Why Writing is Like Childbirth

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIf  you’ve ever given birth, you’ve probably heard the old saw that women forget the pain of childbirth. The concept is simple. A new mother forgets because, if she remembered the contractions and the pushing and the panting, she’d never do it again.

What I remember about childbirth is sitting on the edge of my bed chanting to myself, “Don’t forget. Don’t do this again.”

I listened to myself then. I had twins, so that worked out kind of on its own.

I don’t always listen to myself, however. A few years ago, I had the brilliant idea of writing a series of How To posts for this website. One short post per day, for a month, each written the same way – definition, explanation, demonstration – to address a very specific craft element. For 30 days. Did I have 30 craft tips to share? Sure. Could I follow a formula to explain each in a succinct way? Of course. I wrote a few How To posts in advance, as insurance, and announced my 30 Days of How To posts.

On day 20 or so, I sat on the edge of my bed chanting to myself, “Don’t forget. Don’t do this again.” Because writing a blog post 30 days in a row using the same formula is tedious. And I did not count on question and comments, so there was monitoring. I spent those 30 days chained to my desk.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was writing a novel for women, an adventure I had not planned on taking. It started as a short story and grew. I followed the story. During the writing, I immersed myself into novels for and by women, many of which were sitting on my bookcase.

As natural as it may be for a woman to forget the pain of childbirth is the desire for a reader to share what she reads. Hence, Brilliant Idea #2: I would review stories by female authors for this website. I would write mini-reviews, in the same pattern every day: a short synopsis followed by answering the question “Why is this book a good read for women?” I had no trouble finding books to review—all I had to do was turn around and look at my bookcase.

By happenstance, I had this idea on Mardi Gras (day before Ash Wednesday) so I got into gear and made the announcement for 40 Days of Book Praise. No advance planning. No pre-writing of reviews for insurance. I did give myself Sundays off, to regroup, and because I’d learned my lesson from the How To month about putting pressure on myself to perform.

On day 20 or so, I sat on the edge of my bed chanting to myself….

Which brings me today. On Mardi Gras of this year, I made a vow to submit work for the 40 days some people celebrate as Lent. I didn’t do this as penance or for any spiritual reason. I did this because I had fallen off the submission train and I wanted to get back on. With flair. Or a vengeance.

One of the mindset changes in writing a novel, as opposed to writing short works, is separating from submitting. When I wrote short all the time, I submitted all the time. I had a process. Raw draft, rough draft, review by critique group, revise, polish, submit. I could have a new piece ready to go in a month or two. But a novel took years to draft, review, polish. I could not submit it during those years of writing, and while I focused on the novel, I let the short pieces I’d written before linger. My bad. Totally my bad.

Now I am agent hunting for the novel, which is an entirely different type of query. I can’t approach an agent every single day for forty days, so Brilliant Idea #3 meant I could mix querying with submitting short pieces.

Monday was day 20. Guess what I sat on the edge of my bed and chanted to myself?

Submitting is like matchmaking—you have to find the right place for the right piece, and then you negotiate the terms with the yenta/editor (yenitor?) Each submission requires a bio, and because I write different things, I need a different bio for each submission. Selling is part of matchmaking too, so I write a cover letter explaining why this piece and this publication are destined to be together.

And then there are fees. The days of going to the post office with a stack of envelopes and SASEs are over, replaced with nominal (or not so nominal) reading fees. 2 bucks here, 3 bucks there, and now Submittable seems to own my dowry. (But it is far, far better—and cheaper—than the post office.)

The process is exhausting, especially if you do it every single day. Why did I do this to myself again? Didn’t I learn? Won’t I ever learn?

There’s another old saw about childbirth and motherhood: a new mother falls crazy in love with the squalling, smelly, squirmy little thing she pushed out of her body because, if she didn’t fall like a brick, taking care of such a needy creature would be unbearable. The payoff for the pain of childbirth is the baby you love with all your heart.

