Writing and Resting: The Winter Solstice

A theme is emerging as we near the official start of winter.

A friend emails that she's tired, depressed and depleted, the end result of consistent beating herself up for not writing.  Never mind that a beloved friend of hers recently died, her business, like so many others, is rapidly changing, and she suddenly finds herself back in touch with people she's not heard from in years.  (Facebook, ya gotta love it.)  Stress much?  Ya think?

A family member tells me she's not going out much these days, hasn't seen friends for awhile.  Never mind that she's got a new love with whom she is deliriously happy and that she doesn't really want to go out.  She worries about it all the same.

And I myself spent much of December wringing my hands and flopping about the office, sighing dramatically as I resisted the new ideas that so desperately wanted to take up residence in my brain.  In a session with my very wise coach yesterday, I voiced the thought that I'd been feeling the urge to reinvent myself.  Yet at the same time I felt stagnant and unmotivated.  Plus I hurt my knee and there's been ice all over the streets and sidewalks so I couldn't get out and run.  And my computer is failing fast and my 92-year-old mother's furnace broke on the coldest day of the year.

I-yi-yi, what a season.  Oh right–it is an official season, the holiday season,  when we are all supposed to be of good cheer.  Nothing like a little forced gaiety to ramp up the resistance.

In the aforementioned session with my very wise coach, she reminded me that December and January are traditionally times to rest and take stock.  To eat healthy food and go to bed early and take care of ourselves so that we have energy for the more active seasons to come.  Yet we, in our modern society, resist the idea of slowing down, of being passive, of storing up, of resting.  We feel the need to go, go, go and when we feel the urge our automatic response is to resist it and keep going. 

And thus resulteth the running injury, the negativity turned in ourselves, the constant shoulding.  Conversely, giving yourself the time to relax opens up space–room in your brain for that new writing project to finally take shape, for the fresh idea to bubble to the surface, or simply for your whole being to just say, "ahhhhhh" and do nothing.

So just remember, to everything, even writing, there is a season.  If you're struggling with the desire to rest, quit resisting and let yourself go.  And report back to me when you awaken again in April.  Kidding!  You only get until March.

I’m baaaaack

Please forgive the long absence (well, its only been a week and a half or so.  But that's an eon in blog years.)

I have not been blogging for two good reasons:      476px-Chimp_Brain_in_a_jar

1.  I was out of town.

2.  I have been having Thoughts, of a deep nature.

Thoughts about what, you might ask?  Well, if you read my last post, which was a survey asking why you read this blog (and offering a free ebook in return) you know that I've been pondering which direction I should go with the information I offer.

Thank you to those of you who responded, and for those of you who haven't yet, the offer still stands.  Meanwhile, my Thoughts have rejuvenated me and I'm feeling ready to return to regular posts with renewed vigor and more of a focus on the craft of writing and the life of a writer. 

However, let me just say that the bit about regular posts depends heavily on nature and the universe cooperating with me, neither of which has happened thus far this week.  I've been dealing with ice, snow, and my mother's furnace breaking on one of the coldest days of the year.    (Can you even imagine how much fun it was to call furnace repair companies yesterday and beg them to please come over?)

But, barring more natural disasters or appliances breaking, I will soon be back at it on a regular basis.  With all kinds of juicy goodness to come.   See you soon!

Photo by Gaetan Lee, used courtesy of Wikipedia, under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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.

Overcoming Flat Scenes: Rising and Falling Action

This is the third post in a series on scenes, and specifically, flat scenes. You can find part one of the series here, and part two, here.

What is a flat scene?  It is one in which the emotional tenor is the
same all the way through.  For instance your heroine may start out the
scene depressed and end it depressed.  Or your hero may begin the scene
happy and end it happy.  A flat scene can also be flat by virtue of the fact that there are no turning points  in it.  A turning point is when a character acts on a goal (or call it an objective, if you want) and is either successful or unsuccessful.  Since you want to create as much conflict as possible for your characters, odds are good that you will be torturing them by making them unsuccessful.  Then they have to try another way to achieve their goal.  Or if they are successful at achieving their goal, that goal creates other, unforeseen problems.

But I digress. 

