Getting Up At 5 AM

Last week, I set a goal with my friend and fellow writer Roy, that both of us would rise at 5 AM in order to write.  The goal was to do it twice last week and three times this week.  Since he's in Nashville and I'm in Portland, with a two hour time difference, the idea is that we each email the other when we are up and working.  Usually this consists of a terse message along the lines of "up."  (Hey, we save our creative energy for the page.)

So, I've managed to rise at 5 AM three times now.  In typical fashion for me, today, even though I told myself I could sleep in, it being Monday and all, I woke up all on my own at a little after 5.  I have a strong circadian clock, I think.

Since I've now managed to rouse myself from bed three, count 'em, three, times, that makes me an expert.  And because I am an expert, I have pronouncements.  So here goes:

1.  The worst part is the first moment when you open your eyes and groan.  Keep your eyes open and get your feet on the floor.  It gets better from there–especially when you get some coffee in you.

2.  Speaking of coffee, make sure you have some waiting for you, either made by a spouse willing (or having no choice) to get up early also, or via automatic timer.  Trust me, you are going to want coffee immediately.

3.  Drink a couple big glasses of water before you start on the
coffee.  Its good for you, and it'll help keep your brain focused. 
Plus, it will give you an excuse to get up from the computer and use
the bathroom.

4.  Have a plan.  And don't make the plan the morning of, figure it out the night before.  This morning, because I didn't really plan to get up so early, I wasn't prepared with a plan and consequently I didn't get as much done. 

5.  Have a big goal.  Mine is to once and for all finish the rewrite of my novel and get it out the door.  I want this desperately, so desperately that I'm willing to get up in the dark to write. 

6.  Be prepared to kick ass and get tons done.  Its magical, really.  Since I work at home and can generally stay in my jammies all day long if I want to, I usually don't have to quit my morning writing session until 7:30 or 8, depending on what pressing assignments I have.  When I get up at 5, I feel like I have a vast expanse of time in which to work, and my brain opens and eases and it is much easier to focus.

7.  Don't let those pesky night owl types talk you out of your plan to rise early.  It is worth it, trust me.  Really, really worth it.

And now, excuse me, its nearly 9 PM and time for me to get in bed.  Kidding!  Sort of.

Deconstructing

I'm working on the final (ha!) rewrite of my novel, coming up on part two.  I did a lot of thinking and making notes before I started this rewrite, which included many Great Ideas, and most of that affected part one.  Why?  Because it was character stuff.  I worked on figuring out how characters reacted to each other so that their throughlines were nice and straight and sturdy, not weak and floppy.  I got really clear on character motivation.  And so I breezed right through the rewriting of part one. 

Its a damned good rewrite if I do say so myself.  At one point as I was working on it I thought, this is the rewrite where I actually know what I'm doing, what I'm trying to accomplish.  The previous four (yes, four, which is really not all that many) were more of the take a deep breath and dive in variety, which just speaks once again to the value of writing as a process.  Sometimes you just gotta go with it and trust.

Now I am to part two and the hard work begins.  I didn't take many notes or have many Great Ideas for this one.  Because this is where the set up is long over and the weaving in begins.  I-yi-yi.  I-yi-yi again.  I think everything is there it just needs to be rearranged some. 

Which is where the deconstructing begins.  This morning I took index cards and went through every chapter in question, five of them, and wrote down every scene.   By this I mean every little discreet event of action, ie Emma Jean calls Riley and they argue (which could cover two pages) or Aunt Cleo and Bob arrive from Portland.  I felt I needed to do this because in the dense chapters I couldn't remember what all happened.  Plus they've been rearranged a few times already.

Committing scenes to cards really helped me get in my head what I have and where, exactly, it is.  I've deconstructed part two and committed it to sepearate little pieces, like disassembling a puzzle.  Now my plan is to throw all the cards up in the air and put them in order according to where they land.

