Why I’m still writing this book

MHC at night tallI am still writing a book, you know. In case you were wondering, I actually haven’t given up yet. I write every day, without fail. Anne LaMott told me to treat it like a debt of honor, and that’s what I do. Anne also said to commit to finishing a thing that you start. So I am.

But is that really why I am still writing this book? So that I finish something I started? A friend of mine always tells me to check my motivation, if I want to know what I’m really up to. And writing an entire book — a Regency romance novel, no less — is a pretty wacky thing for a grown woman to pursue, really. On the face of it.

So I am checking my motivation. And here is what I have found.

The main reason I am still writing this book is because I love doing it. It feels incredibly good to have started this thing, and to be seeing it through to its conclusion. It is a hard thing, and I am doing it. I am not particularly awesome at it — yet — but I am still doing it. I generally hate doing things that I am not automatically good at.  But I see this as a matter of faithfully serving out my apprenticeship, which is not a thing I have a very good track record of doing. So that feels pretty unrelentingly good.

So I keep writing, because I enjoy doing things that make me feel good.

The second big reason I am still writing this book is because I want to publish it. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. I want to see this book get published and read by strangers. Ideally, lots and lots of strangers. I do not wish to self-publish it, or to create a 99-cent e-book of it, or to type each chapter as an episodic series of blog posts that you can read for free. I want to write it, revise it, revise it again, and revise it some more. And then I want to submit it to several agents, one of whom will like it enough to take it on, and who will then sell it to a publishing house. I want all of that to happen.

I understand that I am probably supposed to be less up front about this reason. I am probably supposed to dance around it and hedge and self-deprecate and say maybe maybe maybe but probably not but do you guys really think I could? But I say fuck that shit. I want to finish this romance novel and have it get published and have people love it and my characters and want to read more and quit my job and have a Facebook fan page and do all of that.

Do I expect all that to happen? No, not really. But I want it. And I see no reason to play coy about it.

Why bother? Life is incredibly short. Fuck that shit. I want to be a successful published author. What do you want?

When I was at Mount Holyoke, I heard stories about a professor who tended to have a transformative effect on his students. His name was Leonard DeLonga, he was an art professor, and he is dead now, and I know that he is still widely, deeply, profoundly missed. I never had a class with him.

But I keep thinking about the story that I heard most often about him: That he would, at some point in the semester, walk around the room and point to each student, look that student in the eye, and ask “What do you want to do?” He would let them answer, and whether the answer was “join the Peace Corps” or “move to Paris” or “run for President” or “get married and have a raft of children” he would say the same thing. “Do it,” he would say, and then he would move on to the next student.

It sounds a little ridiculous, but every single one of my friends who told this story — and there were many — would glow in this particular way when they came back from this class, the class in which this art professor did this thing. And I was never even in the damn class, never even was in the same room with the man, as far as I know, and his voice is echoing in my head to this day. “Do it.”

I think that it is entirely possible that he started doing this when he learned that he had an inoperable brain tumor. It would make sense, really. What do you want to do? Do it, damn you. I think he was right. Also, I think that you will not do that thing if you do not set out to actually do it. You have to actually stake a claim, set out on that path, buy the gear, wear the sign, make your intentions known, risk failure. That thing you want to do is not going to happen accidentally, or by chance. Your chances of success may be slim, but they will be even less if you do not stand by the road and stick your goddamn thumb out. No matter how stupid you think you might look.

So then yesterday, because I am getting very close to hitting my total manuscript word count of 90,000 words, and therefore am close to going back to the beginning and revising the crap out of this thing, to bringing it one step closer to the actual feathered thing that I have in my mind and can see so clearly, I spent a few minutes yesterday researching the next steps.

I started looking for a critique group. I joined the national and local chapters of my chosen genre’s professional organization. I started making plans to attend the national conference. I started thinking about contests I could submit it to. I started researching agents and publishing houses.

But then I started getting perhaps just a little depressed and downtrodden about it all.

Because I started thinking about THE ODDS.

Now, here’s the thing: You should never, ever, ever allow yourself to think about THE ODDS. Because this is the truth — and listen up, because this is important — this is not the goddamn lottery. You are not subject to some sadistical statistical demigod of yes-or-no in the sky. You get to try your hardest, and then try some more. And maybe that’s all — maybe that is in fact all you get, in the end. So you damn well better choose something to pursue that you actually enjoy the doing of, because you might never get to taste the attaining of the actual goal.

An example: I love to knit. But I do not love to wear, display, or otherwise use the things that I knit. Nor has it historically been all that important to me to give, sell, or donate the items I knit. For most of my knitting life, for all I cared, I could just destroy every single thing I knit a moment after it has been completed, like some sort of Tibetan sand mandala made out of sticks and string.

It’s the making of the thing that I enjoy, the actual doing — it’s the feeling of the fiber running through my fingers and onto the bamboo needles. It’s the sense that I am doing something that people — women, in fact — have been doing for hundreds of years. I am doing that same thing that they did! I love that. I seriously get off on it. And then I am done, and I have this hat or these socks or this shawl or whatever, and I immediately lose interest and want to move on to the next thing.

