The Alchemist: Required reading for Writers

“Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Take a minute to let these words sink in, aspiring writers, because if you think back on your life, again and again you will find them to be true. That time you swore off dating right before you met your spouse, that time you were so overwhelmed with school work you thought you would have a nervous breakdown before graduation. That time that big work project was kicking your ass and you almost quit your job, but you got through it and rewards were abundant.

I read The Alchemist because I was looking for a spiritual based book to compare with a novel I was struggling with. There was no comparison. Aside from being completely different in subject, it was so incredibly masterful and moving, it was the sort of work I could only aspire to someday. After I devoured it, I quickly shoved it on my brother, who has yet to give it back to me, even  though he also read it and loved it right away.

Hey Adam. Give it back!

Paulo Coelho is full of amazing insights about life and achieving your dreams, having gone his own journey to find his “personal legend” as a writer, but the above quote is the one that has been coming to me in past months and weeks.

A while back I hit a wall with my publishing pursuits. I also went from a steady coast with my peer reviews to a sudden deluge of harsh criticism. Some very helpful and some not at all. I struggled to get my motivation up to do another rewrite of The Silent Apocalypse. I was seeing my dreams move further and further away from me, and the path toward them blowing away in the sand.

Enter The Alchemist. A story about pursuing your dreams, written in a way very different from the Disney standard we are used to.

And that writing, have I mentioned, is beautiful. The writing is not complicated, actually quite simple The story is not long. It never names the main character. It moves all over the place and it is masterful. Coelho manages to created something the sounds like a religious text as well as a phenomenal story, with very little fuss to it.

So, if you have not read this book (it came out in the 90s so it’s very likely you have) I suggest you pick it up. Keep it on you shelf. When you are feeling like maybe it’s time to quit, pick it up and read it. Simple writing. You can do that. Beautiful story. You already have that in you. And inspiration to fly.

We all need that.

 

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I am not a writer

I recently read This Great Article on John Steinbeck, and this quote stuck out to me.

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

He scribbled it in his journal while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Pretty much one of the best books ever written.

We haven’t touched on imposture syndrome here too much (don’t worry we will) but I’d like to actually skip over that conversation for right now because this quote resonated with me for an entirely different reason. Something that occurred to me last week, as I was brooding on my back porch ( a common occupation for me when I’m working on my writing) and Steinbeck’s words brought it all back.

I am not a writer.

I know, I told you I was. I thought I was. I mean I write. I write all the time. But I’m not a writer. Steinbeck wasn’t a writer, King isn’t a writer, no writers are writers.

But it goes further than that.

My brother composes beautiful music. He’s not a composer. My artist friends, they’re not artists. The directors aren’t directors, the filmmakers aren’t filmmakers, the actors aren’t actors and cartoonists aren’t even cartoonists!

Before you get angry, before you click away, please just float with me a little longer on this brooding mind tangent of mine from last week.

What we are, what we all are, us dabblers in the creative, are storytellers. No, not storytellers, translators of stories.

Imagine yourself as Steinbeck, with this beautiful epic, gritty, heartbreaking chunk of America in your head. It’s so poignant you can feel it trembling through your soul and you know, you KNOW it’s powerful enough to change how people think.

But all you have are clunky words to translate it. You might be good with words. You might have the best words even, but are they enough to really convey this masterpiece that has settled in your mind?

This is the challenge, friends. This is the truth. This is why an artist paints and a musician composes. There is a story and it needs to come out and they are only the poor fallible vessels for it, with only their limited skill through which to pour this brilliance that is embedded in their soul.

Translating the story. With these mortal fingers, trying to convey something we don’t quite understand ourselves, we either fold and give up, frustrated that we can never get the image right, the feeling right, the words right. Or we keep practicing. We keep refining our skills. We become writers, artists, musicians so that that next story is translated better. So that someday, when the Grapes of Wrath comes together in our heads, we can torment ourselves long enough to get it out.

When we give up, what happens? The stories stop coming, I think. Or maybe they just don’t ever reach that level they could have reached. I think maybe all of us get those first simple stories and whether we discard them or try to put them down on paper, in the infuriating mangled mess they turn out to be, determines whether we become artists, writers and musicians, developing our creative muscles, or go on to explore other avenues.

It’s just a thought, though. 🙂

Fixing a Climax Chapter

In one of my novels I’m editing there is chapter, a big chapter, an explosive, climactic chapter that is just full of problems. At first I thought it was just the choreography of the final scene. It wasn’t spaced quite right, it didn’t move fluidly, it was confusing and it didn’t possess the punch it needed.

