25 July 2011

Don't Stop Living Your Life

It's tempting to live in an imagined future, to make the present more bearable. We think about one or two major goals or circumstances in our life, and how things will be different if they'd only turn out like we want. We put all our energy into visualising what life will be like when some external factor changes, instead of putting the focus on developing ourselves where we are right now.

- When I lose weight I'll go on holiday
- When I meet someone I'll go to concerts and plays
- I just have to endure this day job, because my writing will make money one day
- When the kids are a bit older I'll get back into my hobbies

This is a dangerous way to live. I know that full well, because I've realised that dreaming about how  life could be is like a drug. Slipping into a fantasy world where one or more of your dreams come true is like a heady tonic for every day life. On the positive side, it can make us work for our goals - we go on a diet, we go to clubs in the hope of meeting someone, or we push ourselves through revisions of our WIP. Sometimes our dreams may come true... and sometimes they won't. There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason. In the meantime, we may be ignoring the life we actually have. Maybe we're trying so hard to have a child, that we forget to tend to the relationship we have with our partner and our family members. Perhaps we're ignoring our passions while we hunt for a mate or raise our children. Or maybe we don't put energy into developing (and even trying to enjoy) our career because we just think of it as a "day job".

The light bulb moment for me is that there needs to be a balance. Yes we need goals, but we also need to focus on what we have right now. As a writer I naturally prefer to dwell in imaginary worlds. But I need to put just as much effort into nurturing my present life. Imaginary chickens may never hatch, so I need to sow the seeds I have right in my hand.

20 July 2011

Flattery vs Insincerity

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
or To Suck Up or Not to Suck Up, That is the Question

I'm tiptoeing in the trenches, diving into the slushpile and baiting my hook... I'm querying. It took me a while to craft a few paragraphs which describe the main characters and story, and I know it's not perfect. It's close enough to enable me to send it out to see if I get any bites. If I don't get any requests, I'll tweak it.

The subject of this post however, is the bit you're supposed to customise for each agent. Most writing-advice websites implore you to say something specific about why you and this agent are destined to become professional soul mates. Perhaps she knows you by your handle when you comment on her blog. Maybe you adore or are very similar to someone on her client list. You may have met at a conference (that's never going to happen for me in my geographic isolation).

I do research every agent I query. I have been reading some of their blogs for years, or following them on Twitter for months. I may love some of their clients, but I can't find a way to relate their work to my own. It's really hard to write a sentence which conveys some of this without sounding like a stalker, or just plain pathetic.

"I love your blog, so I thought you might like to represent me."
"I have long respected your agency, and hope my novel may be of interest."
"I would love to join your list of well-respected authors in [this genre]."
"I comment on your blog a lot. My novel is..."
"I like what you say on Twitter."

In a couple of queries I have mentioned specific blog posts or talked about something from the agency website. When it's relevant and true, it feels right to put it in the query. But when it's just pandering for the sake of it, I feel fake. Even if I've had an agency on my To Query list for ages, there's not always something specific to say. "I've wanted to query you for ages" or "I'd like to join your stable of really cool authors" doesn't seem to cut it.

The other tricky bit is the bio. Some websites advise the equivalent of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". If you don't have any writing-related credits or associations, don't include a bio. Other websites insist you should definitely have a bio however brief. While I've had to do a lot of writing for my day jobs over the years, there's nothing specific I can point to. So when I attempt to write a bio it sounds like a dating profile or a desperate plea. "I do [this] for a living, but it's my life ambition to be a writer. I am married with two cats and enjoy long walks on the beach." Hmm.

Fellow queriers, how do you tackle these things? Do you make stuff up, or omit them altogether?

16 July 2011

Spectacular Sounds

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Last night we enjoyed a fabulous concert by the NZSO, "Russian Soul" (free tickets, yay). The programme was:

MUSSORGSKY arr. RIMSKY KORSAKOV Night on Bald Mountain
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4

The guest conductor, Pinchas Steinberg, didn't waste any time making eye contact with the various section leaders before starting, he just gave an authoritative flick of his baton and they were off. He lead all three pieces from memory. He seemed like a man who doesn't accept anything less than perfection.

