Posted in Thoughts on Writing

The Writing Pep-Talk Rant -a-Rama!

This is a pep-talk sort of rant that is as much for me as it is for anyone. Be forewarned: I speak of some unsavory aspects of writing that most of us dare not consider out loud!

Recently a very sweet friend of mine started a group on Facebook for writers. It was filled with support and goodwill, certainly a well-intended endeavor. She is a positive person who is always looking for ways to help others.

Sometimes I think it would be lovely to be that kind of person, but I’m not. When someone first told that I have an edge, I took it as a compliment. But I digress. . . after being in the group for a couple of weeks, I realized that writing memes and caffeine posters will never nurture my writing life, and I left the group. I didn’t want to share my word count or my struggle with scene structure. Why? It was such a supportive, loving environment . . .

The simple answer is, I prefer to be alone with my writing, and groups can (not always) become an excuse for not getting your yaya into the chair and writing. It’s so much easier to talk about the problems of writing in a group than it is to be alone with the problems of writing inside of yourself. But being alone with your writing problems and working through them can push that growing edge that allows you to improve. I believe that serious writers should always be improving.

I Am a Selfish Writer: My writing time is sacred. I hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on my door because I really don’t want to talk to you — even if you’re my husband. Even if you’re my dog. I don’t want to be a selfish person, but I do want to be a selfish writer.

Routine and Ritual: I’m a ritualistic creature. I do things out of habit and a need for order. Each morning the ritual is the same: Put water on for tea. Feed the dog. Drink the tea . . . And here’s where it can get tricky: I can either get online and visit Facebook, the news or my email, or I can open my laptop and write. If I go for the first plan, I never really recover. I can never re-capture that moment of raw, morning creativity again. It’s gone until the next day, lost to the news and the Internet. I must stay true to the ritual in order to create.

A Writing Prayer: Start here. Here is a little meditation that I found (author unknown). I edited and changed it slightly to make it my own. I recite it before I write. It calms me. It makes me feel good about myself. It’s easier to write for few hours if you feel good about yourself. It’s harder to write if you are thinking, “What the eff do I have to say, anyway? What makes me think I can write?” The second scenario is my default setting, so I have to deliberately do something that soothes the beast of self-doubt before I begin.

May I welcome my creativity with the curiosity of a child.

May I own my voice and trust my experiences.

May I practice mercy in the gap between what I want to create and what comes out.

May I remember nothing can eat me.

May I live with a creative heart.

May I appreciate the gift.

Do The Work: My favorite Robert McKee quote is this: “Do the work. Tell the truth. The results will follow.” Do the work seems to be the hardest part. It’s easy to set intentions. It’s easy to talk about ideas. It’s easy to write a first chapter. What’s hard is a hundred pages into a novel. What’s hard is sitting down and creating a scene and living with the uncertainty of whether or not it’s any good. When I get too hung up on wondering whether or not what I’ve written is good, it’s paralyzing. Do the work. Eventually your work becomes better, but only if you sit down and do it. That’s the other part of the meditation.

Everything Changes: I write articles for one of the local newspapers. I write guest post for two fairly well-known blogs, StoryFix and Sixty and Me. Sometimes I hit it just right and the articles or posts are wonderful and other times they are so-so. But I turn in my work no matter what. And I write novels. My first novel didn’t sell. Now I’m writing a second novel and I am afraid of giving it to my agent for fear that I will have the same experience of rejection. But I get up and write every day anyway. Here’s a truth: Everything changes. Your work today may be brilliant, and tomorrow not so hot. Your failure today may be just the stepping-stone you need for your success tomorrow. Life is not static. Writing is not static. Everything changes.

For the Love of the Life: What remains the constant grace in all of this mess is that I love the writing life. I may be a success one day and I may not. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care about the outcome of my efforts. Hey, we’d all like to succeed. On the other hand, if I fail, I will fail spectacularly and no one will ever fault me for a lack of commitment or effort. Those qualities are part of striving for personal excellence. And that, in some sort of weird and wonderful writing way, is what I love the most. That and all those blogs, articles and guest posts that break up the slog of writing in long-form.

And that’s the rant-a-rama for today.  What are you working on?  Please share with me in the comment section.

