Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Writers and Stress...

Putting your characters under stress and in stressful situations is considered good form- unfortunately, the same can’t be said if your characters (or plot or agent or editor etc) are causing YOU stress.

Stress and stressors are a part of everyone’s lives- including writers. Stress can have an extremely negative impact on mental and physical health as well as production levels (aka- stressing out about not getting things done causes you to get less done).

From WEB MD:

Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress -- a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
Consider the following:
• Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
• Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
• Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
• The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions.

Stress can mess up anyone, and especially folks who may be at home working alone. Or folks who are trying to work a day job and write. Or folks who are running a family and writing.

Some folks are very aware of the stressors in their lives, but choose to “live with them” or they feel they can’t do anything about them. Other folks really have no clue how many stressors they actually have.

My suggestion would be to keep a stress journal. Just for a week or so, write down everything that stresses you out- big or small. Even if you are aware of your stressors, you may still want to keep track of them, you may be surprised. Chronic stressors (that neighbor who always runs their leaf blower at 7:01 am) or acute stressors(opening that email from the agent who asked for a full), both types have the same bad outcome. Stress brings out different reactions in different folks, and what stresses out one person, may not even be a blip on the stress-o-matic meter for someone else.

After you’ve gotten a good idea of WHAT stresses you out, look at what you did about it. Did you ignore it and muster on? Use a coping strategy? If so was it a good one?

Understanding stressors can help address dealing with them.

Look at the big picture. Focusing on the minute details can lead to madness, or at the very least stress. Sometimes you need to back away from nitpicking things apart and look at the long run- aka your writing career. Each little step (no matter how small) towards your goal gets you there. Sometimes pulling back and looking at the entire image, also you to shake off stress caused by the “here and now”.

Adjust your standards. Perfectionism is a horrific disease, and one that plagues writers and most creative artists. But being perfect isn’t part of the human condition, even folks you may think are perfect- AREN’T. Therefore trying to hold oneself to too a high level of perfectionism, which is not realistic, is mentally ill. Yes- have goals. Yes- keep improving them. But develop the ability to see when you’re trying to be “perfect”, and step away from things when that happens.

Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Knowing what is within your control, and what isn’t, goes a long way to helping weed out stressors. Have you done all that you can- AT THIS POINT IN YOUR WRITING LIFE- to ensure you’ve got your best work out there? Then don’t worry about it. You control your craft, sitting down regularly to write, improving your skills, and learning from others- you do NOT control the actions of agents, editors, readers, or critics.

Now, so far we’ve looked at what stress can do to you, you’ve made a plan to start your own stress log and hunt down your own stressors (and your reactions), and looked at ways you can cut down on stressors.

But it’s going to be there regardless, so you better have some good coping skills.

What NOT to do:
Here’s a list of what you SHOULDN’T be doing to reduce stress. These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run:

Drinking too much
Overeating or undereating
Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
Using pills or drugs to relax
Taking out your stress on others (lashing out, angry outbursts, physical violence)

Here’s what TO do ;).

Set aside relaxation time. I know, setting aside time to do NOTHING is very hard for most writers. It seems like there’s not enough time as it is, and now you need to give up more? But down time keeps the brain from exploding so make it a regular habit.
Connect with others. Writing is solitary, make sure you have friends, whether they be in your home town, or across the globe who you can talk to, vent at, celebrate with.
Keep your sense of humor. Find something to laugh about daily. Tag a funny website and visit it during breaks. Keep a cartoon book next to your desk.
Exercise regularly. Working out, whether it be walking, running, swimming, hiking, or monster hunting- will help reduce stress MASSIVELY. Use the time to ponder some major plot point problems and it’s a double win!
Eat a healthy diet. Yeah- junk food is quick and let’s face it- TASTY. But in the long run it’s going to make you tired and less focused. Make sure you have healthy snacks available for your writing sprints.
Reduce caffeine and sugar. Ah, the fall back trick for writers- sugar and caffeine and you can take over the world! Until you crash and things turn ugly. Cut down on both to keep more balanced and less stressed.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Ok folks- this should go without saying.
Get enough sleep. I know, “But I’m on DEADLINE”. Doesn’t matter- you need sleep, nuff said.

