Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Case of the Missing Measuring Stick

by Cassondra Murray


I’m going to out myself here.

If I can’t run with the big dogs, I tend to stay on the porch. I don't expect this of anyone else. Only of myself.

It’s a character flaw.

I don’t know where I got this trait. I don’t mind a learning curve, even a sharp one. I don’t even mind a painful one at times. But I don’t like being bad at stuff.


Several years ago I went to Nashville to pursue the music business. I was already too old for a record deal and I knew that. So I went to study songwriting.

I was not content to write songs and play around my small town. I wanted to compete with the best in the business, or not at all.

There’s an out-of-print book about Trisha Yearwood’s climb through the music industry to stardom. It’s required reading for folks who want to know how the recording industry works. I took the title as my mantra—Get Hot or Go Home.

I devoured songwriting text books. I took workshops, attended classes. I networked. I spent every night until 1 a.m. in Nashville’s songwriter clubs and in living room pickin parties listening to the best in the business work their magic.

If you’ve never heard a professional songwriter in a small club playing his/her own songs, you’ve missed something deep and poignant. It’s one of the most magical, powerful encounters with pure creative energy you’ll experience in your lifetime.
The first week I went to Nashville I was at the Bluebird café for a writer’s night. A room full of Nashville’s best commercial songwriters listening to others like them perform their latest work. Steve Winwood was there I think. So was Michael McDonald.

Do you know who Alex Harvey is? Probably not, unless you’re a student of commercial songwriting.

A long time ago he wrote a song titled Delta Dawn—and that song launched the mega-career of a young woman named Tanya Tucker. He’s been cranking out hits ever since, though he probably could have retired on the money from that song alone because it was such a huge success. I was in the back corner of the Bluebird waiting in line for the bathroom my third day in Nashville and Alex Harvey was in line too. He was the special songwriter guest that night, and he would go on stage later to perform his songs. That's an old picture of Alex down there on the left.

He looked at me, pushed his lips out a little and said, “You new in town?”

“Yeah,” I said.“Just got here this week.”

“So, you writin’ any good songs?”

I shrugged. “I think so,” I said. “But how do you tell?”

He nodded.

“That’s the hardest part when you first get to town,” he said. “You don’t know if the last song you wrote is any good or not.”

More profound words have never been spoken. He was saying, in a way specific to songwriting, that I didn’t have any kind of stick with which to measure my work.

And he was right. It’s true not just of songwriting, but of almost everything in the world of art isn’t it? It’s true of the books we write when we're new fiction writers, and even not-so-new fiction writers.

How do you know?

How do you know if the last painting you did, or the last book you wrote, or the last poem or song you wrote is any good? How do you know if your guitar riffs breathe, if your unique musical or vocal style has merit, if your latest musical composition is worth listening to? How do you learn to please yourself with your work?

Now, some people seem to have an inner sense—some mechanism that lets them know that this—THIS—is it. THIS IS GOOD.

Not me.

I realized as I considered his words, that I had never had a measuring stick of my own. I might have been born with one, but something had happened to it a long time ago. Maybe it was a bad teacher. Or a hyper critical sibling. Whatever it was, it happened so long ago that I’d forgotten about it.
For my entire life, the stick by which I measured my work had been other people’s opinions.

Alex Harvey told me that I should keep writing, that I would get there. And I did that. I got pretty good at it actually. Not amazing, but I could sit down to co-write with any pro in the business and hold my own. I had an inherent talent for it. And I’d learned a lot. I’d built skill and I understood what it took to run with those big dogs.

But you want to know the truth? Even after all of that, the elusive measuring stick was not there. I had the raw materials, but the actual stick did not exist as yet.

You want to do something hard? Get up in a songwriter town and play your stuff in a little bitty room for a bunch of other songwriters, some who just stepped off the bus and others who have a string of hits under their belts.
And that’s the trouble. In my mind, they held the stick. They were the ones who would say whether my work had merit. There’s some truth to that I guess. Who among us does not wish to be respected by peers?
As fiction writers and RWA members, we get the benefit of writing contests, critique, and the learning that goes with that. Some of it good, some of it not so good at times. Even with those opportunities, without the inner measuring stick, how do you know which advice to believe and which to take with the proverbial grain of salt?

I took a lot of art classes when I was a girl and recently, after many years of not lifting a paintbrush, I started taking watercolor classes. Even in high school I could paint hyper-realism. Photo-style portraits in oil and acrylic.

But watercolor is a different animal.

You have to plan ahead, then you have to let it flow—you have to be loose and free and allow the painting to help you decide what it’s going to be. It’s the most difficult media I’ve worked with, ever. My perfectionism and my need to get good FAST meet their match in watercolor.

Last year my instructor asked me to hang something in a teacher-student show at a local gallery.

No way.

“You’ve got some great stuff” she said.

But to my mind it wasn’t great. Everything I’d done had been a copy of another painting, or a study in class based on something the teacher had done. Guided exercise. Nothing I felt was worthy of even framing, let alone hanging for people to look at.

I told Jeanne about it and said, “What is wrong with me? Am I so afraid of critique that I can’t hang a painting in a student show?”

Jeanne said, “Who criticizes student art?”

She was right.

I know now, what it was. It was the measuring stick. I was afraid because I was still unsure of the measuring stick for visual arts. I still don't have a solid measuring stick for painting. As it’s a hobby for me I don’t have a huge problem with that. And that's how you get good at anything. You copy those you respect and admire. You learn their techniques. You follow the recipe and the rules until one day, it becomes ingrained in you and POW, you can make up your own dishes. YOU are the chef. You are the artist and your unique voice comes through.

Or at least, that's how I imagine it to be. I imagine that you then begin to rise to the top with the cream.

