Friday, June 28, 2013

Raise Your Standard

"Most people don't know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don't get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life."  - Brian Andreas

One of those angels for me was a professor I had in college, who used to tell us, shout at us  all the time, "Pay attention!!!" Thank you Christa Allan for reminding me in your excellent Carpe Annum interview on Monday.

This professor is the reason why watching The Dead Poets Society always feels a little bit like going home. He was my Mr. Keating, and while he never, as I recall, whispered "carpe diem" to us, that was the message.

2013 is our "Carpe Annum," our time to take hold of our lives and our careers -  and I hope it's yours too.

But please remember to also seize the day, to grasp it long enough to catch the color, feel the texture. Please, especially watch the people.  Go to the grocery store and stare at the people in line long enough to learn their secrets. (Stealthily, averting your eyes just long enough to not get caught.)

I recently read a book that has me looking at every person I meet with X-ray glasses, and it has revolutionized the way I see other people.  The ways we get it wrong when we judge each other. The ways we buy into the image reflected back to us and misjudge ourselves.

The book is The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog, by Bruce Perry. I dare you to read it.

Paying attention is a way of planting a flag in the soil of each day, and declaring: "This is my life, all of it, and it all matters, the shiny bits and the grass stains."

Today I hope you raise your standard high

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lower Your Standards

American poet William Stafford had a controversial approach to writing. He instructed his students to “lower your standards and keep going. When it gets hard, don't stop - it is hard because you are doing something original.”  After the writing flow is staunched, then it is time to raise the standard during the rewrite process.  William’s son, Kim Stafford, wrote of this in his father’s biography, Early Mornings: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. 

Me, I’m afraid to write junk. It doesn’t mean I haven’t done it – just not intentionally. My inner critic whispers to me that my worth is tied to performance. It is communicated from birth at home, church and school, and especially in college.  Writing junk is unacceptable – a product of laziness. A waste of time.  So says my subconscious.

There is nothing wrong with writing good prose from the get-go, but unless you know how to disengage from perfectionism, you can ruin your ability to tap into that place where true creativity happens.  Starting out with high, insurmountable standards creates thresholds impossible to cross which throws your abilities and creativity into shadow.

In order to create a safe place for this lowering of standards to occur, I must first lay the ground rules. Most importantly, I promise that no one else will ever see it and I keep that promise.  Next, I have permission to toss it if it truly stinks like a rotten fish.   

Not long after the death of his father, a friend of Kim Stafford’s pointed out that in medieval warfare, lowering one’s standard meant offering truce.  When you offer truce to your opponent (the blank page) you are open to what may come and you disarm your inner critic.  

Are you afraid to write junk? Do you trust yourself enough to lower your standard in truce? We’d love to hear.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Christa Allan

Today Novel Matters talks with Christian fiction writer, Christa Allan--a true Carpe Annum woman!

A true Southern woman who knows any cook worth her gumbo always starts with a roux and who never wears white after Labor Day, Christa Allan writes Women's fiction, stories of hope and redemption. Her upcoming novel, A Test of Faith, will release later this year. Threads of Hope, one of the books in Abingdon’s Quilt Series, released in March (2013). Walking on Broken Glass (2010) and The Edge of Grace (2011) were also published by Abingdon. Love Finds You in New Orleans (Summerside Press) released in 2012. Christa is the mother of five, grandmother of three, and recently retired after teaching twenty-five years of high school English. She and her husband Ken live in New Orleans in a home built in the 1850s with their three neurotic cats where they practice dodging hurricanes.

Novel Matters: Welcome Christa. Many of our readers have read your first two novels, Walking on Broken Glass, and The Edge of Grace. Tell us about your newest novel. When is it coming out?

Christa Allan: My newest novel, which won't release until late in 2013/early 2014, is entitled (for now), A Test of Faith.

NM: Great title. How did this story come about?

CA: The seed of the story is based on one told to me by the wife of one of my husband's colleagues at dinner. As soon as Ken and I were in the car, I dug in my purse and scribbled what I could remember on the back of my checkbook deposit slips. It's a story of what happens when a fifteen-year-old secret is unexpectedly exposed, and it sets off a chain reaction that threatens to destroy the fragile balance of a woman's life.

NM: So wishing I could pre-order the book, but it’s too early just yet! Okay, now I’m wishing I’d been at that dinner with you. I love how you KNEW, listening to that woman tell her story that there was a novel in there. I know your ideas come from all over the place, Christa. Did you know at the onset of your writing career that you would be writing multiple novels with different subject matters?

