4 Essentials for Surviving the Writing Life

I’ve been a (mostly) full-time writer for about 20 years now. Sure, there are periods where I have to take a job for a while to supplement my income, but even during those times, I’m a writer first and any other job just fills in the gaps. Over that time, I haven’t developed a survival kit so much as I have come up with some survival essentials to ensure that my writing career will last my lifetime.

Be willing to work harder than every other writer out there. Let’s face it. I’m not the best writer on the planet. I’ve met many others who, hands down, can write better prose than I can. However, I learned early on that the ability to write well can be learned and sometimes what makes the difference is your ability to write more than anyone else. I’ve had stints during my career where 3 hours of sleep was a norm because my work load was so high. During those times, I learned to write faster and cleaner. During slower times, I learned to write better. (And if you’re a writer, you know what I mean!)

Be flexible, always. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there’s always room for flexibility. In fiction writing, your characters are going to take you places you never thought you would go. In non-fiction, your editors will take you there. If you’re willing to be led. If not, you could miss out on some great opportunities. I’m currently struggling (still) with Biloxi Blue, the second in my Biloxi Series, because for the longest time, I just couldn’t be flexible with my characters. They won, of course, and now I find myself going down a road that makes me supremely nervous. But it’s their story, so I have to flexible and allow them to lead me where THEY need to go.

Be willing to say no. Some of the worst mistakes I’ve made as a writer have stemmed from my inability to say no.  The problem with always saying yes is that sometimes, those mistakes end up in print and they will haunt you for years to come. For example, I wrote a book a number of years ago on a topic with which I wasn’t very familiar. But the editors asked me to write it, and who was I to turn down a request from an editor? Uh…the author!  YOU know what you’re capable of and what you’re not. Set your boundaries and respect them, because I promise, always saying yes isn’t necessarily what is best for your career.

Know when to take a break. This is the toughest one.  Everyone assumes that if you can go a day (or a week, or a month) without writing, then you must not be a writer.  I believe that is wrong thinking. See, the thing about writers is that we tend to work ALL the time. There’s a popular image going around right now that has a caption that reads “A writer’s life is spent writing or thinking about writing.” It’s true. We never take a break. If our fingers aren’t actively moving on some article, poem, or story, then our brains are working out plot points and scene breaks, organization, and character motives. But it is possible to burn out, even for writers. I know. I’ve had it happen to me. And if you don’t take a break before you get to that point, the damage to your self-esteem and your career, can be hard to overcome.

These days, I know what to look for. If I get too tired. If I dread going to the office or sitting down at the computer. If the thought of having to write one more word makes me want to huddle in a ball in the corner. Then it’s time to take a break! And I do.  Sometimes, it’s a short break – a few minutes. Other times, it’s a break that lasts a month or more. That doesn’t make me NOT a writer. It makes me a smart writer who understands that for the best possible stories to come from that creative place in my being, it’s essential for my being to take a break.

So, that’s my list. What’s yours? What are the things that you ABSOLUTELY have to do in order to survive the writing life? I’d love to hear your suggestions, because I’m always looking for new ways to ensure a long and happy writing career.

Making the Time

My chances to drop everything and read have grown so few and far between that sometimes I feel like I’ve lost a best friend. The last couple of years have been horrible in terms of finding time to read. I’m so busy between my own schedule and my daughter’s that even finding a few minutes at night to read has been a stretch.

But recently, I decided I missed my old friend (Story) so much that I needed to MAKE time to read.  And so I have.  Just one book. And it’s taking me longer than I would have liked to finish it, but I’m enjoying the ride.  That’s what reading has always been for me. A ride. It’s a way to get outside of my own life and for a short while jump into someone else’s as the hero or heroine of a book.  It’s a chance to do things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and honestly, that I probably wouldn’t want to do if it weren’t for the safety of book pages.

