Thursday, September 03, 2015
Several writing habits keep me involved in the practice. The first is an on-line writing group I joined back in 1999 after attending several writing workshops with Natalie Goldberg. A group of us formed an email list. We agreed to send eight ten-minute writing practices to each other. Eventually the list grew and now it is a listserv, but there are still a handful of us writing and sending these writes to each other.
This newsletter is another set of habits. Throughout the month I gather events that I see in the paper or other sources and individuals email events to me. On the first of the month I scan fifty to sixty websites for more events. On the third of the month, the day the newsletter is due, often at the last minute, I write an essay to include.
I rarely know what I will write about ahead of time. Sometimes I use a quotation to feed my thoughts. Other times I take the dog for a long, slow walk and an idea will form. And sometimes I do sitting meditation and allow an essay to arise that way. It's as if my body and mind know that it's the third of month, time for the essay, because only a few times when I've been in extreme emotional distress have I been at a loss for words. These habits have served me well.
What habits do you use to get the writing done? I'd love to hear about them.
Monday, August 03, 2015
Saturday I taught my semi-annual class, Writing From the Inside Out. Teaching reminds me of all the things I forget between classes. I have to review the materials, especially the rules of writing practice I learned from Natalie Goldberg, and be awake enough to explain them to other people.
We had an splendid mix of novelists, poets, lyricists, memoirists, and children's book authors. They asked interesting questions and each contributed to the conversation. One woman lamented that the in-class writing practice was taking her places she didn't want to go. This gave me the opportunity to talk about Natalie's suggestion to "go for the jugular" meaning to dive into the dark scary places that come up.
The reason for this "rule" is simple. Those unwanted memories lie below the surface whether we write about them or not. You wind up writing around them. Either they crowd out the more important things you want to say or, more often, they are the important things you need to say. That's where the heat is, the juice of the writing. If we don't at least acknowledge these dark places, they fester and interrupt the writing flow. Better to get them out in the open and shred or burn the writing practice later if you must, than let these unspoken truths suppress our writing dreams.
My writing is no different. In my current book project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I had to face some dark places in my mental health journey in order to show how much running has done for me. There was no hiding. To do so would have cheated both the reader and myself.
Are you willing to go out in the ocean with your writing? How deep are you willing to dive to pursue your dreams?
Wednesday, July 01, 2015
When do you know a project is finished? I'm not done with the book about running. I continue to layer the mental health thread through it. And I'm not sure even after I finish that if I'll be ready to let my baby fly.
When can you let it go? When is it ready to see more than just the eyes of the few folks you've entrusted to give you feedback. The essays and magazine articles I've written were only completed with a deadline. There could have been another round of edits, another writing practice to find the perfect description, another review by someone else. But I had to let each piece go. An editor was waiting.
I haven't sold any of my books before I've written them so it's different. I'm the one creating the deadline and it hasn't worked that well. I'm a critical critic, an evil critic even. The product is never good enough. Now honestly, the previous book-length projects haven't been finished, not even the one about my father that I worked on for a decade. The shape is still not there. It might be good enough for someone else, but it's not enough for me.
That's the dilemma. How do I get it to a place where it's ready for me to let it go? Perhaps it would be easier if I did have an agent or an editor. Perhaps then I would accept that person's judgment and say, "They say it's done, so it must be done." But I'm not sure if even that will soothe my perfectionistic heart. There is so much space between the idea that's in the mind and the black and white squiggles on the page. A vast distance, that.
What's a writer to do? For today, I will continue to work. And when it feels right inside of me, I'll start sending it off to agents. I might have to ask for help letting go. We'll do some ritual. We'll chant or do an incantation. Then we'll burn a symbolic copy of the manuscript and toast it with decaf lattes.
How do you let a manuscript go -- other than by abandoning it? This is an area where I really need to grow!
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
Daydreaming gets a bad rap. In our culture, if your mind wanders, you are labeled lazy and unproductive, two of the worst things you can be called.
In her Tedx Talk Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, explains the importance of daydreaming.
Bane confirms that writers and other creative types need to daydream. Daydreaming is a different mind process from focusing on tasks. Daydreaming allows parts of the brain to connect that don't normally talk to each other during a task-oriented focus.
Bane suggests allowing yourself to daydream while you're standing in line at a store or other times when you might normally stare at your smartphone. I'd add meditation and writing practice to the mix.
In meditation, while sitting quietly attempting to focus on your breath, the mind is bound to wander because that's what minds do. They generate thoughts. Meditation is inherently creative. Ideas pop into the mind and solutions arise that can't be force by trying to focus on the problem.
Writing practice produces similar results. If you keep the hand moving and write down whatever thoughts arise, that too feels like daydreaming except the hand is recording it as it flows. Many conclusions come during writing practice.
Do you allow yourself to daydream? As writers, we owe ourselves what some might call this "guilty pleasure." If someone says you're dawdling, direct him to Rosanne Bane's Tedx Talk. Explain how deep daydreaming leads to realizations. Daydreaming is part of the writer's job!
Sunday, May 03, 2015
I sometimes feel this exhaustion when I'm writing. I've revised and revised and received positive feedback, but there's still so far to go. Some days writing is difficult. Unlike the runners, I don't know how far I am from the finish, but I know it's out there. There's nothing to do, but face the difficulties and push onward.