A scene turns when it ends at a different place than it began, and I don't mean just physically.  If your character begins the scene unhappy, creates a goal to change that unhappiness and achieves the goal, she might end the scene happy.  And thus the scene has turned.  There has been rising action, from sadness to achieving the goal, and then happiness.

Or if your character begins the scene unhappy, works on a goal that fails, she might end the scene devastating, destroyed, completely ruined.  The scene has turned.  That would be a case of falling action.  Now she must pick herself up and figure out what to do next. 

Rust Hills talks about the end of the last chance to change as a turning point in short stories.  If the character has a chance to change and takes it, that makes a story.  But there's also a classic short story structure in which the character has a chance to change that is his last, and doesn't take it.  And that is a story, too.  Both options create turning points.

In a flat scene, there is no turning point, no chance to change, no last chance to change.  Your characters begin and end in the same emotional terrain. 

How to avoid this?  The easiest way (and I say that facetiously, because there is no easy in writing) is to start each scene with a goal.  This can be as simple as creating a desire for a character.  Then put obstacles in the way to achieving it.  This is exactly what we do when designing a plot, and if you do it for each scene, you'll have a strong structure for your novel (and by the way, all this talk of scene applies to creative non-fiction, also).  If you suspect your scene is flat, ask yourself what your character's goal is for the scene and see if that doesn't give you a spine to hang the action on.

Bear in mind that each scene is like a mini-story, a hologram of the big picture, if you will.  Don't go off creating scenes willy-nilly just for the sheer joy of it.  Your beautifully crafted scenes must relate to the plot.

Remember, death to all flat scenes.  Make them rise, make them fall, make them turn and twirl and dance.  Your novel will thank you for it.

Feel the Fear and Write it Anyway

We interrupt the current series on scene to bring you this post on writing, fear, and creativity. 

I was having breakfast with my wonderful Nashville friend Sue (wait, should I say she's from Nashville if she is originally from Portland?) this morning and we started talking about feeling skittish and being nervous and anxious.  (Did the world financial situation have anything to do with this conversation? You be the judge.) 

I allowed as how I've recently realized that I'm nervous or scared pretty often these days. I travel alone a lot, and that makes me nervous.  I meet new people all the time, and that does, too.  Staying at home makes me nervous that I'm missing things out in the world.  And then we get to writing.  As my sister would say, gee-zus.  I attempt to write emotional truths in my novel and then I think about what my 92-year-old mother will say and I get nervous.  Or I write these true confessions in this (very public) blog and that makes me nervous.

But here's the deal:  I'm so used to the feeling of being nervous that I rarely even notice it anymore.  Ratchet it up to terrified (say, book deal) and you'll get my attention, maybe.  Meanwhile I go about my business being happily scared half out of my mind, doing it anyway: boarding the plane and hoping some kind gentleman will volunteer to lift my heavy laptop bag to the overhead compartment, meeting the new client, and opening up a new page to write on the computer or the spiral journal. 

I'm finally beginning to realize that if you're not scared, you're not living.  If you're not putting your nerves on the line on a regular basis, it is time to dial it up a notch.  This is true in garden variety living life, and its true in writing. 

Fear is the flip side of creativity.   But you can–and must–harness it.  Maybe there's a creative person somewhere on the planet who doesn't experience fear, but I don't know where that someone is.  If you find him or her, let me know.  Meanwhile, here are some ideas for harnessing fear in the service of creativity:

What you resist, persists.  Like anger or any other strong emotion, you can't let fear drive you but if you try batting it away, that doesn't work so well, either.  Try just letting it be.  Acknowledge it and then go write or board the plane or run the marathon. 

Denial is a river in Egypt.  And it is a big river, indeed.  Denial is a tricky mistress because being in denial means you don't realize you have a problem.  Its a brilliant coping mechanism.  Seems to me, though, that even those of us swimming in the depths of that river always see a glimmer of the light of truth.  Swim towards that light.  Allow it to illuminate the fear.

Only way out is through.
  I hate this emotional stuff, because it is so damn hard.  Which is of course, why we resist and go into denial.  But truly the best option is to plow into it.  Have you ever had the experience of resisting and resisting writing and then finally getting to it and having such a blast you wondered what the fuss was about?  I have.  It happens nearly every day sometimes.  Often you just have to walk through the fire.

