Step Right Up and Take the Survey!

As we start off this wonderful new year (I'm optimistic, aren't I?) I would like to find out more about what you like and dislike about this blog.  I'm curious to know why you read it and what you get out of it, as well as a bit about how your read it.

So, I've designed a survey.  Just click here to take it–it's not long, I promise.

As thanks, once you've taken the survey, come back here and leave a comment.  Next week, before I leave for Nashville, I'll put all the names in a digital hat and draw one, with the winner receiving a free manuscript critique (up to 20 pages).

I really am interested in what you have to say, so have at it.

Process or Product?

I recently found a pillow I made ten years ago, when I attended Creativity Camp led by Julia Cameron, ProcessPillow author of the Artist's Way (as if you didn't know that).  The camp was great, life-changing, really, particularly in that I met a couple of people who I remain friends with to this day.  The way it worked was that Julia led us through Artist's Way activities all morning and in the afternoon we could take our choice of classes–yoga, performance tips, drumming, and painting.  Or one could head into town (the camp was located in Taos, New Mexico) or stroll about the gorgeous land. 

I did a little of each, and one afternoon landed in the painting class, in which we painted pillows.  Freshly inspired by the morning's activities, I wrote one of my favorite sayings of Julia's on my pillow: Process is Everything, Product Happens.  As my late mother would say, clevo, huh?

Back in those days I was still a bit of a dabbler at writing.  I'd been working on fiction off and on for years and done a little free-lancing.  I'd not gotten my MFA, nor ever done any ghost-writing or copy-writing.  And I believed fervently in the saying on my pillow, that if only I remembered to focus on process, everything else would follow.

I think I still believe in that, but I'm not sure.  I know for a fact that when I sit down these days to write fiction, if I worry too much about the end result–the product–I'll cramp up and not be able to write a word.  Conversely, if I don't have some idea of what I want to write, some structure in mind, I'll not be able to write, either.  Or, more to the point, I write too much, allowing myself to meander through all kinds of tangents.

Process is pure creativity, writing fast, free writing, not stopping to think.  It is bliss when it happens.  And I advocate going for this kind of free and fast writing whenever you possibly can. 

But there comes a time when you have to put product first.  I can hear the gasps of horror coming from you, and I'm ignoring them.  When I sit down to write a book for a client, I have to put product first.  Number one, I'm being paid to produce a product.  Number two, if I don't have a clear image of what the client wants, the project is sunk from the start.  So most of my projects for clients start with product upper-most in my mind.

However.

Once I get the product firmly in mind and know exactly what I'm writing, then I can head for process land.  Because the writing process for clients is no different than it is for myself–write a rough draft, and then follow it with successive drafts that get cleaner and clearer every time.  And, for me, the only way to get a draft out on paper is to let it rip.  To go wholeheartedly into process, trusting that the product will follow.

I think the product/process conundrum is a bit chicken and egg-ish.  One can't exist without the other and they both have their place.  So, maybe I do still believe in the message on my pillow.  Or I would if it had some good editing.  But try as I might, I can't think how to change the saying to make it more pertinent.

Any ideas?

It Always Comes Down to Writing

This morning I was making soup to take to a celebration (which turned into a wake) to watch the Ducks Soup play in the Rose Bowl, and I thought, Maybe I'll become a cook." You know, it's a new year, why not go for a whole new career?  I could totally do it, especially if I turned out more delicious soup like this, for which I used the ham hock left over from Christmas dinner, a conglomeration of beans, and all kinds of vegies, including my current favorite, parsnips. 

But then I remembered how many days I throw together a wretched, last-minute meal because I'm so engrossed in writing that I don't want to stop and cooking is just a bother.  I recalled how often I resented having to stop writing and run to the grocery store for food.  And I decided that perhaps a new career in cooking was not the best idea.

Usually these kinds of thoughts come to me when I'm discouraged about my writing, which I'm not at the moment. I'm actually quite excited about all the things I have on the horizon.  It is just that sometimes writing seems so hard, and it takes such sustained effort to make anything of it.  And because of this, sometimes I think it would just be easier to be a cook.  Or a retail clerk.  No, never mind, I've done that and it is way harder–being nice to the public is wearing at best.  But knitting is fun, and lots of people sell their stuff on Etsy….or I could start a business creating gift baskets, or….oh never mind, you get the idea.

But the truth is after I knit for a few minutes or so, ideas for my novel generally start percolating.  And every time I think about the types of things I might arrange in a gift basket, I end up wanting to write about them.  Because nothing has every captured and held my attention like writing.  The craft is endlessly interesting, because there is always something to learn, another level of skill to master, a new layer of depth to uncover. 

