Giving Up, Or Why I Should Once In Awhile

Friday I hit the wall.  
Brick_wall_orange_222239_l

As is my usual wont, I woke early (6ish), grabbed my coffee, and went to work on my writing.  Lately I've been thinking deep thoughts about my novel rewrite and writing them down, which leads to more deep thoughts and more writing.  I'm writing about characters, trying to get to know them better, and pondering plot points.  All of this is intense work.

On Friday morning, I wrote a couple paragraphs and stopped, because I knew I was done.  Just…done.  My pen wouldn't move.  I couldn't form any more thoughts connected to the novel.  Nothing.  Nada. Zilch.

My brain, however, seemed to have plenty of room for thoughts about, oh, the missing child in my city, Kyron Horman.  Or the oil spill in the Gulf.  Or the World Cup.  (No, I'm not really a soccer fan.  I'm trying to be.  I have this idea that it would be really fun to buy season tickets for the new pro soccer franchise that is coming to Portland.  But first I have to learn to enjoy the game.  And that seems to be slow going.) 

In other words, my brain wanted to focus on anything other than writing.

My brain, poor thing, needed a break.

What I should have done was recognize this right away and take some time off from thinking and writing about my novel.  Lord knows I've got tons of other things to work on.  Or, if I didn't feel like writing, I could read.  Or take a walk.  Or go look at art at a gallery. 

But did I do any of those things?

Of course not.

Instead, I soldiered on.  I was determined, absolutely determined, to get more done on the novel rewrite.  So what if my brain didn't want to work on it anymore?  "Pathetic, lazy brain," I told it, "buck up and let's get going here."

And you can imagine how well that worked.

Yeah, right.  About as well as….well, I can't think of a metaphor so provide your own.  And so, instead of intentionally deciding to take some time off and give my brain a rest, I kept at it.  And ended up reading endless updates of the Kyron Horman case and pondering all sorts of interesting websites I'd never seen before.

This kept up all day Friday and Saturday.  Finally, by Sunday, my brain had had enough rest, the dam broke, and off we went again.  However, I suspect if I had just taken the time off on Friday morning, I'd have probably been back at it by the afternoon.

Lesson learned: it is not always a good thing to soldier on.  Though the prevailing point of view in this society would have us believe otherwise, which is one reason I think it is so hard.  In the future, I'm going to do my best to pay attention when my brain rebels and give the poor hard-working thing some time off.

What about you?  How do you know when you've hit the wall?  What do you do when you splat against it?

Guest Post: Networking: An Essential of the Writing Life

Please welcome my good friend Linda Busby Parker to Wordstrumpet today.  I'll let Linda tell you the story of our friendship, but I want to urge you to go visit her blog, because she is starting a book club on May 1st, and let me just tell you, nobody deconstructs a novel the way Linda does.  You'll learn so much about writing, trust me.  So check it out.  And now read on:

My good friend and fellow writer, Charlotte, invited me to occasionally post on her blog.  She favors me by doing the same—posting on my blog.  Here’s my first post for Wordstrumpet.

NETWORKING:  AN ESSENTIAL OF THE WRITING LIFE

I first met Charlotte in the fall of 2001 when we both entered the low-residency MFA in Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.  We were both in a workshop taught by Sena Naslund, author of AHAB’S WIFE, FOUR SPIRITS, and ABUNDANCE.  Charlotte submitted a terrifically good short story for workshop—I still remember it.  It was subtle and understated.  For whatever reasons, we hit it off right away and became companions at meals and joined a group of other students after hours for a glass of wine to close the day down. 

Our circle of writers in the MFA program grew.  At the last residency in the fall of 2003, Charlotte and I participated in a novel workshop.  Each of the five participants submitted a completed novel for critique.  That workshop was led by writer/professor Julie Brickman.  The five students in that course plus Professor Julie became close friends, colleagues, and supporters of each other.  We called ourselves THE NOVEL GODDESSES. 

It’s been nearly seven years since that workshop convened, but the novel goddesses are still friends and colleagues.  Two members of the group—Julie and Deidre—reside in California, Charlotte in Oregon, Maryann in Michigan, Katy in Kentucky, and I’m in Alabama.  We’ve enjoyed one writing retreat—all six of us came—on the Gulf Coast of Alabama.  In the fall of 2010, we will again convene as a group—all six participating—in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

In the intervening seven years since we first met, we have supported each other through many writing triumphs and disappointments. We’ve also given advice to each other when asked to do so.  On a personal level, we’ve seen each other through the deaths of four of our collective parents, the major illness of one husband, and the marriage of one daughter.