At a recent writing retreat some friends and I were discussing how many hours we spend trying to make writing less difficult. We concluded that perhaps ninety-five percent of the time we're supposed to feel lost and worried that we don't know what we're doing. Maybe we've been mistaken trying to make it easier. Maybe expecting it to be hard might make it easier to embrace it when it is.
I don't have an answer to this question. Writing isn't always tough. Often it brings such joy I feel like the luckiest person alive. But on the more frustrating days I worry I've chosen a path of torture. That's when there's nothing left to do but embrace the suck and run up that hill toward the finish.
Friday, April 03, 2015
I recently discovered sparkle running skirts. Today as the dog and I ran through our neighborhood I wore a multi-colored skirt with attached shorts and a matching tech shirt. I felt like a middle-aged woman parading as a little girl, but I'm practicing being the person I am. I need to practice this with writing as well.
Deep into the revision process of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, my memoir about running, I realized I'd need to show more of myself than I'm comfortable with. The book is subtitled, "The Memoirs of an Emotionally Unstable, Middle-aged Marathoner." The current draft has plenty of middle-age stuff and the beginning shows my mental health challenges, but a beta reader confirmed my fear that I'd lost the mental health thread halfway through. It was there in the first draft. I found it embarrassing and took it out. Now I need the courage to put some of it back.
The "emotionally unstable" part makes the book special. The mental health angle, I hope, will catch the eye of an agent and editor and differentiate my book from the other health and fitness memoirs on the bookstore shelves. For the book to do this, I'll need to show how peculiar I am and reveal some secrets I've kept hidden. It's terrifying and necessary. I'm afraid people will turn away. But I owe it to the book and to myself. And I owe it to the reader. The subtitle makes a promise. And nothing pisses off a reader more than a promise unfulfilled.
How do you keep your promises to your readers even when it's terrifying? I'd love to hear about it.
Tuesday, March 03, 2015
I'm incredibly fortunate. In MFA school where critiques can be brutal, professors Aimee Liu, Diana Gould, and Victoria Nelson were gentle in their criticism of my graduate school work. Their words were sometimes difficult to hear, but they weren't mean or bitter and I knew they wanted nothing but the best for me.
Recently a former MFA advisor from the college I attended, thankfully he never advised me, wrote an essay criticizing his students after he had resigned. In reading his essay, I'm not sure why anyone wanted to study with him anyway. He had little respect for his students except for a handful he referred to as the "real deal." If I'd been assigned to him I would have asked for a different advisor as others did. And no, I'm not going to dignify him by linking his article or giving his name. If you must, sniff the interwebs for a recent essay by a jaded former MFA professor.
So be careful choosing who reads your work. Back in 2002, a close friend who had just begun to write made the mistake of giving her work to a former English teacher she met at yoga. There's nothing inherently wrong with former English teachers or yoga, but my friend realized too late that this woman was angry and blocked. There's little more effective than a blocked writer armed with the rules of grammar to kill a fledgling writer's mojo. The teacher's comments were petty and stung enough that my friend has written hardly a word since. Stories like this are endless. Some might say my friend wasn't meant to write if she couldn't withstand the criticism. I disagree. I think she subjected herself to criticism too early and trusted her work to the wrong kind of person before she'd built some resilience.
For my previous books, I hired two different editors after researching and getting references. I found their feedback genuine and helpful even though it sometimes hurt. Through the years, I've also carefully gathered a supportive net of what the youngsters like to call "beta readers." I've met these writers through classes, groups, and happy coincidences. For the manuscript of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I chose both runners and non-runners. But all were writers in some stage of an active writing process. None of them were blocked and none of them struck me as angry, bitter people. I respect each of them and will gladly read each of their work in return. Much of the feedback I've received is positive and the recommended changes honest and respectful. This is the kind of criticism I can hear.
How do you find critique partners for your work? How have you built a spine to help you hear criticism? I'd love to hear about it.
Tuesday, February 03, 2015
When faced with a task, if I spend too much time in my head, I'll convince myself I can't do it and won't even try. In the mid-1980s when I read Natalie Goldberg's best-selling book Writing Down the Bones, I learned to use a timer to combat this problem. She set one for ten minutes, said "Go!" and wrote without stopping. This practice still works three decades later. Whether it's keeping my hand moving in writing practice, editing a manuscript, or tackling a cluttered shelf in my office, the timer produces results.
First, I choose a task. It must be specific. Once the task is defined, I set the timer and Go! It might be reading part of a manuscript until the ten minute timer goes off. If ideas for changes come, which they often do, I'll start the timer again and begin revising. Sometimes it means reading page edits someone has given me. It's daunting to see what another person thinks of my work. So I set the timer and read until it goes off. I don't give myself time to think, just read. Once I've gotten started it's easier to make notes as I go. The key is to get into motion and stay out of the negative place in my head. With the finite period set by the timer, I can do nearly anything.
I keep kitchen timers all over the house, one in every room, to help me with all manner of tasks. It creates a pressure cooker effect that expands time and helps me focus on the task instead of worrying about how many minutes I have to go.
Other programs use this technique. Pomodoro has an app. HIIT exercise (short for "high intensity interval training") is all the rage. For me, it began with Natalie's simple suggestion of ten minute intervals. I can do anything for ten minutes. The timer is the "gym boss" at my desk turning difficult tasks into manageable ten-minute interval workouts.
