Writing Every Day

“Write every day.” -Every book on writing (paraphrased).

It’s some of the best and most disheartening advice aspiring authors will get. It’s disheartening because it’s oh-so-simple. And it’s HARD to do. But, as Chuck Wendig put it in his cheeky (but true) book on writing, “If you write: you are a writer. If you do not write: you are not.”

Are you or aren’t you?

So, I’ve had a good writing streak going on my manuscript. But today, I didn’t FEEL like writing at at all. There’s this particular scene I’ve been struggling through all week, writing and rewriting. This, as you can imagine, is a drain. I was dreading opening my laptop from the time I woke up this morning. But after much procrastination, I finally forced myself to sit down for at least the bare minimum so I wouldn’t be crushed by the guilt of NOT writing at all.

Then, like magic, the words began to flow. I blew through the scene in no time and started editing the next part. Where did this burst of energy come from?Forcing it does not always yield the best results, but continually disciplining your mind to work when the creative well is running dry will cause you to dig deeper.

Keep digging, Inklings. Who knows what surprises are lurking in that beautiful brain of yours.

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Writing in Coffee Shops: Part 2 – Everyone Has A Story

Another real life incident from a coffee shop. I’m sitting in the same darn chair from the “potato incident” when a blonde lady with yoga pants walks in. She has a workout bag with her and seems fatigued. She makes eye contact. I smile politely and return to my book. She doesn’t move. I look back up. A flash of recognition crosses her face. She’s clearly trying to talk to me.

“Uh, are you here for the writing group?”
“No. A writing group?” She pauses to throw her hands in the air. An Italian? I knew she reminded me of my mother…. “Have I got a good story for you!”

I can’t make this up, guys.

“Oh?” I set down my book, and she relays the unfortunate incident to me.

“This is not supposed to happen! I am 57 years old and my Jeep locked with my car keys and phone inside after Jazzercise. It is NOT supposed to do that.”

The lady uses my phone to dial a friend to come get her. But she can’t remember the number and calls the wrong friend, one who now lives in Florida. She then relays the entire incident to them, although they clearly can’t come get her.

I’m early for my writing meeting, so I offer to drive her home. It’s just a couple of miles, and she’s so very grateful.

“You’re going to get a ton of good karma for this.”
“It’s nothing, really. Besides, I’m not really a fan of karma.”
“Are you a fan of grace, then?”
“Yes, that I am.”

In less than 20 minutes, she’s conveyed this amazing life story to me. Part of me wonders if she’s made it up. But you’d be surprised how honest folks are with strangers, and I realize how silly my own Japan loving book writing otaku life sounds when you don’t know me.

“How old are you?”
“25.”
“My daughter is, too!”

By the way she says her child’s name, I can tell she means the world her. But then she tells me about how she didn’t understand why God gave her a child with disabilities, that He should have given her to someone more qualified, like a teacher or a physical therapist.

“She was only 1 lb when she was born. I didn’t believe she was a miracle baby. Her birth was an experiment. And I was just a cheerleader for the NFL! What did I know about raising this child with disabilities?”

But then she smiles. “I didn’t know why He chose me.” I look at her at the red light. “It’s been over 24 years, and now I believe in miracles.”

I never suspected I’d be spending my Monday commute this way. We pull up to her house and she runs in to pick up her spare keys.

“Is your mom my age? Does she do crazy things like this, too? Forgetting random things and such?”
“Yeah.” I recall when my mom once put the remote controller in the freezer. “But I’m never sure if that’s just her, or you know, her age.”
“Ha! My daughter says that about me, too! Well, tell your mom you did a good thing tonight.”

I drop her off at the car with her keys, and we laugh about how I’ll write about this. And I do. I remember that every person has a story. Behind every set of eyes there are whole worlds.

It’s amazing.

Finding God in a Coffee Shop

Coffee is a big part of my life these days. More accurately, a Biggby part (heh heh heh).

Deal with it.

Sorry.

*Ahem* In addition to my book, I’m working on several other time-consuming projects, [Insert shameless plug for my new YouTube channel, Dashing Nerds*] and sometimes faith and a little caffeine is all that gets me through it. Ask my writing group how wired I was at the last meetup!

Coffee = life’s cheat code for a good night’s sleep.

Although I’m not blogging as much as I would like, I do take the occasional moment to Tweet my progress. Twitter is to writing as Tinder is to dating. Don’t read too much into that.

To be honest, I didn’t want to burden your newsfeed with how much life is beating me into a pulp.

Can’t I just stay home and not speak to anyone, like ever?

Authors can relate that there is, at times, an agonizing grind where you question every keystroke. I’ve lost count of my revisions.

Maybe I’m not cut out for this.

