Tag Archives: Writing

Facing the Blank Page…Again

Every writer I know has trouble writing. — Joseph Heller

The blank page taunts me again. It demands my attention, requires me to make the Big Decision. In order to do what they love, writers make sacrifices. Some writers don’t think of them as sacrifices while others feel guilty about them. Writers also need to really get to know how their minds work in order to survive writing. Curiosity rules the writer’s mind, especially a curiosity of why human beings behave as they do. Trouble writing can be about the writing itself (find the right words, editing, grammar, narrative structure, etc.) or about creating the conditions in a life in order to be able to sit at the desk to write.

Yesterday, a realization seared my mind. The Blank Page was throwing a tantrum in order to get my attention, and when I stopped long enough to pay attention, the thought marched through my mind like a screaming subtitle across the screen of my life: I needed to focus my attention and just do it.

What does that mean? For the rest of the day, I reflected, had discussions with myself in my mind, and finally realized that I’d been giving myself too many free passes. My Attention Butterfly flits from one interest to another, never staying too long in one place before moving on to something else. My imagination latches on to an idea and spins endless variations on it, testing different directions, capturing my attention away from what I know is most important to me in my life. Granted, it’s been a rough year lifewise, and that’s interfered with a lot. But it looks like my life will be settling down and now it’s time to return to my creative process and trust it.

My “Office”

What does that mean? The short answer: I need to laser aim my focus on my writing. I feel a tremendous pressure, both mentally and physically, to stop restlessly wandering and concentrate on my creative process, figure out what I need to do to nurture it now, and then spend the time I need to spend to get down on paper (or the computer screen) all the stories that have been skipping around in my mind lately. I’ve known for a long time that my ravenous curiosity can consume me, and what I need to do is put it on a diet of writing or writing-related food. It’s particularly helpful when I’m doing research for something, and I’ll need to ratchet it up to research questions that have been coming up as I’ve been working on the Aanora story.

So, the “blank page” I’m writing about this time isn’t actually a piece of paper or the computer screen, but the dedication to writing. I have writing projects lined up like planes on a runway. But the control tower isn’t paying attention.

I know what I need to do, and I’m determined to do it again as I have in the past in order to write and write and write, i.e. establish a writing schedule and cut everything else out of my life. A comment by a writer in a magazine yesterday also hit home — the writer was talking about how the more writing a writer does on a consistent schedule, usually daily, the better the writing becomes, the faster it hits the page. I experienced this in 2007 when I edited a draft of Perceval’s Secret, then immediately wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow and half of the first draft of Perceval in Love in about 10 months before life stepped in front of that writing train and stopped it cold.  I would love to get that kind of momentum going again, even with a fulltime job stealing time away from the writing during the work week.

My imagination is ready. My mind is ready. What about yours?

P. S. If you’d like to read my first Facing the Blank Page, it’s here.


When Inspiration Strikes

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole

I wrote one of my favorite blog posts, “Inspiration Doesn’t Wait for You,” here almost ten years ago, and as I read it over this morning, I realized that it is the best description of my writing process that I’ve written. However, it doesn’t really describe how, when, or where inspiration can strike when it does strike. So how do I know when to be open to it? I’ve been thinking about this lately because ideas have been popping into my head at the oddest times.


One large project I’ve been working on (at the same time I’m looking for a fulltime job) is thoroughly cleaning my apartment. It’s not a huge apartment, but the clutter had been accumulating, as it usually does, as well as the dust and dirt. So I’ve been working on the cleaning a little at a time to keep this project manageable and not overwhelming. I detest housework of any kind. But I love it when my living space smells fresh and gleams. To distract myself while I’m doing this onerous task, I usually pick music I love to listen to while I work — could be classical, classic rock, or a Broadway musical.

I’ve just created conditions conducive for my imagination to come out and play. At some point while I’m cleaning, a thought will pop into my head about fiction or an essay that I’m working on. The most recent example occurred while I was cleaning in my bedroom — the thought came to me that my short story Light the Way was as much about different people having different expectations about the same thing as it was about the main character sharing her experience. I wrote a note to myself and finished the cleaning for the day. The next time I worked on that short story, I revised to make clearer the different expectations aspect of the story.

