I’m baaaaack

Please forgive the long absence (well, its only been a week and a half or so.  But that's an eon in blog years.)

I have not been blogging for two good reasons:      476px-Chimp_Brain_in_a_jar

1.  I was out of town.

2.  I have been having Thoughts, of a deep nature.

Thoughts about what, you might ask?  Well, if you read my last post, which was a survey asking why you read this blog (and offering a free ebook in return) you know that I've been pondering which direction I should go with the information I offer.

Thank you to those of you who responded, and for those of you who haven't yet, the offer still stands.  Meanwhile, my Thoughts have rejuvenated me and I'm feeling ready to return to regular posts with renewed vigor and more of a focus on the craft of writing and the life of a writer. 

However, let me just say that the bit about regular posts depends heavily on nature and the universe cooperating with me, neither of which has happened thus far this week.  I've been dealing with ice, snow, and my mother's furnace breaking on one of the coldest days of the year.    (Can you even imagine how much fun it was to call furnace repair companies yesterday and beg them to please come over?)

But, barring more natural disasters or appliances breaking, I will soon be back at it on a regular basis.  With all kinds of juicy goodness to come.   See you soon!

Photo by Gaetan Lee, used courtesy of Wikipedia, under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Free Book Offering: Going To A Place Far, Far Away

Well, its not that far, really.  I'm heading up to the Washington coast to visit my Nashville friend Sue at her father's place.  What makes it feel far, far away is that there is no internet service and no cell phone service.   No blogging!  No Twitter!  No text messaging! 

However, I'm only going to be gone until tomorrow.   I'm taking my camera and since my new end-of-the-year resolution is to snap lots of photos, I'm hoping to come back with many of them to share.  In the meantime, here's a photo I took last night of the Christmas train at Oaks Park:

Steam Engine & Self Portraits 009

Not quite sure how to get that date stamp off it.  Words are my forte, not photos. 

Which brings me to the point of this post.

I'm feeling a bit tired of it all and in need of some inspiration, which is where you come in.  I want to know what you want to read about in terms of writing, and what you need to know.  If you feel so inclined, pop me an email at wordstrumpet@gmail.com with answers to the following questions and in return I'll send you a free beta bcopy of my Ebook, Set the Words Free.  (But bear in mind that I'm going to be out of wireless range for a few days and thus will not be getting back to you with it until the end of the week.)

1. Do you write:
fiction
screenplays
nonfiction
poetry

2. What is your biggest writing problem?

3.  Do you struggle more with finding time and motivation to write or issues with craft?

4.  Are you a published writer?

5.  If not, do you aspire to be a published writer?

6.  If yes, what do you aspire to publish (ie, novel, short story, get a screenplay optioned, poetry, etc.)

7.  Do you aspire to make money writing?  If so, in what area?

8.  What kinds of posts are most helpful?

9.   What kinds of posts do you enjoy the most?  (ie, life of a writer or craft)

10.  What is your biggest writing goal for 2009?

11.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, what brings you back to it?

If you only want to answer a couple of questions, that's cool, I'll take any and all feedback.  Thank you so much and I'll be back with photos at the end of the week.

Overcoming Flat Scenes: Rising and Falling Action

This is the third post in a series on scenes, and specifically, flat scenes. You can find part one of the series here, and part two, here.

What is a flat scene?  It is one in which the emotional tenor is the
same all the way through.  For instance your heroine may start out the
scene depressed and end it depressed.  Or your hero may begin the scene
happy and end it happy.  A flat scene can also be flat by virtue of the fact that there are no turning points  in it.  A turning point is when a character acts on a goal (or call it an objective, if you want) and is either successful or unsuccessful.  Since you want to create as much conflict as possible for your characters, odds are good that you will be torturing them by making them unsuccessful.  Then they have to try another way to achieve their goal.  Or if they are successful at achieving their goal, that goal creates other, unforeseen problems.

But I digress. 

A scene turns when it ends at a different place than it began, and I don't mean just physically.  If your character begins the scene unhappy, creates a goal to change that unhappiness and achieves the goal, she might end the scene happy.  And thus the scene has turned.  There has been rising action, from sadness to achieving the goal, and then happiness.

Or if your character begins the scene unhappy, works on a goal that fails, she might end the scene devastating, destroyed, completely ruined.  The scene has turned.  That would be a case of falling action.  Now she must pick herself up and figure out what to do next. 