But then, there are the little moments in coffee shops. Unfolding scenes that invade your schedule and take your routine hostage. They make you laugh. Sometimes, they offer glimpses of grace and hope. God speaks to me in them. He gently reminds me that I love writing, that I love my life.

So Happy Monday to my fellow writers and adventurers. I hope you’ll keep your eyes open for these little moments that inspire you. I’m just reminding you that your life has a story worth telling. Keep going.

The Writing Life: As Told by Turtles

Summer is finally here in Michigan! It arrived with blistering heat this weekend and no shortage of distractions. I am doing my best to flee from these, but the Social Obligation Committee seems more intense in the sun; I’ve come to the conclusion it is powered by solar energy and tequila.

Attempting to run from social obligations….

These socialites simply don’t understand that I do not want to go to the bar every night because I have to get up early. My daily regiment starts at 5 a.m..

“But why would you do that?” they ask, blinking.
“Because,” I say with a smile, I enjoy being as miserable as possible.”

And I am sarcastic. I can’t express to them how incredibly fulfilled I am after a productive morning at the keyboard. But non-writers don’t get it. If I were not sarcastic, I’d sound like a walking greeting card spouting out vague proverbs on following my dreams and catching mythical worms in the wee hours of the morning. I won’t show them the detailed schedule I have written out because I don’t feel like revealing the extent of my lunacy.

So what do I look like at 5 a.m.?

I am no Zen master.

In theory, I go on my morning jog with our foster dog to warm up my brain cells. I should be done with this and showered by 5:30 a.m., and at my writing desk with coffee by 5:45 a.m. That leaves me two hours to write before I leave for work.

In reality, I am still in bed, wallowing in self-loathing at the productive, aspiring version of myself that came up with this hair-brained agenda. When I make it out the door, usually not before 6am, I am a zombie.

It’s safe to say our Shiba Inu walks me.

Zombies suffering from sleep depravation are not particularly excellent dog walkers. Especially when you have a Shiba Inu hybrid with the strength of the Hulk. So when I finally make it to my computer, I am crabby, still sleepy, and have lost an hour of writing time. Whenever I attempt to do a shortcut by skipping the run, I fall asleep at my desk.

Sometimes, when my husband comes in to check on me, he finds me in the most cherubic of states.

Don’t talk to me right now!

As a result of my body rebelling against my Muse’s desire to put words on the page, my writing has, well, slowed. But as we learned from the race of the hare and the tortoise, I firmly believe that if I continue the race and continue pacing myself, I will make it to the finish line with an story worth telling.

An Absurdly Good Book

With my daily “read for an hour, write for 2” routine in full swing, I have been eating up books. Most people go to the deli or liquor store to prepare for Memorial Day Weekend.  I went to the book store.

After 20 minutes of searching Barnes & Nobles, I finally gave in and asked an employee where to find the books on writing. Ah, the “Writing & Publication” section. Of course. It’s located at the most inconspicuously low shelf in the store. Why didn’t I think of that? So, I squatted low, beholding the titles until I could no longer feel my legs. And then I sat like a child on the floor in the middle of the aisle and took out the books, one by one.

By the time I’d narrowed it down to two tomes, the clerk was ready to ask if I wanted a part-time gig dusting the floor. It pained me to leave the other, but could not take them both home. You can only share your four-day weekend with one. Books are jealous creatures that way.

But the book I chose rewarded my decision 100 times over.

Inspirational is not quite the right word for Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” That word is better suited for poetry on gardening and B-movies on the American Dream. Not that there’s anything wrong with feeling inspired, but these “feel-good” stories are temporal. The motivation they bring passes away. So, inspiring will not do.

And it’s not an instruction manual, either. Sure, there are useful nuts and bolts in every chapter on dialogue, character, and plot, but I’d hardly classify it as a writer’s reference guide. It is bursting with too many deliciously candid anecdotes for that.

So what sort of book is it then? Like I am having tea with a twice-removed aunt I have never met before, but she knows everything about me from my mother. You know the one. She is in her 4os, maybe, and doesn’t go anywhere without a bottle of red wine and a leopard-print cane. She wakes up to a broken cuckoo-clock instead of the alarm on her cell like everybody else just because it sounds more “authentic.”

Don’t roll your eyes just because she may be off her rocker. She doesn’t have time for people like that. You’ll never get to know the fabulous, mysterious, and relatable truths she has stored in her alligator purse if you don’t reach in.

If you want to rekindle your love for writing and find something out about yourself along the way, she will offer a drink from the well–or bird bath–of wisdom that is oh-so-rich.

5 a.m. is Ugly

My husband is an EMT, so occasionally he’ll work super early hours. He had to get up at 4:45 a.m. today, so I used that as an opportunity to get out of bed and work on my manuscript.

