Writing Goals I: Filling the Toolbox

artists toolbox

Typical toolbox: Palette, brushes…and somewhere in the background, annoying husband

The other day my wife and I were on a long walk and we started talking about a class she’s scheduled to take next month. It’s a week-long painting workshop in which she’ll be working on the same large painting for five full days. This will be somewhat new territory for her, as she doesn’t usually paint in large format like that. This is part of the plan: it’s time to add that skill to her artistic toolbox.

The reason we were discussing it is she had just asked me, earlier in the day, for my opinion on which subject she should paint – the instructor had emailed her several photographs and, prior to the class, she was supposed to email back and let the instructor know which one she planned to tackle.

We had looked at them together and narrowed down the list. On the walk, we were discussing the merits of each of the potentials. I could tell she had a clear favorite.

“Why that one?” I asked her.

“It has the best light,” she said. Good.

“I like the spark of red in the window,” she said. Good.

“It has the most variety,” she said. Good.

“I think it would be the easiest one to sell afterward,” she said. Wait.

“Is that your goal?” I asked. “To create one painting to sell? Or are you trying to learn the skills to paint a hundred paintings? Does how that particular one comes out matter that much at all?”

And of course she said it was the skills she was focused on, that the idea of being able to possibly also sell the painting she created was just a potential bonus in her book. Icing on the cake.

I know her well enough that I already knew this was the case. I was just asking to make a point, to make sure she went into the class with the proper mindset.

In related news, yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

But really, her focus – anyone’s focus in a class or workshop-type setting, in my opinion – should be on filling her toolbox with the skills necessary to do one hundred great large paintings. A thousand.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writers having toolboxes. It’s a great concept, but a lot of times I see writers meandering away from the toolbox mindset and toward the tangible-result mindset. They go to a conference or workshop or retreat with a pointed result in mind – finishing one book, one story, getting an agent or a publisher – and often consider it a failure if they don’t achieve that result.

A good friend runs a local writing conference with lots of activities. What’s interesting is that he finds it much easier to fill the ones that have the potential for that pointed, tangible result associated with them (like Agent Pitch sessions – direct result: getting an agent, of course) than the ones that don’t have as clear of a direct result.

Case in point: the Query Letter critique. It’s much harder for writers to pinpoint the direct result of this activity – since you don’t get to select the agent / editor you end up meeting with, writers don’t see it as a clear gate to signing with an agent. And I’m coming to the conference to sign with an agent, so what good is it, right?

Here’s the thing, though. All the activities at the conference are great and educational in one way or another, but the Query Letter critique is actually the one that fills the toolbox most clearly. It should be the FIRST activity to fill up, not the LAST.

You get your query – a letter you might use to later query one hundred agents – critiqued by experts. Rather than focusing on a pitch session that lets you talk to one agent (who may or may not even be a fit for your work, by the way), the query critique session potentially adds a polished letter to your toolbox. A letter, again, that you can use over and over again to query dozens upon dozens of agents. At least one of whom is far more likely to be a fit for your work.

I see this also in critique groups, which typically allow you to bring five to ten pages, which you either read aloud during or share prior to the meeting. Most writers try to use these groups to get critique on their entire novel in sequence. But if your book is 300 pages long, five pages at a time means it will take sixty meetings to get through it all. That’s almost THREE YEARS if your group meets twice a month!

This is simply not how I view these groups. I love critique groups, but I’m not there to run through my entire novel five pages at a time.

I’m there to fill my toolbox.

If I’m working on adding humor to my project, or the relationship between two characters, or how the antagonist is portrayed, whatever, I bring a section that is representative of that thing, get my critique, then add the reactions I hear to my toolbox. I then apply what I learned (I USE THAT NEW TOOL!) to the entire book on my own. This means I often share my book out of order, skip chapters, switch from one book to the next, then to a short story I want reaction on, and so on.

I am definitely in the minority on that front. In fact I think my approach downright annoys people sometimes. But I don’t really care.

Have I mentioned the related news? Yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

Let me sum up what I’m trying to say with a bit of advice: when you’re heading to a writing conference or class, a retreat or critique group, a workshop, I suggest trying to think less about that particular direct result you’re hoping for – these five pages to critique (which MUST be the NEXT five pages in your book), that one agent I MUST convince to sign me, this one book that MUST be completed during this retreat, and try to focus a whole lot more on your TOOLBOX.

