Sprinter

As a swimmer I was a sprinter. I swam the shortest possible distance in the fastest possible time, leaving no room for error. Too slow off the blocks = race lost. Too many breaths = someone else’s fingers hit the wall first. More than other distances the sprint is less about strategy and pacing and more about training and muscle memory. 

When I embarked on my journey to write a novel and left behind my days of being coached in the water I thought I left behind sprinting as well. People compare writing a novel to running a marathon (I tried it once…it wasn’t pretty) and I see the similarities, but today when my writing group leader suggested sprints I was thrilled. I normally use the Pomodoro Technique of twenty-five minutes of focus before a break, but today we started with seven minutes. Seven minutes! My goal for the time in the group was to work on a premise line for the sequel to my YA novel. I had glimpses into parts of what I wanted for it but hadn’t thought through the whole plot line yet. I didn’t think there was any way I could get it done in that short amount of time. As with many other things, I was wrong. 


She read an inspiring passage from a story collection to get our brains in writing mode and then started the timer. She also warned that we would have to read what we had written when the timer went off, so doodling was out of the question. 


Within two sprints I had a tiny, thin, thread of a plot. I also had a list of questions in the margins but it was farther than I thought I would get today. In reading this very rudimentary plot line to others they were able to catch where the tension dropped (the muddy middle, my writing nemesis) and that sparked a few ideas on how to spice things up. 

Now, when it comes to swimming I prefer a nice kick-and-chat workout, but when it comes to writing, it looks like I am a sprinter again. 

Backstory Flaw

I am in the midst of the query trenches and therefore especially interested in reading the twitter feeds for agents on my list. Yesterday a plea from one of them caught my eye. She asked:

“Does anyone write MG or YA without dead parents? With alive, loving parents? With semi-functional families? Anyone?”

In my case, the answer is not yet. I queried this particular agent with a YA story that had one dead parent and one sub-optimal parent. I mentally apologized and then I got curious. 

Why did I make that particular choice? 

It sounds like I am not alone. Why do others make the same choice for their characters? Is it possible to create compelling young characters with alive, engaged, and loving parents? 

Have others done it? I am guessing there are more loving and functional parents in middle-grade stories than in YA, but the question remains. 

For me the answers are:

  1. Backstory flaw: I needed my character to be missing something in her life at the beginning of the story so that she wants to leave that life. She has do decide to leave her world behind and I needed her to be either running away from something or running toward something else.

  2. Push toward independence: I also needed my character to be independent enough handle the challenges ahead even as she is forced into greater independence in her new world. Also for my character, one of her challenges is to learn to live in community so I needed that to be lacking in her prior life.

  3. Agency: The state of being in action or exerting power. I needed my character to have the ability to make the choices for herself. She is not a rebellious type so if she had alive, loving, engaged parents she would happily stay where she was. I can’t have that. It is an adventure story! I need her to have the ability to choose the adventure so I can make her wish she hadn’t until the moment she realizes that it made her into who she was meant to become.

This time around for this YA story, my main character has to make it without her parents, but I do love a challenge! My next project is middle-grade so at least for the outline stages this character can keep her quirky and distracted (but alive and loving) parents. 


The Starting Line

Where does a writer begin? 

It has been five years since I starting calling myself a writer. I am still working on the same novel project and slowly accumulating smaller published pieces. When I tell people that I am writer they often tell me about the idea for a book that they have been kicking aground in their heads for years. Lately people have been asking for advice on how to get that story out of their imaginations and make it a reality. 

I had to stop and think. What do I think the starting line looks like? How might I direct others to it in a way that is doable and inspires them to continue taking steps toward their writing goal? 

If there is one thing I have learned along this writing journey is that there are no rules. There is no one-way to get from idea to story and every writer has a different method. I can’t ask them to replicate my own progression because it was organic and very slow. There are more effective ways and as I return to my own version of a starting line with a new project I want to tweak my process to be more effective this time around. 

What advice to I give to others and myself?

