Don’t Lose Faith in Your Writing (A Love Letter)

This week I read an ominous post on a friend’s Facebook feed. Something to the effect that people were praying for her, but there was no specific information beyond that. I messaged a mutual friend and learned that the worst had happened: my friend had died.

I’m very far away from home, and so there is not much I can do. I’ll likely miss the memorial service, because I’m here in France for a few more weeks. One thing I have been doing, though, is thinking about my friend. A lot. It’s my way of honoring her life.

She was a lovely, creative woman, and I admired her for that. And yet, when I think of her I think of her spinning, in the metaphorical sense. She’d go in one direction, then stop herself. Become convinced that a new direction was the ticket, but then she’d stop herself again, before she even had a chance to make progress. And the thing of it was, if she’d only kept going in the same direction, it would have been awesome. Because she was awesome. I’m just not sure she knew it.

Because she’d no sooner get started on something, then she’d lose faith in it.

I know how easy that is to do, and you probably do, too. Committing to writing, or any other kind of creative project, over the long haul takes courage. It takes energy and focus. I’m not saying that my friend didn’t have any of those qualities. She did. But I think other traits overtook her.

And it is so, so easy for that to happen. I’ve experienced it repeatedly. It’s the voice that says you’re not good enough. Your writing isn’t good enough. Why are you wasting time on this? You’re never going to make it. Look at all those other writers who are so much better than you—why do you even bother? People will laugh at you. Everyone will hate you.

Most of us who write regularly give into these taunting voices briefly and then forge on ahead. But I do know there are many, many people out there who, once they’ve given in to the voices, have a harder time moving on.

I hope you’re not one of them. I hope you’re able to maintain your faith in your writing, to stick with it, to keep at it, no matter what those critical voices say. Because you don’t want to die with the best of your stories still in you.

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All the Different Ways to Write (A Post on Process)

I’m sitting at a table on a terrace in Ceret, France, thinking about writing processes. (That’s my view in the photo to the left.) Okay, I’m also thinking about the wine and cheese and bread we’ll have for dinner. And taking a walk through the charming town in a little bit. And the delicious quiche and salad I ate for lunch in said charming town.  Oh, and I’m thinking about my WIP, too. Proof is that I’ve written five chapters since I arrived here on March 3rd.

One of the reasons I’m thinking about process is because I read and enjoyed this post today. I love reading about people’s specific processes. The other reason is that I’m here amidst other writers, all of us trying our best to make great progress on our projects.  And it is fascinating to get a close-up view of how other’s work.

Here are some of the different ways to write:

Planner vs pantser.  Do you plan everything ahead or just go where the writing winds take  you? You’ll find strong and vocal adherents to both way. And, just as many like me who fall somewhere in the middle. I really, really, really need to know where I’m going next or I will wander off and read knitting blogs instead of writing. But I write what I call a loose outline, which is really more of a list, and allow the story and characters to develop as I go.

–Chronological or all over the place. I, with few exceptions, write in strict chronological order. I like to allow my chapters and scenes to build on each other. But I know plenty of people for whom this would be torture. They want to write whatever scene feels the juiciest to them in the moment.

–Write fast or edit as you go. I am of the write-as-fast-as-I-damn-can persuasion. And then I fix things in subsequent drafts. Often, I am convinced that what I am writing is pure crap. And sometimes it is. But just as often, I’m surprised by what I’ve put on the page. It needs work, yes, but it is not as bad as I’ve thought. A couple of writers here on the retreat are pushing to get to the end of first drafts and doing the write fast thing for the first time. It’s a bit uncomfortable for them but they are doing it!

–Marathoner or sprinter. Do you write in bursts and then take breaks? You’re a sprinter. Or do you sit down to write and only hours later stand up, realizing how much time has passed? Marathoner.

–Scrivener or Word. I really, really, really, want to like Scrivener but every time I try it I get so confused I give up. Once it ate my draft, too. And that’s just rude. So we’ve not yet become pals. So I’m a Word girl myself. And I do know that Scrivener has many rabid fans out there. I need one of you to sit down with me, hold my hand, and teach me how to use it.

