A Decade? Embarrassing Timeline Confessions of a Part-time Novel Writer

My manuscript is done. It’s a thrilling thing to say—not only that I finished a draft, but that all 100,000 words are what I want them to be (for now, until I revise with an agent and editor) and ready to send off. You’d think I’d be shouting this to the hilltops!

But I worry that after ten years no one will believe me. Even my poor husband probably says “That’s great!” just to humor me. Other people ask, “Wait, is this still your Peter Pan novel?” Still.

I’ve wondered myself why it took so long. I wrote my first full novel during grad school in only a year; how did a second novel take ten? True, that first novel was not so great and has deservedly stayed on a shelf, but come on: Nikki, what in all the vast cosmos have you been doing for the past decade? So I dug into old files and blog posts, looking for word counts and date stamps that would piece together the mystery. Read more

Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

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The Creative Process

the current stage of my creative process: altering scenes and tracking goals

Last week via Twitter I came across an article called “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking.” While it goes into depth and gives examples of each, the list goes like this:

  1. You are creative.
  2. Creative thinking is work.
  3. You must go through the motions of being creative.
  4. Your brain is not a computer.
  5. There is no one right answer.
  6. Never stop with your first good idea.
  7. Expect the experts to be negative.
  8. Trust your instincts.
  9. There is no such thing as failure.
  10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
  11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.
  12. Learn to think unconventionally.

These are all so true that I would simply like to say, “Amen!”

But I’d also like to illustrate.

A few weeks ago Hubby and I were talking about my writing, and he mentioned how he feels as though, personality wise, I’m much more analytical than I am creative. Therefore, he said, shouldn’t I pursue analytical writing of some sort (haha, such as these blog posts?) rather than fiction writing?

I agreed with him to a point: I am naturally analytical, and creativity is hard work for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good at it once I get there. I noted that he hasn’t read my fiction yet and explained to him that though my characters and stories don’t come easily to me at first, I use my analytical skills to bring them to life one draft at a time.

The conversation made me realize that I’ve decided to be creative, decided to believe that I can be creative, and even decided to believe that I am good at creativity.

I think that’s why I loved the article. I experience those twelve concepts on a regular basis. I have to believe I’m creative; I have to work hard at wrapping my brain around my projects; I have to go through the motions and be open to all kinds of ideas; I have to trust my instincts and pursue the projects and designs I feel inclined toward, trusting that I can achieve the potential I imagine; I have to be willing to think outside the box all the time, questioning “rules” of writing and when to adhere to or break them.

What’s been especially phenomenal the past month and a half is experiencing the height of the creative process. I swore to Hubby and Twitter that I would aim for two goals: (a) to write every day, no matter what, and (b) to revise a chapter a week in order to finish this latest draft by April 1. As I’ve done those two things, I’ve been amazed at the creative output I’ve discovered. I’ve been completing each chapter early every week because the ideas have flowed so freely. I’m so excited to write every day that I can hardly wait to put everything else aside (especially children — since I have to wait for the toddler’s afternoon nap) and open my manuscript again.

Part of the credit goes to the place I am in the process. Since it’s a fifth draft, where I expect to be ready to submit to agents after this round, the characters and story are all in place and I’m simply monkeying with individual scenes, altering and moving and deleting them to enhance the telling of the story and the showing of the characters. It’s a fun stage, juggling and rearranging pieces and having new epiphanies all the time about how to improve them.

But I think most of the credit goes to pushing myself to write every day.

I used to let lesson plans and grading papers encroach on my writing time, but now I’ve decided not to. I’m an adjunct teacher, meaning that it’s a side job. Writing is my main job (besides motherhood), so the writing has to have its regular structured time. The side job has to fit in on the side, where it belongs. So when the toddler naps, I write — no exceptions. And so far I have fit in the planning and grading elsewhere, like when the kids are busy playing with toys.

Writing every day keeps the story and characters fresh in my head. I don’t waste time trying to catch myself up and figure out where I left off. I can dive right back in every day and keep the momentum of the story building as I revise. And my enthusiasm for it grows as well.

As it turns out, when I invest myself in the process I am creative!

What have your experiences with the creative process been like? What points on that list are particularly meaningful to you?

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A Payoff

In the week right before Thanksgiving, tragedy struck at our house.

Our fifteen-month-old lost the remote to the satellite box. The husband was furious! How could this happen? Surely it’s got to be somewhere. Just not anywhere we could think to look, apparently.