Now the best time to approach all of this, the logging of stressors and reactions, your own plans for ongoing stress reduction is when you’re not stressed. Like now :). Make sure to incorporate stress reduction actions regularly in your daily life- by the time you feel stressed, it may be too late.

Now will all of these things work for all people? No, but are they good guidelines to keep yourself happy and writing for many years to come? Heck yes.

What about you? What are some of your worse stressors? Best coping mechanisms?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Does a rose smell just as sweet if it’s called a turnip?

Today is about the good, the bad, and the ugly of ...titles. Yeah, yeah, my blog title refers to names, not titles, but really what is a title but a name? It’s the name that exemplifies the wonderful world you’ve created, the amazing characters, the thrilling adventures. No pressure there, eh?

I don’t know about you folks, but I don’t like having to come up with titles. I had an ex-boyfriend who loved titles...he’d come up with tons of them, then created cool plans for his world ideas to fit his titles. He never really WROTE anything but he did make titles and plan ;).

I write, I write a lot. I HATE titles. And I’m not sure that I’m very good at it. My novel WIP, Sakari’s War- I like ;). It’s simple and it speaks to two “wars” for my main character Sakari- one internal and one external. However, at a meeting with a “big NY Publisher”, two of my other titles were less than loved. One he liked, A Curious Invasion, but the other two- not so much ;). He still requested the full mss of one of the ones he didn’t like the title of. I changed it when I sent it to him.

My novella WIP has no name. I’ve just been calling it “Geek Novella” since it was born, and now I can NOT for the life of me come up with anything else. I think I’m in a fix, since I can’t really submit it that way (any of you really good with titles?- HELP!!!).

I know titles are important, often I pick up a book to see if it’s something I’d like based first on the title. That being said, I have picked up and loved some books with titles that weren’t fabulous ;). I've also walked away from great titled books that had nothing beyond a great title.

So titles help give a feeling for your book, help agents, editors, and hopefully readers decide on whether they want to pick it up or not. But a great title can’t save a sucky book ;).

What are your thoughts? Are you a title wiz, or, like me, a title dweeb? For you published folks- how many times have you had a title be changed by the publisher? Good change or not so much?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why I love being a pantser

Ok, I know there is the great pantser verses plotter debate in writing-dom, with many folks coming down heavily on their chosen stylistic side. But sometimes, ya just have to marvel at how the human mind works.

I’m a pantser. From time to time I dilly dally with becoming more plotter like, at least outlining of some sort (this most often happens when I’ve been editing and cleaning up some "pantser-oops" mess).

But then things happen that could only happen to someone flying at least partially by the seat of their pants. A major epiphany half-way through my novella. I won’t spell it out here (just in case the thing makes it into print ;)). But suffice it to say it was HUGE.

I’ve never written a novella and never done a romance. So doing a romantic novella (even a geek one) is a major challenge for me. I think the challenge of the form and genre were stifling my writing and I wasn’t sure where to go (ok, I was- I had the ending- just had no middle).

All of a sudden a new character popped up. Literally, I typed the dialog as she showed up in my head, it took me a second to get her name.

After a few paragraphs of thinking she was one thing, an entirely different idea popped in. One that fit very well and was even more realistic because when I first wrote the interaction between the new character and my main character, I had NO idea who the new character really was. It was a perfect "what would really mess up my main character" moment.

It was a game changer and triggered a few more twists that really liven things up.Now, I’m not saying that plotting is bad, but sometimes a spontaneous twist in your story can make all the difference.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Two weeks of great blogs!

Last Monday I did a post about stealing writing ideas, craft, etc from wherever you can find it on the internet. Well, today I’d like to point out a great place for some writing resource mojo! Gabriella Hewitt is having a wonderful March Madness run on her blog starting today with a great collection of writing related folks dropping by to blog over the next two weeks.