On Monday, Day 20 of the submission project, in my email came the payoff: a letter of acceptance and a contract.

It made me remember why I keep doing this to myself. I like to be published. I like to teach. I like to support women who happen to be writers. I’m crazy in love with the writing life. Or, maybe I’m just crazy.

So, here is it on the morning of Day 22. I haven’t zeroed in on today’s submission just yet. Will I contact an agent? Will I send out an essay? Will I enter a short story contest? I have until midnight to decide. Only 18 more midnights to go.

Have you ever set yourself up for a challenge that you regretted—or thought you regretted?

Living in the Active Voice

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgLast night, after several months of absences, I attended the Open Mic offered by my town’s arts alliance. I did not read. I don’t always have short pieces to share, but that’s okay, because listeners are as welcomed as participants. Readers shared poetry and spoken word, short prose pieces, some novel excerpts, a music duo, and a haiku plus bongos performance. You never know what will happen at an Open Mic, and that’s the fun of it.

In my day job as an editor/instructor, I advise writers all the time to use the active voice. This is not a rule. The passive voice is often appropriate, but for the crime writers I work with, active works better than passive. This applies to character as well as writing style. An active protagonist drives a plot. A character who is pro-active is more engaging that one who is reactive.

Active characters make things happen. The active voice is more direct and lively. These are standards about writing and not really news.

So why am I writing about what’s not news?

Because of the Open Mic. And the vow I made last week to submit one piece of work every day, for 40 days. (This is Day 8. I’m 7 for 7, and have until midnight to be 8 for 8.)

Since my announcement last week about my submissions vow, three other writers have contacted me to say they have been submitting regularly, too. One received an immediate acceptance! This reinforces my vow to keep up the daily work of putting my writing out there for review.

And it is work. My goal was to get myself in gear again, but I also wanted to resurrect some pretty good pieces of writing that have been languishing in the virtual drawer. Some were never quite finished to my liking. Some were rejected a couple of times and needed review. Making a public vow to submit meant making the private promise to polish. After the polish, there’s the hunt for the proper market, and once that is defined, the cover letter and bio. I seem to write a new bio every day. It is, to be honest, a drag. But, it’s part of the gig. No one ever said the gig was 100% fun, or easy.

There’s also the rejection factor. 40 days of submissions means the possibility of 40 rejections. Just because I’ve been published and received fellowships and awards, does this mean I am no longer bummed by a rejection? No. Every rejection is a blow, but the counteraction to the blow is to hit back with another submission. The other option, to put the work back into the drawer, to be passive, means there is NO chance at all to be accepted.

Action.  Reaction. Counteraction. Submitting is a lot like living in a thriller novel. If you stop moving, the bad guys will surely get you. If you keep moving, your chances of survival grow stronger.

Even if every single submission of my 40 days is rejected, well, there are 325 other days this year, too.

It’s easy to become lazy or complacent. It’s easy to put aside a story when it becomes frustrating. Passive is easier than active. But passive also means missing out. It was raining last night, and I was tempted to skip the Open Mic, but I didn’t. I was tired yesterday and I was tempted not to submit, but I did. Today, I could have blown off writing this blog post, but I was charged up by the Open Mic and the news that a friend had taken my challenge and had a piece of writing accepted for publication.

That is life in the active voice. Getting your work out there. Making things happen.

But, as I noted above, there are times when the passive voice is appropriate, both in writing and in life. From time to time, it’s good to kick back and listen to the words and music from other artists who are brave enough to stand up before a crowd and share what’s in their hearts. It’s helpful to absorb the energy, to participate without being the one on stage. Every artist needs an audience, after all.

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The Trouble with Being

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgMy last post of 2016 was about patience. This post is about another word: being.

You’ve seen the memes:

 Be the change. Be the ball. Just be.