However, I have recently changed how I knit. I now give most of my knitted things to my best friend, Melissa. I make things intentionally for her. She wears them and loves them and they make her feel loved, because she is. That is what they are there for: to make her feel warm and loved. This practice enriches my knitting. By which I mean: I enjoy it a whole hell of a lot more. And remember: I already derived an almost erotic joy from this hobby. So giving Melissa the things that I knit makes it practically a spiritual act. I am quite entirely not kidding.

Writing is like that for me. I feel more alive when I am writing. I sleep better at night when I have written that day. I know what my place is in this world by the fact of my writing, and by the things that I write. I don’t need other people to read what I write, but I want them to, because it makes me even happier than merely writing would.

So I want you to read this. I want you to read the book I am writing. What’s more, I want to get paid for writing, and I want strangers to read what I write. And to like it.

I don’t need it. But I want it.

Why?

Here’s why.

Because when I read something good, my palms throb. Did you think I was kidding about that? Because I was absolutely not even slightly kidding about that. It usually happens when I am reading a story in which the protagonist suffers some sort of emotional pain — usually romantic pain. I have no idea what causes it. I read a story that has a really meaty bit of emotional anguish; my palms ache.  I have never once heard or seen anyone else ever talk or write about this happening to them. But it is real. It happens to me. And it is the feeling that I am chasing every single time I pick up a book to read.

Make my palms throb, I whisper to each book. Please. I am longing for it.

I do not know what causes it, but I do know that I love that books can affect me this way.

That’s why I’m writing a romance novel, you see. Because nothing else has ever made my palms ache the way a good love story has.

Jane Eyre does it, when Jane comes back and Rochester is blind, and widowed, and he cries.

Persuasion does it, when Captain Wentworth writes Anne Elliot a letter on his way out of Bath, and he tells her he is half agony, half hope, and she chases him down.

Harlequin romance novels have done it. This one, in particular, was the first book that I read that ever made my palms ache. At the end. When Lazar turns his head away from Clair, because of his guilt and remorse and shame. I was fourteen when I read this book. Go ahead, look at the cover. And don’t be fooled. Therein lies a fabulously solid love story.

It is also true that when I read a good love story, I pause, and look up, and hold the moment, just loving the fact that I am in it. I am in the middle of it, and I know these characters, and I care what happens to them, and that is such fucking alchemy that I almost can’t bear it.

You made up a story. You wrote it down. At some time later — maybe a few months later, maybe 250 years later — it made my hands ache, right there in the middle of my palms.

I do not understand this. I don’t understand a single bit of it. But I want in.

I am almost 40 years old now, and I have had a lot of those moments in my life. My palms have ached many, many times, as I raced breathlessly through the last twenty pages of a novel, lying in bed at three o’clock in the morning.

I am almost 40 years old now, and I feel like I owe something, now.

I believe that I need to add to the world’s inventory of palm-throbbing moments. I want to give you a reason to stay up all night, and I want you to close a book, finally, at four o’clock in the morning, and rub your aching palms — or whatever it is you normal people do — and smile in the dark with a sense of deep satisfaction.

Not because I am some sort of narcissistic control freak.

I am that, too, but there is more to it than that.

I want to do that for you because other people have done it for me. And I owe it to you. Or I owe it to the writers who gave it to me. I don’t know precisely who I owe it to. I just know I owe.

I’m in debt, and I need to pay up.

I owe you at least one good, solid, heart-wrenching, palm-throbbing moment. And that’s why I’m still writing this book. That’s why I want it to be published.

I want to do that to you. I want to do that for you.

Also, because I want to be a successful, published author. But also because I owe you.

So I’m going to keep on writing.

 

(Updates: Finished the book. Got an agent.)

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

Photo by thorinside

Photo by thorinside

Okay, so you’ve decided to start blogging, or to get serious about the blog you have. Congratulations!

So you sit down at your desk, rest your fingertips softly on top of your keyboard and…

Nothing.

What on earth should you write about?

It’s an old question.  I have three answers. Three ways to overcome writer’s block.  Pick the one that you like best, or collect the whole set.

Answer 1: Create an Editorial Calendar

Decide ahead of time what you are going to write about on each designated writing day for, say, the next month.  Open up a new Excel document, or create a new Google calendar just for this purpose, and for each day that you plan to write, assign yourself a topic.  Align your topics with upcoming events, with the changing of the seasons, with the day of the week.

If you sit down to write one day and you have a better idea for a post, no problem! Just toss your discarded assignment into a Word document or some other notepad or sidebar, and refer back to this file when it’s time to write your next month’s schedule.

Answer 2: Create a Topic Bank

In this method, you don’t worry about assigning topics to each writing day, but you do spend some serious time brainstorming topics.  Make a huge list of things you might want to write about, and open this file every time you sit down to write.  Be sure to cross things off when you’ve written about them, so that you don’t inadvertently repeat yourself.

Remember that you are writing for your audience (whether you have an audience yet is beside the point), so try to build your topic bank with them in mind.  What do they need? What do they want? How can you help them? What do they come to you for?

