My son, who’s trying his hand at writing, asked me if I thought it was okay to write two stories at one time. He said that he had lost his way in his first novel and had developed a new story idea. I’m actually a great person to answer this question. At one point in time, I had no less than twenty unfinished novels on my computer. I was the queen of half-written books. To be honest, several of them still sit, ladies in waiting, on my hard drive. “Pick me next! Pick me next!” they clamor each time I’m ready to start a new project. The problem with abandoning one novel to start another is you risk falling out of love with the first one. Since becoming a more disciplined writer, I realize that you have to stick with your characters or you might lose that connection that made you want to write them in the first place. Just like in real life, sometimes your lovers, family, and friends can bore you. Sometimes you just don’t even know where they’re coming from or where your relationship is headed. Then, that new exciting story winks at you from across the room and tries to lure you away. He makes promises of new and exciting experiences. In my early days of writing, I was easily seduced. It wasn’t until I committed myself to actually finishing a novel (Wait for Me) that I learned the rewards of seeing my characters’ story to a conclusion. Writing is not always shiny and new; sometimes it’s pure drudgery. It’s like slogging through mud. Trust me, though. Finish that story. The literary high of finishing a book can not be beat.
As a licensed therapist, I spend my day being a cheerleader. For eight hours a day, I tell people that they can do it, they can get better, they can rise above this difficult time in their lives. As an aspiring writer, there are times that I could use some cheerleading. I love writing and I love what I write, but there are days that I wished for more affirmation. Today is such a day. So, before I totally let myself fall into a pit of self-pity and self-doubt, I have decided to establish my 10 Commandments of Writing.
1. Remind yourself why you write. You write because you love to tell stories. You don’t write to make money (good thing) or for accolades. You write for the pure pleasure of creating a story.
2. Read more. Never stop learning the craft. Study what you like and what you don’t like.
3. Stop perusing your book sales spreadsheets. When you tie your art into your finances, one or the other is bound to suffer.
4. Don’t take rejection so personally. Allow yourself a ten minute pity-party, then move on. You can’t get into the minds of publishers or agents or advertising sites, so stop trying.
5. Take pleasure in other’s successes or at the very least, don’t resent them. Sure, the pinch can hurt when a book that you wouldn’t touch again with a 10-foot pole becomes a best seller, but good for them! It might be your turn next.
6. Remind yourself how satisfying it is to finish writing a book. There’s no feeling like it. Waiting for your first sale, your first review–knowing that someone in this world is out there enjoying your hard work is a priceless feeling.
7. Remember that every day is a new day; one with endless possibilities. My brother is a photographer and aspiring filmmaker and we have talked about how every day we are both just one phone call, one e-mail, one text away from greatness.
8. Don’t allow self-doubt to eat away at you. Like anger, resentment, and jealousy, self-doubt is a selfish, destructive emotion.
9. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will ever give up writing.
10. Just shut up and write.
I have had a bad week. Details are not important, but this week sucked. By the end of the week, I was a bit of a madwoman, looking for more things to piss me off just so I could rant and rave about what a bad week I was having. In the midst of it all, though, I kept writing. I kept writing mainly because I am an overly-disciplined, neurotic rule-follower and I have a set-in-cement rule that I have to write something….anything….every day, no matter what. So, I wrote and I was reminded of why I write. Just like reading, writing is a form of escapism. Writing whisks you away into another world and insulates you from the harsh realities of life. One night this week, as I was positioned carefully in bed with an ice pack and ibuprofen, I began writing and before I knew it, hours had gone by and I had written one kick-ass chapter. I hadn’t thought once about work problems, my back being out, family issues…I had been totally lost in my writing. I’m a pretty “straight as an arrow” kind of girl—-I’ve never been tempted by drink, drugs, gambling, or other vices. I’ve never craved them like I crave writing. Writing is necessary to my sanity. Just like Alice couldn’t resist the little bottle marked “Drink Me” I can not resist the blank pages that demand “Write Me.” Writing is my drug of choice.
