Friday, December 28, 2012

Resting in the pause

I am on day 2 of an 8-day retreat at Aldermarsh, a retreat center on Whidbey Island north of Seattle. Large parts of each of my books have been written here and I usually come in mid-project with clear direction for what to do each day. This time is different. I completed a draft of my current novel last August and it is with beta-readers. I completed a small how-to book earlier this month and it is with a proofreader. So I am in the pause.

I am not someone who is usually comfortable in the pause. Rest and relaxation are not easy for me, and even though I say I want them and sometimes even yearn for them, I don't know how to be in them. I'm more about getting things done, about being engaged in some mental or physical activity.

So I'm letting myself do whatever occurs to me next. Yesterday I worked on a proofing project for my novel, The Color of Longing, that will come out next month. Then I read through a notebook of old prompts. I am hoping that my next novel idea will find me while I am here. My three drafted novels all came out of ideas in that notebook, but this time no such luck. I think I have used those up.

So today I wrote a new prompt and wrote a poem and began to revise some poems that I wrote two years ago. I also spent some time starting a list of creative project ideas for next year, both in painting and writing. It has been a good day, although I still miss being in the middle of a book.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Making my way into traditional publishing

For the last 15 months, my agent (it still gives me a thrill to say that) has been shopping my mystery novel to potential publishing houses. We had both just about given up (she was down to the last 6 of the many acquisition editors she knows) when we got a nibble, an editor loving the book and wanting to know if it was still available. Why, yes! we said. And so she finished it and asked permission to send it with her proposal on up the chain of decision-markers at her company.

Two more weeks went by and I stopped being excited and anxious about it, which was a good thing. I had a sleepless night the first night and expected to hear an answer right away, but of course things don't move that quickly. When the offer did come on Tuesday morning this week, I was excited all over again.

It's a satisfying recognition of my book and my writing to have someone believe in it enough to bet money on it, which is what the publishing business does with books. Some authors and books are sure bets. Stephen King can writer a stinker and millions of people will buy it. (Don't get me wrong. I like Stephen King, some of the time.) Other people can write heartbreakingly good books and no one is interested. So it's a crap shoot in a way.

I think that's particularly true in these volatile times when hundreds of thousands of people are publishing books, mostly online, and just as many people are buying books online instead of in bookstores. Publishing is in the midst of a revolution, and so I feel particularly pleased that a traditional publishing house is willing to take a chance on my book selling enough to be worth their while. And the fact that they are building their literary fiction line makes me very proud indeed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How much editing and rewriting is enough?

I'm coming into the final stages of work on my novel, The Color of Longing. I've read it multiple times, I let it rest for over a year, worked on it again. I had several beta readers and my agent give me feedback , and I worked on it some more. And then last summer, I declared it complete. Years ago, I read that we finish a piece of writing or artwork when we run out of time (if we're on a deadline) or we run out of juice for the project. I'm running out of juice on this one.

However, that doesn't mean I was done at that point, just done with rewriting. The next step was to send the book to a professional proofreader. She found a good number of small things and a few larger items to signal to me and I made all those changes. Then I sent it off to the designer.

Now, I'm proofreading the laid-out version. I'm restraining from making changes, just cleaning up errors, but it is amazing how many things I see each time I look at it. But after this round, I'm just going to let it go. There's a perfectionist part of me that wants it to be just so, and I also know that imperfection is part of the creative process.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Judging a book by its cover

My friend Jan is in the research process of figuring out how and with whom to publish a novel. She is a thoughtful and methodical person and I am benefiting from all her reading, as I don't have the patience to do that. "You've got to have a professional-looking cover," she says at our Friday writing day. "It makes all the difference."

I know she's right. CreateSpace, where I'm about to publish my first novel, lets you design your own cover. And it's a great option, especially if money is tight. You get to pick from a lot of images and a lot of fonts and do something that pleases you. And most of these covers look fine. But they don't all look great. Most people don't know about the legibility of fonts, or the emotional impact of colors, or the way that shifting everything a quarter-inch to the right will make all the difference in eye appeal.

Graphic designers are trained in eye appeal, as most of them make their money from marketing and advertising work. They've learned all the subtleties that encourage people to pick something up and examine it more closely. It's a combination of art and science that most of us don't have.

I'm blessed to have a designer who's a friend and a colleague. She has a great eye for color and shape and organization, and she's a pleasure to work with because it's a collaborative effort. I've been working with her to design the cover for the novel. I've asked for color changes, different fonts, moving things around a little. And she's been gracious and come up with great solutions. She has also designed an interior that carries the cover design so my book will be gorgeous inside and out.

I think many people do judge a book by its cover. Maybe not judge, but definitely pick up and buy. Something to consider when you get ready to self-publish.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Collaborating on a book

I'm in the later stages of completing a brief book called Sober Play: Using Creativity for More Joy and Meaning in Recovery. This is my fifth book and the first one I've done in collaboration. My friend Bridget Benton and I started talking about this book a couple of years ago when we were on a writing retreat. I was talking about it as a project I'd like to do and she expressed interest in working on it with me. At the time she was just finishing up her fabulous Creative Conversations: Art-Making as Playful Prayer. This had been a long process for her carved out of a busy life and I was reluctant to ask her to commit to yet another book right away. And I was working on a novel that I didn't want to drop, even for a while. So we let it sit.

Then last August I finished the draft of the novel and knew that I wanted to take on Sober Play as my next effort. But Bridget was still hard at work on other major projects, so we agreed that I would move forward on my own. I wrote a first and second draft that could stand alone or that could fold in some chapters of Bridget's experience and expertise. And once I saw the value of another voice of experience in the book, I also asked some other friends to share their experience, strength, and hope about using creativity in recovery in mini-essays.

It has been important and interesting for me to relinquish full control of the outcome of these contributions, to wait on someone else's schedule, to figure out how to mesh voices and formatting into a whole. Fortunately, Bridget and I both have a solid foundation in the 12 Steps so our negotiations have been easy and simplified by the use of those tools and our mutual commitment to generosity. And I can already see that the book is going to be richer and stronger for all these collaborations.