Why is it so hard to find time to read? Especially when it’s so good for you?  Reading stimulates the brain and gives it a break at the same time.  While your head is caught up in an alternate reality, your brain can take over the problems that you’ve been worrying and try to make sense of them. Maybe, a solution appears while you’re in this other world, living this other life.  Maybe not, but if you’re anything like me, there are at least some interesting new insights when you emerge from the fictional world.

With the reverence I have for reading, you would think it would be something I would make more time for.  But can you believe, I forgot how healthy losing myself in a good book can be? I do. Until I finally get to the point where I just can’t NOT read. Once I sit down with a book, I remember everything I love about it. So, I’m making more time to drop everything and read right now. I’m sure that in the future, I’ll forget again.  I’ve been through this cycle so many times.  But for right now? Now I’m going to pick up my current mystery and curl up in my current chair, and go live another life for a little while. How about you?  Doesn’t that sound more fun than worrying over what’s currently in your brain?

The First Glance

As authors, I think we tend to ponder over all types of things when it comes to our writing.  Everything from the words that we put on the paper, to the way in which their formatted, and yes, even to what the final package is going to look like.  As readers, I think that final package is one of the most important elements when choosing a book.

I know not everyone will agree with me, but for me, the first thing that draws me to the book is the cover. If the cover doesn’t look interesting, the back cover copy or book description doesn’t usually even get a glance. I know it’s not fair.  After all, the parable tells us do not judge a book by its cover. But I do. And that’s why I think that covers are one of the most important elements of a book.

As a self publishing indie author, I’m in charge of all of the elements of my books from the first story draft all the way to the complete package, and that includes the cover. And while working on my first book, Biloxi Sunrise, I knew that I needed something that would really catch people’s attention. So, I turned to a professional designer to create the cover.  I was truly blessed, because I did find a great designer, and I think she did a fantastic job. Such a good job, in fact, that I’ve asked her to do all the covers for this series.

It got me thinking, though.  What goes into an eye catching cover? Is it coloring? Or wording? Characters? Or impressions?  Here’s what I think is most important.

  • It must be eye-catching. This is an element that’s hard to explain.  A great book cover should really grab hold a reader and make them  want to read the book.  For me, that means the cover should contain some elements of mystery or murder.  For example, a cover that I think does an excellent job of portraying these things is for The Righteous, by Michael Wallace.  The cover calls out to me and makes me want to read the book, just to find out what’s going on.
  • The title and author MUST be immediately obvious. I know, I’m strange.  But I don’t like to pick up a book if I can’t tell what the title is.  The author is important, too, I’m not sure why.  But the title is far more critical to me.  I can dislike covers where the author’s name is more prominent than the title of the book.  It’s like saying “Hey, read this book because this author wrote it,” instead of telling a reader to pick up a book because it’s about a certain story.  For instance, with the cover for The Righteous, I really want to know just what exactly the righteous is. What does it mean?
  • It must be professionally done. Amateur covers scream to me of amateur writing.  I know that’s not a fair judgement, but it’s the honest impression that I get.  I prefer to see covers that look like they were designed by someone who has been trained in graphic design rather than by someone who is actually an author trying to do things on the cheap.  For example, I think all of Dee Henderson’s covers are very well done. Her cover designers take the time understand not only who they are trying to reach, but also the content of the story. A well-done cover says to me that the author cares about impressing the reader.  And as a reader, I like to be impressed.

What do you consider an element of well-created cover?  And what are some of your favorites?

International "It Will Write Itself" Day

I believe it was a Stephen King book that I read one time (The Tommyknockers) that had this device in it that allowed the user to simply think of what they wanted to write.  The contraption would then turn those thoughts into written pages.  Ever since the day I read that, I’ve wished for one of those machines!

So, if I could declare any writer’s holiday I wanted, I’d choose the International “It Will Write Itself” Day.  On this holiday, all writers would need only to do a lightweight (and not at all silly looking) cap that would wirelessly transmit our thoughts onto the written page, at such a speed that there would need to be no lag time between one book and the next.

