Monday, May 31, 2010

Time Changes...Nuthin'

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ~ Andy Warhol

That’s the quote I have at the top of my time management matrix. I’m not a big fan of Andy Warhol in general, but those words are truer than I’d like to admit. I spent years thinking I would write when my proverbial and ethereal ship came in. I would write when I was able to stay at home with the kids, when I had my own writing space so I could concentrate, when I wasn’t exhausted from putting in my eight-to-five (see my post on perfectionism and procrastination!). Most of all, I would write when I had time.

Maybe you’re like that. If so, I have tough news for both of us. We’ll only have time when we find time.

Notice that I don’t say “make” time. We each start out with the same golden 24 hours in our day. Some of us have the balance reduced right from the opening flag by work, school, kids, parents and other unmoving commitments. That doesn’t mean it’s time to put it off and wait until we have More Time. That’s a death knell for a writing career. We will always have commitments pulling at us like a creative rip current, tugging us into the depths of “someday.” And as the Steve Miller Band said, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’ into the future…” (Thanks to Lobug for reminding me of that song!)

I was vaguely aware of this concept at the beginning of the year, when I promised myself, “No excuses.” It really hit me in the gut when I heard Jane Kirkpatrick speak at the beginning of April. Jane began her first novel when she was still working full-time with a significant commute and a working ranch on the side. She wanted to write the book, but when did she have time? She ended up asking herself, “What am I doing between four and seven [A.M.]? Nothing.” So, Jane began setting her alarm and getting to her computer by five each morning.

I couldn’t possibly, I thought.

A couple of weeks and a little more desperation later, I heard my own alarm go off at 5:30. (No, I haven't quite found Jane's commitment level yet.) I told myself I was crazy, but I got up and rattled off a couple of pages in longhand. A month and a half later, I’ve written several thousand words in that same tired longhand. I haven’t written as much as I would have liked. I certainly haven’t finished the book. I have, though, written several thousand words more than I would have if I hadn’t jumped in with both feet kicking and arms flailing.

“They say that time changes things…” Time changes nuthin'. The only thing that changes with the mere passage of time—time without any activity or effort—is that you have a lower total of time left on your lifetime balance sheet.

“…but you really have to change them yourself.” If you want to see progress over time, you need to take that balance of time and wring every available moment from it. Maybe you already get up so early that an earlier alarm is impractical, but where else can you wring silver minutes from your day? During lunch? Kids’ nap times? Right after dinner? Right before lights-out? If you look hard enough, there will most likely be some window of opportunity where writing can really happen. It may not be my hour-and-a-half; it may be a half an hour or fifteen minutes, but it exists. Grab it today and GO!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Perfectionism: A Love/Hate Relationship

Many writers have a dash of perfectionism in their souls. That’s a good thing for a professional writer. If you don’t have some urge toward perfectionism, you may end up turning in sloppy work. If you turn in sloppy work too often, you won’t be a professional writer for long. Perfectionism isn’t always your friend though. There are times it can become your enemy just as much as your ally. Here are some ways perfectionism can work both for and against you in your writing.

When Perfectionism Works against You: Procrastinate Yourself out of Business

Perfectionism is one of the two main causes of procrastination. (The other is hoping the work will go away if you ignore it long enough.) If you’ve never completed a writing project of any length, you may not realize you are a perfectionist. In fact, if you’ve never completed a writing project of any length, you are almost certainly a perfectionist. If you are a perfectionist, you may recognize some of these symptoms. Perfectionists will procrastinate because they:

  • Don’t feel at the “top of their game” right now…they’ll do it later, when they feel better.
  • Don’t feel this is the optimal time or place to write…they’ll wait for a time with fewer distractions or inconveniences so they can do a better job.
  • Need to let the idea gel a bit longer (to perfection)…like another two years.
  • Won’t start something because they don’t feel they can do it perfectly…I can never be a Steinbeck, so why bother?
  • Find lovely rabbit trails to keep themselves distracted from their main task…to do a really perfect job on this, I need to research that and complete such-and-such first.

Does any of that sound familiar? Then you’re a perfectionist procrastinator.

While I’m sure there’s lots of psychoanalysis we could do here, the only real cure is to just write. That’s all. Just write. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and start spitting words out on the page. You can always go back and edit. First, you need to conquer your perfectionism and simply do your job.

And that leads us to…

When Perfectionism Works for You: Polish Until It Shines

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a first draft full of flaws, few editors—or readers—appreciate a final version that they can’t decipher. Once you’ve spewed verbal mayhem all over the page or screen, it’s time to go back and edit until it shines. This is where perfectionism works for you. A person who doesn’t have an eye for detail will do an adequate job. The perfectionist is able to use his mental fine-tooth comb to sweep out the bugs…the adverbs, the split infinitives, the clichés and weak description and all the other little critters that give editors the creepie-crawlies. This is the time to give your perfectionism free-reign. Only one caveat: at some point, editing and polishing have to end. If they don’t, you’ve reverted back to procrastination. So, maybe I should say, give your perfectionism free reign with a deadline. Yes, that’s better.