Kidding.  My plan is to lay them out on the bed or on the floor (if the Big Scary Beast Pug and the Demon Feline will stay away from them) and play with them, like that old kid's game Memory, where you match two like cards.  Being able to see how the scenes currently flow should give me some good ideas on how to make them flow better.  The truth is, I already got a lot of ideas as to how to do this just in the process of deconstructing.  So I have high hopes for the rest of the process.

Twitter: The Art of Writing Tweets

Twitter is, of course, the social networking rage.  Seems like everyone from corporations to small businesses to solopreneurs to politicians are tweeting.  And with good reason, I some people find it addictive.

There are posts galore on how to best use Twitter to promote yourself or your business, how to not waste time on Twitter, (yeah, right), how to save the world using Twitter (I'm making that one up, but Barack Obama did use it to help get himself elected).

But what about the tweet as a creative art form?  A mini-essay?  Yes, I know that it is hard to consider writing something creative in 140 characters or less.   However, once you start using Twitter a lot you begin to mold yourself to its limitations–and find creative ways to work within them.  Ah, of such restraints are genres formed.

I've been thinking about this over the past couple days as I've found myself tweeting a lot.  I'm really a moderate tweeter.  As of this writing, I have only 800 tweets (there are people who have thousands) and about that many followers.  But the more I tweet, the more I get addicted to it into it, and the more I get into it the more I learn about the art of being succinct.

Not only that, but while being succinct, one can also express deep thoughts and tell mini-stories.  Here are my how-tos for the art of writing tweets:

1.  Cut all extraneous words
.  So this:  "I went to see my mother tonight and she had what looked like a really bad meal" becomes this: "Saw mother tonight, she had bad meal."  Now I have room to describe the bad meal, or say something of related interest.

2.  Create tweets that stand alone but are part of a larger whole
.  I've been experimenting with this one.  Sometimes when I get back from doing something away from the computer (gasp! It does happen upon occasion)I'll write a series of posts about my activities.  Each post links to the other, but each post stands alone and makes sense if that is all you read.

3.  Use good, active verbs.  Amazing how the rules of good writing cut across all genres.  I'm guilty of not paying enough attention to this one.

4.  Express it differently.
  We don't want to hear that you just walked in the door to the coffee shop.  We want to learn what is going on in that specific coffee shop at the moment you walk in the door.  I'm probably more interested in your reaction to the painting on the wall then how much you need caffeine.  I've heard the latter a million times, the former can come only from you.

5.  Find the telling detail.  This is, of course, intimately related to #4.  What is the one detail of the coffee shop that brings the whole scene alive?  If you can do it in your creative writing, and I feel certain you can, you can do it on Twitter.  As a matter of fact, writing tweets is probably damn good practice for any kind of writing.

Which gives me an excuse to keep using it as much as I want.

The Writing Process: Digging Deeper on Trees and in Writing

I took down my Christmas tree on Thursday night.

I know I'm a bit late in getting this done, but I've had good reason.

I developed a bit of a system this year.  First, I removed the soft ornaments, home-made stuffed fabric Christmas shapes and gingerbread men, as well as furry bears from various sources.  Those could all be stored in a plastic tub without a lot of wrapping.  And, many of them sat on the tips of the tree's branches.Snow 031

Then the ornament removal got more complex.  The next round were glass bulbs, which needed to wrapped in tissue and placed in the big ornament crate that had partitions.  Included in this round were the most precious ornaments, funny little things my kids made through the years that never fail to make my heart skip a beat.

After these two rounds I'd  gotten most of the ornaments off the tree.  Or so I thought.  But as I started to walk away from my finished job, I noticed another one hiding amidst the pine needles.  And when I looked harder, I saw another, and then another.  There's something terribly sad about the image of a forlorn ornament getting tossed out with the tree, so I started beating the branches, looking for more.

And throughout all this, I couldn't help but think about writing.  Looking for more ornaments, even when you think you've found them all, is similar to the writing process.