Can you imagine? How nice would it be to sit down in your comfy chair with your favorite drink, snacks, and a huge teddy (or puppy, or kittie, or kid) for snuggling and then think your way through your book?  When it was done, you could walk over to the printer, pick up the pages and have an entire manuscript in your hand.

How fast could you knock out a few novels? And how much would you NOT miss the sagging middle issues, or the spelling/punctuation issues?  If you could think in complete scenes and chapters instead of words and sentences?

And while we’re at it, this machine would perfectly translate even the foggiest ideas into fully fleshed-out content that readers would find absolutely enthralling.  I don’t know about you, but I could probably think my way through three or four novels in a days time.  And if the machine was good enough, they wouldn’t even need any polishing!

So, here’s a self-writing machine that turned out novels at the speed of thought! Now all you have to do is sit back and daydream a while.

Confessions of a Movie Junkie

I have to admit, I’m not much on watching TV. It’s not that I have any thing against it, I just don’t have much time for it, and when I do I would usually rather read.  But TV and movies (to me) are not synonymous. Movies – and especially movie theaters – hold a special power over me. An addiction, if you will.

I think it started when I was a military brat stationed on overseas installations like Reykjavik, Iceland and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Television was pretty limited there, so every weekend, my friends and I headed out to the movies. I saw Star Wars in a plus movie theater – the largest I’d ever seen – in 1980 at a theater in Iceland. For weeks after, my friends and I would pretend to be characters from the movie as we played on the playground behind our house.

In Cuba, movies were an outdoor experience.  As long as there was no rain, there would be movies on weekend nights and unless it was an R-rated movie, my friends and I would be there.

That translated into my adult life as a love of the movie theater atmosphere.  I adore sitting in a theater, with a screen the size of my house playing a movie. I love the smell of popcorn and the strange-yet-familiar camaraderie of sharing laughs, tears, and terrors with strangers and friends and people who love the things I love in a movie.

Watching a movie on the television isn’t the same.  The screen is too small, and while there may be the smell of popcorn in the air, there isn’t that heart-stopping moment in the movie, punctuated by the soundtrack that literally jars your insides.

My taste in movies run to the loud side most of the time. Jurassic Park (the original, though the other two are ok) is one of my all-time favorites. I love the heart-shaking, earth-quaking moments in the movie that make you sit on the edge of your seat, even when you’ve seen it five dozen times and know exactly how it’s going to turn out.

When I’m not in the mood for something loud and explosive, then I want a story that will make me cry. Or laugh and cry. But rarely just laugh. Comedy that I appreciate is hard to find, and I’m just not into most of what is considered comedy these days. But if a movie can pull tears from me, then it’s usually something I’ll remember.

Fireproof left me in a puddle in a theater packed with people who were also mere puddles when it was over. We sat through the movie, then sat through the credits, and few people left before the screen went black.

Movies just don’t have the same effect on me at home.  And for the few that I watch that can draw some emotion from me sitting in my living room, no one shares that sentiment.

So, give me a theater full of strangers, sticky floors, and popcorn kernels. Give me loud, emotionally charged, or once in a while downright scary. And I’ll be happy. Until the next movie comes out.

Love Is Not Easily Angered

“I’m not easily angered, it’s just that he never puts his dishes in the dishwasher.”

“I’m not easily angered, it’s just that she never does what I ask her to do the first time I ask her to do it.”

“I’m not easily angered, it’s just that he doesn’t understand how tired I am.”

“I’m not easily angered, it just that she doesn’t seem to realize I work all week long.”

 

Have you ever used one of those phrases to defend blowing your top? I’ve used all of them at one time or another. And I truly don’t consider myself to be a person who is easily angered or even irritated. But, in studying for this post, I’ve come to believe that is exactly the problem – I don’t believe I’m easily angered.  But I’ve never stopped to consider how other might see me.

