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.

Interview with Me

John Craig did a 5-question interview with me and he posted it today.  I loved the questions he asked and I love his photography, so go check it out. 

You can find his blog here.

After you've read the interview, stick around on his blog and read his posts.  He's got some great stuff and he's also working on a book, I'm happy to report.  And don't forget to check out his photography on his website.

Thanks, John, for interviewing me!

One of Those Days

It’s been one of those days.  I thought I’d take time to work on some of my self-initiated projects instead of all the work I do for other people (those pesky items that pay the bills).  And yet.  There was a series of emails that needed to be sent out for the Loft, and those led to a flurry of emails in response.  And then my friend in LA had called and so I needed to call her back and there was that earthquake so it took way longer than usual to get through because all the circuits were busy.  (Can I just say how happy I am that there was an earthquake this week, since I’ll be in LA next week?  This takes the pressure off all those underground faults and fissures, so there won’t be another one for a long, long time.  Right? Right? Right?)

And after that, oh so many things happened that kept my nose to the grindstone.  I emailed a couple of book publicists for my book review and author site, and went through the contracts for the AWP panel.  More emails.  A lot more emails.  Completed a long-overdue survey about the makeover the wonderful Typepad people did for me.  And so on and so forth.

All wonderful things, but not writing.  Not at all writing.  All writing-related, but not writing.  Sheesh.  The good news is that I got enough done–oh, except there is the wee matter of the next ghostwriting project I need to start–that tomorrow can mostly be devoted to writing.

So, before dinner, feeling proud of myself, I sat down with a glass of wine and my knitting to relax a bit.  Never mind that my son, who is way too old for this kind of behavior, was banging relentlessly on the wall of the family room asking when dinner would be ready.  I ignored him as best I could (he finally went and started dinner himself but don’t be too impressed because it was take-out meatballs) and concentrated on my knitting, pondering what lovely words I would be writing tomorrow.

And as I formed stitch after stitch (I’m making a skirt, yes, a skirt–check out this great book called Handknit Skirts from Tricoter) I had a thought.  A brilliant thought, actually, about a problem in one of my fiction pieces that had plagued me.  I am going to submit a story to my friend Linda’s Christmas anthology, and I’m going to be editing a chapter of my first novel down to make it into a short story.  I really have no clue how to do this, and less of a clue as to how to start.

Ah, but such is the benefit of finally getting one’s mind quiet enough for brilliance to flood in.  It helps, immensely, when one’s hands are occupied, I find.  Any kind of repetitive behavior seems to set the mind free for great ideas.  Gardening is good, as is lawn mowing, or vaccuuming, or sewing.  Walking is excellent.  I’m sure golf probably is, but I wouldn’t know as the one time I played golf it took me so long at each tee that kicked me off the course.  Anyway, you get the idea.

So now I’m primed to get going tomorrow.  As long as I start with fiction first and do no go to the email I’ll be fine.

Hollywood of Comic Books

My son went through a long comic book phase when he was a pre-teen, which involved me driving him to comic book stores and conventions and then standing around waiting for him.  Having nothing better to do, I picked up comic books and began to read and in this way grew to love the form.  One of my early attempts at novel writing actually was set in the world of comics–a sure sign something holds a lot of interest to me, cause I won’t write about it unless I really love it.  (Except for ghostwriting.  I’ll write about anything if you pay me enough.)

For the record, as far as I’m concerned the best comic ever is Concrete, written by Paul Chadwick, and published by Dark Horse comics which just so happens to be located in Portland, along with all the other hot comic companies.  Concrete is the story of speechwriter Ron Lithgow whose brain was transplanted into a huge body of concrete by aliens.  But the series is far more than what it sounds like, as Concrete muses on all kinds of things such as the nature of people’s passions and so forth.  And, as I recall, there’s this sort of tragic The Sun Also Rises thing going on, with Concrete in love with a woman that he can of course never have.  For an interview with Chadwick, click here.  And to see what looks like a pretty complete list of the Concrete oeuvre, click here.  Check it out, its worth it, I promise.

