Haitus over …. Did you miss me?

I realize asking, “Did you miss me?” after such a long absence opens me to the possibility of all sorts of disappointing, maybe even disparaging, responses. All of which I’d deserve. I dropped out of sight without telling you I would. Truthfully, I didn’t know I was going to do it myself. It just happened.

Pastels provided a new kind of creative outlet.

But now I’m back and feeling good after a three-month hiatus. I didn’t realize how much I needed a break from writing. I’d worked hard to finish the manuscript of a new novel only to have it turned down by my publisher. Optimistically, I went in search of an agent only to hear, “No, thanks,” again and again. Maybe this novel was not meant to be published. Simultaneously, I cut back on blogging, and the longer I didn’t post, the easier it became.

As I let writing recede, I opened my  mental, physical, and emotional space to other adventures.

I dove deeper into the pastel pool, taking another class and gaining confidence.

Greece offered unbeatable light, color, and history.

A friend and I spent a sublime few weeks in Greece.

My new prairie patch (where I mostly pull weeds) offered solitude and a much-needed reminder to be patient because things come in their own time.

All of these events and more provided time to breathe, to reflect, to let my heart tell me what to do. Without conscious intent, time away from writing brought me back to writing.

Purple vervain helps me look past prolific weeds.

So, here I am once again. I’ll be writing and posting about the above topics and more in the weeks ahead. The time away also brought me to a decision about my manuscript. I’m moving forward on the route to indie publishing. One step at a time without certainty on the end game. You’ll hear more about that, too.

So, my friends. I’m grateful for each of you who waited patiently and are willing to read my ramblings once again.

I’d like to hear from you. Please drop a note about how you’ve spent the last several months. Or let me know how time away has helped you make a decision. Let’s reconnect.

 

Writing fields lie fallow – Where will this lead?

When I sent my manuscript off to find an agent, I looked forward to taking a breather from the intense writing regimen I’d maintained for the last several years. In the past, each time I finished a book project, I knew what I’d write next. This time I didn’t.

Who knew taking a break could be so hard?
Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Memoir, fiction, children’s books, essays. All have popped into my mind. None of them ignite passion. I know myself well enough; if passion isn’t there, it won’t be long before I lose interest. Perhaps I’m not meant to write another book? The idea alternately exhilarates and frightens me.

Knowing I’m happier with a project, I signed up for two art courses so I’d have a creative outlet during this break. By stretching my mind in new ways, I anticipated I’d fill the time and achieve the sense of fulfillment I experience through writing.

Yet, the sense of calm I sought didn’t come. My reminders to myself to be patient; my self-assurances that my purpose would present itself; my intent to relax and enjoy this unscheduled time worked only intermittently.

When my husband asked me recently how it felt to not write after spending the past many years doing mostly that, I blurted out the truth: “I feel lost. Completely lost.”

Lying Fallow – Time to Rejuvenate

When I connected this past week with Shirley Showalter, a wise woman who also grew up on a farm, she likened my current state to ‘lying fallow.” Lying fallow is the agricultural practice of letting the ground rest for a season or more by not planting it to a new crop.

Lying fallow is a metaphor I understand. It’s one that makes sense. By allowing time for rest and space for energy to regenerate, many new things are possible – in the land and in myself. Thinking about this time in a new way helped.

I recognize this time of lying fallow for what it is and what it isn’t. This time IS an opportunity to take a break, to try new things, to spend more time with my son and granddaughters, without the pressure of a writing deadline. It ISN’T a guaranteed next book idea; it isn’t productivity in the same way I’ve been accustomed to; it isn’t even a defined period.

Returning to writing

What seems clear after three months is that I miss writing. By stepping away from writing entirely, I let go of a tool that’s helped me through tough times in the past. I may not have a big project to work on, but even small writing projects can be useful. Writing this blog post helped clarify where I am, reassuring me with a sense of the familiar.

Whether it’s journaling or returning to more regular blogging or through essays, I’m going to capitalize on the comfort zone of writing often enough to let the writing help me think through this time of lying fallow.