The first – be the change – means embracing activism with action.  Be the change can mean marching on Washington on Saturday. Be the change can mean bringing your own cloth bags to the grocery store. Be the change can mean volunteering at a shelter or running in a charity 5K. Be the change can mean speaking up when a person is bullied about their race, religion, sexual orientation, or appearance. Be the change can mean adopting a rescue animal.

I get the concept of “be the change.” You, yourself, do something that exhibits how you want the world to act or be. Easy peasy.

“Be the ball” means action + desire. I don’t use a lot of sports metaphors, but I understand this one. If you want to be a champion swimmer, “be the ball” means practicing every day until you hit your best. Michael Phelps is the ball. For a wannabe writer, “be the ball” means writing without quitting, despite rejection, outside obstacles, and personal insecurities. JK Rowling is the ball.

“Be the ball” means doing the thing you love, embracing your desires, living the life you wish for. I understand this one, too.

Which brings us to “Just be.”

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“Just be” means to slow down. Listen. Feel. Observe. I think that’s what it means, anyway. To be honest, I’m not sure.

I practice being the change in my own relatively small ways, and I work hard at being the ball. But to just be—isn’t that, like, doing nothing?

“Just be” is difficult for people like me who long ago bought into the lure of multi-tasking. “Be the change” and “be the ball” are doing phrases. I can do things. Often, I can do three things at once. I can juggle, delegate, and prioritize. I know how to save time because….

 Time is precious! Don’t waste time! Time is of the essence! Time is fleeting!

These phrases are directly oppositional to the concept of taking time off, taking time for yourself, taking time to just be.

In writing, there’s a plot device called a ticking clock. It is used to give a character a deadline. A fictional ticking clock can mean a bomb will go off if it’s not diffused before the seconds wind down, or a loved one will die if not rescued before a hatch opens and they drop into the ocean.

Ticking clocks are useful in fiction because it ramps up the tension, adds stakes, etc. A ticking clock in real life means making deadlines. My job is ruled by deadlines, and it works, but it’s also tiring. One of my resolutions for 2017 is to do one thing at a time.

This is why “just be” sounds attractive–but despite my resolution, just “being” remains elusive.

So, my friends, how about some help? Who has this “just be” thing mastered? Would you share your wisdom on how to ignore the ticking clock and slow down, listen, feel, observe? I would be most grateful.

Virtual Clean Your Office Day

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On Friday of this week, millions of people around the world will bond in a joint cause: to clean their  home offices. Okay, maybe not millions. More like a dozen. Or half dozen. Six of my friends, plus me.

To reboot, on Friday, at least seven people will virtually join me in tackling the horror of paper piles, book stacks, business receipts, dead ink pens, and whatever (Food? Fungus? New strain of rotavirus?) that is turning the bottom of my mouse purple. Continue reading

Coming Events and Workshops

2016-fall-eventsOne of the perks of being awarded a fellowship is the opportunity to offer free public readings and workshops. (And you have funds set aside for promotional postcards!)

The following are my coming events for October and November, 2016. Some require registration, but all are open to the public. Continue reading

The Merry Month of Self-Myths

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI attended a food truck party this past weekend, an event to support the local arts alliance where I participate in open mics, enjoy exhibits and classes and, this summer, will offer a multi-week course on novel writing.

The party was a smashing success. Despite the drippy skies, we arrived (late) to a parking lot full of students, art patrons, and locals patiently standing in loooong lines to the food trucks. The atmosphere was upbeat. A musician sang. Dogs wagged their tails. Children played around the tents. Even the lights of the firetruck closing off the street seemed festive. It was as much a community block party as it was a fundraiser. Continue reading

The Sacred Writing Time Pledge, 2016

On New Year’s Day of 2012, I created the Sacred Writing Time Pledge. The Pledge was born in response to a writing group colleague who bemoaned her lack of organization, willpower, family cooperation, and other reasons (aka excuses) that prevented her from being the steady, daily, productive writer she wanted to be. Continue reading