Monday, August 30, 2010

Goals for Writers

Have you always wanted to write a book?

Are you in the process of writing your first book? Your second? Your fifth?

Whether you've written a dozen books or you've yet to complete the first paragraph of the novel you've been wanting to write for years, it is important to understand a writer must set goals if he wants to complete his first or his next book.

I've always had an interest in writing. I dabbled in it for years, even had a short story published in a widely-circulated magazine before I ever got really serious about writing.

When at last I made a commitment to be a real writer, someone who has made writing a priority, I finally set my first goal. I decided I wanted to write a book and have it published by Avalon Books. I'd read many of their books, and I really enjoyed them.

It took me a couple of years to meet my goal. They rejected the first couple of manuscripts I sent but loved the third one. A few months later "Montana Match" was published. I was thrilled, but suddenly I realized I had a dilemma.

I'd met my goal, so what do I do now?

I'd been so focused on that objective, I never gave a thought about what would come once I'd met my goal--probably because I had little confidence I ever would.

I knew I didn't want to quit writing. Like most writers I needed to write. Eventually, as I muddled through the foreign business of writing, I realized if I was going to make a career of this avocation, I needed to set goals--daily goals, weekly goals, monthly, yearly, bi-yearly and multi-yearly goals.

Goal setting, I have found, makes all the difference in getting a writer's career from point A to point B. Small goals can lead to the accomplishment of large ones.

A beginning writer may begin in this way:

Goal 1. Do my research for my book "Turtles as Pets" by the end of month 1.

Goal 2. Write one page a day of "Turtles."

Goal 3. Complete first draft of "Turtles as Pets" six months from now.

And the list would continue as above. By setting a time frame to complete each task necessary to do the necessary research and complete the first draft, the book is written at the minimum rate of one page a day--a very doable goal for a rookie writer. How fulfilling to complete that first draft! The writer has finally written the book she's always wanted to write.

Experienced writers know the first draft is just the beginning, however. Once they've completed their first draft following some form of the above goals, they'll set new goals such as:

Goal 1. Rewrite chapters 1, 5 and 10 because they suck, they're too wordy or confusing, they are full of inconsistencies, they have weak scenes, etc.

Goal 2. Read through and look for weaknesses.

And so will go the goals until the book is in its best form.

At this point the writer will set publication goals. Once the book is published, he'll set goals for promotion--book signings, book trailers, Internet promotion of all kinds, personal appearances, press releases, etc.

The point is, an impossible project such as writing a book, having it published, and getting it into the hands of as many people as possible can be achieved by setting attainable goals the disciplined writer will follow.

Imagine what it takes to become a heart surgeon or brain surgeon. Physicians of all kinds study for years and years. These gifted men and women become doctors by setting goals. First the completion of a biology class, then anatomy, cellular biology, college, medical school, internships, and so on and so on in a process which must seem like it never will end. But those who stick by their agenda and meet their goals do reach the epitome of their hopes and dreams.

If they can do it, so can we writers. After all, as difficult as the writing business is, it can't begin to compare with that of a surgeons.

Good luck with your current project, and, if you haven't yet begun your first or next project, what's stopping you? Set some goals and get started, okay?


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, August 23, 2010

Success in Writing--What is it?

I suppose all writers have different definitions of what it means to be successful.

Some may not considered themselves successful until they earn incomes from their authorship as handsome as J.K. Rowling's, Nora Roberts's, Tom Clancey's or John Grisham's. Since mega-stardom in writing is rare, just as it is in acting or sports entertainment, such a lofty goal is extremely difficult to achieve--but certainly not impossible.

Others may consider themselves successful once a New York house publishes one of their books. This too is a lofty goal, though it is certainly more achievable than the one above.

Achieving publishing success through a small publishing house via e-book or print on demand may be the goal of a host of writers. If this goal is any easier to achieve than the New York house goal, it's only because there are many, many more publishers coming under this umbrella than under the one covering the more traditional publishers. Small or large, all publishers want quality work.

