Writing is Like Life; It Sucks Sometimes.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Writing a book is hard.

That doesn’t sound like a revelation until you try to write one.

Starting a book is easy. You’re lying in bed one morning, and you get a flash of brilliant story, running through your mind in full technicolor. You run downstairs in your underwear, flip open your laptop and start tippity-typing away, eager to capture the scenes on paper. This is the part they always show in movies — the writer version of the Rocky training montage. Pages ripped out of typewriters, pencils behind ears, many cups of coffee consumed.

Then, you get to the hard part.

You spend hours, days, months, years, writing and staring off into space thinking about your story. (Daydreaming as a work-related activity is one of the few perks of being a writer.) Your characters are selfish friends who take up all your time and energy and don’t give anything in return. Writing a book is, as far as I can tell in my extensive experience of one completed manuscript, five percent blinding flash of inspiration. The other 95 percent is tentatively typing things you know you’re going to have to redo, all while secretly fearing the whole thing is shit. It’s a lonely endeavor — just you and your imaginary people.

You’ve decided you need accountability.

You tell your real-life friends, relatives and strangers in line behind you in the grocery store, that you’re writing a book. They ask how it’s going periodically, and even though you have no real answer, it does sort of keep you on track. Then one day, they ask, “How’s the book coming?” And you finally get to say, with a triumphant flourish, “It’s finished!” often followed by, “No, you can’t read it (because I’m secretly still afraid it’s shit.)

The hard slog up the mountain is over.

You have written the denouement and the conclusion. You have typed  “The End.” (For real, I did that.) You rise from your desk chair, stretch your aching, hunched back, holler to your spouse and open a bottle of wine in celebration. But then you stand on top of that massive mound of paper, ink and tears and look up to realize you’ve only just climbed a foothill. The big, bad specter of editing and rewriting is looming over you, daring you to start scaling it. It’s enough to make you cry. Or to put off even looking at your story again for at least six months.

That’s where I am right now.

I am reading every single word of that “completed” manuscript, rife with inconsistencies, plot holes and typos. I am rewriting the entire thing because that’s the only way I know how to do it. I am starting to hate my characters and my story. I am sick of them, and because they are now real, I fear they are also sick of me and my waffling on what they get to do, feel and say. It all convinces me even further that I’ve written a B-minus novel at best.

So, if you were wondering whatever happened after I wrote that post ALMOST A YEAR AGO about being done with my novel, there it is. It’s done. And it’s so not done.

Writing a book is not hard.

It is excruciating to the point that sometimes I want to delete the whole file and all the sub-files of notes and pretend the whole damned thing never existed. It’s like having a baby; if you knew what it was going to be like before you started the process, it would never happen.

I once heard a favorite author of mine speak, and it took her six years to get her first book published. At the time, my jaw dropped, but at the rate I’m going, I may be editing my own AARP application before I get this thing done.

And yet it will happen.

I keep getting derailed by my own insecurity and laziness, but damnit, I will slog through this swamp of a story, clean it up and see it published one way or another. By that time, though, instead of reading like commentary on current social standards, it may be more of a historical novel.

I could pretend this post is intended as advice for the young writer or a reality check for anyone considering starting a novel, but really it is entirely selfish. I needed to vent, to complain, and let’s be real, avoid editing. Now I can get back to rewriting the book….oh, will you look at the time! Well, there’s no way I can start now.

Dickens Was Right, Damnit

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Copyright: Paul Rushton

Dickens, be damned.

My ninth-grade English teacher was obsessed with Charles Dickens. She made all of her classes read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. She was a member of the Dickens Society and attended Dickens-themed soireés where all the guests donned 19th-century garb and spoke in 87-word, obtusely-structured sentences. I assume.

We had to memorize the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, which didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized it takes up the ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF THE BOOK. I still fail to understand how it can be “good writing” when you have to go back and re-read the first part of the sentence because, by the end, you’ve forgotten what the subject and verb were.