Friday, November 23, 2012

24 writing suggestions

I'm working on a book that encourages people in recovery to use forms of creative self-expression to support long-term sobriety. Today my task was to create 12 fun writing exercises. Here's what I came up with. Enjoy!

1. When Sally opened the door, a very tiny man stood there holding a very large duck. Write a short story that starts with this sentence. More: Make this the first chapter of a mystery novel.
2. Open a drawer in your bathroom and take out any three objects. Write a conversation between the objects in which they discuss you. More: Turn the conversation into a poem.
3. Spend a few minutes with a family photo album and choose a photo of a person whose face intrigues you. It may be of a relative you don’t know well or at all, it may be of an old friend, it may be of someone loved and lost. Write a letter from that person to you and a letter back from you (make up any details you need). More: Write a conversation (in dialog form) between you and this person.
4. Pick a simple common word (e.g., from, that, can, might) and write a 12-line poem where the end of each line rhymes with that word. More: Write one poem that makes sense and one that doesn’t.
5. Pull a novel off your shelf and open to a page that has dialog. Pick any line of dialog and write a 1-2 page story that ends with that question or statement. More: Write another 2 pages on the same story continuing from that statement or question.
6. Write 2 different paragraphs that start with same first five words. They can be variations on one idea or completely different from each other. More: Write 3 more with the same five words.
7. Write a love poem to your favorite food, favorite color, favorite scarf or pair of shoes, your favorite sports team, etc. More: Write a whole series of love poems to favorites.
8. Select a difficult moment from your past. Write it out as a scene in a novel or play just as it happened. Now rewrite the scene as you wish it had happened. More: Write a story or poem about someone who relived an event and changed the past.
9. Select an example of each of the following: a wild animal, a day of the week, a flower, a celebrity, an accident. Now write a story that includes them all. More: Write a poem that includes them all.
10. Make a short list of things that you hate. Choose one and write a letter describing in detail how you feel and what you want to have happen instead. More: Find the contact information for someone who might be able to do something about this problem and mail your letter.
11. Identify a problem of your own you would like to solve. Write a dialog between you and the problem. More: Turn your conversation into a skit and ask a friend to read your part and you read the part of the problem.
12. Begin to generate a huge list of ideas you could write about. In the spirit of fun, if you were going to write one of the following, what would the topic be? 
·        Broadway play
·        Broadway musical  
·        Novel
·        Book of essays on a theme
·        Historical romance
·        TV sitcom
·        Text for a coffee-table book of photos
·        Epic (book-length) poem
·        Biography of a famous person
·        Dramatic play
·        How-to book
·        Cookbook
More: Start one of the writing projects from this list of ideas. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Letting meaning trump mood

This morning I woke up pretty down. No particular reason except maybe low barometer or the big letdown that comes when I've been working furiously and suddenly all the projects are complete and I haven't yet transitioned into off-time. I had planned to go to the studio to paint today but I didn't feel like hustling, I didn't feel like having any plans at all. I needed a whatever's next day, just moving through the day with whatever strikes my fancy to do.

So I hung out in my pajamas and worked on the novel I'm getting ready to self-publish and wrote in my journal and read some of Penny Marshall's memoir (interesting but not well written) and then I remembered a a conversation I had yesterday with my friend Pam. I was telling her about one of Eric Maisel's teachings: that meaning can trump mood. That we don't have to succumb to depression or anxiety or any of the feelings that can keep us from doing our creative work. That we can put meaningful creative work ahead of our mood; we can make creating a priority.

I wondered what it would feel like to let go of feeling obligated to go to the studio (keeping my integrity with myself) and just go as the next thing in whatever's next. So I put on my painting clothes and went to the studio for 90 minutes. I finished a painting I'd been working on, cleaned up a little, and left feeling very much better, realigned with my life and what's meaningful to me.

I could have gone to the studio anyway. I could have forced myself to go, disciplined myself to go, but I'm not sure it would have had the same impact. Instead, it was okay if I didn't go and even better that I did. Next time you're not in the mood to do your art or writing, see what happens if you can step into what's meaningful instead of into your mood.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big projects

Nothing makes me feel more connected to my creativity than having a big project going on. Each morning when I sit down to the computer, I know exactly what to work on and I sit with the work in a different way. That deep sense of ongoing involvement in my creative life is a source of great meaningfulness and satisfaction to me. 

When I’m not working on the project, I think about it. At odd moments (in the shower, on the treadmill, driving to an appointment), I’ll get insights or ideas or solutions to problems on the project. Today when I was walking my daily mile in the neighborhood, I realized I needed to review the personality of a main character because I wrote about her in one part of the novel at one time and the second part many months later and I'm not sure that she's enough the same. Because I'm immersed in this big project, I'm with the characters often during the day. 

While you may want to play small in your creative writing at first, consider taking on a big project. Remember it isn’t the product that’s important, it’s the process, and a big process is way more fun than a little one.

Some ideas for big projects:
1.    Write a series of poems on a topic rather than just one. Determine the number of poems in advance. When you’ve written all the poems, see how they fit together into a whole. Consider creating a chapbook of them (a self-published collection).
2.    Write a novel from a prompt. All three of the novels I’ve written started out as 10-minute prompts about fictional characters. Each time I knew it was an intriguing start to something. I wanted to know what happened to these people. How they got to this moment and what happened after. Don’t know anything about writing a novel? Who cares? You can always learn. The apprenticeship continues.
3.    Hone your dialog skills by writing a play. Write a trilogy of them.
4.    Write the libretto for an opera or the script for a musical play. Team up with a song-writing friend and go for the whole production. 
5. Fascinated by a historical character. Start researching a biography or a historical novel.
6. Write a series of personal essays on a subject dear to your heart.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Routine, regularity, and ritual

One of the things I value most about writing and creativity retreats are their basis in what Eric Maisel calls the three “R’s” of creativity: routine, regularity, and ritual. When I write every day on a retreat, it becomes routine, and in a good way. My mind, spirit, and body expect it, and I have grown to need that form of satisfaction in the same way that I used to “need” a drink. When I do my art regularly, it creates a groove in me and in my day that makes me happy. And when I include a small ritual in opening and closing my creative session, I add a touch of the sacred and the spiritual and I have closer contact with my Higher Power.