For this season of lying fallow to work, I have to be patient. To curb my expectations. To rest. So here I am, doing my best to let this time be what it is, not to force it, to accept whatever happens.

Have you experienced a season of lying fallow? Or by other names, a sabbatical, a break, a breather? How has it been productive for you? I’d like to hear your experience as well as any advice you’d offer me.

How do we handle rejection? Find a new path.

This past week rejection hit me right between the eyes. While I was not altogether surprised by the rejection, I was still disappointed. To the point of tears. In that moment, it helped to be reminded that even the best of writers have been where I am now.

I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”Sylvia Plath

Fortunately, Sylvia Plath’s quote showed up when I needed it most. On the very day, in fact, that my new manuscript was rejected by the publisher who acquired Go Away Home. The reason I was not surprised is that my new manuscript is an issue-driven, contemporary story while Go Away Home is historical fiction. Yet rejection is rejection. And it stung.

Y in the road

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Plath’s quote reminded me that I had tried. I had done my best, writing the best story I could. During a good long walk, I came to see the opportunity, to realize that while this rejection diverts me from the comfortable path I’d been on, it opens another publishing path to explore.

My writing journey reflects the many faces of publishing. For a variety of reasons, I elected to indie publish my memoir Growing Up Country. That experience connected me with a host of talented, supportive indie authors who helped me learn the business. My marketing background offered the comfort zone from which I launched and promoted a book that continues to find readers 10 years later.

That effort was so successful that when it came time to publish my first novel, I didn’t even look for a publisher. The indie world had treated me well, and I launched with confidence, using everything I learned from the memoir.

Lake Union’s offer to acquire Go Away Home came out of the blue. I could not have been more surprised or delighted. The publisher’s editors built my writing skill, and their team opened marketing avenues I’d never have accessed on my own. The partnership remains a success even if it stops at one book.

Having experienced the power of a good publisher, I want that for my next work. So I embark upon a new path – Find an agent.

Finding an agent

Research is the place to start. I’ve begun to amass a list of agents who specialize in my genre and are open to new submissions. I’m researching the best query approaches. I’m preparing myself for the wait and see and inevitable acquisition of more rejection slips. I remain hopeful that one of these agents will love the story and want to work their magic with publishers.

No matter what happens, I know I’ll learn a lot. And that’s always good.

Authors, have you been this route? Do you have recommendations on agents or the process?
Readers, any advice on handling rejection?

Making way for new – Prairie & Writing

We lost a grand old willow tree a year ago. Age and weather took their toll, and it finally had to be removed. Though losing the willow with all the associated memories was sad, the newly opened space made room to expand our prairie. As I’ve worked on this new project, I’ve seen many parallels to my writing life.

The willow made way for the blank slate of a new prairie patch.

The willow made way for the blank slate of a new prairie patch.

The idea of expanding the prairie has been simmering for some time. Yet, establishing the new area has not been as smooth as I’d hoped. Step one required killing off the grass. The herbicide we’d been using with good effect in other applications all of a sudden didn’t work. Ultimately, we invested in Roundup. One application and the grass was gone – along with all the prairie plant seedlings that sprouted in the spring.

Now that the grass is gone and new growth is coming on, I’m reminded of things I learned with my first prairie planting – and now must re-learn – with this new space.

  • There are plenty of seeds waiting for their chance. Even though I killed off all the desirable plants that emerged in the spring, more emerged mid-summer. Some may even bloom this fall, though they’ll have to survive the deer who relish these tender shoots.
  • Weed seeds are also waiting for their chance. Rounds two, three, and four of dandelions, pokeweed, and thistles keep popping up.
  • There’s always something new to learn in a prairie. At this point, the difference between invasive and non-invasive plants. An invasive species pushes out and replaces a native plant. A non-invasive plant may move in but won’t take over.
Mullien appear invasive at the moment, but they'll move on.

Mullien appear invasive at the moment, but they’ll move on.