In the Shower

On Sundays, I like to have a relaxing, quiet day, and one of the things I do is take a nice, long, hot shower. My mind wanders all over the place, often thinking about the week ahead, what I accomplished in the past week, and my writing. Or I’ll start daydreaming about traveling or outer space, or being rich. Usually, when I’m almost finished, that’s when the idea will pop into my head. The most recent example of this occurred last Sunday. And the idea came to me with a physical jolt. I needed to rework one section of the Aanora story to add a little trip to another dimension for her to show another character something relevant to him in terms of character development and their relationship. It was one of those things of “Why didn’t I think of that before?” it was so obvious after I thought of it.

My suspicion: inspiration is like a cat stalking me, its prey, and that cat only pounces when she sees that I’m in the perfect position (or state of mind) to be captured. And I do often feel “captured” by a strike of inspiration.

Between Sleep and Wakefulness

Of course, it’s easy to think of inspiration striking while daydreaming or listening to music. That happens to me also, especially when I’m listening to music. But another fertile time occurs in the bleary state between sleep and wakefulness. I feel like I’m rising up or floating up or rocketing up depending on whether my alarm clock has gone off or not. The other morning, as I was slowly coming out of sleep, a sentence popped into my mind. Yep.  Just like that. I heard myself saying the words, and then I realized, oh my god, it’s the first sentence I’ve been seeking for Perceval’s Shadow. Now, I’m not working on the revision of that novel right now. In fact, I haven’t thought much about it because I’ve been trying to finish the short stories I have in progress. So for this gift of a sentence to come to me now is truly magical.

Inspiration can be courted but not coerced. Demand what you will from it, but prepare to be disappointed. Inspiration will not be forced. Invite it into your life and then provide welcoming conditions to entice it but don’t just sit around waiting for it to arrive. Do something! Write something everyday, read voraciously, clean house, take a shower, or take a nap….

Photo: Vasillisa/GoodFon.su

Why do I Continue to Write?

Why do I continue to write? This past week, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot as I juggle job search, writing, and promotional planning, as well as trying to clean my living space and actually see and interact with other people. When I think about it, I can come up with some compelling reasons not to continue writing at this point.

Reasons not to continue writing:

  • Sales for Perceval’s Secret have been abysmal. While lack of constant promotion and marketing would be the reason, along with not being an established and known writer, sales remain disappointing.
  • Lack of time as I need more and more to spend time working at something that pays well in order to pay the bills.
  • Lack of time for constant promotion and marketing.
  • The fact that I tend to be a slow writer, so even if I had 8 hours a day to write, it’d still take me time to finish short stories, essays, and the novels that are in various stages of completion.
  • This blog hasn’t established me as a writer to read as was the purpose when I began it in September 2007. Blogs are supposed to build audience, right? I know that I have readers who occasionally leave comments, but that hasn’t been translating into book sales.

So, why do I do it?

I have the choice. I can look at the above list and conclude that the reason behind it all is that I should stop writing, that the world is not interested in my point of view or creative expression. Or I can look at the above list and say screw it. I’ve had the powerful drive to write since I was a child and nothing really has changed. I still need to write, to express myself creatively, to write stories. I want other people to read my stories and to enjoy them (as much as I enjoyed writing them).

How do writers know if people are reading their stories? Sales only show that people are buying the books, but that doesn’t actually guarantee that they are reading them. Of course, a large percentage may be reading them since they paid good money for the books. But how can writers know for certain if people are reading their books? Readers need to tell them.

I consider myself a professional writer, i.e. it’s a job for me not a hobby. I’ve gone through a long apprenticeship, and I continue to learn, but at this point, my stories now are better than anything I wrote 20 years ago. But for me there’s another aspect to writing that’s harder to describe. It’s like so much a part of my brain that I am always thinking consciously or subconsciously about writing — new ideas, stories I’m working on, characters clamoring for my attention, they are all there in my imagination. So whether or not anyone reads my writing, I still write.

Think for a minute about what you do in your life. In your job, do you like it when your boss acknowledges something you’ve worked hard on and praises it? Do you do anything in your life that you love and can’t imagine living without? Do others know about it and support your efforts? How would you feel if no one supported your efforts and you received little to no positive feedback? Would you continue?

