Follies: Festive Fridays

It's Friday!  And you know what that means, time for some folly.  In this case, festive folly.Clown_clowns_robinson_261035_l

This week we are beginning a crazy dance party.  What's a crazy dance party?  I will tell you.  Years ago, there used to be a kid's show on PBS and every so often one of the characters would yell, "Crazy dance party!" and everyone would stop what they were doing and start dancing.  So now every once in a while I like to yell "Crazy dance party!" and start dancing.  Most of the time, especially at social gatherings, people look at me like I'm crazy.  Except my family, who are used to me.

Anyway, I think every party should have someone who yells "Crazy dance party!" at dull moments don't you?  And so let's design our very own party.  (Remember, you can do this to explore your own life or that of your characters.) Here goes:

Who will you invite?

Who do you wish you could invite but you can't?  Why can't you?  And what does this say about you or your current life situation?

Who do you want to come?

Who do you have to invite but you hope won't come?

Which guests do you have to keep far away from each other?  Why?

Which guests might go home with each other? (Ooh-la-la.)

Which guests are most apt to get into a fight?  Why?

Who is most likely to get drunk?  Eat too much?  Get overly dramatic and emotional?

In future weeks, we'll delve further into our crazy dance party, pondering what the guests will wear, what they will eat and drink, talk about, and what kind of entertainment will be featured.

So until then, have fun.  After all, that's what crazy dance parties are all about

For the first, explanatory post in this series, hop on over here.

And by the way, if anyone knows what the name of that PBS show was, please let me know.

A Very Glittery Book Review

*Note: after you read the review, please scroll down to the end of this post and answer the question I've asked.  Thank you, beloved readers.

Waking Up in the Land of GlitterGlitterCover

by Kathy Cano-Murillo

I've followed Kathy Cano-Murillo for quite some time on her crafting blog and lately her writing blog.

Why?  Because she is a person who knows herself through and through and puts that self on the page (and the canvas) over and over again, without fear of what others think.

Man, do I ever admire that.  It takes real courage just to be yourself, so much so that I believe it is our most important emotional and spiritual quest in this life.  (And, by the way, this topic seems to be the subject of nearly every piece of fiction I write, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior included.)

I've read about Cano-Murillo's craft product launch (glitter and paints and other cool stuff) and her excitement over the release of her upcoming novel.  So, of course I jumped at the chance to review said novel.  (Note to the FTC: yes, I accepted a free book to write this review.)

Here's my test of a good book: whether or not it passes the Lunchtime Reading test. Since I work alone, and at home, I eat lunch in my kitchen, and there's always a stack of magazines in there that I'm trying to catch up on–O, The Food Network magazine (love that thing, even though I hate cooking), People, Outside, Poets and Writers, Shambala Sun. I love buying magazines and lunchtime is when I read them.  If I have a really great book, I shun the magazines and read my book instead.  But it takes a lot to drag me away from my magazines.

Waking Up in the Land of Glitter is a sweet, fun book that I gobbled up in a couple lunch-time readings.  And a few nights lying in bed.  It takes place in Phoenix, and is the story of Star Esteban, a young woman who is a bit, how shall we say this, ditzy.  She works at her family's restaurant, which sounds like the most fabulous place on earth, a cafe that sells amazing Mexican food and Margaritas, plus an art and event space, but she really longs to be an artist.  Because she is, um, scatter-brained and undisciplined, she never fully commits to her art.  Up until now. 

Along the same lines, she never fully commits to the man who loves her, Theo Duarte, until early on he gets sick of her shenanigans and ditches her.  Then things get worse. Because of an act of vandalism Star commits on a drunken evening (it sounds worse than it is) her family tells her she can no longer work at the restaurant and has to make her way on her own.  So now she is job-less and boyfriend-less.  And then the glitter shows up.  Over three hundred pounds of it, ordered by mistake (she thought she was ordering 3 pounds).  And somehow she has to find a way to use it and pay for it before her family finds out.

Enter Crafty Chloe, the local TV crafts expert, and Star's best friend, Ofie, an obsessive crafty of hideously ugly knicknacks.  Together they hatch a plan to make centerpieces for the Crafty Olympics.  But first they have to learn how to get along…

Like I said, its a fun read.  And honestly, who would have thought you could create a plot for a novel around glitter?  Only Kathy Cano-Murillo.  I had a few quibbles with the writing here and there (I'm a writer, I'm highly critical), particularly the author's habit of dropping in huge chunks of narrative backstory.  But the charm and verve of the story more than made up for that.

So if you are looking for a novel to pass your own version of the Lunchtime Reading test, give Glitter a try.

*And now for the above mentioned question: a couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post asking readers for reccomendations on books.  Would you like me to compile this list in a post before I leave for Nashville this week?

Bonus question (I just thought of this one): What is your version of the Lunchtime Reading test? 

Back to the Basics, Or Not

Book_research_information_237974_l Writers can always benefit by going back to the basics, right?  Or not?  And more to the point, if you've been writing for awhile, have you tried going back to the basics recently?  It is not that easy.