I remember parts of that sentence. My brain cannot recall where I put my phone or what time a soccer game is, but it holds onto useless detritus like my childhood phone number, the lyrics to an old Velveeta cheese commercial and, yes, the beginnings of famous novels I don’t even like.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is how it begins. It then trails on for another sixteen lines with a series of very similar (and unnecessary) oxymorons. “Epoch of belief, age of incredulity…blah, blah, blah, noisiest authorities…blah, blah, blah…superlative degree of comparison only.” WTF, brain?

I hate it when he’s right.

BUT. Despite his mellifluous method of stating it, I’ve grudgingly decided Dickens had a point. That sentence applies to just about every era on the timeline of significant history. The heroics of the American Revolution alongside the appropriation and slaughter of indigenous peoples. The discovery of radiation’s miraculous cancer-killing properties and the deaths of thousands of innocent people in the form of a bomb. A new awakening for feminist activism but spurred by the election of a presidential misogynist.

My own, private heaven/hell/Idaho

It even works on a personal level. My twenties were filled with fun, friends, partying and carefree selfishness without guilt. I had a job and nothing to pay for except myself. And I cried a lot, lost four pregnancies and was in an unhealthy relationship.

My 30’s were an incredible time of self-discovery. I felt confident in myself as a person. Jason’s and my relationship grew deeper and wider. I had kids and discovered a love like I’d never known. I also worried a lot about fucking up and struggled with breastfeeding to the point of tears. I mourned the loss of time to myself. It was great and terrible, just like Oz.

The best of times weren’t that good.

I read somewhere that we recreate good times as better than they actually were. We look back on an overall fun vacation and remember playing in the ocean, relaxing on the sand, snuggling in bed with a mate. We forget the one rainy day we were bored, the lost luggage or the fight we had on the plane on the way home.

It’s helpful when thinking about now. With all the challenges — worry about kids, working on relationships, concern over finances and all the stuff I am constantly forgetting (with the exception of outdated commercial jingles) —  I know I will look back on these years and smile wistfully to myself. I’ll remember the kids young and not yet jaded by adult experience. I’ll recall learning to be a writer, the freedom to work from home, and the security of the built-in social network that comes with school-age children. Overall, this is a good time.

There have been some true, worst of times, where the “best of” part was indistinguishable: the immediate aftermath of my miscarriages, the throes of divorce, intense struggles with depression and loneliness. In comparison with those, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Why didn’t you just say so?

So, what I took 618 words (Dickens would be proud) and 15 minutes of your life that you can’t get back to say is this: PERSPECTIVE.

And also…

“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

(I never get to use the partial Shakespearean quotes that float around my brain, so now I’m just showing off. This is where you nod, virtually pat me on the head and roll your eyes. Go ahead. I totally deserve it.)

The Fighter Still Remains

The Fighter Still Remains
The Fighter Still Remains

Back when my maternal grandfather was still here and the last of my living grandparents, I wrote, The Fighter Still Remains. With diabetes and heart problems, his health was poor and his morale was even worse. On the way home from seeing him, The Boxer, by Paul Simon was echoing in my head.

I was driving back from visiting and caring for him. The thirty-minutes of travel was enough for me to mull over his life, our generations, what the future holds, and by the time I was halfway home, I was sobbing.

When I got home, it came pouring out of me in the only way I know how to cope effectively. I wrote this essay. It’s been edited, but it’s not far off from that first, emotion-laden waterfall of words.

That was five years ago. I’ve just now entered “The Fighter Still Remains,” in an essay contest. Winning entries are based on writing quality and votes/likes/comments. Please read and like or comment if you enjoy the essay and don’t hesitate to share it with others. Thanks for your support, friends.

My Own, Finished Steaming Pile of…

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Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash

I am great at starting projects. I have started writing a book at least six times in my life. In the past several years I have begun learning to knit, gathered pictures for a collage I never finished, and started a quilt using old fabric. Okay, I gathered the material in a big kitchen bag beside my bed, but I don’t actually know how to quilt, so it just sat there until I got tired of Jason complaining about all my unfinished projects lying around, and I hid it in the closet where it still resides today.

