When Something Isn’t Working

When something isn't working, there's a reason.   Doll_head_snow_264063_l

I know.

Duh.

But how many times have you sat at your computer, beating your head against your desk, trying to make something work that isn't working?  Trying to force a character to do something she doesn't want to do, or writing a scene in a location that just doesn't resonate with you, or creating a plot point that seems forced and unnatural?

I've done this a million times, doggedly writing even when the nagging voice inside of me informs me that something is wrong.  Something isn't working.

And often it takes quite awhile before I listen.

It happened again earlier this week.  I've been diligently getting up to work on my novel first thing every morning.  I love, love, love the idea for the plot of the novel.  But I've not been able to wrap my brain around the protagonist.  No matter what I did, I couldn't bond with her.  Couldn't feel her voice inside me or get it onto the page.  But I kept writing, telling myself that the voice would come.  Except finally, one morning, I realized that what I was writing was so dull and lifeless that nobody, even me, would want to write it.

Now, I know full well that it is not a good thing to listen to such voices when you are writing. Except for when it is.  

When you are writing and writing and begin to feel like your driving a car on snow and you can't get any traction, it is maybe time to take a wee break and ponder. Which is what I did.  Luckily, on the day I decided it was time to hit the brakes and quit spinning my wheels, I had an appointment with my coach.  We discussed the problem in detail and I finally realized that I was trying to force myself to write about a character in a profession I knew nothing about and didn't care to learn.  So that gave me the freedom and the courage to start over–not with the plot, but with the character.

But, here's the deal.  If I hadn't been writing, I wouldn't have figured out that it wasn't going to work.  If I had sat around thinking about it, I'd still be sitting around thinking about it.  I wouldn't have discovered that there was a reason for my writing paralysis.  And so, even though in some ways I've gone backwards, today I'm a happy camper. 

Because knowing what's wrong lights a path to change it.  And, figuring out that there is something wrong in the first place is sometimes the most illuminating moment of all.

What about you?  How do you figure out when something is wrong?

Make Work

"Make work" is my all-purpose notation to myself that I use for both notes and on manuscripts.   It is Office_business_desk_237992_l shorthand for "Make it work," and a very handy two words.

If I'm writing notes, and they are a bit sketchy, I add, "make work," because I know in my brain what I mean, I just might not want to take the time to write it all out–these are notes, not the full manuscript, after all.

If I'm editing a manuscript and something needs fleshing out, I'll write the notation, "Make work."

"Make work" can apply to fleshing out a character, dealing with a plot issue, adding in more description, anything.  It is a sign to myself that something isn't working.  Something needs to be dealt with or looked at more deeply.

This week what I needed to make work was a whole lot deeper than most.  It involved re-thinking an entire project, about which I will write more tomorrow or next week.  The experience has also got me re-thinking various aspects of my life.  To wit:

  • What do I need to make work better?
  • What things am I holding onto, trying to make work, that I should instead let go of?
  • What else needs a make work notation in my life–where are things too sketchy?
  • What ideas in my brain need a make work note to bring them to life in the real world?

How about you?  What do you need to make work in your life or writing?

They Call it Fear

First there was the story I read online about how the Northwest, including Portland, could expect a Violator3_black_white_686057_l major earthquake of the sort that just decimated Chile sometime in the next 50 years.   I hate earthquakes.  I expect the earth beneath my feet to stay steady, thank you very much.

Then I watched a little bit of the local Fox News.  I never watch television news, but it was on after American Idol, and the TV didn't get turned off fast enough for me not to see the story about the guy who got slashed up by a trio of men who invaded his backyard in the early morning hours.  (The victim was outside having a smoke.)  This wouldn't have been so bad, except it happened fairly close to my house.

Before I knew it, I was getting re-acquainted with my old friend, fear. 

Now this kind of fear is a little different than being scared of stuff.

This is the kind of fear that most often is underlying, sometimes vague, beneath-the-surface misery.  It is not specific enough to battle.  There's no real way for me to put myself face to face with earthquakes, for instance.  And realistically, I'm not going to put myself face to face with a slasher.