Some small creative rituals

 1.    Light a candle to begin your writing session and blow it out when you are finished.

2.    Ring a small bell or chime to begin your session and ring it again when you have finished. When you ring the beginning bell, sit for a few seconds and honor the creative impulse in yourself that has brought you to the session. When you ring the closing bell, sit for a few seconds and honor the perseverance that has kept you creating even through disappointment or frustration.

3.    Create a small altar in your creative area. Your altar can be as simple as a piece of colored construction paper that a votive candle sits on or you can lay down a small cloth for your candle, your bell, and several inspirational objects. You can also build or keep your altar in a shoe box or other container when you aren’t creating. 

4.    You may wish to pick a talisman for a creative project. Maybe there’s a photo that represents the writing you are doing or a postcard of a painting by an artist who inspires you. Maybe it’s a stone or a rock or a feather. A writer of my acquaintance always drapes a shawl made by her grandmother over her chair when she sits down to write.

5.    You may wish to listen to sacred music while you create. I like Gregorian chants for painting and Japanese flute for writing.

6.    Some artists meditate before beginning a creative session; some say a prayer of thanks or dedication.

How we make the space and activity sacred is as individual as we are. But taking that extra moment to connect with something deeper can go a long way in making our writing or creative practice a bigger part of our lives.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Happiness in creating

This was forwarded on to me without attribution. My apologies to the original author. 

"The way to be happy," said Winston Churchill, "is to find something that requires the kind of perfection that's impossible to achieve and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it." I've always liked that idea--it's one of the main reasons why painters keep coming back to their studios and squeezing out.

But, as most of us know, perfectionism has its problems. Some of us don't handle it very well. Current study identifies some folks as "adaptive perfectionists" while others are "maladaptive perfectionists." It seems that some of us use the ideal of perfection as a healthy route toward excellence, while others are stymied and made dysfunctional by the thought of it.
  • Accepting the inevitable proposition that striving for your own idea of perfection is going to take you down a long and bumpy road of frustration, here are a few ideas:
  • Turn on your experimental mind. Everything is an assay. Be inventive and prepared to be surprised.
  • Do not at first commit yourself to onerous or impossible projects with too many potential pitfalls.
  • Be aware that disappointment and failure are stepping stones to satisfaction and success.
  • When something you do gives you joy, go once more (and perhaps again and again) in that direction.
  • Do not beat yourself up when you fall down. There is no vendetta. Dust yourself off. Be practical.
  • Know that perfection is just an ideal and that notes, colours, forms, designs, etc., can only approach that ideal.
  • Avoid exposure to potential critics until well along on a project. Don't let anyone prematurely pop your balloon.
  • Be philosophical. The happiest people take an "agnostic" approach where curiosity and questioning give more joy and stimulate more wonder than pat answers. We live our short spans in the vortex of a miracle, and while we may not be the center of that vortex, it is magic to be anywhere in there. Be happy! The gods insist on it. The philosophers can find no higher ideal. The pursuit of it is written in the US Constitution. It's the pursuit that matters. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Juggling multiple writing projects

As a freelance editor, I often have multiple projects to do. Usually I am able to do them one at a time, but sometimes a long-term project needs to get set aside so smaller rush projects can happen. I don't like multitasking anymore; my brain doesn't seem well suited for trying to hold a lot of information about different things if I don't have to. That is certainly true of my editing work. I count on my brain holding a lot of factual information in the interim memory: spellings of names from earlier pages, amounts of money, uses of conventional punctuation. And if I work on more than one project, it confuses that memory, which seems to have only one track.

In my creative writing, I like to have one project going at a time. That keeps those characters in my mind, those stories in the hopper, as it were, to tumble and polish and resolve themselves. But I find myself working on three books at once at the moment. I've decided to self-publish my first novel this fall; I'm working on a small book on creativity and long-term sobriety that I'd like to publish in December, and novel #3, with its full first draft completed in August, is waiting for me to come back to it.

I'm having to compartmentalize my energies in a way that isn't all that comfortable. So I'm making a big list of smaller tasks for each project and focusing on one task at a time, rather than one project at a time. This week I focused on formatting Novel #1 and making some final revisions so that I could send it to friends and colleagues for advance reviews. Now I'm turning my attention back to the Creativity book.

There's an impatience in me to get back to Novel #3 but it's a good lesson for me in one task at a time.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The changing face of books

I'm getting novel #1 ready to self-publish. I'm planning on using CreateSpace, through amazon, and having both a Kindle version and a paperback version. So in addition to working with the edits from my proofreader and some ideas from an early reader about one of my main characters, I'm also trying to sort out copy for the cover.

I have a title I really like and I've painted an image and scanned it for the cover. It's the back cover that has me stumped. I know I want a blurb, a brief description of the story that will entice the reader to buy and read but do I put a bio on the back with a picture or do I get some advance readers to give me comments?

I personally don't read a lot of reviews. I read the first pages of books and make my buying and reading decision on that and on the blurb. I find out from the blurb if it's a subject/story that interests me and I find out from the first page if I like the author's writing style. That's more important to me than what someone else said. But when I've surveyed some of my writer friends for their opinion, all but one said do blurb and comments, and put the bio inside.

Now here's the changing face of books dilemma: my book is probably not going to end up in bookstores. With self-publishing, the bookstore route is difficult, tedious, and not profitable. Big chains won't take self-published books and independent bookstores will only take one at a time. So selling my book will be mostly on amazon. People won't pick the book up to read the cover. They'll see it on line.

The other way I'll sell books is at workshops and conferences and people will be interested if they heard me speak and liked me, not what others said about me on the back of the cover.

So what to do? Any thoughts from you readers?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My muse

I attended a wonderful workshop on poetry as therapy this weekend with John Fox, author of Poetic Medicine and Finding What You Didn't Lose. In addition to writing some good poems and hearing some great ones, I met a whole new sisterhood of writers. I am so lucky!

Here is one I wrote about my muse.

