Reading this morning’s Query Tracker post shook me to my core. I may have been expecting another “trite” article about how success is recognizing what you’ve already accomplished, but this is Query Tracker. They don’t do trite.
Most of the people in my life know that “I write.” Those who do not know me well always want to know when my book will be out and what bookstore they can find it in, and am I excited about it? And most are surprised when I shrug. For years I thought there was something wrong with me because I have never defined my “success” as a writer by whether or not I ever publish a romance (or any other kind of) novel.
Don’t get me wrong. I hope I do. I plan to. In fact, I have a plan for that in place right now. Actually, I have two: Plan A and Plan B. If Plan A doesn’t work. Plan B will, without fail, work just fine.
But if Plan A doesn’t work and I have to resort to Plan B, will I consider myself a failure? Nope. Not even. Because I don’t hang my hat on that one project. When my first novel is published, I won’t even consider it to be a “fulfillment of a lifelong dream” or a sign that I am a success as a writer. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m already there.
Back in 1985, I sharpened my package of brand-new Dixon Ticonderogas and peeled the wrapping off my first stack of notepads bought just for writing. When I started to write my first piece, I never had any idea that I could earn any significant amount of money from my writing. But I did. Very significant amounts. And not only that, my articles have been reprinted many times. (Now, THAT is a rush.) I couldn’t be more pleased with my success as a writer and as an author, and the jobs I’ve held in the printing and publishing industries (literally all my life) have made me obscenely happy and prepared me well for the major publishing project I have in the works now.
So this article really hit me hard, and put it all in perspective for me, and I hope it does for you as well. How successful are you as a writer? Are you living the life you want? Do you get to tap away at a keyboard, make up things, listen to the voices in your head?
Do you smile when you mentally imagine re-writing an actual scene unfolding in front of you, grin evilly when someone says something that is SO going in your book, feel your heart bouncing around in your chest when someone reads something you’ve written, get a little lightheaded when you catch a whiff of “eau de book” in the air, mentally edit everything you read?
And best of all, have you ever gotten a goofy grin on your face when you saw your name under the word “by”? If not, you will. Stay focused on the successes you’ve had, and more success will come.
I wish I had discovered this amazing saxophonist sooner. On the other hand, it would have been hard to discover him much sooner than I did, given that although he grew up in a musical family, he only sought specialized music instruction in 2001. This artist not only inspires me, he proves you don’t have to launch your professional career when you’re barely through puberty to be extraordinarily good at what you do.
The first track I heard from this album was New Creation. I have chosen this as my personal theme for 2012. The melody is laid-back and energetic at the same time; it grabs attention without being frenetic about it. The first bars bring to mind the potential for good things, and the progression of the song puts the listener into a frame of mind that suggests anything is possible. The chorus of the song seems to reinforce this with a “sure you can! You can do anything!” message.
Of course the song moves in a direction that points out nothing is easy, and anything worth having is worth waiting and working for. But the chorus once more reassures the listener that his or her abilities and determination will provide all necessary uplifting. New Creation shines like the light Amato is holding in the cover photo.
This Love Is Forever (feat. Alan Morris) has a nice, chilled-out feel to it, but it has something else I can’t put my finger on. Something in the music works its way into me, so I literally feel the rhythm at the base of my throat. This is new for me. I’ve always wondered what music “felt” like. Maybe this is it?
Greatest of These Is Love has a beautiful, hopeful swing to it and seems to radiate something from inside Amato himself. If I were to assign a human personality to this piece, it would be a gentle, devoted individual with a kind and generous heart.
By far the sweetest track on the album is Aria Gabrielle Amato’s rendition of Jesus Loves Me. I won’t even try to describe it. I couldn’t do it justice.
The clarity in Amato’s music is remarkable, and just listening to it makes me feel as though I’ve met the musician on some level. I never have, but his music gives me the feeling I could almost pick him out of a crowd instantly. If he can smile like New Creation sounds, I have no doubt I could.
I like that word, “intriguing.” So I looked it up. (Have I mentioned that dictionaries intrigue me?)
