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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bad Hair & Bad Writing

Packing for the upcoming trip has given me pause as to what to pack, what to leave, and I'm discovering that some of what hangs in my closet no longer represents who I am. To compound the confusion of coming to terms with the image I present to others, a tactless pal gave me a start a few days ago.

The friend I hadn't seen in a couple of years greeted me over coffee with this: What will you do when you go bald? Wear wigs or scarves?

Mind you, I'm (knock wood) no longer a cancer patient. My hairline is simply receding a bit! But this got me thinking...

How often do we let a bad hair day impact our writing? Me--never. It is what it is. I did let hair humility conquer me in 1st grade, but rarely since. I had long honey blonde hair at age 6, and my mother decided a shorter cut would be easier to manage. She sent me across the street to a neighbor lady. I walked home later sporting a "poodle" perm. The "stylist" had put my tresses into a tight ponytail, whacked it off behind the band, then gave me a perm so curly it hurt to touch it. I went home in tears, the aborted ponytail in my hands. Even my poor dad cried.

Ever since, I've not been a slave to anything hair other than color. Well-meaning friends gently suggest this cut or that. One friend even offered to pay for the cut and styling. To humor her, I went. Walked out looking like a 90's Tina Turner. She was thrilled. I wasn't. (In her defense, we all have gifts. My friend was a gorgeous black woman, a retired runway model, and she wanted to impart a bit of style to me.) I may have a terrific rapport and affinity for my AA friends, but their identity isn't mine. No matter how much I admire them, I cannot pull off their style or essence with panache. The only thing I can compare this to would be if I tried to imitate Stephen King's writing or that of Harper Lee.

I have a tad of obsessive compulsive disorder anyway. I don't need to muck up my life adding to the list. It's freaking HAIR. Love me, love my roots and the occasional ponytail. One of my few stubborn screw-yous to society. Also one of the reasons I prefer cremation--nobody staring down and wishing to God the mortician had done more with my hair. Send me out the way I entered--in my birthday suit, wrinkled as it may be, and not knowing a damn thing.

Think about it. Do you let society dictate how you look?

Do you allow anyone else to set the bar on your writing for you? Make you feel guilty if you don't write X number of pages per day--or have you question your hero's appearance or heroine's occupation? Of course not! That's part of your identity as a writer.

I say critique my story as *I* see it and either accept me as I am, or reject me--bad hair and all.

Authentic image and writing have to come from the soul. If I'm not authentic to myself, I don't see how others could possibly view my writing as anything but fitting a predesigned mold. False advertising.

The cool thing is that I'm constantly finding myself and reinventing my writing, so I'm never bored, and I rather like challenges. An inadvertent friends are likely to witness the outer transformation as the inner being changes and develops. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll reflect a better head of hair in their eyes. Or maybe I'll simply go bald and tattoo the noggin. Either way, like my writing, my appearance must be a reflection of how I feel, think, and see myself, not as how they see me or wish I was.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Stress: 5 ways to rid your life of it - By DeAnn Sicard