Rust Hills talks about the end of the last chance to change as a turning point in short stories.  If the character has a chance to change and takes it, that makes a story.  But there's also a classic short story structure in which the character has a chance to change that is his last, and doesn't take it.  And that is a story, too.  Both options create turning points.

In a flat scene, there is no turning point, no chance to change, no last chance to change.  Your characters begin and end in the same emotional terrain. 

How to avoid this?  The easiest way (and I say that facetiously, because there is no easy in writing) is to start each scene with a goal.  This can be as simple as creating a desire for a character.  Then put obstacles in the way to achieving it.  This is exactly what we do when designing a plot, and if you do it for each scene, you'll have a strong structure for your novel (and by the way, all this talk of scene applies to creative non-fiction, also).  If you suspect your scene is flat, ask yourself what your character's goal is for the scene and see if that doesn't give you a spine to hang the action on.

Bear in mind that each scene is like a mini-story, a hologram of the big picture, if you will.  Don't go off creating scenes willy-nilly just for the sheer joy of it.  Your beautifully crafted scenes must relate to the plot.

Remember, death to all flat scenes.  Make them rise, make them fall, make them turn and twirl and dance.  Your novel will thank you for it.

Feel the Fear and Write it Anyway

We interrupt the current series on scene to bring you this post on writing, fear, and creativity. 

I was having breakfast with my wonderful Nashville friend Sue (wait, should I say she's from Nashville if she is originally from Portland?) this morning and we started talking about feeling skittish and being nervous and anxious.  (Did the world financial situation have anything to do with this conversation? You be the judge.) 

I allowed as how I've recently realized that I'm nervous or scared pretty often these days. I travel alone a lot, and that makes me nervous.  I meet new people all the time, and that does, too.  Staying at home makes me nervous that I'm missing things out in the world.  And then we get to writing.  As my sister would say, gee-zus.  I attempt to write emotional truths in my novel and then I think about what my 92-year-old mother will say and I get nervous.  Or I write these true confessions in this (very public) blog and that makes me nervous.

But here's the deal:  I'm so used to the feeling of being nervous that I rarely even notice it anymore.  Ratchet it up to terrified (say, book deal) and you'll get my attention, maybe.  Meanwhile I go about my business being happily scared half out of my mind, doing it anyway: boarding the plane and hoping some kind gentleman will volunteer to lift my heavy laptop bag to the overhead compartment, meeting the new client, and opening up a new page to write on the computer or the spiral journal. 

I'm finally beginning to realize that if you're not scared, you're not living.  If you're not putting your nerves on the line on a regular basis, it is time to dial it up a notch.  This is true in garden variety living life, and its true in writing. 

Fear is the flip side of creativity.   But you can–and must–harness it.  Maybe there's a creative person somewhere on the planet who doesn't experience fear, but I don't know where that someone is.  If you find him or her, let me know.  Meanwhile, here are some ideas for harnessing fear in the service of creativity:

What you resist, persists.  Like anger or any other strong emotion, you can't let fear drive you but if you try batting it away, that doesn't work so well, either.  Try just letting it be.  Acknowledge it and then go write or board the plane or run the marathon. 

Denial is a river in Egypt.  And it is a big river, indeed.  Denial is a tricky mistress because being in denial means you don't realize you have a problem.  Its a brilliant coping mechanism.  Seems to me, though, that even those of us swimming in the depths of that river always see a glimmer of the light of truth.  Swim towards that light.  Allow it to illuminate the fear.

Only way out is through.
  I hate this emotional stuff, because it is so damn hard.  Which is of course, why we resist and go into denial.  But truly the best option is to plow into it.  Have you ever had the experience of resisting and resisting writing and then finally getting to it and having such a blast you wondered what the fuss was about?  I have.  It happens nearly every day sometimes.  Often you just have to walk through the fire.

Just do it.  This is probably about the gazillionth time I've invoked the Nike mantra in this blog.  That's because it is so simple and true.  Honestly?  This is the gist of it all, the kernel, the seed, the nut graph, the takeaway.  The single most important thing in life is to just do it.   Ignore the fear, forget the pain, concentrate on the moment, right here, right now and go write.

And, in case  you need more inspiration, here are some links about creativity you might find of use:

Building Success with Creative Adaptation

How To Write Remarkably Creative Copy

Of Creativity

We'll be back to the regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, with the final post in the series on writing scenes.  Meanwhile, you can read part one here, and part two here.