Intrigue: to arouse the curiosity or interest of by unusual, new, or otherwise fascinating or compelling qualities; appeal strongly to; captivate. (Dictionary.com)
I locked onto a word in the definition: compelling. So I looked it up too.
Compelling: having a powerful and irresistible effect; requiring acute admiration, attention, or respect. (Dictionary.com)
Another word in the definition of “intrigue” caught my attention. So I looked it up while I was at it.
Captivate: to attract and hold the attention or interest of, as by beauty or excellence; enchant. (Dictionary.com)
So, by definition, I realize I am a person easily intrigued. I become captivated by things that grab my attention, and I am compelled to find out more about them.
This explains my persistent curiosity. I can’t just look at a painting or a photo, a house or a tree, listen to a song or a lecture and be content with what I see or hear. I have to know more about it. Because everything has value. Someone took that photo or painted that painting because they saw significance in the subject. The house has a tale of its own, and the tree does too. The song is an expression of how a person heard something or wanted to hear it, and share it. The lecture is imparting information. And how I love information!
In other words, everything has a history. I want to know that history. I want to know who walked there, who lived there, who died there. My brain ticks constantly with questions because everywhere I look, I see something that intrigues me.
For instance, the old dying boat on I-95 north along the Georgia coast. Whose boat was it? Who abandoned it there? Why? What was the boat used for when it was young and sleek and beautiful? The writer in me wants to know.
Hofwyl-Broadfield plantation compels me to find out everything I can about the family who lived there for five generations and made a living first from growing rice, then the final generation, two sisters, earned a living there by operating a dairy. The perfectly preserved plantation compels me to learn more about Georgia’s “rice coast.”
Until I found Hofwyl-Broadfield, I didn’t know rice had ever been grown in Georgia. And I certainly did not know about its final resident, Ophelia Troup Dent. How I wish I’d known her! What a joyful spirit she was! From my research, it seems she had a curious nature, too. It makes me happy to think I might be like her in some small way.
I happened up on the Altamaha Apiaries building completely by accident a few years ago. The old brick building captivated me immediately, causing me to squeal to a stop, turn round, and go back to investigate this charming piece of history. I’d never seen an actual apiary before. My husband and I kept bees for a while, but all our honey extracting and bee-work was done out of an old shed on our property. When we “distributed” our honey, we gave it away as gifts. We didn’t sell it. This old apiary, with rusty bee equipment and decaying hive parts stacked neatly in the lean-to out back, treated me to a tiny piece of coastal Georgia life I would otherwise have missed.
At some point in Georgia’s history, a community relied on honey enough to support an actual commercial apiary. What a wonderful, amazing thing to know about the place I live! And then my brain kicks into overdrive and I wonder if these three simple things that intrigue me, compel me, and captivate me are connected somehow? My writer’s brain fires up and the wheels start to turn and a story takes shape. I can feel the story of the boat overlapping the story of the plantation overlapping the story of the apiary and before I can take another breath I have more information whirling about in my head. Which, of course, only makes me want to know more.
Life intrigues me. People intrigue me. Places intrigue me the most because that’s where life takes place, with people in it. I’ll never stop being intrigued, and I’ll never stop looking for things that intrigue me. I hope my website and my life remain intriguing forever. I’ll certainly do my best to try and keep them that way.
I can’t just “listen” to a piece of music and nod “that’s nice.” Just as a painting is created from thousands and thousands of brush strokes that all come together to make a picture, a piece of music is created from thousands and thousands of notes that come together to make a melody, and this affects the way I hear music.
When I was a kid, someone gave me a paint-by-number kit. (It was likely someone who felt sorry for me because of my total lack of artistic ability.) The picture was of horses, and when I opened the box and stared at the contents, all I saw was a board with sections drawn on it, each numbered, all mishmashed together. Outside of a simple outline that I knew was horses because I’d seen the box cover, my eyes couldn’t perceive how all these loopy curves and odd shapes would materialize into the picture I saw on the box.