A heaviness comes
unbidden, unannounced.
A hot breath
on the side of my neck.
A huff, a growl
so low, so tender
so familiar
that my cells turn
as I sleep.
And the dreamtime
turns gold and red.
And the scent of huckleberries
and hot pine pitch
and the coming cave
lie over me like down.
And when I wake,
there is a sharp knowing
at the third eye
that her claw
has penetrated
my is and will be.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Anachronisms: Sorting out technology in fiction

As I close in on publication of my first novel, I sent it to a trusted friend for a final proofreading. She found a few things but even more importantly, she brought up the issue of technology and a time-setting for the book.  I wrote this book in 2008-2009 about three people in their late 30s/early 40s. It was set in 2006 and includes the technology I myself was using then, not necessarily the technology others might be using.

In the book, I have the following:

  • Characters using email
  • Characters using answering machines
  • Characters using cell phones and land lines
  • Characters passing along information on a slip of paper (a phone number) [instead of telling someone to look it up on the web]
  • Characters looking up information on the web
  • Characters leaving each other notes on a door or a car
  • Characters writing love letters to each other through snail mail
  • No characters are texting
  • An artist sending images on a CD to a gallery
  • Same artist has a web site
  • Main character has a CD collection
Jan argued that I need to rethink all of these things or set the time back 8-10 years. It poses an interesting dilemma. Which of these are anachronisms? Which of these are characters' idiosyncracies? (I know both young and older people who collect vinyl records). So I will go in and look at all these places.

Something to consider as we write. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Winding up your effort

Last weekend I took a vacation with my family over to Eastern Oregon and while they watched football in the afternoons, I did a final edit on my first novel. I wrote this book in 2008-2009 and haven't really looked at it since. I pitched it to some agents at a conference in 2010 with no luck, and the agent who signed me up for my second novel last summer wasn't really interested in this first book either. So I set it aside. But now I've decided to self-publish it. I'd like to get it out into the world. What's more, I'd like to have it complete instead of on hold.

It was interesting to read it again. It is so familiar to me; I created these characters and their stories after all. And yet I'd forgotten some things. I also could very plainly see how much better a writer I've become in the last three years and for several moments I was tempted to do some major revisions. But the truth is, this story doesn't interest me all that much now. I'm glad I wrote it. I think it's a very good romance. And an unusual one as it's told from the man's point of view. But I am done with it and have already moved on. Sort of like running into an old boyfriend. You still have affection for him but you don't want to spend much time with him.

So for better or worse, I'm done with it. The manuscript has now moved on to a final proofreader. I've asked her to note anything egregious but other than that I'm complete.

Friday, August 31, 2012

An experience of creative grace

This past Tuesday, I went to my painting studio in the morning. I'd been fighting a cold and didn't have much energy but I had left a painting unfinished on Sunday morning and I didn't want to lose the ideas that I had for it. The building was quiet--most of the other artists who use this cooperative warren of studio spaces come later in the day. I put on my headphones and went happily to work finishing a big floral piece.

But this only took about 40 minutes and I felt at loose ends. I didn't want to start another big piece because I didn't have the energy for it and yet I didn't want to leave yet. My eye landed on some photos I'd taken off the web, and I was in such a who-cares-what-happens place that I got out some pencils and chalks and old paper and sat down to see what would happen.

The photos are of split-rail fences and came off the website of two guys who build such fences in North Carolina. Over the last couple of years, I've had several photos of split-rail fences, some of the photos quite artistic, but none of them were what I had in mind and I couldn't seem to assemble those images into the picture that I have wanted.

In 2009, I finished my first novel. In the opening chapter, the main character, Jake, is watching his friend Paul and a group of students weave yards of colored silk into a split-rail fence in rural Virginia. I wanted some version of that fence, that meadow, those woods on my cover and I wanted to create that myself. I had found a couple of possibilities and done maybe a dozen small drawings but nothing worked.

And as I sat there on Tuesday, the first version I drew was awful. That isn't modesty talking. It was awful. But I didn't care and the composition had something going for it, so I turned the paper over and changed to some different chalks and it began to work in an amazing and effortless way. I suddenly "knew" how to make the fence look like the fence. I don't know where the knowing came from. It just seemed to drop into my body.

I also knew I needed to do it again and on black paper this time. I had only a black backing for a pad of already used paper and I tore that off and sat down and in about 10 minutes, I had the cover art for my book. It was a breath-taking experience of creative grace.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reducing anxiety in your creative life

Listening to a podcast by Eric Maisel this morning, I was struck by a statement he made that the act of choosing almost always provokes anxiety. His example was choosing a bagel over oatmeal and all of our mental ideas about which is healthier, more fattening, etc. I resonated both with the example and the idea of choosing as anxiety-provoker and I thought about how much anxiety there is around choosing to write or do other creative endeavors.

When we think about sitting down to write, to choose to do that, anxiety gets provoked in many of us. Is this the best use of my time? Is it a frivolous use of my time? What if I don't produce anything good? What if I don't have any ideas? Something potentially quite pleasurable becomes a source of tremendous discomfort.

This anxiety gets eliminated if you write every day. If you have a commitment to sit down and write something, there is no choosing, hence no anxiety. There may still be judgement about what you write, but there isn't any anxiety about doing it. You just do it.

So consider whether a solid commitment and practice of writing or other creative endeavor might reduce anxiety for you.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

books that stay with you

For the last week, I've been spending my early morning writing time on a new project while my novel chills so I can get some distance from it before I start a rewrite/edit. I've had an idea in my mind for a good while on a couple of nonfiction books: one on sugar addiction and one on creativity. But I've not had a good idea for how to begin.

I was sitting at my computer last Sunday, just thinking about this, and I remembered a book I read sometime in my early 20s. It was a book of ruminations by John Fowles. I had been a Fowles fan for some time, reading The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Collection, Daniel Martin, and bought this smaller volume because I so liked his style. It was called The Aristos, and it was a series of short entries, thoughts, ideas, about the meaning of life. I don't remember any particular ideas although I remember resonating with many of the entries. What came back to me last week was this format.