(Brief aside: I have to tell my favorite story about learning to write here.  I'm pretty sure I've told it before on this blog, but too bad, it is good enough to tell again.  A few years ago, when I was in the middle of earning my MFA, I had dinner with the family of a friend of my daughter.  The mother, a former high-ranking executive of a Fortune 500 company, asked me how long the MFA program lasted.  When I said it was two years, she replied, "Oh, I thought you would be able to learn everything there was to know about writing in six months."  To my credit, I didn't kill her, and it was one of the few times in my life when I had the perfect reply on the tip of my tongue.  I said, "Most people think that it takes a lifetime to master the craft of writing."  Thanks, you can stop applauding now–can you even believe how ignorant that comment was?)

I like to think of myself as a person with many interests.  When I was younger, I was torn between two possible career paths–something to do with design (I designed and sewed and sold children's clothing when my kids were little) or writing.  But gradually, writing took over.  And while I maintained my interest in design (I wrote about art as a free-lancer in my early career), I slowly quit sewing.

There was a brief flirtation with gardening, which I came by somewhat naturally, seeing as how I grew up with a father who composted before anybody knew what it was and everyone thought we were nuts for separating the garbage.  But these days I'm lucky to throw a few annuals in the garden bed.  While others labor to grow vegetables, I am hard at work on my computer.  Once, a few years ago, I was walking through a Portland neighborhood with my fellow writer and wonderful friend Sue.  Portland is a huge gardening town and every block has at least a couple gardens bursting with flowers.  Sue asked me if I was into gardening and I replied that I had been, once upon a time, before writing completely took over my life.  She allowed as how she had had the exact same experience–that slowly, bit by bit, everything sloughed away, leaving only the obsession with words.

So it always come down to writing.  And I am reminded of this on this New Year's Day, as the Christmas BareTree tree is being stripped of its ornaments and lights, and the angels and snowmen are being put away, because the first day of the new year is a good day for introspection.  So I'm pleased that my fleeting thoughts of starting a new career as a cook were quickly supplanted by the memory of how much writing means to me and how, no matter how hard I try, I can never get away from it.

And I think of what happened yesterday, when a new friend on Twitter challenged me to write for an hour.  I thought and thought about it and realized that I really had no excuse not to write for an hour.  Sure, I could work on my office, or sweep the kitchen floor, or do a load of laundry, but none of those things were as important as writing. 

And so I wrote.  I worked on my new novel, which I can actually admit is going to happen because finally it feels like it is going to turn into something.  I wrote for an hour, and then I wrote for a few minutes more.  It was glorious, absolutely wonderful.  And so today, I am pleased to remember that there's really only one thing that is important in this world and it is this:

It always comes down to writing.

If we all just remember that this year, we'll be fine.

Journaling, Part Four: Morning Pages

 
Yesterday, in Part Three* of my series on journaling, I wrote about four types of journal writing that I findGlasses_sheet_paper_260712_l useful.  There are an infinite number of techniques you can use for effective journaling, and I may well write about others in the future.  But for now, I've chosen to discuss the ones I use most often and find most beneficial.

Morning Pages.  First off, we have Morning Pages, developed and popularized by Julia Cameron in her seminal book, The Artist's Way.  You've probably read about or heard of Morning Pages, or MPs, as I like to call them, one way or another.  Morning Pages are simple–you get up, head to your journal, and write three pages, no more, no less.

Your first reaction to this idea may be similar to mine–horror at the idea that you're supposed to get up and write first thing.  I think this springs from the notion that writing is hard, and it takes thought, and if your brain is not yet awake you won't be able to think and thus write. 

But that is also the point–that you bypass the conscious, critical brain and just let the words flow onto the page. This is good for a number of reasons:

1.  Because it gets you used to just letting the words rip.  Getting into the flow of putting words on the page is excellent training for writers.  And, like any other profession, writers need to train.  The way the writing process works is this: first you glump all the words out onto the page in one glorious brain dump.  Then you rewrite.  And rewrite again.  And rewrite again.  And…well, you get the idea.  But if you are hesitant and shy with your words, you'll never get the wonder of rough draft onto the page and thus never have anything to work with.  So, you can consider Morning Pages to be part of your training.

2.  Because it familiarizes you with your subconscious.  And what a trip that is.  By writing Morning Pages, you will learn all kinds of things about yourself, perhaps that what you really want to do is study classical music or kayak around the world.  Or whatever.  Why is this important?  Because, here's the deal: the number one, most important thing for a writer is to be yourself on the page.  That's what voice is about, people.  But being yourself on the page is nearly impossible is you don't know yourself.  So write MPs.  You may astound yourself with your brilliance.  And even if you don't, you are engaging in a valuable activity, in and of itself.

