RSS Feed

Category Archives: Advice for Writing & Life

Back to Work: 5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

Back to Work:  5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

(For the 5 challenges, scroll down.)

It’s hard to believe that today my daughter is eight weeks old. It’s also hard to believe that many mothers are back to work full time by now. I cannot imagine.

Actually, I CAN imagine, and it seems awful. It’s still rare that I get more than two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, and I’m often up for hours in the middle of the night to feed, diaper, and soothe her. If I had to be at work at 8 am with a one-hour commute (that’s what I did when I worked full time), I’d be waking by 5 every morning to get myself and the baby ready for the day. I’d get home at 6, so I don’t know when I’d have time to cook dinner, do the laundry, play with the baby, or hang out with my husband. And don’t get me started on how annoying it would be to pump at work. I feel both great admiration and great sympathy for full-time working mothers of infants.

Although I haven’t gone back to either of my paying jobs yet (except for Skype tutoring once a week), I’m trying to get back to my writing work. There’s a Work in Progress grant I plan to apply for, and the application deadline is March 31. All I need to do is make a few light revisions in my manuscript, write a synopsis, and polish up the first 10 pages for submittal. But you’d be amazed how long these tasks are taking me. I do most of my work with a baby strapped to me, bouncing her as I type to keep her pacified. In fact, that’s how I’m writing this blog right now!

Photo on 3-20-17 at 10.06 AM.jpg

This is me and the baby right now.  Shh, she’s sleeping to the sound of my keyboard typing!

 

The first six weeks of Baby’s life I didn’t do any writing except this blog, but I did do some manuscript swapping with other writers. I got feedback on my draft from a few people, and I gave feedback to a few writer friends. I managed to read one full manuscript for my friend Bethany, often while breastfeeding. Ironically, hers is a novel written as diary entries, which is the format of my manuscript as well!  (Check out Bethany’s blog here!)

Writing a novel as a series of diary entries is great in a lot of ways. As Bethany pointed out to me, it can help you fully realize your main character’s voice. It’s also a good way to explore the protagonist’s emotions AND to keep the story in the present moment – both of which tend to be important in YA and Middle Grade books, and that is what both Bethany and I are writing.

But, as I read Bethany’s manuscript and began to review my own, I realized that there are some challenges to the diary format as well.

IMG_0607.JPG

Hard to get much work done with this little babe!

5 CHALLENGES TO WRITING A NOVEL IN DIARY FORMAT:

  1. Readers must suspend disbelief.

Most people don’t keep diaries. Those that do don’t often write extensive, frequent entries. And chances are, in order to tell a good story, your protagonist is going to do just that. She is going to include full scenes with description and dialogue instead of just telling briefly what happened.

Your job as a writer is to make both the voice and the story so engaging that the reader doesn’t stop to wonder whether the character would really take the time to write all of this in her diary.

 

  1. It’s difficult to include backstory and explanations.

If a character is writing a diary, she is essentially writing something for herself. Therefore, why would she need to tell herself about something that happened in the past? Instead she might write, “my visit to Grandma’s was just as bad as last time,” without going into detail about what happened last time. After all, she already knows. Perhaps she even wrote about it previously in her journal. She also might not take the time to fully describe people or places. Why would she bother to describe to her diary her mother’s appearance, or what her bedroom looks like?

Your job as a writer is to find a way to tell the story vividly while still staying true to the diary-style format. One way to get around this challenge is to write an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) instead of diary entries. If your character is writing to another person, it makes sense that she would do more explaining and describing.

One book that finds a way to overcome this challenge is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s essentially a diary-style novel, but the entries are written as letters that the main character sends to an anonymous person. Here’s the very first page:

Dear friend,

I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.

So that’s one way to do it.

 

  1. Grammar and style gets tricky.

If your protagonist is a teen or preteen, are you going to write the way a kid that age would actually write? Well, yes and no. You don’t want to include all the spelling and grammatical mistakes your protagonist would likely make in real life because that would make for annoying reading. Instead, you’re going to write using the rules of the English language and find other ways (word choice, sentence style, content, etc.) to make the diary seem realistic.

