Category Archives: Writing Wisdom

What to do when you don’t make your goals

Last Saturday, at the monthly OCC RWA meeting, we held a drawing for everyone who entered goals three months ago. I did not accomplish my goals. Bummer, but you know, stuff happens.

If I were my 20-year-old self, I would’ve shaken out the hair shirt and really worked myself over for not working hard enough.

Age can mellow you out, especially if you’re a Capricorn like me.

Here’s what 23 additional years of life experience has taught me when it comes to not making my goals.

Examine. So why did you not make your goal? Were you too ambitious in your planning? (Pausing to raise my hand.) Did work/family/emergencies take you off the path? Examine what happened from the time you set your goal to the due date.
Do the math. How much did you accomplish in that time: half of the book, ¾ of the book, nothing? Even if you only got five pages written, give that some love. As a recovering hair-shirt-Capricorn baby, I can tell you that appreciating what you’ve accomplished is far MORE productive. And us Capricorns, are all about productivity.

If you have no idea what this whole Capricorn riff is all about, check this video out and then return to the next suggestion:

Reset. Okay, so back to the math. It took you three months to complete 150 pages when you needed to complete 300 to make your original goal. The deadline for your new goal – because you’re not giving up – should be three more months from now. Or, if you really freaked out, give yourself more time.

If you really want to go deep, I highly recommend The Chunky Method by Allie Pleiter. In her workshop and book, she helps you to determine what kind of writer you are, how productive you really are and then gives you the formula to determine when you’re most likely to successfully complete a book. I always thought I was a sit-in-the-chair-until-I’m-done-or-dead kind of writer. I was in my 20’s, but now I can last about 15 minutes before I need to get up and move around. By accepting that reality rather than trying to fight it, I’ve become much more productive and my yoga has gone up a level because I intersperse writing sessions with exercise.

You freaked out big time. Hey, it happens to all of us. My inner critic can wake me up in the dead of night. I’ve persisted through her schoolyard taunts for decades because those fears were embedded way too deep. I recently undertook Nancy Levin’s audio book, Worthy. Her book focuses on self-worth issues tied to money and abundance. All I can say from the experience is: wow. I dredged up fears and confidence issues that I spent way too many years denying. Through listening to the audiobook and doing the exercises, I’ve released old abundance myths and replaced them with new abundance truths and it has affected every area of my life, especially my writing. I also have the tools to face fears and recognize excuses – they never really go away, but I have gotten better at recognizing them when they show up – and keep moving closer to my dreams.

Get to work. Ever since last week’s meeting, I’ve made headway in reaching my goals. I’m beginning to suspect that I need to be better at tracking my progress and keeping a journal of what I’ve accomplished so I know where I need to pick up in between writing sessions. If I practice what I’ve just preached, I will achieve my goals of publishing Girl in the Mist audiobook and Lost in Whispers by November 2017.

I’ll let you know one way or the other!

What are your goals for the next three months? What do you do to stay on track? Share in the comments.

Today’s 5-minute Tarot Session

I’ve recently been using the cards to help focus during my writing sessions. It is very helpful, not to mention accurate!
Here’s how I do each reading:
1-I say a prayer asking for clear, loving guidance.
2-As I shuffle the cards, I ask questions such as: what is the energy behind each scene, what does the character need to learn, how is the best way for her/him to learn their lesson and what is the outcome if they learn the lesson.
3-I pull three cards, interpret each card according to the questions I’ve asked and then read the spread as a narrative. Sometimes it makes sense; other times I know the answer will come later when I need it. I keep the spread on my keyboard as I write to keep focused on the scene or task at hand.
My only motivation in sharing is that I hope it’s helpful!

NaNoWriMo Tip 2: How to Make Your Goal

I should’ve added, “How to Make Your Goal Without Losing Your Mind.”

So this is by no means the absolute, fool-proof, 100% guaranteed list of how to achieve your NaNoWriMo goals. It is what works for me and I share this with the goal that it might stimulate you to come up with ways that will work for you.

