Category: For Writers (page 1 of 4)

Morning Pages – My Take

 Following on from last week’s thoughts on meditation, this week’s blog features another way of clearing static from the mind, morning pages.

Julia Cameron, in her seminal book for writers, The Artist’s Way, insists that morning pages –three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — are essential to the creative process.  Her theory is that we purge ourselves of mind static by writing it all down on the morning pages and are then free to get on with our work of creativity.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, instructs her students to start with childhood memories in their quest to “tell the truth” in stories.

I try to combine these two pieces of advice in my writing exercises.  Yes, I do writing exercises.  Just like a pianist practices scales, every artist/performer must keep her tools in good working order.  In other words, practice.  Many of my writer friends consider morning pages a waste of time.  The thirty minutes spent spewing drivel — their words, not mine — could be better spent on the current work.  That may be true for some, but I find doing some exercises before getting into the real work of the day, makes that real work more enjoyable, more poetic and more “true.”  However, I do choose which exercise to practice.

If my vocabulary seems to have shrunk to the same ten verbs repeated over and over, I do a “beautiful words” exercise.  Some words resonate with me, perhaps not with you, but the morning pages are for the writer not the reader.  So, I’ll fill a page with words like lilacs, lady, lavender, lollygag, lamp, luggage, lily, lollapalooza . . .  It doesn’t really matter what the words are, I’m just opening my mind to the beauty of language and calling some of those buried syllables to the forefront.  When I’ve finished, I go to my WIP and the words, that have been laboured and blocked,  now flow joyfully.

Often I’ll use my morning pages to create emotion.  Here’s where the instruction to start with childhood memories is invaluable.  As adults we’ve learned to be civilized, to bite down on harsh words, to take a balanced approach.  As adults, we’ve learned to flat-line our emotions.  As children, we had no such constraints.  If we were happy, we were ecstatic, if we were angry, we were in a red-hot fury, if we were hurt our very souls wept with the pain.  If the scene in my story demands that my heroine be angry, I’ll do a writing exercise recalling a moment in childhood or the teenage years when I shook my fist in the face of my tormentor and shouted out my righteous rage.

To make these exercises effective for the story teller, they must go into detail.  Remember the room you were in when the event took place.  Describe it in every tiny detail.  Try to recall if there was music or bird song or the hum of a furnace.  What did it smell like?  What were you wearing?  In the morning pages, you want to go deep into your memory.  As well as putting you in the appropriate emotional state, the writing will put you into deep point-of-view as well.  The scene you write after this writing practice will be more “true” than any you made up out of your conscious mind.  Don’t worry about running out of material.  Flannery O’Connor   said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

Morning pages can take the form of character interviews or a diary entry.  Here is where I explore my character, sound out her childhood memories, let her dream without constraint of money or time or circumstance.  When I put that character into the story, most of what I wrote in the morning pages will never make the published page, but the essence of what I wrote, forms the character and the more “true” that character is, the better the story.

Make up your own writing exercises.  Practice them.  See if it doesn’t make your writing – or painting, or sewing, or teaching or gardening – more satisfying.

If you haven’t read “he Artist’s Way, or Bird by Bird I highly recommend them.

To Meditate or Not

My friend has taken up meditation. Like all new converts, she’s an enthusiastic promoter of her new practice.  She talked to me of  the benefits  of a calm mind – more focus, better time management, clearer thinking, higher productivity.  All attributes I would like to acquire, so I signed up for the ten free on-line sessions and then she gave me another thirty that she’d earned.  I regret to say, I’m a failure at meditation.  As I sit here with my feet flat on the floor, my hands resting on my thighs, my eyes closed and the soothing voice of the leader tells me to focus on my breathing and let my mind empty itself, all I can think of is the million other things I should be doing.

I try opening my eyes and I can see dust. I avert my eyes and see my notebook lying open on the desk, accusing me of wasting time.  I close my eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath.  A car door slams and I remember that I need to run to the grocery store.  The cat walks by and demands that I pick her up and pet her.  Now, a cat’s purr is very soothing but I’m working a knot out of her fur, not meditating. 