You can make your own decisions, but chances are you’re going to indent your paragraphs and use quotation marks for dialogue. Chances are you’re not going to use ten exclamation points even though that’s what a real teenager writing in a diary might do. In the same way that you shouldn’t write dialogue exactly the way people speak (with all the “ums” and “likes”) you also don’t need the entries to be exactly the way your character would write them.  After all, this is a work of fiction.  You’re not trying to replicate a teenager’s diary; you’re simply using the diary as a device to tell a story.

There are plenty of ways to make the diary feel real without resorting to misspelled words, all-caps, and ovelry-exuberant punctuation.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is scattered throughout with cartoons that have been drawn by the narrator and look like they have been taped into the book.  In Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, the narrator, teenage movie buff and aspiring director Greg Gaines, writes out scenes of his life as if they are screenplays. In this way, Alexie and Andrews give their books a unique “diary feel” without breaking grammar rules.

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 1.06.22 PM.png

From The Absolutey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  (Illustrations by Ellen Forney)

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 3.47.22 PM.png

An excerpt from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.  Note that Andrews follows the appropriate style guidelines for screenplays!

 

  1. Tense can get tricky.  

When you’re writing a diary style novel, you have to think about when your character is sitting down to write these entries. Is she writing about what happened that day or yesterday? Is she writing once a week about the whole week? She might be feeling a certain way right now (present tense) about something that happened yesterday (past tense) or something that’s going to happen tomorrow (future tense).

This challenge isn’t too hard to manage, but, what if you want your character to be more reflective about her experiences; what if you want her to be making some realizations that she might not make in the moment? Or, what if it’s unrealistic that your character would have been chronicling things on a day to day basis? Maybe she didn’t have time.  Maybe she didn’t realize until after the fact that something big and important was happening to her. Maybe, instead of writing diary entries, she could instead be looking back from a certain vantage point and writing about an important time in her life.

Of course, if you’re writing YA or Middle Grade, the narrator in this case should still be young and looking back on something that happened fairly recently. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart both do this. In The Catcher and Rye, for example, Holden is writing an account of the recent past: “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”

Anyway, this is a good alternative to the diary-entry style.

 

  1. Diary entries lend themselves to telling instead of showing.

Think about how you might have written a diary entry as an angsty teen. Something like this, perhaps:

Oh my god, I HATE Linda right now. She is being such a BITCHY BITCH!!!!!! She told EVERYBODY at the bus stop I wasn’t wearing deodorant, and they all laughed at me and called me a stinky pig. I’m seriously not talking to her anymore. She SUUUUCKS and is officially no longer my friend!!!!!!!!

You see what I mean? First of all, I don’t think I’d want to read a whole book like that, riddled with excessive explanation points.  Secondly, in most books, this would be a scene, right? We’d be at the bus stop with Linda and the protagonist. We’d get a little description of the other kids. We’d get the dialogue of what exactly was said. We’d be SHOWN the bitchiness of Linda instead of being told about it. Although it’s fine to have some telling in a diary-style novel, you really have to include scenes and dialogue.

In essence, when writing in this style, you have to continually walk the line of making it seem like a diary, yet making it an engaging story.  Not easy to do.

IMG_0612.JPG

Should I write my novel as diary entries?  Hmm, let me think about it…

 

In fact, I think Bethany has decided to do away with diary-style for her novel.  She says it helped her find her character’s voice, but now she’s going to tell the story in first-person past tense, no diary entries necessary.

As for me, I’m sticking with diary entries for now.  I got the idea for this novel by reading over some of my own ninth grade diary entries, and I fell in love with how open and vulnerable and emotional and often hilarious (sometimes unintentionally) I was when writing for myself.  I wanted to write a story that had a similar tone.  Will I succeed?  Only time will tell!

Wish me luck getting together my submission for the Work in Progress grant, and wish me luck getting this little baby to sleep at night!

IMG_1710.JPG

Baby loves to sleep on Mommy!

 

Online Dating, the Problem with Books, & the Importance of Beta Readers

Online Dating, the Problem with Books, & the Importance of Beta Readers

The other day a coworker asked me about my experiences with online dating. (I used various dating sites off-and-on from 2009 – 2012, and ultimately I met the man who became my husband via the Internet.)

“Be open-minded about it,” I recommended. “But also, don’t get your hopes up too much.”