And something has happened recently as I’ve been working on a new manuscript—one that’s a dramatic departure from the stuff I usually write. I’ve found myself wanting to write for ME. Not for anybody else.

This past week, I worked on a painting in class that was not something the teacher assigned. It was from a photo I took. A subject I liked. Watercolors of old buildings may be an overdone subject--maybe even cliched.

But you know what? I don’t care. Because I like it.

It’s still student art. I see all kinds of things wrong with it, and it isn’t quite done. I still have to put some shadows here, some weeds there, finish some trees. But I have it sitting in my kitchen, and I look at it, and I like it.

In fact I like it enough that I’m going to show it to you.

I call it The House on Mennonite Church Road.


Something has happened and my measuring stick for where I belong in the visual arts is materializing. This painting is not nearly as loose and impressionistic as I'd like to be, but neither is it the fussy hyper-realistic painter that I was.

I had to be away from Nashville for nearly three years before my songwriting measuring stick appeared.
At about that three year mark I got out my guitar and was playing through some of my songs—ones I was working on when life took me another direction and I stepped away from the music biz for a time. All of a sudden I listened to my own work and I sat there and stared for a minute.
Well, dang. I knew.
I KNEW. That one is mediocre. But this one…this one is actually damn good.
And I really don’t care whether anybody else likes it or not. It just doesn't matter because it's an expression of me and who I am. Like all art should be. But you know what? When I play it for people, they cry. That tells me that maybe, just maybe, my inner measuring stick is not too far off.
It's been the same with fiction manuscripts. Because I’m a writer by training I’m not shy about saying that good writing should move people. I believe that. Nevertheless, the measuring stick in my soul has been...well...ephemeral at best.

But something has changed there too. After years of writing to please teachers, copy and news editors, and publishers, I’ve begun to write for me. Yes, I want to sell. I want the recognition from outside that I’ve accomplished a goal. I want to get paid for it and I'll do what it takes to hone the craft to that point.

But even if I never sell, I will like what I’m writing. And I will write the stories because they want to be written. I'll work my rear off for an editor who wants me to make changes, since they know a lot more about marketable books than I do. But I won't be writing because I want someone else’s approval. I’ve built the skill and I will continue to build it for the rest of my life I hope. But I’m writing for me now.
The measuring stick is inside me.
So what about you, Sisters and friends?
Do you have your own inner measuring stick? How do you think we get those “measuring sticks” and how do we lose them?

Have you ever lost yours? Ever lost your sense of who you "are" as a writer, an engineer, an artist, a mom, a wife, a person?

Most of us know self doubt--how do you find your inner measuring stick once you've lost it?

How do you know good work when you see it?

Is there a painting, or a song, or a play or a piece of music that moves you to tears or laughter or angst or joy, and to which you compare everything else?

What is it about the books on your shelves—the “auto-buy” writers whose books you know you’re going to love—that measures up to what you want as a reader?

66 comments:

Aunty Cindy said...

Twice? No Way!

Cassondra said...

Way.

Congrats!

I'm still trying to poke at it. The spacing is all wonky. Either it's not there or its TOO there.

Georgie Lee said...

Great post!

Aunty Cindy said...

HA! The GR knew I was LONELY with Jo-Mama gone south o the border. :-)

LOVED your painting, Cassondra, and of course, your post was one of your thought-provoking best.

Yes, I know when something I've written is "good" or if it's not quite there. But how do I know? Maybe because I've been doing it so long? I've told you my DH's watercolor story but I'll repeat it here for the sake of those who haven't heard.

My DH has a degree in Art, and he agrees that watercolor is the most difficult paint medium to do well. He took his first watercolor class as in undergrad and struggled to complete 2 paintings in one week. His instructor looked at them, said he had potential then told him to go home and paint 25 more over the weekend! My poor DH nearly croaked. It had taken him 5 days to do 2. But he went home and did what the instructor told him. He finished 25 watercolors in 48 hours and he learned more than he had learned all year in art class.

So, practice may not make perfect, but it does help with that elusive measuring stick!

AC

Cassondra said...

Thanks georgie lee!

Glad to have you stop by!

Cassondra said...

Auntie Cindy said:

So, practice may not make perfect, but it does help with that elusive measuring stick!

You're right. I think you just have to "do it" until suddenly you know. The stronger the muscle gets, the more you know when you have too much water in the brush. How's that for a mixed metaphor????

Even so, I have to wonder--is it age? Is it some point of personal development? What is it that makes us able, quite suddenly, to "know" who we are as an artist?

One of the things that makes me ask the question is Foanna's story. She "knew" herself as a romantic comedy writer, but turned around and said "oh the hell with it" and wrote a dark angsty regency and that's what's making her a star.

You're right AC, the stick is elusive.

Kirsten said...

Uf.

Lawd, girl, trying to respond to one of your blogs is an exercise in soul searching. I'll have to muse on this tonight.

I guess my first thought is --what are you measuring with that measuring stick of yours? Are you measuring whether YOU like your work? Whether it measures up to a mass market audience? Whether it MOVES somebody?

I don't know that I've ever lost my internal measuring stick for what is right for me. I've always written for me and I have never been one to angst too much about who I am or what has meaning for me. I know me pretty well.

The mass market measuring stick is harder. I'm getting better at it, but it's a weird, clinical thing, to look at something you wrote and try to determine if it would make it in NY. And that isn't to say figuring out if it will SELL, because that's a whole other crap shoot. But figuring out if it did sell, how the market might receive it. Whether it really stacks up to other books out there. Hard, but something you do after a lot of practice, analysis, reading, education, etc. I don't think this is something you just have in your gut. I think this takes study.

And then there's the--will it move someone--question. Totally different question for me. Much harder to figure out. Perhaps this IS the part that comes from the gut. The soul. Maybe.

Hmmm. I have more thinking to do.

