How Much Should You Cuss in YA?

I’ve wanted to take on this subject for a long time, but I vacillated about the risk of creating controversy. But then Mark Alpert of The Kill Zone wrote What the %#$@? in which he talked honestly about cutting out the curse words for his young adult novel and how that affected his writing.

So I’m tackling the subject today.

Teenage girl holding book

Here’s my own truth. I allow myself to cuss in first drafts. If I truly believe a teen character would say s**t, I type s**t in that first draft. I turn off the editor and put on the page whatever seems to work for the scene.

But my final goal is to limit cussing as much as possible. Why? Do I think teens must have squeaky-clean books? That they should be placed in a bubble?

No, I don’t. However, there are some good reasons to limit the curse words on the page.

Setting a higher standard. People learn language when they read. Reading has vastly improved my vocabulary, and a lot of that learning happened in those formative teenage years.

Plenty of teenagers are near-experts in the use of the F-word, but maybe by reading other ways to express themselves, they’ll expand their language options. Hey, I’d love for my kids to learn to insult more like Shakespeare:

“‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck!” – 1 Henry IV

“The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.” – Coriolanus

“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats.” – King Lear

Thank goodness he didn’t simply use the same curse words over and over. And if the Bard can set that standard, I want to aim for it too.

Extraneous cussing can offend readers I want. I don’t know anyone who won’t read a book just because it’s cuss-word free, but I know plenty who won’t pick up a book with a lot of cussing in it. I want everyone I can possibly have as a reader to pick up my book. Of course, my subject matter and style won’t appeal to some, but if it’s merely some cuss words I can easily eliminate, I figure that’s worth doing.

I won’t shortchange the story, and some stories are simply made for older audiences, but I still watch my words to keep my story as accessible as I can.

Going deeper and getting more creative with words. Cuss words can be shortcuts, like when we know a character is angry because he utters “dammit.” Mark Alpert talked about having to go deeper to find ways to express emotion on the page without resorting to cuss words.

I recently went through this process of trying to figure out what a character would call this total jerk. In my first draft, she called him the apt a**hole. But that was easy. I dug deeper to what she really wanted to say and found a story-themed phrase that worked way better (waste of flesh). When I pushed myself for that more creative epithet, I reveled in the final product. It was right for her and for the scene, and it was more original.

It’s fiction, not real life. The reason I most hear from writers for the inclusion of many curse words is realism. I totally get that. Sure enough, if you’ve got a gang member selling drugs on the street, he’s isn’t going to say, “Jeepers, the cops are here!” So sometimes a cuss word is exactly what’s needed.

But this is fiction, not real life. If I wrote real life dialogue between teenagers, I’d also use the word like a billion times. “He was like, ‘Hey, Babe,’ and I was like, ‘No way,’ and then we like went to her house and she was totally like ‘Why didn’t you get with him?'”

Or we’d include a bunch of ums and uhs. But we don’t. Because those are unnecessary words. Instead, we streamline words and dialogue to keep things realistic yet well-paced. So I think about that standard when I consider using cuss words. Do I need this word? Or is it more of a “like” or “um” choice?

I want my family to be able to read what I write. On a personal level, I want my parents, my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, and my someday grandkids to all be able to read what I write — and me not feel any need to blush or apologize. As a devout Christian, I try to keep my own language clean and positive, so I want to model that life principle on the page as well. Such unspoken accountability to my family keeps me within the standards I’ve set for my own life.

So yeah, to some extent this is a personal choice. But I also believe it’s a good professional choice to limit cussing in YA when you can.

ROW80 Update

And now for my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days. Has my progress evoked a stream of cuss words in my head or some yahoos instead?

1. Read 12 books. I finished Sketchy Behavior by Erynn Mangum and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Done! 12 of 12 read this round.

2. Finish editing SHARING HUNTER, a young adult contemporary novel. Still editing and will be for a while, but I’m supremely happy to have found an excellent critique partner nearby. I rewrote a chapter based on her comments and love the result. I also did some important replotting and started rewriting another chapter. Yahoo for this one.

3. Edit one short story to publication quality. Still waiting on comments from a couple of advance readers. One plus of self-publishing is I can move my personal deadlines back if I need that time to polish the story to where I want it. Nothing this week.

4. Publish and promote two short storiesMy Sister’s Demon is done. Still waiting on story #2. Half done!

5. Stay on top of ROW80 sponsor duties. Checked in on the Wednesday updates from several bloggers. Some fabulous progress! Downright inspirational. Done.

So what do you think about cussing in young adult? Or any other genres? And how was your week?