For a lot of online dating sites (at least in my day), you create a profile with pictures and information about yourself, and then you message people whose profiles catch you eye. Online daters can spend a lot of time perfecting their profiles (I know I did!), and they might spend a lot of time thinking about the coolest, cleverest ways to message you.

What that means is, someone could seem super awesome online. Then you meet him/her in person…

Eva Quinn.jpg

One of the photos I had on my online profile.  I think the caption was, “I’m really good with children.”  It was supposed to show all the men out there that I was fun/funny.

 

Naturally, I had a few “bad” dates over the years. Like the ex-rugby player who was such a close-talker his spit actually flew into my eyes as he told me his plan to move to Mexico and “watch the dolphins swim while I wait for the end of the world.” Or the guy who showed up for our date wearing toe sneakers, told me he was a professional juggler who lived at his mom’s house, and then offered to give me a hand massage. (Note that in this case the only truly offensive thing to me was his wearing of toe sneakers on a date.)

But for the most part, the dates I went on weren’t bad. There were just… meh. “There was nothing wrong with him,” I’d often find myself saying to my roommate in our debriefing sessions, “but there was nothing very exciting about him either.”

Sometimes I’d go on a second date and be even less enthused. “I guess I could go out with him a third time,” I’d tell my roommate. “But honestly, I don’t really care whether or not I ever see him again… That’s probably not a good sign, is it?”

No, probably not.

zebra.jpg

Another photo I had on my dating profile.  Again, to show that I was fun and funny.

 

Unfortunately, I’ve been feeling the same way about a lot of books lately. I get a book from the library, and after reading the back cover and the first couple pages I’m super excited. This book is going to be AWESOME! But then, the more I read, the less enthused I become.

Often a book will start off with a really intriguing hook or inciting incident within the first chapter or two. The writing is excellent, and I’m looking forward to a beautiful reading relationship over the next few days. But then the story will go nowhere (or at least nowhere very interesting). The middle will sag, becoming boring, confusing, over-written, or all of the above. And if I make it to the end (sometimes I don’t), I’m often left unsatisfied. “That’s it? I read this whole book for that?”

Like an online dater with a perfected profile but a ho-hum personality in-person, it seems like some authors are polishing their first fifty pages to a shine without working so much on the book as a whole.

IMG_5909

I also put this picture on my profile because, you know, pretty stuff.

 

Part of the problem is that we writers know how important the beginning is. We’re told over and over that if we don’t hook the agent/editor/reader in the first few pages, no one will read on. So what happens is our first fifty pages get revised to awesomeness while the rest of the novel stays so-so.

Another part of the problem is that writers attend writing groups and workshops. Not that these are bad – it’s good to get an outside perspective on your writing! – but you’re often not getting feedback on the whole book. For example, I recently joined an online writing group; each month we submit up to 2500 words, but at this rate it will take two years for me to receive feedback on my entire novel!

With the workshop model you are getting feedback on a small section (often only the beginning section) of your novel. You’re not getting feedback on the overall structure: the plotting, the pacing, the character arc, the ending. No one is able to tell you that your middle is confusing or meandering.  No one is able to tell you that your main character is static, or that the problem you set up in chapter one is never fully addressed, or that your ending doesn’t really work with the rest of the story.

And what that means is you have a book that starts out with a brilliant bang but fizzles halfway through, leaving frustrated readers like me pouting on the couch, trying to decide whether or not to keep reading. I guess I could keep reading, I say to myself, but I don’t really care whether or not I find out what happens. That’s not a very good sign, is it?

No, probably not.

photo 4

How I feel after reading a so-so book:  MEH!

 

So what’s the solution? Find some beta readers! These are kind souls who will read your entire manuscript at one time (within a few weeks is reasonable), and give you feedback on how it’s working overall. As helpful as writing groups and workshops can be (and they can be very helpful!), getting some beta readers is the way for a novel to be spruced up from head to toe instead of getting only a polish on the first fifty pages.

