The Mysteries of Story (A Love Letter)

In a phone call with one of my beloved clients this week, we discussed stories and how sometimes you have to grab the while they are white hot in your mind, and how sometimes you have to let them rest. I firmly believe that every story has its own time to be told. If a story isn’t ready to go out into the world, it’ll block you. And fight you until you either wrestle it to submission or set it aside.

Don’t feel guilty about the stories you set aside. (I have many of them.) They’ll come back around again when the time is right, either in your brain, or the world. Or maybe their essence will turn up in your novel, or the short story that just popped into your brain.

One of my favorite characters of all time is a sixty-year-old self-help writer named Earl Wilson. He started out in one of the stories that lies moldering on my computer but then leapt into being as I wrote The Bonne Chance Bakery. His books make an appearance in the novel I just sent to my agent. And I have an idea for a short story featuring him. That first story he appeared in wasn’t his, apparently. And sometimes you just have to go with weird stuff like this. No matter how hard we study them, stories are mysterious creatures.

So, don’t stress if your story isn’t quite working out. Maybe it is time to set it aside and trust that its time will come. And don’t ever, ever, throw anything away. Nothing is wasted in writing. You never know where that bit you deleted out of your WIP will appear again.  Treat every element of your stories with respect and they’ll show you were they belong.  Don’t take it all so seriously. Stories lie deep within you and sometimes it takes a while for them to wriggle their way out.

I have new stories coming to me, I’m quite sure, as I embark on a month in France next week.  A scheduling note: while I won’t be posting my usual love letters every week in September, I will be sending out a newsletter. I’m assembled writing exercises and story starters each week, so you can get a ton of writing done while I’m gone.

Things to note:

— My dear friend Terry Price  and I are offering the second part of our Spark to Story workshop. Don’t worry if you missed the first one, this one will work fine for you! They are related, but separate. The workshop is November 2nd and 3rd. Please check out more here . Registration is open!

–Join the Facebook group.  Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Clarity, And Why You Need It (A Love Letter)

If there’s one thing I know for sure about myself and my writing habits, it’s that I need clarity in my life. And, life is puzzling. Life is overwhelming. Life can get out of control. Life can require decisions to be made. I also need clarity in my writing. And, of course, writing is puzzling and overwhelming, too. And there are tons of decisions to be made.

So often sometimes clarity is hard to achieve. When I don’t have it, I dither. I procrastinate. I waste time looking at coats on the internet. In other words, I do nothing.  A couple of recent examples:

–In my ongoing efforts to cultivate meaningful relaxation time (rather than, say, falling asleep with my mouth open on the couch or scrolling through my Instagram feed), one recent evening I thought I’d do some knitting. Or maybe I’d work on that rug hooking kit I started before it got so hot? Hmmm. Not sure.

You can guess what happened. Nothing.  A big fat nothing. I didn’t do either. I grabbed my phone and scrolled. And looked at photos of people who had created beautiful knitted and rug hooked items. Sigh.

–I am a dedicated online shopper.  Internet retail was created just for me. I support many UPS and FedEx drivers with my habit. But sometimes I put things in my cart and then I can’t decide. I click away. I go back and take a peek. The company emails me that I’ve left something in my cart so I have to go take another look.

I drive myself freaking crazy with my indecision and lack of clarity. (Of course, some part of me must love this because I just keep doing it.) And I am here to tell you this: a lack of clarity=indecision=no progress.  Whether it is buying something or writing something or being creative in any way, you need clarity.

What to do if you don’t have it? If you just can’t seem to make up your mind?

Just take a step. Take an action. Go in what looks like the best direction at the current moment. If you can’t make up your mind about what you should do, try working on something else. (I wrote this newsletter early this week, because I was full up on my novel for the moment.)

Often, clarity in writing will not happen until you actually start writing.  Yes, prep work is good and I’m a firm believer in it. But sometimes all the preparation in the world won’t get you where you need to go until you launch in.

It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? Just do it. Just write.

