Thursday, January 28, 2010

Honoring Your Inner Newbie

Last Saturday I started taking an eight-week watercolor class. After the first few minutes I knew I was out of my depth, but I also promised to not beat myself up just because I can’t paint like John Singer Sargent or even like anyone else in the class. I’m a watercolor newbie, and I’m going to make lots of mistakes along the way. And that’s okay, because I’m also going to have the time of my life making them.

Being a newbie at anything is an opportunity to experience a wide-angled sense of freedom and to know first-hand what it's like to live with absolute faith. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I love teaching writing classes to beginning writers. Anything goes, as long as we’re having fun and believe in ourselves. Yes, there are a few rules I set, like: write every day, use specific detail, seize the first and least censored thought blasting through your mind. But basically I do my best to encourage dreams because that’s what I believe all art is: a dream made manifest. To me one of the ugliest things a practicing writer or artist can do is be a nay-sayer, the one quick to laugh at a first-time writer’s innocent grammar flub, or eager to point out how difficult, impossible, slim the chances are of ever finding an agent, getting published, making money. Not only is this “advice” mean, it’s also totally fraudulent. Every--every, every, every--single published author started out unpublished. To believe otherwise is just plain, well, dumb!

After many years of writing with the conviction that the opposite of beginner’s mind is to be “mindless” and who wants that, there are only two things I am certain of: The first is that I can only write if I actually, you know, do some writing, i.e., there is no magic wand that will write for me while I watch TV or hang around on Twitter. Being a newbie doesn’t mean being a fantasist; you have to put in the hours.

The second thing I know for sure is that each new piece of writing does carry the warning label “here be dragons.” But what those dragons are, how to tame them, and what they want from me is never, and will never, be the same. There is no single, universal way to defeat dragons so you might as well learn to be friends with them. The best way to do that is to simply say, “Hello, I’m a new writer (or artist or quilter or pole vaulter). You must be the new dragon. Want a sandwich?”

I think the day that I “know what I am doing” will be the day I will want to stop writing. I don’t write to fulfill some cosmic contract that demands X number of pieces be written before I leave the planet. I write because I can’t stop myself from being fascinated by words, characters, strange happenings, and evocative phrases. I write because I love reading and storytelling and I keep getting these stories in my head that want to be put down on paper.

It’s the same reason I want to take a watercolor class. I have this dream of me painting when I travel, rather than taking photographs. To accomplish that dream I have to start with my Simply Simmons No. 10 round brush and a little tray of Prang watercolors. That and a whole lot of sandwiches for those dragons. I hear they like cream cheese and cucumber. Very cooling.

Tip of the Day: Approach each manuscript or any creative pursuit as a newbie with a beginner’s mind: fresh, hope-filled, and excited about the learning process. The word "mistake" also holds the words: "I make." Make something new today.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Writing With a Calendar, It's Not Just About Dates

I just learned 2010 is going to be the Year of the Tiger, symbolizing among other things a year of “being focused and living in today.” I like the energy behind that thought, and I want to keep that energy alive. One of the best ways for me to do so is to keep a dedicated "writer's calendar" marking my progress.

A few weeks ago I lucked out when I went to the library and picked up a free calendar courtesy of the Albuquerque Water Utility. It's a quality publication, filled with beautiful paintings by New Mexico artists including a piece painted by Tom Blazier, the husband of one of the members in my writers’ group. I always take it as a good sign when that kind of synchronicity appears in my life!

Soon after New Year’s Day I sat down to plan how to use the calendar and how it could help me keep track of my goals and my attempts to achieve them. The first thing I did was divide my goals into four distinct types or levels. These became: daily goals, e.g., word counts, marketing tasks, or choosing the manuscript I want to work on for any particular day; weekly goals, which included things such as “artist’s dates” and writers' group meetings; monthly goals, which basically set out where I want to be with each manuscript by the end of the month; and my yearly goals, or what I call the Big 5: two manuscripts ready for submission; one published book; a completed art journal (which will have a lot of writing, not just art); and a disciplined, engaging poetry practice. For each of these goal types, I’ve created deadlines for when I want to have them completed or at least on the boil.