Recently I found a few beta readers for my novel draft. One is a friend who is requesting nothing in return, but the other two are fellow writers – I am reading their novels in exchange for feedback on mine. Really, the manuscript swap is the best way to go, in my opinion. Not only can friends and family members be biased with their critiques, but you might learn something from reading someone else’s novel-in-progress. (It’s often a lot easier to spot problem areas in someone else’s writing than in your own. I’ve had it happen where I critique another manuscript and then realize, oh my god, I did that in my novel, too!)

In the end, I’m not saying that all books have the problem of being awesome at the beginning and then meh the rest of the way through. There are plenty of books out there that are amazing from cover to cover. What I’m saying is, I want my book to be one of those.

My plan is that after I get revisions from my three beta readers, I will revise again and then get a few more beta readers to give me feedback on the second draft. I’ll continue this process until the book is as good as it can get. It might take a long time, but hey, it took me a long time and a lot of online dates before I found a man who was as good as it gets. In the end, it’ll probably be worth it.

photo (6)

After years of online dating and meeting so-so guys, I finally found a good one!

What Can Novel Writers Learn from Picture Books?

What Can Novel Writers Learn from Picture Books?

*Note:  This post contains spoilers about the picture book Blue Hat, Green Hat.*

My husband and I are currently attending a Bradley Method childbirth class in preparation for our first baby (due February 4th). The Bradley Method is all about “partner-coached” natural birth, and it’s twelve sessions long, covering topics like nutrition, breastfeeding, and newborn care, along with teaching techniques to use during labor such as relaxation and positioning.

At first Paul and I were a little annoyed at the thought of giving up twelve Sunday mornings in a row (the classes are from 10 to noon, and it takes us twenty-five minutes to drive there), but we’re really enjoying the class. Our teacher is wise and practical and hilarious, and it’s nice to have time set aside every week for us to talk about our baby.

Every week we start class with a relaxation exercise. This past Sunday, the exercise was reading out loud. (Some women find that being read to in a soothing tone during labor can aid relaxation.)

Our teacher brought out a stack of children’s books, and told the partners to each pick one. Paul chose a  board book called Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton. (Apparently Boynton is a best-selling picture book author with about a million awesome titles to her name, but we didn’t know this at the time.)

Anyway, Blue Hat, Green Hat is AMAZING. Seriously, one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I doubt it’s more than 100 words long.  Here are the first few pages:

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 10.03.15 AM.png

from Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton; published in 1984 by Little Simon

 

And it goes on in such a manner, with the poor turkey getting it wrong every time.  Oops!  In the end — SPOILER ALERT — the turkey finally puts on all of his clothes correctly — hat, shirt, pants, socks, and shoes —  but then he jumps off a diving board into a swimming pool!  Oops! 

Pretty great for a picture book, right?  But what can “more serious” writers learn from this?  Um… a lot, actually.

Aristotle.jpg

 

In my opinion, Blue Hat, Green Hat is a great example of one of Aristotle’s “rules” from his famous work on literary theory, Poetics.  Aristotle says the ending must be “the inevitable, though unexpected [consequence] of all that has proceeded.”  This doesn’t mean the climax should be predictable, however.  Readers shouldn’t be able to see it coming, and yet when they get there, they should have the satisfying feeling that this is the only way the story could have ended.

Blue Hat, Green Hat follows Aristotle’s rule perfectly.  After making so many mistakes over the course of the book, it is logical and inevitable that the turkey will finally learn how to put on his clothes correctly.  But it is unexpected that he will then go swimming fully-clothed.  And yet, that is logical, too, because we have gotten to know the turkey’s character throughout the course of the book.  He’s sort of a bumble-head.  He has mastered one lesson, but it’s inevitable that he has now  made a different kind of mistake.

519MNXBKjuL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about picture books.  But I’m going to start learning about them really soon.  Paul and I have already been given a couple for our new baby, and I’m noticing that picture books might be just as carefully-crafted as longer stories.  In a picture book, there is still often a protagonist with a flaw who is striving for a goal.  (Like the poor, flawed turkey and his goal of getting dressed properly.)  There are still themes and symbols and imagery.  There is still a rising of tension and stakes until the story reaches its (hopefully inevitable and surprising) conclusion.  A good picture book might have everything a good novel has, just in a condensed and simplified form.

