Anxious Characters

modestas-urbonas-14752-unsplashAfter ten novels or so, I imagine writers begin to worry about repetition. Did I use this plot device before? Have I named a minor character this before? I have always been careful not to repeat myself. Or so I thought. Last week I found out different. I was listening to the audio file of Love and Death in Blue Lake. The main character suffers from anxiety. Really? I was mad at myself. Anxiety is too close to PTSD, which is what my current main character in Lily White in Detroit is in recovery from. There’s only one book between these two novels. I should have remembered.

Looking back, anxiety wasn’t even relevant to Courtney’s character. The plot didn’t need it, there was so much else going on. I could have taken it right out of the book; my editor even mentioned that. Smart woman. My editor is extremely kind. So she probably said something like “Does Courtney need to be anxious? Where is this coming from? Maybe delete it or fill it out more so the reader understands.” So I dug in deeper, at least enough to please my editor, but now, looking back I realize I gave Courtney anxiety because I was going through a terrible phase of acute anxiety and having regular panic attacks during the time I wrote that book.

I had a good source for Courtney’s profession–she was a psychologist. Yes, a mental health expert with a mental health problem. But this happens in real life. The first time I knew I had panic disorder, my husband had about gotten fed up with my weird behavior in the car. Basically I freaked out every time the road wasn’t straight and dry. Curves, cliffs, bad weather (snow or rain or the dreaded black ice) even sharp turns all made me so fearful I’d beg him to slow down or stop the car or whatever. We hadn’t been married much more than a year and it had been clear to him for a while that I had this problem. I had no idea why I was so afraid sometimes when he was driving. Why sometimes I couldn’t drive.

He wasn’t super patient with me as it rattled his nerves to have a nervous passenger. One time he said “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think we’re going to crash and die?” And I said “Yes! I do!” He suggested I go to a psychiatrist, actually he said “You’re nuts. You need to see someone.”  The psychiatrist knew right away what was wrong with me. I was having anxiety attacks, later upgraded to panic attacks, probably because I’d been in one too many very scary car accidents and then there was my family history in phobias and panic. Basically I inherited my illness and it was exacerbated by experience. Anyway, this psychiatrist put me on medication that gradually erased my symptoms. It was like a miracle.

No amount of talk therapy can cure what I have. But she had to see me once a month for an hour in order to dispense the drugs. We used to swap stories of driving while anxious. She admitted to me she was also afraid to drive in certain conditions. Her way of coping with snow was to turn on her emergency lights and drive very slowly despite people honking at her and passing her. She didn’t care. If driving 30 mph on the freeway would make her feel safe, that’s what she’d do. She seemed to enjoy telling me these stories, but they made me a little anxious. Then one day I was cured. We said our goodbyes and I went on my merry way.

What I didn’t know then was that I would probably never be cured. But at least I knew what I had and how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I am not willing to drive over the Ambassador Bridge several times a day every day or lock myself into a small space, so aversion therapy is not for me. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is of minimal help when anxiety mounts and turns into panic, but nothing stops panic in its tracks like my particular cocktail of prescription medications.

As it turns out the character of Courtney came from an experience with my real life therapist while also being a therapeutic tool for me at that time in my real life. Because writing (for me) is therapy and always has been. I’m not sure this is true for all writers, but for me, writing is a terrific coping mechanism. Still, note to self: no more fictional character who suffer from any type of anxiety disorder.

 

More Writer’s Block Fixes

Life is like a novel: full of unexpected twists and irony. For example, several years ago, I wrote a series of posts on writer’s block. Through 45 years of writing,  I’d never had writer’s block, so Ten Fixes For Writer’s Block could have been arrogant nonsense. But as a creative writing teacher, I had come across so many kinds of writer’s block in my students that I felt compelled to write about ways to fix it. After all, it was my job to help young writers.

Little did I know when I was writing those fixes that one day I would need my own advice. A surprise: my younger self knew things my older self forgot. Because, yes, I have been struggling with writer’s block for a few months now. I’m not completely blocked. Obviously, writing this post proves that. Which is a relief because I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t write, having no other hobbies except binge watching Longmire on Netflix.