Many writers are independent thinkers, and some of these are independent authors. These folks, like independent film makers, might take the independent publication route. Once they publish their work in this way after they've striven to make it the best it can be, they will consider themselves successful.

To me, a book writer is successful once she completes her first novel or non-fiction project of book length--not when she publishes it, when she finishes it. Tons of people talk about writing a book "someday," few ever get it done. Why? Because writing a book, actually taking the time and effort to put down enough words to compose an entire book, is a huge, huge job. (And this doesn't count the research necessary before writing.) Unless a person has actually attempted a job like this, he has no idea how much work authoring a book is.

I say kudos to anyone who completes the task of writing the book and doesn't put off the job to be done "someday."


Fran Shaff, Award Winning Author

Monday, August 16, 2010

Developing Talents

My cousin, a clergyman, told me more than a decade ago, if God gives us a talent, we should develop it. I'm not sure what his exact words were, but I do remember taking what he said to mean we have a RESPONSIBILITY to develop our talents.

For me, this moment of clarity catapulted me into the writing life whole heartedly. Up to that point, I'd dabbled in writing rather than having dedicated myself to it. From that moment on, I've been writing full time, working very hard.

Yet with all the time I've devoted to learning, studying, writing, and all the other things which make up a writer's life, I wonder if I will ever develop my talent as fully as I want to. Having won multiple awards for my work doesn't mean I've reached a point where I'm satisfied with my accomplishments. There is always another goal which needs to be met, improvements to be made, another milestone to reach.

I believe each of us is given talents. Those gifts make us capable of becoming great in our own ways if we work hard enough to develop our capabilities.

Take the athlete, for example. God gives a gymnast talent, but, no matter how naturally gifted she is, she will never become a part of an Olympic team unless she dedicates her life to developing her special abilities.

I love to watch NFL football. Witnessing a perfectly executed passing play delights me because I know that, in order to achieve such perfection, those men have worked years and years to develop their talents.

A perfect play, whether it is in sports, the medical field, business, the arts or whatever, NEVER just happens. It is always the result of years of hard work and God-given talent.

It is our duty to discover our talents and develop them to the best of our abilities. We as a people benefit every time one of us succeeds at becoming the best we can be in our profession whether we are doctors, engineers, homemakers, artists, factory workers, construction workers or teachers. The world needs us all, and no one of us is any less necessary than another.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, August 9, 2010

Acceptance and Rejection

No one is immune to rejection. And all of us have experienced acceptance.

Given the choice, we'd rather be accepted than rejected, but disappointment is simply a part of everyday life.

Writers experience rejection regularly throughout their careers. So do actors, directors, artists, and anyone else who puts themselves or their work on public view to the masses.

If you put your heart and soul into creating a painting, it is almost guaranteed someone is going to hate it. But it's also quite likely someone is going to think it's the greatest work of art she's ever seen. (Yes, I'm talking about your mother--no, just kidding.)

As a writer I, like all of you creative people, have had doubts about my abilities when someone has said something negative about one of my books. It's hard to hear bad things about a project I've poured my soul into, a project I've struggled with for months or even years. (Yes, I have spent years on some books.)

What makes us REAL writers (as opposed to the dreamers who boast they are going to have a book published "someday") is our ability to shrug off rejection and continue to strive to create better and better stories. Fill in "artists" "actors" "engineers" "teachers" or whatever for "writers" and this observation is easily applied to all lines of work.

When we are rejected by our boss, an editor, etc. we need to take stock of the criticism offered, weigh it, use whatever might be helpful, then move on--forge ahead and continue with our plan to reach our goals.

The only bad writer (engineer, teacher, bowler, etc.) is the one who gives up instead of taking criticism in stride and striving to improve the quality of their work everyday.

As a writer, I realize I'm a sensitive person, empathetic, a worrier too. While these emotions can be negative in daily life (especially when dealing with rejection), they are a blessing in my professional life (when I'm not dealing with rejection).

