On April 8, 2014, I found a call for novella submissions that was perfectly suited to me. Right in the middle of my wheelhouse. The catch? The deadline was May 1.

One of the ways I hone my craft is to run writing drills to see what I can do in a short amount of time, but recently I’ve taken on much more in my life outside of writing. I wasn’t sure I could make the deadline with these new responsibilities, but I was sure I had to try.

I set aside the paranormal romance novella series I was working on, pulled out every tool I had for writing something fast and tight, and did it… I actually did it. Almost 20,000 words in about three weeks starting from no story idea and ending in an edited and polished novella, out the door to the publisher with three days to spare.

There were a few false starts, several, “Wait, where was I going with this?” moments, and a whole lot of, “This is insane. I can’t do this. I need more time to think about it and make schedules and do everything except write.” That looming deadline, though, made me push through. I wanted to submit a piece for this call. I needed to.

So, every time those doubts rose up, I crushed them mercilessly beneath my all-powerful goal. “Make that deadline. Get the words on the page.” My escape clause helped when the doubts fought back (“If I decide it’s crap, I don’t have to send it.”). And most of the time I was writing, I was convinced it was crap, but I pushed through and got it down. Laundry piled up, sleep was put off, coffee was consumed.

The moment of truth arrived. I had reached the end of the first draft just past 18,000 words (the minimum for the call). I took it as a good sign that the two coincided. I only had time to take a deep breath before diving back in. I returned to the beginning and started my first read-through, and… it was good. After the first round of edits, I shared it with trusted critique partners. They confirmed and amplified my suspicions. They said it was really good. All the time spent in learning my craft, practicing, and pushing for those goals had paid off.

Whether the publisher decides they want the novella or not, I’m proud of it. The experience of getting it done, of knowing I can make such an aggressive deadline and still turn out quality work and keep everything else that’s important in my life moving along, that alone was worth the sleepless nights.

20 Questions (or maybe 10)

When the urge to write appears, I want to be ready to take advantage of that early fire to the fullest extent possible. The first flush of creativity makes the words fly forth from my fingertips and I’m on top of the world (whichever world I happen to be writing in). Inevitably, the words slow, my plot strays, and I’m left wondering, who are these people that I’m writing about? Sure, they reveal themselves while I’m writing, but I’d rather not have to rewrite an entire piece because halfway through a novel I realize that the hero is claustrophobic or the heroine’s overbearing father is the real root of her fear of commitment.

Moments of revelation serve me better when they deepen characters that I’m already familiar with instead of derailing the whole story. To help prevent those moments of, “I wish I had known that earlier,” I’m considering doing the following exercise before each piece. I’m going to take my hero and my heroine, and I’m going to interview them together in a room in my imagination. I’ll ask them the same questions, and let them hear each others’ responses. And I’m going to write the whole thing down.

Maybe they’ll hit it off. Maybe they’ll hate each other, but have an undeniable attraction. Maybe we’ll all realize that these two were just not meant to be together (that has happened to me before). I’d rather know before I begin to write their story. Seeing the characters’ reactions to the questions, and even more important, their reaction to each others’ answers, will give me key information in developing them on the page. And writing down the whole scene, well, that’s a pretty good warm-up for writing the piece.

It’s important to me that there are reasons that my characters fall in love. I want to find the seeds of that love somewhere in this exercise. Here are the questions I’ve come up with so far:

  1. What sort of locale did you grow up in?
  2. Was/is your family close?
  3. What do you do in your spare time?
  4. Do you want kids, and if so, how many?
  5. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  6. What is your favorite trait in yourself?
  7. What is your favorite trait in others?
  8. What are you looking for out of life?
  9. What do you want to avoid?
  10. Who has been the most important person in your life up to this point?

What questions would you ask your characters?

“In Time”

I’ve often heard the expression that things come in their own time. I’m not always the most patient of people. Lady Wafflenose (my inner critic) takes this to the next level. She has a schedule, and she expects my creativity to reach maximum velocity at specific intervals and make stops at all the right stations precisely on time. A few days ago, I realized I (she) was beating myself up over the fact that my new project, a 20,000 word sci-fi romance novella, wasn’t completely mapped out and I hadn’t figured out all the scenes for the story yet and all the characters and their motivations. The idea had come to me less than 48 hours before.

What. The. Hell.

Creativity doesn’t run on a schedule. Thinking as hard as I possibly can in an effort to squeeze ideas out of my brain is not productive. And berating myself for the fact that ideas aren’t coming to me faster only makes things worse. The best I can hope for is to set up a routine of writing every day and give myself experiences that support, nurture, and foster creativity. A walk in a park, a trip to a museum, watching clouds slide across a blue spring sky, laughing with friends.

This doesn’t mean I don’t do the work. Of course I do the work. Writing is work. Amazing, fun, frustrating, and magical work. The only control I can exert over time is how much I spend in the chair, hands on the keyboard or paper and pencil. And that time is the most important of all. The more I let my brain, my body, my soul know that this is the work I need to be doing, the more ideas will bubble to the surface. That time in the chair smooths the way for ideas to come for the current project and all that will come after. When my creativity knows that it’s welcome in my life, that I’m making room for it, then the ideas will come more freely. And in the meantime, I can practice developing my patience as well.

Art Feeds Art

I have more hobbies than anyone I’ve ever met. Sewing? Of course! Clothes, quilts, curtains, even puppets. Music? I can make passable sounds from half a dozen instruments or more. Sports? Okay, not so much, unless you count yoga and Tai Chi… and walking. I could name dozens of other hobbies I pursue, things that fill my time with joy and growth.

Lately, I’ve become more focused. I have always planned on writing as a career and have reached the point where it’s time to move forward. With growing demands on my time, most of my hobbies have been gently shelved for revisiting on another day. But I don’t miss them. As a writer, I don’t have to.

One of the best things about having so many hobbies is that I can give them to my characters and describe them with authenticity. I can draw on my experiences learning the piano for one character, and my experiences… well, drawing, for another. It gives the characters more depth, because the experiences they have with those hobbies are real, even if they’re mine (I was the only person in my drop-spindle class who somehow was able to spin my fingers into the yarn I was making – twice! I don’t recommend it. It isn’t very comfortable.).

Even better is when one of my artistic hobbies improves my writing itself. When I draw, for example, I start to look at everything differently, to really look at the world. I notice things, little details, that I might want to incorporate in a picture, and find that the descriptions and settings in my writing become better.

Art feeds art. And for every new experience we give to ourselves, for every new medium of self-expression we explore, our writing becomes that much richer.

Writers Helping Writers

Authors with a passion for words will hone their craft; whether they use research, workshops, critique groups, or the most important means – practice! There are many tools for becoming a better wordsmith. One of the most important methods for me has been helping and receiving help from other writers. Maybe one writer I know will find a writing coach whose instructions are pure gold, or another will develop a new writing exercise technique for honing our skills that is brilliant. We all work together to advance our craft.

I liken it to climbing a mountain. We could hoard our knowledge, knocking loose the pitons that we’ve placed in the stone to help us on our way so no one can follow us. Or, we could call out to the others on the same journey, letting them know where a grip might be that is out of their sight, or that a ledge is close by for resting, if they can only push on a little further.

Finding a publisher for our finished work is a fiercely competitive field. But if we let competition overpower creativity we close ourselves off to opportunities and friendships that can be truly remarkable.

When talking about the act of writers helping writers, I like to say, “There’s plenty of awesome to go around.” Helping each other to create stories, to polish them until they shine, even if it’s only for ourselves, that is a worthwhile pursuit.