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Where Is the Finish Line?

How Do You Know When You're Done?

Where Is the Finish Line?

How does an artist know when a project is finished? For a writer, when is the revision process complete? I've watched dozens of Olympic athletes cross the finish line over the past few weeks, so I've been thinking about endings. It sounds strange that one of my favorite jobs as a teacher was running the xerox machine during my duty period. But there was a finite amount of work, and you knew when you were done - not true of many other teaching tasks. The hubs says the same thing about cutting the grass; you know when you're done, and you can see the results of your work.

The truth is you're never completely done with that creation. There are endless tweaks, revisions, cuts, additions, corrections and general improvements you could make, even when you feel you should be finished. It's a problem for me because there are SO many variables in each sentence and each paragraph, and I want to get it JUST RIGHT. Every time I think I've finally completed a particular chapter, I realize on rereading a few days later that there are changes I want to make.

But I've learned that, at some point you have to call it. At some point you have to stop. I've learned a few things that have helped me find the finish line. I know it's time to type "THE END":

1. When I make changes, then go back and delete the changes to return to the original phrase because I've reached a point where I'm overworking my prose.

2. When I look at my notes and don't find plot points or details I want to add.

3. When I've read the entire book out loud and changed wording that sounds awkward to the ear.

4. When I'm no longer finding typos, misspellings, mechanical problems on rereading.

5. When I have to MAKE myself reread one more time and it's hard to focus because I've practically memorized it.

6. When I've let it simmer for several weeks without peeking, and I'm still satisfied with it when I read it once more.

7. When I'm starting to get excited about other people reading the book.

Eventually, I know I have to STOP because it will NEVER be finished to the satisfaction of an insecure lover of words. I used to  inwardly cringe, when I read from my work in public, at diction I wished I could tweak - because no book is perfect and there will always be improvements that could be made. But I've learned to ignore that inner editor and block out the critic so I can focus on lending drama and emotion to my characters. I remind myself that each opportunity to interpret my story for listeners is a gift. A reading isn't about perfection; it's about drawing your audience into the story, offering them an invitation - through a sample - to experience everything your book has to offer.

I'm sure this problem with endings plagues all artists. How do you know when you've finished a song? a drawing? a painting? a poem? a website? a sermon? a dance routine? a piece of furniture? a house you're renovating? a garden design? a cake decoration? a blog entry? 

This blog entry's done. I'm calling it. Let me know if you have advice on crossing the finish line.

The End


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Posted in August, 2012


9 Tips for Writers

9 Tips for Writers

I've been amazed and impressed at the number of people who've contacted me on Facebook or by email to ask for advice. Some are friends of friends, but there are many I've known for years  without knowing they've been writing quietly - like me - waiting for the right time to send off their work. It's so exciting that all that creativity is swirling around us. Keep working, y'all. Those award winners and best sellers started with a computer and a quiet room and a little bit of time - just like you.

Here's the advice I've given those who've written me. If you're not already writing, maybe this will inspire you to start. It's fun . . . and frustrating, rewarding . . . and draining, exciting . . . and terrifying. I hope these tips on how to get started (and keep going in the face of rejection) will help.

1. Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keys. Nothing happens if you don't start. Make a decision NOW to spend at least 3 days a week at the keyboard for 30 minutes for the next 3 weeks at least. If nothing comes to you, just sit there while you train your brain to seek stories. The muse will come eventually. I promise.

2. Don't Get it Right, Just Get It Down. Make your peace with the fact that your first draft will be terrible. Don't worry. Just get the story down; you can make it pretty later. Fear of what Anne Lamott calls "Shitty First Drafts" keeps so many potential writers from ever getting started.

3. Tell someone else's story. It sounds strange but the easiest way for me to start was to write down anecdotes other people had told me and change them up to suit myself. This worked better than writing from my own life because I wasn't so tied to the truth. Personal writing is often hindered by our reluctance to change details we know are accurate.

