No. 3 African American men have appeared on commemorative coins.
Alrighty. This is going to be a self-indulged post. I sent out the short piece of fiction I’ve been writing to my regular “reading” group yesterday. This particular 7,500 story was a difficult birth. It was written within a couple months of getting back on the writing train six months ago, so I wouldn’t call the idea “mature.” No matter. I told myself that I’d disregard whatever excuse I’d come up with every day, and write at least 500 words until it was finished. I’m proud to say that I wrote every day during a depressed period when my dad was first undergoing some medical attention, and on most days forced myself to spit out 500 words. I’m not proud to say that, because I forced myself to write every day, the content of the first draft absolutely sucked. I made the mistake of reading it to my family when I finished. My daughter fell asleep (literally) and both Cheryl and my son, Nick, thought it was incredibly boring and pointless. Catherine, my writing partner, thought it was a total mess. She made severe comments on the work and over the last few months I’ve been putting humpty-dumpty together.
So….I hesitantly sent it out (finally) and was shocked that as the reviews trickled in, they were far better than expected. One reader said it may be my best work yet. Another said I’m a “great” writer. I’m ecstatic today to think that this baby, which was so difficult to birth, might actually be good. If it is, here is what I did to make to good:
1) I still write every day (for clients and myself). My results have become more steady as my brain gets used to the fact that “off days” aren’t allowed. I also think that because of my daily dedication, my “off days” are less “off” than in the past.
2) I’ve followed (as I mentioned before) Janet Evanovich’s advice and started watching a ton of movies. This has given me a much better sense of storyline, plot, and timing. My fiction was far too subtle because I was worried about constantly beating people over the head with my meaning. I was subtle over the top. Nothing happened in my stories. I’ve realized through these films that I, like everyone, am attracted to stories where things happen (not rocket science, huh?), and I’ve learned to begin trusting my instinct when it comes to overkill.
3) I’ve become a reader. Sure, I’ve read in the past (actually I’ve read tons), but it was all financial planning, business, and biography based. I read with a purpose. Now, I still read with a purpose, but a much more enjoyable one. I read fiction to become a better writer. I promise myself I’ll read a chapter daily. To date I’ve read three books of fiction and two “how to” manuals since the beginning of 2010.
4) I’ve begun a diary when I read books/watch movies to detail what I like/don’t like about each. I also list if I think I have it in me to write a similar story. Amazingly, some of the art I’ve decided I “don’t have in me” has influenced my work the most. I’m realizing that my brain begins working when I think to myself that something might be over my head. One book, Then We Came To The End, was hugely instrumental, and I found much of that voice appearing in this work. I don’t want that “voice creep” to continue forever, but for now, while I’m working on finding my own, I’m very comfortable experimenting with other’s art styles to see how it fits.
Anyway….I’m not sure I’m the perfect person to give advice yet, but so far this strategy seems to be working.
Today Hank Haney quit as Tiger Wood’s golf coach. A Yahoo! sports article postulated that he probably saw a firing coming in his future and decided to proactively resign. A few years ago I read Tiger’s book on golf, although I had little interest in the sport. I’ll always be a pretty pitiful golfer if I continue to practice infrequently. I was interested in reading it because I wanted to see how a true professional approached the game. I wanted to know what type of mental hoops he jumped through to perform at peak performance day after day. I left the book with a huge sense that genius exists where preparation meets aptitude (I’m sure someone said that before me, but I’m not sure who….). I realized that to be good at (at that time) financial planning, I was going to have to study and study more. It wouldn’t be a “learn it and sit back” experience, either. I was going to have to continue to hone my skills. Tiger’d hired Hank Haney to help him hone his skills. Even Tiger Woods had a coach.
Now I feel the same push to be prepared with my writing. It’s going to be a process. Toward that end, having a coach in my corner has made a ton of sense. A coach should think differently than you, disagree with you, and still push you to do more than you accomplished yesterday. I have a coach like this. Mary Lou Johnstone is an excellent source of new ideas (but not too many ideas), focus (but not to the point of boredom), and thoughtful insights into my goals and overall situation (without getting in the way by “owning” my goals herself). There have been times that I’ve thought about firing my coach, but I always come back to the same point: if I fired her, would I do as well as I am now?
I think all writers should ask themselves that same question. First, do you have a coach in your corner to help you navigate your career opportunities? If not, why? Do you already know everything there is to know? I’m fairly certain Hank Haney isn’t as good a golfer as Tiger Woods. But still, Hank’s insights have helped Tiger become what he is today.
Second, if you do have a coach, how are they helping you? If they aren’t helping much, how much of that is the coach and how much is your own fault? Is the relationship repairable?