No, this kind of fear is insidious.  It is the kind that terrorism is designed to instill.  It is the kind that seeps throughout every cell in our body, a nameless, creeping dread that if left unchecked, starts to subtlety control thoughts and actions.  And eventually it will manifest itself in my writing.

It won't be obvious how it's manifesting, either.  Instead, it'll take the form of procrastination or suddenly deciding not to move forward on a project or convincing myself its okay if I never write another novel. Because this kind of fear is leech-like, attaching itself to your bad habits and insecurities and magnifying them.  This kind of fear feeds on uncertainty and indecision. And before you know it, you're telling yourself you never wanted to be a writer, really, anyway.

So, how to battle such a sneaky enemy?  Here are some tips:

Acknowledge it.  The more you do this, the easier it will be to see.  Took me awhile, but last night after I'd soaked myself in a bath of fear, I realized what was going on.  Sometimes acknowledging is half the battle.

Dance with it.  Or wrestle it, or punch it in the face.  Argue with it, yell at it, tell it to go away.  Because this fear is stealthy and cunning, it doesn't like being overtly dealt with and chances are doing just that will keep it at bay.

Protect yourself from it.  Stay away from the things that cause it in the first place.  I usually don't watch television news, for instance.  I won't read books or see movies that have animals in them because I worry about the animals the entire time, even if there's a happy ending.  And because I take on things far too easily, I don't see war movies and I refuse to read anything written by Cormac McCarthy.

De-stress.  Meditate, do yoga or Qi Gong, find yourself a good relaxation CD (my current favorite, since I'm in the middle of a wonderful hypnotism program) or do whatever it is that rids you of stress.  Fear feeds on nerves, anxiety and stress, so it is important to deal with it regularly.

Write.  It always comes back to this for me.  Writing regularly is the best revenge against everything, including fear.  So write often, every day if you can, whether you are writing on a project you're passionate about or in your journal.  

And let me know what your fear-busters are, would you?  We can all use some help in banishing fear.

Photo by Violator3, used under a Creative Commons 2.5 license. 

Burning Questions, What Are Yours?

Years ago, in a critique group I was a part of, we used to talk about Burning Questions.Neon-burbank-tolucalake-817102-l

It began when I was working on a novel and got stuck halfway through.   I didn't know where I was going and couldn't see my way to the end, so I sat down and wrote a series of questions that I thought readers would be asking by that point in the novel.  Hence, Burning Questions.

The novel never did get finished.  It was no doubt doomed from the start because I plunged into it without a clear idea of where I wanted to go, or what, precisely, I wanted to say.  There's a big debate among novel writers as to whether one should outline or not outline.  People on each side of this debate hold their opinions as strongly as Birthers and Bush Bashers.  Wait, we no longer have Bush Bashers, do we.  Okay, call them liberals then.  You know what I mean.

I am a firm believer in doing whatever works.  If writing outlines works for you, then do it and don't worry about what those other folks say.  But if you like to be all loosey-goosey and let the writing and characters take you wherever they want, go for it. 

For me, what works in writing novels (and short fiction, come to think of it) is some kind of loose outline.  And when I say loose, I mean loose.  It is really more like a vague list that gives me at least some idea of what's ahead.  Along the way, things change, characters come alive, new ones walk on, which is all part of the fun.  And I revise my list when it is apparent that things aren't going to go the way I think they are.  But then I write a new list.  This keeps me on track. 

Then there are blog posts, which have always been more free-flowing for me.  Usually, I'm pretty good at keeping myself on track, but sometimes I start off in one place and end up in another, quite unexpectedly.  This post is an example–I started off wanting to ask what your burning questions are, and then got sidetracked by talking about where the term came from….and that led into a discussion of outlining vs. not.

Ah well, it is Monday and I slept late.

But here's the original Burning Question part.  I am wondering what yours are.  Truly and all.  Do you have questions, concerns, or ideas about writing?  About the writing life?  About a writing career?  Or maybe you have some questions about creativity?  Motivation? Inspiration?  Getting your butt to the computer regularly?

