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Guest Post: Writing Coach Suzanne Harris

I invited my good friend and personal cheering section Suzanne Harris to write a guest post for me. Suzanne is an accomplished writer and poet, and has a thriving clientèle as a writing coach. Check out her website here.

Finding Time to Write

I thought twice about calling this post “Finding time to write.” I worried about setting up false expectations; maybe you’d think there was a simple solution you had overlooked. But I’m willing to bet that if you’ve been writing or wanting to write for any length of time, you already know the truth: deciding to write when you find time guarantees you won’t write much of anything at all.

You need to take the time.

When people come to me for writing coaching, one of the first things we do together is get clear about what their goals are, what they intend to achieve. Are they working their way through a novel? Dreaming of a collection of poems? Trying to get writing, period?

The next thing we do is look for time they can take for writing. Of course we check the obvious places to start: small pockets of ‘free’ time and inefficiencies—the loose change of the daily schedule—and maybe we’ll come up with lunch breaks or morning commutes on public transit.

But the reality is most people these days lead crazy-busy lives. We are over-allocated. We fill time, like our homes, with a lot of stuff. We want it all: work time, family time, social time, gym time, TV time, online time, email time, coffee time, volunteer time, reading time, play time, sleep time, down time AND writing time. We are busy busy busy, and that’s fine…except if you really, really want to write.

Ultimately, if you want to make progress toward your writing goals you have to take time from the activities that fill your days and re-allocate it to writing. A lot of writers make a habit of getting up early or staying up late to write. Yep, they shave time off sleeping.

Look at how you spend your days. Do you really need to watch Jeopardy? Play that video game? Answer email? Dip into Facebook? Chat your friends? Okay, maybe sometimes, but right now? (If you say yes, I’m going to be forced to ask you how serious you are about your writing!) Take an hour. Take thirty minutes. Take fifteen.

Writers write. Decide that writing is a priority and take time for it.

Our lives are full of obligations and distractions, but people are still cranking out novels, stories, poems and memoirs. They have jobs. And families. Their only secret is that they make a commitment and they sit down and do it. They take the time. And they keep at it. Ask Matt. He just finished his fourth novel a couple of weeks ago.

What is your goal? What would you like to write today?

Take the time.

Do it.

Suzanne Harris is a writing coach living and writing in Edmonton, Alberta. When she has a work in progress her mornings are dedicated, sacred time. No emails, no Facebook, no meetings, no coffee dates, no appointments, no errands, no laundry. Life and things like it are put off until after noon. She won’t even answer the phone. Her friends know this and support her by not even bothering to try to reach her until she surfaces later in the day. You can contact her through www.suzanneharris.ca any time you like, just don’t expect her to answer until after lunch.

Complete

I did it. The next book in the Famiglia series, currently titled On the Heat, is now complete.

Well, the first draft is complete. There’s still a ton of work to do before I’ll even give it to anyone else to read — at the very least, it needs to be typed up. But there it is, in real live ink. 523 pages of first draft.

Feels pretty good.

I was pretty disappointed on Friday when I knew I would have no way to finish the book. But that’s all gone now. And one of the reasons is what I started to talk about, or tried to start to talk about, in my last post. It’s not just about making or missing goals; it’s about setting goals in the first place.

I’m lucky to have some people in my life who help me do that. My wife is the one who first said I could and should write a novel, and the one who tells me to keep writing. She’s one of the best reasons I have to pick up the pen at all.

And I have a friend — who’s also a writing coach as it happens — who’s constantly pushing me to set goals and make them. Seriously, if you’re feeling under-energized and don’t know how to get moving on your next project, consider using her services. It’s amazing what some well-placed advice and encouragement can do.

Anyhow, it’s a big milestone, but it’s only one in a series of milestones. There’s lots of work to do on this book, and in the meantime I have more books to write. And already I’m itching to buy the next notebook and starting to fill that one too.

But for tonight… things are all right.

Goals

Today is my birthday.

Normally birthdays are a mix of good and bad, for me. People send you e-mails and write all over your facebook wall, you get to go out for dinner, you get cake. I don’t eat a lot of cake for most of the year but it’s nice to have a reason to indulge.

