Posted by: Kerry Gans | October 16, 2014

Culling the Artistic Output

I have a four year old. Anyone who has a 4-year-old in their lives knows that kids of that age are pack rats. My daughter refuses to throw away ANYTHING. Every rock she finds, every leaf, every scrap of paper, every junky toy from fast food restaurants. I do believe that our house holds the world record for empty toilet paper rolls—my daughter insists on keeping them because she wants to paint them. So my house is flooded with piles of “stuff.”

The problem is compounded by the fact that my daughter is an artist. She loves to draw and paint. And since many of her pictures are, shall we say, modernistic in their swirls and colors, she can draw many pictures in a short amount of time. Her output is tremendous. However, it leaves us drowning in paper—paper that my daughter will not part with.

So I use the time-honored parental trick of waiting until she is out of the house to clean up. I admit sadly that many of her works of art find their way into the recycle bin. I spent seven hours this weekend digging out from the art-drifts. My daughter will never notice the pictures are gone, because I kept the ones I knew were close to her heart.

Scouring my house and having to decide what art to keep and which to pitch reminded me of the editing process all writers have to go through. Each sentence is a work of art, yet we have to cull them. We need to keep the ones that resonate, and send the rest to the recycle bin. And that’s hard, because each sentence contains a piece of our heart and soul.

Sometimes, we have to employ an outside editor to come in and scour our manuscript for us while we avert our eyes. We need the objective eye to help us separate the art from the mindless squiggles. We need them to dig us out from under our own art-drifts.

It’s never easy, paring down our artistic output. But the culling is necessary to bring out the best of our work and connect with our readers. The lesson learned from all this? Our art is more than just knowing how to polish what we leave in.

Sometimes the art is in knowing what to throw out.

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | October 9, 2014

Parallel Lives

Things have happened lately that have made me very aware of the parallel lives we humans live. So often we present one face to the world—confident or happy or calm—while inside we are dealing with emotions or events that have left us scared or sad or frantic. Even in this age where people habitually over-share, we all carry secrets we hide from most people.

This sharp contrast has made me realize two things: 1) We should never be hasty in judging someone, for we don’t know what is happening behind their smile, and 2) even the most honest person wears a façade.

This façade is not being dishonest or “fake.” Sometimes your real feelings are not appropriate to the situation or to the people you are currently with. For instance, a client meeting is not the place to sob and rant about a breakup. Also, the façade serves a protective purpose, hiding our vulnerability from people who would use those feelings to harm or manipulate us.

This is not only a good life lesson, but a good writing lesson. Our characters will be much deeper and more interesting if they live the parallel lives we real people do every day. Have a character that has to smile all day as a customer service worker? What if that character is dealing with an illness or death in the family? Or if your worker ends up serving the man she recognizes as the man who murdered her friend? Or the ex-boyfriend she still loves shows up with his girlfriend?

These parallel lives make your character and scene more interesting because it increases conflict and is the very definition of tension. And as most editors will tell you, you virtually cannot have too much tension in your book. Tension drives the reader to keep turning the pages—and who doesn’t want to write a page-turner?

So next time you want to spice up a scene or a character, think about the hidden emotional life going on inside your character at that moment.

And next time you’re annoyed by the behavior of someone in the real world, give them the benefit of the doubt—things may not be what they seem.

Have you made use of parallel lives in your work?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | October 2, 2014

Looking Back on the Journey

This past Sunday I attended the Writers’ Coffeehouse held at the Willow Grove Barnes & Noble. I always enjoy the meetings, for the information and for the camaraderie. There is undeniably something energizing about being in a room full of people who share the same passion as I do.

But another thing I enjoy is seeing the people in different stages of their journeys. I, of course, learn a lot from people who are farther along in their journeys than me. But I also love meeting people at the beginning of their journey. I remember being there, and not so long ago.

I see their awe at being in a group with authors who have actually published real books. I see their jaws drop as they comprehend the mountain of craft they have yet to climb. I see their eyes glaze at the amount of business information they need to learn. I see the bewildered look that comes with wondering if all this work is really worth it. And then I see the true joy at realizing that they are among kindred spirits and that we all started exactly where they are.

When I see the newcomers, I realize just how far I have come in my journey. No longer the newbie, I am in the middle of the pack—not multi-published, but with a book coming out next year. I still have a great deal to lean about the craft and business of writing, and I am happy that I have the resource of the Liars Club Coffeehouses and classes to continue my education.