After a couple of weeks of failed meditation sessions, I’ve decided the practice is not for me.

I clear my mind by writing it down. If I can’t sleep at night, I get up and write down the matters that are keeping me awake.  Then I go back to bed and drop off immediately, knowing that the problems are noted on a piece of paper and will be waiting for me in the morning.  I don’t need to keep running them through my mind during the hours of darkness.  When I’m stuck with a story problem, I write a list of possible actions and the outcomes of each.  Then I can easily determine where the story should go from here.  When I’m preparing for a big dinner party, I write down all the little things that must be accomplished before the guests arrive.  Once an item is on paper, I can get on with the job and not keep stopping to remember.

There are many studies to show that taking notes by hand rather than by typing improves students’ performance. This is because “Generative note-taking pertains to “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,” according to Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Robert Dugoni advises writers in his workshops to put away the keyboard and make their own, hand-written notes, even though he will provide his own notes at the end of the class.

Even if you’re not a student taking notes in class, there are good reasons to “write it down.

It makes you smarter.

That’s because putting pen to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the reticular Activating System, i.e. the act of writing it down tells the brain to give more importance to the stuff you’re focusing on at the moment

It sparks your creativity.

Susan Sontag and Truman Capote and J.K. Rowling, among others, write their first drafts with a pen. Susan Wiggs not only writes her first draft longhand, but with a particular pen, and a particular ink.

It keeps your brain sharp.

The act of writing engages motor-skills, memory and more and is a good cognitive exercise for aging boomers who want to keep their minds sharp.

So, thanks, my friend for sharing your joy in meditation, but I’ll give it a pass. Pen to paper, heart to brain, is my preferred method of finding focus, attacking a problem, or clearing the clutter from my mind.  For anyone who wants to try the course she recommended, here’s the link.  headspace.  For everyone else, visit your favourite stationery store and stock up on pens and pencils, notebooks and writing pads, line them up on your desk and enjoy.

 

 

 

Universal Truth

 

I’m reading “The Valiant Nellie McClung, a Christmas gift.  I’m well acquainted with this Canadian icon, I’ve written about her in this space before.  What I’m struck with in this reading, is the timelessness of her writing.  So timeless, in fact, that some sixty years after her death my local newspaper is re-running some of her columns and they are very popular, not just from an historic point of view but from a current one.

What makes her still relevant? It’s her ability to hit upon universal truths.  Language changes, styles change, manners change, but when Mrs. McClung writes about war, her words ring true for any conflict. “War is not only a waste of things we can see and touch, but makes heavy inroads on the invisible and intangible things of the spirit.” When she speaks of the struggle of good over evil, that struggle is relevant in any age. “The power of evil . . . now stands before us in tanks that belch fire, in planes that drop bombs on hospitals and schools, in grasping bloodstained hands, ready to strangle the innocent and throttle our liberties.” McClung was writing about WWII but her words could apply to Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia today.  Even when she writes of domestic things, she calls to the heart of all of us who long for home. “I began to feel at home as soon as I walked up the gangplank.”

So, apart from my admiration for the woman, why am I telling you about Nellie McClung’s writing today? Because all writers, whatever their time, whatever their genre, strive to tap into that universal truth, that notion that crosses the ages.  The theme of star-crossed lovers has been explored from Shakespeare to Hardy to Bernstein.  Sibling rivalry is a story as old as Cain and Abel.    For romance writers,  we often explore such truths as the need to belong, the desire for family, the longing for justice.   Note this is not the same as genre tropes such as reunion stories, secret babies or runaway brides.  A truth is much deeper and more profound than a genre convention.

Nellie McClung was a woman of strong faith. Her words and actions were shaped by her Christian beliefs and her unwavering belief in Christian democracy.  Her tireless championing of women and children and all those who suffered under the existing power structure stemmed from those convictions.  I believe that is one reason her writings still resonate.  Not only are her themes universally true, they are true to her.

As story-tellers today, we must remember to be true to ourselves in our fiction. No matter the current “hot” topic, if the writer dislikes vampires, she will not be successful as an author of vampire stories.  If she hates small towns, then setting a tale of family and church and community in a small town will ring false to readers.  An old adage for authors is “write what you know.”  I suggest “write what you believe.”