As it turns out, this time I woke up before my creativity did. I spent a good chunk of the time staring at the screen, trying to stay awake. While I am already seeing the value of setting aside 2 hours a day for my story, I am also seeing the value of sleep.

Just one more page…

I’ll get used to this. And I will remember the coffee and wake-up work out for tomorrow.

Rhetorical Routines

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

We’ve all heard it: “Write every day.”

Oh, brother. I know what I am *supposed* to be doing.

Easier said than done, right?

If you’re like me, you’ve got a 99+ things demanding your attention. And they’re probably important. Things like fitting in exercise, or spending quality time with your family, or putting in extra hours at your 9-to-5 job. You can’t give them up, but they seem to do everything in their power to make you want to quit; they won’t hesitate to pry you away from your keyboard with a crowbar and rob you of your energy.

What do you mean ‘do the laundry’?!

And then, when you’re finally ready to open your laptop again, your muses have abandoned you at the dreaded Wall of Surmounting Excuses and Missed Opportunities.

It’s a demoralizing, guilt-ridden place to be.

Fortunately, I’m not the first fool who decided to up and write a novel. Plenty of crazies have gone ahead, and they’ve been kind enough to bring back words of wisdom from the top to those of us still in the mire. It’s their advice I fall back on whenever I run into that accursed wall. And thanks to the powers of the internets, much of this advice is accessible.

Wow, I love YouTube interviews.

So how do they answer the question of daily writing? Writer’s Digest interviewed Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple), and she had this to say:

“… Part of writing is not so much that you’re going to actually write something every day, but what you should have, or need to have, is the possibility, which means the space and the time set aside—as if you were going to have someone come to tea. If you are expecting someone to come to tea but you’re not going to be there, they may not come, and if I were them, I wouldn’t come. So, it’s about receptivity and being home when your guest is expected, or even when you hope that they will come.”

Okay, alright, that sounds fair. I already think of my characters as living, and feel guilt when I ignore them, so I suppose I could be a bit more…hospitable. But how can I possibly set the time aside?

And that’s when THIS “little” infographic hit the net. It depicts the different waking hours of Pulitzer Prize winners. And guess what? Many woke up to write at 4AM.

Were they crazy? Probably! Did they drink a lot of coffee? Most definitely. But to write when the rest of the world is still sleeping? That’s brilliant.

So, I’m starting my new routine: get up an hour earlier to write, and read for at least an hour each day. It’s an uphill battle, but I know I will get stronger with every step I take! Wish me luck!

SCBWI Meet Up: The Power of Peers

A few Saturdays ago–and I say that because I am utterly losing my sense of time– I attended a critique session with the “Mitten Meet Up” for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Michigan Mitten
Yes, we love our hand puns in Michigan.

Battling down the usual anxiety of exposing my manuscript to fresh eyes, I decided that it was in the best interest of my story to go–after all, the feedback I’d received from my beta readers had been insightful. Plus, the last SCBWI meeting had been very informative. I thought, “I’m a grown woman, for Pete’s sake. I have no time for these petty insecurities causing me to lock my manuscript away from the world!”

The lovely ladies organizing the event suggested each in attendance bring 500 words to pick apart over a two hour critique session. That’s right, just 500 words. Out of, you know, over 62,ooo.

Suddenly, this didn’t seem like a good idea.

On one hand, I wanted to impress the mittens off of my fellow Michigan peers. But what was the point of that? It really put me in a tight spot and made me reconsider what type of feedback I would need the most.

I wasn’t going to stroke my own author ego; I was going for my story.

Given the twists and turns in my plot, I decided to start from the beginning. I know, I’m so creative. But ch. 1 sets the tone of the story, and it’s where both of my main characters are introduced. I knew already that I needed to develop both, at least a little more. And when better than a first impression? Besides, you need a strong hook to stand out to literary agents and publicists. Mine was somewhat decent, but nowhere near where I wanted it. So, I printed out 5 copies of my first chapter and set forth on the journey that would lead me to oh-so-many revisions…

At the meeting, I quickly settled in with the small group of YA authors. We nestled in at a baroque conference table in a library right off of a page of Harry Potter. Not only was the setting lovely and rich with inspiration, but it placed us far enough from the boisterous laughter bouncing in the hallways (thanks to the illustrators and children’s book authors). It was a nice change of pace; at the last meeting, I slipped away with the quickness only an introvert knows.

#IntrovertProblems

But safe within the library, I was thrilled to talk with “others” like me. After introductions, we took turns reading the stories aloud. The drafts were all in different stages, but all had brought a chapter from the beginning, or near it, of their manuscript. At least we were on the same page! As we went through them, what became apparent to me was that Michigan has some serious talent brewing. Look out, agents! When it was my turn to read another author’s chapter, I cracked up several times throughout my narration and had to recompose myself. I was quite enjoying it all until it was my chapter’s turn. That’s when the anxiety kicked back in.