How does my husband see me when I growl at him for putting his dishes in the sink instead of the dishwasher? What about when I snipe at him for over-explaining something? Or when my daughter answers a little too sharply and I zing back at her just as sharply.  How ‘not easily angered’ am I really?

The answer is that those around me likely see me as a person who is easy to anger, even if I don’t see me that way.

That gave me pause. I had to stop and think about that. I don’t want to be that person that others see as someone who is abrasive, prone to temper, and not always reasonable. And according to the bible, God doesn’t want me to be that kind of person either.

For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. — James 1:20

Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. — Ecclesiastes 7:9

A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. — Proverbs 29:11

Oy. Such a little thing, one would think. To flip off a cutting comment or a sharp bit of body language when things don’t happen around me as I would have for them to. But that little thing leads to bigger things.

At first, you have a bad moment because of the words or actions of another person. Then maybe you have a bad hour because of the way your child behaves. Next thing you know, you’ll be having a bad day because your spouse can’t know what it is that’s irritating you in the first place.

So, how do you get a handle on anger before it becomes a cancer that takes over your life?

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. — James 1:19-20

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. — 1Timothy 2: 1-2

And give no opportunity to the devil. — Ephesians 4:27

As I understand, I’m to be thoughtful of my thoughts and actions.  I’m to hold my tongue and take the time to respond in a way that is prayerful and reflective of Christ. Its’ through these things that anger can be pushed back and replaced by what Christ called the greatest commandment of all – To love one another as He loved us.

Will it be easy?  Not a chance. I’m not Christ. I’m a lowly mortal whose sins are much greater than myself. Thankfully, Christ has forgiven those sins. And He’s there to help me try (and fail and try again) to become the person he would like for me to be. A person who harbors no anger. Only love for those around me.

Which Inspirational Writer has a Crush on Mr. Spock?

Ever read a book and wonder what the writer is like? I do. All the time. And once in a while, I get to “meet” someone whose work I admire. Colleen Coble is one of those people.

I first met Colleen through the ACFW Members List. I was so thrilled (because she was wonderful to me) that I went out and bought every one of her books I could find.  How lucky was I? Her books have all been fabulous, and I’m constantly amazed by her talent as a writer. If there’s anyone that I look to to learn what I’m doing right and wrong, it’s Colleen.

When this series came up, I had the good fortune to be the person who got to talk to Colleen a bit about a new project, about her writing life, and about her faith. So, without keeping you in suspense any longer (Colleen does a great job of that all on her own), here’s what she had to say:

JL: Colleen, I’m familiar with your work, but some of our readers may not be, so can you first, could you give us a brief bio?

Colleen Coble: I’ve been happily married forever (40+ years now) and have two grown children, Dave and Kara. My 3-year-old granddaughter is the light of our lives. God has opened so many more doors than I ever dreamed could happen, and I’ve had over forty books published now. I’ve been with Thomas Nelson for ten years this summer.

Author’s aside: If you’re not familiar with Colleen’s books, she writes Inspirational Romantic Suspense, Inspirational Romance, and Inspirational Suspense. You can learn more about her on her website (linked above) or her Facebook page.

 

JL: Colleen, rumor has it you’re about to start a new partnership with Robin Miller working on a middle grade readers series. What details can you share about that?

Colleen Coble: We’re so excited about this! Robin and I will be writing a mystery series for 8-12 year olds based on my Rock Harbor novels. The main character will be Emily, one of the children lost in the woods in Without a Trace.

 

JL: What prompted you to write middle grade fiction, since you’re usually an adult suspense author?

Colleen Coble: Tommy Nelson came to me and asked if I would consider writing a middle grade series. I have a granddaughter now and found the idea of writing books she would read in a few years very exciting. I knew I wouldn’t have the time to do it by myself. Robin was the first person I thought of partnering with. She knows Rock Harbor nearly as well as I do and I love her writing. I was thrilled when she was excited at the idea as well!

