You don’t have to be in shape to conquer a blank page, but it helps

November 20, 2016

Many of you are in the home stretch of #NaNoWriMo2016 and deserve praise and admiration for all your hard work.

Regardless of what time of year is your best time to churn out a first draft, the same habits will serve you well.

For me, credit goes to my training as a journalist. As Ed Greenwood says, it’s an excellent grounding that teaches you to crank out decent copy fast.

But I have to give the greatest credit to lifestyle — eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting proper sleep.

Yeah, I can hear the eyes rolling.

But it’s true. Four years ago, I was 30 pounds overweight, on entry level blood pressure medications and plagued by chronic sleep problems.

That made every day at the desk a battle. I’d fight through the afternoon brain fog and a dragging weariness that made it hard enough to finish my client work, never mind be consistently productive on my fiction projects.

And as a self-employed freelancer, I didn’t have the option of slacking off on the company clock. I only get paid when a specific job is done for a specific client. As a colleague of mine once said, “You eat what you kill.” If you are not hunting (getting the job done) you are not eating (paying the bills).

But all that changed when I started with a personal training gym where the team coached me on how I should eat and kept me accountable to a regular routine of fitness.

Within five months, I had lost 30 pounds and no longer needed those blood pressure meds. Even my chronically high blood cholesterol came down by itself. I started to sleep better.

I’ve never looked back.

It’s made all the difference to give me the clarity, drive and focus to juggle family, work and fiction writing. The time I take to workout allows me to make much more effective use of the time I dedicate for everything else.

And best of all, my writing chops have proven to be a useful currency. I know I need that push that comes of working with a personal trainer, but that kind of service doesn’t come cheap. So I struck a deal with the gym owner – I write blog content in exchange for my membership. If you are a good writer, never underestimate how you can lever this skill.

Next time, I’ll give some more tips about how to stay productive with your writing time and overcome a blank page.

The roots of obsession and my Work in Progress

July 30, 2012

 By Leo Valiquette

For some time now I’ve been dropping hints on the Twittersphere about my efforts as a fiction writer. On this blog I’ve been decidedly more forthright. Nonetheless, I’ve been reluctant to spill the beans about just what my Work in Progress is all about.

It’s a bit ironic considering I get paid to help others tell their stories and actively push those stories to the media. I find it much easier to be a cheerleader for others before myself. But, no more. Here at last is my first blatantly self-promotional and self-indulgent blog post as a fiction writer.

A long time ago …

I suppose it all began when I was seven years old and my mother joined a book-of-the-month club with one of those deals where you get four free books for signing up. She chose E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, along with the novelization of a new movie that had just hit theatres – Star Wars. Yes, it’s true. At the age of seven, I was reading Star Wars. Well, to be honest, it was like wading through a snow bank on the ice planet Hoth that’s neck deep, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.

In Grade 3, my teacher read the class The Hobbit, and I borrowed it for the summer when she wasn’t able to finish it by the end of the school year. I think it was the map in The Hobbit, as well as illustrated histories of ancient civilizations in my school library, that compelled me to create my own story settings. A few years later, I was using my allowance to buy a genre magazine, I think it was Famous Monsters of Filmland, which would serialize old flicks like The Blob and Rodan into written works of pulp fiction. Since I was never able to buy all the issues for the full story, I started writing my own endings.

In high school drama class, our teacher expected us to develop projects for the annual Renaissance Fair. Students could do anything from covers of Bill Cosby stand-up routines to dance, theatre and the fine arts. I decided to showcase my first stab at a fantasy novel, complete with maps and character illustrations that I had coerced a talented classmate into doing for me (wish I could find those).

By college, I had played with various ideas and redeveloped that first novel through several iterations. (I’ve since lost the most recent version of it, as well as the only draft of the sequel, but that’s a painful story for another post.)

The idea for a short story that grew into the epic fantasy currently titled Knight of Aegias first came to me in 1999. I have this problem writing short fiction—it always ends up bursting at the seams. I just can’t create a plotline without wanting to spend more time with the idea and the characters than the length constraints of a typical short story allow.

Birth of a monster

It wasn’t until July 2004 that I deemed the first draft done—a bloated and wordy beast that clocked in at 193,000 words. I actually queried a couple of agents about that thing. Hopefully they’ve long forgotten.

Then came ownership of a house in need of a little TLC, the responsibilities of being a newspaper editor and a little monkey named William. The manuscript was left to collect dust. I tried my hand at short fiction again, because it was, well, short, and did garner some encouraging feedback on the rejection slips.