Who knows — maybe at some point I’ll try writing a picture book of my own.  Or, at the very least, story time with my baby can be another way I learn how to become a better writer.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure that I want Paul to read to me while I’m in labor.  But if I decide that I do, I might choose Blue Hat, Green Hat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

This fall I’m doing a work-study at Willow Street Yoga. In exchange for working two hours a week, I get one yoga class per week for free. Pretty sweet deal. Not only does this appeal to my frugal side, I also like meeting the people I practice with and feeling more connected to the yoga community.

One interesting thing that Willow Street offers is “Living Yoga” classes. According to their website, in these classes they “combine yoga and discussion, group coaching and self-work, to co-create empowered, expanded self-conception, and supportive, intentional community.”

As hippie-dippie as this sounds, it makes a lot of sense. Westerners tend to think of yoga as exercise, but yoga should also include mental and spiritual components. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the physical yoga poses were originally created in order to help yogis sit longer in meditation.

This fall, one of the living yoga classes is reading Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck. I’m not taking the class, but I picked up the book at the library out of curiosity, and because I’m a fan of Beck’s memoir, Expecting Adam. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I did like the first chapter, which was about starting at the end.

518tyyxqcyl

 

In this chapter, Beck says to think about the things you want in life and think about how you will feel when you get them. Then imagine that you already have those things and try to live your life in that “feeling-state.” She calls this “living backwards.” She suggests you actively, vividly imagine that you have gotten the thing you want and then focus on that visualization for a full ten minutes – every day. She guaruntees that you will be amazed by the results.

It sounds hokey, I know, but when I applied the idea to something in my life, it started to make sense. I want to write books that get published by a major publishing house. I think that when this happens I will feel more confident in my writing (and stressing about it less means I will enjoy it more). I will also feel more confident and secure in my life decisions – that pursuing this difficult goal was the “right thing to do.”

So, according to Martha Beck, I should live my life as if I’ve already published books. Who says I can’t feel confident in my writing and confident in my life decisions right now? There’s nothing stopping me except for my own mind.

Beck says that some of her clients push back against this idea, saying things like:

“Well, if I just wanted to feel good by deluding myself, of course I could do it… Anyone can feel good. What I want is to get ahead.”

To this Beck says,

“If you agree that it is better to look good than to feel good, be my guest – stay miserable. But please bear in mind that as a miserable person, you’ll have a much harder time getting ahead.”

And it’s true. When I stress about my writing – Is this good enough? Why haven’t I been published yet? What must people think of me? – not only does it feel unpleasant, but it makes the writing more difficult as well.

Better to start at the end. I will publish books with a major house. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will, so there’s no need for me to stress or lack confidence. I can enjoy my writing and feel secure in my decisions, knowing that I will get what I want in the end. Delusional? Perhaps. But isn’t it a more pleasant way to live?

pasasana

Noose pose.  photo credit.

 

Ironically, when I went for my free yoga class the other day, the teacher talked about starting at the end, too. She showed us a deep twist called “noose pose” and explained that we were working towards a full bind with our arms.

“This is the someday pose,” she said. “You may not be there yet, and that’s okay. There are still a lot of interesting things to learn along the way.”

Beginning yoga students often feel bad about themselves when they can’t get into a certain pose. (And beginning writers often feel bad about themselves when they aren’t published.) But instead of feeling bad (because what’s the use in that?) you should hold firmly the knowledge that someday you will get there, and in that way you will have the confidence to enjoy yourself now and learn a thing or two as you work your way towards “the end.”

Fighting My Email Addiction to Save My Writing

Posted on
Fighting My Email Addiction to Save My Writing

My sophomore year of college I lived in an old hotel that had been converted to apartments. The hallways of the Heritage Inn smelled like boiled cabbage, and my roommates and I were the only people under the age of sixty-five who lived there. Every day when I got home from class, a horde of senior citizens would be hanging out in the lobby. “The mail’s not here yet,” they’d tell me.

“It’s late today,” one of them would grumble. “It’s normally here by two o’clock.”

I’d thank them for the update then head to my apartment.

It’s a known fact that old people love the mail. At my grandfather’s senior living complex, there’s a little sign in the mailroom for the mail carrier to flip: one side says “mail’s here!” and the other: “mail isn’t here yet.” (Heritage Inn really should have invested in one of those.) It keeps everyone from needlessly checking their boxes all day long.

img008

My grandpa is actually too cool to hang out by the mailroom.