Sometimes I just lose steam. That’s what happens with writing. I’ll get this great idea, usually while I’m lying in bed on a weekend morning. I’ll run downstairs and tippity type away, banging out several chapters. That might happen a few more times until I get a quarter to a third of a novel…and then I quit. I used to think I was just lazy, but then I realized it’s that I get cold feet. I start to think the idea sucks or I can’t think of what comes next without it feeling contrived. Several months of hesitation go by where I find every excuse not to write. Suddenly, whole closets need to be cleaned out and rearranged. Suddenly, I need a Twitter account. Then I lose the thread of the story. Half a year later, I have another blinding flash of genius whilst lying in bed, and the cycle begins again. I am really good at starting stories. Is there a career in that?

As time went on, I doubted I was capable of completing a novel. I couldn’t even finish knitting a pot holder, after all. So this last time I got an idea, I told myself I would finish, no matter how doubtful I was and no matter what steaming pile of inconsistent plot and shallow characters I ended up creating. I had to know I could finish, quality be damned.

As I wrote this last story, there were days I was inspired and tippity typing at my fastest, but there were more days when I sat, typed two halting sentences, deleted them, then went for a walk. But, I finished the damned story. At this point, I’ve been over it so many times, I think it might be crap. I don’t know; I really can’t tell anymore. And there are problems with it that I don’t know how to fix.

I enlisted my sister as a beta reader because despite being my sister, I know she’ll tell me the truth, which is why I am scared to read her feedback. It’s dismaying to think the thing you’ve wanted to do pretty much your whole life, the thing you’ve finally accomplished, might be awful. I also know I have more stories in me, but finishing that first one was like wringing the last drips from a washcloth. I’m not sure I have it in me again.

But, I did it. I wrote a novel. It might be a steaming pile of crap, but it’s my steaming pile of crap. And it’s finished.

Business Advice You Probably Shouldn’t Take

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image credit: nicoletaionescu

 

UPDATE: Since I first posted this, I did decide to merge my business blog with my personal blog. Since I consider the business of uncomfortable emotions part of my business, it made sense.

When I first started a personal blog back in 2008, I was nervous about putting my most private thoughts and feelings out there on the internet for anyone to read. However, I quickly discovered that, guess what? NO ONE READ MY BLOG. I was equal parts dismayed and relieved.

Years and several blog iterations later, I was waiting on the corner for my kids to get out of school when another mom I barely knew said, “I read your blog. It was really great.” I froze. This random woman now knew some really personal things about me, and I felt VERY uncomfortable.

Since that day, I’ve made peace with putting my life out there. My goal was to acknowledge the emotional struggles we all have — the ones we sweep under the rug so we can pretend everything’s hunky dory — and help people feel relief in the knowledge they’re not alone. Now, when people tell me they read my personal blog, Riding the Wave, and tell me it struck a chord in them, I’m pleased.

But how does THAT blog mesh with this business-related one? Both are under my name; I even have them linked together. Anyone I do business with can click on over there and peer into the chaotic chasm of my brain. “Uncomfortable” doesn’t do it justice.

I could discontinue my personal blog or write it under a pseudonym. I could at the very least un-link it from this one or quit splashing it all over social media. But in the name of authenticity, I just can’t do it, even if it’s a terrible business decision. Sure, there’s a place for business and a place for emotional messiness; that’s why I have two different blogs. But the emotional messiness is real, and I’m not going to force it to live in the closet. It’s exhausting trying to keep it in there; the closet’s just not big enough.

You don’t have to empty the contents of your brain onto the page the way I do in my personal blog, but maybe you can let your guard down concerning work a little. And maybe we can all strive to make it feel safer to do that than it does now — not make it the death of your respectability. We can be good at our jobs, we can be focused, efficient hard workers, AND we can have some mess in the background that roams around the house instead of keeping to the unseen storage spaces. It’s not weakness; it’s normal.