Whatever your questions are, I want to know them.  I'll do my best to answer them in posts, or even an email if that seems more appropriate.

So bring 'em on, lay them on me…anything, anything at all.    Comment away!

Photo by xurble, found on Everystockphoto, my fave, and used under Creative Commons 2.5 license.

Make the Words Flow

I noticed something this morning when I was in the middle of writing an email.Myjournal

The words were flowing as smooth as a glass of fine wine. 

I started paying more attention.  And realized that I was allowing myself to go a bit deeper emotionally in my response.  So I stopped and thought for a bit, and realized why this was. 

Because I've been jingling every morning again.

Now, I'm an inveterate journaler.  I've written about journaling over and over again, so much so that you are no doubt sick of it.  Recently, I was reading Katrina Kenison's memoir, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and in one scene she is delighted to find that over the last 18 years or so, she has filled 10 to 12 journals.  Um, I'm filled hundreds.  I have tubs of them in the downstairs closet, and more bursting out of cardboard boxes in my office.  So I've got some journaling cred.

But every once in awhile I take a break from it.  I decide that I should get right to my novel writing first thing in the morning, since it is the most important thing in my life and all the experts say to do that first.  So I shun my journal and go do my other work. 

And then something calls me back.

I pick up my journal again and before you know it, I'm writing like crazy every morning, and then sometimes several times a day.  And I have to admit, as I realized while writing the email, my work is better off for it.  Here, I've decided, is why:

  • The words flow more easily
  • The process of going deeper comes naturally, without effort
  • I'm more connected with my emotions
  • I notice more
  • Writing breeds more writing.

Take special note of that last item.  If I take time to write in my journal, those words breed more words. Has anybody else ever noticed that?  The more I write, the more I'm capable of writing.  It is almost magical.

One of the reasons this may be is that the act of writing in my journal shakes loose the muse and often what I write about is how I want to do a certain scene in my novel.  Nearly every day, a blog post comes through.  I get ideas for all kinds of things.

So.  Writing in your journal doesn't have to take up your whole day, and it doesn't have to be first thing in the morning.  Pull out your moleskine at lunchtime and write for 10 minutes, or have a mini-writing session during your afternoon coffee break.  You'll be amazed at what happens.

Standing in Judgment

One of my new year's resolutions was to be less judgmental.Gavel_judge_justice_266806_l

Every single member of my family laughed hysterically when they heard this idea.  I was deeply offended by their presumption that I could never be less judgmental, even though my sister and I have raised judging others to an art form.

So I've been seriously thinking about being judgmental.  Yesterday I wrote a post about finding and sharing faults about yourself in order to be a more sympathetic narrator.  The first fault I listed was being way too judgmental.

And yet, my family is right–I see being judgmental as an innate part of who I am, and rebel against any efforts to change that, new year's resolutions to the contrary.  Because being judgmental seems like part and parcel of being a writer.  I mean, c'mon, if I make my living being judgmental how can I cure myself of it?

Are Writers Judgmental?

So, help me out here.  Do you think writers are judgmental?  Isn't it part of what we do every time we put words on paper?  Think about it.  We choose one word over another, judging that it will suit the piece better.  We create a character, and decide which details will bring her to life.  We judge that one line of dialogue will be better than another, that this description works well and the other doesn't….writing is one long string of judgments. 

In order to back this considered behavioral justification opinion up, I consulted the dictionary. Here's the MacBookPro dictionary definition of judgment:

  • the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions
  •  an opinion or conclusion

I rest my case! I am all about "considered decisions," and "sensible conclusions!"  Yes, that is me, the considered, sane, and judgmental writer.

So why does being judgmental make me feel bad?

The Writer Confesses

Being judgmental makes me feel bad because judging someone else separates me from them.  Because there's an automatic ego thing going on–in my judgment I'm either thinking that I am better than them or they are better than me.  And in that judgment there's a removal from the present moment.  I'm trying my best to learn that all we really have is the present moment, and in this learning I see how many things take us away from it.  Because judgment is really just another form of fear, and damn it, I don't want to live a life ruled by fear.  Do you?

