Thursday, September 20, 2007

Guest Blogger Mary Castillo

One of the perks of being on the playground is that we get to meet new and interesting people along the way. I think you're all going to enjoy chatting with Mary Castillo today. Please welcome her to the sandbox!

The Five Qualities of a Writer

I'm always asked what one needs to be a writer. It took me 13 years to figure out that answer because there are actually five things one needs to be a writer. They don't include high concept ideas, an MFA from a prestigious writing program, a good agent or the perfect query letter. This might make you roll your eyes at me but I'll say it anyway. The five qualities that I've seen in authors are: generosity, discipline, patience, joy and writing.

Each quality has helped me rise above judging myself too harshly, or getting tangled up in envying someone else's success, which only takes energy away from writing. Each quality helps the grown-up writer who obsesses over the market and if they have a good idea, to get back to the little kid inside us who loves making up stories. At the core, it's a child-like curiosity that makes us "special" compared to the average dude. One person might see two people kissing in the park; but a writer sees a story rich with conflict and emotional strife that has brought those two lovers together.

Generosity starts with you. When I write a really good line or chapter, I now take a moment to tell myself, "Good job, dude!" I used to think that praising myself was arrogant; that God would hear it and strike me down. But God hasn't struck me down and my writing hasn't gone down the tubes so I think it's okay to give yourself a thumbs-up when you've earned it. But generosity needs to go outward. When I read a book that moves me and lingers in my head long after I finish the last page, I love emailing the author to tell them. Being generous creates good vibes that can result in a pay off: by praising yourself, you build the confidence to keep writing even on those days when the work isn't so great. By praising a fellow writer, you spread the love and who knows, that author might return the favor.

A writing teacher once told me, "Discipline protects the talent." Every writer from the perennial bestsellers to the destined-to-be-published, share this quality. Discipline exercises the muscles, so to speak and prepares you for the inevitable tight spots we all get into. Discipline gives you the endurance to meet deadlines even though your house burned down, or in my case as I was writing Switchcraft, I had a newborn in the house and still finished the book. Although with the next one, I'll make sure to finish the book before he or she arrives!

Patience is truly a virtue. Not in that makes you better than everyone else. Patience saves your sanity. My friend Lynda Sandoval told me a story about her police officer training. She was taught that in a crisis, an officer can't get all caught up in the chaos. Instead, an officer has to wind down and focus. She applied that same principle when her publisher shut down her imprint. She patiently wrote a new book, waited for the right publisher to come along and then like that, she signed a six-figure deal with Harper Collins and then, a multi-book deal with Harlequin. Impatience is like that driver who cuts you off and then speeds down the street to arrive a red light two seconds before you do. Irritating, stressful and ultimately, dumb.

We all know how writing can be scary and difficult and sometimes, boring. But what keeps me going when writing becomes those things is joy … complete unfettered joy when my characters take over and it feels like I'm just the typist trying to keep up with the action. When that happens, I'm in the story. I'm not forcing it along. It's taken on a life and again, I'm a little kid dressed in my Wonder Woman costume chasing imaginary villains in my backyard.

Writing is self explanatory and ties into discipline and yet, whenever I tell people what I do they say, "Gee, I always wanted to write a book but never have the time." Someday I'll be brave enough to reply, "Gee I always wanted to do brain surgery but never had the time!" Anyway, the actual practice of writing is what gives a writer her street cred. No writing, no book. Period. Furthermore, if my publisher told me that they'd never publish another one of my books, I'd still write. I'd have to get a job and maybe change my name but I wouldn't stop. I don't think I'd know how.

Mary Castillo is the author of Switchcraft (coming out next week!), In Between Men and Hot Tamara. She profiles authors, artists and anyone who piques her interest at her blog, Chica Lit at

One lucky reader will win a copy of Mary's In Between Men today. Just email her here with In Between Men contest in the subject line and she'll draw a name. Good Luck!



Problem Child said...

Hi Mary! Welcome to the Playground!

I have to agree with what you say about discipline. There are tons of talented folks around--it's discipline that turns talent into something more (either genius or marketability, depending on how you view it:-))

Now, I just need to work on my discipline...