I could say a lot more on the subject. Instead, I’ll let myself consider this post finished, and direct you to a little essay I found quite helpful and entertaining, by Stanford philosophy professor John Perry. Here it is:

Enjoy and…write! Today!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Emotion and Experience: Laying It on the Table

“To be able to reproduce a feeling so that others could recognize it, and perhaps understand it for the first time, one had to have some idea of what it felt like in reality. To show that one knew meant revealing what one had felt. Revealing oneself too nakedly did not come easily to a private man, and if one did not reveal oneself, one never became a great actor.”*

Dick Francis wrote those words about the art of acting. I think he knew of what he spoke; I think he spoke from personal experience as a writer. Think of the writers you admire, of the great writers whose work you have read. If they grabbed your soul…how did they do it? Did London hold back when he wrote The Call of the Wild? Was it comfortable for Emily Bronte to write of the darkness within Heathcliffe? Did Dumas check his experience at the door when he wrote of Edmond Dantès’ quest for vengeance? Probably not.

That doesn’t mean they experienced every minute detail they wrote about. It simply means they experienced enough to pass on the realistic, gut-wrenching flavor to the rest of us. It means they were willing to expose themselves enough to let us see that reality. To whatever degree their work was inspired by their own feelings, something of those writers is in those characters. That’s what makes them larger-than-life; that’s what makes them great.

Let’s try an example closer to home.

I have a history of depression. (How’s that for laying it on the table?) It’s a “mild” form of the disease, so I’m not nor have I ever been suicidal, but I have been in some very dark places. It was that emotion, that experience that I poured into my very first short story, Grace. I also consider Grace my best story to date. It won first place in a MOTA contest and received honorable mention from Writers’ Journal; it was published both times. When someone asked me how I could portray my character’s suicidal depression so well, I was nonplussed. It was simple. I could show it because I knew it.

Not that I consider myself a London, Bronte or Dumas. I’m not even a Francis. The principle, though, is the same. That piece of work shone brightly because I knew the darkness about which I wrote…and I was willing to show it.

It’s not comfortable to bare your soul to the public. You leave yourself open to criticism, rejection, anger and psychoanalysis. If you want to take your creative writing to a higher place, though, that’s what you have to do. I’ve used examples in fiction, but it’s true for almost any writing form…fiction, poetry, essay or feature writing. If it’s something other than the bare bones, if it’s a piece that allows personality or opinion to reveal itself, then you’re taking a risk. And it’s in taking the truly great risks that you experience the truly great rewards.

*Smokescreen; Dick Francis. Simon & Schuster, New York; 1978. Page 82.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Is the Editor Always Right?

I used to work for a hospitality company that had the motto, “The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always the customer.”

What does that mean? When you’re faced with a demanding, unreasonable client who wants something that’s not even remotely your responsibility—or who wants to pin you with something that’s not your responsibility—you don’t have to knuckle under and give that annoyance her way. Most of us have met those types at some point…the restaurant diner who wants to move this particular two-top across the restaurant so he can sit with his friends, the MBA who wants to change ad copy so it’s *shudder* convoluted and grammatically incorrect, the franchisee who wants a marketing assistant fired because an email contained the wrong link. The list could go on. Unreasonable demands don’t have to be met.

Then there’s that second part of the motto. “…the customer is always the customer.” Even when demands are unreasonable or just plain outrageous, this person is still your client, the lifeblood of your business. Regardless of his behavior, you should treat him with courtesy and respect. You should also set aside the manner of the assault and examine the request to see if it has some legitimate basis.

So, what does this have to do with editors?

As a writer, editors are your clients. Read that again. Editors are your clients. Yes, you have a target audience, but editors are the ones who buy your work and make sure you get paid for it. On those occasions—rare, I’m sure—when editors come to you with changes, what’s your response? You may be so desperate for work that you don’t even think about the changes; you just make them. If you’re like many writers, though, the fact that you’re being asked to change anything about your masterpiece of creative writing raises you blood pressure and your temper. And it’s at those times that writers burn bridges.

I sometimes fill assignment gaps by writing through online sites like Demand Studios. Such sites often hire freelance editors to edit the copy. They’re quick, low-paying assignments that provide writing practice and a little extra pocket money, so my stories usually get accepted without a peep. Recently, though, I had an editor who had a string of comments for every 75-word paragraph. There were comments about phrasing and wording, comments about citation and one comment that I took as a personal affront to my faith. It was tempting to write a scathing reply and find another venue for that particular article. Instead, I logged off and let it rest for 24 hours.

I eventually talked myself out of high dudgeon and back into common sense. I reworded where asked, fixed a typo (oops!) and ignored the supposed affront to my faith. The only place I didn’t budge was in the citations, where I knew I was in line with standard practice. I explained that to the editor—politely—my article was accepted and I got my fifteen bucks.

Yes, that little story has a point. I could have burned that particular bridge and lost not only fifteen dollars but also some great Internet exposure and some of my professional reputation. If I’d gone far enough, I could have been banned from the site. Would it have been worth it? No. Plus, I’m a believer in the principle of behaving in small matters as I would in large. If you can manage to deal gracefully with a few small-time copy editors who may actually have a bone to pick with the world, you’ll find it much easier to work with major players who are simply trying to do their jobs.

Finally, here are a few facts to put things into perspective:
  • Editors are the gatekeepers. Like it or not, they are what stand between you and publication in that particular venue. They also talk to each other. Burn too many, and you’ll soon find your career in ashes.
  • Most editors didn’t get to their positions by being unprofessional or unreasonable. They have jobs to do and they’re doing them to the best of their ability. A request for a change is not a personal assault.
  • Editors are busy. If they are willing to ask for changes instead of tossing your work in the recycle pile—especially if you haven’t signed a contract—that’s a sign that they see some potential. Take it as a compliment and work with their suggestions.