So I set out to rewrite the whole thing, really get in deep and describe every element, every sensation, to really make it hurt.

But something happened in the rewrite. It immediately started veering off in other directions. Every bad thing that could happen in this scene started to happen and I kept trying to steer it back. Only this ONE big bad thing was supposed to happen.

No matter how I tried to steer it, it kept going off the rails. Murphy’s Law wanted to write this climactic chapter.

I kept deleting and starting over. Deleting and starting over. Yes, that really ups the stakes but I don’t know how to fix this if it happens! And if this happens, then all these other dominoes are going to fall.

Last night I saved the chapter with only a paragraph of decent work.

Today I started again, and after grappling with the same problem, I sat back to think for a bit. Or I tried to think, but instead found myself breaking up yet another fight between my kids, who are having a bit of a rough time getting along right now. My house is chaos. It’s hard to find a quiet hour to work. Every five minutes it’s something else with them.

And finally I got it. You can’t avoid the chaos. You just gotta try to swim through it.

I’m being too easy on my characters. This is a climax in the book. The ONE BIG BAD has to happen, but so does everything else. All hell needs to break loose so that we can really feel this Big Bad when it finally comes.

And it will be a relief that we even made it.

So I’m not sure how my characters are going to get out of all the nets that are falling on them. I’m not entirely sure everyone is going to survive. Murphy’s Law wants to write this chapter and I am going to let it. It’s my job as the author to deal with the chaos, not avoid it.

Here’s to hoping I can do it.

A Great Opening Line

L.C.W. Allingham

You’ve probably heard it before, but the opening line of your story can make all the difference when you are in the submission phase of your story.

And yet it eludes many writers. We are too close to the story. We are sure we need to start where we started when we wrote the first draft. We want to establish the scene, the character, the theme.

Often times we just plunk our reader down in a seat and expect them to stay. Sometimes they will if that seat turns out to have a good view, but if they are agents, editors or publishers, they might have more important places to be.

So how to write a great opener?

First lets examine some classic openers that just do not work anymore.

It was a dark and stormy night.Cliche

Jennette awoke to the bright sun streaming in her window.Boring and…

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Leave yourself a trail of bread crumbs

L.C.W. Allingham

One of the tools I love to use is leaving clues for my characters (and myself). I have no idea where these clues will lead. I just put them in there as they come up and hope they’ll turn into something.

We’ve established I’m more of a “fly be the seat of your pants” writer than a carefully plotted and outlined writer. I do outline, but it’s usually more as I go along and after I’ve established the tone of the story, but these clues come up as I’m writing and I leave them there to flutter in the wind.

Why do i do this?

Well, I like revelations in my stories. I like  mysteries. I like big flapping loose ends that end up tying the whole story together in a surprising way. And the most effective way to do this is to surprise myself.

In my most recent work…

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Forcing words

I have been pretty quiet the last month. Aside from the blog, I haven’t been posting much on twitter or writing much on my novels. After the flood of inspired writing that took me to the end of “Patroness”, the waters slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether.

In that past I have raged against this drought. I have cursed at the blinking cursor on the blank page. I have pushed and pushed to get a few words out that I know would ultimately be deleted.

Many writers find that if they keep pushing, they can get back into the sweet spot. Sometimes this has worked for me, but it seems there needs to at least be a little stream to splash around in on my way to the river. Right now there is nothing.

And that is okay.

Everyone has their own process, and mine is to write with furious motivation until the well is dry. But that doesn’t mean the work stops.

When the well runs dry, my job changes to doing what I can to replenish it. I read. Reading is something I have to schedule now that I am a mom. It doesn’t come as easily as it did before, but it is vital to my work.

I also pick away at edits. When I don’t have anything to give my own work, I still can critique other people’s work and I find the process to be extremely helpful in zeroing in on my own writing flaws.

So, I would like to apologize for not posting recently. But forcing words onto a page has proven to be an exercise in frustration. I hope that now that I am absorbing the work of other authors, my own words will start to flow more easily. Until then, there are always reblogs.

Change the way you look at pursuing a career in writing

Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe while you pursue publication of your novel you completely own it. Maybe the time and energy and hard work you put in without getting paid is something your friends and relatives and acquaintances completely accept as what must be done to reach your goal career. (if the last one is true, wow, good for you).