If you’re a small business owner, try writing down topics that reflect every conceivable part of your business that a customer might be interested in.  Look at the different pages of your website if you need help thinking in categories.  Do you own a small inn or B&B?  You probably have a page on your website titled something like “rooms” or “accomodations.”

You might write about:

  • Each of your rooms
  • The special items unique to each room (beds, vases, rugs, curtains)
  • The story of how you acquired each item
  • What customers have said about these items

Now do the same thing with each page on your website.

  • Dining: Write about a dish a day. Make it seasonal. Share recipes.
  • Directions: Write about different routes people take to get to your place. Fast route, scenic route, a route that avoids  seasonal traffic, a route for shopping along the way, a route with things for kids to do, a route for romance.
  • Things to do: Write about what’s going on in town. Interview locals. Take one lousy picture and write a couple of lines about it.

Break each topic down into small, bite-sized pieces. Just write one bite per day, and put the rest back in the bank for another time.

Answer 3: Create a Style Bank

This is really the secret weapon, if you ask me.  Once you realize all the different ways in which you can create a blog post, you can free yourself from writer’s block forever. I’m not kidding.

Blog posts don’t always have to be long-form essays.  Oh no. They can be:

  • A bulleted list
  • One photo with caption
  • Several photos with captions
  • A review of a book, a film, a product
  • A How-To guide
  • A How-NOT-To guide
  • A short video
  • A short audio clip
  • An interview
  • A profile
  • A rant
  • A rave
  • A thoughtful response to somebody else’s blog post

And the list goes on.  I find that the style bank helps me the most by far.  Sometimes, you just don’t have an essay-form post in you. And frankly, sometimes your audience can’t stomach another wordy post, either.  Grab a striking photo from your file of pictures or your Flickr photostream, post it, and write a line or two about it. Record a short video using your webcam and Youtube or Viddler or Seesmic.  Record an audio clip using Utterli.

If you really want to make it easy on yourself, you’ll create both types of banks: a Topic Bank and a Style Bank.  Each day when you sit down to write, choose one item from each list. Mix and match to keep yourself and your audience from getting bored.

Just remember: you’re not blogging for the sake of blogging. You committed to do this because you decided that it would help you achieve a certain goal, and you are trying, with every post, to serve your audience and to give them something that they value.  Keep that in mind, and go forth and blog.

the model of a modern major fundraising letter

Jeff Brooks at Donor Power Blog got my attention this afternoon with this post on writing like a human being, especially when writing fundraising appeals. I’ve been thinking about this lately, too.

His main example is that of a typically written fundraising letter –which Jeff complains, quite fairly, that it sounds like it was written by a robot.

Here’s his plea:

When you write to donors — whether you’re asking for money, thanking them for a gift, telling them what their giving accomplished, or even taking care of details — keep it natural, warm, and human. Make sure you’re awake from the organizational stupor that can strike.

I have a book on my shelf at work that I inherited from a previous occupant of my office, that is packed to the gills with “model” fundraising letters like this.

Letters like you get in the mail from organizations you’ve never heard of, sometimes with stamps or pens enclosed, letters that have gut-wrenching envelope copy (“Won’t you help?”), letters that go on for two or four pages, all of which sound like they were written by that special phalanx of typewriting monkeys that crank out heartstring-tugging development copy.

It’s atrocious.

I actually consulted this book the other day when I was looking for a novel way to open a fundraising letter, thinking, How bad could it be? …and I was so appalled at the suggestions (” ‘Please save my baby!’ were the last words she cried…” was one notable example) that I rammed it back onto the shelf next to the Idiot’s Guide to HTML 4.0 — that was also left behind by the previous occupant.

Honestly, is there ever any call to write like that anymore?

Doesn’t it all reek of outdated sales tactics, desperate salesmen, and endless late-night commercials featuring grimy third-world children with tears in their eyes?

Is that the business we’re in?

One of the reasons why it’s worth while to build relationships with current and potential donors, members, constituents, et al., by using social networking and two-way communication like blogs is so that we can dump these outdated, alienating, and only ever marginally effective methods once and for all.

Yes, of course we are still working for nonprofits, we still need to “make the ask” if we are going to get the money we need to get our jobs done, deliver our services, bestow our grants, or whatever it is we are charged to do with whatever resources we are able to gather.

But let’s take a step back from doing the same old thing when we ask for donations, just because that’s how we think those letters have to be written, or because some jerky book tells us that’s how we’ll get our lousy 2-4% return.

If all your other communications are honest, down-to-earth, and neighborly (as many are), why would you need to shift gears when it’s time to ask for money? Why would you shift from a friendly handshake to an unfriendly shakedown?

It’s jarring, that’s what it is. And seriously off-putting.

I think it’s because many nonprofit professionals are uncomfortable with asking for money, so we fall back on what the “experts” say we should do.

When really, it’s just like anything else. Ask yourself, How would I like to be asked? What would I find compelling?

And then tell your story — in your own voice, from your own throat. Not from some jerky book.