Take aim



I think everyone has heard "Write what you know."  It's good advice, but it's also not always super helpful.  After all, there's nothing fun and escapist in a book about an underemployed marketing professional who's a terrible housekeeper. (But who, I confess, has an awesome husband.)

But lately, I've approached my writing a bit differently.  Not write what I know, but write how I know. 

Archery is a hobby I've had since I was a very small girl.  I lost interest in it for a short while around age 8 or 9, but when my father discovered traditional archery, I fell in love all over again.  It required focus, it required muscle memory.  It required clearing my mind and finding a fabulous Zen place, focusing on a spot as small as-- or smaller than-- an aspirin.  It has helped me release stress, anger, frustration, sadness, all in the sake of finding that spot.

So I'm starting to employ that theory to my writing.  Find the Zen place.  Forget the surroundings, forget the complications, forget the day I had.  Just... focus.  I don't always succeed.  After all, finding that focus in archery was the result of years of trial and error and failure and frustration, and I still don't find that place 100% of the time.  But even when I'm doing poorly, the love is there, and the fun. 

Even if writing is difficult or challenging, even if it's frustrating and hard to find the time or inspiration, it's time to find the spot.  Narrow your eyes.  Brush your hair out of the way.  Find that spot.

Know where your bullseye is.

And then, honey, let fly.

My cowriter-- who's much better at keeping up with other sites and blogs than I-- sent me a link yesterday that gave me a lot to think about, especially when combined with the latest leisure activity in our home.

Anne R. Allen wrote this entry about writing in "episodes."  It's not something I feel overly guilty of, though I've been focusing lately on adding detail, adding life to my characters.  Just normal life, the day-to-day things we don't talk about because they seem boring to us, but that add depth and personality.  The glue that binds together the POW moments. 

My cowriter and I first started writing together in small scenes, so episodic writing might be something we have to look out for, but we do always know the ending of a story... we just don't always know how our characters will get there.

We've been going through a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon, my husband and I, and researching what happens after the television show was over led me to read the synopses of the comic books.  They wend, they get crazy, crazier than the show, they get funny and silly and downright "Wait, REALLY?"  And that, I think, speaks to the idea of not having an ending in mind.  We're in a world where derivative works allow for stories to conceivably go on forever.  This is good for superfans (to an extent) and good for the pocketbooks of the creators and artists, but is it good for the story?  We've all watched television shows that just went on for too long, and no actions seem to do any long-term damage. 

It's a good reminder for me.  What's next?  How does that flow from now?  Where is it all leading?  And more than anything, will our readers enjoy getting there?

I sure hope so.
It’s been a pretty big week for world news, and news in the United States.  Don’t worry—I’m not going to run on about politics or even current events, but just the perspective it brings to what we do as writers, or readers, or creative people of any sort.  I think for most people, reading or watching a movie or kicking back with any form of fiction or entertainment is about escapism.  It’s about closing the doors on the real world for just a few minutes.  It’s about letting the quiet in, and in taking away the world for a while, adding to the world when we finally come back to it.

For me, it doesn’t have to be about any great, over-arching message. It doesn’t need to be deep or set out to change lives.  Like any good visual art, books are something the reader takes his or her own particular meaning and depth from, no matter how “cotton candy” the book may seem at a glance.  We bring to our reading our personal experiences, we let them weave in and out of an author’s story, and it becomes something entirely different for every single person who picks it up. 

It occurs to me that I should always write with that in mind—that what I give is a framework.  A room, perhaps, furnished but not yet finished.  There is so much more for my readers to bring, so feeling every ounce of the weight as I write is not only unnecessary stress, but also a little arrogant.  You can never fill all the spaces—because as avid readers, we hear the voices of characters as we read them, we see their expressions, we fill in the settings, the glances, the unseen conversations in the works we most love.

We do this because it is how we escape.  We do it because it adds color to the world when we come back.

I've been on a roller coaster lately, with my life doing things I didn't tell it to or give it permission to (what the heck? How is that okay?!) and it's taken a toll here or there.  The worst part of life taking off without you is, of course, the lack of control.  So I'm on a kick where I'm trying to take control of the factors making me crazy in my life (aside from, you know, my inherent craziness), and it's making me think of a question I've gotten a lot of times.

"Well, why can't you just make the story/characters do what you want it/them to do?  Aren't YOU the one writing it?  Aren't you in control?"

Emphasis, of course, mine.

I got this question a lot from friends and, to be honest, from myself when I first started doing NaNoWriMo, and even in some earlier writing projects that didn't have happy endings.  They didn't have happy endings sometimes, but they had right endings.  They had endings I didn't want to write but knew I had to.  With NaNoWriMo, I would hit my 50,000 words and discover I didn't much like the direction I had taken the story, because it wasn't the direction the story wanted to take.  Explaining this to people was difficult at times.  After all, it sounds crazy to say you don't control your own creative project.  But it's true-- and it IS crazy.

