Category Archives: The Writing Life

Filling in the Holes

It’s been a tough month and a half in life. But this past week I’ve had more time for writing fiction, and my mood has improved greatly as a result.  I continue to work on the Aanora story with building excitement.  The rough outline is done up to the moment before the climax, and I know the very last scene.  But that climax has me stuck.  I’ve put my characters into what seems to be an impossible situation, and I haven’t a clue – yet – how they’ll get themselves out of it. At this point, I tell myself, “trust the process.” My imagination will come up with something plausible.

In the meantime, I’ve been writing this story in a way I’ve not done before, i.e. I’ve been skipping around…a lot. I’ve been writing scenes as they come into my mind.  In the past, I’ve usually written straight through from beginning to end, then I’ve gone back and rearranged scenes as necessary.  I’ve also not outlined the plot points as I’ve done with this story.  So, this story has demanded from the start that I take a different approach.

I call it “filling in the holes.” I write skeleton scenes, or write one scene in a section and leave it to skip to a different section. The next time I can work on the story on my computer, I write another scene or two, and then return to scenes I’ve written earlier and edit, add details, or fill in dialogue and action. My imagination tells me where it wants to play and I go there.

As a result of this approach, I’ve discovered that I’ve had a significant number of false starts, action that turns out not to work, and scrapping whole scenes to start over. At one point a week ago, it hit me that I hadn’t made the stakes high enough for my characters and that’s when I figured out what the villain wants and how it conflicts with what the protagonist wants. For me, this is a particularly strange way of working. In the past, I’ve laid down a first draft, printed it out, and then gone through it carefully, asking questions about what each character wants and what he or she will do to get it, if the action, dialogue, scenes are moving the story forward or not, what the purpose of each scene is.

And another thing I’m doing differently with this story: I’ve broken it up into sections and each section has a title. Now I realize that my imagination wanted it this way to have playful titles — yes, I am using the word “play” a lot in one form or another because this story has been all about playing — playing with the characters and action, and playing with my imagination more than anything else. Playing with a detail, an action, a block of dialogue, to see what will work best. The sections make it easier for me to write in short bursts, as has been necessary with my current work schedule and life, and to write something in one section, then leave it to write in another section without losing track of the story.

Play.  My imagination has prescribed for me the perfect medication for the serious stuff life has been throwing at me lately. I’m happiest when I’m writing fiction, and being able to play with the Aanora story recently has been a respite and sanctuary, as well as lifting my mood. The serious life stuff will always be there, and in its way, it feeds my creativity by giving me life experience. But I love the way working on the Aanora story has given play back to me.

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What is your deepest fear?

Dark Demon by ChrisCold

Writers deal with fear everyday. We fear success.  We fear failure.  We fear submitting our work to strangers. We fear hearing from those same strangers after submission. We fear the blank page.  We fear our own humanity and that we are inadequate to the task of writing and telling a story others will want to read and enjoy. Have I about covered it? Do you have a fear that’s different?

Fear is a tough thing to fight because it’s tenacious.  Just when I think I’ve gotten the better of it, it sneaks up and grabs my throat, sending my stomach into a tailspin, and sending me back into the darkness.  I’ve been one of those people envious of people who can be fearless. Either they fear nothing or they hide the fear very well. And I suspect they have a totally different perspective on the world.

When afraid, the human body goes into a flight or fight mode and certain hormones are released to help us deal with the danger. Those hormones can be damaging to our bodies if released all the time. So being fearful for long periods of time is not only bad for the psyche, but also bad for the body. Years ago, I used to meditate every day for at least half an hour. It worked wonders. I don’t remember now how I got out of that habit. Then several years ago, I began practicing Falun gong, a movement meditation from China based in Buddhism. I loved this practice.  I always felt so centered and strong after it. I got into the habit of doing this practice every day for 30-40 minutes (the first 4 movements), and I felt great. Then I had to have surgery and I stopped the Falun gong.

Falun Gong Exercises

Recently, I’ve been trying to return to Falun gong as well as adding a yoga practice to help with improving balance and strength. I’ve run into the same problem with this wonderful plan that I have with writing — I leave the house at 6:50 every morning during the week and return between 6 and 6:30 at night.  In order to get at least 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep, I’m in bed by 8:30 every night to get up at 4:30 the next morning and start all over again. I’ve been trying to fit writing into this schedule with little success. There’s just not enough free time. I’m now thinking of taking some writing to work with me and working on it over my lunch hour.