Elements of a Scene

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of flat scenes (not to be confused with flat screens) and how they can be very dull and boring.  As I emoted about the dullness and boringness of flat scenes and planned to write about how to avoid them, the thought occurred to me that this might be a good place for a recap about the elements of scene.

Writing in scene is one of the most common things that new writers do not do. Chairs_home_stage_265084_l

In general (and you can argue with me on this), a scene:

  • Takes place in one location
  • Is confined to the viewpoint of one character
  • Has a specific purpose in mind (or at least it should), such as showing character, creating conflict, advancing plot

The best scenes work hard and accomplish several of these things at the same time.  The basic elements of scene are:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description

This is as opposed to narrative or exposition, which is straight writing, with no action or dialogue.  Again in general, a scene shows while exposition tells.  A scene is actable  (goofy Hollywood term for you) which means you could watch actors play the roles.  The only way actors could act exposition is in a monologue.

Now that you've had this handy little reminder of what a scene is, the next step is to write an effective one, which is way more complicated than just putting words in your characters' mouths.  An under-appreciated way to make scenes work hard and keep your reader's interest is to make sure they turn. 

And that, dear reader, is the topic of the next post in this series.

Awesome photo of chairs onstage by Mazartemka.  I found it on Every Stock Photo.

Gift Ideas for Writers: The Wordstrumpet Christmas List

Christmas season has officially begun and even though I went to an awesome wine tasting and sale last night, it wasn’t at a mall or even a traditional store so thus I did not officially participate in Black Friday.  I did, however, buy a handcrafted Christmas ornament and started getting in the spirit of the holiday.  And what better way to celebrate the start of the season then with a Christmas list?  I love lists of all kinds but especially Christmas and birthday lists.  What follows is The Wordstrumpet Christmas list, full of books and and various other items of possible interest to writers.  It is admittedly random, in no particular order, and based on my current obsessions, which may well change completely tomorrow, in which case I’ll write a new list.  Until then, here we go:
1.  While we are talking about awesome wine tastings and sales, why not buy gifts from a local artist or craftsperson?  There’s nothing more special than a hand-crafted present, whether you made it yourself or bought it from someone who did.  If you don’t know of any convenient local sources, try Etsy for a vast array of fabulous ideas.

2. The Ethical Executive. This book by Robert Hoyk is a must-read for everyone, not just executives, because it will help you steer a path through the sticky wickets of multiple ethical dilemmas.  I featured this book on a page on my sister site, Bookstrumpet, which you can see here.

3.  While we are on the topic of great books, how about a little Christmas cheer?   You can buy Christmas is a Season, on Amazon (see the handy button to the left) and read a story by none other than moi.

4.  While we are on the subject of Amazon, I am still coveting a Kindle., the new electronic reader.  When I travel, and I travel often, I cart pounds of books along with me.  I had to buy a rolling carry-on bag to save my shoulder and I’ve takeen to checking it planeside because it is so heavy from the books.  If I had a Kindle, I could load every title I wanted to read on it and save my arms.

5.  I’ve just discovered the author Will North, and I’m reading his novel, The Long Walk Home.  He’s being billed as a latter-day Robert James Waller (author of Bridges of Madison County) but trust me, he’s better.  Way better.  He’s a ghostwriter, like me, though I can’t claim quite the high-falutin’ clients that he can.

6.  A session with Suzanne Peters to clear out any blocks you might have around your writing career or your ability to put words on the page.  She’s doing an amazing new process called  and getting great results with it.

7.  Every writer needs a furry companion, and there’s no better choice for that than a pug.  If you’re in the Portland area, try the Pacific Pug Rescue to adopt a pug in need.

8.  I’m addicted to office supplies, especially the really cool, elegant ones that Levenger sells.  I could spend entire fortunes on office supplies and books, and be happy.  Well, I do like to buy clothes, too, but that’s a topic for someone else’s blog.

9.  I desperately need a new computer (Vaio, don’t fail me yet) and there’s no denying it, I want a Mac.  Blasphemy, since I’ve been a PC user for years, but there it is.

10.  There comes a time in every writer’s life when he or she needs some support, encouragement, or instruction. Why not consider signing up for The Writer’s Loft? You’ll get one-on-one instruction, working closely with a mentor.

11.  If you have a desperate need to learn more about writing fundraising letters, you can purchase the book I wrote on said topic here.     Good stuff, honestly.