There are many benefits to being part of a writing community. I have long appreciated the benefit of learning from those further along the journey. But this week I noted the benefit of looking behind at those just coming in. Because in looking back, I can see how far I have come. This gives me confidence that I can go the rest of the way.

When I started, the place I am in my journey seemed far distant, nearly unreachable, almost unimaginable.

Yet I am here.

Where will I be in another few years?

I’m excited to find out.

The journey continues.

Where are you in your journey?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | September 25, 2014

It’s the Little Things

I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed this past week. As if one thing after another has been piling on until I’m buried. Some of the overwhelm has been because I’ve had social obligations, and my anxiety disorder makes me stress.

But it’s not only the social obligations. I have felt like this before, and it’s usually not the social stuff that makes me feel like I’m drowning. This time, I tried to analyze what exactly was weighing on me. To my surprise, it’s the little things.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the large projects don’t bother me. Maybe because I expect them to take a long time, and have set my mind to that. It’s what I call the “small” projects that pile up. These are projects that I could finish in less than 4 hours, if I could just sit down and do it.

They aren’t all writing related. I have photo albums that need to be put together (I’m about 3 years behind). I had photos to send to relatives (my in-laws are far away, so I email them a lot of photos of my daughter). I have genealogy pictures and papers to scan and put in the database. I have about 6 hours of TV to watch on DVR. I have photos and artwork I need to clean up to put on Zazzle. I have a novel I want to look at again because I think the focus needs work. I have a short story I want to edit and polish. And I am pushing through a WIP (35 chapters left).

That doesn’t even take into consideration the 2 blog posts a week and the daily stuff of life. And more pops up every day.

It’s the accrual of all these small projects that overwhelm me. I look at my To-Do list, and realized that if I had a week without a child and without blog posts, I could probably knock off 80% of my list, because it’s all “small” projects. Of course, I will not have a childless week, so I have to juggle.

Lately, I have been pushing to finish my WIP. Because I’ve been writing that in all my free time, the other projects have piled up. So now I have to go the other way, stopping the WIP to knock out enough of these projects so I feel like I can breathe.

I think it’s a blessing and bane of us creative types that we always have multiple projects in many media going. How do you carve out time for varying projects? Do you have specific days or hours for different projects? Or do you just do whatever strikes your fancy when you have time?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | September 18, 2014

The Learning Curve

I spent a very enjoyable few hours talking with a new writer a couple of weeks ago. A recently retired teacher, she wanted to focus her new-found free time on her writing. However, she had very little knowledge about the business side of things, and wanted a primer about the landscape of publishing today.

I always like to chat with other writers, and her questions made it clear to me that I had learned quite a bit about the business side of publishing over the years. It surprises me, how much I have learned, really, because it happened as a slow accretion over time. I didn’t take a course, I just listened to people farther up the mountain than me and read a whole lot of blogs written by people respected in the publishing sphere.

People have said that I am a “resource” and sometimes treat me like I have some special talent or something because I know all of this. I suppose I am a resource, and I enjoy sharing what I know with other writers. But there isn’t anything special about my knowledge. Any writer can accumulate the same knowledge. It’s a matter of paying attention and immersing yourself in the information available.

When I first started learning all of this, I’ll admit to feeling completely overwhelmed. There was so much to learn about the publishing business! And it changes so fast! It’s hard to keep up. But after about 3 years of reading 40 blogs or more a week (I often collate the weekly Top Picks Thursday blog post for Author Chronicles), I found I knew stuff. Certain information had taken root, and I had built upon it over the years.

Learning the business side of authorship is not negotiable in our era. Whether using self-publishing, traditional publishing, or a hybrid model, authors have more responsibility for their careers than at any other time in history. If you want to find success, get smart. Knowledge is power, and it gives you options.

It is a lot of work, especially at first, to gain the knowledge you need. There are many blogs that have weekly compilations of links to business and craft articles—our Top Picks Thursday is just one. Find and follow round-ups you like, and then individual blogs that have solid business information. Read. Read. Read. At first most will fall right out of your head again. But slowly it will stick, and accrete, and grow.

And one day, you, too, will be a “resource.”

More importantly, it will put you in the best possible position to make your career a success.

What blogs do you follow for great business advice?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | September 11, 2014

Does Writing Get Easier?

For 22 years, my father and I took the same 2-mile walk in the evenings. Since this walk was meant for exercise, not as a stroll, the route included 3 of the most brutal hills in our neighborhood. And they were killers—very long, very steep, and one right after the other.

