Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘writing process’

Back on Track

I guess it’s obvious that I haven’t been blogging this summer. Truth is, I haven’t been doing much writing at all. At first, that downtime was a relief. After a busy spring with tight deadlines, I was happy to relax a bit. With no new due dates in sight, I was looking forward to developing my own writing ideas.

That may sound like a strange statement, so let me explain. For twenty-five years I’ve been writing for the educational market. Those publishers target school and public libraries with their marketing. Because the books are usually curriculum oriented, educational publishers have needs they want to fill and writers try to get those assignments. It means that for most of my writing career, I’ve written books on assignment knowing from the start that the publisher wants the book I’m writing and that it will be published.

The other publishing arm in writing for kids is the trade market. For those publishers, the author writes a book or does a proposal and then tries to sell it to a publisher. I was eager to focus on the trade market this summer, but unfortunately, I’ve floundered for a couple of reasons.

First, there is no certainty that publishers will be interested in my ideas. It means that I could spend a lot of time researching and writing a book or doing a proposal and then never find a publisher for it. I know how that feels because I’ve been there. Along with writing for the educational market I’ve developed some of my own ideas too. So far, I haven’t sold any of them. That has weighed on my mind this summer making me wonder if it’s possible that I can come up with an idea that a publisher will want. What’s the secret? I seem to have no clue.

I’m also discovering that it’s hard to stay motivated when I don’t have a definite deadline set by a publisher. I’ve read books and articles with suggestions about how to stay motivated without deadlines. One is to set your own due dates. That doesn’t work for me. If I’m feeling lazy and unmotivated, it’s easy for me to ignore self-imposed deadlines.

Another suggestion is to set deadlines and then have writing friends hold you accountable. But my friends are too understanding, especially if we’re all in the same boat. So, I’ve struggled this summer with trying to find an idea and gather the motivation to see it through.

As always, the way to pull myself out of a writing slump is to get to work. With that in mind, I’ve been researching possible ideas. Unfortunately, I’ve also been discarding those ideas because they are topics that have already been done. Finally, I decided to continue researching one of those ideas because it was about women in sports, a topic I love. My hope was that a new idea would come from that research, something that hadn’t already been done. And that is what happened. I’ve landed on an idea now that I believe has potential and I’m enjoying the research.

The next step is motivating myself to stick with the project even on the days when doubts fill my mind. I think I’ve figured that out too. I’ve penciled in a writing conference for the spring of 2019. It’s a big conference, which means there will be several editors there. It’s a custom for editors who speak at conferences to accept submissions from attendees after the conference even though those editors usually only take manuscripts from agents. That is a motivator for me because I’m cheap. I feel like it’s a waste of money to go to a conference if I don’t have anything ready to submit after the conference.

So, I’m doing my umpteenth rewrite on a picture book biography and I’m working on my new idea with the conference due date in mind. In the meantime, I would like to hear from other writers. How do you decide if an idea is strong enough to stand out in the marketplace? And how do you stay confident when self-doubt threatens to derail you?

My Coffee Shop Office

As I write this, I’m sitting at my regular table by the window in the coffee shop where I like to start my day. People laugh when I tell them I can concentrate better there. I see their point. It’s definitely not quiet. There is music playing and people are chatting with friends who they have met for coffee and bakery. Some are gathering for business meetings.

It’s easy for me shut out those sounds though because I don’t need to do anything about them. At home, I’m tuned in to sounds. One of those noises may be something that needs my attention. At the coffee shop, it’s all just background noise, and there are studies showing that some noise can be good for creativity. According to those studies, an environment that’s too quiet can be just as bad as a very noisy one. In fact, there are Apps now with coffee shop background noise to play when you’re working.

I don’t think those Apps would work for me because better concentration is only one reason I like going to the coffee shop. Those morning trips also help me get a better start to my day. When I stay home, I tend to dawdle in the mornings. I eat breakfast and read the paper. I may even turn on the TV to get the morning weather report. I don’t do any of those things on days when I go to the coffee shop. Instead, I get up and get going as if I have a regular job. And when I’m at the coffee shop, I can’t throw in a load of laundry or pick up a few things around the house. All I have to work on is the writing I brought with me. So, I settle down to business, and that’s good because getting started is the hardest part of writing for me. Once I get going on a project, it’s easy to keep the momentum going when I go home to the computer.

Working at the coffee shop also gives me another way of looking at my writing. I never take my computer with me because I don’t want to leave it unattended when I get a refill. So, I write in longhand. That slows me down a bit and that’s exactly what I need when I’m trying to work out some detail or a problem I’m having with the writing.