Smarty Pants said...

Welcome, Mary. We're glad to have you visit. I can't even imagine working on a book with a newborn at home. I have a hard enough time writing with dogs, cats and DB harassing me.

What do you do to keep focus when the world around you is pulling you in different directions?

Jen said...

Very inspiring, Mary! Just what I needed to hear this morning....

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

A beautiful post!!!

Hugs, JJ

Angel said...

Thanks for joining us on the swings today, Mary!

I have to agree with SP. When my son was a newborn (and didn't sleep through the night for 11 months), I didn't have enough brain cells to put together 2 sentences, much less a book. How did you focus and maintain creativity? :)

I have a very difficult time being generous with myself. One sentence of brilliance seems far outweighed by the paragraphs of mediocre. :( I need to work on being nice to myself.

Thanks for the wonderful post, Mary!


Stacy S said...

Welcome Mary! I really enjoy reading your books.

Playground Monitor said...

Very wise words. And I need to practice all of them. Thanks for sharing with us today.

I second Smarty Pants's question about focus.


Mary Castillo said...

Hi Everyone! What a pleasure to find that my essay touched a chord. We slept in this morning - usually we're up at five but the Little Dude woke up at 8A!

I keep my focus by making a daily list of what I need to do. So when I feel like straying to, I have that list to keep me on task. On the flipside, I do take five minute breaks every couple of hours. I go outside, drink a cup of tea, play with the Little Dude ... okay, so they stretch out to ten, fifteen minutes but it's important to get away from the computer and stretch your muscles.

But when I really need to get some writing done, I go to the library with my AlphaSmart, walkman (yes, I still haven't given it up for an iPod!) and my cell phone on vibrate. Also, I think with families, it's important to instill that my time to write is work time. I won't answer the phone (unless its a business call) and when my Little Dude sneaks into my office, I give him a hug and kiss and then direct him to some toys on the floor, or back to daddy. That sounds so cold, doesn't it? But I figure that since he's two, he'll grow up knowing that this is how Mommy makes the money that buys all of his toys!

It's hard to mentally disconnect from the circus outside my door. Some days its easier and some days, I go to the library. If I went to a coffee shop all the time, I'd start expanding!

Mary Castillo said...

As for writing when my son was an infant ... ay yi yi. I guess I didn't feel I had a choice because Switchcraft was due in September and he was born in August. I still didn't make that first deadline. We agreed on December and then February! I remember the night before my deadline when I wrote for 24 hours straight. I would stick my head out the window and let the cold air wake me up.

I will never ever do that again!

I hope.

Playground Monitor said...

Great point about raising your son to know that writing is what you do for a living. There's always such a hullabaloo about "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" but what about our sons? When I was still in the corporate world, I took both my sons to work on TYDTWD - one in 1994 and the other in 1995 -- so they could see what their Mom did every day. They found Customer Service very boring. Of course all I could do was let them do all my Xeroxing and filing. And stapling. And sorting. And they made rounds with me to all the departments I serviced. But now that I think about it, #1 son did get a tour of MTV that way (that's Marshall TV at the Space Flight Center of the same name :grin: ).

We know all about lists -- hello Problem Child! -- but even with a list I can find ways to make vacuuming look more important and exciting than revising a synopsis. So you give yourself rewards for checking everything off the list? Or do you consider the end product (the written pages) reward enough?

PM - who should get back to that synopsis and forget about the cat hair on the dining room rug

CrystalG said...

Hi Mary. Great post. Very inspiring

Mary Castillo said...

Hey Playground Monitor! My reward are the finished pages. I go a little crazy when I slack off so as the years have worn on, I've become much better about sticking to the list.

Oh and I should've mentioned my workspace. I've learned that making a workspace that feels comfy, safe and welcoming helps my buns stick to the chair. I have a manicure set, some really lovely hand cream, symbols and photos and an ever-growing music collection.

Also, no one has died - that I know of - by giant, people-eating dust bunnies. The vacuuming can wait!

catslady said...

I like the title of your book :) Sounds like a fun read.

Angel said...