Were I not sensitive and empathetic, how could I possibly create characters who were rich, human, vulnerable, strong, courageous?

I couldn't.

No matter what our goals are in our personal lives and our careers, we benefit most when we can take a negative (like a writer being extra sensitive to editorial rejection) and turn it into a positive (using that sensitivity to create unforgetable, touching characters).

Dare I say we should make lemonade when life hands us lemons?

No, I don't think I'll use that tired old cliche. I'll suggest we woman up or man up and do the best we can with what we have to work with.

Now, it's time I take my own advice and get back to my current work in progress.


Fran Shaff

Monday, August 2, 2010

Characters with Depth

Things which happen to us in childhood can haunt us all of our lives. They might cause us to stifle our potential, inflate our egos or live a reclusive, permissive or indulgent life. Our hearts and souls, our innermost thoughts and ideas about ourselves can be greatly influenced by our childhoods in positive and negative ways.

Characters in stories who touch something familiar in readers are the type of characters we remember.

Writers, think about this when developing your characters: What happened to John or Jane Doe which changed him/her in a most profound way? What deeply changed them and why? Answer these questions, and your character will become deeper, richer, more human than you thought he/she could be.

Take a look at this excerpt from “Stephanie’s Surprise,” the second book of my Heart Junction Series which is set in the early 20th Century.

Setup: Stephanie has just helped Dr. Aaron Wesly (who is in love with her) with an emergency medical situation. She performed unbelievably well, and he’s wondering why she quit nursing when she was young to become a teacher.

“I want you to tell me why you are so certain you should be a teacher instead of a nurse.” He sat next to her. “I’ve seen you in the classroom, and you’re a very good teacher. But in there,” he said, pointing his thumb in the direction of the room where they’d worked on Harvey, “you were perfect. You knew exactly what to do. You knew exactly what I needed.” He looked at her with an admiration she’d never seen in his eyes before. “Miss Porter, you are a nurse. Why do you deny it?”

She bolted from the sofa and went to the fireplace across the room. She stared into the empty hearth as though she were looking into the darkness of the past. “I would rather not discuss it.”

She felt him behind her, close and warm, his body heat touching her while he remained several inches away from her.

“I think you should talk about it, Miss Porter. You came alive in that room in a way I’ve never seen anyone do before. You were a part of everything that was taking place. You were made to care for, maybe even to heal people.” He paused a moment. “I think you could be a doctor, if you set your mind to it.”

She spun around to face him. “A doctor?” She folded her arms defiantly in front of her. “A doctor! Why do you insult me?” She walked away from him.

“I insulted you?”

She turned back to him. “Yes! I want nothing to do with doctors. They can’t heal everyone. Sometimes they’re completely useless.”

“And sometimes we’re very helpful. Sometimes we save lives.”

“Don’t preach high and mighty to me, Dr. Wesley. Doctors kill people, and so do nurses!” Tears began to roll down her cheeks.

“Miss Porter, what are you talking about? Why would you say such hideous things?” Shock covered his face.

She turned and headed for the door. “I’m going home.”

He caught her arm before she reached the arch of the parlor. “You’re not going anywhere. I want you to explain why you said what you said.” The grip on her arm turned from firm to gentle. “Please, Miss Porter, I must know.”

A wave of exhaustion went through her. “I need to sit down.”

He took her arm and led her back to the sofa. He sat next to her and handed her his handkerchief. “Tell me why you have such a great distaste for doctors.”

She wiped her eyes and nose. “They killed my sister.” She sobbed harder. “I…I…I killed my sister.”

He gently stroked her hair. “In a million years, you could never harm anyone,” he said softly.

When she began to cry uncontrollably, he took her into his arms. “There, there, Miss Porter. You need to get hold of yourself.”

Stephanie clung to him as though she’d die if she didn’t. She needed the comfort he offered. She needed him to hold her and comfort her and to understand how she hated herself for what she’d done.

“How did she die, Miss Porter?” he asked when she began to calm down.