I happen to have a friend who I deem as being incredibly non-judgmental (you know who you are, Sue).  And she's a damn good writer, too.  So how does she transcend being judgmental and still manage to be a good writer?  I think it is because she replaces judgment with curiosity.   While I might hear of someone starting a new endeavor and think dark, jealous thoughts about how I should have had that idea and furthermore if I had had that idea I'd make a million from it, not the one paltry penny that they will make.  But Sue would hear about the new endeavor and just ask a million questions because she was just curious and interested.

Even writing about the difference in approaches I can feel the different energy they evoke.  Sigh.  So I guess this means I'm going to have to stick with my resolution to be less judgmental and just buck up and realize that it in no way means I am going to be less of a writer.  Because I will replace judgment with curiosity.  I will be sane, considered, and curious.

But I reserve the right to hold onto the other faults on my list.  Rebelling against authority now being number one.  Anybody for a writer's riot?

A Writer’s Constant Companion

It is August, the crickets sing at night, and my pug is dying.Pug

I want to honor him while he is still here, which will not be for long.

My pug Igor, has been a constant companion the last ten years, even after turning blind, and lately, developing a limp in his rear leg.  He can no longer climb stairs and since my office is on the second floor, I've taken to working downstairs, carrying my laptop down and camping out with him in the living room or out back.

But when I was in LA last week, his problems became more apparent.  He awoke one morning and lost his balance, and at the vet they discovered that his kidneys were failing.  So he spent four days having them flushed, and when he got back home, suddenly he could no longer stand–his back legs were stiff and gimpy and after a moment or two of struggle he'd collapse again. When I got home from the airport on Saturday night, I flung myself on the floor beside him and he told me, in dog vocalizations, how awful it had all been.  Then he licked my face and hands until I was as slobbery as a little kid's popsicle.

When my Mom died a couple months ago, we had an amazing Celebration of Life for her.  It was the kind of thing that was so positive and life-affirming and wonderful that people said, "too bad we didn't do this when she was alive."  But the thing is, we did–we had a blow-out party for her 90th birthday two years ago and everyone who had ever loved her came and celebrated her.

So I'm celebrating Igor, even though he is not long for this world.

We got him by answering an ad in the paper.  We drove way out into the country west of Portland, finding our way to a double-wide trail in the midst of a muddy field.  Inside there was a big box of pug puppies on the living floor.  Four males were left from the litter and one of them jumped up as soon as we came in the room, wagged his tail and wimpered.  He was about twice the size of the other puppies and he wouldn't stop trying to get his attention.  I plucked him from the box and said, "We want this one."   So it really was a case of Igor choosing us more than we choosing him.  And we've never regretted it–he's been the best dog ever, bar none.  When he was a puppy he terrorized us all by rocketing around the backyard and he was a constant source of comic relief and entertainment.  In recent years he grew quite sedate, but was no less loving.  He quieted down and grew wisdom.

Every writer needs a dog.  A creature to lie at your feet as you work at your computer, an animal you can talk to when you need plot help.  A canine to get you out of the house and away from the desk once in awhile.  Igor has done all this for me and more.

And so I honor him while he's still here.  I lie on the floor next to him and tell him what a great dog he is and how much we all love him.  I feel his amazing energy and pet him and kiss him.  I love him so much and I'm going to miss him so much, I know.  I'm just grateful we have had him for as long as we have.

The Writing Life: Letter from LA

Sitting in the garden at the Pasadena coffee shop called Zephyr, I whiled away a few good hours talking New_LA_Infobox_Pic_Montage_5 with my screenwriting friend Brian.  We discussed the movie biz and the publishing world while a gentle breeze rustled the ivy covering the patio walls and handsome Armenians smoked hookahs at a table nearby.  Russian literature reared its head for consideration, as did the economy (what current conversation is complete without touching on that?) and other mysteries of life.