The following article was first used in the Feb issue of MRW Impressions, newsletter for the Midwest Romance Writers. It may be reprinted by sister RWA chapters with proper credit to chapter and author. Bloggers are welcome to link to it but not republish.
We live under a perpetual cloud of stress each and every day, whether it's from the holiday seasons, financial, family, health, work and so on and so on.  I'm sure you get the picture.
If we're not careful, all this stress can lead to health and emotional issues.  Stress may be a part of our lives on a daily basis but that doesn't mean it has to rule our lives.  We can combat stress in simple and even fulfilling ways.  Our biggest challenge (another type of stress) is to find the technique that will work in our lives.
Here are five strategies to help you reduce the stress in your life.  Pick one or all to help you relax and find more peace in your life.
1-      Filter the negative aspects of your life.  Try limiting your media intake.  Since the news focuses on all the bad (with tiny doses of uplifting stories mixed in) you are adding to the burden of worry you already carry around.  Don't let toxic relationships tarnish your outlook on life.  If possible limit those relationships or learn how to block the harmful aspects of them.
2-      Try changing your diet.  Don't stress yourself out by trying to change all of your eating habits at once.  Instead, try making small changes in the beginning.  Find foods and drinks that are beneficial for your health.  Find foods that increase your metabolism.  Cut back on the foods that offer quick fixes, such as caffeine and sugars.  Increase fruits (oranges and blueberries are great stress-busters) as well as vegetables.  Foods high in vitamin B have a soothing effect on you system.  Allow yourself to become comfortable with the changes as you either eliminate or add to your diet. 
3-      Meditation and exercise go hand and hand.  Again don't overdo it.  You know your limitations and you know what you can achieve.  Don't stress yourself into thinking that if you can't get up an hour early every morning and run around the block you aren't accomplishing anything.  Do things slowly, find your pace, one that works for you.  You can find just about anything on the internet.  Do a search, read up on relaxation exercises.  Tai Chi and Qi gong both offer natural stress relief exercises.
4-       Write, write, write.  If your stress comes from NOT writing, STOP.  Give yourself permission to step away from the writing you feel you are supposed to be doing and write about something totally different.  It doesn't matter if you are writing a 'to do' list, menu for the coming week or jotting down something as simple as "Today I accomplished…"  Do prompts, small bits of writing that have nothing to do with your work in progress.  This is your key to keeping the momentum going.  When you are ready you'll know that you've been putting pencil to paper (fingers to keyboard), so all isn't lost. 
5-      Build your network.  This is one of the most important keys to stress reduction.  Friends can and will always be a source of insight into what you need.  Whether they know it or not, they offer you something you would not have sitting all alone. They provide a sense of connection.  Through them, you'll find laughter, tears, inspiration and so much more.  If you're feeling cut off and want to find a way to connect, join online groups, find classes or organizations in your area that are of interest.  Be willing to smile, encourage and offer a sympathetic shoulder when needed.  By helping others you help yourself.
Stress can and will inhibit your creativity if you let it.  It's all up to you.  With a positive attitude and a willingness to try something new you'll manage the stress in your life and come out a winner.
DeAnn Sicard is a former Golden Heart nominee. She writes contemporary romance and short stories.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Taking A Leap of Faith

I leave for Hawaii today. I've never been. I've always wanted to go. Now I'm spooked. The longest I've been away from home in over a decade was 9 days spent with my friend Lex at a writers' conference. This year we're forgoing conferences for a holiday together, just us two, traveling to Hawaii then seeing sites in Australia, where she lives. For MONTHS. Not days.

For some strange reason, I'm also writing different things this year. I've completed a romance for a line I've never written for, and I'm working on a women's fiction in which the protagonist will either be hated or loved by those who read the book. It opens with a failed suicide attempt. How ghastly, right? To be that desperate, that alone, that selfish, and work up the nerve then wake up from a coma having to face the same life, same situations that prompted the suicide attempt?

Both books have been challenges for me. I've written erotic romance for so long (both male/female and male/male) that I'm questioning my sanity. Why substitute the genre that feeds me for one that may or may not bring any profit?

Ah, there's the rub. I'm not writing for money this time. SURE, I'll take it! But this time I'm writing strictly for the love of the genre, and it scares me. What if I don't succeed? Ack. What if I DO? I'll be expected to continue, for one thing. I may miss what I used to write, for another.

The marvelous Mona Sizer, who writes as Deana James, once told me that heroes always have their flaws and villains their reasons. When I apply that to my writing, I come up with true love has much to conquer - lol - and it's not such a bad thing if I revert now and then to writing what has afforded me conferences in the past. Either way I go, in other words, I'm following a goal…to feed my soul or feed my wallet. My worry, of course, is that one will starve and the other flourish, when what I wish is for both to feel full.

How about you? What are your reasons for writing? To feed your soul or your wallet? Just to have something to do or to do something with purpose? It doesn't hurt to take a self-inventory now and then. Sometimes it gives us perspective and we can either pick up where we left off or venture into unknown territory.

For me…I'm working on that women's fiction and another romance while I'm gone. I also plan to collaborate with my dear friend, Lex. Wish us luck as we journey into the unknown, and stay tuned for photos of our trips.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Writing Through Hardship

One dear writer friend was tested in Biblical proportions, all within one year. A major move across the continent, new home...then fire on one side, massive flooding on the other--the worst her country recorded in 118 years.

A daughter with a history of miscarriages who became pregnant with twins, another child with legal problems not of his making, a husband diagnosed with cancer, and often no way of getting him to the hospital because of the flood. Before life settled, she ventured toward becoming the female epitome of Job. Loss of spouse, far from her children, precarious health--surgeries of her own, and left alone to contend with the aftermath.

If she can recoup, anyone can.

Tragedy leaves us fragile, often shattered emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We doubt our own judgment, not just the benevolence of a caring God. Our beliefs are tested and our self-confidence is in ruins. This is the point where we draw on the love, devotion, and core beliefs we have invested over the years in our friends as well as ourselves.

