The Great Annual Resolutions Post

calvinresolutionHowdy, folks! Hey, look, we all survived another year! Wowza!

I made a few resolution shifts midyear last year. I switched over from the paper calendar system I had been using to a phone app called Habitica that is delightfully nerdy and keeps me on my toes. It taps into my love of check boxes, but then also has a built in reward system, so it works very well for me, and I think I’ll cling to it forever.

Overall, I had a good year, without too many dropped balls on my goals. My exercise goals got derailed every now and then by rugby injuries, and I jumped ship on a few writing projects, switching over to things that were more interesting at the time (because squirrel brain: the struggle is real). And as mentioned a few weeks ago, I did manage to scratch and claw my way to receiving Writer of the Year from the Alaska Writers Guild. But the goal I know you’re all just dying to know about: the rejections goal.

As you may recall from this post last year, I had a goal to receive at least forty-eight rejections. I counted short story submissions, queries, competitions- anything that pitted my writing against a slush pile. The final count is in aaaand… I failed! *sad trombone* As of December 31, I only tallied forty-four rejections.

I’m not being too hard on myself, because I still managed to achieve the two main objectives of the rejection goal: I got better at taking rejections as impersonal matters of preference, and I pushed myself to submit waaaay more than I usually do. As a result, I also had way more acceptances than I normally do! And as an added benefit that I hadn’t even anticipated, I had a super productive year for short stories too, because I had to make sure that I had fresh material to shop around as my old store of shorts got published. Overall, it was a very good year for my writing!

So I think I’m gonna stick with what works. I’ll keep with a forty-eight rejections goal for this year as well, since I felt really pushed and still didn’t quite manage to make the goal. I think I can hit it for reals this time! For novels, since I didn’t stick with the titles I had planned to work on, but still managed to get good work done with other projects, this year I think I’ll just drop the specifics altogether and just have a goal of two new first drafts, and a round of edits each for two first drafts from last year. I’ll work on whatever sounds most fun in the moment! I also plan to average one new short per month, although I don’t plan on worrying too much about how marketable they all are. And for daily goals, I plan a baseline of 500 words per day, and ten minutes of backshop, with Sundays off to rest my weary brain meats. I have goals for my spiritual, mental, and physical health as well, but that’s it for my writing goals.

Whew! All the things! I should have plenty to keep myself busy over the next year. I would love, love, love to hit that rejections goal, and maybe even outstrip this year’s number of acceptances. Heck, if we’re getting really pie-in-the-sky, I’d like to pick up an agent as well, haha, but that one’s a little less in my control. The only thing I can do is keep researching, stay consistent, and continue to hone my craft as much as I can. So that’s what I’ll do!

How about you fine folks? Any exciting new goals for this year? Let’s chat about them in the comments section! I’d love to know your plans!

Until next week, happy writing, and happy New Year as well!

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With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

Writing Craft Reading List

Okay, I have to post my word count graph from NaNoWriMo because it makes me laugh. Can you guess which days I was out of town?

Stats

Anyway, I hope you’re all hitting your own writing goals and pushing forward with your literary dreams. I know sometimes my own hopes and aspirations can seem a little laughable, but we’ve gotta keep pushing forward, even through the rough patches.

One of the things that can show a person is serious about their business is a commitment to improvement, to continuing their education in their field. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love learning, so reading books about the craft of writing is kind of the no-brainer intersection of those loves.

I read a lot of craft books, and I’ve definitely found some to be more useful than others. Here are a list of some of the craft books that have either had the greatest impact on me, or that I think at least have potential to be of use to you.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks I do believe this was the first craft book I ever read, and it’s stuck with me ever since. (Seriously. It’s in my reference case at the desk I’m sitting at right now. It is hugging my shin as I type.) I don’t even remember a whole lot of specifics from the book, but it impacted me deeply and marked the start of my feeling like I might actually be published some day.

No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty Being a huge NaNo fan, I didn’t love this one as much as I wanted to, but I think a big part of that was that not having a plot really is a problem for me, haha. I have a hard time just pounding out words without some idea of what I’m getting at. But this book was useful to me for encouraging better writing habits- most importantly, consistency and working on a deadline.