But sometimes coincidence shows you possibilities you might not have otherwise seen, and we decided that — in light of the four huge CPA tests for which Hubby is currently studying — the disappearance of the remote might be an omen. It was time to cancel our TV subscription . . . just until he passes the CPA.

A few weeks later, at the company Christmas party, we were asked to answer a prompt about what we’d do if we won a million dollars. “Live in Italy,” we both said, laughing at the impossibility of the dream.

It was fun to answer the what-if fantasy, to imagine how we’d spend an outrageous sum of money. On the other hand, with the suspended satellite subscription, I realized something even better: fantasizing about rewards that aren’t so outrageous or impossible.

And I began to muse with Hubby, “Okay, if you get ‘cable’ back when you pass your test, what do I get if I sell a manuscript?”

The only trouble was that I didn’t have an answer. It didn’t come as immediately as our million-dollar plan. This was real. I had to put some thought into it!

About once a week I’d try an idea out loud, telling Hubby, “I’ve got it! When I sell my manuscript, we’ll go to Hawaii.” But nothing ever quite stuck.

Over Christmas, my sister had us play a holiday version of Scattergories, and one of the prompts became “Gifts that keep on giving.” I thought, well, “cable” keeps on giving, month after month. Hawaii would be awesome, but it would be a one-time thing. I wanted to think of a reward more like Hubby’s, that I would enjoy for a long time to come and would be a tribute to having met my goal.

My mom once told me that when my great-grandmother passed away and left money to each of her four sons, three of them used the money to pay off bills and debts and such, but my grandpa didn’t want to do that. He wanted to put his share of the money into something that would always remind him of his mother. And so he used the three thousand dollars to refurbish a Steinway grand piano.

That piano is now a legacy of its own. It’s the focal point of my grandparents’ living room, the piece of furniture around which we gathered to sing Christmas carols and let each of the grandchildren play the songs they’d practiced for that Christmas Eve recital all of my growing-up years. Because my great-grandmother insisted that her four sons learned to play the piano, and because my grandfather continued that tradition with his kids, as did my mom with us, I play the piano, and so will my kids.

Last summer I wrote a post about how I’d finally discovered my main character’s main hobby/interest. I figured it out when I stumbled across the old Pentax camera my dad gave me, which was his growing up. I haven’t used it ever since film became so obsolete, and I was thrilled to discover that you can still attach those old lenses onto a new DSLR body.

The only trouble is the price tag on those DSLR bodies.

But today I’ve figured out what I want my payoff to be. If I sell this manuscript, a DSLR body seems like a pretty fitting compensation: a tribute to my main character, my dad, even my grandpa in a way — and one that’ll keep on giving.

As I write this, I’m thinking how sad I am that I don’t have photos of my grandfather’s piano — especially not any that would do it justice. My iPhone camera just doesn’t cut it for important photographs.

Yes, I think I’ve decided on my payoff. And just like the suspended DirecTV subscription is meant to give Hubby extra incentive for studying, maybe the thought of a digital body for those Pentax lenses will give me the extra nudge I need to find writing time, finish revising, and send my story out into the world.

(Ooh, plus, a nice camera would extend the life on vacation-oriented rewards like Hawaii. I could definitely enjoy Hawaii longer thanks to a good camera. Oh the photo albums I’d make! The enlargements I’d frame! I’d like to dedicate this parenthetical note to Hubby, lest he get the idea that I’m not interested in tropical getaways . . .)

What about you? Do you ever settle on rewards to give yourself extra incentive for something? Does it work? How’s the payoff?

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Let It Grow, Prune It Later: Writing More than You Need

A few weeks ago I came across this tweet by my friend, neighbor and favorite author:

What? Shannon doesn’t keep every simile? She doesn’t craft them so carefully and perfectly that each and every one is a gem to sigh over?

I think that even though I know better, I’m often guilty of pretending that the way I read a book, from page one to the end, is the way the author wrote the book. After all, authors are so brilliant that the books just fall into their heads fully formed, right? An author whose use of language I admire must use language that beautifully all the time.

Ha ha.

Anyhow, I wanted to share her tweet today because I’ve been thinking of it a lot this week.

I’ve been rewriting “romantic” scenes in my manuscript, which I put in quotes because I really don’t want them to be the equivalent of romance-genre romantic scenes, just subtle teen romance where the angst and electricity is palpable between two characters, you know? And in earlier drafts, the emotion was lacking, so that’s what I’ve been revising for: adding more of the main character’s thoughts and emotions so that we can experience the fall into love with her.

