Month: January 2017

Confession Time

            A few months ago I wrote a blog on my new “chunky list” method of time management. I proudly proclaimed my affection for lists and recorded my successes.   I haven’t talked about lists much lately.  There’s a reason.  I’ve fallen off the page.  My lists are short and general rather than long and specific.  Some very measurable things, like laundry, get done in their regular time slot (Monday) but others like “write” aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.  My productivity has fallen in recent weeks along with my drive to finish the story.

            Enter my friend/critiquer/encourager/fellow-traveller from the other side of the world. We met several years ago on an on-line course.  The presenter said “pick a partner.”  I decided to find someone as far away from my usual world as I could.  My partner, AB, had the same thought, so now a Canadian and an Australian are travelling the road of life and writing together.  We e-mail each other every Monday with an account of our week.  Sometimes the e-mails are full of glowing achievements, thinking aloud about plot/character problems, or the sharing of a highlight in our personal lives.  Other times our exchanges consist of a tirade about the unfairness of the world/family/work/fate, take your pick, or the clueless comment made by a husband.  As our friendship grows, there are more of the personal notes in our correspondence but always something about the writing.

            Last week I was moaning about being stuck and she was complaining about lack of inspiration. We both have January birthdays and the horoscope for our year was not encouraging! AB proposed that we set a word count goal and tell each other what it was, then report back.  I’m always up for a challenge.  I set my goal, the same as AB’s as it turns out, and then my week went haywire. Unexpected errands, a power outage, freezing weather and a weekend away, made the goal hard to attain, but I wasn’t going to report failure on Monday morning.  I wrote while I waited for the car to be serviced, I wrote before breakfast and after supper, I sandwiched in some coffee shop writing between trips to the grocery store and the pharmacy.  By Friday night I’d reached my word count and went off on a wee holiday with a clear conscience.  On Monday morning I wrote to my friend trumpeting my success.

           I’m not giving up on my lists, they are an excellent tool for me, giving me an overview of my week, illuminating a timetable to accomplish all my tasks, highlighting where and when the writing can happen, providing a roadmap to the end of the book. I’m very fond of my lists.  However, I forgive myself easily for not reaching my goals, especially when it’s Christmas and I have a new book or three and a really hard jigsaw puzzle.  That word count is just a number I made up.  It doesn’t matter to anyone else.  But having declared my intention to AB, I had renewed motivation to get there.  We’re both Capricorns and hate to fail!

            So, if you’re feeling stuck, whether it’s with writing or sticking to a diet or managing your budget, or any other life goal, I recommend finding a partner to hold you accountable.  I met AB more or less by accident but we hit it off – a lovely piece of serendipity — but there are other ways of networking.  Some of my writer’s crowd have set up small critique groups, our chapter has a goal-setting exercise every February, a couple have a relatives who serve as  sounding boards and task masters.  There are on-line sites to help writers set goals and achieve them.  Here are three suggested ones.  Some charge, others are free.

The Writer’s Circle

Absolute Write

There’s even an app for that at Novelicious

           It’s important to find the type of group/partner that works for you. I’m not a chart-type of person so if I have to fill in boxes, the system won’t work for me.  If you love tables and graphs and fill-in-the-blanks type accounting, then you should look for like-minded people.  If you want to keep it strictly professional, maybe one of the paid circles is your choice.  If you like to mix in some personal stuff, then a friend with similar goals may be more your style.

         Of course, just like in real life, no one writing partner will fulfil all your needs. I have writing friends whom I meet in person, we brainstorm, commiserate, encourage, share information and sometimes exchange recipes.  I love our gab sessions.  Fortunately, friends in person and friends on-line is not an either/or situation.  I can have both, eat my cake and have it too.  How often does that happen?

It has been said before but I’ll say it again, writing is a lonely business. It’s easier with company.

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Gems in the Files

      As part of my January clear-out, I sorted through the drawers of my desk. No matter how often I cull, they always fill up again so now it’s part of my New Year’s ritual.  Anyway, amid the old receipts and cards, I came across my file of workshop notes.  What at treat!  I soon gave up my housekeeping and immersed myself in the file.  I have notes on “emotional intensity,” “blogging,” “revisions,” “plotting – by character, by structure, by GMC . . .”  I have notes on building character based on a flaw, on strengths, on birth sign/order, on secrets.”  There are several workshops around editing, the writer’s journey, the hero’s journey and the romance heroine’s journey.  In short, I have several textbooks worth of notes.

