Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kicking the Bucket List

Recently a "getting to know you" question was posed at a (non-writing) online group I frequent: Three items from your bucket list. I was surprised how many women posted, as one of their top three bucket list items, some variant of getting published.  (I am assuming most meant traditional publication, not self-publishing.)

"Publish a book."

"Be a published writer."

"Publish something, maybe an article if not a book."

I shouldn't have been surprised that there are so many hopeful writers out there--after all, NaNoWriMo was conceived to help the millions of people who have said "Gosh, I would love to write a book" give that goal wings.  But I was, for a couple reasons, surprised how prominent writing and being published was on bucket lists.

One, I admit, was prideful.  I have worked darn hard to get where I am as a writer--and I'm not even published yet.  To put "publish a book" alongside "swim with the dolphins" and similar "experience" list items seems to misunderstand what it means to publish.  It's work.  It's hard, long, slogging, discouraging work.  It's not saving your money and planning a trip.  It's not screwing up the courage to skydive.  It's day-in, day-out working toward a goal.

But the other is less me being a jerk, more me being compassionate.  It's in the same vein--misunderstanding what it means to publish.  Because here's the thing--you can work day-in and day-out and still not publish.  You can make it your life's goal and never get there, through no fault of your own.  You can try, try, try again, and never achieve that external marker of success we call publication.

There's a difference between putting "write a book" on your bucket list, and putting "publish a book" (assuming you mean traditional publishing).  In the first, the onus is on you.  Either you write your book or you don't.  Either you take the time and put in the effort, or you don't finish your book.  But the second--you have much less control over that.  Yes, I do believe in hard work and dedication and perseverance, and that most of the time when combined with talent they will yield results.  Not always, though.  Sometimes a lifetime of striving still doesn't reach the goal.

And when that's the case--in my world, that item doesn't go on your bucket list.  Your bucket list is about what you can accomplish, not what might or might not be possible because of circumstances outside your control.  Those items--the ones you need a pinch of luck and/or a lot of help with--can go on your "lofty goals for my life" list, but, in my view, leave the bucket list for the things you can do on your own.

What do you think--are there writing goals that belong on the bucket list?  Am I off-base with how I see bucket lists?  Is the whole idea kind of dumb?

For fun:  Three things on my bucket list:

Learn classical guitar or another instrument that doesn't involve making space for a piano.
Make and wear a vintage "capsule wardrobe."
Learn enough of one of the many "I would love to learn [fill in the blank language]" to function on a trip there--and then take a trip that forces me to use it.

What are yours?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Getting Stuck

So my child has learned a new trick.  She can roll over from her back to her tummy.  For non-parental types, this is to the parenting world a giant leap forward, a huge accomplishment which moms at play groups toss back and forth--"Oh, is Timmy rolling over yet?"  Your pediatrician will ask after rolling at your child's appointment (right before your child gets jabbed with three hypodermic needles).

It's funny, because the giant broohaha over rolling over usually fails to mention the fact that your kid learns to roll...but not to roll back right away.

So E rolls over, situates herself, and remembers--she hates being on her tummy.  So she squiggles around like a turtle flipped on its back, ticked at the injustice of the world until I come to rescue her and help her back onto her back.

Then she promptly does it again.

And gets stuck.

Again.

The weird thing is, I think we all do this.  We learn how to get halfway where we want to go before we learn how to push the rest of the way there.

As writers, have you ever noticed that the place you get stuck is often the same place every time? That you bog down the same way over and over again?  You roll onto your tummy and just can't budge?

I know I do.  I find myself spinning my wheels, trying to amplify the tension in a scene...by rewriting the same scene through a different window.  I realize that my boring character shares traits with the last boring character I wrote.  Most of all, I discover that the way I've written something, the way I've approached it, is the same as before.

After a round of revisions, I found myself taking a breather and some perspective.  The way we write gives us our voice and our originality and distinctiveness, but it can also provide a minefield full of boring or ineffective that we step on every time.  The key?  The mines are always in the same place--we have to learn where we misstep in order to try something new.

At some point, my child is going to have to figure out that mashing her face into her playmat doesn't get her anywhere--that she'll have to move her arm and roll, or get those knees up and scoot into crawling.  She doesn't get it yet.  As writers, we have to figure out that we have to push ourselves a little differently, exercise  some different writing muscles.

Do you have stuck spots?  How do you overcome them?