Rather than having to have well-thought-out essays or an outline, I could just start with some ideas, a couple of paragraphs in length and then move on. It seemed a very appropriate and intriguing way to get my thoughts moving. And so all this past week, I've been doing that. I'm not writing quickly, one or two entries a day, but I'm started. And that's the main thing. My thanks to John Fowles.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Letting your manuscript chill!

Today or tomorrow I will draft the last scene of the novel I am currently working on. I wrote for almost two hours this morning, then stopped to go to the gym. I could take the time to finish it today or I could wait until my early morning writing tomorrow to do it. I will probably do the latter. There is something wonderfully sacred about writing first thing in the morning and since much of this novel has been written in that sacred time, it seems fitting to draft those last couple of pages then.

Once that scene is completed and I've created a few bits of transition that I know need doing, I will put the manuscript away for at least a couple of weeks and let it chill--maybe until the end of the month. There are times in the process where I need to let things cook: scenes that are problematic, characters I don't know how to develop, too many possibilities for the next part of the plot. I spend time thinking about them, writing about them, doodling about them. I walk and consider, I shower and consider. I let them cook.

But when the draft is complete, I need cool distance, I need space between me and the narrative arc, me and the details of the characters. I need to not think about it for a while so that I can come back with fresh eyes and find what needs to be added and what needs to be pared away. So in my writing refrigerator, I'm making room for this new dish to chill for a while.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

selling your book, not your story

I had a great time Friday and Saturday at the Willamette Writers Conference where I volunteered in the free services area. I was part of the Practice-Your-Pitch team and I also did Manuscript ER. People would come in and sit down and we'd spend 15-20 minutes going over the pitch they were going to give to an agent in hopes that the agent would like it and represent them.

I pitched the last two years in a row, the first year unsuccessfully, the second year I got my agent. So I was able to share my experience in a very direct way. Most of the pitches that came to me were a recitation of the story, a synopsis in effect. They often included a lot of extraneous details, a lot of back story, a lot of history. These writers were in essence trying to sell their story. But agents are wanting to represent books that will sell and sell big and the story is only a part of that.

Here's an example. Helen came with a story of the second wave of Oregon pioneers and she launched into a recitation of the story and why the characters moved west and what their problems were. After we talked a bit about what made her book special, she came up with some ideas that would improve her pitch: The book is about commuter marriages in the 1890s (men who work in the city and their wives who are alone on the farm, a day's train ride away); it's about women who have no choices (a child every year for 9 years, the closest female to help in an emergency a half-mile walk away). The husband has an affair with a woman in town. The book has two points of view, two sympathetic characters, the husband and the wife.

Agents are wanting to know what's new about your book, what's distinctive, what's fresh, what's original. I sent Helen off to rewrite her pitch to include some of these intrigues and innovations. I hope she lets me know what happens!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Claiming and creating your writing time.

A year or so ago, I got a chance to read and comment on an advance copy of Sage Cohen's book, The Productive Writer. It's a great little book of tips and tools for all kinds of writers. And I was reading through it the other day, I came upon this sentence: "It's up to create your writing time, to claim it."

The universe doesn't always open up with scads of time to write or do other creative work. Most of us go on  having to make a living, care for our families and ourselves, exercise, do laundry, run errands--all the stuff of life, which most of us know only too well will fill all available time. At the same time, writing is very hard work, often emotionally hard, often terribly emotionally hard, and so it is so easy to find other things that are easier to do or seem more important, especially when others are urging you to do them, expecting you to do them, or wanting to do them with you.

Only we can make writing a priority, and not just a verbalized priority ("Writing is important to me") but a lived priority, finding time most days to write new poems or continue to work on a novel or outline a new screenplay. And the more often we claim the time, the easier it is to create it. What time can you claim today to get into your project?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pivotal moments

Good fiction writing, and I would guess good poetry as well, is based on a rendering of pivotal moments into scenes that move the characters and the reader forward into a new space of knowing and feeling. While I was on writing retreat recently, I read through my current novel again and began charting the pivotal moments. Did I have one in each chapter or segment of a chapter? Did they add up to forward movement (with perhaps an occasional two steps back)? And I saw I had done a pretty good job of that and I saw what I needed to fix.

That experience has helped me in editing a manuscript for a client this week. Some of his chapters have pivotal moments but too many do not. While they are full of information, the information is about two things: pivotal moments that happen off-stage and all the choices and preparations and decisions that get made for the on-stage and off-stage pivotal moments.

Readers can tolerate quite happily a few minor moments that happen off-stage. But after a while, it's unsatisfying, like watching somebody's slides of their trip to Egypt. You can get an idea but you don't experience any of it emotionally. We want to be in the story, not read about the story. This is the old show,don't tell axiom.

In the second instance, informational reporting is just damn tedious. He told me that she told him that the check had been mailed on Friday from a post office in a little town. Such information is only of value if the information links directly to an upcoming pivotal moment. Otherwise, we don't care how the check got there. Only that it did.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing as exorcism

I was on a writing retreat last week and for the first two days I was feeling a bit low. That's unusual for me as I really love the retreat center where I go and the women writers who had come along were all wonderful. Yet I couldn't seem to find any energy for working on my novel even though I had been looking forward to this concentrated time. I'm not a procrastinator by nature and I did want to make progress.

Towards the end of the second day, I realized that I was feeling low because the things I was writing about were sad. The women in this book are not only metaphorically me, they are almost literally me. Frankie's interactions with her mother are not taken from my own life in their circumstances but they are in their emotional tone.

What I had discovered when I got to the retreat was that I needed to write several very painful scenes between mother and daughter. And of course, there was no way around that, only a way through. I did manage to do them both on the fourth morning and was exhausted afterwards and relieved.

Yesterday I was telling my therapistabout  this and she said, "What do you want to accomplish in your relationship with your mother through writing this?" It was hard to articulate my answer to her, but today I know that I want freedom. I want the writing of this book to be a sort of exorcism of old demons.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Mything information

As you may remember, I've been stuck the last several weeks in figuring out how to structure my current novel. I've even taken a 10-day hiatus from early morning writing and worked on poetry instead. Now I'm on an 8-day writing retreat up on Whidbey Island north of Seattle. At the last minute (well, about 20 minutes before I was to leave), I glanced at my bookshelf and saw The Writer's Journey, a classic on the structure of story based on Joseph Campbell's work, by Christopher Vogler. I've had this book on my shelf for about a year and took it on another writing retreat some months ago but didn't even open it. But this time, something said, take this.