The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank Okay, so this is really a grammar book, not a craft book, but it’s one of the more engaging and fun grammar books out there, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read more grammar books than the average human. If you feel like your language could use a little cleaning up (or you’re just an incorrigible nerd), this book could be worth a read.

On Writing by Stephen King Part memoir, part craft book, this is a bit of a straddler as far as genres go, but I really enjoyed it anyway. (Read the full review here!) It had been on my to-read list forever (but really, what isn’t?), but I was so glad when a friend finally just bought it for me just to make me shut up about this one corner of my litany of literary eventualities. I won’t say that this book gave me much new information regarding craft, but I did enjoy a sense of affinity while reading it, and I like the no-nonsense tone.

Writer Mama by Christina Katz Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this one, and I think there are two main reasons for this. First, I found a lot of the suggestions to be impractical for my situation. (I basically stopped paying attention after reading the “hire a nanny or a daycare so that you can write” part.) And second, most of the advice targets a career path in nonfiction article writing, while I hope for a career as a traditionally published fiction author. I probably could have pressed on with one or the other problem, but not both. Seriously, I’m making this book sound worse than it is. If you can afford/don’t mind using childcare and are looking at freelance article work, this is probably the book for you. With lots of practical exercises, bulletized tips, and query/submission tips, this book as a lot to give. Just… not to me.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott I think I read half of this book aloud to whatever poor schmuck happened to be standing within earshot of me. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, this is a bit memoirish, and a bit craftish, but it’s all muddled together without any distinctions between the two. And it is beautifully written. I think my favorite thing about this book was how frank and funny and hopeful it is. I may not have encountered much craft stuff that I didn’t already know, but I felt a lot of encouragement and comradery throughout.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss Haha, that title. That cover. And with the rallying cry of “Sticklers unite!” how could I resist? Again, this is more a grammar (specifically punctuation) book than a craft book, but I’m putting it here anyway. I was laughing out loud by the preface. Truly, if you have any interest in punctuation, you should read this, and then priggishly correct all your friends. It’s lighthearted and accessible, a rant and a romp that I couldn’t stop snickering over.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder This is one of those books that I heard recommended for years before actually procuring a copy. And really, it’s more for screenwriting than for novel writing, but a lot of the principles are the same. This book is very practical and provides a strict formula to follow, laying out how to craft a tightly structured screenplay blow by blow. This book may not be as inspiring and artful as the other craft books on this list, but it is easy to read and easy to follow without any of the wait-for-the-muse mumbo jumbo that I so love and hate.

The next craft book I’m going to read is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Like so many of the other books on this list, these both came to me highly and repeatedly recommended.

How about you fine readers? Any books I’m missing out on? Please let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Writing Magic

This week’s post is by writer extraordinaire Laura Lancaster, Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild. She is fun, clever, and has excellent taste in apple juice. Behold her wisdom!magic cards

When I was 12 I learned a magic trick from my next-door neighbor. She showed me an ordinary quarter, put both her arms behind her head like a pitcher about to throw a curveball and scrunched up her face. Then she brought her arms forward and showed me her empty hands.

“See, I just pushed that quarter into my neck. In a few seconds, it will land in my mouth. It doesn’t hurt because it’s magic.” Then she reached into her mouth and tossed the quarter in a high arc. It bounced across the floor with a magical metallic ring.

If I ever see you in person, I’ll teach you the trick that turned me, a shy awkward tween into an awkward ham who did goofy magic tricks.

My favorite went like this: I placed the magic baseball cap in front of me on a table. I declared,“I can make three balloon animals in the time it takes most people to make one.”

Then I whisked a rubber glove from my ball cap, blew it up, held it on top of my head and yelled, “chicken.” I held it high and squeezed the fingers, “cow.” Then I let the air out and the glove dangled, limp. I slowed and dropped my voice. “Jelly fish.”

Even though my shows got lots of laughs, I made lots of mistakes. I once had an audience member stand next to me while I did the quarter trick. He looked behind me and learned the secret. Once I had a large audience and my mom told me I had turned away from the microphone and everyone in the back hadn’t heard a word. They applauded out of politeness.