“Just wait,” my aunt assured me. “You’ll see.”
She put the brush in my hand and opened the first container of paint. “Do all the ones first,” she instructed. I did. An hour later, I had a board with numbered sections, all mishmashed together, with some of the sections colored in. Instead of sorting out how the painting would appear, my eye grew even more confused and unable to form a clear vision of what would happen. Cue “frustration.” Obviously, there was something wrong with me.
“Just wait,” my aunt assured me. “You’ll see.” She opened the second container of paint. “Do the twos now.” Eventually, as I did the threes and fours, I saw the shapes coming together to form horses. Fascinated now, I hurried to do more of the colors so I could watch the entire picture emerge.
When it was finished, I stared at it for what seemed like hours. (Yes, I am easily amused.) First, I looked at the overall picture, then I focused on one color, searching and finding the areas that contributed to a section and gave it dimension. As I visually picked apart my creation, I could easily see how each tiny section of color, no matter how small, was part of the overall result and contributed to it in its own way.
As I turned my newfound understanding over in my mind, I began to wonder what would have happened if I had left out a color, or even done something so seemingly insignificant as to leave a tiny section uncolored, or used the wrong color in a section. The overall result would have still been pleasing, but it wouldn’t have been as complete as it could have been had I done it “right.”
I think of that experience now, and how it correlates to how I hear music. Music, for me, is layered. I pick out each instrument, listen to how each artist interprets the piece of music in his or her own way, and how it all comes together to make a pleasing whole. If an instrument is not all it could be or a note is dropped, everything changes, usually imperceptibly. It’s still a nice piece of music but the subtle flaw jerked me out of the experience for a second.
My preferred music genre is contemporary jazz. I love the smooth melodies and how each track meshes with the others perfectly to create an experience I get lost in. Add a good vocalist and I am in heaven. The nuances and fluidity of the human voice balanced with each instrument, perfectly played, is pure ecstasy for me.
Writing is like this. For a reader to fully experience a story, the story must have layers. Each layer of the story must be clear, concise, and articulate. Each layer has to mesh with the other layers. We plot and outline and think and jot down notes, building our story the way we see it in our minds.
If even the smallest detail is left out or ignored, the overall result can still be an almost-pleasing whole. However, as writers, we strive for “pleasing,” not “almost-pleasing.” We spend precious time searching for the right word. We spend hours rewording a sentence to make it perfect, only to dump that sentence somewhere in the editing process. We spellcheck, and spellcheck, and spellcheck, praying we catch every slip-up. In the end, all we can do it hold our breath and push the baby out of the nest to fall or fly on its own. With any luck at all, it soars right into the hands of readers and sings its little heart out.
If we’ve done our job right, the reader’s experience is similar to listening to beautiful music or viewing an extraordinary painting. If we’ve done our job right, the reader is mesmerized by how our story comes together. Pieces form layers, layers move the reader from scene to scene, character to character, occurrence to occurrence, until the reader is so involved in the story that they become a part of it. The characters feel like friends (or enemies) and the reader’s heart becomes inextricably tied to the hearts in the story.
When I hear a beautiful piece of music, I don’t want it to end. I cling to the last notes until they fade to total silence. In the stillness, I replay the melodies in my mind, savoring every single tone, every nuance, everything that made the music unique. I replay it, and find the second listening experience is even more delicious than the first because I can discover more things in it.
This is what I want for my readers. To cling to the last page, bereft at having reached the end, wishing they could forget the story completely so they could read it again for the first time. I want that reader to feel such a loss at hitting “The End” that she determinedly turns back to page one and starts over.
This is what I’ll never stop working for. I’ll continue to use music to learn about layers, to remind me to mix the pieces in a balanced way so that the overall effect is pleasing to the eye and rockets straight to the heart. I’ll use music to remind myself that a successful musician surrounds himself or herself with everything that brings out the best in him or her. In this way, I’ll construct my stories using music as I work so I don’t forget how important each tiny piece, no matter how insignificant it may seem, breathes life into my work.