A couple of years ago I finally resumed work on that 193,000-word monster with the aid of an axe named Delete and the indulgence of my long-suffering partner in all things, Natalie. I also hit my first literary conferences where I could engage with other writers, as well as agents and publishers. Today Knight of Aegias is a much leaner and meaner 123,000-word manuscript that I have begun shopping around to various agents with the aid of Publishers Marketplace.

The logline

So just what is my Work in Progress all about?  Knight of Aegias is the story of Ryn, a former soldier who broke faith with the church he served after his oaths to obey his superiors led him to betray his conscience and stain his hands with innocent blood. He finds a chance at redemption in the destiny of the woman he loves, but it comes at a price. Sometime soon I’ll share my agent pitch and the first chapter.

Is there a moral to be found in my journey as a fiction writer? If anything, I suppose it’s the tired old cliché that a writer writes, always. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. No matter where I’ve been, no matter what I’ve been doing, I’ve always been lured by the call of a blank page. Along the way there have been long periods of time in which the demands of life and making a living have taken precedence. But the desire to explore a world of my own making, the restless discontent that drives my compulsion to do better, the need to just tell a story—these things have always been there and always will be.

I have no idea if I will ever make a reasonable living from making stuff up, but that’s not really the point.

 

How I learned to stop worrying and love a blank page

May 12, 2012

By Leo Valiquette

(Reader’s Note: Post first published on Francis Moran and Associates)

As a student of the written word, I’ve dealt with just about everything when it comes to catering to a client, managing a team of journalists and editing the work of others.

But the greatest challenge is often found in the mocking white glare of an empty page.

Writing is one of those skills that only gets better with practice. Reading examples of great writing with a critical eye, heeding the wise counsel of quality reference material and, most importantly, appreciating the value of a good editor, are all fundamental to honing your craft.

As with anything, becoming a good writer is a longer and more painful journey for some than it is for others. I often encounter people who are far more eloquent and articulate orators than I am. And yet, they run into a wall when asked to say the same thing in print. There is a certain thoughtless spontaneity with speech that is lost when confronted by a blank page. It isn’t that they don’t know what to say, they just don’t know where to begin.

But those of us who write for a living also find ourselves daunted by a blank page, or, even worse, with such a volume of material and research we’ve lost sight of the forest for the trees. Nonetheless, the job still needs to get done by deadline.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for making the words move. This isn’t about writing better or even writing for a specific audience. It’s just about writing, period, whether it’s for personal, professional or journalistic purposes.

1. Don’t think about it, just do it

Write down the first thing that comes to your head, followed by the second, and the third. Before you know it, you’ll have written a few paragraphs that will have dimmed the glare of that empty page. Is it great writing? Who cares? As Ernest Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” It’s a start and that’s what matters. It’s easier to revise than it is to draft.

2. Don’t try to write the beginning first

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you wrote the first thing that came into your head, you probably didn’t write what should be the beginning of your work. I write 3,000-word magazine features all the time by banging out the first 800 words in a rush. Next day I’ll come back, rip what I’ve done to pieces and then get down to the good stuff. It’s a creative enema that often needs to be part of the process.

3. Give yourself time to play around

That means you can’t leave things to the last minute. Whenever possible, bang out a rough draft of your work and let it lie fallow for at least a couple of days before coming back to it. The outcome will always be better than if you tried to go from zero to final finished product in one go, or even in one day. (Of course, I’m breaking this rule myself right now with this post.)

4. Start with somebody else’s words

It could be a quote from a source, an anecdote or an interesting statistic. These are all icebreakers that give you a place to start. Follow that first line up with an explanation of what it means and why it is significant.

5. Start with an outline

This is particularly useful for those situations where you may feel overwhelmed by your volume of material. An outline helps you to organize your thoughts as well as your material and distinguish the useful from the irrelevant.

6. A full belly and an empty bowel

Seriously. Nothing is more distracting than snack time rumbles or the outcome of last night’s dinner overstaying its welcome. Bob Bailly wrote a great piece for us a while back on how our systems tick on ultradian rhythms and the need for regular pit stops and refuelling.

7. The value of idle distraction

Maybe it’s toying with a stress ball, clicking a pen or listening to the soundtrack for Lord of the Rings. We all have those things we do that help put us in that almost meditative creative state. The key thing is that is something you can do without getting up from the computer. Otherwise, you risk falling prey to all those other external distractions that will sap your productivity.