According to the programme, "Night on Bald Mountain" is based on a very dark story, but I wouldn't have known it. After a dramatic beginning, it grew more beautiful as it went along. I sat there with a smile on my face, which only widened when the pianist took to the stage. Simon Trpceski was flamboyant, precise, at ease. He was literally bouncing off the piano stool. His effusive personality came to the fore when he introduced the encore, a Macedonian folk song arranged for piano trio. I felt for the cello player in particular - it was very difficult! When presented with a bouquet of flowers, he kissed the giftee three times, then threw the bouquet up into the crowd.

I enjoyed the Tchaikovsky too, ruminating on how music lifts the soul to a higher plain. Is there any other medium which can provoke emotion, put us at ease, bring us together and soothe our spirits? A life without music would be a poor life indeed.

P.S. Is anyone else excited that they're making another Winnie the Pooh movie? I love that kind of art too :-)

15 July 2011

And Now, For Something Completely Different*

This cracks me up.

* Felt like things were getting a little too heavy around here :-)

14 July 2011

On Being Judged

Maybe it's because I'm an introvert, but I seem to be very sensitive to being judged, particularly how I'm perceived at a personal level in my words and actions. I'm not obsessed with my appearance - I try to be tidy and appropriate but I'm not a slave to make-up or clothes. My main sensitivities tend to be around small incidents that make me feel more embarrassed than I should.
For example, It started raining this morning while I was waiting to cross at a busy intersection. I took off my backpack, fumbled around until I located my umbrella under my lunchbox, and hastily opened it as cold drops soaked through my top. Then I couldn't figure out how to hold it over my head and also zip up my bag at the same time (and then put my bag back on), without bumping into those around me. Sounds simple enough but I felt incredibly uncoordinated and I was fervently hoping that no-one was paying any attention. Little things like this... or tripping up in the street... or spilling food on myself, are the little trials of public humiliation I despise.
I hate the feeling of looking like an idiot in front of other people. And I seem to screw up more when people are watching - dropping things when my boss is waiting for me, getting my words all muddled up when on the phone with work contacts, or banging into a filing cabinet on my way back to my desk. Maybe this is part of why I don't like being the centre of attention. Paradoxically, I liked being praised, but I get the same buzz whether it's public or private. So when I'm succeeding in public, it's all good, but when I fail (however insignificantly) it hurts. In the back of my mind I'm haunted by the constant question: are they judging me?
Even if no-one watches us do something stupid or fail at something, we are confronted by our own personal standards. The perfectionist within us cries out, "Why did you do that?" or "How could you do that?" The toughest judge is often ourselves.
Our lives are a series of judgements. Job interviews. Exams. First dates. Showing up to a party when you don't know anyone. We can make an impression on the page or orally as well as in person. I always have to write down and rehearse my voicemail message before recording it. The same trick is employed when having to ring someone with a confrontational message (confrontation is not my friend!). If I'm uncomfortable in any of these situations, I do my darnedest to hide it. The "fake it till you make it" technique still rings true.
Although we are sometimes forced to do things which put us under the spotlight (like speeches at school, ugh!), many times we make a conscious choice to put ourselves out there. Right now, my work is being critiqued and I'm querying agents. By putting it (and by extension, myself) out there under a microscope, I'm inviting judgement. The fact that I won't face rejection face-to-face makes it a little easier... I can lick my wounds in private and battle on. And I know that without opening myself up to critcism, I won't grow or learn... or succeed. Developing professional thick skin is a requirement.
If we want to move forward in life, we have to get used to judgement. More than that, we have to view these occasions as opportunities to progress to bigger and better things. And if we make a bad impression? Well, there's always a lesson we can learn... and people will forget your mistakes far quicker than you will. We should congratulate ourselves for trying. Having the courage to put yourself out there is more valiant than accepting second-best in your life.
The lesson for me is to just relax and give myself a break once in a while. I can't please everyone all the time, and artistic endeavours are particularly subjective. I don't know how to stop being uncoordinated in front of other people - perhaps slowing down and being more aware of my surroundings would be a good first step!
Do you struggle with being judged? How do you embrace it or overcome your insecurities?

09 July 2011

One Year On

Image: graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
It was my birthday on Friday, which of course reminded me of how my life was this time last year. It's been a year of changes in many ways, and one of the most important is with my writing. This time last year I hadn't written seriously in longer than I care to admit, and I hadn't been reading solidly either. We took a holiday to celebrate my birthday (it was a significant number) and I suppose it must have been a mental vacation as well. It was a relaxing, beautiful time (even though I was sick for most of it) and I did a lot of reading. When we got back something had shifted. I felt compelled to open that folder on my computer which had laid long dormant. Apart from the major project I'd been querying and a few related WIPs, I'd forgotten about all the other ideas I'd stored away for a later time. It was the time. I toyed with thousands of words on a few different ideas before one really stuck.