Do you use a timer or some other similar technique? I'd love to hear about it.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
I have a vivid imagination. Unfortunately it lists toward the negative. If my mind drifts too far into the future, it projects tons of excruciating work followed by showers of rejection letters not to mention the death of all my family members, friends, and the dog. Some people can project a future filled with success. My mind won't play that game.
The past is no better. There I relive regret for work I've failed to complete, anger at imagined slights, and pain over the actual deaths of family members, friends, and our former dogs. Days gone by offer no solace.
Meditation helps me stay in the moment. Each breath brings relief from the relentless barrage of thoughts pushing to and fro. And after sitting there is nothing to do, but open the notebook and get to work. Work is the best remedy.
Only the present is safe. In the actual work I find peace. I relax into writing, taking tiny steps one after another. There my mind hums.
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
National Novel Writing Month 2014 has come and gone and I'm happy. The ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon which was 114,400 words on October 31, 2014 now stands at 83,228 words approximately the length of many published memoirs. The secret? A quantifiable goal.
You've heard me talk about National Novel Writing Month again and again. Why does it work for me? There are many reasons, but this month it was the ability to turn something that seemed like an overwhelming challenge into bite size pieces I could work on every day.
I made two complete passes through the document. During the first half of the month and the first read-through in November I found words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole scenes that didn't belong. I removed approximately 1667 words per day. During the second half of the month and the second pass I gave myself credit for the amount of time I spent clarifying unclear passages, remedying inconsistencies, and turning the thing from a bunch of scenes into a book. I was ruthless. At the end of the month I had the equivalent of the golden 50,000 words needed to "win" NaNoWriMo in my own rebel way. Having a tangible method of tracking my progress gave me the motivation to get the work done.
The book still needs more polishing. It's a long way from being ready to send to an agent, but I nearly have a draft for Ed, my husband and first reader, to review.
Do you create quantifiable goals? How? I'd love to hear your methods.
Saturday, November 01, 2014
Shortly before Ed and I moved to New Mexico, a friend gave me a going away present. It was a tiny dictionary. In the front she wrote, "So you'll never be at a loss for words."
Right now I have the opposite problem. After I completed another pass through the ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon, the word count stands at 114,400. This is down from 190,000 words, but still.
Last night when I couldn't sleep I pulled up memoir after memoir on amazon.com and looked at the page count. Multiplying by the approximately 250 words per page confirmed my fears. The word count of book after book totaled something close to 80,000 words, 34,000 fewer than my current manuscript.
I have options. I could turn the story into two books. I could ignore editorial wisdom and let the book stand at nearly one and a half times the conventional word count of most memoirs. I could pay someone else to figure out what to do. I could put it in a drawer and start something new. Or I could do the thing I most dread: cut more words.
You know what I'll choose. Wish me luck! And if you have any tips for whacking still more of my precious prose from this document, please send them my way.
Thursday, October 02, 2014
When the leaves in central Ohio begin to turn, I think of two things: the Columbus Marathon and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This year I'm running the half marathon instead of the full so I have more energy to plan for NaNoWriMo.
The NaNoWriMo motto is, "The world needs your novel." I don't know if the world needs any of the books I've written, but I definitely needed to write them and I've enjoyed using the NaNoWriMo structure to write the first drafts.
There's something about knowing more than 100,000 other writers are out there pounding the keys just like me. Attending the write-ins and hearing the keystrokes of three or four or twenty other writers from my area inspires me. It was intimidating at first, but once I began the first sentence, I was fine.
If you want to write a novel or need a structure to get your work done, NaNoWriMo might work for you. The official goal is to write 50,000 words of fiction in the thirty days of November. That's what most wrimos (folks who participate in NaNoWriMo) do. Nano rebels write nonfiction, poetry, short stories, or songs. And some folks, myself included, use the structure for revision. Last year I used it to remove 50,000 words from the 190,000 word manuscript about running my first marathon. I called it reverse NaNoWriMo.
I'll definitely play along this year as well. I'm at the place in my revision process where I need to make another pass through the book. I'll divide the number of scenes by the thirty days in November and read and make notes on a set number of scenes each day to get through the whole book by the end of the month. The communal energy of NaNoWriMo will pull me through.
What are your goals for November? Do you want to play along? You can find the ABCs of NaNoWriMo on the website. For more information, get the books No Plot? No Problem!
and Ready, Set, Novel!.
My screen name on the NaNoWriMo website is willwrite4chocolate. If you decide to join, please look me up. It's good to have friends wherever you go.
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
― C.K. Webb
I continue to remove as many words as I can from the crazy huge manuscript about running my first marathon. My latest trick is what good friend and award-winning author, Tania Casselle, referred to as "removing the scaffolding" when she critiqued a different book I had attempted.
Often first drafts contain phrases, whole sentences, or even entire paragraphs that prop up the real thing we want to say. If our work is strong enough, it can stand on its own. Our job is to remove that scaffolding.