3. Read books on craft. My favorites are ON WRITING by Stephen King, BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott, and THE WRITING LIFE by Annie Dillard. These are short, easy reads full of great information and inspiration. I probably read 30 books on writing. That thing people say about how you can't learn to write from a book? That's laziness. Do your homework. It helps.

4. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the conference closest to you. Not writing children's books? Doesn't matter. The things you'll learn about writing and revising and submitting to agents are universal. You can pick the sessions that you're most interested in and get advice and critiques of your work from visitng professionals in the industry. You will learn A TON and you'll meet other like-minded souls who will encourage you. (For AL/MS/GA, google SCBWI Southern Breeze; there's a fall conference in B'ham, a spring one in Atlanta, and several local ones during the year. The Nashville conference is under Midsouth SCBWI.) There are tons of regional chapters across the US. And if you can go to the national meetings in NYC or LA, I highly recommend them.

5. Read blogs and online info about writing, getting an agent, and/or self-publishing. Google is your friend. Some good blogs full of tips on every aspect (like writing query letters, ugh) are Nathan Bransford's, Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants, and my agent's, Jill Corcoran's. Agentquery,  AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler, and Verla Kay's Message Boards are good resources, also.

6. Find a writing group or organize one or seek out other writer friends. Having others critique your work can be really eye-opening, and having writer buds keeps you from being lonely in a fairly solitary line of work.

7. Turn off your inner voices. The ones that say you can't do it. In this business, you must believe to achieve. The same drive that pushes you to write will serve you well in training yourself to do it. Don't let self-doubt hold you back. Rejection is a part of the process. That agent isn't saying your work isn't good - just that it's not what he's looking for right now. They typically get 50-100 submission a day and take on 30-50 new clients a year. You can increase your chances in this massive lottery by working hard, but there's a certain amount of luck and timing involved. (And don't believe people who say you have to know someone. My agent plucked THIS IS NOT A DRILL  right out of the slush pile.)

8. Practice, practice, practice. One of the hardest lessons is that you will write hundreds of pages that may never see the light of day. Most writers (moi aussi) have an entire novel in a drawer, one that never got picked up by an agent or editor. You MUST focus on process and not product. You are teaching yourself a skill and time spent writing is never wasted. Just like playing tennis or piano, you hone your skills through lots of practice. The average time to break into traditional publishing is said to be 10 years. It took me 5, but I worked really hard for many long hours. Patience is not just a virtue; in this business, it's a life preserver. You can't rush the kind of work this goal involves. Perseverance is everything!

9. Build an online presence. Having a self-published book (LAST BUS OUT) helped me do that, but you can submit articles to magazines, essays to contests, guest blog entries to bloggers. And you can chat with other writers and readers through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and other sites. Don't just promote yourself. Let people know who you are and post interesting links to information they might like. And promote others; we're all in this together. 

Good luck, everyone! Hang in there. If you care enough to work and study and believe, it'll happen for you! Can't wait to hear about your book when it does.

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Posted in August, 2012


Elvis Is in the House

Elvis Is in the House

One of the most frustrating things about writing is chasing the elusive muse. Some days the ideas pour from my fingertips (okay, rarely), and some days the creative spirit seems to mock me from afar. There is no predicting whether tomorrow will be a diamond or coal. I’ve learned that it’s best to adjust my expectations after an hour of work. People sometimes ask if I push myself to write a certain number of words or pages a day, and the answer is no. This process, for me, requires flexibility and patience.

I’ve learned a lesson or two about the phenomena of chasing the muse from Elvis, the neighborhood cat. Barbie, next door, said she was adopting him when he showed up, a self-sufficient stray, on our street some months back. But Elvis belongs to no one -- and to all of us. He occasionally appears at our door and when we open it, he wanders in. He never stays long and he doesn’t let anyone get close. He’s not that kind of cat. He lived on his own long enough to be disdainful of cuddles and strokes. But if you’re really still and you leave him alone, he’ll grace your home with his presence just for a little while. We’re always happy to see Elvis -- a diligent enemy of squirrels and chipmunks -- in our yard, and if he chooses to come in, we welcome him and pour him some milk - which he drinks, or not. He roams around for a little while, then exits without fanfare through the door we leave open for his convenience.