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Visceral Verbs for Writing

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and see what discoveries we can find!

To me, one of the challenges in writing is to depict a character’s inner reactions on the page. Instead of telling the reader that someone in your novel is scared, show their visceral reactions by telling us how their gut twisted, their ears heated, their mouth went dry, etc. Show their body language as they cross their arms, slow their gait, etc.

The best authors do this extremely well, finding fresh and engaging ways to express the character’s emotions and even give the reader many of those same reactions.

I recently purchased a book I’d been eyeing for some time: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. If you’ve not picked it up, I highly recommend this book. It details body language and physiological responses that people experience with different emotions like anger, anxiety, disgust. I can tell that this easy-to-read reference book will become a stand-by on my shelf (my Nook shelf, but whatever).

But I sometimes struggle with verbs to show how a character’s gut, heart, lungs, shiver, shudder, insides, whatever react to an emotion-producing stimulus. So I started to make a list.

Today I’ve decided to share that list with you and ask you to contribute your own words. Of course, not all of these verbs work with every body part, but it’s a reference to draw from if you need it.

Words in text cloud

Ache

Billow

Bite

Calm

Chill

Churn

Clench

Close

Coil

Collapse

Ease

Echo

Empty

Explode

Fall

Grasp

Grip

Hammer

Heat

Hit

Hover

Itch

Kink

Knot

Nestle

Pluck

Prick

Pull

Punch

Race

Rake

Rip

Rumble

Scoop

Scorch

Scratch

Settle

Shake

Shiver

Shovel

Shut

Sink

Sizzle

Slam

Slap

Snake

Sneak

Squeeze

Sting

Tear

Throb

Thump

Turn

Twist

Warm

Wrap

Wrench

Wriggle

So that’s my list of 58 visceral verbs. What words would you add?

If you want to learn more about how to write visceral responses, my best suggestion is to check out Margie Lawson’s courses, like Empowering Character’s Emotions. She also offers it as a lecture packet.

I’m Not Tolstoy or a Bronte: Finding Your Voice

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday, where I’ve pulled out the Fry Daddy and am ready to toss in a basket of thoughts to start sizzling. I was thinking recently how I have always told myself stories and loved reading, but it never really occurred to me to write a book when I was young.

By high school, I was mostly reading classic literature with deep themes and rich prose and page counts that made other young people dizzy. When I thought about writing a novel in my teens or 20s, it was in the context of having read Thomas Hardy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy, all those Bronte sisters, and many more. I couldn’t imagine having that in me.

I don’t have that in me.

When I finally started to write seriously, I realized that my voice is not that of Tolstoy or a Bronte. My life experiences have formed me into a person who appreciates their narrative style but couldn’t pull that off in a million years. It would sound terribly stilted and weighty and blah.

Instead, I am a 44-year-old suburban wife and mother of two who has struggled with relationships, faith, cooking, and my mile-long to-do list. As a result, I’m a straight-talking, sarcastic, Texan-accented gal whose daily goal in life is to make sure that my children still have clean underwear in their drawer and that I prayed for something other than patience or sanity in the last 24 hours.

So my writing voice is, well, like that.

All too often, newbie writers seem to try to force themselves into the voice they have desired and admired. However, there is only one Tolstoy. He got that writing voice, and you can’t have it. Likewise, there is only one YOU. You have your writing voice–and while it might share similiarites with others’–it is not the same as anyone else’s voice. Your writing is exactly what it should be–the culmination of your God-given talents, your personality, your background experiences, your wit and wisdom, your unique perspective, etc.

For myself, I feel like this post should have been titled Writer Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Voice. Because it’s been an interesting  journey of getting to the point where I genuinely appreciate my own voice. I like that I write the way I do. I like that it isn’t earth-shattering in its profundity. I like that it is more humorous than highbrow. I like that my books will appeal more to young adults and those looking for a little escape than a graduate-level discussion.

My favorite blogs give me a snippet of the voice of the author. I would disappointed if after having read a funny blogger’s posts for months on end, I opened their book to read “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Tawna Fenske is perhaps my favorite example. Though I wasn’t a romance fan before, she won me over to reading her romantic comedies because of her strong, funny voice on the blog. While I doubt English Lit classes will be studying her prose in depth, her fiction is fresh and captivating. I like her voice.

So how do you know what your “voice” is? I suggest turning off that internal editor writers talk about and jotting a quick essay on whatever topic you want. You could even write a long email to your sister. The way you communicate in writing to friends and family is likely the way you communicate in writing to potential readers. That’s your voice.

So what do you think? How did you grow into your writing voice? Have you read authors based on their unique voice? Do you ever wish your writing voice was different?

Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference

Within a couple of hours of this post going up, I’ll be driving up to Dallas to attend the DFW Writers’ Conference. Talk about a Deep-Fried Friday for me. I expect this weekend to be better than a plate of beer-battered shrimp!

I attended last year and got my feet nice and wet at that conference. However, being the introvert I am, I approached the event as an information-gatherer and only talked to a few people. When I returned, I sent in my synopsis and chapters to the agent who requested them and received a lovely rejection letter.

But then I started this blog, began reading craft books, and connected with some fabulous writers. So this go-around, I am approaching the conference a little differently. Here are my Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference (in no particular order):

1. Turn cyberfriends into real-life friends. You know that person you’ve traded tweets and blog comments and even emails with — dishing about the writer’s life and life in general? You might actually get to meet them! Thus far, you’ve imagined your friend as the 1×2-inch profile photo on their Twitter account. But your friend is not Flat Stanley: She is three-dimensional with a real-live voice! I for one am eager to finally meet in person great writer friends like Jenny Hansen, Tiffany A. White, Roni Loren, and many, many more.

2. Hang out with agents. Note that I didn’t say, “Convince an agent to rep my book.” Since my rookie experience, I have discovered that agents are real people. Of course I knew that before, but I care less this year whether they want my book. I simply want to get to know them. They are an interesting bunch of people who get to read for living, have their fingers on the pulse of book sales, and come to conferences to hang out with us writers. Why not make a few friends of agents? If we get along great and they like my book idea, oh yeah, I’ll send them a manuscript, pronto. But if they don’t, we can still have a drink and chat.

3. Hand out business cards. You’ve got 250 cards in that box, and there are only so many restaurants with that fish bowl where you leave your business card and they draw for a free lunch. You have to hand them out somewhere! What better place than a writers’ conference, where people might look at your card later and connect with you?

4. Be an author groupie. Last year, Sandra Brown was the keynote speaker at the DFW Writers’ Conference. This year, it’s James Rollins. Um, hello! These authors have a string of bestsellers and a truckload of wisdom about writing. Instead of spending their Saturday working on their next brilliant novel, bestselling authors often come to conferences to tell us what they’ve learned, sign books, pose for pictures, and converse with us future bestsellers. While we must remember not to stalk them, it’s okay to be a groupie of a great author. Squeee a bit when you see them, get your book autographed, and have your friend snap a picture of you leaning in close like you and James are best friends.

5. Trade pitches. Of course, you may be pitching your book to agents, and that’s wonderful. However, this is also an opportunity to bounce story ideas off people who love to hear them — other writers. Ask “What’s your book about?” and then listen. You’ll hear some amazing tales and get excited about what’s being written out there. You can also gauge interest in your own novel or in the way you’re pitching it based on others’ reactions, which can help you hone your story or presentation of it.

6. Get book recommendations. What to know what to read next? Ask writers what they loved. Peruse the book tables. Check out the titles from the authors who teach a class. After last year’s conference, I concluded that the much-touted Save the Cat by Blake Snyder had to be on my reading list, began reading Rosemary Clement-Moore’s Maggie Quinn, Girl vs. Evil series, and downloaded Kristen Lamb’s We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

7. Show off your fashion sense. One of the most-often asked questions of conference planners is “What do I wear?” The answer is essentially “Whatever you want.” From my limited experience, it seems that writers run the gamut regarding personal presentation. You’ll find the business man in a suit; the pierced, tattooed biker girl with blue hair; and everything in between. Whatever brand is you, comb your closet and put together something that shows off your fashion sense. Then again, you might simply grab whatever’s comfortable and go with that.

8. Shop the tables. There will likely be product booths at the conference. See what goodies you can find. It might be a book, a t-shirt, a writing resource, or a trinket, but you might discover a treasure. Last year, I entered a contest to get a slogan put on a t-shirt. I was one of three winners, and my t-shirt idea was sold at the Penguin Promo table. That was kind of cool.

9. Make new friends. I started to write “make new connections,” but if you approach the conference as an opportunity to make friends, you will have more fun and be more fun. Of course, your friends are connections, so if you focus on engaging with people personally, they are likely to want to help you professionally. That said, even if they never recommend you to their publisher or agent, this is a chance to make friends. Much of our writing lives are spent alone with our notebooks or laptops, and conference time is an opportunity to hob-nob with people who “get” us.

10. Fill in your knowledge gaps. Wherever you are in your writing career, there is more to know. Last year, I focused on querying and synopsis writing, since I knew how to write and just wanted some help landing my book deal. (Stop giggling.) This year, I have a broader focus because I know where my knowledge gaps truly are and plan to fill them by taking workshops that address those areas. You are at this conference to learn something! Go forth and learn it.