The weird thing was, in 22 years the walk never got easier.

We would have thought that at some point we would have been in such good shape that the hills would have become easy. But they never did. We chugged our way up the same way every night.

Sometimes writing feels that way—like it never gets any easier.

That feeling is true—and it’s false.

Writing doesn’t get easier—it’s just that the parts that are hard change. When we first start out, the amount of craft we have to learn is tremendous. As time goes by, we master this bit, then that bit, then another bit. And slowly those bits get easier. But there’s always another bit that needs work, so the process as a whole doesn’t seem any easier.

I realized this while I was working on my WIP this weekend. I’m almost at the midpoint (yay!), and I am writing in full on first-draft mode—knowing some of the scenes weren’t great, but just getting them on the page. And that was the revelation—I knew as I wrote which scenes were going to need help. I could sense which ones had weaknesses, and sometimes even what those weaknesses were—description, specificity, conflict.

That knowing feeling was new for me. I usually couldn’t tell until I went back to revise what problems I had—or even that I had problems. So I guess I have finally internalized enough to reach a new sense of craft.

Maybe someday I will have internalized enough of the craft that I get more stuff “right” in the first place, making the revision process shorter and cleaner. But I’m still not sure that will make writing “easier.”

I think it will just be a new level of hard.

What about you? Has your writing gotten easier over the years?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | September 4, 2014

S is for Stubborn–and Success

There’s no shortcut to success. It’s just a lot of hard work. Unless your definition of success is laying on a sofa eating chips and watching TV all day. That’s not a lot of hard work. But for those of us with slightly higher goals in mind, hard work is an unavoidable prerequisite for reaching our goals.

But the thing about hard work is that…it’s hard. And often boring. And a lot of people give up their goals and walk away when success doesn’t happen fast.

So I think one of the biggest factors in success is stubbornness. Not like a 4-year-old temper tantrum “I-don’t-wanna-clean-up” stubborn, but that plodding sort of stubbornness that never looks heroic while it’s happening. You know the kind that makes you think, “What the heck am I doing this for? I’m not getting anywhere!”

Hey, as long as you’re moving forward, you’re getting somewhere.

I have a long way to go in reaching my goals, but I am a miles closer to them than I was a few years ago. And it’s all because I’m stubborn. I made my monster To-Do lists and chipped away at them. I faced pages of edit notes and chipped away. I connected with one person, then another, then another, to create a network of colleagues (and now friends) to help me along my path. I wrote in the scattered moments of free time my child allowed. I created an outline for a new book that seemed an insurmountable 62 chapters/scenes long and simply wrote one chapter at a time (I only have 48 left to write).

In other words, I never stopped moving forward. Sometimes I crawled, sometimes I inched, and sometimes I simply clung on for dear life, but I never went backward.


And I’m close to realizing my goals and dreams.

So the next time someone calls you stubborn, thank them.

It’s a compliment.

Do you think the stubborn factor is necessary for success?

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Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 28, 2014

Energize Me: Going Solar

I have never been a high-energy person. Not one of those “dynamos” you hear about. I always just plugged along through my days. Since I became a mom almost 5 years ago, my energy level has reached new lows. It’s not as bad now as when my daughter was an infant needing feeding every three hours, but I still feel in great need of a nap most afternoons (my daughter stopped napping AT ALL in January).

So I would love to find a way to up my energy that does not involve chemicals or caffeine. I can’t drink caffeine because it sets off my anxiety and gives me panic attacks.

Where else can I find some energy?

How about the sun? We’re getting solar panels put on our house. Tapping into the limitless power of the sun is an awesome idea. Cutting our power bills while lessening pollution? Fantastic. I love doing my part to combat climate change—and show my daughter that I am trying to do right by her, her generation, and our planet.

The other cool thing, for me, is that in case of a power outage, we still can access some of the power from our array (during daylight hours, of course). Not much of it—just enough to charge cell phones or laptops and maybe run a fan if it’s hot out. Not enough to run the fridge or microwave or stove. But to know that even in a Sandy-like power outage I can still write on my laptop? Huge!

So I am happy to be moving forward with energizing my house. If only I could find a way to energize me! My master plan is to figure out a way to bottle my preschooler’s infinite energy, sell it, and become a bazillionaire.

Or maybe I could just install a solar panel on my forehead…

How do you stay energized?

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My daughter has been obsessively watching Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) the past few weeks. And it struck me suddenly that I like Captain Hook, in spite of his villainy. I’ve seen my share of Disney movies, and he’s the only bad guy I empathize with. As a writer, I started to wonder why.