Gorgeous watercolor, by the way. Absolutely amazing. You are such a talented human being, Cassondra. We are so lucky to have you among us.

flchen1 said...

Whoa... Cassondra, that was another of your mind-blowing wow posts. I loved it and loved your painting, too :)

I'm not sure about my own measuring stick... I think mine's a bit untrained in some arenas (because I think you've got something there--I think maybe part of it's instinctive, but I think part of it's doing something enough times so you have a feel for what's good and what's not). For cooking for instance, I'm not a great cook and don't aspire to be, so I tend to be really lazy and try to follow the recipe, but I don't taste it much or anything, and then I let my husband season it and "fix it" when it's almost done. It mostly works ;p

For other things, like crafty stuff, which I enjoy but am currently way out of practice with, I do have more of a feel for those things I've done a lot whether a new thing I'm doing is good or not good.

I think what it boils down to a bit is that it's very powerful to have that measuring stick in place, as long as it's somewhat realistic (in that you don't make yourself crazy trying to get to perfect or some never-gonna-get-there standard). You are your own best (and worst) audience then.

Oh, and congrats, AC!! How's the GR doing?

flchen1 said...

Ooh... good questions, Kirsten! Talk about more mind-boggling... I've got to get out of here and get some sleep! ;)

Cassondra said...

Kirsten said:

I guess my first thought is --what are you measuring with that measuring stick of yours? Are you measuring whether YOU like your work? Whether it measures up to a mass market audience? Whether it MOVES somebody?

Hmmm. Good questions. And I think the answer is....yes.

Maybe this is too woo woo for a blog in the lair. I dunno. I believe, I think, that the Creator put each of us on Earth with a gift to give--and that gift is unique to US. So if I can find the measuring stick that I either lost or never had, and can do what I was...well...called to do, and do it with skill and with determination, then maybe the same measuring stick works for all of the above.

Dang. This is WAY too philosophical. WHAT WAS I THINKING??????

QUICK. Somebody tell a joke! Get me out of this! AAAAHHHHHH.

Thank you Auntie Cindy and Kirsten for saying you like my painting.

Helen said...

Congrats Aunty Cindy he sure must have had fun with you yesterday

Cassondra
WOW I want one of your books published now you have such a wonderful voice you are so positive and true to yourself I wish I could be like that.
I always have self doubts about the way I handle things whether it be at work or at home but in the end I do what I think is right and if it is wrong then I hopefully learn by my mistakes.
As for music I love listening to music I love listening to the words of a song and what it means.
I wish I could express myself as good as you do.
Loved the post
Have Fun
Helen

Helen said...

Cassondra I love that painting it is beautiful.
Have Fun
Helen

Cassondra said...

flchen 1 said:

I'm not sure about my own measuring stick... I think mine's a bit untrained in some arenas (because I think you've got something there--I think maybe part of it's instinctive, but I think part of it's doing something enough times so you have a feel for what's good and what's not).

Mine's untrained too, Flchen, in a lot of areas. Cooking is one of them! But I'm getting a bit better at that.

I think in all areas, if we excel, it must be a blend of talent and training and plain old elbow grease. Sticking to it. See...you've found it in your craft work. I bet your hands just "know."

Cassondra said...

Helen, I think you express yourself beautifully! I always look forward to your posts here in the lair.

Me too on the self doubt. :0/

All we can do is our best at any one moment though, right? We just have to make decisions and GO.

I angst over painting. Worry about every brush stroke. My teacher just splashes some paint in there and goes! And it turns out terrific when she does it! Of course, she has the years of experience of working with the paint. Auntie Cindy's husband had to do 25 in a weekend. I would freak out totally if I had to do that. Maybe I need to just do that--just paint.

With the books, the stuff that stymies me...somebody like SEP or La Nora would just laugh it off. They'd know what to do immediately I bet. It's that experience. And, I think, learning to trust the measuring stick. First you have to find it I think, then you have to learn to trust it.

Sounds to me like you're doin' fine Helen!

And thanks on the painting. You are all so sweet! :0)

Amy Andrews said...

OMG Cassondra - you write, paint and compose songs???? Lordy, you are superhero, who needs a measuring stick?? Your time in Nashville sounds absolutely fascinating. I would love to be able to write songs and would love ot visit Nashville one day. Maybe when national is there?

Wow, your blog was deep and I don't think I have any answers except to say I don't know if many of us ever find the measuring stick. 16 books down and I'm still expecting my ed to say "ha ha, we were only joking". I mean I know when I write something good but that doesn't mean that anyone else is going to think so. I think you have the right idea.
Write your stories for you.

Cassondra said...

amy andrews said:

16 books down and I'm still expecting my ed to say "ha ha, we were only joking". I mean I know when I write something good but that doesn't mean that anyone else is going to think so.

Wow Amy! I think you DO know. Sounds like you have a great inner measuring stick. You KNOW when you write something good. And I bet when you know its good, it usually flies. Or at least the essence of it. 16 books proves you've got something going on.

But isn't it the truth that no matter how many, you always wonder if you can do it again? I hate that.

And as to the "write, paint, compose blah blah blah.." Yeah, I'm a real renaissance woman. And I'll starve to death just like they did if I don't sell something. (grin) So fat lot of good it does me. (double grin)

Cassondra said...

Amy said:

I would love to be able to write songs and would love ot visit Nashville one day. Maybe when national is there?

I'll take you around to the songwriter clubs. It's the coolest thing ever. Come in a couple of days early. It's 2010 I think. I'm gonna hold you to it. Any of you who hang in the lair--if you're coming to National in Nashville, I'll show you the music industry. I'll take the weekend off to do it.

Christine Wells said...

My goodness is there anything you can't do, Cassondra? LOVE that watercolour.