 

 

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Process, Preparation and Prose

iStock_000072638051_SmallI am not a writing coach. I am not a writing teacher. I can’t tell anyone how to write. So much for disclaimers. What I can do is share my process. Writers are always sharing their damn process. Most of us love to huddle over a cuppa and tell each other ad nauseam how the heck we do it. In my younger days, I used to talk about sex like this. Now I’m in my sixties. Nuf’ said.

If you are someone who writes by the seat of their pants, this essay is not for you. Stephen King, the grand Pooh-Bah of pantsing is holding court elsewhere and maybe he’ll let you buy him a beer and you can talk about us mere mortals who must prepare everything that we write in order to earn the name author.

You know that the name author comes from the word authority, right? When you write, you are an authority over what you write. You become the god that sees everything and everyone in the world you write. And why would you write about anything unless you took this position?

But it’s not as easy as sitting down and just letting the words rip, is it? Wish that it were so. Writing is hard work. It means getting a good idea (that’s not easy either) applying process and doing the preparation before you ever write a single word of prose.

Process: For me this is the Larry Brooks template. I sketch out that structure with first plot point (inciting incident), mid point (the protagonist becomes the warrior), second plot point (against all odds, the protagonist sprints toward resolve) and ending. Yep, I don’t write a word until I know the friggen’ ending. And it is on this framework that I hang my preparation. I’d like to believe that discovering your story gets easier, but I don’t think it does. I’ve sat in enough Larry Brooks classes, listening to broken manuscripts to know that knowing your story is what separates the women from the girls.

The Dreaded Synopsis: The first time I had to write a damn synopsis, I about pulled my hair out. I couldn’t do it in a half page. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of boiling 80,000 words down to 300 in order to tell you my story. Now, I write out a synopsis as a matter of fact. Do you know your story well enough to write a synopsis? If not, you need to begin again. An early synopsis will hit the first plot point, mid-point, second plot point and resolve. I don’t discover the story as I am writing along. I am aiming for the milestones along the way which my scenes must support.

Robert McKee tells the story of the great film, Casablanca. The script was about 100 pages. The treatment for the film was about 300 pages. What? That story was so well-known to its authors, scene by scene that once implemented, it became a classic that would never fade away. Novel writing, if we respect it, should be the same–careful, thoughtful preparation.

Preparation: I am in my office with door closed. I snarl at my dog if he looks at me like he has to go out. “You just went out. Go lie down.” Don’t dare knock. Don’t dare interrupt. My nose is pressed to a yellow legal pad. My hand is cramping. I am writing out everything I know about the character, who they appear to be and who they really are. This involves pages of questions. Some things I circle. Some things I cross out. I begin to see scenes and since I know what my plot points are, I know basically where I have to steer the car. At the end of a couple of hours I have filled pages and pages of questions and answers. This exercise will go on for weeks.

It’s all about the questions and “what ifs” at this point. Who are the people surrounding the character and how do they reveal the character? What do I know about my life experience that can inform this character? If the antagonist is involved in criminal behavior what non-fiction book do I need to look at to help me? (I like Sean Mactire’s Malicious Intent for such things.) And on and on it goes until I finally see how to construct the four sections of the book. Then I begin a scene list and from there a sketch of each scene, carefully placed so that the sequence of scenes slowly ramp up to the plot point climax.

Prose: Finally! It’s hard for me. I like to play with words. I love to construct sentences and paragraphs. I delight in whatever cleverness I can muster. But delight to soon, and you are screwed. Writers, especially rookies, like me, must remember that readers like your stuff not because of clever sentences, but because of good story. At the end of the day your good writing is just the prerequisite and your story is what matters.

Lost in a sea of yellow legal pads and questions that demand answers, I work on a new story for new novel. As much as a whine about it, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Process, preparation and then prose. That’s the work and I do it every day whether I want to or not, striving for excellence. Craft and the very best that you know you can do. Constant study. Read everything. Watch films. Always be looking at and for “story.” It’s not just the novel you are writing, it’s a friggen’ lifestyle. I labor under the belief that this is how I become better at my craft. “Do the work,” says Mckee, “and the results will follow.”