This year, my birthday includes a bit of disappointment. It’s my own fault. I set a goal on my birthday and I’m not going to achieve it. The goal was to finish my next novel, tentatively titled On the Heat.

I got close, though. Early last December, I decided to pick up the pace of the writing — I was around 20,000 words in by then, I think. Things started moving very quickly and by the end of the year I hit the 30,000 word mark. The novel was hitting its stride and I was very optimistic. I figured the novel would be around 75,000 words long at the end, which was a good 10,000 words longer than the first in the series, La Famiglia. At the rate I was moving, it would be done by the late spring. I set the target at my birthday — six and a half months away.

The winter and spring were productive; I would write about 2,000 words a week, working an hour a day three times a week or so, plus one or two hours each weekend. I write around 500 words an hour, so that put me at 2,000 words a week, a very good clip. In addition, my wife and I went away for a weekend in February and I got 10,000 words written from Friday evening to Sunday evening. I reset the goal to July 1, then to June 1, as the finished pages piled up.

But the goal kept moving. I have a number of problems with plot and pacing, and my approach to resolving them was to write all the stuff that needed to happen, whether it was in exactly the right place or not. That meant more words; I blew through the 75,000 word mark, I think, sometime in April, in a period of unemployment. I hit 90,000 before June, although my output slowed again as I started a new job. I’m expecting the finished product to be around 100,000 words.

And I’m so close! I am on the last chapter (though there will be a short epilogue chapter as well). I’m into the last scene. There are about 5 pages left. And I didn’t quite get there.

Well, what are goals for, anyway? If I hadn’t been shooting for June, I probably wouldn’t have pushed so hard during the winter. If I hadn’t been trying to finish by yesterday, I would probably still be two or three chapters from the end at this point.

So I’m not so worried about missing my goal — I’m just going to get as close as I can. I’m very, very close already. I’d better get some champagne ready, just in case…

Finishing a book

I last finished a book just over three years ago, in spring of ’07. I was down in the Dominican Republic for a week, and spent every afternoon and evening in the bar, writing, fuelled by a constant stream of gin and tonics (which was itself fuelled by some careful tipping of, and friendly conversation with, the wait staff all week).

It was a great feeling. I had been working on this book for two and a half years, and four months before our vacation, I had stopped dead around the two-thirds point in the book. I had no idea how to go on, no idea how to get to the end, only the very vaguest idea of what the ending would be. My wife provided the idea I would eventually use, but I still didn’t know what to do to get through the current spot.

Once I got down there and started writing, it flowed nicely. In the six days there, I wrote about 20,000 words, working six to eight hours a day. As I proceeded, page by page, it started really taking shape — then gathered momentum, and soon took off with an energy of its own. And on our last afternoon there, with an early shuttle to the airport the next morning, I was driving towards the end. Around six o’clock, I laid the pen down. Done.

I had to go for a walk to try to calm my nerves. I wouldn’t even be keeping the stuff I had just written; the last chapter I had to rewrite significantly to change the focus, and the epilogue has been tossed out and rewritten completely (as has the first chapter). But I was done. I could relax.

I’m getting close to the finish line on the next novel, the sequel to that one. I’ve only been working on it for a little over a year, but by my birthday (in less than two weeks), I intend to have it finished. I had originally planned to have it done by my birthday, then moved it up to July 1 and then June 1 — then slowly moved the target date back to its original place. I was originally trying to write 75,000 words, though, and am somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 now, so it’s taken longer than expected.

I won’t be feeling so good when I get to the end of this one, unfortunately. I know that I have far, far more work to do once this one’s done than I did for the previous one in the series. But it will be a milestone, for sure. And it will be good news for my agent (who is busy trying to sell the first one in the series, and will be happy to be able to tell editors that the second book in the series is done), and good news for my wife (who will not have to hear me griping quite so much about how the book isn’t as good as I want it to be).