 

Speaking of needlessly checking boxes, do you know how often I check my email? I’d guess five or more times an hour. I’m no better than the old people. In fact, I’m a lot worse.

Because it’s not just my email. I also waste time checking facebook and Twitter. Thank god I don’t have Instagram or understand Snapchat — otherwise I’d probably be checking those, too.

What happens is this: I’ll be trying to write. I’ll get a little stuck on something, so I’ll take a quick break and check my email. Or I’ll write a page of my novel then have the random compulsion to scroll through facebook for a minute.

It’s gotten to be such a habit that I feel like I can’t focus on something for longer than fifteen minutes without “needing” to check email or facebook. I feel like I’m developing ADD the way I skip from one distraction to the next.

Email and facebook offer the sort of instant gratification that writing a novel does not. I can post a picture on facebook then check back in fifteen minutes to see if I’ve gotten any “likes” or comments. Or I can simply open my email inbox and new messages have appeared. Sure, most of them are junk, but there’s always the chance that there will be some good news in there – like an email from one of the agents I’m waiting to hear back from.

Basically, having email and facebook is like having an always-available slot machine at my disposal. And it doesn’t cost any money to pull the lever. It only costs time.

vegas.jpg

Eva and friends in Vegas many years ago.  Compulsive email-checking stimulates the same parts of your brain as gambling!

 

It might be that I really have gotten “addicted” to checking my email. It’s a classic dopamine cycle. I’m seeking a reward, and I get a little jolt of pleasure when I see messages in my inbox. But the “reward” (a bunch of junk mail) isn’t strong enough to turn off the seeking behavior, so I check my email again fifteen minutes later. (Read more about it here.)

Add to that the fact that email is unpredictable. Remember B.F. Skinner’s experiments where he conditioned mice to press levers? The mice that continued to press the levers the longest were the ones that got rewarded (with food pellets) at random intervals. I’m really no different than those mice. I don’t know when exactly I’m going to get some awesome email reward, so I just keep checking. (Read more about it here.)

As you can guess, my writing is suffering because of this. I waste a lot of time on facebook and email, but it’s not just the wasted time. In order for me to write fiction well, I should slip into the skin of my main characters and immerse myself in the world of my novel. But I can’t do that if I’m coming out of my story every fifteen minutes to check my email or look at pictures of people’s babies on facebook.

The problem has only gotten worse over the past few months as I’ve been experiencing some writer’s block. The more I struggle with writing, the more I want to “take a break” and check my email.

But not anymore! On Monday I decided I need to kick this habit. I made the following rule for myself:

NO checking email or facebook from 9 am to noon.

Nine to noon is normally when do my creative writing. (I work my various part-time jobs in the afternoon.) From now on, I will have those three hours uninterrupted by the distractions of email and facebook.

If I get stuck or if I need to take a break, I am allowed to read a book, take a walk, cook something, do laundry, etc. I’m even allowed to look something up on the Internet if I  feel the need to. But I am not allowed to touch my inbox or facebook for those three sacred hours.

photo

NO email-checking from 9am until noon!

 

I’m two days into this routine.  On Monday, I broke down and checked my email at 10:30 because I was expecting to hear back from a parent about whether or not I was tutoring her child at 3pm that day.  I did have an email from her.  I responded to it then promptly clicked out of my inbox.  Could I have waited until noon to read her email and respond?  Probably.

On Tuesday I made it until 11:30 before I broke down and checked my email.  Sure, I had stuff I needed to respond to, but again, I probably could have waited until the afternoon.

Still, it’s improvement.  I can’t expect to kick this habit immediately.  And checking my email once between 9 and noon is a lot better than checking it a dozen times.

I guess I’m different from the mice after all.  At least I have a little self control.  And I can’t make fun of old people anymore, because I totally understand their obsession with mail.

Writer’s Block Advice: Uncertainty = Creativity

Posted on
Writer’s Block Advice:  Uncertainty = Creativity

I have not been feeling creative or productive lately.