Another author friend lived for nearly two decades with psychological abuse, with a spouse who said the most vile things to her. Victims of this sort bear mostly invisible crosses, and few see even those because abusers generally estrange their victims from friends, loved ones, anyone who is a positive influence. Why? Control. It feeds their sickness. Quite often, the more we give them, the worse our situation.

My next statement will cause friction from some of you, but before you lash out, think. There are two types of victims--willing and unwilling, yet each of us (and yes, I speak from experience) has chosen to be where we are at any given time. Doesn't matter why. We have opted to remain in relationships, to allow someone else to make us feel less than we are. The wonderful thing is that we don't have to put up with their abuse. If you are a victim, take back your power. Your life and your writing depend upon it.

Maybe you're a victim of yourself. Bad decisions, gluttony or its opposite--starvation. Maybe you abuse alcohol, drugs, relationships, or something else. Perhaps you abuse your time. We each have the same number of hours in a day, yet some folks accomplish more. Sometimes it's because they are better at managing their time. Often it's because they refuse to allow others to sabotage them, to suck the life out of their day. No matter your situation, you can still choose to stop the behaviors that keep you from living a full and happy life.

One thing that is certain about our lives, as well as our planet is that spring follows winter. Seasons of hardship are followed by those of promise. So hang in there. Shore up all the good you can, and you'll have that and more when winters strike.

How? Start with yourself. Louise Hay states that how we begin our day is how we live our day, and how we live our days is how we live our lives. Why not start each morning with self-love and extend that to everyone we encounter? Tell that person in the mirror: you are a wonderful writer, a magnificent being. That beats negativity any day.

If you can't reaffirm your creativity, your very existence, as positive, who can? After that, express caring to others, even if to a pet, your neighbor, a stranger you meet. Smile. Find reasons other than those of hardship to motivate you.

Knowing what to write isn't always a writer's downfall. Not knowing how to say it is. Not believing in ourselves enough to express ourselves authentically, to be our true self, is what keeps us from our dreams and goals.

More on developing the author's authentic voice on May 1st. For now, let's get in shape. Let's discover what makes us tick, what thrills us, what we need to avoid, and what we need to embrace.

One of the funniest things, as a writer, that I hear people say: I could be a great writer if I only had time. Sorry, but…bullshit. And when they offer up THEIR ideas, as if I don't have enough of my own? That's when I rudely double up in laughter and have to turn away.

C'mon, readers. Suck it up. Claim your life. Begin your adventure, and share it with others.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

So You Want To Write: Where To Start? by Heidi Senesac

The following article first appeared in the Feb issue of the Midwest Romance Writers newsletter, MRW Impressions. It may be used with proper credit to chapter and author. Bloggers may link to the article but not republish it.
I recently gave a friend a clock with a saying on the face: ‘Time is a poorly crafted plot device’. When I first decided I wanted to see a book with my name as author on a library or bookstore shelf I wasn't sure what a plot device was. What else didn’t I know? I knew how to weave a rich story, but doing it was so much more than just putting words on the page. How would I accomplish this? Where did I start?
This same friend also recently defined the difference between a goal and a dream in such succinct terms, I’m sure it will stick with me the rest of my life. A dream is something you have no control over. Being published is a dream or I’d like to be president of…is a dream.  A goal, on the other hand, is something you establish a workable plan to achieve. I’ll write 3000 words each week, or I’ll improve my physical well-being by walking two miles every other day. This made me think about my early goals for my writing.
My first goal was to learn everything I thought I’d need to know to write a truly readable story, one that my book-buying self would be so enchanted with, I’d pull it out every year or so to re-read. I knew how to achieve my education goal. I decided to start with online classes. Many wonderful RWA chapters offer these courses and other resources. But when I started looking into which ones to enroll in, I realized the choices were too diverse. I found myself mired in choice. Should I take a course that would instruct me in the best weapon to create murder and mayhem, or perhaps something on building a believable world through my words?
My over-stimulated brain screeched I needed to identify my weaknesses and prioritize courses to overcome them. Since I was last in school when God was a boy, I decided to start with a refresher course on grammar. Readers are pulled out of a story when you mix tenses or write a sentence fragment. Even when they can’t tell you what is wrong with your paragraph, they’ll know something is.
My second priority--I had to find a class to help me fix my bad habit of ‘head-hopping’. People I trusted to read my work and tell me what needed fixing always, always came back with “I don’t know who was saying or doing the action…” I needed classes on POV.
My chapter mates traded suggestions for classes to take in pursuit of my goals. And they reminded me that all these classes were only good if I used the techniques and knowledge I learned to continue improving my writing. It’s hard for me to not get so wrapped up in building my skills and forsake my purpose, which is to write, so I appreciated their suggestions.
Along the way, I’ve identified issues with my work, and prioritized my education goals. One thing is clear--the process will be ongoing. I’m still in the basic craft classes, but eventually I’ll graduate to agents and editors, business and marketing. I’m thrilled to report that with each educational goal I achieve, I give myself a powerful rush of endorphins as I check it off. And that’s enough to keep me writing.
Heidi Senesac writes contemporary romance as Gemma Brocata. She is the new Vice President in charge of programs for Midwest Romance Authors.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fear Will Kill You - by Leigh Stites