As a refresher, here's the writing process as I see it:

1.  Write a rough draft, also known as a Shitty First Draft (or SFD) in the world of Anne Lamott, or the Glumping it All on the Page Draft (GAPD) in the world of Word Strumpet.

2.  Rewrite the draft.

3.  Rewrite the draft again.

4.  Revise the draft.  (I think of revising as having more to do with removing commas or adding them, fussing with words and so on.  Rewriting is for the big stuff–character arc, plotting, and so on.)

5.  Rewrite and revise the draft one more time.

6.  Read it again, decide it needs another rewrite, finish the revision.

7.  An impatient editor or other pressing deadline such as old age or senility finally forces you to send it off.

So it is easy to see how this endless rigorous writing process is much the same as ornament hunting.  Just when you think you've found the last plot problem, suddenly a light goes on and you realize that Jimmy didn't go to jail but Bobby did, and then the whole story has to change.  Or, after numerous rewrites, it may suddenly occur to you what the theme of your story actually is, a eureka moment if ever there was one.

Have you ever completed a rewrite, certain it was your last, only to discover almost to the end that you have to go through it one more time?  And even though your civilian friends think you are nuts and that you should just submit it already, you know that making the changes will make the book into the book that you see in your mind and feel in your heart.

Writing is, above all else, a process of digging deeper and discovering what lies hidden amidst the branches.  When first we begin writing, we tend to fall in love with our work, just as we fall in love with a newborn baby, and we don't want to do a thing to change that lovely creation we've brought into the world.  (Anne Wayman wrote a great piece on falling in love with your work this week which you can read here.)

But it doesn't usually take long as a writer to start to appreciate the wonders of rewriting.  I know you've heard it a million times–writing is rewriting.  It's true, to the point where many writers begin to prefer the rewriting phase to the hard work of writing a GAPD. 

And then the problem becomes how to get yourself to stop rewriting.  But that is a topic for another post.

When a Novel Grips You

I'm reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, and, like an obsessive lover, I can hardly keep my hands off it.   I steal moments during the day to read it, I read it at night and I wake up thinking about the book.

This kind of getting lost in a book doesn't happen often to me anymore.  As a writer, I'm constantly absorbing what the author I'm reading is doing as I read.  This makes it difficult to simply get lost in a book.  Instead, I'm analyzing: how did she make that scene so snappy?  Why did he put the backstory there? And so on.

One way to get around this is to read books completely unlike that which you are writing.  Bury yourself in a science fiction title if you're writing a mystery, for instance, or read an historical novel if you're writing science fiction.  Thus the tendency to compare and contrast is somewhat reduced. 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery, and while what I'm writing is completely different, that is not why I chose this book to read.  I can't even remember how I happened upon it, but I found it on Amazon and after reading the rave review there, I bought it on a whim.  For once, the Amazon reviews did not let me down.

The novel is a traditional closed-room (not even sure if that is the correct term) mystery, though in this case it is a closed-island mystery.  It is set in Sweden, and makes me long to go there, activating my Danish genes.  The characters are complicated and flawed and yet full of integrity and righteous indignation about injustices which translate to action. 

There are also reasons the book shouldn't work for me: long stretches of narrative, some of it inside our hero's head; scenes that go on forever with talking heads; that weird switch from third to first inside a character's head that drives me nuts.  But, for whatever reason, I love this book and I'm thrilled that the second in the series is due out in the states in July.

Sadly, Stieg Larsson died a few years ago or a heart attack when he was only in his early fifties. The good news is that he had turned in the manuscripts for three novels before his death.  He was a graphic designer (like a character in the book), a magazine publisher (like the hero of the book) and an expert and campaigner against right-wing extremism and racism.

So that's my report on my reading.  Now excuse me while I get back to it.