–All one file or separate ones.  When you’re working on a long project, such as a novel or memoir, do you put it all in one large file, or create a new one for each chapter and compile later? (And yes, I know there’s “easy” ways to deal with this on Scrivener. But you’ll have to come show me.) I’ve done it both ways. I’m having a brain fart, but I’m pretty sure the last novel I wrote was all in one. The new one is in separate files. It’s a pain to go back and check things in previous chapters, but then so is scrolling and scrolling back to find what you’re looking for.

So those are just some of the different processes I’ve thought of as I sit in this lovely French town.  What have I missed? What processes do you follow?

Leave a comment or come join the Facebook group and share.

Steady Improvement (A Love Letter)

So here I am in Ceret. (If you missed the story on this, click here to read all about it.) And I’m not going to lie, it is glorious. The temperatures are just starting to warm into the sixties, flowers are blooming, and the sky is a deep, deep blue against the worn stone of the old buildings.

The days have been going pretty much like this: in the mornings we write; in the afternoons we wander around town or perhaps take a mini-field trip. Then we return home and write some more before the most one of the most important parts of the day, you guessed it, Happy Hour.

Because the wine here is amazing (not to mention the bread, cheese, pate and sausage). Formerly known as plonk, the wines of the Languedoc region have improved mightily recently. They are wonderful—and cheap.

So every night while we drink sip wine, I knit. I’m working on the perfect travel project. It’s a shawl that is made from one multi-colored ball of yarn. (Only one ball to tote along! However, I must admit I brought along another project, just in case I finished this one.)  I increase two stitches, one at each end, every other row. Once every 10 rows, there’s a more complicated thing going on, with a lot of increases happening all the way across. I started with just a few stitches, like three, and by the time I finish, there will be nearly 300.

Since I’ve been knitting and chatting every night, I’ve not paid all that much attention to my progress and the other night when I picked up my needles, I was amazed at how many stitches now covered it.  I thought, steady increase. It’s amazing how it adds up.

One of my Mom’s favorite sayings was, step by step we travel far. Same idea, really. In productivity circles the idea of making tiny changes incrementally is called Kaizen. And it occurred to me that this is also applicable to writing:

  • It starts with words, of course. One word after another after another is power. (That sounded familiar, so I looked it up. Margaret Atwood said it. We would all do well to remember it.)
  • The pages add up as you write them. Even one page a day is 30 pages by the end of a month.
  • Your skills amp up. When first you begin writing, the words come out clunky and awkward. But slowly, the vision you have in your head gets put on the page.
  • Your fear of facing the page lessens. Familiarity with the process makes everything easier.
  • That feeling that it will all come to nothing dissipates. Because, increasing steadily, you realized that the simple act of writing regularly is enough in and of itself.

So, keep up the good work, even if the work is going, as my mother also used to say, slowly, slowly. One day you will add up those words and be astonished with how many there are!

Follow me along my French retreat on Instagram. And do join the Facebook group for more writing talk!

Planes and Trains and Bomb Cyclones

Check out that blue sky

I am in France. In Ceret, a small town in the Languedoc region, to be exact.  I am here on a writing retreat and this morning, I’ve hit my goal of 2,000 words (a little over, actually), wandered around the town, then drove to the seaside village of Collioure to buy Soupe de Poisson. (Fish soup, which is served here with a special aioli, croutons, and grated parmesan.) The Mediterranean was a deep blue in the sunshine and on the way back the mountain nearest to our town was socked in with snow! This is exactly how I wanted this writing retreat to go when we first started talking about doing it: a lot of writing, sinking into the rhythms of the town, visiting a few nearby spots, drinking the excellent local wine each night. But mostly, writing like crazy.

It was a looong journey to get here, however.  We had booked our flight through San Francisco to Paris for Wednesday. But when we arrived at the airport that morning, we were told we had a delay due to weather. A delay that would cause us to miss our connection to Paris.  We could maybe go the next day. But that would cause us to miss our train on Saturday morning in Paris. So we were rerouted on a flight early the next morning that went through Newark.

Yep, Newark. Where a bomb cyclone was about to hit. Which we didn’t find out until we got home from the airport.