3.  Because fascinating trends emerge when you aren't looking.  You know how John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans?" So too with MPs.  It may never have occurred to you that kayaking was something you wanted to do, until you find yourself writing about being on water–again.  You may never have thought you wanted to write poetry–until it begins to emerge in your MPs.  And so on and so forth. 

4.  Because MPs allow ideas to pop like crazy.  I've written outlines for whole novels while scribbling MPs and groggily reaching for my coffee cup.  I've had ideas for blog posts, characters, scenes in projects I'm working on, you name it.  Things emerge when you are half asleep and your conscious mind is not yet engaged.

So give them a try.  The rules for MPs are very similar to the rules for free writing.  Just write, don't worry about sentence structure, grammar, or whether you are making sense.  Just write, write, write.  Three pages, no more, no less.  Go for it.  And let me know how they work out for you.

Anybody have any experiences with Morning Pages they would like to share?

  1. *FYI, you can read Part One here, and Part Two here.  And please, please, please also go here and sign up for the free coaching sessions I'm offering.  I've added new times for the first week in January.

Writing in the Rain in Nashville

If the title of this post sounds familiar, its because it is….I wrote a post called The Writing Life: It's Raining SBphoto in Nashville back in September when last I was here.  It rained hard then, and it is raining hard

once again today.                     (Above: View of labyrinth from my room at Scarrritt-Bennett)               

Personally, I like the rain.  I'm an Oregonian, after all–I'm used to it.  But I also like the cold, wintry days we had here last week, with the sky gray and threatening snow.  I arrived on Wednesday to be the "book doctor" for Room to Write, an amazingly wonderful four-day writing retreat.

I got a lot of writing and pondering (c'mon, it is a vitally important part of writing) done, got introduced to the quiet thrill of walking the labyrinth, discovered a couple great new Nashville restaurants, and most importantly, met some incredible people.

I feel blessed to work with Rabbi Rami.  A mutual friend described him as one of the sharpest theologians of our time, and I think she's right.  He's also got a passion for writing and a passion for helping other writers.  He's awesome, plain and simple.

My very first coaching appointment was with Janet Hagan.  I came away from it with A. a new social media consultant, and B. (and most importantly) an awesome new friend.  This woman is amazing, people!  Go read her blog and soak up her wisdom.  Or hire her.  She is great at demystifying social networking for writers.

Ruth Williams is a therapist whose mission is to spread joy…and just being with her begins that process! I also shared the weekend with John Anderson, whose smile, jokes, and enthusiasm for writing lit up everyone's day, Sarah Young, Deborah Hatton, and Samantha Yeargin, new friends who were a pleasure to get to know.  I could write pages about any of them, but I won't because I have other things to discuss.

My job at the retreat was to be on hand for coaching, hand-holding, and offering advice about writing.  Besides writing, I love coaching writers (and other creative types) more than anything else in the world. It is satisfying to hear that my efforts have helped others past blocks but that's not why I do it.  I do it because through my own years as a writer, I've discovered techniques to unblock myself and keep the words flowing and its my mission in life to share them.  Why?  Because I'm a sappy soul who believes that if everyone followed their creative path regularly, we'd have a lot happier world.  Fewer wars, less anger, more joy and happiness and good old fashioned contentment.

My pleasure in coaching writers this weekend has led me to a Thought.  And the Thought is that I want to spend more time coaching in the new year.  I'm not talking about reviewing or critiquing writing here–that is a totally different beast.  I want to spend time helping you get the words on the page, whether that requires gentle prodding or swift kicks in the you-know-what.

The coaching will be based on my own system, Writing Abundance: The Seven Practices of the Prolific and Prosperous Writer, because I want you to be both madly prolific and wildly prosperous in the new year.  (If you want to learn more about this system, you can also subscribe to my newsletter, at the top right of this page.)

To celebrate this decision, I'm going to be offering free coaching sessions.  Yes, you heard it right, free coaching sessions.  Soon as I get back to Portland, I'll sit down with my calendar and figure out the specifics, so keep your eye on this blog.  And if you can't wait until then, if you need help right this very minute with your writing, just go ahead and email me.  You'll find the address at the top of this page.  So until next time, happy writing.

Writing Fiction: The Two Nows Structure

The task of a novelist is to tell a story so riveting that it will hold a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages. To do this, the author must first know the story intimately herself—which is the reason we write rough drafts (also known as “discovery drafts” or, my favorite, from the beloved Anne Lamott, “shitty first drafts”). After you’ve finished a first draft (or many drafts) and are convinced you know the story inside out, you can start thinking about structure (though there may well be a lucky few who write novels with the perfect structure from the outset). Structure is the way your story is presented to the reader—the ordering of scenes and chapters.