First, I compared Hook to other Disney villains and their main emotional drives. Showing my age, my examples are ones from my childhood. Some modern Disney villains may also employ the techniques that make Hook a great villain, but the lessons I gleaned from Hook still hold true.

    1. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) – revenge
    2. Stepmother (Cinderella) – greed
    3. Evil Queen (Snow White) – jealousy
    4. Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) – vanity
    5. Hook (Peter Pan) – revenge

On the surface, Hook seems much like the others, driven purely by some dark emotion. But although I enjoyed the other villains, I never empathized with them on any level. I identified 2 things that set him apart.

1) Motivation backstory – for most Disney villains, we never know why they are driven by these dark urges. Did Maleficent snap over a lack of invitation because she was a nerd in high school? Did the Stepmother grow up dirt poor and swear “never again”? Was the Evil Queen so insecure about her looks because her mother always told her she was ugly? Did Cruella De Vil want to stand out so much because she had always been overlooked as a child? We never know the backstory—we only see the results.

With Hook, we do know why he is driven—and it is a nuanced why. He’s not seeking vengeance for Peter cutting off his hand—no, he wants revenge because Peter threw the hand to a crocodile, causing the beast to stalk Hook constantly.

2) Vulnerability – The other Disney villains are pure evil. Chilling. The stuff of nightmares. And they have no human weaknesses.

Hook, though, has a glaring weakness—he is terrified of the crocodile. Not just nervous, but scream-like-a-child, jump-into-Smee’s-arms hysterical whenever he hears that clock. Such blatant vulnerability in a man who casually shoots his own crew when they annoy him opens up a very human side we can access.

These 2 techniques (combined with a touch of comedy) give Hook accessibility that many Disney villains lack—and therefore allow us to empathize with him.

I’m going to keep that in mind for my villains. While I have always known they need to be 3-dimensional, I have focused more on making them strong enough to push the hero than on making them accessible to the reader. By giving them nuanced motives that I allow my readers to see and by adding a vulnerability the reader can relate to (who wants to be eaten by a crocodile, after all?), I can make my villains stronger, deeper, and more memorable.

Do you have any tricks for making your villains relatable to the reader?

Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 14, 2014

A Pantser Plots: Bringing Old Friends to Life

I am usually a hybrid when it comes to outlining. I know my beginning and ending and a few of the big points in the middle, and then just let the words rip. For my current Work-In-Progress (WIP), I wanted to plan ahead more.

This is my first “from scratch” novel since my daughter was born. I know that I have much less free time to write, so I wanted to be able to make the most of the time I had. I figured if I knew what needed to happen next before I sat down to write, I could use my time more efficiently. So this time around, I decided to plot more.

First I just did the four major beats: turning point (end of Act I), midpoint, black moment (end of Act II), climax. That was enough to get me to the end of Act I, because the beginning had been very clear in my head. Then I looked ahead and realized I would need a more detailed outline—something new for me.

This book is new for me on many levels—in particular, it is dual point-of-view (POV). I realized after getting to the end of Act I that I needed to plot so that I could see the flow of POV chapters. During the messy middle the POV characters are separated (thus the need for 2 POVs). So I had to make sure one storyline was not much shorter than the other. And in doing so I realized I needed to bring in a third POV to make it all work.

The third POV is a spirit that possesses the female POV character, and the female POV character cannot see or hear what is happening while she is possessed. But the reader needs to know. So in essence the third POV takes the place of the first POV character at times. Confused, yet?

Yeah, that’s why I needed an outline.

Finally, this WIP is based on a complete but very poorly written novel I wrote about 30 years ago (yes, I was only 14). I always loved the characters and the premise, but I am a considerably better writer than I was as a freshman in high school. A year or so ago, these characters came back into my mind and would not leave. I got so enthused about writing them again that I had to do it.

The old manuscript had pretty much everything wrong with it, but it served as a rough guide. One big problem with it was that it was written in omniscient POV, which I had no intention of using in the new book. So when it came to the big battle scenes in the middle/end of Act II, I could not jump from POV to POV to POV of all these minor characters. Wrestling the main events of the battle (and events leading up to it) so my male POV could be in the key places was another huge reason I needed to outline.

Although based on the same premise as that old manuscript, this WIP is vastly different plot-wise, and vastly better craft-wise. I am so excited to be writing these old friends again and finally being able to do them justice.

Have you ever gone back to an old work and given it new life? Or has an old work given you new life?

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