(Photo credit: A&E)

For so long, I was absolutely sure that I would write until I died. I couldn’t imagine a time when I would not wake up in the morning with my current novel perking in my neocortex. That is just the way it has been for so long, I thought it would always be true. Especially when I retired from teaching. I couldn’t wait to write full time. How productive I would be! How prolific! Instead, I struggled to write and I struggled to understand why I was having to struggle. Finally I remembered a series of posts I compiled way back when I thought I’d never have a serious problem with writer’s block. Maybe I should look that up, I thought. I might learn something from myself.

Today, I checked over the list. It seems I have ALL of the ten reasons I listed. Maybe what I missed when I was busy being prolific is that writer’s block is complex and involves many moving parts, not just one thing you can tick off and be done with. I also read my advice on how to “fix” these problems and it’s solid. I should take my own advice, but first I am trying an additional experiment given to me by my awesome therapist, Dr. B.

Last session, I brought up my growing worry that I was done writing novels. In the past couple of months I had started and stopped two novels. I lacked the passion, the intrinsic motivation, the drive. It just dried up on me and I wasn’t sure why. Dr B suggested an experiment: go two weeks without working on a novel. She said something so wise “If you find yourself missing it, that will tell you something. If you find you don’t miss it, that will tell you something, too. Either way, you have more information.”

Isn’t she a genius? Because I have come to believe that there may be a time when I stop writing novels. I’m not sure when, but I can see now that day might come. That’s what the next two weeks will tell me. In the three days since Dr. B gave me this advice, I have learned one thing: I am not ready to stop writing books yet. I want to finish those two novels I started. I want to write more novels after those, too. The question remains: do I want it enough?

Here’s the irony: I found my younger self’s answer to that question embedded in the original post. I called it a “Reality Check” and went on to say “People can become blocked because they dread the time and effort involved to really make their writing shine. In that case, your writer’s block is telling you something important. You might have a bit of talent for writing, but you don’t have the passion it takes to bring that talent to the next level. And that’s okay. It’s good to know exactly why you’re blocked, what your options are, and whether you might be happier doing something else with your creative energy.”

I felt this bit of advice like a slap in the face. One thing age teaches you is that vital chemicals (hormones) deplete as you grow older. This is why older folks suffer from insomnia: their melatonin levels are low. Women in menopause lack powerful hormones that impact many areas of joyful living. Men lose testosterone. And bones become brittle because the calcium is not there anymore. What if passion is also finite? What if mine is gone forever?

I don’t really believe this. Passion is a feeling, not a hormone or a vitamin. There are ways to restore passion for writing, and I’ve found a few. There’s Dr. B’s advice, which I think could work for anyone. Julia Cameron suggests Artist Dates. Writing prompts can be can be useful. Deadlines too. NaNoWriMo is coming up in November. That’s always inspiring. Lists help. For example, I got the idea for writing this post from Molly Greene’s terrific list of 101 Fabulous Blog Topic Ideas.

I have not given up hope. I plan to rekindle my passion, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Meanwhile, if you are now going through a dry spell, or if you’ve had writer’s block in the past and broke through it, I’d love to hear your story.

Six Signs Your Manuscript is Complete

There comes a time in every writers’ life when she has to decide to let go of the book she’ s been writing. It can be ten years or two months, depending on the writer, but for me the entire process of concept to submission takes a year or two.

Sign #1 You’ve been steadily working on the book for a year or more.

The book I currently want with every fiber of my being to let go started in the summer of 2013. Eighteen months ago. It’s a novella, less than 45K, and it should not have taken that long, but life intervened. And sometimes life gets more real than others. More intense, more distracting. But I gotta say, what with all the drama, on and off the page, I have a strong feeling that not only do I want to let this book go, I need to do so in order to move on with my writing AND my real life.

Sign #2 Time to let it go.