The muse can’t be forced. The muse can’t be invited or cajoled. The muse is as elusive as February 29. But if you leave the door open, allow your mind to float free, he’ll often appear. And if you’re really lucky, he might let you get close. The good news is, even when he’s been gone awhile, he always comes back at some point if you let him in and treat him right.

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Posted in February, 2012


Space Once

Are you still spacing twice after each sentence like we learned in 8th grade typing? Well, stop. Now. If you're writing professionally, this practice will brand you as novice. It's a little thing, but it turns into a big problem when you repeat this error throughout a manuscript.

The reason for double spacing was that, in the early days of typing, each letter of the font took up the same amount of space, so we needed two spaces after a period to be better able to recognize where the sentence ended. Now we have proportional-spacing fonts (each letter taking up only the amount of space it needs) so one space at the end does the job just fine.

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Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes and ellipses are not your playthings. They are not confetti to throw against your manuscript for decoration. They are real punctuation marks with real functions in our language. I know you enjoy tossing them indiscriminately at your work. Hey, if it's a rough draft, have at it. But before you submit that manuscript to an agent or editor, clean it up! Why give the gatekeepers one more excuse to toss your work in a slush pile because you either don't know or don't follow the rules when it comes to punctuation?

And don't give me that "I like to break the rules" crap. Just like Picasso knew how to paint a scene with photographic accuracy before he developed his well-known style, you too must master the rules before you bend them. Creativity should not be used as a cover for laziness.

In an attempt to "get it right" for my most recent manuscript, I studied up a bit and tried to boil it all down into one easy-to-understand lesson. Hope this helps.

I.The ellipsis, or dot,dot,dot to some of us (formed in Word with Cont-Alt-Period) is used for:
1) omitted words or phrases, such as "Whether 'tis nobler suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..."
2) an unfinished thought or a trailing off , like "I don't know what to say ..." or "Oh, well ..."
3)a pause, as in, "You...uh...asked to see me?"

II. An em dash (so named because it took up the same space as an "m" on the keyboard, longer than an "en" dash which took the space of an "n") is formed in Word with Fn-Contr-Alt-Minus. (Minus is usually just left of Enter and shares the key with colon and semi-colon) An em dash is used when:
1) a speaker is interrupted by someone, as in, "This is the last time you're going to—"she said. "Don't lecture me!" he interrupted.
2) a speaker is too emotional to continue and interrupts self, for example, "I can't tell you what your gift means to me and my—"
3) a speaker changes gears in mid sentence, like, "I thought you were going to—why didn't you bring it?"
4)a parenthetical comment is added in the middle of a thought for clarification, such as, "I finally understood—for the very first time—what dashes were used for."

In informal writing em dashes can take the place of commas, semi-colons,colons, or periods:
In replacing commas, paired dashes add more emphasis. "I am the friend—the only friend—who told you the truth about that skirt." They move the dialogue at a faster pace when used as a semi-colon, "You ate the brownie—I gained the weight," a period, "You can learn this—it's not rocket science," or a colon, "I brought the necessary beach accessories—lotion, books, and booze."

III.An en dash is just the hyphen used in compound words like brother-in-law, compound numbers like thirty-three and prefixes like mid-1950's or ex-wife. It's also used to divide words into syllables, and of course, in phone numbers. En dashes also show duration, as in 8:00 – 5:00, and Feb. 4-6.

Let's review, shall we?
Ellipses: omitted, unfinished, pause.
Em dash: interrupted, emotional, change gears, parenthetical.

Yes, there is some overlap. There will be times, a few, when either an ellipse or an em dash would be appropriate. When that happens, your choice is simple. Use the dash if your speaker would be talking fast or is in a tense situation, and an ellipse if you want to slow the dialogue down a bit. (It works. Try it.)

Feel free to add any tips you've discovered that might help others to play nice with punctuation or tips to help writers bend Microsoft Word to our wills when punctuating.

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Posted in February, 2011

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