Mullein, is one non-invasive plant. The new prairie is awash in these wooly-leaved plants. Even though they are plentiful now, I am not concerned that mullein will crowd the prairie next year for two reasons. (1) This season’s plants will not have time to seed before winter, and (2) Even though there were a dozen or more mullein plants in the old prairie last year, only one returned this year. Invasive plants like Queen Anne’s Lace will crowd out all else if you let it. Pretty though that flower is, I pull these out as soon as I see them.

Prairie & Writing Parallels

I’m at a point in my writing life where I’m looking ahead to what’s next. Looking at the prairie and my writing, I can make these observations:

  • Like the prairie seeds, there are plenty of new ideas waiting to sprout. In only a few minutes this week, I recorded half a dozen ideas for writing projects ranging from memoir to novels to children’s books.
  • As I work through editing my work in progress, I find weed seeds in the form of crutch words: “that,” “just,” “seem,” “very.” It takes diligent maintenance to root these out and keep them from marring an otherwise well written story.
  • In the prairie and in writing, I’m always learning something new. If I took up the children’s book idea, for instance, I’d be learning an entirely new genre.
  • Ideas for writing projects pop up and move on as do plants like mullein. In this case, however, I’m looking for that invasive idea – the one that will not let go of my imagination – the one that stimulates my writing passion. Unlike invasive weeds in the prairie, the writing idea with staying power is one I’ll nurture and grow.
    Prairie beauty - coming in two to three years.

    Prairie beauty – coming in two to three years.

Both prairie and writing take time and hard work. Both may yield beautiful results if I’m wise in choosing and have the patience to nurture.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about – in the prairie and with my writing life. What’s going on in your creative life? And how does nature inspire you?

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

Taking writing on the road

Writing can be a solitary business. When I’m working on a writing project, as I am now with my novel in progress, I get to my keyboard each day by 9 a.m. and do my best to stay on task until noon. I dive headlong and alone into my story – forgoing phone calls, emails, social media and texts. For the past couple of months, I even set aside blogging. (Did you notice?)

I was urged out of my writing isolation by an invitation from Janet Givens who offered her home on Chincoteague Island, VA, as a retreat space for writers she’s come to know via social media. Since my writing friend Mary Gottschalk and I love a good road trip; we love talking writing; and we love the inspiration that inevitably results from our time together, we loaded the car and headed out.

Friends & writers - Mary, Shirley & Carol

Friends & writers – Mary, Shirley & Carol

We looked forward to joining the authors on Chincoteague Island, but the journey to get there was an equally important part of our experience. In Harrisonburg VA, we spent a night with Shirley Showalter, author, friend, dairy farmer’s daughter, and co-founder with me of I Grew Up Country. The beauty of the Shenandoah Valley grew more vibrant in color and meaning as Shirley and her husband Stuart shared their Mennonite and family history. Thoughtful conversations about next stages in writing and life made it difficult to move on.

Natural beauty deep in the earth.

Natural beauty deep in the earth.

After a morning at Luray Caverns and an afternoon in the Shenandoah National Park, we were welcomed to Charlottesville, VA, by Joan Rough and her husband Bill and their dogs – Max and Sam. In between tours of Monticello and the University of Virginia, we tucked conversations on Joan’s upcoming memoir, Bill’s playwriting, and art in general since Joan’s creative talent manifests in many directions.

Making avatars into real people. Mary, Carol & Joan.

Making avatars into real people. Mary, Carol & Joan.

Monticello in spring

Monticello in spring

 

 

 

Finally on Chincoteague, we joined Janet, poet Merril Smith, memoirist Marian Beaman and author/nurturer of women’s voices Susan Weidener. Loosely structured, the retreat became whatever each of the authors wanted. Blogs. Poetry. Editing. Essays. Marketing. Technology. Who knows what will result when a group of creative minds come together? Friendship. Sharing. Support. Inspiration. Synergy, for sure.

Synergy: the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.

Every day of the trip brought new thoughts, new inspiration, new friendships and richer understanding of renewed friendships. I hope you’ll take a moment to look into each of the women from this writing journey. You won’t be disappointed.

Cooking together deepens the writing experience.

Cooking together deepens the writing experience.