Having these writing sisters has sustained me more times than I can count.  They are the first group of friends/colleagues I go to when I’m terribly disappointed about what’s happening in the writing world in general or my writing world in particular.  It’s also the first group I go to when I want to share a great joy in my writing life. 

I’ve established other networks of writing friends here locally in Mobile and at both Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, but the Novel Goddesses constitute the largest of my writing networks—the Goddesses have remained a close group and continue to offer support for each member in the network.  I cannot stress enough the importance of forming networks if you are a writer.  The writing highway is crooked, the hills steep, the disappointments numerous, but joys are also a part of that crooked highway.  Networks get us through the crooked bends and twists in that highway and give us sustaining friendships when it’s time to celebrate!

Linda Busby Parker is author of the award-winning novel, Seven Laurels and is a professor of writing at The University of South Alabama in Mobile.  She also teaches in a low-residency program in Continuing Education—The Writers’ Loft—at Middle Tennessee State University.  Her blog is www.lindabusbyparker.us 

Follies: Festive Friday 2

It's Friday again!Everystockphoto_193639_m

This is going to be a brief post, because I am in Nashville.  However, I couldn't leave you to your weekend without another installment of festive Fridays, now, could I?

In case you have forgotten, we're designing a crazy dance party for either you or your characters.  You can read the original Friday Folly post here, and the first Festive Friday post here.

And now, on with the party.  Today we are going to concentrate on what the characters look like.

  • Describe several of the main people at your party.  All the things you'd say if you described them to a friend.  Height, weight, hair color, eye color, mannerisms, gestures, etc.
  • What's the dress code at your party? 
  • Take several of your favorite characters (or friends in real life) and describe their outfits.  Remember, as above, so below.  The way people dress totally reflects who they are inside.
  • What's your favorite outfit?  Why?
  • Who do you wish you could dress like only you don't have the nerve?  What would you wear if you could?
  • What is the absolute most favorite thing in your closet?
  • What item of clothing should you get rid of, but you can't bear to?  Why?

Okay, that's enough for now.  Have fun and feel free to post answers to any or all of these questions.

Friday Follies

So here it is, Friday again. Since I often have a busy day on Friday, and sometimes don't have a lot of Clown_child_parade_266345_l time for a blog post, last week I asked for ideas about a short, useful feature to begin on Fridays.  I got lots of great suggestions, because, well, I have the best readers on the planet, and many of them centered around the idea of asking a question.

I have taken this idea and run with it.  However, me being me I am not content with one question when more would do.  I'm a novelist, not so much a short story writer (all my short stories end up long) and this pretty much sums up everything.  My motto in life is, more is better, and for living proof, come knock on my front door.

And so I am starting a series, in which we see how far we can go with the letter F and questions related thereof.  Some posts will be stand-alone, and some will be part of a mini-series.  When I run out of F-words (don't go there)that I like I will start with a different letter.  Or come up with a new plan.

Just to whet your whistle, next week I'm starting a series called Festive Fridays, because Fridays are festive and fun and that is one thing I love about them.  But until then, you need a question or two to ponder over the weekend, and I have one for you, but first I want to explain something.

When thinking about the questions I pose and answering them, bear in mind they can be used three ways:

1. Answer them for yourself.  Hopefully, they will be cause for some introspection and interesting journal entries.

2.  Answer them for a character.  This can be a great way to deepen your understanding of a character, fictional or otherwise.

3.  Answer them for the alien who lives next door.  Kidding!  Try answering them for both yourself and a character you are working on.  This is the approach that John DuFresne recommends in his new book on writing a novel called, Is Life Like This?  It is something I've always done and find very effective because getting to know yourself better helps you to understand others better.

Okay, without further ado, here are today's questions, keyed to the word folly, which in case you need a refresher means, according to Dictionary.com, a foolish, action, practice, or idea.  (It also once meant a revue with glamorous female performers but that is not common usage any more so we'll ignore it.)

So, where's the folly in you or your character's life?  What foolish action or idea are you hanging onto that it is time to let go of?  What foolish practice are you indulging in?  What would your life look like without all this foolishness in it?

A Place You Go

800px-Laguna_Beach Yesterday I wrote a blog post called Have a Place to Go in Your Writing.  It was about how important it is to know where you are going when you begin a writing session.  You can go back and read it here, but you don't really have to in order to understand this post.

This whole thing about place grew out of a journal entry from a few weeks ago.  I started out by writing on the topic of yesterday's post–having a place to go in my work and what a difference that made.  And then the journal entry morphed into how important the concept of place itself is in my writing.  The fact that place is front and center in my work is not news to me.  I wrote my critical thesis for my MFA on the role of landscape as character in the works of Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor.  (And for the record, I'm a huge, raving Cather fan.  O'Connor***, not so much.)