Essential to making my calendar work is making sure I never use it for anything unrelated to writing; no dental appointments or to-do lists that involve mopping the floor or buying extra milk. This is a calendar for my writing, nothing else. At the same time, I want to keep things flexible—if I miss a deadline for some essential and unavoidable reason, I’ll simply move it ahead to a better and more workable time frame.

Like most calendars, the one I’m using has some extra spaces without dates tacked on to the end of each month. So far these have proven to be a great places to write down favorite writing affirmations. Later on I might use the spaces to give myself some gold stars, or perhaps make a wish list of goals for next year.

Tip of the Day: It’s still not too late to find a calendar for 2010; in fact, now is a good time to buy one on sale. Try to get a calendar that’s sized to fit into your binder or work-in-progress, one that also has large enough date squares to easily write in. Mine is 8 ½ x 11, perfect to keep with my WIP.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What's Your Brand?

I admit I don’t have my own brand, or at least I don’t have one just yet. To be perfectly honest, I’d never even heard of the concept of author branding until a few years ago when I joined the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors here in Albuquerque, NM. The idea of having a unique one-line slogan to describe your writing intrigued me and it’s something I've wanted ever since except for one huge challenge: I can’t for the life of me figure out how to group all my writing under one cohesive umbrella or brand name.

Perhaps because the romance writers I met knew exactly the type of books they wanted to write and why, or else they had already written and sold their manuscripts, it was a bit easier for them to identify their writing styles with a one-line author statement and logo. The practice of branding was something they used to help themselves stand out in a crowded marketplace, useful for both their readers and their various editors and agents. But what if you’re like me, writing across the genres, interested in all kinds of styles and formats, and fascinated by each new writing challenge you set for yourself? How can we describe our writing in a a few pithy sound-bites?

This year I want to figure out what my brand is. Not just so I have something snazzy to put on a gorgeous business card (at one time I toyed with the idea of “Romance Written in the Stars” which I still kind of like if I ever do write a genuine romance) but to help me gather in and identify all my various writing tastes and pursuits. Last night I made a list of what I need to ask myself:

What are my favorite books to read? Why? What is the unifying factor to them? What is my favorite writing style? For instance, if I never had to think or worry about marketability or selling my work, what would I write? And if I'm not writing in that genre or voice, why not? (Maybe it's time I should.)

What are my favorite colors? Favorite clothing? How would I dress if money or messy housework or conforming to a workplace dress code were no object? Do I have any personal symbols around the house or my workspace that identify me? What about favorite songs or music? A favorite painting? A favorite or preferred era in history? Where do I want to travel to? What is my favorite memory and why? Fill in the blanks: “In my dreams I am…” and “My personal statement about life is…”

I want to answer these questions over the coming year. My aim is to find a unifying theme to my work that will help me describe myself to an editor or reader in just a few words; a bio version of the “elevator pitch.” And yes, I certainly want that great business card to go with them!

So what about you? Do you have a brand? How did you find it? How do use it? Let me know, I'd love to find out more.

Tip of the Day: Consider creating your own brand. If you already have one, perhaps you might want to think of more creative ways to expand it to help spread the word about you and your writing.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Starting 2010 With a Writer's Business Plan

I like to start the new year with a business plan. Every January I put together a fresh binder that keeps my various goals, projects, and marketing materials in one place. Not only does this help me stay focused for the rest of the year, it’s a handy tool to take to classes, conferences, and pitch sessions where I can have everything I need to talk about my writing at my fingertips.