The best comparison I can make to it is if you get in bed, and let's say you like to sleep on your back.  So you settle in, you get your pillows fluffed up, and you stretch out flat on your back.  But your body just doesn't want to do that.  You're not uncomfortable, per se, but something different would be better.  And many times, you know exactly what that something is.  Roll over on your right side, some weird, unnamed instinct whispers, and you do it.  And you reach that amazing space where you snuggle in and drop off to sleep.

Sometimes, your characters get in your ear and say This isn't quite right or This needs a different direction or Roll over on your right side.  Maybe not that last one.  But the key to my happiness has been, I've found, to listen to them when they have that feedback.  Because taking control can help you regain some small control of happiness, but learning when to relinquish control can be even better.
It's Halloween, which means time to ingest a lot of sugar and unleash your inner monster... or your inner child, if they're different.

To say I was an avid reader as a child would be a most grievous understatement.  From the time I learned to read, I had my nose in a book.  Quite literally, even, as it was later discovered that I was severely and hopelessly nearsighted.  When I started driving, I had no idea how to get to even the most rudimentary of places, though from my home, most things could be reached by a more or less straight line.

I skipped around a lot in my reading material, and it wasn’t always age appropriate.  As a child of 8 or 9, I picked up a Stephen King book off the bookshelf in my brother’s room and read it from cover to cover. (Firestarter.  Good stuff.)  It made me a lifelong Stephen King fan, and it also opened my world to new possibilities beyond Black Beauty and the Golden Books I’d so loved at age 5.

As an adult, however, even an adult who’s not a parent yet, I’ve started to realize and appreciate the true craftsmanship and difficulty that goes into creating a good children’s book or a good Young Adult book.  After all, kids’ (and teens’) attention is VERY hard to hold, and doing so in the written word without flashing lights or noises or the promise of instant gratification is a tremendous challenge.  I have probably read more YA books since becoming an adult than I ever did in my true YA years, and I almost always love them.  There’s such a craft there, an art.  Not one I think I necessarily possess, which makes me all the more admiring of those who do.

Each year—and I think I am overdue this year—I re-read The Westing Game by Ellen Rankin.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend it wholeheartedly and then some.  It’s Agatha Christie for young adults, though with humor, wit, and true cleverness.  It’s improbably fun for a murder mystery, deliciously spooky in spots, and has an amazing, colorful, funny cast of characters woven in and out of one another’s lives in the weirdest of ways. 

If you haven’t read it, even if you haven’t yet discovered your soft spot for kids’/YA books like I have, go read it.  You can be a grownup any old time.  Dig into your inner kid now and then.

I’m sitting down to blog because I have the time—I’m in a dentist’s office while my husband undergoes a lengthy procedure—and it occurs to me how very important setting is, because blogging while listening to a dentist’s drill in the background is not exactly my ideal scenario.  It’s kind of throwing off my mojo, and it’s a pretty good demonstration of why setting is important.

(Also important? Remembering to feed the meter.  Parking in New England is abysmal.)

I’m a tremendous John Steinbeck fan, but even I will and can admit that sometimes, the dude got a little in his own head about setting.  But he had the right idea, I think, at the heart of it.  Paint a picture.  We are rooted in our surroundings, whether we mean to be or not, whether we think we are or not.  We are affected by season, by time of day, we are even affected by the color of the walls around us.  And maybe THAT level of detail isn’t necessary in most pieces, but it’s worth thinking on.

I’m a character-driven writer; I could just throw my characters into one-off scenes all day and get a kick out of how they react.  What that means for me is that plot is a nuisance, and setting is sometimes something I have to force myself to think about.  It’s something worth working on.  After all, no one exists in a vacuum.  (But if they did, what an influential setting THAT would be.)

And now, of course, I’m sitting here plunking my characters into dentist’s offices and dentist’s chairs with something very like sadistic glee.

I wonder how they’ll react.

Part of self-publishing, or writing even just for yourself, is finding the willpower to keep going even when it's hard.  Stephen King says in his book On Writing to write every day, but it's easy to find excuses not to.  It's easy to find excuses not to write, or not to edit, or not to do any of the things that are a little harder than letting the characters run free.  It's easy to turn on the television and tune out, to say "I had a bad day, I'm giving myself a break."

That's not exactly fair to the writing, or to whatever your work in progress is.  (I actually just turned to my husband and said "I'm not feeling the blog today."  See what I mean?)

But it's like going to the gym-- something else I have a lot of excuses on hand for.  You may not be feeling it before you go, you may not be feeling it WHILE you go, but you will feel better after you go.

Stop making excuses. 

Go do something creative.
"Tell me a story."

