Staring at Page 186…

Here I am, staring at page 186 in my latest manuscript…for the past month. I was moving along at a fast pace, churning out 2000-5000 words a day on this first draft of my latest novel. I had goals! Let’s see: To be done with draft v001 by the end of October. Send it off to my first betas. Get feedback. Revise in November (even though my manuscripts have always taken me months and months to revise and polish…but I had a new method of crafting charts/characters/plots to streamline the revision process). Submit to my editor by December/January.

I had a plan. Then life hit.

IMG_20171030_104807745 (2).jpg

 

Many artists and creatives struggle with daily mental illness such as depression or anxiety. I’m nearly forty years old and have suffered with both most of my life. I’m still conquering my demons, healing new and old wounds, and working on my inner self-talk. Recently life got “lifey” and my plan—yeah, it crashed and burned. I went from high output to a dead stop. Granted, perhaps I saw this coming as I’ve been going through several life/career transitions and I’ve been grooving in survival mode for a few years. I usually keep myself very busy…so busy that the depression and anxiety can remain hidden, its claws safely shackled behind closed doors. However, that only works for a while. Then it (“life”) all came at once—I jumped into the deep end without the required gulp of air needed when you drop down 12 feet to the bottom of the pool.

Digging into the heart of the issue is tough and can seem impossible. Recently a friend shared the Hilarious World of Depression podcasts with me (and she had no idea what I was currently going through). At first I saw it and thought, “How can depression be funny?” Obviously the podcasts are not angled that way. In fact, I listened to a few and found myself nodding in agreement.

So why am I writing this post? First, to boost my monthly word count. Joking aside, well, I wrote it to show that like many others out there, you are not alone in your struggles. Mental illness is not a light matter.

Please know that there are resources out there for you. Text 741741 or call the Suicide Prevention number 1-800-273-8255 to speak to someone if you are on the ledge. Call a friend, family member, or spiritual mentor.

Seek out friends, professionals, and medicine if needed. Telling a person who’s depressed to just suck it up, get out of the house, exercise, just hop on the horse again, or keep busy…great advice, but we all know that it’s not that simple.

It sounds counter-intuitive but one way for me to help myself is to reach out to others who are in the same boat and help them. (Hence this post). For example, I’ve learned through my own journeys, such as parenting a special needs child, that when I need help, the best thing is to first get help where needed (friends, professionals, etc.) and not keep the pain bottled up, and second, to reach out to others who may also be in need. Just a year ago, I was seeking friends who were walking the same parenting journey, so I created a local Facebook group for just that…and we have over 350 people in the group, from parents to educators, all sharing and supporting.

So recently, as I deal with anxiety, turbulent waters, and transitions, I’ve reached out to friends who I know I can count on…and I’m reaching out to you in the hopes that my words will provide comfort and support if you are struggling as well. You are not alone. You are worthy. You are important. You can get through this.

After a few weeks at the dark bottom of the deep end, I can see the light at the surface. It may be a long swim up, but I soon hope to be no longer staring at page 186…

Bring on page 187 and beyond and hopefully I will burst through the surface of that water and take another gulp of fresh air.

Always with love,

Jean

Two songs that help me get up each day and empower me with the ability to change impossible to possible:

Gym Class Heroes “The Fighter”

Andra Day’s “Rise Up”

"Rise Up" Lyrics (by Andra Day)

You're broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry-go-round
And you can't find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains

And I'll rise up
I'll rise like the day
I'll rise up
I'll rise unafraid
I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
And I'll rise up
High like the waves
I'll rise up
In spite of the ache
I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
For you oh oh oh oh oh [4x]

When the silence isn't quiet
And it feels like it's getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we'll take the world to its feet
And move mountains
Bring it to its feet
And move mountains
And I'll rise up
I'll rise like the day
I'll rise up
I'll rise unafraid
I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
For you oh oh oh oh oh [4x]

All we need, all we need is hope
And for that we have each other
And for that we have each other
And we will rise
We will rise
We'll rise, oh oh
We'll rise

I'll rise up
Rise like the day
I'll rise up
In spite of the ache
I will rise a thousand times again
And we'll rise up
High like the waves
We'll rise up
In spite of the ache
We'll rise up
And we'll do it a thousand times again
For you oh oh oh oh oh [4x]

Digging up Diamonds in the Rough: From Outline to Novel

 

(We like geology a lot in this household so bear with my metaphor)

This is a longer blog post but it’s loaded with links and resources for the writer.

Whether you’re a plotter with detailed spreadsheets, GMC charts, character questionnaires, extensive computer documents and files, and a tower of resourceful books…or you’re a pantser, with a cup of java and some scribbled Post-it notes at your side, at some point as an author you need to make sure 2+2+2 = 6 (and no you don’t need to use “new math” with tape diagrams or arrays to do this—ha, can you tell I am a mom dealing with the fun of “new math”?).