“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”–Samuel Johnson
I was talking to one of my patients today and we were discussing how much we both enjoyed reading. She told me that she loved to read because she could make the people and the places in the story whatever she wanted them to be. I asked her what she meant and she said, “The characters can look like whatever I want them to look like. The setting is what I want it to be.” Now, as a fanatic reader, I know she’s right. When I read, all heroines magically look like me. If the author describes a character or a setting in such a way that it doesn’t feel right in my head, I just change it. That’s what readers do, right? As a writer, though, it took me aback to think that someone might do that to one of my books! These stories were gifted to me by my imaginary friends. I gave birth to these tales and, frankly, it wasn’t always an easy labor. As I mulled over her words, I realized that I was looking at this in the wrong way. I write to share my imagination, my fantasies, and all things scary, lovely, and weird. If someone is enjoying my work enough to meld their own dreams with mine, that’s pretty cool. It’s all very kumbaya, but I like the thought that we’re all connected in our literary world. I’ll start the book, you finish it.
I sometimes feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde rolled up into one neurotic mess. I have a demanding job—–demanding of my time and my abilities. By the time I leave work, the sun is setting and I am exhausted and, at times, resentful that I have no mental energy left to write. I try to pound out a few pages, though, knowing that the work will need serious editing at some point. The next morning, I feel mentally refreshed but have no time to write. I have to hit the road and start a new day. What I have found, however, is that the morning drive to the hospital is a perfect time for me to develop plots and characters and figure out the next chapter in my story. Admittedly, I can get lost in that other world. One early morning this week, I was walking through the still deserted hallways of the hospital, apparently speaking out loud as one of my characters. I say “apparently” because I didn’t know I was doing it until I passed a doctor. My voice trailed off and I shifted my eyes in embarrassment as he looked at me curiously. Truth be told, I often speak out loud as my characters. I find that it helps me determine if what I’m writing sounds realistic. I didn’t know, until that moment, that I do it in public, too. As I held my lips tightly shut, I chastised myself. “They’re going to lock you up in the Behavioral Unit,” my serious self yelled internally. My writer self answered, “Good. I’ll have more time to write.”
My newest book, Lost and Found in Laurel Ridge, is now available on Amazon.com. I always knew that I wanted to write a book set in Appalachia because this is where my family tree is rooted. Many years ago I started researching my family history and was pleased to find that my ancestors settled this country. Mainly immigrants from the British Isles, my ancestors left their respective countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) behind to try for a better life. They fought in the American Revolution and settled Kentucky, Virginia, North & South Carolina, and Tennessee. When I wrote this new book all I had to do was shake my family tree for characters. One of my ancestors really did have his lunacy papers signed by John Hancock. That is quite a claim to fame! The character of Miss Bird is based on my own great-grandmother. She passed away when I was just two years old, so I took literary liberties, but I wanted to honor her by writing about a strong female who spoke her mind, met challenges head-on, and believed in love and loyalty above all else. The main male character, Jack, is a conglomeration of many of my male relatives who have the Appalachian spirit in their blood. They are blunt, big talkers, moody, and eschew anything popular and in-style. My dad recently told me that I’m an “attractive, middle-aged woman.” He meant it as a compliment. When I developed Jack, I had him, my brothers, my uncles, my cousins, and even my sons in mind. I have frequently described them all as missing a portion of their frontal lobe. They can be charming and charismatic and often draw people to them with their energy but their tendency to speak their minds at any costs mandates that you develop a thick skin. I wanted my main character of Erin to come to Laurel Ridge fragile and timid. I wanted her to be hurt and angered by Jack’s manner. Her personal growth includes learning what makes a man like Jack tick, which is not dissimilar to my own journey with my family. I hope you enjoy Lost and Found in Laurel Ridge.
What makes a writer? We could suggest that a writer is one who is an artist, who loves the written word, who seeks to educate and enrich others….or maybe a writer is just somebody who likes to fabricate new truths. My parents are packing up their house and moving back to Florida. We lived in Miami when I was a child and when my parents decided to move us to Cincinnati, my dad went first to get settled with a job. My mother and the four children: me, Ricky, Michael, and Timothy all stayed behind to finish out the school year and sell the house. My mother encouraged us to write our father often. Last night, they gave me a box of my report cards, artwork, and letters. In this particular letter I’m informing him, as only a a six year old girl can, that all of my brothers are bad and I am good. Oh, and by the way, let my cousin Sheila know that I’m coming soon. I laughed so hard, I cried. Even as a child, I was manipulating the truth to suit my needs. I mean, how was he going to know the difference? If I wrote that my brothers were being bad but I was good, why wouldn’t he believe that? The power of the written word is infallible. Maybe some of us are just born to fabricate; we love to write about the world as we see it or even just as we wish it would be. I like to think that I now have in my possession my very first short story.