Now I’m a beginning writer. I look back on my career as a teenage magician and I realize I had found my style, or genre, of magic, but I needed more tricks, practice and critique. Writing is no different.

magic levitationMagicians have to master stage presence, precise movement, and misdirection the way writers have to learn plotting, character creation, effective research, world building, precise prose and any number of other skills. If any of those elements are weak, the magic disappears.

Fortunately, if I, as a goofy, awkward teenager could learn magic tricks and face the nerves of performance, I can learn to write fiction.

I’ve learned from books, blogs and magazines, but one of my most helpful tools are writers groups and professional organizations. I even became the Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild Interior and I’ve found that even if you are not published, there are three reasons to get involved in the writing community.

Practice Makes Better-

Often writers organizations sponsor critique groups. If you are at a place where you can show your work to others, you ought to. Critique groups, whether online or in person, are a great place to start. You may find partners who understand what you want to do and help you do it better. Like magic coaches, they can show you where your patter is flawed, or when they saw the quarter hidden in your sleeve, so to speak.

Guidance In Going Big-

The community talent shows where I did my magic were a place to start, but to get noticed, you have to work a lot harder. Many writers groups sponsor writing classes or conferences and they’ll give you access to big-time writers who teach craft and agents who can advise you about your pitch or query letter. If you are considering hybrid, indie or self-publishing, many authors in professional organizations have done it and are willing to share what they know about publication options, promotion and sales. Magicians never reveal their secrets to the audience, but the most generous reveal their secrets to other magicians and it’s true of the writers you’ll meet at professional organizations.

Encouragement-

Communication is possibly the hardest thing we humans do. We must have a clear idea in our own heads, then convey it to someone else. Miscommunications have caused professional ventures to fail, battles to be lost and families to split. No one gets it right the first time or all the time. How can we persevere long enough to become effective writers?

I’ve found that meeting regularly with writers is my most powerful motivation. When I meet with my critique group and I didn’t make a submission, everyone one reminds me that they want to find out what happens next, and I know it’s not just politeness, they want to help me write better.magic marbles

I have solved many a plot or characterization problem with other writers over coffee, writers I met at Alaska Writers Guild meetings, and I have helped them do the same. The topics speakers bring to monthly meetings and conferences, such as how to submit to an agent, help me, even if I don’t apply the lessons…yet.

Some people have said that writing cannot be taught, but most people would not say that about stage magic. Natural performers still need to learn skills through professional guidance. Natural storytellers have weaknesses that they must recognize and overcome. Every writer has been there. Keep working. Learn from those around you. Professional writers organizations can put those people around you. So when you watch David Copperfield perform an illusion or read Dicken’s David Copperfield, remember, you too can make your writing magical.

Laura Lancaster is a foodie, sci-fi aficionado and fortune cookie baker. She has been the Vice President in charge of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild for the last four years. She is writing sci-fi novels and short stories. Find her on social media: Twitter: Phoenix40below Facebook: @Phoenixseries and blog: lalancaster.com

To find out more about the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild email awginterior@gmail.com or go to www.alaskawritersguild.com/interior-chapter

Working v. Writing 2: Some Final Thoughts

ironingSo, earlier this summer I wrote about my shift to working full time and how that affected my writing life. (Read the full post here!) Now that I’m back on the home front while hubby takes up the mantle of Math Master of Science and Stupendousness at Hutchison High School, I wanted to visit that theme once more to close out that chapter of the year.

I should just admit right off the bat that, sadly, I didn’t learn any earth-shattering secrets of the writerverse. (noooooo!) But I did pick up a few coping strategies, if you will, about how to deal with less energy, less brain power, and less writing time at the end of each day.

In the earlier post, I mentioned that backshop work (blog work, market research, submissions, etc) had more or less ground to a halt. I had to really push myself to get that stuff back on board, and in the end, it had to come out of slated writing time in the evenings. So while I was able to pick that up again, I had to get better at balancing things. I cut back on expectations in one aspect of writing to focus on another, and for that to work, I really had to get a better handle on my priorities. Before, I had the time to do pretty much everything to the degree I wanted. I could research agents and magazines and the lethal dose of dark chocolate (it exists!) and still have time to crank out 2k a day, or edit three pages, or whatever the current project entailed. With only limited time and energy, I had to really figure out how important each of those aspects was to me. Of course, this ratio will be different for every writer, but I do think it was valuable for me to know that about myself. I probably figured it out about midway through the summer, and felt a lot less stressed about the whole affair afterward.