Just do it.  This is probably about the gazillionth time I've invoked the Nike mantra in this blog.  That's because it is so simple and true.  Honestly?  This is the gist of it all, the kernel, the seed, the nut graph, the takeaway.  The single most important thing in life is to just do it.   Ignore the fear, forget the pain, concentrate on the moment, right here, right now and go write.

And, in case  you need more inspiration, here are some links about creativity you might find of use:

Building Success with Creative Adaptation

How To Write Remarkably Creative Copy

Of Creativity

We'll be back to the regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, with the final post in the series on writing scenes.  Meanwhile, you can read part one here, and part two here.

Elements of a Scene

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of flat scenes (not to be confused with flat screens) and how they can be very dull and boring.  As I emoted about the dullness and boringness of flat scenes and planned to write about how to avoid them, the thought occurred to me that this might be a good place for a recap about the elements of scene.

Writing in scene is one of the most common things that new writers do not do. Chairs_home_stage_265084_l

In general (and you can argue with me on this), a scene:

  • Takes place in one location
  • Is confined to the viewpoint of one character
  • Has a specific purpose in mind (or at least it should), such as showing character, creating conflict, advancing plot

The best scenes work hard and accomplish several of these things at the same time.  The basic elements of scene are:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description

This is as opposed to narrative or exposition, which is straight writing, with no action or dialogue.  Again in general, a scene shows while exposition tells.  A scene is actable  (goofy Hollywood term for you) which means you could watch actors play the roles.  The only way actors could act exposition is in a monologue.

Now that you've had this handy little reminder of what a scene is, the next step is to write an effective one, which is way more complicated than just putting words in your characters' mouths.  An under-appreciated way to make scenes work hard and keep your reader's interest is to make sure they turn. 

And that, dear reader, is the topic of the next post in this series.

Awesome photo of chairs onstage by Mazartemka.  I found it on Every Stock Photo.

When The World, Or Your Scene, Is Flat

Elmundo_latierra_earth_738682_l
I've been having issues with flat scenes. 

Flat scenes are problematic because you may not even know that they are flat.  You have a vague notion that something is wrong with the scene or chapter.  It is boring, or it just doesn't work for some reason.  You struggle and struggle to improve them, to make them interesting, and still, they just lie there, dead on the page, like a limp noodle.  You poke and prod and give up in exasperation and let the poor flat scene lie there until next time, why have to face it again.

I recently dealt with this issue in a chapter of my novel.  There's always been something about this chapter that has bothered me, though I've rewritten it many a time.  It is a relatively static chapter, but it is important because it gives a lot of information about the characters, particularly our heroine, and so it can't be deleted.  I've brought in other characters, invented phone calls, tried everything I could think of to make the scene more lively.

And still, in its dullness, it resisted me.

This weekend I had a brilliant idea.  I chopped the chapter in half.  After all, I'd just done that with chapter one, and it worked, well, brilliantly, with the two chapters that were formerly one now snapped to attention and toiling much harder on their own.

So I tried the same thing with chapter five.  It didn't work.  Now I had two flat, lifeless chapters.

Yesterday, I went off to a movie (Twilight, which I liked a lot, if only for the gorgeous Northwest shots and the views of my beloved Columbia River, which you can see in the trailer) and as I watched the previews, an epiphany occurred.   300px-Vistahouse

The scenes were flat because they had no rising or falling action.  None, nada, zip, zilch.  They ended in the exact same emotional terrain in which they began.  Flat line from start to finish.  No ups, no downs.   Once I got home and took another look at the elements of the scenes, I could rearrange them so that there's a dramatic moment–a high point–at the end, one that makes you want to turn the page to the next chapter.

And then it occurred to me that not only would this make a good topic for a blog post, its such an important topic that it was probably worthy of several blog posts.  So stay tuned, because tomorrow I'm going to talk about the elements of a scene.  And the day after that I'll discuss rising and falling action, or, making a scene turn, in more detail.

Photo of the earth by Jaime Olmo used under Creative Commons license.