In Case You Want to Read More…

 I’ve been putting a lot of posts up on Medium for a variety of reasons. I’ve actually been planning to write a blog post about this here—thank you, Suzanne, for the suggestion). That will happen all in good time. In the meanwhile, here are links to ones that are up:

Positivity is a Force—Wield It

There’s a Big, Beautiful World Out There

And Don’t Forget

 –We had a last-minute cancellation for the France workshop, so there’s an open spot! If you’ve been thinking about it, now’s your chance.  It is not too late to buy plane tickets!  A week in France, devoted to camaraderie, hiking, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating delicious fish and bread and cheese and drinking wine? Plus a transformational writing experience? Yes, please.    

–Join the Facebook group.  Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!

 

What to Do When You’re Fresh Out of Ideas (A Love Letter)

The summer doldrums are here—and I’ve been fresh out of ideas. For anything. I haven’t posted on this blog, besides putting these newsletters up, in a couple of weeks. I was going great guns on Medium, posting a lot, and then I suddenly stopped.  I couldn’t think of anything to say in either place. And let’s not even mention the word fiction, okay?

This happens sometimes. You may have the will to write, as well as the time and the energy, but no ideas. And with no ideas, the will to write withers away.  I also think that this happens a lot for new writers. I remember wanting to write so badly, but not having the first clue what to write. So, in case you are in the same situation, and for my own sake as well as yours, I’ve assembled some ideas about how to come up with ideas in this newsletter.

Technique for Producing an Idea. There’s a classic old book written by an advertising guy back in the golden age of advertising, called, Technique for Producing Ideas. I read this book in journalism school and often follow its precepts. The basic one being: fill your brain up with every single bit of information on your topic, then set it aside. Go weed the garden or play with your kids or take your dog for a walk (see below). Just forget about it. And after a while, the idea you need will pop into your head! The book is still available and it is only $1.99 in Kindle. A quick read, really worth it.

Prompts. This is the tried and true way. Get yourself a prompt (there’s tons all over the internet or you can buy my prompt book) and write. The best way to use prompts is to choose one (without wasting a lot of time obsessing over which one), set a timer, and write for 15-20 minutes, without stopping. And I mean without stopping, people.

Make lists. For some reason, making lists is a great brain jogger. List ten things you did yesterday, ten people that interest you (famous ones, friends, family members, doesn’t matter), ten locations that intrigue you, and so on. List anything you can think of and then put the list in your writer’s notebook so you can refer to it any time and use items from the list as prompts.

Brainstorm. James Altucher, who is one of those people that is all over the internet but I’m not sure who he is, says to write down ten ideas every day. It is not bad advice.  Similar to list-making, just write down ten ideas about anything. You never know which one will develop into something.

Go for a walk. Something about walking jogs loose ideas for me. It is helpful to walk mindfully and engage your five senses to observe your surroundings. Take a notepad or your phone so you can make notes.

Go for a drive. I love driving, and it also often inspires new ideas to flood in. Again, be mindful. I find these days that I love the quiet when I’m driving, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago—I always had the radio or music on. But now I like the silence and time to think.

Quit worrying about it.  Yes, we live in a fast-paced world where you’re only as good as the most recent thing you wrote, but it is also okay to take a break. I was on the phone with one of my favorite clients yesterday and she shared how at the moment, she’s just letting things to do with her business go. She’s got a lot of distractions (good ones) in her life and so she’s just not worrying about things. I believe sometimes our brains need a break. And if we give them one, they will reward us with tons of new ideas.

Those are some ideas that might help if you, like me, are experiencing the summer doldrums.  How do you come up with new ideas? Leave a comment!

Set Your Brain and Your Creativity Free

Being a writer is a tough gig, as previously noted. Hugely satisfying, and the only thing you can do if you are called to it, but it is a demanding task mistress and at all but the highest levels, the pay is low.

So you might as well have fun while you are doing it.  I’ve been pondering how, exactly, we creatives might have success setting the brain free. And below are some tips. Some of these may be familiar to you, but often it takes reading something several times before it really lodges in the mind. And some might be new to you.  Consider them all and think about how you can put them to use in your writing life.

Write hard and fast for the discovery draft. Throwing words at the page with abandon, when time passes, and you don’t even know it, and afterward you’re in love with the world—this is why, I believe, most writers start writing. It is wonderful experience. It gets harder to achieve this state when you are writing professionally, but….you need to. This is when the magic happens.