Here we go:

  1. Understand how you write. I’ve been doing this writing thing since 1994. One would think I had it figured out. But life changes. The demands on your attention and energy change. You develop back problems and the old eyes stop working the way they used to. I was trying to do the same old routine: sit my behind down for an hour and write without a break. I can tell you what that accomplished: a page or two of work and way too much Facebook scrolling, sharing, liking and commenting. I read and practiced The Chunky Method and it changed my writing life for the better. I learned that I have an optimal 15 minute attention span. So I set my stopwatch and within an hour I work in 15 minute segments. And guess what? I write like the damn house was on fire in those 15 minute sessions! Do I say and not as I once did: rather than write the way you think you should write, embrace your work style and make it work for you!
  2. Give yourself a break. Oh I just heard that groan. I’m a mama so I also caught that eyeroll with the eyes on the backof my head, too! But seriously, give yourself a break. Even if it’s just to stand up, do some wrist circles or scream into a pillow, moving re-energizes the body and mind. My personal favorite is to do the dishes. Maybe it’s the flow of the water but it just gives my mind a release and then those characters start up again and I’m ready for my next 15 minute session.
  3. There will be days you can’t work and that’s okay. This is a judgment-free zone. Life happens. Kids get sick. You get sick. Someone at work gets sick and you have to pick up the ball. On days when I can’t write (and boy do I get a grumpy!), I remind myself that the world is always there. Because really, where the hell is it going to go? What will the characters do without you? I find that the simple statement, “The world is always there,” lifts the stress off my shoulders and prepares me to jump in mess up my characters’ lives even more.
  4. Meditate. Dude, this changed my life. I’m telling you the truth. A short prayer followed by a ten-minute session of quiet gets me in the world and ready to go. I’ve now started meditating after my writing session to transition into family time or work. I highly recommend davidji‘s Sweetspot Online Community for free meditations. He brings ancient meditation techniques to the modern world and he’s a funny guy. Plus Rocky the pug may have a crush on Peaches the Buddha Princess.
  5. Turn off social media. In fact as soon as finish reading this, do yourself a favor and turn off your browser. Set your mobile to Airplane mode, throw the wireless thing-of-boob out the window and get writing!

NaNoWriMo Tip 1: Goals

Today is the start of National Write a Book Month. Does the idea of writing an entire book in 30 days intimidate you as much as it itimidates me?
 
If so, consider setting a specific goal between November 1 and November 30th. Here are some that have served me in past NaNoWriMo’s:
  • Write the first five or ten chapters
  • Revise Act I
  • Write a novella or short story
 
The more specific I am with a goal, the more likely I am to accomplish or exceed that goal. For this year’s #NaNoWriMo I’ll be editing Act III of Lost in Whispers. Nothing more, nothing less. And I know there will be changes that will require me to back to Act I and Act II in December so that the book makes sense. But my goal is not for Act III to be perfectly publishable. It just needs to get done so I’m closer to my final goal of getting this book in its very best form to you in March 2017!
 
But if you really want to write that book in 30 days, go for it! I’ll post some tips to make it as productive as possible tomorrow.
 
If you’re NaNoWriMo-ing this month, please share your goals and stay in touch with your progress!

Entrances

The hardest part of a story to write is the first line. Speaking from my experience as a reader (e.g. what pulls me into a story) and a writer (what has sold my work), a character has to make an entrance. Or, if told in the first person, a statement. I don’t mean just having someone walk through a door, or wake up in bed and most definitely not stare at herself in the mirror over the bathroom sink. Characters arrive. They have a presence that makes you turn to the next page and the next until the end when you (hopefully) wish the book hadn’t ended so soon.

When I think of great entrances, I remember the night I watched The Seven Year Itch on the big screen in downtown LA. When Marilyn’s fan cord stuck in the doorway, three hundred of us gasped in the dark. We held our breath at the palpable energy that radiated from her 50 years after she’d shot that scene.

Right now, or rather right before I began this blog, I arrived at the phase of my WIP when it’s time to write the first line. Some lines appear just like that. Some take a few drafts or they hide from me until I realize that the first 20 pages I wrote don’t belong in the book. The only way I know that I have the first line is when (a) it no longer bugs me in the middle of the night, and (b) when it makes me sit up and shout, “Whoa!”

So here I go into territory unknown and still no first line in sight. But I figure it’ll show up sooner or later.

And speaking of signs…


When I logged into my Facebook page last night, Selina McLemore left me a little present that Latina Magazine choose Names I Call My Sister and In Between Men for their Top 10 Summer Reads!

No way! WAY!!!

So back to last night … Just when I was about to shake my groove thing, the Little Dude peed all over the bathroom floor. You know what I did? I let Daddy clean it up while I basked in my glory.

(Singing)

Shake you groove thing, shake your groove thing oh yeah!
Show ’em how you do it now

And now its back to work but with a smile on my face.

Thanks Selina! And MUCHAS GRACIAS Latina Magazine!

Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

-Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

This week I began a page one rewrite of my mariachi book. I know, I know. I’ve been working on this book for three years. The writing experts would’ve told me to give up and move on to more profitable pastures. Actually, three years ago I would’ve told myself the same thing.