 

Gift Ideas for Writers: The Wordstrumpet Christmas List

Christmas season has officially begun and even though I went to an awesome wine tasting and sale last night, it wasn’t at a mall or even a traditional store so thus I did not officially participate in Black Friday.  I did, however, buy a handcrafted Christmas ornament and started getting in the spirit of the holiday.  And what better way to celebrate the start of the season then with a Christmas list?  I love lists of all kinds but especially Christmas and birthday lists.  What follows is The Wordstrumpet Christmas list, full of books and and various other items of possible interest to writers.  It is admittedly random, in no particular order, and based on my current obsessions, which may well change completely tomorrow, in which case I’ll write a new list.  Until then, here we go:
1.  While we are talking about awesome wine tastings and sales, why not buy gifts from a local artist or craftsperson?  There’s nothing more special than a hand-crafted present, whether you made it yourself or bought it from someone who did.  If you don’t know of any convenient local sources, try Etsy for a vast array of fabulous ideas.

2. The Ethical Executive. This book by Robert Hoyk is a must-read for everyone, not just executives, because it will help you steer a path through the sticky wickets of multiple ethical dilemmas.  I featured this book on a page on my sister site, Bookstrumpet, which you can see here.

3.  While we are on the topic of great books, how about a little Christmas cheer?   You can buy Christmas is a Season, on Amazon (see the handy button to the left) and read a story by none other than moi.

4.  While we are on the subject of Amazon, I am still coveting a Kindle., the new electronic reader.  When I travel, and I travel often, I cart pounds of books along with me.  I had to buy a rolling carry-on bag to save my shoulder and I’ve takeen to checking it planeside because it is so heavy from the books.  If I had a Kindle, I could load every title I wanted to read on it and save my arms.

5.  I’ve just discovered the author Will North, and I’m reading his novel, The Long Walk Home.  He’s being billed as a latter-day Robert James Waller (author of Bridges of Madison County) but trust me, he’s better.  Way better.  He’s a ghostwriter, like me, though I can’t claim quite the high-falutin’ clients that he can.

6.  A session with Suzanne Peters to clear out any blocks you might have around your writing career or your ability to put words on the page.  She’s doing an amazing new process called  and getting great results with it.

7.  Every writer needs a furry companion, and there’s no better choice for that than a pug.  If you’re in the Portland area, try the Pacific Pug Rescue to adopt a pug in need.

8.  I’m addicted to office supplies, especially the really cool, elegant ones that Levenger sells.  I could spend entire fortunes on office supplies and books, and be happy.  Well, I do like to buy clothes, too, but that’s a topic for someone else’s blog.

9.  I desperately need a new computer (Vaio, don’t fail me yet) and there’s no denying it, I want a Mac.  Blasphemy, since I’ve been a PC user for years, but there it is.

10.  There comes a time in every writer’s life when he or she needs some support, encouragement, or instruction. Why not consider signing up for The Writer’s Loft? You’ll get one-on-one instruction, working closely with a mentor.

11.  If you have a desperate need to learn more about writing fundraising letters, you can purchase the book I wrote on said topic here.     Good stuff, honestly.

12.  Make 2009 the year you write your book.  I’m starting an online program to teach you exactly how to do that.  Your book is your business card.  You need one to achieve the success you desire.  Stay tuned for more details on this program, coming soon!

13.  Lucky number thirteen bonus idea:  sign up for my newsletter, full of writing tips and ideas.  Or sign up one of your loved ones.  Its free!  All you have to do is provide your name and address in the handy box to the right.

In The Body: Writing and Running, Part Two

A few days ago I wrote a post about writing and running.  Since then I've been staying in Laguna BeachTarget D1127
and running the canyon.  Okay, I run down and walk back up, but then so does nearly everyone else.  It is a looong way back up.  Yesterday as I hit the last and steepest hill I ran into a man named George who proceeded to tell me about Kangen water, which helped make the hill climb a lot easier.  (He dropped off some of the water for me to try later, and that was pretty cool, too.)

Water and interesting men aside, I have had Thoughts as I continue this new-found activity.  Thoughts which relate to writing.