As Kirsten said, it depends what your measuring stick is meant to tell you. I think I know what works in the historical market, what gets rave reviews and what sells (they're not necessarily the same). That's not to say I can meet the criteria, but I have a good idea of what it is.

I can usually tell in my gut if I've got something special, something I'm still going to think is special in six months' time when I come back to edit it. (Elizabeth George talks about getting a physical reaction to writing and I get that too on a really great day.)

But as to somehow merging the two (the market test and your own excitement about your creation)--you can try, but I think you end up coming full circle. You do need to write for yourself first and then often you'll find that others will find excitement in the same things you do.

Sometimes I wish I could get the voice I started with back. The 'rules' really choked me for a little while there. But I've learned a lot while paying attention to what everyone else says, so I can't regret it too much.

I've quoted this before, but I love it and so I'll quote it again. It's from Don Whittington and he said:
'It was our talent that led us writers to try writing. We are not
normal. Why? Because we are talented in a way that others are not. Do you think that carpenters hammer secretly at night building
houses in their backyard? Houses they are afraid to show anybody
because someone might think they are not talented? No. They don't
need our validation to be carpenters. They just do it. My point is that to uncover the X-Factor you must indulge your own unique talent. Be as modest as you like at the cocktail party, but when you pick up that keyboard remind yourself that there has never been another writer like you in the entire history of creation. Set yourself free.'

Cut it out and stick it over your computer. It's the best advice I've ever heard about writing, ever.

Cassondra said...

Kirsten said:

I don't know that I've ever lost my internal measuring stick for what is right for me. I've always written for me and I have never been one to angst too much about who I am or what has meaning for me. I know me pretty well.

Ah. See? You're one of those. You just KNOW.

Say a prayer of thanks girlfriend. You know your own soul. I am envious. Kudos on that. And look at the results--MEGA SALES. Which, by the way, are well-deserved.

Stick or no stick, that means you worked your butt off.

Donna MacMeans said...

Cassondra - I think your painting is great. Watercolor is so...unforgiving. I avoid it whenever possible *g* Just don't have the patience.

I've lived most of my adult life surrounded by external measuring sticks. There's financial statements measuring performance, IRS rules, guidelines, checklists and directives. It's only in the creative world that one requires some sort of internal measuring device.

For someone used to having strict black & white measures of what is and is not acceptable, suddenly functioning without them creates a vast pit of self-doubt.

Practice, experience, and constructive feedback help create a measuring standard, but it still comes down to the heart knowing what is right for you, what is good and what is not.

Nice post, though at 2am, I'm not sure I'm lucid. *g*

Cassondra said...

OMG Christine!

I AM going to cut that out and put it over my computer!!!!!

And I mean every one of those excessive exclamation points.

I have not seen that quote. Where have I been? Where have you been hiding it? What is it from?

I must read more of what this person has to say.

And thank you on the watercolor.

You do need to write for yourself first and then often you'll find that others will find excitement in the same things you do.

That's what I think too. Or at least, what I hope is the truth. But getting to the point of writing for ones-self--in this "have to please everybody" culture, I've found that difficult to do.

Cassondra said...

Donna said:

Nice post, though at 2am, I'm not sure I'm lucid. *g*

Since when is "lucid" a criteria for anything in the lair?

I'm in the tawny port at 1 o'clock central time, so lucid is not a factor. (grin)


Thanks on the painting. And it IS unforgiving. Lose those whites and...well..you've lost the painting.

For you who don't know, you don't use white when you do watercolor. You have to leave the white of the paper if you want white. Planning ahead and all that. Pain in the butt.

It's only in the creative world that one requires some sort of internal measuring device.

This is it,isn't it? No resume. Grade point average does not count. Only whether you can create something that will move somebody emotionally or that someone will pay money to own. Something useless except for the emotional reaction it creates in another person. I've spent pretty much my whole life in these types of fields. Hmmm. Maybe that's why I'm warped.

Christine Wells said...

Cassondra, Don W used to have a column called The Ink-Stained Wretch on Authorlink.com. Unfortunately, you have to pay to read it now but I did keep that quote. Kept it for years, actually. I need it because I keep forgetting:)

I think you're going to make it big in this industry, Cassondra, as long as you believe in yourself. Look at the response you get to your wonderful blogs!

Cassondra said...

Christine said:

Unfortunately, you have to pay to read it now but I did keep that quote. Kept it for years, actually. I need it because I keep forgetting:)

Darn. I bet people DO pay. That's worth paying for--to read that kind of thing when you're struggling with yourself I think.

And thank you so much for the kind words. If I can wrestle my own inner demons to the ground and trust myself--that'll be the first step I think. ;0)

Amy Andrews said...

Cassondra you better not be yanking my chain because I've just pencilled in Nashville!!
You bet your sweet tootsie's I want go to some of those clubs. Just to listen and be amongst greatness would be totally awesome.

Cassondra said...

Amy, we're there.

I will point you to whatever the best shows are that I can find that are happening in the songwriting community.

If there's a concert at the Ryman that weekend you have to go to that because the Ryman is magic. But beyond that, the little hole-in-the-wall songwriter clubs are where the music business happens.

Ideas fly around the room in those places. I swear. If you get good at listening, you can reach out and grab them. I've gotten my best song ideas there, and some of my best book plots too.

Cassondra said...

Off to the coffin for me.

I'll rise sometime mid-morning (with the shades pulled of course) to see who else lurks in the lair. (grin)

Night all.

Suzanne Welsh said...

Ah, Cassondra, as usual you're making me think. We seriously have to talk about making me think in the middle of the night, at least on a night off!! :)

And before I go any further, can I say how fabulous I think your watercolor is? Reminds me of some of the farm houses in Tennessee where my grandparents lived.

I've learned to diffuse some of the negative measurements from contests, because quite frankly my night job puts a great perspective on my writing life. It doesn't negate the crative side wanting to achieve that elusive contract.