     I always enjoy the workshops I attend.  I love the vibe of sitting with other writers, cheering each other’s accomplishments, weeping with each other’s disappointments.  The teachers I’ve encountered have all been sincere, learned, and enthusiastic.  At the end of the workshop I’m fired up, sure that a tweak here and a tweak there will have my latest ms ready for an editor.  Dreams of “best-selling” labels waft through my mind.  I come home, renewed, restored, and refreshed.  Within a week, I’ve chucked the workshop notes into a drawer and am slogging away at the writing in my usual fashion.

       That pattern used to depress me. Why did I spend the time and money on a workshop if I wasn’t going to use the lessons learned?  Why did I keep on in my old way, when there was this brand new way just begging to be used?  Worse still, why couldn’t I make my ms fit the template given by the wise one leading the workshop?  Through many trials and many tears, I’ve learned something.  My work is my work.

     No matter how brilliant my writer friend is, her process is not mine. No matter how much I envy the author who can produce a book a month, she’s not me.  I have wasted many hours trying to make my story, my process, conform to someone else’s pattern, and it has been a waste of time.  Just as our stories are individual, so is our method of getting to “the end.”  Having finally come to terms with that fact, I now enjoy the workshops for the camaraderie, the insights and the day out.  I no longer obsess over the lessons.

     That’s not to say I disregard the lessons, I just incorporate the bits that work for me into my system. Looking over this pile of notes I find some common themes, themes that play in the back of my mind as I wrestle with the words in my story.  One presenter used “why?” as the basis for plotting.  Why did a character do something? i.e.  Jane went to the store.  “Why?” To get away from her mother-in-law. “Why?” Because her MIL scared her.  “Why?” Because if her MIL prevailed, Jane would have to tell John her secret.  Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere, all by asking “why?”

     Similarly, another presenter says “so what?” So what if Jane tells John her secret?  She may lose him.  “So what?”  John means everything to Jane.  She can’t live without him.  “So what?”  If Jane can’t cope on her own, she’ll lose her job.  “So what?”  If she loses her job, she’ll lose custody of her daughter.  See how a simple question, why or so what, can drive a story?  We haven’t even talked about character yet.

     Over time I’ve learned that I do better with these types of question/guides than I do with charts. In my workshop file are some beautiful charts for creating characters, creating scenes, developing plot, and organizing structure.  But charts are too hard-edged for me.  I never know which box to put an item in because scenes bleed over into characterization and characterization bleeds into plot, and plot bleeds into goal and . . .

     Still, I keep the workshop notes. When I need a boost, I’ll read over a few.  Somewhere in there, a phrase, a question, a marginal note will start my brain clicking away and I’m happily back into the wip.  So, thanks to all the workshop presenters I’ve enjoyed, and thanks to all my fellow writers for building a community that embraces me and my process.

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How to Begin?

 

One of my Christmas holiday pleasures is new books. Whenever I’m asked what I want for Christmas I answer, “books.”  I never specify a particular book or even a genre.  It’s lovely to be surprised by what others choose.  I’ve read away out of my comfort zone as a result and have discovered some authors who are now favourites.  This year I received book one in a family saga (in translation), a biography, a pastoral series and a book of short stories.  The weather has been foul, windy and wet and cold, so I happy snuggled down with my books by the fire.  I’ve finished the translation, hopped about in the book of short stories, read three chapters of the biography and two of the series book.  I usually read only one book at a time, but one of the privileges of holidays is permission to do as the mood strikes and not to do in an orderly, organized fashion.

My books are all very different, but one thing that has surprised me, in all but the short stories, is the first line. As writers we’re told over and over again that we must “hook” the reader in the first line, present her with a story question, introduce the hero/heroine, and establish the conflict – all in the first sentence!  A daunting task, but necessary since it has recently been established that the average adult has an attention span of eight seconds.  By contrast, a goldfish can concentrate for nine seconds.  Yet, despite that evidence, all of my books took a very leisurely approach to introducing the story.

