Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wisdom Applied To Writing

Wisdom comes from many sources. Sometimes you seek it out, and other times it just shows up. If you’re open to learning from life, an experience may teach you an important lesson; a book can provide insight; even a song might awaken something inside you. As a writer who uses words to entertain and perhaps even inspire women, I’d like to share some of the wisdom I’ve learned that has helped make me a better writer. The three most valuable life lessons that I apply to writing daily are to be persistent, to focus on my work, and to enjoy the process.

Persistence - At one of the writer’s conferences that I attended as a recently published author, I was chatting with another author who had been published longer than I had, and she offered me the secret of being successful as an author. She said something like, "Lara, the secret to making it in this business is to never give up." Very simple. And very true. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that concept. Stories about well known authors having been rejected a million times and finally hitting it big are familiar to most writers. But I thought about this comment and let it sink in.

We all attend writer’s conferences looking for the secret. Will it be learning to develop the perfect plot? Maybe we can find out what publishers are looking for this year? Perhaps a workshop to improve characterization is the answer? Or is it writing flawless dialogue? All that is important, of course, but even with all that, you can fail to get that perfect book published. There may be a similar story recently published and publishers aren’t interested in another. Or technically everything may be wonderful, but the timing may be off. We never know why a book will get rejected. We can’t control that part. We can, however, stick with it.

In a book called the ARC OF AMBITION by James Champy, the author tells the story of Russian Czar, Peter the Great, who wanted to modernize Russia and open a water way to the West. He attacks Sweden and loses the first battle, but he doesn’t give up. Nine years later after reorganizing and retraining his armies, and bringing in experts, he is victorious against Sweden and Russia overtakes them as the leading Baltic power. To quote the above mentioned book, A defeat calls for reorganization, not retirement.

Few of us become overnight successes. But, by sticking to our goals, we produce book after book, get better with each one, and touch people’s lives with our stories. By being persistent, we will become more familiar with the industry, we will attend more workshops and learn to develop those writer skills we need. We will become stronger writers. Like Peter the Great, by taking the time to improve our weak areas and not giving up, we can be victorious

This applies to all areas of your life. A marriage. A friendship. A diet. And your career as an author. If it’s something that you love, that’s important to you, be persistent. Don’t give up.

Focus - Years ago, I wrote a book about a race car driver. Sadly, it was never released. The line closed while my book as still on the printing press, and I still have the cover flat for the book that never was. But I learned something very important about focus while writing this book. I went to the Ontario Speedway and decided to actually drive a race car. It was fun, and I was excited. But I was also sort of scared. Nevertheless, I got in the car when the time came, and a trained driver sat next to me. He explained what I would do, and he told me to remain aware of what was going on around me, but to focus on where I was going. The track seemed flat, but it was not. At one point in a turn, the track slanted up and I was supposed to head straight to the wall, make the turn and then head down toward the inside of the track. I agreed to follow all the instructions, but as I drove, I found myself getting distracted by the other cars. My mind focused on the way I was strapped inside the car and how constricted I felt, and on the helmet on my head that made me feel like I couldn’t see. I was anxious about the wall and slowed down when I was supposed to maintain my speed and drive toward it. But I was afraid I’d crash. A couple of times the driver beside me had to hold the steering wheel and remind me to focus on where I wanted to go. But, I have to say that it was extremely difficult to put all the distractions aside and focus on what I was supposed to do. I gained a new respect for those drivers who race professionally. I ran ten laps -- they have to focus for hundreds.

That experience taught me that in order to accomplish anything, you have to focus. In order to write a 300 or 400 page book, I have to put aside all thoughts of my children, and the dirty house, and the bills that I’m not sure how I’m going to pay. All my attention has to be on the story and the characters in my book. And when that focus isn’t there, it shows in my writing.

The outside world can intrude on the magic of story telling. If you’re focused on the market or writing what’s hot, or meeting someone else’s expectation, you won’t do your work justice. All the outside disturbances have to be blocked, and it has to be just you and your writing. That’s the only way you can connect with your story and your characters and write the book that’s inside you.

Enjoy the process – I’m not a person who enjoys the process. When I travel, I want to get where I’m going. When I’m writing, I want to finish the book. A huge character fault, and one that I struggle to overcome. Because the process -- the journey of any trip is the point of the whole thing. In the actual writing of a book, in working out the plot, in taking the characters through their arcs is where we as writers grow.

I once sat in the audience of the Maui writer’s conference listening to Terry McMillian talk about her writing life. Someone in the audience asked about the characters in Waiting to Exhale. She immediately cut the person off, stating that she didn’t want to talk about those characters, because she was "so over" them. I was a little shocked by her response. But I understand now that Terri had gone through the process and grown as an author, and didn’t want to step back into that world anymore. It really was over for her. As authors, we should understand that as we take the reader through the experiences in the book, we are also on a journey. If a story is calling for you to write it, there’s a reason. Pay attention. We are learning and growing throughout the story. For this reason, we should enjoy every step in the writing process. The research, the initial draft, the re-writing, the editing, and finally, the end product – the book.