My internal measuring stick is pretty healthy as long as I remember that the words on the page are from my dreams, fantasies and emotions, not anyone on the NYT lists. No one but ME can tell MY stories.

We each bring our uniqueness to our work. The exercise of writing every day (or night), hones our craft, lets us pull out of our depths those emotions and experiences that hopefully will translate to powerful story telling on the written page.

Since I'm not yet published, I obviously haven't found the external measuring stick the publishers or agents are looking for. But then again, maybe it's not a measuring stick with them. Maybe it's a bell curve. And I'm on the far end of it, and if THEY run hard enough or search long enough they'll find ME!

And Christine, I copied your quote, too! Thanks for sharing it.

Christie Kelley said...

Cassondra, what a great post. And I'm totally envious of your painting ability. Your painting was beautiful. I have absolutely no painting/drawing/sketching ability. But I can take nice photos.

I found your post really interesting. I'd never really considered it a measuring stick. Maybe that's what I'm missing. I definitely want to stay true to my writing but I still have a difficult time analyzing my writing. Is it good enough? Did I hit on all the emotions I should have? Maybe it's self-doubt, or maybe it's the measuring stick. I'm just not sure.

Kirsten said...

Great thoughts from everyone! Christine, I love that quote too, and Suz, I agree that the day job can give you some perspective on this--especially one like yours.

Fedora, I think you and I went to the same cooking school! Thank goodness for husbands who can save us from our laziness. ;-)

Amy, I'm tagging along to Nashville too! I'm actually a country fan, so it will be double the fun for me. :-)

Helen, you are always so expressive--I'm trying to learn from my (hundreds) of mistakes too.

Here's my latest thought for the day--I read this in the prologue to some very pretentious and overly self-important writing book that I put down shortly after the prologue and didn't pick back up. (It was a compliation of essays from writers who had graduated from the University of Iowa's writing program, if that tells you anything.) So the book wasn't for me, but the prologue said (this is NOT a direct quote!):

Writing is unique because the more you practice and the better you get the harder it gets.

This really struck a chord with me. I know the more I write the more opportunities, more layers, more meaning, and more ways to use language I see. The more I write the less satisfied I am with stereotypes and cliches. The more I write the greater the possibilities I can see.

I have no idea what that means except that you've got to get that first internal measuring stick firmly in place (the one where you know what you like) because the further you go, the more exacting those other rulers will become.

Oy, such deep thoughts for so early in the morning! I love it!! (Can you tell I'm a complete and total GEEK?!)

Kim Howe said...

Cassondra,

First of all, that's a stunning painting. As far as I'm concerned, you have serious talent. You definitely have creative genes...songwriting, painting, writing. Wow!

I love what you said about writing for yourself. My first attempts at novel writing ended up being a mix of genres, styles, and voices--efforts that didn't fit in anywhere. I realized that I had to stop writing to try and please everyone. Now my voice is less controlled and polished, but the raw emotion comes through, the real essence of the characters. I'm writing novels that I would like to read and the end result seems a lot better. Guess we'll see how they do with publishers. :)

My critique partners inspired me because their stories always ring true...Debra Webb (NAMELESS), CJ Lyons (LIFELINES) and Maria V. Snyder (FIRE STUDY)...and they have a unique voice and style that people enjoy. Something to aspire to, that's for sure.

KJ

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Aunt Cindy, congrats on the GR AGAIN!
Cassondra, the painting is beautiful, I didn't know you were so multi-talented, I am in awe and envy.
What is it about the books on your shelves—the “auto-buy” writers whose books you know you’re going to love—that measures up to what you want as a reader?
This is not an easy question to answer, perhaps as a reader I have a measuring stick to where I just know. Different authors touch me in different ways and for the most part, I can't pin-point why. There is a lot said here about an author's "voice" and in my subconcious I recognize that voice and know I want to hear more. To tell you exactly what each author has that touches me, I couldn't begin to tell what it is.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Oh, and about that painting? Just like in books, you can be assured I like it because given the opportunity, I would buy it! I do not part with my hard earned dollars lightly, so if I would buy it, it has to be good.

Joan said...

Cassondra...girl...you've done it again.

I can do watercolors...with my fingers and my 3 year old friend.
Your painting was REAL...it was there, it was great.

As to measuring sticks. I have very raw, loose ones. I think it comes from possessing an inherent arrogance, a self confidence that has given me the strength to get through periods of extreme doubt (high school), worry (high school), angst (high school AND writing).

I can only ever do anything if it is for ME. If I didn't I would have dropped my Roman stories after my first conference when I was consistently regarded with HORROR that I was writing Rome.

Sorry, those stories need to be told and I'm the one to tell them.

And weight loss, the bane of women of every age. I had not achieved measurable success until I decided it was for ME.

Now, I would encourage you to let go of those sticks. Throw them on the ground, do what you do because sweetie it is awesome!

Joanie T who uses your blog posts as a measuring stick to her own and SOBS

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Donna, you are a painter as well?? Okay, I usually sit here in awe of the Banditas because of their writing alone, now I am in double and triple awe. A show of hands of all the multi Banditas please?

Kate Carlisle said...

Dang girl, don't ask me those questions! You know I'm too shallow for all this deep thinking!

How do I know good work when I see it? I guess you're talking about my own work, right? Yeah. Well, right now, let's talk about someone else's work -- because that's easier. :-)

I know a good painting when I see it and want to buy it. I want to look at it and enjoy it and study it and wonder what the artist was thinking when she made that stroke or used that color. I like art on my walls and I buy paintings I like when I can afford them.

And I guess I know when someone's written well because I want to buy their book. I just finished reading some Golden Heart entries and there were two in the pack that I wished were already books so I could buy them and keep reading.