Don’t confuse writing with rewriting.  Don’t labor over every word as you write. Let the words rip. And also, don’t labor over the first chapters of the book, going back over it and over it. This is a sure way to get blocked. Write your discovery draft from start to finish and then you can begin revising. You’ll know much more about the book when you get to the end, trust me.

Write bad. If you are well and truly blocked, this is an exercise that will help set your brain free. Write one bad page. Force yourself to write the worst crap you can think of. Here’s the thing: you won’t. Because you are basically a good writer, so writing bad doesn’t come naturally. But once you allow yourself to write bad, that takes the pressure off.

How do you keep your brain and creativity free?

A (much) longer version of this was first published on Medium, which is a site that encourages longer reads.  You can read that version here. I’ve got other posts on writing up there, too!

 

Depending on Your Point of View (A Love Letter)

You live for adventure and global travel. Or you love to stay home by the cozy fire. You can’t stay still—you have to be doing something. Or everything you love to do involves sitting. You love gardening. Or you hate getting your hands dirty. You agree with everything our president says, or you take to the streets to protest him. You love kale. Or hate all vegetables. You love summer. Or you hate being hot.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

My point is this: there are many points of view in this big, wide, wonderful world of ours (and now more than ever, it seems).

And, as I like to remind you incessantly often, as in life, so in writing. (Or vice-versa.)

We writers talk a lot about point of view (or viewpoint, if you prefer) and it has been much on my mind recently because of a book I’m reading. The book is Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes, and man oh man does she do strange things with viewpoint.

The story has a lot of characters, but the main ones are Kit, a woman who lives in a small town in Italy, and Julia, Camille, and Susan, all of whom have had recent upsets in their lives. They decide to move for a year to the same town where Kit lives.

Kit’s viewpoint is in first person and all the rest in third. But Mayes head-hops between them. Constantly. All the time. Sometimes it is impossible to tell which character is narrating.  At one point, Kit related something that happened to one of the other characters when she wasn’t there. It is massively confusing.

Despite all this, I’m absorbed in the book and I am almost finished with it. (I will confess to skimming a lot of her excessive descriptions. But if you love Italy cuisine and travelogue, you’ll likely read every word.) I decided to check the Amazon reviews to see if others had similar reactions to mine. And, yup, readers range from lukewarm to ecstatic about it. But one thing that struck me was how many mentioned their confusion over who was speaking when. (Doesn’t help that all the characters sound alike, and talk in long speeches.) Some had a hard time keeping the characters straight.

And, here’s the deal, people: when it comes to viewpoint, your average reader doesn’t know if you’re doing a point of view violation. But they do know when they get confused. And a confused reader is a bored reader. And a bored reader is a reader who puts the book down.

So, a couple of simple viewpoint reminders:

–Omniscient is really hard to pull off. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

–To maintain viewpoint sanctity, just remember to be in your character’s head. What she can see and hear and touch and smell you can report. Nothing else!

–It doesn’t matter what viewpoint you choose. Some people love first, some hate it. Some like single viewpoints, others prefer multiple. Doesn’t matter! Just stay consistent. And stay in whatever character’s head you’ve chosen at the moment you are writing.

Have you ever read a book whose viewpoint turned you off? Hit reply and tell me. Also—might you need help with viewpoint? Need a supportive coach to help you with your writing? Hit me up. I’ve got room for one client this summer.

This post contains affiliate links.

Creative Tension in the Writing Life

Once I had a writing friend who set her computer screensaver to show the words, “Why aren’t you writing?”

And, indeed, that is the question, isn’t it? It is the question at the heartbeat of a writer’s days. Why aren’t you writing? Why are you watching TV when you could be writing? Why are you mopping the kitchen floor when you could be writing? Why are you playing Spider Solitaire when you could be writing?

That question strikes to the heart of the creative tension that drives a writer. When we’re not writing, we feel we should be. It’s a tension that I’m not sure non-writers (or non-creatives, because I’m sure artists of all stripes feel this way, too) get.