That was on day six of my trip to LA.  I was in Pasadena, to be exact, staying with my friend Suzanne, who told me all about her new modality, Reference Point Therapy, and took me through a couple sessions.  I had a tarot reading on day seven, which forecast many good things ahead for me.   I've had tarot readings when such was not the case, that's for sure–which is, perhaps, the beauty of the cards, which are difficult to fake.  Sort of like plotting a novel is difficult to fake–if it doesn't work, the problems are obvious.  (Less obvious, of course, is how to fix it.)

This trip turned out to be a much-needed bit of R and R.  After the year I've had, I needed it more than I realized.  I regret that I was unable to do many of the things I usually do when in LA, such as visit Julie or see Diana.  But I'll make time for them next trip.   This visit was strangely free of meeting with clients, though I did attend one networking event.  And, as usual, stumbled over my tongue when it came time to explain myself:

"And what do you do?" said the bright-eyed young woman.

"Oh, I'm a writer," I replied airily.

"That sounds so exciting.  What kind of writing do you do?"

This is the dreaded question.  "Well, I um, do a lot of ghostwriting.  You know, for business owners who need a book to promote themselves.  And I also do copywriting, like for websites?  And, let's see, I teach creative writing, too.  Because you know, my true love is writing fiction. And my main goal is to get the novel I just finished published."

By this time the bright-eyed woman has turned away.  I hear her asking a middle-aged man what he does.

"I help people maximize their business profits by teaching them to pay attention to their bottom line."

I really need to develop the art of the elevator pitch.  Its a good thing I'm not a screenwriter, required to take meetings with producers and pitch a one-minute synopsis of my novel ("It's, um, Bridget Jones meets Something's Gotta Give?")

But I did manage to have a lovely conversation with a chiropractor who immediately got how important having a book is to promote your business, despite my bumbling attempts to convince him.  And then I went home to a pretty good bottle of Syrah, so that made everything okay.

Yesterday, Suzanne and I went to see Julie and Julia, a most wonderful movie.  Neither of us had been to see a movie for months, and going to the theater to see movies is one of the things I love to do.  It took us about three hours to get there because we kept screwing up the showing times and having to drive back and forth to various theaters.  But it was worth it.  I loved the film.  What's not to love when Meryl Streep nails Julia Child, like totally nails her?  And Amy Adams plays a blogger who hits the big time. 

Now, at this very moment, I am sitting in the San Francisco airport.  I have a three-hour layover here, despite the fact that a direct flight from Burbank to PDX is only two hours.  But it gives me time to ponder southern California, and the strange hold that LA seems to have on me.  I don't miss it when I'm gone from there, but as soon as I get there, I start plotting when I can get back.  Can somebody explain this to me? Plus, I'm a Portland girl, through and through.  I like rain and greenery.  I like people who walk places (I can't tell you how many times I nearly got run down by Very Big Trucks on my morning ambles through Pasadena) and bicyclists and citizens who take public transportation and eschew their cars. I like pale skin, beaches you can walk along and not see many other people, and ice-cold ocean water.  I like people of various shapes and sizes and levels of beauty.  So can somebody please tell me why I keep falling in love with LA?

A couple of non-LA related notes:

Please go vote for Whimsey, my friend Julie's dog.  Because A. he's adorable and B. it would really help her out.

And don't forget the exciting contest that is coming up right here in this very spot next week.  Stay tuned!

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.

Summer, Travel, and the Art of Not Writing

I've been a bit distracted lately, which has caused me to Not Write.

First of all, it is hot.  Not like 90-degree hot.  Oh, no, that's not good enough for us.  We are suffering through 106+ weather, which is hot, hot, hot.  It is so hot that we poor Portlanders don't know what to do with ourselves other than shut ourselves up in air-conditioned rooms–which runs counter to the Portland creed of All Outdoors, All the Time.  So the pug and I are mostly confined to the one small room in my house that has an air conditioner.  And we are so very grateful that we have it or else we would be staying at a motel.  If we were lucky enough to find one that had a vacancy.  As it is, I barely slept last night.

Besides weather, I've been distracted by family.  This is a good distraction, unlike the first one.  I'm fortunate to have two sisters.  (I miss my third sister, who died December 15, 2007, terribly.)  Sis #1 is a former flight attendant who lives in Phoenix.  Sis #2 lives here in Portland and is a fabulous graphic designer, should you be in need of one.