My living room for the next month

And, this caused us to forfeit our one night in Paris. But oh well. The point was to get to Ceret and start writing.  Despite dire weather reports, we were loaded onto our Newark plane at an ungodly hour.  Since I had taken the very cheap ($29) upgrade offer on the SF plane, I squawked loudly enough as they rebooked us that I got a window seat in the aisle row. There was nobody in the middle seat–maybe they were scared off by the bomb cyclone–and it was luxurious. I had so much room I felt like I was in first class.

And then the pilot came on the intercom and informed us that the weather in Newark looked bad. Dire, even. Winds higher than what that very lovely aircraft was rated for. So we probably wouldn’t be able to land there.  Maybe we’d go to Cleveland. Maybe we’d go somewhere else. Who knew? He said if we made it as far as Pittsburgh, we’d be going in.

Usually I’m an anxious traveler. I’m not afraid of flying but I get edgy about logistics–making connections and all that. And I am a person who likes to know what is coming my way.  (Which is why meditation is so good for me.) I like to know what we’re having for dinner so I can plan my lunch accordingly. I like to know what is going to happen in my book, at least until my characters start doing unexpected things.

But this time was different. I had my perfect window seat and a view of the mostly snow-covered landscape below. I was happily reading the second Maisie Dobbs book and I was comfortable. And so I reached this wonderful place where I just shrugged my shoulders and quit worrying about what might happen. Cleveland? Pittsburgh? Paris? Who knew?

A few hours in, the pilot came on again and said the winds had subsided enough that they were going to “try” to land. My seatmate and I looked at each other and said, “Try? That doesn’t sound too confident.” The pilot warned us over and over again that the landing would be rough.  He would need to use his automatic brakes and it would be “firm.” Also, we would experience much turbulence as we landed. That we did, though I’ve been in worse. But–the landing was perfect. Firm, indeed, but perfect. Everybody in the plane applauded.

While I’m not an expert, the Newark airport seemed far less busier than usual, probably because more than half the flights were canceled. I kept waiting for a text message from United telling me our flight had suffered the same fate. But no! After several hours, we boarded.  Alas, we then sat on the runway in a driving snowstorm for two hours while we got de-iced (the machines looked like giant lit-up bugs) and also, I learned later, waited for the winds to subside to a level the plane was rated for the plane.

But we took off, eventually, and made it to Paris, albeit several hours late, thus missing our train.  We made it, though, and here I am, happily writing and strolling around the town for breaks. When first we conceived this writing retreat, it felt like a whole month was going to be the most luxurious stretch of time ever. And it is (especially because my family is dealing with the chaos of remodeling at home).  But time is going fast, too! Slipping away. I vow to make the most of every minute.

How about you? Have you ever taken a writing retreat, short or long? Leave a comment or come over to the Facebook group and discuss.

(You can also follow me on Instagram for lots more photos.)

On Travel and Writing (A Love Letter)

As you read this, I’ll just be settling into my home-for-a-month in Ceret. (Follow me on Instagram for lots of photos.) Because I will be spending several days in transit, I went in search of an older post to set up ahead of time and this one from 2015 seemed especially appropriate. Enjoy!

I love travel, as you might have guessed. So let me count the ways, and convince you, too.

 1. Travel inspires me.  Duh.  This is the obvious reason most people travel.  Immersing oneself in different locales and cultures shows us new things, fires new neurons, inspires new ideas.   And, of course, ideas are good.  They are our life blood.  A writer can never have too many ideas.  Ever. 

 2.  I’m different when I travel.  I don’t know anyone, other than the people I’m traveling with, so all bets are off.  I can drink all night, swing from the rafters act anyway I want–talk to people I meet on the street, stop and stretch in the middle of the sidewalk, gaze with obvious rapture at a medieval cathedral.  Nobody knows me so I’m free.  And isn’t this what we long to be on the page?  Once I regularly experience the feeling of freedom in my regular life, it is much easier to translate it to the page. 