8. Change the scene

Sometimes, nothing gets the creative juices flowing faster than a change of scenery. Grab the laptop, get up and take a walk to a local coffee shop or a branch of the public library.

9. Start fresh

The morning, when you are fresh and alert, is often the best time to tackle a writing project. Try to ignore the inbox and the voicemail and focus. From a productivity standpoint, it is often better to keep to the desk in the morning and save meetings and conference calls for the afternoon.

10. Know when to walk way

And by the same token, sometimes you should leave to tomorrow what you could do today. I’ve often found myself late in the day or in the evening trying to get a head start on something when the creative drive just isn’t there anymore. Often, I’ve produced far better material and in a far shorter time by leaving it to the following morning.

What would you add to this list?

Image: Cindy Thomas

Yeah, I am trying to get a product to market

March 6, 2012

By Leo Valiquette

(Reader’s Note: Post first published on Francis Moran and Associates)

For 12 years I have worked as a business journalist and marketing and public relations professional. In these roles I have engaged with a horde of entrepreneurs, executives, investors and other ink-stained wretches who would rather write about corporate stars than movie stars.

I could write a book or two from what I have learned about what it takes to get a product to market and succeed as an entrepreneur. But attempting to do such a thing without having actually lived that roller coaster ride for myself seems like presumption of the worst kind.

On the other hand, I have been tinkering away for decades on a variety of ideas that I thought could have commercial potential. They’ve kept me up at night. They’ve led me to beg off on Sunday dinners with the in-laws. They have even led me to take a personal health day or two back when I had a J.O.B.

Last year was a bit soft for a freelance word smith, so I took advantage of the opportunity to get serious about whipping one of these ideas into a reasonable prototype. I pulled in a couple of beta testers who provided invaluable feedback that helped me to fix the glitches. I attended a couple of industry conferences where I could engage with potential business partners and investors to understand what they were looking for in an attractive opportunity.

I’ve even researched the pros and cons of various go-to market strategies, such as bootstrapping. The world has changed a lot in recent years with the rise of social media as a toolkit for marketing, customer engagement and business development. My industry, like many others, has been transformed, providing new opportunities for nimble newcomers to get to market without having to win the support of those old-school investors.

However, I’ve decided to hedge my bets. Last month, I pitched my concept at both an investor and potential business partner, even as I continue to weigh the pros and cons of going it alone. Next month, I will once again be attending a notable industry conference in Toronto called Ad Astra, hopefully wiser and better prepared than I was when I first went a year ago.

This has been my dream since high school and I have certainly been going at it with serious gusto over the past year-and-a-half. Nonetheless, it’s taken me a long time to consider this effort an exercise in entrepreneurship – which is rather odd, considering that it is a process to develop and bring to market a compelling product that will drive sufficient revenue to sustain a business.

My product is, of course, a novel. Or, more accurately, a manuscript that I hope will become the first of many novels. By investors and business partners I mean publishers and agents. And you’ve probably already figured out that “bootstrapped” is a ringer for “self-published.”

To achieve commercial success as an author is a victory in brand-building to rival anything done by the Apples of the world. Just ask J.K. RowlingStephen King or George R. R. Martin. Their names have become tickets to print money. They can even get away with ignoring their editors and publishing tomes the size of cinder blocks.

But for every icon such as this, there are thousands who fail to make the grade. Their products never get to market because they remain unfinished, untested, or are rejected by publishers and agents who believe that the product, as solid as it may be, is simply not unique or distinctive enough to provide them with an adequate ROI.

Then there is the majority who do get to market, but achieve only a moderate volume of sales. Their product sells well enough to remain in stock and warrant a contract for more, but the entrepreneur (I mean, author) isn’t getting rich by any measure. This is called the midlist, and, like many other product categories in the world today, has benefited from the long tail effect of online retailing.

So based on consideration of some of these facts, yes, I guess you could call me a start-up entrepreneur working on getting his first product to market. As with just about any entrepreneur, my road is long, mostly uphill and there is no guarantee what I will find at the end.

So why do I bother when I can make a living doing all of this other non-fiction writing and communication work?

Because I enjoy it and I have a passion for it. There is a certain, self-affirming, emotional high that comes of it. To have the fortitude to keep going through all the personal, professional and technical challenges involved with getting a product to market, an entrepreneur must be driven by more than just the promise of a pay day. They have a vision greater than the sum of product features and specs.

I’m sure if we locked a group of successful authors and entrepreneurs together in a room, they would say the same thing – you do it because you love it. The money is a fringe benefit.

Image: WorkFlowWriting.com

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