But the last eight weeks (and being dumped by my agent) have shown me the number one reason why this book has yet to fly. It’s not the fault of my agents or readers. It’s not because the market sucks or Mercury in retrograde. It’s because I worked on it with the mind that I knew what I was doing.

I’m not saying that this journey has been wrong. I’m not blaming anyone or anything or labeling my decisions as mistakes. In fact, I’m beginning to waver on the concept of right versus wrong and adopting the idea of “what is.” (Note to Karen Maezen Miller: you’re rubbing off on me, comadre!) For us Westerners, specifically for us writers striving to become published/acknowledged/adored, the idea of “it is what it is” is wrong and scary and exclusive to authors with a lot of money and mileage on the best-seller lists.

Through all of May and June I wrote a pilot script, a series treatment and then a spec script. I began those projects never having taken a TV writing course or having written a script for TV. (Although I’d taken screenwriting courses in university, that was 15 years ago and I’d lost those class notes!) How did I do it? Well, I did it by pinching my nose and jumping in. This journey turned everything I had believed in as a writer upside down. I believed in business plans, outlines, the three-act structure and 10,000 hours of practice. I believed that I had to get away from my beginner’s status as quickly and efficiently as possible. I even believed that my producer should have hired an experienced screenwriter instead of a beginner like me.

But then I remembered what Nora Roberts had said in one her chat sessions back in 1994. Someone asked if she ever got over the fear of writing a new book. Nora, who has written something like 120+ books in her career, replied, “No. Starting a new book is like starting all over again.”

At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought it was nice of Nora to say that to all us beginners, but now I know what she meant and it freed me to write the pilot, spec and treatment. No matter how many books or screenplays I may end up writing, I will always be a beginner. It’s not scary or discouraging. A beginner’s mind isn’t hemmed in by business plans, right vs. wrong, plot-driven or character-driven or the three-act structure. A beginner’s mind damns the consequences and is open to spontaniety and “what if.” Isn’t that what we writers do?

Between the Pages with Karen White

Give me a story with a plucky heroine in a mysterious house surrounded by trees draped in Spanish moss and I’m one happy girl. It’s enough to make me wonder if I was a Southerner in a former life. Nonetheless, Karen White delivers the goods in her latest novel, The Lost Hours. Its a powerful story of redemption and how the past still sends ripples into our present day lives. But man is this story powerful. When I reached the denouement, I had to put the book down and hold my Little Dude in my arms.

Please welcome Author Karen White!

Chica Lit: The Lost Hours is a story of healing about a heroine who wants to bury herself alive and a mystery that probes into a very ugly part of U.S. history. How challenging was it to write and how did you keep going when it got rough?

Karen: I always start out with flawed characters who have a lot of growing and learning to do. When I put them in tough situations, I feel like a mother with a toddler helping him to walk for the first time. We have to suffer with them through the falls and stumbles, but we’ll all be better off with the end result. So, when my characters are suffering, I know it’s for a good reason and they will learn and grow from the experience. I still cry and/or laugh with them through some of the scenes–which always takes a lot out of me, but that means I’m on the right track!

Chica Lit: Why do you think Southern Gothics are so fascinating?
Karen: I don’t know about other readers, but for me it’s simply because it’s such familiar territory! I come from a long line of Southerners (my dad’s family has been in the South since the French Revolution) and I’ve got a very ‘interesting’ family tree. I don’t want to call them crazy , but there are characters and settings that I’ve experienced in real life that have certainly fed my fascination for “Southern Gothic” and inspired quite a lot of my own writing.
Chica Lit: What comes first: character, theme or story idea?
Karen: Always, always, always the character. Everything else stems from her and what she needs to learn.
Chica Lit: How do you know when a book is done?
Karen: When I’ve reached my deadline. Just kidding! When I feel as if I’ve tortured my characters enough and they’ve learned what they’re supposed to–that’s when I know the book is done.
Chica Lit: What’s next?
Karen: In November, The Girl on Legare Street (the sequel to The House on Tradd Street) will be released. I’m contracted for two more books in this series to be released in 2011 and 2013. In the meantime, I’ll have two new ‘southern women’s fiction/Southern Gothic novels out in spring of 2010 and 2011, and somewhere in there (we haven’t figured out exactly when) will be the re-written and re-released Falling Home, originally published in 2002.

All this will be accomplished if my children leave me alone and my head doesn’t spin off my shoulders!

To learn more about Karen and her books, please visit her website!