All this means is your story needs to be cohesive and hit all the benchmarks.

One look at my desk and you may think I am a free-spirited pantser, but I am a plotter down to my DNA. I envy pantsers a bit. It’s not to say I don’t do my fair share of hopping around in my writing as whims strike me, or I have to make stuff up as I go along. However, since I’m a resource gal, this post will be chock full of my favorite resources for outlining and pre-writing (or if you are a pantser, things to check along the way or during revision).

My favorites sitting on my desk right now.

My favorites sitting on my desk right now.

No matter which method you employ for your creations, there will always come a point in the writing process where you need to make sure all your ducks are lined up in a row. The story needs to make sense and have all the key components:

  • A cohesive plot and story
  • Goals, motivation, and conflict (both internal and external)
  • Stakes and urgency
  • Positive & negative character traits
  • A world the reader wants to get lost in
  • Emotional wounds that drive the character to overcome a lie they tell themselves (aka backstory)
  • Sympathetic characters that we want to keep reading about
  • The character arc
  • Genre-specific needs (e.g. if a Romance, two clear protagonists on their external/internal journeys with all of the above AND a HEA or a HFN, and usually a villain)

MAKE YOUR OWN GMC CHARTS, CHARACTER SHEETS – MY SAMPLE PDF

MAKE YOUR OWN GMC CHARTS, CHARACTER SHEETS – MY SAMPLE DOCX. WORD FILE

Beat sheets – what are they?

I'm new to beat sheets but I found Jami Gold’s website a gem in the rough and a great launching pad. I was already decently-versed on the key points to crafting a story but her beat sheets make outlining (and double-checking as you go along with word counts and pivotal beats) a breeze. I found her romance-specific sheet also helpful. Beat sheets are a writer’s accountability partner. It’s a bullet list or chart that shows the sequence of your story, including the key points of: hook, inciting incident, Acts 1-3 (if you follow that style), pinch points, mid-points, climax, and resolution. Even organically-driven writers need structure to determine the next point in the story. There are many posts about beat sheets aside from this one listed; just Google “beat sheets” and you’ll find a treasure trove! For my latest WIP, I ended up using her beat sheets as a guide and wrote my outline in Word, chapter-by-chapter with key bullet points. Then, I went through that and double-checked it with her sheets to make sure I hit all the beats. Rock on.

Goals, Motivation, and Conflict

I recently wrote a blog post with my abbreviated version explaining GMC. When I read Debra Dixon’s book a few years ago, I fell in love. [btw, the book is out of print and more expensive on Amazon, so I suggest purchasing directly through Gryphon Books. It’s a DIAMOND!] She uses movie and romance examples to clearly lay out what GMC is and how to achieve it. Every single story has GMC. All characters, even secondary and the villain, have goals, reasons to achieve those goals (motivation), and reasons why they can’t (conflict)…and these are both external AND internal (character-driven). I suggest a browse of the web again or purchase her book to acquaint yourself with these building blocks to a successful story.

Who Are These Characters Anyway?

My latest ah-ha moment was falling upon Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book, The Emotion Thesaurus last year. It helped me polish and clean up my latest novel by fleshing out my characters’ physical signs, internal sensations, and mental responses to events in the story…oh, the broad spectrum of emotion, all in one book!

But wait. There’s more. I was surfing around their very resourceful website and discovered the hidden booty—the pirate’s gold—MORE thesaurus books…all about characters (and setting’s role in building worlds/characters)! I ordered four more right away and I was giddy having stumbled upon these tools. I read through them, rapt….I giggled, I smiled, I gasped. Oh yes, I did. I said “ah ha!” more than once.

The rest of that bullet list above (and in my sample PDF) was compiled from the Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books. Although my character sheets list these key character elements in an abbreviated format, I suggest checking out their website or purchasing the books for further explanation. The books are actual thesauruses that you’ll use over and over during writing, and not just in pre-writing/development. They explain the causes, behaviors, and thoughts associated with character traits. I eagerly await the release of The Emotional Wound Thesaurus this fall.

Other Resources

I’d be remiss to not name a few of my other favorites:

1.    I can’t boast enough about Grammar Girl. Several of her books sit on my shelf and whenever in doubt (it happens in every book I write, even as I write manuscript #6), I search the web for her grammar points. Easy Peasy: type in the question (e.g. lay vs lie) and “Grammar Girl.” Score!

2.    Strunk and White’s good ol’ Elements of Style (or your other grammar/style resource).

3.    Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (Lynne Truss) is a punctuation classic. Anyone up for an Oxford comma debate? I need a t-shirt that says I love the Oxford Comma.

4.    For the romance writer or any writer who wants to build up their “descriptive tags,” Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book is one of my old favorites.