The following article was first used in the February monthly newsletter of Midwest Romance Writers. It may be reproduced by sister RWA chapters with proper credit to chapter and author. Bloggers may refer to the article but not republish it.

MRW President’s Column - February 2012

Dear Author:

Fear will kill you. 

No, I’m not kidding.  It will.  Fear will kill every dream you have.  It will kill the momentum you need to achieve those goals you set when you weren’t so afraid.  It will kill the future you might have had if you’d been brave enough to leave the cave and go out hunting.

In last month’s column, I invited you to join me in living dangerously in 2012.  I’m convinced that’s the only way we’ll get anywhere, and especially in this scary new world.  Question is, how will we ever find the courage to step out if we’re afraid? 

That means our first order of business this year is getting past our fears.  In the spirit of keeping things simple, I’ve distilled these into a manageable three-point list.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t act on more than three things at a time. 

Fear #1:  It’s not good enough.  This phobia is a BIG one for me.  I have a tape in my head that plays every time I finish a scene, a chapter, or even a whole novel. 

“It’s not good enough.  You need to go back and work on it.  Revise it.  Now, revise it some more.  Polish.  Tweak.  Nope, still not good enough.” 

Now, I know that no manuscript is ever perfect, but for some reason that damn voice tells me it can be almost perfect if I just do this or that differently. 

The ‘not good enough’ fear has caused me to write in circles for weeks.  It has led me to allow others to tell my story—meaning I took in all their feedback and tried to ‘fix’ whatever they perceived was flawed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not bashing critique groups or workshops or whatever channel you use to get feedback.   But I will warn you that if you have this fear you will be tempted to revise the life out of your work in hopes that it will get better.  Trust me, it won’t.  This compulsion to keep revising and tweaking is a creativity killer.  I’ve massacred more than one book by tinkering it to death.  

Last year, a very wise sister (and published author) advised me to write something and send it off without showing it to anyone first.  I was too afraid.

This year, I am committed to living dangerously.  I’ll finish the new manuscript I’m working on, do one revision, and send it off without showing it to anyone.  Oh God, just thinking about doing that gives me the cold sweats.

Still, I won’t break the hold this fear has on me until I learn to trust myself.   Here goes…

Fear #2: The gatekeepers don’t want it, so readers will hate it.  This fear comes on the heels of rejection and will hold you back for as long as you let it. 

I’m not one of those people who saves every rejection, but I do keep track of how many I’ve gotten.  (It’s fairly easy when everything you send out is ultimately rejected.)  However, I have noticed that the tone of the rejections has changed.  First, it was the usual form letter or email.  Then, I started getting a few nibbles (requests for partials or full manuscripts).  Recently, I have been in communication with a couple of agents who say they like my writing but don’t think the current project is marketable or easily sold.

I have let these rejections stop me. 

The truth is, that manuscript everyone keeps turning down may or may not be well-received by readers, but I won’t know if my work never gets out there.  So, this year I commit to indie publishing at least one manuscript for the sole purpose of putting my stories into readers’ hands.  They might love it or they might hate it, but I won’t forego the chance to find out because of fear.

Fear #3: I’ll fail.   Isn’t it ironic how we let the fear of failure allow us to fail? 

Life affords so many opportunities to fail, and fear seems like a logical response.   Yet, I’m convinced we humans are engineered to learn more through failure than success.  We don’t like it, but we can’t fear it.  In fact, if we let fear stop us, this guarantees we will fail.  On the other hand, if we don’t fear failure, when it happens we will just accept it and move on, more the wiser (hopefully).

Consider the process of natural selection.  If the new world of publishing is a jungle, then only those who adapt can survive.  This means becoming stronger, smarter and more fearless than those who keep to the caves, clutching their talismans and hoping one day things will get easier.  Make no mistake about it, you have to work hard to become smart, and work smart to get lucky, but beyond that, you mustn’t be fearful.  Venture forth, learn from your mistakes, face the inevitable rejections, overcome the bad luck, bad Karma, or whatever stands in your way.  If you don’t fear failure, it won’t devour you.