Working for Yourself (Esteem)

Rejected_Stamp_shutterstock_65298541_260Freelancing is hard. I got a rejection email yesterday, for a project I thought I was perfect for. I was surprised and disappointed. It caused me to question myself, my career choice, my direction, my abilities. A bit of imposter syndrome snuck in. I don’t have a degree in journalism; I don’t have an MFA; I didn’t write for the school newspaper. Maybe I’m just a hack.

It’s easy to become insecure when something you truly want and think you’re good at doesn’t work out for you, especially if you get no feedback as to why. It’s even more likely you’ll question your worth if you’re taking an unconventional path.  You read what other people in your field are doing, what official qualifications or experiences they have, and you contrast yourself against them. You don’t have what they have, and that breeds self doubt.

Of course you don’t have what they have, but if you are pursuing you passion, don’t let doubt creep into your brain. If it is your calling and you are committed, you DO have something to offer – likely something unique that springs from your own path to where you are now. There’s a reason you love this thing – photography, graphic design, real estate – and it’s probably not because you suck at it. And, if you love it, you breathe it. You read professional journals, talk to others in your field, go to seminars; you are constantly learning and growing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a PhD in underwater basket weaving. Grab your snorkel and raffia and dive in! (unless you’re a surgeon, in which case, we all kind of want you to have gone to school)

In your quest for knowledge in your chosen field, you may…no, you will come across experts that give you six tips on how to be successful in the biz or the “one habit every successful person has.” That does not mean you have to do it that way. Read up, by all means, but not all advice applies to you. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Above all, be true to yourself. If going to every godamnned networking meeting within fifty miles of your house makes you want to vomit, don’t do it. Find another way that suits you. We all have to do things we’d rather not from time to time, in order to be successful, but we still need to be ourselves.

It takes bravery and a thick skin to freelance or run your own business. It takes the kind of person who can get knocked to the ground repeatedly and get back up and move forward again, even if it makes said person kind of feel like shit. You don’t have to have a positive attitude all the time. You don’t have to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt or cause you to question your abilities. You just have to keep moving forward. Keep fighting the good fight and stay open to opportunity. Something good will happen, and it may or may not be what you expect.

If you’re an unconventional aspiring writer (or aspiring anything) check out Jeff Sommers blog, The Unconventional Writer.

7 Common Capitalization Mistakes in Business Writing

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Copyright : serezniy

“Capitalization and punctuation.” How many times did English teachers write that on our papers? We still haven’t learned.  Most adults remember to capitalize the right things – proper names,  days of the week, specific geographic locations – but what do you capitalize erroneously? I bet, if you go back and look at the last thing you wrote, you’ll find some word you blessed with a capital letter that doesn’t warrant it. I know this because I still find random capitalizations in my own writing, and I’m the writer! Here are seven things we needlessly capitalize:

Professions

I would like to be a Writer, but I’m just a writer. Unless words like “doctor” directly precede a person’s name, they are always lowercase. So, it’s like this: “She is a doctor,”  but “I saw Doctor Sangi yesterday.”

Degrees

I have a degree in child development, not in Child Development. Even if one’s degree is held in high esteem in the professional world and took blood, sweat and tears to complete, it’s all the same in the eyes of English. It’s a “bachelor of science in microbiology” or a “master’s degree in psychology.”

Plant Names & Animal Breeds

Plant lovers are inclined to write of Lavender or Rosemary, but these are common plant names. So, unless you name your lavender “George,” it and the rosemary get lowercase letters. Similarly, “golden retriever” is all lowercase, but if the breed includes a proper noun like “English setter,” the proper noun part is capitalized.

Names of Seasons

This one always trips me up, because the seasons seem like proper names, but, according to every English authority, they are treated as descriptors of parts of the year. Thus, “we feel spring approaching, and winter is almost over.” Exception: If it’s part of a proper name, like “Winter Olympics” the season is capitalized.