This last one might be the most important. Enjoy the book. I’ve found that I don’t! Like Terri, I’m done with it, and on to the next story. I don’t enjoy the promotion or the rehashing of the story. This wasn’t the case with my first couple of books. I loved promoting "my baby", and sitting for book signings. What an honor! But in the last couple of years, it has become exhausting. I’ve asked myself why. Am I crazy? But I learned that it’s a common feeling that upon reaching your desired goal you can find yourself feeling empty. Many people work so hard to achieve their goals that when they get them, they find they don’t enjoy them. The dream house or the ideal job or the big bank account doesn’t mean what they thought it would. Why? I think it comes from not enjoying the process. The reward at the end can’t be fully enjoyed, because there was no pleasure along the way. Focusing on the final goal without enjoying each step leads to an exhausting and an almost anti-climatic feeling about the end product.

If, like me, you are saying, "easily said, but not easy to practice", here is a website that tells you how to enjoy the process.


I love to be inspired and I feel that this life is full of wise people, brilliant books, great stories. Share a story, a quote, a word, a book, a person who has brought wisdom into your life with me. You will be entered to win a $10 Starbucks gift card. The winner will be announced tomorrow on Mayra Calvani’s blog (http://www.thedarkphantom.wordpress.com)/

Check back here later tonight (Wednesday evening) to find out who was the winner of Barbara Caridad Ferrer's prize.

I look forward to hearing from you all!



Blogger Berta said...

Wise words, Lara! Have to say that I'm kind of shocked at Terry McMillan's words, too. Although I'm totally over my book when I mail it off to my editor, by the time it hits the shelves I'm over the dislike. And I would never admit it to a reader, someone who enjoyed the story and wanted to talk more about the characters. Of course, I've probably forgotten all the details of the story by then...


6:54 AM  
Blogger PBW said...

Great post! Especially the part about focus (my weakness). Thanks for the inspiration.

7:16 AM  
Blogger LaraRios said...

Yes, Terry was frank and honest about everything. I'm sure she surprised a lot of people. Back then I wasn't yet published and I remember thinking that I would never feel that way about one of my books : ) But I understand what she meant much better today.

And pbw, keep working on the focus! A yoga instructor told me that when I transition from being "mom" to being "an author", I should close the door to my office, take a few deep breaths, then do a standing crawl or pretend I'm climbing a ladder. This apparently re-boots the brain and gets creative juices flowing. When all else fails, I leave my house and go sit in a coffee house. The smell of coffee helps me focus : )

9:54 AM  
Blogger Mayra Calvani said...

Wonderful article, Lara, and wise words indeed!

I find fascinating that you actually did some race driving. My brother is a race driver (well, it's a serious and VERY expensive hobby for him, I should say; he's really an astrophysicist). One day I'd love to write a story about a race driver. My brother told me something that fascinated me, and maybe you know what he's talking about: he said that while he's driving at a very high speed, time itself seems to stand still. It's a kind of very strange, transcendental moment. I even forgot how to explain it, but it was kind of creepy. I thought that would make a great story--if you add a couple of paranormal elements :-)


10:17 AM  
Blogger Pat Cochran said...

I must say that I stand in awe of
all you ladies and gentlemen of the
writing world! I once thought I would like to write, but I realized that I
did not have the focus and dedication
it takes!

Pat Cochran

12:00 PM  
Blogger Shell said...

True and powerful words from your post. Like you said it can be applied to any creative endeavor.
One of my inspiring quotes is really two lines from my fave movie: The Empire Strikes Back.
Luke: I can't believe it.
Yoda: And that is why you fail.

12:50 PM  
Blogger LaraRios said...

Shell, I love that quote too! It's so true. Thanks!

Mayra, I don't know about time standing still. Those ten laps seemed to last forever! LOL. At the end, my husband asked me if I felt I was going fast. I said, "yes, I was flying." He smiled and said, "you were the slowest one on the track." But hey, at least I got out there : )

Pat thank you for the compliment!

1:39 PM  
Blogger robynl said...

I really think the quote below from Erma Bombeck is fabulous:

"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'"

Erma was a great person who brought many laughs to so many people. I love her books.

1:42 PM  
Blogger LaraRios said...

Great quote, robynl. Thanks!

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Zulmara said...

Que cool are you...love your post...my book that inspired has been the Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo...is has inspired me to follow my dreams and to pay attention to those serrendipitous situations...



7:41 PM  
Blogger LaraRios said...

Gracias Zulmara! I read your review of this book on Goodreads. I can't wait to check it out! I'm putting it on my to be read pile.



7:12 AM  

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