So are you planning to attend any writing conferences this year? What are your reasons for going? What goals do you have in mind as you attend?

And will you be at DFW Con? Be sure to look for me there! I look exactly like my 1×2-inch profile photo. 😉

Why Grammar Matters in Your Book

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi, a grammar geek, a grammar freak, a grammar nut, the grammar police, and a stickler. What they say behind my back, I don’t know.

I’m not that bad. I don’t critique tweets, personal emails, texts, slang, or other informal communication. I am, however, concerned about proper language usage when it comes to published works.

Before you think I’m here waving a red Sharpie and poised to attack your misspellings, mispronunciations, or mistaken word usage, you should know that first and foremost, grammar geeks are word lovers. Just like writers.

I spend one day a week talking about language on Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. Those posts range from grammar advice to etymology to word games. Language is fascinating. The human ability to communicate a wide range of emotion, information, and ideas sets us apart and allows us to accomplish together what we couldn’t do alone. Words have meaning and power. And I agree wholeheartedly that language isn’t all about where the dang comma should go.

However, where the comma goes matters.

Lynne Truss illustrated this in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title is based on the funny story of a panda walking into a restaurant and brandishing a pistol. He devours a sandwich, fires his weapon, and starts to leave. The server asks, “Why did you do that?” The panda tosses an encyclopedia over his shoulder and answers, “Panda. Look it up.” The bartender finds the entry for panda, which in part reads, “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” One extra, misplaced comma made a huge difference. Ms. Truss goes on to make the case for why punctuation in particular matters in language.

Grammar matters. It assists writers to convey meaning effectively to their readers.

Proper grammar is a framework. Language has structure. We know a sentence is comprised of a subject and a verb. He smiles. She swoons. He kisses. She slaps. These are the building blocks of any book. And there are rules about how you string these blocks together so that you communicate your meaning to others.

Rather than think of it like the rules at school (no chewing gum, must have a bathroom pass, etc.), think about your favorite sport. Mine is baseball. It’s a terrific game of throwing, hitting, fielding, catching, and running. A grand slam homer can send a crowd of spectators into a wild eruption of excitement. However, what if there were no rules? If everyone threw wherever, hit however, caught or didn’t catch, and ran in any direction? That’s not a sport; that’s chaos. And it wouldn’t be interesting to watch or play. You’d probably get smacked upside the head by a wooden bat in ten minutes.

Language is exciting – full of meaning, fluidity, and passion! But it needs a framework to keep that excitement alive.

Proper grammar demonstrates professionalism. What is one of the major complaints about self-published books? They haven’t been properly edited and are full of grammatical and spelling errors. Of course, that isn’t true of many self-pubbed works, and there are plenty of mistakes in traditionally published novels. However, paying attention to those details puts you at a more professional level.

When we see an egregious error on a company’s sign or a brochure, it speaks to a lack of professionalism in getting their content correct for the consumer. People may wonder about the quality of the product itself if the company wasn’t willing to take the necessary steps to ensure proper spelling on an advertisement.

Likewise, people expect the purveyors of words – writers – to have a fairly good grasp on language and its usage. It speaks to our quality level. I recently tossed aside a traditionally-published novel after a few chapters when I read several incorrect phrases, including “could care less.” (It’s could not care less.)

Poor grammar disrupts the flow. Have you ever been reading a marvelous novel and had to stop on a sentence and reread it? You might wonder who that pronoun “he” refers to or stumble on an “it’s” when there is no need for an apostrophe. Perhaps a misspelled word or a missing question mark gives you pause.

Whatever the error, a grammatical oops can disrupt flow. Since we want readers to remain deep in our plot, we should eliminate anything that encourages them to jump back out of the story. A few such moments in a novel are not a problem; we are human and make mistakes. However, if you disrupt the flow of your story too may times with grammatical errors that could have been avoided, there goes the reader.

So should you turn into a grammar geek? We aren’t all grammar geeks, of course. (Thank goodness! Right?) Moreover, I misspell words and miss errors plenty of times. We all do. Have you heard the saying, “Even perfect people use pencils with erasers”? I can’t recall the last time I read a novel and didn’t see a typo somewhere. Most books have a few to several errors, and these works have typically been viewed by numerous people prior to publication.

The standard is not getting a Ph.D. in Grammarology or achieving perfection. It’s recognizing the importance of grammar and exerting reasonable vigilance to get it right.