Of course, the morning shot of caffeine doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, the bakery has consequences. Right now, I’m needing to take off a few pounds and my mornings at the coffee shop probably have a lot to do with that. I figure if I’m taking up a table at a place of business I need to buy more than a cup of coffee. So, for now, I’m limiting myself to a couple mornings a week at the “office.” I save those trips for days when I trying to work out problems with manuscripts.

I admit that there is a limit to how much noise I can tune out. The coffee shop was much quieter when I arrived over an hour ago. There were only a few regulars here then. They were reading, working quietly, and talking softly. But more people have arrived, and the chatter is getting louder. Plus, although I can’t prove it, I think they’ve cranked the music up a few notches. That’s my sign that it’s time to pack up and head home to work at the computer. I’m ready for that transition now because after an hour or so in my “office” I’m on a roll.

The Writing-Go-Round

It’s been only a few days since I sent the manuscript for my latest book off to my editors. That means I’m still adjusting to the loss. It’s what always happens. It’s a good feeling to finally finish a book, but there’s also a letdown. After working so intently on a book, when it’s gone, it feels like I’ve lost a dear friend.

Of course, I’m not completely done with the book yet. The editors will be sending it back with suggestions for rewriting. There will be more changes when the book gets to layout. That’s because of the unique features of the leveled readers I’ve been writing the last few years.

The first goal with every book is to tell an interesting story. For biographies that means presenting the facts in a way that holds the readers’ attention. With leveled readers, there’s the added challenge of making sure the writing fits on the page the way it should. Each two-page spread needs a certain number of lines. So the manuscript will bounce back and forth between my editors, the book designer, and me several times in the next few months while we work out the details. Even so there will be days and even weeks during that time when I don’t have anything to do on that book. That means I suddenly have time on my hands.

That down time is just part of the writing-go-round, the stages I go through with each book. The only way past the letdown of a finished book is to start the process all over again with a new project. Beginning is the most delicious of the writing stages. First, there’s the excitement of a new idea. That excitement only builds with the research. As I discover fascinating details about the subject of my new book, I’m certain that it’s going to be my best book ever.

That bubble bursts when it comes to the next stage – writing the first draft. I’ve learned to accept that my first draft is going to be crap. That’s okay because I can pull it all together with the rewrite. There’s just one problem: I can’t rewrite until I actually write something and that does not come easily. My head may be overflowing with good ideas, but my brain does not allow them to tumble out in complete sentences. Fortunately, I have a couple of first draft tricks.

The first trick actually starts with the research. Sentences and sometimes complete paragraphs come to me as I research. I jot them down in a notebook that I always have nearby. That way when I start the first draft, I don’t need to be terrified of a blank computer screen. I already have a few sentences and paragraphs that I can type in to begin.

I also set a goal to write a certain number of words each day. The first few days are stressful and I make a lot of trips to the refrigerator before I reach the day’s goal. At the end of each day, I print out what I wrote. Then I begin the next day by heading out to the coffee shop. There I rewrite what I wrote the day before and begin adding to it in longhand. By the time I get home to the computer, I’ve already made some good headway towards reaching the number of words for that day. Eventually, I get into a flow with the writing, and after several days or weeks depending on the length of the project, I have a first draft.

Then I’m ready to rewrite. That’s the part I love because I can begin to see the book coming together. I call it a rewrite, but actually it’s many rewrites and can cover a long period of time. I cut sections and rearrange paragraphs. I see holes in the writing, places that need more detail, and go back to the research to get the information I need to fill those holes. I submit the manuscript to my writers’ group. They are great at pointing out places that don’t make sense. I need that input. Sometimes an idea is so clear in my head that I don’t realize I haven’t given readers enough information to understand what I’m talking about.

I also think about something a middle school teacher taught me when I spoke to her English classes many years ago. She had a checklist she gave to her students to help them with the rewriting process. One tip on that list stuck with me because it was something I had never heard. It said to look at what was good in the manuscript and think about how to make it even better. So I work on the good parts too. I read the manuscript out loud. If I stumble over the words of a sentence, I know it isn’t quite right. So I do more polishing until I like the way it sounds.

Although rewriting is fun for me, it’s also intense. I get so absorbed in the writing that I forget everything else. I guess that’s why it feels like such a loss when the book is finished. So I take a few days to adjust. I clean my much neglected house and spend time with my equally neglected friends and family. But after a few days off, I can’t wait to start all over again with the excitement of beginning a new project.

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