CA: In the beginning of my writing life, my path reflected the opening of Genesis. It was without form and full of darkness. I doubt I knew a path existed or even cared. So delirious with joy over my first contract, I didn't think beyond it. Sort of like being more prepared for the wedding than the marriage, you know? I've written a book a year since my debut novel was published in 2010, but that's a function of contracts rather than choice. Until January 18 of this year, I taught high school English full-time, sponsored the Junior Class, the National Honor Society, the Gay-Straight Alliance, and graded 300+ papers a week. Attempting to write more than one book a year during that time would have sent me to crazy-land on a jet instead of the cruise ship I happened to be on. But, truth be told, had I been offered the opportunity to write more than one book a year, my fear of rejecting an offer and not getting another would have led me to accept the contract. In April, a high school teacher signed a $1.7 million contract for a book that he wrote over a ten-year period. That's over $100K a year. Makes me wonder why I thought ten a year would be better, but I doubt my little ADD self could have nursed a novel for a decade. Today, I'd choose to write one novel or maybe two novellas a year.

NM: A novel a year seems like the expected norm in the industry (though I don’t know that I could produce that consistently), tell me about your writing process. Do you use an outline?

CA: My process: Hooray! NYT Bestseller idea, write reams of brain urp on yellow legal pads, write three chapters, call my BFF and scream, "I don't have a novel, and why the hell did I ever believe I was a writer?"; go back to legal pads, write to the middle, make charts and graphs and index cards while consuming coffee, Coke Zero, chocolate, popcorn, Mike&Ikes ; write, stop and make more notes and consume any combination or all of the above foods, write...continue until "The End." I doubt that process has a name or that I'll be able to turn it into a writing book.

I just finished a remarkable online class (Story Structure Safari by Lisa W Miller) that kicked my butt, in a help you fit into your jeans way. Lisa is an incredibly smart and ruthlessly patient individual who provides a plethora of information she's gleaned from other writers, novels, movies. Every worksheet made me tremble in fear I'd be hopelessly lost. Wrapping my brain around that kind of structure is like trying to find Waldo...I know he's there someplace, and I'll be thrilled when I find him. In the meantime, I'm bumping into everyone and everything else, sometimes only finding him by figuring out who isn't Waldo.

As free-spirited as I'd like to believe I am and portray myself to be, I've learned I don't always do well without boundaries. It's not that I won't cross the lines; I need to know where the lines are so at least I'm aware that I'm overstepping them. As short as five years ago when I first dipped my toe in the waters of publication, things were more defined, charted and scheduled. Today, the open sea is adventurous, but it's also overwhelming and fraught with the unknown. Both positive and negative. I'm much more willing now to jump into the ocean, but I still want/need a life vest. Epublishing, pursuing other genres and markets are options I wouldn't have considered years ago. Then, affirmation and validation that what I wrote was "worthy" of being published were important. Maybe it was ego-centric, but it gave me what I know that even if I didn't believe it myself, someone else believed it me. And it was enough to get me to where I am today, which is exploring options outside of traditional publishing. I'm not heading into this without caution; it's crucial, especially when I'm working outside of the familiar, to follow people who have walked through the land mines and come out on the other side.

NM: Okay, let’s shift back to the broad range of topics you write on. You write for the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) which many of us who read Novel Matters are familiar with. Are there any writing taboos you've respected in the past that, after writing several novels, you no longer consider taboo? If so, which ones, and why? Which would you never break?

CA: My tagline was "not your usual Christian fiction," so writing taboos were taboo for me.    Before submitting my first novel, I was told agents/editors didn't want/like prologues, shifting points of view, or "issues." It sold with all of those. Story always trumps. For every supposed taboo, there's a commercial or literary fiction that ignores it. Good grief, Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce, can you say, "Hello, give me a punctuation mark?"  Writing isn't powerful because it obeys rules. It's powerful because it uses whatever is necessary to break through the human heart and spirit.

NM: And there are risks as a writer when you do touch those tender places, aren’t there? Feedback from readers from novel to novel can swing wildly one way or the other. Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

CA: I'd like to say I've divorced myself from the opinions of others, but the best I can do is to temporarily separate myself from them. Some negative reviews have validity, and I'd even agree with the reviewer. The ones I object to and am most affected by are those that are simply mean and insulting or berate me for something over which I have no control, like the Kindle formatting snafus. I'm learning to not read or buy into my reviews, even the glowing ones. I console myself with stories of the number of agents who passed on The Help or Harry Potter.  Some days my writing is an exercise in brilliance; some days it's an exercise in angst. I feel the fear, and do it anyway. It gets me to my laptop, and then I pray and sweat and write.