How does what you’re about to do fill it with more tools you can use over and over again? To query fifty agents. To write a dozen books. To fix your entire novel, rather than just this lone five-page sample.

Over the past year or two, as I’ve continued to traverse the ups and downs of the publishing industry, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing goals. First and foremost my own, which it’s probably fair to say I’ve transformed quite significantly, but also other writers. It can’t be helped: we writers are all bobbing up and down in own own rafts along this strange river filled with dangerous, unpredictable rapids. We’re on our own, but we’re right next to each other, too. We see it when some other writer’s raft gets flipped over by unexpected rocks. And we can’t help but wonder, from afar, what happened to cause it.

More and more, as I see those overturned rafts, those writers sputtering for air, I’ve been noticing a cause-and-effect relationship between these accidents and writing goals.

This post is the result of some of those ruminations – hopefully the first in a series on Writing Goals.

Stay tuned for Writing Goals II: Don’t Quit That Day Job.

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Take the stairs

Nice, France

Most people would just stay at this beach, I bet

Last fall I spent some time in Nice, France, a beautiful place. My wife’s a painter, so she desperately wanted to see the Musee Matisse while we were there. And I was certainly game – Henri Matisse was a brave and unique artist, a bold guy unafraid to try new things. My kind of dude.

We’re the type of people who walk in cities. I like the connection walking gives me to a place. So, sure, it would’ve been easier to grab a cab or figure out public transportation, but instead we decided the way to get to Matisse’s museum was to walk there.

The map told us our destination was northwest from our hotel in the Old Town. Basically up and to the left, in a big green area that signified a park. That’s really all we knew for sure, which was fine. I’m a discovery walker. Gets me in trouble sometimes.

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it's own blog post

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it’s own blog post

The river Paillon, which interestingly is underground for part of the journey, led us north. We knew eventually we’d have to turn west. Nice is extremely hilly, and I figured at some point we’d also have to go UP.

Really, though, I had no idea.

Following the map (and looking every bit the lost American tourist), I decided a road to our left would take us up and into the park. There was a blind curve and the road itself was really narrow. Worse, there was a suspicious guy that we THOUGHT might be following us.

We decided there must be another way.

Returning to follow the river, I noticed the map had a little squiggly line a little farther up that suggested some pedestrian stairs might take us in the direction of the park and the museum.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I suggested. Like I said, gets me in trouble.

Stairs in Nice

First look at the stairs

We were walking in a neighborhood that had gotten a little sketchy when the stairs suddenly appeared on our left. No sign naming them or indicating where they might lead. Nothing.

Just stairs.

I had utterly no idea how many stairs there might be before we reached the park. Or even if the stairs actually led to the park or museum AT ALL. (Well, sort of an idea. The map seemed to show the squiggly line stopped in the big green space. I think that’s something along the lines of what Columbus said to his crew, right?)

Even so, we went up, because sometimes you have to take a deep breath and march forward, even if you don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Sometimes you just have to take the stairs.

And we did. Up. And up and up and up.

I kid you not, a thousand stairs. More, even.

Little hidden views like this

Little hidden views like this

The stairs wound their way up the hill, bending to the left and back to the right. Amazingly, people lived along this strange, narrow staircase.

We passed homes – houses or condos or apartments, it was hard to tell. The inhabitants had chairs out on patios in front of little gardens. They didn’t look like expensive places – I mean, how could you even get furniture there – but we were high enough now the views were glorious.

We kept walking.

Eventually we came out onto a road. We were NOT in the park. This road, it went off and up to the right, down to the left.

We took a break. We were sweaty and hot and a little frustrated. We hadn’t seen a soul all that way up the stairs, which was starting to make me think the people of Nice weren’t dumb enough to actually use them. I took off my sweatshirt and packed it away in my backpack.

A woman came by, and we asked her about the museum. She didn’t speak English, but eventually understood what we wanted, and pointed across the street.

stairs more

That’s right, more stairs. I swear we were down where you see those little buildings when we started

To another set of stone stairs.

After the woman disappeared, there might’ve been some swearing on our part. I will neither confirm or deny.