So, on Wednesday, my first full day of the retreat. I read several chapters, including a piece called "A Practical Guide" that Vogler circulated among his colleagues at Disney Studios for analyzing and repairing scripts. In the guide, he outlines the 12 phases of the hero's journey, derived from Campbell, and I could very quickly see which parts of my story (i.e., phases) were present and what was missing.

As I've said before in this blog, I'm a "pantser" as a writer. I write by the seat of my imagination, letting the story unfold, rather than outlining and engineering it all in advance. So in the unfolding of the first 3/4 of this novel, characters have appeared that I wasn't quite sure what to do with, in particular, a young boy. At first, I thought I was writing a mystery novel about this young boy but that isn't how the novel began to evolve. And then I couldn't figure out what to do with him, why he was there. I thought about eliminating him but it was too intriguing a beginning to the story.

When I read through Vogler's 12 phases, I suddenly knew why he was there and it was extraordinarily exciting. While that hasn't solved all my structural issues, it has resolved several other major plot problems and I am happily writing again.

Friday, June 29, 2012

A wonderful poetry resource

This past week, I've returned to poetry for my early morning writing. I reached a place in my novel where I needed some longer sessions to resolve the issues and I have a writing retreat coming up next week that will be perfect for that. But I didn't want to risk losing momentum and the habit of writing first thing in the morning so I've gone back to poetry.

It was such an abrupt shift and I was feeling a bit bereft, missing Frankie and Lola and Callie, my characters, that I couldn't seem to get going on the poetry. So I perused my shelf and pulled out Steve Kowit's In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop. This book bills itself with a third title: "A lively and illuminating guide for the practicing poet."

Well, it lives up to that and more. Steve has a wonderful way of explaining things, of teaching the reader about poetry and how it works. He is encouraging, inspiring, and so clear. His ideas got some things really going for me, both his selected examples of other poets' techniques and his suggestions for writing our own.

If you've been interested in writing some poetry or enlivening what you are already writing, I highly recommend this book.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Filling the creative well

When I am doing a lot of creative work, as I am lately, it's easy to get depleted, to run out of ideas or solutions. Julia Cameron recognized this early in her work and Artist's Dates are an essential part of all her programs. On an artist date, you take yourself off exploring something new or perhaps forgotten that can stimulate your creativity, fill the well as it were.

When I did the Artist's Way program years ago, I visited a fabric store (I don't sew but I bought some fabulous ribbons), a bead store (I don't make jewelry though I tried my hand at it), a foreign film I would probably never have seen otherwise, the zoo, a gallery in our Pearl District that I hadn't been to before, the Japanese Garden, an Ethiopian restaurant, a rhododendron garden, a sex accessories store, the art museum, the town's science museum, and a chamber music concert.

Recently, I've decided to do this again. I'd spent six months heavily immersed in my freelance editing business and working on my novel. I wasn't stuck or bored, but I was weary in a way that was different. I recognized that not only did I need to come up for air, but I needed to fill the well with fresh sights, sounds, smells, touches, shapes, and colors.

So in the last month I've been to the theater a couple of times, went to a great musical review of the blues, got a friend to join me in a long-overdue visit to the art museum, sat down with a couple of great art books that have been on my shelf for years without me cracking them open, got some strange films from Netflix, visited a big plant store. And ideas are really flowing again.

So if you're feeling less inclined to make something new or push the envelope on your writing or your other creative pursuits, try a few Artist's Dates and see what happens.

Friday, June 15, 2012

16 ways to kill Callie's husband

In one of the big sections of the novel I'm working on, I need to kill the character's husband. I wrote an ending where she comes home to discover the kitchen awash in blood but no body and she hires a clean-up crew so she can disappear. And while it was a great chapter with a lot of writing I liked, it was too murder mystery for the context of the novel, too dramatic, too gory.

So last Friday I set about writing a list of 16 solutions to his death. And I thought I'd share them with you.

1. Hit by a bus (accident)
2. Hit by a car (not an accident)
3. Just disappears without a trace
4. Disappears but leaves a note of farewell but with no clues as to whereabouts
5. He decides to leave the country and she won't go with him.
6. She decides to leave him (divorce).
7. He commits suicide in some way.
8. He has a heart attack and dies at the office.
9. She agrees to kill him under threat from the wise guys who control them.
10. She shoots him accidentally (they fight over a gun and it goes off).
11. He gets arrested and killed in jail.
12. He's murdered and there's blood but no body (the original idea).
13. She poisons him (drug overdose).
14. He falls, hits his head on the tub, and drowns. (accident)
15. He disappears and she gets a phone call about it from the wise guys.
16. His body is found in the woods.

After I did this, I could see that I had criteria (or rather the story did) for what would work: The solution needed to be complete: the relationship over. Callie could not be implicated (I didn't want her talking to the police or visiting him in prison). I need her to move on. It had to be believable in the context and not too dramatic. And it needed to have an emotional component for her.

I'm working now with a combination of 7 and 14--an overdose that looks like suicide but with a whiff of wise-guy involvement so I can use the clean-up crew. I think it's going to work out fine.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Creative practice as an integrity issue

Many of us set intentions around our creative practice: to write in a journal every morning, to work on a novel that's long been in the creative hopper, to learn to draw better, to design and make a sweater for a gift. And for a few days, we do step into those intentions. And we feel good about that and are sure we have the practice nailed down. But then it's too hard to get up one morning or we're too tired one evening after dinner or we discover we aren't very satisfied with what we're creating and the practice either comes to a screeching halt or dwindles away rather quickly.

In my coaching work, I encounter clients who have had this experience too frequently to be very optimistic about anything else occurring for them. So we have a conversation about integrity, and about aligning their intention for a creative practice with their integrity. By integrity here, I mean keeping your word. Many of us are good at keeping our word with others but not so great at keeping our word with ourselves. It's this latter issue that I'm addressing here.