If you’re taking all that time to develop a story, write 60,000+ words, and focus on the importance of those words, why not check for proper structure so that you can best convey your meaning? If you suck at spelling and grammar, have a grammar geek friend or copy editor take a look.

Now grammar isn’t a first draft endeavor. Don’t sweat the comma when you’re throwing out the word count. But it’s worth paying attention to in the editing and revision stages. Because we deal in language, its usage matters. Grammar matters.

What do you think, readers and writers? Does grammar matter when you’re reading books? What do you do to ensure proper grammar in your own writing?

(And as always, correct me if you see a typo here.)

Kayak or Cruise Ship? How do you want to write?

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday — when I plunge into whatever topic seems juicy and crunchy and ready for devouring. Today’s topic is about how you want to write.

I never used to read the Acknowledgments section in a novel. Now that I have penned a couple of novels and am working on my third, I am vastly interested in knowing who the author credits with making the dream come true.

When I first imagined becoming a novelist, I pictured me and a laptop in a mountain cabin with scant contact with the masses – the Hermit Author discovering worlds of creativity and expression in her own soul.

Blah, blah, blah.

For one thing, there are no Starbucks or Schlotzsky’s near that mountain cabin, so that’s out. But more importantly, I don’t want to go it alone! Since I starting conversing in the blogosphere, chatting social media world, joining writers’ groups, and attending conferences, I’ve discovered that the understanding and encouragement of other writers is like a steady buoy in the tumultuous sea of writing and publication.

No, forget it. It’s not a buoy. We’re way more fun than that! We’re like a Carnival cruise ship with a pool, umbrella-laced frozen drinks, dancing, and hilarious stories of our lives and our writing adventures.

Yes, I am an introvert, but I like people. I like their insight. I like their expertise. I like their support. I even like their wallowing-in-the-dirt-with-a-mouthful-of-sand moments because I can be there to offer them one of those frozen concoctions: “Would a virtual margarita help?”

You can go it alone out there with a kayak and a survival kit and hope the sharks don’t get you. Or you join a group of fabulous, fun writers who will make the journey an exciting and memorable one. How about coming aboard the A Round of Words in 80 Days cruise liner?

A Round of Words in 80 Days is “the writing challenge that knows you have a life.” Rather than suggest the same goal for the person who gets to write 20 hours a week and the one who’s squeezing in one hour a day after the full-time job and juggling four kids and three dogs, you set your own goals. Your goals can be anything you like, as long as they are measurable — such as word count, pages written or edited, time spent.

You check in twice weekly for progress updates. That keeps us accountable, but even more so encouraged. Because then you and others visit one another’s progress posts, and do virtual cartwheels and pom-pom shaking.

Here are some things I love about A Round of Words in 80 Days, aka ROW80:

  • Setting my own goals. I set my own goals and adjust them within the round if necessary. This happened last round: I was diagnosed with mononucleosis, my energy level dropped to blech, and I lowered my expected word count as a result. When I felt better, I upped it again.
  • The length of each round — 80 days. I’ve seen some writing challenges that last for a month. I can’t write a book in a month, but I might be able to churn out a first draft or edit through a novel in eighty days. In fact, 80 days is a good length to accomplish quite a bit, but you still see a finish line.
  • The #ROW80 hashtag. The #ROW80 hashtag on Twitter is a great place to connect. We can post updates and chat about how it’s going, and I’ve benefitted tremendously from the word sprints there. Most days, around 1:00 CST a group of word sprinters can be found at #ROW80 or #teamsprinty. You can write or edit during the hour, but others send woots! and attagirls (or attaboys) your way at the end for your progress.
  • The organization. Okay, I admit to having some OCD traits. Not enough of them to have a clean house or anything, but enough that I want information to be organized and accessible. Kait Nolan launched A Round of Words in 80 Days, and she has done a great job of keeping the website updated, the sponsors in the loop, and the participants informed and supported. You can expect weekly posts from sponsors to give insight with your writing or goals, reminders to post updates, and an easy-to-navigate website with answers to your questions at your fingertips.
  • The people. ROW80 people rock! They are some of the most supportive, fun writer friends I have. They are also a smart bunch of writers who have more than once given me advice that was exactly what I needed. If you’re going to board a writing challenge cruise liner, you want to take the trip with interesting and exciting people. You’ll find that with the ROW80 writing challenge.

So to sum it up: Great writing challenge. Round 2 for 2012 starts April 2. Sign up HERE.

By the way, the other writer connection that has been invaluable to me is #MyWANA (stands for We Are Not Alone), which is the Love Revolution sponsored by social media Jedi Master Kristen Lamb.

