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.

Rewriting: Its All in the Plan

Facing a rewrite can be difficult, if not downright daunting.

You've written a draft (or two, or three), gotten feedback, and now you're ready to make the changes in your manuscript.  So you open the file on your computer….and sit there and stare at the words on the page.

Let's admit it, sometimes confronting a manuscript page that needs rewriting can be as dreadful as facing a blank computer monitor.  How to make room in all those words for what you need to do?  What to cut?  What to add?  Where to begin?  Wouldn't it just be easier to shut down the computer?

What I've found is that I can just discover a way into the work, everything else will follow.  And often I end up tricking myself in order to find that way in.  So here's how I do it:

1.  First, I ponder.  I review the critiques I've gotten or the notes I've taken.  Sometimes I do this the night before I know I'm going to work on my novel in order to give my subconscious time to play around with the ideas.

2.  Second, I insert.  This is where the tricking myself begins.  I open the file and tell myself that all I'm going to do is insert notes–in all caps–places where I am going to make changes.  Then I go through the entire chapter and insert away.  This is not difficult because I already have the notes.

3.  Third, I rewrite.  By now I've reviewed and inserted and not only do I have a good idea what I'm going to change, I know where I'm going to change it.  The notes are all in place, ready for me to roll with.  And best of all, I can open the file and start anytime, knowing that I've marked up the manuscript and I know what I need to do.

I think its the not knowing how to proceed that stops me.  So I try to find ways to know ahead of time how I'm going to proceed.  It works for me.  By following this plan I'm generally able to convince myself to hop right to a rewrite.

Note I said generally, not always.  But I'll take whatever I can get.

Looking Back, and More Important, Looking Forward

It is New Year's Eve, 2008, the cusp of a new year.

I'm a wildly optimistic person and every year I proclaim that the next year is going to be the best yet.  And, nearly everyone of them turns out to be best in some arena.  It may be very difficult for some people to come up with good things to say about 2008, given the upheavals we've experienced.  Once again turning on my Pollyanna persona, I believe these are necessary shifts we've had to go through–and that 2009 will be better.  I'm excited about our president-elect, for one thing.  And I'm excited about the opportunities for writing in 2009.

Although the publishing industry is in turmoil, it is going to be a good year for writers. Not only will many of us find more time to write because of fewer business obligations, but in general a depressed economy forces us to stay home more–and what better thing to do at home then write?  Along those lines, I have plans in the works to assist you in your writing endeavors next year.

But first, before we get to what's in store for 2009, I present my year in review, along with a list of favorite posts.

Good Things About 2008

1.  My ghostwriting career took off.  I've been privileged to write several books for wonderful clients. This allows me to enter a different world and become the person I'm writing the book for.  Gives me a small taste of what being an actor must feel like.  

2.  After teaching in the program for five years, I became co-director of the wonderful writing program, The Writer's Loft.  Anybody interested in improving their writing skills should take a look at the program.  It is based in Tennessee, but since its a distant-learning program you can live anywhere and take advantage of one-on-one focused mentoring.

3.  I started Bookstrumpet, which is floundering at the moment but had a glorious beginning with many wonderful reviews from various people.  I'm pondering this blog's future at the moment.  One possibility is to incorporate all the material into Wordstrumpet.  Ideas?

4.  Word Strumpet became available on Kindle and at this writing it is currently #12 on the bestseller list in Lifestyle and Culture.  Thanks to all my Kindle subscribers!

5.  I began a newsletter, The Creative Equation, and got some subscribers.  Thanks, guys!  For those of you who don't yet subscribe, you can do so on the front page of Wordstrumpet.  I send it out irregularly and don't harass you with tons of emails about stuff to buy.  But it is the best way to keep up with news about product releases and my plans.  (See below)

6.  I started running and found many commonalities between the practice of running and the practice of writing.  See below for some of my posts about it.

7. I made two wonderful new friends, Rachel, and Mayanna, both of whom I adore.  And I kept up with my old friends in Nashville, too numerous to list here, and LA, and my bestest friend, Suzanne.  I share a love of writing with all of them.  Rachel and Mayanna both started blogs this year and Suzanne really got going on hers.

What I Resolve to Do Better

1. Respond to comments more consistently.   I love, love, love it when you guys comment yet I don't always manage to comment back.  No excuses.  I'll do better.

2.  Be as helpful with your writing as possible.  I want to do more posts on craft and motivation, as these are what the respondents to my survey said they really appreciated.  I also want to do more posts featuring exercises you can use in your work immediately.

3.  Send the above-mentioned newsletter out more regularly.

4.  Fully embrace the possibilities of blogging and allow Wordstrumpet to be all that it can be. 

Favorite Posts of 2008 (Mine and Yours) 

1.  The series on words.  Part one is here, part two here, and part three here.  This seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, and I loved reading the comments about how you find strong verbs and other good words.  We writers are a word-loving bunch!

2.  The series on scene.  Series seemed to be big this year, and since scene is often a point of confusion for writers, this one went over well.  Part one is here, on flat scenes is here, part two on elements of a scene here, and part three on rising and falling action here.

3.  When One is Born a Writer.  This one got so many great responses I did When One is Born a Writer Redux.

4. My posts about running.  Read them here and here.  At the moment, I'm sidelined with a knee injury, but I can't wait to get back to it.

5. The Filtering Consciousness.  An arcane but important aspect of craft.

6.  A Day in the Life.  I'm trying to get better about not devoting quite so much time to writing.

7.  Birdsong.  I thought this was just a little throw-away, but people loved it.  I did too.

8.  The  Character Who Wasn't Dead. Sometimes we writers are kinda dense.

9.  A two-part series on erotic romance.  Part one, on writing it, is here.  And part two, on publishing it, here.

10.  Finally, I resisted this one, because it is multi-parts, and creating all these links is a lot of work.  Plus its almost time for me to get ready to go out.  But I did a whole series on The Writing Bogs that I've since turned into an Ebook called Set the Words Free.  So, here are the links:  part one, part two, part three and part four.  Phew!  I could swear there was another one, but I can't seem to find it.

Looking Ahead to 2009

For the record, my biggest non-blog-related goal is to get a contract for my novel.  Go, Emma Jean!  I know a lot of you are also looking for agents, writing query letters, submitting like crazy.  So let's all communicate and support each other through the process.

Besides the above-mentioned goals, I want to give you a heads-up on what I'm planning, project-wise. My biggest goal is to get my pet project off the ground–the Charlotte Rains Dixon Novel Writing Academy.  Is that not a fabulous and grandiose name?  I adore it.  And its going to be wonderful, a membership site full of lengthy and informative articles, forms, and exercises.  Plus regular teleclasses, videos and all kinds of goodies.  

Realistically, it is also going to take a few months to get off the ground.  So in the meantime I hope to offer a product or two.  Stay tuned–and thanks for hanging around as long as you have.

Happy New Year to all!