There is an added bonus of satisfaction, I've found, when we say we are going to do something and we do it. There is the satisfaction of creating, which for many of us is important: writing, painting, knitting, sculpting, however that creative impulse manifests itself. But that enjoyment is greatly enhanced when we also live into the value of keeping our word.

Friday, June 1, 2012

16 solutions when you're stuck

For a while, I've been a proponent of a brainstorming technique called 16 Solutions. I first heard about it from a member of my Women and Money group, how if you brainstorm 16 solutions to any problem, you can get beyond the first few obvious ideas into possibilities that are wackier and more creative. I've been feeling very stuck around my novel and how to weave the parts of the story together. I've been waiting for inspiration, for the muse to pop that perfect idea into my head, and she or he has not been forthcoming.

So this morning at Writing Friday, I went outside to the terrace table (one of our first warm-enough-to-sit-outside days) and sat with my notebook and just kept thinking up ideas. What if I dropped the kid from the beginning? Or what if there wasn't a mystery around the kid? What if Frankie's birth father came back into the picture? What if her mother was dead? What if her sister was on the lam from the mob and hiding out in her mother's trailer? What if her mother left a series of revealing diaries? What if the beginning of the story as it now stands was the ending? If that was the case, which of the three stories would make a good beginning? How would the story work with each of them as the beginning and what would have to change?

This spun me out into a whole sequence of questions that I had shelved to the back of my mind. What purpose does the boy serve in the story? What other purposes could he serve? Do I need a mystery to solve at all? Can the story handle two mysteries? And suddenly the book felt alive with possibility again rather than bound by where I had been. So if you've been stuck in your creative work, give the 16 solutions a try.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Entering into the great puzzlement

Yesterday I finished Callie's back story. That's the last of the three. For the past four months, I've known what to work on next in the novel I'm writing. First there was Lola's story to tell, then Frankie's, then Callie's. I had certain parameters and I knew how the stories ended (the characters coming together for the first time in decades) but I had free rein to develop these women as I felt best and to give them all sorts of adventures (or allow them to tell me what adventures they wanted to have).

Now I have to not only figure out where to take the main story next, but I also have to figure out where these back stories fit into the novel, if they even do. I had no idea when I started working on them, that they would become major sections of the novel, but 80,000 words later, I think they must. But how? An architectural challenge for sure.

Today was my first morning of insecurity. Off and on yesterday I wondered what I might do when I sat down but it wasn't until I turned on the computer at 6:45 that I realized I had to just start at the beginning, read and rewrite until I hit the current moment again. I wrote much of this first 20,000 words last fall so while I have some good memories of it, I don't remember the details. And even just the first three chapters, which I worked on this morning, were instructive.

I still have no clue as to the architecture, but I'm hoping that will reveal itself to me just as the story does.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ambivalence about winding up the story

For the last four or five months, I've been drafting new material for the novel I'm working on. It has been great fun because it has been loosely structured for me. Instead of drafting blind, I've been writing the elaborate back stories of the three main characters. I had to get each one from a starting point to the present moment of the main story. I knew a little about them from the main story and their interactions with each other and I had the wonderful task of sorting out the experiences that had gotten them there. Each time I finished one of these long back stories, I knew right where to go next--the next back story.

Well, now I'm coming to the end of the third story. I began the last chapter this morning in my early morning writing. I've a few things to sort out, a few scenes to write, but then this big task is finished and I need to both proceed with the main story and figure out how I weave in all the information I've come up with (I've written a lot--the three back stories are nearly 90,000 words, a novel's worth) and whether to use it all or sort it out in a different way.

So today I find myself ambivalent about winding up Callie's last chapter. I know that once I get back into the main story, I'll be fine, but right now, I'm reluctant to head into the unknown.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Getting started on a memoir

Last week a new coaching client came to see me. She is writing a memoir and had stalled after about 100 pages. She was looking for a jump start. I had asked her to make a list of the pivotal moments in the story she wants to tell and the ones she had already written, but what she presented me with was a kind of dhronological outline of notes of details she thought important to include and where she was in that outline. And no doubt they were important. But it wasn't what I had asked for.

And so we had a good discussion about contemporary memoir that is successful. The influence of TV and the movies on both fiction and memoir and the central importance of scene. And we set out to create a list of those scenes that are pivotal to her story, because they lie at the heart of the memoir, not only for plot but also for theme. And we discussed the fact that she didn't have to write them in order.

Like many writers, Carla was stuck because she wasn't quite sure where the project was going. She didn't have a clear idea of the parts, let alone the whole. And I reassured her that that was quite all right, that many of us don't know until several drafts in exactly where something is going and we keep writing parts anyway. Hence the need for a list of important parts to play with, draft, become a better writer with. That's the practice part of all writing projects.

Friday, May 4, 2012

It's got to be fun may not be true

Most exercise gurus will tell you that if your physical activity isn't enjoyable for you, you won't stick to it. Well, I'm here to tell you that that's not always true. I've been a regular exerciser for more than 30 years and I've never really enjoyed it. I don't like being hot or sweaty, I don't like sore muscles from weight lifting. I always feel like a klutz. But I like what exercise does for me: the endorphin rush, the virtuousness of meeting my commitment to myself, and the fact of doing my body a favor.

So I had to think about this when I was coaching a new client Monday night about developing a writing practice and I heard the words "it needs to be fun" come out of my mouth. And she nodded her head but I knew I needed to shift out of that. Yes, it helps if it's fun. But in her case, she's writing some painful memoir stories and we talked about her commitment and her determination to complete this project as more important than fun.

Then I got to thinking about it and realized that for me what is important is that the work be satisfying.   Sometimes it is fun. I solved a nagging problem this morning when I was doing my early hour on the novel, and that was fun, even though it involves a character who's pretty reprehensible. But more importantly, it was satisfying.

Writing every day is satisfying to me. Painting and doing collage regularly are satisfying for me. As Eric Maisel, my creativity coach says, creating is one of the most meaningful and satisfying things a human being can do. If you're struggling to keep your writing or other creative practice going, try thinking of it less in terms of fun and more in terms of satisfaction. How can you deny yourself a daily opportunity to be satisfied?