Good questions to ask today.
“Put that coffee down! Coffee is for great writers, only.”
In sales, if you remember the Alec Baldwin video from Glengarry Glen Ross, the key is to “always be closing.” In writing, I’m finding that the mantra is similar, but instead of ‘A.B.C.’, it’s ‘A.B.L.’, Always Be Learning.
I feel every week I’m on a learning cliff as Twitter, books, movies, and more shove tons of great (and I really mean great) advice down my throat. It’s no longer about finding information, it’s about sifting through it. I’ve got so much to learn, yet I look at my work for clients and I’m beginning to say, “Wow, impressive.” Yet, before my head gets too big, I know that I’ve got so, so, so far to go, it’s exhausting to look up the mountain.
So here’s my David Allen moment. On Friday (through a Fast Company article) I found Threadsy. This program combines Twitter, Facebook, and as many email accounts as you wish onto a single page, making tracking SO much simpler. Now I simply go to my Threadsy page and either post, email, or reply. It comes with a bell that “ting!”‘s every time a new message arrives. I disabled that feature within three minutes because I kept checking out Twitter feed updates (“I’m on the toilet!”, “I’m washing windows!”, yikes!).
This program probably saved me ten to fifteen minutes daily or switching/opening. More time to jump into the next article about punctuation, perfect blog posts, or character studies.
I’ll admit to the world: I love my writing partner, Catherine.
Weekly we’ll meet at Catherine’s house for an hour and a half, drink Diet Dr. Pepper (cures everything) and talk writing. There’s a spot on her porch we use. It’s a large table in the corner with bird feeders outside the window, and just few enough birds flying around to not distract our focus. She’s working on a couple of fantastic projects. I love the way she thinks and writes. Besides her career teaching, she’d spent years at a newspaper and in our meetings cuts words like a seamstress with thread. I’ve quickly learned to cut empty adjectives, phrases that add nothing to the storyline, and entire irrelevant paragraphs. It’s been valuable. What do I like? It might surprise you:
1) She thinks differently than I do. Too many writers I talk to want a group with people “like them.” Knowing a wide audience will read my work, I want a strong opinion that counters mine. I’m looking for insights I can’t add.
2) She’s committed to writing. Catherine clearly puts care into her work and brings valuable writing to the table. I learn as much reading her writing as I do from her criticism of mine.
3) She’s a giver. She’s always insisting we look at my work first. I’ve had to beat her to the punch a few times, demanding we start with her story, because I get the feeling each week that she’d be willing to forget her own work and focus on mine. That helps me remember to be a giver also, creating a nice environment.
4) She’s honest. After a few meetings, once we were clearly comfortable around each other, she cut her time trying to be “nice” to me and focused on areas to improve. That doesn’t mean she beats me up all meeting. She’ll point out improvements and areas she likes, but she doesn’t need to spend time convincing me I’m a decent author.
I know I’m forgetting fifteen things I enjoy about working with Catherine, but if you can find those four, you’ll be on the right track. A friend was looking for a writing group and I stupidly assumed that they’re all similar to mine. Sadly, his suffered from many problems that I won’t get into here. As he relayed his horrific experience, I realized how lucky I am.
I’ve been following Janet Evanovich’s advice in How I Write, taking a year (as she did) to read books and watch as many films as possible. Her goal in this exercise is to get a sense of story, pacing, character, plot, what works and doesn’t, and to hear enough voices to be able to focus a new writer on those themes they find most interesting. She took the whole year off. That’s not possible for me, so I’m writing much of each day, then watching at least three movies weekly and reading at least one chapter per day of a book. Why am I telling you this? I just saw Kick-Ass this week, and it, well, kicked ass.
I won’t rehash the story, and will agree with critics who write that to some degree, this is a film whose audience isn’t old enough to watch it (Kick-Ass is rated “R”. But if, like me, you’re looking for some tight writing, a gripping story, characters whose motivation is refreshing and original, Kick-Ass is for you. Be ready for more red stuff than the Red Cross blood drive and swearing worse than you’d hear at the nation’s largest truck stops. If that doesn’t scare you, it’s a fun ride.
Leaving the film I told Cheryl, “this is a story I can write.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being egotistical. It’s just my kind of work. I’m attracted to the fact that it features a normal guy involved in stressful events far over his head. For the most part, he’s interested only in transcending his banal life and standing for something. He learns that the world he thinks he wants is far scarier and involved than he’d first thought. Isn’t this the same shock most kids get after high school? Wonderful themes and the film that’s given me a new jolt of energy to go make the next words I type count.