Another thing I mentioned in the previous post was that I was getting better at working more efficiently once I did sit down to work at the end of the day. I think that at the time of writing, I had pretty much maxed out my efficiency- which was a little lame because I was hoping to eke out a bit more than I was getting. But I was very interested to see if that heightened efficiency would disappear once I had all the day to dillydally at the keyboard again. But so far it hasn’t. *blows tiny trumpet* Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that I can now sit on the couch and burn through ten hours of writing in Go Mode. Far from it. Actually, I’m still in the habit of separating my writing work from my day job, so to speak. My kitchen has been sparkling. Those dishes are done before the leftovers get cold. The meals I make are downright magical. And I’ve plugged back into the library at my boys’ school with a vengeance. It’s only been a few weeks back at home so I’m still waiting to see if this will fade (because let’s all face it, I’m lazy and a terrible housekeeper). But so far, I’ve kept to the habit of hitting the day job hard, and then hitting writing hard the minute the kids go to bed. So the efficiency at writing has actually stuck around so far. Maybe I’ll report back later if that changes.

All in all, it was a good summer. It was good for me to change my system up, and I think it’s still serving me well now that I’m at home again. We’ll see how things evolve in the meantime. I’m still working myself back up to fighting form for this November, but I think I’ll get there. One thing that I learned better than ever this summer is that, whether I’m working in the home or out of it, writing is important to me. I didn’t really get seriously into writing on a regular basis until my first son was born and I started staying home to raise him and manage the household. I’ve always had this kind of niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that maybe I’ll never really make it as a writer because I’m only a hobbyist; that I only took up writing because I was sitting around at home and what else was I going to do with myself.

Working full time this summer fixed that line of thinking. Storytelling isn’t something that I think I’ll ever give up, no matter how hard it gets or how short time becomes. And that’s been gratifying to learn about myself.

Greetings from Camp!

Hello! I gotta say, I’m a little proud of myself lately! In addition to Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m staring down four other writing deadlines this month and- shock of all shocks- I might actually hit them all. This is unprecedented! (And might have something to do with [okay, everything to do with] having damaged my leg and being trapped on a couch with KT tape, compression socks, the works. Nothing slows down an overachiever like crutches. Guess I’ll have to overachieve somewhere else- hello, laptop!)

We’re over halfway through the month now and I’m pretty sure I’d have to lose an arm in a car accident in the next 24 hours to not be able to squeak across the finish line. So I might actually have the time to draw a decent comic for next week! But until then, enjoy another reblog, this time from National Novel Writing Month itself! (By the way, their blog archives are worth trawling if you’re ever low on motivation or ideas.)

This little number caught my eye because it’s doing the opposite of what I normally do on my blog: it’s taking lessons learned from writing and applying them to life in general! Please enjoy and I’ll see you again next week. Happy writing!

5 NaNo Lessons I’ve Applied to the Rest of My Life

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Every November since 2011, as soon as I post the “NaNoWriMo Participant” banner on my social media outlets, I hear two things from friends and family. One is, “You’re mad to tackle 50k words in a month.” The other is, “I wish I had the drive to do that sort of thing!”

I never said I’m not mad (I am a writer, after all). As for the drive… take the word of this former owner of the Pan-American record for Writing Procrastination: that can be taught. So much so that I applied what I learned in six seasons of November madness into other areas of my life that have nothing to do with fiction writing.

After all, most big deadlines can seem like the elusive 50k in November: an Everest of a situation. Whether you want to do it (e.g. get to dance at the Lindy Hop ball, finish a race for the first or tenth time) or you have to do it (e.g. a school essay, a job presentation), the first and irrational reaction, of course, is to panic and freeze, and then say “Nope, won’t do it. There are better people doing it already.”

That’s where the NaNo mind-frame comes in handy.

Want to read the rest? Head on over to NaNoWriMo’s blog via this lovely link!