12.  Make 2009 the year you write your book.  I’m starting an online program to teach you exactly how to do that.  Your book is your business card.  You need one to achieve the success you desire.  Stay tuned for more details on this program, coming soon!

13.  Lucky number thirteen bonus idea:  sign up for my newsletter, full of writing tips and ideas.  Or sign up one of your loved ones.  Its free!  All you have to do is provide your name and address in the handy box to the right.

In The Body: Writing and Running, Part Two

A few days ago I wrote a post about writing and running.  Since then I've been staying in Laguna BeachTarget D1127
and running the canyon.  Okay, I run down and walk back up, but then so does nearly everyone else.  It is a looong way back up.  Yesterday as I hit the last and steepest hill I ran into a man named George who proceeded to tell me about Kangen water, which helped make the hill climb a lot easier.  (He dropped off some of the water for me to try later, and that was pretty cool, too.)

Water and interesting men aside, I have had Thoughts as I continue this new-found activity.  Thoughts which relate to writing.

My biggest Thought concerns the difference between writing and walking. Besides speed, the main difference to me is that when I run I'm totally in my body.  I'm focusing on keeping myself going, on breathing, maybe on that pain in my ankle, on making it to the next street or up the next hill.  When I walk, my mind roams free.  I ponder writing problems, and, alarmingly often, obsess about what I'm going to do first when I return from my walk. 

Over the years of my walking career, I've often noticed the difference between passing another walker and passing a runner.  Another walker always makes eye contact and greets me (at least in Portland, where we tend to be inordinately friendly).  But the runners always run on by.  I assumed this was an inbred snottiness about runners, but now I understand.  Runners don't say hi because they are in the body, not quite so focused on the surroundings.

How does this Thought relate to writing, you ask?  Just as a runner stays in the body when running, a writer needs to stay in the body when writing.  Its just that the body might be someone else's.  The body could be the heroine of your novel or the person for whom you ghostwrite a book.  In order to truly write from another point of view you need to deeply inhabit the body of your character.  This is also true in the case of writing a personal essay or even an article.  You must be in the body–your own body–in order to access the truths you wish to share in writing.

Some people get to this state by meditating.  You might have other ways to reach it.  Whatever path you choose, just remember that being in the body, deeply inhabiting the essence of yourself or your character, is the state you need to write from.

Technology , Spirituality and Creativity

This is a funny confession, but technology inspires me both creatively, and spiritually. 

I used to live in a tiny bubble that was comprised of my immediate neighborhood, my city, occasional forays to other cities.  Now, thanks to technology, I’m connected to a vast web of people, through my blog, email, and social networking.  I’ve got ghostwriting clients in LA, students in Nashville, and friends all over the world.  People say technology is the death of intimacy, but I say the opposite.

There’s no escaping it–we’re all connected. Quantum physicists tell us that everything we do impacts even the tiniest atoms of matter.  Technology proves this to me, over and over again, every day.  Because I have physical evidence of our interconnections through technology, it is much, much easier for me to believe it in a spiritual manner.

As above, so below, the ancients say.  As technology, so spirituality. 


The Writing Process

The thought occurs that reminders about the basics are a good thing.  I know for certain that I forget things about writing all the time and then when I remember them I feel like I've discovered the fountain of youth or the secret to cloning Brad Pitt.  No, wait, I hear that Johnny Depp is the current hot boy.  Well, you can clone Johnny and I'll clone Brad.

One of the things that is easy to forget about is the writing process. Or, perhaps we should capitalize it, The Writing Process.  It sounds official and mysterious but really it is the easiest thing in the world because basically all you have to do to partake of The Writing Process is write.

Sounds easy, and, um, logical, right?

Too bad we silly, wonderful humans allow ourselves to get bogged down and forget how easy it is to write.  Instead, we get mired in the muck of perfection.   We may begin to think that every sentence or even every word must be perfect before we move on.  We decide that we should know every single thing about our main character and her arc and every single scene we are going to write and every detail of it before we move forward.  We convince ourselves that this is how we are supposed to write, and we also convince ourselves that the "real" writers produce sterling prose the first time out, without ever having to revise.

Not even.

The most prolific writers follow The Writing Process.  It is damn difficult to be prolific when you are obsessing over every word that must come from your brain, through the fingers, onto the page.  It is really hard to get a lot of writing done when you are locked in a war with yourself about perfection.