 3.  Travel sometimes makes me uncomfortable.  Okay, let’s face it.  Most of our lives are not hard.  Well, my life, anyway, is not hard.  Mostly I sit at the computer all day long and convince myself, hand on forehead that I’m suffering.  But travel is a different thing.  There are times when I don’t know what’s happening, or what stop the train just pulled into, or what the person in front of me is trying to say to me.  There are times I’ve probably embarrassed myself.  But you know what?  This is good, excellent, even.  It is good to feel discomfort once in awhile.  Because, after all, isn’t that what we put our characters through? Don’t we always say, the more conflict the better? Yes, yes, we do. 

 4.  Travel is fun.  And I don’t care if you’re trying to write or become an insurance agent, fun is important.  We get veeeery serious about our lives most of the time. 

 5.  Travel makes me adventurous.   I’ve gotten obsessed with reading the blog of Eugene Kaspersky.  He runs some crazy big cyber-security site and spends tons of time traveling, some of it adventuring.  He climbs volcanoes in Kamchatka, treks across snow fields in Iceland, circumnavigates the planet, and so on.  I’m just going to say right now I will do none of these things, ever.  But I love reading about him doing them.  And when I travel in my own tame way, I step out of my comfort zone into my own adventures.  And there are always adventures when you travel. 

 6.  Travel makes me try new things.  Like the unknown shellfish we tried at a seafood dinner in Port-Vendres, or climbing the side of a mountain (I exaggerate a tiny bit here) to reach the ruin of a castle when my hips were screaming in pain (again, a tad bit of poetic license, but still).  It can be as simple as turning now a new street, or trying a different café–things I don’t do often enough here because I so easily get stuck in a rut.  Things that may somehow work their way into your writing. 

 7.  Travel lets me meet different kinds of people. There aren’t a whole lot of French men or British women carousing down my street, for instance.  And it is relatively rare to even hear someone speak in a different tongue in my day to day life.  If there’s one thing I love, its meeting people (I confess to a terrible extrovert streak–I’ll talk to anybody, anywhere).  And one of the best things about travel is the different people you meet–the couple from Australia in Paris, or the nice lady from London who was toiling up the hill beside me.  Again, who knows what person might spark an idea for a character? 

 Okay, so I hear you.  You’ve got a newborn baby, you’re in school, you have a demanding career.  And travel to Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, is just not on the horizon.   But, honestly, you can “travel” in your hometown.  Change up your routine, do something different, drive a new way to work.  Do something, anything to shake things up. 

 Last week, the morning after I got off the plane, my brain as foggy as a morning in November, and inspired by my visit to the Inter-marche Hyper (read=big, very big) supermarket in France, I went to the American version here that I usually avoid.  My shopping took me twice as long as I stumbled through the aisles trying to figure out where things were, but I discovered new products and chatted with an adorable, funny cashier.   One never knows when someone just like him shall appear in a book. 

So, how about it?  How about we all spend the rest of this year devoted to living with a spirit of adventure?  I’m in, are you? 

 Do you love to travel or hate it? Hit reply and tell me. (I’ll have a good wi-fi connection and be eager to hear from you.)

Open to the World

I once told a mentor that I’d had an epiphany–to be a writer, you needed to know a lot about the world. And I believe this is true. As writers, we need to understand character in order to create ones that leap off the page. We need to understand nuances of place, so that our characters can inhabit those spaces.  And maybe most of all, we need to have a firm grasp on how cause and effect works in the world, so that we can write compelling story arcs.

And yet, I’ve now amended my original epiphany. Yes, writers need to know a lot about the world. But more importantly, much more importantly, writers need to be open to more.

We need to be open to delving deeply into what we know.

We need to be open to discovering what we don’t know–whether that is the unknown depths within us or one of the many wonders of the world outside us.

We need to be amenable to having new experiences and not letting fear shut us down.

We need to be willing to be wrong once in a while.

We need to cultivate an attitude of humility about being right, when we are right, so as not to become hardened by our righteousness.

We need to be open to befriending the other, those who might be a little different than us.

We need, in other words, to be open to the world.

Most of the writers I know are like this. Which is why, I believe, that writers are the most fascinating people in the world.

Anything else I should add to the list of what we need to be open to? Leave a comment!