This weekend, Sis #1 came to visit and stay at my house.  We had such a great time!  But great times are not necessarily conducive to great writing.  As a matter of fact, when one is having great times, one can easily forget that one aspires to be a great writer.

Except, here's the deal.  Even when one is Not Writing, one is still writing in some way or another.  And though in many ways I haven't been writing, in many ways I have.  To wit:

The first thing I had to do in advance of Sis #1's arrival was clean the house.  I'm a lousy housekeeper, because most of the time I wander around thinking about writing and can't be bothered with cleaning.  But the one good thing about housecleaning (and its the only one I can think of) is that it gives you plenty of thinking time.  Never underestimate the amount of thinking time that it takes to commit words to paper.  As a matter of fact, I believe the need to think deeply about writing is one of the primary causes of writer's block.  It is hard to think deep thoughts, especially if one has had even a tiny bit too much wine the previous evening, or if one is dehydrated from blastedly hot weather.  So, thinking time is good.  Which probably means I should rethink my plans to hire a housekeeper so I never have to clean again.

Secondly, on Saturday we took a drive up to the wonderful town of Hood River, a wind-surfing mecca on the Columbia River about 60 miles east of Portland.  I love this town.  The main street is full of cute shops, not the least of which is a fabulous bookstore, and great restaurants.  We happened into the Hood River Hotel, an historic landmark, and decided to eat there on a whim.  Good choice–the food was fabulous, very French bistro-ish. 

Travel is excellent for producing ideas, even a minor little day-trip.  I find it all inspiring.  Not only the part about being in a different place or culture, but the part about being in transit.  The motion of driving or flying often seems to jar loose something deep inside (maybe some of those profound thoughts) and I find myself scribbling madly.  That didn't happen this time, but it could have.  Had it not been so hot.  For real, travel forms new ideas in one's brain that may pop up days, months, or years later.

And, now that my sister has returned home and the heat wave has descended upon us, I have spent the last few afternoons ensconced in the one air-conditioned room with my computer.  Have I gotten any writing done?  A wee bit.  Like this blog post.  And some editing here and there.

(Speaking of which my friend Linda Busby Parker has posted an excerpt of my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, on her blog.  Check it out–just head on over here and click on the Novel Gallery page.)

But I digress.  To return to the point of this post, as writers we are never really Not Writing.  So even if you feel you are Not Writing, give yourself a break, stop for a minute and ponder what other things you are doing that might be contributing to your quest to be a great writer.  I bet you'll be surprised.  And most important–quit beating yourself up about Not Writing already.  The more you beat yourself up about it, the harder it is to get yourself back to it.

The Joy of Adverbs

Awhile back I wrote a post called The Rule of Threes.

In re-pondering this again recently, the thought occurs that I'm not generally much of a rule follower.  In fact, you might even accurately describe me as a person who is incapable of following rules.  I break them like crazy in real life (which is why I have to free-lance; most jobs require employees who follow rules) and I break them in writing.

Here's just one example:  I use adverbs. 

There, I've said it.

I can hear your shocked gasps and the urgent whispering amongst you.  But it has to be said.  I use adverbs.  I use adverbs joyously, lushly, over-the-toply.  I like adverbs.  And I really don't want anyone telling me that I shouldn't use them.

Truthfully, mostly I edit them out after sprinkling my prose with them liberally (except in this post).  Why?  Because I want to follow the rules?  No, I edit them out because in re-reading my work I can see it will be stronger without them.  I'm doing it because I want to and not because someone told me to.

So when I leave adverbs in its for a reason.  Case in point: the lead character in my novel is an over-the-top sort of person who dramatizes and exaggerates everything.  For her, using adverbs in speech and thought pattern is as natural as a bird singing.  So she spouts adverbs prolifically.

The point here is that I know the rule against using adverbs (don't ask me to explain it, though) and I've internalized it so that I now can break the rule.  I am in a place where I can break rules with abandon.

Which is exactly where I like to be.