Going back to the basics seems like a good idea.  You get the desire to strip it down, make things simple, relearn from the beginning again.  Except you are no longer the person that you were when you started out so very long ago.  And it is hard to fit your expanded self into that smaller box.

What is called for is a framework.

I went to high school during the heyday of the Open Classroom movement.  Education wasn't working and a new approach was needed.  So, no, it wasn't back to the basics, it was the opposite–a very free and easy approach where students directed their learning to a large extent.

Consequently, I became quite the free thinker.  But to this day, I have huge gaps in my education, particularly when it comes to reading the classics.  (Ironic, no? Considering as how I am a writer.)  Oh, I read some of them on my own, but when it comes to classics, reading in an educational setting is much better.  I needed a framework.  And finally I found it when I started working toward my MFA.  (I won't call it studying, because it was so much fun.  Two years devoted mostly to writing and reading.  Heaven.)

Once I had the framework of writing an essay about my reading, with mentors responding to those essays, I could dip back into some of the classics that I had missed.

What got me thinking about all of this is knitting.  I'm an off and on knitter and a terrible finisher.  I love starting a new knitting project more than anything–choosing the yarn, casting on, seeing the work start to grow!  But then I get bored and set it aside.

Lately, though, I've realized that perhaps I get bored because I don't know enough about what I'm doing.  Despite the fact I've been knitting since I was a wee child, there's lots I don't know about it.  I was taught by the odd 4H leader here, my aunt there.  Much like my high school education, there was never a consistent framework for it.

This weekend I found the framework, a book called Fearless Knitting, written by a technical writer, bless her heart, who knows how to translate confusing information into plain English.  The author, Jennifer Seiffert, had the bright idea to take a line of traditional knitting instruction, then not only explain what it means, but why you are supposed to do that.  Brilliant.  Each explanation illustrates a larger technique and you make a square to well and truly learn how to do it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be such a framework for writing?  An explanation of not only the how, but the why?  Alas, I don't think it is possible, because the craft of writing is much more amorphous than the craft of knitting.  Many of the why explanations would be something along the lines of, because you want to entertain the reader.  Or, because you want to create an emotional response in the reader.

Or am I wrong?  Can you think of any aspects of writing that could be explained in a succinct why explanation?  What does going back to the basics in writing mean to you?  Practicing writing exercises?  Reading or re-reading books about writing?  Are there any basics you'd like explanations of?  Comment away.

Seeing With Fresh Eyes

The other day, I was out walking in a neighborhood next to mine.  And for some reason, I started thinking Rosa_Rosas_Flor_249965_l about the name of the neighborhood that I live in, which is Rose City Park.  And the thought occurred to me that it is a lovely, evocative name.  This is something I've always known, but forgot. 

As I walked I pondered how cool it sounds when someone asks what part of Portland I live in.

"Oh, Rose City Park."

Something about that sounds so elegant.  There are roses involved for one thing.  And then there is the element of having a city within a city.   As if our little enclave is so important it has been elevated to city status, even though we're just a neighborhood.  And then you add on the park part and that evokes images of lush green and tall firs.  All of which are true about the actual park that lies a few blocks away from my house. It is true of the neighborhood itself, come to think of it.  One of the things that drew me here in the first place are the tall firs that tower in nearly every backyard.

But I hadn't thought about the name of the neighborhood for years.

Which got me to thinking.  What else do I need to look at with fresh eyes?  Are there things in my writing that I need to take a new look at?  New genres to try?  New worlds to conquer?  New skills to develop?

I don't have answers for these questions.  But I'm pondering them.  And co-incidentally, I'm thinking a bit about going back to the basics.  About which I will write tomorrow.

In the meantime, how about you?  Have you taken a fresh look at anything recently?  If so, what did you see?  Or does reading this bring to mind an area you think needs some looking at?  Please share.

The Place You Write

Bulletinboard I write in my upstairs office which is a converted bedroom.  As I'm writing this post, rain is pounding on the windows and if I turn my head and look out the window, I can see into the backyard, which is lush and green and full of just-blossoming flowers.  At least they were ready to blossom before this massive rainstorm came in last night.

This office is the place where I most often write.  It is actually the place I spend most of my time.

I started thinking about what my office means to me because I've inadvertently been writing a series on place.  It began with a post last week on having a place to go in your writing.  Meaning, that you leave off in a place that will give you an easy starting point at your next writing session.  And then I wrote a post about the role of place in your writing.  What settings inspire you?  What locations do you set your characters in?

And so today it seems fitting to end this mini-series with a post on where you actually perform the magic.  I also recently wrote a post about organizing my office, which those of you who come here often know has been a long, drawn out process, mainly because I only find an hour here and there to work on it.  So my writing place is in transition at the moment.  When I return from Nashville mid-month, I'll be buying a complete new office set from Ikea, for which I can't wait. 

But even in its current almost-organized state, it is the place I love best.  And I loved it when it was terribly messy, too.  I love it because it is all me–my books, my supplies, my furniture choices, my weird things hanging on the wall, my bulletin board covered with nametags from conferences and old artwork the kids did  years ago.  I'm surrounded by my reference materials, including binders full of old stories that I've written and a shelf of my published books and magazine articles, and I love working in the midst of the fruits of my labors.