So should that artist or GH writer give a hoot what I think? Probably not, but I'll bet they do. But ya know, they shouldn't, because some years I've given the highest scores possible and those entries didn't show up in the list of finals. It's annoying, but it just goes to show, it's all a crap shoot.

So if I'm looking at a crap shoot "out there," I should probably apply the same philosophy to myself. This business is a crap shoot. You work hard, you learn your lessons, then after a while, you put it out there and see what happens. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't, but you take the shot. You keep taking the shot. That's what matters.

And Cassondra, I would gladly pay money to hang your painting on my wall. It's beautiful, and so is your writing.

I'm just sayin. :-)

Kate Carlisle said...

Yo Aunty!! Nice job nabbing the GR! Guess he needed a little extended R&R after the day he spent with p226. ;-)

MsHellion said...

That is a GORGEOUS painting! You're multi-talented, definitely!

I have a measuring stick. I need to burn it...it's ridiculous. I think my main MS is the one I use between me and my friend Pam. *shhh* Don't tell her. But I always feel like I should be more like her, in a way. Married, and happily so. Career focused; mindful...nurturing...just everything. I'm kinda glad she doesn't write because I suspect she'd also do that better than me. We've been friends since we were like 7...so I think it's a "normal" measuring stick to have. You always want to be more like those you most admire, but I have plenty of other friends now where I don't seem to feel this sort of...competition. Where I feel I'm not as good as her.

Well, there's my TMI post for the week.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Banditas and Bandita Buddies, I did a little something with the quote and Cassondra's painting. It is sized to fit 8.5 x 11.0 standard paper. Ideally you should just be able to go to the link and print it. Or do a save as and print it from your fav art program.

http://hrdwrkdmom.com/romance_bandits/setyourselffree.jpg

Cassondra said...

Suz said:

My internal measuring stick is pretty healthy as long as I remember that the words on the page are from my dreams, fantasies and emotions, not anyone on the NYT lists. No one but ME can tell MY stories.

We each bring our uniqueness to our work. The exercise of writing every day (or night), hones our craft, lets us pull out of our depths those emotions and experiences that hopefully will translate to powerful story telling on the written page.


Suz, this is it, insn't it?

It probably all boils down to self worth, and recognizing that as individuals we have something to offer that nobody else can offer.

It's most frustrating in the stage when we feel like we're doing the "copying". I wrote an email to Foanna and whined, "I think I'm channelling Suz Brockman WAAAAAA!!!!"

Fo wrote back (and I paraphrase) "So what? You could channel far worse."

And she's right. We are the sum total of all that we've read, seen, experienced, and who we are at birth. So at some point you have to give up that garbage and just get on with it I think.

Cassondra said...

Christie said:

I definitely want to stay true to my writing but I still have a difficult time analyzing my writing. Is it good enough? Did I hit on all the emotions I should have? Maybe it's self-doubt, or maybe it's the measuring stick. I'm just not sure.

Me too Christie! I do this same thing. And I think it's a combination of both. Maybe if we had less self-doubt, as JoMama spoke of in her recent blog, the measuring stick would be obvious to us.

Cassondra said...

Inara said:

I have no idea what that means except that you've got to get that first internal measuring stick firmly in place (the one where you know what you like) because the further you go, the more exacting those other rulers will become.

Inara you're right. PLUS, with each piece of work you do, there is external pressure to do "better" than the last. That pressure alone stymies a lot of people. The better you get, the more you want to get better--the more you demand of yourself. I'm sure some things get easier because you grow at your craft. But as Amy noted so well--apparantly the self-doubt never goes away.

It's finding that first measuring stick in a world where everyone wants you to use THEIRS that seems to be the trouble.

Cassondra said...

Kim Howe said:

Now my voice is less controlled and polished, but the raw emotion comes through, the real essence of the characters. I'm writing novels that I would like to read and the end result seems a lot better.

Wow. That's what I'm looking for. I guess I've gotten there to some extent, but my perfectionism and anal-retentive copy-editor self tend to polish that out if I don't watch it. And yet I've realized it's the emotion that people want to read. The rawer the better.

Very cool that you've come to this place. I can't wait to read your first book!

And thanks for saying you like the painting too. :0)

Cassondra said...

Dianna said:

This is not an easy question to answer, perhaps as a reader I have a measuring stick to where I just know. Different authors touch me in different ways and for the most part, I can't pin-point why. There is a lot said here about an author's "voice" and in my subconcious I recognize that voice and know I want to hear more.

No, it's not an easy question is it? LOL!

And I think you've nailed the truth. It's not a concrete thing. It's not some spot in your soul you can point to and say "there it is, there's the stick."

And the stick is different for every person, and each person applies it differently.

THANK GOODNESS there are so many readers and so many different types of readers looking for different types of books, all with different "soul sticks."

Interesting though, that some particular authors can consistently crank out books that touch many, many thousands of readers. SEP, Evanovich, and recently, Sherrilyn Kenyon stand out in my mind--among many others. Maybe they've gotten "truer" to their own inner selves, and so their works shines even brighter?

Hmmmm. Okay this is way too deep again. I'm only on my first cup of coffee and just crawled out of the coffin.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Dianna -

I used to paint, though I don't do much of it now. My medium of choice is oils/acrylics & pastels. Oils because the colors are so rich and there's something about that painterly smell. Acrylics because they are forgiving. If you don't like the way the painting is going, give it an hour or so to dry and then paint over it & yeah, there's a tube of white paint *g*. Pastels because it throws you back into drawing on driveways as a kid.

Way back when I had visions of being a successful artist. I've done well in local contests, but writing is much cleaner *g* I learned that the goal of a good painting is to pull emotion - which is the same for a good book IMHO.

If pulling emotion is used as a measuring stick then I think our Cassondra is off the charts *g*.
I'm quite convinced that it's only a matter of time before some insightful publisher picks her up.