Between the Pages with Susan Meissner


When I read The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner, I got lost in the story and forgot all about being a writer. Lately I’ve been a real complainer about books that lack stories and certain fiction titles. But The Shape of Mercy reminded me that my love of books – especially those which take risks with prickly characters and pop back and forth between the past and present – is much stronger than the things that irritate me. As soon as I finished her book, I had to have her on the blog and talk about what inspired the story, the surprises she encountered on the way and the world she created for her characters.

Please welcome Susan Meissner, author of The Shape of Mercy.

Chica Lit: How did the idea for The Shape of Mercy come to you?

Susan: When I was in junior high, I was in play called To Burn a Witch. I played the role of an innocent young woman accused of witchcraft. The play opens with my character sitting in a jail cell with other innocent young women from her village also convicted of witchcraft and facing the stake. When my character realizes she can save herself by pretending to be bewitched, she begins to scream that one of the other girls in her cell – a friend, actually – is tormenting her. My character is led away to freedom and the woman she accused falsely is led away to her execution.

I had forgotten being in that play until I read a newspaper article a couple years ago about a woman who was petitioning a Massachusetts court to exonerate her great-times-eight grandmother. This ancestor of hers was accused and convicted of witchcraft during the Salem trials, was released when the hysteria ended, but whose name was never cleared. I was reminded of how it felt, even just as an actress, to be accused of being something I was not – and the far worse feeling of accusing someone I knew was innocent. These people who died in 1692 Salem were all innocent. They all died refusing to confess they were in league with the Devil, even though their lives would have been spared if they had. They held onto truth to the point of death. That, to me, is incredibly inspiring.

Chica Lit: Could you talk about your writing process?

Susan: The writing process for me begins with something like what I just shared: Ordinary people who I can relate to experiencing something extraordinary and faced with a choice. The Shape of Mercy is about a college student from an affluent family who takes a job she doesn’t need transcribing the 300-year-old diary of a young victim of the Salem Witch Trials. I wrote the diary first; before I wrote anything else. After reading several different kinds of books on the Salem Witch Trials (they are all listed in the back of the book), I felt ready to step into 1692. I interview my characters before I write their story, so I had already had several imaginary conversations with Mercy Hayworth before I began to write her diary. I knew how she was wired, what she was good at, what she feared, what she was willing to do for the people she loved. After I had written the diary, it felt real to me. And I wanted it to, because it had to feel real to Lauren, the college student. The Shape of Mercy is about how Lauren’s character develops, and it’s all based on the discoveries she makes while she’s transcribing Mercy’s diary.

Chica Lit: Which character surprised you the most?

Susan: I would have to say it’s Abigail who evolved into a character I actually grew to care about. Abigail is the 83-year-old recluse who owns the diary and hires Lauren to transcribe it. Abigail was always going to be kind of a hard-souled sourpuss whose own disastrous choices made her the way she was. She was to personify regret so that Lauren could see what becomes of a person who makes decisions based on self-preservation alone. But the more I got into the story, and into her stony heart, the more I saw a woman who wasn’t past getting through to. She became someone I could redeem. Nice surprise.

Chica Lit: How did your journalism career help and/or hinder you as a novelist?

Susan: I have come across only good things that have transferred over from my days as a newspaper editor. Journalism is all about word economy, hooking the reader with the first sentence, saying much in a short amount of space, choosing powerful nouns and verbs instead of cosmetic adjectives and adverbs, and of course, sticking to a deadline. I am amazed at how much journalism prepared me to write fiction. And I know that sounds a like a joke! But it’s true. Go figure.

Chica Lit: In a way, you’re continuing The Shape of Mercy through a blog written by the characters. Will you write a sequel or continue the blog?

Susan: The blog, which is found here, has been a wonderful way to keep the characters alive.

More than once I’ve finished reading a novel where I’ve connected deeply with the characters and found myself a little depressed when I turned the last page. It’s been like having to say goodbye too soon to people I’ve learned to care about. My goal is always to create characters that seem real. I want them to seem real to you and to do that they must seem real to me. This was especially true with the characters in The Shape of Mercy. I wanted Lauren, Abigail, Esperanza, Raul, Clarissa, – and even Mercy – to keep breathing, to keep talking to me, prodding me even though the book was done. It’s true that the characters write the posts and I wouldn’t exactly say it’s an online sequel. The posts are emails between Lauren and Raul, advice from Clarissa, stories and poems from Mercy’s recovered storybook, insights on life and literature from learning-to-let-go-of-regrets Abigail and kicky recipes from Esperanza, Abigail’s housekeeper. It has a sequel-type feel and I like that because I have no plans to carry the story into another full-length book. I feel I told the story that needed to be told there. And I guess I will continue the blog until the story that needs to be told here is told!

Check out The Shape of Mercy or visit her website and blogs at www.susanmeissner.com.