Tricks of the trade


Helga’s Post # 24 — One month after the 5 writers 5 novels 5 months deadline. Time for a reality check.

I am pleased to say I haven’t been this productive in my writing career ever, as during the 5 month challenge ended on February 5. Although I have yet to write ‘The End’ and, I confess, more than that, I have a solid novel in the making. All of it in just over three months, which is the time I started writing my ‘new’ novel (having abandoned my previous one because nobody liked the topic: Organ theft. No, not the musical instrument installed in churches and concert halls, but kidneys, livers, eyeballs, you name it. Yikes). Mind you, my new topic, a suspense story with a slight (ever so slight) angle of sci-fi and a huge angle on conspiracy, may not have a universal following either. But based on preliminary feedback, I hope it will have a wider audience. That is, if I find an agent willing to take a chance on an unpublished ‘Late Bloomer’ (see Silk’s post on the subject).

The trick was, and continues to be, to believe in myself. To believe I can write. That is ‘Trick Number One’ for all writers. Pure and simple. If you don’t get beyond that, you don’t need to look at all the other tricks that follow (and they are legion). You can go back to telling yourself all the usual excuses: Life’s too short to waste on something I probably never get paid for. I don’t have time for anything else, like putting up my feet and watch TV, or just relax. I’m too tired to torture my brain on a plot that keeps running into dead ends.

Sure, you could keep on writing, bumbling along, show your writing to family, friends, or ideally, your critique group. The feedback received, while polite, is lukewarm, a subtext implied. You start doubting your ability. Chances are, without confidence in your own writing, you won’t ever be good at it. May as well switch to a different vocation.

But let’s assume that we have passed Trick Number One. We believe in our talent. What else can we do to help us along the merry road to writing and finishing our superb piece of fiction?

Deadlines. Yes, deadlines and discipline. That’s why I’ve gotten as far as I did, and only due to that. If we have unlimited time, we squander it. Hence we need deadlines.

I remember a writer I met at the Surrey Conference six years ago. She was then working on a novel about gang-rape, if I recall correctly. Sounded promising. The next year, she was still writing the same book, and the two years after that. I have lost track if she has moved on. Now I’m not sure if this was due to not having set a deadline. But it could. My guess it has more to do with Trick Number One. If the book doesn’t come together in a certain period of time, let it go. It’s not meant to be written. And to be read. Start something else.

To help with deadlines, to keep you on the straight and narrow, use whatever tools you can find. I came across a cute one, called Yes, it’s that time-honored egg timer, and it’s online. You can set it to any length you want. It’s helpful if you need a certain discipline, like no matter what, you will write for whatever number of hours that you predetermine. Without picking up the phone to call friends, or playing games, even checking emails, whatever. All those things you can do after, or before if you wish, but keep your promise of uninterrupted, focused writing time. Even if it’s only one or two hours. The trick is on ‘focus’ and dedicated time.

Then there is Trick Number Three, after deadlines: Trust.

It’s a biggie.

Yes, it hurts. It can bring tears to your eyes, (see Paula’s post) shed in front of your critics (not so good), or in the privacy of your bathroom, sitting on the toilet (better option), later, after it all sinks in: My writing needs tweaking, they said. Tons of handwritten margin notes on my pages that I have sweated over, to get done by the deadline. I conclude, they meant it sucks big time. Those lovely chapters with that witty dialogue exchange among wonderful characters,  their clever inner dialogue (which I am told inevitably is way too long), all of that which I was so proud of, just missed the target with my audience. Never mind bull’s eye. It landed way outside the circle.

What to do.

After discounting Hara-kiri as an option, after looking at the feedback just received in the cold light of reality, when ego has been swept under the rug, and logic sets in. Rational thinking. Survival instinct. What if these critics have a point? Who are they anyway? Do they even know what good writing is?

When I share my writing with my sample readers, which in my case is my critique group, I bare my soul. I trust them. Still trust them, after years of togetherness in the pursuit of good writing. They are my friends and as such, keep me honest even if inflicting a bit (or sometimes a lot) of pain discomfort. I know they want me to succeed as a writer. Nothing would make them happier than seeing my work published, equally to seeing their own work published. Maybe more so. That is something I can count on. As solid as the Rock of Gibraltar (as I hear my 4 buddies cry out in unison: ‘Cliché alert!) It is the greatest gift that I, as a writer, and a person, could wish for. Just as Joe said yesterday. To trust other writers.

There are many more tricks, of course, and they work differently for every writer. For example, as Karalee’s recent blog talks about, What’s in a Name. I agree that much effort should go into choosing the right one, as names do have an emotional association. I know that, even writing the first draft, I want my names to sound right. Because as I write about these characters their names form an intimate connection. This is where ‘just get the story down’ is not particularly helpful for me. Even writing that first draft, I need that association that enables me to get into their heads (and they into mine) and write about them with passion and credibility. I take my time to find the right names. It’s fun. It’s part of my research. Choosing great names that fit my characters from the start is a neat writing tool.

And those are the tricks that are most helpful for me. Believing in myself, discipline for staying focused and keeping deadlines, trusting feedback from my critique group, and practical tools like choosing good names. Each one of them has sub-tricks. Like Trick Number One, and Three, self-confidence and trust: AUD0709_SA12Grow a thick skin. Thicker than an elephant or a rhinoceros, or an armadillo. Nobody needs it more than a writer.

And just in case you are doubting yourself during the wee hours of a sleepless night, take heart. Here are some folks who never gave up believing in themselves:


6 thoughts on “Tricks of the trade

  1. LIKED your post and LOVED your 6 “failures” insert, which buoyed me almost as much as Silk’s last post. However, I disagree with you about deadlines. Before I retired, I was an appellate criminal lawyer, and every case I received had a deadline for the brief, response brief, etc. I never did my best writing, because I knew I had to finish the brief and submit it by a stated deadline. Some writers may benefit from them, but I don’t.

  2. I hear you. Different strokes as they say. Not everybody does well with deadlines, but for me it’s a must. I am simply not disciplined enough if I don’t have one. But every writer can choose the tools that work best, because, and this is one big writers’ perk, we don’t have a boss telling us what to do. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. So many of your observations ring true Helga. I’d add two other essentials to the list: FAITH (belief that what you’re sweating bullets over will all turn out to be worthwhile, even in the absence of definitive evidence); and HOPE (that your faith is not misplaced). But getting published aside, writing also needs to be its own reward. And, in it’s own challenging way, just plain fun.

  4. I am completely dependent on deadlines. I honestly don’t mean to squander my time (although who does, I suppose), but I simply can’t help it. A ton of time means that I have time to get it absolutely perfect, and why write that first sentence if you can make it better with a little more time. So time goes by and there is still no sentence. Not one bloody sentence.

    So I work with deadlines. Whether I give them to myself, or they are imposed upon me by someone else, icanhasdeadlines. I’ve learned to celebrate the small things, even little tiny things, because those celebrations help you to look forward to the next one.

    Thank you for liking my BlogFlash post (whichever one of you it was?). Your blog is a new favorite of mine.

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