On the other hand, there's also the trap of putting words on paper as they occur to you and assuming your are done, that your genius needs no revising.  This is most often seen in beginning writers.  There's that rush of creation and it feels so damn good that it is difficult to believe that the slightest thing could be wrong with your creation.

Steer a middle path through these two extremes and you'll find The Writing Process, which allows you to alternate between the two extremes.  Here's a rundown of it:

  • Rough draft.  Some people call this the discovery draft, because you are discovering the story.  You start writing at the beginning and push on through to the end, without stopping to revise or edit or make the changes your critique group told you about.  Even if you make a major change mid-stream, you keep writing.  At many times throughout the process you may feel lost, but once you get to the end, you'll know much, much more about the story than you did when you started.
  • Second draft.  This one is going to be a bit shapelier, but still not gorgeous.  You'll be looking at big issues this time around, such as how the plot functions and if the character arcs work.  You've learned so much from writing a rough draft that you'll be applying all those stellar ideas to this draft.
  • Third draft.  Probably more of the same, unless you're really good or you've made a deal with the devil.  Every draft that you do will allow the novel to unveil itself to you, and you'll get to a deeper and deeper level with it.
  • Fourth draft.  In reality, you'll probably do so many drafts that you'll lose track, but for the sake of the story, let's assume after the third draft you're satisfied with all the big issues and ready to move on.  Now you look at style, such things as using active verbs and varying your sentence structure, making sure you don't overuse the word "that" and so on and so forth.  I once had a mentor tell me to spend an hour per page in this stage, but I've never been able to manage it.
  • Fifth draft.  The fine-toothed comb draft.  Every word, every comma, every semi-colon, is up for consideration. 

After all this, finally, you will have a draft you can be proud of and eager to send out.  And then the real fun begins, as you navigate the dangerous waters of the publishing world.  And that is a topic for another post, or more likely, another person with more expertise than me.

Ah, LA….

where it is illegal to look different from anyone else.

It is a requirement here that you be thin, tan, have long hair, wear sunglasses and pout, AND be young.  Thus if you are not young it is required that you go get plastic surgery really, really fast.  And then you look like you are trying hard to look like everyone else, even though everyone knows that you went under the knife to do it.

Ah, LA.  I love it so, and I'm not even sure why.

Being here always makes me muse on the nature of identity and true self.  These are important topics for writers because letting that ole true self out in words is pretty much the key to it all.  You will find success only when you find your voice and you find your voice by writing enough that you can let it rip, and open a direct line from your deepest inner being, through the arm, out the fingers, and onto the page.  Or keyboard.  Or digital recorder.

My friend Deidre, who lives in Silver Lake, says that everyone in LA strives to look alike and act alike and be alike and then the one person who is not like everyone else arrives and they are the one who makes it.  So why does everyone else persist in attempting to be like everyone else?

And once you hit 40, forget it.  Actually, it might even be 30.  Soon it will probably be 20.

Lat night I had drinks with a friend who is an entertainment attorney and he says its a hellish culture of youth here  (my words, not his, but they have a ring to them, no?)  As an attorney, he is expected to be wise and mature so he doesn't have to worry about the the age thing, but if you are flailing about on the creative side trying to make it, you gotta be young.

The hell part is, of course, that everyone ages.  Even Hollywood Goldenboys.  Then they have to dye their hair and pretend they are still young.

I realize that none of this is news, yet it continually perplexes me every time I come down here. Why do we all persist in trying to make ourselves just like everyone else, when there's only one of each of us in this whole world?  I'm veering dangerously close to getting teary eyed and talking about snowflakes here so forgive me, or better yet, explain it to me.

I'm reading Harriet Rubin's latest book, The Mona Lisa Stratagem: The Art of Women, Age, and Power, and she talks about how if a famous actor is on stage and a cat is on stage, all eyes will be on the cat. Why?  Because the cat is uniquely, gloriously, himself, no matter what.  Animals just are.  (This might help to explain why the most popular photos on my yahoo home page are always of animals.  So we're not as simple minded as I feared.)  Its the same thing with babies.  Ever notice how nobody can keep their eyes off them? 

Somebody ought to tell all the 20-something wannabe actresses that story.

And yet, despite my horror at the preponderance of clones everywhere and the cult of youth here, there is something about this place that keeps luring me back. 
Maybe I like coming here so much because I can flee back north to
Portland, where everybody seems desperately determined to not look like
anyone else, ever. 

Or maybe its just the palm trees.