  1. Create a container - I love giving tangible “homework” assignments to friends who ask me for advice (consider yourself warned). One friend said that she kept telling people about her book idea, all of the fabulous details that would become her story, but had yet to get beyond that stage. My suggestion was to create a tangible, physical space for those ideas to live so they stop running around her head. Getting them out and on paper will open space for more fabulous story details to enter. I have several containers for the beginnings of my stories. A file on my laptop where I empty all other containers plus a file on the “notes” section of my phone. I also carry a notebook with me always and have a journal at my bedside. Ideas pop up all the time so I need a place to put them in the moment and then a place to bring them together as the story grows.

  2. Once the story takes hold, help the story take shape. This is where the “plotters” and the “pantsers” might divide and that is OK (no rules, remember). This is where I am with my new projects. I’m not sure which story will come to life so I am plotting two of them now and waiting to see which one demands more attention. I am learning the finer points of a premise line from Jeff Lyons through his book Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success. Creating a story foundation is a priority for me. I know there will be many, many drafts ahead and I need to start off with a framework that will keep my story together as I cut, paste, add, delete and reimagine the details.

So here it is, my unofficial I-am-still-figuring-this-out guide to getting started as a writer. I hope it helps anyone who wants to join me on this journey. 

Skin in the Game

I must admit, I thought this was a sports metaphor. I thought of the line as I was on a treadmill in the gym watching the US women’s soccer team on TV. I thought it was the perfect way to start a post about getting into this new phase of writing-life. No one seems to know where the line originated but it means that to share the benefits, I have to share the risk. Up until now, I have been writing and revising a novel, over and over with feedback from many. My biggest fear was that I would quit. I didn’t want to quit (OK, sometimes I wanted to quit) but really I feared that the writing would be displaced by life and all of its demands. I skipped blogging because I thought it would take away precious writing moments. Thankfully those moments added up and the feedback guided me towards a manuscript that I feel good about sending out into the world. At this stage, that “world” is the agent's inbox. I want the benefits of a writing career but I can’t expect to reap the benefits of the profession without sharing in the risk. So here I go, grateful that I have gotten this far and ready to play the game. 

Cross Training

Even if I never enter a pool again, I will always be a swimmer. I dabbled in triathlons and marathons though “running” still remains an overstatement of what actually happens. I have been seen inside yoga and pilates studios and most recently there was a venture into cross-fit. I see the benefits of all of these and enjoy the variety but they all work toward the same goal: to make me a better swimmer. To strengthen what I already am. 

This week I began a new type of cross-training. I am enrolled in a personal essay class for the duration of the summer. I am smack in the middle of this learning-to-be-a-novelist business. Would I have chosen to detour and try a new form so different from my young-adult-fantasy larger work? Probably not, but I understand why the wise instructors at Stanford suggested it. I need to work other mental muscles. It will help me strengthen what I already am: a writer. I may have sauntered into this new environment thinking I could handle it easily, after all, I have been knee deep in novel writing for years now. How hard could this be? 

Hard.

Just like when I cruise through swimming a mile with no problem and I think: How hard could it be to run a mile? 

Hard. 

I am reminded just how hard when I have to walk after the first song on my playlist. I am reminded again when the cramp in my side flares, and then when the throbbing from an old injury reminds me that I am not only a swimmer and I should go back to the pool but that I am also old enough to have old injuries. I slog along because it will make me a better runner and it will make me a better swimmer (and a happier person, and a healthier person…the list goes on). 

So here I go, embarking on the quest of the personal essay. Because I am curious, because I would like to become a better blogger, because I wonder what I will uncover in myself, but ultimately because I will do anything and everything in my power to become a better writer. 

 

Workshop Survival

Webster describes workshop as “a class or series of classes in which a small group of people learn the methods and skills used in doing something.” In my case that something is writing and the small group consists of my wonderful OWC classmates. While I found this definition to be accurate, I found the other definition listed to be more comforting and inspiring. 

“a place where things are made or repaired” 

That is the heart of the matter. That is the thing that makes the stretch of putting my raw work in the hands of others, bearable. I came to this class to make something. Am I creating what I set out to create? I came to make something that I was proud of, that others would enjoy. If my work is not doing that, or not doing that yet, can it be repaired?

I survived my first workshop without scars and with a pile of thoughtful questions and inspiring possible directions. The best part of the process was hearing that my story is a story. I have created something. There is more work to do and certainly repairs to be made but the foundation is there. I am comforted to know that others are building, creating and repairing too. I hope that I can help them on their way. Our workshop is more than learning skills. It is a place where stories are made. 