It doesn’t matter what you write (fantasy, mystery, romance) reading what people in the industry are saying is always a plus.

Here’s her list for the bloggers- I suggest popping by each day- you never know when someone’s bit of information will be a game changer for you. Take advantage of this great opportunity.

March 19th—Liz Pelletier, Publisher & Senior Editor, Entangled Publishing

March 20th—Alicia Rasley, Author, Writing Instructor & Editor

March 21st—Kayelle Allen, Author & Founder of The Author’s Secret

March 22nd—Don D’Auria, Editor Samhain Horror, Samhain Publishing

March 23rd—Frazer Lee, Award-winning writer and director of short horror films & on Final Ballot for a Bram Stoker Award for best debut novel

March 24th—Sophia, Director of Fiction Vixen Inc. & Book Reviewer

March 25th—Tom Adair, retired Senior Criminologist, Author, Blogger at Forensics4Fiction

March 26th—Marcia James, Author & Marketing Specialist

March 27th—Saritza Hernandez, E-Pub Agent, L. Perkins Agency

March 28th—Julie Miller, Multi-published Author of Romantic Suspense and Sizzling Romance

March 29th—Christine D’Abo, Author & Self-professed sci-fi junkie

March 30th—Christie Craig, Photojournalist, Author & Speaker

Make sure to visit this site :)- and like last week- if you know of any other really great writer’s blogs- post them here!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stalking the Story- Part 1

Happy mid-week folks! Today I’d like to talk about story.

sto•ry 1 (stôr , st r )
n. pl. sto•ries
1. An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious, as:
a. An account or report regarding the facts of an event or group of events: The witness changed her story under questioning.
b. An anecdote: came back from the trip with some good stories.
c. A lie: told us a story about the dog eating the cookies.

Now the above are definitions of story. What happened to whom. Usually where and why are tossed in, but not always. If I run into a friend whom I haven’t seen in a very long time, we may share stories of what’s being going on in our lives lately. They will be truthful (mostly) and linear (hopefully) but they most likely won’t be something someone would want to pay money to read. Their point is to convey information between people. Now, humor may be added to stir things up, a bit of exaggeration (directly related to how long it’s been since one has seen said old friend) may also arise.

Example: “So good to see you, Jane. What have I been up to since High School you ask? Well, I went to college in Hawaii, married a doctor, had two amazing children (one of whom is a Rhodes Scholar, the other in medical school), we retired early and have three homes in Europe.”

Now does this hit all the marks of a story? Yes. Is it a story as we writers view story? No.

Sometimes when writers, especially newer ones, are trying to get their story out, they create things about as interesting as the paragraph above. They just throw everything at the reader -this happened, then this happened, then this happened. They aren't looking at anything else- they think their story is great, so why shouldn't others?

At a recent writer’s conference I met a very wise man (Jack Grapes- if you get a chance to hear him speak- do so). His first instruction to all writers? Print out, “My story is boring” and stick it over our computer monitor. Not other people’s stories are boring, but MY story is boring.

And he’s right.

Story by itself, without emotional ties to the characters living it, has little to no impact on the reader. In effect, it’s boring (this doesn’t mean you can write a boring story however). If I don’t know and love (or at least like) your main character, I really don’t have any vested interest in whether or not their life is in danger.

The WHO is vital for the where, why, what, and when to have meaning. When writers lose sight of that (or haven’t realized it yet) they create works that lack power. I think sometimes writers, especially those of us in the genre markets, get so caught up in the amazing story (or back story of the world, customs, etc) that they fail to give the reader that all so important link to their world- the amazing and empathy evoking character.

So before you start thinking story, start thinking WHO. Just don’t go overboard (really, even for extreme plotters a character sheet of a few pages is enough- more than that and you are in “writing avoidance mode” ;)).

Next week we’ll talk about what else makes a story work and go beyond boring (even though it is…).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Being a Thief

Today I'd like to talk about a crucial skill for any writer- thievery. Now I'm not talking about stealing someone else's ideas, characters, titles, whathaveyou- I'm talking about stealing information.