Writers whose novels contain a lot of important backstory often struggle with ways to weave in flashbacks without stopping the forward motion of the story. One approach is to “chunk” in the flashbacks: present several chapters of the story line to get the action moving, and then pull in several chapters (a “chunk”) of explanatory backstory.

But what if your backstory is so compelling or so important to the protagonist’s character arc that you don’t want to wait several chapters to impart it? This is the issue I struggled with repeatedly in writing my first novel. My heroine moves to a new part of the country, which is where the action begins. Yet what makes her move so painful, and the action unique, is her deep love for her left-behind home. My problem was how to get the story moving and keep the reader engrossed while also showing Collie’s ordinary world—the place she left behind.

The answer finally came in a critique session with trusted fellow novelists. Why not try running a dual story line? Tell Collie’s story from the moment she moved to Santa Fe as one narrative arc, and intersperse the backstory in alternating chapters—a dual story line. Chapter one begins the story and immerses the reader in the contemporary story line, chapter two moves back to the beginning of the flashback story line, Chapter Three returns to the present, and so on.

I’ve christened this the Two Nows Structure, because one important feature is the immersion in the “now” of each arc. This is the key element of this construction. We are in the head of the characters as they are at the moment. The flashback storyline is not told retrospectively, with the wisdom of the years that have passed. It is told in the now of that narrative arc. Accordingly, such a structure works best with a limited point of view, either tight third person or first person.

Each storyline has a distinct narrative arc, with its own conflicts, disasters, and troubles for the characters, and its own forward movement and mounting action. To decide where to begin each throughline, bear in mind the advice of writer Jack Bickham, from his book, Scene and Structure, which is “start your story at the time of the change that threatens your character’s major self-concept.

In my research on this structure, I’ve discovered two main variations. The first is a linear style, in which each story is told in strict chronological order. This is the structure used in the recent novel, A Blessed Event, by Jean Reynolds Page, which is the story about a woman desperate for a baby, and the controversial actions she takes to get one. In dealing with the consequences of those actions, the protagonist uncovers secrets from her past. The contemporary story begins in Texas in 1983, and the backstory action starts ten years earlier. Chapters alternate between the two time periods, and each story line moves steadily forward until they begin to merge about three-quarters of the way through.

A permutation on this linear storyline structure is found in Jane Hamilton’s novel, The Short History of a Prince. While Hamilton’s two narrative arcs also follow chronologically, her novel begins with the flashback storyline. The book alternates between 1972 and 1995, with each distinct arc covering roughly the same period of time—the months of a school year, September to June. In Prince, the events of the past storyline are so strong and compelling that they have affected every single character in the twenty years since, which is no doubt why she chose to begin in the past.

The second variation on the Two Nows Structure is the thematic style. In this construction, the flashback chapters are arranged in seemingly random order, but the author has placed them so for thematic reasons. Maryanne Stahl’s novel, Forgive the Moon,, is fashioned in this manner. The story of a woman whose marriage is threatened, the contemporary action takes place over a one week vacation on Long Island, and the flashbacks show snapshots of the protagonist’s past which illuminate her current behaviors and decisions.

Both the linear and thematic structures tend to follow a similar pattern—chapters alternating consistently between the two nows with an equal emphasis on each storyline. Occasionally, authors allow us to remain in the contemporary storyline for more than one chapter, but this rarely happens with the past storyline. Its important to keep the contemporary narrative moving (which is why you chose this structure) and lingering in the past will not accomplish that. By the last third or quarter of the novel, the two storylines will, of necessity, start to merge until there is one seamless narrative remaining.

Why choose this structure? In rewriting my first novel, I found it benefits my writing in several ways. By not relying on flashbacks and instead immersing my characters in the “now” of their lives, I am forced to write with more immediacy. Instead of lapsing into telling, I easily see ways to show. This, in turn, helps me to show character motivation in real time, instead of using a flashback that stops the action of the story to explain why a character does what he does. For instance, in my own novel, I revealed a crucial character motivation in a flashback scene. Try as I might, I could see no way to get this information out in any other way—until I recast the novel in the Two Nows structure. Immediately, I saw how this bit of info could be revealed in the contemporary story line, thus pushing the action ahead and keeping the story moving.

The Two Nows Structure is a useful paradigm for a variety of novels, but especially for those which rely heavily on backstory. Ultimately, I decided not to use this structure for my novel, but its certainly something I’ll consider using for future novels.