I’ve been thinking about comics because of the success this summer of Hellboy II, a Dark Horse project, and, of course, The Dark Knight, which I’ve not yet seen.  Recently my local newspaper ran an article about how Portland truly is the Hollywood of the Comics world and you can read that article here.

So when I was looking at the ads that run alongside my gmail inbox (it fascinates and scares me how they are so keyed to whatever is being talking about in an email) and saw an ad for a comic book called The Elves of Iax, I had to click on it, just to check it out.  Turns out the comic is produced by Jeremy Kayes, who apparently lives in Seattle, which we’ll have to forgive him for as he might not be able to help it. Anyway, Jeremy is giving away Chapter 1 of his comic until August 11, 2008.  (You can give him a donation at the end of the process.) 

I deeply admire people who do things like this, because it implies that he cares not so much about making money, but getting his work out in the world.  He cares not so much about what the world can do for him as what he can do for the world.  Excellent karma.  So go check it out.  The elves look intriguing and I can’t wait for my copy.  And do check out Concrete, too.

Ah, But Here’s the Rub

A couple months ago I wrote a post titled Write Three Pages a Day and You’ll Be Happy.

This command, and the post I wrote about it, are all true.  I believe this statement with all my heart, because I believe that as writers, we must write regularly to be happy.

However….

Upon rare occasion, there may come a day, when you realize, as youmdutifully write your three pages a day on a daily basis, that you are lost and meandering.  In a dark wood, wandering, so to speak.  Unsure where those three pages a day are taking you, if anywhere.

Not that this has ever happened to me, mind you.  Just sayin’ it might happen.  It just might.

And you will need to be prepared if it does.  Because when if this happens you might inadvertently feel worse for having written your three pages then if you’d not written at all.  Here you are, diligently writing, yet you seem to be wandering far afield.  No plot appears.  Your characters are aimless, boring creatures.  Your words like dead and flat on the page.

What to do when this happens?

I don’t know, really.  The truth is, nobody does.  Feeling lost and uncertain where you are going in a project is an occupational hazard.  Rare are the writing projects that write themselves.  Wonderful as they are, they can be a curse, too, because if that happens to you even once, you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing and hoping that it will happen again.  It might.  But then again, it might not.

But even though I don’t really have the answer, I’ve managed to muster some suggestions.  So here we go:

What To Do When You Don’t Have a Clue What You’re Writing

1. Cry.  I am sort of kidding about this, but sort of not.  Crying is very cathartic.

2.  Remember that the only way out is through.  You know what this means. Keep writing.

3.  Trust.  This is related to #2.  You must trust that the story will out, that the cream will rise to the crop, that the….you get the idea.

4.  Go back to the basics and plan.  Ask yourself questions about the characters, or interview them.  Put scenes on 3 by 5 cards and arrange and rearrange them.  Make a plot outline–work fast and just write down everything you know about what happens next.  Or write up some scene guides–noting all the physical details of the scene, who is in it, where it takes place, what will happen, what the scene needs to accomplish and so forth.

5. Take a break.  I know, I know, I’m forever harping about writing regularly.  But once in awhile you can let yourself off the hook and take a little break.  As long as it is the pause that refreshes and not the time you quit working on the novel or screenplay forever.

6.  And finally, for some fresh inspiration, download Chris Guillebeau’s free ebook called, The Art of Nonconformity: A Brief Guide to World Domination.  I think you’ll enjoy it and find it useful.

Writing is Enough

I may have already written about this before–and I reserve the right to write about it again.  Does anyone else have that thing where you forget what you’ve written?  It’s not age, or fading brain cells, it comes from writing a lot and being so present with what I’m writing that I forget everything that has come before.  Or so I tell myself.

But back to the subject at hand, in my continuing effort to master the art of letting go, I’ve been thinking about things I need to let go of in my writing career.  (New age/self-help/energy primer 101–letting go does NOT mean you want to get rid of it, but that you want to get rid of fussing over it, expecting it to happen, requiring it to happen.)  I love every aspect of my writing.  I love writing blog posts, coaching, teaching, and directing the Writer’s Loft.