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Investing In Your Writing

iStock_000072638051_SmallA frequent myth shared among writers is that being a writer doesn’t cost anything. You can write for free. This is only true if you are writing just for yourself. The minute you start writing for readers, writing becomes like every other art form. It comes at a cost. It becomes an investment. Whether you are a dancer paying for ballet shoes and weekly classes or you are a musician buying strings for your guitar and learning to read music . . . OR if you are a writer desiring to know and understand craft, there is an investment.

By the time you are working in the long-form format of the novel or the memoir, craft becomes the big thing. Story. Craft is what makes cream rise to the top. It’s probably a safe bet to say that if you’re reading this, you are already a good writer. But good writing is only the prerequisite. At the end of the day, what we all really want is a good story. Story connects us. It mirrors the state of the human condition in prose. It touches our hearts, curls our toes and opens our mind to possibility. Story makes us human.

Imagine this: you make an investment in yourself as a writer. You attend what amounts to a mini-MFA. You immerse yourself in the study of story for four and a half days while the rest of the world falls away. That’s what I am doing with Jennifer Blanchard Williams and Larry Brooks this April in Portland. Will you join us?

Your Story on Steroids: A 4-Day Novel Development Intensive is a challenging, unprecedented workshop all about the craft of writing your story. Regardless of your level of experience, this workshop will push you toward being a better storyteller, a better novelist, and a better memoirist. And yes, it is an investment. And it’s too good of an investment not to share it with my blogging friends.

Here are the details:

April 3-7, 2016 at The Benson Hotel in Portland Oregon. Visit our web site listed below and if you have questions, there is a phone number for you to dial or you can send an email to me through the site. Suppose that a four-day  deep dive in to the multi-layered, heavily nuanced form of novel construction up levels your craft from this point forward?  If you only do one writing workshop this year, make it this one. Go ahead. Invest in yourself. Your writing is worth it and so are you.

www.novelintensives.com

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Delights and Deliverance

IMG_0086So many images travel to my eyes, rise and fall from the heart and float away on the afternoon breeze. Brugge, Belgium is the old world. Homes from the 15th century line the canals with window boxes overflowing in cascades of red geraniums.

Our group goes to the Minnenhauf. It means “house of love.” We meet  Sister Felicitous, who tells us about the women from whose ideals her order of Benedictines borrow–the Beguines. This area was filled with Beguines at one time, pious women who lived to serve, who made lace, with intricate knots and turns, reflecting the focus of a meditative state, focused singularly on devotion.

In the evenings the four or five nuns living at the Minnehauf sing in the chapel. They invite our group to join them and then be blessed with holy water. I don’t go. I sit in my room at night alone. The days are already packed too full for me, and I need time to process all that I see and taste and feel here. The reason I came was to pay homage to my home girls–these 11th century feminists, mystics who developed an esoteric evangelism and grabbed, however briefly, financial independence a time when neither spiritual nor financial independence was available to women. I’m afraid that if I fill up every minute I will miss their whisperings in the night air.

On a canal boat ride Sunday morning, I turn my face to the sun, close my eyes and just feel this place I am in, all of itsIMG_0113 history vibrating in what I breathe in. The swans stand in the park at water’s edge, long necks curved gracefully. I’ve heard that the Beguines brought the swans here. I’ve heard that the swans were a memorial to an innocent man executed in the city square. I don’t know which story is true. I know that the swan in Sufism represents the soul and that feels appropriate to either story. Maybe stories and history converge somewhere, and all of it makes sense in the end.

Today I taught my first writing class: Deepening into Your Spiritual Story–the Arc of Spiritual Memoir. I am animated, passionate and lit. I share my ever-changing, ever-growing process and philosophy about writing. I give exercises that place their pens to the page. An hour later I feel energized and happy to have shared something that I love so much with such a fine circle of individuals.

The Beguines were the first people in western civilization to write about Spirit in the vernacular of the day. Margareta Porete wrote a book called A Mirror of Simple Souls,” the premise of which is that the little church is the cathedral on the corner and the big church is the church that lives in the heart.” Later they burned her at the stake. I share this in my writing class. We are all connected by our stories. We communicate through story. We tell each other stories all day long and yet at the end of the day, or the end of a life, we sometimes fail to see what the story is or to ascribe meaning to it. That we seek meaning at all is unique to the human journey.