 

 

Point of View

As mentioned last week, my blog has been the victim of a hacker.  The site is now rebuilt and is clean.   Google still flags it as hacked, but it is now safe.  We’re in the process of getting Google to verify and take down their warning.

 

I went for a walk through the Butchart Gardens with a young relative recently.  It was a lesson in point of view.  Things I thought were significant, like the totem poles, received a ho-hum from the four year old, but a very sleepy bee warranted five minutes study.  We met another very short person and engaged in an exchange of teddy-bear touching.  There was a BIG dog, very friendly, and on a leash, but my little charge kept her fingers tightly curled into her palms when invited to meet it.  When the dog is at knee-level it’s beautiful and well-behaved.  When you’re face to face, it’s another perspective altogether.

There was a stroller in our company, so we took paths that avoided steps. Another point of view for me.  I’m apt to take the wide path that includes a long staircase into the sunken garden.  Taking the graduated route brought me to a knot garden I’d never seen before.  There were little pockets of crocus and snowdrops hiding in concealed corners of the road less travelled.  Every trip to the gardens requires that someone sit on the brass pony.  I can pretty much step over it, but the four-year old needed a boost and then her feet didn’t reach the stirrups.  Sitting on the pony became a big deal.  Even mounting a giraffe on the carousel required a lot of lifting and clambering before she was safely in the saddle.  It’s been years since I’ve ridden the carousel and I’d forgotten how fast it turns.  If I had to hang on tight, the little one needed to cling with fingers and toes and knees.  When we got off, I felt dizzy.  She had no problem and declared her intention to race me to the next tree.  I declined but congratulated her on her fleetness of foot.

We looked at maps every now and again and my companion sussed out the ice cream bar on the first perusal. The previous week it had been closed so I cheerfully promised an ice cream cone if the stand was open.  It was!  I paid up and had one for myself as well.

We went through the greenhouse because I thought she’d like the flowers. Wrong.  She did however, enjoy the gold fish.

We talk a lot in writing circles about point-of-view, getting inside your character’s head, writing only what the character can experience. It’s good advice.  My adventure with a chattering four year old was a perfect example.

I’ve just finished a book by a well-known contemporary author that was written entirely in the omniscient view point, surprising, since that style is now considered old-fashioned and remote. The writer is skilled at her craft, so I was engaged with the characters and their story, but all the while I kept thinking I was reading a set-up and that the real story would begin after the characters were introduced.  Didn’t happen.

Another lesson in point-of-view. The technique has the advantage of letting the author tell the reader about things the character’s cannot know but which are important to the story, but it distances the reader from the characters.  Instead of being inside the story, I felt like a hovering presence looking down on a stage. I was an observer rather than a participant in the drama.

I love going to workshops and learning about the craft of writing, but nothing takes the place of real-life experiences. I’ll never again walk in the Butchart Gardens without being aware that my point-of-view is not universal.  I might try getting down on my knees to see what the world looks like from there.

Yay VIRA

Another snow day! Frankly, I’ve had enough.  The first one or two are fun, an unexpected holiday, hunker down by the fire, write, write, write.  But being housebound is getting old!  In this part of the world, we should be out in the garden.  In fact, I pruned fruit trees on the weekend, but Monday saw more snow.

I’m feeling a little cranky just now, but I am grateful that snow was no where in the forecast when VIRA held its annual Valentine’s lunch. February, Valentine’s, romance – seems a perfect combination.

For years this event was mandated by our association with Romance Writers of America® and included lots of awards for writing and volunteering. We had a keynote speaker, usually someone with a first sale – that was in the days when traditional publishing was the only way to go.

Life, and particularly writing life have changed since those early days in my career. Our group is no longer associated with RWA® but we still want to celebrate our craft and each other so, Valentine’s continues to be a highlight of our year.  We’ve cut down considerably on the formality of the occasion although we still celebrate successes and milestones.  This year we had a few more speeches than last.  I enjoyed them.  They reminded me of what it means to be a romance writer, encouraged me to embrace the new business model in  publishing and to set goals for myself for the coming year.  But mostly I enjoyed hanging out with other authors, exchanging war stories, comparing writing routines, hearing the latest from conferences others had attended.