Lessons From The Snow

Its been snowing in Portland since Saturday and now we have about a foot on the ground.  I know that Snow 070
most of you consider Oregon a northern state and you thus assume that we always get a lot of snow, but such is not the case.  Its been five years since we've gotten an appreciable snowfall, and 40 since we've had this big of a storm.

Because we don't get snow very often, it is not cost-effective to maintain a lot of equipment to clear it.  So despite the fact that the city employees work very hard to plow roads, they simply can't do enough in a situation like this.  And most motorists don't bother with buying chains. After all, if you only need them once every five years or so, there are more compelling things to put in the budget.

So I've been mostly stuck at home with a houseful of people, a sort of early Christmas house party.  Yesterday, going a bit stir-crazy, we all walked down to the Daily, which, thank you God, was open.  All pedestrians walked down the tire tracks in the street as the sidewalks are just too drifted with snow to allow easy passage.  Later, we found chains in the basement and spent an hour digging the car out and putting them on.  Um, when I say "we" I mean the royal we because I wasn't about to get anywhere near a snow shovel. 

And did I mention that I only started my Christmas shopping on Friday?  In a panic, I started ordering things online.  Since then, I've gotten notice that the packages have been shipped but none have arrived on my doorstep.  You think its because planes haven't been flying in and out of PDX? Or because even trucks with chains on them are getting stuck on the snowy streets?  Hmmm, I wonder.

You'd think I'd be getting tons of writing done, what with being snowbound and all.  Think again–all this is incredibly distracting.  And, I will admit, lots of fun.  But while I may not have been writing much, I have, of course been thinking.  What follows are my profound Thoughts having to do with snow.  And writing, of course.

1.  It will all be okay.  So the presents don't arrive in time, at least the kids are old enough to understand why.  I'll wrap up cards that tell what they were supposed to get.  Or we'll have another dinner later and unwrap the real presents.  There's not a lot I can do about it, so why spend energy worrying about it?

2.  Details are what make the story.  We know this. Of course we know this.  But it is one thing to hear on the radio that buses are having a hard time navigating the streets and yet another to talk to my son and have him tell me that he saw 10 buses stuck in the snow on his way home yesterday.  Or to talk to my sister who was riding a bus this morning and just as she answered my call it got stuck and everyone had to get off.  The whole lot of them walked off looking for a new bus and when it came, it was so full it zoomed on past.  Aren't those details more interesting than the bland radio report?

3.  Stepping away from the computer is good for the soul.  Shocking, I know, but since we've been having our non-stop house party every night we drink wine, eat dinner, and watch a Christmas movie.  News flash: this is fun.  Even more fun than hanging out on my computer, writing.  Amazing the things you learn in a pinch.

4.  Showing up is what counts.  You might not finish the whole damn novel, but you can write a scene of it.  Or a paragraph.  Or even a sentence.  I know, I beat this drum constantly and loudly but over the last couple of days I've seen again how effective it is to spend even a minute or two with whatever project you are lovingly shepherding.  What with the tumult in the house, I've been hard-pressed to find time for my client's projects, let alone my passion projects.  But spending a half hour with Emma Jean yesterday reminded me why I strive to make time to work on my novel–and it made me feel like I'd accomplished something so I could go watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation without guilt.

That is it, the sum total of my Thoughts after being cooped up for four days.  But, hark, the sun is out and could it be I just saw a drip coming off the roof?  Never mind that the forecast calls for more snow tonight…

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

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

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

Steam Engine & Self Portraits 009

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

Which brings me to the point of this post.

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

1. Do you write:
fiction
screenplays
nonfiction
poetry

2. What is your biggest writing problem?

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

4.  Are you a published writer?

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

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

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

8.  What kinds of posts are most helpful?

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

10.  What is your biggest writing goal for 2009?

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

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

The Power of Observation & More: 5 Reasons to Keep a Journal

Pumpkins 1
Yesterday my daughter had a pumpkin-carving party, complete with home-brewed Nut Brown Ale from her boyfriend and all kinds of delicious pot luck treats.  We carved the jack-o-lanterns in the backyard with leaves falling all around us in the autumn breeze and ladybugs landing on everyone.