My biggest Thought concerns the difference between writing and walking. Besides speed, the main difference to me is that when I run I'm totally in my body.  I'm focusing on keeping myself going, on breathing, maybe on that pain in my ankle, on making it to the next street or up the next hill.  When I walk, my mind roams free.  I ponder writing problems, and, alarmingly often, obsess about what I'm going to do first when I return from my walk. 

Over the years of my walking career, I've often noticed the difference between passing another walker and passing a runner.  Another walker always makes eye contact and greets me (at least in Portland, where we tend to be inordinately friendly).  But the runners always run on by.  I assumed this was an inbred snottiness about runners, but now I understand.  Runners don't say hi because they are in the body, not quite so focused on the surroundings.

How does this Thought relate to writing, you ask?  Just as a runner stays in the body when running, a writer needs to stay in the body when writing.  Its just that the body might be someone else's.  The body could be the heroine of your novel or the person for whom you ghostwrite a book.  In order to truly write from another point of view you need to deeply inhabit the body of your character.  This is also true in the case of writing a personal essay or even an article.  You must be in the body–your own body–in order to access the truths you wish to share in writing.

Some people get to this state by meditating.  You might have other ways to reach it.  Whatever path you choose, just remember that being in the body, deeply inhabiting the essence of yourself or your character, is the state you need to write from.

Writing Exercise: The Bluebird Canyon Special

The Santa Anas are blowing and fires are erupting all over southern California where I am currently ensconced at the top of a canyon overlooking the Pacific.  It is not quite as idyllic as it sounds, though I admit it is stunningly beautiful here, because I am here to care for a friend.

Perhaps it is the change of locale, but yesterday I awoke with a writing exercise resounding in my head.  Weird, huh?  Then again maybe it is due to the physical exercise I am getting.  This morning I ran down the canyon, so very proud of myself because I was not out of breath at all.  Then it was time to turn around.  And I realized I was at the bottom of a very steep hill.   Suffice it to say that I did not run back up said steep hill.   But I did make it.  And despite the sore legs, of which I am reminded numerous times a day in this house of stairs, I feel great.

And so here is the writing exercise that my subconscious created, The Bluebird Canyon Special.  This one is probably good for generating material for a new story, or if  you get stuck in your current story and need to jazz it up with a new character.  I've not had a lot of time to play with it, so give it a whirl and let me know how it works out.

Here we go:

1.  Pick 10 names of people ( such as Tara, Brunhilde, Eric, Sam..)
2.  Pick 10 locations  (LA, Boulder, Portland,Taos…)
3.  Pick 10 adjectives (blonde, lanky, beautiful, lush..)
4.  Pick 10 occupations (police officer, artist, CEO, waiter…)
5.  Pick 10 nouns (pen, journal, phone, table, car…)
6.  Pick 10 verbs (threw, jogged, spiraled, blasted…)

The key is to do this fast and don't over-think it.  You are simply generating material here, okay?

Now take the first four items and make a character with them:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer.  Take the next two items and put your character into action:  Blond Tara from Boulder is a police officer who threw her journal out the window of her car.

Voila!  Now you have a character in action.  You can use this sentence as a prompt for generating a scene or a vignette or whatever you need.  Write the sentence at the top of a piece of paper, set a timer and write for 20 minutes without stopping. 

The other thing you can do with blond Tara is put her in the middle of a cluster.  This is hard to describe on a computer, but it is the same thing as Mind-mapping and it is also called webbing or spidering.   Write blond Tara's name in the middle of a piece of paper, and circle it.  Then write another bit of description and draw a line from the circle in the middle to this new bit of description.  Another detail of her appearance goes on the same line.  Then you get an idea about her family–that's a new line.  And perhaps up pops a thought about the conflict she faces–another line.  Pretty soon you will start to have quite a few ideas about ole Tara floating about in your mind.

But ole blond Tara needs a conflict, right?  Here's the fastest way to find her one: either in your clustering or your freewriting, answer the following question:  what does she desperately want or what is she desperately afraid of?  In the case of wanting something,  put obstacles to her getting it in front of her.  In the case of fearing something, make her face it.

Follow these steps and before you know it, you should have Tara waltzing about your novel or story.  Let me know how it works out for you.