I started writing a new novel about two months ago. I wrote 100 pages right off the bat, but then I got scared that it was bad. I haven’t touched the novel for the past two weeks. In fact, right now I’m having a hard time even motivating myself to open the word document. I’m feeling uncertain about the story and where I was going with it. I’m worried that the whole thing is no good and I need to work on something else… but what?

I also have this finished novel that needs a complete structural revision. But again, I can’t seem to work up the creative energy to brainstorm what to do with it.

Then on Monday I tried to start something new. But my mind was blank, and my heart was full of fear. I wrote a few sentences then deleted them. Wrote a few more, deleted. In despair, I wondered if writing novels is what I should be doing with myself. Maybe I should give it up. Find a job where I can feel successful and productive.

In summary:  I’m suffering from writer’s block.

And I find writer’s block to be incredibly disheartening.  Because, first of all, writing is supposed to be something I enjoy, not something I dread. And second of all, how can I expect to be a successful, published author when I haven’t been able to write a full page in the past two weeks?

IMG_9884.jpg

Figuring out what to do with my writing is almost as confusing as this creepy Easter bunny tree. (Me at the Hirschhorn Museum.)

 

My husband and I are still working our way through Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success. Over the weekend, we read the chapter on detachment.

“You don’t give up the intention, and you don’t give up the desire,” I read. “You give up your attachment to the result.”

Naturally, I thought about writing. If I give up my attachment to getting published, will I be able to enjoy writing again? Maybe. But at this point I’m not even stressing about getting published. I’m stressing because I feel like I’ve lost the ability to write. I feel unmotivated, uninspired, uncertain.

Of course, Chopra has something to say about uncertainty, too:

“Uncertainty… is the fertile ground of pure creativity and freedom…The unknown is the field of all possibilities, ever fresh, ever new, always open to the creation of new manifestations.”

Oh. So all the uncertainty I’m feeling about my writing – that’s actually a breeding ground for creativity?

Chopra says yes:

“When you experience uncertainty, you are on the right path – so don’t give it up. You don’t need to have a complete and rigid idea of what you’ll be doing next week or next year, because if you have a very clear idea of what’s going to happen and you get rigidly attached to it, then you shut out a whole range of possibilities.”

This actually makes a lot of sense.

Right now, I’m unsure of where to go with my writing… Which means I can go anywhere. If I can only embrace the possibilities.

As a manuscript consultant, I often stress to my clients the importance of opening themselves up to all the possibilities of their novel before getting too committed to a single one. Sometimes, I tell them, we get so married to our FIRST ideas that we don’t realize they aren’t the BEST ideas. I always suggest brainstorming “what ifs.” Write down AT LEAST 20 different things that could happen in the story –- no matter how crazy or stupid they seem. The more open you are to possibilities, the more creative your writing will become.

773038.jpg

 

Monday night I moaned to my husband about how I  was feeling unmotivated and uncertain about my writing, and about how maybe I should be doing something else with my life.

“I think you should keep going with it,” he said.   Then, after I complained a bit more, he said, “Or, I mean, if there’s something else you really think you want to be doing…”

“The truth is,” I told him, “I know I want to write novels and get them published. Whether I do it now or I do it later, I know that’s always going to be a goal of mine.”

So obviously, the intention is there and has been since I was a kid. The desire is there, too, and probably always will be. If I let go of my attachment to the result and embrace the uncertainty, maybe I can find my creativity and productiveness once more.

I’m feeling more hopeful today.  Wish me luck.

IMG_9865.jpg

My brother, artist Deven James Langston, meditating at the Hirshhorn Museum.  I wonder if he ever experiences artist’s block.  He doesn’t seem to, but then again, he’s way more mellow than I am.

How to Acheive Success in Writing

Posted on
How to Acheive Success in Writing

Nearly four years ago, I decided to quit my emotionally-draining full-time job teaching high school math and move to Cape Cod to live rent-free in a tiny bedroom with my friend Nikki as her “writer in residence.” My plan was to sponge off Nikki (hey, she offered!) and work on writing for one year. If, at the end of the year, I was finding success with writing, I would continue to pursue it. If things were going nowhere, I would go back to teaching and give up on my dream, at least until retirement.