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love Stories

I like Valentine's Day.  I know it can veer towards cheesy and Hallmark-y, but the thing is, I kind of like cheesy.  Plus I'll take any excuse to bake something.  And buy a goofy card.  And tell people I lurve them.

That said, I'm not a huge hearts and flowers romance person.  Maybe it's because of that that I don't really get into the romance genre.  Nothing knocking it--I just don't enjoy reading romance.  But I do love reading love stories.  I tend to find that just about every book I read is a love story.  In fact, I'm hard pressed to find a book that isn't a love story in one way or another.

And I think I know the reason why. This is where I know I go a bit off the grid, but here it is: Every life is a love story. I decided this, strangely enough, at my grandfather's funeral. Before the mass, there was a family-only visitation, to give us a reprieve from the hundreds of people at the open visitation the night before. And there had been hundreds. My grandfather was a professor and author, very active in his political and religious communities, and I suppose I had always defined his life that way. He wrote thirteen books, hundreds of articles, founded a university newspaper. There are Wikipedia entries that mention his work. He was successful.

But during that family-only visitation, I watched while my grandmother knelt by his casket in well-rehearsed Catholic posture, as she had in church every week beside him, and said her farewells. It struck me--my grandparents' life was a love story. People who I never would have thought of as the hero and heroine of their own love story were, in fact, the central characters in a romance. 


And so it is for everyone. Some peoples' love stories might veer toward the parental or to friendships or even to a life's work focused on helping others or academic progress.  One of my favorite works by C.S. Lewis is The Four Loves, which of course, being by C.S. Lewis, explores the concept of love from a Christian perspective. But it also makes the point that love is not an emotion defined by romance--love can also be familial, camaraderie, and the elusive God-like charity of giving without bounds. And of course, our own lives inform us of this, too--we know by experience that love is not merely romance and lust. Our first loves, after all, were our parents, our siblings, even our pets.

I've tried to think of a book that didn't have love in them, love driving the characters to act and pursuing their thoughts. All Quiet on the Western Front, one of my favorite books, has no male/female interaction, but though there really isn't any romance in it, it's a story of brotherly love and camaraderie. The Picture of Dorian Gray--narcisistic self-love gone horribly awry. And others--The Life of Pi--that beautiful illusion is created out of love, isn't it? The Little House books--even before Almanzo, Laura's life is driven by the love she has for her family. And so it could go on and on.

(Though I do maintain that wedged in everyone's life is a seed of romance that sprouted at some point. It may have grown slowly and beautifully over time as my grandparents' did, it may have bloomed brilliantly and flourished briefly, it may have been only a tiny seedling that never grew beyond a few leaves and that no one ever saw, but it was there.)

So, believable fiction must imitate life and be motivated by the same things. So, if every life is a love story--not necessarily a romance, but a love story--so then, fiction follows.

What do you think--is every life a love story, or am I off my nut? Can you think of works of fiction that aren't threaded through with love of one kind or another?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Worst Part

I've always thought that the worst part of the writing process is the waiting.  Sure, rejection is awful.  And writer's block stinks.  And my least favorite task is probably formatting queries.  But the worst?  Waiting.

I'm learning that the bad news is, waiting isn't a part of the process that goes away.  When I was unagented, I associated waiting with the waiting for replies to queries--waiting to fill in my spreadsheet of emails sent with dates of replies and, inevitably, mainly rejections.  I thought of sending requested partials and--joy of joys!--fulls as the zenith of waiting.  Longer waits, but with higher stakes.

Then I signed with an agent and realized...waiting isn't over.

There's still the same waits you had before--the waits for crit partners or beta readers to get back to you.  Now there's the wait for your agent to let you know what she thinks, too--and even when you have the world's most encouraging, patient agent, there's a nagging voice in my head, prodding me, "What if it's not good enough?  What if she hates it?  What if she dumps me by the side of the road to publishing?"

(See...confidence doesn't magically geyser out of the gutter just because you're agented.)

And then there's the flip side, with each draft sent.  What if it *is* good enough now?  What if this is it--and a new kind of waiting is about to start?

So, waiting never leaves a writer alone.  Maybe it's because I need to cultivate patience, or maybe it's just human nature to obsess over things like this, but I'm starting to feel that I don't have much to fear in the writing game save waiting itself.

What about you?  Is waiting your worst part--or does something else trump it?  What's the worst wait you've ever suffered through?