I am thrilled to be a sponsor for this next Round of Words in 80 Days. I enjoyed wearing the Sponsor tag last round and can’t wait to cheer on a marvelous group of writers. The cruise ship is boarding. Let’s get this ocean par-tay going!

Are you coming aboard SS ROW80? What writing challenge do you enjoy? What groups of writers have been most helpful for you?

I Know I Should Follow Your Blog But…

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday, where my taste tends toward juicy and crispy thoughts. You’ll have to tell me whether today’s is more juicy or crispy to you.

Last week, I wrote two days on my young adult novel. There are three reasons why my work-in-progress got so little attention:

  1. I felt much better this week (after having mono for four weeks), so I was frantically trying to catch up with household to-do’s that had fallen so deep in the cracks I needed a headlamp and a crowbar to find and pull them out.
  2. One scene started to drag. I spent some time figuring out how to ditch that rabbit trail and get on the right path.
  3. I spent hours and hours catching up with blog reading and commenting!

When I wrote my first novel, I sat alone in my house writing for 1-5 hours a day. I didn’t know what I was doing, other than I had an overall plot and had read enough books to have some idea of what worked and what didn’t. Within a few months, I had a completed first draft. Very few people had any idea that I was writing a book.

Fast forward two years plus, and I am now writing my third novel, and everybody and their cocker spaniel knows it. I have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, two Triberr tribes, a Goodreads account, and more — with all of the fabulous friends that come with that.

I have learned so much in the past year from writer groups, conferences, craft books, and blogs. I’ve discovered excellent tools and software for plotting and writing. Thankfully, this book won’t have 23 drafts to get it right. I know something about an author’s platform. I have researched publishing options and agents. My knowledge base is better now.

All good stuff.

But I am writing far fewer hours than when it was lonely me and my laptop.

I continue to meet wonderful writers through various channels, and I think to myself so often, “Maybe I should follow their blog.” This occurs to me also because of something romance author Roni Loren covered in a fabulous post titled Enough with the Quid Pro Quo Blogging Etiquette. We often feel a sense of tit-for-tat. There are some who follow my blog whom I have not followed back (thanks, sorry, love ya). I know I’m missing some wonderful content, and I could learn even more from many authors out there.

But did I mention that I wrote on my young adult novel approximately two hours last week? That’s pitiful.

Stephen Covey’s wonderful book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has made me reconsider through the years how I am using my time. Am I setting my priorities well? In the book, he talked about how we spend our hours engaged in one of four quadrants based on whether an activity is important and urgent.

I’ve been contemplating where each of my time’s activities fit. In particular, where does blog reading fit? How important is it? How urgent is it?

Covey explains that we tend to spend little time with those things that are Important but not Urgent — for instance, going out on a date with our spouse, keeping up with discoveries in our field, visiting someone in the hospital, reading great literature, taking a class that stretches us.

When writing without a book contract or a self-publishing deadline, working on your novel is Important but not Urgent — Quadrant II. But I want to be a writer. I know the way to do that is — hello, how many times have I heard it! — to write consistently.

As much as I hate to admit it, I can’t follow everyone’s blog. I can’t even follow all of the “You MUST follow this fabulous author!” blogs. There are too many quality writers out there with something to offer, from whom I could learn, and whom I’d love to get to know.

There is one of me. Twenty-four hours in a day. One book to pitch, one book to edit, one book to finish, and about four other projects I’ve started which beg for my attention too. Not to mention family, spouse, house, etc.

I’ll keep reading blogs. I’ll click on titles that interest me when I see links flash up on my Twitter feed. I will visit the blogs of people I see on my site. I will follow interesting links in blog mashups. But I can’t read blogs all day because I am a writer. I must write.

How do you balance your desire to read interesting, entertaining, or informative blog posts and your need to accomplish other tasks? Have you found a formula that works? Do you wish you could follow more blogs, but simply can’t find the time?

Have You Always Been a Writer?

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday where today’s topic is about fiction and writers. I’ve read quite a few author interviews, and one of the questions often posed is along these lines: “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” “How long have you been writing?” or “Have You Always Been a Writer?” Typically, the author answers with something like:

Everyone told me in high school that I was going to be a great writer. Each day, I would go home and write for hours, letting my fantasy world of H’jarka and the evil ministers of Dra’mn come alive on the page. I had most of my trilogy finished by the time I graduated.

Back in junior high, I wrote a quirky romance novella, printed and stapled it together, and sold it for 10 cents a copy. I sold out my first print run of 50 copies. That’s when I knew I had the writing juice.

I’ve always been writing. I penned my first short story in elementary school with a permanent marker on my cardboard Lunchables container.