There's a scene in my recently completed novel where the heroine, Emma Jean, who is a bestselling novelist, dramatically announces to her husband, "I cannot live someplace that does not inspire me."  While this is true for me, what is even more true is that I can't write about a place that doesn't inspire me.  And, bear in mind, I use the term "inspire" loosely.  I love writing about LA, though I have no desire to live there.  But something about the place inspires me as a location.  Conversely, though Nashville is one of my absolute favorite places on the planet, I've not yet been able to write about it.  I've set fiction in Portland (where I live), in Santa Fe, and in Sun Valley, Idaho.  I love the Oregon Coast, but have never been able to use it as a setting.  Weird, huh?

 And furthermore, getting the location set is as important to me as coming up with a character to write about.  To me, a character is so intricately linked to place that if I change the place she lives, that can jinx the whole book.  And, if I don't have a place firmly in mind when I think up a character, there's a good chance the story won't go anywhere.

Perhaps this odd thing about place that I have is about wanting to explore the parameters of a location.  It may not be that I have to love the place to write about it, but just that I want to know more about it.  LA, for instance, despite the many times I've been there, is a vast mystery to me.  I still marvel at the sunshine, the palm trees, the freeways, the cars.  I am still amazed that people actually live there.  Manhattan is the same.  A couple years ago, attending a conference there, I rode in the back of a taxi from the airport, staring at people walking down the busy sidewalks, flabbergasted that so many people lived in this place where you can't see the sky.  Try as I might, I could not figure out what it would be like to live there.

And maybe that is what it is all about–trying to figure out what its like to live someplace else.  Because, really, isn't fiction all about trying to figure out the someplace else and the someone else?

Thoughts?  What role does place play in your work?  Is it important or something you don't really think about?  How do you choose a setting for your writing?

**The photo is of Laguna Beach, where my dear friend Julie Brickman lives.  I've had the picture on my computer for awhile, but I think it originally came from Wikipedia.

***Now that I've dissed Flannery O'Connor, let me point out that today is her birthday.  She was born on March 25, 1925.  I just learned this while finding the link for her.

Have a Place To Go in Your Writing

When writing, it is important to have a place to go. 

For instance, Ernest Hemingway always ended a writing session in the middle of a sentence, thus insuring that he had a place to go when he started the next day.  I've relearned this lesson over and over again in my own work.  If I wrap up a chapter all nice and neat, the next day I flounder about as I start a new chapter.  But if I leave myself some room to work, things go much easier.  

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I've scheduled a writing session, usually first thing in the morning because that is when I like to write fiction, and come to it unprepared.  And it is dangerous, for me at least, to be unprepared because that is when the internet and email beckon.  (I have this bad habit of clicking over to my email inboxes or yahoo home page when I stop to think.  I tell myself it is to give my brain a break, but…you can be the judge of that.)

When I am unprepared for a writing session, I lack clarity on what it is I want to write.  And clarity is one of the most important things, in writing and in life.  (Clearing is actually one of the seven practices of the prolific and prosperous writer that make up my Writing Abundance workshop.)  Without clarity, I have no place to go on the page.

But clarity can be ridiculously easy to come by, at least the kind required to know where you going when you turn on your computer and get ready to write.  It just takes a little advance thought.  So here are my best strategies for having a place to go on the page:

1.  Make Notes Ahead of Time.  In advance of your writing session, go through what info you've collected and make notes, either of where you are at or what you want to start.  If you know you are going to be working on a character sketch for your new novel, make a few quick notes.  Your amazing subconscious mind will take what you've written and start working on more.

2. Read Your Work Over.  Re-read what you've read, the night before if you can.  (This works especially great if you are going to get up and write first thing.)  Reading your work over reminds you of where you are, so you don't have to reinvent everything during your writing session.

3.  Make Like Hemingway.  Don't write to the end of a chapter.  Stop a few paragraphs short.  You can even go so far as to stop in the middle of a sentence, like Ernie did.  This automatically gives you a place to go.

4. Carry Your Work With You.  When I'm in the full heat of working on a novel, I carry the little spiral that I use for notes around with me everywhere.  Not only is it at the ready if I have an idea, but there's something about the act of carrying it around that acknowledges the novel's importance and keeps it front and center in my brain.

So those are my thoughts on always being ready.  What are yours?  Comment away.  And keep the phrase, have a place to go, in your fertile brains because I'm coming back to it tomorrow.

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.