I got up this morning and wrote down all the details in my journal.

I write in my journal nearly every day, usually first thing in the morning.  It is actually a bit of a compulsion with me.  Over the years I've filled up dozens, if not hundreds, of journals in all kinds of spirals and composition books and diaries.  They fill crates in various closets, all neatly labeled with the appropriate dates.  I'm not entirely sure why I save them, because lord knows even I can't read my own handwriting.  But something compels me to do so.  And I know that when our house caught on fire and the upstairs burned many years ago, the thing I was most grateful to find unscathed was my journals.  Pumpkins 2

(Brief aside: you know how you always hear people say what they'd save if their house was on fire?  Let me just tell you, when you are fleeing a burning house with children and pets you do not for one minute stop to worry about saving all the family photos or the Grandma's antiques.  All you think about is getting the living creatures out.)

Sometimes I think journal writing is a distraction.  It's a choice I constantly make: write in the journal or work on the novel?  Make notes about what I did last night or get some work done on a ghost-writing project?  When I'm fully engaged in a book project, I tell myself I shouldn't waste time on my journal.  And then I find myself reaching for it and before I know it, I'm writing away.

However, I'm also aware of how valuable journal writing is.  Honestly?  I'm constantly in awe of people who make it through life without one.  I process everything on the page, saving my friends and family hours of drama and myself years of therapy.  But beyond the emotional benefits, there are clear advantages to keeping a journal for writing, too.  To wit:

1.  It gets the crap out.  If all your worries about your day are clogging up your brain, how are you going to write?  Get it out on the page and get rid of it.

2.  It encourages the practice of observation.  There's no better way to start remembering details than writing them down.  The more you write what you've seen and experienced, the better you get at it. And the better you get at writing it in your journal, the better you get at writing on your novel or whatever creative project is dear to your heart.

3.  It is a place to make notes on projects.  Sometimes–often–I start a journal entry by writing about what I did the day before and soon I'm writing a scene for my novel or figuring out how to write an article.  I actually wrote this whole blog post as a journal entry this morning.

4.  Regular attention to a journal can be life altering.  Sounds grandiose, doesn't it?  But it is true.  When you commit to writing in your journal every day, suddenly you start to see patterns in the desires and goals you note.  Hmmm, day after day you write about the creative non-fiction book you want to start.  Is this a clue to what you should be doing?  Or perhaps every day you write about how miserable you are in your job or marriage.  Is it time to make a change?

5.  You can track your writing goals.   Writing down your word count on a long project can be a powerful motivator.  Writing about that project can help you get clear on it, too.  John Steinbeck wrote journals about the writing of his novels. 

Bonus point:  It is a spiritual practice.  People always talk about their spiritual practices, such as prayer, or ritual, or meditation and I always pouted because I wanted a spiritual practice, too.    But I don't seem to have a lot of patience for those kinds of spiritual practices.  One day, however, it hit me–hot damn, I already have a spiritual practice.  It is writing in my journal, which I do as regularly as anyone who meditates or practices yoga.

One last thing.  Michael Masterson has an article on writing journals in his weekly newsletter today.  He looks at it from a manly, business point of view, but I'm a huge fan of Masterson and I like what he has to say about writing a journal.  Read it here.

Lasagne for Lewis, Pineapple-Upside Down Cake for Emma Jean

Pineapple_upsidedown_cake_9I've just finished making a pan of lasagne for my son's birthday dinner tomorrow.  (Brief aside: on Twitter, the spell check wanted me to spell it lasagne, which I thought was correct.  Here on Typepad, the spelling gods insist it is lasagna.  But I sticking to my e ending.  I like e endings.)