IMG_0108I am moved and inspired by the stories of the retreat participants. Former nuns, former and current clergy, people in the throes of unanswered questions and the inevitable loss that comes from living such a full, rich and long life. These people are of an older age, teaching and learning from each other about reclaiming the broken parts of the self in the last years of living. Surround those pieces in love, shrugging and saying “you know, life is messy,” and then be willing to have it be messy again.

This part of my story takes me to Belgium. And to borrow from Margareta Porete, the little adventure is the plane ride and the events of this place, and the big adventure is what is changing and growing within my heart.IMG_0126

Stay tuned for more adventures blogging through Belgium. Miss my friends and delight in this adventure. Hugs.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

We Are All Connected By Our Stories

iStock_000015967475XSmallEvery writer should have the experience of attending a writer’s conference at least once in their writing life. I drove that I-5 ribbon of highway that cuts through the state of Oregon to get to The Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, and that’s where I spent the past few days. Two of the women in my writing group joined me in Portland and we were grateful to have each other throughout the long weekend.

Writers are a quirky lot. We spend a lot of time in our introverted creative bubbles, so when we do venture out, it’s kind of a party. “Oh my gosh, you mean I can interact with other human beings?” Usually we are observers of the human condition, but at a writers conference, we are the human condition.

We all connect with others through our stories. We spend all day telling each other stories; the story of the plumber who didn’t arrive on time, the story of the tantrum throwing child at the market, the story of how I got to the writers conference. And writers have other stories too, not the stories of day-to-day, slice of life, but stories carefully molded and crafted to allow someone a vicarious experience, an insight into another world, stories that are not about us or for us as much as they are for the precious and sought-after “reader.” These are the stories we call “novels.”

All throughout the conference, writers carefully carried about these stories as if they were babies . . . the stories we created and birthed from our hearts and minds. These are the stories that we took with us into pitch sessions, relaying hundreds of pages to an agent in just a few minutes. Eight minutes, that’s all you get to pitch your story and you have to be able to tell an agent or an editor what your story is about, not the actual story. No easy feat, and one I spent months preparing for.

In the heat of the moment, those eight minutes are the blink of an eye! Tell you what, though, I did well. Out of the three agents that I pitched my novel to, all three asked to see more of my manuscript. I was confident, passionate and I didn’t throw up on anyone’s shoes–something that I had feared. Walking into my first pitch session, I felt like I had drunk four pots of coffee. I couldn’t tell if I was nervous, excited or was having a panic attack. It was one of those times when I had to keep reminding myself to breath, because obviously I wasn’t! You can imagine how relieved I was when that first agent said, please send me your first four chapters, a synopsis and a bio.

Now, no one has offered me an agent contract yet, and my manuscript will have to stand on its own, but I am going to let myself bask in the satisfaction of a job well done for a few days and enjoy the fact that I gave three good pitches before I send off the requested pages.

I attended some panels, New York Times best-selling authors, talking about their craft and their process and some Q&A sessions with writers. The only classes I took were taught by Larry Brooks, and I found myself wishing that I had a semester with him instead of just a few hours. If you don’t know who Larry Brooks is, and you are a writer–you are missing the ultimate instruction on the art of novel-writing! Go buy Story Engineering today!

My pitches went well because of Larry Brooks and all that he has crammed into my head, and because of my story-coach, Jennifer Blanchard. Both insisted that I know my story. Isn’t it funny how we are surrounded by story, we all connect through story, we make up story and yet when asked to succinctly recount what it is our novel is about, we can get tongue-tied? The craft of novel-writing is so multi-layered and nuanced that we really do owe our respect to its form if we are going to be read. And that means, strange as it sounds, you have to know your story inside and out.

I slept for crap at the conference. I ate too much and I didn’t get outside. But I met dozens of interesting writers who inspired me with their focus and perseverance. And it was absolute heaven to talk shop, talk about our stories, take class and pitch agents. Today I am filled with a good and satisfying exhaustion and I don’t intend to get out of my jammies until noon.