Friday, April 27, 2012

When characters do bad things

I came back Wednesday from a week's writing retreat. During the days, our group kept silence and I wrote and wrote and wrote. But since I've been back, I have written very little, even though I am faithfully showing up for my early writing hour each day. At first, I thought it might be post-retreat slump settling in early, but then I realized it was where I was in the story.

My character, Callie, is sliding into major heartbreak and is about to take a self-destructive path. Having been both of those places myself in earlier years, I think I am finding it difficult to keep enough distance from the story. Describing her reactions, her emotions, her behaviors is so familiar and so sad that I don't want to go there.

There's a belief among non-writers that we writers control our characters but that isn't my experience. I feel no more able to stop Callie from making these decisions than I could stop a sister or daughter or myself. And so I show up and write a little bit of it each day and try to soften the blows when my character does bad things.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Keep asking for what you want

Last week I was able to cross something off my wish list that had been on the list for 12 years: studio space of my own. About a month ago, my friend Amy forwarded on to me an ad from an artist looking for someone to replace her in a coop of artist's spaces. I don't always read these forwards carefully. I just see if they are on a subject of interest to my list serv and forward them on.

It was the address that caught my eye. 11th and Pine SE. That's only 9 blocks down the street. Then I saw the size of the space and the rent and I knew I wasn't forwarding this one. Not until I got a chance to look at it myself. I called Robin Urton, the artist moving out, and went to see it that afternoon. It was just what I was looking for and what I had been wanting all these years.

Most of the dozen or so spaces I've looked at over these years were too much money. Some I just called about and didn't go see. Some were way too far away or in a part of town with no parking, and I knew I'd never go with any frequency. Some were too small or in dark or dirty garages, not really studio spaces at all. Just spaces people wanted to rent out.

So every time I'd get together in a circle with friends and we'd make our wish lists, I'd put "studio space of my own." The last time I did that was on New Year's Eve, 2011. I had no special feeling it would happen soon or this year, but it seemed important to continue to want it. And now I have it. It's important to keep asking for what you really want.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A wonderful poem

The poem below was forwarded by my painter friend Susan Curington, a wildly creative woman. I loved it so much I'm posting it here. It comes from a site called I am uncertain of the author because of the way the site is set up but whoever you are, thank you.

APRIL 9, 2012

Don’t mistake creativity for magic

Don’t mistake creativity for magic
or the effluent of a big brain
it is not delicate or nimble
it is a show of nerve
they say if you run into a cougar
look him in the eyes
raise your arms over your head so you look big
and face him the whole time
you retreat
it’s like this with art
the beast is not your inner critic
it’s your weariness
it takes muscle to pin down the right word
and stamina to wait
for the flow
you will feel impatience stalk you
aching to collapse the tension
be done with it
but your creativity needs a hero
so stare down the apathy
there is originality inside you
slowly gaining steam.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Speaking up for the lowly hyphen

I've been teaching a lot lately to business professionals, doing writing refresher courses, mostly helping them hone their skills. Each group has included a discussion of the hyphens and dashes and I thought I include that conversation here.

There are three pieces of horizontal punctuation. The hyphen, the briefest of the lines, joins words together and is often used between numbers to indicate a range (of years, pages, dollar amounts). The en dash, so-called because it is the width of the en in the font you are using, is a little longer than the hyphen and has a conservative use limited to the negative sign in math or science.(More liberally, it is used in place of the em dash.) The em dash, again the width of the em in the font you are using, is the longest of the three lines and is used in place of commas, either to create an informal look or tone or to create a more dramatic visual effect on the page. En dashes are typically formatted with spaces before and after; the em dash calls for no space before or after.

Hyphenating compounds that are forming adjectives was the topic of our conversation during the recent courses. I'm a strong proponent of reader-focused writing and using the hyphen correctly helps speed comprehension for all readers. A good example of this use of the hyphen occurs in the preceding sentence: reader-focused writing. The two words "reader" and "focused" are not used individually to describe writing; rather, they are used as a combination, as a unit of meaning. When this unit precedes the noun it describes, it should be hyphenated for clarity. Here are some common examples:

a long-term issue
an agreed-upon condition
a money-based conversation
a cancer-related treatment
a part-time worker

Note that when these words don't precede the noun, they are usually not hyphenated.

I'm in it for the long term.
We agreed upon the condition.
The conversation was based on money.

However: He works part-time. His treatment was cancer-related.

Here's my favorite example.

He's a short distance runner.
He's a short-distance runner.

Both sentences are correct. The meaning differs. Email me if you don't see how (sobertruths@gmailcom) and I'll tell you.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Toughening yourself up: The unkindness of strangers

When I was a college professor, I always dreaded the end-of-term evaluations, particularly if I'd had a difficult student for he or she inevitably criticized me at great length. The worst comments came from those students I'd bent over backwards for, patiently explaining things hour after hour in the office or giving them a third make-up test to try to bring that failing score up. I think the most scathing comments came from a student who attended the first two weeks and then disappeared although she never withdrew. And while the evaluations are anonymous and not seen until grades are turned in, when you see students' handwriting day after day, you know who they are. You learn to grow a tough skin.

The same is true in the creative world. I spent a little time reading the comments of readers on my Amazon page today for Sober Truths. I'm selling a couple hundred copies a month now on Kindle and always curious to see what people think. I get lovely emails from people about how meaningful the story was and their shared experience and how they feel encouraged.

And then there are the other kinds of responses. One woman took me to task because I hadn't solved all my problems. "What kind of self-help book is this?" she queried. Well, it's not a self-help book, it's a memoir. That distinction seemed lost on her. And more recently, a guy bought it on Kindle. He hated it. Hated the writing, hated my experiences, hated it all. I wonder what he was looking for. Why he bothered to buy it and certainly why he bothered to read it.

It's a blessing that we don't all like the same things. That there's room for all kinds of writers and all kinds of writing. And once I get myself past the initial hurt, the initial disappointment that someone didn't like something I'm so proud of, I can let it go and toughen up.