There is nothing quite like hearing a stranger read aloud your book for the first time. Especially when a middle-aged man with a deep voice is reading lines meant for a 14-year old girl. After buttoning my mouth, I sat in a paralyzed daze. The dialogue sounded so pedantic and heavy-handed. The tone was dark, but not deep. It was like hearing daytime TV melodrama.

Does it really sound like that?

But it seemed so much better on the page!

What is happening?

Despite the mortifying doubts storming my brain, somehow, the group gave me a positive consensus. They were interested. Even wanted to know more about this world in my head. Hey, maybe it’s not as bad as I think? +5 confidence points!

Then they gave me something more valuable–honest criticism. The kind I could take home and chew on. I asked for more details, and they were happy to support that with specific examples.

“At the start, you tell us X, but instead show us Y here, here, and here.”

“I love this character, but I want to know more about them. How can you bring out this quality?”

“How about adding a scene like this?”

It was pretty fantastic.

There are shortcomings in your writing you will most definitely be blind to because it is yours. You know how it is supposed to sound. In your head, you have already filled in the blanks. The author’s omnipotence is dangerous to the story because it can end trapping you in a common pitfall without ever knowing why or how you got there. This peer meeting gave me the invaluable perspective on where to go from here when I thought I had already run chapter one into the ground.

Energized, I got in my car. The muses danced with the turning of its wheels. I couldn’t wait to get home and put these fresh, inspiring thoughts down on paper. This feeling lasted for about 20 minutes. And then I realized that fantasizing about writing is a lot easier than actually putting words on paper.

Chapter one would require more time, careful revision, and coffee.

I am going to write SO many drafts.

Dear NSA: There’s Another World in my Head

Dear NSA Agents,

It has come to my attention this week, while monitoring my browser history, you may have been baffled. Yes, I binge-read interviews with Madeleine L’Engle. It was me who watched video after video of cartography instructions, and then looped back to gifs of black holes. Between the hours of 8pm-11pm, I did indeed frequent the Jewish Virtual Library website.

Then you realized I came by none of these places via Reddit. Imagine your surprise!

Allow me to clear the air–I am not starting a time-traveling Kosher cult in space. I do keep a top secret sketch diary of my findings in these gems, but my scribblings have little to do with this great nation’s security. I know, I know–you’ve heard that all before. I can feel your eyes glazing over as you read this note.

But what if I told you there is a perfectly good explanation for all it?

There’s another world in my head.

Like this one, it has texture. It has color. Although its borders are names on paper, its core is made of the richness beyond the curtain of my imagination.

I am exploring this world for the first time from the eyes of my beta readers. It is a deepening. A reshaping. The answering of “what” and “why” and “how” this came to be. An unveiling.

I admit, while I hated history class in grade school, the more I investigate social conventions, technological advances, and aesthetic values, the more I am fascinated by all history has to offer. I never thought writing fantasy would lead me down this path.

I am willing to bet that you, dear agents, also did not expect it, either. You do not understand this spontaneous combustion of topical interests. Anyone working a proper government job wouldn’t (I hear the tie cuts off all whimsy before it can reach the brain).

This world building may seem a bit unhealthy, but I don’t want you to fuss over it. So, here’s your out. Chalk it up to a “broadening of horizons.” Maybe I’m in a mid-life crisis in my 20-somes. You can never tell with us Millennials, am I right?

I won’t even be upset if you decide to not read my book once it’s published. There’s dragons, and all kinds of other nonsense in it.

All I ask is that you don’t shut off my internet when the research gets even weirder.

Love,
M. Sanborn Smith

Gail Told Me To Do It: SCBWI

Gail being THE Gail Carson Levine, Newbery Honor winning author of Ella Enchanted, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Dave at Night, and a slew of other fantastic books I cherished growing up in the 90s.

She’s fairly active on her Goodreads blog, so I threw out a question about finding agents and getting publishing advice. I wasn’t expecting a response; I figured it’d be lost in the mass of fanmail she gets on the daily.

 But guess what? She totally replied.

I know, right?

After a good deal of fangirling and texting my mom (who read Gail’s books with me as a child), I read her advice:

Gail Carson Levine

And so, off to The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators website I went!

Wow. Talk about an arsenal of resources. Guides, podcasts, and bookstores promoting members are just some highlights available. Members are eligible for publishing and promotional grants, manuscript awards, and book launching parties. As it turns out, they have a fairly active Michigan chapter, with a writing group that meets bimonthly in Ann Arbor and Farmington Hills. Score!

When I told my husband about the wealth of information, he said I had no choice but to join–it’s time to invest in my career, and take the next steps towards publication.

After all, Gail told me to do it.