On Chaos, Retreat, and the Solace of Writing (A Love Letter)

Things are hopping around here.  I’m preparing for a major life transition—we’re in the midst of planning an addition so that my daughter and her family can move in. Yep, soon I’ll be doing the multi-generational living thing, attempting to keep up a full writing schedule with a six-year-old and a two-year-old running around. But that’s not all. I’m leaving on March 1st for a month in France. To write, not teach.

And, there’s even more—I’m doing my best to finish the latest rewrite (in my head, I’m calling it a tweak) of my romance novel to get to my agent before I leave. This, even as I’m packing books and furniture is being moved out of my office as I work. Literally.  Like I said in the subject line—chaos.

But I’m keeping up with my writing as best I can. Because writing is solace in times like these.  I often wonder how people who don’t write make it through. Because for me, whether it is writing journal entries or working on fiction, writing is an escape. It’s a place to go in my head when the craziness of the world is swirling around me.  And I am so, so grateful for it.

And soon, there will be retreat. Let me tell you a little about that. We’ll be staying in the lovely town of Ceret. It is my favorite town, ever. We held our workshop there two years ago (and the very first year we taught it). There will be five of us the entire month, and another small group coming for part of it.

I’m looking forward to sinking into the rhythms of a small town for an entire month, especially at a time when there won’t be many tourists. (Not that there ever are in Ceret, which is one of its draws.) And I’m especially looking forward to jibing that rhythm with my writing.

I read a newsletter this morning from the wonderful Kim Werker, a writer and maker, and she talked about the power of intention. I’m approaching this retreat with the intent to take full advantage of the glory and luxury of a month devoted to writing—and seeing what I learn from it that I can bring back home to the chaos.  And my clients. And you, my wonderful readers.

I do plan to keep blogging while there, but I’ll also lose a few days to travel time so if you don’t hear from me for awhile, never fear, I’ll return soon.

And, hey–would you like to go to France with me in September? We’ve still got room for a couple more people. Check out the details here.

Rewriting: How to Deal With Comments

Okay, so there it is–your manuscript.  You’ve just gotten it back from your beta readers. Or your editor. Or your agent. Perhaps it is a lovely stack of papers with writing all over the page. Or maybe it is a file on the computer, laden with those little comment boxes.

You’ve read over all the comments.  You agree with most of them. You’re ready to dig in.  But there you sit, staring at the pages. Where to start? Sometimes the sheer number of comments, written or digital, can feel daunting.

(Take it from someone who, earlier this week, invented all sorts of excuses as to why she couldn’t dive into her commented-upon manuscript. Because it’s snowing! Because I need to find my tax receipts! Because I really must finish knitting that sweater front. Lame, every single one of them.)

So here’s some guidance.

  • To begin, read, or at least glance, through the manuscript, so that you can get a feel for the gist of the comments. This is a safe, easy way to get started. You don’t really have to do anything, you’re just getting the lay of the land.
  • Now take a break for chocolate and coffee. Or wine.  It’s five o-clock somewhere, right?
  • Now that you’re revived, get back to it. Have paper and pen handy. Start working your way through the comments, with these caveats, one at a time. But here are some rules that will help you not faint with the effort:

–If you can deal with it quickly and easily, do it.

–If you’re flummoxed by a comment, or you don’t feel like dealing with it yet, skip it.  Make a deal with yourself that you will do this. You don’t want to get stuck obsessing over a comment. Better to move on and get some momentum going.

–If the comment is speaking to a larger issue, make a note about it on your paper.  You might need to parse out some ideas about it and the paper is the place to do it.

  • Take a break! More chocolate! Or maybe some popcorn. Few things better.
  • Okay, back at it. Continue working your way through the comments, accepting them as you’ve finished them, and noting the ones that will take more thought on your paper.
  • Once you’re all the way through the comments, go back to the ones you skipped or that need more work. Now that you’ve bravely gotten this far, you’re on a roll and momentum will carry you through.
  • You’re done! Celebrate. Champagne? Nah. Maybe just more red wine.

By the way, I wrote another post on rewriting earlier this week.  This one was on draft passes, a useful concept at a certain point in your rewriting. So go to it!