NM: All kinds of hard won wisdom there, Christa. So, if tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

CA: If tomorrow were the first day of my career, I'd tell myself that there would be days, maybe weeks where I'd hate writing, myself, other writers, and the entire universe of publishing. That I'd sob, laugh, envy and ache. But, after over two decades of teaching, I'm an expert in the art of delayed gratification, so I'd remind myself that if I didn't pursue my dream, regret would pursue me.

NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?

CA: The one thing I can't be without as a writer? Ouch. Does a sense of humor count? No, that's not a thing. Well, it would be my laptop because I it lets me write, research, play, stay in touch with the world, communicate with my friends, and saves everything for me.

NM: A sense of humour counts big time. Without it, writers go the way of Hemingway and Plath. It’s too painful. There are too many bumps—more like hulking cliffs and valleys—along the way to make it through without knowing how to laugh. Okay. Rocky road of writing. Who do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey?

CA: When I need advice, I am blessed to have relationships with other writers to talk to, people I respect for their tenacity and honesty. And who are willing to give me advice when I'm too goofy to see I need it. Sometimes, though, I just need to whine, and my family allows it for a brief time.

MN: So, talk to writing peers, and whine to family. This is good. What advice do you give to writers who are looking to seize the year and take control of their writing career?

CA: This isn’t my advice; it’s actually from Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird is one of my favorite go-to books to revive me as a writer. So, I came across this recently, and it is all about seizing our dreams:

If you always dreamed of writing a novel or a memoir, and you used to love to write, and were pretty good at it, will it break your heart if it turns out you never got around to it? If you wake up one day at eighty, will you feel nonchalant that something always took precedence over a daily commitment to discovering your creative spirit?

If not--if this very thought fills you with regret--then what are you waiting for?

Back in the days when I had writing students, they used to spend half their time explaining to me why it was too hard to get around to writing every day, but how once this or that happens--they retired, or their last kid moved out--they could get to work.

I use to say very nicely, "That's very nice; but it's a total crock. There will never be a good time to write. It will never be easier. If you won't find an hour a day now, you won't find it then."

It's the same belief as thinking that once you lose weight, you'll begin to feel good about yourself. No, you won't. If you're not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you're not going to be okay at 140. It's an inside job. 

How do you begin? The answer is simple: you decide to. Then you push back your sleeves and start writing--I.e., scribbling words down on paper, or typing at a computer. And it will be completely awful. It will be unreadable  [*#@* ] ! You won't have a clue how it will account to anything, ever. And to that, I say, Welcome. That's what it's like to be a writer. But you just do it anyway. At my church, we sing a gospel song called, "Hallelujah anyway." Everything's a mess, and you're going down the tubes financially, and gaining weight? Well, Hallelujah anyway.

So you decide to get back to work creatively, and you write up some thoughts or passages or memories or scenes. Then what? Then you write some more. Everywhere you go, you carry a pen, and take notes--ideas will start to come to you. You'll see and overhear and remember things that you want to include in this mysterious quilt you're putting together, so you jot them down. Imagine a rag-bag guy who lives inside you, who collects images, descriptions, holy moments, snippets of funny conversation, for you to use in your writing--but he doesn't have any hands, and needs you to help him amass the rags with which you can make squares for the quilt.

That's all you have to do today: pay attention--being a writer is about paying attention. Stop hitting the snooze button. Carry a pen with you everywhere, or else God will give me all these insights and images that were supposed to go to you. Hang up a shingle on the inside of you: now open for business. Wow! You won't have to wake up at 70, aching with regret that you threw your creative essence under the bus. And if you already are seventy, then you won't have to wake up at eighty, confused and in despair about how you let your gift slip away. Because you will have been writing--or dancing again, or practicing recorder--every single glorious, livelong, weird, amazing day.”

NM: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! You’ve given us great advice about how to Carpe Annum for ourselves. Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?

CA: A few months before I retired, I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself about how I was going to spend my days after January 18. I didn’t want to leave one job and feel as if I’d be reporting to another one at my own desk in my own house. So that meant deciding what I wanted to write and for whom. I gave myself permission to write, without self-editing, without trying to fit a market or a publishing house, just trying to drill into my passion for the story.

Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us today, Christa. You’re a Carpe Annum kind of woman and we’re so lucky to have you share your wisdom with us.

You can learn more about Christa’s books on her website.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Persistence is:

I'm too far gone.

It's not like I can now don high heels and sit behind a desk and work in an office. Not anymore.

I'm too far gone.

I've persisted this long as a writer and in doing so I've ruined myself for most other kinds of work. Not that I'd be terrible at it, but I'd be terribly unhappy about it.