And now, one year later, I am putting the finishing touches on my book. Whether it gets published or not it's still my book (apart from in the most literal sense, how do we define what a 'book' is anyway?). I have learned so much, not only since the last time I went through this process, but during the last year as well. I've come a long way, and even if it just turns out to be part of my writer's education without bearing any outward fruit, it's been worth it.

So, what have I learned going through this final edit a.k.a my third draft/finished manuscript?

Chapter One is still evil
The darned thing is so important, yet so hard to get right, it takes me twenty times longer to edit than any other chapter. I knew once I'd finished the first draft that it needed the most work, but I wasn't prepared for how much. Which leads me on to...

Critique partners are really important
Even if they don't make it all the way through the book, their insights on the early pages are like gold. My flaws are my flaws, so the learnings I have gleaned from them seap through to un-critiqued chapters. Thanks guys!

Distance is essential
I've taken some time in between edits, during which I've learned more about the craft and let my critiques sink in. Now I'm less precious about my 'darlings' and more willing to sacrifice them. Objectivity, while not absolute yet, is freeing.

At some point, you have to cut the cord
I could tweak away for months longer, but I'm getting to the stage where I just have to start querying, to know if this book is actually going to fly or not. Making small changes to individual words are not going to make that much difference now. And I'm itching to get back into my next project.

I'm not going to blog in detail about the querying process I'm about to go through, because that will only make it that much harder when the rejections start to come in. I already have a long list of potential agents, which I've compiled one by one during this journey. I haven't gone to Agent Query or Publisher's Marketplace and trawled through the listings. Instead I have just bookmarked (and followed the blogs of) those agents who represent my genre and/or authors I like, and seem to be cool/smart/sweet/famous/emerging. I do have my 'dream agents' I suppose, but I know it's impossible to really know what it's like to work with someone until you actually do. It's not time for chicken-counting, it's time to take my MS out for a test run and see how it performs.

05 July 2011

Seeing Beyond Satisfaction

It’s time to prune the roses again. Some of them have indeed lost all of their leaves, with no sign of new buds. A few plants, however, continue to defy the season. One in particular, a yellow rose named Serendipity, keeps reaching skyward with glossy leaves, big buds and bright blooms. It was the same last year: I felt guilty cutting the stems right back when it was still proudly putting on a show. It’s tempting to leave it alone; see how high it’ll grow. But I know that if I don’t trim it, I’m denying it the chance to grow vigorously next year. Left alone until the next season, the old wood’s growth would slow and become spindly, with perhaps half as many flowers. I’d get to keep this year’s shape, but lose the potential vibrancy of unknown beauty.

Here’s where the metaphor kicks in. Sometimes we keep living the same life because it looks pretty good on the outside. But maybe on the inside we’re turning into old wood. We get a bit too comfortable... we move past satisfied. Perhaps we once had a dream that was long since stifled. If we don’t stop to think about it, we assume everything’s okay. But maybe we’re not living up to our full potential. If we don’t step outside the box, we might never know who we’re truly meant to become.

It’s like they say: if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. It takes courage to chop off the dead wood and start again. If something new is nagging at you, don’t ignore it for fear of destroying a satisfactory pattern. Get out those pruning shears, then fertilise your ideas. It might take a while, but the chances are that they’ll bloom into something beautiful.

03 July 2011

Out and About

I thought it was about time for another post, and I don't have anything writing- or even general life-related to wax lyrical about... so here are some photos of our day trip to Port Waikato yesterday. This is where is mighty Waikato River pours into the Tasman Sea. We took a stroll along Sunset Beach, which is comprised of rocky outcrops, dense black iron sands, and grassy banks of dunes.

It was a crisp winter's day, with a cool southerly wind whipping the tops off the waves.

We discovered this crater in the dunes about half way down the beach. From the top you can see the river winding around to the coast.

As you get closer to the mouth of the river, the beach is peppered with driftwood. What's unique about this particular driftwood is the shells hanging off it, clinging to strands of seaweed. The wind blowing through the shells made them clang together like a natural windchime.

Once we'd returned home and showered to remove layers of sand, the fresh air and exercise resulted in an accidental nap before dinner :-) Gotta love Saturdays.