Word of the Year

What does my goal look like? What do I need to get there?

It seems like a simple concept but I am easily distracted by my full and wonderful life. Even though I want writing to be my profession, it too often gets pushed aside. In the last 24 hours I have been to three lectures by experts in their fields. Two were about parenting and one was about business planning. All three talked about visualizing the goal. My goal in the executive function workshop given by Sara Ward was to figure out how to help guide my children towards independence (aka getting their clothes and shoes on and getting out the door on time). The second was mindful Jewish parenting with Peg Sandel PhD, there too we talked about visualizing the values that we want for our children and then modeling them so they can see what that value looks like. Today was a last minute choice to join a workshop given my by my favorite time-management guru Megan Flatt. She also encouraged us to distill our goals down to one word, a feeling that we want for the year. Mine was Yirah. It is a Hebrew word for fear but fear mixed with awe, something greater than yourself. Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, uses it to mean operating in a space bigger than you are used to. I want to be more visible, more vulnerable this year. 

I have other words too. I want to find the flow between my life and my work. I want to be immersed in the writing world, not just the creation side but the business of being a writer as well. My next assignment from all four of my 2016 gurus is to break down the tasks that are needed to reach this goal. My stack of post-it notes is growing higher by the second and I am trying not to get overwhelmed by the number of tasks or even the smaller goals that seem to multiply. I will take control of my plan and when January rolls around again I will have more creative work out in the world.

Passing It On

 I don't feel like I am someone who has guidance to give when it comes to writing. I am still at the beginning of my journey. However, at a holiday party I was chatting with the woman sitting next to me while we ate our plate full of latkes. She asked me what I did and I went on to tell her that I was a writer and working on a fantasy novel. She talked about how she wanted to write and how she had vivid dreams that she felt were meant to be stories. She also talked about how she didn't know where to start. I tried to encourage her to put her stories into the world and I rattled off a list of resources that have helped me get started. As I sent them to her in an email I thought she might not be the only one who would want direction and encouragement and that I would share it here. I know every writing path is different but for those of us who didn't start with even a vague idea that we might be writers it can be intimidating to take the first step. So here are my thoughts for writers just stepping into the role:

1. I get by with a little help from my friends - My first step was to join a writing group. In my case it was the Write On Mamas. Then I joined Writers Digest University classes and now Stanford Continuing Studies Online Certificate in Novel Writing. It feels great to have a supportive group of writers. I gain inspiration and direction from them every day. 

2. Say yes - Write and submit. Let others see your work in whatever way feels least uncomfortable at first. I find that it is always uncomfortable to share my work.  For me that was within the confines of my writing group and then a class. It is only now that I am feeling confident enough to tackle submitting to publications. 

3. Become friends with creativity - This has been an interesting challenge for me. I tend toward the analytical and my habits reflect my years of tackling tasks and making plans. I find that creativity doesn't work in the same way. I am still working on this one but I have found Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on the subject to be enlightening and entertaining. I particularly like her Magic Lessons podcasts.

Novice to Novel

Fiction happened. I started writing a story. It was in the wake of my science and healthcare education and in the midst of trying to get back in to that world while balancing small children at home. I had an idea that I thought could fit nicely into a short story. Just a little writing to get me through the holiday season and then I would get back to the science, but something else happened entirely. I fell in love. It was totally illogical and very unscientific. Of course, love doesn't care about those things. I was flying high, swooning and felt like I would follow this new path anywhere. I discovered, however, that just because I loved this new world of writing did not mean that I was automatically good at it. I was discouraged by the words in front of me. I was a reader I knew they weren't supposed to look like that. I needed help and guidance. 

 My idea for a short story has evolved into the first draft of a novel. I know that this is the relationship that I want and I need to give it attention. I need a whole new set of textbooks and teachers. So this is where I start my blog. I have taken a few steps down the road as a writer and the farther down it I get, the more I find out what I do not know. I hope to use this blog as a place to sort out the twists and turns that I have already encountered and provide a map or encouragement for any others who have found themselves inexplicably in love with writing. I welcome any encouragement for making space for writing and accountability for my story. I want this love to last a lifetime.