I’d been feeling a bit isolated in my writing. I have an on-line partner whom I treasure, but nothing beats face to face.  As though to underline my feelings, I just read a blog this morning proclaiming just that notion.  “No writer succeeds alone,” and “Everyone needs support” were two of the section headings.  Yes, thought I.  Perhaps it’s because here in North America we’re in the depths of winter that there is a longing for friendly company, perhaps it’s just the fact of being a writer spending long hours alone with my thoughts, but February is definitely a time when I’m glad I have writer friends to share the journey.  We may not write the same kind of books, we may not read the same kind of books, we may be traditionally published or e-published, we may spend hours on social media or we may find social media the greatest time-suck going.  What we share is the struggle and passion of putting words to paper, of creating a story from nothing but our own imaginations, of having that euphoric moment when we write “the end.”

Merci, mes amis.  You make the journey fun.

The Archives

It’s time to clear out my writing office. For someone with a scant “published” list, I have an enormous number of words committed to paper.  I have several drafts of all my traditionally published books, plus the proofs, both marked and corrected versions.  I’ve filled the file cabinet, the closet, an old trunk and now have piles on the floor of new and old writing.  My personal archive.  Why am I keeping all these miles of words?

Perhaps it’s because putting words on paper is hard work. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll never find those words again.  My friend, when home computers were new, hit a button somewhere and turned her term paper into an alphabetical list of words.  Imagine her panic.  The paper represented weeks of work, it was due in a matter of hours and now all her work was a mere list of words.  Perhaps it is that distrust of technology that makes me print out draft versions of my work and keep them. Perhaps it’s just the packrat in me.

Along with the piles of manuscripts, I have boxes and boxes of old birthday cards.  Every time I pull them out, determined to glean only the special ones and recycle the rest, I get stuck in reminiscence and put nearly all of the cards back in the box.  Such is the power of words on paper.

My brother has been researching our family history but has been miserly with sharing his findings with the rest of us. The reason, he says, is because most of his work is guesses but once a guess is put down in writing, it isn’t long until that guess becomes a “fact.”  Imagine having a brother so wise!

Given that the written word is so powerful, it behoves all of us, especially writers, to chose those words carefully, to consider their impact not only in the moment, but in days or years to come. Are our words kind, do they inspire, are they true, are they of benefit to the reader?  In troubled times it is easy to dismiss fiction, especially romantic fiction, as fluff, a waste of time and money, an escape from reality.  In part, those pejoratives may be true, but romantic fiction at its best reminds the world that love is powerful, that relationships give meaning to life, that justice will out.  And there is really nothing wrong with a little escapism.  Why else did Bob Hope visit war zones?  People in conflict and danger, stress and fear, need relief.  They need laughter.  They need a world where the good guys win, where the guy gets and girl and they all live happily ever after.

Words on paper can free or they can imprison.  Today I will reduce the amount of paper in my office, but I’ll continue to hoard beautiful words.

Lesson from a Master

Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time.  Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal.  Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect.  Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles.  When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing.  Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine.  I was astonished.  The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference.  The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step.  But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S.  Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfyXPONE7Ws

As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy.  Study her methods.  Read and re-read her work.  Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing.  I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me.  I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique.  I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.

Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club.  Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages.  There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations.  For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start.  One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.”  Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page.  I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test.  It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character.  In short, the beginning is boring.

Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.

Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments.  Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between.  When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time.  When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character.  By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.

Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique.  Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.

The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed.  Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.

Note to self: Make your heroine likable.  Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.

Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.