Cassondra said...

Oh, Dianna THANK YOU so much for saying you would buy my painting!

Wow.

That's awesome. And a little surreal.

Cassondra said...

Joanie said:

I can only ever do anything if it is for ME. If I didn't I would have dropped my Roman stories after my first conference when I was consistently regarded with HORROR that I was writing Rome.

Joanie, of all the Banditas, I knew you had that measuring stick solidly in place--at least for your writing and your subject. NOBODY could have stuck it out with your Romans for as long as you have if that stick wasn't THERE. Like your True North, you're sticking to it, and there is no way to tell you how impressed I am by that.

I, on the other hand, would have probably dropped it when everybody told me it wouldn't work.

I dunno. And I'm not sure where you get that inner confidence. Some folks seem to have it and others don't.

That's one of the things I'm wondering. What destroys that, or what keeps it from being formed when we're kids? Interesting. We've all experienced our share of difficulties and of good things I expect.

You hold onto that stick of yours, because I think if anything can knock it out of you, publishing will do it. Your Romans deserve to be known.

Cassondra said...

Kate said:

How do I know good work when I see it? I guess you're talking about my own work, right? Yeah. Well, right now, let's talk about someone else's work -- because that's easier. :-)

Haha! Kate, you just made a point in one paragraph that it took me PAGES to say. I can tell if I like something about somebody else's work. I can tell if a painting moves me. I can tell, obviously, if a book made me cry or laugh or my heart pound or my heart break and then made me smile when it was healed.

But my own stuff? Nuh-uh. I think there must be no way to do it except to write what you love, paint what you love, and apply all the craft and skill you have while doing it.

And thank you on the painting. That's so kind of you to say that.

Cassondra said...

hellion said:

I have a measuring stick. I need to burn it...it's ridiculous. I think my main MS is the one I use between me and my friend Pam. *

Ah, there it is. THIS one is a hard one to get rid of--the "comparison" stick. In the music business, it was nigh impossible to get rid of it. Because you went out every night and listened to other people's work and then sat down the next day to write your own. And every night you'd hear something that made you want to quit and go home.

And if you didn't go to the clubs, it was ON THE FREAKIN' RADIO. Or on the overhead sound system at the mall... No way to get away from it.

And if you're a reader (and aren't we all?) there's nowhere to hide either. I read Claiming the Courtesan and Untouched and after both books I tossed them on the bedside table and said "Sh*t. I'll never be able to do THAT."

Comparison is an ugly thing isn't it?

I once had somebody like that in my life--somebody who always had everything together and was better at everything than I was. She was Barbie. Never had any problems (that she let me see anyhow). It was destabilizing.

Kate Carlisle said...

Dianna, that's beautiful!! I'm going to print it out in color and stick it on my bulletin board. Sweet!

And I forgot to sign up for the Nashville tour. :-) I'll be there!

Cassondra said...

Dianna, that is really VERY cool. I'm humbled that you took the time to do that. Thank you!

Cassondra said...

Donna said:

Oils because the colors are so rich and there's something about that painterly smell.

OMG. Donna I love that smell. It's the thing I miss most about doing oils. I did some acrylics, but I never fell in love with acrylics the way I did oil. I did oil all through my young years. It was actually a strange kind of satisfaction to say "I've done all I can do to it" and step away for the night to let that layer dry. But the smell of the turpentine permeates the environment. Probably causes ten kinds of cancer I dunno, but I don't much care either. I LOVED it.

I fell in love with the transparency of watercolor, but the thing I miss while I'm doing watercolor is that oil paint smell.

And you are always so encouraging. Thank you.

Joan said...

When I was a kid I did this great picture of a foal...only took 10 different NUMBERS to get it to come to life :-)

Cassondra said...

I did some of those too Joanie! I think they're kind of cool actually. And they're collector's items now--old paint by numbers paintings. They go for big bucks at antique malls and auctions. Just like the ones I did when I was a kid.

Who'dathunk my $2 paint by numbers would be worth big bucks some day--IF I still had them of course. ;0)

Susan Seyfarth said...

Oh, Cassondra, I do love your posts. And I love your painting, too, btw. :-)

As for measuring sticks, I don't know where mine is. Sometimes I worry I don't have one, & sometimes I KNOW I have one & wish it would go away so I could write something that might have a snowball's chance of selling.

Unfortunately for me, I have no ability to write grittier, funnier, sexier or any other fill-in-the-blank-hot-quality-of-the-year. And (unfortunately for my career but maybe fortunately for my soul) I also have no ability to write somebody else's story. I had an editor recently tell me he'd have another look at my MS if I changed X, Y & Z. At first, I was so thrilled to have been asked to resubmit I thought, "Of course I'll change X Y & Z!" Then when I got down to the business of plotting out my changes, I realized I couldn't do it. Maybe he didn't like X, but the entire story hinged on it, & changing it meant writing a different story. In the end, I didn't do it. Maybe I'm a fool, maybe I let an opportunity slip by, but I just didn't want to write that other story. I liked MY story.

So, stubborn girl doesn't publish. Story of my life. But my internal measuring stick is happy. And, though I live in hope that someday I'll write something publishable, for now I'm happy scribbling stories I like.

Cassondra said...

Susan said:
So, stubborn girl doesn't publish. Story of my life. But my internal measuring stick is happy. And, though I live in hope that someday I'll write something publishable, for now I'm happy scribbling stories I like.

Susan I don't think that's stubborn. I think it's smart. And you WILL sell. That measuring stick of yours is what will make you sell and sell big I think. At least, I hope. I think that's what distinguishes you from everyone else.