Most of all, I love writing fiction.  Love, love, love it.  I love every aspect of writing fiction, from brainstorming the initial idea for a novel, to writing the rough draft, rewriting, revising, fussing over it, talking about it–every bit of it.   The most important goal in my life right now is to publish my novel.

But that goal must be secondary to the writing itself or I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.

My wise friend Sue told me on my most recent trip to Nashville that she had realized that writing was in and of itself enough.  That writing is a useful activity that should be encouraged in the world, even if what we write never gets published.  (It is possible to believe this and still desire to get published.)

Sitting down to write is enough.   Doing this is a useful activity that improves the world, even if not one word of what you write ever sees publication.  Why?  To wit:

  • Writing centers you
  • Writing helps you make sense of the world
  • Writing orders your mind
  • Writing helps you to organize your thoughts
  • Writing helps you process emotions

Further, creating stories:

  • Helps you figure out who you are
  • Helps you figure out your world
  • Helps you to find your place in it
  • Helps you to understand others
  • Gives you a moral compass

I’ve often said that I don’t understand how people who don’t write survive in the world.  And it is for all of the above reasons that this is true–writing is a tool, a friend, a habit, a career, and more. 

And using writing for any and all of these activities is, quite simply, enough.

Listening or Waiting to Talk?

One of the best tools a writer can learn is the art of listening.  Actually, learning to listen is a useful tool for any human, period.  I spent the weekend in a workshop with people who had varying degrees of skills in listening, which has had me pondering the subject.

As my good and wise friend (and leader of the workshop) Mary-Suzanne pointed out, most of us spend time waiting to talk instead of actually listening.  I’ve watched other people do this and I know that I myself do it all the time–and I pride myself in being a good listener.

Instead of actually listening and taking in what the other person is saying, our minds race.  We start formulating what we want to say in return, or cataloging all the similar experiences that we have had so that we can talk about them when the other person shuts up.  Or maybe we worry that we don’t have anything to say, or that we’ll be expected to have something to say and nothing will come out.  We worry about what we look like or maybe we’re even worrying about something we did before the current conversation.

If we’re not worrying about ourselves, we may well be judging the person we are supposedly listening to.  We judge the speed of their delivery, or think dire thoughts about the awful outfit they have on.  We judge the funny expressions they make as they talk.  Or the way they are shredding their napkin as they speak.

But all of this is worrying and judging, not listening. 

Why does listening matter to a writer?

Because writers need to observe the world and everything and everyone in it in order to gather material.  Writers need to listen to conversations of others to obtain an ear for dialogue and how people interact with each other.  We need to listen to others in order to understand what it is to be human.  Because, after all, that is what writing is all about–describing the human condition.

So start schooling yourself in the art of listening.  How to do this is a bit harder to describe than telling people they should do this, I will admit.  A quick search of the internet netted mostly descriptions for college students listening to instructors lecture.  But this site seems to have some good advice about interpersonal listening.

The gist of it, of course, is staying present and not letting all your mental chatter distract you, whether that mental chatter is worrying about yourself or judging the speaker.  You might just be surprised what happens when you start listening deeply to the world around you.

Praise is Good and Change is Scary

Geez, things change in an instant.   David Cook is no longer the front-runner to be the next American Idol (but I still think he should be, because he has way more artistic integrity than the pipsqueak David Archuleta and I voted for him a gazillion times anyway) and suddenly the TypePad interface is completely different.  Cool, but completely different.  It always takes me awhile to embrace changes like these.

The above was the Change is Scary part of this post.  Now we get to the important part–the Praise is Good part.  The wonderful Lori devoted an entire blog post to me today.  (Pause for applause, please–I found the new make a link button and guess what?  You can now open it in a new window.) 

Lori won the contest I held awhile back and at first she was going to take a free coaching session as her prize but then she decided to take me up on my offer of reading the first 20 pages of her novel.   It was an absolute pleasure to read her work but I always hold my breath a little after I deliver a critique.  When I read a writer's work I do my utmost to be scrupulously honest and also supportive and encouraging.