Our Own Special Things

This is the most ubiquitous error I see. When something feels important to us, even if we know better, we grace it with a capital letter. Someone whose specialty is interior design may automatically capitalize not only the profession but words of import for their specialty, like “contemporary” or “mid-century.” We have to check ourselves here; reread carefully and google* it if you’re not sure.

School Subjects

Unless it’s a language, like English or Spanish, school subjects are all lowercase, from “anatomy” to “zoology.” When they are specific course titles, however, they become proper nouns, for example: “Biology 101” or “Early American History.”

People’s Titles

Titles of books are capitalized, but we humans must stick to lowercase, whether you are the secretary or the vice president. It gets a little more complicated when you attach it to someone’s name, though. So, it’s “the vice president, Amanda Smith” but “Vice President Amanda Smith.” In the second version, it is treated as part of her name.

The bottom line: proper nouns are capitalized, common nouns are not, no matter how special we feel about those common nouns. The trick is to tease out which one you’re dealing with. So, go easy on the capitalization, even though there’s no longer an English teacher to scribble bright red corrections all over your writing. And, if you miss all that red ink, or if this very brief look into the arbitrary world of grammar makes your head hurt, contact me or visit my home page. I can help.

* Interestingly, (to me, at least) there is no consensus on capitalization of “google” used as a verb. As a noun, it is always proper, so…”I heard Google changed their algorithm,” but as for “If you wanna know, google it,” capitalization is up to you.

Writing for Business: More Isn’t Always Better

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Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I read these words in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, and they stuck. They percolate to the surface of my mind whenever I am editing a piece, especially my own. Whether you write for a living or are in a business that only occasionally involves writing, it’s good advice (and appropriately stated, coming from the master of horror.) What it means is this: cut out the unnecessary parts, even if you love them. Why you might ask, would you love those parts if they were unnecessary? Several reasons:

Issue #1:

You feel strongly about a point – perhaps it’s political, possibly it’s part of your chosen profession. When we are passionate about the subject matter, we tend to re-state the same points over and over again in consecutive sentences, rephrasing it each time. You’ll say it once and then say it again a different way. You’ll say the same thing twice or even three times. It’s the same point just reworded. You’ll just repeat yourself…repetitively.

Fix It:

Pick the sentence that says it best, or combine parts of sentences for what most accurately says what you mean. Cut the other ones out. The “Issue #1” paragraph above is about four sentences too long.

Issue #2:

Your thoughts on your subject matter are not well-formed, but you know it’s an important subject. Let’s say you want to write about tips for exercising, but you haven’t thought through the details. Your sentences are full of passion but ramble without ever getting specific, and suddenly you’re up to 1,000 words without having written any concrete tips.

Fix It:

Two words: research and organize. If your thoughts are more broad-scope than specific on a topic, do some digging online. Then, write up an outline of the specific points you want to make. Afterward, as you edit, ask yourself, “Does this sentence serve to help make my point, or is it off topic or vague?” Example: There is no need to tell people what you are not going to talk about. Anything you follow with, “…but this is beyond the scope of this article,” can almost assuredly be cut out.

Issue #3:

You know a lot of detail about the topic – the opposite of problem two. If you are writing about your profession, you may be tempted to go into more detail than your audience can bear. Sometimes we lose touch with what a layperson knows and will find intriguing when we are entrenched in the minutia of our own craft.

Fix It:

As fascinating as you may find the technical details of how your particular widgets are made, the general public is usually interested in a broader stroke they can relate to in their own lives. Have a friend not in your profession read your piece. Consider cutting anything they find confusing or boring. Again, stick to your overall point. More detail is not always better.

Sometimes, keeping to a certain word count can be helpful. If you are determined to get something down to 500 words for a blog post, you are less likely to indulge yourself in rambling. No matter what you’re writing, you want people to read it. So kill your darlings, because they are just that – yours – and not necessarily your audience’s.