The trouble is, my revisions aren’t so hot. They feel clunky and awkward and cliché. I have to keep reminding myself of the advice another writer friend gave me to “fearlessly write what she’d feel”; it’s amazing how much fear gets in the way.

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of awful writing — to the point that the fear paralyzes me.

So Shannon’s tweet has been comforting. Maybe I have to overwrite first, explore my character’s emotions in whatever similes and descriptions I can get my hands on, not being too choosy at first. And then later on I’ll get to experience the joy of pruning: taking big ol’ garden shears to my manuscript and lopping off wayward twigs and branches to expose the best ones, until the wild growth of my novel is shaped just the way I want — and will look like it was always meant to be that way.

How much do you let yourself write more than you need? How much do you cut as you go?

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Unique Embellishments

“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique.”

~Stephen King’s On Writing

The weekend before Halloween is upon us, and like many other moms around the country, I’ve been scrambling to prepare costumes. Today I sewed a cow-print vest for my four-year-old — complete with a hidden pocket in the back that holds a retractable string. Next up is a pirate vest complete with gold embroidery-type stuff to look all Baroque or whatever (noticed this when checking out Johnny Depp on the cover of the latest Pirates movie).

And while I’ve been making trips to the nearest craft stores to find supplies for these one-night wonders, I couldn’t help grabbing materials for a more practical project that’s been on my mind for a while — and that quickly became more intricate than I intended.

The one type of jewelry I like to wear (besides my wedding rings) is necklaces. And yet even while I’ve been collecting more and more of them over the years, I’ve had nowhere to hang them. I’ve looked for jewelry trees but never had the serendipity of finding one that I liked and enough money to buy it. Then a few months ago a friend mentioned the idea making my own by putting hooks on a plaque. Genius!

Anyhow, I found a plaque with a good shape and then thought, “Well, it’ll need paint.” And then I thought, “Ooh, and wouldn’t a fabric background look cool? I’ve got that Mod Podge stuff . . .” And then once I picked out fabric, I decided ribbon was a must. Next I looked for hooks and couldn’t find anyone ordinary ones that I liked — and then happened to walk through the Aisle of Knobs (doesn’t that have a fun ring to it?).

Serendipity struck: The knobs were 50% off.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of hanging necklaces on knobs. And this did sort of end up being slightly more expensive than other jewelry trees I’d seen (the knobs were still $20 after the discount). But I love it. And if nothing else, I know that this exact combination of materials is one of a kind.

And the evolution of the project is also sort of indicative of how I write.

I swear that my novels start out simple enough. But then once I actually start putting them together, well, all these other ideas begin to jump out at me. I swear that I’m choosy about the ones I incorporate. I don’t just throw in the kitchen sink. But very quickly my manuscripts become way more intricate than I intended.

At times I have doubts about whether I can actually pull it off. As I bought the knobs I asked the clerk twice, “Um, I can return these if it doesn’t work, right?”

Funny enough, I decided on coordinating eight different knobs, which is roughly the same number of point-of-view characters I’m trying to coordinate in my current novel. It’s riskier, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy the ordinary hooks any more than I could ignore the niggling notion in my head saying, “This story is bigger than just Wendy. We need to hear from all of them.”

Also, it takes longer. I was still hot-gluing ribbon to the edges at midnight last night, four hours after I started drilling holes through the wood (having to change drill bits every time for the different-sized knobs). Likewise a more ordinary, less complicated novel started in 2009 would have been finished by now.

But here’s what I’ve decided:

You have to write what makes you happy.

For me, I love complexity. I love asymmetry. I love to stretch boundaries just a tad and see what I can come up with. I love balance and compromise, but I’m not happy being ordinary.

This week, it’s been fun to have the challenge of adding a pull-string to my four-year-old’s Woody costume (we bought the hat in Disneyland in May; the rest has been up to me) and to assemble a pirate outfit (also based around a Disneyland hat — and Jack Sparrow dreadlocks). I got excited about the necklace display as the pieces came together: the plaque, the fabric, the hooks.

And I get excited to work on my manuscript, even through the challenges of complications I’ve brought upon myself.

Besides, if nothing else, it will be one of a kind.

What sort of project person are you? What do you love and what makes you happy?

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