5.    Books and websites about your genre or subgenre.

6.    Books and websites about your topic (I’ve got loads of books on medieval castles and living, Scottish clans, myth, and lore, and Norse Vikings, to name a few). Libraries are a great go-to as well!

7.    Museums, travel excursions galore. Know a person with expertise in something you’re writing about? Interview them or use them as a sensitivity reader. Got the funds? Go visit a castle or museum or fort. I was fortunate to finally visit the dreamy landscape of Scotland a few years back and I recently toured an actual Viking ship in Connecticut.

8.    Podcasts. When you’re not reading or writing, you could be listening to inspirational stories or writing tidbits. My favorite is Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses while I exercise.

9.    Everything else. I followed a Facebook writer’s group that tosses up daily writing pointers: from overused weak words (I have my own list for that), 75 ways to describe anger, 45 ways to avoid using the word “very,” elements of a good scene…the list goes on. So when I see these little nuggets, I print ‘em, hole punch ‘em, and stick them in my master binder that sits next to my GMC Charts, Character Sheets, and Notes Miscellaneous.

Well, there you have it! A glimpse into my treasure trove of diamonds. I’ve had two decades to gather them, and I still keep finding them—writing is a forever journey of learning (and fun!). There is an abundance of resources out there to help you along the journey, be it during pre-writing, mid-writing, or revision. Now, go dig up those gems and write a story!

I’d love to hear about your favorite go-to resources in the comments.

Sláinte,

Jean

 

 

The Ice Cream Truck Isn't Coming Anymore

Okay, well, now that I look at that title, it seems a bit sad. But hang with me here a moment…

September marks a time of transition in most households. The weather grows cooler, prime vacation season ends, children return to school, the days get shorter, and some people start new jobs.

And the ice cream truck doesn’t come anymore.

Certainly many parents are happy to no longer hear that jingle blaring from the truck cruising a little too creepily through the neighborhood. The kids…are maybe not as delighted. (Disclaimer: my children have yet to notice that the truck’s not been coming around) And why must the truck just happen to come at 5:50 p.m. every evening during dinner?

Heedless of the bargain half-gallon of ice cream in the freezer, my children grab their allowance money and rush out the front door to buy overpriced, artificially-colored treats every time the truck comes around our corner. Every darn time. If the AC is on and windows are closed, my husband and I share "the look" when we see the truck and they don't....

Perhaps it’s the thrill of being able to pick what they want from the massive menu or to get to spend their own money. There is this magical novelty about standing on the curb waiting for the truck to pass. There’s something about summer and ice cream trucks. A rite of passage for our youth, maybe? A trigger of fond childhood memories as well?

Alas, as the truck disappears until next year, summer also slips away from us before we know it. No more lazy pool or lake days. No more excursions to the beach, mountain, or beyond. No more lax schedule.

This week marks some big changes in our family, too. After three wonderful years at my current work position (education director for a church), I resigned to write full-time. Like many changes, it has come with both sadness and excitement. I’ll always cherish my time working with the youngest members of our congregation, watching them grow from doe-eyed elementary children to perceptive (and sassy) middle-schoolers. However, as my own children grow through their elementary years and our family life turns into a circus juggling act, I knew I needed to make some changes.

I took a leap of faith and now write from home full-time. I’m exhilarated to step out on this path. And terrified. I’ll admit that. Writing has been in my blood and a part of my life for nearly two decades but it’s taken the backseat to life and career demands. The decision to follow this passion full-time was not an easy one, but I know I won’t regret it. Change is part of life. Change is scary and amazing, filled with triumphs and stumbles. Change is like that ice cream truck. It comes for seasons.

Just as we’ll reminisce about those hot summer days, with ice cream dripping down our wrists as we devour a delicious cone, we’ll remember that each season of the year and each season in our life brings a new experience.

Some goodbyes are only temporary, as we know for sure that truck will be driving its route through my neighborhood next year. What lies ahead this fall? The palette of autumn with apple-picking, new routines, and scenic drives. And a new adventure for this author.

But I will always know, be it a scorching summer day or a blistering cold winter night, there is always room for ice cream.

Ice cream served in a lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Ice cream served in a lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The Long Haul

I was cleaning a bookshelf covered with a hodgepodge of my children’s toys, as my darlings have apparently staked a claim to my entire house [no joke], and a writer’s book fell from the shelf stockpiled with some of my oldies but goodies. Out slid a folded page. After dusting it off I realized it was an old printout of an email from my friend, Lorraine, my kindred spirit in life and writing, dated 2001. Wow. That threw me back. Memories of writing my early novels infiltrated my mind like the Storm Troopers that had leaped off the shelves.

The magical things you find while cleaning a bookshelf covered with kid toys. 

The magical things you find while cleaning a bookshelf covered with kid toys. 