As a baby, my first word was “plot” and my first sentence was “Show, don’t tell.” As soon as I could pick up a crayon, I drew stick figures with captions to tell a story in three acts.

Hyperbole, of course. Yet writers do often say something along the lines of always knowing that they wanted to be a writer or having written stories almost as long as they can recall.

Published authors who have written on the craft of writing also give the same message. Stephen King’s On Writing begins with a memoir in which he recounts writing from an early age and his repeated attempts to get words on a page and get others to read said words. Others are fond of saying that writers must write; they simply have no other choice, as writing is like breathing!

From shakespeareshoppe at http://www.zazzle.com

I disagree. I can sit here doing absolutely nothing, and my body will continue to inhale and exhale. In fact, I have to try hard to hold my breath for longer than about 10 seconds. Then that pesky automatic breathing thing kicks right in again.

Writing, however, is a decision, a voluntary action, a mental and physical activity. I have to choose to write.

I chose to start writing fiction in my late 30’s. Before that time, I had only written stories for classes. I certainly hadn’t created worlds of characters, written chapters, or asked others to read my work. I was past 40 when I wrote my first book. I’ve only been doing this — writing novels — for a few years.

This leads me to question the underlying assumption that one is born to be a writer. Is it that simple? Or do we come to this point through different avenues?

The truth is that I’ve had stories swirling through my head for as long as I can remember. I told myself tales in my darkened bedroom as I fell asleep at night, imagining characters and scenes. I read books and thought long and hard about their plots, their people, and the magical minds and fingers behind the stories. I pondered how breathtaking it must be to create a work of fiction that communicates so deeply to an audience the author has never met. But I never wrote stories down. That came later, much later.

I wrote poetry, songs, school essays and research papers, deposition summaries (paralegal job), newsletter articles, web content, and more. Yet a novel was something I expected that I needed special fairy dust to create. Having not received an overt visit from Tinker Bell or “The Muse,” I didn’t know that I could be a writer.

Until one day, when I sat at my computer, looked at a blank screen, and wrote a chapter. Most of it sucked. Some of it didn’t.

Time passed.

I came back a few months later and wrote something else. It probably sucked more than the first one . . . but again, not all of it.

Then Hurricane Ike hit, causing us to retreat from our home and its crumbling roof. Faced with extensive time on my hands and no library card in the city we were visiting (and no eReader then), I wrote a new chapter with a new idea. I really liked it.

It could have ended there. Because I don’t think writing for everyone is a do-or-die kind of thing. If tomorrow, something in the universe shifted and I could not write another word, I would miss it horribly because I love writing fiction. However, I’d be a happy person. I have an amazing family, a great life, and lots of other things I can do (anyone need a lead singer for their rock band?). But I chose to write.

I set aside time every day and added to that first chapter. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, word by word, I wrote until one day I had a completed first draft. No longer was I considering being a writer or “aspiring” to write a novel, I had written one. I was a writer.

To my mind, everyone who writes chooses to do so. There are so many other things you could do. I bet some in your extended family think you should do something else. Whenever you get bit by the writing bug, it isn’t as easy as breathing. You decide each and every day that you write to do so.

Some knew that decision early on, just as some declare that they want to be schoolteachers or veterinarians or lawyers at young ages and go on to do just that. Some do not decide until later.  Some even appear to stumble around for a while and only know that it’s the perfect job when they land in the middle of the fiction meadow, lie back in the grass, and hear themselves say “aah.”

For my graduate degree, I worked a career counseling internship, and I know that some people find their niche early and others later in life. Such epiphanies can occur at age 5, age 25, or age 55.

I am a writer. I didn’t always know it, but I am. (And I think I’m a pretty good one too, or I wouldn’t keep doing it.)

Now tell me: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing? If you are recent to fiction, did you have other indications that writing, or at least storytelling, were “in your blood”?

So Writer, What’s Your Day Job?

Instead of talking about books today, I’m talking about writers!  Actually, about writers before they could pay the bills as writers. 

When people ask me what I do now, I respond that I am a writer.  If they probe about where they can buy my books, I have to add the word “unpublished” or “unpaid.”  (I do not say “aspiring” because I don’t aspire to write; I do write.)  But no shame in that, people!  Most full-time authors start out with other jobs that pay their mortgage and utilities until they can strike out on the book tours and interviews that accompany a best-seller and a writing career.  