Here's a very brief example:
I spent some time standing by the window looking out at a pale moon. The light that it shone glinted against a thin layer of ice on the cracked sidewalk. That cracked sidewalk was where I had fallen when I was running just a few weeks before. Then it had looked ugly and swollen even though the crack was the merest of things, just a bit of a thing, not even an inch of difference in the two edges, but there I had fallen down hard on my arm and my knee and hit my chest. It hurt bad. It still hurt. The ribs were still bruised and I favored them even though I tried not to.
Second (third or fourth) draft:
I looked out the window at the pale moonlight. It glinted off a thin layer of ice on the cracked sidewalk. I'd fallen there a few weeks before while running. Then the small crack had looked ugly and swollen, the merest bit of a thing, not even an inch of difference in the two edges. My skinned arm and knee and my bruised ribs still hurt. I favored them even though I tried not to.
I've removed the scaffolding. Only what I want remains.
Now you try it. Let me know how it goes.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
My progress in reducing the word count of the ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon continues. I'm cutting unnecessary material, the flab. Sometimes an entire scene must go, but more often I whittle at the subcutaneous fat deep within the sentences. Here are some examples of things I trim:
1. Verbs that end in "ing:" "I was standing" becomes "I stood." This removes a word and turns the sentence from passive to active.
2. Forms of the verb "to be:" (were, is, are, be, being, etc.) I transform these with more powerful verbs. "There is a tree" turns into "A tree grows there" or "a tree stands there." Again, passive becomes active.
3. "Very, just, and simply:" These are words I use when I want to hedge my bets. "I just wept" becomes "I wept." "I'm very tired" becomes "I'm exhausted." "I simply couldn't manage" becomes, "I couldn't manage." I rarely find an instance when one of these words can't be removed.
4. "That:" I remove it and see if the sentence stands.
5. Unnecessary pronouns. "We sat down" becomes "We sat." "I stood up" becomes "I stood."
This list barely touches the possibilities. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
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Thursday, July 03, 2014
A rectangular eraser lies on my desk next to the lamp. It supplements the tiny eraser on the end of my mechanical pencil which would quickly run out if I used it exclusively.
Next to the lamp sits a pen and pencil holder. In it live roller ball pens of several colors. My favorites are the hot pink ones. I use those to mark up the print-outs of the scenes of whatever book I'm currently revising. I go through almost as many of those as I do blue or black pens.
While I appreciate the optimism of Brault's quotation, it doesn't reflect my reality. If I designed a pencil to accurately show the amount of time I spend on revision versus writing, the eraser would be two feet long and the pencil less than half an inch. This pains me since I thoroughly enjoy that flying blind bliss of the first draft. Sometimes I find that same pleasure in second or third drafts. But once I'm down to the deep cuts writing requires, it's all work.
I know others with the opposite perspective. For some, the initial draft is the hardest part and once they have "something to work with" they're golden. My hat is off to them. Still, I would wager even these people spend much more time rewriting than they did on the initial draft.
What about you? Do you spend more of your writing hours in drafting or revising? I'd love to hear about your process.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985
I spent last week in Arlington, Virginia at a Marriott while my husband attended a conference. I wrote and ran for five days. Each day after my post-run shower, I found a quiet spot with chairs and a table near a window in a hallway near the conference rooms to work.
Before we left home, I had printed several chapters of the book on running. I took the pages and a fuchsia roller ball to my quiet spot and began hand-editing. I prefer pink to red. It's more fun. I'd brought my laptop and could easily have carried it to the window seat. Or I could have stayed in our very nicely appointed room and sipped from a coffee made in the miniature coffee maker while I worked. I chose not to.
Stepping away from the computer prevented me from being tempted to check email or social media. Without adorable kitten videos to distract me, I spent several hours engrossed in the work. The world dropped away. With the tactile sensations of paper and pen between my fingers, the editing went well.
Back in November, during my reverse-NaNoWriMo, I worked directly on my laptop to reduce the book by 50,000 words. That technique worked then. Now, this second time going through the whole book, I prefer looking at printed pages. I do not have studies to cite, but I believe two slightly different parts of the mind are triggered by each of these techniques. I choose to tap both of them.
In my next writing session I'll enter the changes from the hand-edited pages into the document using the laptop. In addition to the changes on the pages, I anticipate finding other things to revise as well. So this typing-in of the edits is yet another pass through the manuscript. Nothing is lost by this "extra" step.
Do you print out pages? What is your process? I'd love to hear about it.
Saturday, May 03, 2014
“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” —Philip Roth
There are two main kinds of revision: big picture restructuring and small picture polishing. In big picture work, I move whole pieces of the book around and reshape the thing from the spine up. Sometimes this means adding new sections or cutting out whole other parts. The beginning becomes the end and vice versa. This kind of editing has to come first.
The second kind of editing is my favorite. This is the word choice editing. It's grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, rhythm, and sound. This is where I remove all the unnecesssary words like "very" and "a lot." It's where I decide if I really need that second that. I rewrite the passive verb sentences into active voice. I polish and polish and polish.
The book I'm writing about running a marathon is still in the big picture editing phase. I am so tempted to jump into knit-picky grammar, punctuation, word choice, line by line revision, but that's not what it needs. I err on the side of polishing since it is my favorite kind of editing. This will cause trouble. Unless I have the shape of the book down, doing smaller scale revision is a waste of time. The section I am so lovingly polishing might not even be there on the next draft. How much more difficult will it be to cut if I've just spent two weeks crafting it?