Sometimes I imagine how wonderful it might be just to go through life as a normal person. A person who isn’t constantly thinking and worrying about writing. A person who doesn’t wake up first thing in the morning and start planning when she’ll be able to write. A person who doesn’t start thinking about when he will write tomorrow as soon as his head hits the pillow. To not have this constant pull to create something.

But, truthfully, I’d hate it. Because I don’t honestly know how non-creative people get through. Do you? My writing is my constant companion, the page that receives all my worries and joys and brilliant ideas (along with the duds). It’s where I process life, where I figure things out–and this goes for fiction, non-fiction, and journaling. And I don’t know what I’d do without it.

So if the constant tension to create is the payment for the writing life, I’ll take it. How about you?

Leave a comment!

On Not Following Protocol or Systems or For That Matter, Anything

I am my own worst enemy. This is true when it comes to writing or living. I cannot follow a system to save my own life. I come up with brilliant ideas that will make my writing easier or more organized or better and then I don’t follow them.

I was reminded of this earlier today when I posted on my Facebook group page about journaling and my technique of indexing journals so I can mine the pages for information. But then I remembered that usually about halfway through a journal I forget to add topics to the index and another few pages later I’m forgetting to number them.

I’ve taught classes on the importance of prepping before writing a novel but the last one I wrote I just launched into without much. (And ended up rewriting it a million times. I should follow my own advice.) Because, of course, every time I start a new novel, I do it differently.

I love putting information on index cards. Until I don’t. Then I love putting it on Evernote. Until I don’t. Then I decide everything should go into binders. Until that becomes too much trouble. Then I switch to file folders. Until I decide I hate that. And the process starts over again.

I’ve been known to buy numerous planners every year. I find one that is going to finally get me organized forever and ever and a month later I hate it and buy a new one.  And that usually happens about 3 or 4 times. Unfortunately for the planner industry, I’ve finally gone digital and use my phone calendar.

And then there’s the whole bullet journal thing.  I tried it once with great success, never to be duplicated again. And now I look at all the elaborate pages people make and I wonder how in the hell they ever do anything but journal.

I have five thousand icons on my desktop because if I file any of them away I’ll never find them again. I decide to get systematic and make folders for everything and then I use names that I can’t remember and so I make a new folder.

I start out the week making a to-do list in the spiral I keep by my computer for notes. But then I turn the page because I have to use a new page for my brilliant idea that just occurred. And then I make notes about the novel I’m working on. And by the middle of the week, my to-do list is buried so I grab a sticky note to write on. By the end of the week my desk is covered in sticky notes, so, of course, I grab a piece of scrap paper and write a new list.

It is kind of a miracle that I ever get anything done. But I do. I’m not sure how.

Do you have any organizing foibles? Please, please share them with me in the comments. It will make me feel better about myself.

Photo from everystockphoto.

How To Get Obsessed

Writing, like so many creative endeavors, is a strange gig. We writers do everything we can to avoid working on our projects, but then when we finally get to it, we don’t want to stop. While in many arenas, obsession is not considered a good thing, we creatives tend to cultivate it. I’ve recently written about the strange paradox that the more you do of something, the more you want to do and can do.  Which leads to…dum dum de dum….obsession. So here’s a handy guide on how to make it happen. (And let it be known, I’m talking about the good kind of obsession here.)

How to Get Obsessed

Make a commitment to your work and then follow through on it. I know no better way than this to get obsessed. Go to the page every day, or as often as you can, and you’ll find yourself gaining momentum.  So often, you find what you need in the writing itself. You may not think you know where the scene is going, but once you start writing, it shows you. But you won’t find it if you don’t sit down to the page. So do it, even when you aren’t inspired. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself obsessed. You’ll be thinking about your work all the time.  Using every few spare minutes to work on it. Coming up with brilliant ideas right and left.

Why You Want To

Because there is no better feeling on earth than that which you get from working steadily on a creative project. Have you ever focused intently on your writing, and after your session felt like you were in love with everything in the world? That’s the writer’s high that you get when you’ve got momentum in your work. When I’m on a roll like this, everything in my life works better. I smile at the cranky grocery store check-out clerk and let all the negativities of the day slide off me.  All the things on my to-do list get done–because I’m so happy I don’t mind doing them.