Even though writing can be solitary, I’ve never felt alone. The synergy of weeks like this are one reason why. As I return to working on my novel, I’ll do it with renewed enthusiasm and insights ignited by this trip.

 

One bit of Synergy: Our discussions of social media techniques led me to make a couple of changes. I added a box you can click to notify you of responses to comments you make. And, I moved the share buttons to the handy position below. If you find these posts interesting or helpful, please share with your friends.

With a little help from my friends – NaNoWriMo 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) sent hundreds of thousands of writers to their keyboards in November to write the novels they know they have in them. Historically, 17% of those who start succeed.Dream Big Dreams I was one of those writers.

Writing 50,000 words in a month is no easy task, especially for someone with my perfectionist tendencies. The Nano concept is that I must securely lock my perfectionist self in the closet at the beginning of the month and not let her out until I’ve written those words. No re-reading, no re-writing, no editing. Only more words. Everyday, more words.

It makes me anxious just to think about it.

Yet, I did succeed, writing 50,406 words by November 24. (Sound the trumpets!). I was helped along by the wisdom of writers I admire. With a tip of the hat to John Lennon for the blog title, I offer the following:

“Every morning I tell myself: Write recklessly. You can play it safe tomorrow.” – Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd’s prose is beautiful, thoughtful, every word perfectly chosen. Yet she gets there by first writing recklessly. The crafting of each perfect word comes later. November was for reckless.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” – Peter DeVries

I have always taken DeVries’ workman-like words to heart. Some mornings, I had a scene in mind to write; on other days, my mind was a blank. Yet, I committed to write. And I did. My mind always sent something to my fingers.

“I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I’m capable of writing.” – Ann Patchett

The whispers of doubt grew loud throughout the month. What right do I have to write this story? How can it be any good? Will anyone care to read it? Patchett reminded me of the mantra I’ve repeated with my previous books: Write the best story I can, as well as I can. It’s all I can do. That will be enough.

“Shitty first drafts … All good writers write them.” – Anne Lamott

Lamott is never far away during NaNoWriMo. Many of the words I wrote (while individually perfectly good words) came together as such cliched-ridden drivel that I was too embarrassed to let them go. So I highlighted them in yellow or wrote CLICHE!!! after them just so I could move on. Wow, that was some really bad writing. But every word, no matter how bad, moved me toward the goal. I trust Lamott and will fix it in the second and third and fourth drafts.

These writers were my spirit guides. They encouraged me to keep writing no matter what. I arrived at the end of November with characters I understand better, scenes I had not previously envisioned, new plot lines I may (or may not) keep, and holes yet to be filled. I discovered things about myself and the story.

And there was one more spirit guide.

“It’s not our abilities that show what we really are. It’s our choices.” – Albus Dumbledore

Albus Dumbledore wasn’t a writer, but his advice to Harry Potter applies just as well. Writing is a choice, and success requires that I show up. In November, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I showed up.

Whether you’re a writer or not, whose words of wisdom inspire you?

*Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Journey to publication began with NANOWRIMO

Writer at work

Writer at work

Writers worldwide recently passed the half-way mark of National Novel Writing Month. By today, a writer who is on the NANOWRIMO track will have logged at least 30,000 words on their work in progress. Each year when NANOWRIMO rolls around, I itch to join in. There’s something about the sweet smell of a challenge and a deadline that calls me.

In 2006, I was there. With the finish line for my memoir in sight, I joined the tens of thousands of writers worldwide who signed up for NANOWRIMO to try my hand at fiction. At the end of the month, I had 55,000 words, a few characters I liked, and some scenes I thought I could use.

Though it took a couple of years before I returned to that first draft, this year I published Go Away Home, my novel that got its start in 2006.

In celebration of novel-writing month, Webucator asked authors to answer a few questions about their writing careers. I am participating because of the good fortune that led me to NANOWRIMO eight years ago. Here are my answers:

What were your goals when you started writing?

My first goal was to write about my parents’ lives. In the course of interviewing them – about life during The Great Depression, jobs they held, military service, and life on the farm – stories of my own childhood kept coming to my mind. Eventually those stories took center stage and became my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl.

What are your goals now?