So I have to force myself to only look at the big picture. What can I cut? Not just words, but what whole sections? Is this part necessary? Can the book live without that? Does this section go as deep as it needs to go? What else does it need? How can I bring it to life?
Do you have a favorite form of editing? How do you help yourself do the kind of work you least enjoy? I'd love to hear about it.
Thursday, April 03, 2014
We don't talk much about the economics of writing. It's definitely not my forte. Still, folks have questions. Fortunately, some artists do talk dollars and sense or how to make sense of the dollars that come.
One such person is Elaine Grogan Luttrull. Luttrull addresses the business of writing in her book, Arts & Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Other Members of the Creative Class. Luttrull states, "I hope Arts & Numbers does this (subtly) in sharing relevant financial information with creative entrepreneurs in a technically-accurate and accessible way."
Luttrull was interviewed by Doug Dangler, the host of the Wednesday evening show Craft on WCBE (90.5) about the business of writing. The interview will air on May 21st at 8:00 p.m., and Doug has two copies of her book to give away as part of the show.
The interview came about because Chang-rae Lee mentioned casually in an interview with Doug that he never discusses the economics of writing with his students because, "they know what they are getting into." She believes there is a better, more proactive, slightly more empowering approach to the subject.
You can listen to the interview with Chang-rae Lee here (and read their exchange in the comments!). More about Craft: The Show is on its website as well.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Facebook. Twitter. Buzzfeed. Instragram. Pinterest. Goodreads. And so many more. I mean just the internet in general. These potential distractions all make it easier than ever to avoid writing. We get sucked into this world of cuddly puppy photos, recipes, and political rants not to mention cat videos and e-postcards created by friends and relatives. What's a writer to do?
Lately I've been using Freedom, an inexpensive program, to minimize distractions (aka the internet). You tell the program how long you want "freedom" from the internet and it blocks you for that amount of time. To regain access before the time has expired you have to restart your computer. You can use the trial version five times before you must switch to a paid version. There's also Anti-social which only blocks social media. That way, you can do research, but not check Twitter. Freedom and Anti-social are not magic bullets.
I still find myself trying to click to Facebook before I realize what I'm doing. But once I remember my "freedom," I get back to work. Maybe these will work for you!
Monday, February 03, 2014
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker
Last month I received yet another note from a reader who dreams of writing a book. Like many others, he fears his poor grammar will prevent him from succeeding. His note to me read:
I've wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. I'm a voracious reader and I love to write. But I've struggled with grammar and punctuation since grade school. Do you have any suggestions on how to master grammar now that I'm an adult?Many of my readers have similar qualms. Here was my reply:
If you want to write a book, just write a book. Don't let any of your fears get in the way. In WILD MIND, Natalie Goldberg suggests, "Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, or even the lines on the page." She's talking about first drafts, but she's serious. Later, after many drafts of the work are finished, hire a copyeditor to polish it for you.
As far as learning grammar and punctuation, there are many great books including EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss. I also follow a blog called Grammar Girl that may help. I subscribe and follow her on Facebook. I attempt to master each tip she posts. I discover my errors by reading about them and finding the solution.
Here's a list of 10 good grammar sites including Grammar Girl. Purdue Online Writing Lab and Grammarly are both very good as well. Enjoy and have fun!Do you have any great sources for finding grammar information? I'd love to hear about them.
Monday, December 30, 2013
"Paralyze resistance with persistence." - Woody Hayes
Yesterday, The Ohio State University Buckeye football team landed in Miami. On Friday they face the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl. Earlier in the season, they took a harsh defeat at the hands of Michigan State. I'm sure they were saddened, stunned even, by their loss to the Spartans, but they were not defeated in the larger sense of the word. Instead of stopping in their tracks, they kept moving in preparation for the next contest. They lived to play another day.
I'm going to use the Buckeye attitude as my writing strategy. I've had my share of defeats. It's been a while since I've put myself on the agent firing line or ventured into the editorial slush pile, but I like this thought of moving on and heading into the next adventure without feeling like a loser. Our Buckeyes just keep moving. So will I.
Is it really a defeat if you're still standing when it's over? Doesn't it just mean the time wasn't right? Perhaps it wasn't the right book or the book wasn't done or I wasn't ready for what came next. On we go. On to the next. In the interim, the writing itself is the reward.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
"Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short." - Henry David Thoreau
Last month during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I edited out 50,000 words from a 193,000 word manuscript. It wasn't easy. Partly because I am a writer and partly because of mental heath issues, I fall in love with my words. They seem hard won. Perhaps I just like to hear myself talk. But this document grew beyond anything I had intended or from my worst nightmares. I worked on it for a year and wound up with a monster.
I used the structure of NaNoWriMo to ease the editing process. I gave myself a goal of removing 1925 words each day since we were traveling at the end of the month and I would get no work done while we were gone. I started at the beginning of the book and read chapter by chapter asking myself difficult questions.
Does this scene belong? Does it move the story forward? Does it belong here? Could it be said in a better way? What is the point I am trying to make? Why should the reader care? Can I make it more interesting? Can I cut the scene altogether?
I was as honest with myself as I could be. Some days I removed only a few hundred words, but most days it was closer to several thousand. I found whole sections I could easily delete. I had repeated myself, drifted off-topic, or not made sense. These had to go. I found other places where the work held its own and those sections I kept. I wound up with a book of 140,000 words and a story that made sense to me.