So mixed feelings. Plus I have to think about what I’m going to write next, while I work on whipping this one into shape. But a milestone is a milestone, and I’m going to have to find a good way to mark the end of the first draft. Maybe a good bottle of wine, to soften the blow of all the editing I’m in for as soon  as I finish typing this thing up…

Finding the Time

Well, my habit of near-daily posting ended with my unemployment. I guess that’s the price one pays for solvency. I’m hoping that I can start to write during lunch breaks again when the job settles down a little, as I did before. And I will definitely need to make use of evenings and weekends as much as I can in the meantime.

I’ve also been thinking of working on breaking my writing habits. I will be experimenting — can I write in the dining room if I close all the doors and ignore any dog, phone, and electronic interruptions? Will music on the stereo help? Should I brew a pot of decaf for that sbux experience? We shall see.

The last few nights have all been write-offs, though. I haven’t been sleeping well and I’ve been coming home from work exhausted as a result. I hope to reverse that trend soon as well.

The big question is, where does the time go? I’m not spending hours in front of the TV, and the xBox has sat lonely and unplayed. The answer is that my productive time has been squandered mostly on things like the web, and casual games.

There’s something insidious about the PopCap model of gaming. If I fire up the xBox, I’m committing to a solid half-hour, at least, of gaming time. But if I sit down at the laptop, I cam deceive myself. I’ll just get a decent score for the week in Bejeweled Blitz. I’ll just check up on the non-word-heavy blogs in my reader. I’ll just… fritter the evening away, in the end.

So with the horror of paid work taking up a considerable block of time each day, I will need to spend my time more wisely. A moratorium, if I can, on all the little casual things I waste hours’ worth of minutes on. More time cooking and cleaning, and as a reward, a little writing too.

And maybe the xBox will get a little attention, too. Poor thing is just forlorn nowadays…

How I Write

I spent an hour and a half or so in a Starbucks today, and got about 1200 words written. A pretty good output for such a short period of writing. I’m very happy with the scenes I wrote, too; they are dialogue-heavy, include a little humour, and set up a lot of plot and conflict. I’ve been wanting to write this kind of stuff for a while now — lately, after I finish writing I usually think, well, this is going to be cut when I edit the novel.

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d describe how I do the writing I do.

First, I write novels longhand. Something about the tactile experience of pen and paper gets the creative juices flowing for me. Usually I buy reasonably nice notebooks to write in, too — not cheap composition books or spiral-bound notebooks, but higher-quality journals, leather-bound with good-quality paper. A novel usually fills two or more notebooks, and I try to use the same notebook for each volume, so that the word count per page (and therefore per book) is approximately the same.

I also prefer pens that provide a thick stream of ink. It’s kind of a stupid preference, because I’m left-handed, and more ink means more smudges. But if the ink is too thin or too light, I start unconsciously pressing harder, which tires out my hand far too quickly. Recently I bought a Lamy Accent Matte Finish on sale at a stationery store that was going out of business, so it was $35 instead of $140. It writes really nicely — the ink flow is caused by gravity, not pressure (as with a ball pen).

So much for the accoutrements. The other thing that I need to write my best stuff is space in public.

It’s a little bit crazy — I’m really easily distracted and annoyed by extraneous sound, and the general public is known for its noise-making. But there’s something about the human energy that I get sitting in a busy coffee shop that really gets me focused and helps the ideas, and therefore the words, to flow.

The sounds are a problem, so I usually have the headphones in and an energetic mix of music playing while I work. Almost any music is fine, actually, as long as it drowns out the noise around me, but guitar-driven rock or punk songs are what I turn on to start.

One feature that has emerged lately, thanks to my iPhone, is that I find myself needing to complain about the people around me while I write. Coffee shops — Starbucks in particular — seem to attract a good mix of the annoying and the unaware; when something particularly offensive swims into view, I can’t help but report it somewhere. That somewhere used to be my Facebook status, but since people have started to comment on it more and more often, I’ve switched to a Twitter feed instead. I find the 140 character restriction a little difficult but economy is the soul of &c. &c.

Anyhow, that’s how these novels of mine get written. And tomorrow, some coffee purveyor will be a little richer, one of their seats will be a little warmer, and I’ll have another scene or two down on paper — I hope.