But while I admit I have support from many people in my life, the most important people in my life, I would say the majority of people who know what I do to attain my goal see me as a dreamer.

And while we, as a society, admire dreamers once they have achieved, on the path to their dream we collectively roll our eyes and nod slowly and tell them not to quit their day jobs for their little hobbies.

So, as writers, pursuing an actual job writing books, many of us tend to me a little more humble about our work. After all, we’ve yet to get the advances, the royalty checks, the writing engagements, the book on the shelf at the book store. What do we have to show for the hours we’ve put in, the years?

Would you ask someone who was going back to school to pursue an engineering degree why they were wasting their time chasing their dreams?

Knowledge. Refinement of our craft. Connections. Industry understanding. We writers collect all these necessary things as we pursue writing as a job, and most of us don’t wrack up 50 grand in debt doing it.

Writing books, editing books, participating crit groups, hiring editors, going to writing conference, submitting for publication, these are part of a real world classroom that is no less worthy than a college tuition for a “practical” job.

Publishing a novel, establishing a career takes time and work and energy. It doesn’t happen overnight any more than becoming a doctor does. You have to put in the work, and you have to acknowledge that, in doing so, you are preparing yourself for the career you want.

For some reason, many people think it’s a matter of writing a book, getting it published. They think the writing part is the hard part, and if you can get it done, that first book should sell if it’s worth anything and you will be on your way.

You know that’s not true. I know that’s not true. There is no reason to be humble about having to strive toward what you want.

Research to compliment your story, not to be your story

So if you missed the news, I finished another first draft. Woo hoo! This one was a bit different than my previous projects because it was based on actual mythology and history. Research was necessary. Tons and tons of research. As far as this subject goes (and I don’t want to give away too much on what that specific subject is because I’m shady like that) I think I may now be considered a bit of a scholar.

When I realized I was getting close to the end, however, there was a problem. There was so much more stuff I’d learned about that hadn’t gotten into the story yet. It was really cool information, but it just hadn’t found it’s place yet.

So maybe there’s a sequel in the future, but most likely that will still leave libraries worth of information that still has no home in my novels. I will have to accept that, no matter how cool  it might be.

There is a balance when it comes to research and too often writers ignore it. I certainly have. Regardless of the subject, you’re going to have to do some research but when the novel aims to inform, sometimes we are so anxious to do that we bury our story in information.

Research should be revealed in your story just like any other information, as it is relevant to the plot. If you are writing a book about a 15th century English peasant in the village Scarborough, you might learn all about the reign of Henry VII but it is unlikely that the contentious relationship between Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort is going to come up in any way except as an info dump.

However,  day to day information like dress, local politics, plagues, hardships, food and occupations of a 15th century peasant will be woven into every part of your story.

Woven, not dumped.

Mary sewed a shift. Shifts were a standard item of clothing for peasants. They were typically worn beneath tunics and made of either wool or linen. Peasant women spent a great deal of their time spinning, weaving and sewing the clothing for their families. They would secure their tunics with broaches where they could hang useful items like keys.

or

Mary sewed the last stitch in the hem of the rough wool shift and flexed her aching fingers. She was getting better at the work and Tom would be pleased with the new garment.

One of these examples gives a lot more information about 15th century peasant dress and life. The other states the information as it is relevant to the story. In short bursts it might be easy to overlook, but imagine an entire story that keeps stopping to lecture the reader.

Don’t lecture your reader.

Patroness: DONE! I’m seeing a trend here

A little over a year ago, I posted This update on April 10th.

A year before that, on May 9th, I posted this.

Today I’m excited to announce my newest novel, Patroness, is complete in it’s first draft.

I have been pounding away at various works in progress since January, but when I returned to Patroness in April it took off. It had a strong start last year, after I finished Summer’s Circle, but life stepped in and put an abrupt halt to my creativity. Funny how that happens.

So now I am seeing a trend in the cycles of my writing. Spring time is writing time. I want to write, I am inspired to write, I am motivated to write and I do write. Even with great shows calling me on Netflix I find the time almost every night. Even when I come up against a roadblock in the work, I find ways to power through it.

If I had this kind of momentum all year I would be up to my neck in first drafts.

Which is probably why it is not the case.

I might power through a first draft, but editing is still a difficult process for me. I have a hard time discerning when I am truly done. I need alot of feedback.

I am currently back to editing The Silent Apocalypse and I haven’t even started hard edits on Summer’s Circle.