There is more work ahead. Ideally I will remove another 50,000 words. I have stepped away from the book for now to let it breathe. The next edit will require even more self-honesty and brutal cuts. Some of my favorite parts will have to go. That is the work of writing. The first draft I wrote for me. These later drafts, and there will be many, are for the reader.
I'm reminded of the motto, "To thine own self be true." This doesn't mean I get to spoil myself or be sloppy. It means I must be honest with myself. Tell myself the truth. In editing, this is the only way.
Friday, November 01, 2013
"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." - Mark Twain
National Novel Writing Month has officially begun. During the 30 days of November, folks all over the world will attempt to write 50,000 words of fiction. This year I'm a NaNo Rebel since I'm not writing a new novel. Instead, I'm doing "Reverse NaNoWriMo" by attempting to remove 50,000 words from a 193,000 word manuscript.
I enjoy the NaNoWriMo structure and have used it for the past nine years to create or revise. The local NaNoColumbus group, libraries, and the Thurber House host write-ins where others are also working on their books. The NaNoWriMo website offers forums where I go to ask questions, offer tips, or socialize between writing sessions. The website also features a list of published authors who have used the NaNoWriMo structure to do their work. There's even a special forum for the "NaNo Rebels."
Since this is my first re-write of this particular manuscript, I'll be doing a "big picture" edit in which I'm trying to create the shape I want for the book. During October, I reviewed each scene and determined which ones needed the most overhauling. Now that NaNo has begun, I'll work through those scenes to distill them to the essence of what the book is about. Sometimes this is as simple as removing words and rearranging sections. More often, however, it requires an entire rewrite of a scene, a chapter, or the entire book. It will be good to have the support of my fellow "Wrimos" (that's what we call folks attempting NaNoWriMo) in this endeavor.
Where are you in your writing process? Is it a time of creation for you or, like me, are you in the throes of revision? I'd love to hear about it.
Thursday, October 03, 2013
Last year during National Novel Writing Month I wrote 52,000 words about running my first marathon. During the subsequent ten months, I added another 141,000 words to the book. So now I've got a behemoth of 193,000 words and I've been ruminating about what to do with it.
Last Tuesday on my usual trip to the library, I spotted Roy Peter Clark's book, Help! For Writers on an end cap. I scanned the index and noticed a chapter titled, "My work is way too long." Bingo! Since the average memoir ranges from 60,000 to 70,000 words, my task will be to lop off about two-thirds of the thing. But which two-thirds?
Clark makes suggestions I can follow. He recommends not compressing sentences or paragraphs until after considering other cuts. This means I'll need to look at the big picture of the story before doing the knit-picking edits I prefer.
He suggests cutting any elements that don't advance the focus of the story. Following this suggestion will require me to know the focus of the story. That led me to another chapter, "I don't know what my story is really about." Sounds like I need to read that as well.
Clark also says to begin the story as close to the end of the narrative as possible. Maybe the day I jogged for one minute for the very first time wasn't the place to begin the book. Um. Alright. I've got some work to do! But his suggestions give me a place to start and that's always a good thing.
Where do you find help with revision? Do you have a favorite book or method that works for you? I'd love to hear about it.
Tuesday, September 03, 2013
"Run the mile you're in." - Ryan Hall
I am forever trying to run the last mile. Sometimes that motivates me. I think about what it will feel like to cross the finish line. I think about how good it will feel to run the final 100 yards. But usually it just depresses me.
It's better for me to keep my mind in the present and focus on my current surroundings. "Stay here!" I tell myself. Just run this mile. I look around and see the trees. If we're on the Olentangy Trail I look at the river or Antrim Lake. In my neighborhood I notice the color of a roof or the shape of a window. I see when a neighbor has planted a new tree or flowers. I notice whether a car is parked in the usual spot. I do my best to stay in my senses and see what's actually around me.
I try this practice in writing as well. Still, I often catch myself thinking ahead to the end of the book and imagine myself typing the last few words. Or sometimes I think way beyond that and image holding the finished book in my hands. I used to imagine handing it to my mother or father. There are times when this is helpful. Sometimes it is motivating to imagine the final product or think about getting an agent or an editor and even a royalty check.
However, I do better by sticking with the scene I'm writing. Where am I in the book? I stay there. I write that next line, the next word. Frankly, all the rest is daydreaming. I'm not there yet. I'm not meeting with the agent or feeling the spine of the book. I'm in the scene and I need to give it my full attention. This is the way the work gets done.
Do you daydream about finishing your book? Do you find it helpful? I'd love to hear about your process.
Thursday, August 01, 2013
"Courage is only an accumulation of small steps." - George Konrad
Writing is also an accumulation of small steps. It starts with a pen, an open laptop, a keyboard, or a hammer and chisel against a piece of stone. It begins with the simple act of moving the hand in a particular fashion, fingers gripping or tapping, following the racing mind. To work on my book, I must first open the file. To open the file, I must sit or stand before the computer. To sit or stand before the computer, I must move across the house to my desk.
Unfortunately, moving across the house to my desk is often a herculean task. I balk and stew and do a myriad other things before simply heading in the general direction of my work. Resistance is so huge, I feel it thrum in my brain.