The MFA program I attended operated on the principle that a supportive environment is just as good, if not better, at turning out fine writers than a harshly critical one and I like to uphold those values in my own teaching.  However, what might seem supportive and encouraging and honest to me might read as scathing to you–particularly if you are not used to have your work critiqued. 

My most favorite response to a critique is when someone says that it inspired them to get back to the project with renewed vigor and that is what Lori said today.  So I'm basking just as much as Lori is today–its what makes this work I do worthwhile.

Let me also mention the other winners of the contest.  Lauri also sent me the first chapter of her novel and it was great, too.  I don't know what it is with the talented Lauri/Loris who read this blog, but I'm grateful for them.

And finally, I owe Jen and BellaVida coaching sessions.  Email me, you guys! 

Tips For Writing: Overcoming Resistance

I’m taking a quick break from my current ghostwriting project to give you a tip for writing, specifically, overcoming resistance.

But first, I want to remind you to enter my writing contest.  Its easy–all you have to do is answer a few simple questions in the comment area and you’ll be entered in a drawing for the prize of a free coaching session.  The post is called  Another Writing Contest: What Are Your Writing Problems? and you can read it here.

Thank you to everyone who has commented so far–I’ll be responding to comments soon and I so appreciate y’all taking the time to look at the survey.

Now, onto writing resistance.  This is a tip that I learned from my wonderful coach, Tess Daniel, and like everything that she teaches me, it applies to every aspect of life.   But, like pretty much everything that comes my way, I look at it through the lens of writing.

If you are stuck and can’t seem do move yourself forward in your writing project, ask yourself one simple question:

Do I know what the next step is?

Do you know what scene comes next in the novel?  Or what character you need to introduce?  Do you need to rewrite the current chapter before you move forward?  Or do you just need to keep writing and get words on paper? 

The good news is, if you know what the next step is, odds are that you aren’t blocked.  You know what to do, you just aren’t doing it.  At least you have something to work with!  And one way to get yourself to work again is take pen in hand, number a piece of paper from one to ten, and quickly, write all the reasons you are not taking this next step.

One of two things will happen:  you’ll either realize there is a very practical reason that you aren’t taking that step, or you’ll realize that in truth, you were wrong. 

The practical reason is the easy one.  You don’t have a fact you need, or you need to print out the chapter to edit it and you don’t have enough ink in the printer.  That kind of thing.  Once it is committed to paper, its easy to see what you need to do and remedy it.  Sometimes we just get so overwhelmed we go into brain fog and we can’t see the forest for the trees, or the tree for the forest.

If you uncover reason number two, that you were wrong, that’s really not so bad either, because at least now you know.  You might have been laboring under the delusion that your characters needed to go to a funeral, for instance, when in reality that character isn’t dead.

Putting things down on paper has a way of uncovering what you need to know.  But what if you asked yourself the above question,  do I know what the next step is?  and the answer was no?

Well, sorry, you’re out of luck.  No, I’m just kidding.  The wonderful thing about being creative is that there is always an answer.  While not knowing is the wee-est bit more complicated than knowing, it is also in some ways more freeing.  If you don’t know what the answer is, after all, you can make anything up.

And that is what I recommend for not knowing–make it up.    Just pretend you know the answer and write it down.  If you knew what was supposed to happen next in your novel, what would happen?  If that feels like too much pressure, ask yourself what the silliest thing that could possibly happen be?  Write it down.  Go to the thesaurus or dictionary, open it randomly and write down a word.  Now do that two more times and make it into a sentence.  Set your timer for 15 minutes and write.  The idea here is to start writing, in case you hadn’t guessed.  Start putting words on paper and see what happens.

This is a gentle way to trick the brain.  No pressure, no worries about figuring what is supposed to happen next in the novel (or your life, for that matter).  All you are doing is playing with words, putting them down on paper.

It may take several of these brain-tricking Not Really Writing Sessions in order for the old brain to start feeling comfortable enough to engage with the novel or short story or article you are trying to write, but eventually it will.

And now that I have given my brain a bit of a break, I’m off to work on the ghosting project again.