I used to get frustrated trying to force my way through a novel that didn’t want to be written. Many writers would caution against “waiting for inspiration to strike”. But, in my life, I am coming to find that there are seasons for different aspects of my work. They may change, but if I stay connected to what is calling me, I will be able to take advantage of when I am best suited for each task.

But let me tell you this, Creation season is awesome.

Second Blogiversary!

Hard to believe it’s been two years since I finally decided I was going to do this. Looking back, I am amazed at what I’ve been able to accomplish in two years, even as I have so much I’m still striving toward.

Pursuing writing is a challenging path and there have been plenty of times over the years that I have set it to the side to focus on more pressing aspects of life, but the truth is, aside from forming my family and raising my children, it is the most rewarding thing I’ve pursued.

I’m a day or two from completing the first draft of my newest novel, Patroness, a historical fantasy retelling, and I have to admit, I am so freaking excited about it. I started it last year before a health crisis took over my life and my creativity completely sputtered out. After a few false starts on other works in progress in 2017, I came back to Patroness and found it was waiting for me with a clear idea where it wanted to go.

Writing has never been without challenges though and while I don’t like to dwell on hardship, it is a good idea to look back on hurtles you’ve overcome.

So, in honor of completing my second year as a blogger, Here are the top ten challenges I’ve faced as a writer.

  1. Taking criticism. Going from “You just don’t get my work!” to “That’s helpful and something I haven’t considered before” is a big shift, but it’s had a massive impact on the quality of my work.
  2. Re-learning grammar. Don’t get me wrong, I know my grammar, but there are techniques I’ve adopted that haven’t been the norm and stylistic choices I’ve made that just don’t quite work. Correcting these in old work and changing the way I’ve done things for my entire writing life is difficult, but finally making progress.
  3. Getting to the end. Oh all my works in progress, languishing with no end in sight. I used to spend so much time tweaking and perfecting drafts as I wrote, adding and subtracting complexities that I never got to the end of the story. Now I power through and do not go back to revise unless it’s to delete what I just wrote to go in a different direction.
  4. Clearing out the telling. Granted I’m still working on this, but when I look back on my old work, I can see the progress that has been made. I used to tell everything and anything that was shown was so subtle that it was practically useless.
  5. Doing the editing work. Note to past Lindsey, you cannot half ass editing. You have to do the rewrites. You have to do the line edits. You have to print the whole damned thing out and slash it to bits with a red pen. Then you need to keep refining as feedback comes in.
  6. Making time to write. Unlike some writers, no matter how I schedule it, it’s not always easy for me to churn out X amount of words each day, year round. But when I am on a project, I need to give myself the time to work on it. When I used to work full time, I barely wrote. When I was home, I wanted to spend time with my husband, go out with my friends, veg in front of the TV. Now I set the time aside. As soon as the kids go to bed, I start to work. I write until i run out of steam and then I turn on the TV to binge watch whatever show is calling me, or pick up a book. Write first.
  7. Making space to write. Another thing that used to stop me? It was too damned hard to write without a quiet place to shut myself in, and in my home, there is no quiet place until everyone is in bed. My current office is the living room couch, with a sofa desk and while my husband watches TV, I put in headphones to drown out the news. Before I had this set up, the writing was sporadic and based on circumstance instead of necessity.
  8. Making writing a PRIORITY! Oh, hello mom guilt, wife guilt, homemaker guilt. I see you are all well, but I would like to introduce you to my friend, you did not write guilt. She’s new, but she’s a lot louder than you all now. She reminds me that dishes can be washed later, it’s okay to let my husband give the kids their baths, and I’d rather be tired tomorrow morning than miss out on this inspiration that is flowing through me tonight. No job should take precedence over family, but just like you might stay up late studying for an exam in law school, you may need to sacrifice a few hours of sleep to get those words down on that page.
  9. Every writer works different. I have a friend who can complete a first draft, have it edited himself a few weeks later and then has it sold or self published within a month. I think he might be superman. I do not work this way. I used to think I should, but should doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s okay to work the way you work. As long as you’re working.
  10. Having confidence in my work, even when it still needs work. This was the hardest thing for me to overcome. When I presented my writing to someone I wanted it to be flawless, but even if I perfect it for myself, it will never be flawless to everyone. To own being a writer is to own that you are working on your writing. Every new thing I write is better than the last, and not a single thing I’ve written is perfect. It’s okay because it all is awesome and I love it.

Share your thoughts! What are some challenges you have overcome as a writer?