How to Write a Business Blog

how to write a business blog
Photo by Le Buzz on Unsplash

So, you set up a beautiful, fully-functional website for your business. Now, how do you get people to visit it? One of the best ways to drive traffic to your site is with free, valuable content that can be linked to on social media. That’s right – start a blog. Here are some tips for making your business blog successful:

Pick a Simple, Relevant Topic

There’s no need to go into grand detail on the technical aspects of your business. Address questions people commonly ask you, or overview-type topics. Imagine you’re talking to a curious friend who doesn’t know anything about your area of expertise. Seasonal topics also get a lot of attention; focus on the holidays, spring cleaning, or New Year’s resolutions.

Keep It Short

In the case of content blogs for businesses, less is more. Just be sure you’ve explained yourself enough to actually add value. Around 500 words is a good length.

Use List Format

Readers attend more to well-organized information. If your topic lends itself to list format, use it. Or, consider separating paragraphs into sections with bold headings.

Be Informal

A casual tone will connect more with your audience. Avoid overuse of technical words specific to your industry and explain any you do use. Again, imagine how you would explain it to a friend, verbally. Just leave out all the “ya’ know’s”  and “um’s.”

Proofread and Edit

It’s helpful to write one day and proofread a day or two later. Even better, ask someone else to correct it for you; they are more likely to see your errors and can tell you if something isn’t clear. Editing is mostly about cutting out extraneous words and phrases and eliminating inadvertent, long-winded rants. You can also download Grammarly or Ginger for automatic editing. They have both free and paid versions. Just be sure you still have a human proofread; the programs aren’t perfect.

Include a Graphic

Even if your post doesn’t lend itself to them, a picture gets people’s attention when it shows up in the thumbnail image on social media. Pick something at least loosely related to your topic, and if the photo isn’t your own, be sure to give proper credit in the caption. Wikimedia Commons and Unsplash are useful resources for free stock photos, and they provide the photo credit as well.

Avoid Shameless Plugs

This isn’t a hard, fast rule; I’ve been known to insert my own shameless plug from time to time. Blog posts, though, should be mostly educational information related to your field. Stay away from making entire posts into advertisements. An occasional link back to your main page at the end of a post, however, is useful and tasteful.

Post Regularly

This can be the hardest part — coming up with material every week. But if you want to stay in front of your target market, post at least once a week and share it on social media. Be sure to add a “follow” button to your blog, so those interested can receive a notification every time you post.

If you are consistently in front of your target audience, offering valuable information and advice, when they find themselves in need of services, they’ll call you. Don’t have time to keep up with a blog? Send me a message. I can help.

Why I Write

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The other day, someone asked me what I was qualified to write about. I thought and came up with a very long list. Sure, I have my favorites, but, because I’ve had various careers and  come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers, I have a colorful array of experience upon which to draw.  I have…changed the oil in cars, shingled a roof, taught elementary school, read plumbing plans, done presentations, built websites, made hand cream, studied gardening, used social media marketing, done taxes, changed spark plugs, made play dough, taught fitness classes,  bought and sold houses and potty trained over 30 children. I even know a little about fashion and finances.

This is part of what makes me such a good freelance writer. Business owners don’t want blog posts full of technical jargon your average person has no desire to wade through. They want articles written with the general public in mind. So the fact that I have a base knowledge of a lot of things and I’m a good researcher, means I can craft a piece that educates on a level that interests the average person. I have the advantage of having a little pro-knowledge while maintaining the perspective of the consumer.

The last piece to the puzzle is my writing talent. All that knowledge, perspective and research is no good if I can’t communicate it effectively, efficiently and eloquently. I’m naturally good at it, and I continuously study and practice to improve.

The bottom line, though, is this: I love it. I love writing, and I love doing it with purpose. When I craft a piece for a business, I don’t just take the facts and put them on the page. I look for glimpses of personality. What’s important to this business owner? How does she see herself? What’s his demeanor? That’s the really fun part – putting personality on the page and bringing it to life.