This year I’m committed to being fearless.  I’m going to write more, worry less, trust myself and put my work out there at every opportunity.  When failure comes, I’ll remind myself that something attempted is never a complete failure. 

I invite you to join me on this journey.  Shed your fears and make the most of this year of living dangerously.

Leigh Stites
Writing as Elisabeth Burke

 Leigh Stites is a past Golden Heart nominee and current president of Midwest Romance Writers. She writes American western historical romance. As Elisabeth Burke.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Safari Preparation

In my first post, I acknowledged the safari of my writer's soul coincided with my trip of a lifetime--journeying to Australia for a few adventures. Thing is, the soul came first. I'm determined to discover how to free my mind while focusing on what's important. You can travel from your desk, from your patio, garden, or bedroom. You're welcome to eavesdrop on my physical travels, but my hope is that you find what pleases you, what stimulates you and your writing.

Any real journey begins with preparation. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, suggests having a writer's tool box, which contains tools necessary to write a decent story. But what about your cognitive process? When you sit down to write, are you prepared emotionally? Mentally? Spiritually? I'm referring to having peace, not turmoil. It's difficult to do your job well if you're flustered over other things in your life or confused about what to write the moment you sit down.
My daughter-in-law is taking a yoga class. She and the other students expected a relaxed, easy-going series of stretches, not the energetic workouts they have. While the frenetic pace raises her heart rate, her body isn't accustomed to the pain. Our writing is much like that. Unless we're used to sitting down and going full throttle, our engines choke a bit, and we're not enjoying our writing process until we are toned.

How do we get toned?

For me, it's a physical as well as mental thing. Something like Tai Chi, yoga, or a simple walk around the block--anything that helps me stretch physically and get into a mindset that is conducive to writing. For you, it may be doing dishes or laundry. (I truly enjoy doing laundry--weird, I know.) One friend must bake cookies before she can write.

Some of us have physical limitations. Mine is a head injury that caused fluid on the brain. If I walk or climb, I take extra precautions or I fall. Cognitively I have short term memory issues. Working on a computer is ideal since I can easily go back over what I've just written. It's not a poor me's a celebration that I "get" to write and flex my atrophied memory muscles.

If I'm stumped on something when I sit down to write, I pen a letter, or type one, to my folks, or I handle my emails. Often, a few games of Freecell or solitaire prepare me.

The best thing I've found for ensuring that I write what is on my agenda is to end in a good place the night before. If I go to sleep knowing something exciting is about to happen in my story, I'm more inclined to jump right in as soon as I sit down at the computer. Delayed gratification doesn't work for everyone, but it helps me.

Good friend and fellow writer Sally Berneathy once said that we are writing when we're shopping, fixing the plumbing or whatever task we're performing. Those are times our fingers aren't moving over the keyboard, but our minds are focusing on something detrimental to our craft. For me, that's when I let my mind wander, travel, explore. Unfortunately, I can't do that when I cook. I've burnt a few meals by not focusing on the task at hand.

I've also found it helpful to send off for brochures on topics of interest that I include in my writing. I'm a visual writer. The more I have at hand to stimulate my imagination, the better I work. Think of Penelope Garcia in "Criminal Minds" with her array of toys on her desk, her funky ink pens, or Abby Sciuto's music in "NCIS".

For you, having fashion magazines, shoe catalogues, or plants growing on the windowsill as you gaze up from your writing may do the trick.

Virginia Wolfe wrote a marvelous essay called "A Room Of One's Own" that I Iove. Sometimes I listen to books on tape, readings by Meryl Streep or someone else whose voice relaxes me just before I write. I even watch a tear-jerker romance to put me in the mood to do my black moment scenes. Listening to Barry White sing...well, you can only imagine what that man's voice will do to a writer crafting a love scene. Are you writing about first love or last? Watch "Murphy's Romance" with Sally Field and James Garner.

If you you're in a dilemma as to how to get motivated and discover what works best for you, read Wishcraft by Barbra Sher. If you have a fear of failure or even success, try Susan Jeffries' excellent book, Feel The Fear, And Do It Anyway. Think life stinks? Read Louise Hay's book You Can Heal Your Life--all the way through from first page to last without skipping to the end. No cheating.

Establish your personal writer's tool box. Prepare yourself for the trips your mind craves. Your writing will flow easier, and you'll be richer for the experiences awaiting you.