How to Get Un-obsessed

Okay, honestly, being obsessed with your work all the time is not the best state of being. For a couple of reasons: first, you need to get out from behind the computer to experience life so that you have second to write about. (In other words, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Or Jackie a dull girl.) And second, that old myth about the tortured writing staying up all night to work ends up with said writer collapsing and then not being able to write for another month. So the key is to get a steady burn going. Step by step we travel far, as my Mom always said.

It’s a good idea to take breaks often. And by breaks I mean intentional breaks. Not lollygagging across the internet, but doing an activity that means something to do you. That will refresh you. And for God’s sake get up from you chair and walk and stretch once in awhile. (Which I have a difficult time with, partly because of pain in my knee.)

And also, know that at some point, your obsession will end. It just will. That’s part of the creative cycle. You can’t go full out all the time, and nor do you want to (see first paragraph in this section.) If you’ve suddenly lost the urge to write, maybe your brain just needs a break. Listen to it and give it one.

Are you obsessed with your writing? Leave a comment or discuss on the Facebook page.

Photo from everystockphoto.

Have You Noticed This Weird Paradox? (A Love Letter)

First of all, Happy Mother’s Day to those of you who are mothers. The best mother’s day I ever had was the one in which I took myself out to a writer’s tea for the day—leaving my young children behind.  Anyway, to the rest of you—Happy Wise Women’s Day. Is that a thing? I thought I saw it somewhere. And I’m quite sure that every single one of my female readers is a wise woman. So happy day.

This week, I’ve been reminded of a weird paradox. I’m seeing in all areas of my life. It’s this: the more you do, the more you can do.  The more energy you expend, the more you have available to you. The more your read, the more you can read. The more you write, the more you can write. The more you knit, the more you can knit.

Okay, you get my drift.

And you might be disagreeing with me, scowling as you read. But hear me out. At first glance this paradox seems to make no sense. It’s backwards, right? There’s only so many hours in the day. How can the solution for getting more of something in your life be to add more of it?

But, it’s a thing, I tell you. I’m noticing it in my knitting. The more often I pick my current project up and work a few stitches, the more I want to. And the more I want to, the more I pick it up and work on, thus actually completing things (something I have difficulty with). So it’s a loop.

It’s been happening in my writing this week, too. I love journaling every morning but sometimes tell myself I don’t have time. I must get my word count in! Work on that rewrite! Write a blog post! Read manuscripts! But lately I’ve been starting my day with journaling again. I’ve also been doing random writing spurts to prompts in my writing notebook. And my writing productivity has increased exponentially. I was meandering along on my rewrite and suddenly I’m obsessed with it. Working on it is all I want to do.

Why does this happen? Here’s my theory: it has to do with passion and momentum and commitment. You allow your passion to have free reign (don’t take me too literally here) and that engenders momentum. And the more momentum you get, the more committed you become.

It’s a bit like being obsessed. And I don’t know about you, but I like this state of being because too often I’m meandering about the opposite way. How to achieve it? A lot if is about allowing. Allowing yourself to pick up the pen, even when you are feeling tired. (Writing is a surprisingly energetic activity, at least as far as your brain is concerned.) Allowing yourself to dive fully into the work. Allowing yourself to steal minutes away from watching TV and write instead. In other words, it’s as choice, my friend. It’s all about commitment.

And once you get obsessed, don’t forget to take some breaks once in awhile, too. In yet another weird paradox, getting too obsessed can lead to burnout and creative breakdown.

What have you gotten obsessed with lately? Leave a comment and tell me.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, which also includes links to cool things I’ve found in my internet travels. To sign up, click here.

Charlotte’s Monthly Round-Up Love Letter

Okay, so I probably should have done this last week, because we are already six days into the month, but I just thought of it. I’m talking about a new feature I’m trying—a monthly round-up of what’s going on in my writing life. Hopefully you will find things of use to you.

Outside my office window, the blossoms on the cherry tree are already fading. I can’t believe it is May! My month in France seems like a distant memory. And it is—I’ve been home nearly a month and a half. I’ve been busy working on my rewrite (see below), organizing my office, teaching, and working with clients. Oh, I also do quite a bit of shepherding of small children. (In case you need catching up, my daughter and her family moved in with us in March.)  It’s like being a parent all over again, only at least this time I can go close the door to my office. (Never mind that my office is the most favorite place of the two miniature humans who now live with me.)