Feeling centered and strong physically can really help in fighting fear. But it doesn’t really address the cause of the fear. That’s usually in the mind. Maybe a writer has been told over and over as a child that he doesn’t have the smarts for intellectual pursuits, and writing falls into that category for him. Or she’s been told that her purpose in life is to marry and produce children, to exist for the benefit of those children and the man she married. Going outside of expectations creates fear in the mind.  Low self-esteem can also produce fear in the mind — I’ve struggled with this one myself for years.  Isn’t it sad when parents cannot celebrate their child’s uniqueness, her intelligence, imagination, and artistic abilities? My parents’ reaction to my artistic pursuits was “Can’t, can’t, can’t.”

Anger can be an effective counter to fear. That’s how I was able to pursue music and writing in spite of my parents’ messages and expectations for me. I still did not enjoy any support from them for what I was doing or what I accomplished. I realize now that most of my fear comes from them — the fear that they passed onto me when I was too young to understand and internalized it. Knowing this, understanding my own mind’s fearfulness helped me not only to play music in college and then to write, but to be able to understand a fictional character’s fears and where they might originate.

It’s worth it to figure out where your fears originate. They won’t just go away if you choose to ignore them or to develop tricks to get around them. But I want to end with a quote I read recently from Marianne Williams, author of A Return to Love:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

 

Writing in Pieces

Yesterday, while cleaning out e-mail (I am forever cleaning out e-mail! Who isn’t?!), I found a blog post by a blogger, Lindsey Gendke, I’ve been following for several years now. She’s a writer, a mom with 2 pre-schoolers, and published author. Her blog post that I read yesterday was from October 23, and she wrote about how to get unstuck when stuck in the mud of writing and life. She suggested writing ideas on index cards. I confess, I’ve done this at times. Not to come unstuck, but just to organize projects.  It’s a good way to keep up with idea generation, though — carry a pack of blank 3×5 index cards and write one idea per card.  Then the ideas are preserved for later scrutiny and development.  After dutifully turning back my clocks and watches last night, I went to bed.

This morning I woke up thinking about writing in pieces.  Using index cards is one way to write in pieces.  It’s the method I used for keeping track of research for a paper in school, and it’s something I’ve done occasionally to map out plot points. Although I think the index cards idea triggered my thoughts about writing in pieces, it’s not what I mean when I say writing in pieces. I mean breaking a writing project down into manageable pieces to work on.  For a novel, that might be chapters, or even sections of chapters. Or scenes, which I did when I was writing screenplays — I wrote scene by scene (usually handwritten on a legal pad).  Prose fiction can also be broken into scenes. And they do not necessarily need to be written in order.

My work this past week on the Aanora story involved a lot of thinking about several different scenes (Monday through Friday), and then yesterday working on the rough outline to capture my thoughts about those scenes. I’m surprised at myself, actually, that I’m fleshing in an outline before I’ve written very much, but it’s helping me organize my thoughts, reveal what I need to research, and helping me see just how viable the story idea is, i.e. well worth developing and writing. As I was working on the outline, I realized that I was starting to break the story up into pieces that did not necessarily relate to plot points but involved 1-2 scenes for each piece. So when I woke up this morning thinking about writing in pieces, I realized that this was the way to go for the Aanora story, and perhaps I could write on it during the work week as a result rather than waiting to the weekend.

So my task today, after I finish this post, is to figure out the specific pieces, open a separate Word file for each, and then see if I can figure out how I get from the place I managed to outline to yesterday to the ending I have outlined. I’m very close. And I realized also this morning that this is the first story I’ve written in which the main character really doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, but he gets something better.  That was a surprise to me, a happy one.

The Aanora story is gaining momentum, folks! And I’m feeling quite happy about that.

Being a Creative Writer in 2017

Yesterday, while cleaning out e-mail, I ran across several Funds for Writers newsletters I hadn’t yet gone through. One contained a brief musing from Hope Clark on “How to Make Time for Writing.” What really caught my eye were these 2 sentences: “When someone thinks writing is about squeezing it into an already busy schedule, they’ve already discounted it (the writing). Instead, writing ought to simply be more important than something they are already doing, and they stop doing that other thing because it just makes sense.”  To which I thought, “Clearly, Hope Clark doesn’t need to work to pay the bills like most writers in 2017.” Usually that “something they are already doing” is a fulltime job because writing doesn’t pay the bills.

Clark goes on to say: “Fulltime money means fulltime writing, and even so, fulltime writers struggle making enough income to live on.” I’ve been a fulltime writer. Most years I made $0 income from writing and lived off my retirement savings while I continued to write and seek out paying markets. The reality is that getting paid for writing, especially writing fiction, is a tremendous struggle nowadays, and I suspect it always has been. But you can write for free all you want on the internet of course, and websites will welcome your writing.