 

JL: Writing for adults must be very different than writing for middle-grade readers. Have you found the transition difficult?

Colleen Coble: Strangely enough, no. I’ve had young people in all of my books, and it seemed very natural to me.

 

JL: Ok, so you’re working on that project, but I know you have to have more going on. What other projects are you working on?

Colleen Coble: I’m working on a new contemporary series set in the Outer Banks called the Hope Beach series. I’ve been loving it! And my new historical series is launching next month. The first book in the Under Texas Stars series is Blue Moon Promise.

 

JL: Wow. You’re a busy lady! Is there a piece of scripture that guides your writing life? Why is this scripture important to you (or if there is no specific scripture, how does your faith fit into your career as a writer)?

Colleen Coble: My life verse is Romans 8:28. No matter what happens I know that God will work it out for my good.

Author’s aside: For those who are unfamiliar with it, this is the verse that Colleen lives by:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

 

JL: Ok, enough about the work stuff for a moment. What’s one thing that readers probably don’t know about you?

Colleen Coble: I’m a huge Trekkie. Don’t laugh but I still have a crush on Mr. Spock! =)

 

JL: I know you’re busy, so one last question. What’s one thing that you wish you could tell other authors?

Colleen Coble: Be persistent. Keep writing. Move on to the next story and learn your craft.

Who Has Time for a Muse?

I’ve been writing for a living for almost 20 years. That’s long enough to hear just about every piece of advice in the book. It’s also long enough to gather a few favorite pieces of advices. And I have.

Many of my favorites have been mentioned in this series already, but I have one that’s my all time favorite. This little piece of advice has served me well, and as a result, I have never found myself without something to write (even when I don’t have any desire to write).

I wish I had some cool story to go with this piece of advice, but the truth is, I don’t. It’s just something that was shared with me by a writer in about the same position I am. Her advice?

You don’t have time for a muse.

Hm. I thought writers were supposed to be the tortured types that bowed whenever the muse entered the room and wept whenever he or she left. This whole idea that there is no muse was an alternate reality for me. But you know what? Turns out my writer friend was right. At least, for me.

The muse is a person, character, or entity that provides insipiration when you sit down to write. And there are many writers (and authors) who truly believe that they must have a muse present, and sometimes larger than life, to provide the stories that they write down.

The problem with a muse is that they can be finicky. They always want to play when you want to work. And when you don’t want to work, they’re right there pushing you.

“Get up.”

“No. It’s four a.m. I’m sleeping. It can wait until morning.”

“Fine. But in the morning, I won’t have anything for you.”

“But I’m tired. And I have to get up in two hours.”

“Tough. It’s now or never.” And the muse means it.

If you don’t answer the call of this tough task master, she turns on you.

“Hey muse, I’ve had my coffee, now I’m ready to write what you have for me.”

“Nope. The sun’s up. I’m going to Hawii. I’ll be back when it’s completely inconvient for you.”

See? Cantankerous.

I have a problem with the concept of a muse, though, and I really hadn’t thought about it until I had the muse conversation with my friends. My issue is that when you depend on your muse for inspiration, you’re at the muse’s mercy.

For me, I think it should be the other way around. I am a control freak, I’ll admit, and I don’t appreciate someone trying to take the control from me.

So, after hearing that advice and having the muse conversation with my friend, I determined to go home that night and fire my muse. Instead, I developed a habit of writing even when the words were uninspired.

As a result, I have boxes full of writing that was nothing more than an exercise in storytelling gone awry. Those pages of words, however, taught me craft. They helped me develop my own voice. And they made me more comfortable with sitting down in front of a blank page.

Firing my muse also had an unexpected benefit. When she realized that I didn’t need her, she started feeding me more and more ideas. These days, the muse hovers over me while I’m writing, oblvious to her presence. And when I’m thoroughly ensconsed in a story (usually when I’m right in the middle of the book, where the work is the hardest) she’ll throw a new story idea at me.