June, 2001. Wow, that was 16 years ago. And no, I’m not a pack rat (this note had been carefully folded in an old writer’s book that I think I'd only read once – hence its hiding place). Where had I been in my life in 2001? Where had I been in my writing journey? Well, I’d been in my early twenties, and about to enter graduate school. I was either writing “practice book” #1 (Oh, Aidan and Sophie, my first romantic duo) or #2 (Gabriel and Aileana) at that time. The email included terminology for horses. My novels to date, excluding my most recent women’s fiction, have all been medieval Scottish romances, so a writer needs to understand horses. My good pal is a horse expert. Back then, with Google still in its infancy, I relied heavily upon – gasp – books or experts or experience for research.

Not only did finding this page trigger a trip down memory lane, it also got me thinking about the long haul of writing. Since that time, I have been married, completed graduate school, had two children, lost two very close loved ones, been through several jobs, lived in three states and five apartments and a house, lost and gained friendships, traveled the world a bit, experienced monumental historical events, and acquired far too many gray hairs along with a caffeine addiction. Writing has been a part of my life during each stage in the past 16 years.

Since 2001, I’ve completed five novels and have begun work on the 6th, with one published this year (happy dance!), and more to come! I have no less than four book ideas currently in my head. A writing career usually doesn’t come quickly or easily. Writers are in it for the long haul. I knew that going into it. The ups and downs and detours -- I've had them all. I've learned a lot along the way through friendships, resources and research, practice, and trial and error. My best advice is to keep at it. We will have fruitful years and years that are parched by dry spells.

I swear by the Three P’s when it comes to writing. The biggest thing though – don’t give up. Chase your dream. You are in this for the long haul. I have just hit my stride, and it’s only taken 19 years since the beginning of the journey. Just keep looking ahead, around...and behind.

And that good friend who wrote the email to me? We still chat every day about writing and life. I think I have horse terminology down, but when in doubt, I still run it by her.

The Long Haul. Beauty around you. Amazing adventures ahead of you.

The Long Haul. Beauty around you. Amazing adventures ahead of you.

Sometimes it's okay to look behind you and remember the roads you've already traveled.

Sometimes it's okay to look behind you and remember the roads you've already traveled.

Weeding out the Words

I love gardening. By gardening I mean flowers, usually perennials but some annuals. Vegetable/fruit gardens and I have not figured out our groove yet. Birds eat my blueberries and raspberries, the apple trees struggle to grow, and when they finally did thrive this year (I counted over 40 apples between the Macoun and Golden Delicious) in a matter of 48 hours some creature stole and ate them ALL. Yes, all. Oh wait, my son pointed out I have one little apple left. One. (insert my hysterical sobbing). I planted pumpkins once…only male flowers grew. And other vegetables…dead before they can even start. It’s not my forte (yet).

But flowers, oh lovely flowers. I’m a bit obsessed. They are my happy place. Living in frosty New England, I spend eight months waiting for them…nurturing, replacing, pruning, and watching. I have multiple gardens. I protect them with mulch but I also stock them full, so full that by mid-summer you can’t see the mulch, only blissful bouquets of day lilies, daisies, sage, lupine, irises and peonies, tall phlox, black-eyed susan, hydrangea, and many more. So full that you can’t see the weeds. (insert my best sneering laughter, bohahah!)

Oh, those weeds are there. They may be surrounded by gorgeous stalks of vibrant color, shape, and smell, but every now and then a tall spindly one pokes its mischievous head through. Despite my best effort to prevent weeds, they arise. Many remain hidden among the splendor. My plan is to hide them. Let the flowers outshine them. However, upon close inspection this doesn’t always work.

See where I’m going with this? Yup, weeding our words. I have a master list (see below) of the overused or weak words I stumble upon. It’s the part of editing nobody tells you about (I’m not sure everyone even does it; maybe some are master weeders as they write). I have my pitfall words I search for and destroy (at a 50-75% cut rate): out, up, down, over, more, even, day, one, just, still, so many, back, to name a few. However, there are the other words, perhaps not as overused (I counted over 300 “up” before editing my current manuscript), but equally weak. These include filter words (words that pull the reader out of the story, causing them to stumble), adverbs (eek, the dreaded –ly words, but hey, I leave some in!), or plain words that could use some spice. We all have our own unique pitfall words. For some reason, I liked to overuse forms of the word “force” in my current WIP.

How do we weed these? I save this type of editing for last. First, grab some coffee or tea and get comfortable. Second, search. Unsure what to use? Try a word bubble/count website such as Wordart. Third, cut or replace at least half of them. It’s tedious but worth it. I find that sometimes I over-weed – is there such a thing? On the next read through, I may add some of the words back in to keep the natural voice and flavor of the manuscript. It’s a fun game. Weed, add, weed, add…but eventually I find the happy place where the simple beauty of the words blends in with a few weeds to form a harmonious garden.

Big weak words.jpg