As kids, everyone says those words.  To their parents, their grandparents, a babysitter, to all sorts of people.  I probably asked total strangers to tell me stories.  Teaching me to read was probably as much an act of love and education for my mother as it was an act of self-preservation.  And when she did, the stories told themselves to me, and opened up new worlds one after the other.  They enabled me to tell other stories.

Still, as an adult, I sometimes say these words to my husband.  He’s imaginative and smart, funny and very quick-witted.  But he’s reluctant to “tell me a story,” and with good reason.  What we didn’t realize when we were kids and begging for stories is that they are hard.  Telling a story is hard, especially when you know and love your audience.  Because you want them to like the story, and understand the story.  You want to give them what they asked for. 

Writing a story is a little easier than telling a story (yes, to me, there is a difference) in that you have the luxury of time.  But the luxury of time—and the added burden of editing—bring with them difficulties of their own.  The weight of self-doubt, the crippling second-guessing… it has a lot of pitfalls.

As we look to hook up the ol’ jumper cables to the sequel to Second Summer, we are first doing surgery.  Pulling out this, replacing that, fiddling with that.  And then, it will be up to us to sew it all back together and breathe life into it.  To shoot electricity through it.

To give it energy.

So as we get ourselves all geared up to tell a story, any energy is good.  We’ve heard from several friends over the last week who took a leap and read Second Summer, friends who are supportive and fantastic and give constructive criticism and praise and cheerleading.  So we’ll that that energy, we’ll take that electricity, we’ll take that life.

And we’ll try so hard to tell you a story.

The cobbler’s kids are always the ones without shoes, or so the saying goes.  As a child, it never made much sense to me, and not just because I only knew a cobbler as a tasty pie-type dish.  Why should the shoemaker’s kids be the last one with shoes?  Why should the doctor’s kids be sick?

Why the heck is it so hard for a marketing professional to actually market a book?

There isn’t a single answer to this; rather, there are quite a few answers.  When I market something, I understand it from a business perspective.  I walk around it.  I get to know it, I find out why it’s marketable, why it’s worth getting behind.  And while I know Second Summer, and while I know it’s marketable, there’s also a little fear, because it’s more personal.  This isn’t business.

The other reason is because it’s work, plain and simple, and a different kind of work than writing. Writing is hard work, but it’s fun hard work, and it’s rewarding hard work.  It’sgood hard work.  And no matter what comes of it, I walk away having enjoyed myself or, at the very least, having given the motley crew of characters in my head some room to run.

So the key, I think, is to make marketing fun.  To make it individual.  To make it personal.  This isn’t business, it’s fun.

So if any of our new readers out there have any questions, feel free to ask them!  Serious questions about plot, silly questions about characters (boxers or briefs?) or anything else– bring it on.  And we’ll have some fun together.

Find us online at:

Second Summer:

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Writer or no, I’ll never count myself among the ranks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I couldn’t resist his iconic quote– oft used, oft paraphrased, and oft ignored in practical, everyday life– to kick off this website and this blog.

The other half of Salem Patterson and I embarked on this journey many years ago, writing for fun and to spur one another into not only starting a project, but sticking with it and finishing it.  We reached our first destination with a speed that startles us still today, completing what is nowSecond Summer in a matter of months.  They flew by on wings of inspiration, creativity, teamwork, and mostly fun.  Lots of fun.

Living in two different states a significant distance apart, we wrote Second Summer almost entirely by instant messenger, the days of cloud computing and word processing still just out of reach.  When we finished, we each had a different finished manuscript– our word counts were different by a significant amount.  One of my funniest, if not fondest, memories of the creation and polishing of Summer is the span of time spent going chapter by chapter:

“How many words do you have for Chapter 8?”
“What is the last word on page 89 for you?”

So it went for no short amount of time, but it was a labor of love.  Every edit, every exchange had been important, so it was important that we had it all down.  Once we were satisfied (within a few words or so) that we had the same book, we had reached the first of many destinations.

We had finished our first novel.

What I didn’t realize was that our journey would only become more difficult from there.  New ideas are shiny and attractive, and worse, they’re addictive.  We shopped Summer around a little with agent queries for a time, but it was difficult to maintain hope– and worse, attention.  The lure of new ideas had its siren song, after all.

But the boom in availability of online publishing opportunities started to poke the sleeping beast that was that first novel– the one every writer has tucked away that they refer to modestly once in a while, not-so-secretly hoping someone will ask them about it– and we finally woke that sucker up and put it back to work.

We put it back on the road for the next part of the journey.  So we’re excited to see where, exactly, that journey is taking us.

We’re even more excited to see who comes with us.

Second Summer is available now at Amazon.com and also available at Smashwords. Four Seasons Book 2, Finally Fall, will be coming in Summer of 2013.

Find us online at:

Second Summer:



    Salem Patterson is the pseudonym of co-writers Jennifer Patterson and Amanda Salem. The two live, work and write in North Carolina.


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