How many more stairs could there be? We had no idea. The new stairs wound up the hill again, disappearing into its side.

We took a moment to get ready again before re-embarking. I noticed an old man leaning against his car a few meters away, staring at us with his arms folded across his chest and a bemused expression on his face.

Something about him made me realize how ridiculous our predicament was. I smiled, shrugging my shoulders and extending my hands out. I don’t speak much French, so all week I’d been using gestures to convey my state of mind. This one said, “What can you do, you know?”

The old man unclamped his arms and raised one hand to give us a thumbs up gesture. What it meant exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe, “Good luck, you stupid Americans.” Maybe, “Keep going. It’s worth it.” Probably both.

Sometimes all you need to keep going is for someone to give a thumbs up at the right moment.

Eventually, we reached the top of that second set of stairs. There was a sign for a monastery on a door. A locked door. I started to imagine having to go all the way down again.

monastery garden

Jardin du Monastère de Cimiez

But then several more steps appeared to the right, around a corner. We took them, popped through an opening and stepped into an immaculate garden.

We were on the grounds of the monastery, which was in the park we were heading for. It was amazing. I have dozens of photos of this place. Of olive groves and orange trees and flowers and I wish I could share them all. There were even swarms of gnats.

In this place, you could even fall in love with a swarm of gnats.

Still, we weren’t at the Musee Matisse yet. We followed the path through the monastery’s grounds into the rest of the park. Signs directed us toward the museum.

Yep. More stairs.There were more stairs. Of course. But these were wide and inviting, like a reward for that narrow, sweaty journey we had made already.

We meandered through a park that was essentially a big olive grove.

I remember being fascinated by the birds.

I remember passing a park bench where two elderly women were deep in conversation, their dogs at their sides. I remember imagining them as very old friends, women who had known each other since childhood.

My mind was doing that thing it does when it gets just the right level of exhausted and exhilarated and fascinated. Making stories.

Musee Matisse

Musee Matisse

Eventually we found the museum. It could’ve been closed. It might’ve taken us too long to get there. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

But if the museum had been closed, it actually would’ve been fine. We had seen so much getting there, indelible images, from olive trees to dogs to old friends to breathtaking views to that smiling old man with his thumb in the air.

The museum was the destination, but it had become the icing on the cake to the journey.

Because we had taken the stairs.

I’m a sports fan AND an arts fan. (Crazy, I know). The NFL playoffs started last weekend and, in one of the games, the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked out the Cincinnati Bengals in a particularly hard fought game.

In the locker room afterwards, Bengals receiver A.J. Green was interviewed. I can’t find the clip now, but in addition to saying the loss hurt, he explained to the reporter it had taken him and the team six months to get to that point, and that now they were going to have to go through all that again, just to get to the same spot. He was willing to do it, because he loves football, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to be difficult.

I identified with this. When a book fails (and…writers, sorry but odds are your book WILL fail – whether you don’t connect with an agent or a publisher or whether no one buys it or reads it…I mean, for your sake, I hope not, but it’s REALLY hard what we’re doing here).

Anyway, when a book fails, some well-meaning person will always say, “That’s okay, just write another one.”

And, true enough, that’s the thing to do. Get back on the horse, as they say. But, man, it’s like an NFL season, right? It’s six months (a year? multiple years?) of hard work to get back to that point where you already were. Six months of trying to be perfect with your story and make it the best it can be and critique and work and more work and revision and…you get the idea.

It’s taking the damn stairs.

And after all that work and time and sweat, you might get to the park and find the museum closed. Again.

The thing is, you have no idea as you’re taking that first step of so many. You do it blindly.

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

That’s why you have to pay attention on each step, because if you don’t focus on the hours at the museum, which are out of your control, and instead zero in on that not-quite-yet-ripe orange on that tree inches from you (that sentence you write at midnight one night that actually makes you tear up), on that smiling old man with his thumb up (your critique partner who tells you she loves your book), on those old friends and their dogs on the park bench (your characters – those fantastic people you created from nothing, IN YOUR HEAD), you’ll realize that you’ve already succeeded.

So when your hear those voices telling you you’re hot, you’re tired, you should turn around and go back down, because going down is easier, tell them to shut up.

Tell them you’re taking the stairs. And keep your eyes wide open the entire climb up.