Often sometimes I long for the gentle pace of the days in France, but I feel pretty blessed to have so much going on here.  We’re settling into a good balance. And if all else fails, there is wine. So let’s get to it.

What I Read

Train Your Brain, by Dana Wilde.  This book covers familiar ground—what you think affects your life—but the author writes about the topic in a way that I found convincing and easy to grasp. I’m a total wonk for brain stuff, and she talks about it without getting too science-y for me. Woo-woo warning: the topic lends itself to the woo, can’t be helped, so if this is not your thing, stay away.

A Gentleman in Moscow. I am loving this book. I bought it in hardcover for my husband a year ago Christmas. He read it and loved it but I ignored it. Finally picked it up and it’s so good. Amor Towles writes in an elegant style. He is also very good at dropping you into a scene, and explaining later. Something to emulate.

The Hazelwood, by Melissa Albert. Wasn’t thrilled with this one, though I had high hopes for it. I got confused with all the activity in the other world they enter and thought it went on a bit long. But points for inventiveness.

Digging In, by Loretta Nyhan.  This was a good garden-variety (hahahaha, I crack myself up) women’s fiction novel about a protagonist getting over the death of her husband through gardening. That she pisses off the home owner’s society in the process is a fun bonus.

On My To-Read List

Love and Ruin, by Paula McClain.  This is about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who was quite a star in her own right. She was a globe-trotting journalist in a time when that was relatively rare. I’ve always wanted to know more about her.

Willpower Doesn’t Work, by Ben Hardy. I hear this is a great book on productivity, which is a topic dear to my heart. I also recommend his newsletter.

What I’m Loving

My rewrite.  I was having hand-wringing fits about it earlier in this month. But, finally, I’ve reached some momentum on it again. I’m rearranging chapters and man, does that get complicated. My friend Mayanna says I need to get Scrivener for this. But when I’ve used it in the past I’ve ended up so frustrated I ditched it. Your advice?

What I’m Excited About

I never thought I’d want to teach writing. But when I got my MFA, there was a built-in component on teaching. From there I got hired to teach at MTSU in Nashville (distance program) and turns out I love it! I learn so much from my students and also from the process of figuring out how to share what I know.

Debbie (my teaching partner) and I taught a class on motivation yesterday and it was a lot of fun. Tricky topic—one of those ones that sounds so easy but is really quite complex. We’re teaching another half-day workshop here in Portland on May 19th, this one on arc—another tricky topic.

I love these classes because they are very hands-on. We build in lots of time for in-class exercises and discussion, which makes them more fun. And, I submit it is a better way to learn than to listen to one of us lecture on and on.

This is the same format we follow for our France workshops, and we just happen to have a couple openings. You know you want to come study writing (and write) by the shores of the Mediterranean in a charming town. Right?

What I’m Listening To

So, try as I might, I haven’t gotten on the podcast wagon. Because I’m so visual, I don’t process information auditorily well. That makes it hard for me to retain information I hear.

And, I don’t listen to music while writing because it distracts me. So, sorry, no play lists from me. But I do like to listen to music at other times and since we were gifted an Echo from Amazon (which we usually just call the Alexa, since that’s the name you use to get her to do something) we’ve been listening to a ton of it. So far, we’ve not been able to stump her, although my son said he asked her to play Frank Zappa and she didn’t know him. Shocking!

On The Blog

Spring Cleaning Your Writing

Is It Procrastination or Percolation?

The Usefulness of Thinking Small (In Writing and In Life)

Writing Rituals That Work

Write It Imperfectly, Do It Imperfectly

The Ritual is Opening the File (How to Get Your Writing Done)

How About Some Writing Prompts?

On Story Questions and Traveling Home

I’m hoping that May brings a lot more of the same—writing, reading, working with clients—only that more of it will be done outside! What about you? How is your writing going? What have you been reading? I’m always in the market for new titles. Leave a comment and tell me everything.

(This post contains some affiliate links)