Smashwords

I recently converted my first published novel, LMF, to e-book format. My idea was to put it out there on the Amazon e-publishing site, to make it available to Kindle readers. I’m not expecting a lot of interest or sales or anything, but it’s nice to have the book out there somewhere. The publisher, Little Green Tree, did absolutely zero promotion, but maintained that distribution wasn’t necessary to get the book out there either. Thus I have a couple of boxes of books in my basement and I’m not going to do the work I did in the first couple of years to try to promote it.

So I completed all the steps to create the e-book in the required format, got the cover image all tarted up, everything that Amazon wanted me to do, and submitted it. I got an e-mail back saying that they were really overloaded but would get back to me in a couple of days.

That was three weeks ago.

As it happened, around the same day I came across a blog post about thriller writer J.A. Konrath. I probably came across it on Reddit’s writers group, but I can’t seem to find it now. No matter. Anyhow, while Konrath isn’t a writer I’ve read, and while he’s a little too… intense, let’s say, to keep me reading his blog regularly, he’s a master of self-promotion, and his books sell well because of it.

He was saying on this post that his e-book sales on a site called Smashwords were starting to amount to some real cash — as in, he pays his mortgage each month with his Smashwords income. Compelling! I thought I’d take a look at Smashwords, since my book was already set up for e-book sales.

Smashwords is an awesome name for a site, I think, and although it’s not the prettiest site out there, it’s easy enough to use. I got the book up on the site in an hour or so. And that’s when I hit a slight roadblock.

Their site provides “preferred” status to books that are formatted correctly, have professional-looking titles, and so on. And after fixing a couple of formatting glitches for my book, I submitted it for approval for preferred status, and was rejected. The rejection said “There is a white border around the cover image for the book, which needs to be fixed.”

Now, this white border was actually a major design element in the paper copy of the book. It really stands out because of it. (I still like the cover design of LMF, which is more than I can say for the job Little Green Tree did on the inside). So I sent a message back, explaining that that was how the cover was set up originally, and although I did understand that there are differences between paper and e-publishing design, would they reconsider? If not, I would change the image and use it without the border.

I got an e-mail back from the guy who had originally assessed the book. He said that his concern was that the book would look weird with the white border — it might just look like we had screwed up the image somehow, to someone looking at it. And he attached an image without the border, and said if I wanted to use that one, it would be fine. So he went as far as to do the work I needed to do, just to give me a hand and speed up the process.

Within a few minutes, I got a second e-mail, from someone else at Smashwords. This second guy said that he actually really liked the cover, and suggested that maybe I should add a thin border around the cover with the white space around the image, to indicate that the white space wasn’t a mistake. That would satisfy everyone.

So not only were they willing to do the work that was really mine to do — fiddling with the cover image to make it work for their site — they were also interested in finding a solution that would work for me, and were willing to engage in discussion about the solutions that were available.

Well, that sold me. I uploaded the cover modification the first guy sent me, and thanked them both for their time and thoughts. And now LMF is available on Smashwords for all.

This is what I love to see: a company that actually puts in a little time and effort to help its clients get what they need from the site. Most companies don’t have the resources, time, or commitment to make it happen for their clients. But Smashwords, a little e-book company, makes it happen.

Oh, and I still haven’t heard back from the Amazon site. And I don’t really care. Smashwords is the company I want to deal with, and I would suggest that anyone with a self-published or micro-published book should do the same.

Jon Wells, crime writer

I drove through a pretty intense thunder storm last night to see Jon Wells, the Hamilton Spectator’s premier crime writer, at a Canadian Authors Association meeting in St Catharines.

I’ve been a Spec subscriber for about a year and a half, since we moved back to the 905 after eight years in the Waterloo/Wellington wilderness. Unfortunately the daily routine hasn’t allowed for a long perusal of each weekday edition, but as a Hamilton native I do have a sentimental attachment to the paper. It turns out I like Wells’s work, too, although I had never really attached a name to the stories of his that I’d read.

Wells is an interesting case in journalism: a lot of his work has been long-form journalism, stories that are published daily for days or weeks at a time, his longest ones running thirty-one and forty-two days. He got a deal with Wiley to turn four of them into books, and the fourth has just been published (links below).