So there I was, in the middle of my second Blue Lake novel, thinking I had found my third. Or rather it had dropped from the sky into my head. I tucked the idea away and let it brew. This is part of the process for me. I’ve published seven novels and a few patterns have emerged. One pattern I no longer fight is that I will get the idea for my next book about halfway through the one I am currently working on. Everybody knows the second half of the book goes more quickly that the first half, so bingo, time to move.

Sign #3 You have a new idea.

Some people think I’m lucky. They’re always asking me “how do you get your ideas?” Seriously folks, ideas are everywhere. It’s all about what a writer does with her idea. My idea was not original. I knew that. But what I also know is that the writer’s job is to take a common theme and make it her own. That’s a huge part of the work of writing. It might be everything. But for me, it’s fun work. It’s a pleasure to try new things, to say yes.

Sign #4 You have made an idea your own.

Another thing I have learned about this book release process is that you can’t rush it. It’s stubborn. It will have its own way. Stephen King gives this revision advice: once you’ve finished your first draft, read it straight through without marking up the mistakes. I’ve never been able to follow Steve’s advice, not exactly, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. And that’s how I revise. I keep reading draft after draft until I don’t feel compelled to pick up my pen and fix it anymore.

It’s different for every writer, but for me, the first draft is the most fun. It goes quickly. I’m never at a loss for what to write. That’s because I follow the first draft process I learned from Jennifer Crusie many years ago: don’t look down. Just write whatever and get the story to the end. Don’t judge yourself, don’t revise, don’t do anything but pile up pages. So, I can do that. I’m not worried about it. I write with glee and great pleasure.

I also write in longhand, the sweetest part of the process for me. Sara Lewis taught me to allow myself this decadent indulgence. I cannot do without the longhand dreamy draft now, which means I have to type the pages out later. And in that typing, the pages will get their first revision. (Another treasured Sara tidbit.) Then I read the last days’  pages and revise again because I have a critique group and I really don’t want them to see the first draft. So, after critique group offers suggestions, I am on my third revision, fourth draft.

Sign #5 You have outside feedback that encourages you to continue.

I try to read the next draft after critique straight through but I can’t, so I fix it and put it away for a week or two. Then I try to read the sixth draft straight through but I can’t, so I fix it and hope it’s done. Stories can go stale on a writer if you groom them too much. Here’s how I know when to stop revising: I have a draft I can almost read through, with just one more day’s work.

That happened yesterday.  I read draft five almost straight through. I have a handful of changes to make. A dozen or so pages and the fixes are all minor. The read wasn’t as good as I’d hoped (they never are) nor as bad as I’d feared. This book turned into something different than a simple reunion romance, so I’m trying to let that freshness be, not fuss with it too much. It’s a little scary to let go, but I have a process for that, too.

Sign #6 You have edited, revised, and repeated the process until you are satisfied.

IMG_1312Now let go. But, how? What if you’re wrong to be smugly satisfied? What if the book is not ready, or it’s awful, you’ve over-reached, your talent isn’t up to it, you’ve blown it big time?

David Hawkins advocates a process of releasing that goes like this: Embrace all positive feelings and surrender all negativity. Look at the thing, feel the feeling, and if it’s not serving you, acknowledge that, and Let It Go. Most of not wanting to relinquish this  manuscript is based on fear, a negative.

I feel good when I think about letting this manuscript go. Also, I live in Michigan where we currently have a couple feet of snow on the ground and temps well below zero. Which brings me to the second best reason I want to relinquish this book for now. In a week or so I’m off to sunnier climes for a bit or rest and relaxation. Before I leave, I want that manuscript off my desk and in my editor’s hands. Also, best reason of all: that next book is knocking. Loud.

Blog Tour

condo2photo

Thanks to my good friend, Terry Tyler, for inviting me to take part in this tour. I met Terry on Twitter; she was one of the first reach out & help me as a writer on Twitter. Because there’s a special way to interact as a writer on social media, and there are rules of etiquette, as well as accepted marketing practices, just like in any other social or business situation. Right. The questions:

What am I working on now?

I’m currently working on three books, all at differing levels:

♥ I’m doing tasks like filling out the art fact sheet and writing blurbs for my next Wild Rose Press release, Luke’s #1 Rule. Awaiting edits that should land on my desk any day now. I expect Luke out sometime this summer.