I'm too far gone.

Persistence takes you down the road of too far gone. It's the daily investment that does it. The daily deciding, "I'm a writer" and then, just to prove it, writing something. After a while (the amount of time is indeterminate, different for everyone though I suspect it falls within the lines of more than a year, but less than a lifetime), you realize you've given so much of yourself to the writing that you cannot walk away from it.

Persistence is working on the same manuscript for years, perfecting, editing, (sobbing a little), rewriting, putting it out there, reeling it back in, editing, rewriting, (sobbing a little), putting it out there again.

It's not just that you can't stop writing. It's that you can't let go of the story you are working on. Good enough isn't good enough. You need to understand it fully, bring it to the point of being utterly free of it's cocoon and is adorned in its true artistic identity.

Persistence is taking the blow of "No" from the publishing industry and making it work for you. Digging into the whys of rejection and emerging from the tunnel of doubt with a stronger story.

I recently got feedback on a novel I'm shopping that puzzled me greatly. But I trusted the person's instincts and decided I needed to understand what she meant and how I could fix the problem. I was clueless, so I decided to take a page from the film industry and ask people to be part of a test audience. The response was overwhelming and I eventually had to cap the group in order to keep the numbers and feedback manageable.

I don't know any other writer who has done anything like this, but I'm doing it anyway. You see, I'm too far gone. Too committed to this story, to an island off the coast of Maine, and the people living there to stop now. I must bring the story to fruition, hang the cost.

Persistence is combing through the responses (which started coming in less than 24 hours after I sent the manuscript out to my readers), teasing out patterns found within the many responses.

You have to find the patterns. The individual answers alone are not enough to make substantive changes. From the beginning, a few patterns within the usable responses (two responses were outliers to the survey, so beyond my target audience that their feedback--though appreciated--was unusable) and my mind began the chase, tearing off into high grass, hunting the elusive answers to the problem spots.

Persistence is hound dogging a story, never giving up even when it has cost you years (and because you've already invested years), even when another story is knocking on the door of your brain pan. You stay with the story, nurturing it along inch by inch.

I'm too far gone to do anything else.

What will the outcome be?

My novel.

I will have written a novel I can be proud of.

Finish the sentence for yourself--Persistence is:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ding Dong, Persistence Calling

Monday's Roundtable discussion was an attempt to define success as it pertains to writing. The fact that we couldn't nail down one right answer tells us how ambiguous success is in the life of a writer. Is it multiple contracts, large advances, royalties, movie deals, fawning agents, adoring fans, respect from peers, merely having written?
It's all of those things and none of those things.
Bonnie said, "Success [as it pertains to writing/art] is probably best measured in persistence." I have to agree with that. I began this writing journey 27 years ago, almost to the day. I dabbled as a writer long before that, but the day I sat down and began to write my first novel is when the writing life really began for me. So far, it's been:
one big roller coaster ride
three steps forward, two steps back
and down
and low
and discouraging
nothing like I expected it to be
Nothing. Like I expected.
I wish I had a jarful of the naïve hopefulness I felt as that first novel progressed -- you know, the one that will NEVER be published, thank God. But, oh, the anticipation I had for that novel. I truly believed it would launch my "career" -- you know, the one I'm still waiting for. I could not have foreseen the mountain of rejection letters I'd amass from that one piece of work (double entendre intended). And I'm glad I couldn't. Because if I had, I'd have quit before the lead on my first pencil became dull. And I'm immensely grateful I didn't quit. First, because I'd have never come to know any number of people who have come into my life as a result of my writing, which includes all of you. Second, because the stories I've written have enriched me, and they've enriched others. Regardless of the scale, there's satisfaction in that. Does my portrait of success look the way I'd like it to after 27 years of hard labor? Not hardly. But while I don't have quite a jarful of naïve hopefulness, I still have some. I still hope that my next offering will reach a wider audience, and my next, and my next. That's the beauty of persistence. It's its own reward.
We have a saying in my family: "There's honest, and there's brutally honest." And usually when we say it, it's with one eye on my husband, who falls in the second camp. No, wait, he doesn't fall into the second camp, he spearheads it. But I've learned there's real virtue in that. There are no false suppositions that way, and false suppositions can blindside like little else.
So I want to be brutally honest with you today. Most of what you envision in the way of success for your writing you will fall short of. J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins are the exception, not the rule. But listen to me. Aim. High. Anyway. Because you have something to say, and you say it in a way no one else can. You will improve with each book you write. You will touch readers. You will make a difference to someone -- even if it's to you alone. I live by the philosophy -- reluctantly, I'll admit (I've got to stay brutally honest) -- that it is my responsibility to use the gifts God has given me, but it is God who gives the increase. I wish I didn't have to include that last phrase. I wish it were all up to me. If it were, we would all have the success of a Rowling or a Collins. Because, shoot, why not??
So keep writing. Keep improving. Keep hoping. Persistence is the name of the game.
In the end, Madeleine L'Engle got it right:
You must once and for all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don't let that concern you. It's your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Round Table: Is Success a Dirty Word?