Let me know how it goes. Leave a comment!

Rewriting: Draft Passes (A Helpful Writing Tip)

The passing lane. Like a draft pass. Right?

Ah, rewriting. So fun! So engaging! So intense! I’m serious, I actually really like it. But it can also be mind-boggling.  Where to begin? How to approach it? What to do?

One concept that may be useful to you is that of draft passes.  I’ve done this myself and recommended it to others, but I’ve never had a tricky name for it until now. And for that, I thank Rachael Herron, who mentions it in her new (and highly recommended) book,  Fast Draft Your Memoir: Write Your Life.  

A draft pass is when you go through your manuscript looking for one specific thing and that thing only.  For instance, you might want to track the throughline of a subplot.  Or check that the description of a character is consistent throughout.  Or look at and vary how you note character movements. (I tend to have all my characters shrug, nod, and blow out long streams of breath, for instance.)

Isolating this one thing makes it easier to track it in the morass of pages that constitute a novel.  Draft passes work best after the bulk of your rewriting is done and you’re finished with the big story questions.  For instance, I just got notes from my agent on the rewrite of my romance novel. One thing I need to do a draft pass on is my two main characters thinking how attractive they each find the other.  There’s way too much of it, and readers need to see it rather than have it told to them. Another draft pass will be devoted to heightening the main character’s motivation for not allowing herself to be swept off her feet by the hero.

I liken the process of draft passes to gently pulling pages of the manuscript apart and dropping a few pithy new words on sentences or even a scene in.   You can use the search feature to help you find what you need, or, hopefully somewhere you have a list of scenes that will guide you.  (If you don’t, I recommend you create one immediately!) And I’m sure those of you who use Scrivener have all kinds of cool ways to track things that I’m not aware of.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, Janice Hardy had an excellent article on the difference between revision, rewriting, and redrafting on her blog this week. Check it out.

Have you ever done draft passes? Leave a comment or come over to the Facebook page and discuss.

P.S.–this post contains one teeny, tiny affiliate link.

Whining on the Yacht (A love letter)

One of my dearest friends read last week’s post with the subject line, a love letter about winning, and wrote me that she thought it said whining. To which I responded, what an excellent idea for a newsletter. And so here we go.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I am a championship whiner.  I can whine about anything, and I do.  It’s too rainy, it’s too sunny (only a native Oregonian would whine about that), I’m too tired, I’m hungry, I’m full, I can’t focus, my knee hurts, I don’t want to exercise, my writing is crap…on and on it goes.

Until I get pulled up short and reminded how lucky I am.  Most recently it was when I was watching a Facebook live event of an energy healer.  (I’m pretty fascinated with this guy, Charlie Goldsmith.) As he worked with people on camera, others commented. By the time I quit watching, there were something like 18,000 comments. And 99.9% listed the terrible physical problems people were having, and begging for help.

If that doesn’t make you sit up and realize how lucky you are, I don’t know what does. Which is when I remind myself of the phrase, no whining on the yacht. I’m not sure where this originally came from, but I first heard it from my daughter-in-law a couple years ago.  (Okay, I just looked it up.  There’s an article dated 2010 that attributes it to U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer.)

I have a wonderful family and friends, an amazing agent who loves my work and is determined to sell it, and oh yeah—I get to spend the whole month of March in France, writing. So yeah, not a lot to whine about.

And, most of all, I’m a writer. I get to write every day of my life and many days I get to work with other writers.  I have an activity that I never get tired of, and I never, ever get bored, because there’s always another story to uncover.

So yeah, my novels may not have found a publisher yet, and I may wish I had more time to devote solely to writing them. I’m not rich, money-wise, and I do have chronic knee pain.  I get called on way too often to watch grandchildren or drive neighbor kids to school because I work at home.  I’m always, always, always, looking for more time to do the things I love.

But who freaking cares? Because I’m a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones in the world, because I get to make up stories and bring them to the world.

(This article first appeared in my weekly newsletter, The Abundant Writer. If you’d like it to arrive directly into your inbox each Sunday morning, you can subscribe in the form to the right.)