Query Tracker has a really good post on creating, setting, and managing goals.
As writers, goals keep us on track.
For published authors with deadlines and contracts, goals are a roadmap to meeting those obligations. This is particularly important, because other peoples’ obligations rely on yours. If you don’t meet yours, they don’t meet theirs, and no one needs that. The publishing machine moves slowly enough without slowing down further!
A non-published writer with publishing aspirations is more in need of goals than anyone. Simply vowing to “do better with my writing” this year isn’t going to cut it. Measurable goals help keep us on track and give us a visual of our progress. They also instill good work habits and increase productivity.
Taking it one step further: journaling (at which I have always been abymally bad) combined with your list of 2012 goals will give you a clear report on the progress you’re making, what needs improving, what needs to be changed, and how to fine-tune your plan. I have always been dreadful at journaling because I am not one of those people who can sit down and record my day, or think up raw and beautiful introspection, or write poetry out of nowhere. I need a reason to journal, something I can focus on. Now I have it. I look forward to thinking back over the past day or so and writing down what I have accomplished that puts me closer to where I want to be.
Since Christmas Day, I’ve taken a few minutes a day to list my goals, refine them, toss the ones my heart wasn’t into, and polish a list of doable, reachable goals. I also found a journal template on Microsoft Word, which I downloaded and customized to suit myself. I sent my list of goals to Evernote, an app that syncs it to all my mobile devices, and I will store my journal in my hard drive as well as in the cloud via Dropbox, which will allow me to access it from any mobile device or computer anywhere. Quit rolling your eyes! (You know who you are!)
My own list of 2012 goals, combined with journaling, gives me confidence. For the first time I feel like I have a plan to complete the projects that have made me crazy and overwhelmed me for so long.
Tomorrow is a big day for all of us. It is the beginning of a new year, new plans, new experiences, new ideas. Will this be the year you sell a manuscript? Write one? Write another one? Learn something new? Take up a new hobby? Hear a piece of music that takes up residence in your heart? Meet someone who will change your life? Move somewhere that makes your heart sing? All these things make us better writers, and the more prepared we are, the better.
Our experiences are our stories, and our stories are our experiences. The better prepared we are to recognize our experiences and make the most of them, the better writers we’ll become.
So, 2012: Bring it. I’m ready. This time next year, we’ll see which of us comes out on top. Fair warning: I’m all set for it to be me. Finally.
Several years ago, on one of my “stops” along the Georgia Coast, I came across the old Dorchester School building near Midway, Georgia. This old school, not to be confused with the Dorchester Academy (about which I’m sure I will write at a later time) doesn’t have the longevity of some of the surrounding history, but it does have a history. As often happens, the dying old building grabbed a piece of my heart and I didn’t forget it.
The original school was built on the site in 1927 on land deeded to Liberty County by a man from North Carolina. The new school merged schools from the neighboring communities. Unfortunately, it burned, and a new, larger school was built in 1938. The new school featured better facilities and more classrooms. First through seventh grades attended there until the school closed in 1951.
A few years later, the building became a civic center, having been purchased at a ridiculously low price from the Liberty County school system. Over the years, the building became the meeting place for civic groups, churches, and community events. Eventually the building reached a point that it required so much maintenance and repair that it was closed.
When I first met this building, it was sad, broken, and dying. Shattered windowpanes dotted the front and sides, doors hung from one hinge, and rotted floors and ceilings belied the vigor the building had once possessed. Little did I know at the time that a group of local residents felt the same way I did and were in the process of bringing the old school back to life.
In December of 2011, I visited the school again. This time, my heart sped up a little as I approached and noticed the first obvious repairs and improvements. Delighted, I circled with my trusty camera and got some new, wonderful photos of the building in its fresh splendor.
Many, many thanks to the determined community that saved the old girl, and restored her to her former magnificence. The building is available to rent for weddings, family reunions, and even music and stage events as the building features a full auditorium with stage and ample seating. For more information, see Dorchester Civic Center, Inc.