She pressed her cheek into his shoulder as she tried to draw on his strength. “I took care of her the best I could, Aaron. Mama and Papa trusted me to take good care of Eileen. She was only thirteen years old. She was so sweet and so fragile.” She wiped her nose and snuggled closer to him. “I did everything Dr. Zeeman told me to do. He’d spoken with several specialists, and they’d devised a plan to treat Eileen.”

“What was wrong with her?”

She pulled back and looked up at him. “It was a disease of the blood. She’d had it for years. We all thought the treatment was working. Then Mama and Papa were called away. Grandpa Porter had passed away back in Illinois. They took a train to his funeral and left me alone to care for Eileen.”

She left the sofa. “When they returned, my sister was dead. We’d killed her, the doctors and I, we’d killed her.” She turned to look at him again. “They’d ordered the wrong treatment, or perhaps I made a mistake with her medication.” She shook her head vigorously. “I killed my sister, Aaron. Eileen is dead because of me!”

When her knees began to buckle as she wept with grief and guilt, he went to her and took her into his arms.

She struggled against his grip on her. He shouldn’t be holding her. He was a doctor! She shouldn’t be trusting him. She shouldn’t be wanting him to comfort her.

Aaron held her more firmly as she continued to struggle. “You’re wrong, Stephanie, you didn’t kill her, and I can prove it.”

When she had no more strength to struggle against him, she stopped moving. She pulled back so she could look into his eyes. “You can’t prove anything. You don’t know anything about my sister.”

“I do know about blood diseases, and they can kill people very quickly.”

“But Eileen had been sick since she was nine years old. She’d get better, then worse and better again. When Mama and Papa left, she was doing well.”

“Yes, that’s all part of the pattern for some diseases. Do you know which one she had?”

She shook her head. “No, they never told us. I don’t think the doctors knew either.”

“They probably didn’t want to discuss medical details with you. Doctors are often like that. We tell the patient only what is necessary for them to know.”

“It doesn’t matter what they did or did not tell us. Eileen couldn’t have gotten so sick so fast unless either they or I had done something wrong. I trusted them. I took care of Eileen as they’d told me to do. I was with her when she died. It had to be their fault or my fault. She’d never gotten that sick that fast before.”

He held her close to him once more and kissed the top of her head. “Dear, Stephanie, Eileen’s death was not your fault. What you described is entirely typical of some blood disorders. A patient can live for years and suddenly get very sick and die. I’ve seen it happen.”

“Oh, Aaron,” she said as tears began to stream from her eyes once more, “can what you say be true?” Dare she hope Eileen’s death was not her fault?

He pulled back from her. “Stephanie, your sister’s death was not your fault, nor was it the fault of her physicians. I can assure you of that. In fact, if Eileen survived for years with her blood disease, then I would say she’d received extremely good care, and you were blessed to have had her with you as long as you did.”

She dabbed at her eyes and wiped her nose. “But Papa and Mama said it was my fault. They said I killed her. They moved away and left me alone in Aberdeen because they couldn’t stand to look upon the girl who’d killed their daughter.”

Aaron pulled her tight against himself and gently caressed her cheek. “Dear, God, what have they done to you? No wonder you mistrust doctors. No wonder you deny your inborn gifts for medicine. I am so, so sorry for your misunderstanding, Stephanie.”

He pulled back and took her face into his hands.

“Stephanie, you have got to believe me. Eileen died because God called her home. It was her time to go, and nothing you did made that time come any faster than it was meant to be. Blood diseases are extremely serious and usually quite deadly.”

“But Papa…Mama…they told me--”

He placed his thumbs over her lips as he continued to hold her face in his hands. “Parents can be wrong, Stephanie."

What a gripping bit of information the reader learns about Stephanie. Believe me, this bit of knowledge changes the readers total perception of Stephanie Porter. Her enjoyment of the book has now deepened, and she becomes a bigger part of Stephanie's life and a major cheerleader for her success.

In a nutshell, characters with great depth greatly enhance the reader's enjoyment of any story.

And isn't that what writing is all about?


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author