♥ I am also revising my indie paranormal, Sweet Melissa after receiving comments from beta-readers. Sweet Melissa will released on or before June 1 of this year.

♥ Finally, I am writing the first draft of Fast Eddie, my third book in the Blue Lake series with Wild Rose Press. Eddie and his bar and grill have made cameos in both previous Blue Lake books. I’m finding out some very interesting things about this mystery man. The secondary plot fills in Bob and Lily’s love story from Blue Heaven, cut short then by college and Lily’s issues. That deadline is October, so my plan is to write fresh material every day and have a great opening chapter for my critique group May 9.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have two genres: contemporary romance and paranormal. One is e-published with POD and the other is indie and e-book only. I think that’s different right there. But my romances are different in that TWRP has let me grow beyond the normal boundaries of romance. I have subplots. I have other POVs. I am closer to women’s fiction than romance, but they’re just labels. My paranormals are different in that there are no vampires. I’ve created a unique world, at least one I’ve not seen done in fiction before. My world is a  mix of science (super string theory) and fantasy (flying and a talking moon mother).

Having said what’s different, I prefer paranormals that take place in an almost recognizable world. So my people do visit their other world and it helps them catch bad guys, but most of the story is set in our contemporary American world.

Why do I write what I do?

I love to read everything: blogs, magazines, poetry, short stories, novels, memoirs, physics, metaphysics, self-help, biography and the Sunday New York Times, mostly for book reviews.

And that might be why I have written in so many different categories. My first book, and only full length non-fiction work, Your Words, Your Story, is part writing memoir, part writing manual. I wrote it for a specific audience, my creative writing students, who would come to class all wanting to write different things. So I covered all the stuff I’d written and published to that point (2007), a wide spectrum from journalism and criticism to poetry and short stories to creative non-fiction. Even a screenplay treatment. And of course my blog, here since 2002.

After YWYS came out, I focused on getting my many novels published. Again, I didn’t stick to one kind of novel, but Luke’s #1 Rule is the book of my heart, the book I always wanted to write but also feared writing. That’s when I know I should write something. If it scares me, pushes my boundaries, it’s good.

How does my writing process work?

It’s a bit chaotic, as I also teach and tweet. Plus I’m on a quest for better health via food and exercise. So I try to write first thing. Often, I have to check for email from my publisher before “first thing” 🙂 Many days I end up tweeting for an hour or blogging for two before I manage to get those new pages written, but that is the plan right now. New pages for next novel every day. Start on them early.

So far, I’ve been writing longhand. I bought a new pen and notebook, a ritual for each new book. I researched some background on Eddie and his first love (they meet again at their 20th high school reunion) and wrote a bit from each of the four POVs. After I fill the notebook, it’s time to write a draft in Word docx.

I’ve tagged Edith Andersen, and Sylvia Hubbard, and Gretchen Riley, three wonderful — and wildly different — writers.

Free Week Results…so far

I am not a marketing genius; the past 5 free days were my publisher’s idea. Wow it was fun. I printed out the page showing Blue Heaven at the top of the chart. It’s fun being #1. Today’s a different story, of course. Everyone got the book free and it’s down somewhere around 500K in paid lists. However, there has been some unexpected added benefit.

My first book, a writing manual with dollops of memoir, is #75 on the paid list, (which, let’s face it, that’s the one that counts) for adult and community education. I have the whole story of that book, how I came up with the idea right down to how I created a small press and handled distribution.

Your Words, Your Story was printed in ’07, early indie days. The chapter on self-publishing mentions Amazon’s Create Space. I interviewed someone who published with them and she graciously allowed me to use her experience in the book. Today, I could add more now with KDP and the digital book explosion. But the basic facts are there.

I also noted that my indie novel, Sister Issues, is about six times higher on the lists than the two newer books. Both my indies are .99 cents, and that may be a factor in their continued sales. What happened is that those free days for Blue Heaven made me and my back list more visible. And I’m pretty happy with that outcome.