Cool idea about the office, Mary! I'm trying to make my office reflect my personality and easy to work with, but I didn't think about stashing little rewards throughout to keep myself there.

I've actually been reading a lot of lately, and she recommends that you stop what you are doing each hour for 15 minutes to sit down, have a cup of tea, and go over your Do's for the next hour. She says it helps keep you focused and gives you a break. I need to learn to incorporate these little breaks into my day. I tend to get focused on one project to the exclusion of all else until I crash and burn. Not a good process. :)


Nini said...

I'm trying to work on the discipline one....It's difficult for well as patience. I want the story written and occasionally i want it now.

If i ask a question that was already asked, again - patience is not my strong suit.

Who do you read to relax?

How do you get your ideas?

And now i'm going to give myself 20 minutes of me time to write...I'll be back.


Kathy said...

Hey, Mary. I loved your essay! It really spoke to me. Mainly because I've not been disciplined lately and know it. You're so right. No writing = No book.

Where do you come up with your ideas? How do you stay focused with so much on your plate? What kind of music do you listen to? And what interested you about writing in the first place?

I'm particularly interested in how you listen to music while you write. I do that and have thought about putting music I like on my IPOD shuffle so that I can tune everyone else out when I have to. But I haven't uploaded the music I want yet. I'll have to do that.

Mary Castillo said...

First, thank you to everyone for your comments!

Now to answer questions...

Who do you read to relax?
I'm studying Buddhism. I'm reading Momma Zen by Karen Miller and with each paragragh I'm thinking: I did that, too or I thought that, too! I also keep Pema Chodron's Comfortable With Uncertainty by my bed. (She inspired today's post by the way!)

I also love hisorical romances and historical fiction. It's weird that I don't read much chick lit even though I write it. Then again, I think of my books as romantic comedies.

How do you get your ideas?
Switchcraft came to me when I was three weeks pregnant and listening to my single friend in New York tell me about her dating adventures.

They come from my experiences, conversations I overhear in public places or people I've met. A writing teacher once told me that a writer has to have a tough skin to withstand criticism and yet, she must be sensitive enough to take in the world around her.

How do you stay focused with so much on your plate?
It's hard but I keep a list. Oddly, I'm really productive when I have a ton of stuff to do. Maybe I know that I only so much time to get things done so I get it done.

What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to everything. No seriously. Some books I listen to movie soundtracks, with Switchcraft I had a soundtrack with Credence Clearwater Revival, Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Madonna and Spanish rapper, Mala Rodriguez.

Right now I'm listening to Juanes who inspired the character of Eric in Names I Call My Sister. I'm not a Spanish speaker and can't understand what Juanes is saying but I love his music anyway. I get the gist of the song so maybe my childhood Spanish lingers in my subconscious!

And what interested you about writing in the first place?
My Grandma Margie gave me my love of books. I would take a story like Peter Pan and imagine the torrid romance he would have with Wendy after the story ended. But it wasn't until I was in college that I began writing with the goal of selling my work.

Kathy said...

Wow! Thanks for answering all my questions, Mary!! I write historical romance and listen to soundtracks to help me put my mind into time and place.

I'm curious. Since you like to read historicals, how is that you've leaned toward writing Chick Lit?

I read Zen in college. Every now and then, I walk by books on Zen in the bookstore and wonder if I should reread it.

You wrote: "...a writer has to have a tough skin to withstand criticism and yet, she must be sensitive enough to take in the world around her."

Learning to shut down the worries, my children's schedules and obligations is hard for me. Perhaps, this is where Zen comes in.


Mary Castillo said...

Hi Kathy:

I write romantic comedies because that the way they come to me. One day a story set in the past will come but till then, I'm happy with writing in the present!


Mary Castillo said...

Before I log off for the day, I wanted to announce that Crystal P. won the signed copy of In Between Men!

It was such a joy to hang out with you guys today. Good luck with all your endeavors and I hope to meet you in person at RWA National!

Mary C.

Instigator said...

Thanks for stopping by today, Mary! We really enjoyed having in the sandbox.


Angel said...

Thanks for being here, Mary, and for all the wonderful pearls of wisdom!!!