Performing artists receive immediate feedback from their audiences with applause. Writers in all forms, painters, sculptors, composers all tend to work in solitude, produce on their own, and depend often on third parties to present their work to the world. They do not receive immediate feedback, sometimes no feedback at all beyond sales. To continue creating under those circumstances takes incredible strength, discipline, and a profound need to create. Those of us who have that need know what it feels like. On the days that I do not write, when other needs in my life demand my time, I tend to not be in the best of moods and sometimes it affects me physically — I feel sick. As soon as I return to writing fiction, though, my mood lifts and the sick feeling dissipates. I’m happiest when I’m writing. And it would seem I’m also healthiest physically and psychologically when I’m writing.

Taking care of the business side of writing is not writing. It is business. So when I’m working on my current promotion plans, I’m not fulfilling that need to write. But I am working to get the word out that my stories exist in the world for anyone to read, and I’m trying to fashion the best invitation to read my writing that I can.

Have you read my novel Perceval’s Secret? An excerpt is available on another page of this blog, or you can buy it at Amazon or B&N.com. Have you read any of my essays at ClassicalMPR.org? I’d love for you to read what I write and then, if you feel comfortable doing it, let me know what you thought.


Saving or Shredding? The cleaning clutter conundrum

1898 Mark Twain portrait by Ignace Spiridon (image courtesy of Flickr user Terry Ballard)

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain.

I love Mark Twain and his pithy opinions. I saw this quote yesterday and knew immediately that it fit in with my thoughts this week, especially about my life as a writer. While Twain encourages to set sail to explore and discover, he doesn’t include that often the explorations lead to dead-ends and perhaps the journey challenges as well as delights.

This past week I’ve been working on two chores that involve cleaning: the actual cleaning of my living space, and the cleaning out of my files. The former is a straightforward physical exertion that involves scrubbing, scrubbing, and more scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, and rearranging as well as throwing out old and useless items that clutter up the space and I happily toss out without another thought. The latter challenges me to let go. Do I save them or toss them? The files contained the representations of creative ideas, notes, explorations into character, and discoveries concerning story and plot. There was a time when I saved everything because I was convinced that someday I would find a use for it in some piece of writing or another. That has turned out to not be the case at all.

It pains me to write that many of the files for short stories whose ideas had grabbed me in some way I had completely forgotten, and I looked at them this week as if looking at someone else’s files. Those files were easy to discard, of course. But then there were the files of two novels I’d begun long before Evan Quinn informed me that his story involved five novels. Do I save them or toss them?

The first I’d called “my second novel” with a working title of When You See Her. As I read through the notes in the working file, I remembered what had sparked this endeavor originally. The first was a memory of driving in the Adirondack Mountains at night on pitch black roads because they did not have lighting, and those roads curving sharply and doing switchbacks. I remembered the tension in the car and how scary it was to feel that anything could happen and we wouldn’t be able to see it coming. The second spark flared from a comet hitting the planet Jupiter. Two disparate things that came together in a story about a young man learning about responsibility and redemption. At least, I’d thought along those lines according to my notes. I’d done some character creation and development work, but had only gotten to the end of the first act in the story outline. Apparently, I’d gotten stuck there, then something else had grabbed my attention, and I’d not made it back.

The second novel idea was actually the first novel in a mystery series grounded in Buddhism and starring a 20-something woman working for a private investigator. The title of this first novel in the series was going to be either The Laughing Buddha or Monkey Mind. I’d begun character work on the main character and her boss, and I thought I had the murder figured out, but for some unknown reason, it all went into a file, into a drawer, and stayed there untouched until this past week.  I still like this idea, actually, although now I don’t recall how the Buddhism fit into the series and I don’t remember what the story was. I am a different person now, a different writer, than I was back then, and if I were to pursue this idea, I suspect it would be a new and different story.

Laughing Buddha

As Twain encouraged, with these two ideas I had thrown off the bowlines and set sail into unknown territory in my imagination to see if it would be worth exploring further. I think this is true of any story idea. One of the most important things I learned from studying screenwriting is to test the viability of an idea before getting too far into the writing of it. Think of it as sailing a detour up a river to find out if anything worth attention is farther upstream. If not, turn around and return to the starting point to try a different river. What needed to be upriver was an act 2, i.e. conflicts and obstacles that the main character would need to overcome to achieve his or her goal. If there’s a fabulous act 1 but nothing more, the idea isn’t viable. When writing screenplays, I developed a habit of doing some rough outlining as well as asking other characters what they want and what they’d do to get it in order to ferret out the characters that would be in conflict with or obstacles to the main character. The files I found this week were from novels and stories that were tantalizing rivers that led nowhere. They found their rightful place in the garbage dumpster.



Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!