Another holiday indulgence was to watch old movies. I love old movies, but it seems I can’t turn off my internal critic, ever.  Changes in culture and arts come gradually over time, so when a viewer jumps back thirty or fifty years, the contrast between then and now is magnified.  We’re used to starting movies with a car chase, or a gun fight.  Award-winning movies from a bygone era often start slowly, pulling the viewer into a setting or a household with long camera shots, mood-setting music and an invitation to relax and let real time slip away.  “West Side Story,” the movie, (1961) begins with a lengthy overture.  There is nothing on screen but a few black lines on an orange background.  As the music moves from jazz to ballad, the background turns pink.  That’s it.  For several minutes, theatre-goers stared at a brightly coloured screen and listened to music.  Not even the credits rolled during that opening.  Then the orange fades and a long, aerial view of New York City takes its place.  Again, long minutes pass as the camera zooms over uptown, downtown and the east side before coming to rest on the West Side.  The movie has been playing for nearly ten minutes before the first characters appear on screen.  Can you imagine making a move like that today?  The audience would all be on their cell-phones.  A lovely, heart-wrenching tale would be mere background noise to the incessant checking of e-mails, posts on facebook and texts to friends.

No one can argue that the technological revolution heralded by smart-phones hasn’t changed our world. We live at a faster pace.  We demand fast food, instant communication, a world-wide market and immediate gratification.  I saw a sign in a coffee shop the other day saying “fresh food, not fast food.  Please be patient.”  No doubt about it, the world’s in a hurry.  It makes sense to expect author’s to tell their stories at breakneck pace, to grab the reader in the first line or risk losing her altogether.  But, my unexpected delights under the Christmas tree confirm that there is an audience for a slower tempo.  The trick for writers who want to colour outside the lines of conventional wisdom, is to find that audience.  Once writer and readers have come together in mutual enjoyment, the story unfolds as it should.

So, if you’re a writer who needs time to set up the story, space to entice the reader to enter your world and mood-setting paragraphs to build the tension in your story, take heart.  There is more than one way to fill a blank page.

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New Year

What is it about a new year that makes us celebrate?  Between December 31 and January 1, war, disease and poverty remain unchanged.  Exams still loom for the student.  A hangover of extra pounds from the Christmas season can plunge the body-conscious into gloom and remorse.  The next credit card statement, rife with holiday impulses lurks in the mail.  Yet, we celebrate.  We set off fireworks, we greet strangers with a “Happy New Year,” and we hug old friends with heartfelt joy.  All because the calendar declares January 1, and the year is “new.”

            We like new.  I played a drawing game with friends on New Year’s Eve and the hostess bought new pencils and new paper pads.  We were as excited a school kids to hold a full-length pencil with a sharp new point and an eraser unsullied by errors.

            It is axiomatic that writers dread a blank page, but I love a new notebook, all the pages clean and inviting.  Much as an artist thrills to a fresh pad of drawing paper, or the reader inhales the scent of a new book, the pages uncreased, the story promising adventure, romance, knowledge.  Could this be the one book she has longed for all her life?  It’s possible.

            We like “new.”  Did you know you can actually buy “new car smell,” in a spray?  Even if your car is second hand, you can make it smell new.  Is it pure avarice that makes us crave the new?  Are we so brainwashed by advertisers that “new and improved” is our watchword?

   I don’t think so.  I believe “new” fills us with hope, and it is hope that drives our celebration. We yearn for a thing that is fresh, unblemished, full of promise.  Perhaps we hope that “new” will wipe away the mistakes of the past.  “Clean slate” is more than a metaphor for old writing tools.  We long to start anew, with all the errors of the past wiped away.  As Anne Shirley famously remarked, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a day with no mistakes in it yet.”                           

     The writer with a new notebook hopes against all evidence that the words he writes on the page will transcend any he has written before.  That, this time, he’ll  find the words that truly portray the magic and glory of the tale that burns in his mind.  This time, thinks the artist, the picture will capture all the truth of the universe in a curving line.   The driver dreams that the  new-to-him car will get better mileage, travel smoother roads and take him on incredible adventures that transform his life.

            We greet the “new” with unbridled hope.  We even make resolutions based on nothing more than a box on the calendar.

            Inevitably, the new notebook is filled with blots and cross-outs, erasures rub a hole in the artist’s paper and the new car gets a ding in the parking lot.  We’ve seen it happen again and again, and yet we hope.  This time will be different. 

            The cynics scoff at the optimists, declaring them deluded fools for continuing to hope in the face of crushing reality.  But cynics don’t sponsor refugees.  Cynics don’t find a cure for cancer and cynics don’t work for peace.  Queen Elizabeth II in her Christmas message urged us all to do “small things with great love.”  That’s a message for optimists.

            So, as 2017 opens, I say “a pox on the cynics.”  Let us hope,  and work for a better world.

            As for resolutions, I resolve to love more, worry less, and greet each day as a gift from God.

            Happy New Year!

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