This is when I ask for courage. I ask some part of my brain, the adult part, the part that actually wants to do the work, to activate. Or maybe it's the little girl part, the part that really enjoys the work once I get started. It's okay that I don't know how this works. What's important is that I have experienced it work in the past. What's important is that I recognize that I will not get anything done unless I ask. Asking creates willingness and willingness generates action. With willingness, I take a small step toward the desk. With one small step across the room, before I know it, I am in front of the computer.
The next key is to simply open the file without resorting to internet surfing. The peril of the web looms large. I avoid it by asking for more courage. Again I channel that part of me that wants to do the work. She's hiding in there somewhere. I ask until I find the mouse on the filename and the screen open to my document, the book, my baby. There she is.
The final step is simply moving the cursor to the place in the book that needs the work. Often the exact location where I begin is not important. What matters is that I begin somewhere. My mind will make order out of chaos if I just let myself begin. I'd love to hear how you find the courage to write.
Wednesday, July 03, 2013
"Life is one big transition." - Willie Stargell
As a writer, when I read and listen to books on CD, I do so from a different vantage point than someone who does not write. Part of me reads for the story, but another part, the writer part, searches for technique. "How did the author do that?" I ask as the narrative moves forward.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the book I'm currently listening to on CD, tells of author Cheryl Strayed's adventure hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a way to get over her mother's death and her recent divorce. As the story unfolds, I'm struck by the ease with which she weaves different time periods together. Transitions always interest me. They are not easy even though authors like Strayed make them look deceptively so. "How does Strayed do this?" I ask as I listen. I've observed her success at using the following two methods.
The first technique involves the way she moves into flashback. When Strayed wants to move the reader back in time, she uses, from the past she is about to reveal, something that resonates with the present time of the book. For example, early in the book Strayed checked into a hotel near the Mohave desert to spend the night before setting out on her hike. She unpacked some of her newly purchased backpacking equipment:
I reached into one of the plastic bags and pulled out an orange whistle, whose packaging proclaimed it to be "the world's loudest." I ripped it open and held the whistle up by its yellow lanyard, then put it around my neck, as if I were a coach. . . .
Would I need it? I wondered meekly, bleakly, flopping down on the bed. It was well past dinnertime, but I was too anxious to feel hungry, my aloneness an uncomfortable thunk that filled my gut.
"You finally got what you wanted," Paul (her now ex-husband) had said when we bade each other goodbye in Minneapolis ten days before.
"What's that?" I'd asked.
"To be alone," he replied, and smiled, though I could only nod uncertainly.
It had been what I wanted, but alone wasn't quite it.
With this transition, Strayed begins to detail the unraveling of her marriage. Her feeling of aloneness in the motel and her ex-husband's use of the word "alone" make the connection between the two periods of time.
Strayed uses a second technique to bring the reader out of a flashback and onto the trail with her again. She does this by grounding the transition in detail in order to bring her readers back into the story. Strayed handles this beautifully in the prologue. There she explains how she accidentally knocked one of her heavy, expensive hiking boots over a cliff while standing on a crest on the trail. Then, in a sort of summary, she turns back in time to explain how she came to be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the first place, taking the reader to events that happened years before. When she's done with this summary and ready to bring her reader back to her lost boot on the trail, she uses sensory detail to plant the reader back in the present moment:
I looked down at the trees below me, the tall tops of them waving gently in the hot breeze. They could keep my boots, I thought, gazing across the great green expanse. I'd chosen to rest in this place because of the view.
In that instant the reader is back behind Strayed's eyes seeing the Pacific Crest Trail as she does in the moments after she lost her boot. She has moved eloquently through time.
These are only two of the many techniques available to move through time. Strayed uses these and others well. I hope to emulate them in my work.
How have you learned to read like a writer? I'd love to hear about it.
Monday, June 03, 2013
"There are no standards and no possible victories except the joy you are living while dancing your run. You are not running for some future reward - the real reward is now!" - Fred Rohe, The Zen of Running
When I run, and especially when I race, I'm able to stay in the moment. I just finished the San Diego Rock n' Roll Half Marathon. A line of women all dressed like Marilyn Monroe left me laughing for a good mile. The funky houses and friendly neighbors in University Heights kept me alert and awake for several more miles. The sight of runners dressed like Elvis, wearing tutus, or dolled up in other costumes helped me keep my head right where my feet were for more miles after that.
When there were no interesting distractions, I made the physical sensation of running my companion. I observed the rhythmic movement of arms and legs. I felt my heart beating. I focused on my breath as it flowed in and out. All of these things kept me rapt for 13.1 miles over several hours. There was no future and no past. There was only now.
I know that there are standards and victories in writing, but still I wish I could adopt the attitude of having no future reward every time I face the page. So often my mind turns to the future. I wonder if what I'm writing will interest anyone else or if I'm simply writing for my own purposes. I wonder if it's marketable. I wonder if it's boring. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder.
All this wondering is simply my inner critic taking me for a ride. It is not helpful to me or the writing and it is not kind. Rather, it is painful. The inner critic thinks it is being helpful by preventing me from making mistakes. The problem is, when the critic is so strong, merely facing the page becomes a huge challenge. Finishing anything turns into a monumental task.