We're in a field that really has no lesson plan (ok, those of you working of your MFA's go sit this one out ;)). There's no one specific way to become a published, or publishable author. So we have to cobble together our own lessons from those around us.

Take a quick look at the "my blogs" section of this blog. I have folks on there whom I steal from regularly and most don't know me personally ;). I keep that list there for myself as well as other writers who may want to find new places to pick through. New bits of information we can add to our nests.

We're lucky in that we are writing in this great age of the Internet. Lemme tell ya, when I first started (won't say when ;))- there was no Internet. You had to get all information from books (sometimes out of date) or the monthly Writer's Digest (helpful, but often limited). Now it's ALL OVER.

And yet, I still see new writer's asking very basic questions and making very basic mistakes. Things that a simple Google search probably could have addressed. They haven't learned to reach out- to troll for info. To cross genre lines to learn writing skills and business issues. If you note, I have blogs from numerous genres listed (I'd add more but it's getting a bit long already). Good writing is good writing, and if I can pick up a great tip from a mystery web site- does it matter where it came from? I don't write romance, yet I have learned more from the RWA than anywhere else.

To be a writer means you need to be inquisitive- not only about your characters and your stories, but about your writing knowledge.

Steal from everyone and give back when you can.

Do you have any amazing writing/writer blogs to recommend?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

You can’t make everyone happy.

Everyone wants to be liked, to have validation that they are a good person. And for writers we want to be validated that our books are good people too. When a book of ours gets sold it’s the validation we seek and suddenly everything is right with the world, everyone loves us, and life is a bowl of cherries.

(Yeah I know, well then your advance isn’t as big as you’d hoped, you get a few bad reviews, maybe your editor doesn’t pick up a new contract, you and your agent part ways. We won’t go there today ;).)

But the bottom line is, you want everyone to love your work.

That’s a very bad idea.

Now bear with me, having tons of folks love their work certainly didn’t hurt Rowlings or Meyers. However, in both cases it could be argued that those two authors created books that appealed to them, that were specific, not general, and just happened to strike a chord across a wide group of readers. They didn’t set out to build something EVERYONE would love.

When a creative endeavor takes place, the thinking of some folks is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This isn’t really a good game plan as it can end up washing your work out.

For today’s example, I’ll be using a recently cancelled TV show (curses, Fox TV execs!) Terra Nova. This show had an interesting premise, in 2149 Earth is pretty much thrashed, we’ve destroyed our environment. Somehow (ok, the science is iffy, but bear with me) they find a crack in time to an alternative past. Hoping to save some of humanity, they send small groups to the time of the dinosaurs to set up a colony. They populated it with promising characters too: the tough, hard ass with a past commander, his tough female second in command. The hot rebel who breaks the rules to bring his family of five (that’s one reason he’s in trouble- only allowed 2 kids in 2149- they broke the rule) to the past. Attractive and smart mom, cute little girl, smart and witty teen daughter, hunky and petulant teen son.

The sound you hear is that of too many demographics being aimed at.

The show was fun, not a change your life exciting, but fun. To be honest I am pissed Fox just cancelled it. But I do think they spread themselves too thin in terms of what the show was supposed to be. Throwing the family in there makes it aimed “Family”, yet it wasn’t very consistently family, for example a main character was shot point blank.

Had they constructed it without the family unit, they may have lost some of the emotion (at least that’s what I’m thinking they’re thinking). The kids weren’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but they created a different type of show- is it family? Rough and tumble adventure? A mystery? A teen angst show?

The problem with TV and movies is that they are created by committee- LOTS of committees. Sometimes that can kill what should have been a very good show. As authors, it’s just us (until agents and editors get involved, but it’s not the same). But we can still have the problem of trying to appeal to TOO many folks.

So how do we get around it? ALWAYS write from your heart, don’t worry about being “liked” if it feels true to you, and never try and follow trends. It may or may not help you get published, but it will make sure your writing is yours- and not part of everything under the sun. It’ll make sure you won’t be loved by everyone.

Which is a very good thing.