I haven't always had a room of my own in which to write.  I started out using a big old desk that came from my father's printing plant.  It was set up in the corner of our bedroom, and how we fit it in there, I don't know.  Then I set up a desk in a makeshift corner of the then-unfinished upstairs.  When a fire swept the second floor, it miraculously stopped just short of my office, meaning all my computer and all my old writing journals were spared.  (Though the cleaning crew who swept in to rid the house of the smell of smoke took every journal and wiped down every page.)

When we moved back in after the fire, I set up in a spare bedroom downstairs.  I loved that space, but my son claimed it for his bedroom.  So when my daughter went away to college, I claimed her upstairs bedroom, which I continue in to this day.  And even though I have a laptop and can write anywhere, I spend most days ensconced up here.  Sometimes I take my computer and hit the neighborhood coffee shop and upon occasion I go downstairs to the family room or the kitchen for a change of venue.  But most often I'm right here at my old desk, which is soon to be replaced by a new one. 

You don't have to to have a room of your own to write.  It is nice, that's for sure, and you deserve one.  But you don't have to have one.  Back in the day when my desk was in the bedroom, I often hauled the typewriter out to the kitchen table to write so I could keep a better eye on the kids.  But what you do need is at least a little bit of space to call your own, even if it is a cupboard that you store your papers and computer in and close up when it is not in use.  

So what about you?  Where do you write?  Do you like writing there or do you long for a different space?  Do you do your best writing at home, on a break from work, or at Starbucks?  I'd love to hear about the place you write.

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.

What Commitment Looks Like

It is 3 PM on a glorious spring day in Portland.  My cat's in the window making that weird clicking-in-the-back-of-the-throat sound that kitties make when they see birds or squirrels.  It's spring break, so every normal human is outside enjoying themselves.Mycomputer

Except me.

I'm sitting at my desk, near where Captain is making odd cat noises.  There's a nice breeze blowing in the window, but it is not the same thing as being outside, enjoying the day, taking a hike, hanging out in the park, sitting on the deck at the local pub, raising a glass.

So why don't I just quite whining and go do something?

Because I have a blog post to write.

I made a commitment to myself to write a blog post every day until further notice or some other unforeseen event makes it impossible.  I wanted to see if this would help my traffic (it has) and also lay the groundwork for some upcoming things like an ebook release and some day, the publication of my novel.  Also, because, um, I love writing these here posts and most days it is so much fun I can't believe I get paid for it.

But some days it is 3 o'clock in the afternoon and I haven't blogged yet and I'd rather be doing anything than sitting at my computer wondering what to write.  But here I am.  And guess what?  This is what commitment looks like.  And commitment is what creates abundant writing careers.

And so here I sit until the blog post gets done.  And, amazingly, now it is.  And sitting here doing it reminds me, again, that this is what commitment is all about.

How about you?  What are you committed to?  How does that look in your life?

The Writing Process Redux

471px-Venn_diagram_cmyk.svg Every week my family gets together with my sister's family for dinner. We instituted this after my Mom died last year as a way to make sure that we all see each other regularly.  It has been a wonderful thing, and we guard our Sunday Supper time zealously.

Last night at Sunday Supper, in between everyone taking bets on when the son-in-law would finally arrive on his long drive home from the army in Texas, my brother-in-law asked me if I'd read the latest Time magazine.  When I said no, seeing as how I don't subscribe to Time, he said I absolutely had to read the interview with Elmore Leonard and found the magazine for me.

Besides marveling at the fact that Leonard has lived in Detroit since 1934, and still doesn't use a computer or email, the one thing my brother-in-law wanted to point out to me was when Leonard  said this: "You've got to write every day."

Where have we heard that before?  Why, perhaps right in these very posts.

I started off this morning intent on writing about the writing process.  I'm not sure why, since I wrote about it fairly recently, hence the word "redux" in the title.  (And even if I hadn't written about the writing process before I would have used that word, because, let's face it, redux is a great word.)

But then I started thinking about the Elmore Leonard article and his commandment to write every day.  And then, after I pondered some more (the very strong coffee I'm drinking helped), I realized that I what I needed to write about today is the intersection of the writing process and writing every day.  If I could draw a Venn diagram, it would be the place in the middle where the two circles meet.

Because writing every day, no matter what stage of the writing process you are in, is what makes your dreams happen.  Whether you are writing a rough draft, or working on one of many rewrites, writing every day helps you to stay connected to your work, and keep the momentum going.  Plus, it reminds you that you are a writer, which is easy to forget in this busy world.  And I find that if I've done the most important thing first, ie, writing, that everything else falls into place.

So, writing every day + the writing process = finished products.

Now, here's the question of the day.  In my search for an image of a Venn diagram, I found the above on Wikipedia.  However, it has three circles, when my example only has two, the writing process and writing every day.  So, say we named this Venn diagram The Writing Life, what would you name the third circle?