If you are a writer with a fulltime job to pay the bills like me, you know what I’m talking about. I’m fortunate if I can get an hour a day for writing, and afternoons on the weekends. That’s for the writing and research for writing. That doesn’t include marketing for Perceval’s Secret or promotion for it, networking for shorter pieces like essays and short stories, or reading.  I’m fortunate to have a commute of about 40 minutes in the mornings and 60 minutes in the evenings, so I’m able to read on the bus. If I didn’t have that commuting time, I’d not be reading either. I’ve thought of writing on the bus, but handwriting is hard because of the stops and starts, and bringing my laptop on the bus when I don’t use it at work ends up being too heavy and too much, and too much of a risk it’ll be damaged or stolen.

So, it’s fine to dream about writing fulltime, make money with your writing, and maybe even having a substantial readership someday. To get there you need not only hard work but time in which to do that hard work. Being a creative writer in 2017 means that you will be expected to do everything yourself: writing, publishing, marketing, promotion, and perhaps even distribution although Amazon has made distribution much easier as well as other online sites. And going into debt to do it all.

If you choose to go the traditional publishing route, you’ll need to secure representation from a literary agent which means research, writing query letters, sending query e-mails, and repeat. You could also research publishers to find out which ones publish your genre and accept unagented manuscripts. If you get an agent, then that agent starts shopping your manuscript around. Chances are, you’ll be asked to do more revision work on it as well. Let’s say your agent lands a publishing deal for you. The publisher’s editor now takes over your manuscript, perhaps will request more revision work. Writers working for the first time with a publisher won’t generally be given any say in the title of the book, the cover, and production decisions like font. You will be expected though by the publisher to market and promote the hell out of your book because the publisher won’t. But you won’t have to set up distribution yourself.

This is the reality of being a creative writer in 2017. And in my humble opinion, it’s perfectly OK to squeeze in writing in my busy schedule whenever I can because I need to write, I need to market my writing, and I need to keep writing. That is not discounting writing at all. I’m saying it’s important and as much a part of my life as the job I have to pay the bills.

Do you squeeze writing into your busy schedules? How do you do it? Do you think that’s discounting your writing?

 

 

 

How do you choose books to buy?

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  — Winston Churchill

Sam Shepard

In another word, perseverance.  Success and what it means has been in the back of my mind this week.  Sam Shepard died as the week began, and reading about his life as a playwright, writer, and actor proved provocative to my mind. Shepard told an interviewer once that he felt most comfortable in the theater, writing for the theater. That made me ask myself where do I feel most comfortable in my creative life? How does that feeling relate to production and success? I know I am happiest when I am writing fiction.

This morning, I ran across a short essay by Hope Clark, a mystery writer who has a well-known newsletter called Funds for Writers. In this essay, Clark wrote about what the most important thing is about being a writer.  Is it getting credit for writing and publishing? Or is it giving the world a great story experience?

My next thought was that maybe success could be measured in just how great the story experience was that you’ve created. But how does anyone know that? And could one person’s great story experience be another’s failed story experience? Today, for example, I finished reading a novel that has won rave reviews and that I’d heard friends and acquaintances rave about for a long time.  I didn’t think it was that great at all.

I don’t rely solely on what my friends and acquaintances recommend when I’m looking for a great story. I read reviews, I subscribe to the NY Times Book Review newsletter, as well as reading the review sections of other papers and magazines. I have to admit that I don’t pay much attention to marketing blurbs or any kind of promotional pitches. What I pay attention to are the descriptions of the novel’s story, and then a little to genre. I love books, though, that blend genres or bend them. So I guess it’s important to know your own taste and interests before going off to Amazon or a bricks and mortar store to buy books. I do miss bricks and mortar bookstores where I could wander around and actually see, touch, and smell the books!

In her essay, Clark describes the kind of promotional copy that will turn her off a book, and the kind of promotional copy that will spark her interest. Her ultimate point in the essay, though, is that authors need to remember their responsibility to readers, i.e. to provide them with a great story they’ll be glad they paid good money for and spent their time reading. That whatever they say in their pitches and promotions, they focus on the story.

So, Mr. Churchill, I think I’d define success for a writer in this way: Committed to writing the best you can, knowing what makes your stories great,  giving your readers one great story after another, and attaining the recognition of being a writer who produces great stories, i.e. the kind of stories that people want to buy and read.

What draws you to a book? How do you choose the books you buy? What was the last great story you read? Please respond in the comments section!