This brings up an interesting point--when I was in Nashville I did a lot of work for Nashville Songwriters' Association International. It's often the first stop for new singer-songwriters when they come to town. I'd answer the phones and work the reception desk or whatever else they needed. Many times I got cornered by someone "just off the bus" into listening to the "song they wrote for Garth Brooks and how could they get it to Garth?" I could do them no good and I told them so, but when they came down to begging, what could I do but listen?

And nine times out of ten it was the typical new songwriter mistakes that doomed the piece of work. It was a rehash of something someone else had already done. Or it was their life's story set to song (only their family would think that was interesting). Or it was their political or religious position set to music (nobody wants to hear that).

And for the singers, you'd be amazed how many of them came in there and sounded "just like Elvis." And they DID sound just like Elvis. And that was the kiss of death for their career as a singer.

How could I tell them that Elvis was dead and nobody wanted another one?

But that's the truth. We don't need more of what we've already got. I think (hope) that to accomplish what we all hope for--success in the publishing world--it's the DIFFERENCES that will eventually make us stand out. Like Joanie's Romans. Like the stories you write that your "girls in the basement" --or your internal measuring stick--insist are YOUR stories.

The right editor and house will come along to want THOSE stories. At least I'm betting a lot of time and work on it.

Beth said...

Cassondra, what a gorgeous painting! I'm in awe of your talent *g* My 82 year-old MIL started painting about 7 years ago and is constantly growing and changing which is so exciting to see :-)

I'm probably the last person to answer your questions seeing as how I'm of the "I like it because I like it" school *g* What makes a book or song or painting stand out to me? I have no idea - I just know what I like :-)

But of course I find myself measuring my writing against other writers I admire. A lot of times I come up short, but those times when I laugh-out-loud at a piece of my dialogue or tear up during an emotional scene that I've written make it all worthwile *g*

Christine, thanks for the great quote!

Cassondra said...

WonderBeth said:

I'm of the "I like it because I like it" school *g*

This is how I want to be. You've got that inner measuring stick, and when you have it solid like that, nobody can knock it out of you. You just "know."

Yup. I think that's a great way for any artist to be.

Kim said...

First let me say that I'm SO jealous of you, Cassondra! I would love to see the Bluebird Cafe. Someday! Maybe when the RWA con hits Nashville. I guess I could use some of my Faith Hill-stalker time to visit the Bluebird *g*

Second let me say UGH! I'm trying to write. Really I am. I have what I think is a brilliant first paragraph and then two pages of drudge. Now I'm too afraid that it'll all be drudge and I can't even open the #$@* thing to work on it. I'm WAY to self-critical.

Cassondra said...

Kim said:

Second let me say UGH! I'm trying to write. Really I am. I have what I think is a brilliant first paragraph and then two pages of drudge. Now I'm too afraid that it'll all be drudge and I can't even open the #$@* thing to work on it. I'm WAY to self-critical.

Kim, soul sister, WRITE.

You can't fix what isn't there. Get it out. I throw away 2/3 of what I write in any given manuscript. I know I'm writing three times what will actually stay in there. It's just part of the process. WRITE. Even if it's drivel. Write it anyway. Drivel can be edited out and the good stuff can be left in. If you write enough, there WILL be some good stuff.

Now, telling the good stuff from the drivel--that's MY problem with my own work.

But one thing I know. You can't fix what you don't write. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.

Honestly, who cares if it's rotten?

You know what ELSE Alex Harvey told me when I was standing in that line for the bathroom at the Bluebird? He said, "Everybody writes bad songs. You just don't play those for anybody."

I might have talked to the guy for two minutes tops, but he told me some truth.

If you write it and it's rotten, you don't have to show those parts to anybody. (grin) Nobody but you and God will ever know you wrote it. And God's a really easy editor. I promise.

Kim said...

aww, thanks Cassondra. The Banditas are so supportive! Man, I love the Lair. My butt is in my chair and as soon as I leave the lair I'm opening my wip and I'm going to get to 5 pages TONIGHT.

doglady said...

Congrats on nabbing the GR, Aunty Cindy. He obviously loves your house!

Cassondra, I LOVE your painting! It is perfect. Don't change a thing. I just love the look and feel of it.

This was a truly inspiring post. So many of us spend our lives measuring what we do against all the wrong measuring sticks - everyone else's. That instinct buried deep inside all of us that tells us what our best is or is not is really difficult to find and even harder to believe.

Here's to feeding that instinct some spinach so that it grows strong enough to help us out.

Those people whose books I buy over and over are those who write stories that speak to me. They tell me unique stories in their own voice, a voice like no other. They tell me the story like one friend telling another. Those are the books I buy.

Christine Wells said...

Suz, Kirsten and Beth--you're welcome for the quote. I try very hard to believe in it, or trick myself into believing it. I think you tend to write so much better when you feel good about yourself and your story.

Cassondra said...

Kim said:

My butt is in my chair and as soon as I leave the lair I'm opening my wip and I'm going to get to 5 pages TONIGHT.

You GO girl! Come back and give us a report on how it went!

Cassondra said...

Doglady said:

So many of us spend our lives measuring what we do against all the wrong measuring sticks - everyone else's. That instinct buried deep inside all of us that tells us what our best is or is not is really difficult to find and even harder to believe.

Amen Doglady! I don't know how we lose that "True North" that I believe was built into our souls. Somehow only a few of us manage to get to adulthood with our sense of our artistic "selves" intact.

You know what? I've found the spinach to be my support group--the Banditas--they are the ones who help me get my butt back in the chair and not quit. It's interesting how sometimes it takes a while to find just the right ones for you--ones who "get" you.

I still have to do the work for myself, but having someone say "you do what's right for YOU and follow your gut about your stories" is really valuable in any artistic endeavor.

I'm so glad to have The Banditas and all of you who visit the lair every day to talk with us. You all are why we write.

And THANK YOU on the painting.