The key, I believe, is to be fully present to the writing as I'm doing it. Not only do I lose myself in the work, but I take pleasure in the physical sensations whether it is my fingers on a pen or on a keyboard. I alternate between a sitting desk and one for standing which helps keep me alert and reduces pain. And when the words take over, I lose myself for long periods of time in the consciousness of the page.
In my experience, publication alone doesn't bring the huge rewards one might think. The huge rush of seeing my first magazine article on the cover of Dog World Magazine lasted only a few days. It was a momentary high I'm glad I experienced, but neither it nor my other publication credits could carry me for the long run.
Rather, the writing itself delivers the pleasure. If not, I wouldn't write at all. And this brings me back to the moment. I must continue to find ways to enjoy writing in the moment. Even a bad day writing, a day when I put in the proverbial comma in the morning only to take it out in the afternoon, is better than a day not writing at all.
Friday, May 03, 2013
"No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world." - John Keating (actor Robin Williams) in the movie THE DEAD POETS SOCIETY
On Thursday, April 11, 2013, I thought Ed was dead. That's exactly what I screamed as I ran out our front door to my neighbor's. "He's dead! My husband is dead!" I was trying to dial 911, but couldn't find the dial pad on my "smart" phone. I could pull up Facebook, Twitter, and the recently dialed numbers, but not the squad.
As I scrambled to the house next door, Ed sat in our bathroom unconscious. He'd become severely dehydrated from either food poisoning or the norovirus. He had fainted in my arms, fallen, hit his head hard enough to dent the bathroom door, and remained unconscious for the excruciating minutes it took me to get help to work my phone. He regained consciousness as the EMTs pulled into our drive. They wheeled him off to The Ohio State University emergency room for intravenous fluids and Zofran, the magic anti-nausea drug. He recovered fabulously just in time to take care of me when I fell ill the next day. Thanks to more anti-nausea drugs and his tender loving care, I recovered over the weekend without incident.
The following Monday, April 15, 2013, Hubby and I had watched a live feed of the elite runners finish the Boston Marathon from our respective computers in our central Ohio home. When the live streaming ended, we packed our car for an overnight to Athens, eighty miles south. An hour after we left, as Ed and I blithely drove along somewhere between Logan and Nelsonville, the two bombs were detonated killing three people and injuring at least 260.
We heard the tragic news when we reached our hotel and immediately turned on the television. We could only tolerate watching for a while. The images and commentary overwhelmed us. Once we realized the newscasters on all channels were recirculating the images and information and that nothing new was being revealed, we headed for dinner with little of our only recently-regained appetites.
I spent several days after these events following Ed around. I took his temperature and his blood pressure and asked if he was feeling alright. He was patient, but eventually he asked me if I didn't have something better to do!
I'm in several running groups. One is a primarily on-line group named The Dead Runners Society after the 1989 movie The Dead Poets Society. In the movie, The Dead Poets Society adopts as its motto the aphorism, Carpe Diem which can be loosely translated as, "Seize the day!" To suit their purpose, the Dead Runners Society amended this to "Carpe Viam!" which (also loosely translated) stands for "Seize the Way (or Seize the Roadway)."
Recent events made seizing things seem like a great idea. Carpe Diem! Carpe Viam! Why not Carpe Scribendi? That was it! I'd seize the pen!
So those are my mottos and that's what I've done in the days since. Each day I wake and feel grateful for another 24-hours with Ed. Carpe Diem! Another of my running groups held a fun run fundraiser for the bombing victims. I participated in that. Carpe Viam! And I continue to work on the book about running. I'm nearly done with a first draft. Carpe Scribendi!
What about you? What's going on with your writing? What will it take for you to Carpe Scribendi? I'd love to hear about it.
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
"I beg to urge you everyone:
Life and Death are a Great Matter
Awaken, awaken, awaken
Time passes quickly
Do not waste this precious life."
- Zen Evening Chant
Best-selling author Natalie Goldberg, in her recent book, THE TRUE SECRET OF WRITING, released March 19, 2013, provides a glimpse of the writing and meditation workshops she has conducted since the early 2000s. I have attended or assisted Nat at many of these and can attest to their effectiveness at bringing the mind to a stillness I have found nowhere else except in running.
In an interview with Melissa Studdard and in the forward to the new book, Nat explains the tongue-in-cheek title. Nat's workshops often ended at noon on Friday. It is a three-hour drive from Taos to the nearest major airport. Invariably, in the final days of the workshop, a student would approach Nat to explain that she had booked a flight Friday afternoon and so would have to miss the Friday morning class. Nat would smile and say, in all seriousness, "I'm so sorry. That is when I am going to tell the true secret of writing. I guess you'll miss it."
In the book, as in her conversation with this student, she makes an important point. Show up! If you want to run, show up for the workout. If you want to write, show up to the page. If you want to learn, show up to the class. Especially in writing, there are no shortcuts. There are skills to be learned, hours to be spent in practice, and mistakes to be made. There is no easier, softer way.
It's been a pleasure to get these new reminders. I've studied with many others and have learned from all of them. Still, the lessons from Natalie through the years have kept me going when I've forgotten all the rest.
For information about Nat's workshops, visit her website. Her workshop schedule is limited in 2013 due to her book tour.
Natalie admits there is actually no "true secret of writing." But if you could say there was one, what would it be?