Regardless of what I write, my goal is always the same: to tell the stories as well as I am able. To that end, I regularly take classes that add to my writing tool kit. I hope the result is that each subsequent work is better than the one before. Now that I’ve written both memoir and fiction, I feel I could go in either direction for my next book. The idea that’s got the most traction at the moment is a contemporary novel. Though a sequel to Go Away Home is getting legs, too.

What pays the bills now?

Years of saving accumulated a nest egg that allows me to indulge my interest in writing. That nest egg is augmented by freelance writing and consulting projects and royalties from my books.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

I enjoy the process of writing, and when I have an idea, I’m inspired to puzzle out the story arc, the characters, the place and time, and see how well I can tell it. Writing is hard work, so I’m inspired to complete projects by deadlines and my writing group partners. Also, I buy butt glue by the gallon to keep me in my writing chair.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Don’t give up.

So there you have it, friends. It is with delight and gratitude that I lift a glass to NANOWRIMO, encouraging others to realize their writing dreams.

Write On!

Book marketing – It’s not always about sales

Photo by Larry Baker's wife, Ginger Russell, at an appearance in Cedar Falls in 2009.

Now what?

Author Larry Baker (The Flamingo Rising, A Good Man and others) posted this picture to his Facebook page this week, and I laughed. It captures a fear most authors harbor: ‘What if nobody comes?’

It’s not a groundless fear. It happened to me this week. I spend considerable time in advance of events to help ensure their success. But what I can’t do is guarantee people will come.

Over the past week I participated in six events to market my novel Go Away Home: a writing conference, two bookstores signings, a gift store signing, and two library book talks. The marketing side of the writing life.

Here’s an abbreviated look at how I promote and work events.

Bring my own audience – The event host isn’t the only one responsible for getting people to come. Authors need to work their own contacts, too. I use email marketing and social media to generate interest. A ‘save the date’ mailing three weeks in advance, and a reminder three days ahead of the event. I create Facebook events and invite. I tweet. Results of this effort reinforce the importance of using many ways of reaching people: At one book store event, all but one person came as a result of my email campaign. At one library event, none of my contacts came.

Alert media – I sent news releases to media in each town. To the best of my knowledge, none picked up the news for these events. I’ll keep doing this, though, because particularly in smaller towns, I’ve seen terrific pick up.

Stand and deliver – Even though I could sit down, I communicate enthusiasm by standing. I smile and make eye contact, then I ask anyone who meets my gaze if I can tell them about my books. Most will say yes. I pitch my book in 30 seconds or less. Once I’ve given the pitch, I ask questions to keep the person engaged. I put a book in their hands as we talk.

One of my events was in a gift store that also served lunch. The owner had me set up at a table at the edge of the lunch area. I took my books to the tables as guests waited for their food to be delivered. I kept this pitch very short and made sure not to overstay my welcome. An idea for next time: Create table tents to alert people I’m there and to keep my books in front of them as they eat.

Be flexible – I was on the road mainly to market my new novel, but at one library, the book discussion group had just read my memoir and that’s what they wanted to talk about. So we did. I included messages about my novel when it was relevant.

What if no one shows? In spite of all my efforts, at one library, that worst-case scenario happened. I was all set up and the audience didn’t show. I felt worse for the librarian than for myself. She’d done a lot to get the word out, but for who knows how many reasons, no one came.

I’d whiled away a half hour on my own, then a miracle. One young girl walked in the door. Turns out she was the librarian’s daughter. I learned she’d written a story and in that small town, she had found no writing support. We talked one-on-one about what she was writing. How she could get support from her teachers. How she might engage her classmates.

At that library, I didn’t sell any books. I didn’t share the story of my novel or my memoir. But I did something more important. I encouraged another writer.

Now that I’m back at home, feet up, glass of wine in hand, reflecting on the week, I count all the events a success. Everything that happened is part of the writing life. I reconnected with friends. I made new friends. I sold quite a few books. And I encouraged another writer.

That last achievement? Priceless.

* Photo by Larry Baker’s wife, Ginger Russell, at an appearance in Cedar Falls – 2009.