Where his skill as a writer lies, I think, is how tighly he grips the reader in the first two or three paragraphs. Sure, there are the elements that every reporter uses to hook the reader — gore and violence, foreboding evil, schmaltzy descriptions of the innocent victims and their grieving families. This is the stuff of crime writing though, and it’s nice to see that Wells is willing to provide counterpoint to the excesses.

An example: the grieving mother of Pat del Sordo in the series Witness. Pat was apparently beloved by everyone he’s ever met, and was bludgeoned to death in a senseless double murder, probably while he slept. His mother praises his goodness, how he was there for his parents whenever they needed him. Yet by the end of the story, the killer behind bars, she doesn’t provide the easy closure you’d expect from the story. She’s still really angry, still dissatisfied with the way the investigation went, how the case was solved. Hardly a cardboard cutout of the grieving mother character. So even the elements that I typically am less a fan of in crime writing are redeemed in Wells’s work, making his work that much more satisfying to read.

Anyhow, it was a great little talk, not only because he is an obviously skilled and experienced writer, but also because Wells is a really, really nice guy. I’m looking forward to reading a lot more of his work.

Books by Jon Wells:

Editing Circle

Tonight I met with my editing circle, a group of writers in Toronto who I meet with every two weeks or so to compare work. There are currently four of us.

Three of us started meeting a little over a year ago, at a used bookstore in Toronto’s east end. I answered an online ad; I assume the others did too. The group there was larger, but was run by a person who, although her heart was in the right place, cared more about the idea of a writing group more than she cared about the actual writing. After only a few weeks, the group dissolved amid great drama; when the dust cleared, the three of us who formed the core of the group were left to ourselves.

We started meeting every two weeks, first at one person’s house, and now at a building on the UofT campus. Recently one of our members found a fourth, who has been a valuable addition to the group.

For me, the most important thing about an editing circle is the attitude of the people who participate. There’s no room, honestly, for someone who is nervous about showing work to others for critique and criticism; similarly, there’s no room for someone who doesn’t want to hear when their work is sub-par, ineffective, or needs changes. Everyone has to act like a professional.

I have two more requirements for people I want to interact with in an editing circle. One is that they must be actively writing (or editing something already written), and bringing new or newly revised material for critique. That means that they are actively engaged with the writing process. It also means that they are subject to critique themselves; it’s a lot easier to stay humble and constructive when you are regularly on the hotseat yourself.

The other is that they must be actively and realistically working towards publication. I have no problem with writing to get one’s thoughts down, or to record one’s memoirs for the benefit of future generations, or just doodling away at free verse or prose poems or whatnot. People can and should write whatever they want. But I find that I get the criticism I currently need from people who are, like me, working towards publication.

I know it may sound a little elitist, but these are the guidelines I’ve learned work best for me. And I’m happy to say that the three writers in my editing circle nowadays are absolutely perfect members. Our interests and styles are very different, our rates of output are all over the place, and our approaches and responses to the work are very different. But the discussion is always enjoyable and lively, and I get enormous benefit from our meetings.

That said, I got about 600 words written today, too. Not as much as I should be getting written, but forward progress is forward progress.

Today’s Progress

I’m working on some items for my agent today, as well as–guess!–that’s right, my website.

My agent signed me on the strength of my first book, The Famiglia, about a year ago. Since then, I’ve been working on the sequel, On the Heat. I recently sent her the first few chapters of OtH, and a synopsis of the book–I’m around the 75% mark, so I am finally ready to commit to an ending.

Well, she liked it, and she thinks she’ll get some interest in it. So I have to give her a bio, an overview of the series, the synopses for both books, and my changes to the first book’s manuscript. So armed, she is ready to start talking to editors about it.

It’s exciting, yes. But it’s daunting, too. The bio is supposed to be germane to the series, which means it is different from all the bios I’ve written for myself in the past–and I hate writing bios for myself. And much as I think I have a pretty clear idea of where I’m heading with the series, it’s not so easy to commit it to paper.

So that’s what I’m up to. I’m also going to be spending an hour or two writing this afternoon; my current target is 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 a week, and last week was about half of that. But this week is what matters.