I'm standing on the precipice, toes curled over the edge.

Below me is failure.

Only it's a little fuzzy what failure looks like, even from this perspective. If I don't earn back what I've invested, is that failure? Is it failure to sell 7 copies (total so far)? Or is it failure to tell a story that quickens the human heart to feel deeply but miss out on acclaim or financial gain?

Wait a minute! I might be peering into success. Stranger things have happened.

Success doesn't dial in much clearer than failure, however. What does success look like? Is it one letter whose writer says the story jump-kicked her back into life? Is it paying off the mortgage? Clamoring publishing companies? Just having written and published the story? Having bled into the story? Having told the best story you can? Being obedient? Is working for success a crime against art?

Madeleine L'Engle quotes one of Chekov's letters about success in Walking on Water:

You must once and for all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don't let that concern you. It's your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite quietly, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures.
Can we be artists and good business-people? Is this a contradiction? Was Madeleine L'Engle living in such a different time and place that her words have grown cold and empty? Or has she mined for us the truth of the matter? I'm dying to hear what you all have to say.

These are good questions, Patti. I'm going to be transparent, because I know I can be with each other and our readers. I appreciate Madeleine L'Engle's quote, but I'm far, far from being in that place. Success to me feels like something more measurable ... and maybe that's because I've had so little to measure when it comes to my writing. At least, in the monetary sense. If that's my only benchmark then I'd have to say, no, I've not experienced success. Thankfully, I can say, for me, monetary gain is only part of being a successful writer. So while I haven't achieved what I'd like to achieve monetarily, I do consider my novels a success when I receive cards or emails from readers telling me how one of my books has touched them or uplifted them or made them think. The one that really blew me away was the email I received from a reader in South Africa who found my book in her library in Zulu country. Blew me away. And what was really funny was that I have been there! Ultimately, reaching readers is why I write --- but I have to be honest and say I'd like to be able to contribute more to our income as well. More income would mean I'm reaching more readers --- which is what I so desire. So it's like this circle game. I guess they really go hand in hand.

I hear Patti’s pain. If there is a metric for success – either book sale figures, or Amazon sales rankings, or some other way of measurement, what does a serious author do when those metrics seem lacking?

And let’s back up with one element of that question. What is “a serious author”?

Is it the person who works at writing full time? Is it the person who takes classes and tries to perfect the craft?  Is it the writer who has had contracts in the past (regardless of present contract status)?

Sorry, I’ve got a whole lot more questions than answers.

I guess I tend to focus on the things that make me feel successful - wonder when I became an optimist? But what does it for me are the letters. Some of you have sent letters and emails that have blessed me tremendously, and made me feel that I could do without the money (that's clearly the case!). I'm not much in for fame, either. 

It may not help me get my writing done day to day, but I really think success is a day well lived. And what that means has so much to do with the Lord's leading, watching his gaze to discern the next thing. 

 Sorry, not sure why Blogger won't reduce my photo any smaller. Sheesh, I tried.
Many writers (as agents/publishers must) measure success by sales figures and by the list of books the writer has published. There's nothing wrong with this, but it will never be my measure because I have a 'day job' which demands much of my time.  Each writer has to decide what success looks like and it changes as you progress along your writing journey. I  used to think I was successful when I completed a manuscript that I felt confident about submitting.  Then I felt successful when I received a contract or secured an agent. All of these are certainly benchmarks but what good is my writing if it doesn't impact readers?  When I hear from a reader that a character or passage resonated with her, I know I have succeeded in the most important area.

Success is probably best measured in persistence. In the end, we all know what success means as a writer: make a living, have a loyal following of readers (of whatever size, but growing), and signing publishing contracts that will see you well into the future. That's a modest minimum for success. But to achieve that in publishing takes more persistence than most other work (with the exception of other arts: music, acting, etc.). If you put on a suit and went to work everyday for 25 years and never got paid your family would have you committed. But this is art. And art has it's own (double) standards.

Art exists because we'd die without beauty. So, artists persist in creating beauty--whatever that means to each artist--and the one who persists is the one who succeeds. Press on into your success however you measure it. Don't give up.