Fiction and History

With the success of dramas such as Downton Abbey, movie makers have turned to history for inspiration. Yay!  I’m all for teaching the modern generation about our past, our triumphs and our tragedies, our successes and our mistakes.  What concerns me is the willingness of film-makers and screen writers to present fiction as historical fact.  Even with the disclaimer at the end or the beginning of the film that the work comes from the writer’s imagination, the viewing public will believe that Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Henry VIII really said and thought what the film portrayed.  Historical researchers will spend months or years, poring over personal correspondence, diaries, contemporary writings, newspaper articles and pictures of the day to ensure the accuracy of what they publish to the world about historical characters.  Modern film-makers seem  cavalier about truth.  If the real life of an historical character is dull, they just make up stuff to give it more sex-appeal, attributing thoughts and words to an historical figure that may even contradict what is known about that person’s beliefs.  As a writer and a lover of history, I find this approach disturbing.

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill.  I believe this is true.  How often throughout history have we seen the same forces at work – greed, intolerance, hatred, fear, racism, — leading mankind into war and famine and suffering.  Yet, how can we learn from the past if the past is distorted?  I’m all in favour of a good story, in an historical setting, with real-life characters playing a role, but I think the made-up stuff should only apply to the made-up people.

To that end, I present this brief biography of one of the first women of the Klondike.  It’s as accurate as I can make it.  The tale needs no embellishment to touch the heart.

Kate Carmack

Sometime around 1886, Shaaw Tlaa, the daughter of a Tagish woman and a Tlingit man married, “in the custom of the country”, George Carmack, an American prospector and had a daughter with him.  Upon her marriage, Shaaw Tlaa became known as Kate Carmack.      Kate was skilled in the art of survival in the harsh climate of the Yukon.  She kept house for her husband, raised their daughter, Graphie Grace, sewed moccasins and warm winter clothing to sell to other miners, picked berries and snared game for food and even took in laundry to keep the family going until the mining claims began to pay.  Then on Aug, 16, 1896, George, along with Kate’s brothers, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, discovered gold on Rabbit Creek.  The three men hurried to Forty Mile on the Yukon River to register their claim and the Klondike Gold Rush was underway.  By default, Kate became the first woman on the Klondike.     For the first year after their strike, Kate’s life didn’t change much, but in 1898 George decided to take a trip “outside” to enjoy his new wealth.  Taking Kate and Graphie Grace with him, George headed south to visit his sister Rose Watson, in California..  In Seattle, George  signed Kate into hotels as Mrs. Carmack and showed off his wealth by draping her with gold-nugget necklaces.   He even told the newspaper reporters that he had a mind to take his family to the Paris Exposition in 1900 and he would be glad to have Jim and Charlie along.     Sadly for Kate, the city proved her undoing.  She was unhappy and bewildered in these strange surroundings.  She and her brothers drank too much.  Once she was arrested and spent a night in jail.  The newspapers of the time delighted in portraying Kate and her brothers as wild savages.  George doesn’t appear to have done anything to ease her way into southern society.     After a few weeks in Seattle, the Carmacks moved on to California to stay with George’s sister, Rose.  Rose was delighted to see her brother, but had scant regard for Kate.  She must have felt enormous relief in the spring of 1899 when George took her home to the Klondike.  The only fly in her ointment was that Graphie Grace stayed behind with her Aunt Rose to be “civilized”.     On a second trip South in the summer of 1899, Kate was again sport for the newspapers and George complained bitterly to his sister about her, saying he’d like to send her home to Dyea right away.  Instead of acting on that reasonable impulse,  George returned to the Yukon alone, leaving Kate with his sister in California.  In the winter of 1899-1900, George met Marguerite Laimee in Dawson and proposed at once.  Marguerite accepted on the spot.     Hurt and confused, Kate charged George with adultery, but although they had lived together as man and wife for thirteen years, she could not produce any legal documentation to support her claims.  George married Marguerite in Seattle.  Kate returned to the Klondike where.  Skookum Jim build her a cabin in Carcross.   She earned a small income from selling her needlework to tourists and occasionally posing for photographs.  George sent not a single dollar to support her or their daughter.     Instead, when Graphie Grace was sixteen, George arranged for her to leave the mission school in Whitehorse and join him in Seattle.  It was the greatest betrayal Kate could have endured.  In the  Tagish traditions children belonged with their mother’s clan.  A year later Graphie married her step-mother’s brother and severed all ties with her mother.   Kate died of influenza on March 29, 1920.

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.

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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