But that’s not exactly what happened. First of all, I didn’t end up staying on the Cape for very long. Soon after I moved there, I met my future husband, and I ended up making another risky decision: I moved to Seattle with him after we’d been dating for less than eight months.

Second of all, I realized that “success” is hard to define, and that giving up on my dream of being a writer wasn’t such an easy thing to do.

Moms Cape Cod photos 076

Eva on a Cape Cod beach.

 

Back then, my idea of success was a book deal. A novel published with a major house and hopefully many more books to come. Making a living writing, being on the best-seller list, having my book made into a movie – these things would be great, too, but to me the measure of success was simple: a published novel. How hard could it be, right?

Really hard, as it turns out.

But is is it the best measure of success? I know of a lot of authors who reach the published novel stage and still feel like they still haven’t “made it.”   Now they’re worrying about sales, or writing the next book, or winning awards.

My husband and I are currently reading The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. Chopra says that success “is a journey, not a destination.” He says that success “includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind.” Nowhere does he mention having a published book. Of course, he is the bestselling author of a bunch of books…

My point is, I’ve been working with a narrow definition of success. After all, in those four years I have had success with my writing.  I started making (small amounts of) money by writing, and by doing writing-related jobs. I received a real writer-in-residency position in Mexico last summer. I’ve completed four novels and am working on another. I’ve gotten articles and short stories published online. I’ve made writer friends and learned how to use Twitter. I even had an agent for a while before he quit his agenting job. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’m getting better at writing novels. That’s success, isn’t it? If success is a journey, I’m definitely making my way up the hill.

image

Success is a journey, like the multiple cross-country moves I’ve made in the past four years.

 

It’s still hard, though. I’m still looking for a new agent. I’m still wondering if my books are good enough. And it’s often really hard for me to admit to people that I’ve been working at this for four years but I still don’t have a book deal. Sometimes, my ego hurts something terrible.

But then I read this in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success:

“Attention to the ego consumes the greatest amount of energy. When your internal reference point is the ego, when you seek power and control over other people or seek approval from others, you spend energy in a wasteful way. When that energy is freed up, it can be rechanneled and used to create anything you want.”

Anything I want, huh? Like a really awesome novel?

In other words, if I can stop spending my energy worrying about how I don’t have a book deal, maybe I will have the energy and creativity to write something super awesome (that will then get me a book deal).

It’s frustrating, of course:  the old stop-trying-so-hard-and-it’ll-happen advice.  It’s sort of like when I was a perpetually-single thirty year old and people told me I’d meet someone when I stopped looking. Annoying advice, but in a way that’s what happened.  I mean, I was still looking — I was still doing online dating — but when I moved to Cape Cod I dropped my expectations of finding someone during that year. And that’s the very year I found someone.

Chopra would call this “The Law of Least Effort.” He would call it the principle of “do less and accomplish more.” I don’t know if I believe it exactly, but I like the idea of working hard at the things you want, but letting go of preconceived notions and rigid expectations about the outcomes.

Cross Country Trip 111

 

I still want a book deal. Let’s be honest. But I should remember that in some ways I already am successful. My days are less stressful and more creative than they used to be. I think I get sick less often — I certainly feel healthier and get more sleep.  I have a lot more time to spend doing the things for which I feel enthusiasm and energy, and I usually wake up excited about the day instead of dreading it.

That’s the way Chopra describes success, isn’t it? I’m doing what I love, and all I need to do now is learn how to enjoy it. Learn to give up those greedy ego concerns and find some peace of mind. (As always, easier said than done.)

Chopra says, “when your actions are motivated by love, there is no waste of energy… your energy multiplies and accumulates – and this surplus of energy you gather and enjoy can be channeled to create anything you want.”

Well, I want a book deal. But more than that, I want to spend my life writing.  Because I love it.  At the end of the day, my actions are motivated more by love than anything else. That’s why I’ve continued to piece together part-time jobs and blush when people ask me if I have a published novel yet. Embarrassing as it is for my ego, I just can’t give up the dream.

So I’ll write because I love it. I’ll embrace the success I’ve already had. And I’ll remember that success is a journey, not a destination.

Whale Watching 047

From DC to Cape Cod to Richmond to Seattle to Minneapolis to Maryland.  It’s been quite a journey these past four years:  literally and figuratively.