Over the years I’ve experimented with and changed the format of my plan until I now have it the way that works best for me. I've used my current arrangement for the last two years and I think it’s the one I’ll stick with. Here’s the way I have the pages set up:
  1. Focus of Intention. This is the place where I state what my purpose for writing is going to be for the year. I also include what genres and styles I want to work in.
  2. Vision Statement. Where do I want to be with my writing by December 31, 2010?
  3. Mission Statement. What will I do to get there?
  4. Objectives. What exactly do I want from my writing? This is where I state the specifics of what I want to achieve and why.
  5. Deliverables. What do I currently have for sale? This can be published books, manuscripts, classes and workshops, as well as items such as marketing tools, i.e., bookmarks and postcards, or T-shirts.
  6. Clients, Customers, Audience. Who am I writing for? Who is my readership? My student base?
  7. Financial Requirements. What are the costs I will incur to keep writing? For instance, I will need postage, business stationery, and web site maintenance fees. Don't forget things like writer's organization fees and dues, conference and travel fees, and anything else you will need for the year. Budget accordingly.
  8. Skills Needed. What do I need to learn this year? Are there classes I should be taking? Books I need to read to improve my craft?
  9. Critical Relationships. Who do you know to help you along the way? Who can open doors, help you connect to other writers or even editors and publishers? Is there someone who can set up a booksigning for you, or simply spread the word that you have a published book for sale?
  10. Bio Statement(s). Every submission or piece of publicity material needs a good bio statement, one that is relevant to the individual situation. That's why I like to write several bios to make sure I have one for each new opportunity as it arises. For instance, when I am submitting a request to teach at a conference, I emphasize my years of teaching beginning writers. When I am preparing a 1-sheet about The Great Scarab Scam, I want to mention that I have traveled to Egypt and have been an avid student of Egyptology for most of my life.
  11. Published Work. Include everything. Newsletters, articles, even your blog. Take credit for every piece of writing that has your byline. But what if you're not published? No problem, just move on to:
  12. Writing Related Achievements/Activities. Taken classes? Been a contest judge? Belong to a writer's group? This is the place to list each and every thing you have done to help yourself become the writer you are and the writer you want to be.
  13. Adjectives/Descriptions of Writing Voice and Style. How would you describe your work? List at least 5 adjectives that you would want a reader or editor to know about your voice.
  14. Influences/Favorite Books, Authors, Films, Etc. Consider this the long list of your Blogger or Facebook profile. Don't leave any influences out and do add any new ones from the previous year. Is there a pattern that perhaps tells you what you like to read best and therefore should be writing? Perhaps one of the most important uses of this list is to make thoughtful and realistic comparisons of your own work to other books and writers without being grandiose or sounding ridiculous: e.g., no more, "Wow! My book is just like The Exorcist for children with a touch of Gone With the Wind meets Winnie the Pooh!!"
  15. Writing Goals, General. I bet you thought we'd never get to this part! But I like to leave the "goals" sections to the end of my plan. I have 3 different categories of goals. The first is my laundry list of everything I want to achieve not just this year, but perhaps during the entire course of my writing life. Naturally it is way too long, way too ambitious, but it's important to me to list all my ideas--even the nutty ones that I probably may never even start.
  16. Writing Goals, 2010. This is a much more sensible and doable list. For 2010 I have only 3 goals: To polish and submit a novella I started in 2008; to polish and submit a nonfiction project I wrote at the same time; and to see my new book, Overtaken through publication by September. And of course I would love to sell the first two to a publisher!
  17. Other Writing Related Goals. This is the place to list classes or conferences, groups you might like to join, literary pilgrimages you've always wanted to take. Dream big.
  18. Marketing Ideas. This is a brainstorming section that I add to during the year. For instance, I list places to approach for booksignings, or lists of things I need to make or do to help sell my work.
  19. Loglines for Next Five Projects. Although my goal list for the year is limited to only 3 manuscripts, it's good to be prepared with not just the loglines for these 3, but also to have the descriptions of my 2011 manuscripts at the ready in case I'm ever asked what those are.
  20. Query Letters and Synopses. I like to keep copies of my various letters and synopses all in one place. For every manuscript I have for sale, I write three synopses: 1-paragraph for the query letter; 1-page that can be included with another kind of letter or that can be sent on its own; and a longer version, sometimes up to 5 or more pages that can be used when a synopsis is requested by an editor.
  21. Manuscript Tracking Chart. This is a simple table I can fill in to track where my manuscripts are at any given time. Just five columns to list the date I sent the manuscript, what the manuscript is, where it went, the name of the editor it was sent to, and finally, the response.
And that's it! At the very back of the plan I like to keep a few blank pages for jotting down ideas or anything else that I want to consider adding to the plan as the months go by.
Tip of the Day: If you don't have a plan, start one now. Use or delete any of the sections I've mentioned here. Most important, create a plan that works for you. For extra inspiration, draw or collage your goals with a "vision map" to keep on or inside your front cover.