Bob from The Incredibles tries a day job

Here are a few examples of the day jobs of famous authors (before they hit it big): 

Douglas Adams – Security Guard

Mary Higgins Clark – Radio Script Writer

Stephen King – High School English Teacher

Stephenie Meyer – Stay at Home Mom

Nicholas Sparks – Pharmaceutical Salesman

Kurt Vonnegut – Saab Dealership Manager 

But of course, you can find best-selling authors with just about any day job in their past.  Because in case you think you should simply declare yourself an author and quit your day job, you might want to rethink that. 

In addition, plenty of authors keep their day job even after publishing.  In the tough competitive world of book sales, it often makes sense to keep that anchor.  Moreover, you might find that your day job lends to your writing in helping you come up with ideas, dialogue, etc.  You might also simply enjoy both your day job and your writing (see Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid). 

Admittedly, for myself, I have my fabulous husband paying the bills.  Call me a kept woman, if you wish!  But I do have a “day job,” so to speak.  I am a stay-at-home mom, housekeeper (so wish I could hire this one out), and volunteer.  And yes, I include volunteer because it requires time and effort to work in the school library, write and prepare Bible class lessons, and co-direct a kids’ camp.  Between those tasks, writing, and (okay) long lunches with friends from time to time, I stay busy. 

So what is the perfect day job that facilitates writing?  Screenwriter John August suggests a few criteria in his post Good Day Jobs for Writers and Others.  Moreover, author Jennifer Jabley makes a great case for keeping the day job in her post for Writer Unboxed. 

If you are a fiction writer, what’s your day job?  How are keeping the roof over your head and food in your belly?  Do you hope to be able to quit that job someday?  Do you want to keep it?  Why?

Monday Musings: Happy without a Housekeeper

As I got crouched down and scrubbed the bottom of my toilet bowl, I thought about how a lot of people hate to clean stuff.  We like having things clean . . . but cleaning them ourselves is altogether different.

Since I don’t currently have (actually, have never had) a housekeeper, all the lovely chores are left to Yours Truly, with mixed results.  I’m terrible with clutter (see my post on Where Is My Stuff?), but great about cleaning underneath.  So how does cleaning relate to writing?  Here are few things I’ve thought of:

1.  Some chores you hate; others you don’t mind.  A friend of mine despises doing laundry, while I don’t particularly dislike it.  But if I could go the rest of my life without ever getting on my knees, leaning over the porcelain, and scrubbing the yellowish ring off the bathtub, I would do her laundry and mine.  If someone would dust thoroughly all the flat surfaces and window blinds, I would scoop their litter boxes and mine until our cats cross over to feline heaven.

The same with writing.  There are some parts of this process that are enjoyable (like, for instance, the writing), and others that are less palatable – perhaps editing, proofreading, queries, etc.  For both housekeeping and writing, you can delegate some things, but not all.

2.  You have to use some elbow grease.  Like it or not, the best way to have a clean floor is not a mop, a Swiffer, a Shark, or whatever.  If you want to know that you know that you know that your floor is clean, get down on your hands and knees and scrub it yourself.  When you clean sinks, toilets, or bathtubs, it isn’t sufficient to swish a little soap and water around in there (as I have explained several times to my boys); you have to put a little pressure into it.  Get the stains off and the shine on!

So it is with writing.  The only way to write a novel is one word at a time.  The only way to write one word at a time is to plant your derriere in a chair and start typing.  The only way to start typing is to think about what you want to say and then say it.  There are no shortcuts to a complete manuscript.  It takes work.  It is the most fun work I’ve ever done!  But it is work.  Put mental elbow grease into your writing.

3.  When you’re finished, stand back and enjoy the view.  My sister has told me that when she gets the house completely clean, she has been known to send the children outside to play for an hour.  It’s just one hour, mind you, but she walks around with a grin of satisfaction at her job well done.  That is, until she lets the little mess-makers back in and the process starts all over again.  But there should be a period of self-congratulation.

When your first draft or your final draft is done, there is an “Aaaah” moment.  You stare at the word or page count or the crisp pages in your hand and think, “I wrote that. I am a writer.”  You deserve a celebrity-studded party with a champagne-flowing fountain, live music, a dance floor with a disco ball, and you as the guest of honor because a completed manuscript is a big stinkin’ deal!  But whether anybody sings Jolly Good Fellow to you or not, take some pleasure in a job well done.  Your moment won’t last long because now you have to sell that book or start the next one that keeps poking the back side of your brain and wants to be written.

Okay, my moment of being happy that I could learn some lessons from being without a housekeeper is done.  As I reflect more, I think I’ll take the best-selling author career with the multi-book contract, the big house, the sports car, and the cleaning staff.  Hey, I’ve already learned these lessons anyway.  Maybe I could learn some new ones from unbridled success and fame!  I’m willing to give it a shot.