Oh how I want to write that new story, since this one is so much work! But I don’t. I jot down the idea (thank you, Ms. Muse), and keep right on pushing through the difficult parts of the story. I’ll write the new one on my own schedule, not hers.

We Don’t Need Snow

Here in the South, we don’t usually get snow for Christmas. In fact, some years it’s warm enough to wear shorts at Christmas time. But that doesn’t make the Christmas spirit any less evident.

The Christmas Season usually begins with parades around here. We like our parades. And every town, township, wanna-be town, and municipality has its own parade. Some are small. Others rival Mardi Gras parades with their complex floats, and parade-goers in attendance.

That parade is the signal that the season has started in earnest. It’s usually the first weekend of December, and many of the organizations that put together the parades follow them up with a round of fundraising for local or national charaties that support children in need.

This year, I road the parade float for the first time in my life. The parade was in my father-in-law’s town of Gautier, Ms. (That’s pronounced Go-Shay.) And the float I rode belonged to the Gautier Men’s Club. And their organization does funraising all year long, but they kick it up a notch this time of year.

After all of the parades are finished, then the party season kicks in. We love our parites. And they’re just as close to our hearts as our parades. Sure, there are the usual organizational parties and church parties, but there are also parties that are specifically for the children.

These parties always include a Santa handing out gifts. And often, they’re thrown for less-fortunate children. During a season in which the gift is quickly becoming the most important element, these parties manage to not only provide children who may not otherwise get Christmas gifts with some small token, but they also (and most importantly) kindle hope for children who might not otherwise have any.

That’s what Christmas in the South is about. The parades, the parties, the gifts…All of it leads up to the one element that we think is the most important of the Christmas season. Hope.

The hope of eternal life and hope for forgiveness of sins is what brought Christ to us. It’s what we celebrate at this time of year. And here in the south, we don’t need snow, or much of anything else, really, to want to bring hope and love to those around us.

In the Quiet of the Night

In contemplating Christmas and what it means to me, I’ve found it difficult to get past the hustle and bustle of the commercial side of things. It’s easy to get pulled into all of the shopping and cooking and decorating that seem to go along with the season.

But in those quiet moments, when I take the time to think about the true meaning of Christmas, I find something deeper, something more. It’s not just about the birth of Jesus, the Christ.

If you want to get right down to it, the birth of Jesus was in the early Spring months according to historians. But even that isn’t what’s important.

The story of Christmas, the meaning of the holiday, is all about the strength of convictions. Mary, Joseph, and the people who supported them had to live during a difficult time by the strength of their convictions. They believed in a God that few trusted with a trust that surpassed rational explanation.

Late a night, when the house is quiet and the hustle and bustle of the season isn’t overwhelming, this is the message that I hold on to. I’m thankful for the birth of the Christ, but I’m warmed by the thought that a young girl would believe in her God so much that she would be willing to risk her life to trust His word.

I’m warmed by the thought that a man trusted his God so much that he would believe a story that would defy rational thought. And I’m strengthened by the thought there was a community their God enough to support these kids that were living by faith.

In today’s world, there are few examples of faith and trust that are stong enough to sustain the kind of faith and trust that these people exhibited. And in the quiet of the night, when I have time to think of all that’s happening in my own world and the world around me, the thought that Jospeh, Mary, and their community had so much more going against them…well, that’s enough to make me stop and consider what I’m facing.

It’s enough to make me forget about the prefect presents and a holiday dinner that will wow the socks off all my guests. It’s even enough for me to look at the struggles going on in my own life and around me and say “Thank you, God.”

For sending people before me to make the hard sacrifices. For sending people before me to create an example of how true faith is lived.

And in the quiet of the night, as I sit in front of a tree, decorated with lights and ornaments, I find that my faith and my trust is increased by the faith and trust that a young couple and their supporters had in a God that loved enough to trust them with the most precious gift ever given.