I'm sort of famous for my dislike of cooking, but lately I've been trying out new recipes (cooked pineapple and cheese–thank you, Candace), making old favorites I'd forgotten about (apple, celery, and walnut salad), and creating new dishes (brown rice, black beans, burger, onion garlic, other interesting things I can't remember.  My Mom would call this Icebox Cleanup.)  Fall is in the air and it makes me want to cook.

I've always seen cooking as one more thing that is taking me away from writing, one more thing to rush through so I can get back to what I'm working on.  I've been known to set a pan of some slapped-together concoction on the stovetop and wander away to get back to my work–only to return to find the food a burned mess.

Ah, the writing gods are harsh masters, demanding such fealty that we scribes have time for nothing else.  Certainly not for cooking, or any other hobbies.  Alright, I do knit–but it is a rare occasion when I actually finish something.  Writing always beckons before I have a chance.  And then there's the fact that it is difficult to knit or cook while reading, and let's face it, reading is a critical aspect of writing.

But I'm starting to think I've been missing out.  People always yammer on about how grounding and relaxing cooking is and I roll my eyes and tell them cooking bores me, implying, of course, that I have way better and more important things to do.  And the thing is I admire people who cook.  Deeply admire them.  I think that people who cook are very likeable.  They cook to feed others, to please others, to make others happy, right?  So most cooks are very good people, except those snotty ones who will only use a certain kind of cheese from France and the finest olive oil and all that crappery.

My point in all of this is a confession of sorts.  Part of the reason I've started cooking is that the heroine of my novel is cooking.  Emma Jean has recently informed me that she loves to bake (pineapple-upside down cake and cookies to present at her readings) and cook (I don't know what yet).  I'm happy that Emma Jean has told me this because she is a kick-ass, larger than life character, and kick-ass, larger than life characters are sometimes difficult to write in a sympathetic manner.  But because Emma Jean loves to cook, particularly for others, this will make her more likeable.  Right?  Right? 

And so I have some catching up to do in the cooking department.  Hence the lasagne–everything from scratch–for Lewis.  Try as I might, however, I could not convince him that he needed to choose pineapple-upside down cake for his birthday dessert.  I'll just have to bake it another time, seeing as how it is Emma Jean's specialty.

Photo of Pineapple-upside down cake by Mark Pellegrini, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 license.

I Confess

I cannot tell a lie, because you have no doubt noticed, but I am a blogging slacker.

Two weeks ago I headed to Nashville for the Writer's Loft fall orientation.   This was a big to-do because it was the first actual orientation that my partner Terry and I planned since we took over the program.  And, I am happy to report, it was a rip-roaring success.

So much so that I got completely re-inspired to work on my novel again.  Not just working on it, but working working on it, if you know what I mean–keeping the file open on my computer, working on it every spare moment, obsessing about it all the other moments, stealing time from paying work.  That kind of working on it, which I love because its been too long since I've been in this space.

To my credit, there has been guilt.  Lots of it.  So much that it finally drove me to cautiously log onto my Typepad account.  So here I am.  I've not gone anywhere, just deeply into the novel.

Here's the good news–I took copious notes while sitting in the workshops and lectures that inspired me so much and my plan is to write blog posts about what I learned.  Um, never mind that that has been my plan for the past week, since I returned home.  I'm going to do it.  I wrote this post, didn't I? 

I also have a pile of reviews to post on my companion site, Bookstrumpet.  So stayed tuned, there is much more to come.  Really.  Trust me.  I promise.

And now excuse while I go look at what I wrote this afternoon on my novel.

Oh, one more thing–I was having some computer issues last week.  Like big ones.  Like my beloved Vaio melting down type problems.  Its okay for the moment, but I'm in the market for a new one.   I'm so tempted by the Macbook.  So very, very tempted.  I've resisted the whole Apple cult for years and now I feel it ensnaring me.  Help me, PC users! Not a big fan of Dells, but I've loved my Vaio.  I would like it to be less than astronomically expensive.  So if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear it.  Has to be a laptop–it goes with me wherever I go.