actual curriculum. And while I can’t guarantee that their methods always yielded high marks on test day, none of that really matters in hindsight. What matters is how they made me see the world and how they made me see my place in it.

I had one of those teachers in college. The department was so small that I actually had him for three semesters and each time I never learned a thing about craft or writing rules or about three act structure or any of that stuff because he was always too busy telling us about the exotic places he’d travelled to and the women he’d met there and his days as an alcoholic and all of these stunning and terribly personal details about his life. He was so open and unashamed and it was the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned as a writer. Because the truth is a writer’s bread and butter aren’t his words but his vulnerability. That’s where our power comes from. And it’s something my timidity would never have allowed me to realize until I experienced it myself.

While my classmates were work-shopping pieces about first love or feminism or sociopaths with mommy issues I was struggling with the scope and intention of my own work. Because I didn’t know how to incorporate themes or morality or any of that other (often pretentious) stuff that separates the literary prize winners from the rest of us. But I wanted be like everyone else; as good as everyone else. So I tried too hard and turned in a few crap stories about hair and femininity and other random stuff I cared absolutely nothing about.

Until the day I decided it was useless and I stopped. Because I hated it. And I started writing stories about people. The people I wore and knew and loved. The people I pretended to be and the people I couldn’t stand to have inside me. I wrote about true things and scary things and turning them in to my professor to share with the class, well that was the scariest part of all.

But then the strangest thing happened. The moment I started being more vulnerable in my writing, the more others connected with it. And not just in a superficial way but in a visceral, powerful, stop me after class to talk to me kind of way. I will never forget one particular moment during a workshop when the professor was introducing my piece and he actually got choked up. And that pause spoke volumes. Because I’d accomplished the one thing that every writer sets out to do, I’d made someone feel something. It was such an incredible and eye-opening moment for me because it was the very first glimpse of what I could do and what kind of an impact I could have if I could just be brave and be honest. If I could just stop being afraid or ashamed. If I could just be my whole self and my true self. And if I could just be willing to share that truth with others.

For years I’d been a closet writer but the thing about hiding, even if it’s just one small part of who we are, is that it doesn’t hurt anyone but us. But the moment I felt validated by my peers everything changed for me. And while these days I don’t need validation from anyone but myself I’m not sure that I would have been able to grow as much as I have without that first small push and those first few readers who actually wanted more. And for certain I wouldn’t have been able to grow this much or be this brave or be this in tune with my own voice or be able to stand in my own truth at all if I hadn’t had the honor of watching another author, another person who I deeply admired standing in his first.

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